Have cat … will travel

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Whilst some will consider moving to another country in itself a highly stressful experience, I’ve got to say, moving a 19 year old cat (who’s never been much further than the back door) across a continent has proved to be the most ‘cat’-astrophically stress inducing process by far.

For those up to speed on developments, she’s made it.  She arrived into Calgary airport on a direct flight, in a purpose-made wooden crate, and was unimpressed by the surroundings and the fact that her usual warm bed had been substituted for mere strips of newspaper.

It’s been a long process.  Right from the start, I was reluctant to leave her in the UK and indeed, the local vet saw no reason why she shouldn’t fly.  That decision made, it was left to finding an animal transporter who would successfully get her from ‘A’ to ‘B’.  And, I found an absolutely excellent shipper who solely transports small live animals across the world – usually, New Zealand and Australia; so the prospect of sending a cat to Canada for them was not a big deal in the slightest.  They also kindly let her ‘board’ with them for the last 6 weeks whilst we found somewhere to live and get ourselves sorted, regularly keeping me updated with how she was and the latest news.

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My biggest concern was the weather.  And by weather, I mean snow and sub-zero temperatures.  It didn’t help to discover that there are no direct flights to Edmonton from the UK after the end of October.  This means a round trip of 588km to collect her from the ‘local’ airport in Calgary, 3hrs driving each way.  Manageable if the weather is good, but with snow now on the ground and me being slightly new to the ‘driving on ice’ experience, I was nervous about the journey to say the least.  I also had to take the 3 ‘kids’ who viewed the whole saga as an adventure.  Unlike me, their only concern was having enough sugary snacks to last the journey and whether their iPads would hold out for the full trip there and back in keeping them entertained.  I did suggest we could adopt a more traditional style and perhaps talk and spot things on the roads (which was met with rather withering looks from all 3), and I finally conceded that virtually driving in a straight line between Edmonton and Calgary on one road, in a prairie region probably didn’t offer the full range of stimulation that would last them for 6 hours.

Anyhow, I had a stroke of luck.  The weather held for me and the journey was long but straightforward.

Having never transported a cat – or any animal for that matter before, I wasn’t sure how this was done.  Travelling as ‘cargo’, they are managed by a ‘cargo’ team for that specific airline.  Finding my way to Calgary from Edmonton was a piece of cake compared to navigating the whereabouts of the Cargo office at the airport – which was completely away from any passenger terminal or the usual entry points I’m familiar with.  Reams of documentation are required and upon arrival at the cargo office, you wait for the animal to be unloaded, received by the cargo team and all required documentation completed.  This takes about 1 hour after the plane has landed.

Once you’re provided with the landing documentation, you physically go to Customs to get clearance.  This is held with a border official who requires considered responses to all questions posed and checks all the papers to assess the validity of bringing an animal into the country.  If they are satisfied, you’ll get clearance stamped on the papers – plus relieved of $31 dollars.  Goodness knows the protocol for what happens if they refuse to sign …

Back to the Cargo office, the Customs papers with the ‘clearance’ stamp enable the team to charge me a further $55 dollars and I’m finally issued with the last piece of paper which allows me to obtain (and see) the cat.  Moving to another room, and what can only be described as a warehouse complete with JCB’s and mechanical equipment hoisting goods around, you present this final piece of paper and they offer over the cat.

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For the price of the shipment across the waters, you’d be under the impression that the cat is treated to first class luxurious seating and the full use of a personal butler.  I suspect the reality is more along the lines of being placed alongside the passenger luggage in the hold with not so much as a touch screen TV in sight.

So, after a further 3 hours in the car to our new home, she’s now in situ, favouring a bed in the back of a cupboard where it’s warm and she’s left to herself.  She’s eaten lots and been out for a quick look around and walk around the house – before taking herself back to her domain and catching up on some serious catnaps.

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It was worth it and lovely to see her back with us.  However, for anyone considering doing something similar, I’ll warn you now that it’s easier giving birth …

Age? It’s all in the mind …

Heritage.  Whenever I hear the word, I have a preconception about what it includes and immediately assume it can’t possibly interest me as I’m too young and focused on looking forward into the future – not back at times once passed.  However, I accept it’s purely a mindset and sometimes it can offer the stability and grounding that enables us to move forward and build on what we have today.

It was with this in mind that I gingerly entertained the prospect of visiting the Calgary Heritage Park with the kids.  We’d received several prompts and recommendations to visit it – one from an extremely earnest chap fronting the Visitor Information Centre at the bottom of the Calgary Tower.  He was so articulate about the features the Park contained – fabulous bakery, original steam train, Victorian fairground rides, that we were swayed by his enthusiasm and decided to pay it a visit.  And were glad we did.

Calgary Heritage Park      Calgary Heritage Park

It’s Canada‘s largest living history museum and covers Canadian history from 1860 through to the 1950’s, based just south-west of Calgary.  Established in 1964, it’s currently celebrating it’s 50th year and whilst there’s an admission fee, all the fairground rides, train trips and journey on the steamer around the reservoir are completely free.  Not only have they re-created a small village as it originally might have been, they’ve transported many of the historical buildings to the park and placed them on display.  And not as ‘display cabinets’ with ‘do not touch’ signs dotted all around them as you may find in other countries.  No, you’re invited to participate in the houses, they are fully functional with staff playing ‘acting’ roles as residents of the village and acting these out with aplomb.  You genuinely do think you’ve been transported back in time.

Bakery

The bakery was truly fabulous.  Staffed with bakers busily hand-making the produce to sell, we decided to choose a variety of baked goods – the cinnamon rolls were the best we’ve ever had, and the Canadian butter tarts (a speciality of Canada), were absolutely wonderful (to the extent that I’ve had to seek out a recipe online to try and replicate the tarts once we get home!).

At various intervals during the day, the ‘villagers’ act out a ruse and there’s an ongoing saga which continues for a few hours across different parts of the village.  It’s good acting, as authentic as it can get, and the kids loved watching the antics.  There’s an original newspaper press, with two chaps demonstrating and printing an edition of the ‘village’ paper.  Having to explain to ‘kids’ how newspapers were produced compared to today’s modern equivalent is an insight in itself – how quickly technology has moved the newspaper industry forward.  And yet, it’s great to see one in full working condition.

School

We moved onto the school which was complete in all furnishings and decorations.  Blackboards with chalk – again, try explaining to the kids of today who are used to smart boards and IT graphics, how things used to be.  Being British, I was amazed to see the Union Jack up in the classroom and pictures of Queen Anne – I hadn’t quite appreciated the extent to which Canada was a British Colony before it became independent.  It was just like visiting a Victorian classroom in England.

Ice Cream

The kids had heard that there was the opportunity to make home made ice cream, so we made our way to the cottage where this was happening.  I’m ashamed to say I’ve never made ice cream from scratch and watched as the kids all participated in putting the custard and cream in a central compartment, then filling this around the edges with ice and rock salt.  It’s amazingly simple.  They all took turns to churn the ice cream over the next 30 minutes, with their hard work being rewarded with being able to eat what they’d made once it was ready.  Collectively deciding it was ‘the best ice cream they had ever eaten’ and after returning for several repeat scoops until it was finished, is something which has stayed in their memories ever since.

Steam train

We took a trip on the steam train which transports you around the 127 acres, and with 3 stations, provides the opportunity to move quickly from one side of the park to another and see all the various exhibits.  There was an old colonial house with a lady busily making a fruit pie inside with whom you could watch and talk, plus the village store which offers candy sticks and sweets for 50 cents.  There was a saloon offering ales and beers, and we stumbled across a surveyors house with maps and equipment which they used to create the original maps and methods of navigating across the land.  The ‘surveyor’ proudly announced that we were stood in the oldest building in the Heritage Park dating from 1870.  I couldn’t help but smile, as it’s only on occasions like this that you realise how recent that actually is.  In England, we’re so used to history dating back to well before the Roman times, that for something as recent as 1870, it’s classed as modern by our standards – my house in the UK is older than this!  That said, the feats which have been achieved since this time in developing the country are impressive and seeing this in a Heritage Park is a superb way to provide a focus on a country’s history and subsequent development.

Fairground We saved the Victorian fairground till later in the day – as motivation for the kids as we made our way through the many interesting buildings and things to see.  There’s a ferris wheel which provided much amusement, and an old ride very similar to the original ‘waltzer’ running on metal wheels, plus a swing carousal which we all enjoyed.  The best ride of all was a Victorian caterpillar ride which part way through, had a mechanical cover which covers the entire ride – rather like a caterpillar to those watching – but for those in it, means you are cascaded into darkness still moving up and down.  The whole family loved it and with smiles all round, everyone declared it’s as good as the rides of today.  You can forget all the latest gizmos and gadgets – this simplistic form of entertainment had us laughing out loud and having a great time.

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For any motoring buffs out there, there’s ‘gasoline alley’ which is an extensive collection of vintage automobiles in pristine condition – some of which you can sit in and experience ‘hands on’.  There are old oil and gas pumps – you forget how colourful and attractive these were; and along with all the vintage signs and banners, it’s an uplifting and interesting place to see.

So, what did we think about the Heritage Park?  If you’re ever in the vicinity, do check it out.  It certainly made me forget the connotations the word ‘heritage’ usually conjures in my mind.  Heritage is as simple as enjoying the journey from where something has come from, to where it is today – and providing the basis for where we go tomorrow.

Let’s relish it.

Calgary ….. it was a stampede

Calgary Tower

The skyline of Calgary has all the hallmarks of an American city looming into view.  As you come in from the West, you pass the Calgary Olympic Park which was built for the 1988 Winter Olympics.  It’s a huge site, with the iconic sky jump (where Eddie the Eagle made his name), bobsleigh runs, skeleton, smaller jumps and the luge.  It’s a lasting legacy from the Olympics, aimed at every age and ability, but also a source of inspiration and challenge for those wishing to participate at future Olympic Games.

In the distance, you can just make out the Calgary Tower – which held the burning flame at the top and could be seen across the city and beyond – during the 1988 Winter Olympics.  Through the centre of Calgary runs the Canadian Pacific Railway, along with the Bow River which almost divides the City in half.

First on our list was a trip up the Calgary Tower.  At 1228m above sea level, it’s the highest 360 degree observation deck in the world, with a lift taking you to the top in 62 seconds.  Along with the latest technology gadget acting as your information guide in hand and through headphones, you can watch the screen as it maps your progress quickly up the tower.

Calgary    Calgary

At the top, it truly is impressive.  The Tower offers 360 degree views across the city and beyond, and you’re left to your own devices to listen to the guide, use the touchscreen pad, and just take in the sights.  For the brave ones, there’s a clear walkway where you can look straight down the side of the tower and down on to the streets below.  Pretty daunting, but an adrenaline hit all the same.

Calgary TowerFrom the Tower, we walked northwards to the Bow River.  As in Edmonton, the winters are cold and all the buildings and blocks are cleverly connected by ‘pedways’ on the second floor, which enable you to navigate your way across the city without ever venturing outside.  Brilliant!

Older historical buildings from the late 19th Century upto the mid-1930’s are set alongside the modern skyscrapers of today.  In fact, when the original buildings were being constructed, there was a mandate to ensure all the stone used was from the local areas, so therefore, you’re left with buildings in a beautiful yellow sandstone colour nestled in amongst the modern skyscrapers of today.  It gives a wonderful contrast and historical feel to Downtown Calgary.

It’s more of a commercial and business centre than Edmonton, and you do feel a difference in the air between the two.  However, typical of Canadian cities, there’s always parks and play areas for children and adults alike.  The Prince’s Island Park – not named after a royal as you may think, but Peter Anthony Prince, who came to Calgary from Quebec  in 1886.  It’s a superb oasis, also providing host to many of Calgary’s large events, and is an excellent park and area of calm amidst Calgary Downtown.

Prince's Island Park, CalgaryIt would be remiss of me not to mention the shopping opportunities – research obviously I forced myself to undertake purely for the purposes of writing this blog.  Let’s just say, for all female readers out there (and a select portion of men who enjoy the recreational elements of this too), you will not be disappointed.  In fact, not only have they developed large seating areas (‘men waiting rooms’ for all intents and purposes I thought), they provide entertainment for the kids brought along too.  Offering something for everyone and keeping people distracted, whilst those who enjoy the retail experience savour the delights of shop upon shop enticing you in – and doing an excellent job of separating you from your wallet!  We stumbled upon this excellent playground on one of the higher floors of the shopping area which my kids thought totally fantastic – it was excellently maintained, popular with young visitors, and enabled the kids to let off steam and enjoy the ‘shopping’ experience!  The Canadian approach to shopping and facilities for children especially, is something the UK could learn a lot from.  I struggled to get them off it after 30 mins …

Calgary shopping mall play areaOne of Calgary’s most famous annual events is the ‘stampede’ which we had just missed – it’s held in July every year.  Clearly popular, there is still all the signage and banners on display, and the number of ‘cowboy’ or ‘western outfitters’ which provide the full ‘gear’ was interesting to see.  Just the smell of the leather as you pass the outlets was inviting in itself – and the range of clothes, boots, hats and accessories was staggering.  For someone who knows nothing about this whole area (not much call for it in north-west England), it was a brief glance into another world.

Whilst we were there, Calgary – along with Vancouver and Toronto – has been voted as one of the best places to live in the world by The Economist.  In fact, it comes in at number 5.  It is delightful, and even as a tourist, it’s a lovely city to visit and enjoy.  Whilst extremely glad we came, I personally prefer Edmonton, and am now looking to forward to returning back ‘up north’.  Maybe it’s my inherent northern traits coming out …

Tourists, tourists, everywhere

Banff National Park I’ve mentioned in past blogs about the delights of travelling in Canada, the ability to enjoy the country and savour the surroundings without significant numbers of tourists and volumes of traffic.  There’s an imaginary line which starts at Lake Louise and follows the Trans-Canadian highway down to Banff – both beautiful places and the highway connecting the two has wonderful vistas, but it’s also the honeypot every tourist is seeking to taste.

The drive south of Lake Louise down to Banff is relatively short (by Canadian standards) – and not deprived of scenic vistas and mountain views.  In fact, I thought the Banff National Park particularly stunning but for those wishing to savour the experience and the views with an element of authenticity, an out of season visit would be more fruitful.  Upon arrival in Banff, and as in Lake Louise, you’re surrounded by tourist coaches, cars and people whisking tourists and their cameras to their next destination stop.  It has character, but this is masked somewhat by the volumes of people equally wanting to sample some of the atmosphere and views.

We stopped and walked along the main street.  They have a great playground for kids which is just outside the Banff Information Office and museum – a large granite stone which encourages children to climb and play on – the kids loved it.  I just felt it too touristy (sorry Banff), and was keen to continue our journey to Canmore which is only a further 20 minutes drive south.

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Canmore has the feel of a working Canadian town – almost the place where those working in Banff actually live and relax.  There’s an excellent brewery – the Grizzly Paw Company – which brews it’s own beers and sodas in a beautiful wooden brewery just outside the main town centre.  Definitely worth a visit – they offer ’tastings’ of both beers and sodas, but after my youngest ‘kid’ asked for her fourth ’sample’ of the grapefruit soda, we felt we were outstaying our welcome.  (As an aside, they do tours around the brewery on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday – had we managed to coordinate our schedule, we’d have loved to participate in this).  We had to be content with tasting some of the beer, buying a dozen bottles of both beers and sodas, and chalking this up as a ‘must visit again’ when we move over to Canada properly.

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The town of Canmore has real character and a buzz about it.  Each store is individual, distinctive and seems to epitomise Canadian living.  We stumbled across ’The Banff Bagel Company’ – a cafe which makes it’s own bagels and offers coffees in a variety of strengths and  flavours.  It’s homely and warm, and we ordered several bagel sandwiches which were ‘to die for’.  The pace is relaxed and unhurried, you really do feel as though you could stay in there all day.  As for the bagels themselves, if I ever want a bagel sandwich in the future, each and every one will be measured by the superb taste and texture of the one I devoured here.  We loved Canmore and felt it was a truer reflection of a town in the National Park, and one without significant numbers of tourists – although the irony that we are tourists too, isn’t lost on me!!!

Sad to leave, we progressed along the Trans-Canadian Highway to Calgary.  All in all, from Lake Louise to Calgary it takes approx 2 hours.  You exit the National Park and slowly the mountains get more distant, the land gradually flattens out as Calgary looms closer.

The city calls …

Best places to live in Canada? Big isn’t always best …

 

Official logo of St. Albert

Official logo of St. Albert

Given the size and epic scale of Canada, you’d think there would be a natural gravitation towards larger cities as being the better places to live.  Whilst Calgary certainly factors up there in number 2 spot for 2014 (Moneysense 2014 survey of best places to live), a much smaller town appears in the number 1 position – St Albert.

Luckily for me, it’s a small ‘town’ to the north-west of Edmonton in the state of Alberta.  It’s a small community with a population of 64,000, unemployment is low, incomes are amongst the highest in Canada, crime rates are low, and whilst the winter is extremely cold and long, it’s sunny all year round.  20 minutes drive from Edmonton (who, incidentally, was placed 8th overall, 3rd best largest city to live in after Calgary and Ottawa), St Albert has an abundance of open spaces, active areas for sports of all types, and for those with ‘kids’ it seems to tick all the boxes, and is a parents’ dream.

St Albert Clocktower Downtown. Originally post...

St Albert Clocktower Downtown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St Albert has been mentioned to me by many people as ‘the’ place to live when we relocate.  My husband visited it for the first time last week and (as instructed), came home at the weekend weighed down with maps, leaflets, newspapers and general ‘bumf’ about things to do, places to stay, where to eat, schools to attend.  In fact, the most noticeable feature when you look at the street map, is the amount of play areas, parks, woodlands and sporting facilities there are available.  He described walking around almost every corner to be greeted by another ‘park’ with climbing frames to die for – in fact, based on my middle ‘kids’ recent exploits and ability to fracture her wrist from some monkey bars (see previous blog), she’d be able to break almost every bone in her body each week for a year from what he saw in the play areas and the range of stuff to climb and generally have fun on.  (Better make sure the medical cover is up to date 🙂 )

 

As in the UK, the weather was hot last week in St Albert, with paddling pools in abundance and fountains spraying water over pre-school children who were clearly in their element.  These turn to ice rinks during the winter months when the snow arrives.  There are basketball courts, rugby fields, soccer fields, tennis courts, athletic tracks, cross-country skiing facilities, BMX parks, canoeing, water parks and of course, swimming pools.  Ice hockey pitches, fishing, golfing and nature trails also appear.  And all this, in an area with a population size of 64,000.

St Albert Playground

64,000 people doesn’t sound a lot, and when I look at places I’m familiar with in the North-West of England, it’s equivalent to the population of Bury, a town just north of Manchester (yes, the one with the 2 football teams), and the place I was born and brought up in.  I can probably recollect a few of the facilities in the list above being available, but certainly nothing the size and scale of leisure and active sports Canada seems to offer.

On the accommodation front, I hear it’s a busy market with properties not appearing and staying long on the open market before being snapped up.  Not surprisingly, if the range of facilities is anything to go by, the sheer number of schools built to educate the youngsters, and the promotional material advertising it’s place in the top spot, it sounds like a prime location and let’s just hope we manage to secure even a tiny spot for the 5 of us.

I’m sure there’s a little space …