Bahamas bound: life on the island beyond swimming with the pigs

It’s my first day in Grand Bahama — the northernmost island of the Bahamas archipelago — and I’m already ignoring the age-old advice not to be lured into a complete stranger’s house.

Tempted by the promise of a home-cooked meal, I’m here to meet Colette Williams, a host with the Bahamas’ Ministry of Tourism’s People-to-People program, which is all about pairing travellers with a local ambassador for an authentic Bahamian experience. 

“I think that’s what I was made to do — just to welcome people to our sun, sand and sea,” said Williams, who has been a host with the program for 19 years.

“I love people. I feel that if I can make one person have a memorable experience of the Bahamas, I would not have lived in vain, so my goal is to make sure everyone has a memorable experience of my home and to share the authentic experience of Grand Bahamian hospitality.”

Colette Williams

Bringing authenticity back

In her backyard, Williams proceeds to set up an elaborate spread of stewed chicken, steamed fish, peas and rice, warm potato salad, baked macaroni and cheese and homemade iced tea. Today’s batch is infused with hibiscus. A yellow tablecloth spread across the dining table echoing the words Bahamas matches her blue dress, which also has the words Bahamas printed all over it. 

Williams, who formerly worked in the hotel industry, said tourists rarely get a chance to see how Bahamians live.

“You can drive around the tourist route and never even see a house,” she said, noting that she enjoys sharing authentic Bahamian dishes with visitors. “When you get food in a hotel, it isn’t as authentic as home cooking. There’s no cooking like home cooking. You put a face to the food, there’s a story behind it.”

The immersive program pairs interested travellers with locally-vetted ambassadors who are matched based on various interests.

“It’s a program that’s been in place for more than 40 years,” Latia Duncombe, Director General of The Bahamas Ministry of Tourism, Investments & Aviation, told Offshore. “It’s a day in the life of a Bahamian. You’re moving away from the commercial, touristic components and you’re getting immersed into culture — whatever the local does is what the visitor does. It is true culture; it’s who we are as a people. It’s being prepared to share that authentic element of being a Bahamian, something you can’t find anywhere else in the world.”

Connecting with locals

Thirteen kilometres off the shore of Grand Bahama, I’ve connected with another Bahamian resident who is just as passionate about the destination and sharing his knowledge.

Although the Bahamas is known around the world as the place where tourists can come to swim with pigs, I’m here for a different kind of wild encounter — to meet the man known as the pied piper of stingrays.

From the moment Keith Cooper of West End Ecology Tours steps off the boat at Sandy Cay, a dozen stingrays with names like Stubby, Hard Wire, Lunatic, Scratch, Big Momma and Little Momma, instinctively swarm him.

Keith Cooper

“They’re touching my leg with their sensors because they know who I am, they remember who I am and because of the special bond I have with them. They trust me as much as I trust them,” he said, adding that stingrays often get a bad rep for being dangerous. “More than 9,000 visitors have participated in the Stingray Experience Tour and no one has ever been stung by a stingray… when the protocols are followed, guests will have one of the most unique encounters with marine life they have ever experienced.”

Before launching West End Ecology Tours, Cooper stumbled upon the stingrays by accident during a fishing expedition in 2006. “During the stopover, I discarded unused fishing bait over the side of the boat and within minutes the boat was surrounded by 15 stingrays feeding off the bottom of the shallow water where the boat was anchored at the beach,” he explained.

Since then, he’s returned to the spot to study the stingrays. In 2009, Cooper turned it into a business that now offers multiple tours, including snorkelling trips to underwater boat wrecks and reef fishing experiences. The Stingray Experience Tour remains his best-selling excursion.

According to Cooper, stingrays can display sentient behaviour and will show off their unique personalities. “There are two alpha female stingrays that dominate the fever. Big Momma is the most dominant member of the group and often displays her displeasure when too many rays come near me during the introduction and demonstration phase of the tour,” he said, noting she’ll use a decoy tactic to draw the other stingrays away so that she can consume the fish provided during the demonstration phase.

Another stingray, Hugger, got its name from the “hugs” she gives Cooper upon approach. “Guests watching from the boat are awestruck when they observe Hugger sitting in my lap, waiting patiently to receive a fish,” he said.

It’s Junkanoo time 

On Nassau, New Providence, where major resorts like Atlantis, Goldwynn Resort & Residences, Sandals Royal Bahamian and Baha Mar are located, Arlene Nash Ferguson has made it her life’s mission to showcase the longstanding Bahamian celebration known as Junkanoo. 

Based in her childhood home, the Educulture Junkanoo Museum is lined with colourful displays and costumes displaying the evolution of the cultural affair. A former British colony from 1629 to 1973, in the Bahamas, Junkanoo began roughly 200 years ago, when members of the African diaspora, including enslaved Bahamians, were granted three days to observe Christmas.

Arlene Nash Ferguson

“They said, ‘let’s use these precious three days to recreate our festivals from home. It’s time to renew the spirit and just in case anybody tries to stop us, we will wait until the night and off we go,’” said Nash Ferguson, who has been taking part in Junkanoo since she was four years old. 

Although the residents of the time were mixed by culture, she said the festivals wound up sharing several things in common, including instruments like goatskin drums, bells and elaborate costumes. “When you covered your face, it symbolized the presence of our ancestors,” Nash Ferguson said. “In these isolated islands, leaves, feathers, shells, seaweed, anything Indigenous becomes your decoration.”

Nash Ferguson shared that costumes continue to be made from paper as an original sign of defiance because in the time of slavery on the islands “by law people were not permitted to learn to read and write.” More than just a tradition, she said Bahamians are passionate about Junkanoo and work on their costumes all year long in their spare time once the theme for the following year’s festival is announced. Typically, the costumes are made using a cardboard base that’s covered in layers of tissue paper and often include elaborate headpieces.

“Two hundred years ago in the dark of the night at Christmas time, Bahamians said ‘Man, we survived, let’s celebrate life’ and they told their children never to forget,” she explained. “And ladies and gentlemen, right up to Christmas gone, we who are their children, we continue to do it. Today, we call it the Junkanoo festival — at 10 o’clock Christmas night we shut down Bay Street, hit the road dancing, still to the music of drums and bells.” 

After outfitting my small group of travel companions with cowbells, whistles and drums, Nash Ferguson led us into a practice run of a Junkanoo simulation.  

“The costumes are magnificent; we have worked months on them and we can’t wait to get out there to show them off. We’re going to out music and out dance every other group because we are going to win,” she said, before blowing her whistle loudly. “Line up, everybody ready? Who we is? Junkanoo! Bark like a dog. Woof, woof.”

The end result is a far cry from the organized rhythm of an actual parade, but we give it our all, joining in with off-beat drumming and what could only be described as tone deaf whistling. What we lack in musical ability, we make up in spirit and effort.


This story first appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of OFFSHORE. To read the full version, click here.

Island hopping in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

It’s breakfast time at Young Island Resort, a 13-acre private island just offshore of St. Vincent, and I’ve requested one of the house specialties: Creole French toast on homemade cinnamon bread. 

“What we are using is our very famous rum — the St. Vincent strong rum — and it’s very lethal,” my server Donovan says with a smile as he pours the rum over the coconut shavings topping the French toast, lights a match, holds it close to the bread and stands on watch as the rum bursts into flames. “Voila!” To extinguish the fire, I drench the plate with a healthy pour of maple syrup. I then proceed to cut into it with anticipation. Beachside breakfast is served! 

When it comes to the French toast at Young Island Resort, guests have plenty of options. While the homemade bread is a house specialty, they can opt for other breads, too, including homemade coconut bread or banana bread. “We’re known for our bread,” adds general manager, Bianca Porter. “When I’m on the road guests will tell me, ‘we always remember the bread!’”

As I found out, the Sunset Very Strong Rum used in the French toast is an overproof 84.5% alc/vol white rum which can only be consumed in destination as 70% ABV is the legal limit before it’s considered a flammable flight risk. Perhaps this is where Johnny Depp drew inspiration for the rum-loving pirate he played, Captain Jack Sparrow, in Pirates of the Caribbean—Young Island Resort, with its 29 unique beach and hillside cottages, actually housed the cast of the film. 

Keeping out the Kardashians

At Petit St. Vincent, a 115-acre private island resort on the southern tip of the Grenadines, room service runs a little bit differently than at your standard Caribbean resorts. Instead of dialing down to the desk for my order, I take a menu form from my bedroom, fill it out and place the sheet of paper in the wooden mailbox slot at the end of the driveway to my secluded villa. Then, to signal the attention of the staff, I raise up the small yellow flag before heading back inside. 

The next day at exactly the requested time of 8 a.m., one of the resort’s butlers rings the bell outside of my villa and sets up the eggs benedict feast on the private cliffside balcony. Each comes complete with a hammock, stocked mini bar and a jar of homemade cookies.

Butler service is included at Petit St. Vincent for no additional charge. There are 22 one-and-two bedroom cottages, each equipped with one red and one yellow flag, which communicate various service requests to staff.

“Red, when that’s raised up to the top, it means do not disturb; nobody comes to the cottage. The yellow flag is used for anything else, — breakfast, lunch and dinner — if you run out of wine again and want some more wine, and it can go up as many times during the day as you like,” explains Petit St. Vincent’s general manager, Matt Semark, who added that the system is also set up to deliver lunch at the various beach areas around the island. 

Sand and sun

Naturally, I also test the effectiveness of this process during a leisurely afternoon soaking up the sun on a secluded stretch of beach. Shortly after filling out our lunch order, two servers approached my group’s chaises. They’re carrying our meals, along with a bottle of sauvignon blanc in a wine chiller and our ice cream preserved in chilled containers so it doesn’t melt by the time we get to dessert.

“The really cool thing about the Grenadines and St. Vincent is that we’re all very different in style. We all offer slightly different experiences,” Semark notes. “For us, it’s more about privacy, seclusion, space and hiding away. It’s a very personalized experience. We have a very long average length of stay and we have a 63 per cent return rate annually.”

Although the private island resort with 22 cottages appeals to celebrities like Ed Sheeran — who has posted about staying there so he’s allowed to talk about it — Semark explains that they’re very discreet about their clientele and provide top-notch service in an understated way.

“We’ve turned the Kardashians away five times. We want to stay low key,” he says. “We’re an unpretentious luxury.”

The Caribbean you’re looking for 

 Described as a throwback to the Caribbean before mass tourism, the destination is the antithesis to other Caribbean countries pushing to grow their visitor arrivals. 

From the purposeful lack of TVs in many hotel rooms across the destination, to an eye-catching ‘anti-chain’ food vendor with the words Bequia Pizza Hut hand painted across the front, the charm of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is its authentic old world Caribbean vibe. 

“Our tagline is the Caribbean you’re looking for… we like to think of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as the Caribbean that’s completely untouched and unspoiled, with character and charm,” says Glenn Beache, CEO of the St. Vincent and The Grenadines Tourism Authority. “We’re not a mass tourism destination nor do we want to be. We want to maintain what makes us special.”

Made up of 32 islands and cays, the destination features diverse islands like Young Island, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent — as well as The Tobago Cays, a horseshoe shaped reef with five deserted islets.

“We like to keep it hidden. It’s a place we like to keep secret. We don’t talk about it too much,” explains Batu Erem, the general manager for Soho Beach House Canouan, which opened in 2021. “What we like to tailor, what we like to share is that this is your rustic, rugged Robin Crusoe-y type of experience that you’re not going to get in the Northern Leeward islands but it still exists here. It’s casual wellness. This is the place that you come to unplug, this is the place where you come to rejuvenate. There’s no TV in the rooms. This is that little haven and that’s why we like to keep it a secret. It’s like being back in time in the old Caribbean, and that’s what we try to preserve here.”

Soho Beach House Canouan is the only Caribbean outpost for Soho House, which typically operates on a membership-only basis. However, this boutique 40-bedroom property on Grand Bay Beach is open to non-member bookings as well. One of the perks of a stay here is that guests get to keep the travel sized skincare products in each room.

Similarly, at the largest of the Grenadine islands, Bequia Beach Hotel’s general manager Elisabeth Alleyne says she’s often rejected when asking guests for an online review to spread the word about the hotel. 

“I asked a guest to give us a TripAdvisor review and they said ‘No. I don’t want people to find out about it,’” she says. “We want customers to come here and see the genuine part, that it can be a little rustic, we need to keep that. I think it’s the way the whole country is built – that it’s still very genuine. It’s more about the people than the flashy industry.”

The family-owned property is yet another that doesn’t have TVs in the room so that guests are focused on connecting with each other and the destination. 

“Each island has its own charm; it’s a different vibe wherever you go,” sums up Marlon Joseph, hospitality officer, SVGTA. “But it’s all chill.”

This story first appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of OFFSHORE. For the full version, click here to read the digital magazine. 

Here are some of the best things I did on an eight-day trip to Israel

Of all the things I envisioned doing in Israel – from floating in the Dead Sea to visiting the historic Western Wall – one thing I didn’t remotely anticipate was to wind up defacing public property.

Yet here I am, feeling like a rebel, with a can of light pink spray paint in my right hand in the back streets of Tel Aviv – in broad daylight to boot. 

Let me rewind a bit. This wasn’t my idea. It all started innocently enough under the guise of a graffiti tour through the artsy Florentin neighbourhood. After seeing some impressive pieces and learning about different types of street art such as site-specific murals that incorporate structural elements of a building, like an exterior cable or a pipe into the design, our tour guide and Tel Aviv-based musician, Maor Abitbul, opened his backpack and proceeded to pass out cans of spray paint. “Now it’s your turn,” he says. 

One by one, everyone on the tour quite literally started leaving their mark on Tel Aviv. Suddenly, our amateur creative process was interrupted by a family who had witnessed our mischief. But rather than stopping us, they asked to borrow a can of spray paint and we watched on as their young daughter stepped up to the wall to continue our masterpiece. 

In all honesty, it was a practice wall for artists so no damage or vandalism was done, but looking back on it now, it’s one of the experiences that made my first visit to the country so memorable.

New charm in the Old City

In a destination where old meets new, iconic religious sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre —the site where Jesus was said to have been resurrected — are steps away from vibrant markets and lively restaurants. 

The Machane Yehuda Market, also known as “The Shuk,” truly comes alive at night. During the day some 250 vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, spices and a variety of street food and desserts, but at night it’s a hotspot to hangout. Craft beer fans will want to visit the Beer Bazaar, which offers more than 100 types of Israeli beer.

Right next door is a trendy spot called Thinkers Distillery, which is known for its vodka.

Michael Ginosar, vice president of business development for Thinkers Distillery, says the idea behind Thinkers is to build on Israel’s reputation as a start-up nation and take advantage of advances in science, technology, chemistry and physics to take spirits to the next level. “We incorporate all that into the production process with the goal of making the best possible spirits,” he says. “The aim of this whole company is to make the best possible spirits and start exporting them all over the world.”

Today, Thinkers Distillery has a visitor’s centre that’s open for tasting sessions as well as distillery tours. Although they have big ambitions, he says there aren’t many others in their industry in Israel. “Israel has a lot of wineries — and it’s a good place to grow grapes. There are excellent wines coming out of Israel,” he adds. “There’s a brewing industry that’s really grown in the past 10-15 years, you’re seeing a lot of craft breweries, but for spirits, it’s still a really, really small industry.”

Wine tourism is another area that continues to expand in Israel.

Over the last two decades, Israel’s wine scene has grown tremendously from a handful of producers to more than “300 boutique wineries,” notes Nevo Winery’s general manager Lior Perl. The winery, which has indoor and outdoor tasting rooms, is located in the Judean Hills, about a half hour from Jerusalem. 

Set on the premises of what was previously a kindergarten, she says Nevo Winery has the distinguishing feature of having a wine cellar that’s located in a former bomb shelter. “We produce about 20,000 bottles a year, on a regular year,” Perl explains ahead of a tasting. 

Where to stay in Israel

Dan Tel Aviv Hotel

Want to follow in the footsteps of Justin Bieber, Anthony Kiedis, 50 Cent, and Keith Richards? The main entryway to Dan Tel Aviv Hotel is lined with autographs from the celebrities who have previously stayed at the five-star property.

The hotel is situated directly across from the main beach with unforgettable sea views to catch the sunset. One of the aspects that sets it apart is its lavish breakfast spread. We’re talking shakshuka, smoked salmon, fruit, freshly baked goods and even multiple kinds of cheesecake! 

The Magdala Hotel

For a one-of-a-kind experience, The Magdala Hotel at the shores of the Sea of Galilee is built around an archeological site.

The boutique hotel actually has fewer rooms than were initially planned because ruins were discovered from the first century town of Magdala in the building process. Known as the crossroads of Jewish and Christian history and the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, Magdala Hotel is home to The Magdala Stone and a first century synagogue.

To make it even more unique, there’s an original first century fountain in the lobby of the hotel. 

These are some of the best things to do at Fiji’s Nanuku Resort

After learning I’m the only one who turned up to the studio for morning yoga, instructor Sisilia Cece Nasiga asks if I’d rather do the session in the great outdoors. “Yes!” I exclaim without hesitation — I’m only here for a short time so why be indoors when I could be staring out at the natural beauty of Fiji. 

A few minutes later, the former Olympian, and Commonwealth and Pacific Games medalist is leading me through peaceful stretches and meditation exercises overlooking the scenic coast of the 500-acre Nanuku Resort.  

Feel at home

From the chanting warriors who greeted me upon arrival to the personalized message in stones at the bottom of my private plunge pool arranged to say “Bula Ann,” the team at the luxury retreat on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu is all about making guests feel at home. Here, Bula extends beyond the Fijian greeting for hello and welcome to a sense of belonging. 

Back in my one bedroom villa, I’m faced with my next challenge — deciding between two tempting options — will it be the indoor or the outdoor shower today? Naturally, I keep the trend going and freshen up in the sun surrounded by lush green foliage. This is the life. 

Island oasis 

The next morning, dolphins are jumping out of the water and flipping up in the air before submerging again next to our speedboat, as if to be escorting us on our journey. 

We’re travelling from Nanuku Resort, to another piece of paradise, the nearby uninhabited island of Nanuku, the inspiration behind the resort’s name. 

This lush tropical island is an idyllic day escape for guests offering hammocks in the sand and unbelievable snorkelling and swimming. It’s also possible to spend the night camping under the stars. After a picnic in the sand, I walk around the entire island feeling like I’m living in a postcard. 

You’ve had cava… but have you heard of kava? 

Over breakfast one morning, where my cappuccino is served with my name in the foam, I overhear some guests talking about how they stayed up late over a bowl of cava. In my mind I’m picturing a group of ladies drinking out of a punch bowl with multiple bottles of sparkling wine emptied into it but I’m completely wrong. 

I’m informed that in Fiji it’s all about kava, not cava, an earthy-tasting drink that plays an important role in Fijian culture. It’s customary to sit around a large bowl with a village leader and socially drink kava, which is prepared from the pounded root of a pepper plant species. 

The first chance I get, I try the drink for myself, and it provides a numbing sensation on my tongue. It’s just one of the many immersive experiences that makes my stay memorable from learning how to husk and scrape a coconut, to trying my hand at cooking a meal in bamboo shoots and witnessing a special fire walking ceremony. Another highlight is trying a local delicacy called kokoda, essentially Fijian ceviche with spiced coconut milk.

When departure day arrives too soon, I’m sad to leave, but I’m already devising a plan to come back as the entire staff at the property gathers to sing and see us off as we climb into the bus. 

Getting there: Fiji’s national carrier, Fiji Airways, is gearing up to launch twice-weekly flights from Canada this month. The new nonstop service between Nadi and Vancouver will start on November 25 with the two-cabin class Airbus A330-200 aircraft. Along with operational efficiency and having meals served in biodegradable containers, Fiji Airways is also offsetting its carbon footprint with the ‘A Tree For Every Take Off’ initiative. The airline has planted 55,000 mangroves to date and is targeting another 50,000 over the course of this year. Fiji Airways also offers day trips where customers can plant mangroves to offset their carbon footprint.

Day tripping: Picture a floating thatched bar in the middle of the most serene waters in the Mamanuca Islands, and you’ll find Seventh Heaven. The ultimate day trip is located 45 minutes by boat from Port Denarau, which is in close proximity to Nadi International Airport. The overwater lounge has a bar and restaurant, water activities like snorkelling and stand up paddleboards, and loads of loungers on a two level deck. If you dare, you can jump off the Leap of Faith, a five metre high lookout from the top deck. For those seeking an Instagram-worthy shot, you won’t be able to stop taking pictures!  

What’s in your cup? 

Drink up a local enterprise that’s making a difference on the ground in Fiji

The founding values behind Bula Coffee — a coffee production company in Fiji — extend far beyond providing a good cup of morning joe. As Luke Fryett, whose job title cleverly reads ‘Man on the Ground,’ explains, while giving the world a great shot of coffee, Bula Coffee is “all about giving Fijians a better shot at life.”

What started out over a decade ago as a small enterprise working with one family in one village in Fiji has since expanded across 38 villages and buying coffee off 5,000 people annually — providing a significant number of Fijians with additional sources of revenue.   

“It’s more than money — we exist to give people a hand up — to give people a better shot at life,” he said. “To give people access to education, to give them financial independence. Money matters, but it’s more than money. We are changing lives one cup at a time.”

More recently, Bula Coffee launched the Crop to Cup Coffee Tour, giving travellers “the chance to not only taste Fiji’s wild harvest coffee and see how we process it, but also the chance to become a part of our story, becoming invested in our work and becoming part of the change we are making in Fiji.”

Along with learning about how to get a coffee cherry ready for a morning brew, visitors can learn about how every cup of coffee makes a difference in the local economy. One example of how getting involved in the coffee business has made a positive impact is in a local community where kids would get to their boarding school by floating down the river in a tire — often getting soaked in the process. 

“They used their coffee money to buy every kid in the village a waterproof bag, and a small cooker, so now the older kids can cook for the younger kids, during the week,” he said. “They also built a much better raft with tires all around it secured properly so the kids can keep dry… This is why money matters, but it’s more than money. It’s about empowering communities to keep their kids safe, to keep them dry, to let them have food during the week. Allowing the kids to focus better at school because they aren’t hungry, aren’t worried about their wet clothes. This is why every cup counts.


STORY BY: ANN RUPPENSTEIN


These are some of the best things you’ll see on a scenic drive through Ireland’s Ring of Kerry

Coming off a red-eye flight out of Toronto, my partner and I landed in Dublin, Ireland at 6 a.m., and just as quickly as we arrived, we left in a rental car headed straight to Killarney, County Kerry.

Two weeks fresh off the tailend of St. Paddy’s Day celebrations, it’s not that the electric energy that flooded Ireland’s capital city didn’t interest uswe had plans to end our journey there. But springtime in Ireland, I’d heard, was one of the best times to truly see the country in all its glory, where newborn lambs, still a bit wobbly and getting used to their legs, tumbled around some of the greenest pastures and meadows known to exist.

The next morning, after a hearty Irish breakfast of fried eggs with orange-coloured yolks, pan-seared sausage links, baked beans and freshly-sliced tomatoes prepared by our charming hosts, Donal and Ann, who own the family-run Kingfisher Lodge, we hit the road to conquer one of Ireland’s most famous scenic drives— the Ring of Kerry. Spanning roughly 179 kilometres across rugged terrain that includes brooding bogs, rocky hillsides and ancient valleys, the circuit takes about three-and-a-half hours to complete, for those who refuse to stop. “So many people head this way first,” Ann said, pointing northeast on a map at the reception desk. “But if you start this way, you’ll thank me, I promise.” Taking her advice, we took the long way out.

Thousands of years ago, Irish folklore conjured up tales of woodland nymphs, playful sprites and tiny fairies with supernatural powers, and as we took the lonely, winding roads flanked by mossy trees, and an unsettling fog crept in, it was enough to make you accept the make-believe.

Of rocks and ruins

Driving west on the N70, one of the first sites we came to was the Ballycarbery Castle ruins. Found just on the outskirts of the small town, Cahersiveen, Ballycarbery Castle was built in the early sixteenth century and once housed one of Ireland’s oldest clans, the McCarthy’s. Since 1398, the castle has stood on a hill facing the sea, and while it is now closed for public access, visitors can still marvel at it from a distance. Despite the damp and the rain, the structure still resembles a nearly-complete castle, with enchanting vines that have climbed through the medieval stone windows and doorways.

Minutes away, we discovered yet another primordial wonder. Walking through a grassy pasture, we approached the sixth-century Cahergall Stone Fort. At first glance, it was reminiscent of a snow fort’s bricks, where long ago, a group of people undertook the painstaking process of intricately weaving and stacking stones one on top of the other, to reach a height of roughly six metres.

Entering the fort, I saw another large stone circle with two separate entrance ways. Also called ring forts, these old Irish stone forts are some of the earliest and best-preserved examples of protective stone forts to be found in County Kerry. Outside the fort’s walls, a vicious wind from the nearby North Atlantic whipped and whistled, but inside was absolutely quiet.

A set of stacking stone steps have been carved into the fort’s walls, allowing for transportation all along the interior walls. Three miles west of the town Sneem, we also came across the Staigue Stone Fort. With a similar exterior, this ring fort is presumed to have been built in the late Iron Age (between 300 and 400 AD). According to the Irish tourism board, it’s said that nearly 50,000 of these stone forts were built over the centuries as a means of agricultural support, defence and sometimes, simply a display of good fortune.

Parks and peaks

Halfway through our journey, we looped back east and headed for Killarney National Park, but not before making a stop at Moll’s Gap. Damp from the rain and ravenous from all of the walking and fresh air, earlier, we’d stopped for a quick bite to eat in Cahersiveen. While polishing off our last drops of Guinness, an older man, who was certainly a regular at the pub, had overheard our plans and insisted we make the stop. One of the most popular tourist attractions on this side of the Ring of Kerry, Moll’s Gap is a mountain pass that offers sweeping views of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks mountains. The natural phenomenon was formed more than 25,000 years ago during Ireland’s final ice age. Staring out at the view, I was glad we’d taken the old man’s advice, who was one of many people on the trip who were so quick to help or offer friendly suggestions.

Killarney National Park was the final stop on our list on a drive that was becoming longer by the minute, because all around us, something was begging to be photographed. Trees with twisted trunks and branches looming over the roads; a red fox darting out across the road and of course, hundreds of baby lambs and ewes snuggled against one another in the fields.

The landscapes we were seeing in real-time looked good enough to be a painting, and I’d argue, had characteristics that were simply impossible to truly capture, no matter how good of a camera lens I had packed. There was one final stop on our itinerary though, and the name on this one conjured up a definite need for a photograph with myself in it. A hotspot for panorama photo enthusiasts and tourists from all over the world, Ladies’ View is a scenic viewpoint set amongst the wilderness that provides unobstructed views of the surrounding Irish lakes. No matter the weather, the mood is pure magic, making it one of the most-visited places inside of the park. 

As we finished up with our photos and made our way back, I checked the time—more than eight hours had passed since we set out that morning and I hadn’t even noticed. The Ring of Kerry and everything it encompasses had lived up to its name as one of Ireland’s best drives, and for those who wish to conquer it, make the stops and always take the long way—I promise you’ll be happy you did.

—TEXT AND PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE HOGG

Discover the charms of the West Midlands: where city, country and culture collide

Walking through the streets of Coventry, tour guide Roger Bailey is eager to share a story that’s “a thousand years in the making.” The legend goes that Lady Godiva, a key figure in the history of the region, pleaded with her husband to provide a tax break for local residents.

BY: ANN RUPPENSTEIN

“He said no, but she didn’t give up, she came back to him again and again, so many times he got so fed up, he decided to give her an impossible challenge, thinking she wouldn’t do it — ride through the streets of Coventry naked — and if you do this, I’ll lift the taxes,” explains Bailey. “We’re told she cares so much about her people, she decides to do the ride. Out of respect, everybody turned their backs, except for one, who we now call Peeping Tom.”

Although it’s debatable whether or not the incident actually took place due to a lack of official records, depictions of the scene remain today at sites like The Lady Godiva Clock Tower and The Lady Godiva statue.

Found in the West Midlands, which is known as The Heart of England, Coventry offers an eclectic blend of old meets new. The Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in a fire during the Second World War, is a must-see site. Newly reconstructed in 1962, the outer glass wall purposely reflects the ruins of the old cathedral, symbolizing hope for the future without forgetting the past.

“It’s designed so that you’re looking at the old and the new,”  Bailey says, adding that the building is also home to a boulder from Bethlehem that’s used for baptisms. 

The new cathedral also has Canadian connections with funds raised in Canada going to replace the organ lost during the fire. Those visiting will notice the icon of a Canadian Maple Leaf embedded on the floor of the entryway. Notably, Rachel Mahon, a Canadian, has also taken on the position of Director of Music at the Coventry Cathedral.

The interior of the new building is equally remarkable with massive displays of stained glass windows representing the soul’s journey through life into heaven lining the room and a large tapestry spanning 23 metres tall and 12 metres wide, that’s said to weigh about a tonne, as the backdrop.

While the city features many historical sites like St. Mary’s Guildhall, a well preserved medieval guildhall that provides a glimpse into life 600 years ago, it’s also budding with culture and creativity.

On the modern side, FarGo Village is a creative quarter launched in 2014 that’s loaded with sculptures and street art. It features independent shops, boutiques, art workshops, design studios, a brewery and a rotating selection of food vendors.

“It’s a really affordable way to try out something — it may have even started out as a hobby — to see if it can be something that supports you,” explains manager Holly Hewitt, noting that the concept took off from a handful of businesses to 40 different ventures. “A lot of the businesses have now moved into the bigger units. This month is wellbeing month where we encourage people in the community to come and meet us for a walk. So it’s not just about business, it’s about some wellbeing and a sense of community.”

Owned by Chris Cooper and Ritchie Bee, the onsite Twister Barrel Brewery is a tasty spot to sample a variety of vegan beer. The friends were inspired by the variety of beer available in the international scene, which they thought was missing back home.

So what exactly makes the beer vegan? Interestingly, Cooper explains that beer often contains Isinglass, which is derived from the dried swim bladders of fish, which the brewery doesn’t use.

“It’s used to clarify the beer,” he says. “Very, very few people realize it’s used in most beer. The second thing that a lot of breweries use, particularly in dark beers, is lactose because it’s used to get body, used to make it sweet.”

Having consumed over 2,000 Balti dishes to date — and counting — author Andy Munro is well versed in the art of a dish that originated in Birmingham, another buzzing city in the West Midlands. Invented during the 1970s when the city’s Pakistani residents created a fusion dish inspired by traditional Kashmiri recipes but cooked in a way that was more appealing to western tastes (for example with the meat taken off the bone), the resulting Balti helped put Birmingham’s food scene on the map.

“Balti has to be cooked and served in the same dish,” he notes, adding that the thin, pressed-steel wok called a Balti bowl was also invented in Birmingham.

Located in the Balti Triangle, a triangle-shaped neighbourhood in Birmingham, Munro says only about five authentic Balti houses remain in the area. One of these staples is Shababs, a restaurant where guests have the chance to take part in a cooking demonstration to see how the local favourite dish is made. Cooked over a high flame, the dish is made in under 10 minutes. The end result, as everyone who sampled the dish can attest, is delicious.

“It became a craze,” Munro shares. “In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I promise you, instead of talking about the weather, people would say ‘what’s your favourite Balti house?”

Beyond Balti, Birmingham was recently in the spotlight as the host of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, which were the most attended edition of the games to take place in the UK and had six times the amount of BBC Sport streams compared to previous years.

Said to have more miles of canals than Venice, Birmingham is also a great destination to explore on the water. However, for those clients who prefer a local watering hole, The Canal House Bar & Restaurant overlooks the water and is frequented by athletes. 

To get a taste of the independent beer scene, head to Birmingham Brewing Co., to sample a variety of brews made in house that are also vegan and gluten-free.

Although many travellers visit Stratford-upon-Avon to get a sense of where William Shakespeare grew up, the charming town offers so much for visitors to explore — including Shakespeare Distillery, an artisan spirit producer named after the town’s most famous inhabitant.
“This is a very old historic town with lots of history,” says tour guide Jan Boggis, while pointing out buildings of significance to the legendary playwright.

Theatre fans willwant to experience shows put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company and visit Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Shakespeare’s childhood home, to hear tales of his upbringing and family life. During a visit, guests may hear the story of Sonny Venkatrathnam managed to smuggle a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works into Robben Island as a religious book, circulating it among the inmates, including Nelson Mandela, who signed his name next to this passage: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

Next year, to mark the 400th anniversary of the First Folio, a collection of 36 plays, Shakespeare’s Birthplace Trust will be bringing women characters into the forefront. There are also learning opportunities and special interest courses available.

The picturesque town is lined with shops, bar and restaurants. Another great vantage point is to soak up the scenery during a boat ride on the Avon. This is also a unique option for clients looking to spend the night on a barge.

Four people swim in a lake with pine forests and mountains in the background. The four people are all smiling and laughing.

Why a trip to Canada’s stunning Northwest Territories should be on your summer bucket list

Affectionately known as the Land of the Midnight Sun, the summer months present one of the best months to visit the Northwest Territories.

From June to August, the NWT sees clear blue skies, flanked by a shimmering sun that never truly sets. Divided by the Arctic Circle, on June 21, which marks the Summer Solstice, the sun never sinks below the horizon, meaning that until mid-July, the Northwest Territories sees a delirious amount of sunshine at all hours of the day. Depending on how far north travellers trek into the Arctic Circle, the constant sunshine can last for up to six months.

While darkness truly never comes to Canada’s far north from April to July, by August, the Aurora Borealis resumes visibility and paints the northern skies in brilliant shades of electric green, deep purple, and inky indigo. 

The Northwest Territories are divided into six definite regions, each one distinctly beautiful from the next.

SOUTH SLAVE

South Slave, located south of Great Slave Lake, is the jumping point into the Territory, with direct access from the Alberta border. South Slave is home to Canada’s largest national park, Wood Buffalo, which spans 44,741 sq. km and is open for camping from now until Sept. 30. 

Photo credit: Angela Gzowski

NORTH SLAVE

To the north of Great Slave Lake lies North Slave, an area that’s home to the oldest rock formation in the world, the four billion-year-old Acasta Gneiss. North Slave is also home to the NWT’s largest Indigenous population, the Tłı̨chǫ (sometimes spelled Tlicho) people. 

Photo credit: Angela Gzowski

DECHO

Adventure travellers shouldn’t skip out on a visit to Dehcho, where breathtaking mountain backdrops and winding rivers abound. Dehcho is also home to the Nahanni National Park Reserve, which was designated as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its incomparable geological land formations, which include deep canyons, thunderous waterfalls, and ancestral Dehcho First Nations sites. 

Photo Credit: Destination Canada

SAHTU

Sahtu, which borders the Yukon Territory on its western side and Inuvik to the north, is a backcountry camping lover’s dream, and is considered one of the most remote places in NWT, meaning travellers are very likely to come across an abundance of regional flora and fauna, like wood buffalo, moose and grizzly bears. 

Photo credit: Colin Field

WESTERN ARCTIC

The Western Arctic, a land of polar bears and sprawling tundra, is flanked by the Mackenzie River, and is where travellers can find a direct link to parts of the famed Northwest Passage. 

Photo Credit: Gerold Sigl/NWT Tourism

YELLOWKNIFE

Finally, Yellowknife, NWT’s capital, provides endless fun year round, and is a “little big city” that’s buzzing with community and culture.

From paddling, rafting, cruising or fishing the dozens of lakes and rivers, to embarking on a road trip down one of many scenic highways, to camping out under the Northern Lights, playing a round of golf, or embarking on an Indigenous-led tour, there’s no shortage of things to see and do this summer in the Northwest Territories.

Down the Danube with Avalon Waterways

“From Vienna to Budapest, a river cruise showcases off-the-beaten path things to experience.”

There’s a fire in the kitchen! Sparks are flying after chef Karl Wrenkh pours a small vial of vodka into a simmering pan of oyster mushroom stroganoff and quickly takes a lighter to it — causing the liquid substance to instantly burst into metre-high flames.

But unlike some failed dinners that accidently transform meals into a charred crisp, his concoction is all about deliberately sealing some extra flavour into a mouthwatering recipe. 

From the newly-remodelled cooking studio of Wrenkh Vienna Culinary School, the budding entrepreneur explained how he and his brother Leo followed in their parents’ footsteps to bring local, fresh and healthy cuisine to life in a destination that’s universally renowned for being the home of the Wiener schnitzel. It’s a rather interesting story too, considering the family isn’t vegetarian but rather, stems from a long history of butchering. 

“Nobody in the family ever was [vegetarian] — we’re actually a family of butchers. We still feel there’s a lack of really good, quality vegetarian food in Austria. It’s great fun cooking vegetarian stuff because we can still always be creative with the recipes,” he said. “My parents were among the first vegetarian chefs in Austria in the 1990s, but then they divorced and we didn’t exist for a couple of years… then my brother and I opened up here in ’09. It’s 80% vegetarian with meat and fish [on the menu] — we say we cook what we hunt and fish.” 

Today, the restaurant has not only become a trendy spot for lunch and dinner, but a cooking hub for visitors and locals alike to learn how to make mainly vegetarian meals with a twist during daily culinary workshops. The Wrenkh brothers, who have their own cookbooks, are also co-creators of Avalon Fresh, river cruise line Avalon Waterways’ selection of healthy and vegetarian menu offerings onboard.

“We had a need to elevate our vegetarian cuisine; we didn’t want to serve pasta every day,” noted Pam Hoffee, the president of Avalon Waterways, who was also on location for the cooking demonstration. “Originally, it was about vegetarian cuisine but then we saw a trend towards healthy eating as well. It’s helped us elevate that and it’s been evolving over time.”

The suite life 

Recently christened by 15-time Emmy Award-winning host, executive producer and anchor Meredith Vieira, Avalon View is the newest ship to join Avalon’s fleet. The 166-passenger ship is mostly made up of 200 sq. ft. Panorama Suites with floor-to-ceiling 11-feet wide windows that slide wide open. There are also two large 300 sq. ft. Royal Suites, complete with two sinks and a powder room for guests for those seeking even more space.

Travellers looking to experience the ship firsthand can take part in a variety of Danube-based itineraries offered this year, including a special Gone Girl! departure on Sept. 15 with author Gillian Flynn.

After transforming the ship from Lot #02338024 to Avalon View, Vieira, well known for her time on television as the host of The View and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, admitted to having a slight fear of water before agreeing to take on duties as godmother. 

“It’s so warm and inviting. I love the size of the ship. You feel like you’re part of a family,” she said, reflecting on her time on the ship. “There’s an intimacy to it that’s really lovely. I really feel like I’m immersed in the culture around me because of the fact that we’re constantly stopping and you have the opportunity to do so many different things in port. The food on this ship is really good and the wine is unbelievable. I would definitely do it again. I could see myself doing it alone, it’s definitely a great experience as a family or friends. You can make it whatever you want.”

Highlights along the route

Unlike ocean cruises where guests often wake up somewhere new every morning, the river cruise journey takes place during the day so that all those onboard can soak up the scenery as the ship moves past historic castles, stunning landscapes and picturesque buildings like Dürnstein’s blue Abbey. Another must on a river cruise down the Danube is an evening illumination cruise past landmarks in Budapest like the The Hungarian Parliament Building and Castle Hill. 

While in port, a variety of daily tours ranging from active hiking or biking outings to classic city explorations are offered to give visitors the chance to have a deeper connection and understanding of the destination. These options allow travellers to customize their river cruise journey from start-to-finish based on personal interests. In Bratislava, for example, a classic option would be a city tour with a stop to enjoy Slovakian liquor tasting at the St. Nicolaus Distillery. Meanwhile an active option would be hiking through the forest and vineyards of Raca, followed by a wine tasting. There is really no wrong choice and it can be tough to narrow down which tour to choose. The convenient thing about being docked in the heart of the city is that it’s also easy to get on and off to explore. There’s ample free time built into each itinerary so that those who are torn between two daily excursions will be able to cross off some of those sights on their own.

Finding the real Fiji

The founding values behind Bula Coffee — a coffee production company in Fiji — extend far beyond providing a good cup of morning joe. As Luke Fryett, whose job title cleverly reads ‘Man on the Ground,’ explains, while giving the world a great shot of coffee, Bula Coffee is “all about giving Fijians a better shot at life.”

 

What started out over a decade ago as a small enterprise working with one family in one village in Fiji has since expanded across 38 villages to buying coffee off of 5,000 people annually — a significant number of Fijians who now have additional sources of revenue.   

“It’s more than money — we exist to give people a hand up — to give people a better shot at life,” he said. “To give people access to education, to give them financial independence. Money matters, but it’s more than money. We are changing lives one cup at a time.”

More recently, Bula Coffee launched the Crop to Cup Coffee Tour, giving travellers “the chance to not only taste Fiji’s wild harvest coffee and see how we process it, but also the chance to become a part of our story, becoming invested in our work and becoming part of the change we are making in Fiji.”

Along with learning about how to get a coffee cherry ready for a morning brew, visitors will be able to learn about how every cup of coffee can make a difference in the local economy. One example of how getting involved in the coffee business has made a positive impact is in a local community where kids would get to their boarding school by floating down the river in a tire — often getting soaked in the process. 

“They used their coffee money to buy every kid in the village a waterproof bag, and a small cooker, so now the older kids can cook for the younger kids, during the week,” he said. “They also built a much better raft with tires all around it secured properly so the kids can keep dry… This is why money matters, but it’s more than money. It’s about empowering communities to keep their kids safe, to keep them dry, to let them have food during the week. Allowing the kids to focus better at school because they aren’t hungry, aren’t worried about their wet clothes. This is why every cup counts.”

With Bula Coffee being one example, Tourism Fiji’s CEO Brent Hill notes that sustainability and supporting the development of meaningful experiences in the destination are two key corporate priorities going forward. 

“We’re very conscious of how tourism actually contributes to local life,” he shared. “I really want people to leave the resorts — you start to really experience what Fiji is all about.” 

Even the national carrier is making efforts when it comes to sustainability. Along with operational efficiency and having meals served in biodegradable containers, Fiji Airways is also offsetting its carbon footprint with the ‘A Tree For Every Take Off’ initiative. The airline has planted 55,000 mangroves to date and is targeting another 50,000 over the course of this year. 

“We’ve been here for 70 years… We want to be able to say we’ve left a legacy as an airline,” said Akuila Batiweti, executive manager, digital and marketing for Fiji Airways. “Fiji is our home.”

For travellers who want to take it one step further, Fiji Airways is set to launch a new day trip in June where customers will be able to go out and help plant mangroves to offset their carbon footprint.

Checking into Nanuku Resort

“Bula Ann” reads the personalized welcome message formed from rocks at the bottom of my private plunge pool after checking in at Nanuku Resort. But Bula, a Fijian greeting meaning hello/welcome, extends beyond the monogrammed pool to the sense of welcome from staff that kicks off upon arrival with a warrior welcome. 

Located on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, Nanuku Resort hones in on the cultural elements that make Fiji a unique destination from Kava ceremonies (a popular drink in the South Pacific not to be confused with cava) to traditional cooking classes and fire walking ceremonies. 

There are a range of memorable accommodation options to choose from, including the modern villas, newly opened in 2019, and the more traditional residences, which are expansive and are undergoing upgrades with new thatched roofing and refreshed interiors. 

The resort runs a daily schedule of activities for guests like yoga sessions with Sisi Nasiga, a former Olympian wellness coach (if you’re lucky you’ll be the only one who registers to get a one-on-one training session on the beach) or hiking excursions to waterfalls. For a day trip to remember, travellers can’t go wrong spending time on Nanuku Island, the lush uninhabited island from where the property gets its name. Those who are so inclined can even opt to camp out for an evening under the stars.

For families: kids are assigned a Bula buddy to help keep them entertained and busy so that parents can truly enjoy some moments of calm during their stay.

While the resort is outstanding on all counts, what really sets it apart is the staff. From touches like having morning cappuccinos served with guest’s names to the team gathering to sing for those who are departing, Nanuku Resort is bound to leave a lasting impression on travellers and will have them wanting to come back.

Photos courtesy of Fiji Tourism, Nanuku Resort and Ann Ruppenstein.

Sailing away with Holland America Line

As a company that’s been around for going on 150 years, Holland America Line is no stranger to adapting.

The premium cruise line started out as a shipping and passenger line, slowly gaining a reputation for safely bringing emigrants from Europe to North America. Nearly one million people made the journey to new beginnings and adventures on a Holland America ship — including Albert Einstein, Olympic boxing champion Bep van Klaveren, Alfred Hitchcock, Ernest Hemingway and Roald Dahl — to name but a few.

During the First World War, several ships were called upon to carry and transport soldiers. In the Second World War,, ships like Nieuw Amsterdam were even converted into troopships, eventually resuming regular operations after being refitted back to passenger ships post war.

At the height of the prohibition, the company offered what could be dubbed the original booze cruises — taking passengers into international waters from New York City to serve alcohol. Now doesn’t that sound like a party?

Facing other challenges like stiff competition and the takeoff of trans-Atlantic air travel, HAL charted a course for new destinations in the Caribbean and Alaska, transitioning to a primary focus on cruise holidays.

And while the pandemic dealt another blow, the cruise line forged ahead to make sure the return to the waters would be strong by enhancing its content and putting in place new programming to mark its 75th year of operations in Alaska.

“The pandemic has been hard, but as I stand here today, I’m flooded with hope and filled with confidence that our best days are still ahead,” Michelle Sutter, vice president of North America sales, said kicking off a session during the Attitude of Gratitude trade appreciation cruise held on the Rotterdam from March 10 to 13.

The new Pinnacle-class ship is the seventh to hold the Rotterdam name, including the company’s first ship, the original Rotterdam. Although the flagship has come a long way since those original cross Atlantic sailings with offerings like the Music Walk, featuring nightly entertainment ranging from B.B. King’s Blues Club to the Rolling Stone Rock Room, where a live band plays classic rock and roll hits, and a culinary scene with high-end options like Tamarind and Rudi’s Sel de Mer to quick bites like gourmet hotdogs and burgers, elements of the past are still evident throughout.

“Our first ship was Rotterdam. The company was headquartered in Rotterdam — it’s actually a hotel now,” explained Gus Antorcha, president of Holland America Line. “There’s always been a Rotterdam as part of the fleet. The history of the company is very important to us — it’s acknowledging our roots, where we’re coming from and where we started.”

The evolution of HAL plays out during an evening staged presentation called Origin Story on Rotterdam and look no further than the cocktail menu at Half Moon Bar for a drink called the Three Mile Run, in honour of the prohibition days.

And for those truly wanting to get back to HAL’s origins, Rotterdam will be replicating the first crossing from Holland to New York on a special itinerary set for Oct. 2, 2022. Although unlike the original crossing 150 years ago, there are added ports of call on the docket like Copenhagen and Paris.

“We’re adding a few other ports because just a straight-shot Rotterdam to New York wouldn’t be that interesting — but in October, this ship will go from the Netherlands to New York, we stop in Paris along the way, which is nice. That voyage in particular will have a lot of our history and some of the memorabilia,” said Antorcha. “It’s pretty cool when you’ve been operating 150 years and started around bringing emigrants and doing it in a way that was safe. It was safe passage, it was quality, but it was focused on emigration.”

And stay tuned for 2023, as the company marks a milestone 150 years of operations since officially being founded on April 18, 1873. More details about highlights and the celebrations that are in store will be released closer to the anniversary date.

“The not so obvious advantage for booking a cruise right now, at least in the short term, is service,” he said. “The ships are staffed up and the service is excellent. Compare it to other options today where costs may be high with service gaps due to staff shortages and supply chain issues. This was not a issue on board which was a delight to experience.”

As for the Rotterdam, Pearlman said the flow of the ship made sense and it was apparent that “HAL is just as delighted to be back to cruising.”

“The Pinnacle class ships are great,” he said. “Small enough not to feel crowded but big enough for lots of extra space and energy. I think there something for everyone but I would say it’s geared more towards adults — of any age — with an affinity for music and food.”