Alaska and Canada Pt 10: Banff Springs Hotel and a Helicopter Flight

The town of Banff is named after Banffshire in Scotland and the influence is easy to see. Our hotel, the Banff Springs, looks like a cross between Hogwarts and a country club.

Although you don’t find Ferrari’s parked outside Hogwarts.

Banff itself is about 1km away and look like a movie set for an alpine village – a little too clean and perfect to be real. The whole town is ringed by mountains and I can only imagine that it would look like a fairytale in winter. We had two nights here, with a helicopter ride over Canmore in the middle.

The hotel is a sprawling pile of stone with tartan carpets and leather couches. Lots of expensive boutiques and and a range of restaurants.

On our first night I met Mum in a small wine bar in the hotel and she had been watching the chef behind the bar make charcuterie plates, one of which involved smoking tuna tartare under a glass dome. Very fancy! Also, here is my first video addition – I hope it works.

We didn’t stay up too late though, because in the morning we had an item to cross off our bucket lists – the helicopter flight!

The thing about heights is, I never know if I’m going to be terrified or thrilled. I love hot air balloons, hate ladders, love boats in rough seas, hate high balconies. I didn’t know how I was going to go on the helicopter but if it was awful I could always close my eyes.

We drove to Canmore and had a safety briefing (essentially, try not to annoy your pilot by screaming if you go down) then were asked if any couples minded splitting up as the helicopters took five people in each. As an incentive it also meant sitting in the front so I volunteered Mum and I straight away. She was happy to do it too, of course.

We waited for a bit watching the helicopters come and go then jumped in and put our headsets and seat belts on. There is something innately exciting about wearing a headset, I wish I had an opportunity to do it more often – imagine going through life being able to just listen to specific people and block out everything else!

I don’t really have the words to describe the flight, but of course I have the pictures. I didn’t feel too anxious, just felt my stomach drop when we went over the top of ridges. I wish we’d been able to go for longer!

Next: I make Mum walk ten miles (actually one kilometre but you wouldn’t know it from her complaining) and we have a nice dinner. Thrilling!

Canada and Alaska Pt 9: Icefields Parkway and a Glacier Experience

Unlike everything else we’ve done here, I’d not hear a peep about the Icefields Parkway, which made it one of the best surprises of the trip so far.

Apologies for the poor photo quality – almost all these pictures were taken out through a bus window while going at high speeds. The subject matter hardly suffered though! The parkway trip takes a few hours and the views are spectacular the whole way. So spectacular, in fact, that I regret all previous uses of the word ‘spectacular’ and wished I’d saved the word for this occasion alone.

I mean, if this wasn’t even worth mentioning, what on Earth does the rest of Canada look like?

We broke up our trip with a few stops. The first was at some falls along the Athabaskan river. A wide section of river suddenly narrowed and the force of the water was incredible. The water and rocks carve smooth bowls and canyons through the rock walls.

Next was a stop at one of those places where tourists are herded, penned, ordered around and generally treated like giant dollar signs. Fortunately our tour had everything arranged so there wasn’t much waiting for the bus up to the glacier and we had time to sit and eat the sandwiches we’d bought at the falls. I haven’t been to Switzerland, but I imagine it is a bit like this?

While we were sitting out on the deck a chipmunk darted around under tables and seemed to spend a lot of time checking out my backpack.

Then it was onto a bus, which took us up to the big bus-truck things that drive onto the glacier. The trucks were interesting, being six-wheel drive and kind of like tanks, plus the road towards the glacier was extremely steep (a gradient of about 32 degrees), but being on the glacier felt weird. Not long ago I saw a documentary about glaciers, and seeing the road the trucks had worn into it and having a big group of tourists standing around all felt a bit sacrilegious. It’s not really logical – global warming is the problem and glacier shrinkage isn’t caused by people standing on a tiny part of it, but still.

Our tour director warned us not to drink the glacial waters because of Ice worms . They live their whole lives on glaciers and eat algae and if you have eat too many they can make you ill. I thought that perhaps it was the Canadian equivalent of drop bears, but apparently they’re real.

Next was a short rest stop then Carmen handed out some maple leaf biscuits. Maple-syrup flavored and OMG, so good! My hands smelled like syrup for the next hour. If I bring nothing else home I’m bringing several boxes of these!

Just think of a shortbread cream biscuit but infused with maple syrup.

Anyhow, back to the Icefields Parkway. If you ever go to Canada make sure you take a trip along it. It’s about a hundred times better than the Great Ocean Road, and compares favorably to Iceland’s ring road (but more trees) and Lake District in England (but without the narrow lanes filled with sheep and impatient local buses). Also make sure you’re not doing the driving so you can spend the whole time goggling at the towering mountains and turquoise waters. I guarantee you’ll love it!

Next: Banff Springs Hotel and a ride in a helicopter!

Canada and Alaska Pt 8: We Go On A Harley Davidson Ride in Jasper

As part of our tour, we get to sign up for a variety of activities, so today is a Harley Davidson sidecar ride! We were driven by minibus from the Fairmont Lodge into Jasper where we got suited up.

Mum actually manages an almost badass expression, I just look like an idiot. Three other ladies from our tour group came along on the same trip. We paired up with a rider and so Mum got the sidecar and I sat behind Rob.

I didn’t think we’d be able to hear each other but we didn’t go too fast and so we could chat a bit about the same things everyone here tells tourists – it’s been a heck of a forest fire season and half the pine trees are dead thanks to shorter winters not killing off pine beetles. Look it up if you’re interested, I’m sick of talking about it.

The ride went for about half an hour. We stopped to take photos then I jumped in a side car to see what that was like. It was much louder and lower – I think I liked sitting up higher better. Mum enjoyed the whole thing even more than I did, but then she was quite a thrill-seeker in her time. As you can see from the photos, the air was quite hazy, which was a bit of a bummer but no one wants to hear tourists complain when farms and homes are being burned down.

After the ride we had a little walk around Jasper before returning to the hotel. You’ll be unsurprised to hear we found a bar then bought several bottles of wine. I also ordered my first poutine but it had pulled beef and horseradish sauce as well as the traditional curds and gravy, so I’ll have to have the real thing at some later stage.

It was a good thing we did buy the wine because I had to drink half a bottle to get to sleep. The jet lag is killing me! I need to remember to factor this in on future trips. First world problems, huh?

Next: we drive along one of the world’s most scenic roads, walk on a glacier, and eat some astonishingly good biscuits which I suppose I should call cookies but WON’T!

Canada and Alaska Pt 7: Kamloops

It seems like everyone in Canada is determined to out-nice the last person you met, so I have to tell you how I met Ron.

Halfway through our Rocky Mountaineer voyage we stop for the night at a city called Kamloops. I don’t know why, but I though it would be a tiny, one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Kamloops has around one hundred thousand people, a big university, paper mill, and a lovely city centre next to a scenic riverfront. I probably wouldn’t be writing much about it though, if I hadn’t gone for a walk in the late afternoon to keep myself awake so I could get a proper night’s sleep.

I saw a couple of people from the train walking into town (only a couple of blocks from our hotel) so I joined up with them and we walked along chatting and discussing whether dinner was really necessary after being stuffed to the gills on the train.

When we got to the edge of the big central park we fell into conversation with a guy named Ron who walked us down to the river to show us some sculptures illustrating the height of past floods. The sun was setting and turning red in the haze from the local fires. The other two wandered off after a bit but I walked around with Ron for an hour, talking about the town and our own travels.

We looked at the river, the gardens, heard a band and looked at some public art, community gardens (a picture for you here, Wendy!) and historical buildings.

Ron had lived in Kamloops for most of his life and his children and grandchild also lived there. He was great! One of the joys of travel is connecting with local people and learning things no tour guide would ever tell you, so if you’re ever in Kamloops and you see a guy who looks about 76, eating a liquorice ice cream and not getting one spot on his tan trousers, call out ‘Ron!’.

You won’t be sorry!

Next: Mum and I tick off a bucket list item and take a ride through Jasper in a Harley Davidson side-car. If you think Mum would look hilarious in leather chaps, you are correct!

Canada and Alaska Pt 6: I Win a Silver Salmon

I’d read on a blog that the Rocky Mountaineer holds a poetry competition so on the second day I started writing a poem. Halfway through the day nothing had been mentioned so I asked Cleo, one of the staff, if it was happening. She said it only usually happens on the longer routes but I was welcome to get up and read mine. I was immediately filled with terror but I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t, so at the end of the day I got up and read it for our carriage. I got a few laughs for mentioning the things that had been annoying us, like the trees always blocking the view. When I finished they gave me a silver salmon pin and said that if I ever saw anyone wearing one I had to give them the secret salmon handshake, which I will demonstrate for you if I ever see you in person!

There were many stops along the route on the second day to let goods trains pass, so we also had a little quiz sheet that Mum and I also finished first so we really scooped the pool. I never win anything so it was quite thrilling for me!

Here’s the poem I wrote. As you can see, it’s nothing special but I do quite like the way it ends.

Oh Canada, oh Canada

Your home and native land

Is filled with trees, so we ask please,

A chainsaw we demand.

Don’t cut them all, just make them small,

So better views we’ll see,

My camera’s filled with blurs of green,

It looks quite like the sea.

T’wixt train and mountain,

Track and shore,

they block all sight of land

Fine far away, but close I pray

For gaps a camera’s span.

I don’t like to moan, you’ll send me home,

Everything else is grand.

Your food, your smiles, your bear-filled wilds,

Smoked salmon on demand.

Cleo and crew know what to do,

To keep us all well-fed and happy.

Giving us facts and plentiful snacks

Their service is anything but crappy.

We’ve laughed, we’ve snoozed

We’ve barely boozed,

We’ve travelled, young and old,

We’ll come again, just tell us when

On your Rocky Mountain gold

Canada and Alaska Pt 5: Bus Tour and Gastown

After sleeping like the dead (if the dead snores like chainsaws), Mum and I were almost first in line for breakfast in the morning. It’s good to get up early when there’s a buffet. Everything is hot and there’s no waiting for things to be replaced. They had big bowls of fresh raspberries and blackberries – I felt sad that I did not have pockets in my cheeks like a squirrel.

Our first activity of the tour was a bus ride around town. We were all on time, which made me very happy and highlighted another benefit of travelling with people who are old enough to drink for hours and also stick to a schedule.

First stop was Stanley Park, an isthmus at one end of the city. We looked at totem poles and I had no clue as to their significance. It all looked a lot like Mauri art.

We milled around, had a chat, saw some black squirrels, then got back on the bus for a drive past China Town (the third largest in North America), Japan Town, Gas Town, Granville Island and past the marina our cruise will leave from in two weeks.

We had time to walk around Granville Island, which is a collection of shops and markets selling produce and arts. The food there looked fantastic.

We had the afternoon to ourselves so Mum and I went for a wander back down to Gas Town, where there is a pretty but very touristy street with a stupid gas-powered clock. I always feel a bit disappointed when I see a crowd of people standing around a town clock, waiting for it to make some annoying noise or trot out some animatronic crap that wouldn’t amuse most two year olds. Just because something is in a foreign place doesn’t make it entertaining! I mean, if you’re an engineer maybe it would be of interest but jeez, if people think this is worth waiting half an hour for, maybe they should avoid virtual reality and theme parks in case their heads explode.

Anyhow, we had a nice light lunch then stopped by the most chaotic second-hand book store I’ve ever seen. After filling the shelves they must’ve just piffed the books through the door. It was quite astonishing. I found three books (my kindle doesn’t seem to want to download new purchases while overseas – you know, the whole reason I bought it, for crying out loud) then tried to find the counter. Eventually I realised it was where an avalanche of books had settled and someone had balanced the EFTPOS machine on top. There was a sign saying ‘no photography’. Maybe I should make a similar sign for my house when I don’t feel like cleaning up. I did take one photo as I walked in but the real carnage was around the corner. I’m not complaining though, I did unearth a pile of science fiction that would put most other bookstores to shame. The shop is on Richards St if anyone is interested!

The rest of the day was pretty quiet. I had a swim then a nap, which was a big mistake (the nap, not the swim). The jet lag has been quite dreadful so far. If I ever come to Canada again I’m giving myself three adjustment days at the start before doing anything important. It’s like walking around trying to fight a double dose of Valium and a head injury.

Next up: the Rocky Mountaineer! Mum and I impress everybody with our ability to start drinking at 10am without saying ‘it’s five o’clock somewhere in the world!’.

Canada and Alaska, Pt 4: Meeting the Group Plus Our First Excursion

We met our travel group in the evening on our first day and, unsurprisingly, it turn out that they’re a lovely bunch of people and we have plenty in common. There’s only one other mother-daughter combo on the trip and, as seems to happen with startling regularity, it turns out we’re closely connected. Both mother and daughter (Lorraine and Bron) were students at the school where I teach. Lorraine was a student there in 1936! 

The dinner was excellent and our tour guide, Carmen, was very genial and spoke in a loud voice and encouraged everyone to ‘smile and be on time’. Words to live by. We went around the group (34 people in all) and introduced ourselves. I told everyone that Mum brought me because I am her favourite child, which got a laugh. Nearly everyone is Australian, although there are a few Brits as well. After only one day it all feels very comfortable and everyone is happy to chat. I’ve even picked up some tips on pruning raspberries from one of the men – I can’t imagine that sort of information gets passed around on contiki tours. Their loss!

The breakfast buffet the next morning was excellent and Mum and I were one of the first tables seated. We probably ate too much, but lunch and dinner weren’t provided. I contemplated putting a danish in my pocket but decided against it, which was wise. We’d already swiped a couple of apples from the pool area anyhow. 

Our bus tour of Vancouver started at 9am and not one person was late for the bus, which gave me a warm feeling inside. First stop was Stanley Park, a promontory of land that is mostly woodland. We looked at totem poles, which I would’ve appreciated more if I’d known anything at all amount them, and took photos of the city skyline across the water. The park was almost choked with blackberries, raspberries and ivy – it seemed surprising but maybe they are native plants here? We also saw black squirrels darting about the place. 

One thing we noticed about the city was how very green it all was. Well-established trees everywhere and beautiful flower baskets and beds, and yet also heaps of rubbish on the streets and in some parks. The buildings were very similar to many in Melbourne and if it wasn’t for the mountains in the distance and the disturbing amount of homelessness, it could’ve been any Australian city.

We stopped at Granville Markets, which are a mixture of arts and crafts, and produce in a cute waterside enclave. Pictures probably tell it best. I still regret not buying some punnets of fruit, particularly since I’m typing this at 3am and my stomach is growling.

We also drove through China Town, the third largest in North America. Then through Gas Town, a kind of cutesy, touristy section with a gas-powered clock. Clocks are such stupid tourist attractions that I am constantly disappointed when I see people standing around, blocking the footpath, waiting for them to do whatever half-assed dinging they reliably do. At least they’re free, I suppose. 

After the tour, Mum and I returned to the waterfront for lunch (salad and soup – it was a blessed relief to eat a single bowl of food) then walked back to the hotel via the world’s most chaotic second hand book store – and I know what I’m talking about here, I’ve been to a lot of second-hand book stores. This one looked like they’d filled up the shelves then just started hurling books through the door. After spending several minutes looking for the cashier’s desk I realised it was a pile of books with an EFTPOS Maxine perched on top. Still, the place had an outstanding sci fi collection and I bought three since my kindle doesn’t seem to want to download new purchases. 

I took this photo right in the front of the store, further round it’s like a book-avalanche ( the best kind of avalanche, really).

I had a bit of a snooze in the afternoon, then a swim, then back out for dinner and then we went to bed at about 11pm. I woke up at 3:30am and have now spent 3 hours blogging. Please forgive all the typos I am too tired to notice!

Next: one of the tour highlights begins with the Rocky Mountaineer, one of the world’s greatest train journeys, or so I’ve been informed about twenty times in the last day and a half. We’ll see!