Where Does a Travel Writer Spend her Money? On Spas

It’s 4:30 in the morning and I’ve got jet lag bad. No, I’ve never found a remedy for it except time. And I’ve tried everything. Right now I just rummaged through my cupboard to find some melatonin, the sleep hormone, and am waiting for it to kick in. If it kicks in. And while I wait I’ll just pretend I’m back in Switzerland, because I did not want to leave. And so I didn’t.

At the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, I took one look at the thermal pools, the spa facilities, the crystal chandelier over my tub, the Belle Époque swimming pool (okay, it was rebuilt, but still), the surrounding Alps, the hip new decor of the resort, and that was it. I handed over my credit card and said, “Book me in for three more days.”

My chromotherapy tub - so chic

“You’re so lucky you get free trips!” People say this to me all the time. It’s true. It’s wonderful and I don’t take it for granted. But I also think giving a travel writer a free night or two at a good resort is like giving out free crack to create an addict. One hit of a good spa and I’m hooked.

Hooked on this pool!

Mainly my own vacation dollars go towards European spas. This year it was a week in Montegrotto Terme, an Italian spa town. Last year it was five days at the Grand Hotel Pupp (my Czech friend, Lenka, swears it’s pronounced ‘poop’) in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary, and before that I spent two weeks in Marianske Lazne, a historic spa town also in the Czech Republic. Oh, there was that week at the Grand Hotel Margitszigit in Budapest, as well. And that week in Heviz, a small Hungarian town with a whole thermal lake full of lilies and retired Germans.

I like the European tradition of spas as slow quiet healing places, often with gorgeous architecture, lovely landscape and fresh air. Not that I have anything against a week in Paris or New York, but I tend to want at least one quiet vacation a year. Or ten. This is because most of my trips are for work and are crazy, with packed itineraries and lots of shmoozing.

My first criteria for a spa vacation is  thermal water (hot springs) or at least mineral water (spring water full of  minerals but not necessarily hot, like at Mariansky Lazne). Other than that, cheaper is better, but I think Bad Ragaz has spoiled me for life because now I want to live like a sheikh.

Hot Springs - So hot! So cool!

Ah, well. You can’t spa everyday (says who?) and Toronto is a good place to be. Now if only I could sleep …


Hiking in Switzerland – Foreign Confusion

Oh, the pretty Alps!

There is no denying Bad Ragaz is a lovely Alpine town – Heidi country for sure. But try hiking here without reading German and you can find yourself in a mess of confusion. I was happily following the walking trail along the Rhine – keeping to the yellow Wanderweg signs, which I guess means nature walk, and come to this:

What happened to the nature walk?

That didn’t seem very wanderweg so after awhile I turn around and come to this:

And this means?

Evidently horses can read in Switzerland, so they know they’re on the right path. But what’s the top sign? No existential nothingness? No empty-headed thoughts while walking? It’s just a good thing my head was filled with deep philosophical thoughts or I may have been stopped in my tracks.

Then I ended up in a lovely park full of strange orange ducks, with not a sign to be seen:

No signs. A good sign.

Line your ducks in a row

And finally, as I was leaving the park, I completely ignored this sign – because it seemed to concern cars more than wanderwegers – at least I hope so:

No walking in two directions simultaneously!

Unless of of course, it was a sign against multi-tasking.

Switzerland – Peeing in a 13th Century Tower

Ah, the great outdoors

The things you think about when hiking alone. In this case it was literary poop. Some scenes in a book stay with you for life. In Bear, the best-known book by the late Canadian author, Marian Engel, the female protagonist, Lou, goes outside and shits with a bear. It’s a strangely erotic relationship between the bear and Lou and an unusual form of bonding. (As a completely irrelevant aside, I dated Engel’s son, William, way back when we were too young to drink in bars, but did anyway.)

I was thinking of this scene in Bear yesterday because I was outside walking and I really had to pee. Anyone who has ever travelled with me knows that I always have to stop for a bathroom break, and even in the great outdoors it’s going to happen. But I didn’t want to go outside. What if someone saw me? By this time I’d hiked up to the ruins of a 13th century castle – Burg Freudenberg overlooking the town of Bad Ragaz.

I think this says that it's old

No one was around. Almost nothing is left of the ruins except for a few stone walls and one perfectly round tower, its doorway just a hole of crumbling bricks. There was already water inside, since it was roofless and had recently rained, so, um, well, I’m not proud of it, but I used a 13th century tower as a latrine.

Hm ... no one's around

Before you hate me, let me remind you that back in the days of castles (or burgs, as they’re called here) there were no lavish bathrooms anyway. I remember visiting a castle in Wales and I was convinced that I’d found a secret passage. It was narrow and wound around a tower and I followed it as far as I could go. “That was the toilet,” said my guide.

Step up a couple of centuries to Jane Austen’s time in Bath, where coincidently, she set part of her first book and her last. As I was touring a grand Georgian manor on the Royal Crescent and gushing over the gorgeous dining room, the guide pointed out a screen in the room and said that the guests would just get up from the table and duck behind the screen to go. No matter how badly I had to go, I wouldn’t do that. Honestly.

Then of course, there is the whole territorial thing about urine. Tigers do it, wolves do it, rats and rhinos, too. It’s a way of claiming space, of making a place your own. So, I guess in a way, I now own my very own Swiss tower – even if the view’s not so great from inside.

Who turned out the lights?

Killed by Coyotes – The Risk of Hiking Alone

Beautiful, but safe?

Ah, the Wilderness .. rejuvenating or dangerous?

Just how risky is it to go off on your own? I wrote about hiking alone a few weeks back after walking in the wilds of northern Saskatchewan. I wrote about being scared of bears, of human predators, and, well, mosquitoes are annoying, too. But I never could have predicted the tragic attack on a budding young musician, Taylor Mitchell,  who was killed by coyotes when hiking alone in Cape Breton Highlands National Park in Nova Scotia a couple of days ago. She, like many of us, probably loved walking alone. It seems like a much more direct experience with nature. When I’m with someone and we’re talking I tend to forget my surroundings. Conversation drowns out those wonderful sounds of crows, frogs, robins, rustling leaves and water running through streams. When it’s just me, it’s a dialogue between me and the forest (or the mountains, or field, or whatever) and something is lost when I’m in company.

When I think of all the places I’ve hiked alone in the last few months – the Grand Canyon; the hills around Montegrotto, Italy; Waskesui in Saskatchewan and along the riverbank in Saskatoon –  it makes me wonder if I was pushing my luck. Is the joy of solo wandering worth it? Then again, when I was travelled down the Yukon River this summer on a river boat, we kept passing a blond nordic-looking woman.

Lone Paddler

Braver than I'll ever be

She was kayaking alone, her strokes were steady and she quite often pulled past us as we meandered down the river in our motorized boat. She must have been camping alone at night, and the Yukon is serious wilderness. She is braver (and far more fit) than I’ll ever be, but I have to say, I was envious of her strength and determination. That’s a dialogue with nature I’ll never get to have. Then again, neither will lovely talented Taylor. On behalf of single hikers everywhere, our thoughts are with you.

New Zealand Matchmaking Update – Who Hooked Up?

So, were there any love matches, that’s what I want to know. The New Zealand Matchmaking flight took off on Oct 13th (read my previous post about it here) with the Bachelor’s very own Jason Mesnick and ultimate fiance-winning Molly Malaney and I wasn’t on it. I should have been covering it – but then again, at least I don’t have jet lag since I spent the weekend at Blue Mountain instead – a two-hour drive rather than a gazillion-hour flight. Mind you, that long flight would have been filled with embarrassing singles games (always fun) and plenty of spying on the 100 or so singles angling to get close to their chosen potential dates. And who doesn’t like to spy? Oh, and Jason and Molly were apparently doling out dating tips (why does that scare me?) which, if the flight didn’t pan out, singles could then apply [said tips] to any unsuspecting Kiwi singles … a veritable Trojan Horse of Love (no Trojan puns intended).

The Twilight Zone

My nephew Charlie thinks the movie Twilight is for girls and maybe he’s right. As girly girl movies go, though, it’s a good one. Now the vampire-obsessed, or more aptly, the Edward Cullen obsessed, can experience Twilight Land for themselves with Intrepid Travel’s new adventure tour, Twilight Trails, a 13-day trip from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington that will visit film locations and film-ish landscapes along the way. 

The trip has four departures between June and September 2010, with possibly more to be added. Cost is $2,060 Cdn (plus air). For more info visit Intrepid Travel.

For the truly addicted, read on for trip highlights. (I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but don’t get upset if Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson aren’t actually along for the ride.) Oh, wait. Didn’t Robert Pattinson play Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter? Now that’s my kind of movie hero. Did you know you can do a Harry Potter in England tour, too, with HP Fan Trips? 


Twilight Trip Highlighights

·         Visit the town of St Helens where much of the Twilight movie was filmed including Thunderbird and Whale where the book store scenes were filmed, as well as the alley and parking lot where Edward comes to Bella’s rescue.

·         Cannon Beach, where Jacob Black tells Bella about Edward and the Cullen Family.

·         Silver Falls State Park where we will complete a hike called Trail of the Ten Falls.  Many of the forest scenes and scenes with the deer were filmed here.

·         Hood River, where we will see Carver Café where Charlie and Bella spend time, Oxbow Park where the meadow scene was filmed and View Point Inn where the High School Prom was held.

·         Forks or Twilight Town, where the movie was set. Here we will see Forks High School, where Bella and Edward attend school, the Cullen and Swan family homes, Bella’s 1956 Chevy truck, Forks welcome sign, Forks Community Hospital and the Forks Police Department.


If You Go into the Woods Today …


Walk on the Wild Side

Walk on the Wild Side

This morning I went for a long walk around Waskesui Lake in Prince Albert National Park up in northern Saskatchewan. It was windy and cool and moody and beautiful and this is when I realized that solo travellers, especially women, are short changed in the tranquil hiking department. First off, I was paranoid about bears. If there had been two of us then I wouldn’t have been scared as two are twice the size of one. Alone I felt like a walking appetizer.

Strolling down the beach was fine but when I started hiking on a secluded trail I freaked myself out. At every bend I thought I’d turn to find a bear looking for lunch. To warn all bears to scamoosh I started whistling and clapping my hands while walking (yah, that’ll scare him) and really hoped I wouldn’t run into anyone while  doing my solo entertainment act.

Then I started thinking about other predators, namely human, and of all the women who have been killed on trails, like Chandra Levy who disappeared while jogging in a park in Washington DC in 2001 and Mary Pinchot Meyers, the mistress of John F Kennedy, who was shot twice in the head while walking in 1964. This sucks. What are we supposed to do, give up enjoying nature all together unless a bodyguard is involved?

Any bears around here?

Any bears around here?

I’m not sure of the answer. In this case, I backtracked and stuck to the beach. Obviously a deer was thinking the same thing because I followed its tracks all the way back. But I can’t stop living my life and I refuse to give up solo hiking altogether. In Toronto I love walking through the ravines that slice through the city like rough green grooves, but I’ll compromise. I’ll walk on weekends or when other people are getting off work and walking their dogs. In the evening I’ll stick to city streets. Oh, wait. Is that dangerous, too? At least I won’t run into a bear.