Monthly Archives: March 2016

Caves Branch, Belize: Best all-inclusive resort ever

I’m not one to rave about all-inclusive resorts. Sure, we stayed at a few when the kids were little, mostly to take advantage of the kid’s club and buffet (immediate gratification in the food department is a must when travelling with the five-and-under set), and had a great time. But I thought we’d closed that travel chapter.

Until: Caves Branch, Belize. This resort has completely upped the all-inclusive game and turned me into a Belizer (sorry).

Bennett swims in a cenote (limestone sink hole filled with water) that's in a national park just a 15-minute walk from Caves Branch.

Bennett swims in a cenote (limestone sink hole filled with water) that’s in a national park just a 15-minute walk from Caves Branch.

Caves Branch is an all-inclusive adventure resort that caters to families with children ages eight and up. Who knew such a concept existed? Well, my brother-in-law, who recommended it after staying there with his family several years ago. They even offer a discount for Canadian travellers, so we booked a 2-day/3-night package.

Caves Branch is set along a river in the lush, forested Belize countryside near Belmopan. Guests stay in comfortable cabanas or posh tree houses, eat delicious buffet breakfasts and dinners in the open-air dining area, and partake in extreme adventures during the day.

Avery all set to go cave tubing on an excursion from Caves Branch.

Avery all set to go cave tubing on an excursion from Caves Branch.

While my husband and daughter were off cave tubing through a 7-mile underground cave river system on Day 1, and spelunking and waterfall rappelling on Day 2, my son and I hiked to Blue Hole National Park to swim in a cenote and adjacent cave, and followed that up with jungle horseback riding the next day.

Bennett enjoys his first real trail ride in Belize.

Bennett enjoys his first real trail ride in Belize.

After each day’s explorations, we met up poolside and shared stories over cold panty ripper and bra ripper cocktails (those are pretty much the Belize national cocktails! Stay tuned for a write up…), which of course were included in the package.

The kids formed a posse that hung out by the pool and hot tub every afternoon.

The kids formed a posse that hung out by the pool and hot tub every afternoon.

The kids (and adults) loved the adventures and the resort’s great amenities (including a botanical garden), and we thought the super-friendly staff was awesome. The resort was also a great value, considering the quantity and quality of the food (and booze) and the cost of individual activities — it almost works out like you stay and eat for free.

The Botanical Gardens at Caves Branch boasts the largest orchid collection in Belize.

The Botanical Gardens at Caves Branch boasts the largest orchid collection in the country.

Yes, I realize I am gushing. And even though I couldn’t do some of the activities because of my bum shoulder, and Bennett couldn’t participate in the more extreme offerings due to his autism, everyone left after three days feeling happy. Expectations = exceeded.

Dinner at Caves Branch.

Dinner at Caves Branch, where happy adventurers refuel.

 

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Drink of the Week: Rotten Fruit Rummy

Don’t let the name of my daily Belizean frozen rum drink put you off. This cocktail of blended fruit, ice and rum is delicious. It’s also the best way to use up fresh fruit, such as bananas and mangoes, that is too ripe and mushy to eat on its own.

The over-ripe fruit is also full of natural sugars, so you don’t need to add any sugar or syrup. And a thorough blending renders it extra smooth. You can switch it up by adding any fruit you fancy (papaya, pineapple), or pour in coconut water or coconut milk for more of a pina colada taste. It’s pretty scary how quickly these go down when you are poolside or swinging in a hammock on a dock on Ambergris Caye!

Fruity deliciousness in a cup. This is how we get out daily intake of Vitamin C!

Fruity deliciousness in a cup. This is how we get out daily intake of Vitamin C! You can make a virgin version for the kids.

Rotten Fruit Rummy

  • 2 over-ripe bananas
  • 2 small, mushy yellow mangoes
  • 2-3 cups watermelon
  • 1 cup or so One Barrel Rum
  • 1-2 cups mixed tropical fruit juice
  • 12 ice cubes
  • Garnish: hibiscus flower

Method: Add ingredients into a blender and blend until thoroughly combined. Pour into daiquiri cups and garnish with a hibiscus flower.

Drink of the Week: Gingered Apple

I finally made it to Ten Foot Henry on the now-bustling two-block strip of 1 St. S.W. between 12 and 14 avenues, that’s also home to Raw Bar, Taste, Proof and  Vine Arts. So many great cocktail options there and I was excited to see what Ten Foot Henry, named after a 1930s comic strip, could contribute to the scene.

The small list, split almost evenly between classic and original cocktails, has something for everyone. I especially liked The Henrietta (read all about it in an upcoming Spirited Calgary column in the Herald) and the Gingered Apple. This yellow drink is like a spicy, candied-apple lemon drop, with an understated acidity thanks to the apple cider vinegar. It goes pow on the palate and makes you think about what you’re drinking. Sip slowly and enjoy.

The Gingered Apple cocktail at Ten Foot Henry goes pow on the palate.

The Gingered Apple cocktail at Ten Foot Henry goes pow on the palate.

Gingered Apple

  • 1-1/2 oz Zubrowka vodka
  • 1/2 oz Iron Works apple brandy
  • 1/4 oz apple cider vinegar
  • 3/4 oz fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup (1:1 sugar-to-water)
  • 2-3 dashes Bar Keep apple bitters
  • Garnish: lemon twist

Method: Shake ingredients with ice and then double strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon twist.

— Recipe courtesy Dylan Can, Ten Foot Henry

Island time

I’ll never forget my first snorkelling trip, to Buck Island off of St. Croix, when I was 12. We saw a number of tropical fish and even barracudas knifing through the turquoise Caribbean waters. It was spectacular. I’m pretty sure my daughter Avery will always remember her first time donning a mask and fins in an ocean aquarium during an excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef from our base on Ambergris Caye.

Bennett and Avery take a break from the sea on a snorkelling excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef.

Bennett and Avery take a break from the sea on a snorkelling excursion to the Belize Barrier Reef.

She saw electric blue damsel fish, orange and white longspine squirrelfish, yellow and white striped French grunts, giant brain coral and purple sea fans (an underwater camera would’ve come in handy!). And, with her little brother Bennett doggie paddling beside her in a life jacket (without a mask and snorkel — he’s not quite ready), she watched a nurse shark and eagle ray swim below her, followed by a green sea turtle. It was neat for me to see those critters, too, but it was more of a thrill to watch the kids’ jubilant reactions to a day spent offshore with Suya Tours.

The sea life just offshore Ambergris Caye is incredible. Snorkellers

The sea life that inhabits the warm, clear water just offshore Ambergris Caye is incredible. It’s the best snorkelling I’ve done in a long time.

The marine life is just one part of our visit to Ambergris Caye, one of the islands off the coast of Belize. In the coming days we’ll be exploring the town of San Pedro and the nearby Mayan ruins, and sampling more tasty island cuisine. When you’re staying beachside, however, the clear water is always beckoning, be it ocean or pool.

Bennett, Avery and Blake kayak off the dock on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

Bennett, Avery and Blake kayak off the dock on Ambergris Caye, Belize.

On “island time,” the kids are in the pool by 8 a.m. and pretty much stay in the water until 6 p.m., with mandatory down-time out of the sun for a couple hours over lunch. Overall, life is pretty beachy!

Just chillin' on the patio and contemplating... Beach or pool?

Just chillin’ on the patio and contemplating… Beach or pool?

Drink of the Week: Aeronautics

Alloy is an oft-overlooked oasis of dining awesomeness in the city’s southeast. It’s just a five-minute drive from Inglewood to the industrial park that houses Alloy, a fact that always makes me scratch my head over why we don’t dine there more often. Now we have another reason to visit: cocktails.

Alloy has given its bar a makeover and a new name — Back Bar — and brought in former Candela bartender Jake Hewitt to create a bar menu. The result is a small list that takes classics and gives them a modern twist. Do try the Smoked Old Fashioned, The Pullman (like a Sidecar, with rum) and the Aeronautics, which is Hewitt’s take on an Aviation. I couldn’t resist the colour of this gin-forward but well-balanced spring sip. The bar snacks, specifically the pulled pork belly slider, are delicious, too!

This gorgeous purple drink is Bar Bar's take on an Aviation cocktail.

This gorgeous purple drink is Back Bar’s take on an Aviation cocktail.

Aeronautics

  • 1-1/2 oz Tanqueray gin
  • 1/4 oz Giffard’s Creme de Violette
  • 1/4 oz Ginja cherry liqueur
  • 2 lemon wedges, squeezed
  • Garnish: lemon twist

Method: Combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until drink is well chilled. Strain into a coupe glass. Rim the glass with expressed lemon disk, then twist over drink and drop in.

— Recipe courtesy Jake Hewitt, Back Bar at Alloy

Palm Springs’ remarkable makeover

It’s hard to know what to expect from a destination when you’ve visited only once before, for a shopping day trip, when you were 15. My memories of Palm Springs were, like the opening sequence of Miami Vice, a montage of palm trees, pastels, highways and (unlike in Florida) desert scrub.

At least one memory of Palm Springs reflects its new reality: palm trees!

At least one memory of Palm Springs reflects its new reality: palm trees!

I had heard the Southern California city, just a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, had undergone a transformation in the past decade, thanks in large part to the annual Coachella music festival and the hip, young demographic associated with it.

Canadian transplant Jaime Kowal, who owns several businesses in the trendy Uptown Design District, relocated to Palm Springs from Vancouver because she saw its potential. Yes, it still reels in what the town jokingly calls “gays and greys” (referring to the LGBT visitors and golf-loving retirees that flock there), but Palm Springs also appeals to younger couples and even families — I have friends who have taken the kids and had a blast.

My husband Blake and I visited on a working holiday — I’m writing some Palm Springs stories for WestJet Magazine — and, as if to prove its new versatility, the city delivered five holidays in one.

The Spa Holiday

If you want a massage, facial, wrap, pedicure, mud bath — or even a spiritual healing session with a shaman — Palm Springs is your place. I spent a morning at Two Bunch Palms in Desert Hot Springs stewing naked in a warm bath of mud and wondering what had possessed me to submerge my birthday suit in a mixture of peat and mineral-rich clay. After a nice long shower and anti-inflammatory arnica wrap, I relaxed in the hot springs Grotto and contemplated joining a yoga class or meditation session.

Soaking in a mud bath at Two Bunch Palms.

Soaking in a mud bath at Two Bunch Palms.

The Active Holiday

While I was spa-ing, Blake was pedalling over 30 kilometres on a mountain bike ride in Palm Desert. The following day, we drove the hour to Joshua Tree National Park and explored a piece of this famous natural landscape. We vowed to return and camp there among its awesome rocks with the kids.

Acres of rocks, cacti and Joshua trees all to myself at Joshua Tree National Park.

Acres of rocks, cacti and Joshua trees all to myself at Joshua Tree National Park.

The Drink-Beer-in-the-Pool Holiday

You don’t have to fly to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico to do this. Blake and I managed to imbibe a selection of American microbrews from the comfort of our weekend vacation house, The Junipero. It’s not a hotel, per se; it’s more like a dedicated short-term vacation rental property complete with all the amenities including a BBQ, fridge, coffee, comfy bed and, most importantly, swimming pool. You can book the main house, or one of three bungalows.

Every afternoon we hit the pool at The Junipero Palm Springs. With beer.

Every afternoon we hit the pool at The Junipero Palm Springs. With beer.

The Foodie Holiday

I think I gained five pounds while eating my way from south Palm Springs north to the Uptown Design District. We hit institutions such as King’s Highway Diner at the Ace Hotel, Tropicale and Cheeky’s, and we tried some new spots like Eight4Nine.

The ahi poke at Eight4Nine beats the Hawaiian deli equivalent any day! The shrimp crackers were a nice touch, too.

The ahi poke at Eight4Nine beats the Hawaiian deli equivalent any day! The shrimp crackers were a nice touch.

The Shopping Holiday

I’m no longer 15, so I didn’t hit the mall for clothes. Instead, I browsed the vintage, mid-century modern and modern boutiques and galleries that make up the revitalized Uptown and ogled eye candy from retro flower lapel pins and cheesy pink flamingo lawn ornaments to funky wall clocks and bronze ashtrays.

I loved the cool wall art in Just Modern.

I loved the cool wall art in Just Modern.

Fairmont Old Fashioned

Fairmont hotels do cocktails well. So well, in fact, that every couple years the resort chain comes out with a new collection of drinks meant to represent classic cocktails from select properties, or craft cocktails or — as is the case this year — classic and revived classics (with a modern twist) created and tested by leading Fairmont bartenders. The result is the Classics Perfected menu, a list of six reinvented classics and six timeless favourites such as the G&T, Sidecar, Moscow Mule and Margarita.

I had the opportunity to sample three of the revived classics — the Sparkling Collins Royale, VSOP Boulevardier and Fairmont Old Fashioned (see recipe) — at the cocktail launch event at the Fairmont Palliser earlier this week.

Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum is a great edition to this twist on a classic Old Fashioned. Image courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum is a great addition to this twist on a classic Old Fashioned. Image courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

The event was held in the street-level Starbucks, which, back in the day, housed the infamous Kings Arms bar (also known as “The Pit”). (The hotel is exploring the possibility of turning the space into a speakeasy by night, but nothing is confirmed, so if you arrive at the hotel seeking cocktails, go to The Oak Room bar.)

I really liked the Sparkling Collins Royale, which is like a cross between a Tom Collins and a Mojito (think vodka and lemon meet mint) that’s topped with Veuve champagne! I also loved the Fairmont Old Fashioned. It’s made especially yummy thanks to the addition of Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum, which adds a hit of sweet molasses to the drink.

Fairmont Old Fashioned

  • 1 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
  • 1 oz Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum
  • 1/4 oz simple syrup (1:1 sugar-to-water)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Garnish: wide orange disk

Method: In a pint mixing glass combine spirits, syrup and bitters. Fill 3/4 full of ice and stir swiftly for 20 seconds. Fill an Old Fashioned glass 3/4 full with fresh ice. Strain cocktail into glass. Express orange peel oil over top of drink, twist peel, and then drop into glass.

— Recipe courtesy Fairmont Hotels & Resorts