Steven’s Top 10 Travel Memories of 2018, (Written Xmas Eve)

  1. Calgary Airport, Midnight, Tuesday, February 2 During an Ugly Blizzard!

This isn’t on the list because we’re going through the year chronologically. Or because it was the tail-end of Experience #2, below. In fact, YYC’s main terminal on this night would’ve ranked as Experience #10,000 or so if the plane I was connecting to during this brief (albeit nail-biting) stay had been cancelled like many others. ‘Terminal’ felt more and more like an unnervingly accurate word. I’ve been to YYC many times for connecting flights. As always, it smelled of old french-fry grease and beer, but February 2 at midnight, that scent was tinged with fatigue and failure, as jocks in hopeful shorts stared stone-faced at the litany of cancellations due to the sideways snow outside. All AC flights to my home in Toronto were cancelled. I was on Westjet!

  1. El Meco and El Rey Mayan ruins hidden in plain sight in Cancun, Yucatan, yesterday, December 23.

I love ancient history. Indeed, this experience is only #9 because it’s the appetizer before the main course. Since high school, I’ve had a hobbyist’s interest in Mayan and Aztec history but never got around to visiting the Yucatan peninsula till this very week. Feliz Navidad!

So #9 is the precursor to a bucket-lister to be completed later this week when I finally see Chichen Itsa and Tulum. Too late for this article but the days probably would co-rate as Numero Uno. Luckily, for now, there are these two ancient marvels within minutes from our hotel. Each costs 550 pesos per person to enter; roughly $3.50CAN.

El Rey is the larger but newer and architecturally less impressive of the two. (Mind it’s easier to get to if you’re staying in Cancun’s icky Hotel Zone.) The chap at the parking lot across the boulevard laughs if you say you’re visiting El Rey ruins rather than the nearby El Rey beach, then charges half as much out of sympathy.

Next, on the Playa Mujeres, five minutes north of Cancun and 15km from El Rey, the smaller but far more impressive El Meco dates back around 1,500 hundred years. Despite its age, the main temple-pyramid is less ruined than anything in El Rey. It was abandoned around 600AD when Mayan civilization stumbled towards a dark age.

The jungle reclaimed these and other Yucatan ruins utterly. An ancient tree was growing out the pyramid’s back. It’s likely only a few hundred years old because this village was resettled around 1,100 before disappearing again around 1,500. Why?

Well, it’s easy to blame the honky incursion, but archeologists report that this population disappeared just before the Spanish arrived with their diseases, Inquisition-Age Christianity and lust for gold. A sign near the entrance in three languages, including the native Mayan Yucatec, reports in broken English that the place was deserted due to ‘imposed local cultural practices’.

Is cultural practices a euphemism? Around this same time, the Meshicas (Aztecs) were ‘celebrating’ the opening of their new city (now Mexico City) with tens of thousands of human sacrifices to their bloodthirsty gods. Was this village conquered then emptied for that reason? Makes ya think. Enough of that!

  1. Sliding Around a Frozen Lake Winnipeg in Mercedes-Benz 4MATIC Sedans, January 30.

The temperature outside the AMG Winter Driving Academy’s tester vehicles never rose above minus 10 centigrade. The instruction for sliding sideways was arguably training for greater control and safety behind the wheel. But being pulled out of a snowbank was a thrill in itself.

There’s a full article about this experience here on Pursuit. For now, I quote myself probably plagiarising someone else. First: the C6 sedan is “rear-wheel drive with the thrust of a thousand canons.” And sliding it sideways under the instruction of Chief Instructor Reinhold Renger is “probably the most fun you have in a car while clothed.”

  1. Crossing Vancouver Island with Abnormally Mild Spring Weather, April 24.

You’ve probably heard BC has a lot of rain. It’s true. It wasn’t till my third visit to Vancouver that I saw they had mountains. But this spring, while Torontonians were freezing, Vancouver Island was crystal clear and unseasonably warm. So, many of the low mountains were as snow-capped as a Swiss Christmas card. At the invitation of GM Canada, I drove Buick Regals — they’re built in Germany and handle like BMWs — from the Victoria airport north, past Cathedral Grove, then west across the spine of this mountainous paradise to that surfer dudes’ heaven, Tofino.

Cathedral Grove? It’s where some of Canada’s and Earth’s biggest, oldest trees majestically stand. I once rated it as one of Canada’s Top Fall Colours Drives. It’s in a rival publication, so, no link for you but it’s nice to be consistent!

  1. Drinking Rum on a Private Island in Nicaragua, After Tobogganing Down a Volcano, April 19.

For four boozy days, I was lucky to join a crew of influencers and journalists on a trip sponsored by Flor do Caña rum. Adventures, embarrassing stories, and near misses are detailed in two articles here and here. The trip down the Cerro Negro (Black Mountain, tough guy!) with my ass speeding at over 50kph just centimetres from trillions of razor-sharp obsidian grains, was performed on a contraption that looked like a cat door with a dog leash at one end. After that, we deserved a rest.

This rum company is still family owned after over 100 years in business. They are, well, umm, rich. Their private islet in Lake Nicaragua is lovely. But if you’re invited, maybe just swim in the pool. After I floated around the island — about a 45-minute affair — with rummy coconuts floating alongside, I was called loco and foolish by the hosts’ staff! “This lake is one of the only in the world with freshwater sharks,” they hollered. I balked, “Yeah right. Freshwater sharks. Like that’s even a thing!”

Turns out, they are and occasionally do bite and kill tipsy floaters. Speaking of which…

  1. Drinking Tequila in the Desert While a Mariachi Band Nails Cancon.

Last month, tequila producers Casa Herradura (roughly translated, Horseshoe House!) flew some writers and broadcasters to Guadalajara in the Tequila region for a few days to sample and write about tequila. The Lord’s work.

The climate in the area is arid, ideal for growing blue agave, the cactus-like (but not cactus) plant that is distilled into tequila. It’s also ideal for sitting outside, enjoying the local Jalisco cuisine and listening to Mariachi, another gift this region gave to the world.

Drifting dreamily on the notes of a tenor, our bellies full of tequila cocktails and tomato pollo with tostadas, I noticed he was singing My Way in Spanish.

“Did you know My Way was written by Paul Anka?” I asked others at the table, one of whom has a radio show in Toronto. “Anka’s Canadian,” I added. Technically, despite the uniforms and language, our mariachi friends were fulfilling the radio host’s daily Cancon requirements.

  1. Getting the Shit Scared Out of Me in Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

The city of Berlin is like a great book. You want to re-visit/re-read it every few years to see how it affects you. I’ve been four times over different periods in my life and have never seen it the same way once.

The Holocaust Tower is both a huge yet somehow suffocating and small room in the Jewish Museum, which was designed by Daniel Leibeskind and opened to the public in 2001. This room is a ‘dead-end’ of one path in the museum. It’s utterly unlit but for a narrow slit of a window many metres overhead.

The concrete walls reflect any noises like a canyon, yet the area of the floor isn’t much larger than most people’s front yard. A couple of quiet minutes inside, behind the heavy steel door, are dehumanizing and depressing. The experience is highly recommended!

  1. 3. Skiing Down a Plastic Carpeted Hillside During the Hottest Day in Scottish History, June 28.

For about one pound sterling, you can ride a bus from in front of Edinburgh’s famous Castle, 30 minutes south to Hillend in the Pentlands. Hillend (now the Midlothian Snowsports Centre like Skydome is the Rogers Centre) boasts skiing technology that is surprisingly common around the world. And given the whole current world weather thing will probably become more so. How do you ski at all, never mind in 28-degrees?

Imagine the bristles from a kilometre-long brush turned upwards and regularly watered. If those bristles lay on a hill, you could slide down them. Be warned. If you fall you get carpet burn.

This June, Britain experienced a heat wave so atrocious, people stopped talking about Brexit for a few days. It was during the hottest of these, that I went skiing.

So, yes, I had the whole place to myself. Remember that bit about tech? Most of these plastic ski hills around the world build irrigation devices in the bristles to imitate the hydroplaning effect of skiing. Not Edinburgh. It rains here more than BC. Except in June 2018, a month dryer than a Glaswegian’s tongue on New Year’s morning. Be warned. If you fall you get carpet burn.

  1. Living the Rock Star Life Vicariously in West Hollywood and the Joshua Tree, February 6 & 7.

Remember #10? That was a last-minute bailing on the third once-in-a-lifetime experience that I and a few American music hobbyists who also write automotive reviews have accepted from Chevrolet. We’ve recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee. This year was Los Angeles! (Next year, Abbey Road?)

The first evening, we practiced songs by the Beatles, U2 and Queen at the Sunset Marquis in West Hollywood. This famous rock n roll destination has recording studios in its basement for the hotel’s multiple rock star guests.

From the outside, Sunset Marquis is nothing special looking but everyone from everyone Rod Stewart to U2 to Green Day make it their preferred home away from home when in LA. If walls could talk you probably wouldn’t want to know.

Next, We drove Chevrolet Traverse SUVs directly east into the California desert to rehearse again at Janky Acres. You know: the Joshua Tree! 10 miles from Palm Springs and its famous Sonny Bono airport.

I had to leave early for the frigid joys of Experience 10. But this year the others recorded the rehearsed songs at Pink Studios, co-owned by Spike Edney. You know: Queen’s keyboardist!

1. Experiencing the 2018 World Cup with Locals in Zadar, Croatia.

Just before skiing in Edinburgh, my wife, daughter and I met on the Dalmatian Coast. This place is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets from Canadians and Americans. Imagine coastal Italy with a less humid climate, half the tourists and about half the price for most things. Order seafood and the agreeable and inexpensive local wine.

The people are beautiful, inside and out. And so is this 3,000-year old city. It’s been Roman, Venetian, Greek, French, Austrian and, yes, Croatian. The local language sounds (at least to my stone ear) like Italians speaking Russian.

Back to its beauty: Zadar was dubbed the world’s best spot for sunsets by Alfred Hitchcock and people congregate nightly on the pier to watch the sun going down through their phones.

 Now imagine fluking out by being there during Croatia’s unexpected climb to the World Cup final. This country has always punched above its weight in sports but even the most optimistic bettor wouldn’t have taken these odds. Nor would they have bet my plane would depart from YYC in Experience #10 but sometimes we get lucky away from home.

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