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Sarah Thomson

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What makes a city great?

I doubt anyone could point to just one feature that makes a city a great place to live, instead  a great city depends on thousands of small parts that collectively make it a success or a failure.  Toronto has some terrific features but also some big challenges. We sit beside a huge fresh water lake, but because of our location climate change has a harsh impact on us — from ice storms to floods — and scientists are predicting that extreme weather conditions will increase. Toronto must look for ways to  fortify our city for the weather to come, and for the increase in population that is expected.

But let’s get back to one of the small features that cities around the world are using to improve the quality of life for their residents — Trees. Not only do trees improve air quality, produce oxygen, and combat the greenhouse effect, they cool the streets, conserve energy and save water. Given all the positive impacts of having a large and healthy urban tree canopy (over 50% coverage) where does Toronto sit in comparison to other cities in North America?

Below are the top ten cities in North America and their percentage of tree and bush coverage:

1.     Atlanta -52%

2.     Nashville – 49%

3.     Pittsburg – 42%

4.     Halifax – 41%

5.     Albuquerque – 38%

6.     Washington D.C – 36%

7.     Minneapolis – 34%

8.     Tampa – 32%

9.     Austin – 31%

10.  Portland – 30%

Toronto isn’t even on the list of top ten, but we sit at a measly 26% tree coverage   —  we can and should do better!

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Trees by Joyce Kilmer

I think that I shall never see   
A poem lovely as a tree.   
   
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest   
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;   
   
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;   
   
A tree that may in summer wear   
A nest of robins in her hair;   
   
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;   
Who intimately lives with rain. 
   
Poems are made by fools like me,   
But only God can make a tree.

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www.itreetools.org/Canopy/resources/Tree_and_Impervious_Cover_change_in_US_Cities_Nowak_Greenfield.pdf

·http://www.td.com/document/PDF/economics/special/UrbanForestsInCanadianCities.pdf

Costa Rica family getaway under 8K

Do you want rain forest, nature reserves, sun and sand? Then Costa Rica is the land for you, as long as you don’t mind bugs that are the size of small birds.

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The Cerros de Escazú  mountain range runs down the west coast of Costa Rica and provides great views of ocean sunsets as well as some spectacular zip lining.  The average ocean temp in February hovers at 27 degrees – so if it’s warm waters and cool mountain breezes you need this is the place for you.

I look for places that are peaceful and quiet, which can be hard to find when travelling with children on a budget, but I’ve found some terrific villas that offer more beauty at less price.

I’ve found that  VRBO  is a great way to find a villa and below are some good finds if you are looking for a great family vacation for 4-6 people for under $8000.

And some friendly advice. It’s best to fly into San Jose, mid-week. For example direct return flights from departing Feb 3,2015 and returning Feb 17, 2015 are (today) priced at $729.66 for a family of 4 that’s under $3000 for flights.

If you like to explore than a 4 wheel drive vehicle is essential. Aside from the main highway most of the roads are steep and often filled with large pot holes. Some mountain side villas require a 4×4 just to get up to them – the views are well worth the drive! You can rent a 4×4 Suzuki from Mirage for $30.39 a day this includes unlimited mileage bringing the total in around $500 for 2 weeks.

Another key thing to know is that if the villa you rent here is over 1000 feet elevation then you don’t need air conditioning as the mountain breezes are cool and constant. I prefer being a little more remote, away from the dogs barking in small towns but close enough to go out to a restaurant. Here are some choices that will bring you in under $8000 for a 2 week getaway for 4 people:

1. RAIN FOREST RETREAT

The first villa I would recommend is in a secluded  but beautiful setting. This home high up in the mountains but with an amazing view of the “Whales Tale” http://www.vrbo.com/273452  the drive up to the villa is extremely steep but you get accustomed to it quiet quickly. The peaceful srroundings, with howler monkies calling in the early morning and evening was beautiful. Rental price is $1195/week.

 

2. WALK TO THE BEACH

This listing on VRBO is one place that we stayed with an easy walk to a small beach. Shana Residences are beautifully laid out with a great view and  quite large for a 2 bedroom http://www.vrbo.com/3687824ha The sunsets were beautiful and the monkeys were everywhere. It wasn’t at a high enough elevation to go  high without air conditioning, but we only used it during the warmest part of the day. For $2000 per week, it was an easy drive in on paved roads, and close to restaurants and the town of Quepos.

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If you are going to the Manuel Antonio area it is worth the splurge to spend 1 or 2 nights at Arenas Del Mar Beach Resort – a small  eco-resort with rooms perched on the sides of a cliff situated in the rain forest. If you want to wake up to the sound of birds, bugs and the surf crashing against rocks far below this is well worth $600 – $800 a night. The pools are beautiful as is their private beach. And if you are there on a Thursday the beach dinner is amazing!
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Have a suggestion or recommendation please contact me!

Those who hurt us

When Mayor Ford sexually assaulted me he demonstrated the extent a powerful man and his colleagues will go in order to hide the truth and destroy someone’s credibility. Their ability to influence talk show hosts into using their microphones to twist and distort events with commentary designed specifically to destroy my credibility wasn’t just unethical but it validates the need for a stronger code of conduct in the broadcast industry.

The morning following my assault, one of my friends at Newstalk 1010 informed me that the Fords were trying to get their radio hosts and others in the media to denounce me. They used the same strategy that Jian Ghomeshi tried to use in his Facebook statement – they tried to define me as an unstable woman seeking attention. Ford’s people succeeded in coercing their media friends to question my motives, to attack my integrity and cast me as a woman not to be believed. Not only did this elevate the Mayor, it ensured other victims stayed silent. Everything from my hair, to my looks, and behavior was attacked. And while the average person got the impression that I wasn’t credible, others who knew a little more about the Mayor reached out to me. Some had seen Mayor Ford drunk, there were women who had endured his lewd behavior at parties – yet none of them were willing to speak out, driven to silence in part due to the shaming I was getting from a few unethical media personalities.

This is the problem with public shaming. It silences those who might speak out, who might come forward. And it stops women from speaking out about sexual assault, especially when the perpetrator is in a position of power and influence. There are some who suggest that simply because a victim has turned to social media it makes them fair game for media attacks ­– it is time broadcasters follow a code of conduct that protects victims of assault from media lynching.

Michael Coren was one of the media personalities whose attack on me was particularly hurtful. It stung most because we had been colleagues for years at the Women’s Post. We met when a mutual friend suggested I hire him to write columns for the magazine, explaining that Coren had children, wasn’t working and needed financial help. We worked together for over a year, and often attended the same events. I edited many of his columns and although we shared different views we developed what I thought was a mutual respect — he knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t a person to make up stories. And yet instead of standing up for me when I came out publicly with Mayor Ford’s assault, he used his pulpit at Sun News Network to attack and degrade me – from my looks, to my hair and my actions, and the entire time pretended that he barely knew me. I’m not sure if the Fords intimidated him, or if he desperately wanted to impress them, but there is something very sad about a man who fails when confronted with a moral decision.

Jian Ghomeshi tried to define his story differently by shaming and blaming his victims. He didn’t have as much help doing this as Mayor Ford received in degrading me, but the truth in both instances eventually came out. The women who have come forward to call out Ghomeshi are very brave, each had to risk to their reputations. I was glad the media commentators who attacked me didn’t attack these women, but I worry that the only reason they didn’t lash out was because Mr. Ghomeshi wasn’t one of their Conservative colleagues.

“Ghomeshi-gate” has caused women across North America to tell their stories and it is through these stories that we as a society can learn and grow and change. Their courage is inspiring, and their stories need to be told.

So far in my life I have endured assaults by three men. One man threw me across a room in a fit of rage. Another thought that punching my face repeatedly might change my negative feelings towards him. I stayed home for a week hiding my swollen face, ashamed and scared to go to the police, or do anything that might cause him to enter my life again. The third happened when Mayor Ford groped me while high, drunk, or probably both.

Like so many victims my first feeling after Mayor Ford assaulted me was guilt. I told myself that I should never have posed beside Mayor Ford after his comments about wanting to have “fun” in Florida with me. When he lewdly called me a “dirty, dirty, girl” I should have realized he was in some drug-induced machismo high and left. But instead I stood there beside him smiling for the camera. I wished I had simply kneed him in the groin and been done with it, and like most assault victims, I blamed myself for not reacting. Today I understand that it was not my fault. Mayor Ford was intoxicated and his choice to grope me was a power play on someone in the crowd that he knew.

My guilt was followed by worry over how my actions might impact my family. With so many cameras flashing around Mayor Ford, someone may have captured a picture showing me stupidly smiling with his hand on my butt. Why did I smile? What if people thought I’d enjoyed it? The humiliation this could have caused my husband was horrifying. I love him more than anything in the world, he is an amazing man and father, gentle and quiet, and he prefers to stay far from the spotlight. Shaming him would have devastated me and there was no way I could risk the chance of some picture or video hitting the media that might have made it look like I was a willing participant. Like other victims of assault, I mistakenly worried about how the assault might hurt everyone else around me, instead of focusing on how it hurt me. In hindsight I should have gone to the police and let them deal with it.

Every person who has suffered abuse goes through the same turmoil of guilt, self-blame and confusion over how to handle the issue.

In the year that followed the groping most of the accusations I had made about Mayor Ford came to light, from his drug use, to his vulgar attitude toward women, as well as the lies his staff told to hide the truth about his condition that evening. To top it off, radio host Ryan Doyle had the decency to apologize for the things he had said about me.

A lot of time has passed, situations have changed significantly for all of us, and today, as I sit typing, Rob Ford struggles with cancer. Despite the horrible way he treated me, I find myself praying that he’ll beat his cancer. I feel compassion and it is this compassion, this ability to forgive, to accept and to move forward that makes us stronger.

When it comes to sexual assault our society must change the way we handle it. The media can lead in this area or they can refuse to change. Broadcasters like Newstalk 1010, Sun News Network, and others should follow a code of conduct that puts victim protection first. They must stop their commentators and hosts from lynching, blaming or making disparaging comments about victims of assault. Broadcasters must begin to see that they have a duty to protect victims, not judge them or publicly shame them – and without a code of conduct that broadcasters actually honor, victims of assault will forever be at risk of public shaming and choose silence over exposure.

 

Valentine’s Day at Caille Blanc, St. Lucia

I wake up early every morning here in St. Lucia. The sun isn’t yet up, neither are the birds so I can hear the waves crashing on the shores far below. I sit still in the lounge chair on our deck and watch the pale light just before dawn. As the sun rises the birds begin to wake, first one call then another until there is a symphony of them. The morning doves are everywhere and the hummingbirds, the Antillean Crested and Green Throated Carib, are everywhere.

Last night we made pizzas and the chef made a special berry cake for Noah’s birthday and we learned some terrific dice and card games from our security guard, Albert. Our favorite is “farkle” – played with six dice and requires a lot of addition.

There are very few bugs, probably because there are so many birds, and the soft warm breeze in the morning indicates a hot day ahead. We’ve spent a few days reading and lounging by the pool or beach so today we plan to visit the Diamond Waterfall botanical gardens and volcano.

St. Lucia is a beautiful island, and here at Caille Blanc, the staff are so friendly and caring, they greet us each morning with smiles and gentle “good mornings.” The chef makes us breakfast and lunch, and prepares our dinner. The maid cleans our rooms everyday and makes our beds – the luxury makes me feel a little awkward; I’ll never be suited to it.

The first step to uniting GTHA around a strong vision was made

The Toronto Region Vision (TRV) 2014 event on Feb 6, 2014, was a terrific success, with over 300 participants coming from across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). The day was designed to get people from the region to talk about their visionary ideas for the GTHA. Business leaders rubbed shoulders with leaders in government, nonprofits, and students. History was made in taking the first step toward creating a strong regional vision.

The day was launched by Premier Kathleen Wynne, who gave a fantastic keynote speech in the form of a “Pecha Kucha” (ideas jam) presentation – 20 ideas on 20 slides; at times funny at times serious her presentation focused on the need for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area to unite around a strong regional vision. She outlined some of the hurdles in the plan to improve transportation in the GTHA and the need to stop debating over

Following the Premier were five more Pecha Kucha presentations.

The first speaker, Dan Hoornweg (professor and research chair at University of Ontario Institute of Technology) pushed for making Toronto the “teaching” capital of the world. He suggested building a museum of civilization and cities and use it to house the Frist Nations welcome centre. He also suggested a carbon tax for the Toronto urban region dedicated to transit in collaboration with the other cities in the region. And to create government ministries for the Toronto urban region.

The next speaker was Zahra Ebrahim, founder of archiTEXT, a design and architectural think tank. Her lively presentation covered everything from the Copenhagen Wheel that stores a cyclists kinetic energy,  to the use of “Parmigiano” capital – In Milan banks let producers use their chees as collateral for two years (the time it takes to age). Zahra also spoke about the need for good public awareness campaigns to change negative habitual patterns like driving. She capped off with the idea of participatory budgeting where residents brainstorm around how municipal taxes should be spent.

The third speaker was Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre. His presentation focused on reinventing government employment services, measure government collaboration and make them accountable for working together. He spoke about getting employers to support training opportunities through training payback guarantees; and the idea of creating telecommuting hubs in different parts of the city.

The fourth speaker was Terry Cooke, president and CEO of Hamilton Community Foundation. He gave a passionate presentation that focused around Hamilton and the idea of desegregating schools and nieghbourhoods by income. He pointed out the success of mixed income schools.

The last speaker was Mary Rowe, flown in from New York she suggested we abandoned the idea of a “plan” as a map, but instead look at it as something that evolves, modifies and grows.  Mary encouraged participants to think big through small initiatives that together make big change. She spoke about the need to build consensus to tax and invest in the region.

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to brainstorming. Ideas were captured by note-takers at every table and will be put into a report, with help from the Mowat Centre, that will be released in March. The goal is to get the ideas out to communities across the GTHA and we are hoping that candidates in the next election will help with that.

Together 300 people took the first small step toward creating a vision for the GTHA. But it doesn’t stop with one event, one report, one commitment. Together we must continue to untie our communities around a building a strong, shared, vision. We need champions willing to dedicate their time to pushing this forward and judging from the first TRV2014 event I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding them.

John Tory IS a feminist

 Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg is a book about how women are socialized in our culture. She writes about how society and societal structures create expectations and attitudes that push women to be less aggressive then men.

John Tory spoke about the issue on CP24 only to have a number of MALE campaign hacks attack him for it on Twitter.

The fact is that John Tory has been an advocate for women for years. John has always made himself available both to me  and to other  business women through Civic Action. I have always found John to be both encouraging and supportive; and to make him out to be some sort of villain, simply because he spoke out about his experience and an issue women face everyday, is a baseless political attack of a man who has dedicated his life to making Toronto a better city.

Those promoting such trash should take a long look in the mirror and think about what they have contributed each and ever day to making Toronto a better city; my bet is that they haven’t given even 1/4 of what John Tory does in one day!

 

New Rob Ford video shows him intoxicated, rambling, cursing

Rob Ford videos are a little like road kill — every time another one comes out I think it can’t be worse than the last, so I hit that youtube button and watch. But it’s now at the point where I just feel sad.

Sad that this man I debated in the 2010 Toronto mayoral race is wrestling addiction issues on a stage his family relentlessly pushes him to.

Sad that this man who would seem to have everything, needs to use alcohol and/or drugs to face the world he’s been handed.

Sad about what might happen to Rob should his family continue to push him onto this very public stage while he wrestles with addiction issues.

It is time for his family to realize the role they play in this tragedy, their denial of his addiction issues only serves to enable Rob. It is time for them to face the fact that addicts lie in order to carry on their behaviour, time to admit the weight issue is just a small aspect of Rob Ford’s overall addiction issue.

It is time for us all to care about the man, not the Mayor.

Bugs, birds and the warm west coast of Costa Rica

It’s about this time of year that I start craving the sun and one place that we have always enjoyed visiting is Costa Rica. If you like nature, monkeys, and bugs that are the size of small birds  – this is a country that must be experienced. If you are lucky you can catch a charter flight direct from Toronto (Sundays) and the trip will take just over 7 hours. Sunquest offers “direct” flights but they often include 1 stop so read the fine print.

There are many different types of accommodation to choose from and we decided to try a boutique hotels for our first week and a private home for our second. We chose to stay on the southern west coast where there are many nature reserves. The natural surroundings and landscape along the Pacific coast are surreal. The Cerros de Escazúare mountain range stretches down along the west coast meeting the warm (80F) Pacific crashes against them creating rock outcrops, sand bars and small islands that add to the view.

Our first week was spent at Arenas Del Mar, one of the best boutique hotels I have encountered. IT is located in the town of Quepos situated beside Manuel Antonio Nature Reserve. The hotel is and “eco” resort, and was designed to have low impact on the rainforest park that surrounds it.

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Perched on the side of a mountain, views from the rooms are magnificent.Here is a video of the beach at the hotel beach. When I looked at visiting I couldn’t understand why they showed so much beach shaded by trees, but when you get there the sun gets so hot that by noon everyone has moved from the beach to  the shade under the trees. The design and layout of the resort is perfect. As well as a video of an early morning visit from some monkeys on the beach at the resort … The hotel can be booked here and they have a facebook page

 

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I recommend sunset and candle lit dinner on the beach – offered every Thursday night at Areans Del Mar.

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We always try to spend part of our stay away from the bustle and renting a home in Costa Rica is quite easy using VRBO.com The home we stayed in last year was beautiful with fantastic views and excellent décor. This video gives a great sense of the home with most of our time spent on the patio or by the pool.

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The home is located just outside the town of Dominical and can be booked here: http://www.vrbo.com/221637  The owners were wonderful, and their caretaker spoke English well and was there to help and suggested some terrific places to visit and go zip-lining. The only downfall of the home was the lack of screens on the windows. I like to fall asleep to the sound of the jungle but didn’t want to be covered by cicadas and frogs during the night so had to give up on leaving the window open. If you like the sounds of jungle, a warm ocean and the sun this is the place to go on your next holiday!

TRAVEL: Planning a winter vacation? Think Costa Rica

By Sarah Thomson

After a long day of travel, leaving Toronto at 6 a.m. with American Airlines and a plane switch in Miami, we arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica by 2 p.m., picked up our rental vehicle and made our way to the coast. Taking the new highway from San Jose to Quepos took us approximately 3 hours and we arrived at Arenas Del Mar just as the sun was setting.

We were greeted by two friendly attendants who loaded our bags onto a large golf cart and shuttled us up a paved path, through the jungle, to our room; tree frogs and night bugs filling the canopy above us with their calls. Stopping at the reception area, with pool and bar, we picked up our key and were informed of the Calypso dinner being served on the beach.

Our room was a spectacular corner suite facing the ocean and beach. The polished wood accenting the windows and stone tiling was elegant. Heavy doors slid easily open to a huge wrap around balcony that could be accessed from both the master bedroom and living room (where the kids slept on a pull out couch that was made up and ready for them). The balcony off the master bedroom had lounge chairs and a huge Jacuzzi tub that overlooked the cliffs and sea below, around the corner the balcony off the living room had a couch and big comfy chairs. Trees surrounded us— the jungle sounds of bugs, birds and howler monkeys, combined with the luscious earthy smell of vegetation, made everything seem surreal.

Most of the living area is outside with large covered terraces providing shade and great views. We could see the lanterns on the beach burning, and hear the surf pounding against the rocks far below.

After pulling our swim suits from the luggage we changed and caught a chauffeured golf cart down the path to the pool (the golf carts ferry people up and down the path to the beach and reception area). We had a quick swim then changed for dinner and made our way to the candle lit beach. An area under the palm trees was filled with white linen covered tables and chairs.  A Calypso trio played soft music—without an amplifier. The music, with the rhythm of the waves in the background and the warm breeze combined to make it a beautiful evening. Dinner was fantastic and my 7-year-old was invited to play the maracas with the band and without any hesitation he was up there loving the attention (what he’s lacks in shyness he makes up for in smiles).

We woke up the next morning to the sound of the parakeets and toucans in the trees that surround our terrace.  The sun was just rising, and with it the jungle came to life.  Our boys’ excitement and desire to explore was infectious and we went for an early morning walk before going for our free breakfast. The resort has two beaches. One is secluded and protected by large rock outcroppings at either end and the other larger beach is part of Manuel Antonio National Park and stretches for miles.

It wasn’t long before the boys were soaked and playing in the waves. (*Note to parents: put them in bathing suits the moment they wake up because the ocean is warm and irresistible). As the sun began to rise and heat up the beach, we made our way back to the resort, changed and went for breakfast of fruit pancakes and delicious coffee.

Arenas Del Mar Nature Resort is an elegant introduction to the beauty of Costa Rica. It is by far one of my favourite hotels in the world, with a combination of elegance and design that works perfectly with the natural beauty of the jungle that surrounds it.

It is: quiet, calm, elegant, peaceful, natural, warm and amazing.

It is not: loud, party place, crowded, busy, cold and average.

I hope to come be back to this beautiful resort very soon.

 

Take a look at the beautiful beaches below.

 

 

Follow Sarah on Twitter at @ThomsonTO.

Roaming in Arizona

Unforgiving, relentless, scorching light. In Arizona the sun pentrates, burns and shrivels all but the toughest plants. Its brightness is piercing and its intensity withering. In a dry desert setting, surrounded by mountains, sits Phoenix, the capital city of Arizona. Here the sun brings simmering heat and the darkened rooms offer more than just shade and air conditioning.

As I sit in the plane, 26,000 feet above the earth, my partner sleeps with his mouth open in the seat beside me. I roll my new ring around on my finger and think of placing the ring in his open mouth, or perhaps a few drops from the tiny bottle of Tabasco sauce that came with this morning’s breakfast at the Arizona Biltmore. But he looks so peaceful. I recline the seat back and think about the past few days.

Four days ago we landed in Phoenix, dressed in pants and sweaters far too hot for the warm day. We changed into shorts and packed up our sweaters. Renting a jeep, we headed north to Flagstaff. The highway from Phoenix rises out of the desert and climbs steadily up to the Mogollan Plateau. Small towns along the highway are filled with flat, square, pueblo-type homes. Built of sun-dried brick and mortar, they are made to protect the inhabitants from the simmering heat. Southwest walls are bare and empty of windows; anything to keep out the penetrating sun. Blinds and thick heavy curtains are drawn over every window to stop even the smallest amount of light from entering a room.

Our first stop is Walnut Canyon, three hours north of Phoenix. The canyon is the site of 87 cave-like cliff dwellings built into the walls of a 400-foot deep limestone gorge. As we climbed in elevation, we began to notice small patches of snow in the gullies. By the time we reached Walnut Canyon, snow was falling heavily. We unpacked our sweaters and scurried into the visitors centre to take a look at the trail maps. The centre sits on the edge of the canyon. A large glass window takes up most of one wall, but the snow flurries created a sheet of whiteness that cut off the view completely.

As we watched the snow swirling below us, my partner reached for my hand. I looked up from the window to meet his eyes. He stroked my cheek and a serious expression came over his face. His eyes were warm. “Sarah.” He paused and looked down at my hands. “Will you…” The park ranger leaned over a railing just above us and announced, “The visitors centre is closing now. We hope you’ll come back tomorrow.”

We hurried through the snow back to our jeep and drove into Flagstaff on Route 66. Our reservations that night were at The Inn at 410 in Flagstaff. Owned and operated by Howard and Sally Krueger, the Inn sits on a hill just off the main street of the town. Built in 1894, the old house was converted to a bed and breakfast in 1991. We were greeted by an open door and a smiling young man who rushed to take our bags. He showed us to the “Southwest room,” located in the original section of the old house. Fully renovated, the room has a private bath, gas fireplace and over-sized Jacuzzi tub. The snow was still falling and the day had been long.

Curious about my partner’s question at Walnut Canyon, I was determined to salvage the romantic mood disrupted earlier in the day. I filled the Jacuzzi and poured two glasses of wine. We got into the large tub and my partner reached over me to turn on the jets. But nothing happened. He pushed the button, I pushed the button. Nothing. Frustrated, he got out of the tub and wrapped himself in a large terrycloth bathrobe provided by the Inn. He went searching for another switch, a button, anything to get the jets working, but found nothing. He called the front desk for help and before I could finish my wine, jump from the tub and climb into the other robe, our innkeeper was knocking at our door. We didn’t have time to turn the lights on. Firelight flickered and danced on the walls. Soft music played in the background. I tightened my robe and went to meet Howard, the innkeeper. He was kind and a little more embarrassed than we were. He couldn’t get the tub to work and apologised profusely.

The next morning we woke to the smell of hot rolls cooking in the oven. Thirsty and hungry, we dressed and hurried to the dining room, where they served fresh fruit with coffee and orange juice, followed by baked oatmeal with cranberries, cream and the fresh home-made rolls we could smell from our room. When Howard learned we were heading to the Grand Canyon, he fetched his maps and showed us the route he and his wife, Sally, travelled. The dining room was elegant and combined with Howard’s friendly personality our morning was relaxed and enjoyable.

Following Howard’s instructions we drove northeast. The change of vegetation is stunning. From barren desert with dust bowls, rolling tumbleweed and cacti, to pine forest and dry mountain settings with vegetation clinging to life amid rock and rubble. We followed the highway north as it wound its way through the San Francisco Mountains. Once past the mountains, we crossed the Coconino Plateau. At the rim of the plateau, the land drops off and slopes down to meet the Painted Desert below. The desert is surrounded by eroded sedimentary hills. Colours of every shade paint the hills and sweep down into the desert, where rain and snow have washed different colours of sediment out over the flat plain.

Turning west, the highway meanders along a ledge between the rim of the Plateau to the desert below. We discovered an abandoned dirt road leading from the highway towards the desert. Weeds, cacti and brush camouflaged the road. Parking the jeep, we hiked down towards the desert. Dirt and prickly pear filled our shoes. Huge gullies dropped away from the trail. It came to a sudden end as if the land had been swept away. A deep, dry, gulch separated us from the road as it continued its way down the hillside. The sun was hot and the air still. Shade was hard to find. We listened for sounds of life, a bird, a rustle, the murmur of a bug. Nothing. I threw a rock and its sound disappeared into the vast empty desert below us. My partner stood beside me. His camera shutter clicked. Again the sound disappeared into the silence. Beautiful in a stark and eerie way.

The highway rose up onto the Plateau and wound its way along the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at many of the lookouts to peer down on the Colorado river far below. Reaching the Grand Canyon village by late afternoon, we were too late to hike down the canyon or dine at the hotel for lunch. We snapped some photos, enjoyed a cold beer and left; both of us try to avoid tourist-filled areas.

Heading south to Sedona, we found the perfect setting for a car chase. The highway (89A) zigzags down the side of a huge canyon. There are switchbacks every few hundred yards. A tiny creek winds through a valley filled with cottonwood, willow and oak trees. Sedona sits at the end of the canyon where it opens out to the desert beyond. Our reservations for the night were at Canyon Villa Inn, located just south of Sedona.

We arrived just as the sun was setting and our innkeeper, Les Belch, gave us a brief tour, taking us poolside for a glimpse of a Sedona sunset. Les pointed to the east and told us that in Sedona the greatest views aren’t found looking towards the sun but away from it. He pointed to Bell Rock, a huge spire rising out of the dusty desert setting. The red rocks glowed as the setting sun touched their peaks. Night approached quickly and Les showed us to the “Spanish Bayonet” room — the most romantic room at the Inn. Our balcony faced Bell Rock with the Courthouse Butte (pronounced beaut as in beauty) across from it. With king-sized bed, gas burning fireplace, and a Jacuzzi tub I hoped for the best. We were invited for hors-d’ouevres and cocktails in the dining room and he left us to unpack and get comfortable. That evening we drove into Sedona for a romantic dinner. The night was chilly and we went back to Canyon Villa to enjoy the fire and the warm jets of the Jacuzzi — they worked beautifully.

Next morning we dined with other guests in the dining room. We were pleased to meet another couple from Toronto and four people from New York. All suggested we take a path from the Inn that connects with trails leading to the Buttes and Red Rocks beyond. The day was gorgeous; not a cloud in the sky. We hiked and climbed, the red sand covering our shoes and filling our pockets. Enjoying the view from the flat surface of one rock outcrop, we listened to the stillness of the desert. A slight breeze brought the sound of someone chanting a few buttes away. Sedona is known for its holistic community. Aging hippies and palm readers fill the shops. The majestic buttes and spires give it a magical quality.

Leaving Sedona late in the afternoon, and dusty from our hike, we headed to the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. Arriving early in the evening, in hiking boots, shorts and t-shirts, we felt a little out of place. But the manager took no notice and gave us a brief tour of the grounds, treating us like royalty. Inspired by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the Biltmore first opened in 1929. It boasts a 92-foot-long water slide, an 18-hole championship putting course and a 22,000-square-foot spa, fitness centre and beauty salon. With 736 guest rooms, it’s the largest resort in Arizona. We were shown to our suite with living room, dining area, and full kitchen. The marble bath with double sinks was larger than my dining room.

After taking in the grounds and wishing to spend more time at the resort, we tried to get our flight changed. But alas, luck and the airline were not on our side. We dined at Wrights, the Biltmore’s fine dining restaurant, where executive chef John Zaner has created a fresh, flavourful menu of New American cuisine. My rack of lamb was exceptional and the strawberry banana soufflé was ecstasy in a bowl. Waddling out of the restaurant and into the cool evening, we noticed steam rising from the hot tub beside the pool. In no time, we had our heads propped on the edge of the tub, our legs floating in front of us and our gaze resting on the stars glittering above. My partner put his arm around my shoulder and kissed my cheek. He leaned close to whisper into my ear and I knew this was the moment. He spoke softly. “Sarah. Wake up. The plane has landed.”