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Learn to SCUBA in Bequia!

 

Dive Bequia!

 

SCUBA instructor Nick suits up in Bequia.

SCUBA instructor Nick suits up in Bequia.

 

 

 

It was something I’d always wanted to do, but my new classmate Wayne couldn’t say the same.  Raised in rural England, far from any lakes or public pools, swimming was an unfamiliar and frightening activity for him.  The resort dive course we were both about to take – an introduction to SCUBA taught by the pros at Dive Bequia in the beautiful Grenadine islands might have sounded like the adventure of a lifetime to me, but for Wayne, the prospect was positively nightmarish.

Our instructor, Nick Baxter, a sun-tanned young Jacques Cousteau from South Africa, exuded intelligence and confidence.

“I’ll teach you what you need to know in the shallow water,” he said, wading into the waves, “and then we’ll go out in the boat so you can really give it a try.  You’ll go down 20 or 30 feet on this first dive.”

Wayne paled.

His girlfriend, watching from the shore, hands on hips, was determined.  An underwater photographer, she was keen for Wayne to learn to dive so he could become her assistant.  The pressure was soon on – in more ways than one.

Pressure is a huge issue in diving. Learning to deal properly with its effects as you sink beneath the surface and rise again can literally mean the difference between life and death.  Nick carefully explained the use of our air tanks, regulators, weight belts and personal buoyancy devices, vests into which air is pumped or released.

“And what’s the number one rule of diving?” he asked and answered. “Don’t hold your breath!”

From the look on Wayne’s face, I think he was fairly certain our heads would explode if we did.

Nick paid particular attention to the discussion of emergency air sharing – and so did I, breathing being one of my favorite pastimes.  We learned that if, during a dive, your partner’s air supply should be cut off, you can share, using an auxiliary regulator clipped to your belt.  We practiced in the shallow water, pulling the regulators off our belts and passing them to one another.

We were ready for deeper water.

Wayne’s girlfriend joined us for the boat ride out to the reef as he slapped on sun block, looking as if he was on his way to the electric chair.

Love is, however, a powerful motivator. Stoically suited up in mask, snorkel, flippers, buoyancy vest, weight belt and tank, Wayne hung his butt over the edge of the boat, rolled backward and sank like a stone.

I followed suit.

There was a brief moment of wondering if the whole breathing thing was going to work, but then I remembered the number one rule and sucked in a huge gulp of air from my regulator.  I was on my way.

Wayne wasn’t so lucky. Nick released me to explore the reef while he helped Wayne to adjust to the underwater world. 

Because we were just 25 to 30 feet below the surface, the sunlight illuminated the brilliant seascape. I was entranced and had been happily swishing around for ten minutes when I remembered Nick’s admonition to keep my partner in sight.  Guiltily, I turned towards Wayne, only to see that his face was an icy shade of blue.  Kicking frantically, I was just about to stuff my extra regulator into poor Wayne’s mouth, a strange thing happened. 

He rubbed his face.

A huge swath of blue disappeared.

The sun block so carefully applied on the boat was of the kiddy variety, designed to change color when applied. So much for my daring under-sea rescue!

Well-run and carefully executed, the Dive Bequia experience was the highlight of my visit to the Grenadines and my goal is to return and complete a certification course. 

And if Wayne can find a different color of sunblock, he’s welcome to join me.

 

 

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 11:48 pm.

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Learn to drive a Land Rover at Chateau Montebello!

Harnessing The Beast at Le Chateau Montebello 

“As slow as possible but as fast as necessary,” says my calm instructor, “It’s the Land Rover creed.”

The U.S. boasts Land Rover driver training centers in North Carolina and California, but Canada has just one, at Le Chateau Montebello, in Montebello, Quebec.  It’s a popular place. Not only do hotel guests and conference delegates sign up for the two, four and six-hour courses, but the Center also draws Land Rover purchasers from across the county.

Wondering about the wisdom of flying across the country for a driving lesson? You haven’t tried a Land Rover. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever piloted before.

 

Learn to pilot a Landrover over impossibly challenging terrain at Chateau Montebello.

Learn to pilot a Land Rover over impossibly challenging terrain at Chateau Montebello.

 

 

Land Rover driving is all about terrain response, the signature feature of the line. Designed to provide the precise reaction required on any given surface - ranging from grass, gravel and snow, to mud and ruts, to sand, to rocks - terrain response harnesses the Land Rover’s more than 2,800 kgs of metal.

My first taste of terrain response came early.

“This,” said my instructor as we pulled into Fairmont Kenauk, a 265 sq. km. private forest reserve owned by Le Chateau Montebello, “is where you’ll get to know the vehicle.”

The training area, which looks like a giant’s sandbox, studded with rock piles, deeply rutted trails, enormous mucky puddles and a stone-lined river bed, has been built to Land Rover’s exacting specifications. It’s designed to introduce drivers to both the vehicle’s capabilities and, all too often, to their own limitations as operators. 

Think you know everything because you’ve had your driver’s license for a few decades? Think again.

Lessons starts slowly - a disappointment for Mario Andretti wannabees but when you’re driving a $70,000 vehicle you’re not going to be allowed to wreck it.

It doesn’t take long for the tension of real adventure to set in.

Driving less than two kms/hour can cause you to break out into a cold sweat because you’re concentrating so hard. This is serious stuff.

.

With my instructor riding shotgun, I shifted into drive, feeling keenly aware of the size of the vehicle. It took a moment to gain confidence, but I was soon rolling around the flat bits of the course.

“Shuffle your hands on the wheel,” my instructor advised, “so you always have a firm grip. Thumbs up… hands at nine and three o’clock. If the vehicle jerks, you need to hang on.”

Land Rover drivers use a ‘pull down’ steering technique. 

“Pull down right a quarter turn…good…now another quarter….perfect…edge forward…”

Sound precise? It is. Driving a Land Rover involves making many small technical movements to enable the terrain response, steering, ABS brakes and hill descent systems to maneuver over, around and through obstacles that would stop other vehicles dead in their tracks.

Off-roading is no mindless pursuit…it’s all about concentration and learning to trust the vehicle.

The forest trails had enough slippery rocks, mucky ruts and sheer drops to satisfy the biggest thrill seeker, but we easily navigated routes I’d have thought too narrow, too muddy and too steep for a mountain bike…or a mountain goat, for that matter. Over my two training days, I drove a Land Rover and the more expensive Range Rover, and fell madly in love with both. If I ever win the lottery, I’m buying a whole fleet, but in the meantime, I’m going to tell every Land Rover driver I see to head for Le Chateau Montebello. They need to get to know the beast they have in harness. 

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:44 am.

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Banff’s Johnston Canyon shows trekkers the glory of ice.

Daggers of ice fill the Johnston ice canyon in Banff National Park.

Daggers of ice fill the Johnston ice canyon in Banff National Park.

Awesome Ice  

“Bring me your feet,” says Tim Robinson, my guide from Discover Banff Tours, digging through his ice cleat collection. “You’re gonna need these.”

The evil-looking metal cleats are simple to attach to my boots but vital for safety. Not only will they make walking easier, but they’ll prevent slipping as we hike the 4.5 kms of hard-packed, occasionally icy trails winding through the wintry glory of Johnston Canyon.

One of the most breathtaking parts of Banff National Park, the canyon offers visitors stunning ice sculptures formed by water seeping from giant limestone walls, as well as a living lesson in the power of glacial land formation and erosion.

The canyon fascinates Robinson, a self-professed ‘rock geek’ who’s spent years exploring its many faces, and he’s eager to share his knowledge. Using a ski pole and an endless flow of informative Bill-Nye-the-Science-Guy patter, he points out ancient rock formations to illustrate his points and show us how the passage of millions of years is recorded in the stones around us.

“Not convinced?” he asks a shy Japanese tourist shivering in a stylish-but-skimpy ski jacket and seeming a little overwhelmed by the avalanche of information. “Come over here then,” says Robinson, choosing a new rock formation for his next lesson, “and let’s evolve a few million years.”

Explore millions of years of geology in Banff's Johnston ice canyon.

Explore millions of years of geology in Banff's Johnston ice canyon.

As we hike 122 meters up the canyon to a spectacular lookout, we discover that Robinson has a sense of humor.

“Come over here and tell me…what kind of rock do you think this is?” he asks, deadpan, pointing to some curious-looking terrain above the mouth of a small cave. I peer intently, trying hard to remember a long-ago high school geology class.

“I’m pretty sure, ” I venture after some careful consideration, “that’s limestone. Yup,” I continue with growing confidence. “That’s limestone. Just look at the pink and gray streaking…”

“Good try.”  Robinson laughs, “Actually, it’s spray-on concrete. The park folks put it there to prevent erosion.”

Funny guy.

Psychology plays a big role in Robinson’s guiding. Canyon visitors are sometimes surprised and even frightened by steep spots on the trail and it’s the guide’s job to coax and encourage, diverting their attention from the scary bits while leading them to more comfortable ground. In reality, the likelihood of falling, even on the most dramatic verticals, is slim. Parks Canada has installed rugged steel railings to prevent tumbles into the canyon, and to keep tourists in their place.

“The walkways and railings are more for the protection of the environment than the tourist,” explains Robinson. “By keeping people on the paths, we discourage them from hiking off into the bush and disturbing the flora and fauna. The terrain looks rugged, but the plant and animal life is fragile.”

Occasionally, the ascent proves too challenging and Robinson shifts into coach mode to encourage participants to finish. ?“I can’t do this,” puffs one hiker. “You guys go on to the top and I’ll wait here.”

“It isn’t a race,” says Robinson, encouragingly, “so we can take our time. We’ll just go at your pace and then we’ll all get there together. C’mon…you can do it. Photo ops, hot chocolate and cookies at the top!”

Who could resist?  The reluctant hiker is encouraged and together we make our way, albeit a bit slowly, to the top. Every huff and puff of the three-hour hike is rewarded by the goodies and the breathtaking view from the peak of the frozen upper falls. Gigantic daggers of ice stab the walls of the canyon, shimmering blue and white sculptures that only nature could fashion. Not only a spectacular reminder of man’s relative insignificance, Johnston Canyon also offers a rare opportunity to witness the awesome powers of water and ice. 

For more information, contact www.banfftours.com  ? ? ? 

Posted 7 years, 1 month ago at 3:45 am.

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Petra, the pre-biblical wonder of Jordan, takes your breath away.

Petra, Jordan was built by pre-biblical workers without even the most basic stone carving tools.

Petra, Jordan was built by pre-biblical workers without even the most basic stone carving tools.

Let Petra Take Your Breath Away 

There are some things in life that can literally take your breath away, stop you in your tracks and change your perspective of the world forever.  Finding the lost desert city of Petra, in the far away Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, is one of those things.

Petra, whose name comes from the Latin word ‘petrae’ meaning ‘rock’,  was built by early Nabataean artisans who somehow managed to carve a magnificent city of more than 3,000 temples, tombs and dwellings – gigantic, multi-storey monuments – from the rugged, red sandstone cliffs of the desert.

A visit to Petra is not an excursion for the faint of heart and don’t forget your walking shoes. You’re in for a hike.

Just getting to the entrance to the ruins involves a warm-up stroll of nearly two km along a dirt and stone roadway. Puffing a bit? You’re just getting started.

Your first stop is the Treasury – a remarkable structure that took generations of labor to build, but only a taste of the wonders that lie ahead.  Another several kms of walking or camel or donkey riding, if you prefer, will take you to the Street of Facades, an impressive row of structures once used as tombs.  Think you’re tired now? Don’t give up. If you really want to experience Petra, you have to be prepared to climb.

When you tire of walking, camels and their drivers are always at the ready.

When you tire of walking, camels and their drivers are always at the ready.

The High Place of Sacrifice is one of Petra’s most impressive sites – and it sits at the top of a 750-step pathway rising straight up towards the clouds.

Our exuberant guide Ibrahim, a young Jordanian historian with a constant grin on his face, led the way, leaping from rock to rock in his eagerness to reach the summit.

“C’mon!” he shouted. “You Canadians are supposed to be tough!”

This particular tough Canadian puffed and panted her way to the top, right behind a friendly herd of mountain goats. The view of the ancient city was spectacular, and so were the various shopping opportunities all the way up.

Intrepid and highly entrepreneurial Bedouin women who live in tents, caves and small villages in the desert around Petra climb up the mountainside each day to set up small tables of necklaces, earrings and other souvenirs at various points on the stone stairs and pathway.

While it seems like an odd place for a makeshift shopping mall, browsing through their wares helps to take your mind off the fact that your lungs are about to burst – it’s retail therapy at its best.

You might think that 750 steps straight up would be the ultimate Petra climb, but you’d be wrong. Ad-Deir, or the Monastery, is another must-see. To reach it, we climbed for more than three hours – again, straight up. Narrow pathways wound around the edges of steep cliffs, so keeping our minds on the climb was essential. At one point, the path narrowed to a breathtakingly small rock outcropping…narrower than the length of my shoe…and there was no way around it. I leaned into the cliff face, hung on tight as I inched along and never looked down!

The Treasury building lit by hundreds of luminaria is a sight never to be forgotten.

The Treasury building lit by hundreds of luminaria is a sight never to be forgotten.

A visit to Petra is more than a tourist experience, more than an opportunity to view a site of historical, archaeological and cultural importance. Seeing Petra by day, when the sun throws the ancient carvings into magnificent relief, or by night, when hundreds of candles encased in small brown paper bags light the way along the Siq to the softly glowing Treasury, is pure magic.

We are, after all, by comparison to ancient Petra, so very tiny and so ridiculously impermanent.

Posted 7 years, 2 months ago at 11:08 pm.

1 comment

Environmentally friendly travel tips.

Learn how to enjoy your trip while preserving the environment!

Travel Green!

When everything seems to have a green focus these days, it’s important to consider how our travel habits can have an impact on the environments in which we vacation.  We’re all becoming aware of the importance of off-setting the pollution we create by flying or driving and many of us are now routinely contributing to websites that enable us to reduce the size of our carbon ‘footprint.’ What’s equally important is to ensure that we continue to be eco-responsible when we arrive, and that every day of our holiday we show respect for the new surroundings in which we find ourselves.  As citizens of the world, we need to make sure that we care for every corner!  Next time you’re planning a vacation, pull out this list of eco-friendly travel suggestions and slip it in your suitcase.  Mother Nature will be glad you did.

Be careful never to let feet, fingers or flippers touch the delicate coral reef.

Be careful never to let feet, fingers or flippers touch the delicate coral reef.

1.  Enjoy nature but don’t chase or try to touch animals or sea creatures.  You’re visiting their world, it’s a special privilege for you to be able to do so, and you need to respect, not disrupt their lives.

2.  Don’t take anything away with you that’s part of the natural environment.  While it may seem like an interesting souvenir to remind you of your experience, removing bits of the natural habitat can be upsetting or even dangerous for the creatures you’ve been so keen to observe.

3.  Stay on marked trails to avoid trampling fragile plant life.  If you see litter left behind by those who’ve gone before you, clean it up.  Leave that little bit of the world a better place that you found it.

4.  If you notice any damage in any protected areas, be sure to report it to the park rangers before you leave.  Delicate ecosystems have to be carefully maintained and the park management can’t have eyes everywhere.

5.  Be sure to shop at local stores, deal with local people, show interest in and enthusiasm for their culture and try local specialties whenever possible, but avoid purchasing anything made from tropical woods, turtle shells, ivory, coral etc.  It’s your responsibility to ensure that you’re not encouraging the sale of products made from precious, endangered natural species.

Take only photos as souvenirs of the rare creatures you encounter,

Take only photos as souvenirs of the rare creatures you encounter,

6.  When you sit down for dinner, choose seafood and fish caught locally in a responsible, sustainable fishery operation.

7.  Swimming, snorkeling or diving? Be sure to keep your hands and flippers far from the delicate coral reefs.  Breaking off pieces of coral can have serious effects on the sea life that depend on the reefs for sustenance and a place to live.  Note:  staying away from the coral is also an important way to protect yourself from infection.  If you do happen to scratch yourself on the reef, be sure to wash the scrape with soap and water and apply a topical disinfectant.

8.  Lend a hand! If you have some extra time in your vacation schedule, consider volunteering to help refurbish a conservation area or clean up a beach.  Giving back is a great way to make your holiday memorable!

Posted 7 years, 2 months ago at 3:43 am.

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Motion Sickness Strategies

Watching the horizon can settle a queasy stomach...and a blast of fresh air is always a good idea too!

Watching the horizon can settle a queasy stomach...and a blast of fresh air is always a good idea too!

Help for the Queasy Traveler

Is a car trip your personal idea of hell? On a cruise, do you spend more time curled in the fetal position in your cabin than enjoying the sights?  Would you rather spend a week at the dentist’s office than an hour in a small airplane?

Lucky you – you suffer from motion sickness!

It’s a malady that hits us all from time to time, no matter how much traveling we’ve done.  It’s a nasty trick played on our stomach by our brain that can spell the end to vacation fun unless you come up with some smart strategies to combat it.

What is it?

Motion sickness is a simple case of confusion.  Your brain isn’t properly processing what your body is experiencing and so sends messages to your stomach that cause nausea.  Ordinarily, your brain gets clear, dependable messages from your eyes and your inner ear that jibe pretty well with your expectations and previous experiences.  In certain travel circumstances, however, such as when you’re traveling in the back seat of a car, below decks on a ship, or in an airplane where your vision is restricted and you have no view of the horizon, trouble starts.  Your eye perceives your surroundings to be still, but your inner ear’s balance mechanism registers movement.  In short, your sensory wires are crossed and the ultimate victim is your stomach.  In no time, you grow pale, break out in a sweat and your lunch begins to threaten a hasty return.

So what’s an intrepid traveler to do?

Motion sickness can strike any time, whether you travel by boat, car or plane.

Motion sickness can strike any time, whether you travel by boat, car or plane.

Quelling the Quaking Within

The best solution for dealing with motion sickness is to practice preventative strategies.  Sit in the front passenger seat in the car, ask for a window seat on an airplane and choose larger planes over their smaller cousins – you’ll experience less turbulence.  Spend more time enjoying the fresh air on the promenade deck and less in your cabin.  If you go deep-sea fishing, try your best to avoid using the completely enclosed bathroom below decks (cross your legs – it’s preferable!)  Whenever possible, open a window or step out on a balcony to get fresh air – and always keep your eyes on the horizon.

While certain over the counter medications such as Gravol or Dramamine are helpful for dealing with and even preventing motion sickness, they can leave you feeling drowsy – not a great thing when every vacation moment is precious.  The good news is that Gravol (note: available in Canada) has introduced a new product – a chewable ginger-based lozenge which, if chewed in advance of a sick-making trip, has proved very effective for me.  Another great over the counter option is a product called Bonamine, an anti-nausea medication that has no sedating effects and lasts up to 24 hours.  I’ve also found it very effective.

If you’re planning a cruise and want a long-term solution, consider Transderm, a product that consists of two small circular patches (like the paper reinforcements we used to stick on three-ring binder pages) that adhere to the skin behind each of your ears. Over the course of 72 hours, the patches exude small amounts of anti-nausea medication that is absorbed through your skin to prevent you from feeling sea-sick. Most people report no nasty side-effects and find these patches a great way to enjoy every shipboard moment. Your pharmacist may also suggest that you try motion bands, which are snug bracelets of fabric with imbedded discs designed to press on certain areas of the wrist. The acupressure effect is thought to aid in preventing motion sickness, but I can’t say I’ve ever had any success with them.

If you don’t succeed in preventing the onset of motion sickness and begin to feel that familiar queasiness arising, fix your eyes firmly on the horizon, sip a cold can of ginger ale and hold another cold can against the back of your neck.  Nibble dry crackers, suck on a ginger-flavored candy or chew strongly flavored gum – cinnamon is a good choice.  If all else fails and you’re able to get to a source of cold water, take a shower or jump in a cool pool.  Strange as it may sound, you might even consider soaking a towel in cold water, wringing it out and wrapping yourself in it.  That was the cure offered to me after a particularly gagging flight in a small plane in Africa and I was so desperate, I went for it.  The soaking wet towel completely engulfed me from head to toe, my clothing was drenched – and it worked like a charm!

Posted 7 years, 2 months ago at 8:14 pm.

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