Canada and Alaska: Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay National Park was the turn-around point for our cruise and the visual highlight. The weather had been almost unremittingly foggy and grey for the whole trip up to this point and so we were all a bit concerned we wouldn’t actually see anything.

Fortunately some sun did appear, and there was no rain. The weather was cold, but because the ship did a loop up the channel and back, we could see everything from our balcony. I did go out on the prow though and took photos from a few different spots around the ship.

It was also a day when the ship’s crew celebrated 77 years of Alaskan cruising with a serving of pea and ham soup (it’s a Dutch thing? Or something) that I thought was very nice but not many others seemed to enjoy it.

The scenery was spectacular, and the onboard tvs had documentaries on the wildlife and the formation of the bay that were quite interesting. They also had a park ranger do a voice-over as we went past the different glaciers.

No big icebergs were to be seen, but lots of little one made the water look like a styrofoam boat had exploded. Although not all of the icebergs were white – many were a dirty brown and you could watch them float along shedding clouds of rock flour that clouds the water and makes it that milky turquoise shade.

Next: Grouse Mountain and Vancouver for a day before heading home.

Canada and Alaska: Whistler and a Float Plane 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: 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: 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!

Echuca

I don’t really have a great deal to write about Echuca. It was nice enough. For those unfamiliar with it, Echuca is an historical town that was founded around a crossing place on the Murray River. Actually, I don’t know if that’s true since we didn’t bother going to the history place but I saw some old rope nailed to a tree with a bit of information under it about a ferry so I’m going to go with that. It’s known for being a holiday spot and has a bunch of old paddlesteamers that take tourists out for various lengths of time.

This is probably as good a time as any to explain that the Murray-Darling river system is Australia’s longest and largest. It collects water throughout southern Queensland, most of NSW and part of Victoria and runs westward, with the Murray River forming the border between NSW and Victoria and ending in Adelaide, in South Australia. I was curious about it so I looked it up and the catchment area for the two rivers is about five times the size of the entire United Kingdom. That would be impressive if the river itself were impressive. Which it’s not. It’s brown and murky, so don’t go picturing a mighty Amazon or anything.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 9.13.08 pm

For a town of about 13,000 people there seemed to be an awful lot of pubs and restaurants in Echuca. There was almost a pub on every corner in the middle of town. We stayed at the Nirebo Motel, which backed onto a pub called The American, where we had dinner. I had mac and cheese, which was enormous and delicious.

We didn’t really do a whole lot in Echuca. We had lunch on a steam-powered paddleboat (the Emmylou) and the view was mildly interesting and a little bit sad. There was so much erosion – according to the captain of the ship it occurred during a storm a few years ago, but I have heard that such situations are worsened by people driving powered craft along the rivers – the waves wear down the banks faster. The red gums along the banks were quite dead looking and a man I spoke to on the boat said the view was pretty much the same the whole way along.

riverbankIMG_5691

Apart from the boat trip we looked through the shops and walked around. Despite the fact that country towns have become sadly homogenised  by chain stores, there were still a few amusing sights, such as this book store. The lady working behind the counter said the owner loved every single dog statue and would know if even one went missing. There were definitely hundreds of statues. It was quite mind-boggling that someone might know every single one.

dog statues bookshopYou can always count on at least one amusingly-named store. Or two.

ming IMG_5707 (1)

Next stop: Swan Hill and the PHEASANT FARM!

Country Victoria and Road-Tripping With My Mum

These school holidays I’m spending time with my mum. We’re doing a six night road trip through north western Victoria and seeing places I’ve either only driven through or not been to before.

We met in Albury, where Luke’s parents live (located, rather conveniently, halfway between Orange and Melbourne) and will be spending two nights in Echuca, two nights in Swan Hill and two nights in Castlemaine before heading back to Melbourne.

Yesterday Mum arrived in Albury and Luke drove us out to the Hume Dam. It was a beautiful day and Luke’s mum, Lea, had informed us that Luke’s great-grandfather had built the dam himself with the help of ‘one or two people’, so we should go see it. I seem to have neglected to take a photo of the dam itself, but there’s footage for the video and it’s a pretty standard looking dam with a road across the top you can walk over. The lake was quite lovely though, ringed with low green hills and people out on boats. No nasty jetskiis ruining the serenity, either. Perfect!

hume dam

The next morning we had a coffee at the lovely Noreuil Park in Albury with Luke’s sister Erin and her ridiculously smiley baby, Evie. Then Luke, Lea, Mum and I drove to Rutherglen to visit a few wineries before Mum and I headed on to Echuca.

Rutherglen is a very popular wine region about three hours north of Melbourne. It’s a small historical town that’s very well presented. There’s dozens of wineries in the area and many are open for tasting. We first visited All Saints, one of the most prestigious wineries in the area. You can tell because it has a frontage that looks a bit like a miniature Hampton Court.

all saints winery

I think castle-style buildings in Australia  look either comical or tastelessly pretentious, but this one wasn’t all that bad and the large elm-lined driveway into the property was quite grand, even without any leaves on the trees. We tried some samples of food in their cheese shop then tasted some wine. I always feel like a fraud when wine tasting – I know I’m not good at it, and I also know that it is definitely possible to be good at it as my friend Nikkii can taste a wine and guess pretty accurately what the label will say regarding flavours. I find this ability to be verging on magical. How can someone genuinely taste chalk? Or pencil shavings? Or white (not yellow!) nectarine flavours? And yet she does. Without any training. I’m not sure anyone I know has an ability that leaves me quite as awestruck.

Fancy produce in the cheese shop.

Fancy produce in the cheese shop.

After All Saints we trundled into Rutherglen to visit Parker Bakery, which Erin assured us was well worth a visit.

parker pies

I opted for a vegetarian pie as I have been in contact with too many vegetarians and vegans lately and feel guilty about eating too much meat. There was only one vegetarian option available but the range of meat pies was pretty impressive, including venison, emu, kangaroo, prawn and buffalo. The gourmet pies were $8 each, which I thought was a bit steep, especially for the vegetarian one, but it was indeed very tasty.

parkers pie

beechworth menu

Last stop was Pfieffer’s Winery, which Luke remembered from his childhood. It was a typical country establishment that was in equal parts quaintly humorous and disturbing.

pfeiffers

scarecrows

Apparently there was a scarecrow-themed event coming up. Possibly for another chance to use alliteration.

scarecrow poster

Inside the shed we tasted some wines and saw people collecting picnic hampers to take out to the bridge. Luke had talked about it being a nice bridge to have a picnic on. I’d been imaging something pretty small and tacky, but it turned out to be gorgeous.

pfeiffers bridge

A proper wide wooden bridge over the river. How lovely! We spotted turtles and fish in the water and wished we’d eaten here instead of in town. Next time.

After Pfeiffer’s Mum and I said goodbye and headed off towards Echuca, using Mum’s tomtom GPS unit (at seven years old it was possibly their very first model) for the first time. ‘The Man’ (as the tomtom will hereafter be called) pointed us in the right direction and we only stopped once as Mum had to put a bet on. Being with my family is so different to being with anyone else in my life. No one else I know bets on horses, eats in bistros, drinks wine with lunch or watches news on television. It’s so familiar and yet quite foreign. I’m not complaining though… except about the news on tv as it’s just so darned depressing.

I’ll leave Echuca until the next post as this one has ended up much longer than I expected. Suffice to say that Mum and I have continued drinking wine and went to bed at 9:30pm and we both woke up around 5am. Lucky you’re not with us, hey Luke? 😉

The Harry Potter Studio Tour plus our very first prize giveaway!

Firstly, a plug for two blogs that are not only about travel and exotic places but are also well written and full of lovely photos; www.followtheopenroad.wordpress.com and www.lucasthenomad.com. Over the next couple of months the three of us will be crossing paths and traveling together and it’s going to turn into whatever the blog equivalent of cross pollination is. Or something. While that doesn’t, on the surface, sound exciting, trust me. It’ll be awesome to get in now on the ground level and bond with some extremely likeable characters.
Anyhoo, on to our latest adventure…
…ooo000ooo…
In preparation for visiting the Warner Bros Studios in Watford, north of London, I’d watched all but the first of the Harry Potter movies within the last 2 months. I hadn’t seen them before – I’d been unimpressed with the first movie but as I’d been told the studio tour was well worth doing (thanks for the tip, Linda!) Luke and I spent some of our quiet days between playing tourist watching them on his laptop.
I’m glad we did.

Diagon Alley

The tour was terrific, well, except for the first part, where you spend half an hour in line with eleventy-billion other people. You can’t just turn up to the studio – in fact you can’t get into the carpark without a ticket. We had booked for the 1:30 session. My tip for people thinking of going is to set your date several months in advance and book the first session (10am) or book any time in the day and turn up first thing. They don’t seem to mind letting people in early but it’s probably be better to be organised.
After a long wait in the queue we were ushered into a plain room in a large group and had a guide speak to us and show us a short introductory film while we stood up, then it was into a theatre to sit down and watch a longer film (not much longer) before entering Hogwarts main hall. I imagine they do this to space out groups but it’s also a good introduction and builds some excitement for what you’re about to see.
After the dining hall where some costumes are displayed, there are two large studios full of well-signed displays of props, movie displays, many costumes, latex masks, all kinds of things – in fact just about everything. You can stand in front of the house on Privet Drive, walk through the wooden covered bridge that is part of Hogwarts… the collection includes pretty much everything you could want to see. My favourite part was the cardboard sculptures of all the buildings and the conceptual art paintings. And of course the giant model of Hogwarts that was used for many of the CG shots.

Set schematics. There was a whole room just devoted to these.

Mum and I took about 2 and a half hours to go through, Luke a bit less than 4 but he had paid extra for the audio visual guide and so had more to listen to.
There were lots of interesting bits of info – boards with photos describing the animals used in the films and the fact that each of the staff had their names inscribed on the end of a box in Olivander’s Wand Shop. There were 17,000 boxes altogether in the shop and each had its own unique, hand made label.
The first and last thing we did was look in the gift shop. There was quite a range of merchandise… in fact it was probably the most extensive merch store I’ve ever seen. It was funny to overhear people talking about buying wands for display in their lounge rooms. I’m not sure I’d ever achieve that level of fandom about anything.
I bought a packet of every flavoured beans for my nephews and some chocolate bees. Mum will take them back for me, although I wish I could be there to see their faces when they try the dirt and earwax flavours.
Speaking of Mum, she had only read one of the books and seen none of the movies and still said it was a great day out. She really enjoyed watching the interviews with the directors and what each had tried to bring out in their movie/s.

This model of Buckbeak breathed and moved a little.

So our verdict was that although nearly 30 pounds seems a bit pricey, you get a lot for your money and it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re even mildly interested in the films… or even if you’re just interested in films in general. Luke paid extra for the guide – you got the hand held device plus a guide book to keep (which he forgot to pick up when we left) and it’s probably worth getting if you’re a big fan.
All in all a good day.
Also – I bought 5 postcards and have no idea who to send them to. If you’re a Harry Potter fan leave a note and I’ll send one to the first five replies (you might have to email me your address to a1lenon at yahoo dot com). It may also be worth noting that there’s a series of Dr Who stamps available here in the UK right now so if you want a particular doctor on your postcard I’ll see what I can do.
Now we’re off camping for a week so I’ll post said cards (should anyone be interested) when we get back to civilisation.