How do I love thee Montreal? Let me count the ways

  • Written by Deborah Stone

A horse and carriage in Old Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s easy to fall in love with Montreal. It’s a city that knows how to romance you in style.

First it flirts with you to get your attention. Then it begins to woo you, gradually easing its way into your heart and soul. Montreal, though, wants more from you than just a platonic relationship. It’s looking for a deeper commitment. You will be dazzled by its charms, bask in its rosy glow, and it will put out the red carpet to make you feel special. And before you know it, there’s a new love in your life.

So, how do I love you Montreal? Let me count the ways.

1. Montreal is a city for lovers with romance seeping out of every one of its pores. From fireside dinners in cozy restaurants to horse-drawn carriage rides down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, couples will find many places and activities to ignite or re-kindle their passions. Head to the top of Mount Royal to watch a glorious sunset. Catch the evening sound and light show at the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, where state-of-the-art multi media techniques bring to life the church’s heritage. Drink your favorite libation in the rooftop wine bar of the charming Auberge du Vieux-Port on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Or for something more formal, try an afternoon of high tea served alfresco in the lush gardens of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This classic “Grande Dame” of Montreal is an elegant historic landmark with an old world charm that has hosted numerous celebrities and famous personalities over the years.

As you sip teas with names like Imperial Gunpowder and Blue Sapphire and munch on scrumptious scones, gourmet finger sandwiches and delicious sweets, look out at the pair of amorous ducks in the nearby pond for inspiration.

If you happen to visit the city in fall, grab your sweetie on a moonlit evening and head to the Botanical Gardens for the Chinese lantern exhibit. Each year, hundreds of lanterns illuminate the gardens at night, along with colorful dragon boats and other decorative displays. It’s the ideal spot for a romantic stroll.

Above is a typical scene in Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In the morning, enjoy your café and croissant at the Atwater Market, another Montreal icon. Then pick up a baguette and some cheese at La Fromagerie (try the Sauvagine, an award-winning buttery triple-cream decadence) for a picnic lunch later after you’ve taken a bike ride along picturesque Lachine Canal on the St. Lawrence River.

2. This city is a treasure trove of art, history and design, with its share of famous museums and galleries. You could spend days touring the Museum Quarter, visiting world-class venues that showcase art for all tastes. Founded in 1860, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of Canada’s oldest art institutions with a permanent collection representing art from Antiquity to today.

At The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll find a wealth of Quebec creativity and work by leading contemporary international artists.

One of the finest historical collections in North America is housed in The McCord Museum of Canadian History and includes the most extensive First Nations collection in Quebec. Architecture buffs will enjoy the Canadian Center for Architecture, an international research center and museum recognized for the quality of its innovative exhibitions and the unique design of its building. Art and history are also found outside in the urban landscape. Bronze sculptures, statues and monuments dot the downtown corridor and you need only to look at the buildings and churches that surround you to see impressive examples of architecture from neo-Gothic and Gothic to Romanesque Revival and Victorian. With a history dating back to 1642, Montreal is one of the oldest cities in North America.

3. Montreal is a Mecca for shoppers. Whether you’re a browser or a serious buyer, this city will cater to your needs. It’s a shopper’s paradise with high-end, designer fashion and décor boutiques, jewelers, antique emporiums and stores specializing in international goods. A number of renowned designers make their home in Montreal and the city is regarded as the Canadian fashion capital. Brides-to-be will love Les Noces Couture Wedding Dress, a unique bridal gown boutique that has dressed many of Canada’s leading women for their special day. Birks Jewelry Store, Canada’s equivalent of our Tiffany’s, has a collection of diamonds that any girl would like as her best friend. Be careful though, you might be blinded by all the bling-bling and before you know it, you’ll want to take home a nice little souvenir in the store’s famous blue box. If you’re interested in work by local artists, don’t miss Marche Bonsecours. Fifteen boutiques, housed under one roof, showcase original creations by Quebec artisans and designers. For a different type of shopping experience, head down under to Montreal’s “Underground City.” Below the downtown core of the city lies a vast network of pedestrian walkways with access to hundreds of shops. Through a maze of connecting passageways lined with displays of art, you can walk for 20 miles underneath the city’s hub and find every type of store imaginable, in addition to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment attractions. This is also where the metro commuter trains and buses converge, making it a virtual rabbit’s warren for residents and tourists alike.

4. You’ll never run out of choices for accommodations in Montreal. There’s everything from large-scale brand name properties to small boutique hotels. Tourists in-the-know often make a beeline for the latter because of their charm and special character. Many of them are located in Old Montreal, a romantic, historic district with gracious 18th and 19th century stone houses and original cobblestone streets.

One of the jewels of Old Montreal’s hotel scene is Auberge Bonaparte, with its French-inspired furnishings and views of Notre-Dame Basilica.

Another, the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, built in the 18th century, is one of the most beautiful examples of New France architecture, characterized by massive crude rock walls and a steeply-sloped roof. Each of the inn’s nine rooms has its own personality, adorned by precious antiques that have been lovingly collected by the owner.

The Hotel XIX Siecle, with its spacious rooms and suites, is housed in a former bank built in 1870 and is right in the heart of this historic quarter, making it a convenient spot from which to access many of the city’s noted attractions.

If reminders of a by-gone era aren’t your thing, take a look at the Hotel Gault, an award-winning property that partners charm and chic in a vintage office building. Its minimalist and spare décor is very hip (check out the “orange slice” chairs in the lobby), which makes it a magnet for the arty set.

When you want to hobnob with an haute clientele, the Saint James is the place. This luxury boutique hotel makes its home in the historic Merchants Bank Building. As soon as you step inside, you sense that you’ve “arrived.” There’s a private club feel to this handsome property with discreet service the key to its attraction for high profile corporate clientele and rock star personalities (think Mick Jagger and Madonna). Opulent fine art and period furnishings line the corridors, public areas and rooms. And be sure to check out the underground, candlelit spa, which was formerly the bank’s vault.

5. It would be hard to find another city in Canada with more exceptional food. It’s next to impossible to get a bad meal here.

Because Montreal has become a melting pot of people from all over the world, it offers food for every kind of palate and budget. There are almost 5,000 restaurants in the city, serving 80 different types of national, regional and international (Greek, West Indian, Iranian, South American, Thai, etc) cuisines.

You can have a classic French meal at Au Bistro Gourmet or at Restaurant les Remparts in Old Montreal. For excellent Szechwan cuisine, try the acclaimed Piment Rouge. Steak lovers will enjoy Moishe’s, a Montreal landmark, and for a taste of Italy, head to Tre Marie in Montreal’s Little Italy.

In addition to its numerous other ethnic and traditional specialties, the city is also famous for its bagels, poutine and smoked meat.

Montreal bagels are made with eggs and are baked in wood ovens, as compared to the ones you find in New York, which are made with water. I found them to be hearty and flavorful and much less spongy in comparison (try the “real” thing at the Fairmount or St-Viateur Bakeries).

I had never heard of poutine until I was in Montreal. It’s a classic French-Canadian dish comprised of French fires smothered in brown gravy and cheese. I confess that I did not approach poutine with the same great gusto that locals have when they eat this concoction! I prefer my steak frites unadorned.

When you want to splurge on an evening out, go to Nuances, the prestigious 5-diamond award restaurant housed in the Casino of Montreal. The Casino, a tourist attraction in itself, is in the former French Pavilion built for the 1967 World’s Fair. Nuance’s sophisticated, innovative cuisine is a heavenly feast for the senses and the epitome of gourmet dining. The restaurant’s elegant décor and breathtaking views of the city and the St. Lawrence River make it a memorable setting for a romantic evening out on the town.

Another spot with unparalleled views of Montreal and excellent food is Altitude 737.

6. Though Montreal is a major urban center with a population base of 1.8 million, you’re never far from nature and open green space.

Parks abound and access to water is never an issue (Montreal is an island, surrounded on all sides by the St. Lawrence River).

You also don’t have to travel far from the city to reach the countryside. Within an hour, you’ll discover quaint towns, miles of hiking trails, lakes, rolling hills and bucolic scenery that will instantly put you at peace. It’s a great place to escape for a day, but to truly recharge your batteries, plan an overnight at one of the many country inns that dot the landscape.

I recommend the Auberge des Gallant. This oasis of tranquility is nestled in the seclusion of Rigaud Mountain, yet just 45 minutes from Montreal.

The Gallant family has created a special place that’s off the beaten path, in the heart of a bird sanctuary, surrounded by spectacular gardens. A gourmet restaurant, luxurious and spacious guest rooms with all the amenities and a pampering spa are just some of the treats guests will find at this charming inn. Madam Gallant believes in hedonistic getaways. Deprivation is a bad word in her vocabulary and she will spoil you until you, too, agree with her wholeheartedly. You will scale the culinary heights with the creative cuisine in the inn’s dining room, drink the best Canadian wines and relax and rejuvenate with state-of-the-art spa treatments.

Try a vino-therapy facial with Pinot Noir and Tuscan Chianti wines, grapeseed oil, honey, lavender and rosemary. It’s haute cuisine for the skin and you will emerge glowing and “drunk” from all the wonderful smells. If you can leave your Jacuzzi or that comfy chair by the fire, head outdoors to stroll the nature trails that meander through the inn’s 400-acre property (in the winter, these are groomed for cross-country skiing). If you’re fortunate to come in the early spring, you’ll get to take part in “sugaring.”

Each year, during March and April, the Gallant family opens their sugar shack to visitors and locals to celebrate maple syrup production time. Large-scale brunches using the product in every possible way are held on the weekends at the Gallant’s beautiful sugar shack. “Shack” is a very misleading term for the handsome log structure that looks like it could have come out of a Currier & Ives print.

For a bit of trivia: 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup is produced in Quebec.

7. Finally, I love the people of Montreal. Before I visited, I pictured the residents as comprising two separate groups: the Francophones and the English. My provincial view was quickly turned on its head when I saw the cultural potpourri that spilled out onto the streets of this lively city.

Many people are bilingual now and over one in four Montrealers is an immigrant. Inhabitants embrace one another’s cultures, which has brought a richness of character to the city.

They also take pride in their roots, which is evident in the care they’ve taken to preserve their old buildings and traditions.

I found Montrealers to be hospitable and warm, with a wonderful sense of humor. They love life with a passion and their enthusiasm and vitality are contagious. Montreal has cast a spell on me. I’m hooked on this enchanting city with its carefree ambiance and wonderful “joie de vivre.” And I promise you, it won’t be long before I return.

Unique resort winery is an oasis in the desert

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The main building at Cave B Inn and Winery with its unusual curved roof and rock exterior. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Sometimes I really wonder why I live on this side of the mountains when just over the Pass is a land where the sun is a constant presence and rain is an infrequent visitor. On a particularly dismal and wet day last spring, I headed east in hopes of finding clear skies and warmer temps.

The weather gods rewarded me with glimpses of blue as I went through Roslyn and by the time I hit Ellensburg, picture perfect conditions had emerged.

I was on my way to Cave B Inn at SageCliffe, the first and currently only destination resort winery in Washington State, located in Quincy, just steps away from the Gorge Amphitheater.

Word had gotten out that Cave B was a unique, one-of-a-kind upscale property and after only a year in operation, it was getting quite a favorable buzz, thus my curiosity was piqued.

As I got closer to the inn, I wondered whether the place would live up to its advance hype. I’ve been disappointed before when expectations have been too high, but I needn’t have worried this time.

I noticed the apple orchards and lush vineyards first as I drove down the inn’s long driveway and immediately felt transported to a slower place in time.

I could see the Cave B winery off to one side, but it was the main building with its unusual curved roof and rock exterior that caught my attention. Intrigued with the design, I spent some time outside snapping photos before entering.

Once through the doors, I was greeted with a view that literally stopped me in my tracks. Grand floor to ceiling windows look out upon a jaw-dropping vista of the Columbia River Gorge. It’s impossible not to head right through the lobby and out the back doors onto the deck to take in this awe-inspiring scene of geological splendor.

After appreciating Mother Nature’s work, your eye wanders to the buildings with rock walls (constructed from basalt found on the property) and similar curved roofs that appear tucked into the side of the cliffs in camouflage fashion.

The roofs actually seem to mirror the lines on the bluffs across the river and the buildings look like they have grown out of the ground.

Inn sign at the entrance off the road. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In creating Cave B, owners Vince and Carol Bryan instructed architect Tom Kundig, “to make the land his client.” The result is a design that doesn’t compete with the environment, but rather blends in with the surroundings organically. Use of natural materials is not only evident in the exteriors of each of the buildings, but also within their interiors.

There are 30 well-appointed guest rooms: 15 Cliffehouses, 12 Cavern rooms and three additional rooms located in the main building. The Cliffehouses are each named after one of the many grape varieties grown on the property (the one I stayed in was called “Sangiovese”) and consist of 11 spacious one bedroom units and four two bedroom units.

Each Cliffehouse is its own separate, intimate hideaway built into the hillside with a commanding river view, featuring a cozy sitting area, curved high ceilings, handsome wooden flooring, expansive windows with French doors that open to a private, trellised terrace, luxurious king or queen-size bed, gas fireplace and spacious bathroom done in Italian slab granite.

Colors are themed to reflect white or red wine grape variety and provide rich accents in each unit.

The Cavern rooms, which sit at the edge of the cliff overlooking the river, are accessed through a cave-like basalt rock corridor and although smaller than the Cliffehouses, they share many of the same amenities.

The main building contains three additional luxurious guestrooms, several meeting spaces and the inn’s restaurant, Tendrils. Named for the part of the grape plant that provides support for the growing vine and wraps itself around the wires of the trellis, tendrils are in the words of Carol Bryan, “the thing that holds everything together.” She says, “We wanted the restaurant to be the gathering area for the inn, the place that really holds it all together, so Tendrils, with its association to grapes, was the perfect name.”

Here, James Beard Foundation award-winning chef, Fernando Divinia, whips his culinary magic to create innovative regional fare with flair.

Specialties such as Roasted Laughing Stock Farm Pork Loin with sweet potato puree, apples and beets and Wild King Salmon served with wild rice and fiddleheads are artfully paired with local wines. Desserts range from a sinful Warm Fallen Chocolate Soufflé to refreshing, intensely flavored, homemade fruit sorbets.

This world-class restaurant, with its dramatic backdrop, particularly at sunset when the sky is full of flaming colors, is the ideal romantic setting.

Guests who wish to dine alfresco can sit out on the ample wraparound terrace. With such an amazing view, however, don’t expect to have the undivided attention of your companion, as nature is a fierce competitor!

If eating sumptuous food and soaking in the breath-taking scenery are not enough, there are plenty of other activities to engage in during a stay at Cave B.

The working winery is a feature attraction on site and visitors are welcome to take a self-guided walking tour of the vineyards before making their way to the tasting room. As you stroll the grounds, you can see the various areas where the 15 different grape varieties are grown and take a peek in the Cave.

This arch-shaped building, which is actually half-buried in the ground and covered with dirt, straw and sod, is the perfect atmosphere in which to barrel age the wines.

Nearby is the gift shop and tasting room, where it’s not uncommon to see Cave B’s highly decorated winemaker, Rusty Figgins, behind the bar pouring one of the several featured wines of the day.

Figgins advocates using traditionalist techniques that emphasize a natural, low-intervention wine-making practice.

Cave B Estate premium wines can be found throughout the state in restaurants and retail establishments and they have won numerous awards from prestigious wine societies.

I had the pleasure of tasting a lovely, citrusy and crisp 2003 Semillon and a velvety rich 2003 Cuvee du Soleil; the latter which was a gold medal winner at the Seattle Wine Society.

If you’re so inclined, get a bottle of one of your favorites and head outside to picnic in the grape-trellised piazza, an expansive lawn area dotted with benches and loaded with atmosphere.

For a more vigorous activity option, take a hike from the inn down the hill to the Columbia River. The Columbia River Gorge was the result of several tumultuous Ice Age floods, which carved out deep canyons while at the same time depositing tons of sediment. The boulder-strewn valleys and giant ripple marks are testament to nature’s violent forces and give the region its distinct geology.

Just to be in this unique environment is a treat, but you’d be amazed at the calming, almost Zen-like affect it has on your persona and its ability to soothe the soul.

After hiking back up to the inn, you might feel the need for a massage. You’ll be in good hands if you head for the Spa at Sagecliffe where you can soothe tired and sore muscles or simply unwind while enjoying one of the numerous body treatments available.

I chose the Anti-Aging Wrap, a sublime experience that involved a variety of essential oils and natural ingredients with intoxicating scents applied to my body by a therapist with magic hands. I was exfoliated, massaged, covered in a melon and papaya mask, wrapped up cocoon style and given more massage.

Then I was sent to rinse off in the spa’s seven-head rainforest shower, an experience that I can only describe as heavenly.

The treatment was targeted at improving skin elasticity and tone, as well as at preventing skin sagging, that dreaded process which creeps up on you along with your age. I don’t know if I looked 10 years younger after emerging from the spa, but my skin seemed to glow and I felt totally rejuvenated.

With the completion of Cave B Inn, the owners have now turned their attention to the further development of SageCliffe, a culturally based resort, of which the inn is the first phase.

The Bryan’s vision includes a spectacular 18-hole links-type desert golf course, an equestrian center, additional lodging and housing, studios, galleries, an exhibition hall, performance halls and more conference spaces.

The couple established the SageCliffe Foundation, a non-profit component of the resort that will support art, science and educational programming on site.

“It’s our goal to bring people together from all disciplines and give them a place and the opportunity to interact with one another,” explains Vince Bryan. “Professionals will enrich each other and also enrich the public who will come here to view performances, attend workshops or take part in classes. We will have artists-in-residence and put people in contact with greatness. It will be a vibrant and stimulating center of creativity and expression.”

The couple’s vision stemmed from their land and the awareness of their responsibility as land stewards. The question they pondered for many years was how to best share this land with others without ruining it.

“The land is special,” adds Bryan. “It is the canvas upon which we can participate in painting out. SageCliffe presents the opportunity for mankind and the environment to interface, for there to be a celebration of the environment and a celebration of man’s achievement in the arts and sciences.”

The Bryans believe in the magic of this land and after a stay at Cave B Inn, I, too, am a believer.

Riviera Maya: a world-class destination

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Early morning on Punta Brava Beach
Chocolate, in any form, is my weakness. It tempts me like a Siren calling to Ulysses. Most of the time, I try to keep my chocoholic addiction in line and choose to indulge in this ambrosia in moderation because it wreaks havoc on my waistline.

But recently, I found a healthier way to satisfy my fix. It was on a trip to Riviera Maya that I first heard of chocolate utilized in a spa treatment. Always willing to try anything when it comes to body treatments, I headed to the spa at the El Dorado Royale Spa Resort, my luxurious lodgings for the week, to experience this sensory treat.

After a coconut exfoliation scrub, my body was smothered with chocolate cream (the aroma was enough to send me into chocolate rehab!) and then tightly wrapped up in towels.

During the next 20 minutes, I received a facial and scalp massage, while waiting for the natural cacao to supposedly draw the impurities from my body. I remarked to the therapist that I felt like a bonbon, but as she spoke very little English, I don’t think my idea resonated.

After a thorough rinsing and a finishing massage, I emerged rejuvenated and glowing with baby soft skin. I realize that this treatment is no substitute for eating the rich confection, but it sure takes a close second, plus it’s calorie-free!

A Mayan chocolate body wrap was just the first of several novel experiences for me in Riviera Maya. I had never been to this part of Mexico before and when offered the opportunity to explore it, I eagerly accepted. I saw it as the perfect escape from enduring a third straight week of Seattle’s liquid sunshine.

Located south of Cancun in the far east of the Yucatan Peninsula, Riviera Maya spans 60 miles along the coast of Quintana Roo. This locale has become a popular destination over the years, as it offers tropical weather, warm hospitality, secluded white sand beaches and a unique culture. The area is particularly known for its diving and snorkeling because off the coast of Quintana Roo lies the second largest coral reef in the world, the Great Mayan Reef, which is home to over 5,000 species.

There are several eco-archaeological parks in the region, which provide prime opportunities for visitors to have unparalleled environmental experiences, and each beach is a paradise for water sports. At Maroma, rated the number one beach in the world by the Travel Channel, the activities range from deep sea fishing and scuba diving to speed boat racing and jet skiing. On land, visitors can ride ATVs through the jungle, take a horseback ride down the beach or simply soak up the dazzling rays. I ate the best fresh seafood ceviche here while sitting under a palapas (thatched hut) and listening to local musicians play traditional favorites.

At Xcaret, one of the eco-parks in the region, I had another first-time experience. Xcaret is all about water, preservation of the environment and cultural restoration. Here, you can see colorful macaws and flamingos, observe mammoth sea turtles and manatees, catch lazy crocodiles pretending to sleep in mangrove swamps and watch spider monkeys get into mischief, as well as explore a bat cave or even try to count the hundreds of iguanas that roam the park.

Water, in lagoons, pools, the bay and underground rivers, is definitely a featured attraction, but it’s the dolphin program that caught my attention. I had always wanted to swim with these playful creatures because they have fascinated me ever since I was a young girl. To be able to have an up-close and personal encounter with them exceeded all my expectations.

Travel writer Deborah Stone gets a kiss from Fanny the bottle-nosed dolphin.
Maya and Fanny, two friendly mother and daughter bottle-nosed dolphins with that famous perpetual “smile,” swam around me, nudging me with their bodies and encouraging me to stroke them on their undersides. I was amazed at their muscular definition and at the silky smoothness of their skin. They also truly seemed to relish the human contact and socialization opportunity.

After the trainers gave the pair a number of tasks to do to demonstrate their keen intelligence, everyone in my group got the chance to have the dolphins take them for a ride. As I lay face down in the water, remembering to keep my body rigid, Fanny and Maya swam around to my rear and pushed against my feet, propelling me through and up out of the water. It was an exhilarating ride that was over way too soon. A final kiss and hug opportunity with Fanny was the icing on the cake for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Xcaret also offers visitors the essence of Mexico through its cultural programs. There’s a model Mayan village where you can watch local artisans working at their crafts and throughout the park, at various times of the day, opportunities abound to see performances of traditional dances and rituals. One of the most spectacular shows is the Papantla Flyers, an all-male group who perform a Mayan ritual dedicated to fertility and the sun god. As the Big Chief plays his reed flute and pounds his drums, four men, in colorful red and white clothing, climb up a tall pole and take their positions at its four corners.

The flyers, who are each tethered, leap off the platform and swing around the pole thirteen times (13 times four is 52 – the number of years in the pre-Hispanic cycle), descending lower and lower until they reach the ground.

At night, Xcaret comes alive with the Mexican Folkloric Ballet, a festive pageantry of music, song and dance representing the different states of Mexico.

On another day, I visited Xel Ha, a well-known water theme park in the region. Once again, I opted to try something new and this time, it was the Sea Trek. I liken this experience to taking a moon walk in a blue planet. Wearing a 60-pound space-age helmet, I descended, with the help of divers, to the bottom of the sea. The helmet provided a continuous flow of oxygen, allowing me to breathe normally underwater, while keeping my face and hair completely dry.

My group of six proceeded to walk along the sea floor, holding onto a handrail to guide our way, while we gazed in wonder at the sea life swimming around us. The divers brought stingray over for us to touch and pointed out various treasures in our midst.

A sucker fish sucked on the palm of my hand, while other little fish nibbled at my fingers. I felt like an undersea astronaut exploring a whole new world. Another memorable first!

Riviera Maya is also the site of several ancient Mayan ruins. Tulum, one of the more famous of these sites, is the only Mayan fortress built by the sea. This walled city was used by the Mayans as their port of entry for Caribbean goods and as an important ceremonial center.

To visit Tulum is to travel through a time machine. Walking around the temples and examining the frescoes depicting Mayan gods and symbols of nature’s fertility gives one the opportunity to learn more about pre-Hispanic life.

The buildings date back to A.D. 564 and at the highest point on the site, the Castillo, or castle, sits, commanding imposing views in every direction. Although visitors can wander around on their own, I highly suggest taking a tour to get the full historical background of this unique place.

Upon return to my hotel, I decided to check out some of the property’s on-site activities. A salsa dance class got my attention, as I saw it as a chance to put my two left feet in motion. If I had any hopes, though, of coming home and taking the salsa world by storm, they were quickly erased as soon as the lesson began.

Remembering the steps was a challenge in itself, especially for someone who is directionally dyslexic, but then the instructors encouraged everyone to “feel the music in your body and just let go.” Pandemonium in the form of a Latin mosh pit ensued, as people took the instructors’ words literally. I emerged black and blue, dripping in sweat, with the realization that perhaps the subtle nuances of this step had evaded me.

After that, I was perfectly happy lounging in a hammock on the resort’s picturesque Punta Brava Beach. And when my stomach began to grumble, I knew I could take my taste buds for a whirl at one of the hotel’s seven gourmet restaurants or head off the property to dine at the many choice eateries in the area. Riviera Maya is a world-class destination with top-rated hotels, offering a winning combination of history, natural beauty and exciting adventures. So, the next time my limbs begin to rust and moss has become a second skin, I’ll simply say “adios Seattle” and head to this south-of-the-border paradise.

Note: Although Hurricanes Emily and Wilma caused large scale destruction to parts of this region (particularly Cancun), massive efforts have been made to rebuild and at the time this writer visited the area, substantial signs of recovery could be seen. The Cancun Tourism Board expects most, if not all its hotel properties to be fully functioning by early spring.

Women’s ski camp boosts confidence, builds skill

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Lone Mountain is the epitome of a grand western ranch
I’ve never considered myself very athletic. It’s not that I’m in poor shape. I discipline myself to workout on a regular basis and I’m always game to try new activities, but I’ve never quite found my inner athlete.

Being surrounded by competitive males in my family probably hasn’t helped. Whenever we engage in an active outdoor pursuit, I’m usually the one lagging behind, struggling to keep up with my clan. And when I wipe out or have one of those embarrassing moments that shows off my less-than-stellar coordination, I know I’ve just created another memorable “Mom story” that will be repeated ad nauseum.

I take my family’s good-natured ribbing in stride, realizing that I’m up against a tough audience who cuts me no slack. But every once in awhile, I wonder what it would be like to be with a warm and fuzzy group who won’t ridicule my feeble attempts or make fun of my tortoise pace.

Enter the women’s camp, a place where the female species can learn a new sport or improve upon their skills without worrying about how their male counterparts will view them.

In the past several years, these camps have been popping up all over the place, offering gals the chance to tackle everything from surfing to rock climbing, within some of the most scenic natural environments around the world. Most employ the attitude that women want to play hard during the day and relax in a comfy setting with all the amenities at night.

I have always wanted to be a better cross-country skier. Not having had any formal lessons, I never quite learned proper technique for this sport, yet I always managed to have fun while doing it and get a great total body workout in the process. But I longed to be a better and more efficient skier — one who was able to glide effortlessly down the trails and approach hills without dread.

The opportunity to improve my skills among a kinder, gentler audience presented itself in the form of Lone Mountain Ranch’s Women’s Nordic Camp. Just an hour south of Bozeman, Mont., in the shadow of Big Sky, is an enchanting enclave where escapism is at its best. Set on 160 pristine acres of Montana wilderness amid the Spanish Peak Range, Lone Mountain is the epitome of a grand western ranch complete with cozy lodgepole-pine cabins, massive stone fireplaces, elk antler chandeliers, log furnishings and Native American décor.

The place has a rich history and heritage of western hospitality. It was first homesteaded in 1915 and over the years it has served as a logging camp, a boys’ ranch and finally a guest ranch, which has been under the ownership of the Schaap family since 1977.

Lone Mountain is a ranch for all seasons with activities to satisfy the many outdoor passions of its guests. In the milder months, it’s a Mecca for hiking, horseback riding, fly fishing and whitewater rafting, but in the winter, when the area is blessed with a consistent snowfall, it’s a cross-country skier’s paradise. With over 80 professionally groomed kilometers of gently rolling meadows, exhilarating downhills and lung-clearing climbs, guests can find trails to match their ability levels and ski to their hearts’ content.

Three times a year, in December, January and March, the ranch offers a women’s camp focusing on boosting participants’ confidence on cross-country skis. Women of all ages come from around the country to take part in this experience, which emphasizes a positive, supportive learning environment.

Throughout the five-day, six-night camp, you get to ski with a staff of certified instructors who conduct all-day instructional sessions devoted to various aspects of the sport. You work on balance, control, speed, turns and negotiating hills, and are able to practice classic cross-country skiing, as well as get a taste of skate skiing.

In addition, you have the opportunity to try out new equipment and find the gear that fits you best. There are also opportunities to take a guided snowcoach tour into the interior of Yellowstone National Park (only 18 miles from the ranch) and go back-country skiing within the park. Yellowstone in the winter is magical and full of hidden wonders that summer visitors never see. Deep snow clings to every surface and geysers erupt into azure skies, with animals posing around every corner. It’s breathtaking. And snowcoaches are the best way to see these marvels.

The climate-controlled, fully enclosed vehicles are equipped with caterpillar treads that offer visitors a comfortable and convenient method of experiencing this majestic natural playground.

Back at the lodge, evenings are spent leisurely listening to live music in the Horsefly Saloon, while sipping on such tasty libations as Mama Viv’s Hot Buttered Rum, or attending various presentations (slide shows and naturalist lectures about the area, ski tuning methods) in the B-K Guest Lounge.

There’s even a sleigh ride dinner that takes guests through the snow-covered pines to a lovely, lantern-lit cabin in the woods. There you’ll get prime rib cooked the old-fashioned way on a century-old wood-burning stove and if you’re lucky, you’ll get to hear Walkin’ Jim Stoltz sing and tell stories of his extensive wilderness experience. This memorable evening truly encapsulates the romance of the West.

When you’re feeling a bit sore from all the skiing, head for the outdoor hot tub where you can soak under the stars. There’s also a massage therapist available to soothe those aching muscles (the Feel Good Feet Treats massage is true bliss!), as well as on-site yoga classes.

For sustenance, you won’t get the proverbial ranch-style meals of baked beans and BBQ. Instead, you’ll savor creatively prepared gourmet fare in a handsome log dining lodge amid the ambiance of a roaring fire.

One night there was a choice of bison flank steak or salmon with spinach in a puffed pastry, accompanied by oven roasted potatoes, parsnips and rutabagas, and topped off with huckleberry baked Alaska.

A trailside lunch another day consisted of shrimp and veggie kebobs, marinated teriyaki ginger beef, salads and homemade peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. My appetite was enormous after skiing all day and I ate heartily, knowing that it was easy to torch the calories with all the exercise I was doing.

Mealtimes presented a great opportunity to compare ski experiences with the other women in my group. The seven of us formed one close-knit bond, as we shared everything from our triumphs and upsets on the trails to the best types of clothing to layer for insulation against the cold. Most of all, we laughed. The fact that we came from different parts of the country, with varying backgrounds, and had never met before, meant little. The common link was our shared passion for skiing and more importantly, the fact that we were all women.

While skiing, we gave each other support and encouragement to meet new challenges and surmount both mental and physical obstacles.

The Lone Mountain ski staff, a gung-ho group of young, athletic men and women were equally supportive, as well as highly enthusiastic about their jobs. They were positive, upbeat and genuine individuals with a wealth of knowledge about the sport. And they definitely knew how to use humor as an effective instructional tool!

After learning and practicing everything from the easiest way to put on skis to the most effective way to navigate hills, I felt so much more in control out on the trails and was actually able to loosen up and develop a comfortable rhythm to my glide.

All of this knowledge and experience, however, did not come pain free and though I sustained several colorful bruises in the process, I wore these badges of courage with pride.

There were times when I thought I couldn’t go up another hill because my quads were screaming and every other part of my body was crying “uncle.” And there were other moments when I stood at the top of a steep, winding hill trying to work up the guts to head down, knowing there was an excellent chance I would wipe out along the way. But when I took those not-so-graceful tumbles, no one made fun of me.

Instead, they encouraged me to get right back up and ready myself for the next challenge. And so I persevered and when I triumphed, after banishing my insecurities and fears, I had six other women to help me celebrate my accomplishments. I basked within the glow of this positive environment, which not only boosted my self-confidence, but opened the door to my inner athlete.

Rewind Langley style

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_001It’s only a 20-minute ferry ride from Seattle, but Whidbey Island feels worlds away. This place of towering trees and sparkling coves, set between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympics to the west, is an ideal all-season getaway. Treasures abound in each nook and cranny of this special haven and discovering them is part of the fun.

I’ve enjoyed exploring this island over the years and have made numerous visits to its charming, picturesque waterfront towns.

Of these, Langley shines the brightest. This gem on the southern end of Whidbey is a quaint, visitor-oriented community with a thriving arts scene, great restaurants and an eclectic array of shops. Many artists make their home here and their creativity adds a colorful, dynamic flair to the town. You can see it in the galleries and in the distinctive handmade items that are featured in the distinctive stores and boutiques. And you can even experience it live at one of the many dance, music or theatre performances held at the Whidbey Island Center for the Arts. This rich culture dominates and it is what continues to inspire folks with unique talents and backgrounds to make their homes here.

Langley’s vibrant arts scene, however, is not the only reason to visit this pint-size village. Come for the peace and serenity, the languid pace of life and the opportunities the area offers to appreciate the great outdoors.

You can walk the shoreline, look for resident populations of bald eagles, herons and sea lions, spot migrating gray whales or a pod of orcas feeding in the waters off the island, ride your bike down quiet country roads or simply sit and do nothing except gaze out over the sea from your deck chair or waterfront- view room.

The island boasts the highest density of bed & breakfast inns in Washington, which means you have a wide range of accommodations from which to choose.

Inn_at_Langley_Whidbey_Island_003I recommend taking refuge at the intimate Inn at Langley. Built into a bluff overlooking the Saratoga Passage, the inn offers guests a ringside seat to the ebb and flow of the tides, the parade of boats that pass by and the endless sights and sounds of the wildlife that frolic in and around their marine playground.

Each one of the 26 guest rooms and cottages has a panoramic 180-degree waterfront view, as well as a whirl-bath jetted tub that faces the sea. From your own private deck, you can watch the sun rise above the mountains on the mainland and set over the Passage. And if it’s a tad bit chilly for an outdoor seat, cozy up to the fireplace and watch Mother Nature in all her glory through the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. When you get hungry, there are plenty of options.

For a real treat, try the Inn’s special six-course dinner (served weekends only). Chef Matt Costello orchestrates this unique gourmand dining experience in The Chef’s Kitchen. Each menu presents the freshest selections that the region has to offer, with special attention paid to local foods of the island and the Northwest. Dishes change continually to reflect the seasons.

Diners have a front and center view of Costello in action, as he whips up his magic in the open kitchen setting.

Take a walk around town and check out Langley’s historic buildings and pocket parks by the beach. Make sure to stop in at Chocolate Flower Farm’s The Garden Shed. It’s one of my favorite places for distinctive gifts with a "chocolate twist."

And if you’re a bibliophile, you’re in luck. Langley boasts four bookstores, including two that specialize in rare books (Gregor Rare Books and Lowry-James). Other interesting shops to peek into include Music for the Eyes, a "museum" of textiles collected from around the world by former diplomats for the State Department;

Museo, a contemporary fine art gallery that showcases island and regional artwork; Virginia’s Antiques and Gifts; and The Star Store, an eclectic country mercantile.

To prevent you from shopping ‘til you drop, grab nourishment at one of the many cafes in town. I’m partial to The Café Langley for Mediterranean cuisine, The Fish Bowl for fresh seafood, Langley Village Bakery for everything from warm blueberry muffins to vegetarian pizza and Useless Bay Coffee Company for great coffee, scones and breakfast paninis.

Wander back to The Inn at Langley, and remember, you’re on island time.

If you go:

The Inn at Langley:

Langley tourist information:

Whidbey Island information: