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 Heather (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:

Last days

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:

ontario north to south 1

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:

Ontario north to south part 2

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:

Ontario north to south - part 3

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):

Ontario north to south - part 4

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:

Manitoba - part 1

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:

Manitoba - part 2

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:

Saskatchewan part 1

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:

Saskatchewan part 2

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…)

Edmonton & Calgary

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:

The Badlands and Drumheller
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:

Canadian rockies part 1

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:

Canadian rockies part 2

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

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Beautiful British Columbia - part 4 (Chinese Garden and leaving B.C.)

Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, Vancouver

And here is a very quick last post about our time in British Columbia (we're in Regina, Saskatchewan already - we're getting too behind ourselves now!).

On Saturday 25th June we headed into Vancouver city with relatives to visit the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. It was something I really wanted to see and it was very beautiful, tranquil... exquisite really (their site is here). Then on the Sunday, our last day with the Vancouver branch of the family, we spent some time with some of them on one of the city's beaches (Second Beach). And then it was time to say good-bye... and thank-you for all the hospitality that had been shown to us by the family over this way. It was as good a place as any to say good-bye to the Pacific Ocean too (for now anyway). It was hard to believe it had been about a month since we first saw the Pacific this trip (back in Venice Beach, California). Our photos from our last Vancouver weekend are here:

Chinese Garden plus

Then on Monday 27th June we set off along Highway 1 (east). Luckily we were 48 hours ahead of the mudslide that hit the same stretch of highway (near Hope, B.C.) on the Wednesday! We stayed the night with more B.C. relatives in Kelowna (a short but very sweet visit - especially for h who made a new friend). Kelowna is alongside (and in fact all around) the huge Lake Okanagan (a lake, like Loch Ness, that is so huge it has a monster - the Ogopogo). Then on Tuesday 28th we drove north past many more lakes and then east back onto highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) until we got to near Revelstoke. There we stayed the night in a lovely lodge kind of a place with beautiful mountain views and total peace and quiet. Then on the Thursday we drove east and east again until we hit the Rockies and, finally, the next province, Alberta.

Our last photos of British Columbia are here:

Leaving BC

So, 20 days in British Columbia and 4 blog posts... Next time - the Rockies.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Beautiful British Columbia – part 3 (Vancouver Island and more from the young one…)

Orca, near Mayne Island

Orca (killer whale), near Mayne Island, off Vancouver Island

In real time we leave Alberta tomorrow for Saskatchewan but in blog time we’re still chasing whales on Vancouver Island… like this...

Monday 20th June we took the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Firstly we met up with someone I knew from blogging and writing – Sandra Leigh (her blog is here). We had a lovely lunch with Sandra, felt we had known her for years after about 30 minutes and then she showed us some of the local sites (particularly Pipers Lagoon). We then went on to our place for the night – Parksville (a little further north) – where we enjoyed some dramatic views over the water (the Strait of Georgia) at night.

The next day (21st June) we played mini-golf (well, we are on holiday…), spotted bald eagles, met up with Sandra again, said good-bye to her again and then set off south towards Victoria. On the way we stopped at Chemainus – a town filled with striking murals (please find many photos below…). We got to Victoria pretty much at bedtime and watched the solstice sun set over the Odeon cinema over the road. Our photos from Nanaimo, Parksville, Chemainus and heading south are here:

Vancouver Island part 1

On 22nd June we woke up in Victoria on a smashing sunny day. We booked a place on one of the many whale-watching tours available locally and headed down to the harbour to get aboard. And now here is our youngest correspondent with the rest of that day’s old news:

So, on Wednesday 22nd June, we went off to the Prince of Whales whale watching company. Mum, Dad and I got dressed up in big red suits and hats and gloves. We’d been told we’d get wet, but we didn’t know about the suits. When we were getting onto the boat, the Zodiac driver was telling us the water would be rough. He also asked if I was ok with that. We said yes. Well, it was certainly very rough!

The trip started off slowly and we were in the back of the boat. The water was calm in the harbour. I didn’t know if it would get that much bumpier, but it did. When we left the harbour the waves were huge and it was like being in a rollercoaster (and a lot of fun!). We saw harbour seals lying on some rocks.

The Zodiac drivers of other boats told our driver they’d seen a pod of whales, but they were a long way away. There were some bumps, but not many, on the way to the place they had been spotted. It got cooler, so we were glad of our suits. Eventually, after a long boat trip we arrived to see a ton of boats there too. After not too long, the whales (orcas or killer whales) were sticking their heads out. There were loads of them. The driver was very proud and showed us all pictures of the three pods of whales that live in these waters all year. The whales weren’t at all shy, showing themselves a lot. We stayed a long time, ate some crunchy bars, watched some whales through binoculars.

For most of the trip back it was quite smooth. We saw the seals again and then near the harbour the waves got much bumpier again (even bumpier than before!). We were all holding onto each other. Hats, gloves, we wore them all. We talked about the waves, though we didn’t let go of each other much. After a long bumpy bit, it seemed, it was eventually calm again.

We saw lots of different kinds of boats back in the harbour: Taxi-boats, Tour-boats, big boats, small boats. When we got off, we were really hot in our suits. Once the suits were off we got lunch and went shopping. We also went to the cinema. Dad saw “X-Men – First Class”. Mum and I saw “Mr Popper’s Penguins”. It was very funny. We also got popcorn and afterwards ate what should have been Chinese, but was Indian. It tasted good.

And that’s goodnight from her…

On Thursday 23rd June we went to the Royal B.C. Museum and watched an IMAX film about orang-utans and elephants (excellent) and looked at all the exhibits on show (mainly the top floor – history of BC). Then we made our way to the ferry at Swartz Bay and back to the mainland… pretty much in time for bed.

Our Victoria, whale-watching and leaving the island photos are here:

Vancouver Island part 2

We absolutely loved what we saw of Vancouver Island (there is lots, lots more that we didn't see – the west coast for a start). Friendly locals too. Great place.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Beautiful British Columbia – part two (Whistler, bears and h’s first blog words)

On Thursday 16th June we set off for a short trip north from Vancouver to Whistler. Whistler is mainly a skiing resort (and this being June the skiing was pretty much finished) but we went because everyone said it was worth a visit whatever the weather and also because there was a strong chance of seeing bears there. There are black bears all around the Vancouver area (the North Vancouver newspapers are full of ‘there’s a bear in my back yard’ stories) but you don’t often see them just hanging around and we were keen to try and catch sight of them.

So, off we drove following the 1 to join highway 99 (the ‘Sea to Sky Highway’). The 99 takes you past Horseshoe Bay and then along the Squamish river inland and it is, on a sunny day, an absolutely beautiful route (luckily we caught a nice day). There are striking mountain backdrops, pretty places to stop (like Shannon Falls) and great water views. Apparently the road was much upgraded for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and it isn’t too far to Whistler so we got there mid afternoon, checked in and went for a little look around.

Whistler is mainly a very new, purpose-built ski resort with heaps of hotels, restaurants, sportswear shops and so on. It’s all clean and largely staffed by young Australians. With the skiing season over the activities on offer were more along the lines of mountain biking, hiking and general tourism and, with only one day there (and a girl whose least favourite sport is cycling) we took the latter option for the most part. We nosed about, swam in the outdoor pool (view of the mountains – lovely!) and took in the atmosphere.

Then on the morning of Friday 17th June (sadly a somewhat cloudier day) Mark and h went off to enjoy Whistler’s main tourist attraction – the cable cars that take folks up to the top of Whistler Mountain (and past wild bears if they’re lucky). Also, if they’re really keen, they can go over to the nearby peak of Blackcomb Mountain too (on the Peak to Peak section of the ride). As I’d already done one cable car ride back in California (and being up in a metal box hanging from a string is not really my idea of a good time) I let them do this alone and went and got on with something else (the Washington State blog post, I think it was). Here is our youngest team member with her account of the Peak to Peak and what they saw:

So, on Friday 17th June, Dad and I went up Whistler Mountain in a gondola (that’s what they call cable cars here). It was very cold and snowy at the top of the mountain. I spotted a marmot and a chipmunk. We took a quick look around, but we were cold, so we got on a Peak to Peak Gondola to Blackcomb Mountain. We didn’t see much as it was extremely misty, but it was still fun. There were no animal spottings on the first Peak to Peak. At the top of Blackcomb a food place was opening. They were playing music. We couldn’t see it very well because of the mist. We got on a Peak to Peak gondola to take us back to Whistler from Blackcomb. It was very misty, as you can probably tell from the photos. We were starting to worry we wouldn’t see a bear. We didn’t hang around at the top of Whistler for very long. We got on yet another gondola to take us back down. It was less misty this time. We were quite upset at not seeing a bear. When we were near the bottom, I spotted a deer. Just when we were pretty much at the bottom, Dad spotted a mama and baby black bear. There were lots of people cycling around, so they were tough bears, obviously, and not scared by people.

So, success all round and after lunch we set off back down highway 99 to our hosts in North Vancouver – stopping at the various information points on the way, seeing more black bears in a field as we went and then finally calling in for tea and cake in a very British shop in Lions Bay (there are loads of British people all around the area). The photos from our Whistler expedition are here:

Whistler mountain and area

On Saturday 18th June we went to visit one of Vancouver’s major museums – the Museum of Anthropology (out in the University campus on the other side of the city). It’s a beautiful place in an equally beautiful setting and it’s packed full of First Nation totem poles and other wooden pieces (some old, some new). A lot of the collection comes from what was called Queen Charlotte Islands (but is now back to its former name Haida Gwaii) but there are other items from all around the world plus a huge ceramics section as well. We wandered a bit, ate sandwiches outside and then took one of the hour-long free tours (and though it wasn’t aimed at kids at all it kept h’s attention… which shows how well done it was). A lot of the collection was very striking so we (i.e. Mark) took heaps of photos. Here is our Museum of Anthropology day out (plus some Vancouver shots on the way back to base):

Museum of Anthropology and area

We spent the rest of that weekend doing family stuff (well, it was Father’s Day too) and then on Monday 20th June we set off for a few days in Vancouver Island. We took so many photos in V.Island (it was brilliant – we could have stayed for months!) that, although we wanted to add them this time, in fact they will have to have a post all of their own (we could do a post just of whale photos…). So Vancouver Island will be the next post…

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Beautiful British Columbia* – part one

Stanley Park, Vancouver

*In North America every province/state has a slogan of sorts and this is the B.C. one. And you might think it smacks of pride to the point of smugness… until you see the sign at the U.S./Canadian border we crossed where B.C. is declared “the best place on earth”…

So, finally we get back to a Canadian blog entry. We left the U.S.A. on 9th June and drove quietly into British Columbia. Mark had been to this province once before (when he was 19…) but for h and I it was all new territory. I had always heard about Vancouver in awed tones (a beautiful city, more than a hint of promised land) so I was interested to get to know it and its province and see what all the fuss was about.

First though we needed a rest – mainly because this was our first long stop in a place since New Jersey back in April. So once we got to Mark’s aunt and uncle’s place (in North Vancouver) we sat down and took a mighty load off (for the rest of the 9th June… and most of the 10th). These are very hospitable relatives, mind, so we were wined and dined (and well and truly spoilt) so all the sitting down was not wasted. H was relieved to finally get a room of her own again, I think, and did a lot of reading and internet surfing and such like. Auntie Juanita taught her a mean card trick later in the stay too!

By Saturday 11th June, however, it was time to get back on the tourist trail so we got ourselves into downtown Vancouver (via the magnificent Seabus that crosses the water between North Vancouver and its southern cousin). There we saw for ourselves the (ice) hockey fever that had a hold of the city thanks to the Stanley Cup. Ice-hockey is Canada’s national sport pretty much and Vancouver’s team, the Canucks, was several matches into a play-off set of finals against the Boston Bruins. We also saw an electric car fair down near the Science Centre, a lot of people on bikes and skates as well as the annual Dragonboats races out on False Creek (take a look at the map – Vancouver is surrounded by many different bodies of water). Mark saw straightaway that the city he remembered had grown somewhat (condos, condos, convention centres, giant hotels… a lot of work done for the Winter Olympics in 2010). And it looks like it’s still growing… plenty of cranes on the skyline.

After our first Vancouver city day we took more of the fine local public transport (including the Skytrain – a metro up high) back to North Van (as it’s called locally). There we met a batch of cousins (old and new) back at base for a lovely evening’s dinner and a movie. Our first set of Vancouver (and around) photos are here:

Arrival in B.C.

Sunday 12th June some of the cousins took us for a walk/hike to one of the many local areas of beauty (Seymour Valley). We wandered through trees and rocks, paddled in the icy river water and fought our way over the Lynn Canyon suspension bridge (there are several swinging bridges in the area including the rather more famous Capilano one). Then, after much playing for the younger members, it was off to the very pretty nearby Deep Cove for a Japanese meal (delicious – and not something we ever eat at home). Here on the Pacific coast, of course, Japanese food (along with most other Asian foods) is pretty much everyday fodder so it really was time we tried some more of it!

Monday 13th was the day of the penultimate hockey game (7 matches for one final, I ask you, talk about dragging it out…) so we did local stuff and got ready to watch (in the house – not out on the city streets). It was not a victorious night for Vancouver though so it was onto the last match on Wednesday (flags and towels at the ready…).

On Tuesday 14th June we went into Vancouver city again and enjoyed a day of much walking about (good job h likes walking too!). We’d done enough city bus tours by this point so though we took a few pictures of tourist buses we didn’t climb aboard any this time. Instead we walked along the Waterfront and Coal Harbour areas – looking at boats and seaplanes and houseboats and public art. Then we wandered into Stanley Park, visited the magnificent totem poles, wandered some more and then took a regular bus (driven by the most helpful driver – he waited for passengers!) back into the downtown area. There we perused the hugely expensive central art gallery (wacky old surrealism exhibition, interesting new work by a guy called Ken Lum), had a cup of tea and waited for a guide.

We met Andy Coupland in New Mexico (over breakfast, as it happens – he was on holiday and staying in the same hotel as us back in Taos). As we chatted over the Marmite back there he had mentioned that he did Architecture and Walking Tours of Vancouver and might we be interested (link to Andy’s tours and book here). We were interested so we got in touch once in the area and arranged to meet up. Andy (originally from England) showed us central Vancouver pretty much building by building (and gave us a great, descriptive history of the city’s early days when we were in ‘historic’ Gastown). We would highly recommend this way to see the city. A late night though for h – what with the meal out and the Seabus back. Good job all we had to do on Wednesday was go out to lovely Deep Cove again and then watch the (final) hockey final on TV…

You probably saw what happened during (and mostly after) the hockey final on the TV news (wherever you are) so I won’t go on about it here. It was a shame though after so much excitement and pride in the city to end up with a load of smashing windows and nicking stuff (nothing political about this demo from what we could see – just good old-fashioned breaking things). Of course anyone of English extraction is used to being associated with sports and bad behaviour (it’s not so long since we were the “shame of Europe” on a regular basis) but it is the kind of thing that gets sport a bad name (and of course the hockey players being so violent on the ice probably doesn’t help in that area…). In Vancouver hearts seemed particularly broken because the city prides itself so much on its positives (being greener in every sense as well as being prettier, friendlier, more integrated, more easy-going than other places) and the window-smashing certainly tarnishes that view temporarily. In all honesty I would say it is a city like all others (many good points, but its share of problems too... like one of the original Skid Rows... still keeping to its original character, from what we could see). Plus we all have our off days… even the best of us. It should be added though that many Vancouver locals were out the next day cleaning up the streets and keen to show the world that this was not all their city was about - not at all.

Our next set of Vancouver (and surrounding area) photos are here:

More Vancouver and surrounds

Next time Whistler (bears!) and Vancouver Island (eagles! whales!).

Thursday, 23 June 2011

U.S.A Observations

Photo above from roadside in Delaware.

So, we’ve been back in Canada for a couple of weeks now. We’ve been visiting with family and sightseeing in Vancouver and are currently holed up on Vancouver Island (it’s lovely!). Whilst the last post was our ‘last U.S. state’ post we thought we would finish the U.S. section of this trip (we were there for 3 whole months!) with a few observations on the state of the union, as it were.

We had a ball in the U.S.A. overall. Mark had been to a couple of states before but h and I had never set foot in the place and we only had movie and TV tips (and lots of British jokes about Americans) to go on. In fact it was not really what I expected from all of those… it wasn’t glossy or too loud or too noisy and no-one got shot. It was, instead, friendly, quite laid-back in many ways and more old-fashioned than I expected (the trains in Boston for a start – they made U.K. trains look like something out of “The Fifth Element”). I have to admit I liked the country in general much more than I expected to… I liked the size, the space, the food (especially in Louisiana!) and most of all, I think, I liked the variety (of countryside and accents and faces and… everything really). Britain, for all its good points (and h keeps reminding us of them all!), can feel claustrophobic at times and I can see why people like these big countries with their long, spacious roads and their endless places to hide (deserts, swamps, forests… they have it all!).

And the rest of the observations below are more specific and a bit of a mixed bag (and don’t take them all too seriously…):

The post
I remember ages ago reading snidey U.S. satirical right-winger P.J. O’Rourke on how terrible it is to have everything run by the government (because then everything is as badly organised and slow as the Post Office was his argument). Well, I’d have to say that if everything in life was as well run as the U.S. post office then the world would be a very happy place. As we travelled through the States (26 of them) we visited lots of post offices (in tiny places and in huge cities) and I was totally impressed by the reach of their post office, by all the local offices, by how smart and clean they were. In the UK we close more and more of our local post offices (making bigger and bigger queues in the ones that are left!) so it was nice to see so many P.O.s all over the place. Plus U.S. postal workers do things like collect mail that you want to send right from your house (imagine that! I couldn’t believe it). They’ll also just take letters from random strangers in the street and add them to the ‘to go’ bag. Amazing service!

British people never tire of laughing about how fat ‘Americans’ are but I’d have to say that overall we saw fewer obese bodies in the U.S.A. than we see at home. From what we saw a lot of the U.S. population is exercise-crazy (so many joggers!) and whilst we did see the big portions of food we also saw a lot of people taking some home to finish later. British people laugh no more – that distraction theory is not working…

On average I’d say U.S. drivers are better than U.K. ones (and better than Canadians too… ). US drivers keep to the speed limits most of the time and, most importantly, they keep their distance from other vehicles really well (of course they do have more distance to go round than us…). OK we didn’t travel in much rush hour traffic (and rush hours everywhere are crazy) but we did drive for miles and miles and miles and we didn’t get exasperated with some of the bad driving the way we do at home (though we were amazed by the number of pick-up trucks…). However we were also amazed that the driving is better because (a) everyone is on the phone ALL the time in the car (maybe that’s why they drive a bit more slowly – so they don’t drop the phone) and (b) indicator lights (turn signals, they call ‘em) are so rarely used that you wonder if most U.S. drivers know they exist.
p.s. Worst U.S. roads (in terms of condition, potholes etc.)– Michigan and California. Best roads…. maybe Ohio… and Oregon (of the ones we saw).

Extreme weather and disasters
It’s mad - no wonder they have more weather reports than you could possibly imagine. Tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, giant hailstones… I don’t know how they sleep at night. Maybe that’s why all the ads on TV are for pharmaceuticals (and they are) and there are more drugstores in one state than in the rest of Europe put together (OK, maybe I exaggerate just a little…).

There is a slight obsession with hygiene in the U.S. For example everything seems to come in a plastic wrapper (do individual plastic forks and knives really need an individual plastic wrapper each?). And that hand sanitiser stuff – it’s everywhere (not just in movies…).

Crazy Christians
We’d watched many a TV show that mocked some of the U.S. extreme (=stoopid) Christians (the title here is a quote from the TV show “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) but nothing had prepared us for the high level nonsense of Crazy Christian radio, DVDs of real, actual prophesies and so on. The whole business is funny on one level but on others it’s absolutely terrifying. I can’t help thinking Jesus would be scared (very, very scared) in some parts of, say, Tennessee where there seems to be nothing but houses and churches. C’mon guys, he’d say, let’s have a library or a bar or something at least. There is more than just that one book, you know…

Because of the voltage level in the U.S. simple household appliances work very, very slowly. I’ve never waited so long for a piece of toast before!

Sometimes there are so many ads on U.S. TV that you forget what programme you’re watching (and then the one time they don’t put any ads on is between separate shows… so you don’t get time to switch off before being hooked in to another show/episode). Also the female TV presenters (especially on breakfast TV) wear even more make-up than their counterparts in the U.K. (and that takes some beating). Finally they really should get their own U.S. royal family for the TV stations (or they can have ours). Please. The sucking up to the royals on show around the time of that wedding was just embarrassing.

British people are not brought up to tip (well, in restaurants maybe – but not all over the place). In fact mostly tipping makes us uncomfortable (“can’t you just be paid properly, don’t you have a union… it would be so much easier for everyone?”). We have done the tipping thing while we’re away (though we noticed some Americans did not – for tour guides and so on) but it feels weird.

People in the U.S. get hardly any holidays from work at all from what we understand (no wonder they used to go in for those whistle-stop tours of Europe - who has time for more than 5 hours in Paris when you only get a handful of days off a century?). When we said how long we were away to Brits or Canadians most of them know someone who’s done such a trip or are thinking about one themselves. When we mentioned it to most Americans they looked stunned (how would a person be off work that long?). From what we hear they get stinking maternity time too. So much for the free world…

Sure there’s a lot of big houses and giant cars (hummers - who needs a car that big!) but you can feel poverty striped right through the country too. A lot of old cars, a lot of pawn shops, a lot of areas “no-one” wants to go to (though some of that is just old racism burning on…). But none of this is news really.

Road signs
There is something truly magnificent about the confidence you see on many U.S. roadside ad hoardings (everything is the “best burger in the world”, the “happiest place on earth”, the “tallest tree ever” etc.). Nothing is EVER undersold, underhyped or underplayed. I kind of liked it. If nothing else some of the signs were just very, very funny.

Credit cards
If you listen to U.S. TV and radio you hear a lot of come-on-now-people-panic ads about I-D theft (mostly encouraging you to buy something to protect yourself). However if they do have an ID theft problem then I’m afraid the folks down there only have themselves to blame because security measures are very poor. For example every café/restaurant we went to in the U.S. expected us to hand over the plastic (debit/credit whichever) whereupon they took it off into the back (we never do this in the UK anymore), brought back a receipt to be signed and then proceeded to never once check that the signature matched the one on the card. You can sign Mickey Mouse, Barack Obama… no-one ever checks it. We were pleased to get back to Canada where (like at home) they bring the card machine to the table and don’t just disappear with your card!

We expected to meet a lot of right-wing nutters in the U.S.A. but in fact we only met one (a Californian… in Utah). He told us that Obama had cancelled all the U.S. space programs because he only wanted moslems in space. Anyone know anything about this? And are they there yet?

They say that one day Spanish will be the first language in the U.S.A (don’t they..?). Well, in many places the change has already happened (and in others the Chinese are making good ground). It’ll be interesting to see how the linguistic change pans out… (anyone taking bets for the first State of the Union in Spanish now..?). No language ever rules forever!

I’d read a lot about U.S. downtowns and their demise (thanks to the surburban malls and plazas) and it’s true that many what we would call small towns really have no downtown at all these days. Many cities (big and small) though are reversing the trend and filling their centres with life and culture and activity again. Someone somewhere has realised that places without centres are just that… a bit empty and lost (though of course you can always find a drugstore when you want one…).

I’m sure there’s lots more we could say about the U.S.A…. but for now this much will have to do as we have big old Canada to get back to. We leave the Vancouver area in a few days and start to work our way east (just a few miles then… though of course it’s kilometres again now). But if in trouble we can always remember this sign that made us both laugh back in Ohio:

Has anyone already done a book of amusing U.S. road signs? If not I may have to think about that…

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Washington – the last state (for us)

(above) Seattle

On Monday 6th June we left Oregon at about midday and entered our last U.S. state of this trip (Washington). This was our 26th state (not counting the other Washington – D.C. – because it’s only a district). Some total in 3 months!

We drove up Interstate 5 a little while – noticing straightaway that this state seemed a little less affluent than the last one (well, from what you can see from a highway anyway) and then we turned off east to take a little look at Mount St. Helens (the volcano that last erupted in only 1980). The scenery was dramatic (as you might expect) – snow-capped peaks, wide river valleys, lots of forest (some planted since the eruption – lots of information on that along the route). We were heading for the Forest Learning Center (the best of the crop of visitor centres so we read… and not too far out of our way as really we were heading north to Seattle for the night). Unfortunately it turned out that our information (for once) was not reliable and this visitor centre was still only open at weekends. It was a bit of a disappointment but the lady in the gift shop (yes, that was open – aren’t they always…) was delightful and thrust upon us many pamphlets and bits and pieces to make up for this blip in the itinerary. And then we went and just looked at the views… and did our best to imagine what this oh so peaceful scenery would look like in the middle of a volcanic eruption.

On our way back down the highway (most of it built specially since the eruption – the old road had been destroyed) we stopped for lunch in a friendly place with lovely riverside views and elk burgers on the menu. They hunted the elk themselves so I’m not sure you can get more local meat than that (sorry veggies). Mark ate the elk (after a slow start he is perhaps the most daring eater out of the three of us) and he said it was very tasty, not as heavy as beef. I didn’t try it (I’ve had venison several times in Scotland and always find it overrated – Mark says it was better than venison) and h, still not ready to eat Bambi or anything even remotely along those lines, had yet another grilled cheese (cheese toastie to those at home). Our entering Washington and close-to-Mount St. Helens photos are here:

Washington & Mnt St Helens

Then we left the countryside and headed north to Seattle. It’s not very far and we got there just before rush hour (just as well as their rush hour is pretty huge from what we saw later). We’d booked a place just out of the main downtown area alongside Lake Union (very pretty, lots of sailing boats) but partly because it was just a really good deal (free breakfast, free parking, free shuttle to downtown… all good for a city place). After a short settle-in however we went out into what was a lovely sunny evening and found the centre of downtown – Pike Place Market. There we soaked up some atmosphere (it seems a lively, watery, very good-humoured city) and got a great fishy dinner in the restaurant that’s right at the market. As we got back to our hotel the sun was setting over the various lakes and coasts that surround this city (cruise ships aplenty docked all around – many heading to Alaska, some to Canada) – it was really very attractive. If we stuck our head out of our hotel window we could even see the famous Space Needle landmark lit up for the night. Though none of the series was ever filmed in the city and there is absolutely zero Frasier-related tourism available we still felt we were close to the great man. Goodnight Seattle indeed.

On the 7th June we took the free shuttle along to the Seattle Centre (museums, the Space Needle, convention centres etc.). Mark headed straight to the “Battlestar Galactica” exhibition at the EMP/SFM (Experience Music Project & Science Fiction Museum – huge place aimed fiercely at the teens and evergreens). Meanwhile I took h to the Children’s Museum nearby. It was a small corner of the giant centre (and tiny and creaky compared to the fantastic Play Museum we visited back in Rochester, NY) but it was friendly and gentle and not too busy and she still enjoyed it very much. We learned quite a lot about life in Japan and the Philippines (all things Pacific feature heavily in Seattle) and h had fun playing in a kids’ theatre in one part of the museum with some of the other little visitors. They put on a quick production and she did a very convincing dying dog.

After that we joined Mark in the EMP for a soupy lunch and then a long look at the Nirvana (and all things even remotely related to Seattle, grunge and the local music scene) exhibit. There was also an “Avatar” section to the museum, a Jimi Hendrix section (he was born in Seattle), a giant movie screen showing all sorts of clips and then a really fun area where you could try your hand at guitars and electronic drums and recording in a studio and so on. We were in EMP pretty much till it closed at 5pm – lots to do and see. Noisy too.

From the Seattle Centre we took the monorail (transport of the future – very quick, pretty high, good views) into the centre of downtown and did a bit more wandering. We spent the last of our Starbucks card (thanks Jeanne Iris!) in their first ever store down by the market and then walked along the waterfront (cruise ships, hotels, a not very pretty stretch but still dramatic in its way). We looked at the Olympic Sculpture Park (mixed feelings – nothing very wow), got a not very special pasta meal and then went back to the hotel. We had not seen all of Seattle downtown by far (we didn’t get to the Pioneer Square area – sorry, Seattle) but this was our umpteenth US major city and I guess our tourist energy levels were running on reserve. Even so we had seen enough to know that we liked the city quite a lot – lots to do, effortlessly cool – and that was even taking into account the roads which were pretty bad (busy, mainly tied up in hefty roadworks). There were lots and lots of English people around (some on holiday, some residents) and we could definitely see the attraction. Our Seattle photos are here:


The visa clock was ticking louder now so on the morning of 8th June we set off north for our last night in the USA. We had thought we might drive by Microsoft for Mark (as we did by Apple and Google in California) but it is slightly east of where we were heading (in Redmond) and we just weren’t in the mood. Instead we headed straight up the (very busy) 5 and north. We stopped for lunch in little Mount Vernon (just a regular little town – nothing touristy) and had our last all-American lunch in an all-American kinda place (the sign said “Bill’s Diner – awesome food, friendly atmosphere” and it was right on both counts). It was quiet and late (on this trip we always seem to eat both breakfast and lunch some time later than our industrious US cousins…) and we chatted with yet another pretty, smiling waitress. It all reminded me of a Charles Bukowski poem I posted at my other blog just before we came away (it’s the second youtube poem “Nirvana” on here). Maybe we could just stay in this diner forever, I pondered… drinking coffee, eating French fries…

Well, no. We couldn’t. And I’m glad we didn’t because in fact we got back in the car and carried on north, stopped at Fairhaven (“historic Fairhaven” – part of the small city of Bellingham) and had a most splendid afternoon. The sun was shining and we found a haven (good name!) of great bookshops, lovely cafés (we were too full of diner of course to try these but they looked great), a farmers’ market (with music) and the friendliest, funniest people all around. Mark needed a haircut, for example, so we entered the local barbershop and there met Diane (and her dogs). I think we were in Diane’s place about 2 hours (and he doesn’t have that much hair!) but it was great fun – many stories, chatting locals, tales of Fairhaven’s nightlife and beyond. Many times on the trip we’ve asked ourselves “I wonder what it would be like to live here?” and I should think Fairhaven (and Bellingham) are as good as it gets. The city seemed packed with local businesses doing good things (a veggie drive-thru, co-ops all over the place) and they have the ocean and the greenery and possibly the relief of living in a forgotten little corner of a big country where you can kind of get on and just do your own thing. One of the locals said to me “people in the North West don’t realise how good they have it”. Maybe so. Maybe so. Our Bellingham/Fairhaven photos are here:

Bellingham and upstate Washington

After the time in Fairhaven we drove through Bellingham to our hotel on the north-eastern side of the small city (I think we would probably call it a town). We had our last US dinner in a nearby diner-type-place (pie mainly – gotta go out on a pie) and then we just went and slept. The next morning after breakfast we got ready for another slow border crossing (back into Canada) but it was not to be. As it was we were at the border within about 15 minutes and straight over and out of Washington before we could so much as say "see ya later”. It was weird after all this time (3 whole months) to just leave the state and the country so quickly and quietly like that. After so many adventures (the tornadoes! The deserts! The city after city!) I felt like there should be, at the very least, a large crowd to wave us off or something. But no…. no such drama. Just a Canadian border sign (once more with the bilingual signs…), a quick look at the passports and a there you are, back north once more. Bonjour Canada, au revoir Les États-Unis. It felt weird.

We’ll be back shortly with a “thoughts on the USA” post… and then, eventually, with our adventures in British Columbia (just don’t mention the ice hockey…). Phew.