The World of Snow Domes
I read an article about de-cluttering the home a while ago that advised tourists not to buy souvenirs when travelling. Just because you don’t have a souvenir of a place doesn’t mean your memories of it are less vivid, it reasoned. Well, maybe not, but I like a souvenir, and my favourite type is possibly the weirdest: those funny little domes, filled with water and fake snow or glitter and a miniature scene or figure that, in a kitschy sort of way, represents the place you have visited.
In this post, inspired by the weekly travel theme on the blog Where’s My Backpack?, I want to show you some of my favourite snow domes (also called snow globes). I’m fascinated by these spheres, circular representations of places around the world (but ironically, usually with “Made in China” stamped on their base).
I’ve been collecting snow domes since the early 1990s when a colleague gave me two “Hawaii” domes in a retro style with hula dancers, sand, sea and surf. When I say collecting, I don’t mean hoarding. I have discarded as many as I have bought, domes that have become tatty and discoloured, the liquid almost gone, though sometimes this adds to their charm. I now have a limited collection, many of which are displayed on a glass cupcake stand on the coffee table of my living room (pictured above).
Here are some of my favourites and what each destination represents for me:
This is a promotional dome that I acquired in the lead-up to the London Olympics. I last went to London myself in 1998, and looking at this newer snow dome, I am reminded how much the 135m-high London Eye has changed the landscape of that part of the inner city. It was derided by some as a folly while it was being built and beset by embarrassing technical problems that meant it couldn’t open to the public for nine weeks after its planned date on December 31, 1999. However, it was a huge success and the Eye is now one of the most recognised London landmarks.
I first visited Las Vegas as a child while living with my family in Los Angeles. We stayed at a motel near The Strip, and I remember going in to Circus Circus, to a viewing area that allowed minors, and being amazed at the trapeze artists hanging by their teeth above the gambling floor. I’ve been back to Vegas twice in recent years: in 2005 for a week on an all-expenses-paid first-class “famil”— a sponsored trip for travel writers; and in 2009 for my brother’s wedding. This great snow dome was bought on the 2005 trip, and I like it because it’s a historical record of the buildings as they were at that time. I don’t know why, but I really love Las Vegas. There’s something about it that makes me smile (granted, this wouldn’t be the case if I had a gambling problem). I like the musical fountains, the great restaurants, the shows—I saw Jersey Boys there in 2009 and Blue Man Group in 2005. And the desert and national parks are so close: My brother and sister-in-law, an American, were married out in the wilderness, just 90 minutes by road from The Strip, but a million miles away from it in spirit.
I’ve never actually been to Chicago, though I intend to go some time to do some research on a writing project. This snow dome is precious to me because it was bought by my late father when he travelled from Australia to work at the synchrotron at the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, for a few weeks in late 2005. This was only a couple of months before he died unexpectedly, at the age of only 69.
This is my newest dome, bought a few weeks ago when I stayed at the Golden Triangle near Chiang Saen, Thailand. For B1000 (about $AU 31), you can hire a boat and driver, who will take you up and down the Mekong River for an hour, including a half-hour stop at Donsao in Laos. This is a strange experience: no passport or ID is needed, but all you see is a rather boring market full of bags and belts made in Thailand, rows of whiskey with whole snakes inside—and yes, snow domes. You can use Thai baht, and by the boat ramp, children beg for money and quickly snatch any notes offered and run off. However unrepresentative this strange little market is, I can say I’ve been to Laos and I have the snow dome to prove it.
One of the symbols associated with this great city is the tuk tuk. I lived in Bangkok for four years in the 1990s and have visited Thailand 23 times, but I hardly ever travel in tuk tuks (though I did take one in November when I was in Chiang Mai). This is because within a couple of weeks of first arriving in Bangkok in 1990, I saw a shocking accident in which a tuk tuk overturned at speed. The driver immediately ran away down the road, leaving his bleeding and badly injured passenger behind. A crowed gathered, and luckily, this included a doctor. Someone offered their pick-up truck (quicker than waiting for an ambulance) and the man was carted off to hospital.
This dome is past its best now, but I keep it because it brings back memories of a dream-come-true holiday in 1998. I had taken up skiing in my 30s and decided it would be romantic to go skiing for a week at St Moritz. It was difficult to get information from the travel agent (we didn’t do much booking by internet in those days), but she eventually put our unusual trip together. We started with two nights at the Waldorf in London, which had the best breakfast buffet I’ve ever experienced, and tiny but well appointed rooms (tiny probably because they’d had to squeeze ensuite bathrooms into them once people were no longer content to share a bathroom down the hall). At St Moritz, we stayed at a boutique hotel with a very reasonable deal that included breakfast and dinner. Just as well, because after every afternoon on the slopes, we would be exhausted and would be asleep every night by about 9pm. It was odd, but mineral water tasted like wine to us up in the alps, so we never needed any wine with dinner. We then caught the Glacier Express to Zermatt, wondering at the life going on outside despite the deep snow of the alps. Every so often, I’d see weird markings in the snow and wondered what they were. Then I worked it out: they were cross-country ski marks. People living outside the villages would ski through the snow to the village and the local shops, then put their shopping on their backs and ski home again. The holiday finished with a couple of nights in Paris, one of them at The Ritz (yes!). Strangely enough, I couldn’t find a snow dome at The Ritz shopping arcade.
Although I live in Australia, I was born in New Zealand, so I always like to have some reminders of home around me. I posted a painting two blogs ago depicting my favourite NZ things—books, a kete (woven flax bag), greenstone pendant, paua shell ring and so on. I can’t say this snow dome is my favourite, but interestingly, it was made in NZ, which is unusual.
Although many Australians snootily say the Gold Coast is crass and over-touristy, I always enjoy going there. It’s sunny, the people are friendly, and there’s a relaxing feel in the air, similar to the feeling I have at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii or at Mount Maunganui in New Zealand. In December, 2006, I spent my honeymoon in the Gold Coast hinterland with a day either side at the Gold Coast itself, which is when I bought this snow dome, I think.
Rottnest Island, Western Australia
The former penal colony of Rottnest Island is 19km off the coast by ferry from Fremantle. My husband was brought up in Perth, and “Rotto” was where they went every summer, even sometimes staying on and attending the local school for a few weeks. In those days, it was a no-frills place for locals to holiday, with a general store and a pub. These days, it’s an expensive destination, with restaurants and boutiques, and accommodation costing hundreds of dollars a night. We stayed in the old jail, which has been converted to motel units. Despite the gentrification, Rotto retains its charm, is free of cars, and there are plenty of unspoilt walks and beaches on which to while away the time. We spent an idyllic few days there in 2011. The most confronting thing about Rottnest is that it is overrun by a small marsupial called a quokka. They are absolutely everywhere, and they’d come in to your hotel room if you left the door open.
Norfolk is a self-governing external territory of Australia. It is 1600km from Sydney, so it’s actually closer to New Zealand than Australia. It’s like going to a foreign country, and even Australians have to take a passport with them and do not have the automatic right to live or work there.
My parents went on their honeymoon to Norfolk Island in 1961, and returned for their 40th anniversary, with most of the other couples they met there, in 2001. I got to stay there for eight days in 2003 for a travel story when I was working as the Melbourne Editor of Woman’s Day magazine.
The island has a fascinating history as a penal colony (1788-1814). In 1855, it was bequeathed by Queen Victoria to the descendants of the Bounty mutineers, who needed a new home when Pitcairn Island became overcrowded. About 1000 locals on the island today, half its permanent population, are direct descendants of the mutineers. It’s also home to the writer Colleen McCullough, while the 1970s singer Helen “I am Woman” Reddy divides her time between Norfolk and Sydney, and tourists can visit her home and extensive garden on the island.
The globe that got away
I regret not buying a snow dome at Vatican City when I visited in the late 1990s. But they were the most expensive I have come across, and I became annoyed at what I thought was the Vatican exploiting tourists. I bought an exquisite hand-painted brooch instead—for five times what the dome would have cost.
Not a snow globe of a destination, but a Jean-Paul Gaultier perfume! This one was made for me, I’m sure.
I now have virtual snow domes for my iPhone, and although cute, they’re not as endearing as the real thing. Somehow, they lose that kitschy, retro feeling when they become high tech.
You should keep them because how are you going to retell these stories without the domes. My Mom loved those water domes herself and we got a couple of them which we bring out during Christmas.
Your comment is so well made and it’s made me think about them as artifacts, rather than just souvenirs. Thank you!
Great blog. Loved the Rotto snapshot.
Love the Rotto snapshot
A fun collection is one that brings back certain fresh memories when you look at it each time. Your snow globes are perfect for that. What other souvenir could you have that would be interactive, and invite you to pick it up and shake? The snow globes I make are not of memories past, but events yet to be.
I took a look at your blog—your snow globes are awesome! They are truly works of art and I’ve seen nothing else like them.
Thanks! I’m inspired to create a series of souvenir snow globes for places that exist in the imagination. 🙂
I have always loved snow domes! One of the best inventions ever – they make me dream away… ! Sweet!
Yes, aren’t they great? My brother sent me a fantastic little book about snow domes for Christmas. Apparently, the first one to become very popular was made for the Paris Exposition in 1889 and was, of course, of the Eiffel Tower. The snow dome in those days was considered a glamorous souvenir.