Friday, 25 July 2014

Vancouver and the beginning of our Canadian wanderings

We had the afternoon in Vancouver and used the 'hop on/hop off' bus to get around and see the sights, getting off to have some lunch and again for various beauty spots and also, to our pleasure, dropping off just a few doors from our hotel. On our second day, we picked up our hire car and headed off on our independent Canadian adventure.

First of all, down to the USA border and into Washington for the Boeing 'Future of Flight' tour. It takes about an hour and a half and as well as a brief history of the Boeing company, we were taken into the massively huge factories where their various planes are made including the new 787 Dreamliner. It certainly is an impressive set-up.

Our overnight stop was at Mukilteo Landing and probably the nicest accommodation we'll ever have on this trip.   Right at the water's edge, we had a large and beautiful room with all the usual amenities plus a fire place with gas log fire!
However with the warm weather, we made do with just opening the window and foregoing the aircon. Next day we took the short trip ferry to the next island and on our way to the next ferry, stopped at Freeland to post off home some excess clothing and a few things collected on the trip. We found the post office and packed our stuff into a large box, sealed and addressed it, then found we really needed to put a return address as well. As we stood in the small post office debating whether to put last night's Inn address, we had our first unexpected kindness shown when a smiling lady offered to let us use her own address. She took over and filled in the form for us giving her own details, and we gave her our own address card. We were most grateful and she said it was a pleasure and 'the island way' to be friendly. We've been the recipients of a few 'unexpected kindnesses' during our travels and it always warms our hearts. Such a nice memory to have.

The next few days were spent travelling from island to island by ferry till finally we arrived back in Canada to Victoria on Vancouver Island. Such a very pretty place and we headed to the outskirts of the city to visit the Butchart Gardens. It was created initially by Jenny Butchart, in an old disused quarry on the family property.

Over the years it has been enlarged and now has a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden, Mediterranean Garden and a stunning rose garden. It also has areas with plants native to this part of the world. Being summer, it was ablaze with flowers and it was interesting to see not only the clever colour combinations but also the amount of flowers blooming happily beneath shady trees. We were happy to spend a good part of the day there but didn't stay for the evening fireworks held during the summer months and apparently quite spectacular.

We had an overnight stay in Victoria and next morning visited the wonderful Royal British Columbian Museum. A special exhibition was on Vikings and accompanying the exhibition was an IMAX show on Vikings and the areas to which they travelled all those years ago. There was a vast display of archaeological finds and all beautifully presented. Aside from the Vikings, early British Columbian history was imaginatively presented from the original inhabitants to the arrival of European settlers. In the afternoon we took our last ferry ride to the mainland and so began our travels to the east through the Rockies, stopping first at Chilliwack, then Princeton.

Washing cherries with old pump
We drove through Keremeos which is a big fruit growing area with many roadside stalls selling fresh produce. With cherries in season, we stopped to buy some - $5 for a 1kg box. They were big, sweet and beautiful and disappeared fast.

We stopped for a couple of days at Princeton, an old mining town, then drove about 400kms to Revelstoke through the Okanagan Valley - extremely pretty countryside alongside very long lakes. Revelstoke is high in the mountains quite near Glacier National Park and Mt Revelstoke National Park. The scenery is astounding - when it is fine. On our second day here the sky turned grey,it rained continually and visibility of the nearby snow-capped mountains was non-existent. What to do?

Well, we had a wonderful morning visiting the Nickelodeon Museum in town. It is a private collection of mechanical musical instruments on display which the owners have beautifully restored. We were given almost two hours of an extremely interesting talk and working demonstration of many of the items. The instruments ranged from 300 years old to the 1960s. Absolutely loved it.

After lunch Peter visited the Revelstoke Railway Museum (wouldn't you know??).

Hopefully the weather will improve for our drive through to the Banff area tomorrow.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The "Volendam" - Skagway to Vancouver

The Volendam at Skagway.
The last stage of this tour was a four day cruise from Skagway to Vancouver. We boarded in the morning and got settled in our stateroom. To our surprise after booking a moderate priced cabin with a small verandah view, we had received two upgrades in the few weeks prior to our trip. The cabin (sorry, stateroom!) turned out to be on the highest accommodation deck with its own private balcony with outdoor setting. Inside we had a lounge area with comfortable sofa, mini fridge, and desk, as well as a king size bed, plentiful hanging and drawer space and finally a well appointed ensuite bathroom (with a spa bath!). Needless to say we were MOST comfortable and remembering the small cabin with bunks and porthole that we had for 5 weeks on the old 'Fairstar' on our trip to England in 1971, I was quite bemused with the luxury of it all.

As well as a complimentary dinner at the very posh Pinnacle restaurant on the first night (which normally costs extra), we also dined very well at the Rotterdam Dining Room and a very fine Italian dinner at the Caneletto. For breakfast and lunch we ate at the more casual Lido. We had made friends with several couples on our tour so most of these dinners were very convivial with happy chatter so much so that we didn't manage to get to any of the evening entertainment provided on board.

On the second day of our cruise, we sailed gently into Glacier Bay. The first we noticed from our cabin were very small icebergs floating past. Up on deck we were confronted with the awesome sight of the huge, very pale blue glacier in all its majesty. Quite breath-taking. Occasionally, there would be a loud crack and pieces of ice would fall away to became icebergs bobbing in the water. Certainly a sight never to forget.

On the middle day of our cruise we docked at the very pretty harbour town of Ketchikan. I must say I have never seen so many souvenir and jewellery shops in my life. Our guide on our excursion to the Saxman Native Village joked that Ketchikan meant 'place of many jewellery shops'. Saxman village is the home of many of the Tlingit natives and we were told and shown a little of their culture and also had a performance of native dancing. The participants were of all ages and one little boy of about 4 quite stole the show - he was so serious about his dancing.

We later learnt about the Tlingit totem poles and visited the carving workshop. There were some very beautiful re-carving of old poles as well as new ones - some of which had been commissioned and which cost up to $6000 per foot. They prefer to keep to the traditional styles of carving and one recent commission for a Star Wars totem pole was politely declined!

Later that day we enjoyed a Lumberjack show in Ketchikan. This was great fun with two 'teams' - one Canadian and one America competing in various events with the audience encouraged to loudly support 'their' team.

Our last day at sea was a quiet one and we took the opportunity to investigate all the places on board which we hadn't yet discovered. A beautiful little library and an internet room, a quiet reading lounge, a piano bar, and the Crow's Nest which was a stunning room with 180 degree views from the front of the ship. (Did I tell you we were invited to the Captain's cocktail party before dinner one evening?? Very high society we are, don't you know!)

All too soon we again had to pack our cases in readiness for disembarking at Vancouver. We've had a fabulous cruise following on from the wonderful land tour of Alaska and the Yukon, but will miss the lovely people we've been travelling with along the way.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Fairbanks to Skagway

We travelled on to Fairbanks by coach through some wonderful scenery, unfortunately this was when the rain started. It was still warm though but very soggy! We were scheduled to fly on from Fairbanks to Dawson by a chartered 727 the following afternoon leaving the morning free for some sightseeing around Fairbanks. However later in the evening we were told that the chartered plane had some engine trouble, so smaller Hawker turbo-prop planes would be used and also that this meant that we’d leave earlier in the morning. Saw little of rainy Fairbanks as, with about 30 of our group, we flew from there to Dawson City.

This is a picturesque little town whose population is currently around 800, but in the gold rush era of 1897/99 it reached around 30,000. All of those early gold-seekers faced an incredibly hard journey to reach the nearby Klondike goldfields. When they disembarked at Skagway, they had to climb up over the White Pass or the Chilkoot Pass through the heaviest snow for years. Not only that but Canadian law decreed that each person should bring 1 ton of provisions with them to enable them to survive a year in this wilderness place. This usually meant 40 trips up the Chilkoot Pass to ferry their provisions and 40 down the other side. Many died along the way and only a very small percentage made it to Dawson City and the Klondike goldfields, and an even smaller percentage found enough gold to become rich.

We had several days at Dawson City where there are many of the old buildings still remaining. Many have been restored, but many are still many waiting in a sad state of repair. One of the problems being that the permafrost quite often causes the buildings to sag or rise up on their foundations. This raffish, rough but pretty town is popular though, and with the influx of tourist dollars, more buildings will be gradually restored we hope. They have a great museum beautifully restored with extensive woodwork and wonderful artefacts. It still houses a courtroom which is used about once a month.

On our last night in Dawson City we visited Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Follies and later at another Dawson pub, witnessed brave (foolhardy?) folk attempt a Sourtoe Cocktail. This is a real preserved human toe in a shot of whiskey – the idea is that they drink the whiskey and that their lips touch the toe. The successful ones get a certificate. Needless to say we didn’t join this illustrious group.

From Dawson City we travelled on by coach to Whitehorse for a night and next morning at Fraser joined the Yukon and White Pass Railroad train with quite spectacular scenery up over the Pass and down into Skagway. Again this is a lovely harbour town from the goldfields era and although by now the weather had turned misty and rainy, we thoroughly enjoyed having a few days to explore the area. Peter discovered the local Fire Station and spent an hour or so being shown over the Station House - he was most impressed with all the equipment they had for such a small town. 

One of our excursions was to a Musher’s Camp with Sled dogs. We learnt more about the Iditarod Race, and experienced a ride with 16 wonderful, keen Alaskan Huskies pulling us up and around a  steep and curvy  route. These dogs are just wonderful and loved running and pulling the sled. During summertime they usually breed, and just take it easier, however large ‘treadmills’ have been set up and one unleashed dog was running in one wheel for at least fifteen minutes just for the joy of it.

So far we have travelled by plane, train and coach through the mountains and many kilometres of ‘the last frontier’ so far north that we have had almost continual daylight. We have had the good fortune to actually see Denali (Mt. McKinley) – earning us membership of the rare 30% club, a feat that few have accomplished. We have seen in the wild - bears, moose, caribou, reindeer, bald eagles and  ground squirrels. We have followed the route of those old-time Stampeders through the coastal mountains and the isolated forest and tundra of the Yukon Territory. It has been a wonderfully interesting trip.

Tonight we sail on the Holland-America ship “Volendam” and look forward to the four day cruise down to Vancouver.  

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Denali and Fairbanks

Leaving Anchorage for Denali was by the McKinley Explorer - a double-decker glass domed train which took eight hours for the trip. We had breakfast and lunch on board and a very entertaining 'host' kept us
entertained along the way. We were impressed that this man was 78yo and he said he just enjoyed working - and as a train host he felt it was a party each trip. The scenery was spectacular along the way and remained so for the three days we were in the Denali Park. The NP strictly controlled development within their area, but just across the road it was designated 'Preserved Park' and commercial shops and businesses abound.

The Park with its lodges was beautifully designed and laid out. Everything - tours, etc - operated from the central Chalet and shuttle buses ran every 10 minutes or so around the many accommodation blocks. Our first excursion was an 8 hour afternoon Tundra Wilderness coach trip up into the mountains and on through the tundra. Again the scenery was just wonderful and we wondered if we might be among the 30% of visitors who get to see Mt McKinley (aka Denali). Usually as it is so huge it creates its own climate and so mostly it is covered with mist and impossible to see. When we finally got close enough, there it was! She kindly lifted her misty skirt for us but modestly kept her peak under wraps. My photo really doesn't do it justice.

Along the way we kept a look out for the animals of the park - caribou, reindeer, dall sheep, moose, ground squirrel, ptarmigan and bear. Apparently bears are the most elusive and halfway through the trip, Peter spotted one. Everyone was thrilled, but we were in luck and spotted another four. So very lucky to see such a good lot of animals in the wild. We arrived back at 9.30pm very satisfied. It rarely gets dark here at this time of the year with sunset around midnight then a twilight until sunrise a few hours later.

Next day, I decided I needed to see a doctor for this rotten head cold that has once more descended on me. The NP clinic were very efficient and warned us that the consultation could cost about $300. Gulping (through my very sore throat) I agreed and soon a doctor was there assessing my condition and prescribing some medication to help. The bill eventually came to a whopping $377 - which we'll claim back from our travel insurance later on.

Our last excursion was the Husky Homestead tour which was a visit to the home of Iditarod champion, Jeff King and hearing all about that incredible race of around 998 miles held each year and of the many dogs and puppies that he breeds and trains. In summer, the dogs 'rest' and the females breed and look after their pups, but even so all dogs were eager to be hooked up for a trial run. The very young puppies were very cute and there were no shortage of visitors eager for a cuddle.

We sadly left Denali and travelled about four hours by coach to Fairbanks. Our excursion here was to the old gold diggings (Fairbanks' gold rush began in 1901). It was very well presented but began first of all with an explanation of the massive Alaska PipeLine under which we walked to get to the small train taking us through to the diggings with an entertaining commentary and a little music from an old time conductor. We had a gold panning demonstration and were then let loose with a pan and a bag of gravel to try for ourselves. Peter and I didn't do too badly and had our panning skills complimented. The gold we found sadly will not pay for the trip but was weighed up and valued at $49US.

We planned a further look around Fairbanks next morning as we were due to fly by charter plane to Dawson City in Canada in the early afternoon. However this wasn't to be as later that night we were advised that the chartered plane had developed engine trouble and so we would be flying in much smaller turbo prop Hawkers - and leaving early morning. All went smoothly, though, and the flight - although noisy - brought us safely to Dawson City and the easiest Immigration/Customs which we've ever experienced.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Beginning of our Canadian Trip

This year we have planned a long trip beginning with a land/cruise tour with Holland American to Alaska and the Yukon, then when we arrive back in Vancouver, we'll pick up a hire car and be on our own until we reach Edmonton. From there we'll travel by train across central Canada to Toronto before picking up another hire car to explore the eastern side of the country. We will be away for about two and a half months, so expect to have some adventures along the way.

It was a long flight from Melbourne to Vancouver, Canada and then on to Anchorage, Alaska yesterday. Curious that it only took half an hour - well, we wish! Crossing the International Date Line meant we arrived on the same day we left - but once we got to Anchorage, we had been travelling for just on 24 hours. Very tired, but after a quick nap stretched out in the hotel, we were ready for a bit of a walk around and a late snack. This being summertime, the days are extremely long this far north. Even at 11pm it was quite light and photos could be taken.

Today - feeling much better we had a good breakfast and a long walk
around the city. Visited the Ulu factory where they make the Alaskan Ulu knife. It was the Eskimos' main cutting tool and was originally made from flat, thin, rocks, slate, or even jade. Handles were fashioned out of wood, ivory, or bone and often decorated with distinctive markings of the craftsman. Some have been found that are over 3000 years old.

Continued our walk around and noticed that although Alaskans have a short summer, they make the most of their gardens with very bright flower plantings. Red, purple, yellow and orange flowers all growing vividly together.  One I particularly liked (although not bright) was a huge sculpture of a whale diving into two blooming, fragrant white lilac trees. Loved it.

Back at the hotel, we met Dana, our journey host for the Holland America tour we are taking to begin our trip. Tomorrow we travel 8 hours by train to Denali National Park and we'll be there for 3 nights. The highest mountain in the USA is Mt McKinlay and most majestic it looks from photos we've seen. However we've been informed that because it creates its own climate, it is mostly misted over and only a third of visitors get to see it.  Here's hoping we'll be there at the right time.