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Judi LeesFeb 9, 2016

Think Panama, think cruise, right? Or you may think of the western beaches where high-rise condos overlook the Pacific and your neighbours are likely Canadian. Well, think again and think road trip. I went to Panama with my guy friend and in three weeks we put more than 2000 km on our rented Kia Cerato.

My love of the open road probably harkens back to when my parents, new to British Columbia, put the kids in the backseat and explored. Here’s how my idea of a good time played out in Central America.

In Panama City, where all trips begin and end, we stayed in Casco Viejo, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, a cobblestoned haven of colonial buildings recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. We wandered the cobbled streets, enjoyed excellent bistros, ate ceviche at the fish market, took in a few museums and ended days where local children played in The Plaza de la Independencia.

Casa Sucre Boutique Hotel was our pleasant lodging and its coffee house was a bonus, as was the American couple who owned it and were generous with their travel tips. On their advice we booked a day trip on the famed canal with Pacific Queen Panama Canal Tours that takes in three locks and provides excellent historical and geographical information. No one should visit Panama without an experience on the canal that was constructed in 1904 and is still an amazing man-made wonder.

But the real fun of this trip began once we picked up our rental car, arranged through Rental Cars International, from home. Getting out of Panama City was a challenge (we later met an American couple who, in order to find their way, had hired a taxi to follow!).

We relied on a GPS that was not always reliable. After battling frenetic traffic, it was a thrill to zoom over the Bridge of the Americas and onto the famous Pan American Highway. Soon we were paralleling the beach locales so popular with North American snowbirds – about 65 km starting from Playa Coronado. We turned down to El Palomar to find a small beach inhabited by locals and Manglar Lodge, a peaceful lodging.

After hearing about the mountain town El Valle from other travellers, we headed for the hills. Later in the trip we knew that every time we turned north off the highway, we were in for lovely landscapes. Tucked into the crater of an extinct volcano and fringed by forests where easy hikes showcased waterfalls and sweet-scented growth, the tiny town is an outdoor paradise. Although this is a popular Panama City getaway, there were few tourists. (We had taken a friend’s advice and driven from the city to the beach areas on a weekday. Weekend traffic is known to be nasty.)

A day later we whizzed along the Pan American eventually turning south to the Azuero Peninsula. While Lonely Planet lauds it as ‘Panama’s next travel hot spot’ due to its pounding surf, the more than 6,000 square km peninsula is mainly farm and ranch country.

Other than the surfing towns – flashback to hippy days – you won’t see many elements of tourism. Ditto for signage, driving here, we were seriously off-track a few times. Even the first day in the town of Las Tablas, no one spoke English and getting out of town was a challenge.

We drove south to Pedasi. While still exuding that laidback village feel – small, pastel buildings, sleepy streets, locals who smile at you – it is slated for condo development. Talking to some locals and ex-pats (who felt they had found their escape) many aren’t happy about future development. We happened upon the Pedasito Hotel, pleasant and clean with a tiny pool to cool off in. A couple of nights here and one could easily forget Internet, email, and traffic jams.

A highlight was a day trip to Iguana Island. About a 30-minute boat ride from Pedasi and ringed by coral, the white-sanded island is made for snorkelling (I trailed a turtle) and that getaway-from-it-all feeling. (My Lonely Planets guide mentioned this isle may be ‘strewn with litter’ but that was not the case.)


Not being in a hurry, we decided to travel up the middle of the peninsula to get back on the highway. We followed rural routes through rolling ranch lands, tiny, tidy villages and enjoyed the freshness of pine forests when we were in higher regions. We were also lost several times as there didn’t seem to be any ‘main’ roads. (I haven’t mentioned that I enjoy being lost so this was one of my favourite driving days.) But heading north, we knew we would eventually reach the Pan American highway that we followed to Santiago and turned north to Santa Fe.

High in the mountains we found Coffee Mountain Inn with a surprisingly classy room – breakfast served on patio where a cheeky parrot was spotted – in this simplistic town. Santa Fe is just a couple of stores and, if you searched, about three basic restaurants. But the hikes through verdant rainforests to raging waterfalls were memorable even amid the raindrops. In the mountains the temperature had dropped to mid-20s C. Our last night there we struck the dine-out mother lode at Hotel Restaurant Anachoreo, run by a Dutch man and his Cambodian wife.

In Panama you drive a zigzag route as you must always return to the Pan American Highway. From Santa Fe we drove south to Santiago where we hit major construction all the way to our turn-off at David – about 200 km with a speed limit of 40 km/hr. Everyone who drives in Central America knows the police scenario: you are stopped, told you are speeding and that you have to return to a distant town to pay a costly fine. When you pay the US $20 ‘fine’ on the spot, your license and passport are returned and you drive on. As a consequence, we found ourselves overly conscientious in speed zones!

Heading north to Boquete, the excellent auxiliary highway was our first hint that after the AARP (American Association for Retired Persons) voted the highland town a top retirement spot it blossomed in more ways than just its gardens.

You feel the buzz as soon as you arrive. Yet with it’s flora and fauna richness, there is nothing not to like: luxuriant gardens to visit, high mountain hikes (we spotted the elusive Resplendent Quetzal here), coffee plantations (I recommend touring Finca dos Jefes) and a wealth of fabulous eateries.

Boquete Garden Inn was by far our best Panamanian lodging. You strolled among the dazzling botanical offerings and breakfasted in the company of the colourful feathered set who arrived at the fresh melons set out for them. It is a magical place.


Don’t miss drinks at the 1915 Hotel Panamonte Inn with its old style elegance where presidents and movie stars have dined and stayed.

Our final destination was Bocas del Toro Archipelago, on the Caribbean coast. From Boquete, we took a country road (only lost once) to cut across to Highway 4 that sweeps you over the Cordillera Central, part of the spine of mountains that forms the Continental Divide. An amazing drive through deep, moody valleys then so high we were in the misty highlands. This about 200 km route that took 4-5 hours was one of spectacular scenery where we seldom saw another car until we were paralleling the Caribbean Coast.

At Almirante, the car was left in one of the several car lots and we boarded a boat to the town of Bocas del Toro where we stayed for five nights. We enjoyed the usual pleasures of a Caribbean island holiday where we boated to other islands, snorkelled, rented bicycles to reach lonely beaches and dined on mouth watering seafood. It all worked.

Yes, we did have to get back in the car to return for our flight home and the drive was more than 600 km. We overnighted in a popular beach resort near Panama City that was pleasant enough but just emphasized for us the pleasures of getting off the beaten track by car in Panama.




Judi LeesOct 22, 2015


Pat with a student

22 OCT 2015: Go to St. Lucia, a lush gem of greenery in the Eastern Caribbean. Pack the usual sun vacation gear but add notebooks, crayons, kids’ learning tools and a determined spirit when you take part in a Global Volunteers’ trip. The American-based non-profit whose mandate is to work only on projects that have the full participation of the local community, have had more than 32,000 volunteers participate in 32 countries since its inception in 1984.
Voluntourism is estimated to be one of the fastest growing trends in tourism but firm statistics are scant. It is believed some 1.6 billion people throughout the world have participated in these excursions where volunteers do everything from pounding nails and teaching English to counting turtles or soothing babies. (Volunteers pay their flight plus a fee and Global takes care of meals and accommodation that may be a basic room in a jungle or a comfortable tourist-class city hotel.)
St. Lucia was an easy choice for my third trip with Global. The 42-km long island boasts rural routes that weave through banana plantations and tiny towns with only a sprinkling of resorts along sandy beaches. Accommodation is JJ’s Paradise Resort, a pleasant three star with friendly staff, comfortable rooms, restaurant, small bar, pool and a short boardwalk to Marigot Bay, described by James Michener as “the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean”.
My volunteer group of 16 ranges in age from 18 to 86, whose backgrounds are as diverse as the parts of North America they came from – a single Mom from West Virginia, a retired surgeon from New Hampshire, a just-retired child psychologist from Ontario, a nurse, and others including an 83-year-old New Yorker who still travels the world. Our 18-year-old high-school student Becca, has come with her grandmother Susan.
The first day we go on a walkabout in Anse La Raye, the village where my group will be assigned duties either in a classroom, daycare, health unit or planting vegetables. The village that wraps around a picturesque bay is known to be St. Lucia’s poorest.
Along with Lois, another volunteer, I am assigned to Marigot Bay Secondary School. There is always something a little daunting about teenagers and I feel this overwhelmingly on my first day. Despite the enthusiasm of the principal, Mrs. Dujon and a highly dedicated staff of 33 teachers, the students seem to have more than the usual teen-age apathy. They seem to vacillate between crazy antics and despondency.
My first few days are discouraging. Under the direction of two teachers I am to assist students in improving their English writing skills in Form 2 to Form 5 (grades 8-12). They are a tough audience. The classroom scene is one of teen-agers wandering aimlessly, a few texting on dated cell phones, girls huddled gossiping, loud banter, some pushing and shoving – it is well beyond general chaos.
I constantly remind myself of the depressing statistics: only 50 percent of the students eat breakfast regularly, the majority come from single family parents, and many have reported concerns about their personal safety at home and in their neighbourhoods. No wonder school seems more of a social outing, a time waster, than a place of learning.
However, fast forward two weeks. In a class of 14 seniors I put a sentence on the board to start them writing a story. We have a rowdy discussion but then not only do all of them begin to write but when the bell sounds for morning break, all of them continue to work – they are engrossed in their writing!
This was one of a few eureka moments in these classrooms – they were always insightful and often heart tugging.
One boy penned ‘this was the happiness after all the sad times’ a poignant statement from a 15-year-old. One girl wrote about her brother, his love of music and that “he helps me with my life”. Another student wanted to write to the prime minister who had promised education and jobs to young people. These deep thoughts from the young made me wonder if I was reading from future writers (one of the island’s two Nobel Laureates was poet, Sir Derek Walcott), especially when I read “the ocean was mellow that day” from a tough young man who always looked sullen.
The rest of the Global team experienced equaling challenging days. Pat, our 86-year-old tutored primary students individually but one day was put in charge of a class. Even after years as a university professor Pat’s comment was: “a period is a very long time” as she had experienced rambunctious grade threes.
A volunteer trip is all about people: the camaraderie of the Global team you share problems with and the children and enthusiastic locals that make up your day. It is always memorable.
While voluntourism isn’t for everyone, if you like a challenge along with a good time, consider one. You won’t regret it.

For information on volunteering:
For information on St. Lucia:





Perfect mother and daughter time

Judi Lees May 7, 2015


08 MAY 2015:  It seemed like a good idea at the time – a mother and two adult daughters’ cycling excursion in Italy. We chose Puglia since the ‘heel of the boot’ is off the well-trod tourist path, scantly populated but rich in history and architecture and burgeons with olive groves, vineyards and beaches. In late spring we set off on a self-guided trip, rated as ‘easy’, with Freedom Treks, a UK-based company that offered the itinerary that best suited our needs.

The end of our first day I watched my two daughters’ lycra-clad, fit bodies crest a long hill that led to the ancient town of Ostuni. We had pedaled more than 70-km in unseasonably high temperature – mid-to-high thirties. I seriously questioned our holiday choice as I felt like I’d spent a day on the Tour de France.

However, during the next seven days the highlights of Puglia far outweighed the heat and hills.

We began in Alberobello, famous for ‘trulli’ the traditional Puglian dwellings of limestone with whimsical conical roofs of layered rock topped with a small pinnacle. Protected under the UNESCO world heritage law, some 1500 of the dazzling white fairytale structures decorate hillsides, perfect backdrop for photos as we pedalled off on our 21-gear hybrid bikes, sans luggage. On a self-guided holiday accommodation is pre-booked and luggage is moved daily. Maps, directions and bikes are provided.

As convenient as this sounds, these trips are never short on challenges. That first day just past Locorotondo, a stone railway bridge under construction meant a detour, quicker than you can say ‘buongiorno’ we were lost.

Both used to manoeuvring through busy schedules, my daughters were annoyed. Why didn’t the signage translate to the map? Where were those little yellow arrows we had occasionally followed? However, they were all smiles when we met a jogger – read ‘typically handsome Italian’ – who pointed us to ‘Percorso Cicloturistico’ (cycling path) and 12 kilometres further we savoured our first gelato in a sunny square. (We definitely boosted the sales of gelato in Puglia.)

At day’s end, after we booked into the luxurious Ostuni Palace, we explored the whitewashed hilltop town’s 15th century cathedral then dined in a moonlight flooded piazza.


The next day’s route first fringed the Adriatic Sea then crossed ‘the boot’ through olive groves and vineyards. Although this was a stunning valley where we cycled amid lush greenery, it was like pedalling through a steamy hot oven. My biggest concern was running out of drinking water. Eventually we reached the sleepy town of Avetrana, so laid back it wasn’t easy to find the local pub for a cold drink.

The next few days must have been what the cycle company described in the ‘easy’ rating. We swooped down to the Ionian Sea, followed sandy curvatures where locals ambled into turquoise waters, cruised picture-perfect, whitewashed villages, snacked on gelato and ate mouthwatering mussels. We delighted in the walled medieval town of Gallipoli, got lost in a labyrinthine of narrow lanes and joked with a silly waiter.


We fell in love with Santa Maria di Leuca, a typically gorgeous seaside town located at Puglia’s most southern tip where we swam where the Adriatic joins the Ionian. A playground for wealthy Italians since the early 1900s, it is famous for its picturesque lighthouse, a basilica that commemorates St. Peter stopping here on his way to Rome and as the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Minvera. A dinner of succulent swordfish capped our perfect day.

Dining is always the piece de resistance in Italy and Puglia is a treasure trove of fresh fare. The simplest of dishes, like orecchiette (tiny ear-shaped pasta) cooked in just-picked tomatoes, basil and dripping in olive oil served with marinated squid is typical of Puglia’s cucina povera, which translates to peasant cooking – yet every meal is a feast.

The next day, in stifling heat we pedalled 52 kilometres to Otranto set on a dramatic limestone ridge. We forgot all about the sweaty day once we explored the historic gem that boasted a fairytale castle, ornate cathedral and charming waterfront.

The final day we arrived in Lecce, a splendour of Baroque but mostly we celebrated the completion of 340 kilometres. We had learned that despite the ups and downs we were a strong team – figuring out directions, sharing information and there was no lack of patience regarding my lag on hills. Perfect mother/daughter time.