Overheard conversations went something like this:
“It’s snowing, INSIDE our room!”
“Do you want to have the camel stew in our room, or on the terrace?”
“What if we put the roasted marshmallows between the peanut butter granola bars?”
The best hotels we slept in this year were as opposite as the temperatures and the landscapes we were in. From slipping into the sausage-casing-like sub-zero sleeping bags at the Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) in Quebec (indoor temp: -3 degrees Celsius) to feeling like we were in a rotisserie in the Siwa Oasis, Egypt (average daytime temperature in the desert? 46 degrees Celsius.)
Easily swinging between five star, no stars and shooting stars at our campsite on the shores of Lake Erie, these were the best sleeps we had this year.
Hotel de Glace, Quebec
How to build an ice hotel from scratch? Begin with 15,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice. Just 10 minutes from Quebec’s city centre, the Ice Hotel is like sleeping in a child’s dream. Each room features elaborate carvings and furniture sculpted from ice in the style of Dr. Seuss meets Edward Scissorhands.
After prowling around all 36 rooms (guests and the public are allowed to have a sneak peek during the day), choosing the premium suite with the fireplace was a brilliant move. The cheapest rooms are generic and budget-looking with no wall carvings or mood lighting. They look like amateur attempts at igloo building. Like ice hostels. For the extra dollars (really, how many times are you going to sleep in an ice hotel anyway?) go big. If you want to go even bigger, there’s a premium deluxe theme suite with its own private hot tub. Now that’s red carpet. Bigger yet? Get married in the Ice Hotel’s wedding chapel–you’ll be guaranteed to have cold feet for sure.
The famed Ice Bar (one of two bars in the hotel) serves up Caribou (mulled red wine or port with whiskey and maple syrup) in a square glass fancily chiselled out of ice. This winter, the cavernous bar was transformed into a frozen underwater sanctuary with life-size whales, sharks and beady-eyed fish lurking overhead. The biodiversity theme stretched into the suites with elaborate feathers and frogs etched deep into the ice walls. Ambient uplighting and ice chandeliers added unexpected warmth to the frigid frontier. As though you were walking through the middle of fallen aurora borealis.
I thought we might perish in the night due to hypothermia, but, staying submerged in the “Nordic Relaxation Area” of steaming outdoor hot tubs and a sauna that looked like a giant whiskey barrel was a savvy survival tactic. The Celsius Pavilion also offered a warmer clime to regain feeling in numb feet, and to cradle wine without mitts by the fire.
And yes, the bed is made of ice! Buried in furs and hides and thermal sleeping bags with a real fire at the foot of your bed, you’ll barely take notice. Maybe, in the morning, when snow is gently falling inside the room through the small fireplace flue opening, you will remember that you’re sleeping in an igloo.
For the anxious: When you book a night at the Hotel de Glace, you also have full access to a room at the Sheraton Four Points (a 10 minute shuttle from the Ice Hotel). Guests check in at the Sheraton first as access to your room at the Ice Hotel isn’t an option until 9pm (after you have taken the strict and comical orientation of How to Survive the Night and More Importantly, How to Get Into Your Sleeping Bag). One New York couple opted to take the 24-hour shuttle back to the Sheraton, finding the -3 temperatures a bit too disturbing. Others simply crashed out on the couches in the Celsius. Cheaters.
*The Sheraton is rather remote, so you will be forced into eating at the semi-posh hotel resto, Le Dijon, unless you order in from the slim selection of pizza & chicken wing joints or taxi into “town.” The French Onion soup is warming but not enough. And the scallops come in a shot glass with a blade of grass. Not really, but, close.
You can also place delivery orders from the Ice Hotel, and the Celsius Pavilion has a snack bar leaning more towards sugary fare and the likes of hot cocoa. Better yet, pack your own snacks and booze. And Hot Shots for your boots. And Fireball whiskey.
The 2012 theme is Northern Quebec and First Nations North. Open January 6th—March 25th, 2012.
Cha-ching: Room rates begin at $200/person including use of sleeping bag, welcome cocktail and breakfast at Le Dijon
Al Babenshal, Siwa Oasis, Egypt
There was no need for a bell hop. We had a donkey named Ali Baba!
Our accommodations at the Al-Babenshal were suitable for the likes of William and Kate. The hotel is attached to the 13th-century Shali fortress with traditional wooden shuttered windows and exposed palm-log supports. The light fixtures are carved from salt blocks and give the room, a true respite, a buttery glow. Now, this is romantic!
Getting there is a battle, as is leaving Siwa. By that I mean, once you find yourself in the cool wonder of the lodge, you begin re-thinking your itinerary, scheming how you might be able to stay longer. The bus from Cairo is a 10-hour nightmare, sardined into a bus that was colder than the inside of the Ice Hotel. The bus driver stops at military check-points, for seemingly hourly mint tea and other unknown reasons.
But, back to Al Babenshal. The breakfast is one to linger over. The sour-sweet two-punch of lime juice, kicker coffee, eggs that have never arrived faster or fluffier and pita bread with fig preserves is satiating and greed-inducing.
At night, dinner is served on the terrace (daytime temps would leave Canadian skin sizzling like back bacon). We ordered the much-talked about camel stew with slight reservations, but, it seemed necessary and worldly of us.
The stew was the most sensational thing I’ve eaten. Exhausted and delirious from our midday trek into the dunes, sand sauna bath and hot spring immersion, that night on the terrace illuminated the rest of our stay in Egypt.
The Al-Babenshal staff are attentive and kindly allowed us to dominate their computer at reception to send hurried “we are alive” message back home. The room was bigger than my entire apartment with a sexy shower, a day bed, an adobe-style hearth and many vantage points to watch the slow movement of the world outside. In front of the hotel, whole chickens are roasted in old oil drums. The smell of fire and smoking chicken is intoxicating, and so was the fig moonshine we discovered.
Unfortunately the hotel doesn’t have its own web presence. It’s listed in Lonely Planet, and we were able to book it via expedia. If we were to return to Egypt? We would go directly to Siwa Oasis and spend our nights at Al Babenshal. Maybe even ask for jobs in the kitchen.
*Donkey tours of Siwa can be arranged simply by walking outside the hotel. There are several hot and cold springs nearby. Do find someone to take you to see the sunrise on the salt lakes. This image will never leave your soul.
Cha-ching: $130 US for two nights, $7 for fig moonshine
The Gladstone Hotel, Toronto
You don’t need to sleep in an igloo or in a hotel attached to a 13th century desert fortress to be wowed and spoiled though. Located on the hipster haven stretch of Toronto’s Queen West, the Gladstone proved to be an indulgent spontaneous romp, just 15 minutes from my Annex apartment. It’s accessible by subway even!
Built in 1889, it’s Toronto’s oldest continuously operating hotel. In 2005, social and urban visionary, Christina Zeidler, eager to keep the bones of the Victorian hotel intact, enlisted a wolf pack of local artists to re-design the 37 rooms. They are a mash-up of vibrant palettes, faux-fur textures, dream sequences, nostalgia and romance.
There’s an iPod docking station, complimentary fitness facility use at 99 Sudbury, locally sourced snacks, wi-fi, cable, sleek flat screens, functioning windows, high ceilings and exposed brick. The classic rooms ($165, shower-only, no bathtub) are a tight 170 square feet (unless you top out with the suites at $375-$475 per night).
Check out the Trading Post (our spot– “rural vs. urban luxury”) and for a lark, the Teen Queen: “Think purple gingham, wild horses, crimped hair, frosted lipstick, Teen Beat posters and unicorn love.” It’s a kitschy scream.
The hotel has two green roofs, a zero plastic water bottle policy and uses 90% non-toxic cleaners. The amenities include Tic-Tac-sized soap bars that look like tiny pieces of art in themselves sourced from a local farmer in Prince Edward County. Coffee is delivered to your door in the morning at the time you request. Lazy sleep-ins are permitted, and you need only slide down the wooden banister or take the old-school hand-operated Otis elevator for a pint and live music. Huge hang-over helper breakfasts are dished out downstairs too. Or, hold out for the noon bacon & cheddar burger, as it should be.
The Gladstone Melody Bar and Ballroom is an also an attractive venue that hosts live comedy, weddings, karaoke,burlesque, indie film screenings, art exhibits and deep chats with authors.
It’s local, zany and Toronto rite of passage.
Cha-ching: $160+/night plus champagne to set the mood
Media Luna Resort and Spa, Roatan, Honduras
Sometimes throwing caution (and money) to the wind can also net you a remarkable surprise. Travellers seeking the healing powers of sea salt and fiery sunsets in Roatan, Honduras can opt for the Roatan Roulette. If you are indecisive or generally feeling Switzerland on where to stay on the island, the roulette is a cool way to have the decision made for you. The all-inclusive properties range from 3 to 4 star: Henry Morgan Hotel and Beach Resort, Paradise Beach Club, Infinity Bay Spa & Beach Resort, Mayan Princess, Las Sirenas Hotel and Condo, or the new darling, Media Luna Resort and Spa.
When you book the roulette, you pay a set price and find out three days before departure where you’ll be setting up beach base camp.
The Media Luna property was an automatic additional $250 more than the others, and its isolation, swank cabanas and intimate feel were largely seductive. I didn’t want rum-soaked nights (rum-soaked days were okay) or the thumpa-thumpa-thumpa of ratty discos or activity-centric staff pulling me off my chaise lounge.
I wanted a long pier, grilled seafood as many times a day as possible, uninterrupted recreational reading, remotely cold beer, a killer view and a stunning room. This is exactly what I got.
I hoped for Media Luna Eco Lodge and the roulette spun in my favour.
There are 126 bungalows with private decks, sleek open concept glass showers, bidets and billowing canopy poster beds. It’s high romance and the best retreat for those who are happy to close the door on nightlife. The decks and Adirondack chairs along the beachfront property that overhang the surf are necessary mooring points.
*The resort is remote and taxis are prohibitive in cost. Rental cars are available, mostly standard—but the landscape is winding and hilly. The “beach” is not one that you’ll stroll along hand-in-hand. Roatan was famous with pirates who loved to hide their ships in its coves. The inlet at Media Luna allows for accessible and incredible snorkeling around the rocky perch, but not romantic sunset walks. Whale shark watching tours, diving, scuba lessons, snorkel equipment rental and other day trips can be arranged directly at the hotel through the Sunwing rep. Of special note: they sell postcards at the airport but no stamps.
Cha-ching: $1,411 (travel time: last week of February), $20 for beers and lobster quesadillas in the West End
Long Point Provincial Park, Turtle Dunes Campground, Long Point, Ontario
And, there’s something to be said for the restorative fulfillment of camping in the sand dunes on the shores of Lake Erie. Yes, I love five stars but I also love five billion stars above my head.
Firewood, a pack of wieners, a cooler of beer, some marshmallows and insect repellant have the makings of a spontaneous weekend. Far from the grinding construction and hum of the city, falling to sleep amongst tall stands of trembling aspens strips away all that clutter we carry in our working minds. Waking to chatty songbirds, reeling seagulls and climbing a dune to watch the whitecaps push in is a very spoiled way to enjoy your first cup of coffee.
Long Point is a 40km sandpit that is like a birder’s cocaine. Recognized as a biosphere reserve by United Nations, the dunes are my top camping spot—and a favoured stop-over for migratory birds as well.
There are 256 campsites (75 with electrical hook-up if that’s the way you roll). Fifty-two sites in Firefly are pull-through if you have something to pull-through, like a sleek Airstream I guess. There’s a Laundromat, park store (firewood, marshmallows, fly swatters, ice), canoe and bike rentals, and surprisingly hot showers.
I won’t divulge our Best Kept Secret location, but, you can find your own. The Ontario Parks site allows you to virtually explore the campground and specifics of the site like whether it’s shady or windy. There are also thumbnail pictures of the sites. Many of the Long Point sites closest to the beach are in the sand which makes for a sandy tent and car, but, is our favoured choice.
*Due to devastating beetle infestations, you are no longer allowed to bring in outside firewood. The park store has an ample supply but, the supply we bought was wet. We smoked out our neighbours for three hours until brilliantly trading half a bag of marshmallows for half a pre-fab sawdust fire log that helped kick-start our lame non-fire.
Further advice: Stop at the Burning Kiln Winery (http://www.burningkilnwinery.ca/) on your way through Norfolk County and buy a bottle of Strip Room. Pairing roasted marshmallows properly is a very serious thing.
Cha-ching: $26-35/night for non-electric sites, $25 for bottle of Burning Kiln wine, $25 in marshmallows, wood & wieners
So, where will you sleep first?