People often ask, “What was your favorite part of your trip?” It’s a difficult question. Pinpointing one specific highlight and ranking it against the others can be nearly impossible, especially on longer trips that consist of a variety of activities and settings that can’t be fairly compared.
That said, when people ask me, “What was your favorite place that you stayed in Ireland?” I have no hesitation in my response––even though I was lucky enough to stay at a wide variety of world-class resorts, including a 5-star hotel in beautiful County Wicklow, a 500-year-old baronial castle, and a resort on the Ring of Kerry with a view of the ocean.
The favorite place I stayed in Ireland was the Ashford Castle near the quiet village of Cong. As much as my wife and I loved every place we stayed on the Emerald Island, Ashford Castle was, without question, the crown jewel.
The 800-year-old castle, built on the shores of Lough Corrib in Ireland’s wildly untamed Connemara region, was once the proud estate of the Guinness family. Yes, that Guinness family––who, as you would expect–– had perhaps the finest estate in all of Ireland. The view across the famous lake has not changed since Sir Benjamin lee Guinness himself lived at Ashford, and all of the castle’s 83 rooms retain their original features.
The room my wife and I stayed in offered a stunning view of the 44,000-acre lake, home to some 365 islands.
As gorgeous as the grounds were––the castle is caressed by formal gardens, and hundreds of Oak, Beech and Chestnut trees have been re-planted––it was difficult to pull ourselves out from within the castle walls that first afternoon. Ashford Castle is just too magical. Original architecture is still in-tact, ranging from massive fireplaces to Waterford chandeliers to Roccoco gilt mirrors.
The Drawing Room was spectacular, with live music entertaining at night and views of the perfectly manicured back-lawn, magnificent fountain and opening bay of Lough Corrib delighting by day. As we lounged in the Drawing Room and listened to the lovely piano music we wondered: Who else may have sat in these antique chairs?
Choices include the Emperor of India, Britain’s King George V, President Ronald Reagan, Senator Ted Kennedy, Oscar Wild, John Lennon, George Harrison, Brad Pitt, Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, all of whom have stayed at Ashford. In fact, the Duke (by whom I mean John Wayne, not some British royalty) stayed at Ashford when he filmed the movie “The Quiet Man.”
Many of the movie’s action sequences were filmed on Ashford’s estate, and you can walk from the castle to the very waters where the priest in “The Quiet Man” hooked the monstrous salmon he’d been trying to catch for 10 years. That’s not the only reason I was excited to bring my rod and ply the waters at Ashford––many of the largest pike in Fred Buller's famous book, "The Doomsday Book of Mammoth Pike," were caught on Lough Corrib.
There is also the Cong River, an excellent trout and salmon stream, which dumps into the lake outside the castle’s front door, creating a picture-perfect moment of a fairy-tale like bridge leading to the castle’s grand entrance. “We call that the ‘Oh-My-God!’ corner,” says Ashford’s Molly Leibowitz. “That last bend always surprises guests, when you come around the corner and suddenly this majestic castle comes into view as though sitting on the side of the lake.”
That final stretch of river is not just scenic, though; it’s a terrific spot to cast for salmon when they’re running in May. I have to admit, I did catch myself distracted on several casts––not paying my silver spoon its due attention as my eyes studies the castle in front me. The castle’s ghillie, Frank Costello, is an Orvis-endorsed guide who grew up on Lough Corrib and doesn’t let his international reputation go to his head. Ashford’s concierge called him for me at 6:30pm and he kindly offered me tips over the phone. I took notes dutifully, knowing that last year Costello caught a brown trout from the lake that topped the scales at over 13 pounds.
Costello and the concierge’s help that evening was typical of the service at Ashford. “What makes Ashford special are the wonderful people who work here,” said Paula Carroll, Ashford Castle’s Senior Manager. “Over 40 percent of the staff have in excess of 20 years of service here, and 55 percent have more than 15 years. That’s why clients feel like they are coming and being welcomed home.”
A perfect example is the family who has visited Ashford every Christmas for the past 18 years. They leave all their decorations at Ashford, and the staff decorates their room for them every year before they arrive, so when they walk into their room it’s completely decorated with all their family decorations.
With such service to complement such a breathtaking setting, it’s clear why Ashford was voted #1 Best Resort Hotel in Europe by readers of Conde Nast Traveler in 2010.
Or, for that matter, why my answer is so easy when people ask me, “What was your favorite part of Ireland?”
Ashford Castle's website is www.ashfordcastle.ie. For more information, email email@example.com or call 1.800.346.7007.
A 400-pound crocodile is glaring at me 15 feet away with its razor sharp teeth on display. A cunning predator, the crocodile has the strongest jaws on the planet with a biting force of 5,000 pounds per inch.
“Crocs can jump through the air faster than you can blink,” says my guide, Jim Willcox.
I am miles away from civilization, in the upper reaches of a narrow river channel winding through the jungle, as Willcox whispers these comforting words. Today I have spotted birds I never knew existed, and caught five types of fish I’ve never before seen.
Now I lock eyes with the crocodile and wonder, for the first time during this extreme fishing pursuit, if I am perhaps no longer the predator.
It feels as though I am in the Amazon, or maybe on the Nile River, fishing in a foreign world where crocodiles are kings––they have been known to attack great white sharks––and every cast holds the promise of catching something bizarre. Instead, I am only 80 miles south of Miami, fishing in the Florida Everglades with a man many say is the best guide in the business.
And while reaching Captain Jim Willcox was easy and inexpensive compared to the travel required for equal adventures in far-flung parts of the world, our journey since leaving the dock in Islamorada, Florida, has not been void of danger. “He died this spring,” Willcox says, nodding to a memorial photo pinned to a mangrove tree along the channel. “Lost control of his boat. They found his boat way up in the mangrove trees with the motor still running 90 minutes after the crash.”
We are lucky on this October morning. Calm wind makes it possible to run some 30 miles in Willcox’s 18-foot Action Craft boat to leave behind the Atlantic Ocean, cut through the Gulf of Mexico and sneak up into the bowels of the Everglades. At full throttle, Willcox’s 150-horsepower Yamaha propels his boat on plane so he can fly through water just 12 inches deep. Nonetheless, it is critical that we pay attention to the tide or we will get trapped up in a narrow channel that held water when initially motored through but recedes into a mud bank by the end of low tide.
“There’s no cell phone reception here,” Willcox says. “People get stuck and you’re not going anywhere until the next day.”
In a sense, Willcox has been trapped by the region for more than two decades. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, cheering for the Eagles and driving 90 minutes to the East Coast when he wanted to fish for marlin and tuna. He came to Bud N’ Mary’s marina in Islamorada one December with his dad and fell in love with fishing in the Keys.
For the next 12 years, Willcox came to Islamorada each December with his 13-foot Boston Whaler and fished every day for a month straight. The unique beauty and diverse fishery captivated him so intensely that he couldn’t leave, so Willcox made the leap to move 1,300 miles south to become a full-time fishing guide.
“I could never do a corporate job and work for some stiff in a suit,” said Willcox, now in his 15th year operating his Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. “I report to the Everglades now.”
It appears fishing and guiding is what Willcox was born to do. He has won numerous fishing tournaments, been featured in big-time publications ranging from The Washington Post to Field & Stream, and has starred in television shows on ESPN, Versus and The Weather Channel.
“Jim is a natural for TV,” said Terry Boeder, a producer for North American Fisherman-TV (NAF-TV) who has filmed numerous fishing shows with Willcox. “His excitement and enthusiasm for the keys is 100 percent authentic.”
This past summer, Boeder’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and he wanted to do something special for them. Try not to hate him for it, but Boeder gets to fish all over the country with the top guides while producing shows for NAF-TV. When it came time to decide who he should hire to take his parents out for a memorable anniversary, the decision was easy.
“I picked Islamorada for my parents’ 50th anniversary because of Jim,” Boeder said. “He introduced my parents to all the beautiful things the area has to offer. They had never been to the Keys, and because of Jim, they are making plans to come back.”
I can understand why Boeder picked Willcox. If I exclude a couple local guide-buddies from the equation to remove any biases, I have to say Willcox is hands-down the best guide I’ve ever fished with––and the most fun.
Incidentally, I first heard about Willcox during an episode of NAF-TV that Boeder filmed. In the show, Willcox and his guest boated a monstrous, 14-foot-long sawfish. The footage is incredible––watch the action on Willcox’s website and you’ll understand why ancient people believed in sea monsters.
“I fish 9 days a week,” Willcox quips, conservatively putting the estimate at 250 days a year. He’s mastered a 40-mile radius of ocean and Everglade water, and narrates every twist and turn so I can begin to appreciate this powerful environment.
He knows this water like the back of his hand. As soon as we reach our spot and start pitching jigs to mangrove trees we start catching fish. I’ve never before caught a redfish, but 30 seconds into fishing I’m reeling one in. My excitement grows as I cast back out and just as quickly get another bite, this time only to discover another new species for me: a snook.
From then on, the action was fast and furious with both quantity and quality fish. Big mangrove snappers, sheepshead, catfish, more snook and lots of bruiser redfish up to 14 pounds––fish that give a heck of a fight on 15-pound braided line. We also saw countless birds ranging from hawks to spoonbills, as well as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, manatees and that up-close-and-personal crocodile.
In fact, it is the wildlife and the wild scenery that most amaze me on this adventure. Where else in the U.S. can you have an experience like this? No wonder Willcox’s clients rave about him.
“Jim can stop his boat in the middle of nowhere, drop in a few lines and pull out dozens of a specific type of fish,” says Matt Waddell, of White Plains, New York, who visits Islamorada annually for guided outings with Willcox. “Then he’ll motor for a while, stop somewhere else, and you start catching dozens of some totally different type of fish.”
Waddell brought his 12-year-old son out fishing with Willcox as a birthday present to the boy. After catching mackerel, blue fish, redfish, snapper, snook and trout, Waddell’s son caught a large shark.
“As a dad, there’s nothing like seeing the pure joy of your 12-year-old reeling in fish after fish and then catching this huge shark,” Waddell recalls. “Those trips are also a chance for me to bond with my sons with no video games, no phones and no TV. We just talk about what’s going on in life, but it’s not heavy or uncomfortable because they’re so excited about the fishing.”
“Jim is great with kids,” Waddell said. “He engages with them really well, and he subtly teaches them without patronizing them.”
Willcox gets to see childlike excitement from many of his clients throughout the day; it’s what he loves most about guiding.
“Guiding gives me a chance to spend every day in this wilderness,” he said. “And it’s awesome to introduce people to the Everglades and see them freak out. They get so excited by the entire experience––seeing that is a rush for me.”
Capt. Jim Willcox operates Ultimate Keys Fishing guide service. His website is www.ultimatekeysfishing.com. To contact Jim, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-393-1128.
You can still see the affects of Hurricane Wilma (2005) in much of the region. The two trees on the point in the photo below seem like the inspration for the song "Lean on Me." The Gulf of Mexico is in the background.
These two members of the Audobon Society were catching baitfish to gauge how the bird population would fare in the months ahead. Lots of bait means lots of birds.
Below, Capt. Jim Willcox noticed birds concentrated in this area, so we boated over and threw out a net, figuring the birds were hovering over baitfish.
The net was so heavy Willcox could barely haul it in. (I almost had to put down my camera and help). We used these pilchards for bait the rest of the day.
At the fish cleaning station back at the marina, dozens of tarpon gathered to snatch up our fish guts. Half a dozen sharks joined them. It's difficult to gauge the perspective in this photo because there are so many huge fish here, but the majority of these tarpon ranged from 25 to 75 pounds, with several over 100.
After our day in the Everglades, we stopped in the Atlantic Ocean for an hour and caught a ton of mangrove snappers, pictured above and below. Willcox directed us to a local restaurant that night that cooked our fillets in four different, delicious ways.
What a day! It had the perfect ending, fresh fish at a restaurant on the beach, and the perfect beginning: a beautiful sunrise over the Atlantic, pictured below.
I am balancing on a 12-foot, wooden paddle board armed with an oversized kayak paddle I used to propel myself away from the jungle island and into the Atlantic Ocean when I notice a shark swimming 30 yards behind me. Ahead of me I see nothing but azure water so I do the only thing that comes to mind: I wobble down to my knees to untie the fishing pole I have strapped to my board and cast out in the direction of the unmistakable fin.
The shark is oblivious to my first two casts, but on the third cast she catches the scent of the shrimp I’m using for bait and charges after it. I wind faster. This angers her; she accelerates with remarkable speed to close the gap between her teeth, my bait and me.
I’m quickly running out of space––I have wound in nearly all my line and the chase is still on. I lower my rod tip into the water and whip it to the back of the board to keep my bait in motion when––BANG––the shark annihilates my bait 18 inches in front me! The shark strike creates a surface explosion like a cannonball hitting the water.
My pole is instantly doubled over from the weight of the sea creature, which spins 180 degrees with a splash of its tail and races off into the depths of the Atlantic with me now in tow behind her.
An Island Oasis
As thrilling as it was, the shark escapade was just one episode of a surreal sequence of adventures my wife and I experienced at Little Palm Island Resort & Spa near the Florida Keys, a private, 5-acre island resort miles off-shore from the southernmost tip of the United States.
At Little Palm Island, breathtaking moments seem as common as palm trees. Just 12 hours before the shark encounter, Jodie and I feasted on a tikki torch-lit, five-course dinner on the beach with a personalized menu congratulating us on our 4th wedding anniversary and a pianist playing in the background. Less than 90 minutes after the shark, we were pampered beyond belief for two hours with an ancient Indonesian ritual known as the Javanese Royal Treatment at Little Palm’s award-winning Spa Terre.
From the instant we arrived until the tragic moment when we had to leave paradise and return to the real world, it was abundantly clear why Little Palm Island is routinely named one of the best resorts on the planet.
We left our car and main-land mentality behind at Little Palm’s welcome station near Key West, then enjoyed a 15-minute cruise onboard a 1930s-style motor boat to reach the private island. We had taken no more than four steps on the landing dock when Renda, a blonde from Ohio who fell in love with the island a decade ago and is now a Little Palm Island manager, called out to us: “Welcome! You must be Tony and Jodie! The staff will take your bags. Come with me, I’ll give you a tour of the island.”
We smiled in awe of the path Renda led us down––a West-facing dining room on the edge of the beach; a sequestered pool shaded by giant palm trees next to an outdoor bar; a marina with kayaks, paddle boards and motorboats for us to use whenever we wanted; a rustic library with a take-a-book, leave-a-book policy as well as the only TV on the island; an over-size chess board beside the trail to a plush spa; a Zen garden and a gazebo overlooking the ocean; and, finally, at the far corner of the island, our romance suite: a thatched-roof bungalow on the water complete with our own fire-pit, deck, outdoor Jacuzzi and open-air bamboo shower.
We followed Renda into the suite. After we passed through the living room and bathroom (which also had an indoor shower and a soaking tub), we made our way into the master bedroom––featuring a curtained canopy bed and vaulted ceiling––and noticed our luggage tucked carefully in the closet. We had arrived more than 5 hours ahead of check-in time yet Little Palm was ready to welcome us into its island oasis.
In the weeks prior to our arrival, Little Palm Island––named the No. 1 beach resort in the U.S. by Travel & Leisure––had welcomed guests from England, France, Germany, Sweden and Dubai. The resort features 30 isolated bungalows, each designed for two guests.
“The reason we’re consistently voted one of the top hotels in the world is because we truly embrace our mantra, ‘Get Lost,’” said Matt Trahan, the regional managing director of Little Palm Island’s parent company, Noble House Hotels & Resorts. “Guests get to disconnect from the real world and re-connect with each other, and the island has a very peaceful vibe in the lap of luxury.”
It’s a vibe similar to that found in the South Pacific or West Indies, and as amazed as I am that such a luxurious, jungle-island paradise exists anywhere on earth, I am almost equally surprised that all I had to do to reach it was jump on a plane to Miami and drive a couple hours.
“Many people think that the serene ambiance of Little Palm can only be found thousands of miles away,” Trahan said. “With only 30 suites on a 5-acre island, privacy and solitude are definite. Of course, there are many activities to do, from deep-sea fishing to sea plane tours.”
Not only was the staff ready to welcome us to Little Palm Island, so, too, were the fish. After checking in, we immediately went to the beach and while Jodie laid down to soak up the sun, I grabbed a fishing pole and some shrimp from the dockhand and cast out. Ten seconds later, I had caught my first-ever saltwater fish, a jack.
The very next cast yielded another species I had never before seen or caught: a mackerel. Half an hour of such fast action inspired us to take out one of the Boston Whaler boats available for guests to use. Having never before fished in the ocean, it was exhilarating to cruise around by ourselves on an 85-degree sunny day and haul in fish after fish––mutton snapper, mackerel, grouper, snook, jack, yellow tail snapper, bluefish and mangrove snapper. The non-stop action, combined with the beauty of the island, made it easy to see why Little Palm Island was once a popular fishing camp for Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy.
Later in the day we tried paddle boarding for our first time ever and loved it. You stand aboard a thick, surfboard-esqe device and row yourself forward with an extra long kayak oar. It’s surprisingly easy to move fast on a paddle board, though we quickly discovered our preferred mode of transportation on a paddle board was to lie down on the board, look out at the horizon and let the wind blow.
The wind was also our fuel the next day for another unforgettable adventure at Little Palm Island: a day of private sailing aboard the LilyAnna, a beautiful, 38-foot Admirable-class Catamaran. Neither Jodie nor I had ever been sailing, and it turns out we picked a Rolls Royce for our first drive. The LilyAnna, built in Cape Town, South Africa, is sleek, smooth and superbly comfortable.
We sailed out to Hog Reef, arguably the top diving destination in the U.S., and snorkeled among hundreds of fish on a pristine reef in a protected sanctuary. We have snorkeled in hot-spots such as Cozumel and Hawaii, and this site blew both places out of the water.
Willie and Mike made the adventure even more fun. They’re the perfect companions for a day sail––quick to laugh, full of interesting sea stories, and eager to serve. “If you need anything don’t get up, just wave your hand in the air,” Mike instructed us as we laid at the front of the vessel polishing off our complimentary bottle of wine.
For the heck of it, we trolled a couple Rapala X-Rap Magnums on the way back to the island and promptly hooked a barracuda, a goliath grouper, and an enormous jack. I have to say, life is pretty good when you’re sailing on the Atlantic Ocean on a sunny afternoon with your beautiful wife on a beautiful ship, listening to Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing.”
Dining in Paradise
While I was drawn to Little Palm Island for a Robinson Crusoe-style tropical adventure, I have to admit when it came to food I wasn’t exactly scouring through the jungle trying to live off the land. In fact, the resort's famous dining room was created by the award-winning Chef Luis Pous, who is widely admired for developing the island’s signature Pan-Latin cuisine.
His Cuban heritage and love of the Caribbean have inspired him to create unique dishes such as Foie Gras Cuban sandwiches and Key West lobster with apple, truffle, tarragon and Key Lime risotto. The food itself is delicious, but the restaurant’s setting makes everything taste that much better. Jodie and I sat mere feet from the ocean and enjoyed a perfect view of the sunset.
We opened the menu and, by the light of the tikki torches, saw a shocking headline at the top of the menu: “Happy 4th Anniversary Mr. and Mrs. Capecchi.” Back at Little Palm’s welcome station on the mainland, a greeter checking us in before the boat ride had asked if there was any special occasion that brought us to Little Palm. Jodie had responded casually: “No, not really, but we’re kind of celebrating our anniversary.”
Now, as a result of that one comment, here we were looking at a personalized menu! In fact, even the banana split I ordered for dessert was adorned with a chocolate “Happy Anniversary” wish.
With personal touches like that, it’s no wonder why guests return to Little Palm Island as if it’s a religious pilgrimage. One couple was married at Little Palm Island 17 years ago (the island offers a wedding coordinator among its 110-person staff and celebrates 30 weddings a year) and has returned every year since. In 2014, the couple plans to bring their twin daughters to celebrate their birthday with a Sweet Sixteen celebration on the beach.
I’d be remiss in discussing food at Little Palm without mentioning breakfast. It is an experience unto itself. The evening prior, you check what items you want on the menu, as well as what time you want your breakfast delivered. Then you place the menu in your bamboo mailbox outside your bungalow. While you’re sleeping, a staff member takes the menu and next thing you know there’s a knock at your door in the morning and breakfast is served on your private deck overlooking the water.
One morning while devouring French toast, eggs over easy, yogurt with granola and fresh fruit, Jodie and I saw two Key Deer swim over from a nearby island onto Little Palm and walk right in front of us. The endangered deer, which look like miniature whitetails, are very common at Little Palm Island. In fact, we saw multiple deer at close distances every day.
The Royal Treatment
It was about an hour after breakfast that I jumped on the paddle board that fateful morning and encountered my shark. The beast tired, eventually, after peeling out nearly all the line in my reel. It was quite an adrenaline rush to conquer the shark, and I won’t soon forget the view of its dorsal fin slowly sinking away after I released it.
Less than 90 minutes after that primitive adventure, I enjoyed another unique experience at the opposite end of the spectrum: a relaxing couple’s treatment at Little Palm Island’s Spa Terre. After checking in at the main spa center, we were led to an enormous, enclosed garden. We would have this entire, lush space to ourselves––along with our masseuses––for the next two hours.
We underwent Spa Terre’s signature Javanese Royal Treatment, an ancient tradition originating in the palaces of Java, Indonesia. It began with a Balinese massage using Jasmine scented flower oil and culminated with the application of warm yogurt, creating a strangely soothing sensation. We then took an outdoor shower and proceeded to soak in an exotic flower petal bath. It seemed we were in the Orient as we sipped on sweet tea and watched flower petals float around us.
Finally, we went back into the massage room and had Jasmine scented lotion applied to us by the skillful masseuses. For the first time in several days, I smelled like neither fish nor shrimp––a fact my wife greatly appreciated.
The aptly named treatment we received at the spa truly epitomized the royal treatment Little Palm Island lavished on us throughout our remarkable stay. Patricia Shultz spotlighted the resort in her New York Times best-seller, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die,” calling the island a place “where the first impression is exotic perfection.”
After spending several days at this one-of-a-kind paradise, I can now say that “exotic perfection” is indeed the first and final impression of Little Palm Island.
The website for Little Palm Island Resort and Spa is www.littlepalmisland.com. To contact Little Palm Island, call 800.343.8567 or email email@example.com.
Little Palm Island was named the No. 1 resort in Florida by Conde Naste Traveler.
Spencer, a 15-year-old heron, is the mayor of Little Palm Island. He has reigned over the island for years, and does not let other herons live at Little Palm. Whenever I'd catch a fish, Spencer would come running up to me for his snack. I'd hold out the fish, and Spencer would take it directly out of my hands.
We had a blast taking out the motorboats available for guests to use. Jodie was our fearless captain, and it was exciting to fish off the boat and catch all sorts of new species. I also discovered that fishing on a paddle board is one of the most intimate ways to interact with the ocean and its creatures.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, "There is no way in which a man can deserve a sunset." I have to agree.
A heart attack killed my grandpa before I was born. When he was among the living Grandpa took my mother, a teenager at the time, on a trip to Tofte to see Lake Superior. Ever since, Mom has considered the North Shore her spiritual birthplace.
So to celebrate my mom’s early retirement I took her back to Tofte to be reunited with Gitche Gumee’s majestic waters. Our home for the weekend was Bluefin Bay, and throughout our adventure we took to heart Bluefin’s motto: “Never miss a wave.”
“Guests are surprised how incredibly close our resort is to Lake Superior,” said Dennis Rysdahl, owner and general manager of Bluefin Bay. “People are stunned by these amazing views of the world’s largest freshwater lake––you can’t get closer to Superior than this.”
Missing a wave was not an option for us. Our beautiful condo sat mere feet from the lake. As soon as we arrived we dropped our bags in the living room and headed straight to our private deck to sit face-to-face with the inland ocean. The sinful 5-chocoloate pie we picked up at Betty’s Pies en route to Tofte tasted that much better with cool lake air rushing against us.
We savored each bite and ate slowly and carefully––it seemed a dropped crumb would fall directly into the lake below us. Had we really been in rush hour traffic in the heart of Minneapolis just four hours ago? If so, we entered a time-warp when we walked through the condo and out to the back deck. The rolling waves of Lake Superior pounding at our doorstep instantly washed away the busyness of the daily grind.
“You feel like you are worlds away,” Rysdahl said. “Bluefin Bay is the perfect antidote to life’s chaos and craziness.”
No wonder guests flock to Bluefin Bay from 47 different states, from Hawaii to Maine, from Florida to California. It is here that you can soak in aura of the world’s largest freshwater lake.
In truth, Mom and I would have been happy had we never strayed from our deck the entire weekend. But retirement doesn’t mean kicking back and relaxing to Mom. It means new adventures and discoveries, and we were in the perfect place for just that.
For the first-time ever, Mom went fishing on Lake Superior, kayaked on the big lake, hiked along Cascade River’s waterfalls, trekked along the Superior Hiking Trail, climbed Oberg Mountain and biked on Gitchi-Gami State Trail. And that was just Saturday alone!
Other days found us summiting Sawtooth Mountain’s Carlton Peak and Britton Peak, exploring for miles along the Temperance River, eating breakfast at sunrise on the rocks of Tofte Park, wading in chilly Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and hiking at Palisade Head.
We had scoured Bluefin Bay’s website weeks in advance to create an agenda that maximized our time to enjoy the abundant outdoor activities. The resort, which opened in 1984 and hosts a variety of condos, studios and guest rooms, offers complementary shuttles to area trails, 50 road and mountain bikes, canoes, kayaks, guided hiking and biking trips, tennis courts, badminton, bocce ball and––during the winter––snowshoes, cross-country skis, ice skates and an outdoor rink.
Biking and sea kayaking are the two most popular summer and fall activities at Bluefin. Some 1,200 to 1,500 guests try their hand at sea kayaking every year. For Mom, who adores Lake Superior but has never before sat in a kayak, the challenge of kayaking Gitche Gumee was on her bucket list.
Originally, we had signed up for a 3:30 Saturday afternoon guided kayaking excursion knowing we'd be out and about until then. As it turned out, our early Saturday morning fishing excursion in Grand Marais was so successful we caught our keeper fish fast and actually quit several hours early, and after wading along the Cascade River waterfalls for an hour we returned to Bluefin ahead of schedule at 12:22pm.
There was a 12:30 guided kayaking session we switched to and joined at the last second, and we made it out while the lake was still relatively calm. It was a rush to kayak in the massive lake so famous for taking down enormous iron ore ships.
The 3:30 kayaking session we had originally signed up for ended up getting cancelled (well, moved to a smaller, in-land lake) because the wind had kicked up. By luck, we stumbled across the 12:30 session––when kayaking on the big lake was still an option–– with only minutes to spare. I was so grateful we made it out on this adventure because I knew kayaking on Superior was on Mom’s bucket list, and she had graciously gone fishing with me first thing in the morning (when the lake was glass) so I could accomplish a goal of mine: catching a salmon on Lake Superior.
With kayaking done by 3, we then had the rest of the afternoon free to hike Oberg Mountain and revel in her spectacular views. The unfolding of the day's activities epitomizes how serendipitously things worked out throughout our trip––and is also a reminder that on Superior’s shores you can make the best-laid plans but ultimately Mother Nature dictates your schedule as she sees fit.
Some More S’mores?
Before heading to Bluefin’s nightly bonfire on the beach, Mom and I went on a twilight bike ride along the lake that produced my favorite “what did we stumble across here” moment of the trip. We were the only ones on the shore, biking alongside classic rock formations, and the cooling evening air was alive and electric. My words won’t do it justice, but perhaps this photo will paint the picture some.
After dark, we followed our noses to the smell of the bonfire, though we could have just as easily followed our ears––Bluefun Bay hires evening musicians ranging from Bump Blomberg to Barbra Jeans to Bob Bingham (who played for Gordon Lightfoot) to entertain guests. That night a middle-aged musician sat by the fire strumming a guitar and singing soft lullabies to the lake while guests swapped stories of their day’s adventures and bonded over complimentary s’mores.
“Got room for some more s’more people?” asked Mike Storms, 53, as he approached the bonfire. Storms and his wife Kathy were there on their honeymoon. They had met online in what both had apparently vowed was their “last attempt” at online dating.
“We had a campfire and s’mores at our wedding reception,” Storms told the friendly group of fellow vacationers as he assessed his golden-brown marshmallow. “But this is quite the encore. What a setting!”
Indeed, it is a special setting for a wedding or a honeymoon––Bluefin Bay has been voted Best Honeymoon Resort by Minnesota Bride Magazine a staggering seven years in a row. Earlier in the afternoon, we saw a wedding photo shoot take place on the grounds. Bluefin Bay hosts 50 weddings per year; among its 150 staff members is an in-house wedding and event coordinator.
And those who complain that wedding food tends to run on the bland, predictable side (lukewarm chicken and mashed potatoes, anyone?) have obviously never dined at a Bluefin reception before. The resort offers three distinct dining options: Waves of Superior Café, Coho Café and Bakery and The Bluefine Grille, the latter of which offers an extensive wine list and live music.
“At Coho Café and Bakery we make everything from scratch without any preservatives added,” said Diani Dimitrova, Coho Café and Bakery Manager. “We buy local as much as we possibly can for fish, sausage and seasonal produce so everything’s as fresh as it can be.”
My two-cents? There’s a reason Coho Cafe’s homemade specialty pizzas win so many awards; order one and you won’t regret it.
Like Grandfather, Like Grandson
You feel a certain amount of responsibility when you plan a trip for a loved one. I distinctly remember feeling 2-feet tall when an arduous cliff-side mountain hike I took my wife on in Scotland got frightening for her and panic swept across her face.
On the flip side, I can still hear my dad saying, “This is even more beautiful than I thought it would be,” when I took him on the Canadian fly-in fishing adventure he’d always dreamed of going on “someday.”
As Mom and I sat on our private deck at Bluefin Bay one last time before check-out, it was obvious that her retirement trip couldn’t have gone any better. As we looked out at Lake Superior glistening in the sun, Mom told me something I hadn’t heard before: her dad, in the days prior to his sudden and unexpected death at age 46, was planning on taking his family back to Tofte.
Apparently after his death they had found the phone number to some cabin rentals in Tofte along with a few dates scribbled on a sheet of a paper in his briefcase. I never met my grandpa, but here I was taking his daughter on the trip he had planned.
The great lake, for her part, didn’t know that grandpa once walked the shores of Tofte––or even, for that matter, that Mom and I were there that very moment, ourselves irrelevant in the shadow of her 15,000 years.
But that’s OK. We knew.
Bluefin Bay's website is www.bluefinbay.com. For more information, call 1-800-Bluefin (258-3346).
I have died and gone to fishing heaven. Past the pearly gates at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge lies a miraculous collection of contradictions: extreme luxury in Manitoba’s remote wilderness; 5-star service and gourmet food at a fly-in camp; world-class fishing with lavish accommodations in the midst of a beautiful and unspoiled boreal forest.
If that sounds like hyperbole, let me put it another way: I’ve been lucky enough to fish at elite destinations ranging from Florida to California, from Ontario to Alaska, from Ireland to Scotland, but I’ve never been anywhere that combines world-class fishing with world-class accommodations like Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
My comrade for this adventure was none other than my dad, the perfect fishing partner for any trip, but especially for one of this magnitude. Baseball fanatics memorize batting averages and on-base-percentages. Med-school students study diseases and medications. My dad researches Canadian fishing lodges.
Walk around a sportsman show with Dad and you’ll hear him comment on just about every lodge. “Got a brochure on that one. Big pike.” “Saw that lodge on TV. It’s way up in Saskatchewan.” “Read about this one in Midwest Outdoors.”
So Dad knew full-well what we were getting into last week as we sped north on North Dakota’s Interstate 29. What he didn’t expect was getting stopped at the Canadian border and sent to immigration, where an officer grilled him about any past criminal record. After repeatedly being asked if he had any run-ins with the law, Dad finally came clean: “Well, about 15 years ago I got a speeding ticket.”
“That’s OK,” the officer said. “We have lots of speeders here, too.” With those words, we were free and clear to pass through purgatory and continue our ascension into Aikens.
We would soon discover why In-Fisherman Editor Doug Stange declared Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge “still the finest all-around experience I’ve ever had on a fly-in trip.”
The lodge, which opened in 1949, is idyllically set on Aikens Lake near the inlet to the Gammon River in Manitoba’s Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park. Our morning flight in at 1,500 feet altitude was beautiful and surprisingly smooth. When we landed the entire staff was lined up on the dock to welcome us to Aikens. It seemed everyone knew who we were––a touch of personal service made a bit easier, I suppose, by the fact that only 600 guests a year come to Aikens.
In 2012, the camp averaged 18.8 guests per night over the full season, from late-May to late-September. With over 20 full-time staff, the incredible reality is that Aikens has more workers taking care of guests than, well, guests themselves.
We never touched our bags after dropping them off to be loaded onto the plane back at the float base. One of the crew took our bags to our cabin, while another staff member gave us a private tour of the grounds, including the “Tackle, Bait and Bullshit Shack” and “Big Molly’s Bar.” The camp’s fully-stocked bar buzzes daily with activity during happy hour (free drinks) and then again late into the night.
We began to realize it is the staff itself––as much as the amazing fishing and fancy cabins––that makes Aikens stand out. You likely won’t find a younger lodge manager than Pit Turenne, 35, whose parents bought the place back in 1988 and began transforming it from a more traditional, rustic resort to the world-renowned destination it has become.
In 2005, Pit’s parents retired (though they still live at camp and play the part of grandparent-babysitters) and investor Chris Jensen got on board as a partner, agreeing to infuse boatloads of capital to further upgrade Aikens under one critical condition: Pit and his wife, Julie, continue the family tradition of managing the lodge.
I don't think Pit could have imagined life any other way. He and Julie pull out all the stops to do anything possible to make their guests happy. Yet as hard as the Turennes work to accomodate guests, when you watch them it really doesn't seem like work because they genuinely enjoy it.
You can’t fake authentic people skills––a genuine interest in others is an innate trait that can’t be taught. Pit, whose first dream was the common Canadian calling to star in the NHL, has clearly found his perfect career. The math-wizard born on Christmas Day talks easily with guests from all walks of life. He quickly establishes rapport and employs his natural wit and laid-back personality to connect with people in a way you rarely witness. It’s his nature, likely cultivated while growing up at the lodge and making conversation with people every day since age 10.
The Turenne’s willingness to accommodate guests’ requests can include unusual circumstances. Earlier this summer, two guests got married at Aikens. “I applied to the province and received certification to preside at the wedding,” Julie said. “We did the wedding in Big Molly’s Bar, and it went really well.”
The couple actually went walleye fishing on their wedding day. “That was the most pressure I’ve ever felt guiding,” said Tyler, the guide who took them out that day. “Fortunately, we had good fishing and they had a blast.”
The second-deepest lake in Manitoba with depths plummeting to 290 feet, Aikens is a nutrient-dense body of water with massive populations of ciscos and shiners. The Gammon River flows through the lake, which is also connected to Lost Lake and St. Bonaventure Lake. While the lake system offers the chance for big lake trout and pike, it’s most famous for its incredible population of trophy walleyes (the lake record is 33.5 inches).
The rare combination of quantity and quality of walleyes at Aikens inspired Pit and Julie to create an award known as The Century Club. To earn the privileged entry into this group, a guest must individually catch four walleyes between 8am and 5pm that total 100 inches in length.
The reward? A presentation that night at dinner including a glossy 8 x 10 photo of the recipient’s biggest fish, a photo added to The Century Club board inside the tackle shop and, best of all, one entry into a drawing to win a free trip back to Aikens.
“The idea for The Century Club first came up late one night at Big Molly’s Bar,” Julie admitted. “Big Molly’s is the source of inspiration for many ideas, good and bad.”
Pit and Julie post each day’s Century Club winners and Master Angler catches on the lodge’s Facebook page, which my dad and I had been checking routinely for months prior to our trip, so we knew what we were gunning for. On our first Monday at Aikens we kicked off our day with breakfast before hitting the water. We saw the menu and promptly began ordering like starving men who may not eat again for several days.
After devouring hash browns, sausage, bacon, a breakfast sandwich (with more of said sausage and bacon), and the best French toast I’ve ever tasted, we started fishing at 8am.
The action began immediately with two small fish: a 17-incher followed by a dink we didn’t bother to measure that looked no more than two-thirds the size of the first. And then, like the flip of a switch, the big ones started biting. I caught a 23-incher at the same time my dad landed a 25. A moment later, I set the hook on a barely-perceptible twitch and immediately saw my rod double over. A 26-incher that fought like hell on my light-action rod and 8-pound monofilament.
I took a quick photo, released the fish and replaced my frozen minnow (no live minnows on Aikens Lake), and jigged for no more than 5 minutes before hooking into another 25-inch ’eye.
Dad couldn’t believe the bevy of broad-shouldered walleyes we were hauling in left and right, and we quit measuring or counting fish that at quick glance appeared less than 24 inches. Another 25 and a thick 26-incher later, and next thing I knew I was in The Century Club with 102 inches. And it was only 9:15 in the morning!
As an angler, you spend your whole life praying that a paradise like Aikens really does exist––and that, by the grace of God, the past fishing lies you’ve told are forgiven and you’re deemed worthy to enter into such a haven. When you then catch four walleyes over 25 inches in your first 75 minutes fishing on Monday morning you realize your faith has been justified and, incredibly, such salvation is real.
During the rest of our day, and throughout our four days at Aikens, we caught an amazing number of walleyes in the mid- to upper 20-inch range. We also got lucky with the apex predators of the lake, boating a number of big pike from the mid-30 to low 40-inch range. We caught some trolling cranks (Clackin' Raps and 6-inch Jakes worked best), but the pike that landed us a Master Angler award (the Manitoba minimum for a Master Angler pike is 41 inches) was caught moments before a rainstorm while jigging for walleyes with a light-action rod, 8-pound monofilament line and no leader.
That pike was actually caught twice. It took me a full 5 minutes to wrestle it up to the boat the first time we landed it, but then, by fluke, it jumped out of the net as we were reaching to unhook it. Fortune was on our side. I had already flipped the bail to loosen the line and relaxed my grip on the rod, but the fish stayed hooked as it dove back to the depths of the lake, so I picked up my rod and fought it a second time to secure it for good.
Surprisingly, that Master Angler pike was not the most thrilling fish of the trip. The next afternoon, we naturally went back to the same reef and started catching more walleyes. A few minutes after releasing a 22-inch walleye, I set the hook on something I immediately knew was not a walleye. This fish was powerful. I couldn’t budge it at all; reduced instead to the role of bystander as the angry creature stripped line at an alarming pace, diving deeper and deeper.
A breeze kicked up, so we had to run the motor to hold us over the fish so it didn’t get too far out and create a bad angle for the line. “I hope we get to see this thing,” my dad muttered after 7 or 8 exciting minutes. Finally, I started making progress and eventually we netted the beast, a monstrous 32-inch lake trout.
Our first-ever lake trout! We had never before fished for lakers, and rarely if ever even fished in lakes that possessed the famed fighters. But a number of times in the past couple years Dad and I discussed how awesome it would be to someday catch one of these deep-water submarines. Now (thanks to luck we didn’t deserve and may well be working off for the better part of a decade), we had not only caught a lake trout––in the midst of spectacular walleye action––but we had landed a monster.
The fishing guides at Aikens are experienced, friendly and focused on the client. Dave Smith, our guide for the trip, is in many ways the embodiment of the stereotypical, classic Canuck: he sports a scruffy beard, hunts anything that’s legal to shoot, guides all days then fishes for fun at night, bites his fishing line rather than cutting it with a clippers, chews tobacco and smokes cigarettes while complaining about the $20-per-pack price. He was also a hockey player, and one afternoon described to us in blow-by-blow version every hockey fight he ever got in (Cliffs Notes version: Dave didn’t lose many fights).
But in other ways, Dave is anything but your typical bush-man. He’s into anthropology and archeology, with a passion for European history. He philosophizes about Chrenobyl’s nuclear disaster, knows more about U.S. politics than most Americans and speaks at length about travelling in Italy and marveling over Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
“My favorite thing about guiding here is getting to know people from all walks of life,” said Smith, who averages 800 hours per season on the water. “By spending 8 or 9 hours a day in a boat with people, three or four days in a row, I have a chance to really get to know them and develop a friendship with the people who come to Aikens.”
Smith unquestionably made our trip more enjoyable––not only because he put us on big fish but also because it’s a pleasure to spend a day on the water with him. He dates the sous chef at Aikens, and definitely gives her a run for her money when it comes to preparing fish. Our daily shore lunch was a relaxing break for Dad and me, but Smith was hard at work, intently focused on every minor detail as he fried four different styles of fish for us throughout the week.
The moment that stood out for me was Smith dropping a dollop of beer batter into the frying pan to gauge the temperature of the oil. “You want the batter to sink to the bottom of the pan, float back up, and then bubble,” he said while adding new oil and removing the pan from the flame to cool the oil to the perfect temperature. “Otherwise this beer batter doesn’t have quite the right viscosity.”
His attention to detail produced the best beer batter fish I’ve ever tasted.
If Aikens has a cult following, it’s a very welcoming cult. You have to give the Turennes credit for creating an atmosphere that fosters fellowship. The camaraderie at Big Molly’s Bar was great (and at the risk of damaging friendships we made, I must mention Dad and I beat everyone we played in shuffleboard).
Ernie Bessant, of Brandon, Manitoba, brought his fiancée Donna, who promptly showed up the guys by making The Century Club on her second day at Aikens. “This is quite a special place,” Bessant told me over complimentary happy hour drinks. “It really competes with anywhere in the world in terms of service.”
Need proof? One night at the bar, Bessant casually mentioned that he and Donna had just recently gotten engaged a month or two ago. This was news to the Turennes. When the Bessants got back to their cabin a couple hours later, their bed was covered with rose petals, and a bottle of champagne awaited them.
Aikens attracts a variety of anglers. In addition to the love-birds, we enjoyed visiting with a family with two young children, a father-son duo and the expected bachelor groups of fishing buddies.
Jesse Bleeman, of Toronto, Ontario, came with six fishing buddies who cherish this annual rite of passage. “The fishing here is amazing, and the accommodations and staff are world-class,” said Bleeman, owner of lure company LunkerHunt. “We look forward to this trip all year long. As soon as we get home, we start counting down the days to next year’s trip.”
Another member of Bleeman’s group, who I shall keep anonymous for the sake of marital harmony, told me more bluntly how important the annual Aikens trip is to him. “We plan our wives’ pregnancies around this trip,” he said. “The last thing you want is your wife to be due on September 1 when you’re supposed to go to Aikens in mid-August, cause then you can’t go on the trip!”
The website for Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge is www.aikenslake.com. For more information, call 800.565.2595 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
My dad is a man of few words, but when he does offer an observation it is almost always insightful. Such was the case on our last day at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge. "You know, Tony," he said while watching the waves crash against the rocks as we ate fresh fish. "You can watch the Aikens videos and read the website about all the fancy cabins, and the food, and how great the fishing and the service is, but the one thing you can't really appreciate until you're here is how beautiful it all is."
Dad was right. The photos don't do it justice. You can't capture the magnitude or the power of this stunning landscape in a 5 x 7. With that disclaimer, here's a small glimpse of the scenery at Aikens.