OMG! I was on OWG’s inaugural flight – here’s how it went

It’s not often you get to fly on the inaugural flight of a brand new airline. So you can imagine my excitement when I got to do just that on Dec. 18. Not only would I be flying on OWG’s (Off We Go) first flight ever, but I would also be on the very first flight back to Santa Clara from Canada since Cuba closed its borders in March.

The new Montreal-based airline, a division of Nolinor Aviation, has partnered with tour operator Hola Sun (Caribe Sol in Quebec) to exclusively operate flights to Cuba. The inaugural flew from YUL to YYZ, and on to SNU. Hugo Rocha, Sales Director at Hola Sun, tells me the tour operator plans to expand the destinations offered in Cuba throughout the season.

The aircraft (a Boeing 737-400 with 158 seats) is sleek, colourful and stunning. The livery is navy blue and red with “Caribe Sol – Le Specialiste de Cuba” and “OWG” emblazoned on the side in white. I also love OWG’s logo.

Here are some additional features I noticed:

Free bag: Passengers get one free checked bag – a huge plus in my books!

Entertainment system: For $10, passengers can purchase access to the in-flight wi-fi entertainment system, where a selection of movies and TV shows can be watched from a mobile device. Unfortunately, seats don’t have a USB port or AC outlet, so if you plan on hitting play, make sure you’re equipped to deal with a potentially dead battery!

Food: The on-board menu is pretty standard, but crowd-pleasing. Options include a turkey sandwich, a four cheese pizza, a cheese tray, mac and cheese, as well as two Cuba-inspired items, a Croque Hola and a Cubano Sandwich.

Cabin interior: The interior of the cabin has been completely gutted and updated: cabin sidewalls were refurbished, the galley re-laminated and new carpeting installed. The cabin lighting has been enhanced with “LED MoodLites” that glow a faint blue throughout the flight. Altogether, it makes for a crisp cabin with a pleasant ambiance.

There are 18 “extra legroom” seats onboard the aircraft, which offer a seat pitch of 96 cm, as opposed to 73 cm to 76 cm for the standard seats.

Here’s another first: I was the very first tourist to cross the threshold of the Playa Cayo Santa Maria resort since it closed nine months ago!

True to Cuba’s warm and inviting character, we were greeted with much fanfare including dancing, music and mojitos to set up the sublime week ahead.

COVID Testing Trial At YYC Is Slow But Promising Step Forward

Photo credit: Daniel from Glasgow, United Kingdom – Calgary Airport, CC BY 2.0.

When the COVID-19 testing trial at Calgary International Airport (YYC) was announced last month, there was a sense of relief and excitement that finally, there might be an imminent nation-wide alternative to the mandatory two-week quarantine for international travellers. But with the project expected to last 26 weeks, it may be a while before we see similar initiatives implemented in other parts of Canada.

The pilot program, a partnership between the Governments of Alberta and the federal government, can reduce a quarantine period from 14 to two days. Eligible international travellers get a PCR throat swab at one of two border crossings in the province — YYC or the Coutts land border crossing — then quarantine until they receive their test results, which the Government of Alberta says takes about 48 hours.

If the test comes back negative, the traveller can leave quarantine, but they’ll need to undergo a second COVID-19 test on the sixth or seventh day after their arrival. If, at any point, the test comes back positive, they will have to quarantine for the full 14 days.

Nearly 2,000 travellers entering Canada by land or air through Alberta have participated in the COVID-19 testing pilot since it launched on 02NOV, and Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan told CBC it’s off to “a successful start.”

But don’t get your hopes up the test will change the travel landscape anytime soon.

McMillan says the project is expected to run for 26 weeks – six and a half months — or until 52,000 participants are enrolled, whichever comes first.

For the trial to end sooner than 26 weeks, there would need to be more than 8,500 participating passengers per month which, given the decimated passenger traffic volumes, likely won’t be attained. McMillan noted the project will be expanded to Edmonton International Airport (YEG) in early 2021, but even with the addition, reaching 8,500 a month is a stretch.

Whether the pilot needs to come to a complete close before the federal government starts rolling out a similar program in other jurisdictions remains to be seen.

When it was first announced last month, major players in the aviation industry came out in full support of the pilot program.

“This announcement is a good step forward in saving our aviation industry while protecting Canadians amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jerry Dias, National President of Unifor, which represents more than 12,900 members in the air transportation sector, including airline customer service agents and pilots, airport operations and maintenance workers, baggage handlers and airline catering employees. 

“International aviation bodies are urging countries to follow universal standards for passengers. With current trials showing that 14-day quarantines are longer than necessary, it made no sense whatsoever for Canada to have different requirements than many other countries.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford called on the federal government to implement a similar initiative in Ontario, and said the province move forward with its own plans to implement a program if the federal government chooses not to.

Ed Sims, WestJet President and CEO, said, “This announcement is welcomed by WestJet and I applaud and thank Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Premier Jason Kenney for taking this important step in providing peace of mind to anxious travellers.”

I see this pilot project as a huge step forward for Canada, whose travel restrictions have remained virtually unchanged since they were implemented in March. But it seems it’ll take longer than I’d hoped to catch on.

My 2020 Wanderlust Wishlist

With the holidays behind us and the new year officially underway, I always find myself in an auspicious state of mind, thinking of all the potential the next 365 (or, in 2020’s case, 366) days will bring. New words learned, books read, foods eaten, fears conquered and challenges overcome…

And also, new destinations discovered, whether it’s right here in my own backyard, or in the wider global backyard.

So here, in no particular order, are the top 10 destinations that I’d feel lucky to see in 2020 as part of my Wanderlust Wishlist.

Are any of these destinations on your own 2020 Wanderlust Wishlist, too? Where do you hope to travel in 2020?

  1. Slovenia
Bled, Slovenia. Source: Walkerssk via pixabay.

I first was intrigued by Slovenia watching an episode of the Netflix TV Show Chef’s Table about Hisa Franko, a restaurant in Kobarid, Slovenia. This mountainous country is still relatively off-the-beaten-path as far as Europe is concerned but that, along with tip-top hiking opportunities, picturesque towns steeped in culture and hearty food, is exactly what makes this a must-visit.

  1. Northern Italy
Brixen, Italy. Source: rottonara via Pixabay.

My heart belongs to the mountains, so you’ll notice a lot of peak-packed regions and cities on my wanderlist, with Italy’s Dolomites range holding a particularly high spot. For outdoor lovers, the Dolomites offer endless possibilities for adventures, waiting to be fuelled by risotto and red wine.

  1. Norway
Lofoten archipelago, Norway. Source: monicore via Pixabay.

There are so many reasons I admire Norway as a country: for its fidelity to democratic concepts, its environmental initiatives, and of course its untamed natural landscape. Norway also has a long, fascinating history filled with stories of Vikings, battles, shipwrecks and sagas.

  1. Russia
Moscow’s Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Russia. Source: Vlad Vasnetsov via Pixabay.

Thanks to its vast size, Russia offers up literally any type of experience to its visitors. It has beaches, mountains, picturesque city squares, geysers and mineral springs, ornate churches, thriving nightlife, even deserts. I could travel there over and over again and still be repeatedly surprised. A visit to the country’s two most prominent cities — Moscow and Saint Petersburg — would make a tasteful introduction.

  1. Turkey
Istanbul, Turkey. Source: Şinasi Müldür via Pixabay.

Straddling the modern and traditional, the trendy and the ancient, Turkey is a country of contrasts. On top of that, it’s friendly, beautiful, culturally rich and great value for money.

  1. Scotland
Neist Point, Scotland. Source: Katja S. Verhoeven via Pixabay.

If you picked out all the green hues from a box of Crayola crayons, it still wouldn’t be enough to draw the vast sweeping landscape of Scotland. Its charming medieval towns, rolling countryside spotted with Highland cattle and winding roads make the perfect backdrop for exploring.

  1. Colorado, United States
Vail, Colorado. Source: Michelle Maria via Pixabay

As far as lovely mountain towns go, you can find aplenty in the state of Colorado. From Aspen to Breckenridge, Ouray to Telluride, the wild character of the Rockies is showcased perfectly in these vibrant little towns at their base. Winter, spring, summer or fall, Colorado is worth roaming any time of year.

  1. Albania
Berat, Albania. Source: Ervin Gjata via Pixabay.

Croatia has dominated the travelsphere when it comes to the “Balkan” region, but neighbouring countries like Albania are no less spectacular. And best of all, they don’t attract nearly as many crowds. Albania touts an astonishing diversity in its landscape, ranging from the snow-capped mountains in the Prokletije (the Albanian Alps) with grade-A hiking opportunities, to the sunny seaside coast of the Ionian and Adriatic Seas and traditional Ottoman architecture in its cities. And, like its neighbour Croatia, Albania has its own share of breathtaking villages, like Berat, also known as “The City of a Thousand Windows”, or the UNESCO-designated Gjirokastra, with houses designed like small castles

  1. Vietnam
Tu Le Valley, Vietnam. Source: Dung Le Tien by Pixabay.

It’s no secret that Vietnam was considered a top foodie destination by exalted American chef Anthony Bourdain. In fact, he famously called Vietnam one of his favourite places on Earth. I’d be pretty happy spending my days indulging in feel-good delicacies like Vietnamese coffee and pho, gazing out at picturesque rice fields and searching for unique trinkets at the night market.

  1. Kenya
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Source: MonikaP via Pixabay.

There’s the famous quote that “if you can only visit two continents in your lifetime, visit Africa – twice.” I think the same can be said for Kenya. It boasts more than 25,000 different animal species and is home to 11% of the world’s bird varieties. And like the popular movie The Lion King shows, creatures like warthogs or ostriches are sometimes equally as fascinating to observe as lions. The very backdrops where these creatures live, such as the Maasai Mara National Reserve, are themselves full of breathtaking vistas.

5 WAYS TO BE A TOURIST IN YOUR OWN TOWN

We often daydream of our next trip to this or that city, anticipating the adventures we’ll have, the new things and places we’ll see, the new food we’ll eat and the photos we’ll take. But with time constraints, financial difficulties or other obligations, a flight to an exotic location across the globe isn’t always a feasible option. What we don’t realize, however, is that there are people daydreaming about visiting our very own town. It’s human nature to want what we can’t have and unfortunately, this can lead to us not appreciating our surroundings. With an open mind and a small break in habit, we can set out on a local adventure that allows us to see the fascinating and exciting that our town has to offer, as though through the eyes of a tourist. 

So here are five ways you can be a tourist in your own city and discover what visitors fall in love with.

  1. GRAB YOUR CAMERA AND OPEN YOUR EYES
    One of the things we delight in while on vacation is taking photos, but in our own city, it’s hard to see our usual surroundings in a different light. Break this frame of mind by putting yourself behind the lens of your camera to notice the beauty in small things. And don’t be afraid to brave rainy weather and winter snowstorms for the possibility of a perfect shot. After all, such things never stop us when we’re travelling.

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    Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels
  2. DISCOVER A NEW CHOW SPOT
    When it comes to dining out, we tend to stick to the time-tested favourites. And it’s true, being adventurous is a risk, but it may prove to be worth taking.  Next night out, make it a point to check out a restaurant that you’ve never been to. Hit up those TripAdvisor reviews and see what new gems you can discover.

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    Photo by Victor Freitas from Pexels
  3. BREAK YOUR ROUTINE
    We are creatures of habit. We’ve found comfort and contentment in the familiar routes we use to get to work or fulfill our daily chores. We’ve mastered the quickest and most convenient way of getting from point A to point B. When travelling, however, that’s rarely a priority. In a new city, we opt for the scenic route, regardless of how much longer it may take us to arrive to point B. In fact, we don’t care so much about reaching point B, as long as the walk or drive is exciting and interesting. Switch things up on your next errand and take a new path or better yet, hop on a bus or bike.
  4. DO SOME SIGHTSEEING
    As tourists in a new city, we’re on the lookout for exciting events and shows that will help us get to know our temporary home a bit better. What’s your city known for? Is it the stunning architecture? The wild nightlife? The breathtaking landscape? Think of what makes your city unique and go check it out! While the CN Tower is Toronto’s most significant landmark, you’d be surprised how many proud Torontonians I know who have never taken the elevator up the 147 floors to the top. These attractions are what make your city stand out, so get out there and get to know them.

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    Photo by Viktor Hanacek from picjumbo
  5. TAKE A HISTORY LESSON
    A town’s personality stems from its history. Go to a museum or take a guided tour to learn about you’re city’s historic hotspots and discover the story behind your city’s founding. You’ll appreciate what it’s been through and feel that much prouder to be a part of it. 

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    Photo by Engin_Akyurt on Pixabay

    Do you often find yourself travel-deprived? What do you do? Do you have any other tips? I want to hear them!

Banff is overrated! My top 3 hiking spots that AREN’T in Banff

There, I said it.

Banff is overrated.

The more I wander and adventure around Alberta and British Columbia, the more I realize that the Rocky Mountains are so much more than just Banff.

When I lived in Eastern Canada, “Banff” was the only word that immediately came to mind when thinking about the Canadian Rockies, immediately conjuring up magical images of pristine views of stunning mountains, golden sunsets behind shadowed peaks and crystal clear lakes. Now, after my fair share of adventures in Banff National Park and the townsite as well as other towns and parks in the Canadian Rockies, I can say with certainty that Banff is not as magical as I used to think it is – mainly because it is jam-packed with tourists and a trip to the national park actually ends up being quite costly (entry into provincial parks in Alberta is free).

Banff is by far the most visited national park in all of Canada. According to Parks Canada, in the year period between April 1, 2017 and March 31, 2018, 4.2 million people visited Banff National Park. The next most visited national park was Jasper, with 2.4 million visitors, then in third place, 1.2 million people visiting Saguenay-St. Lawrence in Quebec.

I’m not saying that Banff National Park isn’t beautiful – it absolutely is and it’s certainly worth a visit. What I’m saying is I just wish that other parts of the Rockies got the recognition they deserve and enticed the same kind of visitorship and admiration as Banff.

This isn’t to detract attention from Banff in any way, but in my opinion, there are significant consequences to Banff’s celebrity status and highlighting some of the other phenomenal Rocky Mountain territory is likely to alleviate some of the concerns like a declining visitor experience and sustainability and environmental concerns.

I think the solution here isn’t to discourage visiting Banff National Park – it truly is beautiful and anyone who hasn’t yet been there has a right to see it – but rather to encourage visiting other parks.

Here are some of my favourite jewels of the Alberta Rocky Mountains that aren’t in Banff National Park.

  1. Livingstone Public Land Use Zone
    This is probably the most underrated of Rocky Mountain regions. The Livingstone Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) is located in the southwestern corner of Alberta, mostly lying north of Highway 3. Being mostly a hiker, I’ve discovered so many hidden gems in this area, challenging hikes with breathtaking views, pristine lakes with not a single other person around, backcountry camping in that perfect, secret spot. This is by far my favourite area to adventure in and as far as hiking “off the beaten path”, there’s no better place, in my opinion.

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    The view from Mount Ward in the Livingstone PLUZ. The Seven Sisters and Crowsnest Mountain in the background, and the hole in Window Mountain in the foreground. On the way, you also pass the beautiful Window Mountain Lake at the base.
  2. Castle Provincial Park
    The Castle is Alberta’s newest provincial park, created in February 2017, located just south of Highway 3. I’ve never seen more wildlife than I have in this park. I’ve seen a Grizzly, a black bear, a fox, a frog, lots of deer and elk. One time I saw SEVEN moose in a single day! That’s certainly a hard-to-beat record for me. I feel like this park has more “breathing room” than the Livingstone and Peter Lougheed. What I mean by that it feels as though there’s more space between the peaks, with rolling hills, twisting rivers and sheltered forests intermingling with the mountains. I like that. This past summer, I’ve also found a few great Saskatoon berry and thimbleberry-picking spots, always a treat!

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    One of the Southfork Lakes. The lakes have many larch trees surrounding them and make a beautiful golden mirror-image in the fall.
  3. Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
    If you still want the proximity to Calgary that Banff boasts, then Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in Kananaskis is a fantastic option. I’ve had some of my favourite hikes in this park. It’s filled with lakes and astonishing views of mountains carrying on for days dotted with tarns and alpine lakes among them. It’s more populated than the other two areas mentioned above, but you still get that “wilderness” feel if you choose the right hikes to do.

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    View from the summit of Mount Smutwood. This is one of those hikes that’s actually quite popular, but it’s still so, so worth doing! The first bit is a walk through a gorgeous marshy meadow before the uphill starts. Just on the other side of the ridge we’re sitting on are two alpine tarns.

Do you agree that Banff National Park is overrated? Have you ever been to these parks and regions?

The black and white of winter

Winter hit Crowsnest Pass with an excited exuberance at being back. November 1 greeted me with an entirely different landscape than the day before: the hum of road plows, a winter storm warning in effect, and snow – lots of it!

Mother Nature dumped about 40 cm of snow on the Pass in the past few days and while Environment Canada predicts temperatures warming up over the next few days, I think the snow is here to stay until spring.

I must admit, I love the changing of seasons, where each one brings something unique and spectacular. In winter, it’s of course the activities – the snowshoeing, sledding, skiing/snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and ahem, digging out your car. But also the comforting, cozy feeling of that first sip of hot mulled wine, the food craving for delicious, hearty stews, or the steady crunch-crunch-crunch of walking on packed snow.

With its subdued hues and colours, only in winter do we come as close as we can to seeing the world in black and white, its grayscale canvas forcing us to perceive light and shadow in a special way.

Winter is not just a season; it’s an experience.

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Crowsnest Pass, Alberta (November 2017)

I’d like to introduce you to Travel

This is a blog about travel, my Travel.

While I, like so many other people and maybe even you, love to travel, I often think, “why?” Why do I feel the need to spend a lot of money, a lot of time, and sometimes a lot of effort to physically be present in a place that I can easily see and read about in a book or, even easier, online?

I like to think of Travel as my best girlfriend. We gossip about the countries we’re currently crushing on, and the fun adventures we’ll have when we get there. Sometimes, she shows me some tough love by putting me into experiences I have to struggle through, and other times she’s the one that brings me martinis on a beach. Together with Travel, we see new places, taste new flavours, feel different climates, hear different soundscapes. Travel pushes me beyond my limits with the promise of rewarding me with new horizons of this big little world. She inspires me to be a better person and when I feel the need to escape the grind of daily life, she’s always there.

Travel is my inspiration, my partner in crime, my drive. That’s why I love her, and in this blog, I’d like to introduce you to her to maybe, in turn, inspire you.

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Metal/wire art exhibition in Barcelona, 2014.