Cabo: a magical oasis in the desert

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Famous “El Arco” (the arch) stands as a sentinel outside of Cabo San Lucas. Photo by Deborah Stone.
Los Cabos is sun-kissed, white sand beaches and turquoise waters.

It’s fru fru drinks with mini parasols at swim-up-to-bars. And sunsets that color the sky with Mother Nature’s vivid palette.

With year-round warm, sunny weather, friendly folk and a host of activities, this south-of-the-border hot spot is a destination that appeals to everyone, from romantics looking for an intimate getaway to families searching for a fun in the sun vacation.

For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, Cabo, as it is casually known, is an especially fine sight for sore eyes, as it makes the ideal winter escape from sodden streets and grey skies.

My only experience with Cabo prior to my recent visit had been a one-day port stop while on a Mexico cruise over 15 years ago. I remembered little other than “El Arco,” the famous natural rock arch that stands as a sentinel in the waters outside the town of Cabo San Lucas. This photogenic landmark is still a sight to behold, but there are so many other wonders here that make this destination a truly unique paradise.

Los Cabos, “the Capes,” takes its name from three important capes: Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo and Cab del Este. The area lies at the very tip of the Baja Peninsula, the world’s longest and one of the most majestic peninsulas.

To the west is the Pacific Ocean and to the east lies the Sea of Cortez, both of which embrace this picturesque locale. What is most distinctive about Cabo is its landscape. It is the only place where the desert meets the ocean and creates an ecotourist’s paradise.

A geological evolution formed Baja California and the Sea of Cortez some six million years ago. Movement of the Pacific and North American plates ripped a strip of land from the continental mainland. Then the Pacific plate slid 200 miles northward, smashing what would eventually become Baja California into the mainland and thus opening up the Sea of Cortez. These natural forces set the stage for the beginnings of Los Cabos.

Today this area consists of two main towns, San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. The former is a traditional colonial style Mexican town with a central square and 16th century mission church; whereas the latter is a hub of activity and pulsating nightlife. Between the two cities lies what is known as the “Golden Corridor;” an eighteen mile span lined with pristine beaches and sheltered inlet coves. It is here where most tourists stay during their visit, as this is where the majority of the resorts are located.

Traveling from one end of the Corridor to another, it’s hard not to miss the dramatic scenery that sets Cabo apart from many other oceanside retreats. The area is surrounded by mountains and rock canyons, from which expansive plains lead the way down towards the sea. These plains are home to hundreds of different types of cacti, from the thick cardones to the tall, skinny choyas, all which seem to lift their heads, thirsty for a glimpse of the sparkling water and verdant oases that lies beyond them.

This roadside stand sells homemade candies from local fruit (mango, coconut, papaya). Photo by Deborah Stone.
Cabo is also a natural sanctuary where numerous birds gather and lend vivid color to this land of contrasts. If you tire of the scene on land, turn your attention to the sea where through a variety of activities, you can get a glimpse of the life teeming in this underwater world. On a snorkel trip one day to a secluded cove, I was able to see dozens of colorful angel fish and an assortment of beautifully shaped coral, as well as a number of other fish that served as beacons of light for me on my journey below the surface of the sea.

I am told that the Devil Ray and the Whale Shark also inhabit the waters of these coasts and that the impressive giant Gray Whale makes its appearance here, too, specifically during calf bearing season in winter.

Although I didn’t see any of these majestic creatures, I was content to just mosey around in the refreshing waters and take pleasure in the fact that back home I would most likely be hugging the hearth to stay warm.

There are a myriad of other activities to engage in during a stay in Cabo, including horseback riding on the beach, mountain biking in remote Punta Gorda, windsurfing, fishing, golfing, parasailing, hiking desert trails, touring giant sand dunes by ATV, or simply relaxing poolside at your hotel or on a nearby beach.

For many, the latter is the ultimate aim, along with maybe a trip to a spa, a sunset cruise or a look at the nightlife. As relaxation was my goal, I was happy to indulge in the above pursuits in between my daily siestas.

The Hilton Los Cabos Beach and Golf Resort, where I stayed, had a marvelous full-service spa and I enjoyed the attentions of therapists there who erased my sore muscles with a Swedish massage and gave me a soothing facial that did wonders for my skin. The hotel also has one of those infinity pools overlooking the ocean where I spent much time just taking in the view while sipping a tropical libation.

I felt decadent as I swam up to the bar, ordered a drink and proceeded to hang over the edge of the pool as I imbibed. I could pretend for a moment that I was living the life of the rich and famous…that is until my pina colada took a nose dive into the pool!

A sunset cruise is a definite must in Cabo. My fellow travel companions and I boarded the “Caborey” one evening and set off for a night of dining and entertainment. We cruised past majestic “El Arco” just as the sun was setting the sky ablaze with fiery hues.

The tide had come in and Lover’s Beach, sculpted by nature and accessible only by water, was rapidly disappearing. This beach is the only spit of land that touches both the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez waters and it is a popular spot for weddings.

Thousands of frigates crowded the surrounding rock formations and cast an eerie shadow, reminiscent of something out of a Hitchcock movie or a Victorian novel.

Following dinner, there was a Las Vegas style floor show on board the ship featuring Gaucho dancing, Mexican boleros and the sizzling tango. When we disembarked, the night was still young so we opted to check out the club scene in Cabo San Lucas.

Those in the know will tell you this town gets “un poquito loco” or just a little crazy once the sun sets. With clubs that have names like Cabo Wabo, The Giggling Marlin, El Squid Roe and Sancho Panzo, you can be assured of a wild time if you choose to enter any of these establishments.

Many of the clubs put on abbreviated floor shows where waiters put down their trays and strut their stuff Latin style. Inhibitions fly out the window with a bit of tequila and soon the whole crowd gets on their feet and joins in the scene.

I discovered I could actually Salsa dance (something I had never tried before) with the right partner! For a change of pace from the more “turista” activities, head out of Cabo about an hour along the west coastline to the town of Todos Santos.

This charming colonial oasis is a slice of more traditional Mexico, known for its regional handcrafts, homemade fruit candies and organic produce. The Tropic of Cancer actually runs through Todos Santos, allowing such produce as papayas and avocados to miraculously grow twice a year. The town has a 17th century mission, a quaint central plaza and numerous art galleries, as well as several shops, cafes and the famous Hotel California (of the Eagles’ song of the same name).

A visit to the studio of one of Baja’s most well-known artists, Gabo, proved to be the highlight of my visit to Todos Santos. I was taken with the spirituality of this artist’s work and fascinated with the inspiration he took from primitive pictographs on cave walls. Gabo took the time to talk about his paintings and his technique and told us of his twenty-five year history as an artist.

He definitely impressed me as a man with much heart and soul, which is definitely evidenced in his work. An article on Cabo wouldn’t be complete without some mention of food. There are so many choices of restaurants that you’ll never tire of places to dine. And there’s something for everyone, but for seafood lovers, it’s a definite paradise. Fresh fish and shellfish abound and can be prepared anyway you like it.

There’s also a host of wonderful cafes serving traditional Mexican dishes such as one of my favorites, Mole Poblano (chicken with chilies and spiced chocolate sauce). The fruits are eye candy and equally as sweet to the taste, from the papayas and melons to the mangos and pineapples, and they make delicious juices when squeezed.

Cabo is a magical oasis in the desert. It’s a diverse and exciting destination that makes a great escape for those seeking respite from the doldrums of Northwest winters.

Chill out with an extreme overnight at the Ice Hotel

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone sips vodka in the Absolut Ice Bar at the hotel. Photo courtesy of Deborah Stone.
Accomplishments come in many sizes and shapes. For some, it might be scaling Mt. Rainier or completing a marathon. For others, it could be learning to knit, losing weight or graduating from college. For me, it was surviving a night in the Ice Hotel, or the Hotel de Glace de Quebec-Canada.

You may not consider this one of life’s great feats, but for me, it was an achievement of note. One of only three ice hotels in the world (the other two being in Sweden and Alaska), the Ice Hotel Quebec-Canada is located approximately 30 minutes west of Quebec City in the village of Sainte-Catherine-de-la-Jacques-Cartier at Station touristique Duchesnay, a recreational resort on Lake Saint-Joseph.

In its fifth year, the Ice Hotel continues to be considered one of the world’s most popular tourism attractions, holding its own exotic appeal to visitors from all over the globe who desire the epitome of a pure winter experience. Since its first year, over 220,000 people have toured the facility and 10,500 have braved an overnight sleeping experience within its walls.

The month-long construction of the hotel begins in December, when several dozen artisans and craftspeople gather to perform their magic, using 12,000 tons of snow and 400 tons of ice. The fruits of their labor results in a 30,000 square-foot hotel with 32 rooms and decorated suites (everything from frozen rose petals for honeymooners to bunk beds for the kids) to accommodate more than 84 people per night. There’s also a beautiful chapel, where dozens of weddings are held each season, an art gallery and exhibition rooms, the Absolut Ice Bar, N’ice Club, Grand Hall, two outdoor hot tubs and a sauna, as well as the all-important heated and lighted washrooms, located outside the hotel in a modular building.

A typical ice bed with deer pelts. Photo by Deborah Stone.
The temperature inside the hotel hovers at a constant 20-25 degrees, though the weather outdoors may dip well below zero. Four-foot thick walls protect visitors from the wind and serve as efficient insulation.

When I told friends and family of my intentions to spend a night at the Ice Hotel, they all asked the same question: “Why?” I responded by telling them, “Because I think it would be cool, no pun intended!”

I’ve never been one to close a door to opportunity and when it knocked, I responded with gusto.

A trip to experience Carnaval de Quebec in Quebec City, a renowned and colorful event that takes place over three weeks each winter, put me within arm’s reach of the Ice Hotel and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance to have what is billed as one of the “Top Ten Hot and Cold Adventures” in the world. However, on a tour of the place, just one day prior to my date with this “extreme overnight,” I suddenly had second thoughts about my intentions. It was just that while walking through this architectural wonder, reality set in and I realized that I was going to have to actually sleep here, and it was cold, real cold! Bundled up in my layers of down, fleece and wool, feeling like the Pillsbury Dough Woman, I could laugh about the cold because I knew I was leaving soon to return to my cozy bed at the Hilton Hotel in Quebec City.

But the fact was that I would be returning to this palace of ice the next night and this time, I would be sleeping on an ice slab bed, encased in a mummy sleeping bag.

I must admit that I considered a change of mind, but I knew my reputation was at stake and I had to put my money where my mouth was if I were to ever show my face again back home.

All too soon, after engaging in a variety of high-spirited wintertime Carnaval activities in charming Quebec City, including watching the locals take snow baths, rafting down snow-covered hills, ice fishing, sampling snow taffy at a sugar shack, dog sledding and oohing and ahing at the glittering nighttime parade, I was back at the Ice Hotel and listening intently to the orientation for overnight guests.

Our guide explained and demonstrated how to get in and out of the down-filled sleeping bags, as well as provided some useful tips for having a restful sleep.

The idea is not to overdress and to avoid wearing any cotton while in the sleeping bag (actually she said it’s ideal to be in your birthday suit!), but don’t forget to put on your toque (pronounced “tooque”) or hat.

Typical architecture in the old section of Quebec City. Photo by Deborah Stone.
She also suggested to our hearty group that we put our clothes in the bottom of our sleeping bags to keep them warm during the night. Just watching the process of getting into the sleeping bag exhausted me and I feared I would not remember which toggle went to which cord when the time came to batten down the hatches.

I also prayed I would not have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night! For overnight guests, check-in is not until evening, as public tours of the place operate until 8 p.m. The plan is to feast well on dinner at nearby Auberge Duchesnay, a full-service hotel with a sumptuous dining room, just steps from the Ice Hotel, then groove to the tunes on the snow-covered dance floor at the N’Ice Club and indulge in a nightcap of, you guessed, Absolut Vodka, served in glasses made of ice. Following these activities, soak in the hot tub underneath a star-studded sky and run into the sauna to warm your blood before hitting the sack.

Close to midnight, after postponing the inevitable as long as we could, my companions and I headed to our suite, aptly named, “The Hilton,” with its ice chair and table set, massive carved ice goddess, fireplace (for looks only, no heat emitted) and two queen sized ice cube beds. On closer inspection, I was relieved to note that the beds each had a wood frame over them plus a foam, fleece-covered mattress and to top it off, deer pelts or a wool blanket.

After wrestling with my sleeping bag and clothes, I settled in for the night, and attempted to get comfortable. I lay awake listening to one of my neighbors snoring away, first envying her for her ability to instantly drift off to slumber, then despising her because she was sleeping, while I was tossing and turning about in my sausage roll upon a hard block of ice.

At some point, however, I must have dozed off because the next thing I knew it was morning and I awoke feeling stiff, with my face semi-frozen.

However, the rest of me was warm and it took a huge effort to oust myself from my cozy straightjacket and don my clothes. My companions and I celebrated our success and quickly headed to the bathhouse, where a hot shower never felt so good!

For those who do not make it through their “extreme overnight,” there are usually backup hotel rooms available at Auberge Duchesnay in which to take shelter. It’s nice to know that this is an option, but somehow the idea of “wimping out” once I had made the commitment, didn’t sit right with me.

After surviving the night, I wanted to announce my accomplishment to all, but unfortunately, the hotel gift shop did not sell the proverbial T-shirt claiming of such an achievement, so I settled for an inner sense of satisfaction and pride.

This is one feat I knew I’d never forget!

Poets Cove: gem of the Gulf Islands

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whistler: a playground for all seasons

  • Written by Deborah Stone

The Sea to Sky Highway makes a dramatic backdrop and scenic corridor to Whistler, B.C., Canada’s renowned ski resort.

With its winding curves, drop-dead ocean views and panoramic Coast Mountain range, this road is a treat for sore eyes after several hours of monotonous freeway driving along the I-5 corridor.

At each bend, my family saw something to ooh and ah at, whether it was a thunderous waterfall or a black bear hiding in the bushes (yes, we actually spied one and then watched as it crossed the highway right in front of our car). As the road began to climb in earnest and we got closer to our destination, we got our first glimpse of Whistler’s fairy tale-like village, set between two craggy peaks.

We had come to this resort, not to ski as so many others do, but to find out what else there was to do in the off-season at this popular destination.

And although there were plenty of people still making their way up the mountain to the remaining few runs open for skiing and snowboarding, there were also lots of folks like us, bent on discovering Whistler’s other allures.

After settling in at our well-appointed accommodations, (an ample Montebello townhouse minutes from the main village area), we headed to our first activity for the weekend, a zipline ride with Ziptrek Ecotour.

Riding the eco zipline 150 feet off the ground gives thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below. Photo by Deborah Stone.
I had first become enamored with this Tarzan treetop ride when I traveled to Costa Rica several months ago and was thrilled to learn that a similar adventure exists here in North America, only hours away from my home.

Although the experience was not new to me, it was a novel one for the rest of my family, and I delighted in watching their expressions and hearing their exhilarating comments as they flew through the trees.

Ziptrek’s tour area is between Blackcomb and Whistler mountains, just minutes above Whistler Village, and participants are taken through the area’s rare ancient rainforest on a network of five adrenaline-rushing zipline cables spanning over a half a mile.

Guides, who also serve as naturalists, provide facts about Whistler’s environment along the way and explain how one of the earth’s most productive forest ecosystems supports the life within it.

The course is a feat of engineering and takes riders up in the canopy of 1,000-year- old trees, over rugged mountainous terrain and across the rushing waters of Fitzsimmons Creek. The longest cable spans 1,100 feet and the highest is 150 feet off the ground, giving thrill seekers a breathtaking view of the picturesque forest valley below.

Unlike the zipline ride I took in Costa Rica, this one has built in safety brake mechanisms in the cable, which help to slow riders down at the end of the line. Holding on is unnecessary, although most folks instinctively do, at least initially. By the final cable however, most folks feel comfortable and guides encourage them to ride backwards or even upside down, for the truly adventurous!

For another view of the area, we decided to ride the Whistler Gondola up to the top of Whistler Mountain (6,000 feet above sea level). This is a 20-minute ride each way and as we ascended, we took note of the mountain bikers descending through the Mountain Bike Park. The park offers over 125 miles of lift-serviced, gravity-fed trails, ranging from gentle banked curved tracks for beginners to tight, twisty tracks and steep drop offs for expert riders.

Although our bird’s eye position above gave us a unique perspective of these hard-core, body-armored trail warriors, the best place to view them is from the base of the bike park where you can watch them come screaming down the lower part of the mountain, mud-drenched and pumped up with adrenaline.

About three-quarters of the way on our ride up the mountain, we began seeing the first patches of snow, and by the time we got to the top, a spring blizzard was in process.

We stayed long enough to check out the skiers and snowboarders and throw a few snowballs before hustling back on the next gondola for our return journey.

The ride back down the mountain was equally as interesting as we watched the changes occur from one ecosystem to another and experienced the varying weather conditions at the different altitudes.

My family was inspired after seeing the mountain bikers in action and although tempting as it might have been to join them, we decided on a more tame approach to cycling.

Whistler has a Valley Trail system that is perfect for cyclists who prefer not to careen at breakneck speeds down the obstacle courses of the Mountain Bike Park. With bikes rented from Backroads Whistler, we set out for an afternoon to explore the area at a leisurely pace.

The Valley Trail system extends through the Whistler Valley, past golf courses, lakes, rivers, residential areas and hotels. Pick up a map at any bike shop in the Village and it’s easy to choose a trail to follow, based on your ability level.

We chose to head out toward the Lost Lake trails, opting for natural scenery, as opposed to buildings and golf courses.

Because the weather was very changeable that day, there weren’t too many folks out on the trails, but that was just fine with us, as we enjoyed having the place mostly to ourselves. The lake was peaceful and quiet as we circled it, stopping once or twice to take in the view, before continuing on to discover another scenic vista point.

We found the trail system to be very clearly marked and even if you made a wrong turn, you could always find your way back easily.

After a few hours and a downpour or two later, we returned the bikes to the shop and headed into the movie theatre to get dry for awhile.

In addition to all the outdoor activities that Whistler offers, it also has its share of indoor pursuits for those times when the weather just isn’t cooperating.

With over 200 shops, ranging from art galleries to sporting equipment stores, two movie theatres, more than 90 restaurants, several indoor sports centers and a museum, there are numerous places to seek shelter when inhospitable elements force you inside.

Walking around the pedestrian-only Whistler Village is a treat in itself. Its cobblestone streets, alpine style architecture and open-air cafes make you feel like you’ve stepped into a small European town.

There’s a real international flavor about the place and it’s not only the various cuisines (serving everything from spicy Thai to sushi and traditional North American fare) that give it this feeling, but the cultural diversity of the employees and visitors that come from all parts of the world to this popular resort.

The key words at Whistler are “options” and “variety,” as it’s a destination that has something to please everyone, from choice of accommodations to activities and dining.

Skiers, snowboarders and bikers all share the terrain, along with hikers, fishermen, boaters, golfers and rock climbers.

It’s a playground for all seasons within a spectacular alpine natural setting.

Brentwood Bay: a sanctuary by the sea

  • Written by Deborah Stone

brentwood_aI’m pretty bad when it comes to identifying flowers and plants. I admit that I don’t know the difference between a dahlia and a crocus or an iris and a forget-me-not. All I know is that I love their magnificent colors and the heavenly scents they emit when in bloom.

I refuse to let my pathetic grasp of horticultural lexicon stop me from enjoying nature’s creations. Take for example, a recent trip to the renowned Butchart Gardens in Victoria.

Although I was with a friend who has the greenest of thumbs, and who would have been happy to introduce me to the names of the various plants and flowers we saw, I was content just tiptoeing through the foliage, oohing and ahing away at this Edenesque paradise.

It had been many years since I’d last visited the Butchart Gardens and I had forgotten just how incredible the place is, especially in summer when it’s a palette of vivid hues and textures. Began in 1904 as an effort to beautify a barren limestone quarry on the 130 acre estate of Robert and Jennie Butchart, the Butchart Gardens started modestly with some sweet pea seeds and a rose bush.

With Jennie Butchart’s vision and hard work, the gardens grew to occupy fifty-five acres and are known worldwide today as a horticultural masterpiece.

This year, the Butchart Gardens celebrate 100 years in bloom and there are a number of activities planned to commemorate this anniversary, including historical displays, animal topiaries, Saturday night fireworks and outdoor entertainment (summer months only) and the addition of two totem poles carved on site by First Nations artists.

If you go, the best time to visit the gardens is early in the morning when they first open. When we arrived, the place was peaceful and quiet, devoid of the throngs of tourists who most often arrive via tour bus later in the morning.

We walked leisurely through the different gardens, from the spectacularly designed Sunken Garden and the formal Italian Garden to the Zen influenced Japanese Garden.

It was, however, the fragrances in the Rose Garden that brought me to a state of floral ecstasy. Hundreds of varieties of roses, all in bloom, fill each space of the garden, in beds, on tall, upright bushes, and on arbors, pergolas and trellises. I felt as if I had just walked into one of Monet’s paintings. It was an intoxicating feast for the senses and I took my time imbibing in this display.

After a blissful morning in the gardens, my friend and I returned to our digs for the weekend, the newly opened Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa.

brentwood_bThe lodge is nestled on a pristine inlet of the Saanich Peninsula, on the south end of Vancouver Island, and across the water from the Butchart Gardens, in the sleepy community of Brentwood Bay.

It is Western Canada’s newest oceanfront resort and an ideal destination for those seeking a tranquil, getaway haven. This intimate boutique lodge consists of 33 well-appointed oceanfront suites, an elegant spa, an upscale restaurant and wine bar, casual pub, wine and spirits shop, year-round heated swimming pool, hot tub and full-service marina.

Staff are warm and friendly, and pride themselves on providing hospitality at its finest.

My friend and I made the spa our first stop, as we were both intrigued by some of the more unique treatments offered on the spa menu, such as the Vino Stomp, a foot ritual that uses whole red grapes (high in anti-oxidants) along with various essential oils and botanicals; the Vino and Honey Wrap (with, you guessed it, some more of those red grapes!), the Icelandic Algae Facial, and Lushly Hands, a flower and avocado hand treatment inspired by ancient Polynesian rites.

We opted, instead, to try the Essence of Life Signature Massage, an amazing one and a half hour therapeutic treatment that consists of a rosemary scrub, followed by an application of Oceanic Ribbon weed down the spine, a hot rocks massage with river granite stones and then the ultimate in relaxation - the spa’s signature full body massage.

I was putty in the therapist’s hands and by the time she was finished, I felt stress-free and re-energized. Dinner at the Arbutus Grille, the resort’s fine dining restaurant, was quite the experience.

In a Pacific Northwest lodge-style room with views of the inlet and far-reaching mountains, diners are served Vancouver Island cuisine emphasizing fresh, natural ingredients with wonderful flavors, colors and textures.

Each course is a work of art, created by Executive Chef Brock Windsor, however, patience was definitely the key to enjoying one’s dinner during the evening we dined in the restaurant.

Service was painfully slow and although Sommelier Brian Storen kept us occupied with various wine tastings, the meal dragged on far beyond an acceptable time period.

I’m sure with time, though; the dining room will work out its food service kinks. A more casual alternative to the Arbutus Grille is the lodge’s Marine Pub, right next door, which, in addition to its west coast menu, serves up fine regional craft beers and wines and offers indoor and outdoor seating.

Off-site eateries are few, but just a short walk down the street from the lodge, there’s the charming Sea Horses Café. We opted to dine there the following night and enjoyed its picturesque, cozy ambiance and water views.

A classical guitarist played while we munched on baked brie, followed by salmon and garlic prawns.

Brentwood Bay Lodge’s oceanside location makes it an ideal setting for a wide array of outdoor pursuits, including kayaking, scuba-diving, fishing and hiking.

Guests can select from a menu of such activities offered at the Eco-Adventure Center at the lodge’s marina. My friend and I chose a Wilderness Eco-Cruise to explore the natural and cultural history of the Saanich Inlet. Captain Matt Smiley met us dockside and proceeded to guide us for the next two hours through Finlayson Arm, the most southern fjord on the North American coast. Captain Smiley (a man who really does live up to his name) told us he was going to take us “gunkholing,” a British expression that means beachcombing from a boat.

We poked into various bays and explored the coast, learning about the types of sea creatures, birds and fauna that make their home in this part of the area.

We were rewarded with glimpses of baby seals lounging on the rocks, stellar sea lions chomping on fish and bald eagles soaring across the sky.

Beautiful old growth Douglas firs, maples, cedars and handsome Arbutus, or Madrona, trees stood as proud sentinels of the shoreline as we motored by.

Captain Smiley also operates the convenient water taxi service to the Butchart Gardens; a trip that takes just minutes and drops you off at the Gardens’ secluded rear entrance, thus avoiding the crowds that throng through the main gates.

Although we didn’t venture into Victoria, except for arriving and departing there via the Victoria Clipper, it’s an easy twenty-five minute drive over to the city from Brentwood Bay.

For us, a weekend away at a sanctuary by the sea was what the doctor ordered and Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa was the perfect remedy.