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7 Reasons to Visit Puerto Vallarta

 

Puerto Vallarta has grown up since its Hollywood scandal and backpacking hippie days.

Puerto Vallarta has grown up since its Hollywood scandal and backpacking hippie days.

By Andrea Granahan

Puerto Vallarta, the sunny port on the Pacific in tropical Mexico, has been beckoning visitors ever since the 1960s when Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were steaming it up with their torrid affair. He was filming “Night of the Iguana”. She was along for the sex.

They weren’t the only movie stars having an affair. Emotions ran so high on the film set that John Huston, who was directing it, gave each cast member a gold revolver with a gold bullet engraved with another cast member’s name – fortunately, none was ever used. But the press flocked to the area to cover the juicy stories and stayed in Puerto Vallarta. Word got out that Huston had discovered a paradise.

These days Vallarta, with a population of less than 300,000, has been well discovered with lush resorts to the north and south of the picturesque old downtown. There are lots of reasons to visit PV and here are just seven of them

1. It is safe. While some parts of Mexico have had drug vs. government wars, it is a large country, and other parts of Mexico are safe. Americans, the most easily spooked travelers in the world, needn’t be afraid. Vallarta is fine for several reasons. It is a naval base so the Mexican Navy patrols the bay continually making it hard for smugglers to get in. There is just one main road connecting PV to the rest of the country because the steep Sierra Madre Mountains cut off easy access from the eastern interior making it hard for drug dealers to get away. There is also a lot of employment in PV. People are moving there from other parts of Mexico because of its tourist-fed prosperity. PV is as safe as any same-sized city in the US.

2. The winter weather is balmy with temperatures in the low 80s Fahrenheit . Winter is also the driest season thus November through March is the high season there. In mid-summer it is just plain hot so that is the low season. The electrical supply is reliable and everyone has air conditioning.

A sunset sail complete with margaritas.

A sunset sail complete with margaritas.

3. Beaches. There are miles of perfect beaches on the palm shaded coast. Swimming, diving out at the lovely Arches islands, sunset sailboat rides, kayaking, parasailing – there are all sorts of ways to enjoy the delights of Banderas Bay. You can even take a water taxi to the remote cove of Yelapa if you want beaches without crowds.

Laid back Yalapa is just of the many superb beaches.

Laid back Yalapa is just of the many superb beaches.

4. Great food. Foodies love PV because of the fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and terrific cooks. Vallarta Food Tours promises to make a local of you in three hours with its tour of downtown eateries and it delivers. The tour even includes taco stands that have been in the same family for three or five generations, making just one type of taco. It introduces you to the families running small hidden gems of restaurants cooking grandma’s recipes. The beachside palapa roofed seafood restaurants in the Zona Romantica get the catch still wriggling, straight from the boats. Some of the local specialties include ceviche, a marinated seafood treat and grilled marinated red snapper. Local candies made from jungle nuts and wild vanilla are also very good, and there are some excellent candy shops.

A fifth generation stamd specializing in just one kind of taco. Go early, the lines get long at lunch time.

A fifth generation stamd specializing in just one kind of taco. Go early, the lines get long at lunch time.

5. Shopping. PV has some local craftsmen, most notably glass blowers, but the busy market on an island in the middle of the Cuale River offers a wealth of handcrafts from all over the country and even has the colorful, elaborate beadwork of the Huichol Indians who live outside of PV but come to the market. Oaxaca wedding dresses and colorful blouses, modern Mexican high fashion, beach wear – it’s all here. Kids go crazy for the los luchadores masks that Mexican wrestlers wear. The market spills on to the mainland in a large building and onto the nearby streets. If you are lucky you might come upon a quinceanera in progress. That’s the important holiday when a Mexican girl turns 15 and is made a princess for a day. The teens like to parade through the market in their gowned finery on their special day.

The colorful artisans market on the island in the river in the heart of town.

The colorful artisans market on the island in the river in the heart of town.

6. Beauty. The pretty waterfront pedestrian-only stretch called the Malecon provides views not only of the beaches but of the jungle-clad mountains reaching down into the bay. An elegant statue of a seahorse ridden by a youngster is the symbol for Puerto Vallarta and it graces the Malecon. There is a remarkable wild mangrove swamp called El Salado right smack in the middle of PV. There are now boat tours that will show you the rich bird life and the crocodiles that make the 169 acre wetlands surrounded by high rises and resorts their home. A short bus ride will also take you to the spectacular botanical gardens outside of PV. These lush gardens have wild jungle trails that lead you into the mountains or down to the swimming holes on the crystal clear river. A beautiful restaurant and gift shop has a view of the river and is famous for its margaritas. You can see a dizzying array of tropical flowers and see the vanilla that has become such an important crop in Mexico.

On the malecon - the symbol of Puerto Vallarta - a boy riding a seahorse.

On the malecon – the symbol of Puerto Vallarta – a boy riding a seahorse.

7. Acceptance. If you are gay this is the resort city for you. Gay marriage is legal in Mexico, surprising as that may seem in a Catholic country with a machismo tradition. But the revolution was not just against the government, it was against the church. Gay couples are welcome and there are gay clubs, even one that does not admit women. Tourism is all important since it provides more than 50 percent of the economy, so no one wants to interfere with it. If gays want to vacation there, that’s just fine with the locals. Ever since those naughty movie stars attracted tourism in the first place, the locals have developed a “live and let live” attitude. There is a large expat population. Male or female, gay or straight, they find a peaceful home in Puerto Vallarta.

There are more reasons to visit the lovely city in the state of Jalisco, such as nightlife and theater, but these seven are reason enough to draw you to one of the world’s prize resort cities.

 

Pickin’ in the Square

Pickin4

The breeze rustled the leaves, and at the other side of the town square, an RV pulled up. A man stepped out and began unloading a large acoustic bass while a woman unpacked a Dobro guitar.

“How about ‘Little Old Log Cabin’?” a bearded codger suggested to his companions sitting in the circle close by.

There was not a moment’s pause before the musicians started playing and the impromptu group broke into song.

I listened awhile, and then strolled on. I found another group where an excellent Dobro guitar player and fiddler had attracted a crowd that had settled into the lawn chairs they had so wisely brought with them.

There were about two-dozen groups playing. The groups not only filled the square in the center of town, but also the adjacent park and the covered porches of stores and homes, some of which had signs saying, “Pickers Welcome.”

 

Groups gather everywhere in Mountain View to jam.Bluegrass enthusiasts and any musician worth his or her finger pick will know I was in Mountain View, Arkansas. “Pickin’ in the Square” is a tradition 150 years old.

No one officially “performs,” not even top professionals, who show up here fairly often. No one puts out hats or instrument cases to collect tips. Mountain View is for jamming for the pure love of music, and musicians leave their egos at home.

Mountain View is in the Ozarks, the heart of hillbilly country. There, bluegrass has thrived since the original settlers came to eke out a living on hardscrabble farms.

Just a couple of hours’ drive from artsy, self-aware Eureka Springs, Mountain View is a world away. It does not put on airs, only sings them. The people are extraordinarily friendly and instead of considering visitors as money-bearing tourists, in Mountain View they just figure you’re there to join in the music.

“And he cannot be trusted with love,” sang a woman.

The Ozark Folk Center preserves culture.I noticed that one of the men in the lawn chairs listening to the tunes was whittling a piece of wood. I asked what he was making.

He grinned at me and pointed to the ground. “Shavings.”

We shared a laugh.

Mountain View is well-loved. Musicians show up from all over the country to jam with one another. None of the musical instruments are amplified so the groups can be fairly close without interfering with each other.

I also noticed all the instruments sprouted little digital tuners. No longer do groups have to sit for ages tuning to one another. They all know they are in tune, and a musician can jump right in to the middle of a jam without throwing anyone off. Technology plus bluegrass equals uninterrupted jamming.

This was an ordinary Wednesday night in the spring. The weather was warm, not hot, but cloudy.

“If it should start to rain, I got a building a couple blocks from here where we can keep playing,” offered one of locals sitting in with a guitar, inviting strangers to his property.

Since the rain was holding off, I wandered to another group that had made themselves comfortable on the tailgate of a pickup truck beside the square. They were top-notch musicians and played together seamlessly.

Some happy pickin' going on. Photo by Andrea Granahan

Some happy pickin’ going on. Photo by Andrea Granahan

“Are you related?” I asked between songs.

“Oh, no. But we meet here every year to play while we are on vacation,” a woman said. She was from California, another woman from North Carolina, and the Dobro player was a sheriff’s deputy from Mississippi. They had all just arrived that afternoon and clearly loved pickin’ together.

No one gives lessons on the square. Young people are welcomed into groups to jam and can pick up tips by watching and listening, but the place to learn to play is in a class at the Ozark Folk Center outside town. Townspeople worked with the state to create the center. It opened as a state park in 1973, providing instant employment for people with skills that were dying out. Suddenly, the dulcimer makers, blacksmiths, candle makers, soap makers and quilters found themselves in demand. Even the old moonshiners came to build a still—but it’s for demonstration purposes only. Stone County is a dry county. (And while I wondered about the water bottles some of the old-timers carried around, there is no beer to be had anywhere in town except in private homes.)

The folk center offers demonstrations of everything from banjo playing to whittling. It also rents cabins and has a restaurant serving such traditional fare as fried chicken and corn pone.

Pickin1

The Folk Center draws those curious about the hillbilly way of life from all over the world. But the chance to go pickin’ in the square or just to listen and share in the love of music is what lures most people to quiet, unpretentious Mountain View, the jewel of the Ozarks.

Bali – Learning Temple Values

By Andrea Granahan

I woke up and wandered on to the terrace outside the rooms where my friends and I were staying in the city of Ubud in Bali.

The garden was a blaze of tropical flowers. The losman, or family compound, was waking up. The grandmother of the family had already woven the morning offerings for the family temple. She had made little baskets of banana leaves, filled them with rice and fruit and decorated them with flowers. Those were for the gods. She had made another set, which she set outside the gate to the losman on the street. Those were for the demons. It never took long for the stray dogs to find them and gobble them up. That was all right because the dogs were considered the reincarnation of faithless wives and therefore in the demon category.

The houseboys had already made a thermos of tea for us and left it on our table. Theodora, our landlady, ran an efficient operation. All the money she earned within the losman was hers to spend. The family rice fields and such belonged to her husband, a lazy, good-natured fellow, and those earnings were his to spend. Theodora had earned enough to give her daughters an excellent education. The family had four children, twice the number of the usual Balinese family.

Theodora set a big pot of rice to boil and sautéed a batch of vegetables to go with it. She spent about 10 minutes at that task. I had noticed Balinese families did not sit down for meals together. They just helped themselves from the pots of food throughout the day whenever they felt hungry. Then Theodora and grandma got down to the task that really mattered. They began making the offering for their banjar’s temple.

Off to the banjar’s temple with the daily offerings.

They gathered perfect fruits, made various colored rice pastes, took a large basket and began constructing a beautiful tower of shaped rice paste sculptures, integrating the fruits and flowers from the garden. It would take them hours. It would be done before sunset when Theodora would dress up and carry it on her head to offer up at the temple. After the gods there had eaten their spiritual bellyful, she would retrieve what fruits were still good for the family kitchen and discard the rest until tomorrow when the process started all over again.

Whenever anyone asks me what is the most exotic place I have ever traveled to, Bali springs to mind. It wasn’t the incredible landscape with layer upon layer of rice terraces and jungle. It wasn’t the beautiful dancers and hypnotic music. It was their challenge to my entire set of Western values.

I was raised with the concept that our families are our first responsibility and providing for the family is paramount, therefore what one does to earn a living or to care for the family comes first. It is a way of life central to most cultures whether they be Moslem. Jewish, or Christian. So much so, I took it for granted as a basic human value. I was startled in Bali to realize there are other ways of looking at life. Family counts in Bali, but it is secondary to their religious responsibilities.

The Balinese are very devout people and the religion they practice is a form of Hinduism. It’s not Indian Hinduism – they do eat meat and kill cows. Their unique form of it is a gentle form of worship. They believe strongly in karma so won’t steal or lie (cheating, now, is something else altogether!). They revere human life.  I never heard a Balinese raise his or her voice in anger although I spent three weeks in the busy losman near the market where there was plenty social interaction. When they get angry they pout instead. They never even shouted at the numerous pesky stray dogs they refuse to kill but do not control.

In Bali the center of one’s life is the banjar, a temple based group, usually consisting of about 100 families. It is a form of government, extended family, and church. It is so integral to Balinese life that the various governments that have taken over Bali – the Dutch, even the Japanese who were slavers and occupiers in World War II, and, most currently the Indonesian government, all have been forced to accept the banjars and deal with their elected leaders. The Balinese simply know no other way to handle life.

The Barong, a good demon, scares the bad ones away from a village when he dances.

Theodora’s daughters all went to the temple after school to study the sacred dances. They were expected to perform in the complex dance dramas at least once a week. Once they were good enough these dances would be their offerings to the gods. Their father had to go practice in the banjar’s gamelan orchestra each day that the rice paddies didn’t need attention.

Even a lot of the tasks at the paddies, such as planting and harvesting, were controlled by the banjars and turned into religious festivals.

The only really shared meals were when the temple held a festival. The men then cooked while the women made more elaborate decorative offerings to celebrate. The banjars knew who was married to whom, how many children they had, and even what form of birth control was practiced. When someone died, when there was a wedding, when someone needed a house built or repaired, when there was any festival, the banjar had to show up – every man, woman and child, to help make the floats and elaborate offerings that would be needed or to cook for those working, to provide music, or even just stand around and encourage the others.

Earning cash was a problem. Regular jobs in businesses were not allowed to interfere with banjar duties. Our driver Wayan lived far from his banjar but traveled back when he was called to duty altering his work schedule. He played drums in the gamelan. Theodora’s family had solved the cash flow problem by opening their losman to tourists.

Many banjars allowed tourists to attend their dance dramas. The money from the small admittance fee they charged went to paying better dancers and musicians from other banjars to teach them how to make better offerings. That hospitality also provided the benefit of the tourists’ laughter. Laughter is also considered an offering to the gods and most of the dramas included bawdy humor to provoke it.

A dance-drama offering, well performed, will make the gods and their worshippers all happy.

Everything is about the offerings. The rest of life is peripheral to that and must be squeezed in. One of my friends had spent a lot of time in Taiwan and had warned us about relaxed “Asia time” but she was surprised to learn when the Balinese said they’d pick you up a 9 a.m. they meant 8:55. Time is precious to them because anything they do for a living is taking away from their precious banjar offerings.

I noticed the older folks tended to be marginalized because the dance/dramas are very demanding and strenuous. It was their job to take care of the babies and minor jobs so the rest of the family could get on with the offerings with minimal interruption. If the family had a shop, the old folks tended it much of the time. But even they participated as much as possible in the offerings. Some of them made extra morning offerings and sold them for a pittance to the workers who were rushed in the mornings so that the gods would be sure and bless even the busy. Wayan always bought one when we left for an excursion, then casually tossed it out to the dogs a couple hours later.

I learned just how much the Balinese could squeeze in their mundane work with their spiritual duties when I bought a ticket to see a special drama at an outlying village that included “transport”. My transport turned out to be a motor bike the fellow playing the demon in the drama drove. He didn’t wear his mask, but he had his costume gloves on as he sped me to the temple.

In the evening, after the local temple had performed a lovely version of the Ramayana, a beloved sacred text for the Balinese, my friends and I sat sipping tea on our terrace. The family was outside watching television which featured American shows but Balinese commercials complete with gamelan music. Theodora’s little girls sprang up and began practicing their dancing to it. They would soon be ready to go on stage and begin the hard work of making their offerings.

Practice makes perfect.

 

The Quiet Side of Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street, yes, Bourbon, but the quiet end.

Inebriated people wandering the streets, drinks in hand, nightclubs with sex acts, loud music, mounted police above the crowd keeping watch – Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of the Big Easy, right?

Most tourists leave thinking the entire Quarter, or the Vieux Carre as locals call it, looks like  the noisy end of Bourbon, but a lot of regular working folk live quiet, peaceful lives in the VC. They walk their pets, take them to the vet, shop, go to the drug store for prescriptions, post their mail, hang out in local bars, eat breakfast in non-tourist places with their neighbors.

All it takes is a little foot power to find the quiet nooks where life goes on much as it has ever since the French first founded New Orleans in 1718 – except instead of horses, cars (and sometimes segways) traverse the streets.

 

So, if you were a local, what would your day look like? Your home could be a tiny house, or even be hidden behind a garden entrance. Rents are twice what they are in the Ninth Ward – now you know why lots of the street entertainers lived there instead of the VC. You would probably rely on foot power rather than a car – parking is at a premium in the VC and everything is close enough anyway.

Rents are high in the VC so to afford it lots go small. It’s worth it.

If you wanted to have a good breakfast and chat over the news with your neighbors you could stroll to the Clover Grill. Open 24 hours a day, it serves up a good breakfast for under $4. The menus are meant to cheer up your day – “If your order doesn’t come in 5 minutes, it might come in another 5, relax, you’re not in New York” says the menu on the wall.

Clover Grill where brekkers is not only cheap but served up with a sense of humor.

You might want to take your dog for a walk and stop by the vet’s for some flea treatment – warm weather brings them out.

The VC vet on Bourbon Street. No honky tonks in sight, just maybe some cool cats.

A lot of your neighbors like plants, you notice,

Balcony gardens festoon all of the VC.

and some even like veritable forests for privacy. You can wave to the kids outside the school as you stroll.

Now we know where Tarzan and Jane live in their retirement.

To shop you can stop at a local grocery, or for more major shopping brave a band or a streetside drunk to go to Rouse’s where you can find just about anything.

How about a serenade while you shop?

There’s a couple choices for where to wash your clothes.

Suds ‘ n Duds.

There’s a couple doctors practicing in VC, and even a stress clinic. You would probably avoid the tourist Walgreen’s on Decatur, but there’s a back street pharmacy to supply prescriptions, or if you want to do it the old fashioned way you can look for a cure or charm at the voodoo shop.

Heck with two aspirin. Voodoo will kill or cure you instea.

In the evening you can stroll to the local sports bar. Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop has been the locals’ hang out on the quiet end of Bourbon for generations.

All in all, a comfortable satisfying, normal day – not a strip club in sight, but if you want to party hardy, it’s just a stroll to the noisy end of Bourbon. And you don’t have to be a local to experience life like one, just walk a few blocks farther down the road.

 

 

Andrea’s Handy Dandy Tips for Long Air Trips

Here are five tips to make travel more comfortable and safe.

1. With no locks permitted on luggage except for TSA locks (and rumors have it some of the worst thieves are TSA employees), it’s getting harder to safeguard one’s belongings. I use dental floss. Tie your zipper tags together with a few loops of it, Leave one compartment open where you can tuck a pair of child’s scissors or a serrated plastic knife so you can cut the floss on arrival. Since I started doing that, no more thefts, and even the TSA will move on to a bag that is easier to open.

2. Packing for a quick trip gets easier if you buy a transparent shoe bag – the kind with many pockets that hangs in a closet. You can fill the pockets with travel necessities – toiletries, earphones, sewing kits, etc. When you go to pack just look at the shoe bag and you know where all the items are that you need.

3. Carry a small empty spray mister. Fill it at a water fountain after you are through the security check. Stash it in the bag you put under the seat in front of you. On long flights a quick mist will keep women’s make-up from melting, and for both sexes, will refresh you mightily as well as rehydrate your skin. Carry an empty water bottle as well that you fill at the same time and avoid paying $2 a bottle for water or waiting forever before you get handed a small glass of water by the flight attendant.

4. Also for that bag at your feet, prepare an airplane “comfort bag” for the flight. Eye shades, an inflatable neck pillow, and even a mini bottle of your own favorite liquor transferred from your security check liquid baggie, will help make a long flight more comfortable. Also, if it is a red-eye, ladies, bring a shawl – something pretty, light and warm like a pashmina. It will make a cozy blanket, and add a dressy touch to a simple outfit when you get where you are going.

5. On arrival, put that little spray mister to work again. Hang up your clothes and give them a light misting. They will shed the packing wrinkles as they dry. For longer trips when you still just want to take a carry-on, pack an elastic clothesline (the kind with suction cups and hooks and that eliminates the need for any clothespins), a flat sink stopper and small bottle of concentrated Camp Suds (made by Coleman). Just a capful of the latter is enough to do several garments. It also can be used as body wash and shampoo, works in fresh and salt water! That way you can launder your things at the end of the day in the room without much trouble. These items take up very little room. Even the Camp Suds use little space in that security one quart baggie.

Domesticating the Demon – Rounding the Horn

By Andrea Granahan

Just the name used to strike dread into sailors’ hearts – Cape Horn. It has taken untold lives and terrorized those that made it around the infamous passage.

Richard Henry Dana wrote about his experience in his famous book, Two Years Before the Mast.

“…hurrying upon deck, we found a large black cloud rolling on toward us from the south-west, and blackening the whole heavens.”Here comes Cape Horn!” said the chief mate; and we had hardly time to haul down and clew up, before it was upon us. In a few moments, a heavier sea was raised than I had ever seen before, and as it was directly ahead, the little brig, which was no better than a bathing machine, plunged into it, and all the forward part of her was under water; the sea pouring in …threatening to wash everything overboard.”

On our ship it was just beginning to get light. Stewards appeared on the eleventh story deck with its wrap-around views, wheeling in carts with coffee urns which they set up with trays of pastries for us early risers. Some of us had binoculars, and we sat in the padded chairs we had set our alarms before dawn to claim, staring ahead through the mist.

Suddenly we saw it. That great peak, shaped, oddly enough, like Diamond Head on Oahu Island. But this monster did not preside over tropical waters. This was the dreaded Cape Horn that looms large in sea shanties and sailors’ lore. It is the end of all habitable land at that end of our planet, where the Andes plunge into the sea, where two mighty oceans come together in a titan’s clash.

Cape Horn at the southernmost limit of habitable land.

Magellan tried to find the end of the annoyingly huge continent that stood between the Old World and the Spice Islands in 1520. He never did, but he did discover the Magellan Straits that winds its way through the archipelago at the foot of South America. Even getting that far cost him – of the 237 men that set out on the expedition, only 18 made it safely back to Spain (Magellan wasn’t one of them).

Some of them fell victim to the Williwaws, the wind phenomenon peculiar to those latitudes. Cold air builds up behind steep slopes then suddenly spills over the top of a mountain and falls into the sea at hurricane speeds, like an invisible iceberg, making a temporary dent in the water and a great splash. Woe to any boat that is not securely tied up at both ends below a Williwaw. Williwaws notwithstanding, in later years the straits served and still serve as a safer passage for steamships than the vicious Horn. Of course, now, the Panama Canal provides safer, even pedestrian, passage.

In 1525 another Spanish explorer, Francisco de Hoces,  may or may not have been the first to see the Horn. Sir Frances Drake claimed to have reached the end of land and seen open ocean – the historical jury is still out on it. The story is the dapper, red-bearded privateer climbed up the banks and crawled his way through the gales to reach the end for bragging rights, as he came back and told his men, “I have been the farthest south of any  man yet known .” Historians all have to agree he did make it around South America and enter the Pacific where he ravaged the Spanish towns and treasure ships. The sea passage south of the Horn is still called Drake’s Pass.

But it took the Dutch to really use it for trade purposes and to name it. By the early 1600s the Dutch East India Company had claimed a monopoly on the Straits of Magellan. William Schouten, master of the ship Hoorn, named for his hometown, determined to break the monopoly by bypassing the straits and finding another passage that sailors’ gossip had bragged about since Drake. They called the treacherous point Cape Hoorn, which the English later shortened to Cape Horn.

During California’s Gold Rush, the Horn saw a lot of traffic.  Later, around the turn of the 20th century, large steel square rigged sailing ships were specially constructed for heavy hauling around the Horn. Coal and nitrate were the usual freights.

The last tallship to make the passage was the Pamir in 1949.

The Pamir, a German tallship – the last to sail around the Horn.

Before that in 1905 a square rigged ship, the British Isles, tried for 71 days to get round the Horn before she made it. She was one of the two largest three-masted ships ever built and was made for hauling heavy loads. She was full of coal when she tried to round the Horn. By the time they made it, the vessel was a wreck, four men had died, one lost a leg, and many others had suffered permanent injuries. A young sailor, William Jones, wrote of that terrifying passage in a book called The Cape Horn Breed. That same year the Susanna took 91 days to make the trip. No one recorded what must have been that horrific passage. In that terrible winter of 1905 of the 200 or so ships to leave for the Horn, 55 went missing.

The fastest rounding was accomplished with a windjammer, the Priwall, in five days and fourteen hours in 1938. No one has ever broken that record, although some have tried. Generally it took two weeks or more. Some chatted about the statistics as we drew closer to the landmark.

The Priwall, a windjammer, holds the world speed record for rounding the Horn. It was built by the same company that built the Pamir.

“We are exceedingly fortunate,” a ship’s officer told us over the loudspeaker from the bridge. “We are seeing the smiling face of the Horn today.”

While the skies were gray, the seas were relatively smooth, just long slow swells. There were white caps from the wind, but even though it was kind today, not stirring up mighty waves. I was still glad we were not on a sailing ship. I felt secure on our great, motor driven ship.

“In the next few moments the bow will be in one ocean and the stern will be in another,” said the officer. “However, fortunately we are still joined,” he added chuckling.

There were no trees, but lots of moss and grass covered the promontory. Then came the announcement that because the weather was cooperative, the captain of our ship planned to circumnavigate the Horn so we would see it from all sides before we headed off into the Atlantic.

As we came into the lee side we poured on deck to take photos and gawk at the island. Soon we could see the residence of the Chilean naval officer and his family stationed on what must be one of the loneliest places on earth. The family tends the lighthouse, a weather station, a chapel, and greets any visitors. Small Antarctic expedition boats sometimes stop there. We finally got close enough to see the beautiful memorial the Chileans have erected there.

The stunning Chilean monument to those who died rounding the Horn.

Seven meters high, the metal diamond shape features a cutout figure of an albatross – the traditional spiritual guardian of the souls of sailors drowned at sea. The memorial honors all those who lost their lives rounding the Horn. It was dedicated in 1992. The Chilean poet  Sara Vial from the port of Valparaiso wrote a poem that is carved there. The officer read it to us.

I, the albatross that awaits at the end of the world…
I am the forgotten soul of the sailors lost,
rounding Cape Horn from all the seas of the world.
But die they did not in the fierce waves,
for today towards eternity, in my wings they soar,
in the last crevice of the Antarctic winds.

Everyone grew very quiet as we passed the memorial, our thoughts reaching into the terrible past of the Horn.

These days there is little traffic around the Horn. The occasional cruise ship, such as ours, goes by. Indeed, the biggest attraction to boarding this ship for me, an unapologetic romantic, was a chance to round the Horn. Sometimes Antarctic cruises and expeditions pass, or even stop. Yachts sometimes try it, don’t always make it. There are some insane yacht races to circumnavigate the globe every few years that include rounding the Horn. The albatross cares for the spirits of some of those blue water sailors. Local fishermen are too smart to chance its unpredictable ways.

In the 1980s Argentina’s military government, looking for some conquest to distract their unhappy citizens from the “Dirty War” they were waging against their political opponents, made threatening noises about taking over the Horn. He who controls it, controls the vital air space above it. The Chileans responded by sending their navy and land mining it. So the Argentine dictators turned to the Falklands instead with disastrous results for the country and their government.

Nowadays, things are more peaceful and Argentina has a more benign government. The biggest danger at the Horn island itself is that one of the officer’s children or a visitor might accidentally step on a mine, so they have been fenced off. We could see the fences. The fences are easily removable should Argentine dictators rise again.

In tallship days when sailors rounded the Horn they were entitled to put a small golden ring in their left ears and could put both feet on the mess table as well as sport a tallship tattoo. We were awarded printed certificates. Some ships “baptize” their passengers with a bucket of water from the mixed oceans at the Horn. I was just as glad ours didn’t. Even in summer the Horn is chilly. My ears were pierced already and I had no interest in tattoos. Still I felt strange – as if a part of me had indeed been marked – it had to be in my heart.

At last we were past the Horn and we could see that wave-torn, wind-scarred, brave marker of the seas fade into the mist behind us. We still had almost six degrees of latitude to pass before we reached 50 degrees and had officially rounded the Horn, but as I saw that wild outpost of land vanish in the distance I felt very privileged, like a great milestone had been crossed, and also, I felt as if a part of me had been left behind with the sailors’ albatross – yes, it had to be a piece of my heart.

Quebec City – Europe Without the Euro

By Andrea Granahan

On a snowy day, having worked up an appetite roaming a warren of cobble stoned streets and gazing at seventeenth century buildings clustered under the city walls, I suddenly got a whiff of aromas that made my mouth water.

I followed my nose into a small bistro, Le Lapin Sauté

A fireplace on one wall drew me like a magnet. Low wood beams held bundles of drying herbs. Some old copper pots hung on the wall, others were in use in the kitchen emitting the enticing smells. The place was full of people talking animatedly in French.

I stumbled over my own French but Pierre, my waiter, good-humouredly repeated the specials and translated for me as I pored over the menu. Cassoulet, a classic dish, jumped out at me. Before long I was contentedly washing down the succulent meal with some red wine.

C’est bonne?” Pierre asked. I gave him a thumbs-up sign and he laughed.

Paris? No, I was in Quebec City, North America’s answer to Paris.

Many Americans still tend to think of Quebec in terms of its French fur trapper history, envisioning wooden palisades in the wilderness. While Quebec is proud of that part of her history, and an edgy touch of the wilderness still permeates the sophistication, this is a city that has been civilizing itself since the early 1600s.

For proof of just how sophisticated this city has become you need look no farther than the magnificent Chateau Frontenac. This hotel, in the grand Canadian style of the hotels at Banff and Lake Louise, towers over the city walls and dominates the skyline.

The five star institution boasts Chef Jean Soulard who has won France’s highest award, “Maitre Cuisinier de France” hosts a television cooking show and gives cooking lessons at the hotel. In homage to Quebec’s wilderness tradition he includes wild game on his menu.

Also in keeping with the wild history, the hotel has a ghost who haunts the hotel. The lady had such a lovely time over a hundred years ago when she visited the chateau she has never left. An actress playing the part to the hilt frequently entertains the guests.

She was not the only lady to grace the city. In fact, in the1660s,  King Louis XIV of France , delighted with the furs coming from his new outpost, decided it should become a permanent settlement. To do that, the trappers needed wives.

So King Louis rounded up young women orphans from the convents of France. Rumor has it that a  few ladies of the night were included for instructional purposes. Called “Les Filles du Roi” The King’s Daughters, they all sailed over, 700 in one ship alone, and were greeted by hordes of happy trappers.

Their mission was to copulate and populate Quebec, one they accomplished with vigor. The average number of children per family until 30 years ago was between 13 and 16. Finally, at that time the daughters of those huge families realized they had a choice and it was “NO!”.

Instead of dealing with so many children they don’t know what to do, Quebec is now facing an aging population, an altogether new problem.

The British, eventually disturbed the peace of France’s colony by invading it. As the Quebecois defended the front at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers, the redcoats came in the back way marching across a field owned by a farmer named Abraham in 1759. Today Abraham’s Plain is the site of the annual Winter Carnaval.

One of the gates to Quebec City.

The Brits allowed the French to keep their language and religion (something they didn’t do for their own Catholic countrymen at home). Luckily the French also kept their cooking skills.

While the rest of Canada may survive on marmite sandwiches, and under-seasoned sausage, in Quebec even the fussiest gourmet would have to work hard to find something to complain about, and one doesn’t have to frequent the Chateau to find fine cooking. Small bistros pepper the city (no pun intended). They import their wine but do make their own ice wine, a real delicacy.  The one possible exception to the excellent food might arguably be poutine. It was the French fur trapper’s answer to fast food. It is French fries topped with fried cheese curds and glued all together with gravy. Poutine is a great source of amusement in Quebec cartoons. It sits in the stomach like a brick – you can eat once to hold you over for a week of chopping wood in the snow.

Quebec makes the most of what it has and in the winter she plays with the cold. The commuter ferry crossing the St. Lawrence is swapped out for an icebreaker. Before the icebreakers were purchased the Quebecois cleverly built temporary winter bridges of ice to cross the river. Many restaurants construct “ice bars” outside, illuminated at night with fiber optic lighting, and they even build their famous Ice Hotel. Now that’s something even Paris doesn’t have.

The European feel of the city is especially evident behind the high walls the British built to keep us Americans from invading. These days we invade with dollars instead of bayonets. Pierced by two gates that had to be widened in the 1950s to accommodate motorized traffic, they surround a wonderful maze of streets that make up the Vieux Quebec, old town, of the city.

Artists, craftsmen and artisans joined forces to preserve and protect the colorful heart of the old town called Quartier Petit Champlain. The shopping opportunities get visitors drooling and spending.

Entertainment is also big in Quebec and it has given the world such phenomena as the Cirque de Soliel and Celine Dion. During Carnaval traditional Arcadian (translate that as Cajun) music from the backwoods days is popular and fur coated people wearing the traditional arrowhead patterned woven sash lead street dances in the old town.

Dresssed in tradityional trapper garb for the Carnaval.

Everyone speaks French, but anywhere near Quebec City they also speak English. The Separatist Movement had its heyday and got rules passed requiring all signs to have the English 50 percent smaller than the French. But when it came to a vote, the Quebecois voted to stay with Canada, so it just seems like another country, and no one has a chip on his or her shoulder about the language. The money is definitely Canadian and our dollar goes a lot farther in Quebec than it does in Euro based France.

They are a fun loving people who welcome visitors and, hey, there’s no doggie poo problem like in Paris. It’s not only closer, it’s a lot cleaner.