Monday 18 November 2013

The Couples Resort

I first came across the Couples Resort website when I was looking for some weekend getaway ideas in the summer. A few years back my mom, grandma and I went away for the weekend to a Muskoka resort that was an adult-only property. While we all love kids, we found the atmosphere different then our typical vacation stays and quite enjoyed it. What I recall from that weekend was the peace, quiet and maturity of the entire place. No kids splashing in the pool or lake, a quiet and intimate dining room, and the ability to use the resort facilities without encountering groups of children. Again, I love kids - I wouldn't have gone through teachers college if I didn't - but for a relaxing grandmother-mother-daughter trip it was incredibly enjoyable.

When I began looking at resorts in the Muskoka/Algonquin area I remembered that resort but couldn't recall the name. Interested in it as a possibility, I turned to Google and preformed a search of "muskoka" "adult only resort". The Couples Resort was my first hit, and while I knew for sure this wasn't the place I had stayed on our girls weekend the name got me curious. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, as with the ever growing popularity of the Shades of Grey trilogy a niche market has popped up around a very specific type of adult travel. I had recently read of some American hotels that were successfully using the books as inspiration for hotel packages and another in England that replaced the hotel bibles with copies of the book (which is somewhat ridiculous in my opinion) 

For those curious on this unique travel craze:

So I wasn't quite sure if The Couples Resort was Canada's version of that. Once I clicked on the website I was pleased to see that wasn't the case, and was impressed at how beautiful everything looked. The photos on the website make the lake-front grounds look amazing, and the rooms like something out of a decorating magazine. The resort had been a family vacation spot at one point but over the years the owners realized that there was interest in a couples only property.   

As I clicked through the site everything I saw - the amenities, decor, resort facilities - made me want to stay there immediately! Naturally the price tag for the busy summer season matched the amenities, decor, and resort facilities so it wasn't at all feasible. 

I did however bookmark it making a vow that I would stay at this resort... And anyone who knows me can attest to the fact I can be pretty darn persistent at times! 

When Brian and I started talking about possible plans for our third anniversary in October my thoughts immediately went to The Couples Resort as a possibility. I checked back on the website and was thrilled to see that they were heavily discounting the price for November and December. The Algonquin area is very busy all throughout summer and into Autumn with the gorgeous fall foliage, however the season dies down a bit in November and December. It does pick up again in January when there is skiing, skating and snowmobiling but fortunately for us our anniversary was at the end of October. This end of October into November off season thing is something we had found before on our previous anniversary trips to Vermont and Lake Placid, so we weren't surprised. Our experience has been that certain places and amenities will be shut down/unavailable but it's not usually a problem. In Vermont we found plenty to do for the week on the resort and within an hours drive, and Lake Placid had enough local shops and areas to keep us occupied for the weekend. We figured the same would be true for Algonquin and the discount cemented that. 

In all honesty I was pretty set on this place from the start and Brian could tell how much it meant to me, so it wasn't a hard sell. I had never been to Algonquin Park or the surrounding area and ever since my grandparents showed me photos from one of their trips up there I had wanted to visit. They had gone in the fall and the pictures of the leaves, parks, lakes and scenery were just amazing. Plus, the resort was all-inclusive which I saw as a huge benefit. Often a hotel price seems reasonable - or maybe worth a splurge - but that's usually just for the night. When you add in your breakfast, lunch and dinner things start to add up. Initially even with the discounted rate the resort seemed a bit pricy, but then I thought back to the most recent overnight trip we took (which had been to Belleville) and did the math. At the town's Holiday Inn, with meals at small, reasonably priced restaurants our cost had been more then what the resort was. I'm not going to lie, this surprised me. There is definitely advantages to all-inclusive prices, and the resort seemed well worth it.  

We initially booked for first weekend of November but with Brian's grandmother passing away we moved the dates a bit so we arrived on a Monday and left on a Thursday. Our plans had been to stay only two nights but we changed our minds when we noticed an additional deal. The resort has different types of rooms all with differing amenities. Their top room type is a Chateau which comes with everything! Fireplace, outdoor hot tub, steam shower, sauna, lake access, a basket of spa products (which turned out to be worth about $60!), priority seating and table in the drinking room, free coffees and espressos in the room, complimentary soft drinks and water - the list seemed endless. The Chateau price is of course high but in addition to the already discounted rate there was a deal where the third night was free. After exploring all the different room types and prices, we decided to splurge a bit since it was exceptionally reasonable. And it was completely worth it! 

I will admit a week or so before our trip I did get a bit apprehensive about the resort. As an avid TripAdvisor user I like to read reviews on hotels, restaurants and attractions prior to visiting. While on the Couples Resort page I was shocked at what I saw. For most negative reviews left by travellers the owner responded quite forcefully. It wasn't the usual "thanks so much for letting us know; we are sorry we didn't meet your expectations etc etc" that you usually see in these cases. Rather the owner was calling the reviewer out on their comments and fighting back. It did concern me as I wondered if any potential problems we could encounter would be treated in a negative manner. It also made me wonder at the staff - if this was how the owner behaved, would the staff be as friendly as I would expect? I continued checking the varying reviews - which I will point out were almost all very positive - but the negative ones drew me in to see how the owner would be respond. 

There was a few by him that helped quell my apprehension and actually admire his stance. In his long responses guests he pointed out a number of things. First that most of the overall rare complaints were about the semi-formal dress code in the dining room. In order to dine in the dining room for dinner men needed a dress shirt, tie, pants and dress shoes, and women a dress or dress pants. The owner pointed out that this dress code was told to anyone booking over the phone, printed on all materials including numerous pages of the website, and included in the email confirmation sent. So to show up and not adhere to a clearly stated rule and then expect to be treated special was the fault of the guest. (In my opinion, this is all true - many negative reviews were about that, the dress code IS stated clearly and I encountered it at least three times in the process of booking. And if you think about it, it's the same on cruise ships, other establishments and even in schools. My brother went to a Catholic school and if he wasn't adhering to the dress code he was sent home. To just decide to ignore that and then get mad when it doesn't work out for you is just silly and says a lot about the character of the person, not the resort. Plus they allow you to have dinner sent to your room, so it's not like they refuse to feed you and you are own your own... They do make accommodations and allow you to still enjoy the 5 course feast everyone else is). 

Secondly, he pointed out that the resort has a policy that allows guests to leave within the first 6 hours of check-in without loss of money if expectations are not met. So if you are that upset with service, the room or anything you have the option to leave without penalty. He went on to state that despite this policy there are often those who complain in the attempt to get something out of it - like a rate reduction. He explained all actual, valid complaints are dealt with and again, there is the policy in place for those who are still not satisfied. (Its been my experience that there are indeed many people out there who are just trying to get some sort of deal or compensation though stupid reasons. I do know that on occasion things can go wrong, but travellers (from the positive reviews) who encountered any mishaps made it clear they were dealt with effectively. It's my belief that in most cases compensation shouldn't occur if something happens but is dealt with quickly. Based on most reviews it seemed like the resort did fix actual problems and those complaining were more the type who wanted some sort of special treatment and again, that speaks to their character not the resorts). 

Lastly there was a post where the owner explained they were a family business. Large hotel chains can afford to compensate guests at the drop of a hat with little to no financial effect on them. A small, family run resort can not. (This goes back to the whole "people always wanting to get something for free". The adage of "the customer is always right" is a ridiculous notion that has gone too far. It seems more often then not people feel a sense of entitlement that because THEY are gracing you with their business then YOU owe them something. Um, I don't think so. I am all for rewarding loyalty, and of course offering compensation when there is actual merit but things have gone so far past that. When I worked for a company, a woman demanded a discount because her child was told to stop playing with something. Let me get this straight, you let your child run wild in the store (possibility injuring themselves) yet the store owes you? That's not the way the world works. At another job I had a customer insist his breakfast should be free because I didn't put enough butter on his bagel. Offering him more butter or the option of having a fresh bagel made immediately apparently wasn't enough. At my most recent job I had a woman call in to the office saying that we should honour an old gift certificate to a store we replaced. Turns out we that not only had they replaced this store many years ago, but the company did honour the old certificates for a year. When I nicely explained this I was met with anger and a "how dare you?" attitude. It's hard enough running a small business these days, but losing money to customers like this? I completely agree with the owner here - not worth it). 

Anyways, once I read more I did come to respect the owners position and think its a stance more people need to start taking. If you let people continuously walk all over you and your business, it's likely your business isn't long for this world. 

Our drive up to the resort took about 3 and a half hours. It was a nice drive, scenic but with limited places to stop along the way. We made the mistake of opting to grab lunch on the road - it wasn't until 2 and a half hours later that we finally ate. Brian was a bit annoyed at me on that one since the "oh, lets just stop at some place new and exciting!" came from me not him. When we left Bancroft (the town we stopped in) we were hit with a sudden burst of heavy snow. It was the first snow we had encountered at this point in the season and were unprepared. Brian had no hat or gloves and the car was missing a snow brush. We bought a little scraper at the gas station but Brian was left wiping down most of the car with his arm. (Again, possibly a little more annoyance here since it was again me that had been "we don't need the brush! It's still early!" Honestly my husband should know by now not to listen to me!) 

But we did make it up to the resort just as darkness was settling in - and just in time too. Being unfamiliar with the roads which were now slick with ice and snow was hard enough, doing it in the dark wouldn't have been fun. 

Check in was a quick and easy process and the receptionist was wonderful. She answered all of our questions, explained where everything was and what was going on throughout the resort and area. Our Chateau - named Lyra - was directly across from the main building which meant only a quick walk to everything. There was a parking spot directly in front of our building which was another benefit of the Chateau option.  

As for the Chateau itself... Wow. What an incredible unit. Even now months later I get excited thinking about it. The layout was wonderful - a small entry way with a closet, leading into a large living area with a 16ft ceiling. There was a fridge, microwave, espresso machine, coffee maker and sink. There was a double sided stone wood-burning fireplace that opened on both the living room and in the bedroom. The bedroom had a large jacuzzi tub, private screened in gazebo and the most comfortable bed I have ever slept on. The decor was beautiful - very nice furniture along the lines the French country style but more grand. The walls were kept simple with artwork used sparingly and the windows were covered in long, heavy drapes. The entire chateau felt open and airy yet still managed to give off the vibe of being a relaxing, cozy and comfortable space. It was the type of accommodation you don't want to leave because its so amazing! But the real treat was the bathroom - it was like I was in bathroom heaven. There was a large vanity, double sinks and huge counter, large sauna, and this massive steam shower. Everything was marble, and just gorgeous. If I ever build a dream house my bathroom needs to look like that! The linens were soft and comfortable - smooth cotton sheets along with warm fluffy towels and robes. And the gift basket of spa products was delightful - sea salts, bath products, a candle everything was all high quality and smelt fantastic. We actually paid a visit to the local store in Huntsville that supplied the products and I saw first hand that the value listed on the website was indeed accurate. 

Outside, the property backed onto the lake, and had its own outdoor hot tub. If you just added on a actual kitchen I could happily live here! I have been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot in my life, and some of those trips have included fantastic accommodations. Before this trip if you asked me which place had the best accommodation I would have answered this fancy hotel outside Venice my family and I stayed in for a night. It was a long time ago but I remember the large canopied beds, spacious room and stunning European decor. This trip changed that as my answer would now be the Chateau Lyra. 

Our first nights dinner was amazing - actually they all were! We had Derek as a waiter each night and he was fabulous. I don't remember his last name (there were multiple Derek's in the dining room) but his parents live in West Hill (I do remember that because we talked about a pub near their house that Brian and I frequent!) The food was superb - the baked brie appetizer, brie and asparagus risotto, and blood orange pork jump out at me. Their daily soups were fantastic and the deserts were delicious. John made me the best after dinner cocktails I have ever tasted - even modifying them a bit for my preference. Everyone in the dining room really went above and beyond to make sure our meal was perfect. As for the dress code I LOVED it! Getting dressed up for dinner is a novelty that seems to have worn off in many places. Often I go to a downtown theatre for a play or a fancy restaurant and see most patrons in jeans and sneakers. Putting on a dress each night and walking hand in hand with Brian (who looked great in his suit) really made the whole anniversary experience special. It's not something I would want to do every single night of my life, but for those three it was most enjoyed. Breakfast and lunch were also great meals - simpler then dinner but still wonderful. Brian had eggs Benedict every morning and was in his glory. 

We were able to get a free pass to Algonquin park from the resort and spent one of the days there. It wasn't very busy and many trails and shops were closed for the season but it was still awesome. It was snowing on and off that day so Brian bought a hat and mitts and we bundled up and headed out. We drove to a few different areas before getting out of the car, walking around and exploring. We didn't any of the hiking trails because the paths were slick and icy. With my track record of getting injured on vacations we figured it was safer. Still we wandered around a lot and saw some beautiful winter scenery. We also took some silly photos of each other all bundled up for winter. 

Another day we drove around the local town which to be honest took about 5 minutes. There isn't much in Whitney, but everyone is very friendly. We drove a bit further to another town whose name escapes me and wandered around there. We had also both brought books so we made use of the amazing chateau and just spent time relaxing - each of us taking a couch and curling up to read. Despite the cold, snowy weather I insisted we make use of the hot tub because when else do we have the chance. So each day we changed into bathing suits and made a mad dash for the hot water. Sitting in a hot tub outside in winter is actually a pretty awesome experience. At times a very cold one; but still amazing. Sitting there, looking out over the lake was very serene and relaxing - the mad dash back inside was kind of awful but worth it. I tended to pre-warm the sauna and then went immediately in there from the hot tub, a ritual which has served me well at the rec centre after swimming. 

(The views from the chateau were amazing!)

There was a really awesome games room at the resort which had a bunch of board games and table games. This was pretty fun - it was enjoyable just to relax and do something different. Playing pool and things like that aren't part of our daily routines so it was a nice change. We didn't visit the onsite gallery or the spa but I would definitely do both of those next time. 

The only disappointment during the entire visit was that the leaves had all fallen and I wasn't able to see the brilliant fall colours first hand. But I choose to look on the bright side and realize it means we will just have to go back to the resort at some point! The Couples Resort was a fantastic place to spend our third anniversary, is a place I would recommend fully and is somewhere Brian and I will definitely return to. Every detail was executed perfectly, all the staff were truly wonderful and it exceeded our expectations. It was a fantastic way to spend our anniversary!

Monday 11 November 2013

Monroe, Louisiana

Sadly in October Brian's grandmother passed away. With family all over the place (both in the US and outside it) rather then do an immiedate funeral they planned a memorial a few weeks later. It was held in Monroe, LA where she had been living. Brian had been to Monroe only once before, and it was my first visit. While I had met his aunt at a family wedding, it was my first time meeting the extended family.  Actually due to the long time span since Brian had last been there, it was also the first time he was meeting some of his second and third cousins!

We flew from Toronto to Monroe via the Dallas/Fort Worth airport on Friday evening. Despite my many many flights over the years, this was my first time doing the whole connecting thing. Brian found this unbelievable, but due to my dislike of flying I always try and find something direct. Anyways; the whole trip was pretty simple. We flew out of a smaller terminal which was a pleasant surprise since it meant a much quicker process through the border and security checkpoints. The larger terminal that most flights to the US leave from has incredibly long lines so it was nice not to have to deal with them. The flights themselves were uneventful - thankfully not much turbulence. The flight from Dallas to Monroe was on a pretty small plane, similar to the prop jet I used to take all those years ago for my many Toronto-Baltimore trips to see Brian. 

The Dallas airport is huge, and very much a connector hub. There are shops and restaurants everywhere, and I had a bit of time to wander around while Brian was dashing in and out of security for a quick cigarette. I stopped at Starbucks for a latte needing a caffeine boost (there was a small time change, and it was later in the day) and ordered my seasonal favourite Egg Nog Latte. That was a mistake! Three of the employees had no idea how to make it, and the forth (a manager) who was called over just steamed the egg nog. When I inquired as to where the espresso was, I was told "Oh, the Egg Nog latte doesn't have any caffeine." Hmm, okay, that sort of defeats the point of calling it a latte huh? (I did end up turning to Google and confirmed that the drink does in fact have espresso as I suspected but there was no point in arguing). That's my pet peeve with the non-Starbucks run, Starbucks. Most of the ones in the airports and stores are independently owned, so their employees don't ungo the usual training. I truly can't recall the last time I had a good drink made from any of the independent ones besides the Markham Longos whose barista is amazing. 

Out flight into Monroe arrived at 8pm (we almost missed it since we were mistakenly sent to the wrong gate!) and we were met at the airport by Brians Aunt Sue and her husband. They took us back to their house, served us some delicious Lousianna Style Gumbo (which I have to say is as awesome as I've heard) and then headed back out to pick up Brian's mom and cousin. We spent a couple hours catching up as it had been years (in fact the last time Brian saw his cousin was 20 years ago) before we went to our hotel. Initially the plan was for us to stay with his aunt, but she gererously secured us hotel rooms. When we walked into the hotel room that night the fridge was stocked with water and soft drinks, along with a goodie bag of treats. Southern hospitality truly does exist - and I'd love to encounter more of it up here in the North. 

Saturday morning we went straight to the memorial which was a small and quick family service. Sue's children, grandchildren and great-grand children all came so there were a few minutes of hugging and introductions. I think I met about 20 people in the span of minutes, but I managed to keep all the names straight! 

After the service we had a lunch on the bayou which was wonderful. The bayou is beautiful and something I am glad I was able to see. Such beautiful colours despite the grey day outside. 

Lunch was great - I tried another Louisiana speciality a spicy shrimp po boy and it was delicious! The way in which the shrimps were seasoned and served on the bread was perfect and something I plan to experiment making. 

Once lunch was over we were able to go back to the hotel to change before gathering back at Sues house. Her daughter made a cake batter dip which was unbelievable. I have since made it a few times and it is a great desert. 

Cake Batter Dip
- a box of rainbow chip cake mix, 2 cups of plain vanilla yogurt, and 1 cup of cool whip. You mix all this fine their and add some sprinkles. It gets served with fruit, wafers and anything else. 

You have to love all the interesting recipes that have come from Pinterest. 

After awhile catching up a bunch of us piled into the cars and went to visit Duck Command the location of the Duck Dynasty site. While not a show Brian or I watch, the show is popular enough I was aware of it and the family behind it. Visiting the Duck Command was an interesting experience, I can't believe now much this family has skyrocketed to fame making duck whistles. The place was packed, tourists from all over and everyone buying tons of merchandise. Christmas CD's of Duck Calls, whistles, clothing, etc. It really amazes me how much reality TV has become part of our culture (I don't personally think its a positive thing despite enjoying reslity TV on occassion). I am positive that if the Honey-Boo-Boo family opened a store people would flock there too, which is just sad. 

After our stop there we went to Antique Alley where we wandered in and out of of the local shops. What a really cute place, and very proud of Duck Dynsty - products and posters everywhere! I can see now happy some of the town appears at having Monroe be put on the map. Perhaps after recent magizine comments made by some of the family members, some may be rethinking that stance, who knows. All of the people working in these stores were so friendly, especially once they heard I was from Canada. I can't remember the last time I had such a happy and positive shopping experience. I found these adorable Christmas headbands which I bought for myself, my mom and a gift for Amanda. Getting them back home was complicated since I only brought a tiny carry-on but I managed it. 

After Antique Alley we drove around Monroe for a bit getting a sense of the history. We again retuned to Sues and spent the rest of the evening catching up. There were a bunch of younger kids who were adorable. Two of the little girls were 4 and the boy around 2, and they reminded me so much of my brother Adam, cousin and myself at that age. Just like my cousin and I, these girls were all happy and hugging one second and fighting and crying the next. Then just as Adam did, the boy was following them around and trying to do whatever they did. It brought back a lot of memories! 

That night after leaving Sue's Brian and I had a late night snack and drinks at an Applebee's near the hotel. Our waiter was brand new, a sweet kid but really nervous and kept forgetting everything we ordered. But we were easy going so it didn't matter. 

The next morning Sue, her husband and Brian's Mom dropped us off at the airport. Brian, his cousin and I were leaving Sunday (as I said, it was a quick weekend!) but his mom was staying until Monday. Our flights home were again thankfully uneventful and before evening we were back home recovering from an eventful weekend. 

Though the reason for the trip was sad, it was a nice weekend visiting with family. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet more of Brian's family, it was wonderful for him to see and catch up with everyone.  Sometimes it takes sad events to remind us how important family is.