It’s difficult to describe the cultural whiplash, the immaculate jet set disorientation, that accompanies any traveller finding themselves in Bora Bora one day, and Sudbury Ontario a few days after that. As usual, I’m going to give it a go.
It was my first time in French Polynesia, although the coconut islands of Tahiti, Mo’orea and Bora Bora have long haunted my dreams, having featured in the pages of a paradise calendar that I cut out and plastered across my dorm room wall. I’d long heard about lagoons so clear you’d think the sea was an infinity pool, about beaches that squeak and opulent overwater villas. In truth, a week in the Maldives had made this nothing new. I’d also encountered Polynesian culture before through travels to New Zealand, Hawaii and the Cook Islands. I’d even explored the oddness of a French Overseas Territory before, on the island of New Caledonia in the Pacific and the Atlantic island of St Pierre and Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland. Yet it’s the people you meet who create the paradise you find, and the people you travel with too.
Researching a story for an upcoming Islands and Wellness issue of Dreamscapes Magazine, I had set sail to capture the essence of multi-generational travel, how knowledge and attitude is transferred through experience. Joining me on this assignment was my mom and my daughter, completing a three-generation arc. We’d travelled together before, on a fantastic cruise around Atlantic Canada which resulted in a wonderful story for the Vancouver Sun, save for one critical detail: the cruise company went bankrupt shortly after our trip. Our days aboard One Ocean’s RCGS Resolute exploring Sable Island, Gros Morne National Park, St Pierre and the Magdalen Islands - and kitchen party nights in the ship lounge with the wonderful Barra MacNeils of Cape Breton - was truly a once-in-a-lifetime deal. On the other side of Covid, the time felt right to find a new ship, a different ocean, and see if magic can repeat itself.
Cruising on a small ship is a world away from cruising on a big ship. I learned this on the Star Flyer in the Caribbean, on the Scenic Eclipse down the coast of South America, and onboard the Wind Spirit as we anchor in Mo’orea surrounded by the island’s sharp granite peaks. Unveiled in 1988 as one of Windstar’s original vessels, the old girl – as her affable captain referred to her – is a beautiful ship: four towering masts, a fantastic crew, plenty of water toys, and just the right mix of luxury and adventure. We shared a cabin on the lower deck, and as the only child on the ship, my daughter quickly stole the show, running about as if she owned the boat. We visited a vanilla plantation and pearl farm, hired a scooter to circle Bora Bora (twice), kayaked and stand-up paddle boarded, and took advantage of some of the best snorkelling on the planet. Chats with the kids about shark conservation bore fruit when I watched my daughter jump into the sea with dozens of black-tip reef sharks, the first passenger to do so. The next day, my mom was molested by lovable stingrays in search of a cuddle. We listened to local storytellers, devoured fresh tropical fruit, did the cha-cha on the pool deck, and conversed with a diversity of personalities from around the world.
A few days later - luggage successfully retrieved after being lost in-transit between Tahiti, Los Angeles and Vancouver - I took my second red-eye of the week to catch an early morning flight from Toronto to Sudbury. The last time I was in the Big Nickel was for a book tour in 2013, when I spoke at the local Chapters bookshop. This time I had arrived to deliver a closing keynote at the Travel Media Association of Canada’s Annual Conference, which gathered over 200 of the country’s top travel writers, PR pros, influ..content creators, destination marketing organizations, and other professionals that make the business of travel media tick. It’s one of the few opportunities my profession has for stories to be told and sold, for connections to be forged, and destinations to be discovered. Workshops and panels inspire professional and personal development, and this year’s host city of Sudbury put on a show for our travelling circus.
Still bombed from the red-eye, I could have fallen asleep on the bed of nails inside the excellent and interactive Science North centre (a few minutes in the gyroscope woke me up and turned me green). An outstanding meal at the highly-rated Kouzzina was the first time I’ve had my appetite for carpaccio truly satiated. The event was an opportunity to reconnect with colleagues I haven’t seen since the pandemic, all of us bearing a few scars of that fever dream. It was an opportunity to chat about our industry, to learn, to gossip, to grow, and to plan the adventures you’ll be hearing about in the future. It was also an opportunity to taste fine Irish Whiskey (courtesy Tourism Ireland) and participate in the best karaoke party this side of Osaka. Sabrina Robson of Destination BC belts a version of Amy Winehouse’s Valerie that kicked up a storm and left the veteran karaoke DJ speechless. I did my part with perhaps the best karaoke performance of my career: Home for a Rest by Spirit of the West was simply the right song, delivered at the right time, for the right crowd.
My closing keynote addressed the past, present and future of travel media. I told everyone that we’ve been at the crossroads of change for so long I’m surprised nobody’s opened up a hotel resort at the intersection to take advantage of it. I looked back to the remote and recent past, discussing the transformations of mediums, the growth of tourism, overtourism, and the challenges and opportunities awaiting us around the corner. Stitched throughout was my own journey, discovering how to travel as an awkward teenager (Lawless Rebel!), learning how the media works as a student, and how I used curiosity to recognize potential. My goal was to celebrate our unique profession, and celebrate our good fortune to live and work in Canada. Receiving a standing ovation from my peers, colleagues and friends was truly humbling, making Sudbury yet another trip I’ll remember for a lifetime. Proving yet again: a bucket list experience is only as special as the people you share it with.
When I was a teenager, my parents gave me an “islands of the world” calendar featuring 12 months of impossibly turquoise water. You know, the ones with coconut trees bending over a white sandy beaches. I’d cut out the photos, taping them to the walls on my bedroom, dreamily staring at them long after the months ran out, and a new calendar arrived. The islands had wonderfully exotic sounding names: The Maldives, Tahiti, Seychelles, and my favourite, Mauritius. Something about the way it rolled off the tongue.
It was no short flight to get to Mauritius. Located 900km east of Madagascar, it is a tear drop tropical island home to 1.2 million people, mostly descendants of Indians brought over by the British to work on sugarcane plantations. Since independence in 1968, the official language of Mauritius is English, everyone speaks Creole, and reads and writes in French, a throwback to its French colonial days. Not that I paid too much attention, soaking in my first warm summer night, and an all-night Creole celebration outside the capital of Port Louis. At last, I was invading those dog-eared photos on my old bedroom wall.
As one the most popular honeymoon and holiday destinations for French, German and British tourists, the island has around 100 resorts, primarily congregated in the north and west. I headed south, a region that is slowly shifting away from sugarcane into exclusive golf courses and luxury villas. Like other tropical islands, Mauritius is refocusing its resources on tourism to offset declining sugar prices. The Heritage Le Telfair Resort is part of four properties developed under the same locally-owned hotel group, oozing old world service. Every night, I dug my toes in the sand watching a picture perfect sunset, as one is prone to do on island escapes. A short golf cart ride away is the Villas Valriche, where foreigners can purchase luxury 4 bedroom villas overlooking a stunning 27-hole golf course. While you can expect to shell out a couple million dollars for the privilege, it comes with handy Mauritian citizenship. Sell your villa however, and you lose your passport.
On a boat cruise to the nearby Ile de Coco, a pod of Spinner dolphins are practicing their aerial gymnastics. In the distance, I see a mountain called Le Morne, where escaped slaves took refuge, and preferred to jump to their death rather than be captured. The captain plucks spiny sea urchins off the shallow lagoon floor, cuts them open, cleaned them out, and hands them to me with a dash of white wine and lemon juice. Seafood never tasted so good. Like other Mauritians I’d met, the Captain was cheery and good-natured, sporting a white toothy watermelon smile. He tells me about Snake Island (which is round and has no snakes) and Round Island (which has snakes and isn’t round). That people here leave their religion at home, which is how Hindus, Muslims and Christians co-exist peacefully. How 70% of the staff in the resorts springing up in the south are from neighbouring villages. Creole pop music is blasting from the speakers. I crack another cold Stag beer, knowing it can’t be that simple. A small white minority own most of the land, there are traffic jams every day inside Port Louis, and basic goods can be pricey, imported from as far away as Australia and South Africa.
I took a break from the beach to visit a roadside attraction called Casela, a bird and safari park, where I petted lion cubs and drifted amongst zebra on an offroad Segway. Around me were honeymooners and families, the Euros loving their ultimate tropical island getaway. I could drive from south to north in just three hours, leaving the mountains for the traffic of Port Louis, and the more developed north. Here I found resorts with rows of couples facing each other over candlelight at poolside restaurants. Fortunately, my wife was with me, because this is really not an island you want to experience on your own (nor does it appear to cater much to singles or backpackers).
At this time of year, there are enough snowflakes falling in Canada to inspire a visit to any tropical island. Unless you fly via hubs like Dubai, Paris or London, Mauritius might yet remain one of those elusive calendar dreams, brightening up an office wall. Perhaps, if we dream big enough, we might one day yet find ourselves under the shade of a coconut tree.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.