I know I have kept it very quiet (aside from the counting down and constant Facebook updates that is) but I have just been to Canada. I had travelled extensively around my home country of Australia but this trip was the first overseas in 14 years so naturally I was just a tad excited!
Initially, I had planned to take the trip alone to visit my friend Tom in Vancouver. I mentioned this idea to my parents who didn’t really seem to take it seriously until I presented them with research I had done indicating how I could go alone. It was at this point that they sprang into action and next thing I know we were booked. Dad is a train fanatic and has always wanted to go on the Rocky Mountaineer and luckily for me the full loop begins and ends in Vancouver.
Vancouver has plenty to do. Perhaps my favorite thing though was our afternoon spent on GranvilleIsland. The indoor markets with their vast array of food delicacies reminded me of those at Queen Victoria market in Melbourne and the smell of freshly baked goods was very enticing. It is situated on a very pretty marina and is a great place for people watching. We perched ourselves on a bench outside on the boardwalk between a busker from New Zealand who was very nimble on his stilts and a strange flash mob that got bigger every time we looked. The most fascinating thing of all was the dog in the German fighter pilot uniform and aviators who was being pushed around in the model airplane. It’s not something you see everyday and passersby were stopping to take photos until the dogs owner (a guy in a pink wig) told them to go away. I found this hilarious! I mean all the poor guy was trying to do was take a stroll with his dog and blend in. What was wrong with everyone?
We began our tour with a visit to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Grouse Mountain. I am told this is rainforest area and boy did it live up to its name! It was summer in Canada and they had not had any rain for several months that is until this particular day where we were treated to something like 42 mL in 24 hours. To add to the fun, our coach broke down. In a stroke of luck that would never happen in Australia, a driver of the local public transport bus took pity on us and although it deviated from his assigned route he picked us all up (about 60 in total) and dropped us off at the bridge. Surprisingly this did not seem to bother any of the existing passengers.
We got there in the end and although it was raining the bridge did not disappoint. It was very wet and slippery, extremely wobbly and gave my legs one hell of a work out but so worth it. The view at the top of all of the trees was amazing and I loved it. Mum not so much! Down the road we visited the Salmon Hatchery (not farm) and learnt the life cycle of this beloved fish. Those poor things have a tough life especially when you consider they almost always get eaten once they complete the very strenuous journey home AND the females die as soon as they have their young. I was comforted to learn that the supply this year is strong and getting stronger. It made me feel slightly less guilty about all the Salmon I myself had eaten.
GrouseMountain was not quite so exciting. Due to the torrential rain, heavy fog and low cloud we couldn’t see out of the gondola which took us up the mountain and then all the shows and attractions had to be cancelled due to the weather so we had only one option, lunch! I am pleased to report that my club sandwich was not only the biggest sandwich I had ever seen but also very yummy.
On day 6 we finally began the journey on the train itself. The day begins at 6.10am and the train departed at 7.25 precisely to the sounds of the lone bagpiper, dressed in full regalia who formed the crux of the “all aboard ceremony”. First impressions were good; staff were friendly and welcoming and the 360 degree view from the glass domed carriage was gorgeous even for me. Unfortunately though, I appeared to be the only guest under the age of 60 so no wild parties for me! The thought did cross my mind to go in search of my very own sugar daddy although it would have been interesting explaining that one to my parents. All my misgivings about the trip ahead vanished however when I sat down to breakfast and the BEST gluten free bread I had ever tasted. Not only was it sweet but it actually tasted like bread, woohoo! The rest of the day passed by in a whirlwind of beautiful mountains, lakes and course after course of delicious cuisine. I had a truly only in Canada moment after lunch when while standing on the vestibule I looked out to see an eagle flying alongside us as we passed by yet another spectacular example of the Rocky Mountains. That night we found ourselves in the rancher’s paradise of Kamloops where we were literally greeted by a cowboy on his steed before turning in. The next morning we were off again at the crack of dawn for another enjoyable day of luxurious train travel. This time we ended the day in the picturesque mountain town of Banff.
The first thing I loved about Banff was our hotel. Based on a Scottish castle, Fairmont Banff Springs is a destination in itself. It has so many staircases and secret passages that it is almost impossible to get in or out the same way twice. There is also an intriguing collection of different antique furniture dotted throughout the many corridors; I came to realize that these were to give you a place to rest while you tried to work out where on earth you were on your way back to your room. We had two nights there but I’m sure we barely saw half of it.
Our first day in Banff began with a 30 Minute helicopter ride in Kananaskis. It was not my first Helicopter ride, having done one over the 12 apostles in Victoria Australia and over the city of Canberra however this was the first one I’d done since acquiring my vision impairment and the experience was totally different. Obviously, the view was not as detailed and I found it difficult to keep up with the commentary of the pilot as he pointed out various sights but I found that the experience of the helicopter itself with the noise and movement was still a lot of fun. At one point I did see myself as some sort of action hero. My immature side surfaced on the way when we visited the amusingly named Lake Minnewanka (pronounced mini wanker). Perhaps that’s me. From there it was onto Banff town centre and I fell in love with it immediately. The town is so pretty and full of character. I couldn’t stop myself from humming “I’m a lumberjack and I’m ok” as I went along the streets and explored all they had to offer. It was here we had the opportunity to board another gondola which took us to the top of SulphurMountain. The view from here was like looking down on a mountain decorated with Christmas trees and the scent of pine trees was strong but lovely.
The next morning we bid farewell to Banff and the mysterious hotel castle and headed off by bus with our driver Al (part tour guide part amateur comedian) to Lake Louise. On the way we visited Emerald Lake which like everything else I had seen so far was gorgeous even if I was unable to make out the emerald colour of the lake. The tranquility there is amazing.
I can see why Lake Louise is one of the most photographed sights in the world. It was so pretty in fact that I managed to tear myself from my magnificent room at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise for the obligatory 1.5 km scenic walk around the lake (a big deal for me). I also had an encounter with a chipmunk and what we thought was a weasel but later found out was a wood marten.
From Lake Louise we travelled to the Athabasca Falls. The water was green which I had learnt meant that it was runoff from the nearby glacier but the thing that struck me was the shear speed and ferocity of the water that flowed there. If I missed anything of the scenery the noise of the rushing water certainly made up for it. That was just a warm up for things to come. As we travelled through the mountain range we arrived at the Athabasca Glacier where we hopped aboard the Ice Explorer (similar to the bus /truck that scales the big sand dunes in Lancelin WA). Driven by a young Australian guy, who got very excited when he saw my Fremantle Dockers cap, the explorer took us to the top of the glacier where I actually got to walk on the ice. It was like walking on an enormous slushy and although vegetation is non existent the miles and miles of icy plains atop this incredible glacier was awe inspiring and very different to the experience of snow I had in Thredbo on the ski slopes. Naturally I was forced to pose for a photo with the gigantic tires of the bus while we were up there. I guess you can never have enough proof of being fun size.
By now we were10 days in and up until this point I had managed to dodge the dreaded jetlag, until now… We rested that night in an idyllic log cabin resort just outside of Jasper. As you walk into reception everything is just as you would imagine it to be with the heads of dearly departed local wildlife adorning the walls. Thankfully I was spared such tasteful décor in my room. I planned to turn in early and was in the shower when Mum knocked on my door to tell me that there was a family of Elk hanging out outside my window. By the time I got dressed (I didn’t want to scare them with my nakedness) they were gone. Damn jetlag!
Again we were up before the sun the next day to board the train and again I enjoyed an indulgent day of eating and watching the world go by before we arrived for the night in the quirky town of Quesnel (the s is silent). It was here that I had the best sushi (my favourite thing in the world) that I had tasted in all of Canada. The funky waitress taught me that the type I am partial to is called Ngirie and had the coolest nails I had ever seen. To top it all the delightfully cheerful old chef came out and thanked us for coming and wished us a good trip.
From Quesnel it was all aboard the train again and after 12 hours of the opulence I had become accustomed to on The Rocky Mountaineer we arrived in the ski resort town of Whistler. It was late at night when we arrived so I retired to my favourite room of the whole trip. The Château Whistler is insanely extravagant and my room was huge. It even had a balcony. I wasn’t sure what I did to deserve such pampering but I planned to keep doing it! The next day began with a stroll in the upper village. It was relatively early and there weren’t many people around so we decided to explore the little shops. Nothing really jumped out at us until we discovered a rack of t-shirts that were truly hilarious. One such shirt featured two stick figures roasting sausages over an open fire with a caption that read “It’s all fun and games until someone looses a wiener”. Yes it’s immature but gee it was funny. I did see an equally funny shirt a few days later that read “If God had intended us to be vegetarians he would have made broccoli more fun to shoot at” but that’s beside the point. After the laughter had died down we were treated to a traditional lunch and insight into the history and culture of the First Nations people at the Squamish/Lil’wat Centre. It struck me how the Canadians, in this area at least, had such a reverence for this culture and what society can learn from it.
With our heads full of knowledge and our tummies full of food we walked into downtown Whistler. The peak season for Whistler is the height of winter when there is snow, but as this was still autumn things had yet to get going, and although there were people milling about, a lot of the main attractions were not in operation so we took a stroll through the very tourist friendly streets. I was slightly unnerved by the bear-proof bins that were everywhere and slightly concerned we would see them put to the test. We didn’t. The day ended with Dad and I watching a live telecast of the Dockers impressive victory over Geelong in the first round of the AFL finals from the comfort of my hotel room. It blew my mind that we had come halfway around the world to watch the footy but it was so worth staying up until midnight for.
Our final train journey took us from Whistler to Vancouver and along the way we saw where scenes from Happy Gilmore were filmed and a tiny little shack in the middle of nowhere called 10 Downing street (As per the British Prime Minister’s residence). The shack does have a cute story that accompanies it; I just don’t remember what it is.
If you are in Vancouver I would also recommend StanleyPark, although walk it if you can as the horse and cart tour I did was nice but you do have to sit downwind of a horses rear end and it can only cover a small portion of the park in an hour. Also, people recommend ButchartGardens as a place to visit. It is lovely but is situated in Victoria on Vancouver Island and requires a ferry to get there so allow plenty of time. When we went we took the train, a bus, the ferry and another bus just to get to Victoria and all up it took 4.5 hours. The gardens were large enough to cover in 1.5.
Canada (at least the parts I visited) is so relaxed and laid back, the people are friendly and I found no problems getting around as it is perfect for people with mobility issues. I felt totally comfortable everywhere even at night. Even the crosswalk is friendly with its adorable chirping sound. Beware though; the switches turn on upwards, the water swirls the opposite way, everyone wants a tip, and GST and PST (a total of 12%) are never included in the advertised price of anything. But I suppose you can’t have everything.
In the words of Molly Meldrum, do yourself a favour- GO THERE!