Meanwhile, Down South….

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After jaunting around BC and visiting some of the places around Vancouver, we still had some time to kill before our apartment became available. Since we had a brand new motor, we decided to head South of the 49th parallel and explore some more of Washington State and Oregon.

I have been to Washington State many, many times and most often the destination was Seattle for a bit of culture, shopping and to gaze at the space needle. Even in the last 14 years living in London, we would quite often find the airfare from Heathrow to Seattle was much cheaper than travelling direct to Vancouver, so would use that airport to arrive and then travel the 2 hours North to British Columbia. We planned to stop in Seattle this time, but wanted to travel first through rural Washington down to the Oregon Coast.

The US/Canada border is unusually quiet these days. In Michigan earlier this year when we crossed through the busiest land crossing between the two countries, the Detroit/Windsor tunnel, there weren’t really any delays even in the busiest summer season. Going through the West Coast Peace Arch crossing, which is a beautiful park adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, it was not much different. No one was really there. Time of year helps, but with the Canadian dollar in the doldrums, Canadians are not going South as much to get their gas and groceries. It’s not so cheap anymore.

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Port Townsend, Washington State

Our first stop was Bellingham, a lovely, quintessential American town,  which is a real locals place that has great coffee shops and restaurants. It’s the kind of place that I could see myself settling in, and property is certainly much cheaper than what is going on a half hour North of the border. We had a quick stop at one of our favourite coffee shops, Woods Coffee, and a little walk along the beach before heading further South.

We headed onto Whidbey Island in the North part of Puget Sound in order to catch a ferry across the bay to the town of Port Townsend, which turned out to be a well heeled centre full of weekenders from Seattle. The town is full of early 20th century brick buildings and old painted murals, indicating its past as a remote outpost on the Olympic peninsula, which is quite a contrast to the modern glass buildings that occupy most of the West Coast. We happened to visit when the town was hosting its annual film festival, which is quite a big deal, so there were all sorts of culture vultures wandering the streets, wearing their film passes on brightly coloured lanyards.

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Overlooking Port Townsend

Due to the film festival, we were regulated to one of the only hotels available, which was on the outskirts of town and resembled the The Overlook Hotel from The Shining. We had to traipse through huge cavernous communal areas, adorned with fireplaces and random bits of furniture to get to our room. And there seemed to be an absence of any other guests….should have checked TripAdvisor before booking!

Surviving our stay, we were glad to get on the road to the Oregon Coast. I had been to the Portland area before and travelled through the I-5 corridor to California, but visiting the coastal towns was new. We cut towards Astoria and soon as we crossed into Oregon but decided to stay a little further South in a coastal resort called Seaside.

As we drove into Seaside, we could see the sand dunes along the boardwalk but not the beach itself. As soon as we got out of the car, we heard the roar of the ocean. Following the sound, we scrambled over the boardwalk sinking into the soft sand, and were presented with one of the largest and most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. We both stood awestruck, with our mouths open as we stared towards the water, just as the sun was dropping into the Pacific. Amazing.

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Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Seaside itself is a bit of kitschy, old style resort where you can get your fish and chips for a beach picnic, or play games in the arcade, which is a bit of fun. However, for  some sophistication, we headed 10 minutes South to Cannon Beach, which is another stunning beach, alongside a lovely town reminiscent of a Cape Cod village, which was another surprise. Clapboard homes surround a quaint town centre full of restaurants and coffee shops. Very unexpected.

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Cape Cod style homes in Cannon Beach

This part of the Oregon Coast was the setting for The Goonies, and the area really plays that connection up. The kids in the film lived in Astoria, and end up at Cannon Beach, so it is common to see the odd Goonie fan taking pictures of filming locations.

It was the scenery that entranced me, I could have walked along the beaches all day, listening to the sound of the waves. I have been to the beaches in California, and in my opinion Oregon’s are far, far better.

It was a shame to leave the Oregon coast after only a few days, but I’m sure we will be back.  We had to get going back North for a stop in Seattle before heading home. Seattle is a wonderful city, far grittier than Vancouver, but somehow a bit more accessible, and certainly shares the Pacific Northwest ethos. We only had a short time on this trip, but we always stop in some favourite haunts, including Pike Place Market, where fish stall workers toss salmon to each other and sell enormous Alaskan king crab. It’s a great setting that overlooks Puget Sound which is full boat traffic and ferries travelling to the islands. img_1433

After this short American visit, I just have to mention politics briefly ( I know, sorry), but this election is doing strange things to our Southern neighbours.  I would consider Washington and Oregon to be very liberal places in the American spectrum; yet as soon as we crossed the border there were huge Trump signs on the farmland adjacent to the highway. Chatting to a shop owner in Seaside, he unleashed a spew of venom towards Obama, and as a male, was appalled at having to contribute towards women’s healthcare, and then proclaimed that he was voting for Trump (he did admit that Trump is a maniac, so that’s something).

Watching the debates and American media over the last couple weeks, it’s very clear that  Americans are faced with an difficult choice to make; at this point neither candidate is preferable. It’s been entertaining, but frightening as well – who knew The Donald would get this far?

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Somebody put Hillary in the garbage can….

 

We’ll be watching from a safe distance to see how this plays out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Sea Lions near Astoria were enjoying the warm weather

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This building was used in The Goonies

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Pike Place Market, Seattle.

North Shore Bound

 

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View of Vancouver and the Seabus from the North Shore

After the initial euphoria of making it across the country and arriving in BC, the inevitable reality of re-emigrating back to Canada kicks in very quickly. There is so much to do in order to re-establish yourself as a resident. I always knew the day was coming, but tried to forget about all the forthcoming tasks while we were on our trip and just enjoy the travel.

First thing on our list was to find a place to live. This was the task that I was the most stressed about. As I mentioned before, Vancouver, like most desirable world cities, has become insanely expensive in the last 10 years for many reasons. Lack of supply is a big factor and with the rental vacancy rate hovering at about 0.6%,  it’s dog eat dog world out there to get a roof over your head. Since we are technically unemployed with no real Canadian references, we are not ideal tenants – on paper at least.

Amazingly, we found an apartment in North Vancouver after only 3 days of searching, and were able to convince the manager that we are good people and will not trash the place or party all night. It wasn’t available until the following month, but it was a huge relief having somewhere secure to move into. First job done.

We then worked through the rest of the list – we bought a car, sorted out social insurance numbers, applied for health care (a three month wait when arriving back in Canada) bought private emergency health care (to cover us in the three month wait), bought a few pieces of furniture, and liaised with our shipping company about getting the rest of our furniture from England transported over.

However, with a month to wait until our place was ready, we hit the road again and decided to explore some of the areas of the Pacific Northwest; first stop: Whistler, a world renowned skiing resort.

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Lost Lake, near Whistler

September is a bit of a strange time to visit Whistler, but it suited us just fine. School had just gone back into session, so the summer holidays were over, and it’s still a few months away from the busy winter skiing season when prices go sky high for accommodation. Whistler village is located about 2 hours North of Vancouver, travelling up the infamous Sea to Sky highway, a beautiful, and in winter, often treacherous road that winds its way along the base of the coast mountains with gorgeous views out into the Pacific ocean. Lucky for us, it was a nice sunny day when we took the drive.

Whistler village is modelled a bit on European ski resorts, with pedestrianized streets lined with cafes, restaurants, bars and retail outlets. It can get a bit crazy in the town centre in the high season when busloads of tourists arrive for some of the best skiing in the world. The village is actually overlooked by Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and you can ride a gondola up to the summit of each one, and you can even brave the Peak2Peak, an 11 minute journey between the top of Blackcomb and Whistler. For some strange reason I went on it the last time I was in Whistler and instantly regretted it as soon I stepped in the gondola. 11 minutes of sheer terror. It is really, really high.

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Chairlift corridors heading up Whistler mountain

If you don’t fancy going up the mountain, there are many other things to do. We visited an excellent and newly opened art gallery called the Audain Gallery. The building is typical west coast style of wood and glass, surrounded by evergreen trees, and the exhibitions inside were excellent. We were lucky enough to see a temporary exhibition of classic paintings from the Beaverbrook Gallery in Fredericton, but there is also a lot of work from BC artists, some of it very modern.

There is also the great outdoors to explore – a lot of it. Mountain bikers and walkers flock to this area for pristine trails deep within mature forests. We went on a walk to Lost Lake near Whistler and felt most relaxed wandering through the trees until we saw the warnings to watch for bears. Suddenly, it was imperative to get back on the trails where there were other walkers who may be carrying bear spray!

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View from the Sea to Sky Gondola, near Squamish.

Coming back South from Whistler there is a growing area called Squamish, which used to be a small stopping point, but has evolved into a large town, mostly likely due to the proximity of and the spiralling house prices in Vancouver. Kite surfing is most popular in this area, but a new Sea to Sky gondola (yes another one) has just opened up, so we decided to give it a try. I was so scared I had to shut my eyes the whole way up, but once we reached the top we were rewarded with the most stunning views and walking trails. And yes, rather amazingly, it was another sunny day in the West Coast rainforest.

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Crazy people walking across the suspension bridge at the top of the Sea to Sky.

Since we will be living in North Vancouver, the natural beauty of the mountains and beaches north of the city are so close that when we fancy a bit of serenity, it’s now on our doorstep. After battling the crowds in London for so many years , this feels very luxurious.

 

 

Canadian Contemplation

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Art Installation at The Rooms – St. John’s Newfoundland

After travelling through all 10 provinces (and one American state), I still don’t think I have been further enlightened on the idea of Canadianism. When I started this trip I questioned the idea of Canada, and I think I was right at the time, it can mean anything.

I wanted to share some of the memories that stick out for me when looking back on the journey.

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St. Johns Newfoundland – the city was really, really cool. I now wish we had spent more time on the island and seen some other places. I went there expecting it to be old fashioned, and it simply wasn’t. There were a lot of young people running trendy businesses and the sense of history matched any town in the UK. It was also memorable for having to spend 4 days in the same clothing while trying to track down my luggage….fun times.

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The Maritimes – a weird and wonderful place, but don’t go there expecting large metropolises or much action. It is a pretty sleepy area. Most of the cities we visited in the region would certainly be classed as small towns in other parts of the country. I think our favourite attraction had to be the Magnetic Hill in Moncton, rolling the car backwards up the hill. And the blueberry beer.

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The Hopewell Rocks – This was one of my top sights to see on the trip. Not only are the rock formations a stunning sight, but to see the waters of the Bay of Fundy retreating from land and revealing miles upon miles of seabed was extraordinary.

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Heat, heat and more heat – I have never sweated so much in my entire life as when we were in the Toronto/Montreal area. It is so hot and humid there in summer. I appreciate that most people travel to work in air conditioned cars or subways, spend all day in an air conditioned office, and then spend the evenings outside after the sun goes down. But when you are being a tourist, it is torturous. You are constantly looking for air con or shade whenever you are outside. I would stand in the sun for 5 minutes and feel myself burning. Not good for a pale, red head….. but I can now say I have experienced the central Canada summer. And no, I’m not going back to experience the winter.

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The Rocky Mountains – My pictures demonstrate why they are far and away the best part of the trip. I have a feeling we’ll be making a return trip as soon a we can. The whole area was captivating.

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Rural Alberta – Very interesting place. We were lucky to stay on my Aunt’s cattle farm, and visit the Hutterites, the Badlands and Vulcan. There is a lot to see there, and we really only visited a small part.

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Detroit – I know, a bit of a weird detour, but I’m glad to have seen a bit of the city – good and bad. The Detroit Institute of Arts is first class, and the burnt out houses are third world. Detroit and Windsor face each other across a narrow waterway, but are worlds apart. Fascinating.

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Niagara Falls – quite possibly the strangest clash of natural beauty and man made frivolity (big waterfalls alongside garish casinos) but nature wins out and the falls are a must see when visiting Southern Ontario. It’s a stunning sight.

The blog is called Mounties and Moufettes, but we never saw either on the trip. Ok, we saw RCMP officers, but none in the bright red jacket ceremonial dress. Not even in Ottawa during the Three Amigos meeting. As for moufettes….well they are notoriously shy and nocturnal. We certainly smelled many, but no sightings yet. The biggest disappointment was not seeing a moose. We drove through so many moose ladened forests, but didn’t see any. I thought that would have been a guarantee in the Canadian wilderness.

And now some thank-yous to all the people that helped us along the way –

Robert and Diana in Toronto –  your generosity allowed us to see the city in such detail. Thank you so much for letting us crash in your basement and loaning us the Tesla for the trip to Niagara.

The Winnipeggers – Uncle Gary, Auntie Deed, Leanne, Kelvin, Allan, Heather, Uncle John and all the cousins. We had such a good time seeing you.

Auntie Carolyn and Uncle Cliff – it was amazing to finally see your farm, your meaty suppers were legendary, thank you.

Uncle Bill, Auntie Maxine, Daryl, Anita and more cousins – thanks for your hospitality and help with the car rental. It was so nice to see you all again.

All the people that encouraged us to keep going – Our family and friends around the world that took interest in our travels across a country that is stereotyped as being a bit boring.

We made it through the 10 provinces, but there are still the Northern territories to explore. Perhaps we will make it to the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut next.

Canada may be a clumsy mish mash of cultures, languages, regions, strange laws, confusing road signs and poutine…but it’s also beautiful, diverse, laid-back and generally full of nice people. Lovable indeed.

 

 

 

 

The End….of the Beginning

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May 27 2016 – Sign pointing West at the top of Signal Hill in St. John’s Newfoundland.

I warn you now, this is going to be a long rambling post…..

 

If you ever fly into Vancouver airport, the approach to the runway that sits on the edge of the ocean is either from the East or the West. If you are lucky, the plane will approach from the West; coming from Europe the flightpath will follow the coast mountains,  descending towards the snowy peaks that hug the shoreline. The plane will then arc out in a semi circle over the ocean and fly directly towards land; a glittery, reflective city in the distance, perched on the edge of the continent, surrounded by water, mountains and evergreen trees will come into view as the plane glides in over the ocean, touching down just as it reaches land. I think it’s one of the best air approaches in the world…..and this view is most rare, because in order to see this sight, it has to be clear skies. And Vancouver is not known for abundant sunshine.

Our road approach to our final destination from the East was not so romantic, but still interesting. Leaving Kamloops, we needed to cross another mountain range using the Coquihalla highway, the most direct and least populated route to the coast. It is a bit of a crazy road with huge climbs and descents, and we were firmly back in classic BC territory with forest on all sides. The final descent out of the mountains was pretty epic, and as we left the altitude, the road flattened out and we reached the Fraser Valley, which stretches all the way to the Pacific.

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The gorge near the Othello Tunnels

The first town in the valley is called Hope, and has definitely seen better days…but dig around a bit and there are a few surprises. Anyone remember the Rambo film First Blood? It was filmed in Hope. We went to the tourist office to ask for directions to some of the Rambo sights, but were also directed to a place called the Othello Tunnels, which I had never heard of, but where everyone seemed to be heading that day. It is a beautiful walk along a path, through interconnected man made tunnels, into a very narrow gorge, which has a crystal clear river running through it. It was a most surprising detour.

Then it was back in the car, and another two hours to the city of Vancouver. The Fraser Valley at it’s most Eastern point is full of farms, producing great produce, which again you can stop at road stands and load up on fresh fruit and vegetables. At the Western end of the Fraser Valley, the Greater Vancouver area begins, which has continuously grown and sprawled out over the last 30 years.

The arrival by road was certainly not as dramatic as the one by air, but it was full of relief, and accomplishment to a certain extent; when we started out on May 26th  we had a rough plan to cross the country; but actually realizing and executing that plan has been fun, rewarding, educating, tough, hot, and full of amazing experiences.

So, to Vancouver. AKA: Rain City, Lotus Land, Hollywood North, Van Kong, Hongcouver, City of Glass….

Canada’s third largest city has many things and (paradoxically) almost nothing in common with the big two in the East (Montreal and Toronto). The geography and climate are so totally different from any of the other regions. Montreal and Toronto exude the history of European settlers and the beginnings of Canada….Vancouver has managed to transform from provincial outpost to an Asian influenced midsize city within 30 years. Like Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver is urban and diverse. It is a place built on immigration and evolution. The Vancouver that I left 14 years ago is certainly not the Vancouver of today, which is a good and a bad thing.

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The geography that surrounds the city is its great calling card. There are few places in the world where you can kayak in the ocean in the morning, be skiing on a mountain overlooking the city in the afternoon, and then pop into a modern, clean, multicultural city for dinner. Vancouver came into its own when Asian investors began developing the city in the 1980’s. The result was a dense downtown core, surrounded by water and populated by glass skyscrapers where people actually worked and lived, contrasting typical North American cities that are generally punctuated by highways to the suburbs.

The climate in Vancouver and the surrounding areas is not your typical Canadian environment. Generally, it does not snow in Vancouver. Yes, you heard correctly. It rarely goes below freezing in the winter. I have explained this patiently to many people in England, only to be dismissed as being crazy. I then sarcastically tell them that I grew up in an igloo, and that seems to satisfy them.

But what it does do is rain. Constantly. You may be able to walk outside in winter wearing your shorts, but you are going to get wet. It’s not for everyone, but then again, the minus 30 degrees the rest of the Canada experiences in winter is not for everyone either. And besides, when summer comes, it’s glorious.

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White Rock Pier, south of Vancouver near the US border

Vancouver is consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world. I would have agreed with that when I moved to England 14 years ago, but this notion has been severely tested in recent years. The Asian money that transformed Vancouver from sleepy backwater has made housing virtually unaffordable today for most people on average wages. Asian investors have ploughed money into real estate and then left houses empty, creating ghost neighbourhoods in the most affluent areas. This is a phenomenon being repeated across the world – we have seen the impact first hand in London. What makes Vancouver different is the lack of big business and industry. London is a financial powerhouse; Vancouver is essentially a resort town where people park their money. The ideal city where people live and work is disappearing, and with it the sense of community and responsibility.

But, after all these years it’s still home. England is home too, but Vancouver has always been deep in my veins, and even with its problems, I think it’s still a very nice place to live.

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May 28th 2016 – The entrance to St. John’s harbour, looking East

The other day, we went to Spanish Banks and Locarno Beach to the West of downtown Vancouver and looked out to the entrance of Burrard Inlet; I was instantly reminded of The Narrows in St. John’s Newfoundland, the harbour opening that looked east to Europe. Now we were in another harbour, facing West towards Asia. There’s a big country in between, trust me.

 

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August 31 2016 – The entrance to Vancouver Harbour, looking West

The long Canadian travel journey may be finished, but another one is starting. There’s a lot to do to when you emigrate. I’ll continue to post about my experiences and reflections as a returning expat….who knows what will happen next.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fruit As Far As You Can See

IMG_1167After basking in the glorious sunshine, and tranquil space in the Kootenays, we pushed further West into one of the most popular holiday destinations in British Columbia – the Okanagan.

The drive from the Kootenays was pretty spectacular and remote, as we chose to take one of the lesser travelled routes, which was pretty twisty around the mountains, and even involved a short ferry hop across one lake. However, taking the road less travelled sometimes pays off, and as we rounded one bend, with no other cars in sight, we saw a black bear by the side of the road. He scampered off pretty quickly once he saw us, but just for a moment we had that magical glimpse of Canadian wildlife.

As we rolled into the Okanagan, the landscape changed dramatically. The area is known for being a bit of an anomaly in the province; instead of the large evergreen trees, the Okanagan is dry and aired, and looks like something you might see in the Mediterranean. Most of the summer will see temperatures of 30+ degrees with very little rainfall, and this makes the area extremely fertile for growing crops that you wouldn’t normally associate with Canada. Every summer, the fruit and vegetable crops come into harvest, and peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums, apples, blueberries and corn (to name a few) are in abundance. The quality of the fruit is also outstanding, I never ate any fruit in England (even the imported stuff) that compares to the fruit of the Okanagan. Every where you go, there are fruit stands by the side of the road where you can stock up for almost no money.

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Okanagan Lake, near Penticton

The other massive crop is grapes, used for making wines. Just like the fruit stands, there are wineries everywhere you look, offering tours and tastings, and of course selling their bottles to the public. BC wines are widely available in liquor stores, but it was very cool to drive past the vineyards and see the rows of grapes ripening in the intense sun.

The Okanagan has many towns, stretched out beside the lakes of the area, with Kelowna being the largest, but we stayed in a town called Vernon, which is at the very North of the region, and is a really nice place to settle into for a few days. It has a small town centre, and a lakeside beach which was far less crowded than some of the other areas. One day, we drove down to Pentiction which is one of the most popular places to holiday, but the beaches were very crowded and the temperature had soared at that point, so it was off to a lakeside restaurant to indulge in a luncheon indoors with some air con.

IMG_1154.JPGAfter enjoying the fruits of the Okanagan, (quite literally) we moved on a little further North to a town called Kamloops, which turned out to be a bit of surprise. I’d always thought of Kamloops as just being a stopping point on the road to Vancouver, but it’s a great little place to spend a few days. The town is full of nice restaurants and pubs,  and there’s a riverside park that is beautiful to take a stroll in. The hot dry climate and parched landscape really made it feel like we were on holiday in Spain, not British Columbia!

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Sunset near Kamloops

Kamloops was our final stop in the interior of BC…..my home town of Vancouver on the Pacific Ocean waited for us next.

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Beautiful British Columbia

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The Rocky Mountains form a natural dividing line between British Columbia and Alberta; and some would argue that this internal border also symbolically forms a distinction between BC and the rest of the entire country. Physically, it is the home of the continental divide in North America – on a basic level (with some exceptions) all rivers East of the Rockies will flow into the Atlantic or Caribbean , while those West will flow into the Pacific.

Of the four Western provinces, BC is a completely different kettle of fish from the 3 prairie provinces – geographically, culturally and socially. The entire province is extremely mountainous – and that’s after you cross the Rocky Mountain range. There are huge evergreen trees everywhere, which is why forestry is such a huge economy. People in BC are generally quite liberal, which why other parts of Canada often refer to British Columbians as tree huggers. I may have even hugged a few trees in my time – hey, it’s nice to be in the forest!

It’s been a long trip and as we drove back through the Rockies from Calgary, just past Lake Louise, we saw the sign welcoming us to British Columbia and we both cheered. We had reached another milestone, even though we were still over 400 miles away from our final destination of Vancouver. For the moment, we still had a lot of province to explore.

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The Columbia Valley

Winding our way through the Rockies, with the mountain peaks above and the green valleys below, the area was fraught with all types of weather on the day we travelled. It was clear one moment and dark as night the next with rain and thunder from above; certainly a dramatic entrance into BC. As we eventually emerged into the Columbia Valley, to the West of the Rockies, the skies began to clear and we caught glimpses of the great mountain range with menacing clouds perched in the distance. It was a breathtaking view as we turned South and drove parallel to the mountains.

We decided to stop first in a ski resort town called Kimberly located in the area of the province called the Kootenays. I visited Kimberly on a family holiday when I was young, and I always remembered the small pedestrianized German themed town. Don’t ask me why it’s German themed, but if you like strudel and schnitzel, there’s plenty of it in Kimberly. We actually stayed in the ski resort, a bargain price at this time of year, and enjoyed the independent cafes and businesses in town. One day, while driving back to our hotel, we saw 4 deer – two adult and two babies just hanging out by the side of the road, not even fussed by the car traffic.

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The Platzl in Kimberly – bring your lederhosen!

After a very relaxing few days in Kimberly, we moved onto Nelson, another Kootenay town, and for a bit of trivia, where the Steve Martin movie Roxanne was filmed, way back in the mid 1980’s. Nelson is nestled in between tree covered hills and gorgeous lakefront and is a very pretty town with a traditional main street. It is another very relaxing place to be. It is also full of outdoor loving tree huggers. Gun toting Albertans may not get on in Nelson…..

When we arrived, the temperature had climbed to over 30 degrees, but unlike Eastern Canada, there is almost no humidity and the evenings cool down quite a bit. The lakefront beaches are surprisingly uncrowded, and if you stay in the shade, it’s a lovely place to hang out and take in the scenery.

After a few days in the Kootenays, we both felt a bit recharged. There are no crowds anywhere, the roads have surprisingly little traffic, and the scenery is wonderful. It was good to be back.

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Gateway to the Rockies

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Ahhh Calgary, home of the 1988 Olympics, The Calgary Stampede, and my birth city. It’s also a place I know surprisingly little about. I was last in Calgary in the wintertime about 15 years ago – a wimpy West Coast girl who barely survived the icy winds. What I do remember from that trip is that the land around Calgary being quite flat, so I could see the bright snow covered Rocky Mountains some 70 miles to the West of the city, even in the nighttime.

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Downtown Calgary

Calgary has grown at a huge pace in the last 15 years, with the city boundaries constantly shifting. In the past, Calgary has grown out, occupying the prairie lands and mountain foothills that surround it. This has caused a lot of sprawl; but I recently read an article that the mayor is trying to address this and densify the city. You can see the effects already. Apartment blocks are sprouting up all over the downtown core and new neighbourhoods are being created. Calgary sits on the Bow river and has wonderful walks to take in the city, but also the nature surrounding it. The area of Kensington is a very trendy area just North of the downtown core, which has quaint shops, cafes and heritage housing, all with great views of the city.

Calgary offers a lot to its residents and visitors, but probably the most beneficial perk is the proximity to the mountains. It’s only a one and half hour drive to Banff, the most well known and touristy winter resort in the Rockies. I know that every winter many Brits choose Banff for their skiing, and the planes to Calgary from London are full throughout the winter months.

Summer in Banff is equally as busy, which is why we decided to do a day trip from Calgary. At this time of year, the village is rammed and accommodation is very scarce, even if you stay outside the town. When we arrived, the tourists were out in full force – tour buses clogged the streets and parking lots, and pedestrians jammed the sidewalks. But it all seemed like organized chaos really, nothing too out of control, and very good for local businesses.

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Stunning scenery in Banff

Banff town is great to stroll around, but the real highlight is the scenery. Your mouth simply drops open everywhere you look. The colours of the trees and the mountains are just so rich, that you don’t think it’s real. Freshwater creeks run through the town and from time to time you see people in rafts floating down the rapids. A visit to the Banff Springs hotel, overlooking the village, is an essential stop. It’s one of the old Canadian Pacific railroad hotels, and it has absolutely retained it’s old world charm. Just walking around the place is like visiting a museum, and it’s a great place to stop and have a drink while you take in the outstanding scenery.

About half an hour up the highway is Lake Louise, the other major tourist stop in the Rockies where you can take your own picture of the scene that is always featured in the brochures. The windy road up to Lake Louise is very chaotic, and everyone is looking for parking in the limited space. We had almost resigned ourselves to parking miles away, and walking up the hill, when we spied someone leaving and snuck ourselves in. What luck!

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Lake Louise – The picture everyone wants

There’s no town directly around the lake, but there is another CP hotel, the Chateau Lake Louise, which is worth a wander around, but is no comparison to the one in Banff. The real sight is the turquoise lake outside, turned a phenomal colour by the glacier silt the flows down from the mountains. As you can imagine, the area is overrun with tourists taking selfies at this time of year, but surprisingly, it was still manageable to walk around the lake and take in the views.

Our first trip into the mountains was absolutely awe-inspiring, and it was so easy to just sit on a bench and stare at the nature around us. After 3 months of travelling and seeing all sorts of areas, this was far and away the best (so far). We even joked that if we had gone from West to East, we would be in big trouble because we probably wouldn’t have gone any further.

As we travelled back to Calgary and once again entered the foothills outside the city, we became even more excited that we soon would be crossing the Rocky Mountains and entering British Columbia, that final province of our cross country trip.

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Amazing view of the mountains, just south of Banff.

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Driving towards the Rockies…on the other side of these mountains is British Columbia!

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Canoes on Lake Louise

To Boldly Go….to the Badlands

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Once we left my aunt and uncle’s farm, we moved on to exploring a rather unique area of Alberta, referred to as Canada’s Badlands. The Badlands encompass a large area of the province, but probably the most visited town is Drumheller, a couple of hours East of Calgary.

The Drumheller area is famous for its landscapes, but even more famous for the discovery of a large amount of dinosaur fossils. The town really focuses on this, and it’s dinosaur central on the streets. There’s even a huge model dinosaur near the tourist office – pay $4 and you can climb to the top in the inside and look at the town through its mouth; which is exactly what we did…can you tell that we have been on the road too long now?

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Staring out the mouth of a giant dinosaur

We heard that the excellent Tyrrell Museum in town is a fascinating look at the dinosaur history, but we (perhaps foolishly) gave it a miss to explore the landscape in the area instead. The Prairies conjure up images of just flat land and big sky, but the area around Drumheller is anything but. Large crevasses have created huge scars in the landscape, with layers of rock exposed, making the area look otherworldly. In some areas, toadstool formations called Hoodoos dot the rocks, making it a popular tourist stop to get out and wander around.

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The strange formations of the Hoodoos

A little further down the road from the Hoodoos, is Wayne, which was a prosperous area in the early 1900’s due to coal mining, but is now virtually a ghost town. The Last Chance Saloon is still there providing a respite for weary travellers, but other than that, it’s been left to disappear into the land. The drive out to Wayne is beautiful, crossing 11 single track bridges over the Rosebud river, as you make your way into another scenic valley. The whole area is stunning, and I was very surprised at how it varied from the area around the cattle farm, debunking the myth that Alberta is just flat prairie.

The other area of the Badlands that we chose to explore was very different indeed. Vulcan, located South of Calgary was a must stop for a very specific reason – Star Trek. The town of Vulcan had its name way before Spock appeared on the television in the 1960’s, but capitalizes on sharing its name with the home world of the fictional character.

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To Boldly Go……

The actual town is one of the sleepiest places we have been to on the entire trip; almost no one was out on the streets, except for a few crazy Star Trek fans like myself. There is a small Star Trek museum, containing various memorabilia and costumes, where I got to hold an actual phaser prop that was used in the Next Generation films. The tourist centre is made up to look like a star base and is full of merchandise (where I purchased a few things, but, left the Spock Ears for the hard core fans). There is also a replica of the starship Enterprise that greets you as soon as you enter the town.

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There are some great things dotted around town, where the authorities have decided to have a bit of fun. The street signs are all Star Trek themed, and even the cross walks have the Starfleet insignia stencilled in them. Various Star Trek murals have been painted on buildings, and you stumble across little nods and inside jokes everywhere. It was surreal, but a lot of fun…

We left Vulcan for Calgary,  the largest city in Alberta and gateway to the Rocky Mountains…. clutching a Spock T-shirt in my hand.

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Now Entering Texas Of The North

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After the whistle stop tour of Winnipeg and Saskatoon, we thankfully were going to be spending a bit longer in our 9th province of the trip, and the place I was born, Alberta.

Yes, I was raised in British Columbia, one of the most left leaning provinces, but born in Calgary, Alberta, one of the most conservative provinces. There is a reason people refer to Alberta as being the Texas of the North – there’s wide open prairie, cowboy hats, cattle, guns, low taxes and most importantly, oil.

The rest of our journey to Vancouver will be made by car, so we left Saskatoon on the road and within about 5 minutes we were on the prairie, just a straight road and farmland as far and you can see. We were on our way to one of the most anticipated stops of our trip – my aunt and uncle’s cattle farm in Eastern Alberta. IMG_0917

Having been a city dweller all my life, I was really looking forward to seeing a working cattle ranch. When we started to get close to my aunt and uncle’s farm, the realization started to dawn on how remote farm life is. Cattle need a lot of land to graze, so each farm will have thousands of acres for the animals to roam. You can drive for miles and not see another car or house. The nearest town will often be a good hour’s drive away, and I use the word ‘town’ loosely. A town in the UK is a metropolis compared to what constitutes a town in rural Alberta. To do a big grocery shop, people will often drive a couple hours each way and stock up on goods for the freezer and pantry, especially in winter time.

I was instantly struck by the beauty of the landscape at my aunt and uncle’s farm – this was real prairie with flat land and big skies. It was so quiet, unless you count the mooing of the cows near by and the howling of the coyotes in the night.

My aunt works at a cattle auction, so we were fortunate enough to go and see what happens during one of the sales. It all moves at a great pace, and the auctioneer is straight out of what you see in the movies – he was wearing a cowboy hat, and taking bids in a yodelling fashion. God knows what he was actually saying, but there seemed to be a lot of cattle buying going on.

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Cattle for sale at the auction.

We also were able to go on a tour of a Hutterite colony. I had some vague knowledge about The Hutterites, but this was a real education on traditional communal farming. Hutterites are a group that immigrated to the prairies in the late 1800’s, originally from Austria and Eastern Europe. The colony we visited is a self sufficient farm, and while they embrace modern farming techniques using automated machines, and have conveniences such as automobiles, a modern kitchen, washing machines etc, daily life is traditional, communal and what I would call socialist.

The members of the colony dress in traditional clothing which is all made within the colony. Women wear long skirts, with head coverings; men wear trousers with braces and collared shirts. The members of the colony are assigned roles, and these are often gender based. Men will be mechanics or work in butchery, women will work in the communal kitchen, or harvest vegetables. Each member of the colony will have a role assigned once they become working age, which is considered to be only about 14 or 15.

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Our tour guides at the Hutterite colony

The colony has its own school and church. Children will only speak German until about the age of 6, and then will be introduced to English. The German dialect is used on a daily basis, but everyone we spoke to was fluent in English as well. Meal times are communal and regimented, women will sit on one side of the dining hall and men on the other. There is no regular use of television, internet, or modern music in the home, but many members now have cell phones. Each family is provided with their own living quarters, which is made up of small row housing units containing the basics – bedrooms, bathrooms, and small living area.

The members of the colony were so welcoming to us, and eager to show us their way of life. The two girls that took us on the tour were extremely knowledgable about all areas of the farm and were quite interested to hear about our travels across Canada, but also our life in England. We spent nearly 3 hours touring around and having a chat with the members, and I can honestly say that it was a fascinating experience to see a such a completely different way of living. At first glance, the colony appears to demonstrate socialism at it’s best – everyone has a home, is provided with food, education and has a meaningful role in the society. It’s a very safe feeling to know that your basic needs will be met.

On the other hand, as one might expect, there is lack of individualism in the colony. Personal property is kept to a minimum, everyone dresses in the same clothes, and the regimentation dictates when members, eat, sleep and work. I do wonder if human nature creeps in sometimes and there is a desire to be one’s own person, rather than one in a collective.

We had only been in Alberta for a couple of days, but had already been exposed to ways of life that are completely different to what we were used to. The wide open spaces, farming life, and the Hutterite colony were all extraordinary, making it a memorable arrival into Alberta.

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A small church near the cattle farm – note the Russian dome on top

 

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We had a quick look around the town of Coronation, one of the ‘nearer’ towns to my aunt and uncle’s ranch – 50 km to get there!

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Rounding up the cattle.

All Aboard to Saskatoon!

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Saskatoon, a city in the central province of Saskatchewan (say that 5 times fast) took on a mythical status on our trip. We quite often would talk about when we got to Saskatoon….neither of us had any idea what it was like. I had certainly never been to Saskatchewan before, so could not really advise on the situation. All we knew was that it would take a 12 hour train journey from Winnipeg to get there.

We boarded The Canadian, VIA rail’s flagship train which travels from Toronto to Vancouver 3 times a week. The full journey takes about 5 days, and there were plenty of people on the train that were doing just that, many with children. They were all starting to become a bit feral by the time they reached Winnipeg; some of the train carriages looked like a bomb had gone off. They were probably all complete zombies by the time they reached Vancouver.

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View out the back of the bubble car on the train

The train itself is a bit tired looking, but the seats are really spacious and comfy and there is a dining car and a bubble top viewing car, so plenty of opportunity to move about while you watch the scenery go by. I have always wanted to cross the prairies by land, so this was a real treat to see the landscape during daylight hours. There is not much civilization between Winnipeg and Saskatoon, but we passed through many tiny hamlets, which probably were settled as the railroad was built. I had always known that there was a huge Russian and Ukrainian wave of immigration to the Canadian prairies in the late 19th century, but I was astonished that every tiny town we saw had a church built in the Russian style, with a domed roof and a cross on top. The towns themselves looked very desolate, but the churches shined in the wide open sky.

We arrived late at night in Saskatoon to one of the most run down train stations I have ever been to, with mosquitos on the attack from every angle. The train station used to be in the centre of town, but some 1960’s town planner thought it was good idea to knock it down and move it the outskirts of the city, which is all bit useless when you want to use the train to visit a city.

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The Bessborough Hotel

However, Saskatoon itself is a very small  with loads of charm. Located on the Saskatchewan River, the streets are nicely laid out, with the old CPR railroad hotel The Bessborough gracing the skyline. There aren’t a lot of sights to see, but there are quite a few nice restaurants, pubs and shops for such a small city. It was quite relaxing to stroll the streets and pop into a restaurant run by local people and full of local people.

We only had a short time in Saskatoon, but it was a nice reprieve before we had to get back on the road and push further into the wild West. It seemed like another milestone had been reached, and at the very least, the mystery of Saskatoon now unlocked.

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