Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Interlude In Canada 2011

Hi Everyone,
How apt that I begin to write about our fabulous Canadian tour from Charlottetown, the birthplace of Canada. It was here that Confederation began in 1864. Charlottetown, the capital of Prince Edward Island (P.E.I) is the smallest of the three Maritime Provinces. Seafood and potatoes are being sidelined as tourism is taking over as the major part of the economy, largely due to the classic tale of Anne of Green Gables penned by Lucy Maud Montgomery in 1908.

The Confederation Bridge

After de-training (as they say here) from our overnight sleeper carriage on The Ocean Train from Quebec City, we crossed the amazing 13 km curved Confederation Bridge and like most tourist to P.E.I, we flocked to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish National Historic site. The beautifully preserved historic home which inspired the tale of the famous fictional character is set in a peaceful garden, surrounded by rolling green hills leading to intriguing trails through wooded areas

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish National Historic site

Secret wooded trail

 Some of our group donned Anne’s signature straw hat with red braids attached and enjoyed a few special moments mind-drifting in the fantasy world of Anne.

Our tour officially began in Vancouver on 24 Sept when the full group met up with the eight who had arrived a week earlier to cruise the Inside Passage to Alaska. 75% of the group had travelled with Interlude Tours previously, so it was like one big happy excited family eager to discover Canada together. Immediately we took the ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island to stay at the iconic Empress Hotel in Victoria.

The Empress Hotel Victoria

The highlight of this stay was definitely the immaculate and breathtaking Butchart Gardens. Whatever the plants here are fed, I want some for my garden. The tremendous variety of magnificent flowers and shrubs seemed twice the normal size with colours twice as vibrant, all growing happily in this weed-less stunning garden.

On a rainy day, we returned to Vancouver on the Nanaimo / Horseshoe Bay ferry taking in the Capilano Suspension Bridge. The rain only added to the thrill of our breathtaking walk across this swinging bridge, first constructed in 1889 and suspended 450 feet across the and 230 feet above the Capilano River. Not for the faint hearted.

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Cliff walk
Vancouver is notorious for changeable weather and that’s exactly what we got. Sunny days mixed with light rain. Certainly the weather did not stop our exploration of the city highlights such as Stanley Park with the wonderful display of Native Totem Poles, Gastown, Chinatown, English Bay, and Granville Island etc. However the view from Grouse Mountain over the city was veiled with mist so this sight was left to our imagination. 

As luck would have it, apart from a couple of sprinkles, we did not see rain again for 15 days and even then it was light and only nuisance value. Every day we marveled at our weather-fortune particularly in the Maritimes where we experienced mainly Indian summer days. It was hard to believe that the week before the area had had snow, been hit by gale force winds so strong the Confederation Bridge was closed for 38 hours, electricity was cut and many areas were flooded.

Our Canadian rail travel began with the breathtaking 3 ½ hr Sea to Sky route from Vancouver to the gorgeous ski village of Whistler. Plenty of highlights during this train journey with stunning scenery of the Coast Mountains, Brandywine Falls, Mount Garibaldi and the ever impressive Cheakamus Canyon.

After spending an afternoon and night in Whistler Village, we boarded the renowned Rocky Mountaineer Train for the two day ride to Jasper. It soon became evident why this rail journey is known as one of the most spectacular train trips in the world. Just as the brochures promise, the varied scenery is breathtaking, from river canyons and lush farmland, through to desert-like conditions of the Fraser Canyon, rolling hills and ranch lands of the Cariboo Plateau and finally the stunning Rocky and Cariboo Mountains.

On board the Rocky Mountaineer

As it turned out, we got a lot more than what was promised in the brochure; in the middle of what looked like no-where, between Quesnel and Jasper, the train engine decided it did not want to go any further; it stopped! Engineers failed to coax it back to life and eventually buses arrived to take all the passengers to Jasper by road which wasn’t at all unpleasant as the scenery was just the same. During the 3 hr wait for the buses our carriage turned into what the train staff called ‘the party carriage’. Led by the Aussie Interlude Tour group, mainly one John Savage, who was in his element with a captive audience, we did have a great time making friends with other passengers, a sing-along or two accompanied by the trusty Uke of course, plus shared some Aussie jokes etc. As a reward for being so cheerful and uncomplaining, the passengers from our carriage were put into the first bus and shipped off to Jasper. At least that was the reason we were given…..could there have been another explanation, I wonder!!!
Entertaining the carriage during the breakdown

Top marks to The Rocky Mountaineer staff and management. The bewildered train staff had never experienced a breakdown on this train before. They did so well, they kept us informed of developments and fed, watered and wined us while supplies lasted. A letter of apology plus a lovely Rocky Mountaineers souvenir book was delivered to every passenger over the next day or so along with notification of a $100 compensation refund.

Our coach trip from Jasper to Banff along the Icefields Parkway that splits British Columbia and Alberta took us through more spectacular natural beauty of mountains peaks, lakes and valleys. We stopped at the Athabasca Falls and walked on the Athabasca Glacier considered to be one of the largest bodies of ice below the Arctic. That was a rather unique experience.

Athabasca Glacier

Walking on the Athabasca Glacier

Arriving at quaint Banff and staying in the beautiful Banff Springs Hotel to relax for a few days was a perfect stop before saying goodbye to Western Canada and flying from Calgary and to Montreal in Quebec Province.
Looking down on the Bamff Springs from Sulphur Mountain

To me, Montreal is just as French as Paris. This lively cultured and artistic cosmopolitan city has a great historic heritage. It blends old and new well. A 33km underground pedestrian network of boutiques, restaurants and theatres all designed to capture the natural light is fascinating. As a contrast Old Montreal is rather special with its narrow cobblestone rues, carriages, wonderful restaurants and rather expensive boutique hotels.

Underground shopping mall

Old blends with new in Montreal

Inside the Montreal Basilica

  A visit to Montreal would not be complete without having a smoked meat sandwich at the legendary Schwartz’s Deli, so of course we did that and were not disappointed.

Line up for Schwartz Deli & a smoked sandwich

Jack & John share a smoked meat sandwich for lunch

If Montreal is just as French as Paris, in my opinion, Quebec City is more french that Paris….. Does that make sense? Anyway you know what I mean. We travelled again by train, this time VIA rail from Montreal to John’s favourite city, Quebec City and stayed at the imposing Chateau Frontenac in Old Quebec city. What a treat to stay in this glorious building perched on the bank of the mighty St Lawrence River and just a few steps away oldest shopping street in North America plus lovely cafes and restaurants, the Artist’s Alley and many quaint boutiques to browse. Our group made a visit to the impressive Montmorency Falls which is said to be 1 1/2 times higher than Niagara Falls. One couple in our group is convinced that the Fitzroy Falls in Australia are even higher. They may be right.

Chateau Frontenac

Back on a train again and an overnight sleeper took us to the Maritimes and our first night in Charlottetown P.E.I. where I started this narrative of our tour.

Magnificent autumn colours

Great aspect from the view carriage

  It also took us to our first mouth-watering, lip smacking dinner of the sweet fresh Maritime lobster the lucky locals take for granted. This of course was not the last lobster dinner we feasted on. Along with clam and seafood chowder we unashamedly gorged on these luscious delicacies at every opportunity of which there were many over the next 7 days as we toured Nova Scotia. Unfortunately proof is in the expanding waistline!

The three Maritime Provinces are different to the other Canadian Provinces I have been to. There is a sense of calmness and the cities are like big country towns with a lay-back pace to match. The natural beauty is everywhere and our visit was heightened by the magnificent display of colours particularly around the Cabot Trail.

Warm Canadian hospitality when we called on friends in Brule Bay.

The interesting history of the battles to control this area and its rich resources and easy access to the sea is well preserved in excellent museums and galleries. Nova Scotia was the first of the Maritimes to be colonized by Europeans. The province has many claims to fame; it produced internationally famous artists including Anne Murray, Sarah McLaughlin and Rita McNeil plus actor Donald Sutherland and Alexander Graham Bell is honoured with a museum in Baddeck where he lived and is buried. Other claims to fame are the invention of kerosene, frozen fish and shrink-proof underwear plus the ‘trap-door in long johns for men!

Alexander Graham Bell Museum -National Historic Site in Baddeck

Our Aussie girls admire the quilting of the Baddeck ladies

Stepping back to 1744 at Louisbourg Fortress - another National Historic Site

Historic Halifax is set on the site of the world’s second largest natural harbour (Sydney harbour is bigger) and has the busiest port in all of Canada. This port is the home of Canada’s largest naval base. We took a sightseeing city tour on the Harbour Hopper, an old army duck converted to an amphibious vehicle which took us around the city and then on the harbor to see the city from the water. We were blessed with a very clear sunny day, as Halifax has very few clear days around the harbour.

Halifax harbour

Changing of the guard at the National Historic Sit - The Citadel Halifax

We had a somber stop at the Titanic grave site in the Fairview cemetery where many of the victims of the Titanic disaster are buried.
The graves of Titanic victums are arrange like the bow of a ship.
 No visit to Nova Scotia would be complete without a visit to the stunning little fishing village and famous red and white lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove. Of course we did the tourist thing and stopped also at the beautifully preserved 18th century town of Lunenburg with its splendid coloured buildings. Unfortunately the Fisheries Museum was closed the day we were there and the famous Bluenose 11 (the reproduction of the race winning schooner) was undergoing refurbishment and not on display.
Peggy's cove

Our tour officially finished with 2 nights in Toronto after which the group dispersed with only three going directly home to Australia. Others went to different parts of the USA, to the UK and four of us onto my very favorite city; bustling New York City for six exciting days.
Everyone agreed it was a fantastic tour. The weather was extremely kind to us, a real bonus when travelling. The autumn colours were magnificent adding to the already stunning natural beauty of Canada. We consumed scrumptious food throughout, particularly the lobster and seafood in the Maritimes.
Colours on the Cabot Trail
Our accommodation was varied and I’m happy to modestly boast; well selected! We slept and dined in some of the most iconic hotels in the country including the very regal Empress Hotel in Victoria, The Banff Springs Hotel, the stunning Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City and the Royal York in Toronto along with some unique boutique hotels and even one excellent motel on Bras De’or Lake at Baddeck in NS. My two favourite stays were both in NS; The Waverley Inn - a real comfortable home away from home in this historic Inn in downtown Halifax. Have a peek
 and the Train Station Inn in Tatamagouch, a unique concept where our rooms were converted boxcars or cabooses in one of Canada’s oldest railway stations which has been lovingly converted into an award winning country inn. The old telegraph room is now a gift shop, breakfast was served in the former men’s waiting room and we spent after dinner time in the guest lounge, once the Vice Royal carriage.

Train Station Inn

Our Boxcar accommodation

Boxcar bathroom
Canadians are ever so hospitable, welcoming and eager to please. The cheerful and helpful attitude of staff in the service industries such as shops, restaurants, train stations, transport and hotels is truly amazing. Sadly one cannot help but compare this with the often shoddy and belligerent service received in many like establishments in Australia.
Australians do however have a couple of things over the Canucks – we know how to make tea and good coffee. We have one added tax (GST) across the country which is including in the displayed price. Canada does not have a uniform tax. The taxes vary in each province – with some provinces having 3 different taxes which can add up to 17% onto the displayed price of items, food etc.

After this very successful tour, I’m now eager to step onto home soil again. Unpacking and sorting the mail pile and emails in not something I look forward to, however catching up with friends, relatives and neighbours certainly is. So hopefully we will meet up soon.