The National Rhododendron Gardens.


Living in Melbourne means having a reasonably diverse range of scenery on your doorstep – from miles of beautiful beaches to foggy temperate forests, snowy mountains, vineyards and dry bushland. Closest to where I live, on the eastern side of the city, are the Dandenong Mountains (well, let’s be honest, hills) that have large areas of national and state forests and hundreds of kilometres of walking tracks. There are also many gardens and arboretums and one of the best is the National Rhododendron Gardens.

The gardens are over 1.5 km in length and doing a full circuit can add up to 5km (approximately 3 miles) and it’s all quite hilly.

Right now the rhododendrons are in full flower, the magnolias are a bit past it and the azaleas are almost out.

 

The gardens open from 10 till 5 and parking at this time of year can be a nightmare so I got there at 9:55 to find the gates already open. When you’re out to take photos it’s really nice to beat the crowds.

By the time I left there were hundreds of people there, quite a lot of them tourists form east Asia and many a giant tour bus in the parking lot.

 

 

I was slightly annoyed to have completely missed the cherry blossoms again – I never seem to remember to go, despite having two blossom trees at home to remind me. I consoled myself with a piece of chocolate brownie form the new cafe (research!) and watched a bunch of elderly people complain that the shuttle bus that takes you around the gardens cost money to ride – which seemed a bit churlish considering the gardens were free entry. No pleasing some people, I suppose!

 
So if you’re nearby, go have a look! It’s well worth it and there’s acres of lawn and many a kookaburra just waiting for picnickers to leave their crusts:-).

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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: 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!

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: 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!