Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick

It was only a ten minute  ferry ride from Ontario but it seemed to us that we had arrived in faraway France. The Province of Quebec proudly maintains its French origin and whereas in the rest of Canada, signs are bi-lingual (English and French) and everyone speaks English with some French, here in this Province all signs, both road and business, are in French only and the French language is universal with only a very little English spoken. Added to that, the countryside and the houses have a decided French air about them. Very picturesque. 

We try to avoid motorways were possible, and so we began driving along the very lovely Route des Navigateurs – a country road that travels alongside the St.Lawrence River from from Baie-du-Febvre to Sainte-Luce, a distance of about 470 kilometres. Small villages line this route all with their own lovely village church – usually stone-built or sometime painted white with a silver tower and spire. I think that in the wintertime snow the silver and white churches would almost be impossible to see!

Our first night in the Province was in a country area in a very French gite (B&B). Luckily the wife could speak English but it certainly was a different experience in a very old 1770 farmhouse decorated in old French style.

After several days travelling here, I had to pinch myself to remember we really were in Canada and not in the middle of France. Our extremely basic knowledge of French is getting a work-out. “Excuse-moi, Messieurs/Madame, parle-vous Anglais?”

One excursion along the Route des Navigateurs was to St.Jean-Paul-Joli where just about all the residents seem to be wood-carvers or sculptors. A display of many of their carvings was stunning. A special exhibition featured many of the artwork of Norman Rockwell recreated in beautifully carved and painted bas-relief. 
A Rockwell painting reproduced in carved relief.

All these are hand-carved.

We had several days in pretty Montmagny right beside the St.Lawrence River. It is a lovely 350 year old town and is designated the Snow Goose Capital. The town holds a festival to celebrate these graceful birds in October.

Lighthouse at Cap Bon-Ami with the Marconi building on left.
We travelled all around the stunningly beautiful Gaspe Peninsula and one day drove right to Cap Bon-Ami and from there you can see Lands End which is the most easterly point of mainland Canada. On a warm blue sky day, no scenery could surpass it. The 1904 Marconi transmitting hut was there and as it signalled such a leap in communication at the turn of the 20 th century, we wonder what Marconi would think of the instant communication we now enjoy. What would he have thought of the internet and Skype??

On leaving the Peninsula we travelled over the bridge to New Brunswick and suddenly there were English signs and English speakers. Again this area is lovely and our friendly host at our B&B in Cocagne told us a little of the way of life for people living in New Brunswick. We have had some very interesting conversations with the various B&B hosts recently.

One of the  towns we passed through had painted all their fire hydrants as cartoon characters. We counted about two dozen and all different. Here are a few that we photographed:

Finally, just over the New Brunswick border we enter Nova Scotia and then across the very long 12.9 km Confederation bridge, we are ready to explore Prince Edward Island.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Manitoba and Ontario

Arrived at Winnipeg Union Station around 1am and after collecting our baggage, caught a taxi to a nearby downtown hotel for the remainder of the night. The hotel (the Marlborough, built 1914) didn’t get very good reviews on Trip Advisor but we have learnt that in all cases those derided places where we’ve stayed have been quite acceptable and nothing to be concerned about at all. At the Marlborough, the reception clerk took pity on our tired appearance and upgraded us to a ‘Business’ room. This turned out to be a smallish room with ensuite but most comfortable, clean and quiet. Free breakfast was included and this turned out to be a cooked breakfast and much better than the usual ‘help yourself’ buffet style. 

Later after collecting our hire car we drove out of town to Saint Francois Xavier – a small town
At the superb White Horse Escape
where we had the most delightful B&B with friendly welcoming hosts. We love B&Bs – mostly they not only offer a very nice room but also a very warm welcome, offers of a welcoming drink and friendly advice on local attractions. At the White Horse Escape B&B, when our hosts learned that we had to return our hire car to the airport and later get to the Rail Station  for our late evening train, they offered to help with driving Peter back from the airport to the B&B, serving us a light dinner and then driving us to the airport. Service above and beyond the norm.

At the Butterfly House at the Assiniboine Park Zoo
Visits in this area included Upper Fort Garry which was an early settlement of the Hudson's Bay Company. The Forks riverside area of Winnipeg which has been used as a meeting place for hundreds of years and now is quite an extensive market and entertainment area, and the beautiful little zoo - the Assiniboine Park zoo where we finally got to see polar bears.

The Dining Car
As the next leg of the trip was by train, we wondered if it would be on time, but the scheduled 8.30pm departure was once more delayed (getting used to this with Via Rail) and we finally boarded at 1.30am with the train leaving at 2.00pm. Straight to bed, then up next morning for breakfast, with the rest of the day enjoying the scenery speeding past. Lunch and dinner were on board and very nice silver service it ws too. We were seated with some very interesting passengers at each meal. One elderly American couple told us that they had lived and worked in the Assam district of India for 25 years (the husband was a surgeon) and their family thoroughly enjoyed their life there. After one more sleep we were woken to learn that the early morning arrival time had been extended to 1.00pm.

The onboard service and care we received was of top standard, however the interminably long delays waiting in uncomfortable train stations makes 'The Canadian' not something we'd recommend to travellers. Such a pity as this train that travels right across from the Pacific coast to Toronto should really be a top tourist attraction.

Arriving in the middle of the day meant the city area was extremely busy and crowded – made more difficult by extensive construction work both on the roads and buildings. We picked up our hire car and then found our TomTom satnav couldn’t find any satellites mid city. Not good when you have absolutely no idea where you are and which direction you should be travelling in. We eventually drove to the outskirts of the CBD where directions to our hotel finally appeared on the screen.

The weather in Toronto was hot and sticky – and Peter began experiencing irritation in his eyes. We continued though with our plan to use the Hop on/Hop off bus to see the Toronto sights, and Peter decided on a visit to the top of the CN Tower. Not for me, though! I was happy to walk around the base then sit and wait and people-watch. Three hours later I was still waiting! The huge queues of people meant 20 minute delays at all the various stages up and again at each stage down. I must say that he took some really good photos whilst up there. We finished our tour and his eyes had worsened so as he had had bletharitis several years ago he knew he now needed a doctor to prescribe antibiotics. Luckily there was a walk-in clinic quite close to the hotel and soon we had the medication needed.

Toronto is also the home of the Bata Shoe Museum which exhibits over a thousand shoes and related artefacts (from a collection numbering over 13,000). Sadly for me, (but happily for Peter!), we ran out of time for a visit.

Houses of Parliament, Ottawa
We were quite happy to leave this crowded but construction plagued city and began our long drive next day to a small village outside Ottawa for our next stop. The weather by now had cooled considerably and by the time we got to our Cumberland B&B, it was grey and raining. A young French-Canadian woman who was spending a few days cycling around the area was also a guest and so we three drove the 10 minutes to an Italian Restaurant for a good meal and good conversation.

Next day we dove into Ottawa – another city plagued by much road construction and traffic jams – and visited the quite beautiful Houses of Parliament.

Inside the Bunker
We were told about the Diefenbunker Cold War bunker museum and decided the three-quarter hour drive outside the city would be worthwhile. It certainly is an amazing construction. An astonishingly large underground complex over 4 levels and all secretly built at the height of the Cold War to house and protect the then Canadian Government should nuclear war eventuate.  A sobering experience to view what might have been needed.

Continued our trip eastward and a short ferry ride took us over the state border to the Province of Quebec. More on this very French region to come.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Onto the Prairies

Our  wanderings through the Rocky Mountains finally came to an end when the mountains got smaller and the roads flatter and less windy. Eventually we came to Edmonton, Alberta where we were due to board the Trans Canada train ‘The Canadian’ to travel to Saskatoon in Saskatchewan (lovely sounding names!). By this time I was desperately in need of a haircut and at Spruce Grove a little outside of Edmonton we found a nice salon whose manager agreed to fit me in on the spot. This turned out to be the highlight of the day as from that time onwards, things didn't quite go according to plan.

Being a hot day and with no other attractions to tempt us, we decided to surrender our car to the Hertz people at Edmonton airport, sit in airconditioned comfort and then have an early dinner there before catching a taxi to Edmonton Via Rail station where our train was due to leave at 11.45pm. We thought the hours waiting at the airport were long enough but when we did get to the train station, it was to find that there was quite a delay on the arrival of ‘The Canadian’. This turned out to be a very, very long wait! About 60 would-be passengers spent the night in the waiting room with updates – usually of another hour or two delays – every hour or so. We finally boarded at 5.30 am with the train leaving at 6.00 am. The reason for the delay we were told was that ‘there had been a freight train derailment and everything was a bit of a schemozzle’! We fell into our bunks for a 2 hour sleep before heading into breakfast very bleary eyed, then returning to our beds for another short sleep. Once on board the train, I must say, the service was excellent and all meals provided in the dining car were ‘white linen’ service. The train made up some time and we pulled into Saskatoon around 2 pm then collected another hire car for our few days touring in the prairie state of Saskatchewan. 

We decided to drive down to the state capitol of Regina, and tried the local Hostel International there for our stay. The advantage of staying in this basic accommodation was that we could use the kitchen and prepare our own meals. It had won 'Hostel of the Year' at one stage, but now it sadly needs a bit of work to bring it up to scratch. We had a private room though so it suited us well for a few days. 

The RCMP depot at Regina is where all the ‘Canadian Mounties’ (Police) are trained, and they have a wonderful recently built building tracing the history of the Canadian police from the very early days when it was a more military force until modern times. The use of mounted police was downsized in 1956 and police are now highly trained in modern methods as in most other countries. A contingent of mounted police in their distinctive red serge jackets are still used in ceremonial parades. A guide showed groups of people through the facility and we were there in time to see the impressive Sergeant-Major’s parade at 11.45pm.

Peter with his souvenir Corner Gas numberplate
On another day we packed a picnic lunch and drove out to a small town called Rouleau. There is not a lot to distinguish this town set in the middle of the flat prairie land of rural Saskatchewan, but we knew it was where one of our favourite sit-coms, the witty Canadian ‘Corner Gas’ series was based. A film of the series had only just been filmed a few weeks prior to our visit and we were amused to see the actual Gas Station with police car parked outside and the nearby cafĂ© ‘The Ruby’.  Some local buildings were still bearing the show’s town name of ‘Dog River’ with the newspaper premises advertising the fictitious newspaper ‘The Dog River Howler’. We were able to identify the pub and the police station and a house which featured in the sit-com. All good fun and we half expected to see the characters too, but sadly no.

We later visited the wonderfully named Moose Jaw which has a fantastic museum on the history of transportation. It is a huge building with very early models of cars, trucks, snow vehicles, planes, trains and motor bikes. They even had a small steam loco operating outside for rides. We gave our spare ticket to a nearby family, then chatted to the grandmother for a while. It is so interesting to talk to the people on our travels and they always are interesting to hear a little about Australia. Moose Jaw is famous – or perhaps, infamous – with its tunnels being used  by bootleggers - including Al Capone - during prohibition in the 1920s (it is conveniently close to the American border).

Back in Regina, we walked the beautiful big Wascana Park which is nearby to the hostel. It is well laid out with walking/jogging/bicycling track around the lake which fronts the impressive capitol building. We appreciated the cool shady trees and flower beds on a hot and sticky summer day and it seems most other people did too. With such a short summer period, everyone here seems to make the most of the warm weather, however we find the high humidity a bit draining for us.

The Observation Car at the very end of the train
Driving the three hours back to Saskatoon to again catch the train, we drove through acres and acres of very flat agricultural land – the major crops being canola and flax, and the bright yellow fields contrasted with the blue/grey of the flax groups. We surrendered the hire car at Saskatoon Airport and enjoyed a lovely B&B overnight before leaving for a scheduled train departure at 8.30 am next morning. Canada’s Via Rail is improving! We only had a delay of 4 hours this time! (However, it was 5 hours late arriving in Winnipeg!). 

Saturday, 2 August 2014

When it's Summertime in the Rockies

The drive through the Rocky Mountains was just astonishing - excellent roads and around every corner there were spectacular views. There were many signposted places to stop and marvel at Mother Nature's work and we did too and took masses of photos.

Mostly we had blue skies with fluffy white cloud weather, with only one rainy day in Revelstoke which didn't bother us too much.

With the roads cutting through the wilderness areas, it was interesting to see the provision made for wildlife to safely move from one area to another and, despite the quite heavy holiday traffic (RVs, caravans, coaches, etc), there didn't seem to be any roadkill at all. Many overpasses have been built with wire fences hidden in the trees all along the roads - all very discreet and beautifully managed.

Speaking of wildlife, through the entire Rockies trip, we didn't see one bear or one caribou. A few mountain goats, a deer or two and lots of these cute little creatures.
There were quite a few of these gophers around the Pinewood Lodge Resort high up near Radium Springs. (I took advantage of the mineral springs there for a lovely soak one day).

We stopped in Banff and it is a very pretty town however very geared to tourists with many souvenir shops and eateries - and therefore many, many people. (Interesting to hear lots of different languages spoken).
We find we much prefer the smaller towns near to these famous resorts. Accommodation is easier to find away from the big name tourist spots.

Jasper was another place we decided not to linger in. So busy and a similar plethora of tourist shops from which to keep away.

We tend to travel economically and this means using mostly 2 star hotels and motels, Hostels International and B&Bs. The hotels and motels are varied - some with fridges and microwaves and all with the inevitable coffee maker. Unfortunately for moi who loves a cup of tea (English Breakfast - black tea) in the morning, very rarely do we find an electric kettle. Sometimes, we are loaned one when I look desperate and refuse to use the hotwater from the coffee-maker. It surprises me that with Canada being part of the British Commonwealth for so many years, the making of tea is not more widely known. The main variety available seems to be Orange Pekoe which I rather liken to the by-product of kittycats. Luckily I found a rare supermarket which sold a large box of English PG Tips teabags.We have also shopped and have a supply of bread, butter, cold ham, tomatoes, salad, cereal, milk, yoghurt and fruit for breakfast and lunches. We keep the dairy items in an insulated carrybag and we also have a Thermos for when we can get boiled water to make mugs of Cup-a-Soup at lunchbreaks. Speaking of Cup-a-Soup there is certainly not the range that we have in Australia. Here you get a choice of Chicken Noodle, Cream of Chicken, Chicken & Veg. and Tomato. That's it! Think the Aussie brands of Maggi & Continental would do well here.

Three of the five glaciers to be seen from this spot.
Back to the wonderful scenery that greets us at every bend of the road. The massively big rugged mountains, astonishing glacier-fed blue/green lakes, spectacular waterfalls and glaciers were really becoming quite commonplace after so many days and it is so hard to them describe it in a few paltry sentences. Here are a few photos which might give you a bit of an idea of this amazing part of the world.

Just one of the beautiful aqua glacier-fed lakes.

The Tangle Creek falls

It wasn't all driving. At Lake Louise we stopped for a walk around and at the beautiful lake fronting the Fairmont Chateau, we just had to take a turn in the canoes available for hire. It was great fun and although it is many years since each of us has been in a canoe, we bravely paddled out and over to the opposite side of the lake and back. Thoroughly enjoyed the unexpected experience.

Now that we are through the Rockies, the countryside is getting quite flat and we find that we are missing those wonderful mountains and forests. We look foward to the next stage.