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Start to plan a trip like this Malcolm's Western Canada 2014 Blog

All images courtesy of Malcolm direct from his camera in Canada

Starting out
We are shortly to set out with two friends on a trip to Western Canada, which incorporates some of the very best that this area has to offer. We originally fly from Manchester to Vancouver, follow up with some whale watching in Victoria, some coastal experience on Vancouver Island, followed by the spectacular Inside Passage ferry journey with BC Ferries. Then it is a two day train journey on VIA Rail’s Skeena. This route many believe to be the most spectacular scenic rail journey in Canada. We then proceed down the stunning Top 10 drive in the world, The Icefield Parkway, before ending up at the world famous Calgary Stampede. Yes, I know it is hard work, but someone has to do it!

We will attempt to let you know the good, the bad and the ugly each day with regular posts subject to WIFI connection. We are in some quite remote areas at times and sometimes we can get the text through, but struggle with the size of the photographs. Hopefully you will enjoy reading along to bring back memories of a trip you have done or to entice you to get thinking about a trip you should be doing.

Saturday 14 June

We are lucky in that our son and daughter in law live about 20 minutes from Manchester Airport, so we stayed with them last night. No need for a wake-up call as our 3 year old granddaughter Amy came in to see Nana and Granddad at 05.30! Still what a great way to start a trip, spending 2 hours being entertained. Breakfast with them and Matthew took us and our friends to the airport . Our friends who are travelling with us have friends in the same area so we picked them up along the way.

We are flying with Air TRANSAT Canada's largest charter airline. They fly non-stop to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver from Manchester during the summer months. They use a modern fleet of Airbus 330 and 310 aircraft. Flying from terminal 1 in Manchester was very easy, just a short way from the drop off point to the check in. Air TRANSAT upgraded us to their Option Plus service as they want us to promote it.
This offers:
  • Priority check in
  • Priority boarding
  • Sparkling wine
  • Free drinks during flight
  • Comfort pack including blanket, head support, headset and eye covers
  • Bottle of wine with meal.

There were 2 drinks services during the flight, including one prior to the main meal service. A good choice of 3 options of main course.

The second meal was pizza with tea and coffee served about one hour prior. There was good leg room, similar to the main stream airlines, and much better than many. We paid a small supplement to have the two seats on the side at the back, which gives a bit more space and I think is well worth while.

Certainly currently for clients from the North of England it is the only direct service to Western Canada from Manchester.
We arrive bang on time to rain! The immigration process was painless and so much more pleasant than in the USA. Baggage seems to take a long time as one of our group had a bag that must have been in the last ten to come off the plane.

We had elected to take the train downtown. The Canada line is a legacy from the Winter Olympics. Before it was built you went downtown by bus, now it takes about 20 minutes to get to the Waterfront on a very comfortable train. Tickets are bought from a machine just by the entrance to the station. There is a very helpful person available to assist and remember if you are 60 plus you can pay the concession rate! Sorry your bus pass does not work! The full rate is currently $7.50 per person. All platforms are level with the train so you can pull your luggage straight on to the train. The train is like a combination of the Manchester/Nottingham tram and the London Underground, but because it was built to serve the airport there is luggage space. You can pay for your tickets with cash or it accepts credit cards at no surcharge.

From the Waterfront Transportation hub we took a taxi, which was about £6.00 for the four of us to the hotel. It is not really walkable with your bags. We are staying at the Century Plaza Hotel, which is one of our main partner hotels located on Burrard Street. It is about a 10 minute walk to the Waterfront and about 15 minutes back!

Vancouver as a city is built on what I would call an upturned bowl rising from the sea on three sides. After a shower went to eat.

Top Tip: When you arrive in North America, however tired you are, do not go straight to sleep. If you do not eat then your body will wake you up very early needing food. Having some kind of meal really helps. We really wanted something like a decent burger so asked the doorman who directed us to Davie Street. The place he suggested I am sure had great burgers, but nowhere to sit. So we walked on up the street and came across the Fountain Head Bar. It was busy and very lively with the World Cup football on. It was not till we were sitting down that we noticed that about 75% of the clients were men. However we had ordered some drinks by then, so we stayed. The food was good and it was a very lively place to be. As the evening went on more and more couples came in and some female couples as well. It was good fun and just about the right distance from the hotel to stretch our legs.

Back to a the hotel and now it was time for bed.

Sunday 15 June

Woke up at about 06.30 which was really good for a first day. Cloudy and a 25% chance of rain today. We arranged to meet for breakfast at 07.30 . We had an excellent hot breakfast in the hotel for about £7.50 per head including coffee and toast, which we thought was good value. We have clients staying in the hotel so I meet up with them and they were enjoying the hotel and also thought the food was good.

The rooms in this hotel are all large and many have a limited self-catering facility. Like all hotels in the city centre it can be a little noisy at night if the police or ambulances are busy but that is city life!

We recommend to clients to get a hop on, hop off city tour. We mainly suggest you take a trip on the Big Bus Company and they stop right outside the hotel. The plan was to take a whole circuit and then decide what to do. The weather did improve as we set off, but being early and a chance of rain the open top was closed. We actually got off just before the full circuit and walked down to the Waterfront. We had a coffee with a view of Holland America's Statendam, which is one of the boats we use on an Alaska Cruise.

The main trip today is a float plane experience called the Mail Run. Harbour Air operate this on an ad hoc flight around the Islands in the Georgia Straights. Till you check in you actually do not know how many stops there will be. We were told today there would be three calls, which is about average, so that means four take offs and landings.

Harbour Air operates the largest fleet of float or seaplanes in the world all over western Canada and in some very remote places these aircraft are the only way in landing on lakes of see inlets. It is because of this the trip has become one of the Canada Signature Experiences. The Independent Traveller is proud to become the first tour operator in the world to have dedicated website space to this unique programme. On this trip we will be doing a number of these and hopefully this blog will help promote this concept.

Back to today's trip. As there is no service on board the flight you are offered coffee and cake before departure. We boarded the plane at about 12.15 and it was quite full. After being cast off we taxied to the open water in Vancouver harbour. Then the engine barked into a real roar and we sped across the water until the floats broke free of the water and we took off. Rapidly gaining height we flew over Lions Gate Bridge that guards Vancouver harbour and set out for the Islands. The views from the air were stunning and hopefully the pictures can give you some idea of how beautiful it is.

Each time we landed the plane swooped down from the sky and landed rather like a swan, a bit of a surge on landing and then serenely floating along into the dock. These Islands are mainly used by people with very expensive holiday homes or as retirement homes. Some of the larger Islands do have some logging plants providing year round work. The small harbours we docked in had multi-million $ sail and motor boats moored up. A bit of a surprise as on a Sunday in mid-June you would have thought more would be out on the water.

We returned to Vancouver two and a half hours later after what I can honestly say was a fantastic trip. It is not a cheap excursion, but one all four of us felt was great value for money. In coming days look for us to be offering a special Vancouver sightseeing package with the Big Bus and the Mail Run on a combo.

Another coffee and a doughnut at Tim Hortons (Canada's number 1 coffee shop) and then a pleasant still around downtown Vancouver in what was now really pleasant sunshine. Along the way we saw roads closed off for the shooting of a film. We watched for a while as they took several takes for what will be a 30 second piece of the film.

Back to the hotel for a quick change and then to the Keg in Vancouver. If you were reading my blog in September you will know I am very partial to this chain of steak and sea food restaurants. The quality and service is always great and tonight was no exception. Then it was time for bed about 2 hours later than last night!

Monday 16th June

We had a breakfast meeting at the Westin Grand Hotel, which is located on Robson Street. This is a 4.5 star property, all suite offering high quality rooms and service levels. We first contacted this hotel when it was still a hole in the ground so our rate reflects the long standing relationship.

After a nice breakfast an inspection of the hotel to reacquaint ourselves with the different room types. All feature some sort of kitchen, either full or a kitchenette and many have a water view of either English Bay or the harbour. There is an outdoor pool, which is popular in the summer and a library, thought to be the only library that has its own bar!

I went to look at the Sandman on Davie Street. This is another all-suite hotel not too far from the Century Plaza. This property lacks ' curb appeal' and the lobby is a little dark. However the rooms are great with full kitchens and balcony. As there are no high rise buildings close to the hotel the rooms have either a good city view or a great view of English Bay.

The weather today was cloudy to start, but the sun broke out later and the afternoon was really very pleasant. We all meet up in Granville Island, the others using the hop on, hop off bus to get there via the water taxi, which is included in the cost of the hop on, hop off tickets.

I suggested that we meet at the brewery and it seemed only right to at least sample the product! Then a wander around the craft and other shops plus the extensive farmers market. Really excellent produce that had we not been being hosted to dinner would have made a great lunch on the patio overlooking the water. However we did have an ice cream sitting in the sun overlooking the water and listening to some good music. Took the water taxi back and then the hop on bus to Stanley Park. Included in the ticket price is a full one hour tour of this great park.

Many old growth trees that are up to 1000 years old. Vancouver is a very green city with lots of small, well looked after, green spaces dotted around. Each area has tennis courts, which are free to play and well looked after, available on a first come basis.

We returned to the waterfront to have a coffee and watch a Disney cruise ship depart for Alaska. To watch these ships slip away from the cruise centre and head out to sea via Lions Gate Bridge is a great site. However I have to say that with the boat playing Disney music very loudly and the ship’s horns also doing the same it made it an absolute certainty that I will not be on such a cruise. Whilst out of place in Vancouver the thought of how out of place it would be in stunning Juneau does not bear thinking about!

Tonight dinner in the Century Plaza with the sales manager and the sales director. The sales director and I first met over 25 years ago when he was just starting out in his career. The dinner in the hotel was really excellent. We had a great chat and caught up with what we were all doing and what developments the hotel has in mind. The Century Plaza is family owned and as such they are able to ensure the hotel develops in line with what is needed locally. This ends our stay in Vancouver. It is easy to see why it is such a popular destination with our clients. It lives with Cape Town, San Francisco and Sydney as ' must visit' places. I have visited many times and would still like to think I will be back again.

Tuesday 17 June

The weather changed this morning to bright sunshine. Very simple trip back to the airport on the train. The trip back is only $1.75 for seniors and $2.75 for others. The car hire is easily found. Take the lift down to the arrivals level and follow the outside of the building to your left as you look at the terminal; all the car hire is located in one place. After a fast checkin, and we got a brand new 7 seater van. These are ideal for two couples travelling together as there is lots of space for luggage and people. The one we have is extremely comfortable and easy to drive. It is a very easy drive out of the airport and the ferries to Victoria are very well signed.

It takes 30 minutes to drive and get your tickets. It cost us approximately £80.00 for the car and 4 passengers for the trip which lasts around 90 minutes. There is a good cafe in the terminal if you have to wait and the food onboard is at a reasonable cost and quite good. With really bright weather; it was a very pleasant wait.

The trip across is always pretty, but today with the lovely sunny weather, it was rather special. When we left the ferry port it would be a 40 minute drive to Victoria, but we wanted to visit Butchart Gardens; which is one of the worlds' leading gardens. On a bright sunny day, with the early summer flowers now all fully open, it was really stunning. This is their 100th year and what has been done to turn an old quarry into this garden is fantastic. The Rose garden was in full bloom and it was great to see such a fine collection of roses. There are 5 separate gardens to choose from or visit and we did visit them all.

We will soon be introducing a new Experience pack for Vancouver and Victoria that will have all the top attractions on a bundle and offered at a discount. Watch our website for updates www.itiscanada.co.uk. We spent nearly 4 hours at the garden and there is a choice of 3 restaurants offering everything from full meals to light snacks. The gardens are open till 22:00 at this time of the year and from July to August there is a nightly fireworks display.

We stopped at a supermarket on the way to the hotel for a few basic supplies. Just a note:- in most provinces wine, beer and spirits are not sold in the normal supermarket but in government owned liquor stores. It is also quite normal and accepted by hotels to take drinks into a hotel. They always provide glasses and ice as well.

We are staying at the Chateau Victoria which is just a 5 minute walk to the inner harbour. All our clients get a free upgrade to a one bedroom suite which really enhances the stay. As there are 4 of us they gave us a 2 bedroom suite with a balcony with a great view. Just as well we had stopped for supplies so we could use the balcony in the early evening sun for a G&T before going out to supper.

We are off looking for whales in the morning, so an early night after a stroll around the inner harbour on the way home.

Wednesday 18th June

We are staying at long term partner hotel Chateau Victoria. This is another family owned hotel that has served the area for a long time. You know it is a good place by the length of time the staff stay! This morning we elected to go whale watching. We use Orca Spirit as our provider because they have both covered, and Zodiac boats, so we can meet the needs of a range of clients.

The advantage of the covered boat is that if, as they were today, a good distance away, then you can keep warm and dry under cover. Today was really great weather but the boat had to power out to find the whales. The main whales seen in this area are Orca or Killer Whales. There are 3 resident pods of around 100 whales that make this area their summer home, feeding on the salmon as they come around the end of Vancouver Island and into the Georgia Strait. Here the salmon will feed and regain strength before they swim up the riverside in the Autumn to spawn.

Today we saw about 15 members of J pod as they foraged looking for salmon. Each whale eats about 150kg of salmon per day. Some great sightings today including breaching. The photos will give you an idea of how good it was. If you have read previous blogs you will know I am a real fan of whales; the size and power they have and then being able to move so gracefully. Also it is possible to see transient Orca whales who do not eat fish but feed on seals. Sometimes there are also Humpback whales and Grey whales also to be seen.

After we returned to the dock we took a stroll around Victoria, which in the sun, was looking at its summer best. Victoria is very walkable and it is easy to see why it is so popular with British visitors. Later in the day, we meet up with so many people we met last year in PEI on last years trip and we spent a pleasant 2 hours with them. This was in the Oak Bay Area, which is the home of some fantastic houses. If you are in Victoria and have a car, take a drive out to this area; some great small bays and viewpoints. Then, a nice Italian meal before we returned to the hotel. Tomorrow we head up the Island.

Thursday 19 June

Slightly misty this morning as we left Victoria to drive north towards Duncan. We stopped for breakfast at the White Spot in Duncan, part of the White Spot BC chain of restaurants famous for good service and value prices, and the breakfast did not disappoint.

Our next stop was Chemainus, famous for its wall murals, forty three in all around the town. A popular stop before we continued up the island to Nanaimo, one of the ferry crossing points back to Vancouver or Whistler.

We then turned due west towards Port Alberni where we shopped for our main supplies as in Ucluelet we are staying at The Water’s Edge Resort at the Pacific Rim, in a two bedroom self-catering apartment with a well-appointed kitchen, dining area and lounge.

After leaving the heavens opened and it poured with rain for the next 70 km. This, plus a twisty road, made it a tough drive. From Nanaimo to Ucluelet is a 3.5 hour drive and in places the road is quite winding. It is actually only about 125 km, but you have to be careful how you drive. Still raining when we arrived and we were directed to our apartment overlooking the sound. It was spectacular even in the rain. We cooked in tonight and as we ate, the rain stopped and the mountains cleared, leaving us with a fantastic view. Tomorrow we are looking forward to exploring the area, hopefully in the dry!

Friday 20th June

Woke up this morning to a cloudy but dry day. Breakfast in our well-equipped apartment overlooking Barclay Sound. We went for a walk around the resort and then drove to Ucluelet. The village is small, but with several restaurants ranging from family style to a Michelin star restaurant. There is also a good Co-op store, more of which later.

We took a look at Black Rock Lodge, a lovely resort directly facing the ocean. Quite up market, but the rooms all have a limited self-catering option. We then drove down towards Tofino, visiting several of the local beaches. By now the sun had come out and it was a great summer’s day. Tofino is about three times the size of its twin, Ucluelet, and it is the base for many activities such as seaplane trips and whale watching for grey whales. We took the chance to drive down to Grice Bay, a bit off the track but quite stunning.

On the way back we spent some quality time at Long Beach and then did the walk through the rainforest. This is stunning and should be on everybody's list of things to do. Just a note of caution: this is not very disabled friendly, so quite good mobility is needed. We then drove back into Ucluelet and visited the Co-op for some supplies: wild salmon, crab and prawns for the salad and some new potatoes made it a great evening meal. A lovely evening and such a great view as we ate. Tomorrow we will see, but given tonight’s meal we need a good walk.

Saturday 21st June

The longest day and what a day. A lazy breakfast in our comfortable apartment overlooking Barkley Sound, then FaceTime with our granddaughter which was nice. We went for a walk around the West Coast Trail, which is just over 4 km, well-marked with exceptional views around every corner. An easy walk and just what the Doctor ordered.

We then had coffee and a treat at Zoe's bakery overlooking the inner harbour, and bought sourdough bread for later, add this to your list of things to do in the area. If we allowed ourselves lunch it would be great as everything is made on site: some great flatbreads, soups and sandwiches.

Our friends decided to walk another trail, but my wife is due to have a new hip when we get back to the UK, so we declined. The downside was that we had to go to the supermarket. There is only one in town, the Co-op, so an easy choice. Then back to our really well equipped apartment to enjoy an evening meal and the wonderful view on our last night at The Water’s Edge.

Sunday 22nd June

Breakfast in the apartment and time to pack the car and set off back east. It took about two hours to get back to Parksville, which is on the main road that goes the length of Vancouver Island from Victoria to Port Hardy. We were heading to Campbell River and the ferry to Quadra Island, a 15 minute ferry journey back towards the mainland in the Straits of Georgia.

We are staying at Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge at the south end of the Island. By now is was a great day, the very best weather, pleasantly warm without being too hot. We had managed to get the ferry at 13.10 rather than the 14.10 crossing we were planning for and this meant that we arrived at the lodge at 14.00. We are staying at Wharfe House, which is a few minutes’ drive from the main lodge. We have sent photos, so hopefully you can see what a fantastic place it is, right on the water’s edge with a view that is hard to start to describe. Again a two bedroom unit with full kitchen, great lounge area and a covered deck with a barbecue.

We decided to eat in the restaurant tonight, but bought barbecue food for tomorrow. The food in the restaurant was great with a wide choice of main course, all really enjoyed. I am writing this sitting outside at 10.30pm as we watch several Alaska cruise ships pass by. A great day with fantastic weather.

Monday 23rd June

This morning the weather was dry but not the same fantastic weather we had yesterday. Lazy breakfast and spent some time looking at what we thought might be sea otters but in the end turned to be stones. Well we never claimed to be Spring Watch! We then set out to take a drive around Quadra Island which is about the same size as Jersey. Our first stop was at April Point Lodge a upmarket Lodge which is twinned with Painters Lodge on the mainland. Famous for great fishing we saw two boats departing. While we watched 2 seals came into view and a sea otter (and yes this time it was!) appeared on the neck for a few moments before slipping effortlessly into the water We pottered around looking at this and that and had a coffee at Herriot bay Hotel.

Then we drove right to the north of the Island to Surge Narrows (on the way to Surge Narrows we came across a logging truck - pictured) which, as the name suggests, is a narrow gap between the Island and the mainland. It is through this gap the cruise ships have to cone through before they pass where we are staying. Then to a small bay called Granite Bay. Both are at the end of gravel roads so need to be driven with caution.

On the way back to our Lodge we called in at a newly created Golf course; it shows lots of promise and looks to be somewhere that will be an added attraction on the Island in due course. When we arrive back at Tsa- Kwa- Luten lodge, I went to look at some rooms and the other cabins. The main rooms do not have any self-catering options but still have the great view and access to the restaurant we enjoyed last night.

The main entry to the lodge is quite stunning and represents an Indian longhouse. The other cabins are a little smaller that then one we have but quite adequate. The kitchens are not as big but like ours they all have a barbecue and a nice place to sit on the grass running down to the sea shore Which brings me nicely back to our lodge and the barbecue we are just about to have. Tomorrow we will let you know how good it was!

Tuesday 24 June
This morning is the last of our self-catering stays, so a hearty breakfast eating up all that is left! No lunch today!

It was with great regret that we left Quadra Island and Tsa-Kwa -Luten Lodge. We had been made very welcome and both the Lodge and the Island have a lot to offer. Both the Malcolm's had been offered jobs at the local supermarket, so if things do not work out we know where to come.

Your ticket on to the Island is also your ticket off, so make sure you keep it! The morning ferries off and the evening ferries on can be quite busy, so make sure you get to the terminal in good time as it is a roll on roll off ferry on a first come first served basis. We caught the 10.55 ferry, which was completely full.

We took a quick spin around Campbell River as some clients stay there en-route to Knight Inlet Lodge, one of the world’s premier grizzly bear viewing places, so the hotel options are needed pre or post. Then the drive north up the Island to Port Hardy, which was about 2.5 hours from Campbell River. It is actually 500 Km from Victoria to Port Hardy so if you drive direct it is a full day’s drive. The road from Victoria to Campbell River is very good, dual-carriageway. However after Campbell River it is just a two lane highway with some passing places. The pace of the trip drops as there is less chance to pass. We stopped for a coffee along the way in the small village of Woss. After Campbell River the fuel stops are more limited so remember to check your fuel gauge.

We arrived at about 15.30 and checked into the Glen Lyon Hotel, which is close to the Marina, as is the Quarterdeck hotel about 100 yards along the road. Both have stunning views of the harbour. Our friends went for a walk, while we took a drive around to check out a few things. In a small park near the ferry terminal we saw a bald eagle flying overhead. Then while having a drink before going to dinner we had the pleasure of seeing four or five bald eagles and several fish eagles flying around the harbour area. There was also a heron right in front of our room looking for his supper. We had dinner quite early in the restaurant overlooking the harbour. Good food, well served at a fair price.
Early to bed as we have a 04.30 wake up call.

More to follow

Wednesday 25th June

Today is the trip on the BC Ferries Signature Experience Inside Passage ferry journey from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. As our wake-up call was at 04.30 we had packed our bags last night.

There are several options to get to the ferry: there is a shuttle at $7.50 per head, a taxi at $30.00 or, as advised by our very friendly hotel, you can drop your rental car off at the ferry for a $25.00 drop charge. The cost and the ease of driving yourself meant it was a no brainer to take the car. You have to be at the terminal, which is a 15 minute drive from town, by 06.00. You drop your bags that you are not taking on board, park the car in the car park and then exchange your voucher for your tickets. You need to remember to hand over your car keys to the BC ferry staff. Foot passengers board the ship first as you use the same gangway. Car passengers then come on board. By now it is about 07.00 and the cafe opens and it’s time to grab a coffee.

We set sail at 07.30 and set off northwards for what most people agree is the world’s most scenic ferry journey. However just about 20 minutes into the trip a heavy mist came down. Not really what you want when you are winding your way through some of the narrowest shipping lanes in the world. The Captain announced that the ship would be blowing its horn every five minutes until the mist cleared, which it was expected to do. Shortly after breakfast we saw porpoises and then almost as quickly as the mist arrived, it left. What a change, now a bright sunny day with not a cloud in the sky. This weather then continues on the third longest day in the year until we arrived in Prince Rupert.

So what did we see?
Scenery that you really cannot really adequately describe or even take pictures of.
The coastline of BC has a magical blue haze when at its best and today it has been at its best. We will send some pictures, but what you will see is only 20% of what you get. We stopped at Bella Bella to off load passengers who needed to connect to some smaller ferries to even more remote destinations. At Bella Bella we had lunch on the back deck, barbecue style. By now it was really hot and a delightful day. Mid-afternoon we came across a Humpback whale swimming along, we should have a decent photograph to send. We chose to eat supper in the Vista Restaurant, buffet style offering a very wide choice of good quality food. It cost approx. £18.00 per person and was great value.

Ferry arrived at 23.15, so just a little late. Foot passengers walk off first, however the bags come off after all the cars. It is quite a long walk so the wait is not too long. Taxis are a bit hit and miss, but we did manage to sort things out quite quickly. Not many large taxis, so if a party of four then you will need to take two taxis. The cost to any of the downtown hotels is approx. $10.00. Arrived at the Crest Hotel for a super quick check-in and up to our rooms.

If you get the chance this trip should be on your to do list. With good weather you will remember it all your life.

Thursday 26th June

The very late arrival last night meant we had planned a late breakfast. My problem is normally that I cannot sleep in, but even I slept about an hour more than normal. The Crest Hotel has a wonderful position overlooking the harbour and the sound and the restaurant has a wonderful vista.

We split up with our friends today as I had a meeting with a tour operator in Prince Rupert. Although not large, in good weather as it was today there is plenty to do. The Visitor Centre is a great source of information, especially about the port. Prince Rupert is increasingly becoming an entry and exit point for freight. It is major grain, coal and container port. However the centre of town is still as it was 50 years ago with lots of bald eagle flying around. My meeting was with the tour operator who operates the Grizzly Bear tours from Prince Rupert. This year the tours have got out of sync with the trains and the ferries for all sorts of reasons. We talked through some ideas to try and make this excellent option much more available. Excellent fish for supper tonight in the hotel restaurant. With the superb weather the day was great, we even managed to do some washing!



Friday 27th June & Saturday 28th June

We have been on the Skeena Train for the last two days travelling from Prince Rupert to Jasper. Many people would say this was the most scenic railway journey in Canada, due to the range of different types of scenery you see along the route. The service operates year round, but from June to September on selected departures it offers a scenic panorama car with an enhanced viewing experience and meal service. This also has exclusive access and use to one of the dome cars that VIA rail has become so well known for.

The train departs Prince Rupert at 08.00 in the morning and shares a dealer true point with BC Ferries and the Alaska Marine Highway. You check in your main luggage, so also take on board an overnight bag. Just be careful with the size of the bag as there are no overhead bins as it has a glass roof!

As soon as the train departs it follows the Skeena River winding its way out Prince Rupert. A cold, but good continental breakfast is served with coffee. The weather was not as good as Thursday with cloud and the sun breaking through from time to time. The river was, and still is, a major salmon fishing river and the first few miles are dotted with old, no longer used salmon canning plants. We are hoping to send you some pictures now the internet speed is better as the scenery over the first six hours of this journey is not very easy to describe. Stunning and awesome just do not do it full justice. We saw bears along the way, but we were not quick enough with the camera today to catch them. We arrived at Prince George 30 minutes late, which is about par for the course given the fact that most of the way is single track railroad and the enormous freight trains take precedence over passenger trains. These trains pull up to 15000 tons and can reach up to 200 railroad cars in length. You will see a great picture shortly.

We had nine clients on the train, by far the most from any UK tour operator. We do use a couple of hotels in Prince George. Some clients were at the Ramada Hotel, which is in the centre of town, and got good reports from our clients. We choose to stay at the Sandman Signature Hotel, which is a little farther from the station - a $10 .00 taxi fare. It is a new hotel and of first class standard. Speedy check-in with a large room and excellent facilities and really modern email and charging points.

The next morning the train departs at 09.30 so we could relax a little. The first part today is interesting, but not as scenic as the first half yesterday or the last half today. However it can be prime bear watching and so it proved to be as we saw several bears, but it was not until after lunch that we could get a picture and then it is not great, but it proves we saw them. The trip after lunch really upped the ante in respect of scenery. We passed Mount Robson, the sun came out and we got some great views and photographs which we have sent to share with you.

We arrived in Jasper more or else on time and checked into Chateau Jasper, having been fed an early dinner on train. We did however need a walk after an exercise free couple of days. A stroll around Jasper, which ended up in the bar at the Athabasca Hotel with the locals for a beer and some great onions rings!

Sunday 29th June

Today we had a nice breakfast in the Chateau Jasper. Then while I went to pick up the car the ret took a walk around Jasper. We mainly use Avis in Jasper for our car hire requirements as they have a much smaller drop charge to Calgary that our normal providers. The office is located in Sundog Tours who operate a lot of the the sightseeing and transfers in Jasper. Iwould advise anybody picking up a car in Jasper, to check the car very carefully for scratches. My car was marked as no marks, but I found several that may have been picked up when I dropped the car. There was no issue in having them marked however, better safe than sorry!

We then went up to Pyramid Lake for coffee. This also has some nice accommodation. Located 5 Kms north of Jasper town site you also have to past Patricia Lake . Back to the hotel for quick change and then to Maligne Lake and the world famous Spirit Island . The weather was not good as we drove out but it did improve and our Lake cruise was good. The pictures could have been better but given the rain of today we found a window of good weather. This is a must do trip and it is a magical experience. On the way back to the hotel we did get a good sighting of an Elk. If you travel gone road back about 17.00 you often get good wildlife sightings. We also saw a Bear but no picture.

We use a property at Jasper Park gates called Overlander Mountain Lodge. This is located about 30 minutes drive east of Jasper just outside the park gates.

During our time it was being used by an Indian band ( First Nations) for a conference but they had one room to show us. Then we where treated to an evening meal cooked just for us 4 by the new chef Correy. He is joining the long time owner Garth Griffiths to move the lodge forward. Our meal was Cauliflower soup with curried prawns , followed by rack of lamb , asparagus and garlic mash and a apple cobbler to follow. Quite a simple menu but the flavours wee fantastic.
A memorable night. On the way back we also came across two Elk in the lake; a fitting end to a good day.

Monday 30th June

Today we were travelling the Icefield Parkway and we were hoping the weather would improve. Overnight there had been a lot of rain and there were puddles everywhere you looked. It was also quite dark first thing as the last of the storm passed over. However, the weather forecast was quite decent and the light was improving quite rapidly. We packed up and got on our way quite quickly as the Parkway is so good and we were adding a couple of items that we wanted to test out including the new glacier Skywalk. As always when you need to get going something happens. To go south to Banff you have to cross the railroad.

We just failed to beat a freight train so had to sit while over 200 railroad cars passed in front of us. We know it was 200 as the ladies stopped counting at 200. These trains pull around 15000 tons of freight at a time. On our way some of the mountains were topped still in mist making them look fantastic. Jasper National Park is a massive National Park and joins Banff National Park further south. To visit the park you do have to pay a fee and for most of our clients the annual pass we sell is the most cost effective and easiest way to do that. If you are travelling on a bus tour or part of a package that includes transfers then the fee is made as part of that cost. With our parks pass on display we drove straight past the entry point which can save quite a lot of time.

Our first two main stops were Athabasca Falls and Sunwapt Falls and they were both in full flow thanks to the melting of snow and glacier, there are some great photos for you to see.

As we travelled further south the weather did really improve except the very highest mountain tops cleared. Banff and Jasper are both around 4500-5000 feet high and the parkway road reaches close to 6000 feet high. Mountains along the way are over 12000 feet high.

Our first main stop was the new Glacier Skywalk which opened this Spring and is a major project between Parks Canada and Brewsters. Brewster are the first name in many aspects of touring in Western Canada and have always been at the front of innovation. A massive platform that goes out over the valley with 1000 foot drop below, construction took over 2 years and for any engineers on a trip worth the stop on that front alone. It does a great job of describing all that you are seeing in terms of flora and fauna, how the rocks were formed and how the valleys were formed and have evolved. Being so new we did not really know what to expect but having seen it we will be adding it to our suggest excursions and we are working on an Icefield Parkway package that will include several things in a bundle. As I said it is very new and the signage at the visitor centre and the booking procedures does need some improvement but our notes that accompany any of our bookings will help until Brewsters make the final touches. We then grabbed a sandwich at the Crossing one of the 43 places along the way you can get food and the only place you can get Fuel.

Our next stop was a light detour along the David Thompson Highway Hecht, which follows the river towards Rocky Mountain House. We had been invited to do a helicopter trip over the area with a view to putting it into our packages. We have sold it for a number of years but have not promoted it that well. Like all helicopter trips it comes at a cost but it is one of the Canada Signature Experiences which you will see us develop and incorporate into more and more or our trips.
Well it exceeded all our expectations. We reached just over 9000 feet and saw some massive hanging Glaciers and snow more than over 200 foot thick, exceeding our expectations. Fantastic valleys and the pictures just do not do it justice.
The package we did included a 60 minute wilderness stop with champagne.

So what do you get that makes it so great?

Well I have travelled the Icefield Parkway for close to 40 years and really love and appreciate what it is. However going up in the helicopter allows you a behind the scenes experience. You can wonder at the scenery from the road but going up in the air really gives you the feeling of the size of the park. Behind what you see from the road, there are numerous mountains as far as the eye can see. There are issues with doing this trip in timing. What we did was drive past Peyto Lake and on to Banff, going back to Peyto Lake later. We arrived in Banff to check in to the High Country Inn and went for a pleasant meal at Bumpers which is and has been a favourite steakhouse in Banff for years.

Canada Day - Tuesday 1st July

This morning we woke in Banff to bright sunshine and the weather forecast is great with blue skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 20's. Canada really does go to town on National Day (1st July) and it is my view this does a lot to make this a great country when every day the Canadian flag is flown everywhere. Today we went out to visit Bow Falls, Banff Springs hotel and the Hot Springs straight after breakfast. The High Country Inn includes a good continental breakfast which makes life really easy.

Later on we went to Central Park to see the opening ceremony and to hear the National Anthem sung as well as enjoying craft markets, refreshments and bands playing in the grandstand. This included a first rate First Nations dance display and explanation of what each dance meant.

Banff Avenue which is the main road in Banff was closed at 16.00 and at 17.00 when the Parade started. There were marching bands, the mayor and of course the Mounties marched past our hotel. We had a great meal this evening in Tincino's which is next to our hotel, which is a Swiss Italian restaurant proudly flying the Canadian flag that has been in Banff for as long as I can remember. We then strolled back to Central Park to hear some more bands and then watch a fantastic fireworks display which brought the day to a fitting end.

Wednesday 2nd July



Today is our lake day! When we came down the Icefield Parkway, we did not have time to explore from Bow Summit to Banff properly. We always recommend that clients slide past Lake Louise and come back and do that another day. As we did the helicopter ride we had about an hour’s drive back up the Parkway, such a real bore to have to drive yet again one of the world’s top ten drives!

Our first stop was at Bow Summit which is the point at which the waters either flow north to Jasper or South to Banff. Bow glacier is the source of the Bow River that runs through Banff and Calgary. From Bow Summit, which is quite a climb, you get a magical view of Peyto Lake (pictured above and taken by us). The weather was now hot and sunny with not a cloud in the sky. Our next stop was Bow Lake which is very high on my personal list of favourite lakes. We stopped at the Lodge for coffee and some pictures and then travelled down to the South end of the lake to the normal view point. Top Tip here is to follow the small road that starts at the view point and gives a fantastic view back down the lake. You can do it in a car and small Motor Home but a larger Motor Home could have an issue turning. Our next stop was at Hector Lake which is a different colour as it does not have a glacial feed. As such it’s much warmer and there were several hardy souls swimming!



We then stopped at Lake Louise village to buy some sandwiches and had a picnic at Moraine Lake. The boys climbed the pile of glacial moraine that forms the lake to get a spectacular view of the lake. It is quite a tough climb but worth the effort. There was a slight wind today which was good in view of the heat but caused ripples on the lake. On a still day you do get a fantastic reflection of the mountains in the Lake.

It is only a short drive then to Lake Louise. This is a very scenic lake but not my personal favourite. There is a great walk around the lake to the tea house that is about 2.5 miles. It is always busy and is a must do visit but I suspect like me your favourite lake will be another!

We stopped again in Lake Louise village to buy an ice cream and then drove back to Banff down Highway 1A which is the old Trans Canada highway. It is now a much quieter road and often there is a good chance of seeing wildlife. Unfortunately, not much happening today except a large bull Elk. Another nice meal, this time at Melissa's, another long time Banff favourite. Tomorrow it is on to Calgary to see the Stampede.


Thursday 3rd July

Woke up to bright sunshine this morning again in Banff. We went up Sulphur Mountain this morning on the gondola, good view from the top, although because we did it first thing in the morning, slightly hazy. It does give you a spectacular bird’s eye view of the geography and position of Banff (nearly as good as a helicopter trip). From there we left Banff and headed out along Highway 40 through Kananaskis, which adjoins Banff National Park. Although not an actual park, Kananaskis is an area that incorporates quite a few Alberta provincial parks and some private land. It is actually an area where Calgary plays, so there is whitewater rafting opportunities, good walking trails and wildlife viewing opportunities, including mountain sheep and bears, etc. From Highway 40 we joined Highway 22 and headed south to Longview. It was at this point we had arranged with our daughter in law’s parents to pick up my wife and myself as our friends wanted to visit Waterton National Park, rather than travel to the Stampede. Our friend suffers from asthma that can be triggered by horses and dust, so the Stampede is not the best experience for her, much as she would have liked to have done it.

We checked into our hotel, the Coast Plaza, sorted out our tickets, and in particular the tickets for the Grandstand on the Parade Route, which had been delivered directly to the hotel by our suppliers. We then had dinner with our daughter in laws parents before retiring to bed.

Friday & Saturday 4 & 5 July - Calgary Stampede

The trip I have just undertaken was deliberately timed to fit with the Stampede dates, and in particular timed so that we could be there for the Opening Day Parade.

Each year the 10 days of Stampede starts with a spectacular downtown parade around the streets of Calgary. The closest thing that I can liken it to in the UK is the Lord Mayor’s Parade in London, with cowboys, Indians and Mounties on horseback also participating. The parade itself takes over two hours to pass any fixed point on its journey.

There are two options for seeing it: (1) is to stand on the street and watch, and as the locals do take their fold up garden chairs and sit and watch, many putting them out on the street the night before chained together. (2) However we suggest that as the parade is of the length it is, that to use some of the grandstand seating that is erected gives a comfortable sitting option and a better chance to see the parade. In terms of your total holiday cost it is quite low, but it is very difficult to get hold of. It is something that cannot be bought locally on the day and unfortunately it is something that we will not sell as a stand-alone product. The parade itself was, as usual, quite spectacular and it is interesting to see for instance the good PR job that the local police force does, with the motorbikes clearing the route and the motorbike policemen stopping to have photographs taken with young and older admirers, as well as furnishing many of the children with a sheriff’s badge. The parade had finished passing our vantage point at 11.45am. The afternoon rodeo performance starts at 1.15pm and we believe that there is not sufficient time to get from the downtown core to the Stampede grounds on the same day. We therefore book our clients into the evening performance on that day. It does make it quite a long day and for those who book earlier enough and have a hotel in the downtown core, there is the chance to go back to the hotel for an afternoon nap if one wishes. We were staying at the Coast Plaza Hotel, which is not in the downtown core and many of our clients stay there as we can get good availability from the hotel and it is well connected to the centre and the Stampede Grounds on the C Train. The C Train is part of the Calgary transit system and is best likened to the Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester tram systems. There is a C Train station not far from the Coast Plaza Hotel taking you directly to City Hall, which is the hub of the train system. Here you can easily change to other lines including the one out to the Stampede.

We went to the evening performance, which starts at 7.45pm. There are lots of options within the showground to eat, ranging from hamburgers to hot dogs through to fish and chips, corndogs and a first class buffet in the main grandstand that does not have to be booked and has a fabulous view of the arena. We were hosted to dinner at the buffet by the Calgary Stampede organisation and our grateful thanks for this privilege. The evening starts with nine chuck wagon races, each featuring four teams. Over the 10 days of Stampede the 36 teams are eventually whittled down to four teams, who compete for the $100,000 main prize. This is serious business and a serious amount of money is at stake each and every night as well. The teams race round a half mile oval, four horses pulling a wagon with two outriders. There are probably very few more exciting experiences than watching the chuck wagon racing.

There is then a small intermission whilst a gigantic stage is pulled in front of the grandstand, the electrics hooked up and a spectacular evening musical performance is finally completed around 11.00 to 11.30 each night by a spectacular fireworks display. We then caught the C Train via City Hall back to our hotel.

Due to the long day/late night most clients had a late breakfast, us included, and made their way down to the showground late morning to enjoy some of the other events going on in the showground, including a large agricultural section, a large arts and crafts area and a gigantic midway (that is North American for fairground). The rodeo consists of all the main rodeo elements: calf roping, steer wrestling, bare back riding, bull riding, barrel racing as well as a special event for teams of young children. It is all action, and rodeo does depict and has evolved from the skills required of the cowboy out on the open range. Many of the skills are still used today, horses still need to be broken, calves still need to be roped if they need an injection because they are sick. Remember cattle raising in this area is not in small UK size fields, but fields 20 to 50 times bigger that don’t have orthodox cattle handling facilities. It does make a spectacular sport and the Calgary Stampede is the only rodeo that pays the cowboys a retainer to come. You cannot apply to go to the Calgary Stampede you have to be invited. That being the case only the best are invited, which makes for some of the very best rodeo, other than the Canadian and US national finals most would agree the Calgary Stampede is the best.

We then left the showground and had dinner with our daughter in law’s parents at the Calgary Tower in the revolving restaurant. Some revolving towers have a great view and a poor restaurant, the Calgary tower has a good view and a great restaurant and this is an experience that would be well worth including in a visit to Calgary. We then returned to the hotel.

Sunday 6 July

Time to pack this morning including some presents to transport back to our granddaughter from her Canadian grandparents. We spent a nice day with our daughter in law’s parents at their house before heading to the airport for our flight home. An easy check in at Calgary Airport and our flight departed a few minutes late due to the Air Transat flight to Frankfurt being slightly delayed. As per the outbound, the standard of aircraft and the inflight service was first class with Transat and the meal was tasty. The flight arrived bang on time in Manchester Airport. However, unfortunately I have to say you knew you had returned to the UK. Manchester Airport was a shambles and the immigration was an absolute nightmare. It took over 45 minutes to get through immigration and it is one of the few places I have ever been to in the world where native citizens take longer to get through than overseas’ visitors. Because we had opted for Option Plus, our baggage was on the carousel when we arrived in the terminal. However the main baggage for the flight still hadn’t arrived. To cap it all Manchester Airport charges £1 for a baggage trolley. Not an easy thing to quickly put your hands on when you have just returned from overseas and I would think almost impossible for an overseas’ visitor. What a welcome to the UK. A friend of ours had kindly agreed to pick us up at the airport and take us to our son’s house where the car was, but due to the various delays in Manchester Airport it cost £8.50 in parking charges. Many clients have little or no chance but to use Manchester Airport, but it really needs to get its act together. The outbound experience at Manchester was fantastic.

Summary

As with most holidays, they do turn into a chance to experience or re-experience things that we are selling to clients and to look at new and exciting product that we might want to further promote.

We are quite excited by Canada’s Signature Experience programme and were the first tour operator in the world to add it as a separate section to our website. During this trip we have tried to do quite a lot of those experiences, many of which we have been promoting for quite a period of time. The three that stand out as newer experiences that we will promote strongly are: the seaplane mail run in Victoria, the Icefield Glacier Skywalk between Jasper and Banff and the helicopter ride between Jasper and Banff. You will see descriptions of these on the relevant days and you can probably tell from the excitement in the writing that they are great experiences. However as always Canada delivers: fantastic and contrasting scenery ranging from wonderful sea vistas to the lakes and mountains experience, Mounties to cowboys, but what is common to all is a wonderful and warm hearted Canadian welcome wherever you go. The trip as described is extensive and can obviously be tailored to meet the time constrains of individuals, but if you have time available you will really not be disappointed if you undertake a similar trip. Please feel free to talk personally to me if you wish to discuss any aspects, my direct e mail is: Malcolm.peasnall@uni-travel.co.uk or alternatively you can phone me on 01509 618800.

Thanks for reading this, hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.
The Independent Traveller has over 35 years experience sending customers on holiday to Canada
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