Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum in Alberta, Canada


What does a small village with little tourism prospects do to generate revenue from passers-by? Some places might erect statues of unusual items, like a giant sausage (Mundare, Alberta), or a massive replica Easter egg (Vegreville, Alberta). Others may hold strange and random festivals, like Spock Days, where everyone dresses up in a Star Trek costume and greets one another with "V" shaped hand signals (Vulcan, Alberta).

The powers that be in the small village of Torrington, Alberta, located somewhere between Calgary and Edmonton in the middle of wide open prairie, decided to open the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum. Instead of meat statues or futuristic costumes, Torrington has gophers stuffed, styled, and striking a pose.

Admiring the beauty of the Alberta prairies before going into the village of Torrington.

I had been hearing about the museum for years (I won't say how many, we don't need to focus on how old I am getting), but I had never been to see it, despite passing through Torrington hundreds of times while driving home to see my folks on their farm. This year, I decided, I would make sure to stop as I drove through and check out the museum itself. So that's what I found myself doing last week.

This Grandma Gopher is playing some serious cards.

I will share the embarrassing part first. I got lost. In Torrington. In a village with approximately 200 residents, and maybe three main streets, and I turned into the wrong street right off the bat. Then I made another wrong turn, and then one more.  Just when I was about to stop a local and risk being laughed at by asking how to get to the museum, I drove through one more intersection and found the museum. At least getting lost in Torrington is a quick affair. 

To be fair, I did not see any signs posted (probably because most normal people can find the museum in a more straight-forward way than me), and the museum itself is very small - smaller than most homes in a trailer park. So it doesn't stick out, if you know what I mean. It is a cute little white building, with an unassuming sign on the front wall and a tidy wooden ramp leading up to the side door. The most conspicuous element of the exterior is the wooden gopher cut-out where visitors can pose as a gopher for photographs.

Posing as either a gopher or a farmer - you can't really tell.

I parked on the side street just as another family pulled up (they probably hadn't gotten lost - I was too self-conscious to ask). We took turns taking pictures of one another with the gopher cut-out, then entered the museum. 

Admission to the museum is $2.00 per person unless you are under 14, and then the cost is a whopping $0.50 per child. (How does this place stay open? They could easily charge a little more, in my opinion.) If you are visiting solo like I was, or as a pair, try to bring change with you as it probably isn't even feasible for the museum to run your admission through a debit/credit machine. 

The front room of the museum is a little eccentric. The walls are covered in newspaper articles about the museum, artist biographies (specifically the people who painted the diorama boxes), and print-outs of cheery jokes and funny poems. On the gift shelves are, of course, T-shirts proclaiming one has visited the Gopher Hole Museum and Torrington village mugs. However, also for sale in the gift shop are hand-knitted baby booties and hats, hand-knitted doll dresses, hand-knitted wash clothes and hand-knitted pot holders. There's a lot of knitting there. Just something I noticed.

The quirky gift shop at the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.

Once I finished perusing the gift shop shelves, I made my way into the only other room in the building: the main gallery, which was the same size as the first room. Instead of knitting however, the walls were covered with wooden diorama boxes, arranged asymmetrically in a pattern that Klimt would have admired. The diorama boxes were gently illuminated, while the rest of the room remained somewhat dim. In this way, you could clearly see inside the dioramas without being bothered by glare from overhead lights. 

Each diorama presented a scene from Torrington life throughout time. Some scenarios were from the distant past, some from the more recent past, and a couple, such as the 'Happy 150th Birthday Canada' diorama, were set in today's time period. Each were extremely detailed, fully decorated, and of course, featured dead gophers as the main players.

The one-room museum is filled with these glowing diorama boxes. 

Even if you haven't heard of the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum, you might have guessed that it would be filled with gophers. Not live ones running around, nibbling at your shoes. These gophers have been snared, taxidermied (stuffed), and artfully clothed and staged. (I checked. 'Taxidermied' isn't a real word. You have to say 'stuffed' or 'stuffed by a taxidermist' even though they have clearly been 'taxidermied'. So I am making it a word now.)

Before anyone gets upset that poor, innocent gophers have been murdered for our viewing pleasure, please remember that this museum is located in the middle of central Alberta, where farmers and ranchers make their living. Gophers are not adorable gifts from God around this area: they destroy fields, eat crops, dig holes in the land which causes cattle and horses to trip and get broken legs or ankles, and are basically destructive and costly pests. They are habitually poisoned or shot to keep their population in check. And if you've even driven down a highway in central Alberta, you will see your fair share of gopher roadkill along the shoulders, if you don't happen to accidentally contribute to that situation yourself.

There has actually been some controversy surrounding this museum, but I liked it.

And I like gophers. I think they are cute. I cried ugly tears one day when I ran one over by mistake. When I was thirteen I went with a farming friend to help her poison gophers, and I STILL have bad dreams about the results. But I completely understand the situation. If people didn't hunt gophers or cull them or whatever you want to call it, they would overrun the area in a few short years. So this is just a part of life. Not a lovely one. But a part. So please keep this information in mind when reading about what the gopher museum entails. The museum is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it is somewhat fitting for the central Alberta area.

Anyway... If you do think gophers are cute, and don't mind that they have been taxidermied, then you would probably really enjoy the museum's dioramas. They are funny, creative, and have obviously been put together with a lot of care and love. There are nearly 100 stuffed gophers in the museum, all arranged in different poses and situations. All of the clothes the gophers wear are hand-stitched by various Torrington local ladies. The background imagery was painted by a local woman, Shelly Haase, who has since moved away. The taxidermists both resided at least a one-hour drive away. The museum has definitely been a community effort.

Some illegal shenanigans at the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum.

Originally, the museum was supposed to be a place where visitors could go to see live gophers and learn about their habits, patterns, hibernation, and much more. But this idea was scrapped when the logistics of it were examined - building at least a four meter deep pit, encased in concrete and wire to contain the creatures was just the beginning. Not to mention how to control breeding, disease, and other issues. Someone suggested just stuffing the gophers, and the idea took off from there.

Dead gophers in love. It is so... romantic? 

Technically, the stars of the show aren't actually 'gophers', but Richardson's ground squirrels. Around here, everyone just calls them gophers. But whatever you call them, they do make for some interesting sight-seeing! 

I spent about 40 minutes in the actual museum portion of the building, reading the little jokes and quips in each diorama. (The beautician telling her client, "I am a beautician, not a magician!" made me chuckle.) I signed the guestbook, and photographed most of the dioramas - taking pictures is totally cool, I was assured by the curator Dianne Kurta.

This diorama made me crack up. Cheeky gopher!

Once I had taken in all of the scenes, there wasn't much else to do at the museum. I hung around the gift shop, asking Dianne a bunch of questions about taxidermy, how the gophers were collected (snaring, not poisoning or shooting because that damages the bodies), and other such nosy things. I was amused to discover that the museum's biggest nemesis was none other than Paul McCartney of Beatles fame. When the museum first opened, it seemed he had a real problem with it. I doubt Paul McCartney has ever driven down a rural Alberta road and seen flattened gophers dotting the pavement as far as the eye can see...

As controversial as this museum could be, I still enjoyed it. I found it cute in a quirky way, and I can appreciate that the simple building and its furry residents help to keep a very small Alberta village afloat. I will most likely return one day with my kids - they would probably get a kick out of it. I am sure I will get a few comments with differing views, but to each his own! If you are unsure of where you sit regarding the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum, check out my video below to help you decide!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Explore 'The Home of 1000 Faces' in Radium B.C.


For a decade now, my family along with various members of my husband's family, have been vacationing for a week in Invermere, British Columbia. We rent a house (loosely called a 'cabin' by us), plan our meals, pack games and the Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville mixer, and spend a week enjoying laughs, family companionship, and various adventures.

However, even though we've been visiting the area for ten years solid, we somehow skipped exploring the wacky and unexpected 'Home of 1000 Faces' in Radium. Oh, we had seen it from the outside - how could you miss it? But we had never gone inside to see what it was all about. This year we decided to give it a fair shot, and were happy that we did.

Just a couple of examples of the detailed carvings at the 'Home of 1000 Faces'.

From what we had heard from locals, the 'Home of 1000 Faces' is basically the home of a very talented woodcarver who decided to open his doors to the public and turn his living quarters into a museum and tourist attraction using his wooden wares. For 38 years, woodcarver and artist Rolf Heer has been adding to his collection and attraction, making it better and better for a more interesting experience. And he knows what he's doing - he has been woodcarving decorative and custom-made pieces for over 40 years. (Thanks, Rolf, for calling and confirming that for me! I appreciate the phone call!)

To start with, the outside is completely adorned with life-sized wooden carvings of faces, people, and figures. A wall of cheerful, jaunty hand-painted signs offer words of encouragement, sarcasm, and humour to those passing by in their vehicles as they cruise along the road. The whole ensemble looks a little kooky and somewhat daunting - what IS this place?!? is the reaction that comes to mind - but truly, give it a chance.

The crazy exterior of the 'Home of 1000 Faces' shouldn't intimidate you.

We parked our truck in the small gravel parking lot along the side of the building and trekked to the unassuming front door. There were several signs on the door, including a handwritten note instructing us to ring the bell and wait for Rolf, and another note inviting visitors to come on in. We knocked, and when Rolf didn't magically appear, we followed the instructions on the second note and wandered tentatively inside.

The first room we entered looked like the heart of the wood shop, right there past the main doors. Bundles of wood, saws, axes, power tools, and chisels - everything was resting patiently, waiting to be used by their owner. But the owner himself was not in sight. Unsure if we should walk any further, Joey and I hesitated. Luckily, we have two small, excitable children who barged right in to the next room, and so we had no choice but to follow.

The first room we entered in the 'Home of 1000 Faces' displayed all of Rolf's tools.

Past the workshop (if that is what it was), we entered what I could only assume was a gallery and showroom for Rolf's amazing pieces. When the sign says "Home of 1000 Faces", one can assume there should be at least 1000 carved faces on the premise. I didn't start counting, but I don't think I needed to. Wooden visages lined the walls and tables, each exquisitely carved in detail and ranging in size, thickness, expression, and facial hair (although, to be fair, about 99% of the faces had long, Gandalf-esque beards).

Some carvings on display in Rolf's gallery.

My favourite piece in the gallery wasn't a face carving at all, but a massive, elaborate, and stunning table, carved and polished to a shine. My house is too small for a table such as that, but if I owned a mansion with a large front foyer, that table would be sitting smack in the middle to be sure! It was gorgeous!

Still we had not seen Rolf. But we did hear voices floating down to us from above, and so we assumed it was okay for us to be wandering about in his house. We left the gallery and walked outside onto the large wooden patio, where more faces, sculptures, and a giant purple bra were set on display. I don't know the story behind the bra; I didn't ask. It is bigger than a van, maybe a double D, a deep shade of violet, and it is hanging on the wall above the main patio. So there's that.

A wall of colourful faces at the "Home of 1000 Faces".

Past the main patio, a ramp leads down into a small courtyard, filled with unusual objects like old doors hanging from corrugated tin walls, an old refrigerator slumped in the dirt, door hanging open on broken hinges, and a semi-circle of carved faces as big as totem poles. My little family entered the courtyard cautiously, unsure of what the place was all about. We saw a family across from us, huddled near the fridge looking somewhat terrified.

"Something is up," I told my husband, and just then my son narrowly missed getting blasted in the face with an arc of cold water. Hands in the air, he came running back to us. My daughter laughed in delight: it was a water gauntlet, and the challenge was to run from one end to the other while trying to stay dry. My son was having NONE OF IT, so we left to continue exploring and eventually watched my husband and daughter run the gauntlet from a balcony on the second floor.

My son happy to be nowhere near the water.

The gauntlet looked super fun. Hidden in the walls and even buried in the dirt were jets of water, either on a timer or motion sensor (I'm not really sure). Various obstacles provided protection (hence the open fridge door), and some were actually traps. The circle of totem pole faces looked like protection, but once you were safely ensconced inside, jets of water kept blasting past the opening and you suddenly were stuck. It was quite hilarious watching people struggle to escape. My husband and daughter did a fairly decent job at staying dry.

The water gauntlet area. 

I was a little jealous that I didn't get to run the gauntlet, but my son was quite content not getting blasted with chilly water. So we kept exploring.

On the top floor, after seeing even more elaborate sculptures and carvings, we found Rolf. He was chatting with another visiting couple about the goat walk. Yes, Rolf has a goat walk on the top of his house. He keeps at least two pet goats that I saw, and they live in a 'goat chalet' on the roof of the 'Home of 1000 Faces' in quite a lovely set-up. They had several boardwalks and runways to explore, green grass to eat, and a bucket filled with soda crackers and taco chips that happy tourists were willing to feed them. A pretty good life if you are goat, if you ask me.

My daughter enjoyed her goat feeding experience, and no one got bitten! Always a plus.

Rolf happily let the goats out of the chalet and encouraged them to wander down the goat walk to the feeding area. Then he politely allowed the lot of us to take photos with him: I couldn't resist as he was decked out in a fantastically eccentric costume. He is a quiet, shy man so beyond posing for the photos and answering a couple of basic questions, he didn't say too much.

Rolf sure stands out - we knew he had to be the owner instantly!

My kids had a wonderful time feeding the goats. We quickly learned that the goats preferred the taco chips over the soda crackers, but were relatively happy with whatever they got. There was also a brave, brave squirrel who continually risked the crushing affections of my children in a quest to get at the food bucket. They tried but did not succeed in catching him and taking him home as a pet (okay, that might have been me who wanted to take him home as a pet).

My son loved feeding the goats.

Admission for this little funhouse museum is $4 for adults and $2 for children, so it isn't expensive by any means. We stayed for about one hour, and after that, felt like we had seen all there was to see. But it definitely was something worth visiting at least once if you are in the Radium area. For more information on Rolf himself (he is fascinating person) visit his website. Be sure to click on the "More" link - cheeky monkey!


Saturday, August 5, 2017

12 Day Travel Itinerary for Iceland


Many people have emailed me requesting more information on how we planned, organized, and timelined our 2013 trip to Iceland. I already have several posts highlighting the amazing feats of nature that we encountered in Iceland, as well as the fascinating man-made sights, but each post is basically a stand-alone story designed to be read on its own. I guess I wanted my posts to be able to be read individually so that people could decide whether or not to include that particular sight in their own personal travel plans.

However, some of my readers have asked me questions such as, "How far did you drive in a day?" or, "How many sights mentioned in your posts were you able to see in one day?" So I thought I would pull up my old travel itinerary from four years ago and share it in a printable format so that others could use it as a base to plan their own adventure.

Please keep in mind that this itinerary only skirts the southern portion of Iceland - we weren't able to drive the entirety of the Ring Road due to time constraints and because of how much we stopped to explore along the way. If we had skipped a lot of the sights we saw, or stayed an extra four or five days, we would have been able to drive the entire loop of the country. So factor that into your travel plans if you must.

Without further ado, here is how I plan a travel itinerary and what we saw and did in fourteen days in Iceland!

There are so many unique and beautiful things to see in Iceland!

DAY ONE: FLIGHT DAY

SIGHTS: None
ACCOMMODATION: Uncomfortable airplane seat
TRANSPORTATION: Airplane
COSTS: Flight ticket, meals at airport layovers

We opted for the red eye flight out of Calgary and skipped around the North American continent for almost a full day before landing in Keflavik. (Calgary, Seattle, Boston, then over the ocean to Iceland).

DAY TWO: KEFLAVIK / REKJAVIK

SIGHTS: The Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik (Laugavegur Street shopping)
ACCOMMODATION: Reykjavik hostel (Guesthouse 101)
TRANSPORTATION: Bus
COSTS: Blue Lagoon ticket, bus ticket, breakfast at airport, hotel, dinner expenses

We landed in the morning in Keflavik, and I was bleary-eyed and exhausted from the last leg of our journey (you can read about why in my Blue Lagoon post). We gathered our luggage and boarded a bus to the Blue Lagoon - I had secured tickets and transportation to the Blue Lagoon in advance from Canada during my trip planning. We spent a few hours enjoying the hot springs at the Blue Lagoon before boarding our bus again and driving into Reykjavik. The bus dropped us off at our hostel where we slept until dinner time, then we explored Laugavegur Street with all of its shops and restaurants. We ate dinner, then went back to the hostel and slept again.

DAY THREE: EXPLORE REYKJAVIK

SIGHTS: Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Opera & Concert Hall, The Harbour, Einer Jonsson Sculpture Garden, City Pond, Icelandic Phallological Museum, The Pearl, Hop-On Hop Off Bus (optional)
ACCOMMODATION: Reykjavik hostel (Guesthouse 101)
TRANSPORTATION: On foot
COSTS: Hotel, breakfast, lunch, dinner, Hallgrimskirkja viewing deck fee, Icelandic Phallological Museum admission, Hop-On Hop-Off Bus tickets (optional)

We explored Reykjavik by foot on this day. We did NOT do the hop-on hop-off bus because we realized that Reykjavik isn't really that big and we could reach most of what we wanted to see by walking. The Pearl was the only thing too far away to access by foot. We stopped to eat when we found interesting restaurants, and we did spend a little money doing some souvenir shopping this day.

DAY FOUR: GOLDEN CIRCLE BUS TOUR & REYKJAVIK

SIGHTS: Geysir (particularly Strokkur), Gulfoss, Pingvellir National Park, Icelandic countryside
ACCOMMODATION: Reykjavik hostel (Guesthouse 101)
TRANSPORTATION: Tour Bus
COSTS: Hotel, breakfast, lunch, dinner, tour tickets, souvenirs (optional)

After a light breakfast in the hotel cafe, we boarded our tour bus to explore Iceland's "Golden Circle", which includes a magnificent geyser named Strokkur, a powerful double waterfall named Gulfoss, and a national park that houses Iceland's continental divide, Pingvellir National Park. We returned around dinnertime, ate our meal, and rested and packed up, since we were leaving the hotel the next morning. We also went grocery shopping at this time, because we intended on camping for the next leg of our journey, and we needed some supplies.

DAY FIVE: DRIVE TO SKOGAR

SIGHTS: hot springs along highway, Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Skogar, lava fields, countryside
ACCOMMODATION: Skogar campground
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, breakfast, lunch, dinner (groceries), campground fee

This day marked the beginning of our Iceland road trip. We loaded up the SUV, checked out of the hotel, and turned on the GPS (it is highly recommended that you use GPS to get around Iceland, even with the one Ring Road being your main road). Right out of Reykjavik we started to see really neat landscapes, lava fields, and 'wild' hot springs along the side of the road. We first visited Seljalandsfoss and hiked under the waterfall, then drove on to Skogar and camped beside the thundering Skogafoss waterfall. The campground was reasonably priced, and we used our back-country camping gear that we had packed from Canada to cook a cheap dinner in order to save money.

DAY SIX: DRIVE TO VIK

SIGHTS: Skogafoss hike, Skogar museum, sod houses, Seljavellir valley, town of Vik
ACCOMMODATION: Vik hostel (Hotel Lunda)
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car Rental, Skogar museum admission, groceries for breakfast and dinner, cafe lunch, hostel fee, golf admission and rentals

On the morning of Day 6, we hiked up to the top of the Skogafoss waterfall, then visited the town of Skogar and explored the museum and sod houses. After packing up our campsite at Skogar, we backtracked a little bit on the highway to Seljavellir valley to soak in an unreal hidden and free hot spring. After a wonderful morning there, we continued down the Ring Road to Vik. We arrived in the afternoon, found a place to stay, and I explored the town and beaches while Joey golfed. We cooked our dinner in the hostel kitchen to save money.

DAY SEVEN: DRIVE TO KIRKJUBAEJARKLAUSTUR 

SIGHTS: Dyrholaey Nature Preserve, Fjaorargljufur Canyon, town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur
ACCOMMODATION: Kirkjubaejarklaustur campground
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, groceries for all three meals, campground fee

In the morning we checked out of the hostel, and backtracked to the Dyrholaey Nature Preserve to make friends with the puffins and explore the unique terrain. Then we drove down the Ring Road, past Vik and onwards, to the amazing Fjaorargljufur Canyon, where we spent most of the afternoon. Finally we hit the town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur in time to set up camp and eat a late dinner made on our camp stove. We ate nothing but the groceries we had purchased this day to save money, and all of the hiking we did was free.

DAY EIGHT: DRIVE TO HOFN

SIGHTS: Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon, lava fields, glaciers, roadside stops, town of Hofn, Hofn pool
ACCOMMODATION: Hofn hostel (Hvammur Guesthouse)
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, Jokulsarlon tour package, groceries for breakfast and dinner, restaurant lunch, hostel fee, pool admission

This day and the next day were the biggest driving days, since there's really not much for accommodations between Kirkjubaejarklaustur and the town of Hofn except Skaftafell National Park, and we weren't planning on stopping there. So we just drove and drove. We broke up the drive by stopping at roadside waterfalls, exploring the spongey lava fields (stay on the paths!), and buying an amphibious boat tour in the amazing Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon. Jokulsarlon is a DO NOT MISS attraction, so factor this into your travel plans! Once we finally arrived in Hofn after our long day of driving, we got settled in the hostel and then went swimming in the Hofn town pool, which was really nice.

DAY NINE: DRIVE BACK TO KIRKJUBAEJARKLAUSTUR 

SIGHTS: Skaftafell National Park, Svartifoss waterfall
ACCOMMODATION: Kirkjubaejarklaustur campground
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, groceries for breakfast and lunch, dinner in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, campground fee

At this point, we realized we had to kind of high-tail it back to Reykjavik in order to catch our flight out of Iceland, so we used Hofn as our turning point and headed back west. On the way back to the campground at Kirkjubaejarklaustur, we used the backtrack opportunity to check out Skaftafell National Park, which we missed on the way to Hofn due to weather. We did some basic hiking and stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall. Back at the Kirkjubaejarklaustur campground, we wandered around the town, relaxed, played cards, and enjoyed some much needed downtime after the oodles of sightseeing we had already done.

DAY TEN: DRIVE TO HVERGERDI

SIGHTS: Hvegerdi hot springs, hotel pool
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel in Hvergerdi (Hotel Ork)
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, groceries for breakfast, cafe lunch, hotel dinner, hotel fee

We were really winding down at this point, and I was sick and tired of camping. So we splurged a little on the fancier Hotel Ork, and enjoyed eating good quality food, sleeping in proper beds, and just feeling a little pampered. (Hotel Ork isn't THAT fancy, but after tents and hostels, I felt like a queen.) We arrived in Hvergerdi around lunch time after driving from Kirkjubaejarklaustur, and since the trip was coming to an end, we ate lunch and dinner in restaurants since our groceries were running out. We explored the town, which is literally steaming due to excessive thermal action, and just relaxed at our hotel.

DAY ELEVEN: DRIVE TO REYKJAVIK

SIGHTS: hot springs along highway, lava fields, countryside
ACCOMMODATION: Rekjavik hostel
TRANSPORTATION: Rental SUV
COSTS: Car rental, breakfast, lunch, dinner, hostel fee

We cruised into Reykjavik and found our new hostel, arranged pick up for our rental vehicle, then sat in a pub and enjoyed our last evening in Iceland. Our hostel was overpriced and dirty, and I hated it. I am looking for it online now, and don't see it, so thankfully it must have closed down. I won't even bring up the name. But it did the trick, since we had to get up in the wee hours of the night to catch our bus to the airport, so I didn't even really sleep much on the bed, which I suspected did not have fresh sheets. Yuck!

DAY TWELVE: FLY FROM KEFLAVIK

SIGHTS: countryside to Iceland, Keflavik airport
ACCOMMODATION: uncomfortable airline seat again
TRANSPORTATION: shuttle bus, airplane
COSTS: Shuttle fee, airline ticket, meals, souvenirs and snacks at the airport

That about sums up the trip. We caught our shuttle, arrived at the airport, and boarded our plane smoothly. The Keflavik airport is nice and straightforward, so there's no getting mixed up about where you have to go. It was in the process of undergoing renovations when we were there, so I can only imagine it got better from that point on.

We certainly hope to go back to Iceland - see you there?

Hopefully this travel itinerary helps anyone out there who is considering doing a tour of Iceland, or is in the midst of planning one. We had such a great time, and I encourage others to design their own road trip rather than purchasing a bus package. For more tips, read my post on what to expect on a road trip around Iceland, and of course, I have a blog post about almost every sight I have listed on this itinerary (I will link them as much as I can to make finding the posts easy for you).

Would you add anything to this itinerary? Keep in mind this is just the southern portion of the island. My husband and I would like to return to Iceland and explore the western and northern regions, as I am sure we missed out by not visiting! Let me know in the comments below!

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Coast Hillcrest Hotel in Revelstoke: Hotel Review


During a recent visit to Revelstoke with my family (my Mother's Day / birthday getaway), we had the pleasure of staying in Revelstoke's Coast Hillcrest Hotel. I have noticed that my readers seem to enjoy hotel review blog posts, so I thought I'd share a little about this mountain resort getaway for anyone planning on making a trek out to the region.

The Coast Hillcrest Hotel as seen from the front. Image via.

My husband chose this hotel based on the balance between its price and star-rating. With mostly positive, glowing reviews, and a fairly average price considering the amenities, it seemed like a happy medium of 'you get what you pay for'. My husband was looking for a place with a nice restaurant, a hot tub, a beautiful mountain view, clean rooms, and easy access to town without being right smack downtown, and the Coast Hillcrest met every requirement all at a decent price.

For those of you looking to walk everywhere in Revelstoke, the Coast Hillcrest might not be your first pick. It is located just on the edge of town, and is not even really connected to Revelstoke. It would be quite a hike to get to the downtown area, so we simply drove into town each time considering we were hauling two toddlers with us everywhere we went. However, I liked the fact that it wasn't connected to Revelstoke - it had a 'cabin in the woods' feel and you were literally surrounded by nature.

The lobby at the Coast Hillcrest is part cabin-in-the-woods, part hotel retreat.

The hotel was comfortable, spacious, and reminded me of a hunting lodge, albeit a hunting lodge designed for someone very, very rich. By no means was the hotel 'glamorous' or pretentious: there weren't crystal chandeliers dripping from the ceiling or chocolates on the pillows, but it was luxurious enough. (Granted, I live in a house terrorized daily by two crazy children, so any hotel at this point is pure luxury to me!)

When you first enter the lobby, you see a large, open area filled with plush couches, grand fireplaces, a pool table and TVs waiting for you to turn on. Free coffee and lemon water are available, and the restaurant and lounge are conveniently located through a set of doors just off of the lobby's 'living room' area.

We had the kids with us, otherwise we'd have spent a couple of evening relaxing in this lobby!

Past the lobby's sitting area, you will step out onto the outdoor terrace, which features a hot tub, garden swing, fire table, and a fantastic view of the mountains. The terrace is split between the hot tub recreation area and the restaurant patio. Both look out onto a wide panorama of the mountain range found just beyond the town of Revelstoke. Below the terrace is a swath of green grass decorated with vibrant flower gardens. One flower garden fills an old wooden chuck wagon, which I thought was clever.

The amazing view of the mountains from the balcony hot tub at the Coast Hillcrest.

Other amenities include a 'spa' area on the bottom floor, which boasts a second hot tub, steam room, mini gym, and sauna. There is also a real spa where you can pay for a massage, but it wasn't open while we were there. There is no swimming pool, but my kids love to swim, so we spent time in both hot tubs for variety's sake.

Our room was fairly average for a hotel, but it was clean, bright, and had a large shared balcony that had a stellar vista of the mountain range. The washroom had a large shower but no bathtub. Our kids usually like to bathe, but the large shower enabled us to drag the kids in with us one at a time and get them clean when we needed to. I really enjoyed the full-sized shampoo and conditioner bottles: no teeny tiny little sample bottles for the Coast Hillcrest!

Our bright and clean room at the Coast Hillcrest Hotel.
I loved the full-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, but I wasn't sure if I could take them home!

We sat out on the balcony a lot, and the only bad thing about the shared balcony aspect was that my kids continually tried to sneak into other people's rooms. Good thing everyone remembered to lock their doors!

The shared balcony that our kids loved, and the green space beyond.

We ate one dinner at the hotel restaurant, and it was excellent. Since our kids are young and were more than ready to splash about in the hot tub, we ate an early dinner that night. Subsequently, we had the entire terrace to ourselves, and our kids thought it was hilarious that Mommy and Daddy ate at one table, and the kids got another table entirely to themselves. Our waitress ensured us it was okay after I fretted about her having to clean two tables, which made the kids very excited! The food was excellent, and my husband and I ordered some local craft beer from the Mount Begbie brewery. It was perfect.

Enjoying dinner and a local craft beer on the restaurant terrace. (No craft beer for Avy!)

Our little family stayed three nights at the hotel. We had originally only booked for two nights, but we were having such fun exploring Revelstoke and liked the hotel so much that it was a no-brainer to stay the third night and then just have a relaxing drive home in the morning the next day.

The kids' favourite part of our hotel - the hot tub!

My favourite part of the Coast Hillcrest Hotel was the amazing view of the mountains it offered, and the laid-back but always friendly hospitality of the establishment. I would go back in a heartbeat. In fact, when we got back from our little vacation, our neighbours asked us where we had stayed and when we told them, they admitted they come to this very hotel every year for their anniversary. So that also says a lot about the hold this place can have on you!

Enjoy the hotel tour video below. If you have ever stayed in the Coast Hillcrest Hotel at Revelstoke, share your thoughts and experiences below in the comments section!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

British Columbia's Three Valley Gap Ghost Town


Nestled along the TransCanada Highway just 27 kilometres southwest of the bustling town of Revelstoke, B.C. stands an odd and seemingly dilapidated assortment of buildings, sprawling out from the shores of the majestic Three Valley Lake. The red tin roofs, so out of place among the green mountainsides and glacial blue waters, make the establishment hard to miss. When visiting The Enchanted Forest with my family a couple of months ago, we had to drive past this cluster of buildings known as Three Valley Gap, and decided that it was worth a stop.

There is a lot to see and do at Three Valley Gap

Three Valley Gap is many things: it is a hotel, a ghost town, a restaurant and souvenir stop, and a museum. We initially just saw the sign for the hotel and ghost town, and had no idea how much 'stuff' was available. Our initial plan to stay for about one hour turned into a three-hour adventure, as we explored almost every nook and cranny we could.

The Chateau at Three Valley Gap

While we didn't stay in the hotel, called 'The 3 Valley Gap Chateau', we did wander through it in search of some restrooms. Personally, I felt that it looked a bit run-down and in need of a little updating, but I guess if they were going for the rustic, Old West, ghost town style then maybe that look was purposeful. I can't comment more on the actual chateau, as we didn't stay as guests, and I don't know what their prices are like, what the rooms or other accommodations are like, or what the hotel service is like.

However, we did enjoy time resting in the chateau's giant courtyard, which featured sprawling lawns, trickling streams, stone bridges, antique trains, and well-tended and beautiful flower gardens.

The Chateau's courtyard is beautiful

My kids had a blast playing in the little playground available for patrons, and we were very tempted to rent a kayak or paddleboat from the rental area and go explore Three Valley Lake. We didn't have swimwear or extra clothes with us, otherwise we might have. Going out on the lake looked extremely picturesque.

My son and I wave from the stone bridge in the courtyard at Three Valley Gap

We spent about an hour just playing on the playground, searching for bugs and minnows in the shallows of the lake, and exploring the gardens and bridges in the courtyard. I could not get enough of the view of Three Valley Lake, and I actually quite liked the juxtaposition of the shiny, glaringly red roofs of the hotel wings against the vibrant greens and blues of nature.

Looking for minnows in Three Valley Lake

The chateau also offers helicopter tours of Three Valley Lake and surrounding area, and my son nearly lost his mind with joy watching the helicopters take off and land on the nearby helipad just beyond the hotel. It was all I could do to keep him from running off and leaping into the helicopter's open doors!

Once the kids seemed to have had enough of exploring the lovely courtyard, we moved on to the 3 Valley Gap Heritage Ghost Town. Admission is quite reasonable, considering the amount of time you can spend wandering this 'ghost town' and exploring the antiques and history found there. Adults cost $12.00, children 12 to 17 cost $7.00, kids 6 to 11 are $5.00, and kids under 5 are free (so both my kids were free). Once inside, everything is included unless you want to shop for souvenirs at the General Store.

Delicate and colourful bottles at the apothecary in the ghost town

We paid our admission, then entered the first of many buildings that housed a series of antique and rare historical pieces, making the Ghost Town more of a museum than anything. My kids are both very interested in telephones. (Everything, including a granola bar wrapper, is made into a phone in their imaginations and held up to their ear. They often call their grandfather, nicknamed Pampa, on these pretend phones.) So they were delighted when the first room of museum pieces past the admission gate was filled with a variety of old-style telephones, some they could pick up and pretend to use.

From there we went through an empty concert hall and outside to the actual ghost town. Wooden sidewalks connected a series of reconstructed Old West stores, including an apothecary, barber shop, watchmaker, and smithy. Inside each store, behind bars, ropes, or glass, an impressive assortment of valuable antiques were on display to complete the scene.

Main Street at the Three Valley Gap Ghost Town

According to the website, some of the more famous reconstructed buildings include St. Stephen's Church, Hotel Bellevue, the Golden Wheel Saloon, the Craigellachie School House, Trapper Joe's Cabin, C.B. Hume & Co. General Merchants, Colarch's Tobacco Shop, and more. Almost all of these buildings existed in real life somewhere among this mountainous area, and were moved and rebuilt so they could be preserved in the 3 Valley Gap Ghost Town. There are over 25 buildings to explore.

My kids enjoyed the General Store the most, mainly because it was loaded with candy. They really enjoyed the colourful jars of old-fashioned stick candy, each flavour arranged in jars like a rainbow on display. The prices in the store were really quite decent, and there was a range of products from stuffed animals to dreamcatchers to hot dogs.

Vibrant stick candy adorns the shelves at the Three Valley Gap General Store

We had some fun photographing the kids wandering into the saloon, but I was slightly disappointed that the entire saloon was roped off and you couldn't go in and explore it. It was only viewable from the doorway.

The saloon - unfortunately, you can't go inside.

Another family favourite was the Wagon Repair shop, where the kids could climb up onto one of the carriages and pretend to drive it. Upstairs, there were about 30 carriages (all roped off) arranged chronologically and in great condition, so you could see the evolution of transportation in the Old West.

My kids ride the old-fashioned buggy

One of the buildings that I really liked was the beauty shop, which had incorporated bottles into the structure of the wall, making the entire room inside glow like a stained glass window. It looked neat from the outside, but simply beautiful from within.

An unusual way to build a house - using bottles!

We finished exploring every single building, then wandered out into an open area, looking a little shabby and unkempt. There was a giant, red-topped building called the Roundhouse located on the other side of the gravelled, weedy area, so that's where we headed, unsure if it was open to the public. It was, and I was extremely glad we ventured inside!

Once again, the Roundhouse initially presented itself as more of a museum gallery, with a giant steam engine standing front and centre in the first room. Various displays filled the sides of the room, from a  wedding gown display over the ages, to children's toys throughout the history of the Old West. My son actually found a small crack in the facade surrounding the toy display and squeezed himself in, determined to fly one of the delicate model planes. Lucky we nabbed him on time!

My son loves trains, so the Roundhouse was perfect for him!

The next room, however, was spectacular. It was the interior of the Roundhouse, with a soaring domed roof, decorated with bright red structural support beams. A train track ringed the entire floor of the Roundhouse, and housed about 20 different train engines and cars spanning a wide timeline. Most of the engines and cars were accessible to the public, allowing visitors to enter them, walk through the halls and see what it felt like to be a passenger in a train car from 50 years ago.

The majestic Roundhouse was a sight to see

There was even a Halloween-themed train car that we just had to explore, without our children of course!

To keep the kids busy, there was a child's play area in the Roundhouse with a playhouse, train table, dolls, books, costumes, and much more. It was great at first, but then became a nightmare because our kids were enjoying the play area so much they didn't want to leave!

Tons of old trains parked in their spots within the Roundhouse 

By this time, we had spent hours at Three Valley Gap, and were sure we had seen all there was to see. We were wrong! As we left the Roundhouse, we saw a mini-golf set up near the end of the property, all with a mining theme. Golf putters and balls were just resting in buckets along the side, free for anyone to use. We had a good time half-heartedly playing a few holes, made difficult mainly because our children kept kicking the golf balls or trying to catch them when they rolled near. Both children tried their hand at putting and it was pretty cute.

My daughter tried her hand a mini golf

The last thing we wanted to try was to ride the children's train located right next to the mini golf course, but there was no one manning the station and it appeared to be closed. So that was a little disappointing, because both of our children love trains and they would have been ecstatic to ride the small train around the yard. Maybe next time, I guess! They made up for it by finding a sand pit in the reconstructed stable area, and getting completely covered in sand using digging machines and toy trucks. It was nicely shaded, so my husband and I did not complain!

Once we had finished seeing all there was to see inside the Ghost Town, we walked back to the main chateau building and tried to find a place to eat. There was a cafeteria inside the souvenir shop that we were contemplating when the lady at the cash register told us that there was a full restaurant on the very end of the building with an amazing view of the lake. Naturally we chose to eat there.

The amazing view from the restaurant patio

The food was good, nothing extremely special, but the hostess seated us on the balcony overlooking Three Valley Lake and mountain view. It was gorgeous, and a great place to eat lunch. The food could have been horrible and I think I still would have been happy with our situation.

And of course, we left our stroller in the restaurant foyer and had to drive back the next day to grab it. Typical us.

The story of Eagle Pass and Three Valley lake - zoom in to read it!

Our day trip to Three Valley Gap was quite satisfying. We expected to spend about one hour perusing the Ghost Town and then moving on, but we ended up spending three to four hours enjoying all that Three Valley Gap had to offer. It was an affordable and enjoyable way to spend a day, and I do recommend it for those of you visiting the Revelstoke area of British Columbia.