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Canada's Chretien finds a place to hide in Florida

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


VERO BEACH -- If there's any reason the president of the United States has to envy the prime minister of Canada it's this: When Canada's leader wants to get away, he can really get away.

As President Bush surely has realized, it will be at least four years, and maybe eight, before he'll be able to whack weeds at his Texas ranch or angle for tarpon in Boca Grande without a big pack of reporters sniffing at his heels.

By contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien relaxes at a place so exclusive -- and so inaccessible to journalists -- that its Internet page doesn't show what state it's in, let alone the city.

"Imagine a place so well conceived that its every element engenders a feeling of luxurious privacy with community," says a promotional plug for Windsor, Chretien's Florida hideaway just north of Vero Beach.

Covering several hundred acres, this gated community boasts homes for $850,000 and up (mostly up), an equestrian club, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course and a private beach club. Among its guests have been Michael Jordan, actor Tommy Lee Jones and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.

As a Canadian, though, Chretien should feel right at home. After all, the Ottawa Citizen reports, Windsor was developed by Canadian supermarket tycoon Glen Weston and his wife, Hilary, Ontario's lieutenant governor. And, proving it's always good to have friends with nice places, Chretien spends his time here in a $1.3-million oceanfront manse owned by his son-in-law, head of Montreal-based Power Corp.

Perhaps best of all, from Chretien's point of view, no Canadian journalists are hanging around while he tries to get in a round of golf or a stroll on the beach.

When a U.S. president jets off on Air Force One, even if it's on vacation, he's followed by dozens of reporters. A photographer for the Associated Press is always on the tarmac in case there's a problem on takeoff or landing.

Canadian Press, which serves more than 600 Canadian media outlets, usually has someone on hand when the prime minister's plane departs. Assuming it does so safely, that's all there is to it if the PM is going on vacation -- no stories, no legions of reporters trailing behind.

"We never send anyone," says Patti Tasko, an editor for the Canadian news service. "If something happened while he was on holiday, we'd track him down and find him. The fact is, half our premiers are in Florida at any given time -- maybe we should open a Florida bureau."

Chretien travels comfortably, though not grandly. A predecessor, Brian Mulroney, had an Airbus 310 retrofitted with a shower and bed. But he left office before the makeover was completed, and Chretien has used the plane only rarely, conscious of its image as a "flying Taj Mahal." Instead, he flies in one of four small Challenger jets owned by the government and made by Bombardier, a Canadian company.

Although security is not nearly as tight as that for a U.S. president, Chretien is guarded at home and abroad by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. While in Florida, he also has a detail of U.S. Secret Service agents. (Such protection is not automatic for foreign leaders vacationing in the United States; they get it only if they request it, the agency says.)

As with U.S. presidents, the prime minister's vacation travels sometimes raise eyebrows.

Two years ago, Canadians were embarrassed when Chretien was among the few major world leaders who did not attend the funeral of Jordan's King Hussein. The official explanation: that Chretien was on a skiing holiday in British Columbia and the air force couldn't get the Challenger ready fast enough to fly him to Jordan.

"But when the Challenger logs were released last fall, they showed Chretien actually had been in Minnesota at the time," says Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen. It was rumored, but never confirmed, that Chretien was visiting a relative in rehab.

More recently, some citizens of western Canada, who have long felt ignored by the central government in Ottawa, have charged that Chretien seems to prefer Florida to parts of his country. Over the past four years, he reportedly has spent 48 days in Florida and just 42 in Canada's West.

But most Canadians don't seem to begrudge Chretien his visits to the Sunshine State, primarily because so many other Canadians come here too. Moreover, if our president is looking for a new retreat, he might follow Chretien's lead and consider Windsor.

As we've seen, the Secret Service is familiar with the place. It's plenty secure and if Bush gets really sick of reporters lurking around, he could take out his frustrations at the Windsor Gun Club.

Shooting clay targets, of course.

- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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