Thursday, February 25, 2010

British Columbia: Beyond the Olympics - A Birthday Journey

Alex Trebek and Wayne Gretsky, Leonard Cohen and Celine Dion, Maple Syrup and Poutine, even Lord Stanley’s Cup and The Zipper – All are famous (or should be famous) exports from Canada. Canada is much maligned and maliciously mined as a source of snappy and not-so-snappy one-liners (often by its own talented and satiric native sons):

“A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoe.” - Pierre Burton

“Canada is a country so square that even the female impersonators are women.” – Richard Benner

"An optimist in Canada is someone who thinks things could be worse." – Preston Manning

“Very little is known of the Canadian country since it is rarely visited by anyone but the Queen and illiterate sport fishermen.” - P. J. O'Rourke

Even the Prime Minister could not resist saying, “Canada is a country whose main exports are hockey players and cold fronts. Our main imports are baseball players and acid rain.” - Pierre E. Trudeau

(I must digress and observe that one of the best such quotes is really a testament to American education – when Britney Spears was asked what was the best part of being famous, she allegedly replied, "I get to go to lots of overseas places, like Canada.”)

Despite the many jokes aimed our Great Northern Neighbor, I have long maintained that Canada is one of the most under-visited vacation destinations available to the American traveler. As we watch the (some would say interminable) television coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, I am reminded of our own wonderful visit to British Columbia almost one year ago.

The occasion of our visit was the celebration of my significant birthday. My husband and I together with our closest friends have an established tradition of taking a “big trip” when one of us celebrates a Significant Birthday (those ending in “0” or in “5”). This practice has enabled us to enjoy several cruises and relaxing tropical vacations together. If the truth be told, we were, in fact, settling into a rut of balmy indolence – endless rounds of pina coladas and rum punches sipped on soft sandy beaches while listening to the pleasant susurration of the surf upon the shore.

When confronted with the approach of a Significantly Significant Birthday of my own (a serious Birthday ending with a “0”), I was determined to shake things up a bit. For many years I had nursed a secret desire to stay in mid-winter at the Wickaninnish Inn, in Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Tofino is a justly popular summer destination with a wealth of activities to enjoy. Virgin stands of timber, long and broad sandy beaches, hot springs, migrating whales, a wealth of bird- and other wildlife (both migratory and resident), a burgeoning community of artists, and a rich cultural heritage all help make Tofino an amazing vacation spot.

Less well known, perhaps, is Tofino’s soul-stirring winter allure. Winter in Tofino is magnificent (or so they say). Powerful winter storms are born off the coast of Japan. Unimpeded by any land masses or other obstructions, they roll across the vast and cold Pacific, gathering strength and power until they land with a ferocious punch on the western coast of Vancouver Island at Tofino. It is a profound display of Nature in all its feral majesty!

So powerful are these storms that one website admonishes would-be winter visitors “. . . take care if you are on a bluff overlooking the ocean not to get close the edge - rogue waves can rear up and grab you.”

EUREKA & GADZOOKS! What better way to usher in the next chapter of my life, I thought. I envisioned myself standing, like some swaddled and aging Winged Victory, on the windswept Pacific shore, with the wind whipping around me as I savored and reveled in the crackling ozone of the oncoming winter storm. After communing thusly with the elements, I would retreat with those nearest and dearest to me to the sophisticated warmth and comfort of the Inn where we would enjoy a sumptuous, celebratory repast.

We would frame this experience, as a diamond in a tiara, with visits to the somewhat less dramatic but no less wonderful British Columbia destinations of Vancouver and Victoria, each with its own charms and attractions.

I was more than willing to put up with the expected raw and wet winter weather of the Pacific Northwest in exchange for my eagerly anticipated wild Storm Season experience in Tofino. I even convinced my traveling companions to indulge my lunacy. (I did have to listen to more than a little whining about hats, gloves, thermal underwear and similar cold weather garb – a small price to pay for magnificent, primal invigoration and rejuvenation!)

I bragged to anyone who would listen about the great adventure on which we were about to embark. I veritably quivered with excitement as I described what it must be like to be immersed in an epic winter storm. I even knitted hats for all of us who would bravely sally forth into the frozen North.

I did not anticipate, not in my wildest dreams or worst nightmares, that we would be blessed (cursed?) with unseasonably warm and delightful weather. My photo journal of this adventure bears silent testimony to the truth of what I write. Please visit it at and see for yourself.

I cannot really complain, as I had a truly wonderful Birthday trip with loved ones. In the grand tradition of citrus beverages (making lemonade when life hands you lemons), I can even parlay this into a return trip. While I am unlikely to sell storm season again (that will likely have to be a solo venture), Vancouver and its Island would link up nicely with an Alaska cruise.

And for those who criticize and complain about all manner of things at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, I remind them that Baron Pierre de Coubertin said “The important thing in life is not victory but combat; it is not to have vanquished but to have fought well.”

That is, I think, a goal to which we all should aspire.


POUTINE - One of the truly great Canadian experiences that did not escape me was the chance to eat that classic Canadian delicacy, poutine. Poutine is a dish (popular among cardiologists) consisting of French fries topped with fresh cheese curd and covered with brown gravy. It has achieved cult status and gentrified versions can now be found at such formal events as corporate cocktail parties and wedding receptions. Gourmet variations incorporate such ingredients as braised beef, poached pears and sweet potatoes. Such versions are often served in martini glasses or tumblers. Aided by a little bit of local wine or Canadian whiskey, one can see poutine as a metaphor for present-day Canada itself.

THE ITINERARY - This itinerary is a "classic". Like Coco Chanel's little black dress, it lends itself to variation and adaptation. The basic itinerary can be "dressed up" for families who will travel with children, "dressed down" for active vacationers who want to pursue adventurous and even somewhat dangerous activities, or just "accessorized" to suit your own particular moods and tastes.

Although winter storms cannot be guaranteed (much to my own chagrin), I would love to help you realize your own Canadian dreams.

Monday, February 15, 2010

South Africa: The Beginning of the Beginning

"LET THE WILD RUMPUS BEGIN" - Inspired by the words of Maurice Sendak, I welcome you to INSIGHTS & IMAGES: Travels with Doreen. After over 20 years in the travel industry and even more years as an avid photographer, I decided to go public to share my adventures and my love of travel. Many times my clients have told me that travel experiences I arranged for them were "life changing". Until recently, I did not have a visceral understanding of what they meant. Now that I have had my own epiphany, I am writing this blog with the hope that looking at my photos and reading my impressions will cause you to want to pack your bags and expand your own horizons. I am ready to help you live your dreams. Even if you never leave your armchair in front of the fireplace, I hope that reading my words and viewing my photographs will enhance the way you experience the world.

The impetus for this blog, my great electronic adventure, was my own visit to South Africa in August/September 2009. When I returned from this trip (with over 2500 digital photos to organize) I started to create an online album to show to friends and clients. I soon wanted to have something more than just photos to share, and the project quickly grew into a way for me to display the images and, perhaps more important, to recapture the thoughts and impressions sparked by my experiences in Africa. I invite you to visit the resulting photo journal (don’t worry – I winnowed those 2500 photos down to a manageable 713) at . It is the visual blog that set my feet upon this current path. I warn you in advance that it is long and has some adult content (we were there during the mating season for lions and leopards). The photos look best in full screen slide show, but you have to be a speed-reader to catch all the text in that mode. Settle in with the beverage and snack of your choice and embark on your vicarious adventure (it beats cleaning closets on a cold winter day). I hope that you will be inspired to undertake your own journeys of exploration.