Who are we

We are a family of 3 who took a break from our routine. Usually we live in Scotland but February to the end of July 2011 we were on the road in North America for 6 months. We are Mark (also known as Dad), Rachel (also known as Mum... and a whole bunch of other names... my usual at-home blog is here) and little h (10/11 years of age during the trip).

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Last post?

So, here is a map of the route we took - starting with our arrival in Toronto in February and ending up back there again in July (just over 23,000km). In case some people are just interested in specific parts of the trip here are links to the individual posts:

February 2011

Arriving in Ontario post is here

First days in Canada post is here

Polar bears and more at Toronto zoo post is here

Mall pictures are here and here

Winter weather in Ontario countryside post is here

City day in Toronto is here

Dogsledding near Haliburton, Ontario is here

More Haliburton winter pics are here

Ottawa post is here

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa photos are here

Québec City post is here

March 2011

Some thoughts on Canada and winter are here

More Toronto is here

Niagara is here

And into the USA – Ann Arbor, Michigan is here

Cleveland, Ohio is here

Rochester, New York is here

Vermont is here

Massachusetts – Boston and Concord are right here

Plymouth, Massachusetts and on to Connecticut can be found here

Philadelphia one-dayer is here

April 2011

Our New York City days are here

Our New Jersey weeks are here

From NJ to Washington D.C. is here

Virginia and North Carolina are here

Tornado dodging in Tennessee is here

May 2011

Mississippi and Louisiana are here

Texas fits in here

New Mexico part one is here whilst part two is here

Four Corners, Utah and Arizona are here

Las Vegas/Nevada is here

California's Hollywood, Beverley Hills and Venice Beach are here

June 2011

California's LA to Santa Cruz is here

California's San Francisco is here

Northern California and the redwoods are here

Oregon is in here

Washington state is here

Our USA final observations are here

Then back into Canada – British Columbia part one is here

July 2011

Whistler and the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver are here

Vancouver Island is here

More Vancouver and leaving B.C. is all here

The Rockies in Alberta are on show here

Alberta – Edmonton, Calgary and Drumheller are here

The province of Saskatchewan is here

Manitoba moments are here

Ontario from the western border and back to base is here

And our last fortnight in Ontario (in the heatwave!) is here

I'm sure I'll be writing about aspects of the trip for ages (partly here) but for now we can maybe answer the most popular question ("so what were your favourite places/highlights?" - I can't tell you how many times we've been asked that!). OK - here goes:

h enjoyed Hollywood and visiting all the family (Ontario, Michigan, New Jersey, British Columbia).

Mark especially liked Vermont, D.C., North Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, Monument Valley in Arizona, Portland in Oregon and Victoria on Vancouver Island (but he liked lots of other places too).

And me... I really did enjoy every second (especially not having to do boring housewife stuff!) but I suppose if I'm pressed for favourites I liked the American south and south-west (Memphis, New Orleans, Taos...). And the sun... I'm really missing that already (though h is the exact opposite and probably liked all the winter activities best). Guess we'll be getting her a dogsled for Xmas (er, not).

And that's all, folks.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Final fortnight

We're back at home in Scotland now (we arrived back the morning of 30th July). Our last fortnight of the trip was spent mainly seeing all the various family members in the Toronto area, celebrating birthdays (Mark's, Auntie Morag's..) and desperately trying to keep cool in the major heatwave that was going on (lakes, pools... we got in any water we could because it was very, very hot... and humid). There were lots of BBQs, lots of trips out, lots of good-byes... and Mark even finally got to a baseball game with cousin Mario and Uncle Jim (Toronto Blue Jays vs. Baltimore Orioles – the Blue Jays won). Most of the photos of this period are family shots but there's a few more general ones in this last tiny slideshow:

Our next (and probably final post on this blog) will be a map of our journey and links to all the individual posts so you can visit the places you're interested in with ease. Everyone keeps asking where we liked best but really, speaking for the adults in the party, I can say that we loved the whole trip - every day, every destination - and we were lucky too because everything worked out well and now here we are back safe and sound. What more could we ask for?

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Ontario north to south – the last days on the road

On the road between Thunder Bay and White River

On Tuesday 12th July we finally re-entered Ontario (we left the province back on 12th March when we entered the USA and Michigan). This time we drove along Highway 1 (that for some reason changes into the 17 when you enter Ontario) and passed by Kenora. We didn’t stop there for more than a coffee as we had miles and miles to go but it looked a pretty place and we took a few pictures. Then we followed the 17 past Dryden (not so pretty) and then lots of rocks and lots and lots of water/lakes. We stopped in Upsala for some very, very fine pie and then carried on (and on and on) until we finally got to Thunder Bay. This was the longest drive we did in one day (we started in Richer, Manitoba)… and we were still hardly in Ontario at all by the end of it all! Giant province!

We ended up staying in a hotel downtown in Thunder Bay. It had lovely views of Lake Superior (or the Bay anyway) and the place seemed pretty quiet (until bedtime of course when something like 3 whole soccer teams all arrived in our hallway and slammed their doors in some kind of formation display). The next day we had miles more to go so we set off from Thunder Bay without much more than a quick look round its Finnish/Italian district (Bay and Alcoma – quite charming) and a stop just outside town to see the Terry Fox memorial (details here). Our Ontario photos up to this point are here:

Then it was back onto highway 17 to drive along the north shore of Lake Superior. The views were lovely (when we got them) and we stopped for lunch at a little lakeside village called Rossport (complete with tiny museum and quirkiness aplenty). After that it was driving, driving, driving… and all in sunshine too so at about 5pm we stopped for the day at a place called White River. We’d never heard of White River before but apparently it is the original home of Winnie the Pooh (the original bear… as in the bear that A.A.Milne saw in London Zoo that gave him the idea for the name of his toy bear in the stories). The White River bear was a black one called Winnipeg (named after its owner’s some time home city) and she was given to London Zoo in 1918 (her owner, Harry Colebourn had given her on loan in 1914 when he went to fight in France and he didn’t have the heart to take her back at the end of the war, such was her popularity). This may not seem like a huge tourist attraction of enormous importance but when you travel with an eleven year old these things matter.

We stayed the night in a motel in White River (much quieter than Thunder Bay!), ate more poutine, used more air conditioning… and then the next day, after h had breakfasted on Winnie the Pooh shaped pancakes we set off south towards Sault Ste Marie. The first place we came to on this stretch was Wawa (giant metal goose… the town is named after the goose’s call apparently). We had to stop for a photo with the goose (after all we’ve had giant lumberjack and bull, giant roadrunner, giant crawfish, giant moose, giant elephant… why not a goose too?) and then we drove on down through the Lake Superior Provincial Park and some really stunning scenery. We stopped for lunch at tiny Batchawana Bay (and an Austrian resort’s restaurant… all schnitzel and bratwurst) and then drove on (finally!) to Sault Ste Marie (pronounce the ‘sault’ as ‘soo’). It felt like we’d been in Ontario for weeks already by this point (such huge distances…) - no wonder we’d seen so many helicopters about!

We tried to find the centre of Sault Ste Marie but its little one-way system and the fact that the townspeople were closing the main street off with cones for their annual fair was all conspiring against us somewhat. We did manage to see the waterfront, wave at the USA and Michigan over the St Mary’s river and spot another few landmarks before driving on out of town however. Our photos of the second section of Ontario (south of Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie) are here:

After Sault Ste Marie we stopped at Bruce Mines on the coast of Lake Huron for a look at the next lake and some dinner (curry, since you ask…). Then we drove a little further on to a lovely little place called Thessalon where we stayed in a lakeside motel with amazing sunset views. We’d visited Lake Huron on our last trip to Canada in 2003 and it was good to see it again – still looking so beautiful too.

On Friday 15th July we drove east along the north coast of Lake Huron until we got to highway 6 and that took us south and onto Manitoulin Island (again we’d visited Manitoulin in 2003 and were keen to take another look). It was an absolutely scorching day so we ate a quick lunch in Little Current (which is pretty little), stared at some pretty boats, got very hot and then drove on south until we passed a place that looked like it had a beach (Manitowaning). It did have a beach (a little one) and it was all very lively down there (swimming lessons, teenage frolicking…) so we joined in with all the other families (mostly locals it seemed) who were desperate for a cool dip on a hot day. It was great fun and we all swam (although in the pics on here you’ll only see me standing in it I did in fact get in and swim too). We also looked at the old ship being restored nearby and the little art exhibition/bookshop alongside – a lovely spot all round.

After that we drove on to the ferry port of South Baymouth where we had booked a motel room for the night (so as not to miss the early ferry!). We ate fish and chips, swatted mosquitos, watched the wildlife on the bay, took photos… oh, and did laundry. I have done laundry in some really beautiful places now.

The next morning (16th July) we got up early and parked up for the first ferry. You park up and then wander off for breakfast in one of the port’s cafés – it’s very civilised. Then we boarded the ship for the crossing over Lake Huron to Tobermory (a trip we’d done in reverse in 2003). Our photos up to leaving South Baymouth and Manitoulin Island are here:

The ferry trip to Tobermory was just as I remembered it – smooth and calm and beautiful – but little Tobermory was a little busier than we last saw it (as this was prime summer season and we were last there in October ’03). It was baking hot again when we got off the ferry so we looked around the little bay for a bit but then had to take refuge in a lovely ice-cream and sweet shop (pretzel cones… unusual…). Then we drove on south only stopping for more food (it never ends!) and another visit to the groundhog statue in Wiarton (Wiarton Willie) – though there it was almost too hot to stand in the sun! We met some friendly folk in Wiarton with a dog named Zoe (our dog’s name) and they gave us some advice on our next leg of the trip (down to the area just west of Toronto). Then it was back in the car again, a stop for baked goods from some Mennonites and then south as far as the city of Guelph for our last night on the road. In Guelph we ate, slept and rose again… all the usual stuff.

On Sunday 17th July we had arranged to meet another writer/blogger for breakfast at her home just north of Guelph and so off we went to Elora to meet Kat Mortensen and husband Kevin (and cats). H had been keen to get to Kat’s since reading about her muppet DVD back on a Xmas post (and her wish was granted – she did watch muppets before lunchtime). Mark and I, on the other hand, chatted with Kat and Kevin about travelling and homes and families and, even at one point, poetry. It was all good.

By lunchtime it was turning into another boiling hot day (by now the TV was talking about a ‘heatwave’) and though we tried to visit some of the local sites (pretty Elora – like a village in Yorkshire or something!) it was just too hot too hang around anywhere in the middle of the day. Because of this we ate more ice-cream (medicinal really) and then drove on through little Ontario towns with names like Fergus and Arthur until we finally got back to our Ontario base of Whitby, east of Toronto. We still had over a week to go till our flight home but plenty of family visits to get in before then. We probably will manage another Ontario post when we leave altogether but for now here are the last of the road trip photos (Tobermory back to Whitby, via Kat’s):

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Manitoba – horses, dogs and Winnipeg

The Ex, Portage la Prairie

On 9th July we left Saskatchewan and drove into Manitoba. We entered the province at about 2pm but then it was 3pm before we knew it… because the clocks changed again and we were now in Central Time proper. Saskatchewan is officially in the Central Time zone but they don’t put their clocks forward in the summer so they’re only Central in the winter (confusing? Yes...).

We’d booked a place in Portage la Prairie so we drove straight along Highway 1 in the soaring heat. Portage (as the locals call it) turned out to be a pretty small place with a lot of churches and not many restaurants so we ended up in a pizza chain for tea (the Boston pizza place – not bad at all). We were sat next to a big guy dining alone so of course we ended up chatting with him… as you do. He was a long distance truck driver and told us all kinds of tales about driving on ice up north in Canada in the winter and such like. Then we had a pretty quiet evening… well, apart from the noise of the air-conditioning of course! Not something we ever really need at home…

On Sunday 10th July we drove into the centre of Portage to check out their town show (called the ‘Ex’… for exhibition). The event has been running for years and it is very much a local show with a fair on the side. As we got there early (and it was already very hot!) we looked at the local cooking/art/sewing competition displays indoors first. After that h and I got henna tattoos from a lovely lady who has not long moved to the province from India and then we wandered off to find shade near the rodeo ground. We were determined to see a rodeo (having been near to so many) and this show started at lunchtime so we were well in time. We took our places, stood for the national anthem, sat through all the boring ‘place your bets’ bit and saw some lovely gee-gees. We thought h might like the rodeo (all the horses) but in all honesty she was very underwhelmed (and fairly concerned by all the roping of steers – “why are they doing that?”). It was steaming hot by then too and there was little shade around the ground so that didn’t help. Then luckily a performing dogs show started next to the rodeo and this was much more her thing (in fact possibly one of the highlights of the whole trip for her – she loves dogs!). Diamond Disc Dogs were three very clever border collies and one very friendly trainer so in fact we all enjoyed their display very much and h got to pet their pup afterwards too. Then it was into the petting zoo for her to meet many more beasties (poor creatures – the toddlers were really running riot in there…) and then we were all about melting so we got back in the car and drove off east. Our first set of Manitoba photos are here:

Winnipeg wasn’t far away and that was our next place to stop so we got there in time for a cool-down and then some dinner. We stayed in a lovely old hotel in the centre and took a walk around – seeing the big old railway station (and the cross-country train was in – it seems to stop there for a few hours and let the passengers out for a while). From what we could see this Union station doesn’t have any other services at all – really different from the bustling stations you get in most big cities. We were pretty tired from all the heat so ended our day there – back to the hotel and to bed.

On Monday 11th July we had a really fancy breakfast (made a change from the “complimentary” stale bagels and festering food you get in some hotels…) and then went down to the Forks area of the city (where the two rivers, the Red and the Assiniboine, meet). We had promised h a look at the newly reopened Children’s Museum down there and so off we went and she spent a couple of hours reading and making art and sticking her head in giant kaleidoscopes and such like. It still didn’t come close to the amazing kids museum we saw in Rochester (NY, USA) but it was entertaining enough and all very bright and new (also quote of the week from a woman in there - “there’s nothing cool in that bit, hon, it’s all just educational…”). After this we walked along the river (much evidence of the flooding of recent months), grabbed a very slow sandwich in a café that was right in the middle of a bridge on the river and then walked along some more (a fair bit up river, though the kind of empty Exchange District and then quite a long way round back to the hotel).

Winnipeg is a city that feels very much in an in between stage (like they haven’t quite got it ready for visitors yet… well, apart from the Forks area maybe). Articles in the local press seemed to suggest they have their share of problems to deal with too (not much work, their share of crime) so that might be a factor. It seems a shame because there are lots of fine old buildings on show but a lot of them seemed to be either being renovated or empty and, apart from a big provincial museum, there didn’t seem to be much for a visitor to do in the centre/downtown. We tried our best (and from the photos the city actually looks quite striking) but on the street we really couldn’t find much to hold us. We found a couple of nice record shops and second hand bookstores and there were obviously a lot of festivals based in the city (music one just finished, fringe theatre one about to start) but by four o’clock we had kind of run out of options and so just collected our car and set off east (glad we’d only booked one night and not two). Sorry Winnipeg we don’t mean to slag you off (I’m sure it’s very different if you live there!) but it did feel a bit of a ghost city centre in places. Maybe it was partly us - we have seen a lot of different cities since February.

We drove east along the 1 after Winnipeg and stopped the night in an old-school motel on the highway in a tiny place called Richer. The motel had an equally tiny restaurant/café but the food was really good so that was a nice surprise. We all tried our first poutine (chips with white cheese and gravy) and it was absolutely delicious! Then we retired for the night to listen to the very noisy fan in the room and the doors of the motel banging till midnight (it had a bar as well as a restaurant… drunk people bang doors…).

The next day (July 12th) we got back in the car and pretty soon we were out of Manitoba and back into the province we had started off in back in February/March (Ontario). Everyone had warned us that we would feel like the driving was nearly done once we crossed the Ontario border but that in fact there would still be miles and miles of ground to cover before we got back to our base near Toronto (and they weren’t wrong!). So, next time our long trip through Ontario back to base camp… but for now here are the rest of our Manitoba photos:

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Saskatchewan – prairies, mounties and cellars full of booze

RCMP Heritage Centre, Regina

On Wednesday 6th July we left Alberta and entered Saskatchewan. Like much of south-eastern Alberta the scenery around Highway 1 was very rural and fairly flat – ah ha, yes… the Prairies!

Pretty soon we stopped at a little place called Maple Creek for our lunch break. The sun was working hard and it was hot, hot, hot so we chose a cool-looking place and did some more eating and drinking. Then we wandered around a bit looking for shade and also looking at cowboy boots (and all the other cowboy stuff around – this is as much cowboy country as anywhere in Texas).

After that we drove to our stop for the night – Swift Current. We had booked a very cheap and cheerful place but it was so hot that we decided to head for the town’s public outdoor pool to literally chill out a bit first. It was a really good little facility and we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours cooling off with lots of local youths and parents. It was very friendly and a real bargain too. We then made our own dinner in the cheerful lodgings (cooking – how do you do that again?) and then slept (air conditioning turned up full…).

On Thursday 7th July we pointed ourselves in the direction of the province’s capital Regina but first took a lunch break in the place with the excellent name of Moose Jaw. At first sight Moose Jaw looked a bit run-down and grim but once we got out of the car and looked round the downtown area we could see that it was really quite a lovely place. As with Asheville (that we liked so much in North Carolina, USA) Moose Jaw didn’t have the money to pull down all its old buildings when other places were modernising in the 1960s and 70s and so… it’s got lots of beautiful old buildings left in its centre. We had, for example, a coffee in a really gorgeous cavernous place (a café with a fab shop upstairs called, suitably enough, the Wandering Gypsy). There seemed to be a lot going on - music festivals, ‘word festivals’ – all sorts of summer activities and on the local radio on the way in we heard that “Hollywood were in town” filming a serial killer drama (to be called “Rabbit” apparently).

Moose Jaw’s biggest tourist pull is the Al Capone connection (it is believed he lived here when things in the US got too hot for him – plus it was the centre of a lot of bootlegging during US prohibition) and we did go along with this and take the tour of the town’s twisting cellar network (complete with mobsters and speakeasy characters acting us through it). It wasn’t the best tourist activity we’ve encountered in the trip (very rushed dialogue, plus the Capone connection is based on rumours rather than fact) but it was entertaining in its way. There was another tour (more fact-based) about how early Chinese immigrants had to live in the same tunnels to escape persecution but we didn’t take that one - figuring the harsh truths might be too much packed into small underground spaces… especially for the small one. Funny how the murdering mafia can end up being the fun option, isn’t it? Strange world.

We then left Moose Jaw (stopping at the giant moose on the edge of town for a photo opp., obviously) and drove on to Regina to spend the night there. Our photos of Saskatchewan up to Regina are here:

We got to Regina quite late in the day on 7th July and headed for the downtown area where we had booked a place to stay. It’s a small city, as capitals go, and we were at the downtown pretty quickly (via lots of streets with very Scottish names… again). We checked in and ended up in a restaurant called “La Casa Latina” run by folk from the Dominican Republic. There we talked to one of the friendliest waiters of the trip (and there have been many). This one was a young man of Chilean extraction and he told us all about Regina’s universities and different communities (many – people from all over the world) and all kinds of other stuff. It was a quiet night – he really may has well have just pulled up a chair and joined us – and h ended up watching TV in the back with kids of another member of staff. For an hour or so, we were quite at home (great food too).

Next day, Friday 8th July, we headed to Regina’s main tourist activity – the Mounties Museum (or Royal Canadian Mounted Police Heritage Centre, to give it its full name). It was pretty quiet there – it hardly felt like summer holidays at all – but then I guess a police museum isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time (indeed I’m not really sure it was ours but we persevered). The museum is next door to the RCMP’s main training facility and part of the day’s attractions is watching the current crop of trainees parade for their Sgt. Major. We trooped along with the rest of the visitors to watch this but there were not nearly enough horses on show (only 2 – and they didn’t move… I know they’re not really mounted police anymore but still… something for the tourists!). Plus the marching was not exactly of the highest calibre either (but then they were trainees and how important is marching really, in the role of the contemporary police officer?).

Back in the museum we watched a, to be honest, fairly cheesy film about the work of modern RCMP officers (part “CSI”, part “24” from what we could see) and looked around at the, much more interesting, historical displays. They were, as you might expect, pretty patriotic (hurray Canadians, boo Americans!) but as we can be neutral in this matter we didn’t mind. More importantly they had no café to speak of in the museum (just a vending machine full of junk…) so we drove back through Regina looking for lunch. Luckily, just as we were leaving we saw a little Italian deli and stopped there to meet another fantastic and friendly Regina character (so Italian, so OTT…) and to purchase, yes, I’m sure, the finest sandwiches in all of Saskatchewan. We ate on the road and headed east again – this time hitting huge rainstorms instead of sunshine.

We stopped for the night in another place with a great name, Moosomin, only to find, when we got there, that it was Rodeo Weekend. Many of the prairie towns and cities have some kind of rodeo in the summer (a bit like Highland Games for the Scots) and they range from the giant Calgary Stampede to little local events like Moosomin’s. The little town was all abuzz with activity and cattle and on the morning of the Saturday we caught the end of the parade (small) and headed down to the Rodeo Ground (at the back of the ice-rink) to see what was happening. Most of the activities were scheduled for later in the evening (and we were due elsewhere) but there were some horses out being exercised and we were promised kids stuff and “stock dogs” pretty soon so we hung about for a bit (in the sun once more). It was all a bit slow to get going but the locals were very friendly and told us all about the events (Rodeo Queen etc. – more about horseskills than swimsuits, I’m glad to report). The kids stuff was bouncy castles, games and a petting zoo and you might be able to guess by now which one of those h went for (“can I hold the rat, please..?” Ugh!). Then we sat and waited for the “stock dogs” (border collies herding cattle) but at this point it all got a bit “Vicar of Dibley” (“I’m sorry, we are still waiting for some more dogs to turn up…”) so we put ourselves back in the car and headed… east again. In a very short time we were out of Saskatchewan and into its neighbour Manitoba. The rest of our Saskatchewan photos are here:

We’re deep back into Ontario now and nearly back to our starting point over here. Still Manitoba and our last Ontario post to come… and then home again within two weeks.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Alberta part 2 – cities and dinosaurs

We’re just back into Ontario now but still getting through the backlog of posts. Here’s the rest of our adventures in Alberta.

Because we had driven from Banff up to Jasper (rather than the other way round) we came out of the Rockies near the more northern of Alberta’s two big cities – Edmonton. So, after a quiet, just-get-some-food-and-sleep night in a little place called Hinton, we did indeed make our way to the city with the big mall on Saturday 2nd July. Yes, one of Edmonton’s main claims-to-fame these days is that it has a great big mall/shopping centre (the West Edmonton Mall) and whilst we are not exactly professional shoppers we had been advised that it was a worth a look. So we looked.

We were expecting, I don’t know, miles and miles of mall – a whole city of mall perhaps – but in all honesty I think I’ve probably been in bigger shopping centres elsewhere (like in the UK). What the W.E.M. has that is more unusual, however, is all the extras on display – a giant wave/swimming pool, an ice rink, a sea lions show, a fairly huge ship (in the middle of the shopping area), a whole indoor fairground – and we did pass a couple of entertaining hours looking at all these attractions, watching skaters, going on rollercoasters and so on. We had a slice of pizza in the food court (‘Gourmet World…’), did a tiny bit of shopping and then moved on. It was very busy in there – a friendly atmosphere – but it was a sunny day outside and we were happy to get back out again. I can see why folks need something like the mall in Edmonton in the long winters… and I suppose they are pretty far from the water so the wave-pool must keep the kids happy year round too.

We had booked a night in downtown Edmonton but the hotel had other ideas and had moved us to a sister hotel a little further out of the centre. It was annoying at first but in the end not a problem as Edmonton’s downtown didn’t seem particularly inviting (a bit 1970s in places… not necessarily in a good way) and the place they moved us to was in the Strathcona/university area on Whyte (“the cool street” so we were advised by the lovely and supremely helpful receptionist in the new place). We were tired and hungry by the time we got into the hotel but even our sleepy eyes could see that it was a nice, hanging-out kind of an area and we ended up in a really welcoming Irish pub for dinner and Guinness (or water). It had live music and everything – very civilised.

The next day, Sunday 3rd July, we drove down the highway (the Queen Elizabeth II highway no less) to Alberta’s other big city, Calgary. The road was pretty busy with people heading back to the city after the holiday weekend but it’s not too mighty a journey and we stopped for lunch at Red Deer (pretty name, pretty much an endless plaza kind of a town). We’d booked a downtown hotel in Calgary (almost by accident) and so we ended up spending a very pleasant Sunday evening in a little no-frills Vietnamese restaurant on the edge of Calgary’s teeny Chinatown. We also took some photos of the downtown area and wandered about a little bit. The city was very much getting itself ready for the huge Stampede event that takes place every July… and of course there was another royal visit pencilled in too (not just ours)...

As well as the Rockies and the Stampedes and so on Alberta is also famous (or infamous, depending on your view) for the oil sands exploitation that is bringing wealth to the area. TV ad time in the province is liberally peppered with “yes, we’re really doing our best to keep it green” type public info films and so we were interested to visit something connected to the industry. Our guide book had information about an exhibition on the subject at the Energy Resources Conservation Board but the book’s a little out of date and the exhibition isn’t there anymore. We were told it had all been moved to the Science museum but that was closed for the summer (for renovations, we think). So, basically we didn’t see anything but the TV ads… but you can read about the sands all over the web (say here, the pros, or here, a balanced article).

On the Monday we headed down to one of Calgary’s attractions – Heritage Park on the south side of the city. It was a lovely sunny day (but not too baking) and we spent a very happy day exploring 19th (and early 20th) Century Alberta – the buildings, outfits and customs of the folk who arrived there from elsewhere and settled. It’s quite a big site, Heritage Park, but a manageable size and with lots of transport options for getting around (steam train etc.) and a section called Gasoline Alley about transport and fuel. A lot of the buildings are originals that were moved to the site and the whole place is quite fascinating and very smart and organised. We ate in a 19th century-style hotel at lunchtime (though pretty regular food), went on early 20th century fairground rides, learned all sorts about all the different people who came to Calgary around this time. As it was summer break there were a couple of groups of kids doing ‘summer camp’ Heritage style (i.e. all in costume, living in the Park as though it really were in the past) - it looked a lot of fun! Best of all for h (and the rest of us day visitors), there was an ongoing bit of professional street theatre during the afternoon with little sections of the play acted out in different locations around the site (all in costume etc.). The piece was well done so we followed it through all its 4 acts to the end and h’s retelling of the story is below:

While in Heritage Park in Calgary there was a street-play. The story was about two friends Wendy Wickham and Gertrude Grimshaw and also two men called Herman and Charlie who are friends as well. At the start of the story Charlie and Wendy met and instantly liked each other. Gertrude got a book about making boys like girls from a strange salesman. The book didn’t help when Wendy and Charlie wanted to speak to each other because it told her to pretend she had another boyfriend to make him jealous. They both left.

Herman wanted to help his friend Charlie, but he wasn’t much use at love. Herman decided to buy some love potion and get Charlie to spray it on Wendy. Herman bought the potion from the same salesman who sold the book to Gertrude. They went to the hall where Wendy and Gertrude were to try it out. Charlie was nervous about it and Gertrude came out first and got sprayed by accident. She fell instantly in love with Charlie (because she saw him first) and chased him down the street. Wendy came and was furious that Gertrude was so infatuated with Charlie. Gertrude didn’t care and insisted that she marry Charlie. The salesman, dressed as a reverend with dog collar and false beard, declared that he would marry the two (for a fee). Gertrude walked off, and declared the wedding would be later that afternoon.

Herman said to Charlie that he would get an antidote (some hate potion) and spray it on Gertrude, to put things right. When it was time for the wedding, Charlie was ready to spray Gertrude, but this time Wendy got in the way at the wrong time and Charlie sprayed her! Wendy now hated Gertrude, her friend, because she saw her first! They fought and argued. Gertrude still loved Charlie and wanted to marry him. The salesman, dressed as a reverend, tried to sort it out. He failed. Wendy and Charlie decided to meet at the grocery store in half an hour.

At the store everyone came out of the shop arguing. The salesman was looking like himself now. Charlie asked him to tell them which potion was which. The salesman did that. Herman accidentally sprayed himself and fell in love with Gertrude! Charlie explained the problem to the salesman. The salesman told Herman he would spray him back to normal. Herman protested, but the salesman sprayed him anyway. The group kept asking for the reverend and the salesman. The salesman had to keep switching costumes. One time the salesman came out as the reverend, but came out without his false beard. The group now knew something was up! Herman reminded them that the potions did work. The salesman admitted that he didn’t think that the potions would work and told them the disgusting ingredients. Charlie suddenly said that he would marry Gertrude if she wanted. Charlie leaned in to kiss Gertrude, but instead of a kiss Charlie sprayed Gertrude with the hate potion. She pushed him out of the way, now not interested in him any more. Herman and Gertrude took the salesman away to the Mounties. Wendy and Charlie went into the grocery store together. Wendy said that she didn’t have the boyfriend she mentioned earlier so they started to make friends. We followed the cast all around the Heritage Park. It was a bit confusing but it was very good.

We left Heritage Park when it closed at 5pm (having squeezed every bit of entertainment and education from the day…) and drove to a place just outside Calgary for our overnight stay (Strathmore – we pretty much just ate and slept there). Our photos of Edmonton and Calgary are below (Calgary starts at the red flags with the cowboys on – I missed getting a shot of the city sign…)

On Tuesday 5th July we made our way to one of Alberta’s other key draws – the Royal Tyrrell Museum (the centre of all things dinosaur). We passed through Drumheller (the museum is just outside there) and entered what they call the Alberta Badlands (amazing scenery – like lots of little Grand Canyons). We had been told to watch out for prairie dogs (gophers to some) and we didn’t have to wait long – one came visiting in the museum’s café patio when we were getting a quick bite in between science lessons. The museum was (to use a much used word in North America) awesome and we particularly enjoyed the areas that told all about the special discoveries that have been made in Alberta (lots of fossils – there is a whole genus Albertosaurus). As well as that though there was a whole ‘trip through the ages’ area (that took, well, ages to get through… h lasted longer than I did…) and a garden of things that grew back in the Cretaceous period (i.e. between 65.5 and 145.5 million years ago). Oh and there was a gift shop… of course.

We had a good long visit, a bake in the car park outside, a look at all the prairie dogs running wild around the car park (so cute!) and then a drive to our last stop of the trip in Alberta (Brooks – again just for food and sleep). The next day we drove out of Alberta (past a lot of cows – they get all that Alberta Beef from somewhere…) and into Saskatchewan. Our photos of Drumheller, the Royal Tyrrell Museum and our way out of the province are here:

Next time – Saskatchewan.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Alberta part 1 – the Rocky Mountains

Onto the Athabasca glacier

On Wednesday 29th June we crossed into Alberta and entered the Banff National Park. All around us were the Rocky Mountains and you might think ‘the Rockies’ a fairly unimaginative name for a mountain range until you see them and they really are very… rocky…. and dark and moody and quite different to any other mountains you’ve ever seen before. We took quite a lot of photos…

Then before we knew it the road had us at the famous blue-green Lake Louise and there we were taking photos of its prettiness too (us and crowds of other tourists…). It was a bit late in the day so we didn’t set out on one of the busy local hikes but there was still enough time for Mark and h to get in a canoe and paddle around the not-so-busy blue-green water a few times. The guide book was right – that’s a horrible great Disneyesque hotel they’ve put up alongside the beautiful lake – but at least the hotel organises the canoes very well.

From Lake Louise we drove very slightly south-east to Banff to stay the night. Some people had said that Banff was lovely and others that it was horrible and full of tourists but I would say it was more the former than the latter. We had a nice room at the edge of things with a view of a rocky mountain and whilst there were a lot of people around in the town it seemed to be accommodating the large numbers of incomers in as pleasant a way as possible. We slept.

On June 30th we drove the short distance to the Banff hot springs and took a dip in the hot waters with the mountains all around. Then we grabbed lunch in town and visited the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies where they had an exhibition about Women Adventurers in the Rockies (very interesting). After this we set off north on the 1 and then the 93 (the ‘Icefields Parkway’).

Early on the 93 we entered the Jasper National Park. Before long we stopped by Hector Lake and saw a (small) crowd staring in one direction. On the roads in the Rockies this can only mean one thing – wildlife – and in this case it was a grazing black bear just on the other side of the road. We stopped again by Bow Lake for a cup of something and a break and it was very beautiful and peaceful there (in between the coach tours… ). Then we drove through some very varied weather (even a touch of sleet up high) to our stop for the night. But first here are our photos of Alberta and the Rockies up to this point:

Our hotel for the night of the 30th June was right opposite the Athabasca Glacier (part of the Columbia Icefield). The hotel got bad reviews on Expedia and, perhaps because of this, it wasn’t hugely expensive but it was one of our very favourite overnight choices. We liked it mainly because once the day-tourists had moved off there was really just us and the glacier left up there and it was so still and unusual – like another world. We had a lovely room with a separate little loft bit for h and a stunning view of the glacier. The staff were really friendly too (the staff for the Icefield Centre, hotel and Icefield Experience trips all stay very nearby but not actually in the centre). The food wasn’t cheap (one of the bad reviews main grievances) but it was good and brought to us by a very friendly young man from Indonesia who knew an awful lot about Leeds United’s mid-to-late ‘90s soccer team. Plus we shared two meals between three of us so it worked out OK.

It snowed a little during the night (and it was pretty cold out there) but we woke on July 1st (Canada Day) to the sight of a bright blue sky and a dazzling glacier. Sadly there were not grizzly bears to be seen outside (apparently one was seen a couple of weeks back but this was unusual up there) but apart from that it was perfect. Before the crowds and coach tours arrived we bought our tickets for the Icefield Experience and got on the 10.15 bus over to the ice and to the special red purpose-built vehicles that drive you onto the glacier itself. Our guide for the ice journey was yet another Australian (Whistler, Banff… all full of them!) and very good he was too (as a driver and a tour guide). None of us three had ever seen (or stood on) a glacier before so it was a first for all of us. It was fascinating, exciting and, in the dazzling morning light, really very beautiful.

After this we looked at the information displays in the Icefield Centre and then drove on up the 93 towards Jasper (seeing mountain goats, sheep and another black bear or two on the way). We stopped at the Athabasca Falls (impressive but, on a National holiday, pretty busy) and then drove on towards Jasper (a small place with a lot of people going through it). We’d missed their Canada Day parade but there were still a lot of flags waving and we did visit their Canada Day activities event a few streets behind the main drag (face-painting, games, music, food etc.). It was all pretty low-key but easy-going and laid-back. Then we got back in the car and pretty soon left the Rockies behind… which was weird (one minute so rocky, next minute so flat…). Our photos of the rest of our short Rockies visit are here:

Next time Alberta’s big cities – Edmonton and Calgary.