Traveling Jess - honest advice for moms who travel

honest advice for moms who travel

Traveling Jess

Traveling Jess

honest advice for moms who travel

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Diamante Eco Adventure Park Review – Zipline and Zoo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Diamante Eco Adventure Park Review – Zipline and Zoo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Our trip to Costa Rica was months in the planning, especially since we were trying to coordinate between four families in three different provinces. When we finally settled on Costa Rica, Mom immediately said she wanted to try ziplining.   Now, Mom is well into […]

Roundup:  Seventeen Great Blogs About Quebec City

Roundup: Seventeen Great Blogs About Quebec City

As I am researching Quebec City for my upcoming trip, I am discovering what a range of options are on offer, from world-class restaurants for foodies to activities for families with kids, to adventure options like rock climbing. Here is a roundup of fantastic Quebec […]

Dogsledding Tour in Saskatchewan, Canada:  Sundogs Tour Review

Dogsledding Tour in Saskatchewan, Canada: Sundogs Tour Review

Winter has been lingering on and on here in Prince Albert, Canada…normally, by the first week of April, most of the snow would have melted, and our daytime highs would be around 10 degrees Celsius (48 F), with lows at night in the -5 (25 F) range. This year, the ground is still thoroughly snow covered, with the drifts along my driveway still well over 1 meter / 3 feet!

Two children playingon a snow bank

I have to admit, I am pretty sick of winter. As I write this, it is -22 C (-7.6 F), with a forecast high of -4 (25F). I have been trying not to let it get me down, though, and I decided that if winter is going to aggressively linger, I might as well take advantage of it to do something truly winter-y. I have tried cross country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and even ice fishing, but I realized that despite living almost my entire life in western Canada, I have never, ever been on a dogsled. Time to rectify that!

A dogsledding sled waiting for the dogs to be hitched up.

There are not a lot of dogsledding outfits in Canada that cater to tourists, and only one in Saskatchewan that offers short (one hour) rides. Fortunately, that outfit, Sundogs, is less than an hours’ drive from Prince Albert. I sent an email to Bradley Muir, the owner, to see if they had any time slots available, and I was in luck! They had an opening for a Saturday run. Bradley commented that April 7th was the second-latest he had ever done a tourist run; normally their season is done in early March. Because of that, there weren’t any pre-booked tours, and I was able to sneak in for a short ride – a longer run would have been too hot for the dogs, unfortunately, as they are bred for running in truly cold temperatures, and have thick fur coats that cause them to overheat easily when they are working hard on (relatively) warm days.

sled dogs lounging on their dog houses

 

Ten thirty found me sweating in a hoodie, watching Bradley and his crew tidying the dog pens and choosing my team. Bradley did an orientation, with an introduction to some dogs, a safety briefing, and some practice getting on and off the sled…which was surprisingly awkward! Six dogs, ranging from tiny 35 pound Aspen, a lead dog, to bulky 60 or 70 pound Murphy, a ‘wheel’ dog, were soon harnessed and waiting on lines by the sled.

sled dogs waiting to be hitched to the sled

 

Bradley cast a critical eye over my outfit, and asked if I had brought a heavier jacket or proper boots. As it happened, I had thrown my parka and snow boots in the car…an afterthought, to be honest, given how warm the day was (for Saskatchewan in winter, that is). I told Bradley that I only ever dust off that parka when it’s below -25, as I just sweat in it if the weather is any warmer. He told me to wear it anyhow. Dubiously, I put it on, and was too hot in about ten seconds.

I awkwardly settled myself onto the sled while the dogs were being hitched to the lines. It only took a few moments, then all of the dogs were yipping and howling, excited to go, or maybe sad to be left behind. Bradley pulled up the snow hook, and we were off!

people harnessing sled dogs

The sled was simultaneously more comfortable and tippier than I expected. There was lots of padding on the bottom, which also helped to keep my behind warm, but there were no real sides to the sled, and nothing to grab but a couple of ropes. While I wasn’t in any real danger of falling out, the whole contraption felt a little insecure until I settled into the padding. We weren’t far from the yard before I realized how grateful I was for my heavy parka and boots – the day was fairly warm, but the combination of sitting still, shady trails, and windchill felt shockingly cold, and I regretted not zipping my jacket up like Bradley had told me to.

Out on the trail, the dogs were silent – I couldn’t even hear their footfalls over the soft swish of the sled on the snow. Bradley, a former Park Interpreter at Prince Albert National Park, shared some observations about the forest, talking about the age of the trees, and that he had seen a lot of lynx tracks this year. Bradley clearly loves both the dogs and the forest, and it shows in how he treats the animals and the environment. Sundogs is primarily solar powered, and Bradley and his crew strive to follow environmentally sound practices. Sundogs has been recognized with both certifications and awards for their sustainable tourism practices.

a view of the sled dogs and the snowy trail on my dgosledding tour.

 

 

We encountered a few snowmobiles on the trail, as part of the 10km run is on groomed snowmobile trails. They were much less disruptive than I would have expected – the operators politely pulled over and stopped, and the dogs ignored them entirely as we ran by. Even the noise was minimal – I did not hear any of the snow machines we encountered until a few seconds before we saw them. Most of the run was extremely quiet.

If you have any interest in a dogsled tour, I highly recommend getting in touch with Sundogs. Bradley is an engaging and knowledgeable guide, the dogs are friendly and well-trained, and the experience of gliding over the snow in near-silence is amazing!

Sled dogs and musher on my dogsled tour in northern Saskatchewan

This is not a tour for young children, though – it is too cold, and requires being still for longer than most kids under, say, 8 or 10 would be okay with. While I was fascinated by the dogs and the forest and the conversation with Bradley, I know my little ones, at five and three years old, would have been fidgety after about ten minutes, and unbearable in half an hour. Sundogs does offer programs for children, but they don’t include a dogsled ride, as the 10 kilometer loop (which takes 45-60 minutes) is the shortest run that satisfies the dogs.

People with mobility constraints would likely struggle with getting into, and especially out of, the sled, even with assistance. Getting in essentially involves standing with feet planted on either side of the sled, then a low squat to sit down. Getting out can be accomplished by rolling out of the sled onto the ground, or by putting your feet down on either side and standing up; both are awkward at best.

Bradley advises that bookings fill up quickly, especially for Christmas, weekends, and school holidays. As of April, they are already taking bookings for the Christmas season. Bradley recommends getting in touch as soon as you know your travel plans.

The winter 2017/18 price starts at $110 for a 45 to 60 minute dogsled ride; the sled can accommodate two people, as long as the combined weight is under 158 kilograms / 350 pounds; it is also possible to take two sleds. Half-day and multi-day runs are available, and if you need something they do not have listed on the website, Sundogs is happy to work with you to arrange a package – they can even arrange catering! Sundogs does not accept credit cards, but does take cash, cheques, and e-transfers.

a striking blue-eyed sled dog at Sundog

Sundogs also has an arrangement with nearby Elk Ridge Resort, where mid-week visitors can get a discount on their stay at the hotel, if they also take a tour with Sundogs. This is a good option for people traveling in from Saskatoon or further afield – just ask Bradley about it when you are making your Sundogs booking. There are also accommodations available at Waskesiu Lake and Anglin Lake, both of which are less than a half-hour drive from the Sundogs location.

Bring your warmest winter clothing. While Sundogs does have some winter gear available for rent, it may not fit well. A parka, snow pants, and heavy snow boots, as well as mitts, a touque, and a scarf are recommended, even for a warm(ish) day. On cold days, Sundogs will also provide blankets in the sled.

Sundogs is located approximately 65 kilometers north of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan (about 230 km north of Saskatoon), just off the #2 Highway to Prince Albert National Park.

All of the opinions in this article are my own. I did not receive any compensation or other consideration for this review – I was really impressed with Bradley and his crew at Sundogs!

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A review of Sundogs dogsledding tours in Saskatchewan, Canada - a super-fun winter activity and a great sustainable tourism option!

Kids Life Jackets in Costa Rica – Should You Bring Your Own Personal Flotation Device?

Kids Life Jackets in Costa Rica – Should You Bring Your Own Personal Flotation Device?

When we were planning our recent vacation, we had a hard time finding information about kids life jackets in Costa Rica. With a three year old and a five year old, neither of whom really know how to swim, we were pretty nervous about the […]

Trip Planning: Quebec City, Canada

Trip Planning: Quebec City, Canada

So…Quebec City…in May…Yay!   I am really excited about this trip. My only real apprehension is about my French – while I can read a menu and ask for a bathroom, my pronunciation is poor (okay, terrible), to the point that one waiter in Paris […]

Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala is a spectacular religious display, based on Catholic ceremonies imported by the Spanish in the 1500’s. The ceremonies begin on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, but from Palm Sunday to Easter, there are huge processions through the streets, with floats carried on the shoulders of the faithful, each with different symbolism, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The streets are decorated with elaborate floral and sawdust alfombras (carpets), which people spend hours creating, but which are obliterated by the processions as they walk over them, only to be remade for the next procession. Thousands of local and foreign tourists converge on the city of Antigua to observe the procession, taking Antigua from a laid-back colonial town to a bustling and crowded little city.

An empty street in the Guatemalan town of Antigua

The parades begin on Palm Sunday, with huge hand-carved wooden floats, carried by groups of men, women, or children, depending on the float and on the day. The floats depict various scenes from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while the women’s floats carry images of the Virgin Mary. These floats are carried on the shoulders of the bearers, and weigh thousands of pounds; the bearers are switched out every few minutes. The men and boys are dressed in purple ceremonial robes with white sashes up until Good Friday, after which they wear black. The women also wear black during the processions, and the girls are dressed in white. Processions are preceded by boys swinging incense-holders, and followed by musicians, who play mournful music on timpani drums and horns.

 

A girls' float in the Semana Santa parades in Antigua, Guatemala

The streets are filled with people awaiting processions, as well as the float bearers who are awaiting their turn to carry the floats; the latter are dressed in the purple robes, and many carry three-headed spears. The incense smoke fills up the streets, and the processional music is so loud that you feel it, physically. On Good Friday, dozens of actors dressed as Roman soldiers also appear, many on horseback, and read out charges against Jesus; the biblical Roman costumes with their helmets and billowing capes add a whole other level to the sense of everything being surreal. The processions start early – 6am – and go late into the night. After dark, the floats are lit by generators pushed along behind them, adding to the noise and chaos.

A parade during Easter week in Antigua Guatemala

 

A women's float at night, during the Semana Santa processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Trevor and I honeymooned in Guatemala, and went specifically to Antigua over Easter. We planned the trip well in advance (eight or nine months), but still almost didn’t get a room; hostels and hotels apparently start filling up a year or more in advance. We spent hours walking up and down the cobblestone streets, admiring the various alfombras – elaborate carpets made of colored sawdust or of pine needles and flowers. The sawdust alfombras were particularly elaborate, with both Catholic and Mayan symbols incorporated; however, the pine-needle and flower alfombras were also very pretty. The amount of work that went into them was staggering, considering they were destroyed nightly.

An alfombra (decorative carpet) of pine needles and flowers, created for Semana Santa in Antigua

 

The processions were amazing to watch. Here is an excerpt from my journal one of the nights we were there:

 

“I´ve just come in from one of the famous Antigua processions, and it really is a sight to behold. This one was led by men in Roman uniforms, complete with red capes and horsetailed helmets. Then come hundreds, maybe thousands of men in purple robes and headcloths, some swinging censors billowing sweet-acrid smoke. Twelve little kids holding up large framed drawings of the disciples, followed by three children carrying a huge cross, then came the floats. They are huge, highly ornamented wooden affairs, with statues of Jesus and Mary. They do not have wheels, but rather are carried on the shoulders of men – thirty to a side – over the treacherous cobblestones in the dark. Accompanying the floats are marching bands, 30 pieces or more, playing funeral-dirge music, heavy on the timpani and mournful horns, and loud enough to make your chest constrict. The only concessions to technology are the long forked poles that are used to hold the power lines out of the way of the floats – they are very tall – and generators on wheels to light the floats. The whole thing is even more impressive when you consider that the processions leave the churches at six AM, and it is after eight PM now… “

Men in Roman soldier costumes during the Semana Santa processions in Antigua, Guatemala

There are Semana Santa processions all over Guatemala, though the ones in Antigua are by far the most elaborate. We ventured out to the town of Chichicastenango during Easter week, and saw processions there, as well, though they were much smaller affairs than those of Antigua!

 

If you want to check out Semana Santa in Antigua, you definitely want to book accommodations well in advance – a year is best. Prices go up substantially during Easter week, so be prepared for a bit of sticker shock, though this is relative, as Guatemala is not an expensive country to travel in. The Lonely Planet guide warns of a lot of pickpocket activity during Semana Santa, but we took normal, common-sense precautions (not carrying valuables or large amounts of cash, and keeping wallets in front trouser pockets), and did not encounter any trouble.

 

Semana Santa in Antigua was one of the highlights of our trip, and if you have any interest at all in religious traditions or Catholicism, this is a can’t-miss stop on your Guatemala itinerary.

Men dressed up as Roman soldiers on horses, part of the Semana Santa parades

New Traveler Lessons: Five Things I Learned in Istanbul

New Traveler Lessons: Five Things I Learned in Istanbul

My very first trip outside of North America was to Istanbul, in 2005. I was traveling with my sister and her boyfriend, who lived in London at the time, as well as a couple of friends of theirs. I was single, and while it didn’t […]

How (Not) To Make Money to Travel

How (Not) To Make Money to Travel

People generally want more money for travel, so they can do it better, or, in some cases, to do it at all. I know the feeling – I’d love to upgrade my budget hotel to the Chateau Fairmont when I travel to Quebec City, for […]

Airbnb Property Review:  Casa Pacifica in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Airbnb Property Review: Casa Pacifica in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Our group of 9 – including three young children and one senior with minor mobility issues – stayed at an Airbnb property, Casa Pacifica, when we were in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica, in January, 2018.  Here is my review of the property, and our experience with it.

 

This property has three separate structures on it – the main house (two floors), a secondary building with condos, and the residence of the owner. However, the buildings are situated in such a way that they each have a lot of privacy, despite sharing a courtyard. We rented the entire main house for approximately a week while we were in Costa Rica.

Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

When we arrived in Playas del Coco, there was a bit of confusion finding our condo, as the name, Casa Pacifica, is similar to that of a (quite popular) resort operator, Casa Pacifico. However, this minor issue only took a few minutes (and a bit more driving) to resolve.

 

When we pulled into Casa Pacifica, I was really impressed. Jules, the owner, came right out to greet us and help us get settled in; he gave us a rundown on local amenities, as well as a few instructions about the home, itself. He warned us that any food left out would attract ants almost immediately, and suggested we take the garbage our very frequently. Jules was friendly and approachable, and every time we saw him, whether in the courtyard of the complex or running into him at the grocery store, he stopped what he was doing and came over to say hi and make sure everything was going well.

 

Casa Pacifica really is a fair ways off the main street. This had both advantages and disadvantages. It was a long walk to get to much of anything besides the beach, and even walking to the nearest grocery store was a bit taxing for Mom, who has some mobility constraints; walking to the main strip was beyond her entirely, and challenging for the kids in the heat. The steep ramp at the entrance of the condo was also a bit of a walking challenge, especially for Mom.

Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

Conversely, however, there was a parade and fair in town, complete with parties and nightly fireworks, but it was quiet at Casa Pacifica, even in the early evening when we were putting kids to bed. In the end, the walking issues were easily resolved by renting a golf cart; renting a vehicle was also an option, as there was ample parking. It is worth keeping this in mind, however, if you have anyone in your group who is elderly, young, or who struggles with mobility.

 

The casa itself was very spacious, with four bedrooms (one downstairs and three upstairs) and two bathrooms (one up and one down). There was a large dining area, with ample seating for our group of 9, a kitchen that was large enough to accommodate a few cooks at a time, and a living room area with couches.

The living room:

review of Casa Pacifica Airbnb, Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

The kitchen:

review of Casa Pacifica Airbnb, Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

The main floor bedroom:

review of Casa Pacifica Airbnb, Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

A second floor bedroom:

Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

There was also a patio on the second floor, overlooking the yard, with palm trees and glimpses of the ocean – this was a nice place to sit and visit in the evenings. It also made a great place for the bird watchers in our group, as there were a number of different types of birds in the trees around the yard, especially the large mango tree in the courtyard.  There was one little wren that even hopped around the patio, picking up crumbs the kids had dropped! The kids also really enjoyed spotting the resident iguanas and squirrels.

 

If you have toddlers who are not good with stairs, be aware that it is difficult to block off the staircase from the patio down to the main floor from the top.  There is, however, a screened door at the bottom of the stairs, which would prevent small children from going up the stairs.

Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

The beds at Casa Pacifica were comfortable, and the bedrooms were spacious, with large closets to unpack clothing and such into. There were plenty of towels, and the kitchen had everything we needed for cooking, even for such a large group, where we were often preparing two or three different meals at the same time. Each bedroom, plus the main downstairs living area, had its own air conditioner, allowing everyone to choose the temperature of their room. We were happy to have wifi, too! The laundry facilities were convenient, and it was handy to be able to wash our clothes whenever we needed – especially with kids!

 

The entire casa was clean and modern, with tile floors and countertops, and newer furniture. Ants were definitely present, and there were small ants that got into any food left laying around, but they mostly honed in on the garbage can, so it wasn’t a huge issue. There were also some larger red ants, which were only an issue for us because my young daughter is terrified of ants; we just killed them as we saw them. There were not, however, many (or really any) biting insects (like mosquitoes), even on the patio in the evening, which surprised us.

 Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy

Besides being spacious and clean, the real highlight of Casa Pacifica is the distance to the beach. Even with small children in tow, it is only a couple of minutes’ walk, if that, to get right down to the ocean. The beach was not crowded – we had it almost to ourselves in the mornings, and even at its busiest, there was plenty of room between groups. It was never packed at any time during our stay. The beach has soft, black sand, and at low tide, it is a fairly gentle slope into the water, though it is steeper at high tide. There were waves each day, but the water was not rough, and we went swimming nearly every day that we were there.

View of beach near Casa Pacifica, Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

A nice little touch at Casa Pacifica was the outdoor shower, where we could rinse ourselves and get the sand off the kids.

If you are a larger group, and especially a group with children looking for a quiet stay, Casa Pacifica is a great choice, and I absolutely recommend it. It is clean, safe, and away from the noisy areas of town, as well as being well set up for families and larger groups.

You can book Casa Pacifica through this link.

If you are new to Airbnb, you can sign up with this link, and get a credit towards your first stay!

* This link is an affiliate link, and if you book a stay through Airbnb, I also get a credit.  I was not given any other commission or consideration for this review *

 Casa Pacifica Airbnb review - Playas del Coco, Costa Rica
Image used with permission / copyright Jules Luethy
Travel Anecdote: That One Time, in Guatemala…

Travel Anecdote: That One Time, in Guatemala…

When we arrived in Guatemala City in March, 2009, it was sort of a series of ‘one thing after another’ sorts of incidents. Trevor’s backpack took a detour on the way down, and arrived two days after we did, necessitating a longer stay in Guatemala […]