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Camano Island: One of the Northwest’s best kept secrets

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s close, yet so far from the madding crowd. With fifty-two miles of picturesque shoreline, breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, the Cascade ranges and the Olympics and a thriving arts community, Camano Island is a secret jewel of the Northwest.

This is a destination with distinctive appeal, offering a real-life island experience without the hype. There are no trendy tourist traps here or tacky gift shops selling souvenir key chains and mugs. Nor are there the proverbial taffy or fudge shops lining the streets or vendors hacking their wares along the beach.

It’s all about the pristine beauty of the environment and the pace of life and residents will tell you that they like it just fine this way. Visitors in the know, who come to this idyllic island, do so to retreat from big city existence for the opportunity to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.

What’s ideal about Camano is its accessibility to the Seattle area. Within an hour and a half, you can be taking a hike in old growth forests, gathering driftwood on the beach, or espying eagles soaring across Saratoga Passage. And the best part is that there are no long ferry lines to contend with to get to Camano; in fact, there are no ferries involved at all.

Once you leave the freeway, you’ll go through Stanwood, a small town with historic buildings, antique shops and cafes in an agricultural setting.

Stop by at the Scandia Bakery and Lefse Factory on Main Street, a Stanwood landmark, for a quick bite or to drool over the pastries and specialty breads, all baked fresh daily on site. The restaurant has been around for over thirty years and is well-known by locals who frequent it often for its hearty fare. The specialty is lefse, Scandinavian flat bread, made with potatoes, that has the consistency of a tortilla.

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The perfect picnic spot at Camano Island State Park. Photo by Deborah Stone.
As you leave Stanwood and head over the bridge onto Camano, stop at the Camano Gateway Visitor Information Center to grab a map to get your bearings. The friendly volunteers who staff the place will be happy to steer you in the right direction to beaches, scenic drives and galleries, as well as provide you with a list of accommodations and available services on the island.

Take note of the local artwork around the center, particularly Paula Rey’s “Fish Boy,” a whimsical bronze of a boy hugging a fish, and Jack Gunter’s “Clam Diggers,” which depicts a favorite island pastime. If you’ve brought your picnic basket, but lack that perfect bottle of wine or smoked salmon for those crackers, pull into the newly opened Brindles Marketplace, just past the Gateway at Terry’s Corner.

Here you can taste regional wines at the Great Blue Heron Wine Cellar, get the day’s catch or some barbecue fixings at Quality Meats and Seafood and also take a peek upstairs in the Gallery in the Loft, one of three galleries on Camano, showcasing island artists.

As I drove further into the heart of the island, the road began to wind, passing through bucolic countryside dotted with alpaca and llama farms and framed by dramatic waterfront views.

It became apparent that the Native Americans who had first named the island, Kol-lut-chen, “land jutting out into a bay,” had described it to a tee.

Unfortunately, this name never appeared on a map and over the years, it was changed, first to Macdonough Island, to honor Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, captain of the 26-gun ship during the War of 1812, and then to Camano, for Lieutenant Don Jacinto Caamano of the Spanish Navy. In the 1855 treaty with local Indians, Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory referred to the island as Perry Island. Then came the loggers who had a jargon of their own and nicknamed it “Crow Island,” a name it retained locally through the early 1900’s.

After that time, it reverted back to Camano, a musical Spanish name for an island settled predominately by Andersons, Petersons, Olsons and Hansons! My plan to explore the island was simple: drive around it, stopping when the mood hit me to hike, beachcomb or pop into one of the galleries, and eventually end up at the B&B I had booked for the evening, Inn at Barnum Point.

There are numerous parks on Camano, but the largest one, which gets the most foot traffic, is Camano Island State Park. This is a gem of a playground for hiking, fishing, camping, picnicking and boating. Ben Sollie, one of the initial organizers of the petition to create the park once wrote of the place: “The fishing is good, the clams delicious and the waterfront is easy on a fellow’s feet.”

It’s also easy on one’s senses, as it is beautifully laid out piece of land that contains 134 acres with 6,700 feet of beach front on Saratoga Passage.

There are five miles of marked trails within some 600-year old growth forests full of Douglas fir, western red cedar, hemlock and red alder trees. The interesting story behind the park’s creation involves a group of determined individuals who started a grassroots movement for a public green space with access to the waterfront.

Back in the late 1940s, there was no public access to waterfront on Camano because all of the shoreline was owned by individuals, resorts or businesses.

The residents put their support behind the movement to create a park and the Parks Land Commission eventually purchased 93 acres of land on the waterfront, on the condition that area residents would help construct the facility.

People responded eagerly and on July 27, 1949, over 900 volunteers came out and cleared land, built the road, dug a well and created their park, all in one day. The place almost doubled in size nine years later with the acquisition of more land for a campsite, boat launch and ramp. It was one of those warm, sunny spring days when I explored the park and I relished having an entire beach almost all to myself.

Sitting on a log, I could see Whidbey Island across the way and the peaks of the Olympic range in the distance. Time certainly seemed to stand still, but when I checked my watch, an hour had gone by, yet I hadn’t moved off my perch. The impetus to finally leave this spot of paradise stemmed from my desire to check out some of the local galleries and perhaps chat with a few of the artists.

Camano is well known for its vibrant arts community with artists whose work represents all mediums of the spectrum, from paint and pottery to glass, wood, bronze and photography.

In addition to the gallery at Brindles, there’s the Gallery at Utsalady Bay at the north end of the island and the History of the World Fine Arts Gallery towards the southern tip. Both run shows featuring specific artists that change periodically. The Gallery at Utsalady Bay, in particular, has received a name for itself for its popular “Unclad” show that it holds each March.

Work depicting nudes in many forms is the theme and each year, the show has gained momentum and recognition. All of the island artists participate in the Studio Tour, held annually over Mother’s Day weekend. This is the one time of year that the artists open their studios to the public and thousands of visitors flock to Camano for this opportunity.

Although I was not on Camano for this event, I did get the chance to stop in at artist Susan Cohen Thompson’s waterfront studio and talk with her about her work. Thompson has only lived on the island for the past year and a half, but she already feels a sense of connection with the place and the people.

She says, “There’s such support here among the artist community and also among the residents who are not artists. There are many long-time artists who’ve created this community and it’s a very developed place for art. People care about the environment and about each other.”

Thompson paints in watercolor and oil and uses jewel tones that give her work its vivid colors. She is a nature advocate and her inspiration comes from the outdoors, particularly from the environment of the Amazon jungle, a place dear to her heart.

An important theme of her work is the generosity of nature and she views her paintings as “serene” and “organic.”

After getting my fill of art for the moment, I decided to grab an early dinner before retiring to my inn.

There are just a handful of restaurants on the island and all are casual establishments serving standard fare. The Islander at Terry’s Corner is the newest of the bunch and offers some variety, including panini sandwiches, salads, soups, pasta and a few seafood entrees.

The halibut with mango chutney sauce I ordered was tasty and it came with roasted red potatoes, grilled veggies and a side salad, all for under $20.

Just as there are few choices for eateries on Camano, there are equally as few lodging options; all of which fall into the category of small inns and B&Bs.

The Inn at Barnum Point is owned and operated by Carolin Barnum Dilorenzo, a71-year-old grandmother with family ties to the island dating back 100 years.

Dilorenzo’s grandfather came to Camano a century ago and homesteaded 125 acres of land at Barnum Point, overlooking Port Susan. Dilorenzo has fond memories as a little girl of playing on the beaches and swimming and boating in Port Susan Bay.

In 1992, she had the inn built at the Point in order to be nearer to her family, many who had also settled in the area, and to be able to share these special surroundings with others who came to visit the island.

The house sits at the end of a long, winding road, on the tip of the Point, with spectacular, panoramic water and mountain views. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Rainier and the Cascades in all their glory.

“This view always seems to melt worries away and help put life back into perspective,” comments Dilorenzo. I can attest to that, for after having spent a very restful night at this unique property, I felt refreshed and at peace. The inn has three airy and comfortable rooms for guests, all which look right onto the water.

From the front door, you can walk down onto the beach or take one of the trails through the fields.

Or simply sit in your room watching the sunset turn the sky all shades of pink, while being mesmerized by the sound of the waves lapping at the shore.

In the morning, wake up to one of Dilorenzo’s famous breakfasts (i.e. oatmeal scones, fresh fruit and eggs Florentine) and spend a cozy few hours chatting about the island.

Dilorenzo knows pretty much everyone on Camano and she will gladly provide assistance with planning an outing or helping you make contact with a particular artist.

When you leave the Inn at Barnum Point, you will feel as if you’ve known Dilorenzo a lifetime and you will be eager to return for another dose of her warm hospitality.

Camano Island is a pleasant getaway destination for a day or an overnight and what makes it special is that you won’t have to share it with the masses.

Iceland: a journey that touches the soul

  • Written by Deborah Stone

iceland“You’re going where?” my friends incredulously asked, when I told them I was headed to Iceland for a week.

“Why, Iceland, of all places?” they countered. I explained to them that opportunity had knocked at my door in the form of an invitation to join a trip for writers to this unique destination and curiosity had propelled me to accept. I admit I first quickly ran to check my atlas to see where Iceland was, as I had only a vague notion of its location - somewhere northeast of Canada?

Actually, to be specific, Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, between Greenland and Scandinavia, resting at the edge of the Arctic Circle. Roughly the size of Virginia with less than 300,000 people, it is Europe’s least populated country, yet it is quickly becoming one of the continent’s hottest destinations.

Prior to my trip, I had imagined Iceland as a desolate, cold and forbidding place, only fit for hearty Norsemen and their fish. How quickly my perceptions changed after a week of experiencing first-hand this exotic country of extreme contrasts.

To begin with, its name is really a misnomer because it is nowhere as cold as it implies. The average temperature in Iceland in January is the same as that of New York City in winter due to the Gulf Stream, which helps to moderate the country’s climate. In summer, the temps range in the comfortable 60 degree to 70 degree range.

Why the old Norsemen who first came to Iceland gave such a harsh name to this green country is a mystery. Legend has it that the first Viking to discover the island wanted to preserve it for himself, so he named the green country “Iceland” and the icy country “Greenland” in hopes that future settlers would continue to head further north and leave his island alone.

What surprised me about this magical place was its dramatic landscapes and natural phenomena, all forged by the forces of fire and ice. The country sits atop one of the world’s most volcanically active hot spots and about eleven percent of it is covered by glaciers.

The scenery is wild, pristine and colorful with geological formations that make one forget that he/she is still on planet Earth.

I knew I was somewhere very different when I arrived, via Icelandair (only a five and a half hour nonstop flight from Minneapolis), at Keflavik International Airport outside of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Rugged and moss-grown lava fields greeted me as we drove toward the city and for miles all I could view were large black chunks of volcanic rock.

The city of Reykjavik (known as “smoky bay” for the steam that comes from the hot springs that surround the area) is the cultural and entertainment mecca of the country; a hip, happening place with a pulsating nightlife, a dynamic fashion scene and renowned restaurants. It is also a charming and lively seaport with ships dotting its coastline, houses of candy colored roofs hugging the shores and expansive views of Mount Esja in the distance.

Our group stayed at the 4-star Nordica Hotel, the largest hotel in the country with 282 rooms, a spa to die for and numerous conference facilities. Its design was minimalist and emphasized clean and sleek lines, ala Scandinavian style.

We lunched further away from Reykjavik in the small town of Stokkseyri at a little lobster shack called Fjorubordid, which was set on a black volcanic beach. The place had the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth steamed and seasoned Icelandic lobster, which looked like langoustines, but were much sweeter and more delicate. It was my initiation into the proliferation of exquisitely prepared fresh seafood I would encounter throughout the duration of my stay.

That evening, we headed for the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous sights, about an hour outside Reykjavik. Set amid black lava fields and next to the geothermal power station that supplies the country’s central heating (a pollution free energy source, I might add), the Blue Lagoon is a mystical spot that provides visitors with an out-of-this-world experience.

Picture swirling steam rising over a lake of gently simmering sky blue colored water against a craters-of-the-moon backdrop. Now picture soaking in this natural geothermal spa that remains a constant 100 to 110 degrees year round and the concept of ultimate relaxation is complete. Of interest to note is that experts claim the spring’s combination of mineral salts, blue-green algae and silica mud are not only therapeutic for the body, but have healing powers for various conditions of the skin, particularly psoriasis.

As we headed back to our hotel, I had no concept of time until I glanced at my watch and saw that it was nearing 11 p.m. In the land of the midnight sun, the sky was still fairly light and I realized I had untapped energy reserves despite the fact I had not been to bed for 24 hours and was suffering a bout of jet lag.

The next day our group took a short flight to the northeast part of the country to the town of Akureyri (the second largest city in Iceland). Located at the head of an eyjafjordur, a fjord, and opening out towards the Arctic Ocean, Akureyri made a spectacular first impression from the air with its snow-capped mountains and sparkling, azure colored water. Icelandic nature is at its boldest in this region, from its glaciers and spectacular waterfalls to spouting springs of geysers, seething hot springs, boiling mud pots, bizarre lava formations and deep fissures in the earth’s surface.

Our home for the next few days was Husavik, a peaceful fishing village that is also known as the whale watching capital of Europe. Our host for the area was gregarious Haraldur (Halli) Lindal Petursson, General Manager of the Marketing Council of Husavik, who personally guided our group around the town and showed us all there was to do in this fascinating place.

The amount of activities available in Husavik, and for that matter, throughout Iceland during the late spring and summer months are numerous and include horseback riding on Icelandic horses (known for their sure-footedness, strength and impish appearance), kayaking, hiking, bird watching (colonies of puffins and seabirds make their home here), jeep tours in the mountains, deep sea fishing and of course, whale watching. Our group was fortunate to join North Sailing Company on one of its excursions into Skjalfandi Bay, where we were able to spot minke whales and playful white beaked dolphins in their natural habitat.

As I sat on the boat, in the middle of a glorious sunny day, with majestic mountains in the distance and a dazzling expanse of water as far as the eye could see, I imagined that this is what heaven would be like - pristine, unspoiled and utterly calm.

In the days that followed, we toured the Husavik Museum, a compilation of several small museums that included folk and maritime collections, photos and paintings, natural history artifacts and the district’s archives, as well as the Husavik Whale Center, the only museum of its kind in Iceland, dedicated to the education and preservation of the country’s marine wildlife. Director and founder Asjborn Byogvinsson has received international recognition and awards for his work in helping to change the attitude towards whales and conservation as a whole in Iceland.

The duration of our visit to this region was spent in and around Lake Myvatn and the Krafla Mountains, hiking around spaceship-like pseudo-craters, visiting the bizarre towering lava formations at Dimmuborgir (“dark castles” supposedly formed by trolls who held a party one night and forgot about the time, only to have the sun shine on them and turn them into rocks the next morning!), gazing at sizzling, sulphurous mud pots at Hoverer, walking across terrain used by U.S. astronauts to train for their missions on the moon, taking in the wonders of Godafoss, the waterfall of the ancient Viking gods, and marveling at a land painted in all colors of the rainbow.

I stood in awe of nature’s power and its primeval forces which have clearly been locked in a battle for centuries.

Woven into my journey through Iceland were Icelandic sagas - stories and myths that told the history of this fascinating country and its people, dating back to the ninth century when settlers from Norway first set foot on the land. Icelanders still speak Islensku (Icelandic), the ancient language of the Vikings, yet are also fluent in English, Danish and at least one other European language.

I found the people to be independent, resilient and very practical, as well as incredibly hospitable and welcoming to visitors. There is a simplicity to their lifestyles that I found enviable.

Another interesting point to note is that Iceland is the cleanest country in the world with virtually no pollution or crime, a fact almost unheard of in today’s society. The downside to this Eden is the high cost of living, which is similar to that found in Scandinavian countries.

Tourists may experience sticker shock initially unless they are prepared for the prices, particularly for food, clothing, gas and other necessities.

Lodging, however, is comparable to the rates found in major cities in the U.S. (Recently, the krona, the Icelandic monetary unit had an exchange rate of 74k = $1).

My week’s stay in this captivating country opened my eyes to a destination I would have never considered visiting due to my erroneous preconceptions. I am thankful that I had the chance to explore this last great wilderness, filled with its raw, unique blend of natural beauty, and allow it to leave its indelible mark on my soul.

I am itching to return to this wondrous place, and perhaps this time, I’ll make a point of visiting in winter to espy the land dressed in white, and maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll catch sight of the dancing aurora borealis! For now, takk and bless bless (“thanks” and “goodbye”).

Escape to The Edgewater, rediscover Seattle

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience. The Edgewater’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine. Photo courtesy of Edgewater.
Air travel can be a hassle these days, with long lines, strict security measures, endless delays and overcrowded planes. And if you opt for a road trip, there’s the cost of gas, which can put a serious dent in your wallet. Then there’s all the passport confusion with regards to crossing borders. Sometimes, it’s just easier to stay home.

But, in my experience, the vacation mentality doesn’t usually kick in unless you get away from your day-to-day surroundings. If you’re home, it’s too easy to get caught up in projects around the house or sucked into answering e-mails for work.

The solution: Pack your bags for a stay in downtown Seattle and become a tourist in your own city. Though there are many hotels in this fine town, there’s only one perched right on the bay, The Edgewater.

A Seattle landmark since 1962, The Edgewater, at Pier 67, has the interior trappings of a luxury mountain lodge, yet sits in the middle of the city. The place takes full advantage of its location and offers stunning panoramas of the Olympics and Elliott Bay, with a colorful parade of ferries and sailboats that can captivate even the most hardcore natives.

As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. You’ll be drawn to it like a magnet and as you gaze out at the picture perfect scene, you’ll feel as if you’re standing right atop the water, which, in fact, you are!

Unlike some hotels where the lobby is simply the place to register and check out, at The Edgewater it’s a true gathering place for guests. They sit in comfy chairs in front of the windows or curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. It’s a surprisingly relaxing and unpretentious atmosphere for an urban hotel and you, too, will find yourself seamlessly easing into that vacation mode once inside this hotel’s “living room.”

Recently renovated guestrooms offer stunning views of Elliot Bay or sparkling city skyline vistas. They feature river rock fireplaces, hand-crafted knotty pine furniture, overstuffed chairs and the hotel’s signature bear footrest, bathrooms with flagstone floors and European spa showers (some even have claw-foot tubs), plush Ralph Lauren bedding and a host of extra amenities.

If you want to splurge and get a dose of history at the same time, ask for the Beatles’ Suite, room 272.

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Visitors at The Edgewater can curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
The Fab Four once stayed at The Edgewater, back in 1964, on their first world tour. The hotel had to install cyclone fencing around its perimeter to keep screaming fans at bay. Some avid groupies even tried swimming across the bay to reach the band members.

Ironically, the Beatles were not accepted as guests at any other hotel in Seattle, but The Edgewater happily hosted them. Their visit put the hotel on the map and also led to its fame for being the hot place to stay in Seattle for such legendary rock groups as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, KISS and Black Sabbath.

In the Beatles’ spacious 700 square-foot suite, three panoramic windows offer full views of Elliot Bay. You’ll be surrounded by a photo gallery of the Fab Four, including the famous picture of the group fishing out of the hotel’s window.

There’s also a library of books on the guys, as well as a collection of their CDs, to set the proper mood. And if you’ve forgotten where the lads once hailed from, there are British flags adorning the pillows to remind you of their roots.

Although there are numerous great restaurants in the area from which to choose, the hotel’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine.

Award-winning chef William Koval integrates local ingredients, native herbs and regional seafood to create flavorful dishes, such as Miso Halibut with sweet potato, shitake mushrooms and spinach or Seared Turbot with braised artichokes, asparagus and smoked bacon.

Starters include such delights as Trio of Tuna in a sashimi rice paper roll or Walla Walla Asparagus Soup with jumbo crab.

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As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
If you have room for dessert, try the sinful Chocolate Pot du Crème with espresso gelee and vanilla bean ice cream.

The restaurant also prides itself on its extensive wine-by-the-glass list of Washington wines.

When the weather’s fair, opt to dine alfresco on the patio where you can watch Washington State ferries cruise by as the sun paints a vivid orange backdrop in the sky. Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience.

The Edgewater’s ideal central location puts visitors in the heart of Seattle’s premiere attractions within minutes.

Hit the pavement for a short walk south along the waterfront to Pike Place Market and watch the fish-slinging with the rest of the tourists or venture north to the new Olympic Sculpture Park.

If being on the water is more your style, then hop on a ferry for a ride to a nearby island or take an Argosy cruise around Elliot Bay and the Seattle harbor.

You can also shop till you drop, browse eclectic galleries and visit a variety of different museums, all within blocks of the hotel.

For the proverbial tourist treat, Ride the Ducks, take the elevator to the top of the Space Needle or get a glimpse into the city’s heritage on the Seattle Underground Tour in historic Pioneer Square.

And if you’re a theatre-goer, take in a show at one of the many venues that dot the downtown corridor. Nearby Myrtle Edwards Park, with its 1.25-mile winding bike and pedestrian path along the bay, offers a beautifully landscaped space that makes a peaceful sanctuary when you’re looking for a change of pace (The Edgewater will even provide you with a courtesy bicycle if you want to pedal your way around town).

We live in an exciting city that attracts millions of visitors each year. It’s easy to take it for granted when you’ve lived here a long time.

For your next vacation destination, take the hassle out of travel and escape to the Edgewater for an opportunity to rediscover Seattle.

The Edgewater Hotel: (206) 728-7000 or www.edgewaterhotel.com.

Cabo: a magical oasis in the desert

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Famous “El Arco” (the arch) stands as a sentinel outside of Cabo San Lucas. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Los Cabos is sun-kissed, white sand beaches and turquoise waters.

It’s fru fru drinks with mini parasols at swim-up-to-bars. And sunsets that color the sky with Mother Nature’s vivid palette.

With year-round warm, sunny weather, friendly folk and a host of activities, this south-of-the-border hot spot is a destination that appeals to everyone, from romantics looking for an intimate getaway to families searching for a fun in the sun vacation.

For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, Cabo, as it is casually known, is an especially fine sight for sore eyes, as it makes the ideal winter escape from sodden streets and grey skies.

My only experience with Cabo prior to my recent visit had been a one-day port stop while on a Mexico cruise over 15 years ago. I remembered little other than “El Arco,” the famous natural rock arch that stands as a sentinel in the waters outside the town of Cabo San Lucas. This photogenic landmark is still a sight to behold, but there are so many other wonders here that make this destination a truly unique paradise.

Los Cabos, “the Capes,” takes its name from three important capes: Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and Cab del Este. The area lies at the very tip of the Baja Peninsula, the world’s longest and one of the most majestic peninsulas.

To the west is the Pacific Ocean and to the east lies the Sea of Cortez, both of which embrace this picturesque locale. What is most distinctive about Cabo is its landscape. It is the only place where the desert meets the ocean and creates an ecotourist’s paradise.

A geological evolution formed Baja California and the Sea of Cortez some six million years ago. Movement of the Pacific and North American plates ripped a strip of land from the continental mainland. Then the Pacific plate slid 200 miles northward, smashing what would eventually become Baja California into the mainland and thus opening up the Sea of Cortez. These natural forces set the stage for the beginnings of Los Cabos.

Today this area consists of two main towns, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The former is a traditional colonial style Mexican town with a central square and 16th century mission church; whereas the latter is a hub of activity and pulsating nightlife. Between the two cities lies what is known as the “Golden Corridor;” an eighteen mile span lined with pristine beaches and sheltered inlet coves. It is here where most tourists stay during their visit, as this is where the majority of the resorts are located.

Traveling from one end of the Corridor to another, it’s hard not to miss the dramatic scenery that sets Cabo apart from many other oceanside retreats. The area is surrounded by mountains and rock canyons, from which expansive plains lead the way down towards the sea. These plains are home to hundreds of different types of cacti, from the thick cardones to the tall, skinny choyas, all which seem to lift their heads, thirsty for a glimpse of the sparkling water and verdant oases that lies beyond them.

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This roadside stand sells homemade candies from local fruit (mango, coconut, papaya). Photo by Deborah Stone.
Cabo is also a natural sanctuary where numerous birds gather and lend vivid color to this land of contrasts. If you tire of the scene on land, turn your attention to the sea where through a variety of activities, you can get a glimpse of the life teeming in this underwater world. On a snorkel trip one day to a secluded cove, I was able to see dozens of colorful angel fish and an assortment of beautifully shaped coral, as well as a number of other fish that served as beacons of light for me on my journey below the surface of the sea.

I am told that the Devil Ray and the Whale Shark also inhabit the waters of these coasts and that the impressive giant Gray Whale makes its appearance here, too, specifically during calf bearing season in winter.

Although I didn’t see any of these majestic creatures, I was content to just mosey around in the refreshing waters and take pleasure in the fact that back home I would most likely be hugging the hearth to stay warm.

There are a myriad of other activities to engage in during a stay in Cabo, including horseback riding on the beach, mountain biking in remote Punta Gorda, windsurfing, fishing, golfing, parasailing, hiking desert trails, touring giant sand dunes by ATV, or simply relaxing poolside at your hotel or on a nearby beach.

For many, the latter is the ultimate aim, along with maybe a trip to a spa, a sunset cruise or a look at the nightlife. As relaxation was my goal, I was happy to indulge in the above pursuits in between my daily siestas.

The Hilton Los Cabos Beach and Golf Resort, where I stayed, had a marvelous full-service spa and I enjoyed the attentions of therapists there who erased my sore muscles with a Swedish massage and gave me a soothing facial that did wonders for my skin. The hotel also has one of those infinity pools overlooking the ocean where I spent much time just taking in the view while sipping a tropical libation.

I felt decadent as I swam up to the bar, ordered a drink and proceeded to hang over the edge of the pool as I imbibed. I could pretend for a moment that I was living the life of the rich and famous…that is until my pina colada took a nose dive into the pool!

A sunset cruise is a definite must in Cabo. My fellow travel companions and I boarded the “Caborey” one evening and set off for a night of dining and entertainment. We cruised past majestic “El Arco” just as the sun was setting the sky ablaze with fiery hues.

The tide had come in and Lover’s Beach, sculpted by nature and accessible only by water, was rapidly disappearing. This beach is the only spit of land that touches both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez waters and it is a popular spot for weddings.

Thousands of frigates crowded the surrounding rock formations and cast an eerie shadow, reminiscent of something out of a Hitchcock movie or a Victorian novel.

Following dinner, there was a Las Vegas style floor show on board the ship featuring Gaucho dancing, Mexican boleros and the sizzling tango. When we disembarked, the night was still young so we opted to check out the club scene in Cabo San Lucas.

Those in the know will tell you this town gets “un poquito loco” or just a little crazy once the sun sets. With clubs that have names like Cabo Wabo, The Giggling Marlin, El Squid Roe and Sancho Panzo, you can be assured of a wild time if you choose to enter any of these establishments.

Many of the clubs put on abbreviated floor shows where waiters put down their trays and strut their stuff Latin style. Inhibitions fly out the window with a bit of tequila and soon the whole crowd gets on their feet and joins in the scene.

I discovered I could actually Salsa dance (something I had never tried before) with the right partner! For a change of pace from the more “turista” activities, head out of Cabo about an hour along the west coastline to the town of Todos Santos.

This charming colonial oasis is a slice of more traditional Mexico, known for its regional handcrafts, homemade fruit candies and organic produce. The Tropic of Cancer actually runs through Todos Santos, allowing such produce as papayas and avocados to miraculously grow twice a year. The town has a 17th century mission, a quaint central plaza and numerous art galleries, as well as several shops, cafes and the famous Hotel California (of the Eagles’ song of the same name).

A visit to the studio of one of Baja’s most well-known artists, Gabo, proved to be the highlight of my visit to Todos Santos. I was taken with the spirituality of this artist’s work and fascinated with the inspiration he took from primitive pictographs on cave walls. Gabo took the time to talk about his paintings and his technique and told us of his twenty-five year history as an artist.

He definitely impressed me as a man with much heart and soul, which is definitely evidenced in his work. An article on Cabo wouldn’t be complete without some mention of food. There are so many choices of restaurants that you’ll never tire of places to dine. And there’s something for everyone, but for seafood lovers, it’s a definite paradise. Fresh fish and shellfish abound and can be prepared anyway you like it.

There’s also a host of wonderful cafes serving traditional Mexican dishes such as one of my favorites, Mole Poblano (chicken with chilies and spiced chocolate sauce). The fruits are eye candy and equally as sweet to the taste, from the papayas and melons to the mangos and pineapples, and they make delicious juices when squeezed.

Cabo is a magical oasis in the desert. It’s a diverse and exciting destination that makes a great escape for those seeking respite from the doldrums of Northwest winters.

Chill out with an extreme overnight at the Ice Hotel

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Deborah Stone sips vodka in the Absolut Ice Bar at the hotel. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stone.
Accomplishments come in many sizes and shapes. For some, it might be scaling Mt. Rainier or completing a marathon. For others, it could be learning to knit, losing weight or graduating from college. For me, it was surviving a night in the Ice Hotel, or the Hotel de Glace de Quebec-Canada.

You may not consider this one of life’s great feats, but for me, it was an achievement of note. One of only three ice hotels in the world (the other two being in Sweden and Alaska), the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada is located approximately 30 minutes west of Quebec City in the village of Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier at Station touristique Duchesnay, a recreational resort on Lake Saint-Joseph.

In its fifth year, the Ice Hotel continues to be considered one of the world’s most popular tourism attractions, holding its own exotic appeal to visitors from all over the globe who desire the epitome of a pure winter experience. Since its first year, over 220,000 people have toured the facility and 10,500 have braved an overnight sleeping experience within its walls.

The month-long construction of the hotel begins in December, when several dozen artisans and craftspeople gather to perform their magic, using 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice. The fruits of their labor results in a 30,000 square-foot hotel with 32 rooms and decorated suites (everything from frozen rose petals for honeymooners to bunk beds for the kids) to accommodate more than 84 people per night. There’s also a beautiful chapel, where dozens of weddings are held each season, an art gallery and exhibition rooms, the Absolut Ice Bar, N’ice Club, Grand Hall, two outdoor hot tubs and a sauna, as well as the all-important heated and lighted washrooms, located outside the hotel in a modular building.

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A typical ice bed with deer pelts. Photo by Deborah Stone.
The temperature inside the hotel hovers at a constant 20-25 degrees, though the weather outdoors may dip well below zero. Four-foot thick walls protect visitors from the wind and serve as efficient insulation.

When I told friends and family of my intentions to spend a night at the Ice Hotel, they all asked the same question: “Why?” I responded by telling them, “Because I think it would be cool, no pun intended!”

I’ve never been one to close a door to opportunity and when it knocked, I responded with gusto.

A trip to experience Carnaval de Quebec in Quebec City, a renowned and colorful event that takes place over three weeks each winter, put me within arm’s reach of the Ice Hotel and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to have what is billed as one of the “Top Ten Hot and Cold Adventures” in the world. However, on a tour of the place, just one day prior to my date with this “extreme overnight,” I suddenly had second thoughts about my intentions. It was just that while walking through this architectural wonder, reality set in and I realized that I was going to have to actually sleep here, and it was cold, real cold! Bundled up in my layers of down, fleece and wool, feeling like the Pillsbury Dough Woman, I could laugh about the cold because I knew I was leaving soon to return to my cozy bed at the Hilton Hotel in Quebec City.

But the fact was that I would be returning to this palace of ice the next night and this time, I would be sleeping on an ice slab bed, encased in a mummy sleeping bag.

I must admit that I considered a change of mind, but I knew my reputation was at stake and I had to put my money where my mouth was if I were to ever show my face again back home.

All too soon, after engaging in a variety of high-spirited wintertime Carnaval activities in charming Quebec City, including watching the locals take snow baths, rafting down snow-covered hills, ice fishing, sampling snow taffy at a sugar shack, dog sledding and oohing and ahing at the glittering nighttime parade, I was back at the Ice Hotel and listening intently to the orientation for overnight guests.

Our guide explained and demonstrated how to get in and out of the down-filled sleeping bags, as well as provided some useful tips for having a restful sleep.

The idea is not to overdress and to avoid wearing any cotton while in the sleeping bag (actually she said it’s ideal to be in your birthday suit!), but don’t forget to put on your toque (pronounced “tooque”) or hat.

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Typical architecture in the old section of Quebec City. Photo by Deborah Stone.
She also suggested to our hearty group that we put our clothes in the bottom of our sleeping bags to keep them warm during the night. Just watching the process of getting into the sleeping bag exhausted me and I feared I would not remember which toggle went to which cord when the time came to batten down the hatches.

I also prayed I would not have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night! For overnight guests, check-in is not until evening, as public tours of the place operate until 8 p.m. The plan is to feast well on dinner at nearby Auberge Duchesnay, a full-service hotel with a sumptuous dining room, just steps from the Ice Hotel, then groove to the tunes on the snow-covered dance floor at the N’Ice Club and indulge in a nightcap of, you guessed, Absolut Vodka, served in glasses made of ice. Following these activities, soak in the hot tub underneath a star-studded sky and run into the sauna to warm your blood before hitting the sack.

Close to midnight, after postponing the inevitable as long as we could, my companions and I headed to our suite, aptly named, “The Hilton,” with its ice chair and table set, massive carved ice goddess, fireplace (for looks only, no heat emitted) and two queen sized ice cube beds. On closer inspection, I was relieved to note that the beds each had a wood frame over them plus a foam, fleece-covered mattress and to top it off, deer pelts or a wool blanket.

After wrestling with my sleeping bag and clothes, I settled in for the night, and attempted to get comfortable. I lay awake listening to one of my neighbors snoring away, first envying her for her ability to instantly drift off to slumber, then despising her because she was sleeping, while I was tossing and turning about in my sausage roll upon a hard block of ice.

At some point, however, I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew it was morning and I awoke feeling stiff, with my face semi-frozen.

However, the rest of me was warm and it took a huge effort to oust myself from my cozy straightjacket and don my clothes. My companions and I celebrated our success and quickly headed to the bathhouse, where a hot shower never felt so good!

For those who do not make it through their “extreme overnight,” there are usually backup hotel rooms available at Auberge Duchesnay in which to take shelter. It’s nice to know that this is an option, but somehow the idea of “wimping out” once I had made the commitment, didn’t sit right with me.

After surviving the night, I wanted to announce my accomplishment to all, but unfortunately, the hotel gift shop did not sell the proverbial T-shirt claiming of such an achievement, so I settled for an inner sense of satisfaction and pride.

This is one feat I knew I’d never forget!