Ottsworld is a popular travel blog featuring travel guides, adventure travel ideas, photography,and solo female travel advice. Sherry is a travel writer, photographer, and public speaker inspiring and teaching people how to travel and take career breaks.
What’s the highest point in the Netherlands? It’s Mount Scenery in the Caribbean standing at 2,910 ft. Are you confused yet?
This all makes perfect sense, because the island of Saba is a Dutch territory! In addition to Saba Island, the Dutch Caribbean also includes Bonaire, and Sint Eustatius. In case you are ever in a trivia contest, this Netherlands Caribbean tidbit is a gem!
Saba straight ahead
Hiking in Saba Island Ecosystems
It seems that there is a lot of confusion regarding the exact number of ecosystems on the island. I was told there were 7, I read other accounts naming 5, and sometimes I read there were 3. Regardless of how many there are – I think everyone can agree that there are far more ecosystems than normal on a little 5 mile square island.
I’m going to go with 3 ecosystems…why? Because I hiked in those 3 ecosystems! Plus, these three are quite distinct from one another and will offer you the largest hiking variety; coastal/tide pool, dry forest and rain forest.
There are miles and miles of trails on the island and you can bet all of them have some significant up and down. Most are signposted and cared for well. Saba’s hiking trails are the original footpaths used for hundreds of years before ‘The Road’ was created; they led to villages and down to the water for shipments. In fact one of the most difficult ones is called The Ladder because it is so steep; it was the old trail used to bring in shipments and goods before the road and harbor was built. I was told they used to carry pianos up the steep steps!
The best place to start is at the Saba Trail Shop. You’ll find this helpful shop in the Windward Side near the foot of the Mt. Scenery Trail. They can help you sort out your hiking plans, give you maps, and even provide a whistle! They also suggest that you sign in/out if you are hiking alone (its good practice to do it anytime really).
The trail shop also provides information on guided hikes. The Saba Conservation Foundation’s (SCF) Trail Manager James ‘Crocodile’ Johnson leads groups on guided hikes, that can be organized in advance by visiting or calling the Trail Shop at (599)416-2630.
I actually did all of my hikes with Crocodile James – who made for an interesting trail partner! The 68 year old is an icon on the island. He can trace his Saba family back to 1661 and the Mary’s Point settlers. Once I got used to his unusual Saban accent, he regaled me in stories and history of the island! He said locals gave him the name Crocodile James because he does things ‘more crazy things than Crocodile Dundee’. He also mentioned that he nearly got attacked by a caiman once; don’t worry though, there are no caiman on Saba! However, when he told me that he had a 38 year old girlfriend, I started referring to him as Cougar James!
Saba Conservation Foundation
You may also want to start your Saba hiking research with the Saba Conservation Foundation; is a nongovernmental organization established in 1987 with a mission to preserve and manage Saba’s natural and cultural heritage. They are responsible for trail management as well as the Saba National Marine Park management. I also hiked with Kai Wulf, the Director of SCF to learn more about the hiking trails and management. He’s originally from Germany but has called the Caribbean his home for years. He’s also an avid photographer and took me to some hidden spots for photography on the island!
Hiking In Saba’s Ecosystems
One of the coolest things about the small island is you can actually do all 3 of these hikes and ecosystems in the same day if you have a lot of energy! Start at the tidal pools in the morning, then head to Sandy Cruz trail and finish with a sunset hike at Mary’s Point.
Coastal/Tide Pool Hiking
Located in Flatpoint at the airport (the runway is the only flat area on the island!), this hike is more of a scramble than a hike. This is the only part of the island where it will be brown and feel like a dry desert. I suggest you do this hike in the morning since there are no trees to provide shade from the heat. You’ll scramble over sharp, jagged pinnacles of volcanic rock, and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, be ready to also dodge the crashing waves as you move further out onto the rocks.
This is where you’ll get to really understand the origin of Saba; the lava formations indicate a tumultuous beginning. The lava rocks are now home to a lot of sea life and beautiful, clear tidal pools. I loved hiking around the jagged lava formations searching for sea urchins in the pools! And when you turned around and looked up at the island, you could see all of the different ecosystems as if Saba was a layer cake!
Rain forest Hiking
Crocodile James took me to the Rain forest on the Sandy Cruz trail for the 2nd hike of the day. It’s located in the middle of the island from a vertical standpoint. It didn’t take us long to get swallowed up in the dense rainforest, surrounded by green everywhere! This was a mossy up and down hike that is considered more difficult. The trail connects Upper Hells Gate to Troy Hill and will take 2 to 3 hours to complete. It’s full of stunning lookouts and views as you occasionally pop out of the rain forest foliage along the trail.
We had limited time so we walked about halfway to the airport lookout and then turned around and came back. I had a clear sunny day to hike, but if it was rainy, I imagine the trail would be hard to navigate and quite slippery with all of the mossy rocks. James entertained me by pointing out giant (and useful) flora and fauna, and telling stories of pirates!
Dry Forest Hiking
For sunset, I headed to a newly refurbished trail, Mary’s Point, with Crocodile James and Kai from the SCF. Mary’s point was up, up, up through the dry forest, a completely different feel than the rain forest! Originally called Palmetto Point – it was the first settlement formed on Saba in the early 17th Century. It got the name Mary’s Point because Mary lived right on the point with her family and she was the first person you met in the village when visitors came. Plus, she seemed to also have the best cistern in that whole village, which also meant she had the all the power in the village. In the 17th century, a water source equaled power.
In 1934, due to heavy erosion in the area, residents of Mary’s Point were relocated to the Promised Land (The Windward Side). The houses were taken down completely, apart from the basements and rebuilt at their new location. But the foundations and the cisterns were left behind. James and Kai took me around the ruins of the abandoned village pointing out shards of pottery and telling stories of pirates, scientists, and drug smugglers! The two could have been a comedy act I was laughing so much.
Don’t go to Saba Island if you are looking for a beach, you won’t find one on this Caribbean island.
You also won’t find a stop light, bugs, fast food, buildings over 4 stories, crime, or cruise ships. If you are looking at this list and thinking, “This sounds like travel paradise! This is my kind of destination”, then you and I are on the same wavelength.
Is Saba for You?
It’s actually easier to describe Saba Island (prounounced SAY-BA) on what it doesn’t have than what it does have. Saba, the smallest island in the Caribbean, is also the most unique. Much like the Island of Molokai in Hawaii, it’s not trying to be a big tourist destination like its Caribbean neighbors. It is more interested in maintaining its quirkiness, uniqueness, and secret status.
Saba (population 2,000) is not for the masses, it’s for those rare pioneers who like exploring the new and unspoiled. It’s not for people looking for a beach escape, umbrella drinks, or tan lines. It’s for the curious culture hunters, the ones that can appreciate the quirkiness of small-town living.
If this sounds like you, then read on and find out why I fell in love with Saba Island, also known as the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean”. This 5 square mile island captured my curiosity and awoke my inner explorer.
So, What Will You Find on Saba Island?
Shortest Commercial Runway in the World
The airport, built in 1963, literally put Saba on the map by opening them up to tourism, but also because their runway was the shortest commercial runway in the world. At only 1,300 feet, it’s just a few feet longer than some aircraft carriers! I love landing in remote, hard-to-get-to places; this landing with cliffs on both sides was what enticed me to Saba in the first place.
Saba Island Airport Landing - YouTube
Watch my Instagram story from that day
Even though the island is only 5 square miles, you will experience three distinct ecosystems; coastal/tide pool, dry forest and rain/elfin forest. Where else can you experience such diversity in such a small place? Nowhere.
World Class Diving
Saba’s deep waters are known for it’s world class diving. You’ll find pinnacles (island that never formed), drop-offs, and caves that start 40 feet deep. Plus, you can see sharks, turtles and fish you don’t normally see in the Caribbean. The whole area around the island is a National Marine Park and is protected.
However, even for the non-diver like me, there are still a few places to snorkel! We went out snorkeling near Wells Bay. The corals were lovely and colorful; however, I will admit it was a bit deep for snorkeling. Regardless I would suggest this snorkeling to anyone as it’s a super way to get out on the water and see the rugged landscape of this island from a completely different perspective. I was in awe of the views and the sheer cliffs above and below the water!
Saba may be known for its excellent diving, however the real hidden secret is the hiking! This is a hiker’s paradise with 3 different eco-systems in this little 5 square mile island! You can experience rain forest, dry forest, and coastal/tide pools hiking trails. There are about 20 different trails with miles and miles of hiking to incredible views.
I went out with Crocodile James, a local hiking guide (and all-around interesting and quirky guy) to experience hiking in Saba’s 3 ecosystems. The hiking on Saba is challenging considering the only piece of flat land on the island is the 1,300 foot airport runway! Expect a lot of up and down, and even some scrambling at times. However, the trails are maintained extremely well for such a small island. You can tell that hiking on Saba is revered by the locals based on how well they take care of the trails.
Saba isn’t only about adrenaline inducing hiking and diving – they also have a really strong arts scene. I was able to get hands-on creating glass beads and jewelry with JoBean Glass Art for a morning. With a little instruction I was suddenly creating glass beads – I was surprised at how fast it can be done! JoBean’s Saba inspired glass art and jewelry is sold at her workshop or at Kokona, a little art themed gift shop in the Windward Side. Island artisans fill the shop with creative works of art from food/drink to sculpture/paintings.
The sun dips down in the sky disappearing into the Atlantic Ocean. I seldom have watched a sunset so intently; waiting, waiting, waiting for that last little sliver to disappear. So much rested on that last sliver. My gaze moved from the sliver of sun to the restaurant around me. Families and couples sat at the tables with a platter of water, orange juice, a hard-boiled egg, and some bread in front of
them. It was then that I realized that traveling during Ramadan in Morocco was a real learning experience.
This wasn’t the first time I was in a predominantly Muslim country during Ramadan. In fact, I still remember being in Zanzibar in 2006 on my career break travels when the hotel owner warned my sister and I not to go out right after sunset because it was Ramadan and the streets would be empty. I didn’t really understand what he meant – but we did take his advice. I was also in Istanbul Turkey one hot July during Ramadan; I was intrigued with the holiday, but I didn’t really try to learn much about it – until now.
A man sits in a mosque and reads the Quran in Turkey
When I arrived in Morocco, I had no idea Ramadan was supposed to start in 3 days. Unlike Christmas that falls on the same day every year, Ramadan changes days every year. The Islamic calendar has only 29 or 30 days in each month; therefore, Ramadan changes by 13 days every year. That was the first of many surprises that I encountered regarding Ramadan in Morocco.
For some reason I always equated Ramadan as the big Muslim
holiday, similar to Christian Christmas, but I learned that this holiday was
far from joyous, in fact it seemed like more torture than ‘joy to the world’. Yet I also learned that Ramadan had more in
common with Christmas than I first thought.
Ramadan in Morocco
I took a lot of time on this trip to learn more about this important time. And it was interesting being there at the beginning seeing the daily life go from normal to Ramadan. 95% of the population of Morocco is Muslim, so this holiday affects pretty much everyone. However, I wanted to also understand how it affected travelers like me and ultimately answer the question – should you travel to a country when they are celebrating Ramadan?
But first – some background.
What is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the month in the Islamic calendar when the Quran
was messaged to the prophet.
Mosque in Casablance
Praying in Turkey
Mosque in Casablanca
At this time Muslims fast from eating, drinking (even
water!), smoking, and sex from sun up to sun down. Depending on the time of year the month
falls, this can be up to 16 hours of fasting a day! They do this in order to know and feel the
hunger pains of the less fortunate and be grateful for what they have. It’s a
time to remember the poor and destitute. It is supposed to be a time when you
work hard and focus more on religion and God. Muslims spend more time at the
mosque and more time praying. And they
always go to Friday prayers.
How is Ramadan Celebrated Today?
Ramadan is powerful…so powerful it has the ability to turn
back time! On the night before Ramadan started our guide told us the clocks
would be changing by an hour. No – this
wasn’t some sort of daylight savings time – this was Ramadan time. By moving the clocks back an hour it allowed
people to break their fast a little earlier in the evening. It will change back after the month is done.
Upon searching #Ramadan2019 – I did find a lot of food pictures!
“Ramadan can be hypocritical,” our guide Rasheed told me. “Normally people aren’t in the mosque, but
during Ramadan it’s full, you can’t even find space to pray!” It’s true – many times as we walked around
the cities, we saw people praying outside the mosque as there wasn’t room
inside. It seems as if Christmas and Ramadan have more in common than I
thought! What church doesn’t have to
pull the folding chairs out of storage every December 24th for the
extra people at the services they only see once a year?
And also, like Christmas, according to Rasheed it seems that
Ramadan has also gotten caught up in modern day commercialism, straying from
the original meaning and origins. Families and restaurants often have huge
dinners on display for after sunset – going the other extreme to overabundance.
I did see plenty of ads for ‘breaking of the fast’ dinners at fancy hotels
around the area while staying in various cities in Morocco. It seems that even
Ramadan has been swallowed up by social media and marketing.
Fasting and other Hardships
The abstinence includes food, drink, sex, and smoking. I’m not a smoker, so I personally think that
the not drinking any liquid would be the real challenge. Especially considering it was well into the
90’s while I was in Morocco and I can’t imagine 15 hours without any water in
that heat. Plus, we were traveling
around the Sahara Desert; it sounds like a bad horror movie – not being able to
drink in the desert!
Rasheed said that the first 2 or 3 days of fasting are the
hardest as your body adjusts to a new schedule.
I personally can’t imagine how hard it must be in the beginning,
especially if you have to be around people eating like our poor guide. He would
normally get us to lunch and then go in the back and take a nap or read the
He also mentioned that this is a month where you get very
little sleep since in the dark hours you are also making sure you are drinking
a sufficient amount and waking up early to eat. He normally drinks 3 Liters of
water at night; he’s up all night peeing.
This is where we get the term breakfast, and breaking fast
at sunset is a pretty welcome experience as you would guess! I noticed that
people go about this in different ways; some load up on food, and some start
really light with water and soup. But the
thing that is consistent among everyone is that they are inside eating
something at sunset. This is when the
entire place full of hustle bustle just minutes before, turns into a ghost town
for an hour; vendors close up their shops, and the streets are quiet. It’s actually an eerie experience to see the
streets of Marrakech go from full to empty as if the zombie apocalypse is
coming and no one gave me the message.
One of my favorite evenings was sitting at the Casablanca
beach restaurant watching the sun go down.
I could sort of feel the energy in the air as families and couple came
into the restaurant to sit down and wait.
The waiter was calm and collected as he placed trays of water, orange
juice, bread, and egg in front of them.
I noticed that not many people were even watching the sunset. I had expected that everyone would be facing
the setting sun just waiting for it to disappear – because that’s what I would
be doing if it were me! But to my surprise most people weren’t even watching
the sunset. They weren’t really talking either; most just sat in a zombie state
I was also expecting everyone to open their water and chug
it as soon as the sun disappeared. Or maybe quickly shoving the bread and egg
in their mouth with a feeling of relief. However, it wasn’t like that at all;
the people in the restaurant just got up and went the buffet at the restaurant
and filled their plates. It was all very
civil. I was astonished at why they
didn’t open their bottle of water or drink their orange juice first. I’m pretty sure I’d be ravaging after 15
hours of nothing.
Travel Considerations for Ramadan
During this time of fasting, I think you have to be considerate as a traveler, but it doesn’t mean that all tourism stops. There were a few times on this trip where I hit my ‘hangry stage’, my stomach was growling, it was hot, and it was taking us forever to walk for lunch. I had to stick with the schedule and the group which irritated me in my angry, hungry state.
My anger turned to our guide who was walking too slow for my liking. My stomach growled again as I took a drink from my water bottle and studied our guide walking slowly in his djellaba (long robe). He hadn’t even had breakfast or a sip of water on this hot day, and he was slowly plodding along doing his job leading us as he had been all morning in this heat. My hanger suddenly softened a bit and gave me a whole new respect to what they were going through. While I was having a childlike temper tantrum inside my head thanks to my hunger, they were total professionals; you never would have noticed any discomfort on their part.
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer Linda Martinez. I met Linda at her hostel, the Bee Hive, in Rome 7 years ago! Linda and I connected on many levels (she’s an American expat in Italy), and we have remained friends ever since. When I was asked to cover an article about day trips from Rome, I knew Linda would be the best person to write this since she lives there! So you get a real treat – a true expert writing these tips for places to visit on a day trip from Rome! BTW – I still believe The Beehive Hostel is the best place to stay in Rome! All opinions and experiences expressed here are Linda’s. – Sherry
Rome celebrated its 2,772nd birthday this year, and with such an ancient and historical city the options are endless for things to see and do in Rome. However, every once in a while, a break from Rome’s beautiful chaos is necessary. There are many choices in the vicinity which allow for a taster of small-town life in Italy without taking too much time out of a tight travel schedule.
Day Trip from Rome by Car
A car is the best way to reach smaller towns and renting a car from Rome allows for flexibility from train and bus schedules and easier access to places that are not well-connected by public transit. Within an hour and a half drive from Rome are some excellent options for a day trip from the big city, so let’s head north!
The Green Heart of Italy
The region of Umbria located just an hour and a half north of Rome is known as Italy’s “green heart” because of the abundance of green – forests, gently rolling hills, and lush vegetation. Many famous towns located in this region include Assisi and Perugia which are a bit further afield, but Orvieto, Civita di Bagnoregio, and Bolsena are close enough to Rome to make it an ideal day trip.
most famous Umbrian town close to Rome is Orvieto. Renowned for its magnificent
12th century Duomo with gorgeous black and white stripes and daunting yet
exquisite Luca Signorelli frescos, Orvieto is a lively and thriving small town
that is situated like an island sitting up on tufo volcanic rock.
best place to leave your car is in the large free parking area behind the train
station at Piazza della Pace. From there walk into the station, exit the front
and take the funicular up into the town 160m above the station. You can then
either take the A bus which leaves you in front of the cathedral in under 5
minutes or you can walk up into the center of town in 10 minutes.
find excellent cuisine throughout Orvieto and many excellent restaurants to
choose from (such as Trattoria del Moro-Aronne) for delicious white wine
(Orvieto Classico) and regional specialties like truffles, cinghiale (wild
boar) and umbrichelli style pasta which is a thick eggless flour & water
a twice-weekly outdoor market on Thursdays and Saturdays with fruit and
vegetables, cheese, fish, roast pork (porchetta) or roast chicken as well as
housewares, inexpensive clothes, and second-hand clothing stands. Besides the
cathedral, there are various museums you can visit including the Etruscan
museum or the works of the Duomo and the towns medieval bell and clock tower
Torre del Moro has access to the top for spectacular views of the surrounding
countryside and the medieval layout of the city. Come early, enjoy the sights,
eat a fantastic lunch and then continue your exploration of the surrounding
Civita di Bagnoregio
as “the dying city,” Civita was founded over 2,000 years ago and bears its name
because of its eroding foundation. Unfortunately, many buildings over the
centuries have fallen off to the side as the foundation has crumbled. What
remains is a small borgo scenically perched on a hill and only accessible by a
long pedestrian bridge.
few people are permanent residents here as most of the population is comprised
of visitors and in the winter months, you may find only a handful of people in
the 5th century Church of San Donato, grab a coffee or lunch at one of the
various bars or restaurants such as Alma Civita or visit a museum in the
basement of a private home. This makeshift museum shows you what life used to
be like in the town with various artifacts.
can park down and walk up over the bridge, but keep in mind that it is quite an
exerting walk so if you have mobility or health problems or are short on time
you may want to admire the view from afar. Follow the signs to “Belvedere,”
park in the for-pay parking lot and take photos from the scenic vantage point
before heading to Bolsena.
Bolsena is the main town situated on the shores of Lake Bolsena, Europe’s largest volcanic lake. Bolsena is just about a 25 minute drive from Orvieto, and these towns are tied historically by an incident that took place in Bolsena’s cathedral in 1263.
legend has it that a visiting priest had doubts about the doctrine regarding
the body and blood of Christ. During a mass, the host started to bleed and
stained the covering of the altar. Orvieto at the time was the papal seat, and
so the cathedral was built there to commemorate what was called The Miracle of
The medieval castle of Rocco Monaldeschi dominates the town and has excellent views of the lake from its top. On sunny days, the deep blue of the water makes for stunning views from the surrounding hills, and with a car, you can head up for a delicious lunch at places like La Tana dell’ Orso, with panoramic views of the lake. Head back down for either a stroll along Corso della Repubblica for a gelato at the famous Gelateria Santa Cristina and to the 11th-century Basilica of Santa Cristina or stroll down Viale Nord Colesanti to the lakefront and its quaint piazza, benches, and bars for a sunset aperitivo.
Rome Car Rental
There are plenty of places to rent a car in Rome. However sometimes it’s nice to rent from the airport so that you avoid the chaotic Rome city driving
Linda Martinez and her husband Steve Brenner are Americans (now also Italians) who moved to Rome in 1999 with a dream, two cats and a Swiss Army knife to start their hostel, The Beehive. Besides offering a clean, comfortable place to stay, The Beehive has been a place for community and connection for visitors and residents alike for the past 20 years with a range of events such as vegetarian/vegan dinners, yoga, pasta & pizza making classes, storytelling evenings and more. Plus, Linda is also available to
Nothing makes you appreciate a small group tour more than when you are suddenly thrown onto a big charter coach and are surrounded by tons of people, tiny seats, and some person speaking in a crackling microphone about a billion dull facts that you could care less about. As I looked around the packed bus, I wondered if anyone was listening to this guide or not.
With the distorted microphone noise droning on, I decided to spend my time looking out the window instead of trying to make sense out of the commentary. I was on a small group tour in Costa Rica and most of the time the 5 people in our group were in our own private little van – it was perfect for conversation and intimacy. However, for this leg of our trip we had to join a bigger tour bus in order to get to a boat that would take us to Tortuguero National Park. This was an unusual situation as normally we never had to travel by coach bus on our itinerary.
“You don’t know what you have until it’s gone”
That’s the quote that kept running through my head as I sat in the back seat of the big bus thinking about how thankful I was that this was just a one-time thing and we’d be back to our close little group shortly.
Watching Rural Costa Rica Landscapes Pass By
When I was a kid my family took many road trips. I remember being stuck in the back seat bored (no electronic entertainment those days). My mother would inevitably tell me to stop complaining and just look out the window and enjoy the view. I wasn’t too keen on the advice and normally would just pout for a while and bug her again. Now 40 years later I was finally taking her advice.
I stared out the grimy bus window and watched rural Costa Rica go by. As my mind slowed down from all the inner chatter, I started to notice the landscape out the window. Rows and rows of banana fields with an occasional banana packing plant were fascinating to me. Simple, colorful homes with the front door open to let the breeze blow through. More often than not you’d find a dog curled up and napping in the doorway. Hammocks were often found on the front porch. This was pura vida…the good/simple/pure life in Costa Rica; slow and simple.
However, it was the fences that caught my attention.
They weren’t the normal fences I was used to. They were made of planted trees and then connected by barbed wire. These living fences were fascinating, and also quite beautiful. Much like the rock fences you find in Malta and Ireland, Costa Rica’s living fences are like a piece of artwork, but the artist is mother nature.
I often fixate on weird things in a foreign culture – trees and fencing are two things I’m strangely fascinated by – and living fences combine them both!
To start with, I think it’s the best darn idea in fencing I’ve ever seen! In the rural areas to mark off property lines and livestock areas, you’ll find “trees” planted along the perimeter of the fields, connected to one another by barbed wire. These aren’t big trees, instead they normally have small trunks which look somewhat like fenceposts. The trees are trimmed occasionally so they don’t get too big and sway too much in the wind which would pull the barbed wire loose.
How do you Make a Living Fence?
Basically, they make a cutting from an existing tree, stick it in the ground, and it will grow thanks to the rich soil in the area. The barbed wire is added immediately and often the tree grows around the barbed wire. It takes a year for a tree to form once you plant the branch. They mainly use a couple of different varieties of fast-growing trees in Costa Rica for these rural fences; Quick Stick (English name) and the Machete Flower tree(poro in Spanish). And yes that means that if the Machete Flower tree is used there are blooms in February and March, making these fences even more beautiful!
Good for the Environment
These fences aren’t simply beautiful, they are great for the environment too. They take less maintenance, no painting, they provide a home for more mosses and leaves, provide shade for the livestock, and decrease erosion. And they are free! As I watched fence after fence out the bus window in various stages of growth, I fell in love with them more and more. In fact, when we came across a rare standard fence and I saw people working on it painting it – it seemed to stick out like an eyesore!
Where Can you See Them in Costa Rica?
All I had to do was look out of the bus window! You will find the fences everywhere once you get out into the rural areas of Costa Rica. When we were no longer in the big bus and back in our private vehicle, we even made a few stops so I could photograph them and get a better look at them up close.
Before I knew it, we were pulling up to the docks to catch the boat to Tortuguero. I guess my mom was right, sometimes looking out the window does make the time go faster!
How You Can Book This Trip
Club Adventures has done the research, sorted the logistics and made the connections. But, the narrative that unfolds is entirely yours to create. Learn more at Club Adventures
I stared at Arenal shrouded in clouds; it looked the same as it did when I visited in 2003. However, the town around it – La Fortuna – had changed immensely. It was more established and ready to handle tourism. The restaurants all had English menus, and served cappuccinos. Humans and society change fast, while nature seems to change slowly.
I love revisiting countries I went to before I was a writer. I enjoy seeing how they’ve changed, and developed from a tourism perspective. Plus – I think when I travel as a writer I tend to take much more in and really experience the place in a different way than I did when I was escaping for my annual vacation.
I first went to Costa Rica in 2003 with my girlfriend Angie; we traveled independently. I was a novice traveler, but Angie and I made our way through the country hiking, zip-lining (I question the safety of that now in 2003!), enjoying wildlife, drinking lots of cerveza, meeting boys, and working on our tans at the beach (likely with spf 10)! Travel was different back then…and apparently so was my metabolism and waistline.
Costa Rica By Small Group Tour
“I’ve never taken a small group tour; I normally travel independently.” That’s the normal reaction I get when I tell people I’m going on a small group tour. It’s as if all they hear is the word “group” and they immediately get visions of coach buses and following a guide with a flag. I get it – it makes me cringe too. But don’t overlook the word “small”. Small groups are normally around 10 people; my Costa Rica tour only had 5 on it! There is no coach bus and flag-carrying tour guide herding you up. Instead, it’s actually a lot of fun!
Our group spotting animals in the rainforest!
I understand the trepidation though – as I too like to travel independently and have done a great deal of travel that way. However, I have found small group tours to be just as fun and immersive as my independent travel. The key is that the small group trip still allows you time to be individual and make your own script. And the recent trip I took with Club Adventures was a good example of how small group tours can be an incredible way to see and be immersed in a country, while still remaining an individual.
This return trip would take me back to some of the same places, but this time there was more local interaction, local experiences, and of course more spf, less beer and boys.
Costa Rica is in a prime location; think of it as the little, narrow center of an hourglass – where the sand squeezes through and connects the two primary parts. That is Costa Rica’s role to North and South America; the land bridge. When the land bridge formed it provided a way for all animals to pass from one area to the other. Because of that, it’s left with an incredible amount of biodiversity. It may only have 0.03% of the surface land in the world, but that small area packs a big punch.
My stops this time included La Fortuna (Arenal Volcano), Tortuguero National Park, and Puerto Viejo. This was a perfect diversity of locations; inland volcanoes for hiking and rugged adventure, canals and wildlife viewing, and a stop in a laid-back beach town.
Never too Old for Adventure
One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 15 years is my love of being active when I’m on vacation. This trip to Costa Rica was full of adventures in each region we went to.
Hiking at Arenal
How does it feel to hike on some of the newest land on the planet? Well – it doesn’t have that ‘new car smell’, but it was pretty cool knowing that the soil beneath our feet was the result of a 50-year transformation from lava rock to soil to forest. Arenal Volcano last erupted 50 years ago and lava flowed down the side forming the land that we hiked on!
With a Local Insider we took off on a beautiful hike up to a great viewing point of Arenal Volcano. When I first went to Costa Rica this was an active volcano that occasionally had lava seeping out of it; that was the big draw. However, the lava stopped in 2010, so now it’s the hiking and hot springs that draw people in!
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer Sherry Spitsnaugle. I met Sherry at a Denver event over the holiday season and found out that she was a travel writer and also writes for the library in Denver! So not only does she have a cool name, but she also has a way with words! Plus, she knows all of the great places to hide away at the library to work! I was pretty jealous of her crane migration trip to Nebraska this year, so I asked her to write about it. All opinions and experiences expressed here are hers. –Sherry
The pre-dawn sky is pitch black as I slog in my new Wellies to a bird blind in the heartlands of south-central Nebraska. Here, our group of 18 will await the sights and sounds of the graceful sandhill cranes—some 100,000 of them—now settled on a nearby sandbar of the Platte River Valley.
A light mist falls following a night of steady rain as we walk in strict silence: we do not want to scare the cranes. The only sounds I hear are of my rubber boots as I slosh along the puddle-strewn path.
Author walks the path after the morning VIP viewing of the sandhill cranes.
We walk single file for about ten minutes until we reach two side-by-side wooden blinds, built discreetly into the earth.
Luxury Bird Blinds
We split into two groups and quietly enter the luxury blinds (think furnace!).
Even though I’m bundled in a down coat and the temps are above freezing, the morning chill is real. We settle on the bleacher-style seats to wait for the “show.”
The sandhill cranes have been converging on this area for thousands and thousands of years. Every spring, some 500,000 gather here to fatten up as they migrate north to Canada, Alaska and Siberia. In the daytime, the cranes feast on scrap corn in nearby fields.
As dusk approaches, they fly to the river to roost on the sandbars. They awaken at dawn and begin all over again.
VIP Crane Migration Experience
The Crane Trust has created this VIP experience, complete with a night in a nearby cottage and two viewings. Last night, over drinks and a buffet dinner, staff gave an orientation, sharing sandhill crane facts—their wing span is six feet—as well as guidelines and etiquette for when we are in the blinds: cell phone ringers off and no flash. After dinner, we made our way to the blinds for the evening viewing to watch the birds land after their day of feeding in nearby meadows. The night viewing was gregarious—complete with cabernet—compared to this morning’s.
A Crane Trust staff member pours wine at the evening viewing.
There’s something special about covertly slipping into the blinds to be in place before the birds awake. Other than some soft whispers, we are quiet as mice.
The group in our blind includes a husband and wife from Denver, traveling with her folks; a mom and daughter duo from Kansas City; one woman who is celebrating her birthday today with her husband, from Lincoln; and my pal Donna and me, from Denver. Nicole Arcilla, Ph.D., and lead scientist, joins us.
Laura Campbell, age 17, traveled five hours with her mom from their Kansas City home the previous day just to view the crane migration in Nebraska. By the wrap-around smile on her face, it’s obvious she is ecstatic to be here.
“I love this, more than just about anything,” she says, grinning.
Laura Campell, Kansas City, is on her third trip to view the cranes. She plans to return next year for a photo workshop.
The high school junior is passionate about photography and wildlife, which she plans to study in college. As the youngest in the group, by decades, Laura seems to have wisdom and maturity beyond her years. She talks about the environment and its creatures with respect and joy. This is their third trip to watch the crane migration in Nebraska, and they are already planning next year’s visit, when Laura wants to attend a photo seminar.
We begin to hear warbling, and like everything I’ve read, the sounds are melodious and captivating. Nicole whispers that the high-pitched screeching is the juveniles. My untrained ear hears only harmonious crooning.
With binoculars and high-powered lenses, we stand near small windows to watch as the elegant creatures come to life. A sliver of light appears, and I begin to see silhouettes of the long-limbed birds.
I’m reminded what a staff member suggested: focus on one or two birds and concentrate on watching them. One person in our group says the birds look like they are stretching as if they are getting the kinks out when they first wake up. Another person says it looks like they are dancing.
Now, as I’m glued with binoculars to a little crane family, as I like to think of them, I absorb the moment and the peacefulness.
Although there’s no glorious sunrise with this morning and the skies are the color of cement, no one complains. The year has brought dangerous and destructive flooding to the state, and we are grateful for our experience, just as it is.
Too soon, the sky is light and the cranes have left. A soft drizzle falls as we walk to the vans for the short drive back to the cottages. I leave with a renewed appreciation for the beauty of the heartlands, Mother Nature…and dry socks.
Meet the Author
Sherry Spitsnaugle, guidebook author, travel writer, wife and dog mom, first expressed her urge to explore at age four when she packed up her little red wagon and took off for an adventure— around the block. Today, she continues to fulfill her travel bug tendencies, exploring and writing about her experiences.
In an effort to bring you some new voices on Ottsworld, here is a guest post from writer and traveler, Staci Schwarz. I met Staci a few years ago when she and her family left for a family sabbatical. I loved following her travels and subsequent learnings from that experience. However now her kids are off to school, so she’s now an empty nester! I asked her to write about her recent California road trip – her first empty nest travel experience. All opinions and experiences expressed here are hers. –Sherry
As my husband and I sat down to plan our Pacific Coast Highway trip, empty nest syndrome was hitting us hard. It had been nearly 12 years since we had traveled without the kids, but now our daughter was in college and our son was working full time and living on his own. They were less likely to want to spend their time and money traveling with their parents – which was hitting me hard.
Travel is my favorite family activity. From road trips down the Mississippi River to big city explorations in Chicago to a 5 month trip around Turkey, India and SE Asia, we have had some amazing adventures together. I love seeing the world through their eyes, hearing their thoughts about what is happening around them and watching as new experiences widen their worldview. I wasn’t sure how we would do on our first trip without them.
The Pacific Coast Highway and a Campervan
Our objective was to rent a campervan and drive the Pacific Coast Highway – Highway 1 – from San Francisco as far south as we could manage in 9 days and then back up to Napa to visit some friends. We rented out campervan from Lost Campers and the process was quick and easy. We even met a couple in the parking lot who were returning their van and they passed onto us some supplies they hadn’t used including a few cans of beer, much to the delight of my husband.
And then it was time. How would we do on this first adventure as empty nesters? As Mason started up the van, we looked at each other and smiled nervously as we pulled out of the lot and into the California sun.
We didn’t want to be stuck to an agenda or feel rushed so we chose to not set any specific destinations and allowed ourselves to stop wherever we wanted and for however long we wanted. We let the road guide our itinerary as we embraced our new freedom without kids. This turned out to be a magnificent idea as it allowed the perfect combination of relaxation and adventure.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but the pace of the trip and the laidback atmosphere of California would give us the time and space to reconnect, to be present with one another, to dream about future travels. We got plenty of “windshield time” which is our code for that precious time in the car when we can focus on one another without the distractions of phones or other screens. Windshield time can be used for deep conversations, for scheming and dreaming or for singing duets to our favorite road tunes loudly and mostly off-key.
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway 1
On our first afternoon in San Francisco, we visited the Haight. Every picture shows us dog tired, with dark circles under our eyes and weak smiles. We had taken red eye flights and now it was catching up with us because even though we still consider ourselves young, our bodies tend to disagree. Eventually we ended up dragging the blanket from the van into the middle of a sun-drenched park and taking a catnap. It was glorious and remains one of my favorite moments of the trip.
That delicious spontaneity is something that you lose sometimes as you parent. Life for young children is often easier when it is structured and before you know it, it can become so structured that you forget the deep joy of gratefully accepting whatever the moment has to offer. And is there any better place than the Haight to celebrate spontaneity and freedom of sprit? We were raised by hippies and strolling through the Haight felt a little bit like connecting to our roots. It took us right back into the beauty of spontaneity and it thrilled me to no end.
It would have been easy to spend the entire week in San Francisco. There was certainly no lack of things to do. But the goal was to drive Highway 1, so we did a whirlwind tour of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown and Muir Woods, blowing kisses to the Golden Gate Bridge as we headed out of town and hit the open road.
The Slow Coast
The stretch of Highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz is known as the Slow Coast. Slow Coast is a state of mind, a state of being, if you will. It scoffs at the need to rush anywhere and encourages a change of pace, a heightened sense of being present, a little “stop and smell the flowers” frame of mind. With lovely little shops tucked into Airstreams and roadside stands selling every fruit and baked treat your heart could ever desire, it really does make a compelling argument for taking your time. Throw in the best strawberry shortcake I have ever had in my life from Swanton Berry Farm (with an honor system box to pay, no less!) and I was completely sold on their motto of “In Slow We Trust.”
Get the strawberry shortcake!!
Santa Cruz Surf History
We were excited about Santa Cruz and it didn’t disappoint! We spent part of the day at the tiny surf museum learning about the history and evolution of the sport. It was absolutely captivating and it gave some great insight into a tradition that helped to shape the culture of California’s coast. We made a stop on the Boardwalk to have a funnel cake and then sat on the beach for hours with our toes sunk in the sand quietly enjoying one another’s company and listening to the song of the waves.
On the boardwalk
Monterey was a dream. If I could go back immediately to any of the places we visited, I would choose Monterey with no hesitation. The historic walking tours absolutely wooed me and the Monterey aquarium sealed the deal. I remember strolling along hand in hand with Mason as we searched for the last remaining whalebone sidewalk when he looked at me and grinned.
“What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he replied.
We were both very pleased with ourselves. We were doing this!
When we were exploring Muir Woods outside of San Francisco, we met a woman who told us to skip the whale watching tours in Monterey and head to Moss Landing instead. We took her advice and were so glad that we did! Captain Kate met us and about 10 others on the dock and offered us all an essential oil blend of peppermint and lavender to help calm sea sickness and then off we went! Seeing whales has been at the top of my bucket list for years so you can imagine my squeals of delight when we came upon 6 humpback whales and nearly 200 seals feeding together. The seals would dive down first followed by the whales and then the ocean would become perfectly still and calm. A few minutes later the surface would erupt in a riotous flurry of seals and two deep breaths later, the whales would breach. We must have watched this cycle nearly 30 times and it made me wonder-filled every single time.
Over the course of the 9 days we were in California, we boated through what seemed like a billion translucent jellyfish. We searched for moonstones on Moonstone Beach and came away with handfuls of little glowing pebbles. We drank sparkling wine in Napa. We laughed a lot. We drove with the windows down so that we could smell the ocean and the fog in Big Sur. We bought books at the Henry Miller library and we read Dharma Bums together before we fell asleep at night. We may have cried due to the beauty of it all (ok this was mostly just me).
I am an ocean baby. I am completely blissed out when I am near the water. The sound and smell of the ocean runs through my veins. Mason, on the other hand, is a mountain dude. California completely seduced us both. We talk about our road trip almost weekly with a dreamy longing in our voices.
But What About the Kids?
We missed the kids a little, but we re-discovered pieces of ourselves that we had lost as parents. We remembered how much we love to spend time together. How we thrive equally from deep conversations and comfortable silences. We discovered that adventure is a mindset and approaching new places with a sense of wonder is one of our superpowers. We remembered how much we love freedom and spontaneity and going with the flow. We remembered that we are road tripping rock stars and we came home confident that we were going to be able to handle this empty nest thing just fine!
Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip Tips:
• It feels so adventurous to rent a campervan and dream of waking up to the sounds of waves on the ocean. However, it is very difficult to find places that will let you sleep in your vehicle and it’s illegal to pull over and camp on the side of the road. Renting a tent and camping supplies may be a better route to go.
• Take your time. The point of the 1 isn’t to arrive at any particular destination, but to enjoy the journey. Stop as often as you can at every lookout, in every town and at as many roadside produce stands as your stomach can handle.
• Have your heart set on whale watching? Stop in Moss Landing rather than Monterey. The tours are less expensive and Captain Kate absolutely elevated our experience. Her enthusiasm was contagious! We enthusiastically recommend Blue Ocean Whale Watching!
• Stop at the Surf Museum in Santa Cruz. It is tiny, but mighty. We loved it.
• Put together a travel playlist before you go. This is such an iconic road trip and it demands an iconic soundtrack.
• Bring layers. It can get chilly and foggy on the coast even in the summer. We did not plan accordingly and ended up buying sweatshirts to avoid freezing to death.
• Fuel up before you hit Big Sur. The long stretch of highway has very few gas stations and gas is astronomically more expensive. We learned this the hard way.
• Eat as much avocado as you can. Trust me on this.
Meet the Author
Hello! My name is Staci and I am a writer, traveler, and dancing queen. I live in Iowa with my husband and my puppy. When I am not traveling, I host ecourses that help inspire people to live in harmony with the seasons. Sometimes I host writing retreats and sometimes you’ll find me teaching body positive movement classes. I am a great many things! Stop on by my Insta or website and say hi!
The world moves pretty fast. I am often stunned when I think of all of the changes we’ve gone through in the last 12 years since I’ve started traveling. Smart phones, social media, smart watches, Airbnb, ride sharing apps, and streaming television all appeared spearheaded by computer-based change. Technology seems to move at the speed of light sometimes. But it wasn’t that long ago that the gasoline engine was the change agent that had everyone all riled up, making horse drawn transportation extinct. The engine also brought a new way to travel through snowy terrain once only accessible by dog sled.
The challenges of cross-country transportation in the winter led to the invention of the snowmobile, an all-terrain vehicle specifically designed for travel across deep snow where other vehicles floundered. However, snowmobiling has morphed from a necessity to a hobby or adventure pastime these days. And there’s no place where it’s more utilized than in Quebec.
Why You Should Go Snowmobiling in Quebec
There are plenty of places you can go snowmobiling for fun. However, few places are as good as Quebec for snowmobiling, and here’s why.
I was surprised to learn that the snowmobile was actually invented in Quebec. No wonder why it seems to be in their blood. The first Ski-Doo was launched in 1959. It was a new invention of Joseph-Armand Bombardier of Valcourt, Québec. The original name was Ski-Dog, but a typographical error in a Bombardier brochure changed the name Ski-Dog to Ski-Doo.
In order to snowmobile you must have snow, and lots of it! The snow in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean lasts approximately 5 months; From mid-November to mid-April. It’s practically a guaranteed winter with an average or 275 inches of snow each season.
Trails and Tours
The region has 2,300 miles of trails; it’s basically a whole road system to get around in the winter. You’ll also find many options for hiring guides, doing multi day tours, and snowmobile friendly bars, restaurants, and hotels in the region.
I went on a 2 day snow mobile outing with Simon, a guide from OrganisAction – Québec Hors Circuits. I had been on a snowmobile before, but only for a few hours at a time. This would be the first time I would spend multiple days snowmobiling and covering long distances. I was excited to have a more in-depth experience and see more of the region via the back country trails.
The first day we had sunny skies for our 60 mile ride from Chicoutimi to L’Anse Saint-Jean. Simon gave me a quick run through of how to turn it on/off, use the throttle, brake, and put it in reverse. I took off with a jolt reminiscent of the first time I hit the accelerator of a car; it was pretty choppy at first! I started slow and cautious as any new beginner. But as I started to get the hang of being on the snow mobile, I eventually found myself going faster and faster trying to keep up with Simon. The entire first day was a learning experience and I loved every moment as we glided through the woods and along the riverbanks and eventually out to the fjord for some incredible views. I learned that I loved to go fast, but that wasn’t the only thing I learned on my first multi-day snowmobile tour.
7 Surprising things I learned as a Beginner Snowmobiling in Quebec
It’s Not Cold
I was initially worried about being on a snow mobile all day out in the bitter cold and snow. I wondered how in the world I would stay warm outside all day riding. What I quickly learned is that the people who manufacture snow mobiles have thought of everything. These machines had all kinds of built in perks to keep you warm and comfortable for hours and hours. The handles had warmers on them, there were boot warmers where you put your feet, and they even had a heated throttle for your thumb! You could easily control the temperatures so that there was never a time that my hands or toes were cold.
In addition, the whole machine seemed to be designed to keep you safe from the wind. When you are going 50mph it’s important to have good aerodynamics, and snowmobiles today are just like cars, every little thing has been tweaked and perfected to make it as comfortable as possible.
The gear also plays a big part in staying warm. Not only did I wear snow bibs, big boots, an arctic coat and mittens, but I also had a great helmet that was designed to not let cold air get in at all. I felt like the abominable snowman, but I never got cold – not once.
There is No Power Steering
When you watch people snowmobile it looks quite simple and easy. However, I quickly learned it wasn’t quite like driving a car. A car turns easily thanks to power steering, but to turn this massive heavy machine, you had to put some muscle into it. In fact, the more you put your whole body into the turn and practically hung off the side like a pro motorcycle rider the better the snowmobile maneuvered – and the faster you could go. And of course, the goal is to always go faster!
Thanks to all of that muscle I used, I was pretty worn out when the day was done, and my shoulders and arms were sorer than I ever expected!
Trails are Like a Road System
With 2,300 miles of trails, there has to be some rules else it would be pure chaos. The trails pretty much mimic the rules of the road. There are signs, speed limits, and rules to follow. However, I never did encounter any snowmobile police – I’m not really sure how the speed limits are enforced!
In addition, this extensive ‘road’ system also has amenities like lodging, food, and bars along the way. In fact, there would even be advertising for these amenities along the trails, just like an interstate and billboards. Most of the time when you went by a hotel or restaurant, there were more snow mobiles than cars parked in the lot!
As I traveled along these perfectly groomed trails, I marveled at how much work it must be every year to put them together each year and keep them groomed. I learned that all of the trails are maintained and groomed by the 13 clubs in the region. Simon said that they groom the trails at least once a week. It’s all done on a volunteer basis too! I entertained myself thinking about how we have a whole government body that normally maintains our roads, but somehow snowmobiling trails are all maintained with volunteers! That’s how much people love snowmobiling in Quebec!
Communication is Key
One of the first things Simon taught me were the standard hand signals. Since snowmobilers normally travel in groups, it’s really helpful to understand how many are in the group following each other and what the end of the group is. This tends to keep the trails safer. To communicate this, the first person who passes you will hold up fingers for how many people are still coming behind him/her. That way you have an idea of the oncoming traffic. Then the last person in the group will hold up a fist when they pass indicating they are the last person. At first, I was surprised that hand signals were necessary, but it turned out to be really very useful.
Me in my rented gear
You Don’t Need to Invest in Gear
Snowmobiling can be an expensive sport since you need high quality warm gear. However, you don’t have to run out and invest in arctic gear immediately when you first start snowmobiling – instead you can rent it! I not only rented a snow mobile, but also all of the gear I needed right down to my balaclava and boots! This was super as I never would have been able to afford the super warm mittens or bibs, and this is something you don’t want to cut corners on!
Plus, if you do a snowmobiling tour, this cost is normally assuming in the tour and they will provide gear if you need it.
Snowmobiling is More Fun When you Have Lots of Snow
This may seem like common sense, but when I woke up the 2nd day to 7 inches of new powder, I didn’t know what to think. As I took off following Simon after breakfast, I quickly learned that fresh powder = more fun! This pretty much holds true for all winter sports – right? ! I felt like the fresh powder made it even easier to turn and handle curves. Plus – it’s just darn prettier too!
Having a Guide Allows You to Enjoy it More
As I kept Simon in my sights, I thought about how nice it was to simply follow him for 2 days and not have to worry about maps or reading signs, etc. Since he was a local, he knew all of the trails so well and didn’t slow down once! Simon was also there to answer questions, take pictures, and teach me more about the snowmobiling culture and etiquette.
However, the biggest bonus to having a guide for me is that it allowed me to go faster than I ever would have been able to on my own. As long as I kept Simon in my sights, I was able to see the upcoming turns and curves which allowed me to be more fearless and cautious while anticipating my next curve/move. If I wouldn’t have had him leading the way, I would have had to go much slower in order to make sure that I could see all of the turns coming up.
Simon and me!
This was my first multi day snow mobile trip, but I know it won’t be my last! I loved staying overnight and having more time on the snowmobile and with Simon. I was able to see a more remote part of Quebec than I ever could have in a car! By the end I was going faster than ever and having fun trying to keep up with Simon. It’ rewarding to keep pace with change and try new things. Apparently, I like my technology to move fast, as well as my snowmobile.
Take Your First Snowmobile Tour in Quebec
Organisaction will help you organize your snowmobiling trip in Quebec if you are a beginner or simply want a local guide! Half day and multi day itineraries are available. Pus – they offer other winter adventures too! Check them out here.
When you think of Quebec winter and snow, you normally think of a big comfy lodge with a couch you can sink into, a big fireplace, hot toddy, and lots of flannel. But I don’t like to do the expected, so instead of staying in a big cozy lodge for my winter adventures in Quebec, I instead opted for the unique, rustic, unusual, scary, and some would say just plain weird accommodations around Quebec.
I normally say that people don’t go to a destination to experience a hotel, but in this case, I may be wrong! Each of these places provided such a unique experience that you may go to Quebec just to sleep there!
Note: Due to a few things outside of my control, like flights and some maintenance, I didn’t actually get to stay at all of these places, but I did go visit the ones I was unable to sleep at.
Intriguing Quebec Winter Accommodations
Ice Hotel –Hôtel de Glace
I know, I know – sleeping in a room made of ice at 19F to 23F degrees inside might seem pretty uncomfortable (shiver), but it’s an incredible experience that you can boast about for years! The Hotel de Glace is North America’s only Ice Hotel, and it’s full of incredible ice sculptures and designs.
Creating the Hotel de Glace
This process starts each year in December and it takes 50 people 6 weeks to build. It normally tops out at 32,000 square feet and it made entirely of ice (500 tons) and hard packed snow (30,000 tons). The structure is created with a mold. A special mixture of water and snow is packed on and around the mold until it freezes and then the mold is pulled out and suddenly you have a section of building! They have to do a small section at a time with the mold which basically created the Great Hall. The hall even has curves and turns in it all created from the mold process. This is also where you will find a number of the intricate ice sculptures and snow wall carvings.
Each April the structure is completely destroyed and they start over again next winter! It really is an engineering marvel, so if you are the type of person who love to visit cool engineering sights, then don’t miss this!
Construction Hotel de Glace - Quebec City- Canada - YouTube
Sleeping at the Hotel de Glace
After you go through the Great Hall, you’ll come to the rooms; each one uniquely designed. There are suites that include a bigger room and some even have fireplaces. However the fireplaces are just for looks, not heat is actually emitted…boo.
However, when you stay overnight at the hotel you get all of the tools you need to stay warm, and it starts with an orientation. There you learn all about how to dress for sleeping (use dry, light and synthetic clothing which has not been worn during the day). You’ll also learn about the sauna garden that is at your disposal to warm up your body before hopping in the arctic sleeping bag (rated at -22F) to doze off in your ice room. Don’t worry, you aren’t just sleeping on a block of ice, you actually have a nice, thick mattress that sits on top of the ice block bed. And if it’s just too cold for you, your Ice Hotel room actually also comes with a real hotel room, so you can bail out and go to your normal hotel room nearby too. However, if you do everything right and wear the right, dry clothes, don’t worry – you’ll stay toasty warm.
Sadly, due to a delayed flight I had to forfeit my stay at the ice hotel, but I did go and tour it the next day. The Hotel de Glace is open to the public for tours all day until 8PM when the guests take their rooms.
Head north from the Ice Hotel in Quebec City and go where the snow is even more plentiful, Saguenay Lac Saint Jean! Here you’ll find a number of other unique winter lodgings like Aventuraid; a unique overnight wildlife experience.
My little A-frame chalet was toasty warm when I went inside; the wood stove bellowing out heat in a welcoming way. The cabin was simple and cute. A little sink (no plumbing), hot plate, bed downstairs, table, and then a ladder that led up to the loft where there was another bed. The lighting was by solar and there was a shared kitchen, bathroom, and shower space in a bigger building about 30 feet away. But the most important part of the chalet was the windows. The windows were what gave me a view of my neighbors, an Arctic wolfpack.
Aventuraid is a tour company that specialized in dog sledding, snow shoeing, canoeing, and wolf encounters. You might find this combination strange, but as the owner, Gilles, explained to us “When you do dog sledding, you are fascinated by wolves.” Some people are bird lovers, Gilles is a wolf lover. His objective with the park is to show wildlife in their natural state. “It’s not a zoo, it’s an observation center,” he states.
You can observe the wolves a number of ways. The 3 wolf packs are enclosed by fences, so the first thing I did was get my camera and take a walk in the deep snow around the perimeter of the large fenced off area. As I walked around the fence-line, the wolves would lurk behind you and stop when you stopped. They never got close, and many times they would disappear, but you always felt like you were being watched – in a slightly creepy way.
Gilles also offers a contact activity with the wolves in which people are able to go inside the enclosure (only if the wolves are in a good mood according to Gilles), and spend time interacting with them. It’s a strange feeling to have them growling and fighting among themselves as you stand in the middle of the pack; they are powerful animals. Few people have the chance to put their hand in their thick, coarse fur but for those who do – it’s a beautiful experience.