Sunday, April 25, 2010

Pizza and Clams - a match made in Heaven!

I haven’t written recently about dining options here in Loreto, so this week I thought I would tell you about two recent experiences that show the range of choices we have available.

Thursday evenings have become a bit of a tradition here this winter – La Mission Hotel in Loreto (see Missionary Style, February ’09) has an “All You Can Eat Pizza” night on their pool patio – all the pizza you can eat for 89 pesos ($7.00 US)! Needless to say, this has become a popular event and there are regulars who show up almost every week to enjoy their fill of fresh pizza hot from the oven.

The beautiful new Mission Hotel surrounds the pool patio on three sides, open to the Malacon and Ocean front, with a bar and open air kitchen around a brick oven. The bar area is surrounded by tables and chairs and this is where the pizza is served. But with the popularity of this event, some weeks the demand exceeds the seating available on the patio, and the dining room on the mezzanine is used for the overflow guests.

Once you are seated and have ordered drinks (which are the profit margin for the Hotel) the wait staff brings platters of pizza and serves them by the slice to the hungry customers. Each time they return with a different selection; four cheese, salami and onion, pepperoni, vegetarian, Hawaiian, Mexican – on and on it comes – until, eventually, even the most ambitious and hungry diner has to decline that final slice!

The ambiance of sitting by a beautiful pool, surrounded by a fine hotel, overlooking the Sea of Cortez, enjoying generous servings of delicious food, fresh from the oven a few feet away, with several cold drinks, then receiving a bill (la cuenta) at the end of the evening for less than $20.00 per person, makes for an experience that would be hard to duplicate anywhere else I have ever been.

And if that isn’t enough – I have never walked into a restaurant anywhere else that I can reasonably expect to know, at least by sight, half of the other patrons – which is the case when I eat here in Loreto. These are the sort of evenings that make the simple experience of a casual dinner in town become part of the sense of community that is such an important piece of the lifestyle, making this such a special place.

The second experience that I want to share with you is completely different. About 5 km. south of the Loreto Bay development, on Mexico #1, where the highway runs close to a small bay of the Sea of Cortez, is the Restaurant Vista al Mar (appropriately, View of the Sea) or, as it is more commonly known by locals, the Clam Shack.

I had planned to go there, with a friend, for lunch on Saturday, but I was late leaving the office and wound up going on my own. I don’t normally enjoy eating at a restaurant alone, but I had planned to write about this place for the Blog and I needed to get some pictures, so I decided to go anyway. There were more cars than usual in the parking lot when I arrived mid-afternoon, and when I made my way to the beach patio area I was greeted by a table with Loreto Bay Homeowners and their guests, who invited me to join them.

The restaurant is made up of a main building of perhaps a thousand sq. ft., almost half of which is the kitchen and bar area with rest of the dark interior taken up with the ubiquitous plastic tables and chairs you see everywhere in Mexico. I mention the dark interior because this place is “off the grid” without power or running water, but that doesn’t stop them from doing a thriving business in fresh local sea food. There are large cisterns holding water for the kitchen and the washrooms and most of the seating is outside on the beach, under a palapa for shade, or in the direct sun.

Although the menu offers a complete selection from breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinners, the specialty is clams, prepared in many different ways. The “Chocolata” clam (so called because of it’s creamy brown coloured shell) is a local delicacy, harvested in large quantities from locations often kept secret by the fishermen who find them. There is a local expression I was told by a friend: “once you have tasted the Chocolatas in Loreto, you never want to leave” – and like most old sayings, this one carries a lot of truth. I think the best way to enjoy these delicious morsels is fresh and raw, particularly when you can eat them on a beachfront patio, probably within sight of where they were collected a few hours earlier.

The friends I joined had finished their meal and were relaxing with drinks, so I ordered a dozen clams for 60 pesos (less than $5.00) and my favourite beer, Tecate. Literally, a few minutes later, I was presented with a platter of beautifully arranged shells cradling their succulent treats accompanied by several packets of saltine crackers and a bowl of half limes on the side – bliss! If one has any doubt about the freshness of the clams, a quick squeeze of lime juice that causes the still live clam flesh to writhe, is all the proof needed. I admit that I have difficulty describing the taste and texture of these fresh clams with a touch of lime, but, suffice to say, they are ambrosia to me.

A very pleasant hour or two passed as I enjoyed my feast, the unexpected company of old and new friends, while I sat on the beach, watching the waves breaking on the rocky shore, and in the distance, the Islands of Carmen and Danzante hung on the horizon. I have described many wonderful times and places over the course of writing about my thoughts and experiences here, but I would be hard pressed to choose a more perfect example of the simple pleasures of food, drink, company, and location, that combined for this afternoon at the Clam Shack.

So, there you have it – a “cosmopolitan” evening of pizza around the pool of a fine Hotel, and a dozen of the freshest clams on a beach in the mid-afternoon, both enjoyed with good company and a sense of belonging in a good community – life doesn’t get a lot better than that, even if you are “Living Loreto”.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Loreto's Maestro Limpio

To a casual visitor to the town of Loreto it may not be obvious, but most of the essentials for day to day life are available here, although they often look different and may not operate in a way that is familiar.

For most people here on holiday the focus in town is sightseeing, principally the Jesuit Mission church, built over 300 years ago, it was the first Catholic church on the Baja and served as the base from which a string of Missions were built as far north as Tijuana. Or they are here for the fishing, the almost perfect weather, sightseeing or just enjoying spending time in a beautiful place.

However, for those of us lucky enough to spend half the year here, or longer, there are some more practical services required. Fortunately, I have not required any medical services while I have been here, although I know a number of people who have, and, for the most part, they have found the help they needed for prescriptions or first aid levels of care.

There are a number of Doctors in the town, some of whom speak good English and often they have their own Farmacia, providing prescriptions and over-the- counter medications. I have also heard of local homeopathic practitioners, who use herbs and natural treatments along with physical therapy to alleviate symptoms and provide relief.

Of course there is also our local Hospital, which opened a couple of years ago, and provides a higher level of EMS care along with an important focus on maternity care, with one of the two operating rooms dedicated to childbirth. However, more serious conditions or emergencies are often referred to the larger Hospitals in Constitution or even La Paz, depending on the level of treatment and care required.

One service that I have used here is dental care, specifically getting my teeth cleaned, which has been a very satisfactory experience. I have been a patient at a large downtown Dental Clinic in Calgary for many years – located on the mezzanine of a high-rise office building, it is tastefully decorated with loads of high tech equipment, 3 Dentists and many assistants and support staff. At this clinic, my routine cleaning appointment, performed by a 30-something hygienist, and usually taking about half an hour, followed by a quick inspection by the Dentist has cost me close to $300.

There are several Dentists here in Loreto and when I heard some good reports about Dr. Ramos, from friends who had used him, I booked my first appointment for a cleaning last year. His office is on Ayuntamiento, couple of blocks off Juarez. While the space is small, it has a waiting area at the entrance partitioned off from the clinic area, which has two very modern chairs with all the associated paraphernalia. One of these chairs has been added since my last visit a year ago and there is a small office area around the corner.

As one would expect, the office is kept immaculately clean, and Dr. Ramos is justifiably proud of his professional clinic. He is also an interesting person himself – the closest example I have seen down here of a Mexican Yuppie. In his 30’s, with stylishly gelled hair and contemporary frames for his glasses, he is one of the emerging “professional” class in this small town. Ramos’ practice could be best described as general dentistry; cleanings, fillings, extractions, etc. but he occasionally works with a specialist who travels from La Paz to do more intricate procedures like implants and crowns.

Although I was only having a simple cleaning procedure done, I was impressed with the technology that he used. Back in Calgary I was familiar with the “prod and scrape” procedure, where the hygienist used small hand tools to manually remove the tartar, before using a rotary polisher to finish the job. While here in this small office in a small “backwater” town in the Baja, Dr. Ramos used an ultrasonic tool that cleaned the teeth quickly and comfortably using high speed vibration – a much faster and more pleasant procedure.

I think that it is also worth noting that it was the Dentist himself that did the procedure, not a hygienist, and so I was getting a thorough inspection of my teeth at the same time – oh yes, and did I mention, the charge for my cleaning here was 500 pesos (about $40 US), about 1/7 of what I was used to paying in Calgary! For those of you who will be in Loreto, and may be interested in a little “Dental Tourism”, Dr. Ramos can be contacted at 613-135-2484 or - tell him Drew, the guy with the long grey hair, sent you.

So this week I took care of a personal hygiene issue faster, easier and much cheaper than I would have been able to back in Canada, and at the same time I was supporting one of the new members of an emerging professional class of Loretano. I also have made a small but important step in my integration into the “regular” life of the town, an important part of Living Loreto.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Loreto Trifecta!

My transition this year into a more full time work life has come at a price, and that price has been the little time left for enjoyment of some of the lifestyle aspects of living here in Loreto Bay. This week I have made an effort to remedy this situation and “smell the roses”.

I took two days off this week, Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday I went to town and did some banking, shopping and other errands, that evening I went to a community-wide open house, hosted by Mark and Lavonna who have just completed their beautiful custom home. This was the biggest house party I have attended here in Loreto Bay, and, it follows, it was held in one of the biggest custom homes that have been completed so far.

Perhaps, for those of you not familiar with the Loreto Bay development, I should explain a little about the types of homes being built here. The first phase of Loreto Bay, called the Founders Neighbourhood, consists of just over 400 completed “Village” homes. These homes are one of the six standard design floor plans that were originally offered by the developer. On the perimeter of these Village homes, bordering the Golf Course and several lots deep on the beachfront are larger lots which were designated for “one-off” Custom homes.

Due to the custom design of these homes and their unique features there is a considerably longer development and construction phase involved. The first custom homes were completed a couple of years ago and this winter many more of them are under construction, with several more beening completed. As more of these custom homes are finished, they will become signature properties within the development and will be among the finest homes in the Loreto area.

So the opportunity to be welcomed into one of these beautiful homes and meet the Owners was something most of the current residents enthusiastically took advantage of. Mark and Lavonna were wonderful hosts – greeting everyone as they arrived and making sure all signed their Guest Book and had name badges so we could get to know each other during the evening. Delicious finger food was catered and we all enjoyed the guitar music that Herzon, one of the finest musicians in Loreto, provided from his place next to the courtyard pool. Our Hosts had opened all the rooms of their home and many of the Guests enjoyed seeing the furnishings and decorations that complimented the beautifully finished casa.

During the course of the evening I was able to visit with many of the guests that I knew, but didn’t see regularly, including Charles, with whom I have played golf in the past. When I found out that he and his wife Helen were returning to Canada in a week and that Charles wanted to get in a couple of more rounds of golf before they left, I suggested we play together the next morning.

One of the luxuries of playing golf here this winter is the fact that it is never necessary to book tee times. Because so few people are playing it is usually possible to walk on to the course at almost any time and play a round, often without seeing any other golfers ahead or behind. For many of you who are used to the 8 – 12 minute “sausage line” start times of most northern courses, the idea of playing golf with no one else in sight, is an experience that must be experienced to be appreciated.

Charles and I enjoyed our relaxed round (he showed great patience with my rusty skills) and the day was perfect, a thin layer of high clouds to cut the sun, a light breeze to keep things comfortable and no one within a hole or two in front or behind us – perfection! The ninth hole is 20 yards from my front door, so after we completed the front nine, we stopped to pick up a couple of cold beer to sustain us for the back nine.

After completing the round, I invited Charles back to my place for a “golfers lunch” of hot dogs, chips and beer – and I was careful to point out that I had AMERICAN hot dogs, a rare imported delicacy down here (available only at Dali Deli – the specialty food store in town). This proved a strong inducement and so he joined me back at my casa. Over lunch, we watched coverage of the first round of the Masters Tournament in Augusta, headlined by the reappearance of “His Tigerness”, and watched with suitable awe and respect as most of the world’s best golfers proceeded to demonstrate how different a game it is when you have a reasonably good idea as to where the ball is going to go when you hit it!

After Charles left, following our lunch, I indulged myself by spending the rest of the afternoon watching the entire first round of the tournament. Before any of you start to feel jealous about my description of this idyllic way to spend a day, bear in mind that I was watching via “Slingbox” (my TV signal over internet system) that I described previously in the Blog about watching the Olympics down here. Well, suffice to say, trying to watch a 1” diameter white ball travelling at 120 miles an hour across blue skies and in front of green trees is somewhat beyond the definition capabilities of my current video system, due to insufficient available bandwidth. In short, the picture sucked! But, that is a small price to pay in the overall scheme of things, I guess.

The next day, Friday, I was back at work and looking forward to the trifecta of my week, my invitation from friends of mine who are Homeowners here, to join them and some other friends for a day out on their boat. I was excited because this would be my first boat-trip of this winter and, in my experience, the only thing better than living here in Loreto Bay, is to get out onto the beautiful water that surrounds our bay. The Sea of Cortez, punctuated by the offshore islands of Coronado, Carmen, and further south, Danzante, is a marine wonderland, constantly changing from day to day, season to season. Different sport fish come into, and go out of season, another friend caught a 42 lb Yellowtail this past week and similar stories about bountiful catches circulate among the fishers in and around the community.

But our plans for the day did not include fishing – it was going to be simply a relaxing day of boating out towards the islands, with a packed lunch and plans to eat it at some point during the day. Robert and Kelli and their daughter Allie and her friend, had invited Dee and Janice and I to join them on their outing. We met at 9:30 at Robert’s boat, each of us carrying bags with our supplies and “toys” for the day, and were quickly loaded into the boat, which held the 7 of us comfortably with some room to spare.

Robert guided us out through the estuary, past the golf course and around Punta Nopolo (the rocky outcrop that gave it’s name to this area) and out onto the open water of the Sea. The choice of the day for our trip had been the object of some significant negotiation, including weather predictions, because we have been experiencing some very windy days recently. However, as we moved away from the shore into open water it became apparent that we had lucked in to one of the finest days to be on the water in recent weeks. The wind was calm, so the water was like a benign lake, and the sun, as usual, shone out of an almost clear blue sky with a few patches of unstructured high wispy clouds, and the air temperature on the water was refreshingly cool.

We had only been travelling about half an hour in the general direction of the north end of Carmen, the much larger island directly across from Loreto Bay, when Yours Truly (not usually being known for particularly acute vision) spotted one, then another, spume on the horizon, about a mile or so abeam of us. We changed course and headed to where I had seen the whale spouts and, now with everyone keeping a sharp eye out, we continued to see more activity in the distance, including a breach where the apparently Fin whale knifed it’s huge head, with it’s distinctive white “underjaw” colouring, right out of the water before diving to unknown depths. One thing about whale display you understand quickly, when you are in the presence of these massive creatures, is that they are constantly moving and can travel great distances in almost any direction, between the rare glimpses of tiny percentages of their bodies. So with seven sets of eyes scanning the horizon we continued to see more backs and many tails, while Robert kept his boat at a respectful distance.

After about half an hour, when we realized this fortunate display was over, we changed course again and headed to Coronado, and a favourite sandy beach, where we would stop for lunch. On the way into this beach we and another Homeowner’s boat, that was just leaving our destination, were surrounded by a pod of several dozen dolphins fishing as a pack for their lunch.

After relaxing for a while, in the now much hotter sun on the beach, we visited as we ate our sandwiches and passed around chips and cookies, while the two girls played in the water near shore. However, Allie did make one fairly extensive excursion out through the shallows about 200 feet from shore to retrieve an errant inflatable tube, but that was about the extent of the hydro therapy. While we were there, the beach received an infrequent visit from the Marine Park officials, checking for the wristbands that are sold for about 20 pesos ($1.50 US) at the Marina in town. Our Skipper had the situation well in hand and after passing over a handful of bands he had on board, exchanged well-wishes with the officials who carried on with their business and shortly were on their way.

The bees arrived about the same time we all felt we had had enough sun and so we packed up the boat quickly and were on our way back home to Loreto Bay when we had one last fleeting sighting of another whale, this time quite close to shore, almost on the approach path to the Airport runway. The trip home took half to three quarters of an hour and we were back at the dock about 3:30 or 4:00 after a perfect enjoyable day on the beautiful waters of the Sea of Cortez.

First of all I want to thank Robert and Kelli for the chance to reconnect with the best part of living here – the water. The day, the company, the weather and the co-operative marine mammals all added up to a memorable day in Loreto Bay. So, this was a week that held a house-warming party in a beautiful new home, a relaxed and enjoyable round of golf with a good friend, and a perfect day on one of the most perfect bodies of water in the world – all in all, an excellent example of some of the very best parts of “Living Loreto”!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Semana Santa is coming to Town!

This week began one of the biggest holidays of the year in Mexico – Semana Santa, or Holy Week. Being a very Catholic country, Easter is a big deal here, with a rare four-day weekend that almost everyone takes off. While that may not sound like too much time off by North American standards, considering that a normal work week here is 5 ½ days with Saturday afternoon and Sundays the only time off, this is the biggest holiday of the year after Christmas, when things shut down for at least two weeks.

In Loreto Bay we live in somewhat of a “bubble” when it comes to these sorts of things. With the majority of our community “on holiday” while they are here, the rhythm of life for most people in residence doesn’t change with a holiday weekend like this. However, one positive impact of the break will be the lack of construction work going on around us, with the relief from noise and dust that comes with it. Normally it is only Sundays that bring “quiet enjoyment”, and we come to cherish that one day every week which is so peaceful.

This long weekend is also a traditional time for the local Mexicans to spend a rare day or so enjoying time on the beaches. We don’t normally see many locals on the beach here, they work long hours and long weeks, so these opportunities for recreation are not that common. In Mexico, like many other places, the beaches cannot be owned privately, so Loretanos are able to bring a cooler and some beach towels and have a relaxing time with family and friends, hanging out and enjoying the sand and surf. It strikes me as unusual that these people don’t spend more time “beaching” at other times during the rest of the year, considering they live nearby one of the most beautiful Marine Parks in this part of the world. Thinking about it, I wonder if it is comparable to how my family used to go tobogganing during Christmas holidays, and hardly ever during the rest of the winter, even though we lived on a hill?

Another impact of the long weekend is that the INN at Loreto Bay is operating close to capacity (albeit with the reduced number of rooms that have been available this winter) and most of the guests are Mexicans. It is a welcome change to see family groups enjoying the beach and pool and using the services of the hotel after months of minimal occupancy. Perhaps this is a positive omen for a new market opportunity under the anticipated new management. Likewise, in town there is a different feel and energy on the streets, with lots of visitors the restaurants and town Hotels are busier than what has been normal this winter.

With the arrival of Spring the week before last, there has also been a noticeable change in the weather – it is now warmer by 5 or 10 degrees than the typical highs we experienced earlier in the month. Even on windy days, and there have been a few of those recently, I can feel the heat from the sun and on calm days it is beginning to feel hot. This has caused me to shift from my “winter wardrobe” of long pants to shorts for work, although I still press my clothes each morning as I think it is important that I look professional. My prospective buyers can be in flip-flops and board shorts – no problem – they are the customer and they are on vacation, but I think it is appropriate that my appearance needs to be my idea of businesslike - for the Baja.

With the sun feeling hotter, I am now wearing a hat again on a regular basis. I have quite a collection of hats, fedoras and baseball style, but my favourite hat is a fabric and mesh fedora with a chin strap to secure it in the wind. I has been my observation that “a man is known by his hat” in this community. A hat becomes a recognizable feature, can be identified at a distance, and becomes more or less a trademark for the wearer, as well as a necessity for shade and protection.

Other habits start to change with the warmer weather, like seeking out shade. The old song about the “Sunny side of the street” was clearly written about a temperate climate. As the sun becomes stronger you naturally find yourself looking for some relief. When you meet someone on the street and stop to chat, it will be a longer visit if there is a bit of shade to stand in.

Other changes are more subtle. While to a visitor from the north, it appears to be summer-like weather here year-round, in fact many of the plants go through a seasonal cycle, although the differences in climate are much more subtle than in northern latitudes. The sisus vine that climbs many of the walls down here is sprouting new growth again on the woody vine branches, after losing much of their foliage at the end of last year. The palm trees are growing spikes that will turn into flower organs and produce the annual seed crop to start more little palms. Mesquite trees that looked barren and forlorn most of the winter are now leafing out with delicate fresh green sprouts. The bougainvillea bushes a ablaze with richly coloured leaves.

Space and editing do not permit a full appreciation of the beautiful plants and flowers that are coming into their prime here at this time of year, so I have put together a Photo Album of 30 pictures that I took this week wandering around the courtyards of Loreto Bay. Click on the following link to enjoy the full collection:

SS Flowers

Spring also marks the time when residents who have been here for longer stays begin to return to their summer homes and the realities of Income Tax season. (“Income Tax is breaking up that old gang of mine”). Friends and Neighbours become close here during their winter stays – partly due to circumstance and proximity, but I also think that there is a “self-selection" process at work as well. This place has a strong attraction to the people who made the choice to build their dreams here. And, for that reason, among others, they find an unexpectedly strong compatibility with other they meet here that made the same choice. As increasing numbers of people spend more and more time here, the community of residents grows and becomes stronger and the relationships between these residents are the building blocks of this emerging community.

So it is sad for us who remain to see these people, who we have felt close to through the past winter months, closing up their homes and leaving one by one for the summer. Naturally, the tendency is for those who remain to become closer, as their numbers diminish. But having said that, the inbound flights are not quite as fully booked as they were earlier in the year, and with more availability there is the possibility for more spontaneous travel here by visitors.

On a positive note, this winter there have been more homeowners staying longer, and more of them coming for more frequent visits, as the number of completed homes grows along with the number people who are ready to spend more time here. We look forward to our community continuing to grow next winter, with more people contributing their presence and energy to the dream we have in common – the dream that is “Living Loreto”.