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Travel update

This blog has been ignored for far too long. I recently had to pay the annual hosting and URL renewal fee, so might as well get some use out of it!

A lot has happened in the past 2 years. Most excitingly, we had a baby! Little Max is already 14 weeks and so cute. So far, he has spent one night in a hotel room, two nights in a tent, and three nights at my parents’ house. Coming up: a trip on the BC Ferries and a night at his other grandparents’ house!

Our little family of 3 is planning a 6-week European adventure this fall, before I go back to work.

For half of our trip, we will be doing a house exchange to Freiburg, Germany. For the remainder, we will be staying in private apartments in Rome, Bologna and Florence for 3 weeks total. On the itinerary so far: wine tasting in Alsace, visits to cities near Freiburg (Strasbourg and Ulm for sure, hopefully some in Switzerland as well), and seeing the Last Supper in Milan.

I’m glad we started planning this trip before Max was born. There hasn’t been much time to do travel planning since his birth, and the sleep deprivation likely would have meant I would have been too tired to even consider travelling for such a long time and distance.

We flew with Maya Island Air out of San Pedro to Belize City on a tiny plane again, a much scarier flight than our flight into San Pedro  since we flew through dense clouds the entire way. We were required to pay an exorbitant tourist tax for leaving Belize, but fortunately they took credit cards.

Our connecting flight from Belize City to Cancun was on a much larger plane – a 120+ seat jet. Total people count on plane: 8, of which 4 were the crew! Very odd and I’m sure unprofitable. We were even served a meal!

I had the bad luck of being selected for a secondary search at Cancun airport (that darned button lit up the red light!), which meant having to re-pack two suitcases and two carry-ons in view of a dozen airport staff, while Ian waited outside (they wouldn’t let him stay with me).

This time (unlike our honeymoon when the airport to hotel transfer was a disaster) I booked a private transfer to our resort with Cancun Transfers. The private van was on time and the driver was very courteous. It took about 1.5 hours to get to our resort, with a quick stop at 7-Eleven just outside Cancun for refreshments.

Once at the hotel, we refused to pay a $500 upgrade fee for an ocean-view room so we ended up with a room overlooking the front entrance of the resort. It was pretty well soundproof so we didn’t mind the lack of a view. The requisite towel sculptures appeared on our bed about every other day. We didn’t really get this one (a turkey? a swan? in June?):
Happy thanksgiving?

This was the hallway outside our room. I’m glad I insisted on an upstairs room – the ground floor rooms were much noisier since the resort golf carts could drive right through the buildings on the main floor.
Outside our room (1123)

The resort, Grand Sirenis, has some pretty crazy architecture.

Stunning outdoor art

The front lobby is just stunning. Those armchairs fit 2 people comfortably, and we certainly enjoyed them lots. Our favourite part was listening to the jazz trumpet player who played nightly from about 9:30 pm to 11:30 pm in the quieter side of the lobby. Nothing like live music, a cool breeze, and never-ending drinks.

The huge main lobby

There are 900 rooms in the resort and I overheard a staff member say there are 3,000 staff in high season. We were there in shoulder or low season, so one of the buffet restaurants was closed and the a-la-carte restaurants were open on alternating days, but the rest of the amenities were all operating.

The most important of the amenities, and one of the reasons I picked this resort over similar ones:  the lazy river!
The lazy river

Floating down in a single or double tube, with drinks or ice cream in hand … pretty nice way to spend 15 minutes on a lazy afternoon!

The resort food was pretty decent, although the vegetarian options were uninspired and repetitive after a couple of days. There were a lot of British guests whose appetites / palates the resort had to satisfy, which made for some pretty bland fare. We did enjoy the Japanese a-la-carte, with a noodle chef who showed off some pretty crazy knife skills. Unfortunately, like the dessert below, the presentation far out-shone the content.

The drinks were quite weak although they would make them stronger if you asked. The beer was terrible however. I did enjoy the occasional chocolate martini!
Mmm chocolate martinis

On our second day at the resort, the resort’s water main broke. We had no water for showers or toothbrushing until about noon the next day – pretty horrible timing as we had gone snorkeling and were in need of showers. We heard from other guests that the a-la-carte restaurants had to close that night, although the buffet where we had dinner seemed fine.

The resort had an on-site dive shop operated by Underwater Technical World, a chain of dive shops partly owned by a guy from Langley, BC. Since we had not done as many dives as we would have liked in Belize, we booked an 8-dive package with the resort shop. They threw in free equipment rentals and an extra dive for free. The ocean was still very rough on our first couple of days at the resort, so we did our first 2 dives as cavern/cenote dives at Cenote Chac Mool near Puerto Aventuras. Once the ocean calmed down, we did some awesome ocean diving just minutes from the resort. More about the dives in the next post.

I managed to scrape my foot on a rock pretty badly while walking out to the dive boat carrying all my equipment (the resort really needs to get a dock, or perhaps a rock-free shore like the resort next door).
The dive shop really needs to get a dock

We were very lucky to have absolutely beautiful weather for the first 9 of 10 days (although a bit too hot for Ian’s liking). We didn’t spend too much time on the beach since our days consisted of small breakfast, dive, lunch, dive, shower & nap, dinner, jazz trumpet. When we did manage to get to the beach, it was pretty awesome!
Enjoying the beach on our last full day

We went snorkeling a lot in the little bay in front of that beach. The visibility wasn’t always fantastic, but we did see some awesome marine life. I was super happy with my prescription scuba mask that I bought just before this trip. I used standard masks on our previous dive/snorkel trips and it sucks being near sighted under water.

We did one organized tour on this trip, with Alltournative to Cobá and a little Mayan village. More about it in a separate post.

We only left the resort on our own once, to go to Playa del Carmen. We were all set to take the colectivo but we got a hard-to-refuse offer from a taxi driver dropping off passengers at our resort, so we took a taxi. It was almost 25 minutes to PDC, so we were quite happy for the comfort of the taxi in the end.

We had some awesome, authentic Mexican food in Playa, at Media Luna (Ian raved about the fish tacos) and at Yaxche. Both places had good drinks too – Ian got a tasty chaya leaf mojito at Yaxche, and we tried many kinds of beer at Media Luna.

Trying out the local beer

We would have loved to eat more, but our stomachs just couldn’t stretch much further. I think next time we go, we will stay right in Playa, in a small hotel or maybe a self-catered condo, as the food quality and value is way better than what we got at the resort. Also, the dive shops in town seemed to have much better priced packages.

On our last night in Mexico, there was a crazy thunderstorm. We stayed at the resort bar, listened to the trumpet player, and watched the lightning until about 11 pm, then went up to our room, when the power promptly went out. Fortunately the back-up generator kicked in right away. It was still thundering and pouring rain the next day on our way to the airport, and our flight out of Cancun was delayed. Fortunately we (and our luggage) still made our connection in Minneapolis, with enough time to down a pint of Sam Adams at the airport bar (finally, good beer!).

We returned home to a stinky but happy Buffy (thanks Tara for dog-sitting for 3 weeks!!), a clean house, and over 2,000 photos to view and edit. The underwater photos have taken the longest to go through. Some of those in the next post!

Once we landed in San Pedro, the airport staff phoned our resort to let them know we’d arrived (we were put on an earlier flight than originally scheduled). It took a few minutes but soon enough a van arrived for us for the 300m drive to the boat dock. En route, we stopped at a supermarket in San Pedro town to pick up a large case of beer (the mandatory Belikin) and fresh groceries (the most fantastic homemade salsa and yoghurt!). US dollars are readily accepted everywhere, at a set exchange rate of 1 USD = 2 BZD.
San Pedro
The transfer to White Sands Cove Resort was seamless. The boat took us to our resort, a couple of miles north of San Pedro. Marlon, the resort’s on-site manager, waited for us on their dock with a wheelbarrow and took all our luggage to our suite. We were welcomed with this view:
White Sands Cove Resort

We walked up to the bar and enjoyed our welcome cocktails by the pool.

Our ground-floor suite was perfect. There was a living room and full kitchen, a bathroom and large bedroom. Only the bedroom was air conditioned, but both rooms had fans and screened windows and door. The screens were essential – the Belizeans mosquitoes were horrible.

The resort was pretty quiet the entire time we stayed there (9 nights) – between 3 and 5 couples at any one time, out of the 20 available suites. The bar and kitchen were open from lunch to dinner and we took advantage of that a couple of times. We had packed in our luggage some Indian boil-in-a-bag meals, a box of Ian’s beloved Cheerios, some rice and some oatmeal. We discovered a fresh produce store in town called The Greenhouse where we picked up huge mangoes, pre-peeled and sliced pineapples, mint for mojitos, and weird things like guayas (also known as genip … somewhat like lychees). Those basics plus the fresh groceries we bought in San Pedro were perfect. The local beer (Belikin or Lighthouse) was the typical weak tropical lager, so we had Red Stripe whenever we could. The food at the restaurants in Belize was unremarkable to tasteless except for 2 places, Wild Mango’s and Elvi’s Kitchen. We had delicious and huge burritos at Wild Mango’s, and Ian had a really good conch soup called Good Fu Di Back at Elvi’s Kitchen.
My veggie burrito(s)
The main reason we came to Belize was to scuba dive, so on our second day we set out to organize some dives. Another couple at White Sands directed us to the El Pescador resort down the beach where they highly recommended dive instructor Alonzo. We had already reserved dives with White Sands Cove Diving, which we didn’t realize wasn’t actually located at our resort any longer. In the end we only did 2 dives with Alonzo and 2 dives with White Sands. We also went on a half-day snorkeling trip at Shark Ray Alley in Hol Chan Reserve. We chickened out of the all-day dive trip to the Blue Hole (leaving the resort at 5:30 am for a 2+ hour boat trip each way seemed … un-vacationlike). The diving in Belize was alright. Unfortunately it was overcast and rough the majority of the time (Hurricane/Cyclone Agatha hit nearby Guatemala on May 29) so the visibility and colours weren’t fantastic. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the dives, I even got to pet a nurse shark (!!!), took lots of photos and identified lots of marine life. More about the diving in a separate post.

The snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley was pretty cool as we got to see lots of big rays and big nurse sharks, as well as turtles and other smaller fish. We also borrowed the kayaks from White Sands and paddled out to the reef break, tied up to a buoy and snorkeled there.
Sting ray hanging out in town

The other downside to Ambergris was the abundance of mosquitoes, despite the resort spraying for them. We learned quickly that we had to douse ourselves with DEET whenever we went out of our suite. Unfortunately Ian developed a sensitivity to DEET so we were a bit worried about overdoing it.
The one place I didn't soak in DEET

We also borrowed the resort’s beach cruiser bikes to make our way to San Pedro town (2+ miles south of White Sands Cove Resort) or the Palapa Bar (probably 0.5 miles south).
Ambergris Caye
The Palapa Bar was a fantastic place to enjoy the Caribbean breeze, good drinks and the passing marine life (we saw a ray, some barracuda and many needlefish).
At the Palapa Bar

To get from our resort to San Pedro town, we had to bike over a toll bridge (1 Belizean dollar = USD $0.50 per bike). Ian’s bike chain broke so we had to find a repair shop and then had to wake up the repairman who was having a nice siesta in his hammock. The replacement chain cost $6 and took only a few minutes to fix.
Waiting for bike chain replacement
While waiting for the repairman, I noticed an odd-looking cat with a collar nearby. It turned out to be a pet raccoon! Very odd – apparently quite a few people in San Pedro keep raccoons as pets.
Hardware store in San Pedro

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