Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Alley Cat goes to La Paz

I have written here before that the best part of Living Loreto is on the water and whenever I have had the opportunity to get out on the water it has been a memorable occasion. So it is with great pleasure that I offer this weeks guest blog written by my good friends about a recent trip that Jill and her husband Ben (Capt'n Benito) took on their 33 foot trawler The Alley Cat from Loreto to La Paz, and back.

We finally did it! Our first trip by boat to La Paz. We have talked about it for three years and after some 3-5 day trips to closer anchorages, and minor maintenance on the boat, Captain Benito felt it was time to venture to the big city of La Paz. Our two amigo's, Dewain and Julie, who are also permanent residents of Loreto, agreed to make the voyage with us.

A day and a half was spent at the Marina here in Loreto stocking the boat with food, clothes, lots of SPF-50 and even SPF-100, ice chests, block ice, fishing poles (they were Dewain's) and other "stuff". We set out early on Wednesday, May 13th. The sea was like a mirror with no wind and a good forecast for the week. Our first stop was Puerto Escondido, 14 nm (where we usually keep the boat) for fuel and to fill the water tank (150 gallons) Pulling away from the fuel dock, the engine decided to quit. This was the return of a nagging problem Ben has been working on, an air leak somewhere in the fuel lines, but after bleeding the lines, we were on our way. Time for ham sandwich's and a beer.

Our destination for the first evening stop was Bahia Aqua Verde, 23nm's. There are numerous islands along the way, and each is spectacular with their contrasting layers of soil and rock. This area of the Sea of Cortez has many pinnacle's rising out of the water. There are also numerous reefs, so careful navigation is required. Dewain, being the fisherman he is, threw out two lines, over the stern and behind the dinghy on the swim platform. We were trolling at 6.5 knots with a dorado feather. Not quite the fishing boat you normally see in the Sea. Well - wouldn't you know it, he got a bite! And it was a BIG bite! We had no idea what was on the line, but he battled the fish for about 15-20 minutes, and sure enough, he caught a yellow tail!!! Guess-ta-mation was 30-35 lbs. Our dilemma was this - no net or no gaff - the fish was finally pulled along side the boat, I grabbed the camera and Ben took a picture of the fish, as Dewain had the line wrapped around his hand. Try as we might, we knew we could not get the fish aboard and the line finally broke, and his fish swam away. That was the first edible fish caught aboard the "Alley Cat". I think when we get to La Paz, we need to buy a gaff, don'tcha think???

In the late afternoon, Bahia Aqua Verde was in sight and we pulled into the bay looking for anchorage. We had been here in April, 2008, and decided to anchor in the same spot, near a narrow sand isthmus. Other power boats and sail boats were anchored at the other end of the bay, so we had the spot to ourselves. Time for a drink and some hors d' oeuvres. A few minutes later we had a visitor. As we were anchored near the reef, our visitor was a turtle just swimming around and watching us. She visited for about an hour and we took pictures of her. The wind started to blow, so we pulled anchor, and went across the bay where the other boats were anchored - much better with no wind. Bahia Aqua Verde is a very popular anchorage and with good reason. Not only are the beautiful green waters and surrounding mountainous lands spectacular, it has extras here that makes this a perfect spot to stay for a couple of days. There is a very small fishing village with a tienda (store) and even a school for the ranchers children. For hiking, there are many areas to explore and if you are into snorkeling and diving, there is a beautiful array of sea life. We decided to take the dinghy over to the sandy beach and look for shells. Dewain got the prize for the spiny star fish. Our meal that night was spaghetti, and salad. We had about an hours entertainment watching the local fishermen chasing the small fish (bait) into a net by going in circles. We settled down in our staterooms for the evening and looked forward to our trip the next day. The wind came up around 3 a.m. and the Captain got a little anxious. We were all awake by 4:30 when the engine roared to life and we were on our way South, heading for the next stop, Isla Espiritu Santo, 73nm's.

Julie and I went back to sleep, and when we awoke around 8 a.m., we both took a sea sick pill, and headed back to bed. Needless to say, it was just a tad rough. Somehow the Captain managed to make sunny side eggs for him and his new First Mate, Dewain. This was the one area of the Sea of Cortez that I particularly wanted to see, as it is noted for it's cave paintings, and red rock bluffs. You follow the dramatic Sierra de la Giganta's (which is the mountain range that surrounds Loreto). It's a very jagged and rocky mountain range that gives the appearance of rising straight from the Sea of Cortez. Needless to say, I saw none of it. Finally around 2 p.m. the wind died down as were now in the area known as the Canal de San Jose. Isla San Jose is an equally impressive island which spans a length of 16.5 nm's. It reaches the dramatic height of 2100 ft. Feeling much more chipper, I joined the Captain and his new First Mate above decks. No fish were caught, but whale sightings were reported, along with manta rays. A short time later, Julie emerged, and we all enjoyed the rest of the trip to our anchorage for the night, Ensenada Grande, on the North end of Isla Espiritu Santo.

The waters here were turquoise in color, with lacy rock cliff sides and a white sand beach. Julie and Dewain decided to go swimming or I should say "noodling" and Ben and I took the dinghy around the various coves looking for shells. We saw numerous fish that we thought only belonged in a salt water aquarium and marveled at their beauty. After our adventures, we settled down for our dinner of BBQ tri-tip, fresh beets and pasta salad. Just before dinner, we were given the unforgettable pleasure of seeing schools of "golden rays". These are a definite golden color and look like butterflies in the water. They are fairly large and just magnificent to watch. They stayed around the boat for quite a while and finally left. We did get some pictures, but not as good as we would have liked. Tonight the stars seemed like they were falling from the sky, and the Captain was feeling no pain, (neither was his First Mate) so he decided to unzip the bimini. I yelled "NO" but it was too late. Soon, we all had pelican raisins in our drinks and all over us from the collection that had accumulated on the canvas shade cover. After a good laugh, bed was beckoning us, so we all hit the sack. And guess what, just as we were getting settled - wind again - thank goodness we were well anchored, but it sure did blow and rock the boat. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning and feeding the puffer fish cantaloupe, we pulled anchor and were on our way to La Paz 27nm.'s away.

It was a calm ride and we saw an occasional whale spout, a seal on his back sunning his tummy, and finally the harbor into La Paz. La Paz has a very tricky harbor entrance, and you need to stay in the buoy marked channel so you don't run aground. The channel follows the malecon (boardwalk) and it makes for a very impressive entrance into La Paz. This city is now the state capital of BCS (California Baja Sur) and is growing in population each year. Historically, Loreto used to be the capital of BCS until about 1830 when it was moved to La Paz following a devastating hurricane. With over 200,000 population, La Paz is also the largest city in Baja Sur. This is one of our favorite cities in Mexico and we were all looking forward to the wonderful restaurants, shopping and a real marina where we could plug into power (our first shore power since the Alley Cat arrived in Mexico in Nov. 2005), have internet access and long showers.

We stayed at Marina de La Paz from May 15th - May 19th. Our slip was only 10 slips from the Dockside Restaurant, so we had an American breakfast every morning and afternoon drinks and hors d' oeuvres on the deck looking at the other yachts and sailboats. This restaurant makes the largest plate of nachos I have ever seen, served on a large dinner plate and looking like a volcano it feeds 4-6 people easily..Yummy!

div>And soooooooo many large yachts! One yacht tender was larger than our 33' boat! Talk about feeling humble. They had the audacity to unload and load the owners and their guests in the empty slip next to us, they actually took the owners back in the large tender and had a small one just for their purchases. We did manage to talk to the crew and the boat was from the Grand Cayman's. They were all dressed in their whites and looking very cool. We found out that as soon as the owners leave, the crew hang around in shorts and tee's..

Our Captain was biting at the bit to hit the marine stores for spare parts, and all items we cannot get in Loreto. Since Dewain was an electrician in his previous life, they had plans to fix most everything electrical that wasn't working. Not surprising, but there is no West Marine Store located here (our favorite!) but lots of other marine stores and some of them they carry West Marine items so the guys were happy.

Now for us girls - I just wanted to window shop and see if I get could get the feeling of shopping in California. Nope, but La Paz has some very high end stores, lots of coffee shops, a very large mall, huge cinema, Wal-Mart, Sams Club and City Club, and can't forget McDonald's, Applebee's and Burger King. I am sure there are many more American influence stores, but we didn't go into them. We did find "Galeria La Paz" and both of us came home with treasures. I could have spent hours in that store just aahhhhing and oohhhhhhing...

Julie and Dewain have a favorite restaurant on the malecon that serves the "BEST" shrimp taco's - Shrimp taco's and beer it was. It was our first stop - Ben and I have been there before and we agreed that they indeed serve the best shrimp taco's we have ever had. One thing I can say is that there is a large variety of excellent restaurants. We found "a new find" two blocks from the Dock and ate dinner there twice. It's called Bandito, and it's an outside restaurant with seating under huge date palms. All the trunks of the palms have bandannas wrapped around them ( like bandito's) but the highlight of the restaurant is that the food is cooked on a grill under the hood of the front of a 1957 Chevy. They lift the hood and cook on the grill under it. Both nights it was packed, mostly with locals, and I would have to say, it was the best ribs and hamburgers I have eaten in Mexico.

We met a couple on a sailboat which had the slip next to us. They were from Colorado and took two months off to sail the Sea of Cortez. They were headed to Loreto after La Paz and said they would come by the house to visit with us. Well, as I write this log, they showed up and we are having them over for a shrimp dinner.

We stopped by to visit with the staff of our friend's (Dean Baker) tour business, Espiritu & Baja Tours. Business had been slow due to the Swine Flu scare (none in BCS) but they did have a tour out that day. Dean was in California, so we didn't get to see him this trip. Monday night we decided to just walk across the street and have Italian food at "Ciao Molino". Again, we have eaten there before and looked forward to an Italian meal. We were not disappointed.

Our plan was to head back to Loreto on Tuesday, May 19th by boat. Julie and I decided that we would take the bus back to Loreto as it was only a 5 hour trip! Tuesday morning we awoke to lluvia (rain). The Captain was not too happy, since the day before we had the boat all waxed and cleaned. The worker started at 9 a.m. and finished at 7 p.m. He offered to come to Loreto and work for us, but we aren't that fancy of a boat and sure don't have the funds to support him and his family. Since the tourism is down, everyone here is looking for work. We were glad to help him out for the day, and he did a good job. We told him that we would be back in the future and he gave us his phone number to contact him the next time we were in La Paz. Really a hard worker and a nice man.

Now...about the bus ride...

I have ridden a Mexican bus before on various trips to mainland Mexico and I am familiar with what it means when the term "chicken bus" is used. This time I was assured that this was not the case. In fact you can chose the level of comfort you want on a bus, by choosing different classes of service. The fare was $31.75 USD from La Paz to Loreto. Our bus had a bano (toilet), a/c, 4 t.v.'s, velour reclining seats and blue velvet drapes. So on Tuesday, we arrived at the bus station just before 9 a.m. and away we went. Our first stop after leaving La Paz was a military check point. Everyone got off the bus and suitcases are randomly pulled and the contents checked. I think they checked 6 suitcases, and then everyone got back on the bus. It stopped at a few rural spots on the highway to let people off and our first stop for snacks was the town of Constitucion. It has a population of over 20, 000 and is primarily a dairy town. It also produces a large variety of produce that is shipped to the U.S. This is where a lot of the imported "winter" produce comes from for the grocery stores up north. Anyway, back on the bus after 15 minutes and on to Loreto. We arrived in Loreto around 2:30 p.m. and found it was much cooler than La Paz where we had temps at 99 degrees. Juan Carlos, the owner of Mita Gourmet restaurant (across the street from "Casa Benito") came and got us at the Bus depot and thus Julie and I ended our trip.

Did we have fun? Yes...would I take a planned trip to mainland on the boat? Nope!!! There is not enough duct tape in the world to go around my mouth . Would I go back to La Paz on the boat? Yes....

Now for the guys trip back to Loreto....

They left La Paz around 10 a.m. and it was slightly raining. The forecast was for thunderstorms and they wanted to get ahead of them. It was pretty uneventful coming across La Paz bay but they did see some rain squalls behind them. Once they entered the Canal de San Jose, they saw "The World" ship anchored around Isla San Francisco. If any of you are not familiar with "The World" cruise ship, you purchase and design your own staterooms at a cost of over a million dollars. They have 165 staterooms. You pay a maintenance cost of $10,000. a month. Pretty hefty prices for the common people like us!

The weather was still really good with smooth waters. Towards evening, they lit up the generator and took out two rib-eyes we had purchased in La Paz, boiled some potatoes, did the BBQ bit, drank the rest of the beer, pulled in the fishing lines (no fish) and as they passed the end of the channel, they saw a magnificent rainbow. They said the sky looked like it was on fire. But alas, not all is perfect. The seas started to build as nightfall was upon them. They decided to just keep going and not anchor. As they passed the outside of Bahia Aqua Verde, the seas kept building. To ease their tension, they had a bag of popcorn and each a shot of bourbon. All the ice chests were strapped down, as they were sliding all around. About 3 a.m. the dolphin show began in the phosphorescent seas. They were racing towards the boat and then proceeded to follow the bow. I guess they were quite a sight with their bodies all lit up from the phosphorus. The winds diminished at they came around the backside of Isla Danzante and as they entered the inside passage between Danzante and Isla Carmen, they had to pay special attention as it was so dark. Carmen was soon lit up by the beckoning lights of Loreto and the seas calmed down. They anchored off the Malacon in Loreto, in front to the La Mision Hotel at 5 a.m. and decided to sleep until 8 a.m. Total non-stop running time from La Paz, 19 hours. The Captain and his First Mate had arrived back home!

Thanks to Jill and Cat'n Benito for sharing the wonderful experience of their trip to La Paz. The magic of the Sea is at our doors and yet, for many of us "Land Lubbers" who live here, we loose sight of the bountiful experiences that are so close to us. Learning to appreciate the land, by observing it from the Sea, that too is part of "Living Loreto!"

Sunday, May 24, 2009

In the "La Picazone"!

Earlier this spring I did an overview of a number of restaurants in Loreto (see “Me Gusta Mucho”) and this week I wanted to feature a unique dining experience that is available outside the town of Loreto. La Picazone is one of the “hidden secrets” of this place and while some of you may be familiar with it and have enjoyed the experience of visiting there already, I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight it here for the rest of my loyal readers.

Some of you may be familiar with the Douglas Adams book: “The Restaurant at the
Edge of the Universe”, and while that title may be a bit of an exaggeration applied to the location of La Picazone, it came to my mind as I drove out there on a recent visit. If you follow the continuation of the Malacon north past the Desert Inn (previously La Pinta) hotel and continue past the large oceanfront homes the dirt road eventually leaves the northern outskirts of the town and plunges into arroyo areas as it passes through desert brush and trees.

While this road has been improved with grading recently, it still qualifies as “rough” with many twists and turns as it winds it's way through the underbrush, and occasionally disappears when the terrain opens up and it crosses bare stretches of sand and gravel. Several kilometers outside of town there are a couple of remote clusters of
houses “off the grid” and parts of the road are bordered with barbed wire fences Private Property signs marking parcels of land destined for future development. One landmark – of a sort – is “Milles Palmas” a walled compound of half a dozen homes on the oceanfront, which is signposted on your right as you continue on your “quest”.

As a general rule (with apologies to Mel Brook's “Blazing Saddles” - “We don't need no stinkin' (badges) rules!”) when travelling this road, if in doubt, keep left, and you should be on the right track – isn't english a wierd language! As you carry on further, keep a lookout for this “sign” indicating that you are 3 km from your destination. This is followed about 2 km further on by another small sign at a “fork” in the road where you keep left (again) and now you are only a kilometer away. From the top of the next rise you can again see the coast and Coronado Island in the distance and you get your first view of the two story white building with a thatched roof that is your ultimate destination – La Picazone!

Now, you can be forgiven for wondering WHY someone would choose to build a restaurant at the end of a 10 km rocky road, literally miles from anywhere? You could also be excused for wondering WHY anyone would choose to travel that road just to get something to eat? But the answers to both questions is simple, the location is spectacular and the food is some of the best available anywhere in the Baja! The hosts of La Picazone, Alejandro and Imelda and their two sons, came to Loreto to build their home and open the attached restaurant several years ago after a successful career running restaurants in Cabo. They have created a welcome oasis for good food and a warm welcome on a beautiful stretch of rocky beach across the channel from the beaches of Ilsa Coronado.

In the two and a half years since I first visited the restaurant they have continued to develop the restaurant facility, expanding the open air kitchen and service area and enlarging the palapas that shade several dining patio areas. They continue to add decorative details, casual sitting areas and local artwork to create a truly unique and beautiful ambiance that typifies a laid back Baja elegance. Every guest that arrives is warmly greeted by Alejandro who manages to strike a balance between the casual formality that comes naturally to a born restauranteur. He welcomes you to choose your table and accomodates large or small groups and will move the tables and chairs as necessary to insure you are comfortably situated to enjoy the meal to come.

As you are getting settled a salsa tray arrives with a creamy garlic aoli, a spicy red salsa with onions and a formidable roasted jalapeno dip for the brave at heart. Drink orders follow quickly, featuring one of the best magaritas rocas I have ever tasted along with ice cold cervesas and other bebidas as requested. The menu is surprisingly extensive, considering the remote circumstances of the kitchen, with soups, salads, apetizers, fish, shellfish, chicken and wraps as well as burgers ( although I have never been tempted to try one, this may well be the closest I will ever get to a “cheeseburger in Paradise”). When he is asked if there are any “specials”, Alejandro can be relied upon to say “everything is special” and he MEANS it!

The starter menu includes seafood cocktails, salads, and soup. The main courses
are mainly seafood and include preparations of shrimp, scallops, fish (it was parrot fish on my last visit), as well as chicken and several variations on burgers. There are also a variety of wraps and quesadillas. Most of the entrees are available in your choice of several sauces, the above described “diablo”, garlic, breaded coconut, and the house-named Picazone, a herbed white wine sauce with onions that does wonderful things to anything it graces. While I haven't tried everything on the menu, a couple of my favorites are: camarones el diablo, succulent shrimp tenderly cooked in a moderately spicy red sauce studded with chunks of pineapple, lavishly presented in a half pinapple. There is also a delightful light shrimp salad accented with slivers of fruit and veggies. All of the meals are carefully prepared, beautifully presented and I have never shared a table here with anyone who has not raved about their choices.

While waiting for the food to arrive, and throughout enjoying the meal, one can also relish the spectacular views and ambiance of this “al fresco” dining experience. I have mentioned the view of Coronado on the horizon and there often boats plying the channel between with squadrons of pelicans patrolling the clear blue sky above. If the wind conditions permit, a perfect scenario for a visit here would be to cross the channel by boat after spending a morning snorkling and relaxing on the beaches of Coronado and then spend a delicious afternoon enjoying the creations from Imelda's kitchen as you drink the perfect margarita under the shade of a palapa and watch the shifting shades of blue in the Sea of Cortez.

In fact, Alejandro told me, on my last visit, that he is planning next season to start a boat charter service to pick up customers and transport them to La Picazone as part of a day-trip that will combine the best of an ocean experience complimented with a memorable meal followed by the return voyage. I am already looking forward to what I am sure will rank among my most unforgettable meal experiences as soon as this new service is available.

So when you combine a remote and beautiful location, far off the beaten track, with warm and genuine hospitality, in casually elegant surroundings with expertly prepared fresh foods and great presentation you have a formula that cannot be beat! As to the “whys” the answer is clear, if you build it, they will come. Yes, Alejandro and his family have created a true jewel of a dining experience in the middle of a beach, hard to find, but worth every effort. La Picazone is here, because he can, and that is why this one of a kind experience is one of my favorite parts of Living Loreto!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Loving and Leaving Loreto

Before you jump to any conclusions from this title, I'm not leaving Loreto, yet. But someone who is very important to my life here (and everywhere else!) is leaving - my wife and partner Cathy. So as a special treat for all of you, here are her parting thoughts about the winter we have just shared together here in Loreto, and her expectations as she returns to our other home, back in Calgary. I trust you will enjoy her perspectives as much as I will miss her being here!

After enjoying (and editing) Drew’s blog entries so far this year, I thought I would take the time to reflect on my own experiences over the past winter, as I start the process of “decamping” to fly back to Calgary. I am always of two minds and two hearts about leaving. I truly love the experience of living here – the sunny days and cool nights, the mountains, the sea, the town of Loreto, the Loreto Bay village itself, and especially the friends I have made down here. My other mind is firmly affixed on Calgary and the activities and friends there..

Many things have gelled and solidified for me here this season: I have increased my proficiency in the languages of both Spanish and bridge, though I can claim fluency in neither. My vocabulary in both has expanded, and now when I ask a question (or make a bid), I frequently can extract a glimmer of meaning in the answer, whereas before, most any response would have evoked my “doe in the headlights” blank stare. That’s not to say there aren’t still adventures to be had in miscommunication – I’ve had some doozies. Like last Hallowe’en when the one and only group came to our door and sang their Spanish “Hallowe’en Apples” song. There were three kids, probably aged 3, 6 and 9, accompanied by their mother, and dressed in identical, but proportional, skeleton costumes. In my attempt to communicate, I acted fearful and wanted to tell them that their scary costumes made me afraid. But I said “tengo mierdo” instead of “tengo miedo”. The addition of that tiny little innocent “r” changed the meaning from “I have fear” to “I have shit”. The mother looked at me askance and hurried the children away.

Last month, I was communicating with one of the gardening crew about the fact that the automatic irrigation wasn’t working in the side garden. I told him that a part was on order and he should water the garden by hand and after explaining myself as best I could, I asked if he understood me. He hesitated, looked a bit puzzled, and slowly nodded his head and said “si…”. I took it as the Mexican way of agreeing with whatever you say and wanting you to be happy with the conversation and I sort of jokingly nudged his arm. We both went about our business, but a few minutes later, I realized I had said “me recuerdas?” instead of “me entiendes?” so I had asked if he remembered me rather than if he understood me. I went back to find him to explain my error, but I’m sure I just made it worse. I think I am now known amongst his friends as the cougar gringa who goes around with the pickup line “do you remember me?” while kittenishly poking men’s arms.

Then there are the pronunciation pitfalls. The Spanish words: harina, orina and arena all sound very much alike to these untrained ears, but there’s a big perceived difference between wheat, urine and sand. So when they ask my tortilla preference in a restaurant, I usually opt for corn (mais) to avoid mistakenly asking for urine or sand tortillas. But if you think Spanish is laden with danger, try explaining the pronunciation difference in English between wind (moving air) and wind (your watch) or minute (1/60th of an hour) and minute (tiny) while totally avoiding the topic of why the following words do not rhyme: tough, plough, slough, though, cough. I spent some time before Christmas volunteering at the local “university” helping students with their English. We were usually given an English newspaper article which they would read, and we would help with comprehension and pronunciation. After one such article, we were also given a practise sheet of the variations in the pronunciation of “ed”, the past tense of most English verbs. Try explaining why the “ed” is sometimes a “t” (walked), sometimes a “d” (plowed) and sometimes pronounced as it’s own syllable (waited). A lot of apologizing goes on when teaching English.

Also solidifying for me this winter in Loreto was my golf game. I am hovering around a mulliganized score of just under 50 for a 9 hole round, if you don’t count the water balls (and I don’t) and if you’re generous with the “gimmes” (which Drew is). (and why isn’t that word pronounced to rhyme with “limes”? Let’s not go there anymore). It has been such a treat to have reasonable green fees coupled with stunning vistas and to really get to know a course. They have even been keeping our clubs at the clubhouse and load them up for us when they see us coming. Wow – we’ve really ARRIVED! The opportunity to practise weekly instead of hanging up the clubs in October and dusting them off in May has worked wonders on my game, and has even somewhat repaired Drew’s right leaning tendencies – he loses far fewer balls in the right side water hazards than before, but don’t tell him I said that. This Saturday was my last chance to play the full 18 holes, although an electric cart is de rigeur in this heat. Then it’s back to the crowded fairways and long waits at the Calgary courses, and having no fixed golf home. I’ll have to remember to repair my Calgary divots, because here, the divots explode and disperse, to be filled with sand, should your cart be so equipped. In Calgary, one must chase after the errant toupee and try to reattach it to the earth’s scalp. I’ll miss the goat hazards and the road runners (beep beep), but not the cow patties, although all are far less prevalent now that the course has been completely redone and the fences fortified.

I am returning to Calgary for a number of reasons. Firstly, my singing group, the Alto Egos ( has two gigs the following weekend and I so miss singing and being with my Calgary friends. One gig is at the retirement residence where Drew’s uncle Hap lives, performing for their Thursday afternoon “pub” entertainment. We’ll be singing our oldies, although our oldies only go back as far as the 50’s and may be the sort of rock ‘n roll that they were warning their then teenaged offspring against. I’m sure they’ve softened their stance since, and would no longer regard “Wake up Little Susie” as lascivious, devil music. We’ll have to gird our loins somewhat for this gig, because although we know the residents will enjoy the performance, they don’t have a lot of excess energy to show it with. We’re going to be on such a high anyway, not having sung together in over 5 months. I’ll keep away from the residents myself, for although I am confident I won’t have contacted swine flu, I wouldn’t want to inadvertently be the cause of illness should I transport something nasty from Mexico. Truth be known, there are more cases of H1N1 in Calgary than in the Baja, so I’m more at risk returning to Calgary than staying in Loreto. The gig is 4 days after I leave Loreto, so any symptoms should have manifested by then.

Another reason for leaving Loreto is the summer heat. The abrupt change at the beginning of May from perfect days in the high 20’s Celsius, (or 80-90 Fahrenheit) to highs in the upper 30’s (near 100 F) have left me melting in a puddle like the wicked witch of the west. This Canadian girl’s blood is a bit too thick for this heat and I know that if this is the frying pan, the coke oven is yet to come. My sun worshipping husband (have you seen his tan?) will tough it out until at least the middle of June when decreased real estate traffic and increased heat will drive him north with the cat. I have often said that winter in Loreto is like summer in Calgary, but without the hail. It seems that at least once during the 10 day extravaganza of the Calgary Stampede, the skies open up and God pummels us with peas or golf balls or (God please forbid) baseballs in retribution for our stampeding excesses. It is also often said that if you don’t like the weather in Calgary, wait a half hour. Calgary’s weather is far more changeable than the consistently sunny cloudless days we usually experience here in Loreto. I love them both, and by spending winters in Loreto and summers in Calgary, I get the best of both. I avoid the stinging cold of a Calgary winter where your main aim is to go from your heated home to your heated garage and drive in your heated car to your heated office. I also avoid the punishing heat of a Loreto summer where you go from your air conditioned home to your air conditioned… get the picture; although with the high electricity rates here in Loreto, AC is far less prevalent than in Canada or the States.

The third reason I’m returning to Calgary now is to get a job. Economic times being what they are (dontcha hate that phrase?) cash flow is a rare commodity in many households, and ours is no exception. Like many retirees, we are wondering if we pulled the financial plug a little too soon, believing naively that the good times were here to stay. I hung up my geophysicist’s slide rule 3½ years ago, and I’m not sure that sudoku and cryptic crosswords have kept my brain honed to the finely tuned instrument it once was (I wish!). I have a prearranged interview with a service company in Calgary, for even if I do get my brain around working with seismic data, I’m not sure I would want to jump into making million dollar decisions about where to plunk down an oil or gas well. In truth, seismic interpretation is more of an art than a science, and my intuition and experience would likely carry me through that exercise better than my recollection of the theory of double integrals and deconvolution will get me through data preparation. Time will tell and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my colleagues and facing the challenge of full time work again. What a rush!

Quite a transition! Going from a winter of mostly relaxation to a summer of work. However, I trust that I’ll find many of the same things in Calgary that sustained me in Loreto: friends, mountains (with perhaps a bit more white dander on them), sun (albeit somewhat weaker), bridge (anyone?) and golf. How blessed I am to have so many good friends and wonderful places to call home and I look forward to each in it’s own time. To end with Drew’s signature phrase, leaving for one’s other home is, for us, another aspect of Living Loreto. Hasta luego!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Nine + Nine = FORE!

As I recently promised, I am writing this week about the opening of the “new” or front nine of the golf course here at Loreto Bay. Officially, the second nine holes of this David Duval / Tom Weber course was opened for play about a week ago, as I write this, but last week a couple of pigs were “hogging” all the attention, so I chose to write “If Pigs could fly . . .” and now I will get back to more important things – like Golf!

First a little history, as I understand it. There has been a golf course here in Nopolo (the neighborhood surrounding this development, Loreto Bay) for about 25 or 30 years, originally designed by a Mexican Golf Architect and owned by Fonatur. While the surrounding scenery was spectacular, the infrastructure, in the form of irrigation etc., and the maintenance was not of an acceptable commercial nature due to lack of budget and low player usage. When the Loreto Bay project was being planned, the adjacent golf course land was quickly identified as an important amenity for any future development and, after lengthy negotiations, the existing course was eventually purchased from Fonatur and plans were made for it's redevelopment.

Even before the purchase of the “old” course had been completed, there was a lot of marketing excitement raised by the Developer with the announcement of the signing of a contract with David Duval (an American PGA tour professional whose career highlight, so far, was winning the British Open a number of years ago) to design his first “signature” course on the “track” of the original course. Much of the credit for the finished product we now see in Loreto Bay is owing to the hard work of Tom Weber, Duval's associate, who was responsible for the final ground shape as he interpreted Duval's design concept into the actual finished product.

The first nine holes to be completed, which are actually the “back” nine as the finished course now plays, were opened just over a year ago and have been received with great enthusiasm by those lucky enough to have had the opportunity to play the course. (If you haven't already read my earlier posting, “Golf Anyone?” please check back in the archives and you will find a description of these holes.) In addition to the still spectacular surrounding scenery, a great deal of credit for the continuing high quality golf experience, is deserved by Troon Golf, the management company that has been in charge of the operation and management of the new course since the first nine opened.

As soon as the first nine was opened, work began on the re-shaping and re-turfing of the second nine holes and, now, a little over a year later, we are enjoying access to a full 18 hole course. While most of the course was ready to play earlier in the year, the fairway on one hole, the new #2, was badly eroded by last Fall's storms and the repair and time required to grow in the that has been the limiting factor that determined the recent opening date.

Now, on to a description of the new front nine holes. (By the way, for those less than fully adept at Computer 101 skills, if you click on any of the following "thumbnail" pictures they will expand to full screen and be much more legible.) The first hole starts just north of the existing clubhouse, and, with your back to the Paseo (main street), you stand on one of the five tee boxes for this par four that range in yardage between 408 to 287 to the pin, and face a fairway and green that plays the width, east to west, of the golf course land. On your left, along most of the length of this fairway, is the practice range, now also fully turfed but not yet open as the necessary equipment for that operation is not yet in place. (An interesting feature of this range is the fact that there are a number of full sized sand traps scattered over the practice area, which should make even this part of the course a more interesting challenge.) The range is divided from this fairway by a berm running most of it's length, which should help to keep all but the most errant shots on the appropriate side. On your right there are a couple of Nopolo homes overlooking the fairway, but they shouldn't come into any sort of controlled play from these tees. About 2/3 down the fairway on the left side, begins a series of large bunkers that continue up to the rather small green which is also protected by more bunkers close in on the right side and still more behind the hole. With this sort of protection, a good pitching wedge shot will be a valuable tool to find the green from the air, as there is limited access over the ground.

The second hole is to the north from the first green, across the side road that separates the Agua Viva Phase Two from the west side of the Founders Neighborhood. This par five is one of the more challenging holes on the front, with yardages running between 550 and 407 it is the longest of the entire 18 and is bordered by estuary water along it's entire right hand side. After a (hopefully) long tee shot (grip it and rip it time!) you are only going to be approaching another hazzard of this hole, that is, a side channel of the estuary that cuts across ¾ of the fairway, about ¾ of the way to the hole. While the width of this water is not too intimidating, it does cause one to think about club choice for a second shot, to insure clear sailing over the water to the approach areas in front of the green.
Which brings us to the next challenge on number 2. The green is almost 300 degrees of an island surrounded by the same estuary water that you have been playing beside (and hopefully not in) the length of this hole. With a narrow “tongue” connecting it to the fairway and a nasty water-bound slope to much of the green surface, hitting and sticking is the name of the finishing game on this hole.

When you finally are rewarded by the wonderful sound of your ball bouncing into the cup on two, it is time to retrace your steps and go around the water channel that creates the 2nd green, and then past a double green on your left, for holes 4 and 6, before finally reaching the tee boxes for the third hole. I don't know if this next suggestion could be in a future budget, but a nice addition to the spectacular second green you've just left, would be an appropriately decorative foot bridge, leading from the north side of the green across the estuary. This bridge would cut at least 100 yards of walking around the water, for those hardy enough to pull a cart, while anyone riding an electric cart would keep to the current path around the water. However you get there, the par four third hole reaches 407 from the back and 212 from the front and it too has water on the right, but only for the first half of the fairway. On the left ranges a long series of fairway bunkers separating this from the fourth fairway. At the end of the fairway, which stops just short of the tennis centre, the green is partially hidden to the right of a landmark spreading tree, and tucked in behind another sand trap, making for one of the prettier greens on the whole course.

The tees for hole number four are slightly raised from the third green and give you a good perspective on the second longest par 5 of this nine with distances between 517 and 399 yards to the green centre. This wide rolling fairway constricts dramatically beyond about 2/3 of it's length with a formidible series of fairway bunkers on both sides, requiring some some care for both the second and approach shots to stay out of sandy trouble. But the work isn't done yet, as the fourth green (contiguous with the sixth) is raised significantly from the fairway and, as usual, well protected by sand.

Backtracking a bit from the fourth green you find the fifth tees with yardages of between 363 and 278 for a par four. This fairway angles a bit to the right and the wide landing zone is blocked from the green on the right by a large trap with another smaller one on the left of the green. Although I haven't played these holes often enough to have clear recollection about the lay of many of these greens, this large green falls away rather nastilly on the back left which will leave the opportunity for some very challenging pin placements.

Directly adjacent to this green are the boxes for the sixth, at between 438 and 327 yards this companion par four fairway wraps around the previous one in a slight dogleg left with major trap trouble both right and left, leaving a narrow centre neck to the green, which, like the fourth green it is connected to, is also raised from this fairway and backed by a particularly ugly and hidden bunker.

If you've got a long “shaggy dog” story or are trying to close a big sale during a “business” round (God, forbid, this is Loreto after all!) the walk from the sixth green to the seventh tees would be a good time to bore you golfing companions with your verbosity, particularly if you chose to walk and push a cart. You will have to cover approximately the length of the first fairway in the distance from the green to the main road, which you then cross to the Ocean side and walk about half as far again, through what can only be described as rough construction access to the short tee-off area. The seventh hole, a 192 to 131 yard par three, plays across another section of the future estuary system and onto a large raised green with some sand protection in front to the left and on the right side. If you get the impression that I am less than enthusiastic about the access to this hole, I should explain that the “village plan” calls for this tee area to be in the centre of the future town commercial centre and the lengthy walk from the previous green may very well become an interesting and attractive “break” in the first nine. However, bearing in mind the amount of construction still to begin in this area, I fear that the current rough conditions may become worse before they get better.

The eighth hole tees are a bit further back behind the 7th green and this par 4 at between 324 and 219 is the shortest of the 18 holes. But it is also one of the most spectacular views, with the natural rough sea grasses separating you from the the beach on the Sea of Cortez, the landmark “Punta Nopolo” (a rocky outcrop at the far end of the beach) in the distance on the left and the whole of the Founders Neighbourhood streching out to the Sierra Gigante Mountain range as a backdrop. Under these circumstances one can be forgiven (I hope) for being somewhat distracted from the main business at hand – negotiating a dogleg left fairway across a wide stretch of sand to a small but dangerous green, amply protected by sand for the last third on the right side and another trap on the right.

Finally, after retracing your steps a bit to the last set of tees, you find yourself facing a wide undulating fairway of between 195 and 130 yards for a relaxed par three that only gets a bit tricky at the final approach to a large green that slopes off in several directions and has some impressive sand traps to keep you honest before finishing in front of the first cluster of homes to be built in the Founders Neighbourhood.

And there you have it. With maximum yardages on these new front nine holes of 3394 added to the maximums for the “old” back nine of 3335, the total for the newly completed course stretches to 6729 yards, with the front tees playing a reachable 4812. Although I have only walked and played this new half of the course a couple of times, I confess to preferring the “old nine”, however, since I haven't had the chance to play all 18 in one round yet, I can't yet vouch for how the two halves compare when played back-to-back. It's is my opinion that there is perhaps more variety in look and feel of the holes from 10 to 18 than on this latest addition, albeit that there are some challenging and stunning holes on both halves of this course. I guess my main critique of 1 through 9 is the distance that must be covered between several of the holes and the current conditions of that trail particularly between 6 and 7.

Having said that, to have the priviledge to play this quality of course as a Homeowner, living just minutes away from the clubhouse, and currently being able to “walk on” at almost any time and play without booking tee times or feeling crowded from players behind, or held up by those ahead. To enjoy this wonderful game in these spectacular surroundings and to be able to do so at the special introductory price for Homeowners of $25 per nine holes with a pull cart, or plus another $10 for a power cart (slightly higher for guests at the Inn at Loreto Bay, and higher again for those outside of Loreto Bay), well, it really dosen't get much better than that, which is why I believe golf is another important part of “Living Loreto”!

Sunday, May 3, 2009

If Pigs could fly - - - God forbid!

This week I think I would be remiss if I did not dedicate my Blog to the 250 pound Pig lounging comfortably under that palapa over there, sipping on a margarita!
Yes, it was only last weekend that we started to hear something about swine flu in Mexico. For us, one of the first times we heard about it was in a phone call back to Canada, where my family had been hearing a lot about it in the media for the previous day or so. Later we saw some of the coverage on our TV news channels; Fox and CNN, and began to appreciate the level of concern that was being generated north of the border.

Before I go any further with this, let me say that I am sorry for anyone who has been directly affected by this illness and I in no way want to trivialize what is no doubt a serious and potentially life-threatening situation in some places. However, I do want to contrast the near-hysteria that is being generated by the media and the 24 hour news cycle with the relatively benign effects that we are seeing here “on the ground” in Baja, our quiet little part of Mexico.
As I write this on Saturday May 2nd there has not been one case of H1 N1, or swine flu, reported anywhere in Baja Sur. However, the schools in town have been closed this past week, and will be until the 6th, by order of the Federal Government. Other than that, I am not aware of any unusual circumstances that have impacted our day to day life other than the following instances. A friend had her Spanish class cancelled because it was held in a school building that was closed. Our visitor, who left here on Monday morning, picked up some surgical masks last weekend while he was in town, because he was travelling on to Mexico City. We heard later in the week that the farmacias in town had sold out of masks. Starting on Thursday of the past week, there has been a big gathering of “yachties” in Puerto Escondito, 15 km south of here, called Loretofest. This annual event, which draws a couple of hundred, mainly live-aboard boaters from all around the Sea of Cortez' was briefly threatened with cancellation by Singlar, the Government agency in charge of their marine tourism infrastructure, whose facilities were being used for the event. However, calmer heads prevailed and the event is underway as I write this, with no evidence of face masks, or any particular concern, other than a jokingly half hearted avoidance of kissing or anything else that might easily spread infection.

Contrast that with the minute by minute updates of infection rates and state by state comparisons and debates about travel restrictions and border closings and I hope you can understand my sense of disconnection between the reality I see around me and the news images that appear to be the current obsession of the world's media. Now I don't want to appear to be minimizing the seriousness of the situation in Mexico City, (one of the largest urban population centers in the world) or other affected areas but fundamental in understanding our perspective is the fact that, where we are, in the southern Baja penninsula, is one of the more isolated places you can find in Mexico. We have an air link to the US through Los Angeles four times a week and a road that connects us to Cabo and La Paz in the south and extends to Tijuana over 1,000 km to the north. Travel between the Baja and the mainland of Mexico is limited, with air connections to Cabo and La Paz, but none from the mainland to Loreto. There is also a ferry service from the mainland to La Paz and further north to Santa Rosalia. So the potential for transmission here is remote, witness our current clean bill of health I mentioned earlier. Ironically, given the air access from LA, the greatest threat we may be facing in this part of the Baja is probably from the passengers arriving here from infected areas up north!

On the subject of threat origin, I was sent an apparently credible link this week to the story about the huge pig factory farm on the outskirts of the small Mexican town that is being identified as “ground zero” for the beginning of this strain of flu. Apparently, the farm is owned by Smithfield Farms, a American agri-industry conglomerate that set up the pig farm there after being charged with a huge fine for massive polution from their pig farming activities in the US. Subsequently they opened up the Mexican operation, without being subject to the same degree of environmental controls here as in the US. Now we are experiencing the consequences of their corporate disregard for the environment and the impact that that is having worldwide and the inflamed reaction it is having particularly in their country of origin, America. (I was going to add something here on a variation on the theme of “chickens coming home to roost”, but with the change of species the visuals, just didn't work!)

So on this quiet May Day weekend here in Loreto, we are enjoying a peaceful, quiet, holiday weekend (May 1st here, is the equivalent of Labour Day north of the border) in spite of the global attention that appears to be focussed on this country. While we are concerned about the long range consequences of the potential of a pandemic developing out of this situation, we feel safe and secure in our isolated and remote location and, save for the penetration of the international media, we might be blissfully ignorant of these goings on. There is a saying we have in Canada: “When the US gets a cold, Canada gets pneumonia”. Perhaps the new adage will be: “When Mexico gets the flu, the US gets hysterical”.

Which I guess proves the old adage, “Don't believe everything you read in the newspaper!” reality can be much different than the appearance portrayed in the media. Being the focus of international attention and not feeling any effect from the subject of all that interest is a new and unexpected variation of “Living Loreto”.

P.S. Wash your hands thoroughly, cover your mouth if you have to cough, and perhaps consider coming to Loreto to avoid the next global threat to your health!