For research purposes only, you understand ….

wine

There are few better pleasures to look forward to each day than collapsing onto a comfy sofa in an evening with a glass of vino.  Not a day goes by without hearing on the radio yet another ‘research article’ on whether 1 glass, 2 glasses, no glasses, red glass, white glass, whatever …. are good for your health, prolongs your life, or reduces it considerably.  I’m prepared to take the chance.  I don’t care whether it’s the latest fad or whether there’s proven evidence that drinking a glass a night is bad for you.  I wonder whether there’s been detailed research on the best or worst times of day to succumb ….. maybe I’ll have to volunteer ……

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Anyhow, one of the delights of being in Western Canada is that the Okanagan Valley, located in the south of British Columbia, is home to one of the most prolific wine-growing regions throughout Canada. It’s also a massive fruit-growing region with farmers stands at the sides of roads where you can purchase their mouth-watering produce, or even go in and pick some yourself from their overflowing fruit orchards.  Nestled between the temperate rainforests of coastal British Columbia, and the world’s only inland temperate forest on the western slopes of the Columbia mountains, it receives relatively low rainfall and enjoys hot temperatures – so attracts over 200 different commercial vineyards where nearly every style of wine is produced, with over 60 different grape varieties.  I’m on a mission to sample each one ….

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Since arriving in Canada, we’ve taken a keen interest in Canadian produce so given that one of the items from our bucket list was to visit a vineyard (or two), we thought we’d take a road trip to the next province and see what all the fuss is about.  For research purposes only, you understand …

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Now, having come from the UK, one of the things about living in Canada that we continuously struggle to appreciate, is the sheer vastness and scale of the country.   What looks like small distances on a map, are actually huge monster drives.  The Okanagan, for example, is fairly ‘close’ to Edmonton at just over 540 miles (870 km) away, taking at least 9 hours constant driving, during which you cross over the time-line, scale the Canadian Rockies, go through at least 3 national parks, traverse 2 mountain passes – witnessing the climate and dramatic scenery changes as you go.  It’s stunning.  Once you hit the Canadian Rockies, it’s virtually just one road too – the Trans-Canada highway – beside which for the most part, you travel alongside the Canadian Pacific Railway line and the huge red CPR freight trains that epitomise Canada.

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Once you reach the Okanagan, there are vineyards and fruit orchards galore.   The terrain reminded us of being in Tuscany in Italy, with huge lakes and rolling vineyards – it’s a beautiful place to visit.  There are local maps detailing where all the vineyards are, and you can drive in and sample their produce – oh, and purchase a few bottles too (it’d be rude not to).  For kids and adults alike, the lakes are superb to swim and play in – crystal clear waters and at various locations, activity platforms harness small zip-lines on which you can throw yourself in the lake.  You need to in those temperatures too ……

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But it’s the road trip through the Rockies and the national parks that is the most spectacular.  If you’re prepared to do some research, you can hunt out various stop-off points along the way which are just hidden off the main Trans-Canada highway – literally, within a few meters too.  Boardwalk trails which not only give you 20 mins to stretch your legs, are within steps of the parking lot, and can see you deep within the forest – walking amidst Giant Cedar trees, many of which are over 500 years old.  Just watch your tank of petrol during the road trip as the distances are so large and the availability of gas stations few and far between – it’s an extremely long walk if you run out!!

So, I’d definitely recommend it.  The road trip, the scenery, the lakes and the wine.  I may have to take a repeat trip …. for research purposes only, you understand …. 🙂

Three cheers to the grandparents

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We’re nearing the end of the Canadian visits from the grandparents, and both sets have had a truly wonderful first-time experience of this vast country.  Not only has it been lovely having familiar faces around – it’s amazing how much you miss not just being able to ‘pop round’ or arrange an impromptu weekend visit every now and then – but the seniors in the family and the youngest 3 members, have thoroughly enjoyed spending time together.  Common factors are clear winners with both sets – demands for ice-cream, desserts, cakes and biscuits – I’ve had to be the umpire and affect some degree of sensibility otherwise the oldest and youngest generations would be eating them continuously!  Grandparents have clearly been leading the kids astray … 😉

My in-laws are in their mid-80’s and had never envisaged a trip to Canada, believing that physical limitations and sheer old-age, preventative factors.  However, following a series of prompts by us and eventually, just buying tickets with the dates for their travel, meant there was nothing for it, but for them to board the plane – and they arrived without incident and importantly, all completely intact.

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That was nearly 3 weeks ago and during this time we’ve seen an abundance of superb weather and also some excellent trips out – both near and far.  It’s made us explore and find things to do that all parties enjoy, and for the last 3 weeks it’s been particularly challenging as accessibility with wheelchairs has had to be incorporated into the mix.  I’ve had to balance limited physical abilities alongside the abundance of energy my 3 kids display and need to burn off on a daily basis.

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So, we’ve had some delightful trips.  One was to the Muttart Conservatory in Edmonton.  It’s set in the River Valley just outside downtown Edmonton, and has 4 glass pyramids.  For those familiar with ‘Eden’ in the UK, it’s very similar but on a much smaller scale.  That said, the Muttart Conservatory is an accredited museum and is home to one of Canada’s largest botanical collections.

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There are 3 biomes, each displaying a specific climate year-long.  Temperate (very similar to the climate in Edmonton), Arid (desert and drought-like), and Tropical (humid and hot) each host an array of botanical delights that have their own appeal.  The kids loved wandering around and looking at the different varieties.  The fourth pyramid is entitled ‘Feature’ and provides a themed display which changes approximately 7 times a year.  At the moment, it’s theme is ‘Journey to Middle Earth’, and along with a ‘hobbit’ home, wizard, dragon breathing out plumes of smoke through its nostrils, along with cascading waterfalls – it was truly amazing.  There was a photo with both dragon and my mother-in-law that both myself and my father-in-law had a chuckle about as we both had the same caption in mind.  Suffice to say, I’ve not included it here, I’ll leave it to your imagination – you’ve only got the painted dragon to feast your eyes on below.  The latter pyramid was definitely the most striking of the four, but with wheelchair access available throughout the displays, it meant all members of our party could see everything and experience it together.  Brilliant.

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Fort Edmonton was another day-trip affair.  Edmonton’s heritage park takes you back to 4 eras.  The original Fort built in Edmonton from 1846 signifying the fur-trade era is an impressive structure, and shows how tough it must have been to live and survive in such a harsh climate without the joys of central heating or warm clothing.

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A street depicting 1885, and the hardships the first settlers had to go through is full of original buildings from this time which have been re-sited and located in the park alongside each other.  This is followed by a street from 1905 and Edmonton’s growing municipality, and then finally 1920 with ice-cream parlours, motor vehicles and movie-theatres.  It’s brilliantly done, staff are dressed in clothing from their specific eras and take the form of residents in each of the communities.

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There’s a steam engine and street tram providing rides and assisting in the transportation across the park, plus a fair and midway – attraction park with carousel rides and other amusement delights from the early 1900’s.  Well worth a visit – but leave yourselves a day for the privilege and don’t forget to pack a picnic 🙂

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Further afield, and a trip to Western Canada isn’t complete without a visit to the mountains and the awe-inspiring Rockies.  Jasper was as beautiful as ever – we’ve been there 3 times now in the last 12 months, and has become our favourite destination of choice.  Lovely to see the mountains without snow for a change, whilst the most impressive view was when my oldest kid and I took a walk around Lac Beauvert at 6am in the morning.  The sun casting red glows on the peaks of the mountains above and only the sound of the animals for company – staggeringly beautific and iconic.

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This was followed by a brief jaunt to Lake Louise, a mega tourist attraction, but when you arrive at the lake you completely understand exactly why.  Nestled in between the mountains, the lake is the most gorgeous turquoise colour you can imagine, and it’s a view you can never tire off.  The older generation were staggered by the breathtaking scenery and along with a car journey that takes you through the Icefields Parkway – one of the most scenic drives in Canada – were stuck for words.  It even took their minds away from the lure of ice creams for a brief period!

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Back in Edmonton, we’re now taking things easy for the last few days of the grandparents stay with us and I’m sure it’s a trip they’ll never forget – for numerous reasons.  More importantly, it’s given everyone a replenished sense of connection with one another, shared experiences, and unforgettable memories.  It just goes to show, that no matter how old you are, you can experience things you never thought possible – and truly benefit from the process.

It’s going to be quiet next week …… !!  🙂

The path less travelled …

Lake Louise

When the scenery is so spectacular constantly, you start to get complacent about seeing ‘yet another stunning view’ of a turquoise coloured lake set amidst fabulous mountain views.  Yet, that’s what you’re up against when travelling south on the Icefields Parkway and down to Lake Louise.

Despite all the hype, Lake Louise was smaller than I anticipated.  It’s a small village and venturing further west, you finally reach the superb glacial lake named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta – the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria (bet you never knew that!).  On arrival at the Lake from the road, and at the eastern end of the shore is the imposing structure of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise – one of Canada’s grand railway hotels and built by the Canadian Pacific Railway early in the 20th Century.

Fairmont Lake Louise

Clearly open to tourists, hikers, general public access, as well as hotel guests, it’s a small area attempting to accommodate huge numbers.  In fact, the sheer number of coaches delivering coach load after coach load of visitors just to survey the surroundings was immense to the point of population overload.  You can’t help but feel that Lake Louise has been too successful in gaining such a worldwide reputation that even in the heights of summer (goodness knows what the lure of winter skiing does to overall visitor numbers), but it does detract from the majesty of the place somewhat.

We took a walk along the shoreline from the hotel to just under the glacier, then started to climb up hill for a couple of kilometres.  The tourist numbers rapidly fell away (once the ability to hold a cappuccino in hand whilst taking a shot on a camera proved too challenging with an uphill climb), and only then did you start to get a feel for the real beauty of the place, the quietness, and the fantastic views that can only be achieved with a degree of effort and steadfastness.  Luckily all 3 ‘kids’ were adequately incentivised by the prospect of an ice cream and drink should they manage the ‘circular route’ – a route let me say, that for some bizarre reason was left with my husband reading the map.  Not a normal feature as his navigational abilities are renown – but for completely the  opposite reason!  I’m still not sure what happened, but the 4.2km ‘circular tour’ turned into an 8.7km ‘hike’ – he denies all knowledge and blames the map – however, we made it back to the lakeside where we started, somewhat shattered and with aching limbs and muscles, but all glad we’d made the climb and knowing we’d witnessed something of Lake Louise that the vast majority of transitory visitors fail to experience.

Lake Louise

In the winter, not only is there skiing, but the Canadian national cross-country skiing team train there.  The Lake freezes and there’s the opportunity to skate on the Lake which I bet is superb with the glacier above.

At dinner that evening, we sat next to an older couple from Texas who told us they were travelling from Houston up to Alaska and then a bit of a round trip back down to Texas which would take them a month to complete.  They’d never been to Alaska and that was reason enough to visit – but were stopping off at Lake Louise en route.  They’d stayed nearby 20 years before but had always hankered after staying at the Fairmont – so 20 years later, their wishes came true.  They spent their dinner sat next to us and luckily it didn’t put them off and they offered us a stay in Texas if we ever find ourselves in the vicinity!  That’s one thing to be said for everyone we’ve met whilst in Canada – they are the friendliest and most hospitable set of people I’ve ever come across anywhere else in the world.  They take time to converse, offer advice and will go out of their way to assist – it’s a lesson we could all learn a lot from.

Moving south of Lake Louise, you get the views of Banff National Park (still no moose, bears or wolves), and finally stumble into Banff itself.  The instalment continues …

Ice Station, No Zebra (or moose, or bear…..)

Up there on the tourist list of ‘must do’s’ is to drive along the Icefields Parkway – it starts just south of Jasper and takes you through Lake Louise and down to Banff.  At 120 miles long and built during the Depression, it’s an impressive drive in all manners of the word – both size and scale – and one thing to note, always ‘plan for the unplanned’.  You may think that the sat nav calculation of the time it’ll take you to travel from one vista to the next is broadly accurate, but you’ll need to at least double this as it won’t account for the numerous stops you’ll make in-between this just to ‘snap’ the view and take a few moments to savour the scenery and peace.

On route south from Jasper, you’ll come across the Athabasca Falls.  It’s where the Saskatchewan River is forced through a narrow gap in the rocks and the thunder and pace of the water is ferocious, frightening and mesmerising.  It’s only a few moments from the highway and well worth the detour ….

Athabasca Falls   Athabasca Falls

In fact, from the highway, you quickly get a view of the river once more as you pass the falls and you would never know such a falls exist.  Just goes to show, it doesn’t take much just off the highway to see the miracles of nature….

Continuing southwards, the most notable (and busiest attraction by far) is the Athabasca Glacier and the visitor centre that is built directly opposite it.  It’s the largest glacial expanse of snow south of the Arctic, and at the mountain peak, it’s suggested that the depth of the glacier is 100m deep.  Worryingly, the glacier is decreasing in size each year – they suggest it loses 15m each year as the amount of the decline in the glacier is faster than the corresponding annual snowfall.  There’s a marker of where the glacier was in 1843, and you can see how dramatic the decline has been since that date.  You can’t help but think that the vehicles and tourists now visiting it on a daily basis especially during the summer months, is exacerbating this somewhat.  That said, to take a trip on the snow mobiles onto the glacier itself, stand on it, see the height of the ice, the majesty of the glaciers and drink the freezing water, it’s a life experience in every sense of the word.

Athabasca Glacier      IMG_3698   Glacial Water

One of the newest features near the glacier is the Glacier Skywalk which only opened in May this year.  It’s beautifully constructed, and apart from being 200m above the ravine walking along a see-through glass corridor that for those without any vertigo issues get a real buzz from.  For those of us who have height ‘issues’, sheer terror, panic and a clinging to the rails around the edges seemed to be the common characteristic.  I completely appreciated the brilliance of the architecture and the feat of man being able to construct something so ‘out there’ – I just wished the natural movement of the structure as you walk across it wasn’t as pronounced.  That said, I made it to the other side completely intact albeit with a higher heart rate, but to say we’d done it and seen the views from it, was superb.  A must do.

Glacier Skywalk   Glacier Skywalk

The waters from the Icefield flow down the Snow Dome mountain and continue on until they reach 3 different oceans – the Pacific, the Arctic and the Atlantic.   Known as the hydrological apex of North America, Snow Dome Mountain is a triple-continental divide, and is part of the Great Divide – which divides water flow from east to west across North America.  There’s only 2 places in the world where this happens.

All in all, a great drive with a jewel to look forward to at the end – Lake Louise.

More to come …