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Familia Samarin: Rustic Russian-Mexican Flavor

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The history of the Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California is an interesting one, including the early 20th Century settlement of a Russian community, which was granted a substantial amount land in the fertile valley. Although the Mexican government had granted the land to the Russian, later land distribution policies forced the bulk of the Russian community to locate to the United States. However, a remnant of that community lingered on in the valley and it is estimated that a couple hundred of their descendants still live in the area. These Russian descendants have effectively integrated into the local population over the generations, through both intermarriage and assimilation, there are still visible elements of Guadalupe’s Russian heritage to be found.

One such reminder of the region’s Russian heritage is found in the village of Guadalupe, not far off of Highway 3, which runs the length of the valley and connects Ensenada to Tecate in the north. Here you will find the Restaurante Familia Samarin restaurant, owned and operated by descendants of the early Russian immigrants to the area. The restaurant itself features a creatively rustic design and decor and their menu is a creative mix of inherited Russian recipes, intermingled with Mediterranean dishes.

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Like everywhere in the Valle de Guadalupe, of course, there is wine to be had. There are also a variety of site-made artisanal breads and cheeses, as well as an array of sauces, tapanades and other delicacies to enjoy, or purchase to take with you. Aside from the restaurant itself, Restaurante Familia Samarin has a little gourmet boutique, offering savory treats made on site, as well as from local vendors.

The staff may, or may not, speak English, so if you’re not conversant in Spanish, be aware and be prepared. Having said that, my own Spanish is limited, at best, and the language barrier wasn’t much of a hurdle. A few basic Spanish phrases will serve you well in Mexico and, accompanied with a translator on your phone to conjure up the name of things, it’s really not that difficult to get by. I’ll help you out, though, and let you know that conejo is Spanish for rabbit and, if you order it at Restaurante Familia Samarin, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I certainly wasn’t. Of the dishes our party tried, the only complaint would be with the chicken alfredo pasta. Although the dish was a substantial portion and, overall, well seasoned, the sauce was more watery than it should have been, which did detract from the enjoyment. Everything else we ordered was spot on, however, so maybe we just caught them on off day for alfredo sauce.

Adjacent to the restaurant is a small Russian heritage museum, operated by the Samarin family. We took a pass on looking inside, for multiple reasons. Earlier in the day, we’d visited the Bibayoff winery, where we’d seen a number of items and artifacts related to the valley’s Russian heritage. Plus, some of us were getting a little tired and there were still other stops to make. Lastly, according to their sign, the admission to the museum is $25.00 per person. Now, given that we had already decided to press on with our day, I did not clarify with the staff if that was $25 USD or if the price was in pesos. I hope it was in pesos, which seems a little cheap, but if that price was in dollars, I’d be inclined to call it exorbitant. Honestly, as a bit of an armchair anthropologist, I find the story of the Russian-Mexicans to be quite interesting and read a fair amount about their history. If I have time on my next visit, I wouldn’t mind taking a peek inside their little museum so, hopefully, that price is not in US dollars, or I’ll have to take another pass.

Restaurante Familia Samarin is definitely on my list of places to eat if, and when, I return to the Valle de Guadalupe. I have seen and heard good things about their pizza, which they bake in their wood-fired, adobe oven, so maybe I’ll try that. On my next visit, I will need to do a better job at stocking up on their retail products, such as their tapenades. I’ve already kicked myself for not coming home with more of such things in the first place. I’m sure they would be a hit with friends and family, as well as a conversation piece. Just one more reason to go back, though, I suppose…to do a little shopping. And eating. It’s well worth the time for both.

Konoko Falls, Jamaica

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(c) Copyright Konoko Falls

If you’ve ever seen a TV commercial for Jamaica, you have almost certainly seen footage of the famous Dunn’s River Falls, located on the outskirts of Ocho Rios. From tourism brochures to posters and more, these impressive cascades are one of the most recognizable icons of the island, long known as the land of wood and water.

What you might not know, though, is that Jamaica is practically teeming with spring fed rivers, often set in beautiful, lush rain forests and, quite often, featuring picturesque waterfalls. It is true that Dunn’s River is one of the largest and most impressive of the numerous waterfalls on the island. It is also easily accessible from some of the country’s main tourist hubs. However, it is also more likely to be packed with tourists. When I was a kid, it was not so crowded and people were free to climb the falls freely, without joining one of those human daisy chains of hand holding tourists being guided to the top. Forgive me if it sounds judgmental, but neither my nostalgia for simpler days, nor my dignity, will allow me to climb the falls in such a manner.

This article isn’t really about Dunn’s River, though. It’s about the fact that there are alternatives and some are quite nearby. One such place is Konoko Falls and Park. Perched in the mountains overlooking the town of Ocho Rios, the Konoko Falls are smaller than their more famous counterpart, but you can enjoy their beauty in a less crowded and more unobstructed manner. Yes, they provide guides, but you’re given more freedom of movement and the entire experience seems a tad less orchestrated. Aside from the cool waters of the tumbling falls, you are surrounded by a lush, well-appointed botanical garden.

Certainly, the falls and the botanical garden are the main attractions, one serving to highlight the other, but there are a few other items of interest on the grounds. A small, simple museum provides visitors with an overview of both the Taino Indian heritage of the area, as well as a look at the history of slavery on the island. Although the museum is, essentially, a one room display area, it does well at providing a summary of its subject manner. For those unfamiliar with the history of Jamaica, it is worth the extra few minutes to pop into the museum.

A gift shop is located in the Spanish courtyard area of the park and there are also a couple of restaurant options. Although I’ve not eaten there, there are bars located at both on-site eateries, so I did enjoy a refreshing beverage at the Arawak Jerk Pit. Although I can’t speak from personal experience about the quality of the food, I would say by the looks of the actual jerk pit, they take their cooking seriously. I found myself pondering how hard it would be to build a pit like that in my backyard.

Prices will vary, depending on what you choose to do at Konoko Falls, but they accept cash (US or Jamaican), travelers checks and major credit cards. Personally, I would recommend setting aside a half day, give or take, to enjoy the waterfalls and grounds. If you are staying in Ocho Rios, it’s only a ten minute drive, or less, from the downtown area. Inquire with your hotel about the best transportation options to get there. If you have your own car, basically you get on the A3 and turn right onto Shaw Park Road, just past Ocho Rios High School. Simply follow the signs the rest of the short distance up the mountainside.

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Jardin botanique de Montréal

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If you visit the city of Montreal in Canada, there are a couple of good reasons to go during the summer. The most obvious is that it will not be bitterly cold. The second good reason is that the Jardin botanique de Montréal will be in its full glory. For those who  can’t make out the French name, jardin botanique, simply means botanical garden. Montreal’s is a top shelf product.

Okay, so you don’t think you want to spend part of your vacation walking around looking at trees. I get it. It’s not the kind of adrenaline rush, or high excitement, that some people look for on holiday. If you have young children, maybe one flower looks like another and after 30 minutes of walking through the gardens, their eyes will start to glaze over. You know yourself and your family better than I do, but in my opinion, you would almost have to literally hate nature to not get some sort of enjoyment out of the Montreal Botanical Garden.

First of all, the place is pretty immense – one of the world’s largest. It’s divided into different themed sections, so if you don’t think you have the time, or stamina, to hoof it around the entire grounds, pick what interests you most and aim for that. Two of the most popular sections of the complex are the Japanese Gardens and the Chinese Gardens. During 2016-2017, there is some ongoing renovations to both of these popular sections, so if you have your heart set on either, or both, you may want to inquire ahead of time to find out what their current status is. When I visited, the Chinese Gardens were completely inaccessible. It was disappointing, but there was still plenty to see.

The Japanese Gardens feature a full scale replica tea house, with a zen garden courtyard. The area surrounding the tea house is landscaped according to Japanese tradition, as well. Inside, you will find a small, but interested exhibit of Japanese art and another internal courtyard features an exhibit of bonsai trees. I didn’t know such a wide variety of trees were used for this art form.

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There is a rose garden, an alpine garden, a native plants garden an aquatic garden and more. Strolling along the meandering paths on a warm, summer day, there is a veritable feast for the senses. You will wander beside lakes and babbling brooks, through spacious lawns, dense vegetation and more. The staggering array of flowers, among the lush greenery, creates a serene nature setting that may very well lower your blood pressure several points. It’s both beautiful and peaceful. Just don’t wear yourself out. There is plenty of walking to do, so pace yourself.

Co-located with the botanical gardens is the insectarium, If you or your kids are into bugs, you probably want to check this place out, too. Even it happens to be a particularly warm day and you want a little respite from the, it’s indoors, so you can duck in for a while to get out of the sun. Insects aren’t exactly my thing, personally, but I found it fairly interesting. There are a great variety of insects on display, including a plethora of butterfly. Please note that the insectarium requires an additional entry fee.

Although it is not physically connected to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, you are a relatively short walk from Montreal’s Biodome, which is on the grounds of the old Olympic Village, from when the city hosted the event way back in 1976. The Biodome is one example of how Monteal has re-purposed some of the old buildings. Combination tickets can be purchased for the Botanical Gardens, the Biodome, Insectarium and the nearby Planetarium (which I have not visited), or for any combination of these sites. Doing all except the planetarium, at a somewhat leisurely pace, took up most of a day for my family.

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Dolphin Cove, Ocho Rios

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When I think of Dolphin Cove in Ocho Rios, Jamaica the first word that comes to mind is expensive. There, I said it. It costs a lot of money. Period. Maybe you can afford to spend a lot of money, maybe you can’t. Maybe you really can’t afford it, but you spend it anyway. Everyone’s interests and financial situations are different, but whether or not you think Dolphin Cove is a good value, relatively speaking, understand that your day there will most likely cost more than a day at Disney World. From my own experience, I can tell you that for what I paid for my family of three to visit Dolphin Cove, I could have brought another person to Jamaica with us.

So, am I telling you not to go? Nope. Not at all. I’m just being up front with you. On our trip, my family decided to do one, big, expensive touristy thing and Dolphin Cove was our choice. The cost has given me pause when it comes to recommending the place, but the reality is – we had a blast! We swam with dolphins! Dolphin Cove is generally cited as the #1 tourist attraction in Jamaica and, in fact, we were far from being alone when we visited. Clearly, people love the place and it continues to be a fond memory for my family.

The grounds of Dolphin Cove are gorgeous. Much of the ascetic beauty is simply the natural environment of the tropical vegetation, coupled with the clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean. The developers of Dolphin Cove did a good job of blending their attraction into its surroundings, so the natural and man-made complement each other quite well, for the most part.

Of course, the highlight of this destination is the dolphins and if you do nothing other than pay for general admission to the park, you will definitely see some dolphins. Given the fact that you can walk pretty close to the dolphin areas and that the water is so clear, you’re going to see them. It’s a given. However, I can’t imagine that too many people that visit Dolphin Cove don’t want to get in the water and have a personal experience with these lovable marine mammals. Why wouldn’t you? Afraid of water, or can’t swim? Okay, so maybe some people just want to look, but we wanted some personal time with a dolphin and you probably would, too. Different “experiences” come with a different price tag. You can wade in and touch a dolphin, you can swim with a dolphin (which is what we did), or you can get the two dolphin experience. Your comfort level in the water, as well as your pocketbook, will probably steer your decision on which to choose.

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There is also an opportunity to have a “shark encounter”. This involves a separate, fairly hefty fee, but if you have a thing for sharks, maybe you’ll want to spend the extra money. If so, you will wade into the waters where you can touch, feed and give a hug to a nurse shark. Nurse sharks are known for being pretty docile and, although they can get up to 14 feet in length, the ones at Dolphin Cove are not that large. It’s a pretty mild shark encounter, not like descending underwater in a cage, while a great white circles you hungrily. From the boardwalk, you can easily see the show, listen to the employees tell you all about the sharks and watch as other people pet the big fish. It’s free to watch.

Most of the other activities on site are included with your admission. There are shops, craft vendors, a restaurant and if you want a photo package of your dolphin experience, make sure to factor those into your budget. For no additional charge, though, you can walk along the lovely Jungle Trail, where you’ll encounter parrots, love birds and rabbits (yeah, I don’t get the connection either, but my daughter loves rabbits, so it was all good). You can take an excursion on a glass bottomed kayak, or let a guide zoom you down the coast a bit in a mini-boat. Another experience you can have with an aquatic critter is actually included in the regular admission price and, for me, I thought it was more interesting than the sharks. You can get into the water with and give a belly rub to a stingray. Don’t worry, though. Their barbs are removed, so they’re not going to impale you, or anything quite so vacation ending as that.

Swimming with dolphins is an unforgettable time and Dolphin Cove does a great job of providing a safe, fun filled environment to do just that and so much more. Although I can only vouch for the Ocho Rios location, there are three other facilities on the island: Dolphin Cove Montego Bay, Half Moon Dolphin Lagoon and Moon Palace Jamaica Grande. The activities and associated costs will surely vary from place to place, but I can only assume the same high standards will apply at each location.

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For more photos of good times at Dolphin Cove, check out our gallery on Facebook!

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