Heading South for Christmas

For a while there, it looked as if our flight might be delayed or cancelled for weather. Freezing rain warnings prompted us to make an early start on the drive to Winnipeg, even though we were already set up to go the day before our flight. Roads were damp, the air misty, but we did not see any real freezing precipitation until we neared the city. Aside from going through a lot of windshield-washer fluid, it wasn’t too bad.

Our first stop in the city was a shoe-repair place, to arrange for crepe outsoles to be bonded to Caroline’s mukluks. I bought them for her in Kingfisher last year, and they’re amazing. Far more brightly coloured than the mass-produced ones that have suddenly become popular, they attract attention everywhere she wears them. But the deerskin soles took a beating on concrete sidewalks last winter, and we actually ended up sending them all the way to Fort Severn for repairs. I know that’s crazy, but she met some people from there at work, and it turned out one of them did beadwork. So the deerskin got patched with caribou hide, which is tougher, but they recommended Caroline do what the jingle-dancers do to protect their nice moccasins: crepe-rubber soles. Asked about them at the shoe-repair place, and not only did the guy know what we meant, he had a pair of mukluks waiting for pickup that he had just done. Caroline’s will be ready in early January.

Popped in at Polo Park to pick up a couple of things we needed for the trip, and had one of those moments when you realize what you forgot to bring. As I slipped off my shoes in a change-room, it hit me that the last-minute decision to wear jeans and boots because of the sloppy weather meant that I should have packed my athletic shoes. In Plan A, they were on my feet. They were essential for walking in Mexico. So there I was in Winnipeg’s largest mall, days before Christmas, buying a pair of Skechers.

Checked in at the Best Western near the airport, and had a little rest before heading out to meet our friend Donna for dinner. We chose Teo’s Mano a Mano for this – it’s reasonably close to our hotel, and Donna can walk there from her Osborne Village condo.

Mano a Mano has changed their menu, and we were disappointed. Both our favourite pizzas are gone. We ordered others, but neither of us enjoyed them nearly as much. The tomato sauce on my Pugliese was too salty, and applied with a heavy hand. Caroline liked the toppings on her Stagioni, but not the way they were separated into quadrants. The oven-fired crust is still awesome, and the Insalata Misto is still one of the best salads out there, but there is no longer a pizza to bring me back.

Up at 0300 to get ready for our flight. Yes, Virginia, there is a three in the morning. It just feels unreal. Muzzy and unfocused – no wait, that’s the freezing fog and drizzle. It’s lifted a bit since last night, when two departing flights from Winnipeg were cancelled, but it’s not great.

Easy check-in at WestJet, then stumbled over to Stella’s for breakfast in the terminal. They have real food, and they open early. I managed to enjoy a mushroom and Swiss omelette at four in the morning, but Caroline’s stomach requires more advance notice.

While we were eating, the line-up for security grew much longer. It didn’t really matter, we had plenty of time, but ugh. Caroline wore the wrong thing. Her top has a neckline bordered with flat white beads that look exactly like chiclets. Apparently they do not X-ray well, so she had to have a pat-down. She won’t be wearing that top to travel by air again.

I expected our flight to be delayed by the need for de-icing, but it was delayed by a panic attack. A nervous flyer refused to get on, and they had to extract her bags. She will miss her vacation with her husband and son. She did take a calming medication (perhaps Atavan, the stuff they give you if you are too claustrophobic for an MRI scan) but she left it too late. The stuff takes an hour or more to fully kick in. I hope she had someone in Winnipeg to give her a ride, because after the flight left and the stress vanished, she probably couldn’t keep her eyes open.

The flight was uneventful, and our row had one of the very few empty spots, so we spread out and used the center seat for a coffee table.

The terminal in Puerto Vallarta was practically deserted. Apart from the unusual sight of a dog taking a crap in the concourse, things went very smoothly. Yes, the owners of the dog cleaned it up. Good thing the terminal here runs to polished stone floors, not carpet. Immigration lady pleasant, and she actually smiled when I wished her a Feliz Navidad. Our bags came through quickly and we scored a green light at customs, so we were out in the sunshine in record time.

One of the nice things about the Hilton in PVR is that it’s quite close to the airport, so no prolonged taxi ride. I fully expected to be told it would be two or three hours before our room was available, but they checked us straight in at noon. Sweet!

We are on the eighth floor, so the we will spend a lot of time waiting for elevators. This is a great way to meet people. Yes, I start conversations with strangers, it’s one of my flaws. “Partial Ocean View” means about what I thought it did. If you stand at one end of the balcony, you can see a bit of the beach between the buildings. Also, there is a rhythmic rumbling noise from the ventilation duct in the bathroom, so at night it sounds like the monster in the closet is purring, loudly. But the bed is comfy and the desk is huge, and those are the things we value most in a hotel room.

Internet is free in the lobby and so on, but there is a fee if you wish to go online in your room. Last year we scored a room directly over the lobby, and had free wifi on the balcony. (WOOT!) No such luck from the top floor, but I found out that if you book a whole week of wifi, it’s only about six bucks a day. At home, that would get you a coffee, but not a glass of wine. Here, the coffee and wine are free, and I don’t mind paying for an internet connection. Makes it way easier to blog if you don’t have to guess the URLs of the restaurants. Also, I will need my email, as I have homework coming. I’m taking an online writing course from Odyssey in January, and our first reading assignment is supposed to show up any day now.

Spent the afternoon poking around the hotel and walking on the beach. Ate supper in the Seafire, the hotel’s buffet restaurant. I actually prefer it to the a la carte restaurants on the property. Some guests complain that the buffet is too limited, but it depends on what kind of food you expect. If you came to Mexico but wanted to eat the same as if you were in America, you might be disappointed. Saturday night’s buffet is Mexican themed, and the hot line had tortilla soup, Mexican rice, puntas de res (tenderloin tips in a sauce), fish Veracruz style (olives and veggies on top), Pollo en mole (chicken in spicy brown sauce), nopales crema (cactus and corn in a cream sauce), and so on. We thought it was great, and lingered over soup, salad, entree and dessert courses.

Early to bed, on account of three in the morning hasn’t forgiven us yet.

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Back Home

Four nights is too short a visit.  We’re back home, and tomorrow we both return to work.  Trip home departed right on time and arrived back in Winnipeg a few minutes early.

We would definitely stay at the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta again.  We liked the small size and friendly service, and it was nice having the same Hilton touches as at home, especially the nice soft mattress.  Many Mexican hotels seem to mistake hardness for quality, and I’ve spent weeks with hips aching from beds as hard as balsa wood.

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We never did find out where the house wine actually came from; the label only revealed that it was imported by a company based near Cancun.  I should add that we finally got around to tasting the Merlot and found it foxy and harsh.  The Shiraz and the Cabernet were better. Not award-winning better, or Robert Parker better, but drinkable.

Some other thoughts on the hotel. I thought the selection and quality of food at the Seafire, the buffet restaurant, was fine.  However, it was not busy at night, whereas La Delice, the French a la carte dining room was always pretty full.  We never got around to eating there, so I cannot say if the popularity is justified.  I used to hate buffets, but now that I am paying close attention to my diet, and particularly my carb intake, buffets work well for me.  The Seafire always had good Mexican items and good fish.  Perhaps the people that chose other places to eat were looking more for meat and potatoes, pasta or pizza type meals.  On ‘International Night’ I was disappointed in the Beef Wellington (this dish should never be kept warm on a buffet line) but delighted by the pork tenderloin in berry sauce.  The salad bar always had a dependable array of basics, plus one or two original dishes each meal.  Examples of the latter were a mustard-tinged potato salad one night and a salad of apples, bananas and walnut pieces (not positive they were walnuts) another.

Breakfast was good.  I favored Mexican dishes such as chilaquiles and sopes, but there was always at least one omelet of the day ready-made in addition to the short-order cook who would do one to order for you. Good selection of fruits, no diet yogurt. Caroline said the pancakes were rubbery.  That’s probably another dish that doesn’t tend to do well on a steam table. My biggest grumble at breakfast was that the coffee, although delicious, was seldom hot; sometimes it was very warm, sometimes it wasn’t.

The Seafire also served lunch, but we only ate that meal there a couple of times. We favored Mexican choices such as beef with nopales.  Once we went downtown for a nostalgic visit to Cafe de Olla, and once we had a burger craving and went to the beachfront cafe. Burgers were good, brick oven pizza looked great, nachos were pathetic.

There is a sushi bar (O’West) at the rooftop pool.  Caroline thought the sushi too vinegary, I was repelled by the number of smokers. Smoking in restaurants seems so last century now.  We did most of our snacking at the Seafire.  We enjoyed the service, especially from Viktor in the mornings, and Mario and Emerson in the evenings.  Luis was new to his job, still in his first week, so he will probably grow into it by next winter. Maybe we’ll see him then, we’d like to go back.

Music & Dance

We had a good night last night, but other guests suffered; there was a big wedding on the hotel’s beachfront.  Preparations began yesterday with a gang of roadies erecting a large stage to serve as the banquet area. The first clue that loud music might last into the night were the complementary earplugs left by the maid. This morning I met a man who went entirely without sleep in his oceanfront suite. Our room has a view of the lobby’s rooftop watertank, and is as far from the beach as it is possible to get, so we didn’t hear a thing until 0500 when the wedding guests went to bed. Also, internet in the rooms costs extra, but I can pick up the free lobby wifi on our balcony. Score!

Except now my tablet refuses to connect (technically, it fails to ‘associate’, but that doesn’t suggest any course of action to me beyond gritting my teeth) so today I am blogging on my smartphone.

It was Mexican Night at the Seafire buffet restaurant last night, with a good spread.  Caroline gravitated toward the Veracruz fish, which she said was excellent, and I was pleasantly surprised by the chicken in Mole sauce.  [Note: now I’ve moved to one of the hotel’s computers for final edit and I cannot find the Character Map on the Spanish Windows menus, so you’ll have to excuse the lack of an accent on ‘Mole’.]  In my previous post about this Hilton, I said I was not getting my hopes up about the wine, but it is better than I thought it would be.  It far outshines the coarse, acidic plonk they gave us at the RIU last year, and they have a choice of at least two whites, a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, and I think Caroline was offered a Pinot Gris once.  For red wines, there seem to be at least three; a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Merlot and a Shiraz.  All six wines are from the same South American winery, Vina Aldea, and they must buy it by the truckload, because they are not stingy with it, even though it’s free.

Anyway, there was an exhibit of ‘folkloric dancing’, which means that four engergetic young dancers whirled around for a full hour, taking breaks only for quick costume changes to represent the Mexican states of Michoacan, Sinaloa, Aguas Calientes, Chihuahua and Jalisco. I got dragged up for the Conga Line, and I cannot even use drunkenness as an excuse.  Caroline shot some video on her iPhone, but if I ever find it on You-tube, she’ll be celebrating our next anniverssary in a singles bar.

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This picture was taken on my morning walk.  Got tired of the buses, so got out on the sand today.  Much more tranquil.

Weekend in Mexico

I’m sitting by the beach in Puerto Vallarta today. We had not planned to visit Mexico this winter, but the brutal and endless cold changed our minds. Besides, it was Caroline’s birthday yesterday and our anniversary today or tomorrow, depending on how you reckon things when it is not a leap-year.

Although we have some time constraints, we found that we could come down for just a few days if we flew on WestJet, making the southbound trip via Calgary on Thursday, and returning directly to Winnipeg on Monday.  So Caroline got airline food for her birthday dinner!

The trip has been reasonably uneventful – planes were both running about quarter of an hour late.  Immigration and Customs in PVR were both free of queues.  We were a little too hasty disembarking our taxi at the Hilton, and left our one carry-on bag in the back of  the cab.  Much gnashing of Caroline’s teeth ensued, but our hotel security chief took us to review the security cam recording, enabling us to confirm that the bag was not lifted from the lobby.  A phone call to our WestJet rep resulted in the taxi returning with the overlooked bag (and a manager from the cab company).  Reunited with her tablet, her winter jacket and her Ventalin(tm), Caroline’s mood recovered.

A few words about the hotel.  Sidenote: although I am a regular contributor to Trip Advisor, I do not review hotels there, as Caroline works for a Best Western, and this might give the appearance of bias.  So on Trip Advisor, I only review restaurants and attractions.  In my blog, I comment on hotels, but I do not grade them.  Anyway, back to the Hilton in Puerto Vallarta.  Caroline likes that it’s not huge, as she is directionally challenged.  If you are looking for a place with vast pool areas and nightclubs, this is not for you.  It is an all-inclusive resort, and it is not of the same scale as say, the Riu or the Paladium.  The buffet restaurant is more modest, for instance.  On the other hand, they have not turfed me for hogging a table near the poolside to set up my tablet and blog.  I use a 12″ tablet PC (Asus Slate) with a nearly full-sized keyboard, so I stand out from the herds with their i-Pads.  This makes me look like either a serious writer or a serious dork geek.

Regular readers of my blog, and there are nearly a handful, will recall that I am prone to going for a walk in the morning.  Today, we walked down the main road as far as the Mega store, about half an hour each way.  This took us past the Villa del Palmar, a hotel we stayed at once in the past.  It has been a long time since this part of Vallarta was in the sticks, but we remember when the Pemex gas station was a temporary facility on a dirt lot with the fuel in tank-stands.  I do not have the cable to connect my phone, but I will try to remember to post a picture of the hotel’s driveway.  It is adorned with a row of fake golden boulders with just a faintly discernible face engraved on each one.  From the back, they look like baked potatoes standing on end, so I have christened the street ‘Avenida de los Papas’.

Avenue of the Baked Potatoes

Avenue of the
Baked Potatoes

Stand by for more info on the food and wine.  I do not have much hope for the latter, as all-inclusive hotels in Mexico usually have to control costs by offering modest Argentine or Chilean house wines (some kind of South American free trade agreement makes it hard for Mexican wines to compete.  If only US wines were allowed to undercut Canadian ones like that!)  The sushi  bar is supposed to be good, and that makes sense given the availability of fresh seafood here, but it makes me marvel at how small the world has become.  All food is ‘fusion food’ now.  It always was, I suppose, going back to when the Italians adopted tomatoes from the Americas.  Apparently the notion that Marco Polo brought pasta back from China is more legend than fact, or I would bang my gavel and rest my case.  But hey, Swiss Chocolate – that’s from the new world, too. Continue reading