Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

Dust off Those Passports: First (almost) Post-COVID Trip

When we returned home from our winter getaway in early March of 2020, we could see the handwriting on the wall. With our medical backgrounds (Art’s forty-five years as a family physician helped), it was clear that the impending pandemic would put a damper on international travel for some time to come. We immediately cancelled our planned and booked Northern European adventure and settled in to ride out the travel restrictions. It never occurred to us at the time that it would be a full two years before we left the country again! But it finally happened.

Passports dusted!

In mid-2021, in a burst of optimism, we booked a two-week Caribbean cruise on Seabourn’s Odyssey, including three days before it in Barbados and three days after the cruise in St. Martin, then a few days in Florida to round it out. We had our flight to Barbados scheduled for early February 2022 booked and paid for. By October, when the final payment for the (expensive) cruise was due, we looked at the international situation and considered our options. Then reality struck―and it had nothing to do with COVID.

Facebook might have its shortcomings, but occasionally, you can stumble on a valuable piece of information. Patty trolls the cruise groups from time to time and happened to join a Seabourn group. One of the members posted about cancelling their cruise because they wouldn’t be permitted off the ship in many ports or only in a Seabourn shore excursion group. Well, that wasn’t going to happen for us. The thought of being stuck on a small ship―or even a larger ship―for two weeks (regardless of the high-quality service) or worse, stuck with disembarking only with other people was a non-starter for us. For us, a Caribbean cruise means taking a luxurious ship as transportation between islands where we like to meander off the ship in our own time and explore―alone. With the spectre of a group thing for weeks on end (never mind that COVID was still raging), we called our travel agent and cancelled. But we asked her not to do anything with the flights as yet. There were many moving pieces, but there was still hope.

First, we extended our three-day stay in Barbados to a week and booked a fully refundable ticket to St. Lucia (refundable because we had an idea for a personal charter―we’ll get to that in a later post). And why St. Lucia, you might ask? As it happens, we had spent our honeymoon thirty-five years ago in St. Lucia and hadn’t been back except for a few day trips off a ship. There is also a resort we wanted to discover, so we booked a week at the BodyHoliday, changed our original flight from St. Martin to Miami to St. Lucia-Miami, and extended our stay in Florida so we could leave our return flight as is. So, how did it go?

Marvellously! Notwithstanding the COVID hoops we had to jump through every time we changed locales, things could not have gone better.

The island of Barbados!

That first moment when we walked off the Air Canada flight in Bridgetown, Barbados, into the sultry heat of the Caribbean sun, we knew we had made the right decision not to put off our travels any longer. We had learned another tidbit of information from a FB site: Enterprising Barbados businesses were offering a “fast-track” service through Grantley-Adams airport. So, we booked the Five Star Fast Track service, paid in advance and were met before even entering the immigration hall by a lovely and personable, bright-pink-and black-clad woman who led us directly to another door where our QR codes indicating we had uploaded all our health documents (vaccination and PCR test results) to the Barbados government app were scanned. We then proceeded to the immigration desk, where there was no line and then through to pick up our bags. Our escort accompanied us the entire way to the waiting sedan we had also booked through fast-track services.

A half-hour ride up the coast to St. James Parish took us to The House, where we planned to stay for a week. It had been nine years since we last stayed at The House for a few days before a cruise.

We chose this property first and foremost because it is adults-only. It also has only thirty-four all-suite accommodation. The icing on the cake was that it is now owned by Marriott, where we enjoy Lifetime Platinum status, and this stay would award us points (although to date, we have not received them. Yet another story.)

The House has an interesting concept. There is no reception lobby, no concierge desk. There is a massive “living room” open to the air at both the front and the back, which also houses the dining area.

The living room at The House

We are greeted by an “ambassador” who plies us with rum punch (or anything else we want) and tells us what we can expect.

We take our key cards to our oceanfront suite on the main floor with its lanai just off the hot tub and find our luggage already there. You might wonder―as did we―whether it was a good idea to be on the main floor so close to “the action.” We had little to fear. Given the age and decorum of the guests (primarily British, thank heavens), there was no “action” to be found, only a Zen-like atmosphere and loads of relaxation.

Unlike on our last visit when we sampled the many options for fine dining on this part of the Barbadian coast, The House had become one of Marriott’s very first all-inclusive resorts. It seems that when they acquired Elegant Hotels a few years back, with its several Barbados properties, they added this amenity. Was it worth it? Well, it’s not a place for foodies, but we found the dining options very enjoyable.

Not much else has changed in the nine years since we first stayed there. The suites are still exactly the same as were the bathrooms, which need a serious upgrade. There is much to love about The House, and we will go back―after they do a renovation! We’ll tell you more when we compare the two resorts we visited on this trip in a near-future post.

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Who says you have to jet off to far-flung places in search of amazing travel experiences? Regardless of where you live, we’d wager you could get in a car and drive for two hours to find yourself in another world. And you’re probably no more than a stone’s throw from some luxury accommodation. There’s a tendency to think that you aren’t really travelling if you haven’t left your own country. We beg to differ.

These discerning travellers live in Canada―Toronto, Canada’s largest city (4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA). So, for us, we only have to walk for ten to thirty minutes to be in any number of luxury hotels or to dine in a five-star restaurant. The COVID lockdown here in Ontario’s province has been longer and deeper than any jurisdiction on the continent. But we’re better off for it, and things are beginning to loosen up. So, it was time. We booked our first few days away in ten months, and we were off and running.

A pleasant hour-and-a-half drive from downtown where we live is where you’ll find small-town Ontario. This province is peppered with beautiful little towns and villages, and it’s about time we started exploring them. This year, we began with Alton, the home of Millcroft Inn and Spa, a member of the Vintage Hotels group. And it was lovely.

Two years ago, we stayed at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, another Vintage Hotel, so we were expecting great things. Built in 1881 as a knitting mill, the Millcroft Inn is naturally situated on the edge of a mill pond with a beautiful waterfall that used to run its machinery. The interior of the main inn building is a bit non-prepossessing if you really want to know. But, in its defence, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the plexiglass screens don’t really add anything to the ambience. The bar area looks like it would be wonderful in better times when we could sit at that bar, but we had to eat outside on the patio during our stay. This is hardly a hardship!

A view of the main building from a small opening in the trees across the pond.

The patio is completely covered and sits on the very edge of the millpond. The view across the pond is of densely packed trees completely hiding the rest of the inn buildings beyond. Shortly after we arrived late in the afternoon, we realized we were famished.

We made our way to the patio and had the place all to ourselves as we watched the rain disturb the peacefulness of the pond while drinking beautifully crafted martinis and eating their excellent charcuterie board. To say that the food is terrific would be something of an understatement.

Since Alton is a very pretty but very small village, really, the only game in town for dining is the Millcroft itself. We made our reservations for our three evenings on the restaurant patio in advance, which is highly recommended. Each meal was as delicious as the one before.

Their breakfast menu is interesting, but since we were staying for three nights (we were told many guests stay for only one), the offerings can get tiresome. We also did note that the breakfast service was nothing like the dinner service, which was impeccable. Two days in a row, we had to inquire as to the whereabouts of our meals, which then arrived with tepid poached eggs. The problem at breakfast seems to be that the room-service patrons are given priority over the ones actually sitting in the dining room. This is something they could work on.

We opted to stay in one of their priciest accommodations―what they call a croft room. It is really a two-level suite with a walkout to a small private terrace. Ours was furnished with a private hot tub on the little deck. Since this is a spa, there are several outdoor public hot tubs, but we prefer time to ourselves (as anyone who had ever read anything we’ve written will already know!). It was lovely. What about the room itself?

Where to begin? Let’s just say that it is rustic―rustic to the point of needing a renovation. The bathroom had obviously been done, but that was probably at least a decade ago and could perhaps use another spruce up. But if you love rustic, you’ll be in heaven.

The sleeping area is upstairs, which we knew about in advance. What we did not realize is that the bathroom, on the other hand, is downstairs. That means a long, dark, steep climb down and back up should you have to get up in the middle of the night. It also means several ups and downs of the stairs just to get ready in the morning. Something to consider.

We enjoyed a six-kilometre hike on the property and were happy we took along our hiking shoes. That’s the beauty of a road trip. You can throw extras in the trunk of your car just in case. The trails wander through a wooded area and into beautiful open fields where not a building―or another single person―can be seen. The only downside was that the trail markings are less than accurate, and the map the front desk provided―well, it would be helpful if a staff member actually hiked the trails to see that the map isn’t as accurate as it should be. They need an app for that.

And speaking of technology―the inn has a well-developed AI concierge of sorts. We communicated with it via text, and when we needed ice or hangers, we simply texted, and a personable staff member appeared with our request.

We took advantage of being in an area of our province with which we are not that familiar and took a short road trip each of the full days we were there. The first was to the pretty town of Orangeville, where we had a lovely patio lunch. The next day, we explored Guelph and had another delicious patio lunch in their downtown area. Guelph is a university town, so the downtown is crowded with eateries.

Our three-day adventure was just the beginning. We can feel it in our bones. We’re waiting until the winter for our first post-pandemic big trip when we have three weeks of island-hopping planned. Until then, we’ll be hitting the road every opportunity we get!

Unexpected Florida: A road trip stop in St. Augustine

If the thought of a Florida vacation conjures images of drunken spring breakers and white-haired snowbirds shuffling around golf courses brandishing nine-irons, it might be time to broaden your view. The penultimate stop on our recent Florida road trip found us smack in the middle of the oldest city in the United States: St. Augustine.

We left downtown Orlando and headed northeast to the coastal city of St. Augustine. The farthest north in Florida we’d ever been, we knew that despite the fact it was late February, the weather might not be beach-worthy. We were right. But we weren’t quite prepared for were the extraordinary historic landmarks that make up this little gem of a town.

Founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1565, St. Augustine is sometimes described as the longest-established city in North America. However, St. John’s, Newfoundland here in Canada was established in 1497 and Mexico City in 1325. But it is the oldest “continuously-inhabited European-established settlement” in the US (at least according to Wikipedia). And that Spanish influence is evident throughout the little streets of the old town.

The town has a lengthy and storied history: invasions by pirates in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a British loyalist haven after Florida was ceded to Great Britain in 1763, changing hands several times to one of the most interesting parts of its history: the “invasion” of tourists brought by the extension of the railroad in the late 1800s.

Henry Flagler, one of the owners of the Standard Oil Company (with J.D. Rockefeller) enjoyed winter in St. Augustine in 1883 after which he decided to form a new railway company to lure wealthy Americans from wintery places like New York and Boston south for the winter season. He built two hotels: The Hotel Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. He then bought the already-established Cordova Hotel and the town flourished. That is until the railroad was extended farther south to Miami where visitors could count on warmer weather throughout the entire season. St. Augustine was no longer the winter darling of the northern visitors.

Even today, though, those old hotels are triumphs of Spanish colonial architecture and are still wonderful to see experience.

The Hotel Ponce de Leon is now the beautiful home of Flagler College as the two photos below show…

…and the Hotel Alcazar is a museum, both worth visiting. We did. Here are two shots that evoke what it must have been like “back in the day.”

And then there’s the old Cordova Hotel that Flagler renamed The Casa Monica. Well, that hotel is now part of the Marriott Autograph collection of quirky hotels and it’s where we stayed. We spent two nights in the two-story St. Francis suite, a nice upgrade for two very loyal Marriott guests!

Art (in a down jacket and hat) in front of the Casa Monica Resort and Spa. It was cold!

Here’s what the St. Francis suite looked like…

The view from our suite…

…and the Casa Monica lobby…

We had already experienced a lot of “quirky” places on this road trip (Orlando, Sarasota) but this one was different. Although those little streets in the old town suggest it storied past, they largely house tourist “traps” that you might enjoy.

We enjoyed walking around and seeing what was there but we’re not really the tourist-shop kind of visitors. Instead, we walked miles over to the island and explored as many of the quiet streets as we could.

Ah for the tourists who prefer not to walk. We did not partake!

When it was time to pull out of St. Augustine, we were headed to our last stop: Fort Lauderdale, that hotbed of drunken spring breakers. No kidding!

Unexpected Orlando: The Florida Road Trip Continues

It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been back from our winter road trip through Florida for a few weeks and the world has changed so dramatically. So, who’s interested in reading about travel when travel is verboten? Since we love to read about travel even when we’re between trips, we’ll continue to share recent experiences. The next stop on the latest road trip was Orlando.

What comes immediately to mind when someone says “Orlando, Florida”? If you’re like us, the words conjure an image of a certain mouse and a theme park. Of course, Disneyworld is the destination for so many people who venture inland in Florida from one coast or another. But not for us.

We were last in the Orlando area when our son was three years old. He’s now over 30 so you can tell it’s been a while!

Breakfast with Minnie all those years ago. This visit would be different!

However, the last time we were there, we stayed on the Disney site in their Polynesian Village hotel. This time we weren’t going anywhere near the Magic Kingdom. We headed straight from Sarasota to the Grand Bohemian Hotel in downtown Orlando. We did, however, stop at two outlet malls. One of them was mind-boggling.

The International Premium Outlets in the Orlando area was the largest outlet mall we’ve ever experienced. The parking lot was unbelievable. In fact, much of the parking there is paid parking if you can believe it. The place was so big, we just wandered around marvelling at the sheer number of shops then left with not a single purchase. We then set out to find our hotel – through hideous traffic.

The main draw for us in the city of Orlando was the Grand Bohemian Hotel itself. Across the street from city hall and the municipal buildings, the hotel is part of the Kessler Group of hotels, now owned by Marriott. It’s part of their autograph collection which consists of an international collection of quirky and often historic properties. Who would have believed that this was in the middle of Florida?

When we checked into the hotel, it became obvious that we’d have to step up our wardrobe a bit from places like Key Largo and Naples if we didn’t want to stick out here. The hotel was populated mostly by business people in suits. We do enjoy stepping up our wardrobes, so this wasn’t a problem.

Orlando was something of a surprise to us. With a population of over 2.5 million, Orlando is the third-largest city in Florida. Dating from the middle of the nineteenth-century, the city still has reminders of what it might have been like in the 1800s. In the Church Street station area, the old train station is still there alongside saloons and other historic buildings.

We spent a lovely morning walking around the parks in the middle of the city, Lake Eola Park being the prettiest. With its piped-in music, swans and various bird species, the lake is a wonderful urban oasis.

But one of the most striking aspects of downtown Orlando is its variety of public artwork. We certainly appreciated it as we expect the locals do as well. One of the things we noticed was that despite what might come to mind when thinking of Orlando, we didn’t see a single child and there actually seemed to be very few tourists around. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a convention city.

We spent two nights in Orlando – long enough to see the city. Then it was off to St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America.