While the rest of us are shivering away the end of winter, a group of 16 Prince George high school students are about to lap up the sun in Portugal, Spain and Morocco.
Spring break has arrived and while the city was digging itself out of a heavy snowfall Friday morning, students from D.P. Todd secondary school were getting ready to board a plane for southern Europe and Africa, the start of a 14-day tour.
Their tour stops will include Lisbon in Portugal, Seville and Madrid in Spain, the British territory of Gibraltar in Spain, and Tangiers, Morocco.
"It's just such a cool chance for the kids to see another culture and to travel," said D.P. Todd leadership teacher Frank Balazs. "Some of them have never traveled before. Last year [on a trip to London and Paris] we had one girl who had never been on a plane and never been on a train, so for her the whole trip was just one wide-eyed adventure.
"We were in Rome for the first part of the tour and walked around the corner of the hotel and there, 10 blocks down the road was the Colosseum. This girl broke down in tears when she saw it. Another girl did the same thing when she saw Big Ben [in London]. Everything is a learning experience."
Balazs and his wife Sally, the other D.P. Todd chaperone, have taken groups of students to Europe since 2008 and one rule he sticks to is no parents are allowed. The kids soon learn how to handle their own belongings and avoid getting pickpocketed in touristy areas.
"The biggest benefit for the kids is not just seeing the world, it's that sense of independence they gain," said Balazs. "They learn they can handle things without mom and dad. We guide them through at the start when they go through security and at the end of the trip, after two weeks of traveling and changing hotels, they're walking through customs at Heathrow on their own. They're the ones handling their luggage and all their documents and they don't need us."
The students will be staying in four-star hotels close to most of the top tourist attractions. Previous trips took D.P. Todd students to Italy, Greece and London-Paris. The groups are usually quite small and that allows flexibility in what they get to see in their free time. They can take public transport to historical sites or take in a soccer game, as the group did in 2011 in Athens.
"It was poring rain but it was fantastic to be in this 60,000-seat arena," said Balazs. "They put us in this safe section on the far side away from the guys they call the Ultras. For the entire time there were 10,000 guys in one section singing their soccer songs the entire time all fenced off with barbed wire on the top of their section. There was even a moat between the stands and the field. But we felt totally secure."
Two groups of Duchess Park secondary students are heading in opposite directions overseas during spring break. One group will visit Italy, Greece and Turkey, while the other -- the Duchess Park band -- is bound for China.
The 18-day Italian-Greek itinerary includes Milan, Verona, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Pompei, Sorento, Athens, Delphi, and a cruise around the Greek islands to Mykonos, Santorini, Crete, and Patmos. The 22 Duchess Park students will be joined by 17 from Mackenzie secondary. The trip will cost each student $4,100, plus the cost of lunches and spending money.
The Citizen will be going along for the ride. Duchess Park teacher/librarian Cheryl Doucette is bringing copies of the Citizen's front page and will take pictures of the students holding the paper while posing in front of historic sites such as the Colosseum, the Parthenon in Athens, and the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey.
Doucette took a group from Mackenzie on the same tour a couple years ago and sees the changes that come with visiting different cultures and hearing different languages in another part of the world.
"Travel is an education in itself, they get to see the places they've studied all their lives in social studies, right from Grade 6 when they study ancient Rome and Greece," said Doucette. "It just brings everything to life. They will see where the gladiators fought, and where they threw Christians to the lions.
"Just the experience of traveling and going to airports and customs and having to have their passports with them, it's amazing how much they grow from the beginning of the trip, when they're scared. They come back much more confident."
The Duchess Park tour to China involves 41 students, 25 parents and music teacher Stefania Dubrowski. The band, which includes three students from Lac Des Bois elementary, is scheduled to play in Beijing and has a gig booked on the Great Wall of China. They will be the first Prince George band ever to play on the Wall.
"We've made a new band -- the China band -- so we can play on the Great Wall and in a school in Beijing," said Dubrowski. "They've rented all the stands we need and the percussion [instruments] and we'll just show up in our uniforms with our instruments and we'll play for about a half-hour.
They leave for China on Monday and come back on March 27.
"It's a huge trip," said Dubrowski. "There are so many of us going and that makes it exciting."