Headed south to Mexico -- and Canada

William M. Dowd photos & video

Workers from the El Tesoro tequila plant relax before a weekend fiesta begins in Arandas.

So there I was, wondering how the hell I had gotten stuck, tired and thirsty, at 11 o'clock on a damp Saturday night in a stuffy bus jammed into a narrow four-way intersection in Arandas, a small Mexican city in the highlands of Jalisco state.

Oncoming traffic was beginning to stack up. Temperatures rose and tempers flared as the dazed driver tried to extricate the bus from a self-induced wedgie, stuck nose-first into a narrow, vehicle-blocked street and unable to back up because the other roads to the intersection all were dead ends or one-ways pointing in the wrong direction for him.

The abuelas from the street-level apartment the bus had nearly rammed were sticking their heads out the door, little gray-haired women who probably hadn't had such a lively Saturday night in a very long time. A young couple who had been coiled around each other in the shadows right down the street became so intrigued by our predicament they left off their mutual clutchfest to stroll up the street and join with everyone else in shouting good-natured suggestions at the driver.

Finally, it all came down to one way to widen the street. "Let's pick up that Chevy Blazer and put it on the sidewalk," someone said, half in jest but with enough enthusiasm to have the idea immediately accepted by the bus passengers and gawkers.

Quickly, a group of a half-dozen young men grasped the bumper of the vehicle and, with mighty grunts and tugs, got the wheels far enough off the pavement to move it to the sidewalk. A cheer went up from all involved, the bus driver came back to life, everyone got back on the bus, and away we went, barely grazing the second-floor balcony that jutted out over the street and just ahead of the flashing lights of the local police.

This little episode was in marked contrast to a mere two weeks earlier when I was a passenger of a different sort, on a multi-deck yacht crusing between Detroit, MI, and Windsor, Ontario, on the Detroit River just outside where its eastern end joins Lake St. Clair.

Approaching the causeway linking Detroit and Belle Isle. (See video version below.)

There, the yacht skipper knew every inch of his byway, staying toward the American side of the sparkling river as a flotilla of sailboats headed for the lake on the first leg of a weekly competition, then hugging the Canadian side as the racers came back, tacking around a lighthouse point and back into the river on their way to a trophy and hogging the public's attention which several days later would be switched to a NASCAR circuit auto race on nearby Belle Isle.

A gorgeous sight near sunset, accompanied by a pleasant river breeze and an endless supply of cold drinks and canapes and repeated reminders that in this part of the universe, the U.S. is north and Canada is south.

Welcome to both ends of North America, places I keep seeing and re-experiencing along with my own U.S. of A.

While it has long been fashionable in some circles to point to Canada as superior to the U.S and Mexico in terms of medical coverage and public courtesy and Mexico as inferior to both its North American neighbors in virtually every way except the production of tequila, I find that as with so many generalities it's all a matter of informed perspective vs. idle rhetoric.

Canada's lauded national health care is undergoing a series of challenges, battling excruciatingly long waits for hospital care and a severe limit on which doctors you can visit without paying for everything yourself.

Mexico's widespread poverty is more in evidence in the mega-sprawl of Mexico City and its shantytown suburbs as well as in some border communities than in such pleasant states as Jalisco (home to the country's No. 2 city, Guadalajara, as well as Tequila and its producers of the namesake liquor) and Guanajuato (historic center of Mexican independence and a tourist oddity known as the Mummies of Guanajuato.

Courtesywise, it's a tossup between the two countries. What I've come to realize as I travel North America as well as globetrot elsewhere is that despite local customs, styles and languages, truism that it is, people are people. Take them for what you find them to be, not for what someone else thinks they are.

Mexican resort adds new spa
Jalisco becomes a world treasure
Cancun erosion on the move
Cape Breton an island to drive for
Montreal converts wheel place to real place
Dowd's Guides

A taste of the 'New Irish Cuisine'

DUBLIN, Ireland -- One day into a motor tour of Ireland in search of something to overcome the negative stereotypes about Irish food and I was stumped.

I was here in the capital city, sitting with a traveling companion in the bar of the beautifully converted Clontarf Castle, site of one of the epic battles of the ancient Irish warrior king Brian Boru. We were trying to figure out where to find the best place for local food.

The hotel bell captain seemed a logical person to consult.

"Well," he said in all seriousness, "it depends on what sort of local food you're looking for. The best in the city is Italian, Thai or Chinese."

That was several years ago, and it's even truer today unless you're so far off the beaten path you're creating a new one. The difference is that the New Irish Cuisine, as it is capitalized in most Irish publications, also has begun making inroads into popular taste.

Much as I pride myself on my nearly 100 percent Irish heritage, I cringe -- as does my aorta -- when I think of some of the dishes that once were typically representative of Irish cuisine.

Finnan Haddie, a smoked fish and mashed potato dish. Dublin Coddle, featuring flour-coated pork sausage fried in bacon fat then cooked in cider with onions and potatos. Bacon and Egg Pie, which includes a half-dozen eggs and four ounces of lard. Carrageen Pudding, which is primarily dried seaweed and whipped heavy cream. Toad in the Hole, a bacon-wrapped sausage baked in mustard dough and covered in gravy. And endless platters and bowls of potatoes baked, mashed, fried, steamed, boiled, grilled, sauteed and whatever else one could think of to do with them.

But that was then. This is now, and my how things have changed.

Irish restaurants and modern Irish families are relying on such things as chicken, salmon, monkfish, lamb and vegetarian dishes in ever-increasing amounts, although the ubiquitous and versatile potato retains its place of honor in the Irish kitchen.

Dishes tend to be more of the "spa cuisine" variety, with less reliance on heavy creams and fats and more exploitation of the island's abundance of fresh produce. Some of the dishes still look heavy -- like the dishs shown above, cod sorrel (top) and colcannon (bottom) -- but light, alternative ingredients lessen the impact.

Ireland once had plenty of people and no money. Now, thanks to its leadership among European nations in the technological revolution, it has plenty of money and no people. To attract new ones and hold on to the ones it has, developing a modern, appealing cuisine has become an important task.

The island's two national food trade groups, Bord Bia (Irish Food Board) and Trade International Northern Ireland, are helping market Irish products worldwide and soliciting foreign investment in the industry under the promotional title "Ireland: The Food Island."

Tourists are being directed to culinary destination spots throughout the country, especially to the southern port city of Kinsale, a picturesque spot that has emerged as the country's gastronomic capital.

As Muirish Kennedy, Bord Bia's client services director, told Irish Connections magazine, "Ireland has changed drastically. ... The young sector is very much the driving force. The food companies here were started in the last 15 years. It's a young new generation that is much more aggressive, much more aware."

There is rarely a question about the quality of Irish agricultural and livestock products. Willing consumers abroad buy 90 percent of Ireland's annual output. The knock has been on what Irish cooks have done with those products at home.

Until the recent economic upsurge, dining out regularly was a rarity in most parts of Ireland, with fewer than 25 percent of people doing it compared to about 70 percent in the U.S. That mindset, which tends to discourage culinary experimenta tion, was perpetuated in the lives of Irish expatriates around the world. Thus, to many people the likes of Toad in the Hole still exemplifies Irish cuisine.

Couple the experiences younger, adventuresome Irish have had in traveling abroad with their higher wages and more disposable income and the demand for better food becomes even clearer.

The appetite for things Irish can be seen in a number of areas beyond industry trade shows. At the bookstores, for example, you can find titles that put to rest the foods of the famine and poverty years. Instead, we find "Elegant Irish Cooking: Recipes from the World's Foremost Irish Chefs," compiled by the noted Irish master chef Noel C. Cullen, now professor of culinary arts at Boston University. And, "The New Irish Table," a collection of recipes from restaurant and home cooks edited by Margaret M. Johnson who has written on Irish food for such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times and the Irish Echo.

In U.S. tourism, modern Irish food is on display beyond the stereotypical Irish folk festivals. A perfect example is the recent Kinsale, Ireland Festival of Fine Food in Newport, R.I. For some years now it has drawn large crowds anxious to sample the wares of local and visiting Irish chefs.

And, while they don't have the reputations of such world-renowned culinary schools as the Cordon Bleu in France or the Culinary Institute of America, Irish cooking schools are enjoying a growing reputation.

Noted chef Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cooking School, operated at her Ballymaloe House Hotel in County Cork, is perhaps the brightest example. It has been the catalyst for several well-received cookbooks and the work of hundreds of graduates who took advantage of the organic farm and extensive gardens on the property.

The world of New Irish Cuisine is not limited to the Republic of Ireland. In Northern Ireland, where tourism is comparatively strong despite the continued violence in an around Belfast, 70 miles from there in County Fermanagh the Belle Isle School of Cookery is a big draw for residential or one-day classes.

It's situated on a wooded island in Lough Erne, a rural lake that is home to 11 islands owned by the same nobleman, the Duke of Abercorn.

To prove some things about Irish eating and drinking habits never change, the school's brochures brag about its proximity to many attractions -- particularly the Old Bushmills Distillery, at age 400 this year the oldest licensed distillery in the world, where the renowned Bushmills whiskey is produced.
On the Road In Search of My Darby Duck
Dowd's Guides

Ian Fleming, Agent 100

May 28 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

What does that mean to a traveler, besides trying to emulate 007's preferences for cocktails and wines?

Glad you asked. A year-long program of events is under way to celebrate his life and the impact his superspy creation has had on popular culture around the world.

Fleming, a onetime journalist, introduced the public to James Bond in the early 1950s, inspired by his experiences and those of his colleagues at the British Admiralty during World War II when he was personal assistant to the director of Naval Intelligence, making him privy to many spycraft secrets.

More than 100 million copies of the 14 Bond titles, ranging from the first ("Casino Royale" in 1953) to the last ("The Living Daylights" in 1966).

A few examples of Fleming/Bond-related activities:

• Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 will help celebrate the Fleming centenary with several Ian Fleming onboard offerings on the Oct. 10-17 crossing. Departing from Southampton, England, the special voyage will include 007-themed activities, an exhibit and a panel of guest authors, speakers, and experts.

• On Oct. 18, "Bond Bound: Ian Fleming and the Art of Cover Design" will open at Bonhams in New York. The exhibition will chart the role of artists and designers in creating and defining the Bond look over the past 50 years. It also will cover all Ian
Fleming's other books, including "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Thrilling Cities," and his collected travel journalism.
Ian Fleming Centenary
Imperial War Museum Exhibition
Dowd's Guides

Hotel chain counters American Airlines bag fee

I've had more luggage sent astray and probably had more delays while flying American Airlines than with any other carrier, foreign or domestic. In fact, I've often thought that if I had kept a log of it, it would show that my luggage has racked up more air miles than I have.

As a result, I try to avoid American when at all possible. And its latest announcement, that it would charge $15 for a checked suitcase -- not an extra piece of luggage, mind you, but the first non-carry-on, solidified my antipathy to the airline.

However, thumbs-up to the Loews Hotel chain. Reacting to American's questionable new charge, the hotelier launched a "Baggage Buy Back" incentive that will reimburse guests for their $15 checked baggage fee.

This not only is smart marketing, it is particularly good news since American's new fee no doubt will be copied by at least some competitors who now charge extra only for a second checked bag. Delta, for example, charged me an extra $25 for one on an international U.K.-to-New York flight last week.

How complicated is the program? Says a Loews spokesperson:

"Arriving guests need only present any airline bag fee receipt at the front desk to receive the rebate, which will be issued in the form of a credit to their bill at checkout. The ... rebate is available at Loews' 18 properties in the U.S. and Canada, beginning June 15 through Labor Day.

"Loews Hotels will offer credit for up to two bags for a maximum of $30 per occupied room per stay."
Avoid luggage checking
What you can carry on or check
Dowd's Guides

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