Canada and Alaska: Vancouver Island

We spent two and a half beautiful, sunny days on Vancouver Island, right before our Alaskan cruise.

If your geography is a bit shaky, Vancouver Island sits along the south-west corner of Canada, it is part of the province of British Columbia and the capital of that province is Victoria, which is situated on the island. The island is a 40 to 90 minute ferry ride (depending on where you go from and how fast you go) from the mainland and it is a really big island, over 500 km long. Big enough for some people to feel that it could get along quite well without the rest of Canada, thank you very much.

Vancouver Island also has its own microclimate – or many microclimates, depending on how you look at it, the weather can vary from bay to bay. It does not get anywhere near the amount of snow as the rest of Canada and so is a haven for retirees. Being an island, it keeps the prices a bit lower for real estate than Vancouver city, but it is becoming more popular.

Anyhow, we left Whistler, drove down the coast then caught the ferry across to Nanaimo, a town north of Victoria. Then we drove to Chamainus, a small logging town that now attracts tourists by being super cute and having lots of murals all over town. I saw a hummingbird while we were there. It was so tiny that I thought it was a beetle until I saw the beak. No photo though!

Last stop was Victoria and our waterfront hotel. Victoria is a city built on fur and gold and so it has some similarities, architecturally and culturally, to Melbourne. Our guide the following afternoon told us that the Chinatowns in Victoria, San Francisco and Melbourne were the most significant centres for Chinese culture outside China, and their existence allowed for free discussion that led to the uprising that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and communism in China.

Victoria’s Chinatown also has one of the narrowest streets in North America. Fan Tan Alley. The area is now popular with artists and designers.

Victoria has a wealth of beautiful buildings and I won’t bore you with too much history, but the most notable (and noticeable) are the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Building. They were both designed by a fellow with quite an interesting history. He was a very young architect who scandalized Victorian society by running off to England with his mistress. The mistress then fell in love with an employee (a butler or something), they messily bludgeoned the architect to death to grab his fortune. They were both caught and, upon learning her lover was to be hung, the mistress threw herself off a bridge. However the lover’s sentence was commuted, then he was drafted for WW1, survived with medals of honour and was eventually freed.

Despite his dubious past, the fellow obviously knew what he was about, architecturally-speaking, and these days the parliament buildings are outlined in lights at night, giving an appearance similar to a birdcage. Although there are no bulbs within reach of the ground because people would steal them.

While we couldn’t see the birdcage from our hotel room, we had a great view of the harbour. Victoria has the cutest water taxis I’ve ever seen and I spotted a seal in the water. Others had just seen an otter – you can imagine my disappointment at missing out!

Terrible photo but that underwater slug is actually a seal.

Next: Burchart Gardens!

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Canada and Alaska: Whistler and a Float Plan Ride

Whistler rivals Banff for prettiness and the mountains, dare I say it, are even more spectacular. Here’s Mum and I at the float plane dock.

Although who can really say which place we’ve been is the best? I’m reaching that stage of travel where I can’t honestly recall precisely what Banff’s mountains looked like. Lucky I’ve got five million photos!

The float plane was fantastic but slightly wobbly. The scenery was a ring of mountains with glaciers and lakes. The colour of the water was really stunning from the air.

As always, I felt my stomach lurch when the plane bumped up and down, but it was worth it! The other good thing about doing the flying options is that they’re quick (20 minutes this time) and so there’s time to do some walking around afterwards. Whistler town centre is a pedestrian mall and the town is set up for lots of summer sports. BMX and mountain bikers we catching the chair lifts up and riding down the mountain right to the middle of town. I got a free gondola ride and watched them from above.

I didn’t go up the mountain until late so I just did a little walk around, enjoyed the scenery and then came down. The gondola is one of the longest in the world and takes 20 minutes to go all the way to the top. Dare I say it even got a little boring? The views were great though, when it wasn’t rocking in the wind.

After having lunch at a cheap pasta place, Mum and I had enough leftovers to heat up for dinner in our room, which had a microwave. Imagine being able to eat what you wanted, with only a one minute wait and not have to make conversation with a waiter or try to work it tips! Luxury!

How one’s priorities change when traveling, hey?

Next: we go to another place and do more things.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Moraine and Kelowna

We left Lake Louise early (have I mentioned my tour group are ALWAYS on time? I love these people) to get to Moraine Lake, which is just down the road. When we turned in there were many, many cars and motor homes and whatnot. Which is the tourism paradox, I suppose – the more beautiful a place is, the more you want it to yourself, the more people you’re going to have to contend with.

Anyhow, it wasn’t too bad, we took photos, had a wander then got back on the bus. I didn’t realise that there was a short walk up a hill, and that the height showed the jade colour better. I’m sure if you want to see it there are about five billion photos elsewhere online. Here is the reverse view from the above photo.

We made a few stops during the drive that day on the way to Kelowna (cologne-a). Including a rest stop where we spotted this guy and his huge ass!

Tee hee!

We passed through very smoked valleys, but then emerged from the haze and were back to corn fields and wider skies. We also spotted a BEAR!

I realise how bad this photo is, but it was copied over to me from someone else’s camera (thanks Wayne!) then blown up, but it was a real, wild bear! It was on the edge of a corn field. It looked at us for a bit then wandered off into the forest, which is what I’d do if I spotted a big tour bus.

After that excitement no one was sleepy. We stopped off for ice cream (I had maple syrup and also a giant punnet of raspberries that were OMG delicious), then got to our hotel. A quiet night ensued. I mean, my nights are always quiet, but Mum also went to sleep reasonably early too for a change. holidaying with a party animal is a challenge, but I’m coping like a hero.

Next: Whistler and float planes and other stuff.

Canada and Alaska: Lake Louise

It’s iconic, it’s incredible, it’s a huge tourist trap. It’s Lake Louise! One of the world’s most recognisable hotels, the Fairmont Lake Louise is a huge, bustling building and we were lucky enough to have a lake-view room.

That’s the view from our room at 6:30am. Of course the views from around the lake are even better. After we got to our room and unpacked, I left Mum to do her own thing and I walked the 2.5km path that follows the right side of the lake to the end.

It was packed with people. As I walked I could hear accents from around the world. I know some people could find it annoying to be somewhere so beautiful but also surrounded by people, but you have to come to terms with being a tourist and being part of the problem and just enjoy it for what it is, and it is stunning.


I later learned that the lake changes colour throughout the year. Obviously it’s frozen in winter – it is used for hockey and skating and sledding etc, then the ice melts around the beginning of June and at that point all the rock flour (glacier sediment) has settled and the water is crystal clear. As the glaciers around the lake start to melt in the warmer weather they bring superfine rock particles that cloud the water and reflect the light, becoming a deep jade (what you see now in August), then the glaciers freeze solid before the lake does, so the water clears in September and then freezes again. So all the lakes we’ve seen are glacier-fed and jade-coloured, but will be clear in a few months. I find that fascinating!

If you walk to the end of Lake Louise you can see six separate glaciers, three of which are visible from the hotel, but one of which is mostly covered in moraine, or landslides. People think of glaciers as pure, ancient water. But the truth is that the water that comes out of them is filthy because they grind the landscape so harshly that they pick up the rock. In Iceland icebergs are often striated with black volcanic gravel that the glaciers churn up.

Anyhow, Lake Louise was quite experience. The hotel is vast and very busy. We had dinner again with Heather and Steve, which was lovely, then an early night because we were leaving early to get to Moraine Lake, another postcard-perfect site.

Canada and Alaska: 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: 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: 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!