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Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Seashores of Old Mexico ♫

And the third choice country is...Mexico! Ole!

Choosing my third favourite place was ultimately about the vacation and not entirely about the country. It was too hard to choose between places like Germany, Spain and Switzerland.. so I went with a country where I had the most adventure!

Yes, it's a classic tourist destination and the obvious spot to go for a sun holiday. However, while the resorts and beaches may be similar to a lot of all inclusive resorts along the Gulf and throughout the Caribbean, Mexico has much to offer off of the resort grounds and thus is a perfect spot to visit for the holidayer who likes adventure!

I know there has been a lot of negative publicity about the safety for tourists in Mexico, but, if you do your research most of the crimes reported are within certain regions that you can avoid. 

My trip to Mexico was a classic seven day all inclusive at the beautiful Valentin Imperial Maya located in the Mayan Riviera. The Valentin Resort is a new resort to North America. The resort originates from Spain which gives it a very authentic Spanish feel in both the architecture and the decor around the resort grounds. 
Due to an amazingly lucky deal found online, a stay at this luxurious resort became a possibility! Of the resorts and hotels I have stayed at, the Valentin definitely tops the list for all categories - well maintained grounds, food, service, rooms, pools, and so forth. There is also some really interesting wildlife that wanders the grounds such as iguanas and coatis (a member of the raccoon family). I was also told by a worker that several weeks prior, a large alligator had wandered on to the resort and was found near a guest bungalow!

When I am on a sun holiday I love to spend my days tanning on the beach and snorkeling in the sea. But, my favourite part of a trip is to explore the country and see first hand how the locals live. 

While in Mexico I did three off resort day excursions. 

Excursion #1:
This included an early morning bus ride into the Mayan Jungle. On the way we passed through many small villages. As we drove deeper into the jungle we came across a small one room school house. The tour guide explained that this was a school for the local children. However, because it is in a fairly remote area with a very small population - there is no teacher for these children. Revenue from tourism in this area has allowed this remote school to purchase a type of Smart Board that can connect to a nearby city where there is live feed from another school. The children then watch the teacher teach through the board and follow along with their learning! 

When we finally reached our destination we walked through some bush and arrived at a cliff's edge. Here we geared up with helmets and climbing ropes and began our descent onto the jungle's floor! Being a little nervous with heights, I found the initial leaning over the cliff's edge pretty terrifying!! But, once you get going it's actually quite fun and not so scary!

After walking through some small caves we then hiked up a path back to the top of the cliff where we then zip-lined across an area of the jungle's canopy!! This was another activity that I feared, but again once you get going it's too much fun to be scared! 

From here we hiked further into the jungle and arrived at an area with mangroves. We all hopped in our kayaks and paddled through narrow water pathways until we reached a dock where we would then continue our jungle trek. (If you are ever thinking of doing an excursion like this one - be sure to wear water shoes! They are great to go from water to land as they dry quickly and are pretty comfortable too.) As we made our way through the jungle paths we eventually came to an area with a Traditional Mayan healer. He performed a spiritual ritual on us with scented oils and lit in-scents. He approached each one of us and said a prayer for our safety (I was thinking this may have been more appropriate to be done before dropping down a cliff and flying over a jungle canopy!)

Next we prepared to enter a cenote (cave system). To prepare you have to rinse yourself off with fresh water as not to contaminate the cave's water. We walked down some pretty steep slippery steps to get to the water (again water shoes came in so handy!) and once at the bottom we were free to dive in and explore. The cave is extremely dark and it is hard to see what is in front of you, yet the water is as clear as glass. There were fish swimming around and some formations of stalactites and stalagmites throughout the cave.

"A stalagmite s a type of speleothem that rises from the floor of a limestone cave due to the dripping of mineralized solutions. The corresponding formation on the ceiling of a cave is known as a stalactite."

Swimming in the cenote was my favourite part of the day! But, this specific cenote was fairly small so it was later recommended that if we were interested we should do another excursion to an area that has some of the largest cenotes in Mexico - which, we did!
After drying off we trekked deeper into the jungle and stopped for a delicious traditional Mayan lunch prepared by some wonderful Mayan ladies! Everything was very authentic and prepared with all local Mayan ingredients - from the hibiscus juice to the rice milk! 
A full belly later, we hopped back on the bus and made our way to the Coba Ruins. The Coba Ruins is an ancient Mayan city with the largest pyramid on the Yucatan Pennisula. This large pyramid is called Nohoch Mul Pyramid. It may not appear overly tall in pictures, but due to very steep, distant steps and no railing or safety line, the climb up seems never ending! To make your way to the pyramid from the parking area is roughly an hour walk. Due to limited time we opted for a bicycle taxi, which is basically a bicycle with a bench type seat attached to the front for passengers. 
Photo from
On top of the Nohuch Mul Pyra
The Nohoch Mul Pyramid is definitely the "must see" of the Coba Ruins. However, there are many other interesting temples, pyramids and artifacts to be seen. There is even an ancient ball field where Mayan children would play! 
After a long day full of excitement and adventure, it was time to head back to the resort... and book a second excursion!
Excursion #2:
This excursion brought us back out to the Mayan Jungle but in a different location. We took a bus down a very bumpy dirt road that really didn't seem like it was meant to be driven on! Once we arrived at our stop we all hopped on our own ATV and began our ride through the jungle... and what a ride it was!
I absolutely love 4-wheeling, jet skiing, 8-wheelers and all of those fun, fast rides... but nothing I had done before was like this jungle ride! The paths were extremely rough - bumpy, potholes, hills, what seemed like 90 degree drops, huge tree roots to jump over, etc. We rode through the jungle for what seemed like hours and finally arrived at the famous cenotes (some of the biggest in the country). Because it was dry season the cave system only had a minimal amount of water (about waist deep at it's deepest part). Apparently during wet season the whole cave system can fill up in a matter of minutes! 
These cenotes are unreal! They are full of intricate pathways and tunnel systems where one can easily become lost. Some of Mexico's largest stalactites and stalagmites are also found in these very cenotes. After a tour through some of the cave's paths and a relaxing swim in the cave's water it was time to hop back on the ATVs and head back to the camp. 
Excursion #3:
The final excursion on this trip was far less adventurous than the other two, but no less fun! This was a day trip to Playa Del Carmen which is a small city located south of Cancun. While this is definitely a tourist haven, it does offer some authentic Mexican style shopping, restaurants and nightlife. The main street runs parallel to the beach which makes for beautiful scenery while walking along visiting the shops and bars. You do not need to walk far to hear a mariachi band playing music or someone trying to sell you a shot of tequila. This is definitely a party area! However, this was just a day trip for me, so it was more about the shopping and exploring!
The Valentin Imperial Maya is an excellent choice if you're looking for any type of sun holiday! The resorts offers relaxation, luxury, clean white beaches, and a daily/nightly itinerary of activities for its guests, while outside of the resort gates is a whole land of adventure and fun to be had!
The Valentin Imperial Maya is also different from other resorts as you have the option to eat at a different a La Carte restaurant nightly (whereas the average resort puts a limit of three nights). There is much to choose from restaurant wise. There are two typical buffet style restaurants that you can eat at for each meal as well as several snack bars. If you decided to go for a fancier a La Carte meal you have the choice of seven restaurants which include: Italian, French, Japanese, Thai/Indonesian, Mexican, American Steakhouse, and Seafood. The resort also puts on an outdoor Mexican Fiesta one evening a week for a fun meal with lots of great entertainment. 
Aside from all of the delicious options for restaurants the resort also has all inclusive 24 hour room service... which means if you're dreaming of chocolate cake and champagne at 3am - they will make it happen!!!

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for my next blog on what living in the Caribbean is really like. :)

Friday, 20 April 2012

Glac mé ar ais go hÉirinn

Ireland is probably the only country outside of my own that I have visited and immediately felt like I was at home. The people, the landscape and the atmosphere are all so warm and welcoming. Being in Ireland is much like being in the Canadian Maritimes. With having a mother from PEI and a father from Newfoundland, and also having spent eight years myself living in Nova Scotia, my time driving around Ireland reminded me so much of my childhood on the East Coast. 
The second you land in the country, you are greeted with great pubs, beer, and music that makes you want to dance. In fact, basically any corner you turn you can find a place that offers all of this! I remember someone telling me that James Joyce once said "A good puzzle would be to cross Dublin without passing a pub". I think this could be said for all of Ireland!! It seemed that no matter where we ended up driving in the country - even in very rural areas that had more sheep than people, you could still easily find a pub to sit and have a pint!
My journey to Ireland began with an overnight flight from Toronto to Dublin. The second we landed, the rain started (as I had expected it would!). However, the weather Gods were good to us during our time there. We only had one day of rain, and the sun shined the rest of the trip!!

Dublin was a great place to start the trip off! We did much sightseeing and pub stops. We toured the Guinness Brewery, drank beer on the 360 degree rooftop bar that overlooks the city, visited St. Stephen's Green (a beautiful park in the heart of the city), attended Riverdance at the Gaiety Theatre (amazing!!), and shopped on Grafton Street and also watched Street Performers perform magic tricks. We did a lot of walking throughout the city and also got lost a few times in our rent a car due to a broken GPS! We eventually had to resort to using maps (like the olden days haha). 
We stopped at some pretty neat pubs in Dublin. One was an old bank that was transformed into a bar ( It still has the vault and the screen displaying stock information. We took a cab back to the hotel that evening with a cab driver that had the thickest Irish accent I have ever heard.. and he actually said to me that my accent sounded so strange! ha!
360 Degree Rooftop bar

In front of the Gaiety Theatre
Dublin is a great city with lots to do and see. However, I don't think it tops the list for favourite places in Ireland (even though it does have a Tim Hortons!!!).
Our next stop was the village of Slane. Slane is a really quiet quaint little area in County Meath. It is a village that looks like it should be on a postcard. Slane was a quick stop to stretch our legs, and grab some lunch. We ate at a cute little restaurant with one of the best lunches I have EVER had. I ordered a lasagna and it came with a side of... fries!!? I've never seen this combination anywhere else, but I'm not complaining!! Lasagna + Fries = happy lunch time! After lunch we stopped at the Slane Castle and did some walking around (to burn off some of that hearty lunch). Slane Castle dates back to the 1700s. While it isn't one of the older castles in the country, it certainly has some interesting history.
"Slane is steeped in history and with the river Boyne flowing below the Castle, it has a mystical quality. The Hill of Slane, which overlooks the Castle, is where St. Patrick lit his paschal fire, following which he was summoned by the High King to Tara, and Ireland was subsequently converted to Christianity." (
Slane Village

Slane Castle
Next, we drove up the coast to visit Monaghan which is near Northern Ireland. Monaghan is where my Mother's Grandparents came from, so it was really neat to visit this area. My family that came from this area are Murphys. The first Murphy sign I saw I became really excited and wondered if maybe we were somehow related!! I soon realized that pretty much every second person in Ireland is a Murphy!
While in Monaghan, we stopped for a bite to eat and had a visit to the church in town. 
From Monoghan we continued on driving across the country. Our next destination was Galway! Galway was my favourite city visited in Ireland. There are lots of cozy little pubs and restaurants right along the bay. Something about Galway just felt so much like what you expect Ireland to be like.
Galway Bay

After spending a night in Galway, we made our way down the coast and along the beautiful green countryside. We visited the Burren in County Clare and after a long drive up some pretty narrow steep roads, we eventually came to the National Park. Here we walked through some ancient burial grounds. Much of the land here is limestone, it almost looks as if the whole area has been paved.
Poulnabrone Portal Tomb

Cliffs of Moher
Next on the list was the Cliffs of Moher (another favourite). Quite a few movies have had scenes shot here and after seeing the cliff's beauty in person, it is no wonder it is such a famous and popular spot in Ireland. There are some great trails on top of the cliffs, however there are signs warning tourists not to get too close to the edge as the wind has blown people over the edge throughout the years. Being somewhat afraid of heights, this wasn't an issue for me as I wasn't getting anywhere near that edge!!

Cliffs of Moher
Connor's Pass
Before heading South, the final area visited was a beautiful drive along Connor's Pass in County Kerry. This had to have been my all time favourite part of the country (despite the somewhat scary winding roads on the cliffs edge with no guard rail - annnnd some crazy drivers). The view was spectacular. There were cliffs on one side and small lakes dotting the land. On the side of the cliffs were sheep climbing around and the odd waterfall here and there. Driving around such a beautiful area of the country while listening to Irish music felt like a big tick off of my bucketlist! 

Connor's Pass

Killarney and Cork
A short time later we were in Killarney! After some more sightseeing and a night spent in the town, we made our way on to Cork. While here I stayed with the wonderful Barrys in their village called Grenagh. This was truly a village straight from a scene in a movie like Ps. I Love You. Everything was so green and beautiful. Cows and sheep dotted the farm lands. Everyone seemed to know one another and were so friendly! A few nights out at the local pub (The Village Inn) and my time in Ireland was soon coming to an end. Before leaving Cork we spent a day at the Blarney Castle (with the famous Blarney Stone) and also spent some time touring Cork City. 
Blarney Castle Grounds



Before I knew it, it was time to make our way back to Dublin. One last night in Dublin and a stay at a really beautiful castle turned hotel and it was time to say Goodbye to Ireland (and hopefully see you again someday!). 
Radisson Blu St. Helen's Hotel - Dublin

Westwood House Hotel - Galway

Killarney Plaza and Spa Hotel - Killarney

Clontarf Castle Hotel - Dublin
These are the hotels stayed at during my time in Ireland. The Radisson Blu was absolutely my favourite hotel that I have ever stayed in. I would definitely recommend it for anyone who is ever in Dublin!