Thursday, August 28, 2014

Finding the Curious, Eclectic, and Strange in Seattle

strange things to see in Seattle Washington

My last post about Seattle ("Top 10 Things to See and Do in Seattle in Summer") focused on the more touristy-type attractions I experienced in the fun and exciting city.  The Space Needle, the EMP Museum, the Duck Tour - these are all things that people visiting Seattle really should try, just due to the entertainment factor.

However, if you are more interested in finding the more understated sights the city has to offer, this post is for you! Seattle is bursting at the seams with strange stores and shops, eclectic art, and fun 'curiosities'.

Seattle's Strange Stores and Shops

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop 

This place is not just a store. It also functions as a museum, as the owner is an avid collector of the strange and curious.  Displays of shrunken heads, 'mermaids', two-headed animals, paintings created on the heads of pins, and old carnival machinery can be found amid the shelves of equally unusual stock.   I loved this place!

The store is quite old as well.  It was begun in 1899 as a trading post during the Alaskan Gold Rush, and has remained open ever since, evolving into what it is today.  I'm not sure how long it has been a curiosity shop, but I'm guessing for quite awhile due to the large collection of oddities the store has amassed.

Seattle curiosity shop shrunken heads
Shrunken heads in "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop" in Seattle

I purchased a couple of shrunken heads, some jumping beans, and other really strange trinkets. Of course, my shrunken heads were fake, but I loved the look of them anyway.  Items I debated buying were paperweights with real bats or scarab beetles in them, jewelry carved of bone, and maggots prepared and prepackaged for your BBQ delight.  Oh, and they also sell fudge.

My jumping beans lasted for a few months before they faded away.  On a side note, in case you don't know all about jumping beans, he 'jumping beans' are actually seed pods with the larvae of small moths living inside them. As the larvae eats up the inside of the bean, the pod will twitch and roll, seemingly on its own.  Supposedly the larvae will form a pupae and eventually emerge from the hollowed-out bean as a moth, but mine must have died because no moth ever did emerge.  For a more horrific experience, people will sometimes heat their beans, causing the larvae to jump and spasm as it tries to roll the bean to a cooler place.  I did not do this, as for some reason I got really attached to my larvae.  I was quite sad when they did not hatch and emerge as moths.

Seattle Curiosity Shop mummy
Not for sale - the mummy on display in "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop" in Seattle

Not for sale at "The Olde Curiosity Shop" were the real mummies (according to the display placards), shrunken hands (also supposedly real), a grain of rice with the Lord's Prayer written on it in microscopic writing, and old fortune-teller machines from the 1920's.

Archie McPhee's

My travel companion's kids loved the "Archie McPhee" store, which is a toy store designed for children AND adults (and eclectic children at that).  Toys include The Existential Coloring Book, a Crazy Cat Lady Action Figure complete with cats, press-on tattoos of famous literary figures such as Edgar Allen Poe and Jane Austen, and other weird items of this nature. If you are looking for anything ‘bacon’, then "Archie McPhee" is your store. It featured bacon breath mints, bacon toothpaste, bacon jellybeans, bacon band-aids... you name it!

Archie McPhee Seattle bathtub tentacles
How many tentacles does it take to fill this tub? 1554 according their website!

I could have spent all day perusing the shelves of "Archie McPhee", simply to learn about all the wild and wacky products out there.  For all you entrepreneurs, if you have a totally random and even nonsensical idea for a child's toy or game, I highly suggest you approach "Archie McPhee" because they will most likely buy it from you for their store!  There was no limit to what this place will sell, it seemed!  Their slogan is "Confusing Seattle for 30 Years!" if that gives you some idea of the store's atmosphere.

Archie McPhee Wallingford Beast Seattle
The crazy and creepy Wallingford Beast in Seattle's "Archie McPhee"

The owner of this store also seemed to be a bit of an oddity collector, but didn't have as many "Not for Sale" display items as "Ye Olde Curiosity Shop".  There was the Wallingford Beast enclosed behind glass, but I have no idea what it is exactly.  You'll have to see it for yourself.

Seattle's Eclectic Art Scene

Yarn Bombing

A walk through Seattle's Occidental Park introduced me to the notion of artistic 'yarn bombing', where artists cover every day city items with bright and colorful yarn patters.  Bicycle racks, stop sign posts, and parking meters were randomly covered in delightful rainbows of yellow, pink, and orange all around the park and surrounding area.  However, my favorite items were the trees in the park itself, as virtually ALL of them were wound with happy patterns of yarn.

Seattle street art yarn trees Occidental Park
Bright and colorful yarn adorns the streets of Seattle.


In 2010, a city report stated that there was "no street art in Seattle".  So either street artists in Seattle stepped it up a notch over the next year, or that report was a bunch of hogwash.  Seattle has TONS of street art, and some of the most interesting and amazing graffiti art that I've ever seen.  In all areas of the city, whether it was downtown, near the wharf, or even in some residential neighborhoods, I saw examples of great work being done by graffiti artists.  (Real graffiti, not that tagging crap that everybody hates.)

Seattle street art wall graffiti
The graffiti in Seattle is amazing!

Installation Art

The city has commissioned some really cool installation art to remain on permanent display throughout the city as well.  Some pieces I saw during my Duck Tour, and others I encountered while strolling through the city on foot.  My two favorite pieces were the silver tree and the giant Popsicle. (Which, I learned, changes color every year.  How cool!)

Seattle street art silver tree installation
The silver tree in Seattle is a beautiful piece of installation art.

Seattle street art giant Popsicle red
Tasting the Popsicle installation art (no, I didn't actually touch it with my tongue! YUCK!)

Totem Poles

It wouldn't be a northwest coast art scene without some totem poles. Being Canadian and a frequent visitor to Vancouver and Long Island, B.C., I appreciate a well-carved and colorful totem pole.  It was even better to meet a carver on the street and watch him craft a very big and very detailed totem pole right there in front of me.

Seattle street art totem poles
A totem pole being carved right there on the Seattle street.

I was only in Seattle for a short time, and between visiting the classic tourist attractions, and searching for the curious, eclectic and strange, this was all I had time to see.  What's your favorite piece of Seattle street art or your favorite strange store?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Top 10 Things to do in New York City (On a 3 Day Trip)

Statue of Liberty Top 10 New York
Quick trip? Then don't miss these famous landmarks in the "Big Apple"!

I could easily live in New York. It really is the city that never sleeps, but not only that, it never even gets tired!  I visited one summer with some work friends, and am just waiting for the day when I get to return.

I was only in New York for three short days, but those days were certainly worth it!  In the three days, I felt like I barely scratched the surface of what this fascinating city has to offer. I have the feeling you could spend a lifetime in New York, and be surprised each and every day by something new, if only you had the curiosity to explore.

Here's my list of Top 10 things to experience while in the good ol' 'Big Apple'.

1. Boat Tour of Manhattan

Our first day in New York was gloomy and overcast, and so the very first thing I ever did in New York City was buy an umbrella. I took the touristy route and bought one that proclaimed “New York New York” all over its black top. I love it to this day. I know, I know, I’m a walking tourist trap - but really, what is the harm in that? I am excited to be anywhere, and when I’m traveling, the place I’m visiting becomes the most exciting place in the world to me. Thus, I buy tacky umbrellas and get really excited about them.

We bought tickets to a Circle Line Sightseeing cruise boat tour, which took us around the tip of Manhattan Island and back again. We sailed past the beautiful Statue of Liberty, Immigration Island, and along the New Jersey shore, then up along the other side of Manhattan and under the Brooklyn Bridge before turning around and going back again.

On the boat tour of Manhattan - such great sights!

It was POURING down rain at the beginning of the boat tour, which caused nearly all of the occupants to cluster below deck where they were safe and warm. Not us Canadians! The warm (but strangely fish-scented) rain didn’t deter us, and we were rewarded by our stubbornness with prime seats on the top deck. We had excellent views of the Empire State Building, the Trump Tower, and many other major New York landmarks.

The Manhattan skyline during sunset.

2. Empire State Building

After looking at the Empire State building for so long, and from so many different angles, we decided to visit it in person. After a lovely Italian dinner in a quaint restaurant with a live opera singer (don’t ask me where it was - we found it after randomly strolling through the streets of Manhattan, getting lost about a million times), we hailed a taxi to the Empire State building. It was night by the time we arrived, but the view was not lost in the dark: in fact, I believe it was enhanced in the evening, as the lights of New York sprawled out as far as the eye could see. It was breath-taking!

A view of NYC at night from atop the Empire State Building

Many people complain that the Empire State Building is a waste of time: long line-ups, costly entrance fees, and an anti-climactic view once you reach the top.  Well, I am here to say that we barely waited in line, the elevator ride was quick and efficient, the entrance fee was *slightly* costly (but how often am I going to go up there, for goodness sake? Get over the price), and the view was fantastic.  I think, however, it is probably better at night.  The day might offer a bit of a blander view without all those bright and sparkly lights.

3. Times Square

Our hotel was about three blocks from Times Square (and was only $99 per night - I thought that was a pretty good deal considering the gorgeous state of our rooms). We moved from the Empire State Building to Times Square and decided to spend some time exploring before we meandered back to our lodgings.

In the center of Times Square, enjoying the hustle and bustle.

Times Square is certainly exciting to see for the first time: the plethora of lights, images, sounds, people, colors, vendors... it is a whirlwind! But after the initial shock wears off, Times Square becomes another, more Technicolor version of an outdoor market.  There are performance artists, street vendors, 24-hour restaurants, flashing TV screens, people shouting and laughing, horns blasting... at all hours!  My female colleague Teresa and I were suckered into buying sketches of ourselves, which were fun to pose for but looked nothing like us in the end.

4. Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts

The next day, Teresa and I explored the Metropolitan Museum of Fine Arts.  The museum is so huge that you can't possibly explore it all in a day, or even two.  My advice is to pick a couple of areas that you are most interested in, and enjoy those. I am into Egyptian relics, so I just adored the Egyptian wing with the Temple of Dendur.  I spent the majority of my time in that section.  I did find some other classics, such as Degas, to peruse as well.

rooftop art installation New York Met Museum
The rooftop art installation at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art.

5. Central Park

Once Teresa and I were done with the Met, we spend some time wandering Central Park.  Once again, this place is so expansive that you could spend all day in the park and not even come close to seeing it all.  I don't even know exactly what areas we did see, but what I do know is that I loved the park.  If I were a resident of Manhattan, I'd be in Central Park every day.

Central Park is so beautiful, and there's so much to do!

Of the different areas in Central Park that we visited, my favorite was the Bethesda Terrace with its giant Angel of the Waters fountain and pond.  The Lower Passage is architecturally beautiful, with sweeping arches and artistic panels.  A performer with a grand piano of some kind was playing classic Dave Brubeck during our visit.

I also really liked the 'Alice in Wonderland' statue and of course, the various street artists.  Naturally, I filmed as many of them performing as I could, because I'm a nerd like that.

The strangest grand piano I've ever seen in Central Park, NYC.

6. Visit Ground Zero and Pay Your Respects

Downtown Manhattan has a lot to see for the out-of-towner: Wall Street, Trinity Church, Battery Park.  But if you are going to see anything in that area, you really need to go pay your respects at Ground Zero.  When we were there, construction was just getting started on the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.  There was nothing 'polished' to see, but it was powerful nonetheless.  There really aren't words to express the emotion you feel standing there.  It is very sobering.

Preparing Ground Zero for the beautiful memorial that is there today.

7. Visit the Various Neighborhoods (Like Greenwich Village)

We also walked up and down Soho and Greenwich Village, enjoying the quaint apartment buildings, green spaces, restaurants, and boutiques.  I really liked the areas on Greenwich with the cobblestoned streets and flower-festooned balconies.  It felt very European. It was in these 'trendy' but cute neighborhoods we did most of our shopping.

Due to our time in SoHo, we had lovely spa day in the Upper East Side (see post #45. Spend a day at a spa (in New York City!) after what you might call a shaky start to the spa trip.

8. See a Broadway Show

 We capped off the night by soaking in a performance of “Wicked”, which was amazing!  It was fun to say we'd seen a musical on Broadway, but to be perfectly honest, it was nothing extraordinary.  I thought "Wicked" was a spectacular show, but it would have been just as good in Calgary or Vancouver.  What I am trying to say is that if you have very little time in New York, or limited funds, seeing a show on Broadway need not be a priority.  It would be just as well to wait until the show travels to your nearest musical theater venue and see it there.  Probably cheaper, too.

Seeing "Wicked" on Broadway was fun but a bit expensive.

What your local musical theater venue probably WON'T have are all the various street performers milling around outside.  I had almost just as much fun watching the percussionist with a plain bucket do his thing as I did watching "Wicked'.  Almost...

After the Broadway show, Teresa and I made our way back to our hotel. This is where the night started to get a little interesting, and proved for me, definitively, that this is the city that never sleeps - but is always ready for some excitement!

9. Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall

We visited Radio City Music Hall and the NBC Studios (just outside though, no tour as they were both closed due to the late hour). Then we went to Rockefeller Center where I was sad to see that they do not have a skating rink available year round. (No, I didn't expect it.  But I did wish it.)  To quench my disappointment, Teresa and I went shopping around Times Square where I bought my first 'name-brand' purse.

Radio City Music Hall, all lit up at night.  Wish we had been able to tour it!

We got back to the hotel after wandering Times Square. We changed into club clothes because Teresa wanted to go salsa dancing with a friend at a bar in SoHo. We couldn't get a hold of her friend, but were all dressed up and looking good, so we went down to the hotel concierge to see if there way any place nearby that was known for dancing.

10. Go Clubbing in NYC

Teresa and I headed to this nearby club, only 11 blocks away (only!!). We walked because we’re dumb, but happily no one was mugged, raped, or murdered (thank you NYC!). We got to the address our concierge had given us only to find it was a male-only gay dance club. The bouncer was super friendly, and recommended a place one block away that he thought we might have fun at instead.

We arrived without incident at the other club. This one was an all-black hip-hop establishment (I hope that's okay to say, because really, that's what it was.  We were the only white girls in the line-up when we arrived.) The bouncer wasn't sure about letting us in seeing as we didn't really fit the typical clientele image, but we must have seemed willing and ready to have fun dancing, so he lowered the cover charge for us and let us through.

Found me some of New York City's finest!

Teresa and I had so much fun - we danced in the middle of the dance floor, and trust me, we dance like your stereotypical 'white girls'.  I have no rhythm and my feet don't usually even leave the ground.  I wiggle more than dance.  We were the ONLY white girls in the entire establishment - no joke or exaggeration.  The ONLY ones.  Teresa was also dressed as a 1960s hippie, her usual style. I was dressed much too preppy. We didn't fit in AT ALL. But we had a BLAST being a ‘spectacle’- people were dancing with us constantly, and taking pictures with us, chatting with us, having a good time. We didn't leave the dance floor the whole time we were there.  We didn't even have a drink, since we'd already missed last call.

By 4:00 a.m., the club closed, but not before we made new friends from Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn who gave us numbers to call if we wanted to watch fireworks with them the next day for the 4th of July.

Watching the fireworks over the Hudson River on the 4th of July.

Finally we made it home to the hotel after getting lost once (lost at 4:30 a.m. in NYC - a bit intimidating). We crawled into our hotel beds and crashed - what a fun evening!  You can pack A LOT into three days in New York, but prepare to be tired!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Destination: Memory Lane - DTWH's New Blogging Challenge

This is a true fact: we travel bloggers can sure spin a tale.  We have stockpiled stories, from accounts of stunning beauty to hilarity to despair.  We talk about food, music, meeting strangers, and modes of transportation.  We share insider tips on prices and bookings, how to charm hoteliers and restaurateurs, and how to go to the bathroom in a variety of cultures. Our blogs are filled with literally hundreds of anecdotes about our travel memories.

That is why Down the Wrabbit Hole - The Travel Bucket List has created the "Destination: Memory Lane" Blogging Challenge.  We have asked travel bloggers to sift and filter through your hundreds of fantastic travel posts and present the TOP FIVE posts that contain your favorite travel memories.  These posts don't have be your best inspirational stories, infomercials for locales, or even contain great photography.  The purpose of this blogging challenge is to help your readers get to know you a little better by sharing five important and personal travel posts that are dear to your heart.

Here's what you have to do:

1)  Introduce your "Destination: Memory Lane" post with a summary of the blogging challenge's purpose.  You may copy the summary here or create your own.
2)  Repost the "Destination: Memory Lane" Blogging Challenge banner and these rules to assist those you nominate later on.
3) List the titles of FIVE cherished travel blog posts in your new blog post.  Provide internal links to those posts for your readers so that if they want, they can explore the stories fully.
4)  Summarize the main idea of each story in five sentences or less. Keep it short and sweet, but enticing!
5)  Nominate FIVE other travel bloggers to participate in this challenge.  Choose people you'd like to get to know a little better.  (And don't forget to let them know you've nominated them!)

*It is also good netiquette to link back to the person who nominated you.  Let's create a supportive network for one another!

So, without further ado, here is my contribution to the "Destination: Memory Lane" Blogging Challenge.

My Top Five Travel Memory Posts

1. Camping Through Iceland while 4 Months Pregnant - It was cold.  It was rainy.  The ground was hard.  I had some residual morning sickness. But it was beautiful and unique, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

2.  Partying it up with some some Scottish Military personnel my first night in Scotland - It started with two older gentlemen who drug us to a shady side-street, promising a better pub experience.  It ended with a drunken bevy of military bagpipers.  What a way to start my trip to Scotland!

3. Getting stranded at the Philadelphia airport overnight - I had no money, no luggage, and no where to stay.  I slept with some of the more interesting homeless citizens of Philadelphia on the airport floor.  And then I got flown home first class because I cried hysterically to the ticket agent. Go figure.

4. Going ziplining in my wedding dress - My hubby and I plunged through the Costa Rican jungle canopy in our wedding finest, after getting married on the beach.  My dress is completely shredded and will be of no use to my daughter in the future!

5. Riding in a helicopter over the Canadian Rocky Mountains - The majesty of the Canadian Rockies stuns me every time, even though I live only a few hours away from them. Flying over them is something completely different. Sometimes you have to remember to appreciate the beauty of your own 'backyard'.

Travel memories keep me alive when I'm not on the road.  For real.

I hope you enjoy reading about these travel memories as they are some of my favorite (yes, even the bad ones).  Here's to many more to come!

And now I have the extreme pleasure of nominating five more fantastic travel bloggers to perpetuate the travel love:

1) Mags on the Move
2) Girl vs Globe
3) Global Mouse
4) Just A Pack
5) Travel Geek UK

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Stand Up Paddle Boarding in the Rocky Mountains

This past month, during our annual family vacation in Invermere, British Columbia, my sister-in-law brought up the idea of trying our hands at stand up paddle boarding.  I had always wanted to test myself on a stand up paddle board - I am not the most graceful person - and I jumped at the chance to go with her.  So did my husband and brother-in-law.

British Columbia activities, Rocky Mountain water sports, Syndicate Boardshop
Trying out stand up paddle boarding in the Rocky Mountains, and loving it!

Unfortunately, our week in Invermere turned out to be quite rainy and cloudy.  Patches of sunlight filtered through the clouds sporadically during the daytime, but ultimately, we didn't get any really good beach days until our last day of vacation.  Not to be swayed, we took advantage of that one good day and rented our stand up paddle boards bright and early.

There are a couple of places to rent paddle boarding equipment in Invermere.  We first checked out Columbia River Outfitters, a favorite of ours for renting kayaks and canoes.  However, the prices at Syndicate Boardshop were slightly cheaper, and since Syndicate is closer to the downtown area of Invermere, we chose this as our place of business.  We spent $40 per paddle board for a 24-hour rental, where Columbia River Outfitters charges $50 (not a big difference, I know, but still...)

SUP rentals Invermere, SUP tips and tricks, stand up paddle boarding guide
Cautiously paddling around Lake Windermere on my rented stand up paddle board.

The guy behind the counter at Syndicate convinced us to rent two different types of paddle boards - a traditional SUP and an inflatable one.  My sister-in-law was considering purchasing her own board, so she was glad for the chance to test both out.  The inflatable ones are much more affordable to buy than the traditional SUPs, although there are distinct differences between the two and how they maneuver.

I was pretty nervous for my first round out on the boards - not because I was scared of getting hurt, but mainly because I'm a very competitive person and I wanted to be perfect on my first go-round.  (Yes, this is something I am working on - you might call it a 'character flaw' but at least I'm aware of it!)  I didn't want to be that person who continually fell off the board in front of the whole beach, but I was soon to learn that basically everyone becomes that person on their first try with stand up paddle boarding.  There's no shame.  At least you are out there trying something new.

SUP fail, falling off a SUP, SUP tips and tricks, how to fall off a stand up paddle board
Oh, we had some fantastic wipe-outs on our stand up paddle boards!

My husband and sister-in-law were the first two to attempt stand up paddle boarding.  We had only rented two boards, since we weren't sure if everyone was going to like it.  Needless to say, next year we will be renting one for everyone who wants to go.  My husband fell a few times, but soon got the hang of paddle boarding.  My sister-in-law took a little more time to get her 'sea legs', and had a few splashy falls, but soon was zipping around Lake Windermere with confidence.  I sat on the beach, playing with my baby, and studying their every move intently.

Then it was my turn. I looked like Bambi trying to walk for the first time as I wobbled and bobbled on the board, bending my knees, placing my feet centrally on the board and spaced about shoulder-width apart.  I went slow and steady at first, learning how to use my abs, quads, and hamstrings to keep me stable.  My toes actually started to ache until I realized I was curling them into the board for grip, like some kind of monkey!  I paddled so gently my husband said it looked like I was 'petting the lake' with the paddle.

But slow and steady wins the race: I didn't fall once during my time out on the lake, and I was out for awhile.  Eventually I became more confident, stood a little straighter, paddled a little more aggressively, and learned to cut sharp turns.  The most difficult aspect of stand up paddle boarding was when motorboats and jet skis came a little too close to the swimmer's area, and caused big waves to come crashing through.  ("Big" being subjective - I found them big.  Surfers would not.) I found it easier to meet the waves head-on rather than paddle boarding against them horizontally.

how to use a stand up paddle board, SUP tips and tricks
Sitting and floating peacefully on the stand up paddle board is also fun.

My favorite part of SUP was getting down and sitting on the paddle board, way out in the middle of the water, and enjoying the lake and mountain vista peacefully.  Some people were lying on their paddle boards suntanning.  My sister-in-law told me of classes you can take where people do yoga on their paddle boards.  I was just happy to sit and float.

If I were to purchase my own stand up paddle board, I would have to say that I enjoyed the traditional board much more.  They are made of a thick, study foam, are much wider, and are less prone to tipping wildly when encountering oncoming waves.  The inflatable ones are narrower, bouncier, and harder to keep stable.  However, the inflatable ones do go faster and maneuver with ease, once you get the hang of it.  Since I was more into staying dry and not falling off the board repeatedly, I preferred the foam board.  My husband, who was a speed demon on the SUP, wants to buy an inflatable.  To each their own!

foam vs inflatable stand up paddle board, inflatable SUP, paddle boarding in Invermere
My husband loved his inflatable stand up paddle board.

For those of you wanting to try stand up paddle boarding but are a little nervous, heed my advice - just do it! Learning how to paddle board isn't that difficult, and although you may fall spectacularly a few times, you'll end up enjoying yourself.  If you are renting, rent for the whole day and not just two hours (which is a common time frame from SUP rental facilities).  Two hours will not allow you the time you need to learn, do, and then enjoy.

For anyone reading who is a stand up paddle board expert, let me know if I have missed any tips or tricks that you can share.  I'm sure others will appreciate your wisdom!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Soak in Lussier Natural Hot Springs, British Columbia

Lussier Natural Hot Springs, located in the Kootenay mountain range of the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, are possibly the nicest natural hot springs I've had the pleasure of visiting.  I realize I haven't visited many natural hot springs, but I feel safe in saying the Lussier Springs are stunning and relaxing and anyone who visits them will be glad they did.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
What a view from the Lussier Hot Springs!

I heard about the Lussier Hot Springs from readers of this blog (thanks readers!) and decided I just had to visit them this summer during our annual family trip to Invermere, B.C.  Upon discovering the closer Fairmont natural hot springs had been destroyed, the visit to Lussier was a no-brainer.  We packed up the swim bag and diaper bag, buckled the baby in the car seat, and headed off down Highway 93 (which also appears on the GPS as Highway 95).  Lussier Hot Springs are located deep inside Whiteswan Provincial Park, which is just past the village of Canal Flats.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Road signs to watch for when driving to Lussier Hot Springs - the logging trail road, the park sign, the springs sign.

Be prepared - the road to Lussier Hot Springs is a logging road made of gravel that winds through the park, and at times alongside a mountain cliff.  The road is surprisingly well-maintained for a logging road (no deep ruts, washboard, or over-graveled slippery parts), but I still recommend you drive slowly and carefully.  You may encounter logging trucks approaching in the opposite direction, wildlife, and even a cow or two.  At one point on the drive, my husband hit the brakes, thinking we were coming up to three giant moose - as we got closer, we realized we were looking at three cows crossing the road.  Oops!  And of course, at times the road gets scarily close to the cliff - so slow and steady definitely wins the race in this case.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The edge of the road leading to Lussier Hot Springs.  Go slow!

You will drive for about 30 minutes down the logging road into Whiteswan Provincial Park - the distance is about 25 kilometers, but you have to drive slow.  It is impossible to miss the Lussier Hot Springs parking lot - even if there weren't about 10 vehicles already parked there.  There are two hole-in-the-ground toilets which also function as change rooms, and a nice, big sign announcing the presence of the springs.  You won't get lost, trust me.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The beautiful and peaceful Lussier Hot Springs in British Columbia.

Finding your way down to the springs from the parking lot is just as easy.  It is a short four-minute hike down a nicely maintained pathway.  Wooden railings prevent people from tumbling down the hill.  It is a little steep, so if you packed runners, wear them.  I stupidly wore sandals, and although it was by no means impossible, I did wish I had better shoes.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The steep but beautiful pathway down to the hot springs.

At the bottom, you are met with an extremely picturesque scene.  The Lussier River bubbles along, icy cold and clear, and just to the side right on the edge of the river, are three pools.  They are just about as natural as it gets - it is obvious people have built up the edges of the pools with rocks over time, but you can clearly see where the hot springs feed right into the pools.

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
The hot springs nestle directly against the Lussier River.

The upper pool is the hottest, and I was only able to soak in that one for short spurts.  The bottom right pools were warm to tepid, depending on how close to the river you were sitting.  In certain areas, small rivulets of river water occasionally flowed over the rock barrier and into the pools.  The left-hand pool was deserted, and when I stepped inside I could see why: it was just as cold as the river.  Not my idea of a great place to lounge!

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Lounging in the 'medium' temperature hot spring at Lussier.

The springs were busy, but not crowded. There may have been about 30 people there in total, and there was tons of space in the pools.  The hot pool is a bit smaller, so you were left sitting a little closer to people than you might find comfortable, but it wasn't as if we were piled up on top of each other competing for space.  And people seemed to leave the springs at the same rate they were arriving, so it never got too bad.  (We arrived before lunch, and by the time we were leaving it did seem to be getting a little busier.  I recommend visiting the pools earlier in the day if you want them to be quieter.)

Lussier River, Whiteswan Provincial Park, natural hot springs, British Columbia
Lots of people enjoying the Lussier Hot Springs, but it wasn't too crowded.

The springs are free to visit, as is Whiteswan Provinical Park.  Of course, proper bathing attire is requested (no skinny dipping!) and pets are not allowed.  I'm pretty sure other common sense no-nos apply, such as no liquor and whatnot.  There are signs informing you of the rules, and I'd follow them, because park rangers make the Lussier Hot Springs part of their regular rounds.

We didn't end up staying too long, as Avy Bear was getting a little cranky and we didn't want a crying baby to spoil the serenity for everyone.  Next year, though, we are definitely going back!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Update: Fairmont Natural Hot Springs 2014

This summer, during my family's annual trip to British Columbia, I had the chance to do a quick check-up on the natural hot springs located beneath the commercialized Fairmont Hot Springs.  After two years of people commenting on my blog, lamenting on the hot springs' state of disrepair, I had to see for myself.  I'd promised my readers to let them know if the springs had changed much from when I'd visited last.

fairmont hot springs, natural hot springs, hot springs in b.c.
Fairmont Hot Springs as they appeared in 2012 - beautiful 'warm' pools to lounge in.

My husband, daughter and I took the familiar path down towards the RV park outside the commercial springs.  A creek runs down the mountainside, separating the resort from the camping area.  Just beside the creek, a gravel trail (now fixed from the muddy mess we encountered last time, after the big mud slide in 2012) leads you down towards the hot pool run-off areas.

The road to the former natural hot springs in Fairmont, British Columbia.

The gravel trail leading down to where the Fairmont Natural Hot Springs used to be

We followed the gravel trail down for about six minutes, and found the first hot pool run-off area.  The hillside is sleek with the algae that thrives in the temperate waters, and the creek warms slightly as the hot pool run-off mingles with the glacial water.  But don't stop there - that's not the only run-off area near Fairmont.

It may be a water outflow area, but it used to be so nice...

Further down the path, just another five minutes, is the area where there USED to be three fantastic naturally formed hot pools.  A waterfall, shooting warm water run-off from the resort hot pool, USED to supply the natural hot pools with their heat.  (People have debated whether or not the hot pools I am talking about are indeed 'natural' since they are supplied with run-off from the commercial pool, but I argue that the commercial pool is fed from a natural spring, so it's just as natural as the resort pool, if not more... but I digress.)  My point is, when we arrived at the area where the natural pools USED to be - they weren't there.

The area where the Fairmont natural hot pool used to be is now just a water run-off area - so sad!

I wasn't surprised.  Several people had commented on my Natural Hot Springs blog post that the pools had been destroyed during clean-up from the mud slide. I was expecting to see what I saw: a small waterfall sending tepid water down to a pile of jagged rocks, the water sliding down the rumpled and crumbled hill to the creek beyond.  One teeny tiny pool persisted, but it wouldn't be big enough for one person to lounge in and soak.  The whole area was destroyed, sadly.

The one tiny hot pool left over from the razing of the Fairmont natural hot springs.

I'm not sure why this happened - I know there was a mudslide, but I'm not sure why there was a need to annihilate the natural pools when they were obviously still in good shape after the mudslide occurred. Perhaps there was a safety issue?  I didn't see a safety issue when I was there last, but Mother Nature is unpredictable and ever-changing, and who is to say something dangerous didn't arise?  Another possibility is that the Fairmont Resort prefers to have people come and pay to swim in their hot spring, and not to sit in the natural ones just below the resort.  But who knows?

We enjoyed the hike down the trail, regardless of whether or not the natural hot pools were there.

Despite the reason why, the fact is that there are no more natural hot pools to enjoy in Fairmont, B.C., unless you go to the Fairmont Resort Hot Springs.  Read about some other, true NATURAL hot springs in British Columbia in my post on Lussier Hot Springs!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs

It's that time of year again - the time of year where we pack up our vehicle to the brim with suitcases, tennis rackets, good food, water sprinklers, board games, and beach toys, and head off on a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains of Canada to enjoy a week's stay in Invermere, British Columbia. This is our seventh year renting a cabin in the valley with my husband's family, and our first year doing so with a baby in tow.  (The car, incidentally, seemed MUCH fuller this time around!)

Banff Gondola, Sanson Peak, things to do in Alberta
My family on our first holiday together - here's to many more in the future!

Making the five and a half hour journey through the mountains seemed like a bit of a stretch with a six-month-old, so my husband and I decided to split the trip into two days and sojourn in Banff for an evening.  This way, our little one would have some time to enjoy her freedom from the car seat, and we'd have a chance to do a little 'backyard' tourism.

Our first night ever in a hotel with the baby was a great success (she really enjoyed swimming in the hot tub), and we woke the next morning bright and early, ready to have a fun day out and about in Banff.

Our first stop was to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, located about five minutes from downtown Banff up the side of Sulphur Mountain.  Avy-Bear loves a good swim, and we thought it might be a nice way to start the day for her.  The hot springs are super easy to get to, with clearly marked signage and a big, open parking lot.  We grabbed our bags, locked up, and headed inside.  There weren't very many people there - it was 9:06 a.m. and the hot springs opened at 9:00 a.m.  It is recommended that during the holiday seasons people arrive early if they don't want to be sitting in a crowded pool.  At 9:00 a.m. we were maybe sharing the pool with about 20 others.

things to do in Alberta, natural hot springs Alberta, Banff tourism
The Banff Upper Hot Springs at 9:00 a.m. - all ours!

The pool is a balmy 40 degrees Celsius, making it a nice, hot soak. You are only recommended to stay submerged for 10 minutes at the most, due to the temperature.  We popped in and out of the water much more frequently, considering we had a wee baby with us. The view around the hot springs is gorgeous, and although the springs themselves are very developed and commercialized, you do feel like you are soaking in the middle of nature.  On one side of the springs, there is a deck with a balcony that overlooks the Rocky Mountain range, and it is very calming and peaceful to sit there while you cool down from the steaming waters.

Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta, Banff tourism
Cooling off on the hot springs deck during a quick sun shower.

We only stayed for about an hour before deciding to leave.  The cost to soak in the pool is $7.30 for adults, and $6.30 for youths and seniors.  Avy was free, as are all kids 3 and under.  Since the price is quite reasonable, leaving after an hour didn't seem like a waste.

On our way out, we found a little 'pool' built into the side of the trail leading to the parking lot - you could dip your feet in and the temperature was just as warm as the commercialized pool.  Unfortunately, it is not big enough to swim in, but it sure felt nice on the feet!

things to do in Alberta, Banff Upper Hot Springs, outdoor hot spring
Enjoying a dip in the 'natural' hot spring at Banff, just off the main path.

After a quick breakfast and a stroll around the extremely busy downtown, we headed to the Banff Gondola.  This tourist attraction is quite popular, so it is suggested that you book tickets in advance (although I did see some people buying their tickets right there - whether they had to wait 2 hours to ride to the top is unknown to me). Tickets were $35.95 per adult, and $16.95 for children 6 to 15.  Avy, again, was free.

Our tickets were for noon, so we had a twenty minute wait before we were to line up to board our gondola. The line-up seemed really long, but it moved quite quickly and efficiently.  The gondolas are small - they hold four people and you must sit during your ascent to the top of the mountain.  Two attendants slow the gondola enough for you to hop on, and then send you on your merry little way.  Thus, the line moves at a snappy pace.  My husband had our daughter strapped to his chest, and the attendants were generous and let us board the gondola alone, without another couple.

Excited to be going up the Banff Gondola!

We had fun on the way up - the view is amazing, the mountain incline sharp. We watched hikers winding their way up the steep slope, and waved to people going down the gondolas across from us. Avy enjoyed the smooth ride and watched the scenery with great interest.

going up the Banff gondola, things to do in Alberta, Rocky Mountains Alberta
The view from the Banff Gondola, going up Sulphur Mountain.

It had been raining that morning while we were soaking in the hot springs, and the mountain range in the distance had been hazy with clouds and the remnants of a few major forest fires around B.C.  However, during our ride up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the skies cleared and we were able to see all the way down the valley.

Banff gondola, Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta
The view of Banff and the Rocky Mountains from the top of Sanson Peak.

The ride up the gondola lasts about ten minutes.  Once at the top, there are gift shops, a restaurant, and a snack shop.  You can stick around the gondola station and view the vista from the observation deck, or you can partake in a 20 minute hike to the summit of Sanson Peak.  We chose the latter.

Sanson Peak hike, Banff Gondoloa, things to do in Alberta
Starting our hike to Sanson Peak.  The wooden trail made it very enjoyable.

The hike was fantastic, and I highly recommend that if you take the time to go to the top of Sulphur Mountain, then you best better do the hike to the weather observation station at Sanson Peak.  A well-built, smooth wooden boardwalk acts as a trail to the peak, made of 28 switchbacks allowing you to climb to the summit with ease.  There are about 10 look-out points along the way, offering stunning views and photo opportunities.  A word of warning: there are a lot of stairs, going both up and down both ways, and the trek to Sanson Peak is NOT wheelchair or stroller friendly.  Unfortunately.

Another family photo from one of the lookout points along the trail.

At the top of Sanson Peak, it was super windy. Avy stopped to have half a bottle, but we had to cap it and turn around, leaving the peak behind us and finding a sheltered bench so she could finish her lunch.  If you go to the peak, pack yourself a hoodie or windbreaker to protect yourself from the elements at the top.  After all, you are standing on top of a mountain!

Rocky Mountain trees, Rocky Mountain valley, Banff Gondola, Sulphur Mountain
A view of a Rocky Mountain valley, covered in trees.  It is still hazy from all the forest fires.

It is estimated that visitors spend an average of 2 hours at the top of Sulphur Mountain.  We were up there for about an hour and twenty minutes, and were ready to head back down.  (We didn't explore the gondola station very long, so I can easily see people spending two hours in total up at the top.)  On the way down, the attendants take a photo of you sitting inside the gondola, and then try to sell you a copy at the bottom. We didn't fall for that.  It was expensive, and besides, we were seated with two strangers and I had no desire to pay good money for a photo with two unsmiling, unknown people.

We continued our journey to Invermere after the gondola, which was a good thing for Avy, who was in desperate need of a nap.  However, it was a great way to spend a day in Banff.  How lucky are we to live so close to such a beautiful location?