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!

Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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[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!

Being a tourist: Mixing rum cocktails at Casa Bacardi

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The view of the fort at the entrance to San Juan harbour from the Casa Bacardi estate. 

Sometimes you just have to plunge in and be a tourist for a few hours. It’s just fine to protest that you’re a “traveler” and not a “tourist”, but we’re all just tourists in other countries when you get right down to it. The thing that has given tourist activities a bad name, though, is their “fakeness.” So, is learning to mix rum cocktails in a state-of-the-art mixology classroom fake? We think not.

The day begins as all days do on a vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico: the day is beautiful, it’s hot and sunny (with intermittent showers predicted), and we have the whole day stretching out before us to do with anything we please. What we please to do today is to visit Casa Bacardi, the home of the famous rum distillery, something we’ve never done on any of our previous visits to PR. Let’s just back up a moment, though. How did we get here this morning, tickets in hand?

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A few months before this trip, Patty was perusing some of her favourite travel YouTube Channels and stumbled upon one titled: Five things you must to in San Juan…or something like that. Four of them were “been-there-done-that” kinds of things, but the fifth was “take a mixology class at Casa Bacardi.” We do like a rum drink (among other libations), and we have certainly drunk our share of Bacardi rum. Add onto that the fact that we have visited rum distilleries in the past on Caribbean islands, and this is not a tourist experience we need to repeat. But a mixology class? That sounded interesting, and above all, fun.

So, a bit of online surfing to the Casa Bacardi web site established that they offer three options for your visit: the historical distillery tour, the rum tasting tour and the mixology class. Naturally, our only interest was in the mixology class, so we surfed to the calendar, chose our tour time and paid for our tickets about three weeks before we left home. The mixology class was $60 (USD) per person and worth it in our view.

So, that’s how we had our tickets in hand when our taxi from the Condado area of San Juan, where we always stay, drops us off at the entrance to the guest pavilion at Casa Bacardi.

As you probably already know, Bacardi rum is among the most storied in the world. We feel as if this experience is a must, given that our next stop will be Santiago de Cuba where Don Facundo Bacardi Masso first began his business as a wine merchant and importer. Of course, with all that sugar cane about, he began experimenting with distillation of spirits eventually buying a local Cuban distillery in 1862. After a series of wars and fires that pushed the business out of Cuba, the Bacardi distillery reemerged on the island of Puerto Rico in 1936 and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Bacardi rum is, at least according to Bacardi, the number one rum in the world. So, here we are.

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We are given “beepers” and told that we should make our way to the bar where a mixologist will prepare for us a rum drink of our choice while we wait for the beginning of our tour. Since we know we will be mixing a series of drinks during our class, we approach two older women waiting at a table and offer them our “free drink” tokens. They are only too happy to take them off our hands. It was really unnecessary for us to have come as early as we did – the web site suggests at least a half-hour in advance, but we needn’t have. Anyway, there are lots of people milling around, but we do notice that not all of them are wearing a blue “mixology tour” bracelet. Oh yes, they give you a bracelet with the beeper.

Finally, it is 1:30, our appointed time, and the beepers begin to vibrate. We head toward the waiting tram and are delighted to find that there are only seven people in our group. We can only surmise that the rest of those waiting were on cheaper tours!

Our tour guide is a petite woman who is as rapturous about rum as you might expect of a Bacardi employee. And she is knowledgeable. We listen attentively while she tells us about the distillation process, but we are really here for the class. After this presentation and a view over the acreage and San Juan across the bay from the roof deck of the building, we are off to class.

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The drinks we will learn to make…

We follow our guide as she makes her way toward a closed door. We’re not really sure what we had been expecting, but this wasn’t it. The sight before us was mesmerizing: a large (really large), superbly equipped, state-of-the-art, sparkling mixology classroom/lab, reminiscent of cooking classrooms on board the Oceania cruise ships, but much larger. Our little class of seven is almost lost!

Now it’s time to learn to mix rum cocktails.

Each of us is positioned at a station where there are three mini bottles of rum (see how smart we were not to imbibe too early?), mixing glasses, stainless steel mixing spoons, cocktail shakers, muddlers, glasses, ice, sugar, lime wedges…everything a budding mixologist needs! Our guide and teacher had, earlier in the tour, introduced us to the three drinks we would be making: the Cuba Libre, the daquiri, and of course, the Mojito. We were more than ready.

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We first mixed the Cuba Libre, a lowball rum and coke, where she gave us the secret to the best rum and coke: squeeze a lime wedge over the ice to season it before adding the rum then the coke. A familiar drink to us, for sure.

Then we shook up a daquiri – one of the best we’d tasted owing to all that fresh lime juice we have squeezed in. Finally, the mojito. To our surprise, the real trick to this delicious drink is rectifying the mistake most bartenders make, according to our petite teacher. That mistake is muddling the mint leaves along with the lime. No, no and no, she says. Muddle the lime in the glass, slap the mint leaves between your two hands to release the aromas, wipe the leaves along the rim of the glass and then drop them on top of the limes before adding the rum and soda. She was so right.

The whole experience is one and a half hours long and great fun. Our pre-Easter dinner drinks this year will be inspired by our newfound knowledge. Our family is delighted – since we’re hosting!

Next up…we’re off to Santiago de Cuba. Cheers!