Sunday, November 30, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October. Because of this, you only have to wait until after Halloween before you start seeing Christmas decorations in public places.

I (and I'm sure many others around here) feel that early November's just a tad too early to get into the Christmas spirit. But right about now - this last weekend of November, the first few days of December - that's where it feels about right. That's where it feels okay to find more Christmas lights appearing on rooftops, Christmas trees decorated in large bay windows, and the obligatory Christmas carols anytime you go shopping. It's also in late November where it suddenly feels appropriate to attend local Christmas events.

On Saturday, November 29, two such events were happening on fair ol' Lulu Island: the annual Steveston Christmas Craft Fair and the Christmas-themed gift shop at London Heritage Farm.

Two craft fairs in one day is a bit crazy for a girl who maybe goes to them once every two years, but what better way to kick start my internal Christmas spirit than on such a grey and drizzly day? What a great opportunity to commence Christmas shopping and support local artists... and in the company of my loving parents no less! :)

The Steveston Christmas Craft Fair is considered the largest in Richmond, and it was certainly the largest and busiest of any Christmas craft fairs I've been to. Located in the indoor tennis courts at the Steveston Community Centre (4111 Moncton Street), I could tell this was a serious event by all the people pouring in and out of the venue. Once inside, a waft of hot dogs hit me. Volunteers were taking donations for admission. Raffle tickets were being hawked and a delightful array of Christmas baking was set up on the table beside me.

Once past the crowds by the entrance, I could see that there were at least 20 aisles of tables set up with a good variety of items made by both amateurs and professionals, and surprisingly, there was very in the variety of knit toilet paper cozies. There were people selling clothing, jewelery, handbags, handmade soaps, candles, lotions, books, photography, paintings, fancy kitchen utensils, beautiful cutting boards, wooden bowls, ceramics, fresh baking, jams and preserves, handmade cards, floral bouquets, Christmas tree ornaments, knit scarves & mitts, and yes, even a few tables of sincere tackiness. But there were certainly a lot of quality items at this particular craft fair that we spent 2 hours there!

Two of my favourites of the day:


I saw this girl's products set up at the Roundhouse Community Centre's Christmas Craft Fair last year and I was excited to see her stuff again! She's based out of Richmond and she makes beautiful cold-press soaps and solid perfumes in a variety of subtle and exotic fragrances. The soaps looked and smelled fantastic! I particularly liked Masala Chai, Wasabia Japonica, and Cranberry Fig.

photo by midohana

She also makes soap shaped into little pieces of sushi which she sells in little bento boxes. It's super cute!

photo by midohana

But what I'm really drawn to are her solid perfumes.

photo by midohana

Josh gave me her Red Clover solid perfume as a gift last year. They're in these little slide-top tins, so not only do they smell great, but they're very practical. This year she added many new frangrances to her collection. I really liked Japanese Tea Ceremony, Absolute, Hana, and Rice Flower. For $5.25 a tin, they're excellent value!

Rumba Cake

I passed by this table full of nothing but bright yellow boxes boldly titled, RUMBA CAKE. Behind the table a Jamaican woman was cutting up little pieces of cake and placing it into tiny paper cups. I walked a few feet beyond the table before the concept registered in my mind. I stopped in my tracks. Rumba cake?! Is this what I think it is?! I darted back to the table.

photo by Rumba Cake

The woman noticed me looking curiously at the samples of cake.

"Would you like to try some Jamaican rum cake?"

"Ooooh, yes!"

I picked up a tasty morsel or rum-soaked cake and popped it into my mouth. MmmmMMmmmmm! It was clear this was a homemade Jamaican recipe of rich spices, fruit, and rum. My mom, who had walked a few tables over, joined me at the Rumba Cake table and I discussed with her my idea of buying such a cake to surprise Josh on his next day's arrival from Hong Kong.

Fay Salmon-Lord is the specialty baker who makes these cakes and she's based out of Delta, BC. She sells these cakes by the piece ($6) or as a whole cake ($16). For $2 more you can buy the cake in a box, which is what I did. While not cheap, I will pay for quality, especially when I'm supporting a local business. On the back of the box is a recipe for Fay's Rumba Sauce. When I purchased the cake, a group of people started to crowd around her table, showing interest in this beautifully scrumptious homemade Jamaican rum cake!

After two hours of browsing (and one hot dog later), we left the community center for a stroll through Steveston village. It wasn't particularly cold outside, but the rain fell as a light mist making everything, including our clothing, damp. While my Dad went to pick up some dinner at Super Grocer, my Mom and I popped into one of our favourite stores, Prickly Pear Garden Centre. They have such a beautiful gift shop, and at this time of the year it's decorated for Christmas and feels very magical. Located in an old wooden building, the shop gives off this rustic country atmosphere which I find very appealing.

Across the street we noticed a new store celebrating its grand opening, a very hip and modern furniture store called the Spotted Frog Furniture Co. Once my Dad found us, we went across the street to have a peek. The store felt like a Yaletown business - a sign that Steveston has indeed walked away from its working class fishing village roots and into yuppified "urban lifestyle" territory. With all the new condos next door, is it any surprise? Regardless, it's a beautiful store with many unique home decor items and certainly fits in with the new Steveston demographic. When we walked in, a staff member offered us freshly baked chocolate chip cookies! Browsing around, I noticed these table name place card holders, shaped as birds sitting on a branch ($4.50 each). A bit expensive for my budget at the moment, and considering I don't even own a kitchen table, a bit redundant. However, they're currently having a 15% off everything sale up until about December 13... so who knows! :)

After Steveston, we walked the 15 minutes back to my parent's house for a warm lunch. Earlier on my Mom had mentioned that London Heritage Farm has opened its Christmas gift shop, and although it will be open all throughout December, we could go later on if we felt like it. I looked online to check their hours; they'd be open open until 5pm, so we drove the 10 minutes up along the Fraser River to check it out.

London Heritage Farm is a piece of Lulu Island history. The house belonged to the London family - British Loyalists from the USA and one of the first pioneer families to settle in Richmond along the tidal flats of the river and make a go at clearing and draining the muddy, marsh-like soils of Lulu Island so they could convert the land into a farm. They arrived in 1881.

As a child, we'd occasionally visit this farm house-turned museum, especially since we'd frequently go for picnics along Gilbert Beach which was across the street. But this was the first time that I can remember where I visited London Heritage Farm around Christmas. According to my Mom, last year they had every room of the house converted into a gift shop. This year, however, there was only one room.

As we walked in the main entrance, we were immediately hit with - no, not the smell of hot dogs - but the wonderful aroma of freshly baked scones! London Heritage Farm hosts an afternoon tea in the main floor of the house and they bake all the food in their kitchen. A few couples were inside this cozy heritage farm house enjoying cups of tea and I was envious!

Borrowing my father's camera (as Josh brought our camera along on his Hong Kong business trip), I decided to take a few photos.

Fraser River's South Arm with Shady Island in the distance

It looks so cozy in there on such a gloomy day

A cozy Christmas scene

The bedroom all done up for the holidays

The Christmas gift shop

We spent about half an hour at London Heritage Farm exploring the museum displays and the gift shop. We recognized some of the items in the shop, such as the handmade soaps and the jars of jams, were from vendors at the Christmas Craft Fair from earlier in the day, although there were a fair amount of unique items too. For example, due to their afternoon tea service, they sell London Lady tea, London Heritage Farm scone mix, and a variety of fine china tea sets. Because of the farm's ties to Richmond heritage, I noticed a lot of Richmond nature scenes on gift cards. As the smell of the freshly baked scones continued to permeate the house, it truly did feel like a special occasion was just around the corner.

August in Vancouver

I just discovered these photos that my father took back in the summer at Jericho Beach. To me they just capture the essence of everything that is August in Vancouver.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

One week on the Mayan Riviera

We arrived back home on Friday afternoon after spending 6.5 hours in a plane and 2 hours in a shuttle bus. My dad surprised us at the airport and drove us home on that miserably dark and rainy afternoon. It was true, we were back in Vancouver. On that same night there was a staff Christmas party that we considered going to, but since we awoke at 4:30 that morning (or 2:30am Pacific time) and had been travelling all day, we decided to head to bed instead. We were asleep by 8pm.

It has almost been one week since we've returned, and I've settled back into winter mode and the reality that is not the all-inclusive resort. Even though it has only been a few days, each day feels further and further away and the entire vacation begins to feel like some surreal dream. The whole vacation was a bit like a time warp though. November in Vancouver means short days (sun setting by 4:30pm), perpetual grey, and cold rain. When we arrived in Mexico, it felt like July to us. It felt like we had gone back in time to summer. However, the light regime is quite different between the two places. With Vancouver being on the 49th parallel, the summer days are very long with daylight lasting until at least 10pm. So it was a bit strange for us to have all this fantastic summer weather and then have the sun go down by 6pm! We adapted of course by waking up much earlier than we would at home so that we could take advantage of all the sunshine. Although there were cloudy days and cool, windy evenings, the weather cooperated with us and we never experienced a drop of rain. And then coming back to Vancouver again, it felt as though we propelled ourselves from July to November. It felt like we had been gone a very long time, when in fact we had only been gone 7 days. One week was the perfect amount of time for the all-inclusive resort, although I could have gladly stayed in Mexico for much longer!

It was a week ago Friday that we arrived early morning at the Cancun International Airport. Our red eye flight was decent but due to constant interruptions we were unable to get any rest, so we spent our entire first day in a state of delirious sleep deprivation. Once we got through customs, found our luggage and our shuttle bus, we were whisked away down the highway to the 5 star Gran Bahia Principe Coba - one of the three Gran Bahia Principe resorts which are clustered together between the towns of Akumal and Tulum, about 2 hours south of Cancun. All three resorts (GBP Coba, GBP Tulum, GBP Akumal) together form this mega-resort which truly baffled me once I arrived, as it was only in person that it became apparent how truly massive this place was. This wasn't a resort - it was a complete self-sustaining town! As guests, we had access to all services and amenities of all three and even by the end of the week, we were still discovering new areas of the resort.

I had never been to an all-inclusive resort before, and to be honest, the idea had never appealed to me. Who wants to be imprisoned at their hotel when there are so many more interesting things happening nearby? Who wants to dine at the same touristy restaurants every single day? Where's the exploration? Where's the adventure? If I go travelling, I want to experience the local culture, eat the local foods, experience the must-sees while discovering the hidden gems. The concept of all-inclusive resorts seemed to be defeating that purpose. However, we decided on this all-inclusive because we wanted one week to unwind and sit around on the beach and not have to think. This resort in particular was not near any city, so the all-inclusive made sense. And now that I've done it and I've had a successful experience, I can certainly see the why people do it!

Fancy lobbies (GBP Coba)

Daily towel art (in our room)

Nice swimming pools! (GBP Akumal)

Beaches by the swimming pools! (GBP Akumal)

Fresh coconut straight from the resort's trees

Lounge chairs on "Playa Coba"

The whole experience was a little surreal as food and drinks were seemingly endless. Although we didn't witness anybody doing it, you could seriously take as much as you wanted. Since everything is included, you don't pay, whether you're dining on a five course meal at a full-service gourmet restaurant or getting a specially-made cocktail for the beach. It was as if you were royalty living on an estate and everybody was there to serve you and provide you with the best food and drinks imaginable! It was all so very luxurious. Want a glass of wine with your dinner? No problem! Want to have your flask filled up with rum so you can top up your drinks by the beach? No problem! Would you like some roast chicken as a late night snack? Call up room service and it's... free! Yes, we always tipped our servers but we noticed that many did not. Despite all the extravagance, we never witnessed anybody going overboard, and for the most part, everyone we saw was really chilled out. Then again, we never ventured out to the only nightclub, Discoteca La Rancherita!

The bar by the GBP Tulum pool

The view of the GBP Tulum pool from the bar

Three à la carte meals were included in our package, and all other meals were available at the buffets. There are about a dozen or so à la carte restaurants between the three resorts, and they advise you to make reservations as soon as you check in as to not be met with disappointment. So that's exactly what we did. They break up the buffet experience quite nicely as it's a full table service. You get five courses with every à la carte meal: an apéritif created by the chef served with an a tiny but delicious morsel, an appetizer, a soup, a main course, and a dessert. The latter four you choose off the menu. Each à la carte restaurant has its own theme whether it be Japanese, Italian, gourmet, Mexican, Brazilian, and so on. We opted for one seafood restaurant (Fruitos del Mar) and two international gourmet restaurants (Arlequin and Don Pablo). The meals were all fantastic but the meal at Don Pablo was particularly memorable, not only for the spectacular food, but because of the exceptional service we received from our servers Daniel and José.

The à la cartes were amazing experiences, but the buffets were equally special - they really exceeded my expectations. You see, buffets aren't that common in Vancouver. You'll either find limited gourmet buffets in a high end hotels (often with $50 per person price tags) or you'll find cheap all-you-can-eat sushi/Chinese food buffets which are truly awful. I've never experienced a buffet like the kind I've heard about in Las Vegas, but I've always thought that buffets are more about quantity than quality, and I'm not interested in that.

After spending the ten or fifteen minutes looking at all the food and collecting your dinner, you would sit down at a table set with a fine white table cloth and you would get the most attentive service from a variety of passing waiters. They would bring you drinks whether you wanted water, coffee, or something else. They would clear the dishes immediately and overall offered very hospitable service. We were always impressed with how much work went into meal time at the buffet, and it was truly appreciated.

A glimpse at the Kukulcan Buffet seating area in the GBP Coba

But the food... the food I'm still craving! The selection was not only greatly varied, but the food was fresh, tasty, healthy, high quality, and never greasy. While the buffets were huge, they were broken down into tiny stations so it was never overwhelming. I was almost anticipating an American style buffet but it was anything but. There was usually one fish, pork, chicken, and beef dish each day, and there were tons of steamed veggies prepared in a variety of ways. Beans, rice, and potatoes were staples, but each day the preparations of all the foods varied so you never knew what to expect. There were soups, prepared salads, salad bars, bruscetta bars, fresh fruit, bread baskets, dessert bars, a customize your own pasta bar, an entire table devoted to authentic Mexican sauces, and Mexican corner where a chef would be making small batches of authentic Yucatan dishes such as panuchos and salbutes. Even the most basic dishes were a cut above what you might expect. The pork & beans for example, were made fresh from fresh beans and bite-sized smoked pork spareribs. I'm glad to say that the cheddar-laden ground beef taco mix was far from the menu. I only wish I could say the same thing about Vancouver's so-called Mexican cuisine!

I honestly can go on and on about the food. Some days I'd find little comfort from home, such as deviled eggs. Other days there would be tasty stuffed peppers or fresh guavas filled with cream. They would also have ethnic themes each night - Spanish, Mexican, French, Italian, Asian, etc. On the French night, they had about 10 varieties of éclairs for dessert, one even shaped like a swan! On Mexican night, they brought out a lot of the traditional (but rarely seen outside of Mexico) foods and had the entire place decorated in red, white, and green. The food was honestly top quality. And if that wasn't enough, at lunch time they would have an outdoor cook-up by the main swimming pools. On one particular day, it was lobster paella!

Lunchtime cook-out by the GBP Coba pool

In between meal times they would have all the lobbies set up with a coffee bar to which you could help yourself to tea or coffee. They also set aside bottles of whiskey, Amaretto, Brandy, Mayan liqueur, and whatever else you might want to use to flavour your coffee. They also had their own homemade flavoured tequila. In front of each bottle was a bowl full of the ingredients used to flavour it, whether it be strawberry, coconut, chili, coffee, lime, or cinnamon. In the evenings, they would even have a staff member with an open flame making special flambée coffees. In a warming tray they had tiny pastries. I would bite into a petite Madeleine cake as I walked with my coffee down to the beach hoping to recall lost childhood memories.

Despite all the food and drinks, we did not get silly full, sick, or drunk. We did not just sit around getting fat. We did other activities too!

On Thursday morning we took a guided tour to go snorkeling with sea turtles! Unfortunately I have no photos from that day, but it was definitely one of our most memorable experiences. We went with the resort's own Bahia Principe Dive Center.


For about $45 US (they quote the prices in US dollars regardless of how you pay) they took us out on a boat with about ten others to the nearby coral reefs. The boat gets split up into two groups and each has its own guide. Our group first went to search for sea turtles which can usually be found feasting on sea grass growing along the sandy shallows. Within seconds, we saw our first sea turtle. It was incredible, really, to see them in the wild in their natural habitat, and only a few feet away. At one time the turtle was right underneath me and came up to take in a breath of air. Josh and I were the only ones watching it as it came up for air. We put our heads above the water and there it was with its tiny head, and we could hear it take its breath before diving back down. Incredible.

After the sea turtles our guide called us over to a sting ray. We did see a sting ray earlier in our trip on our first night at the resort, but it was from the dock looking down... but snorkeling with a sting ray is something else. It was unbelievable to be swimming with them! There's just something so sweet about sting rays and I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's the eyes and the way they filter sand. Maybe it's the way their body moves like a magic carpet?

After our time with the sting ray, we noticed our guide get excited about something a few feet over. We turned around and there was this massive school of fish. You didn't even see the fish as individuals, but as this slow-moving zombie-like mass. I have no idea what kind of fish they were, but as they headed straight for us, they decided to turn around. However, instead of simply turning themselves around, the leaders of the school of fish split off away from the center and back around the sides. All the other fish took their lead, thus starting a school of fish procession. While I know that snorkeling with schools of fish doesn't sound like the most exotic experience, trust me, don't underestimate it!

We then swam over to the coral reef which was like being in a tropical aquarium. There were so many unique fish... greenish rainbow fish, blue and yellow fish, polka-dotted eels with pointy noses. Even the coral was fascinating - brain corals, fan corals ... even spotting the giant sea urchins hiding in the crevasses were thrilling. I could have floated in the coral reefs for hours. I now see why people spend big money to come to places like these. It's for these fragile ecosystems.

On Wednesday we hired a taxi driver for the day and visited the Mayan ruins in nearby Tulum:

Although there are certainly more famous Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza, Tulum is impressive for being a well-preserved pre-Columbian walled city. Many of the buildings of this important Mayan port were once brightly painted with frescos, and you can still see some of the colour. The original stone relief was also very visible and it was truly something to be able to see it in person. I had briefly studied a bit of Mayan culture while in an introductory art history class at UBC, but that was years ago. Fortunately, they have signs up around (in English and Spanish) detailing on what you're looking at. Sure, it was superficial but beneficial. There were also tour guides you could hire if you wished. Although we opted not to, there were so many guides giving tours while we were there, it was hard not to listen in on other groups.

The Temple of the Frescos

But like most gringos, we were easily amused by the local wildlife. There were a lot of iguanas.

One even seemed to have lost his tail, but was managing to grow it back:

And then, slithering along silently was this cute Mexican parrot snake! A tour group walked up to this location as I was taking the picture and their guide began to talk about the historical significance and symbolism of the architecture in front of them. Once they caught sight of this tiny snake, that's all they wanted to take pictures of and promptly ignored their guide.

Although Tulum's Mayan ruins are famous for the well-preserved structures, I'd argue that they're equally known for their beautiful location on the cliffs overlooking the beach and the Caribbean Sea. While some beaches were off limits, the most beautiful secluded beach could be accessed by a wooden staircase which lead down the cliff to the softest sands imaginable.

We can't go here, this beach is for sea turtles...

... but we can go down to that beach!

We had to take this wooden staircase down to the beach. The beach turned out to be a sandy cove surrounded by rocky cliffs. It was crowded, as one would expect on a sunny afternoon, but everyone was chilled out and respectful of one another's space.

Josh really wanted to go for a swim and encouraged me to join him, however I was drained from the intense sun and I didn't want to fight the waves. Instead, I happily sat against the cliffs in the shade reading up on Tulum.

And I watched the iguanas. Iguanas are sneaky.

When you leave your bags unattended...

...iguanas come out of the woodwork!

When we walked back to our taxi, we noticed 6 or 7 blue-coloured birds moving throughout the jungle floor. Their behavior reminded me of crows. They were Yucatan Jays.

Yucatan Jays look sneaky. If they're anything like Whiskeyjacks, then they are sneaky.

After visiting Tulum's Mayan ruins and beach, we drove into town which was a short distance inland. Apparently it's pretty well known on the backpacker circuit and there were hostels, internet cafés, and plenty of souvenir shops. We were so hungry when we arrived in the town of Tulum that we ate lunch at the first restaurant we saw. We only realized after we were seated that it was a Mexican/Chinese restaurant. Since I didn't come all the way to Tulum to order Chinese food, I looked for something on the menu that I couldn't get at home: grouper. Grouper's a tropical fish (Mero in Spanish) which is relatively mild but is the freshest seafood you can get. The fish was cooked in banana leaves with a light tomato and onion sauce and it was served with white rice and vegetables. Josh ordered a variety of fajitas. He had so much food that I took some of his tortillas and used them to eat the fish - instant fish tacos! We both drank our first beer of the week - nice cold bottles of Sol. It was a perfect lunch sitting there at some nondescript restaurant on the sidewalk watching life go by in Tulum.

After lunch we went for a stroll along Avenida Tulum, the heart of town. It's here where you'll find all the souvenir shops. Among the touristy knickknacks, we discovered a truly enchanting shop that stood out from the rest: Papalotl Galeria. It actually reminded me of something you'd find in the Gulf Islands or in Tofino. It's part art gallery, part gift shop and it's run by a man who makes jewellery and sells works by local artists, many of whom are indigenous Mayans. In the back was a beautiful garden courtyard with tropical plants and clothing on display. Two pet rabbits were cuddling.

We talked with the owner for a while and were quite taken by this little boutique. However, we knew our taxi driver was waiting for us and that we should probably head back to the resort. When I got home (from Mexico), I went online trying to find information on that gallery. I discovered that the store moonlights as an evening jam space. If only we had stuck around!

Our last night in Mexico was the only night we went overboard. Having skipped out on breakfast due to our snorkeling expedition, we had an early lunch at the GBP Akumal buffet. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the pool and at the beach (in addition to getting our photographs taken with a spider monkey!) and knew we had a late dinner reservation at 9:30pm. By 6pm we were getting rather hungry and figured it might be nice to pop in to the nearest buffet and grab a light snack. Of course, there is no such thing as a light snack at a buffet, especially on Mexican night! As we sat at our table and ate authentic Mexican dishes, we looked at each other and still couldn't believe that we were in Mexico. Even though we were going home the next morning, neither of us brought up the topic because we didn't want the dream to end.