The plan was to fulfill a wish long-held by both of us to spend a month in western Canada. This crystallised into the month of September, 2010, travelling in a 25ft RV to maximize the fun element.
The first major decision, made after some research, was to let Trailfinders sort out flights, start and finish hotels and RV rental. We would then sort out RV parks, whale watching etc.. It was a good move. Trailfinders were helpful and knowledgeable, and got us good deals on flights (BA) and RV rental (Cruise Canada).
We then put together a planned itinerary, from which we pre-booked RV sites which we thought might be busy (such as Vancouver and Victoria) or at which the dates were important (such as pre-booked whale-watching and ferry). These all went into the Zumo (loaded with maps of Canada), together with alternative RV sites where these were close.
We would obviously need some sort of phone/internet connectivity, and we decided in the end simply to get a mobile dongle for our netbook and use Skype for phone calls. We pre-ordered one in England, but this fell through and we had to source one in Calgary (simple as it turned out).
We also forked out for a 12V charging lead for the netbook, plus extension lead, that would enable it to be charged in the RV. This also proved a wise purchase.
Our other piece of preparation was to get two pre-loaded Travelex cards, which we could top up online with Canadian dollars. These, we subsequently found, were only accepted by banks and shops that took MasterCard, which occasionally proved to be inconvenient.
And so on to the holiday itself. If the tenses in the following write-up sometimes seem to vary, it’s because this was originally written as a blog at the time, but a collapse of the blog meant it now has to be presented as a simple write-up!
Tuesday 31st October
Half an hour into the flight to Calgary Colin discovered that the Nevil Shute he’d thrown at random into the rucksack, out of four he’d picked up from the Amnesty shop in Newcastle, turned out to be “No Highway”. The plot centres around the mysterious crash of an airliner in Canada. He watched 3 1/2 films during the flight instead.
Wednesday 1st September
We spent much of this morning wandering around Calgary. We were puzzled by the lack of high-street shops, until we discovered that most of them are in malls, at first- and second-floor level, connecting via covered walkways over the streets at first-floor level and pretty much invisible from the streets outside. The purpose of this arrangement is to make shopping a lot easier in the winter.
Passing a Bell shop, we took the opportunity to buy a USB dongle (which we eventually resold on Ebay) and arrange a month’s internet connection. In the afternoon we picked up our RV, shopped for a few essentials and made our way to a campground on the western edge of the city, ready for the trip to Banff in the morning.
Up early and off to Banff. We had been told that one of the advantages of starting the holiday in Calgary would be to see the Rocky Mountains rising out of the plains in the distance, looming larger and larger as we approached. Our informant was right. Better still, it was a lovely day, and the mountains were looking their best. And we were very impressed.
In fact, the Rockies comfortably exceeded our expectations. We reckon they’re the equal of the Dolomites in terms of their sheer scale, and the way they tower over the valleys, and in addition they vary hugely in their shape and character. You never know what to expect next.
All too soon we were in Banff, and made straight for the campsite above the town. This was in a beautiful setting, with nice plots amongst the trees. The only downside was a slight feeling of inferiority on our part, as we had one of the smallest RVs on the site. There are some very big RVs, particularly up from the USA.
After hooking up the RV to electricity and water we caught the bus into town, and spent the rest of the day wandering about. Banff is nice. It’s somewhat touristy, as you might expect, but the setting is gorgeous and there are plenty of restaurants from a number of different national cuisines. We chose Italian for lunch, and I had pappardelle with bison meatballs. When in Rome …
We decided today that we should do a bit of walking, as it was another glorious day. The Tunnel Mountain campsite where we were staying overlooked the picturesque Bow river, so this was where we headed.
First up, a little downstream, were the Hoodoos – sculptures carved out of the rock by the weather. You’d almost think they were carved by humans.
Returning to the RV, we noticed that the water leak we’d seen earlier had worsened, and was clearly coming from the water heater. We phoned Cruise Canada’s help line (being pleased to note that Skype connects to toll-free numbers free of charge), and were directed to a plumber in Banff who soon had it fixed.
Back to the campsite for lunch, then we picked up the walking where we had left off – a very pretty path that took us above the river upstream and round Tunnel Mountain to Banff. We took this at a leisurely pace, meaning that after a drink it was time for dinner (Italian again). Both were nice but very expensive – as food and drink in Banff generally appears to be. All in all a very satisfying day. No bears, but we narrowly missed treading on a chipmunk and running over a deer.
First item on today’s agenda was to drive the 30 odd miles up to Lake Louise. Only a short distance, but a whole lot of fantastic scenery to enjoy. Mountain upon mountain! We booked into the Lake Louise campsite, then headed up towards the gondola that serves the ski area. Only one lift was open, which took us about 2/3 way up the mountain. From the viewpoint there we had a superb view of the lake itself, the other side of the Bow valley. The scale of the scenery is demonstrated by the huge Fairmont Hotel on the near bank of the lake.
We were told by the staff at the viewpoint that there was a bear (Grizzly) in the neighbourhood, and we were encouraged to go to the information centre a few hundred yards down the mountain. We were given a lift down in an 8-man pickup, it being deemed too dangerous to walk. Sure enough, we heard reports of a bear approaching the top of the gondola (which was therefore closed to further passengers, as was the viewpoint we’d just been to). Eyes peeled we waited, and suddenly there was the Grizzly – crossing the road about 200 yards away. Fantastic, and an unexpected bonus. Colin managed to snatch one blurry photo. While up there we also saw several Bighorn sheep and an Osprey.
Back to the base station for lunch, thence to the small shopping centre to stock up on a few supplies before heading for the lake. This was very crowded, but also very pretty. The water is very blue, due to the particles suspended therein, and the Fairmont Hotel is very impressive. We’d heard and read a lot about Lake Louise, and we were pleased that it met our expectations.
Finally, back at the campsite, we found that the water pump in the RV that served the sink, shower and toilet had packed up. Did some investigating with the aid of Cruise Canada’s help line, but thus far we’ve not found the fault.
After a long chat with Cruise Canada’s support desk, it looked like we’d be pushed to get any joy out of anyone to fix our water pump before Tuesday, today being Sunday and tomorrow Labour Day. And we’d probably need to be back in Banff a) to increase the chances of finding a technician and b) because it has the only campsite around with a water hookup (so doesn’t need a pump). So we decided to revise our plans, survive on campsite facilities for a day or so and head up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper, and back down on Monday.
We have run out of superlatives. The Rockies are simply the best. The Icefields Parkway is 150 miles of staggering mountains and beautiful lakes. No sooner have you got used to one set of mountains towering over you on either side than you’re round a corner or over a pass and transfixed by the next set. The height differentials are pretty impressive. Banff is about 4,800 ft, Jasper 3,400 ft and the highest part of the road (Bow Summit) around 6,850. The peaks along the road vary from 10,000 to 12,000 ft.
Highlights of the Parkway were Bow Lake, Peyto Lake (viewed from Bow Summit with some snow on the ground), the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Falls. The only lowlight was the road surface, which for 30 miles or so had corduroy ridges that really shook the vehicle.
We got to the campsite at Jasper around 6:00 p.m., and went to look for the shower block. Nearly bumped into a female elk grazing in the trees, and a minute later nearly bumped into a 7-point elk stag. Given it was the rutting season and there was an elk warning out we beat a hasty retreat. Colin got his revenge that evening by dining on elk steak in Jasper.
Today we were to return to Banff, ready to get someone to look at our water pump first thing on Tuesday. So another day on the Icefields Parkway. Hey-ho!
It was a little cloudier than yesterday, but still nice. First up was Colin noticing a sign to Honeymoon Lake. He suggested we paid it a visit, and duly took a photo of his beloved by the side of the lake.
Next was a return visit to the Athabasca Glacier. This time we parked near the glacier and walked up to within a few yards of it. We were amazed to see how large it had been when it was first decided to mark its boundary, back in 1844. It reached right up to what is now the site of the visitors’ centre, and to the top of the side moraine in the photo “ex-glacier” in our photos. To give you an idea of the scale you might just make out in that photo the tourist coaches on the top of the moraine, at 11 o’clock to the 2000 sign (which is where the glacier reached in 2000).
After lunch we took to the road again, and soon came upon a group of people, with cameras out, by the side of the road. The attraction turned out to be a black bear, eating berries right by the verge. We were too slow to get decent photos, but had a nice view. Setting off again, lo and behold after 20 minutes or so we came across another similar group watching a similar bear. This time Pat was quick off the mark and managed to film the bear for a short while before it disappeared. We hope to get a couple of still shots off the film, although the bear is partially hidden by bushes. So in the space of 3 days we’d had 1 grizzly and 2 black bears. We were lucky.
We stopped a couple more times to admire views before reaching the Banff campsite early evening. Hooked up to the water supply, had showers then drove into town for a meal. We ended up in the Balkan, a Greek restaurant. Quite pricey, even by Banff standards, but excellent food – the best yet. Quite appropriate, actually, ditto the visit to Honeymoon Lake, as the following morning Pat remembered it had been our wedding anniversary!
Colin dropped Pat off at the launderette and then contacted Cruise Canada Assistance. He was duly directed to the same plumber who had fixed the leak on Friday, who in turn soon established that it wasn’t the water pump that was faulty but the electrical control panel. CCA advised that this could take days to fix and that we should change vehicles. We opted to return to Calgary to do this, so that we could check the replacement vehicle and decline it if appropriate.
Back at Calgary we found they weren’t expecting us. Wires appeared to have been crossed. However, the mechanic there duly looked at our vehicle, declared it not immediately reparable and arranged with his boss for us to be given one that he knew was ok. This turned out to be better than our old one. As we reflected on this, and the fact that that our changed plans had resulted in us travelling the Icefield Parkway on the best day of the week weatherwise, we decided that our water pump failure cloud had ended up with somewhat of a silver lining.
Over a sandwich we looked at our options and decided to return to Banff yet again, ready to head for Radium Hot Springs via Kootenay National Park on Wednesday. This meant we were right back on schedule, having used up our contingency day. Back at Banff (we were getting to know this campsite well) we decided to eat in, and had a belated anniversary dinner of salad, scrambled eggs, chocolate chip cookies and red wine.
Off we set for BC, north from Banff and then south-west on Highway 93 across the Great Divide and into Kootenay National Park. There was some rain and a lot of low cloud, so most mountain tops were hidden. However, it was not intended to be a day of great views. Quite the reverse much of the time, as the forest had suffered from a huge fire in 2003.
First stop was a short trail to the Paint Pots. These pools and the associated creek contained yellow ochre, which the First Nations cleaned, kneaded with water into walnut sized balls, then flattened into cakes and baked. The red powder was mixed with fish oil or animal grease to paint their bodies, tipis, clothing or pictures on the rocks.
Next stop was Radium Hot Springs. Pat took a dip in the open-air hot pool (39C), enjoying the mountain view. A quick sandwich lunch and back on the road to Cranbrook. This was very mixed country, following the deep glacial valley south between the Rocky and Purcell mountains. Beautiful forest would periodically be interrupted by strips of motels, stores and diners – each preceded for a mile or two by huge advertising hoardings lining the road.
The nicest view was of Columbia Lake, source of the Columbia River (of Grand Coulee Dam fame). The river system in the valley is strange, with the Columbia River running north, thence round the tip of the Purcell mountains and back south, while the Kootenay river nearby runs south.
We reflected, while driving along, on the way all the road signs (indeed pretty much everything) are given in both English and French. Kootenay River, for example, is also announced as Riviere Kootenay – every time. Our favourite was Dog Lake, which was carefully translated as Lac Dog.
Cranbrook was an eye-opener, the highway at this point consisting of a good 1 1/2 miles of strip – motels, restaurants, malls and repair shops. We didn’t like the look of the first campsite we’d bookmarked, but the second proved fine. On the advice of the proprietor we dined at the local ABC Country Restaurant – good and cheap.
The plan for today, Thursday, was to make our way to Nelson via the free ferry over Kootenay Lake.
The road south from Cranbrook was really pretty. Relatively low altitude, so more deciduous trees, some of which were beginning to turn. Moyie Lake was particularly nice, and the water mirror smooth. We saw a couple of beaver dams, but no lodges or beavers. The road reminded Pat of New England – lots of smallholdings, each with several outbuildings, and occasional small hamlets with a diner and general store. And we gained an hour, moving from Mountain Time to Pacific Time.
Creston was very different, and quite fun. It began with a long strip with signs everywhere and almost every type of shop and service. Then it changed to numerous roadside stalls selling all sorts of fresh fruit. And when we saw a sign for Granny’s Diner, and remembered the time was an hour earlier than it had been, we couldn’t resist it, went in and had a huge breakfast. Eggs Benedict without the ham for Pat, pancakes, bacon and eggs for Colin.
After that we were on the windy road up the east side of Kootenay Lake. For the first time we wished we were on the bike, although it was easier for Colin to enjoy the scenery from the RV. And the scenery was, as ever, stunning. Pat saw a couple of wild turkeys, which Colin missed.
We had nearly an hour to wait for the ferry, but the trip over the lake itself was quite short. Approaching the west bank we passed close to an osprey nest on top of a pole in the middle of the water, with two birds on it. We learnt later that the local authority had a programme underway to reintroduce the species to the lake.
Once at Nelson we booked in to the RV park near the centre then went and explored the city (town). It was pleasantly different. The main street had a variety of shops but few of the chain stores, while the residential area by the RV site had lots of nice idiosyncratic houses. We then went down to the lake shore for a final stroll before returning to camp, doing some washing and cooking dinner.
Target for today was Osoyoos – at the very south of the Okanagan Valley.
The road west and south from Nelson along the north bank of the Kootenay River was delightful – hilly and wooded, but quite populated with homesteads and occasional hamlets. From Castlegar, where the Kootenay River joins the Columbia, we headed up the long climb along the Crowsnest Highway to Paulson Summit and down to the beautiful Christina Lake.
The journey confirmed our opinion that most Canadian drivers are complete wimps when it comes to overtaking. A car heading towards you means you don’t overtake, however far away it is, and even an empty road has to be studied to ensure that it is well and truly empty before the first cautious crossing of the dotted line takes place and the acceleration towards overtaking speed begins. Colin was always ready to move over when necessary, but he would like to assure onlookers that the dozen cars following him were there because that’s where they wanted to be.
We were also amused by the toilet block (“washrooms”) in one of the rest stops. It had three doors – Men, Women and Family. Quite contemporary, we thought.
The rest of the journey followed mixed terrain, always mountainous but occasionally arable, and punctuated by several towns – the prettiest, we thought, being Grand Forks. The houses here are all made of wood, to many different styles and painted different colours. The result is pleasing, and very different from England. Throw in the mix of trees, the mix of colours as some of them began to turn, the dappled sunlight and the ever-present hills and streams and the effect was simply delightful. We could have gone on all day.
As it was, mid-afternoon found us on the summit overlooking Osoyoos Lake, where we stopped to locate, and photograph, the spit of land comprising Haynes Point Provincial Park, where we hoped to camp. It subsequently turned out the park was full, but we were allowed to park on the isthmus. We were content to stay there and enjoy the balmy evening.
From Osoyoos we headed north up the Okanagan Valley. Almost immediately we were into fruit-growing country, including the vineyards that feed the numerous wineries in the Oliver area.
We stopped at a large fruit stall (they grew everything they sold) and bought a few supplies. A few miles on we stopped at a winery, but this only had a tasting bar. We wanted to learn about wine-making, so the lady there recommended the Tinhorn Creek winery just up the road. This proved to be a real find.
Inside the main building were two vat rooms where the main fermentation took place, with explanations of the various processes posted along the walls. Outside were a dozen short rows of vines of different grapes for you to pick and taste. Merlot and Pinot Noir were our favourites. Finally we visited the barrel room, where much of the wine was aged. Throughout the site were detailed descriptions of all aspects of grape growing and wine making, and we learnt a lot. Thoroughly recommended if you’re in the area. Of course we couldn’t leave without tasting several of the wines they produce. We left with a bottle of blended white and a couple of goblets.
By now it was lunchtime, and the town of Oliver happened to have an A&W. Pat had been singing the praises of its root beer, so we called in to partake. It also provided Colin with the tastiest hamburger he’s ever had.
Back on the road we continued northwards, ending up on the southern shore of Okanagan Lake at Penticton. We had a nice stroll along the beach there, and photographed the old stern-wheeler that used to plough the lake.
We then headed back south, to rejoin Highway 3 westwards as it climbed back into the mountains. Thereafter it was the usual diet of mountains and creeks until we reached EC Manning Provincial Park. The campsite where we planned to spend the night was several miles into the forest. Having parked up we strolled the few yards to Lightning Lake and along its shores, before retiring to the van for a G&T and dinner. For once we had no mobile coverage (hardly surprising) so publishing the blog would have to wait.
We reach the Pacific. Well nearly. But we did make it to Vancouver!
The day started just after midnight, when we stuck our heads out of the van in the hope that we could see lots of stars, us being in the middle of a nice dark park. Alas, it was all clouds. Indeed, by morning it was raining, which put paid to our plans to go canoeing on Lightning Lake. And it is still raining at 8:00 p.m. in Vancouver, having not stopped once.
We didn’t bother with an early start. Once on the road we took the exit to Hope, needing petrol and fancying breakfast. Both were soon dispatched on the strip just off the main road. Breakfast was at the Home restaurant, and was superb, Colin struggling to finish his three huge pancakes with maple syrup – and bacon. We headed for Hope itself to look for a supermarket, but found ourselves back on the highway instead. So no Hope for the Irvines!
Still searching for a supermarket we called in at Chilliwack and duly found a suitable one. We spent a while there as Colin had to sort out why the satnav was having problems (answer – it was missing a map which we duly gave it). Then on to Vancouver, not, for once, admiring the scenery as we couldn’t see any. However, the campsite at Burnaby proved to be excellent and the weather looks set to improve.
We woke to the sound of falling rain. Not what we wanted to hear. However, the weather forecast promised it would clear by lunchtime so, having purchased Sky Train day passes (which also cover the local buses and the Seabus), we walked for 10 minutes to the nearest station and caught the (un-manned) train to central Vancouver.
We decided to concentrate on three areas. The first, Robson Street, was supposed to typify downtown Vancouver. We in turn supposed that it did, as it consisted almost entirely of the chain stores to be found in most large western cities.
The second district, Gastown, was more fun. It’s named after its founder, “Gassy Jack” Deighton (he received his nickname because of his penchant for spinning tall tales and talking without end), and has a number of little shops, albeit with price tags at standard Vancouver high level. We stopped to admire the steam clock, and the statue of Gassy Jack, before stopping for longer at the Sitar, an award-winning Indian Restaurant that lived up to its reputation.
Over lunch, watching the people pass the restaurant window, we reflected that, whilst the people of Vancouver are every bit as friendly and helpful as their fellow Canadians, they must be the worst dressed of any city we’ve visited .
After lunch we caught the bus to our third destination – Granville Island. This is really a small peninsula, a little bohemian in nature, full of art studios, quirky shops and an amazing and extensive food market with a huge variety of different produce. As well as being reachable by bus it is served over False Creek by the smallest ferries we’ve ever seen. It kept us occupied for the afternoon, after which we made our way back to the campsite.
As the day dawned bright we decided to pursue our other must-see for Vancouver – Stanley Park. This is a peninsula separating Burrard Inlet from Vancouver Harbour, and has been kept as a park, the centre being old forest with gardens and an aquarium to the east, and with paths round and through it.
We decided to hire bicycles for a few hours and cycle all the way round the sea-wall. We made two major stops as we went, one to admire and photograph the totem poles and the other to have lunch at a concession stand, hamburger for Colin and wild-pacific-salmon-burger for Pat. Both were expensive but delicious.
Having almost completed the circuit we headed though the middle of the park, enjoying the old forest with its tall trees
to Beaver Lake (completely covered in water lillies), and thence south to the entrance and our bike-hire shop. We then walked back into the park to have a closer look at the gardens and the aquarium.
We had pondered going round the latter, but as we approached we could hear a loud commentator introducing their three seals, so we decided not to bother. We did notice, however, that many of the animals in the park (such as squirrels and racoons) had become quite tame, due to its firm dogs-on-leash policy.
We thought about refreshing ourselves at Stanley’s Park Bar and Grill at the pavilion, but with a small beer $4.50 and a slice of cake the same we opted for ice creams at a nearby kiosk instead. And then it was time for a last ride home on the Skytrain.
We liked Vancouver, despite the high prices. And we liked the people there.
Our planned journey to Whistler got off to a slow start when roadworks caused us to miss a turning and we found ourselves going in the wrong direction down a chock-a-block Highway 1 for several miles. The situation was soon rescued, however, as on turning round we decided we qualified for the left-hand lane reserved for cars with two or more occupants, and we sped past the traffic.
Rounding the headland past Vancouver on the Sea to Sky Highway we looked down on Horseshoe Bay. This was absolutely beautiful, but the clouds and complete lack of viewpoints in which to stop meant we didn’t bother with photographs. We stopped just short of Squamish at Shannon Falls (very pretty, with a 335m drop) and then in Squamish itself. There we shopped for a few supplies at the local Save-on-Foods (which had a good 100ft of tiered bins full of absolutely everything) and lunched in A&W (again) – Colin’s favourite Canadian eating place.
Next stop was the West Coast Railway Heritage Park. We would have missed it but for our Lonely Planet guide (thoroughly recommended) as it was poorly signposted (local billboard regs). A nice museum, albeit fairly small, with pride of place going to the Royal Hudson locomotive No.2860.
Rejoining the highway we had a really good sight of a bald eagle flying low across the road just ahead of us. On to Whistler, by which time it had started to rain – steadily enough to dissuade us from taking our planned walk from the campsite into the village
We checked out of our campsite (it had been nice enough, but very expensive and the only site which had wanted a credit card imprint in case it wanted to fine us for littering), and headed for Whistler village in search of breakfast. We didn’t get the chance – stern signs in the village car park saying any RVs in the (empty) park would be fined. Whistler didn’t make us feel welcome.
Moving on to Squamish we found the White Spot restaurant that was happy to let us park outside and served up the usual huge Canadian breakfast. Over our meal we discussed the black bear we’d seen walking by the side of the road on the way there. Colin had got off a few blurry shots (camera) but Pat had taken some really nice video footage, 48MB of which you can see here.
We also pondered the various transatlantic euphemisms for “toilet”. In contrast to the Americans, whose use of “bathroom” is confusing, the Canadians use either “washroom” or “restroom”, which at least have the advantage of being unambiguous. We had to laugh, however, at the sign at one picnic spot pointing to a “Dogs Rest Area”. We pictured exhausted Labradors flopping down gratefully in the bushy shade.
The weather had brightened somewhat, although most of the peaks were hidden by cloud, so we were able to get a couple of photographs before we reached Vancouver and negotiated its one way streets. Then, when we thought the worst was behind us, on the road out of town disaster struck. One of the front wheels locked up on a particularly slippery spot and threw the front of the van against a lamp-post right on the kerb. The lamp-post smashed a mirror and opened up a new sunroof.
Luckily we were only about 15 miles from Cruise Canada’s Vancouver depot, so we were able to go there and swap vehicles again (third van lucky?). While waiting for the new van to be readied, Colin took the opportunity to locate a dentist in Victoria and make an appointment for the following morning. He’d broken off a crown on his lunchtime sarnie!
It was well after 4:00 by the time we left the depot, and raining heavily. We knew we’d be late to the Victoria campsite we’d booked, but on phoning them they were quite happy to leave check-in details in the mailbox at the site entrance. We caught the 6:00 ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay and by 8:30 or so we were hooked up in our campsite and had the drinks cabinet open.
Friday dawned wet and grey. As it happened we needed to stay close to the campsite, as Colin had an appointment with a local dental clinic at 11:00 to sort out the crown he’d displaced. The clinic turned out to be a mere 100 yards up the road. Not for the first time we blessed our purchase of the Bell USB modem, which had enabled Colin, in a spare moment in a car park the previous day, to log on, google for a dental clinic close to our campsite then ring them on Skype to make an appointment. A bonus is that it’ll upload videos at over 200KB/s!
Colin now sorted, we walked the 2 miles along the sea-wall footpath to Victoria centre. On the way we paused to photograph a cruise ship juxtaposed with our waterside camping spot, and the bascule bridge over the inlet to downtown Victoria. As we walked the weather brightened considerably.
Colin’s first priority, it now being lunchtime, was to satiate an urge for clam chowder. This was soon sorted on the terrace of a cafe overlooking the harbour. We then wandered the streets southwards, enjoying the various and sometimes quirky shops, until we reached the BC museum. This was every bit as good as the Lonely Planet write-up had promised, and kept us entertained until late afternoon.
We did a little more wandering along the harbour wall, where Pat bought some bracelets from one of the First-Nation stall holders, and then caught the little shuttle ferry back to our campsite. Our last task was to photograph the floating houses in the marina adjoining the campsite. Everything you see in the photograph goes up and down with the tide! All in all a very pleasant day. We could happily spend more time in Victoria.
Saturday. It had rained all through the night, but the weather forecast and our experience convinced us it would stop by mid-morning. Our friend Marc had recommended Butchart Gardens, a reclaimed limestone quarry, so off we set. Marc was right, the garden was stunning and well worth the visit.
Marc’s next recommendation (and Lonely Planet’s) was the Merridale Cidery in the Cowichan valley. We’re always up for a tasting, so that became our next port of call. The cider was delicious and we came away with bottles of their Cidre Normandie and Winter Apple Cider. We also learnt a lot about cider-making from the self-guided tour through their delicious-smelling buildings.
Then it was a short hop over to the coast and Cowichan Bay. This was a delightful fishing village where the main road runs right along the shore and people have squeezed in houses by balancing one wall on the shore and propping up the rest on stilts. We had a good wander and then ate at one of the restaurants overlooking the bay and watching boys fish from the dock.
Finally, as dark came on, we made our way to Nanaimo and Marc’s house there, where we were to spend a couple of nights. Marc Donovan is a fellow biker, although he does no biking nowadays after a serious accident. He does make a nice wine, though, which is why today’s blog had to wait until the following morning.
It felt strange waking up in a real house! After breakfast we went for a walk with Marc and his dog in Bowen Park, a block away from the house. This is a large completely unspoilt area close to the town centre, with lovely walks and facilities for all sorts of activities including beach volleyball and frisbee golf! A new stream has been created to bypass a waterfall and make it possible for salmon to return upstream. The first smelts were released a year or so ago and they come home to spawn after 4 years so it will be a while before they know if the scheme has worked.
Back at the house we found Yoshie, Mark’s wife, up and about. She had been catching up on sleep after working the night-shift as a cardiac nurse. We decided that we would all (including Yoshie’s friend Kayoko) take the small ferry across the bay to Protection Island, to the Dinghy Dock Pub, Canada’s only floating pub, for lunch. A lovely meal, but, as usual, so large we struggled to finish it.
Back on Vancouver Island we grabbed ice creams and had a wander along the sea-front and back up through the edge of Bowen Park to Marc’s house. Marc cooked us dinner in the evening. Good home cooking washed down with a very fine white Chateauneuf du Pape.
Monday morning saw us bidding farewell to Marc and Yoshie and heading off towards the Pacific coast. We had been glad of the break in travelling, and grateful for their hospitality. And, keen to buy some of the chocolate fudge we’d tried at their house, we made our first stop the little shopping centre at Coombs.
Coombs was so tacky it was almost attractive. Highlights, apart from the fudge, were the fruit & veg shop, the VW Museum (where Colin found a Microbus very similar to the one he drove to India in 1970) and the Goat-on-the-Roof market, with live goats on the grassy roof and high quality food inside.
Then it was on past the gorgeous Cameron Lake to MacMillan Provincial Park. The park’s Cathedral Grove had been one of the first entries on our must-see list, as it contains some of the oldest and largest trees on the island. We found “large” to be a somewhat inadequate description. The trees were simply magnificent, as was their primaeval but beautiful setting. We lingered there for quite a while, enjoying the grandeur.
We finally tore ourselves away, and pressed on to Sproat Lake, where we found a lovely little picnic spot by the lake shore at which to have our lunch. Then all that remained was to follow the narrow and windy road through the mountains towards Ucluelet. We stopped to watch yet another black bear right by the roadside, too close for Pat to feel comfortable winding down her window for a photograph, and then kept our eyes open for our first sight of the Pacific Ocean. It continued to elude us.
Pulling into Ucluelet, we found our campsite, hooked up the vehicle and made our way on foot to Subtidal Adventures, to pay for the whale-watching trip we’d booked with them for the following day. Then we wandered further into the village, turned westwards for half a mile and were eventually rewarded with our first view of the Pacific Ocean. As we looked into the setting sun we reflected that the body of water we were admiring covers 30% of the world’s surface. That’s even more impressive than a Douglas Fir.
Whale-watching day, and we woke to brilliant sunshine. We spent the morning doing odd chores, and Pat rang her mam via Skype. Then a quick sarnie for lunch and it was off on the short walk to the quayside to find our boat. Dixie IV was a converted lifeboat, built in 1950. Although small she had railings all round which meant she was ideal for whale-watching.
As skipper Brian steered us along the inlet towards the open ocean he pointed out a bald eagle on top of a tree. Although we both photographed it, Pat’s video camera, switched to still, won the day with its powerful zoom. Then it was out into Barkley Sound to start looking for whales. Before long Brian had heard from another boat in the vicinity and we went over to join it. And there was our first whale – a Humpback. We watched it for a while, then carried on cruising Brian’s favoured spot in the Sound but without seeing anything.
Brian then headed for some rocks which he knew Sea Lions frequented, and we got some nice pictures there.
Then he received a report from another boat, this time with two Humpbacks in sight. These proved to be a mother and her (nearly grown) calf. Mum breached for us, and then we were entertained by the calf doing pretty much every manoeuvre in the Humpback repertoire, especially the “roll on your side and stick a flipper in the air”. After a while they headed off and it was time to return to port. We, like the calf, had had a whale of a time.
We were glad to leave Ucluelet campsite – expensive and not very clean. We got an early start as we had quite a way to go. We stopped for breakfast in Port Alberni, then headed towards the coast at Qualicum Bay. How nice to find a resort that was neat with well-kept houses and trim lawns. It was rather like crossing from Italy to Switzerland.
We had decided at Marc Donovan’s suggestion to take the Oceanside Route as being more scenic than the highway, and this it proved to be, albeit the scenery was often just the inevitable trees. This route took us as far as Campbell River, at which point we rejoined the main highway.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at a viewpoint overlooking Seymour Narrows, site of the world’s biggest non-nuclear explosion when the top of Ripple Rock was blasted away. Then it was simply a question of making our way steadily through the inevitable, but constantly pretty, mountains and forests to Port Hardy, almost at the northern end of Vancouver Island.
Up at 5.45 a.m. in order to make the check-in deadline for the Inside Passage ferry at Port Hardy. By 7:00 we were having breakfast in the ship’s cafe. It was raining, and the rain was to continue pretty much non-stop all day. Luckily, however, visibility was good at sea-level, even if most of the mountain tops were hidden in the clouds.
The passenger lounges on board were well laid out, so we could recline in our arm chairs and watch the islands roll by. Most of the islands had very steep slopes right down to sea level, densely covered with trees, nearly all of them evergreens. The steep slopes continued below sea level, meaning the ship could go quite close to the shoreline – necessary for the narrower channels. It was all very pretty, even in the rain.
Two or three times during the voyage, especially when the channels opened out into wider stretches, we went onto a partly-enclosed observation deck at the rear of the ship, where we could cover both sides. Our efforts were rewarded. Pat saw a sea otter, Colin saw a sea lion, and together we saw 6-8 dolphins in two pods and a total of 11 Humpback whales – three singles, a pair and two groups of 3.
At one point Pat got chatting to one of the staff in the cafe who suggested she put her name down for a visit to the bridge. This she did, and mid-afternoon we, plus another couple, were called to the purser’s office and escorted up for a guided tour of the bridge. Great fun, and a magnificent view.
Biggest laugh of the trip was possibly a new high, or low, in Canadian coyness – the signs in all the toilets saying “Please wash your hands after using the washroom facility”. Mathematicians will spot the recursive possibilities.
A little before 10:30 p.m. the ship docked in Prince Rupert, and we made our way the half mile or so to The Prince Rupert RV park, where we had a reservation. We had worried the bad weather might spoil our day. It hadn’t.
Yesterday’s rain had kept up all night, and wasn’t to stop all day either, merely lighten occasionally.
We set off from Prince Rupert along Highway 16, our first planned stop being Terrace. We mused on the fact that we were only about 30 miles south of Alaska, due to that state’s coastal strip reaching so far south. We also deplored what we’d read the previous night about Enbridge’s proposed new oil pipeline from the Alberta tar fields to just south of Prince Rupert, where a new dock for oil tankers would be built.
In the meantime, we enjoyed the hitherto unspoilt scenery as Highway 16 ran alongside the Skeena river. Even in the rain we could see how nice it was – below cloud level at least! In Terrace we stopped at our favourite Shop-and-Save to lay in a few supplies, then headed on towards Hazelton, past the junction with Highway 37 – which really is signposted (as in Johnny Horton’s song) “North to Alaska”.
The road continued to follow the Skeena river, and as the day brightened a little we were able to appreciate the variety of colours. There were more deciduous trees here mixed in with the evergreens, and their hues, together with the richer tones of the bushes by the roadside, laid out a carpet of colour which the rain failed to dim. In contrast the snow-capped mountains, grey above the valleys, gave an almost black-and white background.
In the old Hazeltown we found the reconstructed Gitxsan village of ‘Ksan. We had a guided tour all to ourselves, and it was nice talking to someone whose ancestors (apart from those belonging to his Scottish grandfather!) had been living in the same spot for 12,000 years. It was all very interesting, and we left with a few souvenirs from their little shop.
The last leg of today’s journey was to Smithers. It was raining hard again, so we passed wandering round the town/strip in favour of holing up in the van.
It rained all night, and like the previous day it was about to rain all day, sometimes hard, once or twice barely at all. We switched on the Zumo and told it to head for Prince George, 228 miles away. The screen said “Highway 16. Turn in 228 miles”. Simples.
No major sights to explore, just a case of enjoying the ever-changing scenery. As we made our way south and then east the land started to flatten and the countryside became more open, so we found ourselves looking at farms and the occasional village rather than nothing but trees. There was a greater proportion of deciduous trees, and these in turn were further on in the autumn cycle, ranging from light green through yellow and orange almost to red. At times it felt like driving through a negative.
We also passed a number of First Nation hamlets, almost all of them consisting mostly of prefabricated modular houses – not very pretty. The word “Reservation” sprung to mind.
By late afternoon we’d reached Prince George and the mighty Fraser river. Although we had originally planned to continue along Highway 16 to Jasper from here over the next few days, we decided instead to return to the Rockies via Highway 97 and Highway 1, covering some new ground. We stopped at a nice RV site a few miles south of Prince George and hooked up in the wet yet again.
It had stopped raining during the night. Conversely, the first thing we read on logging on over breakfast was that Port Hardy had suffered severe flooding 2 days after we left and had declared a local state of emergency!
We set off south on Highway 97, the Gold Trail followed by the old prospectors (in the other direction of course), and immediately ran into low cloud. It stayed pretty murky for the first hour or so and then began to clear, leaving us in sunshine. Immediately everything looked much brighter, particularly the different coloured trees. The land also opened out into a broad plateau as we climbed further, so wide vistas were the order of the day.
We stopped to buy some OJ in Quesnel, so popped next door to the Tim Hortons for elevenses. We’d seen THs all over Canada but had never tried one. We didn’t think much of the pastries, and the coffee was very weak. We shan’t bother again.
Onwards and southwards through the Cariboo. Even on a Sunday we met up with road works; they seem to be upgrading all the main highways in BC. Pot-holed gravel surfaces don’t half make the RV rattle as well as shaking loose anything that’s not well tied down! There were a lot of bikers on the road and we wondered how they would cope with the surface. Most were riding HDs and wearing shiny black coal-scuttle helmets. They looked somehow – odd!
We stopped for a picnic lunch by the very pretty McLeese Lake. Pat spotted a llama in a field; Colin asked if was a true llama or a false …
We passed a sign for Likely (we wondered what the Lads there were like), then for Horsefly Lake (which we imagined would be as pleasant as Mosquito Creek on the Icefields Parkway) and finally one for the Horsefly-Likely Recreational Area. We wondered if the pun was deliberate.
Finally we rolled into Clinton, which claims to be the Gateway to the Cariboo (going north), and booked into the Gold Trail RV Park. We took advantage of the owner’s all-you-could-eat BBQ (sirloin steak $8, salmon caught that day $7 – we passed on the road-kill ribs for $6). Food excellent, ditto trading insults with the owner and listening to the classical music wafting over the verandah. No internet connection (for only the 2nd time during the trip – new aerial about to be installed in Clinton) so blog posted following day.
We woke to brilliant sunshine, and soon we were off and bidding a fond farewell to Clinton – small but not without character.
The first section of road through Cache Creek to Savona was completely different to any landscape we’d been through before – a steep-sided wide valley covered mostly in sagebrush, looking quite barren and parched. We parked up beside the railroad just coming into Savona as Pat wanted to film a goods train. It stopped after about 80 wagons had gone past, so we never knew exactly how long it was.
Pat got another chance beyond Savona as the road climbed above Kamloops Lake. We got some photos of the lake from an excellent view point, and a film/photo of a train the other side of the lake.
Kamloops itself seemed large, sprawling and unattractive from the highway that looked down on it so we were content to pass by. The road then followed the South Thompson river east and north-east to the Shuswap Lakes (Pat read that as “Shoe swap” and speculated about the odd traditions of that tribe). As it went, the Kamloops industry gradually disappeared and the hillsides became greener. The Shuswap area was quite pretty and tranquil.
The road over the hill to Salmon Arm produced yet more unusual scenery – small mineral-rich pools skirted by bright red bushes. Thereafter it became more twisty and woody as we headed into the Monashee Mountains, past a series of pretty lakes. The beautiful Three Valley Lake, however, was marred by the ugly Three Valley Lake Chateau and Ghost Town – one of several tourist attractions in the area which seemed somewhat out of place.
Finally we crossed the Columbia River into Revelstoke. We parked up in the small downtown area and had a quick wander, then made our way to our chosen campsite to grab a spot. Then it was back into Revelstoke to eat at the Lonely Planet recommended Woolsey Creek Cafe. Colin reckoned his Moroccan Chicken was one of the best meals he’s ever had, and Pat’s roasted veg in filo wasn’t far behind. Thoroughly recommended.
Cut off at the pass – the Rogers Pass, that is.
We were due in Calgary the following morning. The plan was to stop the night in Banff, taking in Rogers Pass and the railroad corkscrews beyond Field on our way there. Not a lot of miles to cover, it had been raining most of the night, it was still raining, so we didn’t hurry getting away.
A few miles outside Revelstoke we came upon a big sign – “Rogers Pass Closed”. We asked one of the workmen there, and he told us there’d been a mudslide near Rogers Pass and the road was closed. We decided to go on anyway and see when it might be re-opened. The answer was “24 hours”. We noticed the streams were all very full – the area hadn’t been spared the heavy rain we’d met elsewhere.
We returned to Revelstoke and pondered our options. Rogers Pass is the only direct way through the mountains – 260 miles of highway to Calgary. The shortest detour would be via Cranbrook and Highway 3 – 500 miles of slow roads and a ferry that runs only a few times a day. We assumed that the authorities would be working desperately to get the pass open again, so we decided to spend a second night in Revelstoke and hope we could get to Calgary the following afternoon. Cruise Canada were happy with this plan, so we went to book a second night in our campsite. It was closed – flooded! Luckily we’d bookmarked a second site by a small lake on the edge of town. This was open, and had space to spare. So, thankful to be sorted, and as it was now lunchtime, we drove back into town for burger, fries and root beer at the A&W.
We spent the rest of the day wandering round town with all the other displaced travellers, a short trip to the (unfinished) ski area and a walk by the lake.
The day dawned sunny! Up early, we checked with the campsite owner that Rogers Pass was now open and off we set.
Soon we were through Mt Revelstoke National Park and into the Selkirk Mountains and Glacier National Park. Every stream and river we passed was bursting its banks, but thankfully we left the early low cloud behind us as we climbed and enjoyed the splendour of the scenery without the hindrance of the previous day’s rain and mist. We blessed the landslide that had held us up.
We stopped for breakfast at Rogers Pass, waiting for the Visitors’ Centre to open. Sadly, when it did, it transpired that the exhibition and model of how the railway was built through the mountains, our main reason for stopping there, was closed for refurbishment. So we pressed on.
We passed the area where the landslide had been 24 hours before, where bulldozers were still clearing the sides of the road and we could see great heaps of earth, rocks and logs. We were very glad no one had been caught in it.
Glacier National Park was followed by Yoho National Park, which marked the beginning of the Rockies. If anything the scenery was even more stunning than in Glacier NP, and the weather was still brilliant.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at the Spiral Tunnels viewpoint. Here you could see one of the two spiral tunnels built to reduce the gradient on the CPR. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to wait to see a train coming through.
Then it was time to rejoin our old favourite Jasper-Banff road, and finally to head for the plains. It was sad to say goodbye to the Rockies, but nice to do so while they looked their best.
We got to Calgary about 3:30, but with all the traffic and the need to fill up with petrol and dump sani-waste we didn’t get to Cruise Canada until after 4:00, so too late to sort out all the finances. Never mind, they’re providing a taxi back to them in the morning.
We checked into a very nice room at the Westin Hotel then walked down the road a couple of blocks to the Royal India for dinner. Fantastic food. Perhaps not the most fitting end to a month in Canada, but possibly the most filling.
We didn’t fancy paying Westin Hotel breakfast prices, so went across the road to a Tim Hortons. Then, having dumped the bags, we took a pre-paid taxi back to Cruise Canada to sort out the final paperwork. This went without a hitch.
Back in town we walked a couple of blocks to the Eau Claire Market. This had some really nice little shops, perfect for souvenir hunting, plus a small food hall which provided us with lunch (wraps, kebab and falafel respectively). Then, the glorious sunshine showing no sign of disappearing, it was over a small bridge into Prince’s Island Park. This was delightful, well-used by adults and children alike. We happily chilled out there until it was time to get a taxi to the airport.
The plane took off promptly at 9:30 p.m., and landed at Heathrow pretty much on time a little after 1:00 p.m. on Friday (7 hours time difference). Unfortunately bad weather at Heathrow was delaying flights and our 3:45 flight to Newcastle didn’t take off until after 6:00 p.m.. That was short and trouble-free, and we were home by 8:00.
We liked Canada and we liked the Canadians. The scenery was awesome, and we saw nearly all of the animals we were hoping for. In fact it was only the food that let Canada down – weak coffee, little variety (and almost no veggie choice) on most of the menus, and sugar seemingly added to everything – even staple foods like bread. Ugh! Four restaurant meals stood out for us – two Indian/Pakistani (Vancouver and Calgary), one Greek (Banff) and only one Canadian (Revelstoke).
Total distance covered needs to be calculated, but around 3,000 miles.
A slightly larger selection of the photographs we took on the trip is here.