Vancouver and The Island

1 10 2009

We had initially planned to do a loop of the British Columbia mainland but we were consistently told how nice the island was so switched our route to here for a few days.

On our return from Whistler we took a ferry over to Nanaimo and stayed up the coast near Qualicum Beach. Zoë had read about a place serving ‘Perfect Fish and Chips’ which was obviously a claim we had to thoroughly investigate! The Fish Tales cafe was a quaint little english style tea-room with Horse brasses on the beams, Old Spice scented washrooms and pictures of Lichfield Cathedral and Stratford-upon-Avon adorning the walls! The long wait for our food was worth it – very tasty cod and chips, although it’s only fair we sample several more places around the world before we agree they were Perfect!

It was here that we decided to have a go at sleeping in the car as it was getting increasingly colder every night. After a frustrating half an hour trying to fold the seats away in the dark we settled down and got a warm nights sleep for once – the tent hasn’t been erected since!

Sleeping in the boot - Too cold for tents!

We took a couple of days to travel out to Hornby and Denman islands – small little hippie islands full of artists and potters where we generally lazed about on white sandy beaches all day!

We travelled over to The West coast of the main island next to Tofino, home to several more long sandy beaches, crashing surf and lots of boating and kayaking around the groups of islands nearby.

We took a boat trip out to Hot Springs cove which was about 25 miles from Tofino through occasionally choppy waters. I’d endured worse though and the wildlife spotting was a welcome distraction! First spot was a pair of Grey Whales although they’re not the acrobatic type so we only saw the odd hump and squirt of their blowholes. It was from here that we also saw our first Bear – a sizeable black bear walking along the beach looking for food. He was soon gone though as we motored into shore for a closer look.

A fuzzy bear.. or is it a cow?

The Hot Springs are volcanically heated to around 109ºC before being forced out of the ground. They then flow down towards the sea and cascade over waterfalls into several tidal pools at a more comfortable 42ºC. We lounged around in here for a while after getting used to the slimy rocks and thousands of pieces of sediment and little sea animals floating around you! Standing under a hot waterfall is quite a strange sensation – it gives a good pummelling massage though so you soon get used to it!

Heading back to Tofino we stopped again for more wildlife spotting – A couple of Bald Eagles and a pair of Humpback whales who were marginally more active than the boring Greys, flashing the odd tail as they gave us the run around trying to predict where they’d next surface!

Once we’d returned to dry land we headed down to Ucluelet – causing a mini ‘Bear-jam’ en-route as 3 bears popped out of the hedgerow right next to our car! Two little cubs and we assume Mother, although Mother was a little small herself so possibly a scandalous teenage pregnancy. They didn’t hang around though. After a sniff of the road they lined up and were off back into the bushes before we could get a picture – we must start keeping the cameras in the front of the car!

Having re-energised on the beaches of Vancouver Island we set off to tackle The Grouse Grind once we’d returned to the mainland. This is a 2.9km hike up the 30° slope of Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver, consisting of 2830 steps and an elevation gain of 2800ft! There’s an annual race up the trail and over 100,000 people a year tackle the hike to the top which brought out my competitive nature to see how I stacked up! The record is 24 minutes, 22 seconds – held by a Kiwi Mountain Running World Champion – would the record still stand by the end of the day?!

Zoë wasn’t really bothered about racing up so got lumbered with the rucksack while I sped on ahead! After a good 80 or 90 seconds I figured out while no-one else was running – this was pretty hard! I kept up the walk-jog-walking for another 7 or 8 minutes and then packed in the jogging completely. It was a pretty cold day anyway but as you ascended further inhaling the chilled cloud vapour made your lungs burn with every gasp of air! I ploughed on passing several people on the way and as the trail levelled off slightly I rounded the corner and checked my watch – 22 minutes 19 seconds!

Now if only I could do the second half in 2 minutes! Slightly demoralised after noticing the ½ way sign I battled on, sucking up more freezing clouds as I went and eventually reached the top. The clock stopped at 42 minutes and 41 seconds which is apparently pretty respectable for a first go. My time actually placed me 3rd fastest of the day but after remembering it was a Wednesday morning, out of season and my fellow competitors were probably all retired I didn’t get too excited!

Zoë successfully arrived 25 minutes later with the lunch – what a good wife! We also got to see a couple of Grizzly Bears up at the top – massive – but luckily from behind a fence as they were orphaned ones that have been raised in their own little bear habitat at the top of the mountain.

It’s probably our last day in Canada today so we needed to try out the local delicacy before we left – ‘Poutine’, or Cheesy Chips and Gravy as we’d call it at home! We’ve burned enough calories in Canada, especially today up the Grind so a big pot of chips each for dinner was well deserved!

Next stop is Seattle for a few days of Coffee and Fish – Goodbye Canada, eh!

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The West Coast

30 09 2009

After returning our car in Edmonton we went on a hot date to the movies for the afternoon before catching our Greyhound bus to Vancouver. What can we say about the Greyhound – amazing……….how a company so utterly inept can stay in business! It seemed to be the Central Trains of the Canadian coach world! No-one seemed to have any idea what was going on or what they were supposed to be doing and their improved security following The Incident was laughable so we still ended up with a bunch of drunk ex-hookers on board – we didn’t like to think how many machetes had been snuck past the security guard! Around 20 hours after we left we did make it to Vancouver pretty much on time, so better than Central trains in one respect!

We took a bus from the greyhound station into town – a freebie thanks to the friendly driver who gave us the lowdown on public transport in the city. We found our hostel and after unpacking my entire bag to dry it out (Greyhound had somehow diverted my bag via the sea so everything was soaking wet) we caught up on some sleep in the afternoon before strolling around English Bay at sunset.

We set off to explore Vancouver on Saturday morning, heading over to Granville Market for luncheon and a mooch about the bustling stalls – some great stuff, jewelry, arts and crafts and loads of great tasting food! From there we walked around the seawall to Kits Beach, checking out the yachts for sale on the way – all at prices so temptingly low I temporarily forgot I hate boats and I hate the sea! The sun was out so we sat on the beach for a while reading and soaking up the sun. Vancouver seems to be a lot nicer than the other cities we’ve visited – it definitely makes the list of places we could live!

We went out to watch a CFL game in the evening, the B.C Lions vs. the Toronto Argonauts. Not a bad game although American sports do drag on a bit due to stopping for a rest every quarter, plus ad breaks, cheer-leading breaks etc..!

We headed out of the city on Sunday after picking up our car – an even better free upgrade this time to some Monster-bus Grand Caravan thing. Nice to know we can sleep in the boot if we get stuck for accommodation somewhere!

First stop was Squamish where it was back to camping in the cold, dark woods again! Here we did a good hike/climb up the Stawamus Chief – the 2nd Highest Granite Monolith in the world! It was a bit more hardcore than our recent hikes, 1-2ft high steps most of the way plus some ladders and chains to pull yourself up the rockface! We got a great view from the top to make it worthwhile though – if only we could parachute off the top to save our weary legs! Unfortunately neither of us had the foresight to bring one so we reluctantly trudged back down which was somewhat harder on the joints than coming up!

View from the Stawamus Chief

 

Next stop was Whistler, one of the key points of our trip as I was insistent we get here before the bike park closed! We hired downhill bikes and a Robocop outfit each at the village and bought our lift passes for the day. We started off on the Green runs – not quite as easy as I’d been led to believe but Zoë managed just fine after initial trepidation! I went to check out the blue runs which were quite a step up from the Easy runs – several unavoidable big jumps on ‘the easiest blue run’ as demonstrated here (not by me!). I’m sure tackling these would have put Zoë off biking for life so I didn’t try and talk her into coming with me!

Flies done up, check, all ready for the big run down Whistler mountain

Zoë returned her gear after lunch having exhausted the Green run options and we both went up to the second Gondola station at the very top of the mountain. You got a great view from the top over the surrounding mountains and greeny-blue alpine lakes. Zoë stayed up here for a while to have a proper look while I was too busy cramming some more runs in – black runs most of the way while Zoë wasn’t around to advise me otherwise! I met Zoë back at the bottom of the mountain later in the afternoon. I’d considered ‘One Last run’ but this is traditionally when one horribly dismembers themselves so wisely packed it in for the day before I did myself a mischief – My Jeremy Beadle hand will be sore for days now anyway so that’s enough injury for one day!

 

Next Stop is Vancouver Island for some remote peace and quiet and some R & R!

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Which one is the Rocky Mountain?

17 09 2009

So we picked up our hire car, a nice free upgrade to a Ford Focus saloon with leather seats, spoiler etc.. Was great to have our own car again – so much more freedom to go where you want, when you want and properly explore off the beaten track.

We headed south towards Calgary on day one, stopping only for a rather stressful 2 hour long grocery shopping session! The drive was great down to Kananaskis Country (misleadingly not actually a country), long rolling hills and ranches with big red barns everywhere. We were both on the lookout for wildlife as we got out into the wilderness, so much so that our imaginations started playing tricks on us – Zoë swears she saw a cow riding a horse and my initial excitement over spotting a black bear at the side of the road was dashed when Zoë pointed out it was a cow with a small head.

We pitched up our tent at one of the provincial parks, luckily getting one of the last couple of spaces as everywhere was full for the long Labor day weekend. Camping was a bit of a shock to the system after our few days of luxury – The tent pitches are rarely flat and almost always gravel and rock – no soft green fields camping here! Plus with clear sunny days comes freezing cold nights so we were no longer regretting bringing too many clothes!

We went for a couple of hikes on our first few days – no bear sightings thanks in part to the incredibly annoying bear-bell, which ruins all of the peace and quiet of walking through beautiful countryside! If I was a bear I’d track us down and rip us to shreds just to shut us up!

We visited Canmore Nordic centre on our way to Banff where lots of skin-suited people were skating around on roller blades carrying rifles on their back for Biathlon training! Everyone looked a bit Pro for us to join in with that so we had a go on one of the Orienteering trails setting a blistering time of 66 minutes Vs. the advised 20-40 minutes!

View of Banff

We camped on the outskirts of Banff for a couple of nights and did a few walks from here. As I was getting used to sleeping in sub-zero temperatures on rocks I started to get enough sleep to allow early morning photography jaunts. Some nice scenery but with the added bonus of lots of wildlife wandering around pre-dawn! It’s Elk rutting season at the moment and I came across several stags having a good old headbutt session by the side of the road. I wasn’t sure how close to get the first time I saw them – we’d read they’re not afraid of you or your car and will have a go at you if you look like you’re challenging them! Therefore I didn’t get any good pictures – pretty hard when you’re driving and trying to lean out of the passenger window at the same time and aim the camera at them while keeping a lookout for the other stags all eyeing you up for a fight!

Canoe on Moraine Lake

We had a day up at Lake Louise and Moraine Lake before going into Kootenay National Park for a couple of hikes and a soak in the Radium Hot Springs. The animal of choice around here is the Big horn sheep of which there are plenty wandering around the campsite. None of them tried to get us in the night though which was a relief after ‘either a squirrel or a moose’ had tried to get in the night before according to Zoë!

The next day we headed up the back roads to Golden (self proclaimed Town of Opportunity) where we stocked up on food and treated ourselves to a real pillow from the dollar store. From there we went into Yoho National Park and after some hikes to pretty impressive waterfalls set up camp near Kicking Horse. As it was getting cold again, Zoë thought she’d have a go at making fire which was quite amusing for me and all the Canadians sat around in front of theirs on the neighboring sites! After an hour of fanning smouldering paper she gave up on attaining her ‘practical scouting skills’ badge and came and joined me in the car for some sewing. I’d spent the evening cutting the pillow in half and then sewing it back together to make two small pillows – a much more successful venture!

The Sky at Night - Yoho N.P

After more hikes in Yoho N.P we stayed in Lake Louise for the night and then headed up the Icefields parkway. We stopped for a good hike around Bow lake and a look at the duck egg blue Peyto Lake. We also stopped for a look at the Athabasca Glacier and the Athabasca falls further up the parkway. It was here that we gave up on our camping hardiness and found a Wilderness hostel for the night to thaw out – awesome place, pretty basic with no running water etc.. but very cosy log cabin and we were very glad of the nice soft bed and blankets for a change! Nice to meet some like-minded travellers again too and get some tips on places to visit and stay on our journey ahead.

After Athabasca we continued on up to Jasper where we stayed for our last couple of nights. We did a couple more hikes around here adding Moose, Marmot and Caribou to our animal spotters list! We also got to see another massive fight between two bull elk, all about 50 metres from our tent!

Stag Fight!

We return to Edmonton today to drop off our hire car and get a Greyhound over to Vancouver where we’ll do another little road trip for a week or so.

We’ve been away 4 weeks now, only 48 left! We’re both getting back into the swing of travelling, we’re eating well, getting lots of exercise and the combination of sun and dirt is making us look pretty healthily tanned! No major injuries so far either – hopefully I can say the same after we’ve ripped up Whistler bike park for a day!

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Dirty Stinking Toronto

6 09 2009

We spent most of our first day in Toronto planning our trip to Niagara – The joys of hostel booking and logistics all came flooding back, with limited beds in Toronto we decided on 2 nights at Niagara and had to move across town for the remainder of our stay in Toronto! On our way to our new place, which later in the week was named Number One area in Toronto for Violent crime, we discovered a new animal species! At first I thought the very dark squirrel was just dirty, but it turned out this was a Brand new species – the Black Squirrel, previously unknown to the human race (except those living in the downtown Toronto area). Unfortunately using our phones over here costs about 55p/min so as we’re on a budget I didn’t bother to call The Natural History Museum.

As you can probably tell, if finding a different colour squirrel is the highlight of our first few days in Toronto then it’s not that great a city! So we headed off on the bus to Niagara falls for a couple of days. We were dropped at the bus station and walked down along the river towards town, commenting on the way how nice it was that the place had retained its small town feel, lovely B&B’s along the quiet leafy roads etc.. That was until we hit the actual town centre which is a very bad version of Weston Supermare or Blackpool on steroids – more garish amusements and arcades that you’ve ever seen in one place! We dropped off our bags and took the Maid of the Mist boat ride  up to the falls – very impressive up close as the water thunders over the Horseshoe falls, and that’s only 75% of the potential apparently as a quarter is diverted for hydroelectric power during the day.

On our second day we hired bikes from our hostel and cycled up the river to Niagara on the Lake – beautiful little town and great ride up beside the river past all the vineyards and peach orchards. There were plenty of huge houses along the way for us to gawp at – we learnt later that most of Canada’s rich folk have a place up here along with accompanying orchard or vineyard so they can call themselves ‘Farmers’ and get in on the Tax breaks given to the real ones! We stopped on the way back to try some of the local Ice Wine – very nice but a little out of our price range at $54 for a half size bottle!

We stocked up on Chinese food before we left as this has become meal of choice when eating out – always massive portions and plenty of vegetables which seem to be absent from North American food! Plus the Chinese Birth Sign place mats were good for massaging our ego’s –  For me, 1980, Year of the Monkey: ‘Clever and Skilful to the Point of Genius’! Zoë is apparently ‘Elegant and Creative, yet timid or puzzled’!

So we returned to Dirty Stinking Toronto as our Niagara Hostel owner kept referring to it – Toronto had recently finished a city-wide garbage disposal strike that lasted 6 weeks and inevitably caused the city to become over-run with rats!

Our last few days were spent wandering around Toronto sights like Toronto Island and a trip up CN Tower – officially ‘The Lamest of the Seven Modern Wonders of the world’! We quite liked it though, we’d rather go up there than through the Chunnel which is also somehow on the list!

We’ve now moved onto Edmonton where we’ve been since Tuesday staying in the lap of luxury at a friends house – our en-suite bathroom is bigger than our dining room at home and there’s not a box-room in site – Why can’t we build houses like this in England?!

We’ve been glad of the chance to relax for a few days and stock up on delicious BBQ’s and proper breakfasts every day – we were tiring of pancakes and maple syrup which seems to be the generic Canadian hostel breakfast!

Having time to relax and take long strolls around the parks etc.. also gives us a chance to consider the important questions in life, such as ‘Would you rather have a Time Machine or a Teleporter’ and ‘Could you drive a Golf buggy across America’. Feel free to add your opinions in the comments section below!

We pick up our hire car tomorrow and head into the Rockies for a bit of camping in bear country. We’re well prepared though – Zoë has bought the equivalent of bear kryptonite – a ‘Bear-Bell’ from Walmart. Hopefully we won’t get to test it as I’m not that confident in its abilities!

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