VIA Rail Canada brings back bike trains for summer season

Traveling with your two-wheeled best friend just got a whole lot easier. Since 2007, VIA Rail Canada has provided seasonal bike racks on select VIA Rail departures, as part of its mandate to provide more environmentally sustainable, affordable passenger transit. Now, the racks will be available yearound, and increased baggage cars mean that cyclists can connect to even more cycling destinations.

By taking VIA (Canada’s national rail service), you can access thousands of miles of cycling paths running from Toronto, Ottawa, Montréal, Quebec City, London, Windsor, Jonquière, and Senneterre. Popular cycling trips include Quebec’s La Route Verte (2,671 miles), the Greater Niagara Circle Route (86 miles), Ottawa’s Capital Parkway Network (136 miles) and Ontario’s Waterfront Trails (559 miles).

Using the bike trains is easy. Check your buddy at the counter for a small fee; VIA staff do the rest, reuniting you on the platform at your destination. For a full listing of VIA’s Bike Train schedules click here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cycle.nut66]

Visit Hôtel de Glace, North America’s only ice hotel

Get frosty this winter with a visit to the Hôtel de Glace in Québec. North America’s first ice hotel opened their 2011 season January 7 with a new theme, larger living space, and new location just ten minutes from downtown Québec City.

The 32,000 square foot hotel is made of 15,000 tons of snow, 500 tons of ice and features 19 foot ceilings. The hotel has 32 rooms. Amenities include a spa and sauna, ice cafe, an exhibition room, an ice chapel for weddings, fireplaces (we’re not sure how they function, but they do), an ice slide, and a restaurant.

The Hôtel de Glace is the creation of CEO and founder Jacques Desbois, who began building igloo-like structures for curious guests in 2001 as part of a lifelong fascination with cold weather and the outdoors. The structures drew a crowd, and each year the project grew.

Eventually, Desbois traveled to Sweden to see the original ICEHOTEL, and, until 2005, the Hôtel de Glace partnered with the ICEHOTEL to gain insight into building structures and best practices. The two parted way, Desbois said, because the needs of a North American and Swedish audience, both from a physical (weather) standpoint and a cultrural/aesthetic one, were inherently different. The Hôtel de Glace does not aim to copy the Swedish original, Desbois says, and even if they wanted to … they couldn’t – the climates are simply too different.

What To Expect
As with Sweden’s ICEHOTEL, the Hôtel de Glace is built around a yearly theme, this year honoring biodiversity.

“Guided by the echo of the new site, this artistic performance will offer the visitors various universe[s] and habitats inspired by the cohabitation of all forms of life, stimulating at the same time a new vision of the notion of biodiversity” said Serge Péloquin, the hotel’s artistic director.

Desbios says that this year’s iteration is one of his favorites, particularly the big bar, a statement room that can hold up to 300 at a time. Decorated with magical sculptures of sea life, including whales and fish, he says that being in the bar is like “stepping into another world.”

To help celebrate the theme, the hotel will offer various artistic performances about the beauty of nature.

Built on the site of the city’s former zoo, this year’s iteration is closer to the city than ever before and is also accessible via public transportation. Whether you’re coming for an afternoon tour or an overnight stay, visitors will enjoy upgraded amenities from years past including a ticket booth and an expanded boutique as well a cafe and light snack area.

*Clarification, January 16: Commenters have correctly pointed out that there is another Ice structure in Alaska, Chena Hot Springs. While the attraction does have many similar features, it is technically an Ice Museum, not an Ice Hotel.

An Overnight Stay

Guests are greeted in a private area for overnight visitors and are invited to use facilities like a spa, sauna and bathroom just for hotel guests. Private room access doesn’t begin until 9 PM, as the rooms are open for public tours during the day.

Many overnight packages (which begin around $230, Canadian) also offer a room at the nearby Sheraton for those who simply find sleeping on ice to be too cold. But you won’t really freeze – arctic-style sleeping bags are available for all guests and temperatures never dip below 5 degrees Celsius.

Beth Blair, a travel writer who stayed at the hotel in 2008, says that her visit was one of her more memorable travel experiences. She had a few tips for first-time travelers: “Wear 100% silk long underwear” and “put hand warmers in your boots so you don’t freeze in the morning.” The silk prevents one from getting cold if they sweat during the night, and your shoes, which rest on ice overnight, will be freezing if you don’t add a warming device.

Her favorite part of the trip? “Waking up in complete silence … it’s like nothing I’d ever experienced before.”

The hotel offers overnight accommodations for up to 88 guests per evening. For a true luxury experience, book one of the four specialty suites, each offering a fire place and access to private saunas and hot tubs. Each room is decorated differently and offers unique and custom artwork and carvings made from ice.

Click here to check out other ice hotels from our friends at ShelterPop

Want to brave the cold overnight? The ambient bedroom temperature will remain between -3°C and -5°C, no matter the outside temperature. While the beds have a solid ice base, each is topped with a wooden boxspring and mattress that prevents one from getting wet. Need to use the facilities? There’s a (heated) bathroom nearby. Many guests also opt to simply tour the hotel and visit the bar … or book special overnight packages, many of which come with additonal lodging at the nearby Sheraton Four Points.

Overnight stays begin at $235 (Canadian Dollars) per person and include a welcome cocktail, tour of the hotel, equipment for the night, access to the hot tubs and sauna, a hot morning beverage and breakfast.

Want to check it out for yourself? We’d suggest visiting on January 20, when the hotel will host a grand opening celebration featuring fireworks, music and more.

If you’re in search of a truly innovative experience, book your reservations between the 7th and 20th, as select guests will get to experience the creation process, the moulds, the sculptors, the manufacturing of the hotel’s famous ice glasses and more of our secrets.

The hotel will only be open until March 27, so secure your reservations soon.

Top 10 country brands in the world, Canada hits #1

Remember when you could make all those “two thirds” jokes about Canada? Based on the currency, there were so many ways we could tweak our northern neighbors. Then, the U.S. dollar plunged. I remember being in Quebec and seeing parity between the two dollars for the first time in October 2007. Well, the momentum has continued, and it’s not just about money. It seems as though Canada’s brand is stronger than ours now.

According to FutureBrand’s Country Brand Index, the United States isn’t looking so good these days. From 2009, we fell down to the #4 spot, from the #1 position. Meanwhile, Canada worked its way from #2 last year to the top of the heap in 2010.

USA Today reports that the United States reached #1 last year because of the “Obama effect,” with the prospect of “hope” and “change” making us look promising. A year later, the prospect doesn’t burn as bright, and it’s reflected in the FutureBrand rankings.

It could have been worse: we could’ve wound up joining Zimbabwe, Iran and Pakistan at the bottom of the heap.

See the full top 10 list below:
1. Canada
2. Australia
3. New Zealand
4. United States
5. Switzerland
6. Japan
7. France
8. Finland
9. United Kingdom
10. Sweden

The brand rankings are based on a survey of 3,400 business and leisure travelers from five continents, not to mention “expert focus groups, on their image associations of various countries in five categories, including tourism appeal, quality of life and value systems,” USA Today reports.

[photo by ankakay via Flickr]

Indiana Jones exhibit whips up international tour

He’s everyone’s favorite fictional archaeologist. Even real archaeologists, once they’re done nitpicking his lack of scientific technique, usually admit that they love the guy. Now Indiana Jones is the subject of a new international exhibition.

Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology: The Exhibition will open at the Montreal Science Centre on April 28, 2011 to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the first movie in the series. Tickets are already selling fast.

The exhibition will include clips and memorabilia from the movies, as well as an educational component to show the public that archaeologists don’t generally carry bullwhips and get into fights with evil cults. My own Masters program offered no classes on bullwhip technique, but that lecture I attended on Aztec human sacrifice certainly convinced me that not all religions are created equal. On one excavation I got too close for comfort to a Palestinian viper and nearly had a 3,000 year-old wall fall on me, so it’s not all libraries and dusty museums.

The educational portion of the exhibit is being planned by Frank Hiebert, the Archaeology Fellow for National Geographic. Real archaeological artifacts from Quebec and around the world will be on display and visitors will learn the painstaking processes archaeologists use to piece together the past. It’s not as exciting as being chased over a rope bridge by sword-wielding cultists, but it’s still pretty cool.

Interactive displays will explain some of the myths behind the movies such as the stories of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology: The Exhibition will run from April 28 to September 18 before going on an international tour. Not all dates and locations are set, so check the official website for updates, and stayed tuned here to Gadling.

[Photo courtesy user Insomniacpuppy via Wikimedia Commons]

Epic cycling tour comes to North America

Tour d’Afrique Ltd., the adventure travel company that organizes some of the best cycling tours on the planet, has announced the latest addition to their catalog, and this time they’re bringing their magic to North America. This new ride is aptly named The North American Epic, and when it launches next May, it will cover nearly 5000 miles, stretching from the Pacific Coast of California to the Atlantic Coast of Canada’s Newfoundland.

The North American Epic gets underway on May 29th from San Francisco, and immediately proceeds south along the Pacific Coast, before the riders turn east, heading into the desert. From there it’s on to the Grand Canyon, and the Four Corners of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, before tackling the Rocky Mountains themselves. The tour continues into the American Heartland, taking the legendary Route 66 east across Missouri and Illinois, then turning northward toward Michigan and the Great Lakes region, before finally crossing the border into Canada. Cycling through Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and Quebec, before proceeding up the scenic St. Lawrence Sea Way, the riders will experience plenty of Canadian hospitality before the ride finally comes to an end in St. Johns, Newfoundland on the 28th of August.

This three month long cycling tour features 76 days in the saddle, along with 16 rest days, and costs $9950 for the complete ride. But as with all their tours, Tour d’Afrique Ltd. offers cyclists various options for riding shorter sub-sections of the entire route. In the case of this tour, there are five shorter segments that can be ridden in any combination as well, allowing those with time constraints to take part in this great new tour too.

And for adventure cyclists looking for something a bit more exotic, check out the company’s 44 day ride along the Silk Road or their 80 day tour of South America. But for something really adventurous, go for the flagship ride, the Tour d’Afrique, which is 120 days in length and runs from Cairo to Cape Town.

[Photo credit: Tour d’Afrique Ltd.]