Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!

Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.

Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

DSC04111
Sunrise as we approach Cienfuegos.

Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.

After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.

 

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.

InkedCuba map_LI

Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.

It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.

We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.

We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!

DSC04135

Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.

After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.

DSC04143

As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.

“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”

“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.

In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.

We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.

We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!

Cruise diaries: Santiago de Cuba

We never planned to take a cruise that would visit the historical-cultural cities in Cuba. For Canadians, Cuba has been a prime all-inclusive vacation destination for over 30 years, and since that’s not the kind of holiday we yearn for these days as a general rule (never say never, though), Cuba has never been on our radar. Not so with the American-based cruise lines, though, so it seems. It all began a week before our final payment was due on our recent Caribbean holiday.

We awoke one morning to an email from Silversea telling us that there had been a slight itinerary change in our upcoming voyage. Not a problem, we thought. The cruise lines reserve the right to make changes to itineraries, sometimes because of weather, other times it’s operational. When we looked at the “new” itinerary, though here’s what we saw (minus sea days):

Original Itinerary New Itinerary
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Jost Van Dyke

St. Thomas

St. Kitts

Antigua

Samana, DR

LaRomana, DR

Fort Lauderdale

 

San Juan, Puerto Rico

Santiago De Cuba

Georgetown, Cayman Islands

Cienfuegos, Cuba

Havana Cuba

Key West

Bimini, Bahamas

Fort Lauderdale

 

Not exactly what we bought, was it?  Our first thought, was, no, we wanted a relaxing putter around some laid-back Caribbean ports. This new one was nothing like what we bought and would mean several days of historical city tours, more in line with what we prefer on a European or Asian excursion. To make a long story short, they offered us the opportunity to re-book on a cruise more in line with our original thinking, at a discount, as week or two later from a different starting port, but this was really unacceptable. We had planned on the week in San Juan pre-cruise and had everything, including our airline tickets booked. At that late date, we would be hard-pressed to find suitable non-stop business class tickets to anywhere in the Caribbean. So, we asked them for the same discount if we kept our original date and sucked it up. We were going to Cuba.

After our wonderful six days in San Juan – replete with our mixology class at Casa Bacardi – we embarked on our unplanned journey. Like it or not, we were going to learn about Cuba, way beyond the beach resorts. First stop, Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba mon map copy

The evening before we arrived in Santiago, we were informed that the ship would not, in fact, be docking at the port; rather we would be anchoring and taking tenders to reach the shore. According to the information we received on board, it had something to do with the fact that the dock had been damaged when a ship ran into it. Never mind that the next day we did note that another ship did dock at the one suitable dock. In any case, we were not too happy with the news that the tender ride would be some 45 minutes long.  In a crowded tender. Not very Silversea-like in our experience.

Arriving ashore, unlike other countries all throughout the world where you simply walk off the tender into the port, in Cuba you’re required to go through immigration and passport control at every single port. This means another line-up as you disembark the tender with your passport and visa in hand.

IMG_8708
About to enter the immigration “hut” on shore in Santiago.

Finally ashore, we boarded a modern bus for what turned out to be the single ship-organized tour that we would take on this trip. (You’ll figure out why.) Our Cuban group tour guide led us on a four-hour historical/cultural tour of Santiago with a very obvious emphasis on ensuring that we saw the aspects of Cuba that he (and his official employer) wanted us to see, minus the aspects he didn’t want us to see.  Let’s just say that there was much attempted indoctrination.

The truth is that Santiago de Cuba does, indeed, have an interesting and storied history. Founded in 1515 by Spanish conquistador Velasqeuz whom we all might remember from junior high school history classes, Santiago is today the second largest city in Cuba after Havana. Its historical significance to the Cuba of today, however, is based on the fact that a 27-year-old Fidel Castro, leading a group of rebels, kick-started the Cuban Revolution in 1953 in Santiago. On January 1, 1959 Castro proclaimed revolutionary victory from a balcony overlooking the square we’re in below.

DSC03957

The city of Santiago, as we would come to learn of all the cities in Cuba, has a very well-kept façade of historically important buildings and monuments. However, the real Cuba of the citizens is very different. We only got a glimpse of it on this official tour, but later in our trip we would begin to form a more widely informed picture.

The tour guide, unfortunately, made the mistake of thinking that everyone on the tour was American. This meant that Patty seemed to be the only one on the bus who had actually been to Cuba before (that was before The Discerning Travelers years!). Unlike other tour guides we’ve known who always ask at the beginning of a tour where all the guests hail from, he did not. This seemed to have an impact on his behaviour toward us, the guests, as he barked orders at us to stay with the group (wholly unnecessary, but after all, he thought we were all Americans), and after telling us that we would all meet at the bus in 20 minutes, yell after the two of us to come back, as we headed out on our own. At one point, Art actually had to say to him quite severely, “You told us we’d meet at the bus in 20 minutes. We’ll be back in the bus in 20 minutes,” as we went off to photograph the fort

Ninety percent of the rest of the guests seemed to be too frightened of a communist country to leave his side. Canadians have much more freedom to come and go in Cuba, and we feel that way.

DSC04019DSC04021DSC04044

[Some images of the real Cuba – Note the local “buses” at the top. Two of them are trucks with canvas tops over chairs – most are like this.]

The most obnoxious part of the group tour, though, was during the ride back to the tender dock. The tour guide told everyone that he was going to sing the Cuban national anthem, after which he wanted the guests to sing theirs. He did, and they did – breaking out into the Star-Spangled Banner as we sat there fuming. Not something we ever want to hear outside the USA. So inappropriate. As we disembarked the bus, Art handed him several bills as a tip, the uppermost one Canadian. As Art pointed to the Queen’s face on the bill, and the word CANADA emblazoned on it, he said, “A word of advice. Never make the assumption that all your guests are Americans.” The guide took an audible intake of breath and looked up at us sheepishly. He isn’t like to make that mistake again.

DSC03974DSC03978DSC03982

[Street images of Santiago: The bottom shot is of the Bacardi museum…this is where it all started.]

The moment we got back to the ship we checked the cancellation date for the group tour we had booked of our next Cuban port, Cienfuegos. Thankfully, we had a port stop in Grand Cayman before that so were rushed to the tour desk and cancelled. No more group tours for us. Cienfuegos would now be on our own, and we had a private guide booked for Havana, so we were now safe! On to Grand Cayman!