Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Lussier Natural Hot Springs, B.C.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.)

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?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Alberta's Devonian Botanical Gardens

This summer, my goal is to explore as much of the beautiful province of Alberta as I can with a six-month-old baby.  My little Peanut is a great traveler in the car, and loves to people-watch and explore new surroundings, so I am hopeful that I can get out and about as much as possible.

Trying to get in some summer fun checking off our 'backyard bucket list' in Alberta!

Our first 'mother-daughter' adventure took place at the Devonian Botanical Gardens just outside the town of Devon, Alberta (about half an hour south of Edmonton).  It was a smokin' hot summer day, my husband was away at a conference in Banff, and Avy Bear and I were looking for something relaxing to do.  The drive wasn't too far for us, and the weather for the day made an afternoon out seem promising.

It is pretty easy to find the gardens.  There are signs posted throughout the town of Devon, and it is a basic drive 6 minutes along the highway, skirting Devon, until you enter Parkland County and see the giant entrance sign.  For all you GPS lovers, type in 51227 Alberta 60, Parkland County.

The gates open at 10 a.m. each morning and stay open until around 5 p.m. (hours vary depending on the season, so check out their website before you plan your stay).  It is $13.50 (plus GST) for an adult to visit, $3.00 for kids 7-12, and $5.00 for teenagers.  Seniors and students can get special discounts with valid ID.  I thought it was decently priced seeing that you can stay as long as you like, and the gardens are extremely beautiful.

Enjoying a beautiful summer day at the Devonian Botanical Gardens outside of Edmonton.

Here's the breakdown of the Devonian Botanical Gardens: Under the guidance of the University of Alberta, the gardens were established in 1959.  It mainly acts as a tourist attraction, but due to its affiliation with the university, there are lots of ecology and conservation projects and experiments done by students there, too.  The gardens sprawl over 80 acres, and also include another 110 acres of protected natural areas.  Within these 80 acres are sectioned, themed gardens.

The themed gardens include the:
  • Kurimoto Japanese Gardens
  • Native People's Gardens
  • Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden
  • Plants of Alberta Garden
  • Herb Garden (which includes a children's sensory garden where kids can taste, touch and smell certain plants)
  • Peony Collection
  • Primula Dell
  • Greenhouses
Avy and I did not have the chance to explore it all, and we unfortunately discovered that not all areas are stroller (and therefore wheelchair) accessible.  We missed the Peony Collection altogether, and could not access Primula Dell as you had to walk across the grass and it was just too bumpy for the little one.  The Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden, which is shaped like a bowl, could be viewed from above when pushing a stroller, but the pathways down into the bottom were made of stepping stone stairs, or took you down a steep grassy incline.  So we skipped that area too.

There is a natural wetlands area as well, with two pathways leading to a beautiful lookout point - one pathway is cedar chipped and slightly difficult to navigate with a stroller (and I'd assume a wheelchair) but it is much better than the natural one that is riddled with tree roots and deep ruts. Avy and I started on that path and had to turn back.

Stuck on the natural wetlands pathway - we had to turn around.

Our favorite area was the Kurimoto Japanese Gardens - it is elegant, peaceful, and of course, beautiful.  There is a large lake (large for a botanical garden, that is) in the center, with wooden bridges spanning the narrower parts.  Waterfalls send bubbling water down into the lake.  A pagoda with a gong stands on a hill overlooking the lake, and several covered sitting areas dot the shoreline.  Koi fish swim in the peaceful waters.

Picnics are allowed in the gardens, and all the staff asks is that you clean up after yourself and not loiter on the grass for too long to prevent damage.  Avy and I enjoyed a brief picnic and diaper change, tidied up, and continued on our way, and the staff merely stopped by to say hello and coo over how happy the baby seemed.  There is also a place where you can buy food, in case you forget your picnic, and the prices seemed reasonable.

The gorgeous Kurimoto Japanese Gardens at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

We also really enjoyed the greenhouses, particularly the tropical butterfly greenhouse. Massive butterflies soared through air, conglomerating on certain bushes, and even landing on my shirt!  None landed on Avy, although I had my camera waiting just in case.  The air was hot and humid, so for those of you who get uncomfortable easily, prepare yourself mentally before entering.  It is worth a stay inside the greenhouse - there are lots of colorful, exotic flowers and of course, lots of butterflies to discover!  The other greenhouses include an arid desert climate, and a temperate climate.

The tropical butterfly greenhouse at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

Something I know Avy will enjoy in the future was the honeysuckle maze.  It was in need of a trim at the time of our visit, and I got pretty scratched up pushing the stroller through the pathways, but I could see it being grand once tidied up.  There were several end-of-year field trips attending the gardens while Avy and I were there, and the maze was riddled with happy children running in circles, shouting out to one another, and generally having a great time getting lost.  In the center of the maze was some sort of abstract metal art installation that the kids were climbing, trying to map their escape from the maze.

Getting scratched up and lost (but having fun) in the honeysuckle maze.

The pathways are made of a variety of mediums - pavement, cedar wood chips, and dirt were the most common.  They wind all throughout the gardens, leading you past the different sections.  As we strolled through the Plants of Alberta, we passed a second lake and watched several school groups participating in pond-dipping activities and scavenger hunts.  It seemed like a fun place for a school field trip.

For any gardeners out there, if you see something you like in the gardens, obviously you can't pick it or harvest seeds from it.  However, there are greenhouses on the premises that sell plants and seeds for you to try at home. (When I checked the prices seemed a bit expensive but what do you expect?)  Another no-no at the Devonian Botanical Gardens - don't bring your pets.  I can easily guess that having pets peeing on the plants is frowned upon.

Don't pick anything at the Gardens - but you can always buy what you need at their store!

Something I'd like to try that I discovered on the website are the Thursday night "Date Nights".  The facility opens late for registered couples and allows them to participate in a variety of fun couples' activities.  The ones I saw on the website include beer tastings, rumba dance lessons, taiko drumming workshops, and live music.  If it wasn't such a long drive for my hubby and I, I'd beg him to go to one (the taiko drumming sounds like a ton of fun)!

There you have it - a fun Alberta bucket list activity for either yourself, your family, or you and your significant other.  It is affordable, entertaining, and also gets you out and moving.  I highly recommend it!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Moments with Strangers: The Beauty of Travel

The day was hot and muggy.  My husband of about four hours and I were tired from a long day of getting ready, getting photographed, getting married, and getting away from it all via a hilarious ziplining adventure through the jungle in our wedding clothes.  We were exhausted from a day where every moment had been scheduled and accounted for, but we weren't ready to go back to our lodgings just yet.

We had gotten married in Costa Rica, and it had been beautiful.  It had also been as stress-free as any wedding ever could be.  But we still needed to unwind.

destination wedding, beach wedding photos
Joey and I enjoying our fun wedding day.

Hoping to discover some hidden oasis, we drove straight past the turn-off to the house where we were staying, and kept on cruising down the road.  What we were looking for, I'm not sure.  Some sort of tucked away waterfall, with rainbows beaming through the crystalline mist, and a mermaid serving smooth strawberry daiquiris?  I don't know.  What we DID find was a small, ramshackle Tiko restaurant perched on the left side of the highway, open to the elements except for the large, palm-leafed roof.  A creaking sign advertising Imperial proved to be too tempting for us, and we pulled Snowball (our affectionately named white Jeep) to the side of the road and disembarked.

We were still in our wedding clothes, having come directly from the ziplining establishment.  Joey`s outfit consisted of khaki pants and a white pin-striped summer shirt, so he looked relatively normal. I, however, was still decked out in my white wedding gown; granted, I had shorts and a tank top underneath from our jungle canopy adventure, but still.  It didn't seem right to saunter into a Costa Rican restaurant, now acting more as a pub, in a wrinkled, shredded, dirty wedding gown.  (The ziplining adventure had not treated the dress very well, but when was I ever going to wear it again?!)

grass hut restaurant, Costa Rica buildings
This is not the same restaurant, but it looked very similar (just not as big!)

Unperturbed, I told Joey not to lock the doors yet, and then proceeded to wriggle out of my dress on the side of the road, in clear view of the Tiko restaurant.  There weren't many patrons inside, but those that were stared curiously as they watched a sweaty white girl shed her clothes in plain view. (Like I said, I had other clothes on underneath, so it wasn't that exciting of a show.)  After unceremoniously balling up what was left of my gown and chucking it in the backseat, we headed into the building.

It was very small, run by a family who lived in the back of the restaurant - the eating area was like a giant domed patio jutting off the front of their home.  It was late: there were only a few loyal customers inside drinking beer, and our waitress (the only visible person working there) must have been the grandmother of the family.  She spoke not a shred of English.

Joey and I ordered an Imperial each, and then my hubby noticed that across the parking lot, a couple of the family members were struggling to move a bulky refrigerator off the bed of a truck and inside their house.  They were trying to recruit a young, skinny girl of about 10 to help them.

"I'll go help," he told me, not wanting to witness the little girl get crushed by a 300-pound appliance. Off he trotted, and I watched with newlywed pride as he introduced himself and rolled up his sleeves jovially.

The old woman returned with our beers, and seeing me sitting alone, looked around for my husband.

"Marido?" she asked, and I, unable to understand, shook my head helplessly.  As I was mentally attempting to translate using my limited knowledge of Spanish, the woman noticed Joey moving the fridge and smiled.  She plunked down beside me at the table, and grabbed my hand.  I was just a little surprised.

Her tanned fingers reached for the shining ring on my ring finger and spun it softly.  "Marido," she repeated, tapping the ring and then pointing with her other hand to Joey.  I understood.

wedding ring photo, Costa Rica wedding
If not for those rings, I wouldn't have had my conversation with the wonderful woman

"Husband!" I said brightly, realizing this wonderful lady was giving me an impromptu Spanish lesson.  She nodded, and then pointed to me.


"Wife," I translated, and she nodded again.  (I still to this day do not know if she was nodding because she could understand my English translations, or if she was just nodding to make me feel intelligent.)

"Nosotros... uh... got married... hoy," I stuttered, trying to explain that Joey and I had just tied the knot today.

"Casado," the woman filled in, meaning 'married' in Spanish. Unfortunately, casado only meant one thing to me at the time, and that was a delicious Costa Rican dish that I often ordered at restaurants.  I instantly became confused.

"No, gracias.  No hambre." I tried to explain to her that I wasn't hungry, at the same time massacring her language. (For your information, it is 'no tengo hambre' but apparently I didn't like to use verbs.)  The lady, realizing my mistake, chuckled pleasantly.  She pointed to Joey, then to me and back again, and held my hand and squeezed it. "Casado," she repeated pointedly.  It took me a second, and then the light bulb came on.

Joey and Marti, casado on the beach!

"Ahhh, casado! Married! Si, casado! Mi marido," I said proudly, indicating Joey who was now returning to the eating area.  The old woman chuckled again, and got up.  She smiled at Joey and returned to the kitchen area in the back just as smoothly as she'd arrived.  It was like I had been visited by a mysterious Spanish-teaching angel.

Joey was tired from moving the fridge, and happy for the cool beer.  I taught him the three new words I had learned from the woman as we drank our beverages.  He was interested, but didn't seem to find the words quite as enchanting as I had.  He preferred to tell me about the family-run business, as he'd learned all about it from the sons who owned the new fridge.

Maybe it wasn't the words themselves that were so enchanting.  Maybe it was that unexpected shared moment with a kind stranger that was.  Our world, and the people in it, can be so beautiful.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to be a Horrible Hotel Guest (Or: The Lesson I Learned in Loch Ness)

Allow me to set the scene:  It is the summer of 2012.  A rental car pulls up to a beautiful, large log cabin, surrounded by pines and a thin sheet of fog that drifts off the cooling waters of Loch Ness.  The 'parking lot' of this bed and breakfast cabin is a large rectangle, cut into the front lawn, covered in a layer of sweet-smelling wood chips. A tired couple emerges from the vehicle, stiff from a long drive from Stirling and a little stressed after getting lost along the banks of Loch Ness, with its twisting roads and wooded avenues.

road to Loch Ness, winding road Scotland
The twisting, winding, narrow road to Loch Ness in Scotland.

They drag their heavy suitcases (because they don't know how to pack light) into the cabin's main entrance, and ring the little bell resting on the front desk.  A young girl emerges from a back room, and smiles in welcome.  The couple hands over their reservation confirmation, made online through a booking website.

"That will be 73 pounds," the girl says with a pleasant Scottish lilt.

"Wait, wait," the woman traveler says, holding up a hand.  "We already paid online... that's the right price, but we already paid."  She keeps her voice polite, sure that the girl has just misread the information on the screen.

The young girl frowns.  "I have your reservation right here, but it says you haven't paid in full yet."

"No, I did," the wife insists.  "I booked online and the website took my credit card payment at the time of booking.  I've seen the charge on my credit card statement already, since I booked so long ago." The woman's tone is not rude, but firm and full of conviction. In fact, she's got a chart in her travel documents listing the trip's costs thus far, and this evening's accommodations are on it, listed as fully paid. She's ready to whip it out, not that it will prove anything to the desk clerk, who is unsure of what to do.

The young girl's smile wavers as she clicks on the computer a bit more.  "One moment," she smiles thinly, and disappears back into the posterior room.

The husband turns to his wife, and mutters, "Are you sure? I doubt their records would be wrong."  He hates conflict, and he can see that this encounter might escalate into something uncomfortable.

"There was a charge on my credit card - I saw it! It was for this place.  We've paid - the website took the payment up front, online," the wife insists.  She has a bad feeling in her gut, like perhaps the booking website wasn't legitimate.  Just thinking about being the victim of a scam already has her blood starting to boil!

When the back door opens once more, a short, slightly round older woman with grey hair emerges.  "Hello, I'm Ethel, the owner," she nods, without a smile.  (The name has been changed, since I can't actually remember what she said her name was).  The couple nods back, also not smiling.  "What is the problem here?"

waters of Loch Ness, gloomy day at Loch Ness
A gloomy day on Loch Ness, Scotland - almost as gloomy as my story!

"We booked our room online, and the website took payment for the room already, but your system is saying we haven't paid yet," the wife explains, perhaps a bit shortly.  She is tired, sore, and now leery that either the website has stolen money from her card, or that this bed and breakfast establishment has no idea how to work a computer.

Once again, when Ethel checks, she confirms that the room was reserved, but not paid for.  She is as warm as a snowman on a frosty day.

"Well, what was the charge on my credit card?" the wife bursts out in frustration. At this point, Ethel is standing with her arms crossed, chin jutting out defensively, but offers no explanation.  She just wants these people to pay or, preferably, leave. The wife is certain someone is trying to steal from her: either the booking website or the lady standing in front of her.  The two women seem to be at an impasse.  Thank goodness for cool-headed husbands.

"We can check your credit card statement when we get back to Canada," the husband whispers into his wife's ear.  "If they did charge us, we can call them and file a complaint.  Let's just pay for the room and go relax."

Scotland bridge, old stone bridge Scotland
On the road to Loch Ness, before things got stressful-ish.

The wife nods, although she still isn't pleased.  The husband turns to gather the bags, and the wife smiles stiffly at the owner.  "We'll put the room on my card.  I'll check with my credit card company later," she says, implying that she still thinks something fishy is going on.

The transaction is awkward, to say the least.  Ethel wishes the guests a lovely stay, although it is clear from the look on her face that she'd prefer to turn them out and have them sleep in their tiny rental car.  She doesn't even give them the spiel that she usually presents to her guests about dining areas and times, and any other amenities the bed and breakfast provides.  She shuffles out from behind the desk and silently leads them to their room, speaking only to point out a sitting area with a TV in case they want to rest a bit before dinner.  The couple is silent, too: the husband embarrassed, the wife still mulling over why she has had to pay twice for the same room.

In the room, the couple unpacks and freshens up. The room is homey and comfortable, with a soft double bed and a worn but cozy tartan armchair in the corner.  They admire the beautiful view of Loch Ness from above, then realize they are hungry.  Not knowing the area at all, they have to return to the front desk to ask about nearby restaurants.

Loch Ness from above, Scotland Loch Ness
The beautiful view of Loch Ness from the bed and breakfast room window.

"Well, there's a diner down the road, but it closes by 7 p.m.," Ethel ponders.  "Otherwise, you'll have to drive for quite a ways."

The couple looks dismayed, since it is 8 p.m. and there seems to be no way to get sustenance.  "How far of a drive?" the wife queries, once again not looking happy. (Ethel probably thought that the sour shrew standing in front of her didn't even have the facial muscles to smile!)  And when she says how far, the wife frowns even more. She's already grumpy about the whole payment debacle, and now she's hungry, and she's one of the those people who get nasty when her blood sugar is too low.

"Well, we have some snacks from the car.  Why don't we just eat that?" the husband tries valiantly to keep things positive.  The wife sighs, and Ethel looks extremely hurt.

"The dining room here is open until 9 p.m." she says, and the couple looks surprised.  They thought this was a bed and breakfast, meaning only breakfast was served.

"That would be great!" the husband says cheerily. "We didn't know you had dinner here!  Otherwise we would have done that straight away."  Ethel still doesn't smile - it is obvious she thinks the couple is a pair of yuppees who are too good for anything.

The husband maintains his smile, but the wife scowls back. "She shouldn't act like we didn't want her food just because we didn't know she even had food in the first place!" the wife thinks.  "I bet she poisons our food, too."


Ah, mis-communication is a wonderful thing... this is a true story, as close to word-for-word as I could make it.  Naturally, I am the nasty shrew-like woman with the credit card fetish, and my husband Joey the patient and smart one. (Please don't tell him I said that - I'll never hear the end of it!)  Our trip to Scotland was a dream adventure, to say the least: Loch Ness, Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, and the list goes on.  This experience was the only negative blip, and it was entirely my fault.  Our stay at the bed and breakfast ended up being very pleasant, and our room had one amazing view of Loch Ness.  The owner did not poison our food, either.  In fact, she was one of the best cooks I've ever encountered.  Her butter chicken was superb! If you want to know the name of the place, just email me and I'll send you the details.

My husband - oh, how he keeps me sane!

Here's how this all went down and ended up.

I booked the bed and breakfast through a website called "Booking.com".  The website searches hotels for you, and comes up with lists based on location, price, ratings, etc.  It is a simple and easy website to navigate, and I really liked using it.

However... the website is set up so that you enter all your credit card information right there online. It advertises that there are no booking fees, and says that the hotel will charge your credit card once you confirm your booking.  The website sends you a confirmation email.  After I received the confirmation email, I noticed a charge from the hotel on my statement.  I thought it was a done deal and that we were paid in full.

Obviously, I did not look close enough.  The hotel charged me a reservation fee - not the total cost of the stay.  When you book online, for any newbies out there like I was, read the fine print and see if the hotel you are booking with has reservation fees or not, as not all do. I felt like a total dolt when I saw on my credit card statement, after we got home from our trip, that I'd only been charged a tiny amount and not the full amount like I'd been arguing.  (Although, to be fair, the owner could have explained the reservation fee dealio with me, and I also feel that Booking.com could have been clearer about it during the booking process.  But the onus is on me, ultimately, to read the fine print.)

A stupid mistake on my part, which made me look like a stuck-up harpy, but one I will never make again!  And hopefully with this story in mind and my advice, a mistake that you, dear reader, will never have to make in the first place.  Good luck and happy booking!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dining at "Papa Rex" in Rome: Dinner with Flair

Sometimes in life it's good to have a little 'cheese'.  No, not mozzeralla - I'm talking about tacky, wacky, and even a bit cliched type cheesy.  What's travel without a little 'over-the-top' now and then?

When my husband and I visited Rome, we were there for three days with a tour group. On our last evening in Rome, our group was invited to an evening meal at a restaurant called "Papa Rex", which offered amazing food and, even better, dining entertainment.  After eating a delicious multi-course meal, we were surprised by a man, fully dressed in gladiator regalia, leaping into the center of our tables.

Our delicious meal menu from Papa Rex

What ensued was a dramatic, funny, and well-choreographed battle between two gladiators, while uniformed Roman soldiers stood nearby and gave orders.  Our group laughed, gasped, and applauded - the battle was quite entertaining.  It turns out the actors were promoting a 'gladiator school' that you can attend for a full or half day while visiting Rome. We never got to go, as it was our last night, but for anyone traveling to Rome with children it would probably be worth checking out!

gladiators in Italy, gladiator school Rome
The gladiators preparing to fight

After the gladiator fight, we settled in for some tasty dessert, but were interrupted by another surprise: a love triangle acted out in front of us, but sung in opera!  It was more of a love duet, except that at one point, I got pulled into it!  I had innocently walked over to compare photos of the gladiators with another member of our travel group, and was trying to return as sneakily as I could to my spot at the table, when the two singers pulled me in.  It was embarrassing, but I endured it!

opera in Italy, opera in Rome
Getting trapped in some sort of operatic love triangle

I have compiled a little video of the shots we took - my 'video camera' was the cheap one on my old-school digital camera, so the quality is not the greatest, but it will give you an idea of what fun we had at the "Papa Rex" restaurant!