Budget Business class?

Who doesn’t want to sleep on those long overnight flights to Europe? As we’ve gotten older and more spoilt, we’ve tried with mixed results to use miles to get to Europe in comfort. And it seemed to be getting harder to reclaim those miles for international trips. So we jumped at the chance to buy a business class ticket on La Compagnie.

La Compagnie advertises itself as a “boutique” airlines. In their terms “boutique” means small (70 passengers total), great service (one flight attendant for every ten rows), but not all of the amenities of a big, swanky outfit. The airline has been operating for a few years, mainly a Newark to Paris flight. We heard a Newark to London flight had been abandoned, but that a new flight to Nice was just starting up. For about $1200 each we booked two tickets in mid-September, 2019.

The 11:30 pm departure wasn’t a problem and meant we could have flown in to Newark the day of our departure. Instead we opted for a weekend in NYC, got a late checkout from the hotel, had quick bite to eat in the theater district, saw Broadway matinee performance, 6:30 dinner reservation, picked up bags at hotel and took Lyft to the Newark Airport ($75). Got to the airport around 9:30 pm. The airline said we could have checked in as early as 9:00 but that we had to be checked in 50 minutes before the flight.

Check in was really really easy…no one else there at all. Not a person. Two staff to check us in And they directed us to the Art Lounge, a facility they share.

The Art Lounge is a little shabby if you are used to the ones the big international carriers have. The furniture definitely needs updating. The lounge is small but a major part is sectioned off for La Compagnie. We had our choice of seats, and plenty of room to spread out. The food options were decent — a couple hot dishes, cheese and crackers, basic booze options. Nothing to compare to the top of line lounges but more than adequate for an hour or two wait.

The lounge sits outside of security! But that’s not a problem since you get to use the priority line. Good thing, as the regular security line was immense. They announced in the lounge when it was time to go to the gate, about a half an hour before boarding. We went to the gate at about 10:20 which turned out to be way too early since we didn’t actually board until 11:10.

The international departures area in Newark is a total zoo—crowded beyond belief. The situation was complicated that evening because a Norwegian flight boarding next to us had been delayed and people were very cranky. And there was a British Airline flight delayed as well with people camped out on the floor.

However, the boarding was lightening fast. We were in the plane in what seemed like seconds and completed the boarding and closed the doors before I could put my things away. None of the usual people bumping into you as they they try to get by you. And before we were completely settled in our seats, the flight attendant came by with sparkling wine or juice.

The plane is great—-reasonably new, obviously modern, quite clean, very spacious. Much better aesthetically than the usual crowded business class sections on British or Air France. Seating is two and two. There are three sections with a lot of space between them. This flight was 2/3’s full so there were three flight attendants—one for every 15 passengers, all French, all very charming. There are three bathrooms, one in front, two in the middle, so you are never more 6 rows away. The entertainment system is definitely heads above other business class airlines. It is a very large, super light tablet that you can either have in front of you or slide out and set on your tray. Better noise cancelling headphones as well. The seats are a little smaller and perhaps a bit firmer than other business class seats, but still very nice. Not quite full flat beds, the seats reclined to about 175 degrees. A full size pillow and a very comfortable quilt made for a very pleasant, if short, night’s sleep. It was lights out with everyone fed just a bit more than an hour after takeoff.

The food options for our late dinner were a choice of salads — rare beef or a lobster — on a bed of greens with salad, a chocolate cake and a roll. And the drink choices were not as varied as the big airlines offer, but we were satisfied with our cognac. Breakfast options include an omelette or France toast with some very sweet, ripe fruit. And both meals were nicely presented.

Our arrival in Nice was as smooth as our departure. We whizzed through customs using the special lane for La Compagnie and elite class flyers (just had to present our boarding pass). There weren’t too many planes arriving when we did, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but it could have been.

All in all, the experience was definitely worth the price. And we will be watching this airlines for future travel to Europe.

Cozumel with an Open Mind

Surprise, surprise! We were convinced that 15,000 cruise ship passengers a day descending on tiny Cozumel would make it a very un-Mexican, tourist trap. We were coming here for the fantastic snorkeling and beautiful beaches, but didn’t expect much more. Yes, San Miguel de Cozumel (the only town on the island) does have its fair share of tacky souvenir shops, loud over-priced bars and restaurants playing American golden oldies, and street hustlers touting rental cars, scooters, jewelry, t-shirts, tequila tastings, and dirt bike tours. But walk five blocks from the town square and cruise ship docks, wait until 5 pm when the big boats start to depart, or spend a Sunday here when there are no cruise ships in port—you are in a different world. Mexican, local, real.

And despite our prejudices, mass tourism has its upsides. The cruise ship dollars make this island wealthier than most Mexican places we’ve visited—more opportunity for decent paying jobs, better infrastructure, less crime and poverty. And we benefitted as tourists too. We found a wide range of excellent, excellent restaurants—from the local, hole-in-the-wall taqueria to fancy seaside establishments with stunning views. Accommodations ranged from $18 a night rooms, backpacker hostels to all-inclusive resorts and beautiful villas on perfect beaches. There were three giant, modern supermarkets, but there were also mom and pop bodegas on every block and a large central market with stalls of fresh fish, live poultry and dozens small food stands.

But we did come for the drop dead gorgeous beaches and beautiful coral reefs that Cozumel is known for, and we weren’t disappointed.

You do need to know that the island has two very distinct sides. The eastern shore facing the Caribbean is wild, virtually uninhabited with only a couple of small hotels and restaurants. The surf is high, the winds strong, and the shore is rocky. Great for kitesurfing, or sunbathing if the wind isn’t too bad, terrible for swimming or snorkeling. The western side, facing the Yucatan, is usually calm with crystal clear waters, barrier reefs and many idyllic sand beaches. The shore is dotted with beach clubs, restaurants, hotels, a mega resort or two, but also public beaches and small coves. This is one of the few places we’ve been where swimming is good almost in the town center! Cozumel is heaven for swimming, snorkeling and diving.

In our search for underwater adventure we stuck to the western shore and were given this bit of advice: sandy beaches typically mean terrible snorkeling and diving—little to see and often poor visibility; rocky beaches mean clear water, lots of fish, and often great coral formations. There are many places to snorkel from the beach—some very close to the San Miguel itself—but the best snorkeling is definitely from a boat. The reefs are well off shore and it would be very dangerous to swim out to them. We booked a four hour tour for $65 per person with a guide that took us to three reefs—Columbia, Palancar, Cielo. It was money well spent. And a bonus: it was Sunday when there wasn’t a cruise ship in town—no other snorkelers in sight and only two others on our boat—a dad and his 15 year old son. We saw rays, barracuda, jacks, and spectacular schools of colorful tropical fish. The water was crystal clear, warm, and ranged from brilliant aqua to deep blue—travel brochure quality.

Our meals in Cozumel, particularly dinner, ranged from simple tacos at a locals’ hangout to fine dining in luxurious patio gardens or beautiful seaside palapas. The price for dinner with drinks for three was never more $20 each, and usually much less. And we had to be careful of snap judgements—a seaside restaurant around the corner from us that during the week seemed like a classic tourist trap filled with bus loads of gringos caused us to walk on by. On Sunday, when many places were closed for lunch, we stopped in desperation and discovered the place packed almost exclusively with locals and their children enjoying a meal after church. We now know why—the food was excellent and prices very good.

So Cozumel maybe Mexico’s number one cruise ship destination, but please don’t let that keep you away.

Tale of Two Ancient Cities: Coba and Tulum

For many people hopping on a bike is a frequent occurrence. For us, not so much. But the size of the Coba Archaeological Zone almost requires riding a two wheeler. You could walk it, but the distances between sights can be several kilometers. A third option are the pedicabs, but those pedicab drivers were almost as scary as the crazy taxi drivers in Tulum. So for the first time in probably 30 years, we climbed on bikes. Word to the wise: check out your bike rental. Many are in sad states of disrepair. Make sure to get one that fits.

We peddled madly, if a little unsteadily, along the gravel and hard-packed path for a well over a kilometer. Parts of the path follow roads more than a thousand years old. Our goal was to get to the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatán, Nohoch Mul, or the Big Mound in English, before the tour buses arrived and before the heat of the day. It is one of the only remaining pyramids you can still climb and we were told that will end this year.

Hard to imagine as you wander in and around Tulum that the Yucatán Peninsula was once home to millions of Mayans living in a collection of cities where the jungle now grows. Nearly two thousand years ago, Coba had been one of the largest cities and the center of trade with a network of roads going out for miles to all directions.

Our first sight of Nohoch Mul was intimidating. It was big. Tall. Steep. Almost immediately we realized two of us were wearing flops, not the best decision since we had hiking shoes back at our vacation condo.

But the crowds were still sparse and a thick rope had been attached to the pyramid to aid our ascent. We knew going up would be the easy part. Coming down, another matter. When we reached the top, a stranger high-fived us in celebration. We understood why.

From the top, you could see places where the tree tops sat higher, almost like they grew out of small hills. In reality, each bump was another temple or pyramid that had been absorbed by the jungle.

All three of us made it back down safely with no misadventures. We over heard a guide explain the technique — go down backwards as you would on a ladder or side step your way down, or use your bum. Do not, she said, walk down, facing straight ahead as you would handle most stairs. We followed her advice, often with using the heavy rope for safety.

Mission accomplished!

We stood for a while at the base, watching the hordes arrive, feeling smug that by 9:40 am we had completed our primary goal. Now we could take a more leisurely tour of ancient Coba.

The site includes two ball courts for a Mayan game vaguely like basketball. Without using hands or feet, but instead using your hips, the object of the game is to get a large rubber ball through the hoops on either side of the court.

Outside of the archaeological zone, we found four men actually playing the game on the school courtyard.

We read that when the Mayans played, it was for very serious stakes–human sacrifice of the team members. It wasn’t clear to historians whether it was the winners or losers who died.

Coba is also known for two other main structures. A rare round, cone shaped structure, Xaibe, which may have been a watchtower or served a grander purpose, an observatory. Archeologists are unsure.

And the second tallest structure, La Iglesias (the church), where archeologists discovered jade figurines, ceramic vase and even pearls.

In several places, signs next to stellaes gave us an idea of what the carvings looked like a thousand years ago. Even so, it was hard to appreciate the carving.

The Tulum Archaeological Site offers a very different experience. A walled city built on the edge of the Caribbean, with well groomed open spaces and a park-like feel. And it is substantially newer, only 800 or so years old.

Few archaeological sites anywhere can complete with the setting and the views.

Tulum is a happening place — highly commercialized and packed with tourists. There aren’t too many other archeological sites where you can go for a swim, buy lunch and a beer and take in some history. Even with the views, the degree of commercialization can be a little disconcerting.

A couple of warnings for would-be visitors. For either site, arrive early. Crowds can be overwhelming.

While there are plenty of places to buy water at Tulum, Coba is a little more rustic. Bring water, and insect repellant. And keep your eyes open for critters.

Tulum: Not Much “Then” a Lot More “Now”

One of our neighbors, a local historian, writes a newspaper column: “Seattle: Then and Now.” We thought of him when we first hit Tulum on the Yucatán Peninsula. Several of our friends who travelled years ago to Tulum to see the magnificent Mayan ruins told us there was almost nothing there then. Apparently you reached Tulum by a dirt road and the town was all but non-existent. Well, times, they have a changed—some things for the better, and some for the worse.

There is a now a modern, straight four lane divided highway running down the coast to Tulum full of cars, tour buses, trucks, motorcycles, three-wheelers and every other version of marginal motorized vehicles. Throw in a few pedestrians, a stray dog or two, hippie hitch hikers, road construction sites, massive & frequent but almost invisible speed bumps and a couple of police roadblocks and you get the picture.

The “freeway” is lined with entrances to mega resorts, billboards advertising Cirque de Soliel, cabaret shows, and, being Mexico, roadside cheap eats, pottery shops, tourist stalls, and fruit venders….and did I mention a stray dog or two.  

Tulum itself is built around a couple mile stretch of this four lane highway with a grass meridian,  large sidewalks and frequent huge, broad speed bumps that also serve as pedestrian crossings.

On one side of the road there is bike lane which is often indistinguishable from the sidewalk….a  very dangerous proposition for pedestrians. On the other side the bike lane is still under construction, with gaps in the sidewalk offering another hazard to shoppers.

The street is lined with cheap clothing shops, high-end jewelry stores, souvenir stalls, restaurants, bars with pounding loud music. It seems to go on forever with a just public building every now and then to break up the string of tourist oriented businesses.   

It’s a lively, fascinating combination of a small town experiencing growing pains and a collection of international travelers drawn to the Mexican vibe. Great for people watching and meeting new friends over a Margarita.

Off the main drag, the town is a collection of small shops—auto repair, light manufacturing, cheap, cheap eats, very modest homes and apartments and occasional pushcarts selling fruits or “pozol frio” with loud speakers announcing their wares.

Off, off, off the main drag just as you get beyond the city limits are the tents and shacks right at the edge of the jungle.   Perhaps not your typical charming resort town, but fascinating to wander around and soak in.  By the way, the traffic is awful…chaotic, unpredictable. On the edge of town are two giant supermarkets—modern, selling everything from hardware to food.

So we drove down to the beaches and the hotel zone to get a look at the gorgeous beaches we’d seen in the guide books.  The coastal hotel zone now stretches about three or four miles and, unfortunately, the walls around the hotels and the jungle between them completely block any view of the water.  On the other side of the road is a collection of small tacky shops, restaurants of all sorts and a few high end boutiques, all crammed together. There is an incredible range of quality from shabby tent campgrounds, hotels made from cargo containers, bars decorated with old car parts to glamorous ultra modern “yoga” resorts, eco hotels,  swanky vegan restaurants, boutiques with expensive beach togs and jewelry.  The road is narrow and potholed with more invisible, mountainous speed bumps. There is virtually no parking except in a few pay lots (many with valets).  So add to the traffic, dozens of taxis and mini vans, a number of water trucks (no sewer or water lines here) coca-cola delivery trucks, hordes of bikini clad bicycle riders (often looking very unsteady), swimsuit clad walkers—plus the usual mix of hippie hitchhikers, fruit vendors, construction workers, and of course a few stray dogs— and people just popping out onto the roadway from out of nowhere. Even at 15 miles per hour, driving was a white knuckle experience for the driver and passengers. 

This all would have been very discouraging but we finally decided to stop at hotel and restaurant because by some miracle there was a parking spot across the street.  Once you entered the hotel you stood just above the beach with a magnificent view of the long, white, picture-perfect beach.  

Palapas, families playing in the water and bright colored traditional fishing boats taking snorkelers out to the reef dotted the shore.  Stunning!  

Of course, the three lattes and a bottle of water ($10 by itself) we shared cost as much as the dinner we had last night in a nice restaurant but without the water view. Still worth it.

We are staying just outside of Tulum, in one of the largely gringo enclaves of condos, many of which are vacation rentals.   Dozens and dozens of yard signs line the broad smooth streets advertising new developments in the enormous planned community. Everywhere we saw small crews of men building by hand two and three story condo complexes.

No cement trucks or power tools here; it appears to all be done by hand. Sprinkled in between to walkways, green belts and buildings under construction were new restaurants and small shops waiting for customers.  Lots of bikers here, too, but at least there are well marked and separate lanes for the two wheelers.  

Not a lot of soul, but a calm oasis of sorts close to all the action.

Sleeping with Elephants

At 5:30am a young man with an unmistakable Zimbabwean accent stood outside our tent and shouted “knock! Knock” or “Wakee! Wakee!” The sun hadn’t quite risen on the Zambezi River just beyond our tent. As we got ready for the morning game drive, we could hear the hippos snorting and splashing in the river a hundred yards away. Tea and a light continental breakfast was ready on the main veranda. Light breakfast was a relative term — usually hard boiled eggs, fresh bread toasted over a fire, sweet rolls of some sort, cereal, yogurt, juice, fresh fruit and cheese and meats.

By 6:30 we loaded into the jeeps and began the morning game drive. Peter road shotgun, a Danish couple in front, and Malcolm and me behind in a vehicle that could hold seven. Our guide, Mundoga, a slight, fast talking guy, kept up a happy chatter, exchanging jokes with us and laughing at our responses. A different Mundoga emerged when he was tracking animals — focused, intense and alert, leaning over the side of his door, studying tracks. Once or twice, he grabbed his rifle and walked a ways, leaving us in the safety of the Jeep. Without him we would have seen little, even if the animals had stood up on their hind legs and waved their arms.

When Mundoga spotted animals, we stopped. At least that first day. As the days went on we drove past the more common elephants, baboons, impalas and Cape buffalo. But initially we all got out our cameras and clicked away. The Danish couple had brought three bags of camera gear. They even had to buy an extra seat on the small aircraft that took us to the camps. Malcolm and me with our little Olympus cameras were clearly out classed. Peter was more respectable with our new Nikon.

We bounced along dirt or grass roads rebuilt each spring after the winter rains. Apparently, the “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but pictures” philosophy sort of applied to the design of the roads. Any potential obstacle to the road was left where it was. The roads weaved around fallen trees, between termite hills and up and down through ravines carved by the winter rains. It made for a lot of swaying and jostling and slow speeds — our guide called an “African massage”. The smoother, but not necessarily speedier routes were the dried up riverbeds. Riding along them felt a bit like riding on compact snow and ice — some sliding and skidding, always with the potential for getting stuck. Even these four wheel jeeps with their low gears were challenged and at one point we did indeed get stuck in soft sand, requiring all of us to hop out the give a hearty push.

By 7:30 on our first day we could have left Africa having “bagged” most of the major animals, except for the lions and leopard. There would be no rhinos—we were told they had been removed from this area to protect them from poachers. Around 9:30 Mundoga stopped along the banks of the Zambezi, set up a folding table, placed a cloth on top, began to make fresh tea or French press coffee for us, served with a shortbread cookie while we watched the hippos in the river. Across the way we could see Zambia and its mountains.

We loaded back in the jeep and went off in search of wild game for another hour or so. Mundoga periodically picked up the radio and called to the other guides, sometimes speaking to them in Shona, his native language, and occasionally in English to share the location of the more elusive animals. The prized sighting was the lions. Once located, we drove within a few feet of them, where they remained unfazed, even bored, by our presence. Once they moved to sit in the shade of our Jeep.

Back to the camp for lunch. We were greeted by the staff with cold wash clothes to eliminate the worst of the road dust. And if time, and the elephants allowed, we might have time for a quick shower. Elephants allow? Yep. At Ruckomechi, the elephants rule. They wander through the camp at will, up to five or six of them at a time, an occasional male, several mature mothers and their babies. If the elephants were between you and your destination, you simply waited. In more extreme cases, the staff drove you to your door. More than once we were held captive as five or six of them surrounded our tent.

The baboons were another hazard. While they clearly ran from us — we suspect because they had learned humans carry slingshots — the real problem was they loved to drop from the trees shading our tents onto our tents, treating the tents as trampolines. Malcolm’s tent was one of their favorite landing sites.

Through the heat of the day we lounged, wrote a little, edited our photographs, read a bit, or went for a swim. Then headed back to the veranda for afternoon tea at 3:30. Tea for some consisted of beer or wine, but we generally stuck with iced tea with the appetizers and sweets served. Then back in the jeeps for the afternoon game drive.

Game was less abundant in the afternoon. But the elephants, the Cape buffalo and the hippos were visible any time of day. And then the safari ritual of a sundowner. Just before sunset, Mundoga again set out the table, often on the banks of the Zambezi where we watched the hippos, and tracker/guide turned bartender. Gin and tonics never tasted so good.

In northern Zimbabwe, on the border near Mozambique, when the sun sets, it gets dark almost immediately. The drink helped calm our nerves for the ride home with only a red light, used primarily to spot nocturnal animals and less for navigation. It was at night that we saw the painted dogs.

One morning our guide, Mundoga, urged us to load up earlier than usual. A leopard had been sighted, triggering a mad dash across packed dirt roads, onto soft sands in the riverbeds, through six foot high mounds of grass and down narrow animal paths through the scrub brush. Without our guide we would never have seen the leopard laying at the base of a tree. Even after he pointed to the spot I had trouble seeing the cat, he blended in so well. Mundoga was experienced enough to bring us back to the spot in the afternoon to see the leopard draped across the limbs of the tree, a dramatic sight.

We returned the camp for the happy hour before dinner at 8:00 to share around the fire pit stories of each group’s adventures. With a staff of 25, and only 12-18 guests we were well cared for. And well fed.

The last duty for Mundoga or one of the other guides was to grab a rifle and escort us to our rooms. Anytime after dark we could only walk around the camp with an armed guard. I thought at first this was over doing the protective bit until I saw a very large male lion with his kill about 500 yards from our tent.

Lights out shortly thereafter, as 5:30 am came quickly.

Greenwich — A Mean Time!

We’ve tried every jet lag cure. It doesn’t seem to matter what we do, the first few days in a place seven or eight time zones aways hurts. Sleepless nights. Afternoons of overwhelming exhaustion. And while our better-living-through-chemistry philosophy leads us to take sleeping pills, we still aren’t at our best those first few days.

So knowing that our safari in Zimbabwe was truly a once in a lifetime trip, we didn’t want to miss a beat. And a four day layover in London — a place we had been to several times before — seemed a great way to get over jet lag before an eleven hour flight, due South, with only one time zone change. Plus we had seen most of the sights we absolutely wanted to see in London. Now we could browse leisurely. Well, part of the plan worked.

London in those last days of September and first days of October was perfect! Sunny weather, but cool temperatures. Perfect for walking. And we walked. 24 miles in the first two and a half days.

Seeing Greenwich had been on our list before, but it always got missed. This time we hopped the boat at Westminster and enjoyed the views on the way to Greenwich, the birthplace of Henry VIII and his three children. We had anticipated taking the 90 minute tour (greenwhichtours.co.uk 8£) and then taking the Tube back to London for more sights. Didn’t happen. Once we started the tour we realized there was more to see and do than we could accomplish in one day.

We lucked out. Just the three of us signed up for the tour so we got essentially a private tour of the Old Royal Naval College, it’s chapel and the prime meridian as well as the park grounds. While tourists may consider Greenwich to be a second rate tourist site, it was the birth place of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and the remaining Tudors monarchs. As a palace it fell out of favor when Henry VIII divorced wife #1 and was marginally used until Charles II decided to build a riverfront palace on the site. He demolished the original building and started on his grand palace, only to be thwarted as Parliament flexed its control of the purse strings and England’s constitutional monarchy began to emerge. Charles incomplete building sat largely unused until William and Mary decided to build a home for the multitude of British infirm sailors. They donated the land and convinced renowned London architect Christopher Wren to design a home.

Later this became the Old Royal Naval College Today the buildings house a university and art college. We did a quick stop in the Royal chapel where the pattern on the marble floor mimics the rope on Restoration era ships.

And then began the long climb to the observatory and prime meridian. Wonderful views of the Thames and newer parts of London.

And we took the usual tourist pictures of us straddling the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

After the tour concluded we decided we could not do all three museums. We opted to skip the Royal Observatory — tough choice— and focus on the other two. Even then we were rushed as we went through the Maritime Museum. We focused in on the Napoleanic era and Lord Nelson’s triumphs with quick spin through Great Britain’s maritime history in the Pacific.

Our last stop of the day was the restored Cutty Sark. It had a $15 entrance fee, but being members of the National Trust brought that cost down for us to $10 a person. Well worth it. This ship, often referred to the fastest sailing cargo ship (although there were multiple races and Cutty Sark didn’t win them all), had a crew of just two dozen. The exhibit is exceptionally well done.

On the advice of our guide, we walked across the Thames — through a pedestrian tunnel build in the early 1900’s so worked could get to London’s docks and warehouses and not be dependent upon the ferrymen that charged exorbitantly. A little spooky to be under the river, particularly when we reached the end that had been repaired after bomb damage at the end of the German bombing of London.

So the bottom line? Greenwich is definitely a first rate sight. (By the way, the term first rate is a British naval term and refers to the size of the ship. Nothing wrong with being second or third rate; you’re just smaller)

Whale of a Good Time

Family vacations are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. Even in a close knit family, interests diverge. Taking our extended family on a four day kayaking trip could have been a disaster. A couple members have bodies that have betrayed them. From oldest and the youngest, our ages spanned 62 years. A couple of type A’s futilely try to organize the family. Three of us were veteran kayakers who had been on this same trip the year before while several were nearly kayak virgins. Nonetheless, the awe-inspiring wildlife, comfortable camp site, great guides and a flexible schedule worked magic for whole group. And we had the camp to ourselves. It only holds twelve max.

The camp site. No erecting tents, or foam pads on the ground for us. We slept in king size beds with four inch foam mattresses, sheets, fluffy comforters — all under a six foot tent, each placed to provide a bit of privacy. We went to bed clutching hot water bottles the kitchen crew provided to chase away the cool nighttime marine dampness.

And a salt water hot tub soothed our sore muscles and warmed our cold feet. Solar panels provided electricity for lights and charging our electronics. All the comforts of home, almost.

The food. French toast with blueberries. Coconut ginger carrot soup. Ling cod with Middle Eastern pesto. Gorgonzola stuffed dates. We ate well. Our camp had a full time chef and an assistant who had promoted herself to sous chef (actually a Brit from Australia who found this odd job through a website devoted to helping students and others find a cheap way to see the world, trading labor for room and board). Food allergies & quirks were accommodated (and we didn’t make it easy).

If any wildlife appeared, or we wanted to paddle a little longer, the meals were delayed. If we all were hanging out by the hot tub, that’s where the appetizers were served.

But we really came for the kayaking and wildlife. Located on Blackfish Sound in British Columbia, Canada, our camp was accessible only by boat. The Sound stretches along the northeast side of Vancouver Island and in the summer is a salmon freeway attracting orca (which formerly were inaccurately called blackfish). The regional waters are rich with herring which attracts a second large sea mammal, the humpback whale. And bald eagles, white-sided Pacific dolphin, sea lions, seals, plus other birds.

Sitting in our tents at dawn and dusk, we could hear the humpbacks in the fog just beyond our sight. The sound of their blow brought us racing for a glimpse of these huge creatures. On our first morning kayak we had been told to prepare to raft all the kayaks together should we get close to a whale. When the guides first yelled “raft,” I thought the warning was premature; the whales were too far away. But quickly they came close. Instead of humpbacks, it was small pod after small pod of orca. The tall, straight dorsal fin indicated a male, the smaller curved fin was the female and often the small fins of the immature whales were part of the mix.

That first morning we didn’t get very far as we had to repeatedly rafted up, each time accompanied by ohhs and ahhhs. At one point our guide put a hydrophone in the water so we could hear the clicks of the orca pods. Some day scientists will tell us what they mean.

We didn’t get as close to the humpback whales, although a year ago the three veterans had seen them bubble feeding right around our campsite when the herring are running. This year we had to be content seeing them from a distance or when we did get close, through the veil of the heavy morning fog. Almost siting prompted our chant, “tail, tail tail!” With cameras posed hoping for the classic pose. One afternoon we sat on the rocks below our camp and watched two Humpback whales breech repeatedly, causing one of us to yell, “I didn’t know those suckers could fly.” The guides informed us that the big whales rarely breech in these waters where they generally concentrate on feeding so we felt very lucky.

The big attraction to kayaking in Blackfish Sound is, of course, the whales. But our gang seemed to take as much joy in the smaller mammals. The big sea lions act like the bears of the sea, foraging in the bay, using their bulk to intimidate and their speed to impress. Unlike the bigger mammals, the sea lions swim the same waters we kayak and pose a far greater threat to our stability than the big guys who kept their distance.

But it was the dolphins playing off the bow and stern of the power boats we rode to and from the camp that earned the biggest smiles. They just simply played with the boats, appearing to leap and dive just for the sheer joy of it. Kind of reminded me of little of puppies. It was hard not to feel a bit of their exuberance.

When the fog prevented us from seeing many mammals on the third day’s whale watching trip, our First Nation’s guide stopped the boat so we could watch seven eagles and hundreds of seagulls feast on a herring ball. The poor fish form a tight knit swirling ball ball when threatened, based upon the premise there is safety in numbers. Those fish lucky enough to be in the middle of the ball survive. The ball is driven to the surface by the sea lion nipping at them from below which invites the attack from above. Eagle after eagle swooped down, talons extended to grab fistfuls of herring. Sometimes the eagle dropped ankle deep into the water; sometime shin deep. And as the eagles rose with their catch up they contorted their bodies, beak to toes, to eat literally on the fly. An occasional seagull followed a bald eagle, hoping for dropped scraps. The immature eagles, about four of them, who hadn’t yet developed the characteristic white heads and tails, were clearly less proficient. They generally made several passes at the herring ball before getting up the courage to dip into the water, and even then, they often came up empty-handed.

The early morning kayaks had a charm of their own apart from the wildlife. We experienced what our guides called an early “fog-ust,” the typical August weather pattern where warm land temperatures and cool water temperatures create morning fog. Islands just a few hundred yards away disappeared. And as we paddled, we hugged the shoreline so as not to get lost in the mist. This lack of visibility enhanced the feeling of floating and made distance sounds seem close. As as the fog shifted, it offered glimpses of the shoreline or tree tops, presented like like brief gifts to those of us who chose to get up early. At times we could see blue sky above and white all around us.

It takes a special person to be a guide on one of these trips. Part cheerleader, part safety patrol, they had to know the waters, know the wildlife and manage a wacky group of paddlers — a bit like herding ducks. And, of course, they had to know how to kayak and how to help us kayak — getting us safely into our kayaks, adjusting our rudder pedals, securing our spray skirts, and making sure our PSD were worn correctly. All the while making sure we were having fun. They succeeded.

The kayaking was really easy, as you might expect for a trip advertised as appropriate for inexperienced kayakers. With coaching from the guides, our least experienced kayakers managed the most strenuous paddle through some pretty strong currents — no sweat. The guides assisted us in and out of the kayaks, making the experience accessible for least flexible and least mobile among us. The strict and understandable no-paddling-after-wine-or- beer rule kept us from the post-dinner kayak. Only some of us went out on the water at every opportunity. The camp site attractions coerced some to stay ashore as an alternative. That’s why it’s called glamping.

Would we do it again? You bet! And maybe again and again. The camp may stay the same. The activities may stay the same. But the wildlife will always change and surprise.