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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!

Poets Cove: gem of the Gulf Islands

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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Kenmore Air seaplane arriving at Bedwell Harbor. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In my opinion, riding in a seaplane is perhaps the ultimate flying experience, providing the weather cooperates and you have a good pair of earplugs.

There are no long waits to taxi down endless runways; instead, you simply glide along the water and then smoothly rise up in the air in seemingly effortless fashion.

On a recent trip to the Canadian Gulf Islands, I decided to opt for a Kenmore Air seaplane as my transport, instead of the usual car/ferry combo that most folks commonly use to reach this special getaway.

One minute I was looking out at the Lake Union dock and the Seattle skyline, and the next, I was above it all, but not so far up that I wasn’t able to distinguish buildings, boats and rock formations from my magnificent bird’s eye perch.

In just a little over an hour, including a brief stop for customs at Sydney (where a group of sea otters lounging on the pier along with a pair of Canadian Mounties greeted the plane), I reached my destination for the weekend, Poets Cove on Pender Island.

The plane landed right in front of the resort, touching gently down on the water in a welcoming kiss. In minutes, I was on land, refreshed and exhilarated from my scenic flight and ready to explore my new surroundings.

Pender Island is one of about 225 Gulf Islands, most of which are small, uninhabited and accessible only by private boat. Pender and five others, including Salt Spring, Mayne, Galiano, Saturna and Gabriola, comprise a group of the largest and most accessible of the islands, with year round populations that inhabit them. Known for their heavenly beaches, lush forests, rolling countryside, abundant flora and fauna and balmy climate, these islands offer visitors peace and tranquility amidst a spectacular natural setting.

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View of waterfall at resort and harbor below. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Pender Island is actually comprised of two islands, North and South Pender, which are joined by a picturesque, one-lane wooden bridge.

Together, the islands measure 14-square miles in size and are home to a population of 2,200, a figure that almost doubles during the summer months. As far back as 6,000 years ago, the Coast Salish aboriginal people hunted and fished around these islands. They were permanently settled in the 1800s and named after Daniel Pender, master of the ship “Plumper.”

Over the years, steamships began to arrive, dropping off mail, freight and passengers to the small harbor on South Pender Island. In May of 1959, the Bedwell Resort and Marina was built on the banks and hillside of this bay and in time, the place became a favorite refuge with boaters.

But in 2002, the modest resort, showing signs of age, was torn down and construction began on a new luxury property in order to make way for a new era of tourism on Pender. A little over a year ago, Poets Cove Resort & Spa officially opened and began welcoming visitors to its docks with warm island hospitality.

Seemingly remote, in the heart of Canada’s newest Marine National Park, the resort is actually geographically central to the urban areas of Seattle, Victoria and Vancouver, making it an accessible getaway for those in the Pacific Northwest. It has fast become a year-round destination that appeals to couples and families, as well as to corporate types seeking a retreat. Designed in classic West Coast style, with breathtaking water views, Poets Cove is a jewel amid the rugged beauty of its landscape.

The resort consists of a 110-slip marina, a 22-room lodge, nine luxury villas and 15 deluxe cottages, a fine dining room and lounge, spacious meeting/conference rooms, two heated outdoor swimming pools, a fitness center, tennis court and a world class spa. All of the rooms have spectacular ocean views and feature large outdoor patios and stone fireplaces.

Thoughtful touches abound from local seashells filled with bath salts infused with aromatic lavender to handsome writing desks, complete with elegant coil bound notebooks for guests to record their musings or reflections. The notebook nicely ties in with the resort’s moniker. Island lore has it that this idyllic spot and romantic setting by the bay was a favorite for local couples to become engaged.

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Poets Cove Resort & Spa. Photo by Deborah Stone.
The owners of the new resort chose to name their creation, “Poets Cove,” as they felt it captured the intimate feeling and lyrical spirit of this special place. Although the resort and Pender Island itself offer many experiences for quiet contemplation and plenty of opportunities for well-deserved R&R, there are a number of other activities visitors can engage in, from athletic pursuits to sight-seeing and cultural events.

Poets Cove offers kayaking adventures, sailing courses, deep sea fishing, scuba diving instruction (the region has been rated as one of the world’s best for diving), educational eco excursions, guided hikes and bicycle tours of the island. Pender is well-known for its artisans, but there are only a few galleries and shops open to the public.

One of my favorites is Renaissance Gallery, an eclectic world bazaar specializing in glass jewelry creations and antiques. The island also has a reputation for having one of the best disc golf courses in North America.

To the uninitiated, disc golf is an international sport played with a Frisbee instead of clubs and balls. Pender’s 27-hole course is set in the middle of the woods and folks from all over come here to challenge their skills in this unique sport.

Guests can also rent a wide variety of boats from the resort and explore the beaches and secluded coves tucked along the coastline. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot seal otters, harbor seals and porpoises frolicking in the water and spy eagles soaring high above the Arbutus trees.

Many guests at the lodge opt to do the Mt. Norman by the Sea excursion, which involves taking a boat shuttle into Beaumont Marine Park and then going on a guided hike to the summit of Mt. Norman. At 244 meters, this peak is the highest point on the island and on a clear day, you can have breathtaking views of the surrounding Gulf Islands and even a San Juan Island or two.

I was fortunate to have the weather gods with me when I made the two kilometer trek up the mountain. Colorful foxglove were in bloom along the path and when I reached the top, I was rewarded with one of Mother Nature’s dazzling displays. The sea sparkled below and Saltspring, Morsby, Sydney, North Pender and Stuart Islands were in full view.

After taking in this dramatic show, I headed back down the mountain and made a beeline for the spa for some indulgent pampering.

The spa at Poets Cove is aptly named “Susurrus,” a word meaning a whispering or murmuring sound, like that made by the waves or the wind. It’s also the sound of contentment that escapes your lips after experiencing one of the spa’s therapeutic treatments.

In this oasis of well-being, I sipped herbal tea and relaxed with a hot scented lavender neck pack, before heading outside to sit in the eucalyptus steam cave. Set in a rock grotto, underneath the veil of a 10-meter waterfall, this sandstone cave was built to harness an ancient healing practice. Inside, the temperatures range from 110 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and as you sit on one of the benches built into the rock, steam envelops you, causing you to sweat and release toxins.

If you get too hot, you can splash cool water from a nearby fountain on your face or there’s also a cold plunge shower outside the cave for a full body refresher. Being in the steam cave can best be described as participating in a primordial ritual to revitalize and restore the body. As the steam misted and enclosed me in a warm cocoon, I was aware only of the sounds of the cascading waterfall overhead and my own breathing. I remained in this almost trancelike state until I heard another person enter the cave, at which point I left, feeling cleansed and calm. It only seemed natural to walk across the rocks and take a soak in the nearby Ocean Falls Jacuzzi for the complete Calgon experience.

As I sank into the bubbling cauldron, I gazed out at the sea, taking note of all the different water craft making their way in and out of the bay. Bedwell Harbor is an active marina where boats of all sizes and shapes are moored. Large, luxury yachts come in alongside small pleasure craft, while float planes land and take off on a regular basis. Despite this flow of traffic, it is a peaceful spot, loaded with quaint island charm.

All too soon, I was called into the spa for my treatment. Susurrus offers a wide range of relaxation and esthetic services, from hot stone massages and seaweed wraps to salt glows and organic facials.

The 3,500 foot facility has six treatment rooms, some with ocean views and many with fireplaces, and prides itself on incorporating Mother Earth fundamentals to create its signature treatments.

During my Poets Cove Signature Massage, my therapist’s hands were gifted instruments that worked wonders on my knots of stress. But it was the Raindrop Therapy that was the true magic. Oils of basil, thyme, peppermint, wintergreen, marjoram, Cyprus and frankincense were dropped in a sequence along various points on my spine and then spread in feather fashion outward on the rest of my back. The oils each had special properties. Some helped to promote relaxation and stabilize circulation, whereas others induced deeper breathing and soothed aches and pains. As the drops lightly fell on me, I embarked on an amazing sensory, wellness voyage that resulted in a sensation of complete balance and harmony. This feeling of well-being continued throughout the duration of my stay at Poets Cove.

I left the resort, rejuvenated in body, mind and spirit, but as soon as my plane took off from the dock, I was already greedily planning a return visit to this Gulf Island gem.