Toronto: Speechlessly good.

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The big city of Toronto reunited Brendon with his beloved Jays (go the Jays!), but most importantly with our dear Kiwi friends, Kyle & Bea. 

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Kyle and Bea road tripped through the States last summer, landing in Toronto in October.  We always knew a Canadian reunion was immanent, and were looking forward to this time for months. 

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While in NZ, we journeyed very closely with these two, sharing a meal together nearly weekly.  We’ve missed these times.  We hold these times and these people very dear to our hearts, and so sharing this time together in Toronto was very special.

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We were blown away by Kyle & Bea’s hospitality, and felt so thankful for the times and memories we could share together on Canadian soil.

Toronto was one of our favourite cities for the following reasons:

The Jays.

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At the age of 7 in 1992, young Breno went to watch the Jays play at the Skydome.  (Can you believe the child above is NOT mini Brendon??)

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He recalls having an epic moment of walking out into the staduim and seeing the grand expanse of the Skydome in front of him, and being overcome with a sense of awe. 

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Watching a Jays game was a must, so we went to 2.  Brendon watched the Jays game with the joy of his 7-year old self, shouting “Chicken hot dog” out at Colby Rasmus, who scored a home run while we were there. 

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It was cute seeing how happy he was when the Jays beat the Red Sox 6-1.  Brendon was so proud of his Jays.

The boutiques. 

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Oh my goodness.  The boutiques.  I kind of have a thing for cute design shops.  You know, the ones that carry a mix of cool stationary and prints, locally-made jewellery, home decor items, and potentially even some unique but practical household items?  I find them very inspiring.  Anyways, Toronto is FULL of amazing shops like this.  In all of our travels this summer, I didn’t come across a city that even compares to the volume of inspiring boutiques and design shops we encountered.  Bea was kind enough to do some scouting ahead of time and map out their whereabouts on an adorable set of cue cards, which detailed some extremely well-thought out routes for day trips around Toronto.

The beaches. 

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Toronto has beaches, people.  And being a bit beach-deprived this year, I was all over them.  We took the ferry over to Toronto Island (which is worth the excursion just for the views of the city), found ourselves a nice beach and enjoyed a glorious afternoon in the sun.  They’ve got a great, little organic cafe over there on the island too.

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Sugar Beach is another place beach lovers should be aware of.  This adorable slice of paradise is located directly beside the Redpath Sugar Factory.  The wofts of caramelized sugar that float by are heavenly, and the pink umbrellas are super cute, aren’t they?  And so what that it’s man-made?  It’s super cute and super accessible.  If you work downtown, you can totally beach here on your lunch break.  I mean, I would! 

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We walked to the beach nearby Kyle & Bea’s place, and took in the peaceful glow of the evening light on the Lake.  Amazing to have a gorgeous body of water so accessible from multiple places.

The coffee. 

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Toronto’s got a solid coffee scene.  Favourite spots included:

Te Aro

Te Aro- a Kiwi-founded coffee company.

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Crafted Coffee (Te Aro), where a brief Transcend reunion occurred.

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Sam James- discrete espresso bar set up with a few locations around the city.

Rooster

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White Rabbit (they serve a generous affagato)

Early Bird

The parks. 

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The way that Toronto does parks was something that really struck and appealed to us.  And the parks are SO accessible.  Green space is very well & purposefully used.  It was neat to see the local parks well-utilized by people of all ages, and for various purposes. 

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Bicycle polo.  Wood fired pizzas.  Mud pits.  Community fire pits.  Skateboard park.  One evening while strolling through Dufferin Park, we happened upon a hipster “storytelling” gathering around a fire pit. 

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Toronto’s slogan “A City Within a Park” is such a neat concept.  Though perhaps their green space is not as plentiful as other Canadian cities, it is extremely well utilized.  Located within the heart of Toronto, one can pop in to grab a coffee at a reputable cafe, then walk a couple blocks and enjoy their coffee.  We think Toronto is on to something with their parks.

The street art. 

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I have yet to visit a city that displays and celebrates street art as much as Toronto does.  There is inspiring street art everywhere, and often in places unexpected. 

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Kyle & Bea’s friend Jeff was commissioned to paint this bear, among many other pieces featured downtown. 

The car-lessness. 

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Toronto is a city where one can definitely live without a car.  We didn’t use our car once during the week we were in Toronto, and loved it.  Our feet, and the occasional use of the subway or streetcar got us any place we wanted to go.  It was a wonderful way to be able to get to know and feel the heartbeat of this vibrant city.  

Other Toronto gems:

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Soma Chocolate- A local chocolate-maker who produces produces bean to bar chocolate.  Go there.  And pick up a Stratus Bar.  Do it.  It could change your life.

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Kensington Market- an eclectic, multicultural gathering place of artisans, vintage shops, cafes, & cultural food vendors.  There’s a definite vibe and energy to Kensington Market, and it’s a good one.  

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Electric Mud BBQ.  Not quite the same as Kansas City BBQ, but with a southern feeling and all the meat and mess of any of the best BBQ joints of the deep south.

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Blackbird Bakery- a relatively new bakery located in Kensington Market, which specializes in delicious, artisan breads.  Brendon recommends the Toronto Sourdough.

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Fat Pasha- we enjoyed a mind-blowing Jewish feast of colour and flavour on their enchanting backyard patio.  

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Bluegrass Brunch- what could be more enchanting & cozy on a Sunday morning than enjoying a family-style brunch while listening to bluegrass tunes?

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Smock- an inspiring cafe/children’s art space.  

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Kid Icarus- an inspiring stationary/design shop located in Kensington Market.  I visited numerous times.  I couldn’t get enough.

Love.Distillery.TO

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The Distillery district- I totally could have spent more time wandering the red brick streets and perusing all the cool shops tucked away in the Distillery district.

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Toronto, why do you have to be so cool?  Keep this up and we could easily be persuaded to move there… it’s currently Brendon’s retirement dream to live in a condo in downtown Toronto and attend every single Jays game.

We absolutely loved our time in Toronto, especially because of who we got to share it with.  Thanks, Kyle & Bea for showing us an AMAZING time in your super cool adoptive city.

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Chicago: Classsic, tasty, friendly.

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We spent two days in Chicago, one of which was Mel’s birthday.  Our experience in this iconic city can be summed up in three words: Classic, tasty, and friendly.

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Classic.

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Chicago is quite classic in its architecture. 

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Stately towers draw the eye with repetitious rectangles.

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Charming houses share space with nature and businesses below.  The blending of the old with the new is a compelling example of a city aging with style.

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When in Chicago, paying a visit to Anish Kapoor’s “Bean” in Millennium Park is as touristy as it gets, but worthwhile.  

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While you’re there, wander over to Frank Gehry’s band stand shell.  The design of it is really quite impressive, and there’s a good chance you’ll be fortunate enough to take in some live music in the park.

Tasty.

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There are a few things that are ‘must eats’ when in Chicago. For Breno, those were Chicago deep dish pizza and a Chicago dog. 

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We asked around for the best place to get a Chicago deep dish pizza.  At the top of the locals’ picks were Giadano’s, Lou Malnati’s, and Uno’s, and Piquod’s.  We decided on Giordano’s because it was closest to our current location, and took our pizza pie to the beach.  This move seemed to astonish the locals and made for a great moment in our accomplished picnicking history.

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We had just laid out the blanket on North St. Beach when a young man walked by and eyed up the deep dish pizza on Brendon’s plate.  “Oh my god!  That’s amazing,” he says to Breno.  His friend simply gives thumbs and nods up in upmost approval.  Perhaps it never occurred to them to combine these two elements?

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Some locals brought to our attention that there was probably an item left off our list: The Italian Beef Dipped sandwich at Portello’s.  They just raved about it.  So I suppose we had to try one of those too.  We crossed the two remaining food items off our list with a single visit to Portello’s. 

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We got two Italian beef dipped sandwiches (I went bunless) with a Chicago Dog on the side.  The sandwich was flavourful and soggy (like a good beef dip should be). 

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As for the hot dog, Brendon says he’s never quite eaten a hotdog like that one, so I suppose that’s a good sign?  He says the freshness of a juicy pickle and ripe tomatoes on top was a great touch.

Friendly.

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By now, we have visited a few different cities, and must say that some of the best customer service experiences we have ever had were in Chicago. 

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A shout out goes out to Intelligencia Coffee, both the Logan Square location, as well as the new Wicker Park location that just opened the day we visited.  We were greeted so warmly and given such a wonderful experience by the staff at each of their cafes.  Awesome coffee too. 

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Other special mentions go out to Fleur- a very cool floral/textiles design shop, Gaslight Coffee, and the Bang Bang Pie Shop for their super friendly service and praiseworthy offerings. It really doesn’t take much to make an encounter with another human a positive and lasting one, yet most of the time people don’t do it. Chicago on the whole had it together.

Hurricaine

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Our Airbnb host, Merissa, was absolutely lovely and set us up well with a stylish & comfortable place to stay, as well as recommendations of her favorite Chicago spots.  Her pet bunny, Hurricaine, was the cutest.  We had such a great experience staying in her thoughtfully decorated apartment. 

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We were out our first evening in Chicago strolling the well-known Wicker Park area.  Aspiring to tick one item off our Chicago food list, we asked a random duo walking beside us where one could get a good Chicago dog around here.  They didn’t know, but invited us to come to a gig with them that was happening just down the road at an arcade.  We went with it, and were glad for this chance to get a feel of the local indie music scene, get to know a few of the very friendly locals and get some tips for the rest of our time in Chicago.

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Chicago, thanks for being so delicious and welcoming to us Canadians. 

 

Halong Bay: Bay of a thousand islands.

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At this point in our journey, we were beginning to feel a bit tired and travelled out.  The idea of an organized day tour where all your transportation and food was taken care of sounded awfully appealing.  So we signed up for a tour of Halong Bay through APT Travel.

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After a four hour ride on a minibus, we arrived at the Halong Bay pier.  The Nu’u Nghi boat was waiting for us, and minutes upon setting sail, we were presented with a beautiful seafood feast.

Halong Bay

The perfectly timed meal ended when we pulled up to the Don Thien Cung caves, and got off the boat to explore them for about a half hour.

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(The coloured lights are just for effect.  The inside of the cave is not actually rainbow.)

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Next stop was a fishing village, where a small group of Vietnamese people live year-round.  There is even a school here on the water, where children attend until age 11.  After that, students leave the village to continue school on the mainland.  We were given the chance to kayak in and around the fishing village and surrounding cliffs.

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It was crazy to fathom the unique challenges of living in a small fishing community such as this one.  We wondered how they felt about their existence being a tourist attraction.

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As you can see, Halong Bay is a pretty stunning place.  Although impossible to capture in one photo (unless from the air), Halong Bay is comprised of 1900-2000 islets.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Limestone cliffs, partially covered with lush plantlife, jet starkly around of the water.  Though pictures do not do justice to the immense awe that this place conjures, perhaps they convey more than words.  We’ll leave you now with a few images to take in.

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It felt kind of weird to be the tourists in the tour group, but hey, after several weeks of organizing our own adventures, it was actually kind of nice to sit back and enjoy an excursion that someone had already done the work of orchestrating for us.

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We got to know Halong Bay better than we were planning to.  Left behind again by our transport, after the agent PROMISED we would not be forgotten, we got to spend a bit of extra time hanging out in Halong Bay.  (But of all the places to be stranded… we suppose it could have been much worse.)

Halong Bay

The town itself didn’t have a lot to offer, but we spent some extra time chilling out by the water.

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The beach is where Halong Bayers seem to flock to in the evenings.  And why not?  It’s beauty is hard to ignore.  Young and old alike go for a dip to escape the heat.

Halong Bay

It appeared that some organized swimming lessons were going on.  This was definitely the busiest beach we encountered throughout our time in SE Asia.

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We highly recommend you visit the world wonder of Halong Bay if you ever get the chance!  (We heard the overnight cruises, or the ones that overnight on Cat Ba Island are pretty epic, but weren’t able to make it work.)

Thanks, Halong Bay, for sharing your splendor and beauty with us!

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Victoria. Charmed and completely delighted.

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And then, we met Victoria.

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It was a long-awaited reunion with members of our NZ family, Mark & Laurel, who had become among our favourite adventuring companions and like family to us while in NZ. 

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Laurel&Mark

Spending time with these two was at the top of our Victoria highlights, but there is more to this city worth mentioning.

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Victoria wooed us. 

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With her rugged, log-cluttered beaches,

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pink cherry blossoms, 

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moss-covered trees,

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lush plantlife,

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and thoughtful range of cute boutiques. 

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It boasts a strong coffee scene, with a few fairly established roasteries.  Fernwood, Bows & Arrows, Discovery, & Habit were among the cafes/roasteries we visited.  

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We appreciated how easy it was to find parking and get about in the historic but funky downtown core.  There are a number of areas by the seawall that are lovely for strolling.

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Mark and Laurel took us out to China Beach, one of their favourite beaching spots, where we set up camp for an afternoon and enjoyed the company of friends, some unexpected bouts of sunshine, and the rugged beauty of Canada’s West Coast.

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The natural beauty of the provincial capital was very evident.  Rain was forecasted for the week, but still the sun shone. 

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Having these amazing people to explore the city with made our time there all the more epic.

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We had high expectations going in, but feel that they were met and probably exceeded.

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Victoria, oh Victoria.  It is only a matter of how long we can bear to be apart.  Until we meet again!

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Tofino: Raglan of Canada.

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Rumours of Tofino’s loveliness had made their way to our ears before our feet touched down upon Canadian soil, so we couldn’t set foot upon Vancouver Island without checking out this destination for ourselves.

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As we ventured North on the Island, the vegetation became increasingly lush, to the point of being quite reminiscent of the tropical jungle of our adoptive nation (NZ).

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This cute beach town exudes a strong sense of community and an outdoor lifestyle which revolves primarily around the sea.

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In many ways, this ocean-centric town reminds us of the NZ surf town of Raglan.

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Much like Raglan, Tofino boasts a hippy vibe, and has a quaint collection of cute boutiques, surf shops, cafes, restaurants, and health food shops.  A large percentage of its inhabitants surf year-round.

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Just a 10 minute walk from our accommodation was this lovely beach.

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The lapping ocean waves were soothing to our land-locked souls and brought a familiarity that made us miss the days where visiting a beach was a matter of asking, “East Coast or West Coast?  White sand or black?”  Wow, were we ever spoiled in New Zealand.  Not sure how we’re ever going to get over it.

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Other gems we uncovered in Tofino were…

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Tacofino (food truck).  The fish tacos come highly recommended in our books.

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Tofino Brewing Company.  Brendon found the kelp stout highly intriguing.

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Tofino Coffee Roasters, as mentioned in a previous post.

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Misty, log-cluttered beaches.

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And lush vegetation that felt oh so exotic to our Alberta eyes.

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We were told we were very lucky to experience a sunny morning, as Tofino receives mainly rain this time of year.

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It was a pretty quick trip, so we probably didn’t get to experience for ourselves the fullness of what Tofino has to offer, but what we did glimpse, we certainly liked.

Oh the weather outside is frightful.

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This was us, a year ago.

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Now, here we are.

As you can see, we are still not quite sure to make of all the white stuff.  We are slightly stunned… slightly in awe… and partially baffled that people choose to live in these conditions.  While we had forgotten over four years’ time what Alberta winter temperatures were like, we quickly became acquainted with -30… and -40  (with the wind chill) over the past couple of weeks.

snow piles.

We’ve received a record snowfall so far in Red Deer.  With the snow piles nearly taller than me, it’s a little scary to think that winter only officially started… yesterday.  Where will we put the rest of it when it falls??

Baby, it's cold outside.

All this being said, there are many things worse than the cold and the snow.  Our SE Asian journeys put this well into perspective.  Our favourite spot these days is sitting by the fire, enjoying the warmth and ambience of the cozy indoors. (The NZ equivalent was huddling next to the space heater- not quite as romantic.)

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We are trying hard not to think about the beaches we (not so long ago) frolicked upon, but is easier said than done, especially at this time of year.  Thinking of everyone who shared in our adventure in NZ… dear friends who journeyed closely with us, the Espresso Workshop whanau, Kaurilands and Maungawhau friends, Laidlaw crew, and students & parents who touched our hearts along the way.  Sending love to you all and holding dear the amazing times & memories shared in your beautiful land.  And to our friends and family in North America, if it weren’t for you, perhaps we wouldn’t be here right now… But it is delightful to be in your presence once again, and share this special season with you.

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Koh Kood: Getting away.

Beware of coconut drop

Should one feel the need to “get away” even further from any sort of noise or distraction, Koh Kood is waiting for you.

Away, Koh Kood

While we were fully relaxed and content on Koh Chang, the reality that we will probably never be this close to Koh Kood again propelled us to purchase tickets and hop aboard a Bang Bao boat, bound for Koh Chang’s neighbouring island of Koh Kood.

On Koh Mak

Four hours later, after a quick stop on Koh Mak for lunch, and then transferring to a motorboat, we found ourselves on the Koh Kood’s blissful shores.

Koh Kood

Also known as Koh Kut, this small, peaceful island boasts a mere population of 2000 people, spread over its 162 squared kilometers. Its economy is driven by a few laidback fishing villages, some coconut plantations, and the growing presence of resorts. The island is not touristy in any way, so there really isn’t much to “get amongst.”

Beach side.

But if the desire of your heart is to relax beside a beach or paddle through warm, soothing waters, Koh Kood is definitely for you.

Stranded

Important travel advice: Even though you have booked a return ticket to the mainland, and your hotel calls to confirm this ticket for you, it does not necessarily mean that you will be picked up. We recommend not making any paid travel arrangements (tours, transport, or hotels) until you are back on the mainland, as sometimes travelers are stranded/ forced to spend some extra time on the island, due to being forgotten by their transport company.

Happily stranded.

But if one is stranded anywhere, a tropical island is a pretty great place for this to happen.

Scootering Koh Kood

When forced by circumstance to spend an extra day on a tropical island, why not make the most of it? We took advantage of this extra day on Koh Kood, rented a scooter, and ventured out to explore the rest of the island.

A few of our Koh Kood highlights:

Klong Chao Waterfall

Splash

A visit to Klong Chao Waterfall. Surrounded by lush greenery, with winged creatures fluttering about, we felt like we had stumbled upon the Garden of Eden. With the whole place to ourselves, a dip in the lagoon (and a turn on the old rope swing) proved tranquil and refreshing.

Coconut ice cream banana split

Viewpoint Cafe

A coconut ice cream banana split at Viewpoint Cafe. Specializing in homemade desserts and cool drinks, Viewpoint Cafe boasts that it is the best place on Koh Kood to watch the sun go down at the end of the day. We would probably concur with this statement.

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A monkey riding a tractor.

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This friendly (foot-long) gecko in our room.

Koh Kood sunset

By the end of a day adventuring about Koh Kood, we came to resonate more deeply than ever before with these wise words:

“Adventure is misfortune, correctly understood.” Well put, G. K. Chesterton.

Koh Kood staff

Another enjoyable aspect to our Koh Kood experience was getting to know the lovely staff at Koh Kood Resort, most of whom are originally from Cambodia. Sincere, genuine, and warmly hospitable, they were a lovely bunch of young people, with big, gorgeous smiles. Everyone seemed genuinely happy and thankful to be working there, even though most didn’t have or own a lot. Most workers spoke English quite well, and we enjoyed conversing over meal times.

Paya

One worker, Paya, ran out and climbed a coconut tree to hack down a fresh coconut for me when the restaurant had run out. A couple of the workers also waited with us on the dock for over an hour while waiting for our boat (which did not come).

Paya

It was quite a thought-provoking and humbling experience to get to know this beautiful bunch of people.

Our encounter with these kind Cambodians gave us the feeling that our next destination of Cambodia would hold good things.

Koh Chang: Elephant island.

Hammock

We purposely wanted to set aside about a week’s time in our journey for rest and relaxation, and to process the major life change we were in the midst of. After doing some research on Thai islands, we found that there were loads to choose from, each with their unique offerings.

Koh Chang

To save on travel time, and also based on some recommendations from friends, we chose the island of Koh Chang.

Koh Chang

Located in Thailand’s eastern province of Trat, near the Cambodian border, Koh Chang has a population of about 5000 people. The 217 square kilometres that comprise Koh Chang include dense rainforest, a mountainous interior, and gorgeous sandy beaches.

Tourism, Koh Chang

Although fishing is an essential part of the island’s economy, its primary income-generator is tourism. There are also a few coconut plantations and lychee farms on Koh Chang.

Lonely Beach, Koh Chang

Koh Chang boats a laid-back, hippy vibe, making it a very chill and relaxing place to dwell.

One of main factors that made our stay on Koh Chang so awesome was our accomodation.

Oasis, Koh Chang

Nestled up amidst the treetops, away from the bustle and noise of the beach parties, is Oasis.

Oasis air-con bungalows

Comprised of a handful of bungalows scattered up a hillside, just a 10 minute walk from Lonely Beach, Oasis is a haven waiting to be discovered by the traveller seeking rejuvenation.

Oasis

The main building is a covered, open-air structure which boasts a tasty menu of Thai delicacies and a spacious, comfortable lounge. Many hours were spent here soaking in the chill ambience, planning the next leg of our adventure, and enjoying tasty Thai treats.

Open air bathroom

Most our nights in the more basic, jungle bungalow, which consisted of a double bed, fan, mosquito net, shelving unit, and a porch with a hammock out front. We loved the open air bathroom attached at the rear. Sunlight streaming in during morning showers, and the stars above at night- amazing.

Air con bungalow, Oasis

For one night, we upgraded to the more luxurious air-con bungalows, which are beautifully done-up on the inside.

Oasis Crew

The owners, from the Netherlands, were super lovely, as were the rest of the staff.

Lunch with Urai

We got to know Urai, one of the Oasis employees, a bit better over lunch one afternoon. Hearing her story was quite neat. Though Urai’s English was quite good, Google Translate helped us out a few times with more topic-specific vocabulary.

Other highlights of Koh Chang:

Fresh coconut

Fresh coconuts on the beach.

Warm waters

Waters warmer than we ever thought possible.

Scootering on Koh chang

Exploring the island by scooter.

Sunset from Oasis

Sunsets.

Ban Kwan Chang

Oh, and the elephants.

Ban Kwan Chang Elephant

The name, “Koh Chang,” literally means “elephant island,” a tribute to the shape of its headland. Fittingly, there also happens to be elephants on the island, although they are not native.

Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Camp

One morning, we paid a visit to Ban Kwan Chang Elephant park, a sanctuary for retired elephants. The organization is sponsored by the Asian Elephant Foundation.

Ban Kwan Chang Elephant Park

It was cool to see that the elephants are well-cared for here, and that most are allowed to roam free about the camp (although the “naughty” ones did have their ankles chained.)

Naughty

Ban Kwan Chang

The workers sleep at the camp, amongst the elephants.

Ban Kwan Chang

Riding an elephant

We got to ride this beautiful creature named Numwan, through some mangroves.

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Un-guided elephant trek

Early on into our trek, our guide hopped down off the elephant, leaving the elephant to continue the tour un-guided. Mainly, Numwan knew where she was going, though at times she got distracted by tasty-looking plant life along the way.

Elephant skin

Breno riding the elephant

Brendon was invited to sit on the head of the elephant, an invitation he keenly accepted. Upon return to the camp, we finished off our time at Ban Kwan Chang by feeding the elephants some bananas.

Riding an elephant

A big shout out to Numwan, our humble elephant, and Oasis, for making our time on Koh Chang so awesome and memorable.

Pacific sabatical.

Signpost

Just a quick update to let you know where we are at: According to this signpost, we are precisely 2967km from Auckland,

Signpost

and 9438km from Edmonton… in the Cook Islands.

Cook Islands

We will be spending a couple of days in Rarotonga on our way back to Canada. Call it a Pacific sabbatical, if you may.

Rarotonga

We will embracing this stopover as a time to rest, debrief our trip, process the move, and take a deep breath as we prepare to begin a new chapter of our lives back in Canada.

There is lots we are excited to share with you about our recent journey to SE Asia, so you can expect to see a number of blog posts (with pics to accompany, of course) appear over the next few weeks.