Aquariums rock. Anytime you put humans in front of a giant tank of water filled with marine life, the effect is typically the same: profound amazement. Children (and even adults) will stop and stare, jaws will drop and heartbeats will calm. The best aquarium photos, like this one by Flickr user halvora at the Bangkok Aquarium, are able to capture those little moments of epiphany and calm that occur as we gaze into these alien worlds of color and movement.
Just over 10 miles west of the small tourist town of La Fortuna, Arenal Volcano National Park is home to the big daddy of Costa Rican volcanoes. Those papier mâché volcanoes you made in 4th grade, with their perfectly formed cones, were probably modeled on Arenal. It’s everything you expect a volcano to be – lush and green on the bottom, gently sloping up its black rock sides to a pointed top with a near constant wisp of smoke wafting from its mouth.
Arenal isn’t the only volcano in the area, but it is the most impressive. It’s the youngest and most active. It’s been erupting daily since 1968.
You’ll find no shortage of companies that offer ziplining tours through the jungle canopy. Prices range from $30-$60 per person depending on the number of cables and other extras offered with the package. Canopy Los Cañones operates on the property of Hotel Los Lagos and is a mid-priced option for a zipline experience that includes transportation from your hotel, 15 cables, and unlimited time in the hotel’s hot spring pools post-activity.
If swimming in the runoff of a waterfall and watching it rain down from above isn’t enough, try Canyoning. Pure Trek Canyoning Adventures leads outings that combine hiking and rappelling with waterfalls – basically you rappel down the side of a cliff through the waterfall – in an activity called canyoning.
The Desafio Adventure Company offers a variety of tours, including white-water rafting. They offer full and half-day trips on class 2-3 and 4-5 rapids near Arenal. All gear is supplied, and the river is dam-controlled so the water levels are perfect all year round.
You can also combine a half-day of rafting with other adventure activities, such as kayaking or sport-fishing on Lake Arenal, cave spelunking, mountain biking, or canyoning, or with more relaxing outings like volunteering, bird watching or wildlife refuge visits.
Okay, relaxing in a hot pool isn’t exactly an adventure sport – unless you count dodging creepy couples at the swim-up bar – but after all that activity, you muscles will appreciate the soothing soak.
Billing itself as “the only full-service resort” on the shores of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, The Abbey Resort and Spa is one of those places where you can almost feel the ghosts of the past whispering around you. The resort was completely renovated in 2005, but its timber A-frame and low-slung bungalow style buildings look much as they did when it was built nearly 50 years ago, when the Midwestern elite made it their summer playground.
There’s plenty of nostalgia for the “good old days” here – the nearby Geneva Grand Resort proudly boasts that it was a Playboy Club in the 1960’s and 70’s. And money. Lots and lots of money. The houses that front Lake Geneva, the 9-mile long lake that is the centerpiece of the area, are multi-million dollar affairs that bear the names of families like Borden, Vicks, and Wrigley. Yet despite the vast wealth of the “haves”, those who aren’t descendants of the Midwest’s titans of industry can still share in the benefits of area. There are several public beaches and marinas, and every lakefront property is required to have a public walkway so that all area residents can enjoy a stroll around the lake. And in the towns of Lake Geneva and Fontana, more modest homes and affordable restaurants lines the streets where wealthy summer residents mingle with the local families who live here all year round.
For Chicago residents, getting to The Abbey couldn’t be easier. It’s about 80 miles from the city (50 miles from Milwaukee), but the Metra Rail will get you there in less than two hours from downtown. You’ll get off at the end of the line, at the Harvard Station, where a shuttle will pick you up and drive you the remaining 15 minutes to The Abbey. You can also request service from the resort to anywhere in Lake Geneva, making a car completely unnecessary.
The Abbey is family-friendly – there are childcare services, organized kids’ activities, free games like bags and croquet, two outdoor and one indoor pool, and a 2,000-square foot arcade complete with Wii system – but it’s also perfect for a romantic or relaxing retreat. The rooms have all been updated and feature pillow-top mattresses, LCD wall-mounted TVs, mini-fridges, and patios or balconies.
I saw a few families, but mostly couples in their 30’s to 50’s, during my stay. My room was comfortable and spacious and the bed soft and inviting. My only complaint was with the wi-fi service. It was free, but I had a very hard time getting a signal. When I did, I was bumped offline every 15 minutes or so, and web pages loaded very slowly. I can’t say if that would be the case all over the resort, or just in my location, but it was inconvenient when I needed to get some work done.
If you don’t plan on working while at The Abbey, you’ll find plenty of things to do to keep you busy. The resort rents bikes and fishing poles and there is a golf course nearby. The 35,000-square foot AVANI Spa offers treatments like facials, massages, body wraps, waxing and manicures. It features a pool, whirlpools, inhalation spa, steam room, sauna, sundeck, and spa menu for dining. Guests can also take advantage of the Spa’s fitness center or full line-up of exercises classes liking spinning, yoga, zumba, and pilates, which are geared towards any fitness level. I found there was always equipment available for use, the yoga class was just difficult enough to challenge me (but not hard enough to make me feel like an uncoordinated idiot), and the spa staff was always friendly but unobtrusive.
The resort borders a marina, but the small beach isn’t suitable for swimming. There is a nicer, sandy beach less than a five-minute walk off the property, or you can take the shuttle into Lake Geneva proper to visit the beach there. In town you can rent a boat or wave runner, water-ski, or take a cruise past the historic mansions around the lake. Nearby parks offer hiking trails and horseback riding, two wineries offer wine tasting (a wine festival is held in September), and there are farms where you can pick your own fruit just a few miles away. You can also soar above the lake in a hot air balloon or small airplane. In winter, locals hit the frozen lake for ice fishing and skating.
The Abbey offers an impressive variety of delicious food, all made from scratch in the resort’s kitchen. Meals are served at one of two restaurants, and there is a coffee shop, gazebo grill, cocktail lounge, and cigar bar. The resort also offers catering and meeting spaces, and hosts many weddings throughout the year. The weekend that I visited, a wedding was being set up on the lawn in front of the marina. For a resort-style destination wedding close to Chicago, I can’t think of a more beautiful place in the Midwest at which to get married.
To be honest, when I hear the word “relaxing”, I think “boring”. I prefer my vacations to be packed with sightseeing, learning, experiencing, and of course, eating and drinking. This makes me generally shun resorts where I think I’ll feel as though I’m held captive and at a loss for things to keep me entertained. I’m also very budget-conscious. Since I spend so little time in my hotel room, I don’t like to spend too much on it. And I can’t stand when resorts jack up their prices for food, drinks and activities just because they know guests will pay rather than head off-site. So I was a bit worried that The Abbey wouldn’t be my style. But I was pleasantly surprised.
One of the things that I liked about The Abbey was that leaving isn’t a hassle for guests without their own wheels. The shuttle will take you anywhere you want to go, and there a few restaurants and shops within walking distance of the hotel. And The Abbey doesn’t gouge its guests on food and drink just because it can. Management knows that it isn’t just the hotel guests who keep the resort in business, especially in the off-season. They aim to attract local customers too, and keep the prices reasonable so that everyone can enjoy The Abbey.
Despite any initial reservations, I found myself enjoying The Abbey immensely, and trying to convince my husband that returning for a “relaxing weekend” (in my case, meaning one chock-full of wine-tasting, boat tours, horseback riding, and cooking classes) at The Abbey would be the perfect fall trip. And as it turns out, fall is one of the best times to visit. Weekend rates start at $216 per night, and include free breakfast buffet and a 25% discount on spa services.
Disclosure: The Abbey Resort did cover the cost of my stay, but don’t think they had an easy time wooing me with spa treatments and Pelligrino. Freebies are nice, but they won’t make me forgive a hotel’s shortcomings. My review of the resort represents my own views and experiences as a guest and were not influenced in any way by fancy cheeses or free champagne.