Dreaming of getting away from the grey skies of Britain for some sunshine? Fancy a classic road trip adventure? A wildlife experience second to none? A city break closer to home? If you’re planning your next holiday, here are 7 top places to inspire you to travel differently this year.
1. Gorillas in Rwanda, West Africa
There are many reasons to visit Rwanda, including its stunning scenery and friendly people but undoubtedly the main attraction is the mountain gorillas. To be close to a huge silverback and his young son munching on bamboo right in front of you is to totally unforgettable. You have to book well in advance, get a permit and be prepared for a hike up a fairly steep (extinct) volcano, but it is well worth the time, effort and yes, expense, for a genuine ‘once in a lifetime’ holiday experience.
2. Idyllic beaches (and flamingos if you’re lucky) in the Caribbean
Tyuly turquoise sea, really white sand, virtually guaranteed sunshine, enormous cocktails, a dash of history and a little light entertainment. Perfect ingredients for a relaxing sunshine holiday. Aruba has everything the hedonist could wish for, plus a sense of fun that livens things up every day. When you get bored with lying on a gorgeous beach, you could learn to paddle-board, go on a 4×4 safari or take a wander through their desert-like National Park. It’s very popular for weddings and couples. There are plenty of top-class hotels to choose from and some great package deals to be had all year round. (If you want to see the pretty flamingos you’ll have to stay at the Renaissance Aruba Resort and Casino so you can visit their private island.) Check out my Top Fun Things to Do in Aruba.
3. Explore the ancient city of Lancaster
Take a break in one of the UK’s known cities, Lancaster, in the north west of England. Lancaster Castle is one of the most interesting castles in Britain because, until recently, it was used as prison and still functions as Lancashire’s Crown Court. With a 1000 years of history it is the most popular sight in the city, but the rest of the city is worth taking time to get to know. Visit the Judges Lodgings to see where legal eagles used to reside, wander along the Lancaster Canal and have a drink at the Water Witch or walk up to the Ashton Memorial for superb views across to Morecambe Bay. Nearby Leighton Hall is home of the Gillow family, famous furniture makers. Find out about the Light Up Lancaster Festival here.
4. A road trip through the Rocky Mountains, Canada
RV by Medicine Lake
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago what I’d think of driving a motorhome anywhere, never mind through the biggest mountain range in Canada, I’d have probably laughed and said, ‘No Way’. But when I was invited to go from Vancouver to Calgary in an RV (Recreational Vehicle) last year, I was persuaded that I could, and I’m so glad I did. It was the best fun ever, and now I’m a total convert! The roads are easy, the scenery stupendous and you’ll probably get to see some amazing wildlife along the way. It really is an unforgettable holiday. Find out more in my 10 most memorable moments on a Canada road trip.
5. Take a selfie at the most popular landmark on Instagram
Paris – cewe photoworld
And now for something completely different. Do you know what the most popular #hashtag landmark on Instagram is? The clue in the photo. With its famous steel girders standing proud over the city of Paris, the Eiffel Tower has been instagrammed over 3 million times. Take a lift to the top and join the ultimate selfie crowd on the ultimate French icon. In this infographic by cewe photoworld you can find the Top 10 Most Instagrammed Places in the World.
6. Discover the Causeway Coast of Ireland
Portstewart at sunset
If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ll already be familiar with the Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland as it features in many episodes, especially in the first few series. However, there is so much more here than the spooky Dark Hedges (aka The King’s Road). It’s a culinary treasure trove of fresh and imaginatively cooked food and home to renowned Bushmills Whiskey. You mustn’t miss the Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site or the beautiful beaches along the coastal road. Still need persuading? Here’s my Top 10 places on the Causeway Coast – go on, go on, go on – you’ll love it.
7. Take time out in Western Australia
Planning on visiting relatives in Australia? Consider lengthening your holiday with a stay in or around the lovely city of Perth. Capital of Western Australia, Perth has a relaxed cultural scene, beautiful harbour and lively cafe society. Nearby Fremantle is now a focus for hipsters, foodies, artists and history buffs. Popular holiday destination Rottnest Island with its quirky quokkas is a short ferry-ride away. Love wine? Further south you’ll find some of the world’s top quality wineries in the very attractive Margaret River region.
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When you go on an RV road trip in Canada, you’re guaranteed a great many memorable moments, whichever part of the country you visit. But when you drive through British Columbia and Alberta via the Rockies from Vancouver to Calgary these moments tumble over each other almost every hour. Here are just a few that stand out, but there were many more …
1. Walking in the desert at Osoyoos
Osoyoos Desert – Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre
The heat is the biggest surprise. The sun beats down as we walk though scrubby bushes and stunted trees. The heady scent from a herby shrub wafts past, bringing back vague memories of the wilder parts of Greece. Travel companion Ali is wearing a hat to keep cool as we walk through the desert. Yes, we’re in Canada, not a place you think of as really hot or with a desert, but at Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre we learn about this unique ecology and wildlife, including the Western Rattlesnake and the Cayote. We learn about the Osoyoos Indian Band, who run the Desert Centre and nearby RV Park and admire Smoker Marchand sculptures. It’s fascinating, surprising and very hot.
2. Eating cherries on the road
Cherries at the farm shop
We buy a kilo of big, fat, sweet and oh so very juicy cherries from one of the farm shops along the Okanagan Valley. It’s late spring and the whole area is bursting with fresh fruit and vegetables in this very fertile part of southern Canada. We’ve been told to get the cherries as it’s the best crop for years. We’re on our way to the Rockies but have a long way to go and these deep red globes of delicious goodness keep us going all the way to Revelstoke. Fortunately there is a market and we can stock up again; luckily they last until our first glimpse of the Rockies.
3. The Pipe Mountain Coaster, Revelstoke
Ready, steady, go …
‘Keep off the brake. Don’t be a chicken!’ The words of the bearded Canadian guy in the queue, resound in my ears as I zoom down the sheer drop VERY fast. I desperately want to pull brake, but two things stop me.
I’m worried I’m going so fast I’ll tip out
I don’t want to be a chicken.
I’m on the Pipe Mountain Coaster in Revelstoke, British Columbia. Riding up in the gondola, the Monashee Mountains and Columbia River spread beneath us. Whizzing down the mountain, I’ve no time to look at the view. Fir trees flick past as the little cart twists, turns and at one point appears to shoot off the edge, accelerating past a ski run on its way down 1.4km of track at up to 26mph. All too soon, I’m at the end, exhilarated and wanting to do again – me no chicken!
4 BBQ at Dutch Lake Resort, Clearwater
Burgers for dinner
The sound of wood chopping has stopped and there’s smoke wafting in through the door of the RV. Ali’s got the BBQ going and I’ve finished preparing the salad and opened a couple of beers. Beef burgers from a local butcher sizzle merrily on the metal rack we’ve just bought from Dutch Lake Resort shop. A couple of guys from the RV next door come over to chat whilst we wait for the burgers to cook. The sun’s setting over the lily-strewn lake and frogs start croaking in the shallows. The tantalizing smell of onions and burgers get the taste buds going. Love eating outdoors in Canada …
5. The Rockies from the top of Whistler Mountain
The Rockies and Jasper Sky Tram
At last I’m here, on top of Whistler Mountain gazing out across the most famous mountains in North America. Their pointed tops ripple across the horizon, perfectly mountainy. Snow glitters in the late afternoon light and a ribbon of river ripples through the wooded valley. A lake of startling blue water glistens and winks upwards. Quirky Jasper town curves alongside the railway track and birds glide on the chilly thermals. Neither words nor photos can do justice to this awesome sight.
6. Relaxing by Medicine Lake
Wild flowers by Medicine Lake
The calm waters ripple briefly as a duck floats serenely past. At the end of the lake tower the jaggy peaks of the Rockies, reflected in shimmering symmetry. I drink in the awe-inspiring natural beauty of Medicine Lake in the heart of Jasper National Park, in Alberta. Delicate white and yellow wild flowers bend their dainty heads in the gentle breeze and overhead a large bird wheels its way across the cloud-flecked sky; too far away to see if it’s a bald eagle. A stone lands with a resounding splash to my left and two children giggle; the spell is broken and it’s time to move on and explore more …
7. Driving the RV along the Icefields Parkway
RV on the Icefields Parkway
After hundreds of miles we are finally driving along one of the world’s most spectacular roads, the Icefields Parkway, from Jasper to Banff. Every twist and turn reveals more mountains until we feel completely surrounded. We are running parallel to the Continental Divide from Jasper National Park to Banff National Park stopping off at the Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Pass, Stutfield and Athabasca Glaciers, Peyto Lake, Wildfowl Lake and Lake Louise. We see mountain goats, many birds, wild flowers and tourists. It could take us a few hours; it actually takes us all day, every mile a miracle of natural wonder and delight …
8. The unbelievable blue of Peyto Lake
You have to see it to believe it …
9. Cocktail at the Banff Springs Hotel
Cocktail on the Terrace
After all the driving, staying in campgrounds and sightseeing it’s so relaxing to have a Mojito on the terrace of the splendidly luxurious Banff Springs Hotel. With panoramic views of the Bow River and the Rocky Mountains, it’s a suitably fitting place to absorb scenery and reflect on our epic road trip through the Rockies …
10. To boldly go – to Vulcan
RV outside Trekcetera Museum
From the sublime to the … well, not ridiculous, but definitely surreal. Walking into a room with wall-to-wall costumes and artefacts from Star Trek, being shown round by a flamboyant and highly entertaining TV and movie enthusiast, dressed as a 19th C dandy cowboy, is a really quirky contrast to the natural wonders we have seen over the past couple of weeks. The Trekcetera Museum in Vulcan (the town name came first) has the largest collection of Trekkie memorabilia in Canada and we feel vaguely hysterical as we leave to find a bottle of wine for our last night sleeping in our trusty RV. Live long and prosper …
#ExploreCanada Road Trip
I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign, driving the RV from Vancouver to Montreal. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.
A hiker strides out into the wilderness of one of North America’s most renowned regions. He is Tête Jaune, the legendary pathfinder of the Yellowhead Pass through the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Part Iroquois and part European, (Métis) Pierre Bostonnais was a fur trader and worked with the Hudson Bay Trading company in the Rockies. He is now the logo for the Jasper Yellowhead Museum and Archives, an excellent little museum in Jasper, Alberta, showcasing the fascinating history and culture of the area.
Jasper Museum exhibition
Explorers and traders forged a way through the Rocky Mountains, in the pioneering days of the early 1800s. Trading with the local First Nation people, they were intrepid adventurers whose everyday life is recreated in tableaux throughout the museum. When Jasper Haws took command of a small provisions depot in 1815 it became known as Jasper’s House and became the centre for a small community responsible for meeting transportation and supply needs, caring for horses grazing in the valley, and trading goods for meat and furs with Aboriginal groups, including Iroquois and Métis peoples. Grainy black and white photos show earnest men wielding guns and tools, digging, fishing, building and relaxing, in what must have been extremely inhospitable conditions. Even today, Jasper has a ‘wild-west’ feel to it, enclosed by the mighty Rockies and prey to every kind of weather, often in one day.
Jasper Trading Post
The railway brought huge changes to Jasper and surrounding area, connecting it to the outside world so much easier. As the population of the town grew, the good times rolled and prosperity boomed. The opening of W.S. Jeffery department store meant locals did not have to wait months for basics and luxuries. More women came, bringing style and elegance and music and dancing became popular. The first tourists began to arrive, eager to see experience the ‘wilderness’ for themselves.
There’s a fairly lengthy but highly informative film ‘Jasper – Just Passing Through’ which tells the story of Jasper from the very early days of civilization, to the arrival of surveyor David Thompson and the Hudson Bay Company, up to the present day. Equally important is the life of the First Nation peoples, who first traversed the Athabasca Valley through the Rocky Mountains, using the land that is now Jasper National Park, as seasonal hunting and gathering grounds. There are some lovely objects on display, including moccasins and beautifully embroidered bags.
First Nation objects
Visitors who arrive by rail or vehicle will invariably find themselves at the Jasper Park Information Centre. The oldest building in the town, it’s officially designated as a Canadian National Historic Site. Built in 1913-1914 as Jasper National Park administration building, it became the visitor contact centre in 1972. It was one of the first rustic style buildings to be built in a Canadian national park. The staff there are extremely helpful and if you are stuck for accommodation (book ahead if you can) or want to know what to do and where to go, this is the place.
Jasper National Park Centre
Opposite is one of the most famous landmarks in the town; the Two Brothers Totem Pole. Erected in 2011 to replace the original one, it was made by the Haida people, it is 13.7 metres tall and painted in traditional Haida colours of red, black and blue. Splendid carvings include a grizzly bear, a frog and a raven, topped by a Brother gazing out over the Rockies, ‘ … represents the timeless values that will help present and future generations of Canadians to connect with national parks, national historic sites and national marine conservation areas.’
Jasper Totem Pole
At the opposite end of one of the world’s top roads, the Icefield Parkway, is Banff, a more genteel mountain town than Jasper, and the home of Canada’s first National Park. When the Canadian Pacific Railway was being built, railway workers discovered hot springs in 1883, though known by local First Nation peoples for thousands of years. Realising they would become a visitor attraction, the president of CPR built the Scottish baronial style Banff Springs Hotel and the rest is tourism history. To protect the springs from over-commercialisation, the area was declared a National Park and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is hugely popular with tourists today.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site
To get an insight into the First Nation culture and pioneer history of the Rockies, there’s not better place than Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It’s an accessible size with interesting objects well-displayed. The original collection was started by locals Peter and Catharine Whyte and includes, ‘artifacts that help tell the stories of Aboriginal people, artists, immigrants, guides and outfitters, climbers, surveyors, hikers, explorers, adventurers, skiers and residents of the town and area. Artifacts pertaining to the development of Banff National Park are also included.’
Rocky Mountains Park Exhibitions
There are a couple of art galleries with changing exhibitions; they showcase local and national artists with a very eclectic and often thought-provoking slant. This very attractive and seemingly innocuous sculpture of the Rocky Mountains, a road and some mountain sheep appears very innocuous until you see the blurb. It’s actually a protest by Denise Smith against the controversial Glacier ‘Skywalk’ the Icefields Parkway.
‘Skywalk’ by Denise Smith
There are plenty of other places to get a feel for the history and culture of the Rocky Mountains in Banff, including the taxidermy heaven of Banff Park Museum. Dating to 1903, the timber-framed building was designed to house a unique collection of all the animals found the National Park. Along Banff Avenue are a number of historic buildings from the early days of rail travel, which add to the town’s heritage charm. For a glimpse into its luxurious past and present, take the Historical Tour at the imposing and stylish Fairmont Banff Springs.
Sir William van Horne and Banff Springs Hotel
A knowledgeable guide explains how the hotel came into being, takes you through various majestic halls, ballrooms, corridors, restaurants and bars, telling amusing anecdotes about the hotel’s founder, staff, visitors and ghosts! Thanks to my charming guide Tom.) Have a cocktail on the terrace overlooking the sinuous Bow River and mighty Rocky Mountains and feel a part of the unique fabric of this towering region of Canada. Unforgettable …
Cheers from Banff Springs
I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.
It looked a lot bigger than I had imagined. It also looked a lot prettier, covered in views of Canada’s splendid scenery. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Once you get on the road, you’ll soon forget its size and be enjoying yourself behind the wheel.” I was at the Cruise Canada pick-up centre in Vancouver, about to set off on a two-week RV (Recreational Vehicle) road trip to Calgary via the Rocky Mountains, with photographer Alison Bailey. Luckily, Ali was familiar with driving a camper van and took in all the instructions from the very helpful guy at the depot.
Picking up Rocky – Cruise Canada Standard RV
He was right. Once we were on the road and got used to driving Rocky (we were going through the Rockies so it seemed appropriate to name this hunky vehicle), it did become much easier. We had the Standard version, which is 25′ long, sleeps 5 and comes with a gas cooker and sink, fridge-freezer, plenty of cupboard space, water, electricity and sewage connections, a shower and big beds. For two weeks we travelled across Canada in this RV (motorhome), including the stupendous Rockies, staying in RV campgrounds of varying standards and facilities, met some lovely people along the way and found out more about the Canadian ‘culture’ of the RV road trip. You can follow our route on this map. Here’s what I learnt.
RV Road Trip – Vancouver to Calgary
RV Road Trip Tips
1. Book a vehicle that’s big enough for your RV road trip
RV beside Lake Osoyoos
Yes, I know it sounds obvious but actually it’s easy to just go by the number of sleeping spaces and think that’s going to be fine. We were doing our trip on behalf of Explore Canada who’d booked the trip and I had assumed, as there were only two of us, we’d get Cruise Canada’s smallest RV, the Compact, which sleeps three ie with one double bed and one single made up from the dining table. Thank goodness we got the next size up. Apart from both needing a decent size bed, we didn’t have to keep shifting the table and also there was way more space inside for all our things. If you’re going for a weekend then maybe a smaller size is fine, but for longer, then go for the bigger size if you can afford it. Had been actually been 5 of us in the Standard RV it would have been VERY cosy …
Our first 2 nights were spent in Osoyoos on the Canada/USA border in the excellent Nk’Mip RV Park and Campground. We were lucky to get a pitch by the lake, and as you can see, Rocky was most definitely NOT the biggest kid on the block. Some Canadian and American RVs are HUGE!
2. Make sure your RV has enough storage space
Ali getting the lowdown on the interior of the RV
This follows on directly from Tip 1, but is relevant whatever size RV you get. If you’re on a long road trip, you’ll probably be taking quite a lot of stuff with you. Canada’s climate is very changeable, depending on where you are and what season. We travelled in early summer and got everything from hot sunshine in Osoyoos in the Okanagan Valley and Calgary, to sleet and cool winds in the Rockies. Our RV had loads of storage, as you can see from this video, not only for clothes but also for food and cooking utensils. There was a fridge and also a freezer, which was really useful as we cooked almost every day during our trip. On the outside of the RV there was a large storage space which had our picnic table and chairs, spare wood for BBQ plus extra food.
Food and drink in RV
The second stop on our road trip was at the Williamson Lake Campground in quirky Revelstoke, a railway town with a vibrant winter sports scene. It rained quite heavily here and it was great to have plenty of space to make a meal, eat at the table and then relax ‘indoors’ in the evening. You can see the RVinterior in this video.
3. Familiarise yourself with all the ‘technical things’
The Driver’s Cab essentials …
There’s no getting away from it, a motorhome or RV has a lot more things to get to know than a car or even a simple camper van. If you’re British, you may not have driven an automatic before and there’s something called the Tow Hold for going up (or was it down?) hills. You need to be clear about the electrics for the interior lighting and heating but most important is the Hook-Up. This is where you get to connect the electricity, water (and sewage if you’re lucky) to the mains on your RV pitch at the campground. It’s not difficult, just a matter of remembering which way to turn things, but it is really IMPORTANT. Watch Ali demonstrating the Cruise Canada RV Hook Up in this video.
Here’s where I make a confession. During the whole trip I didn’t once do the hook-up. Ali very kindly did all that every time we arrived and departed – and got VERY quick at it. You can see more of super-star Ali here as she demonstrates UNHOOKING the Cruise Canada RV in this video.
NB: Make sure you know what noise the smoke/gas detector makes. Ali had gone for a walk and I was in the RV parked by the Columbia River in Revelstoke, writing my journal when suddenly there was a very loud and continuous noise. I couldn’t work out what it was or where in the RV it was coming from. Fortunately Ali came back in time; I’d not turned off a gas ring properly and it was the alarm telling me to get out before I succumbed to propane gas fumes … Thanks Ali!
RV beside the Columbia River, Revelstoke
4. Cook and eat outdoors
Lunch overlooking Okanagan Lake
One of the huge pluses in an RV Road Trip is being able stop when you want, rustle up a snack, get out the chairs and enjoy the view. Most memorable was lunch on a sunny day driving from Osoyoos to Revelstoke when we stopped beside Okanagan Lake. As you can see, we really did relax. Nearly all the campgrounds we visited had a fire-pit or BBQ plus a bench beside each RV pitch. If there is a site shop, it will usually sell wood and charcoal. If not, stock up on some at the local supermarket. Ali was a dab hand at chopping wood, borrowing an axe from whoever was parked nearby, and could get a fire going, even in the rain. We ate outside as often as possible, using the fire-pit when we could or just rustling up something inside and eating it beside the van. It’s very sociable as many others will be doing the same.
Canadian roads are generally wide and easy to navigate. Our RV had very big wing mirrors, split in two (see photo above by Columbia River) so we could see all along the side to the back of the vehicle. After some initial nerves about the length and width of our RV, I soon forgot about it and felt (amost) as comfortable driving Rocky as I did my own car back home. One warning; Canadian road signs are pants! They seem to assume you know where you are going and hardly ever seem to give directions for where you need to be. Our Cruise Canada RV didn’t have satnav – thanks heavens for Google Maps.
On the road to the Rockies
If you’re doing the Rockies in your RV (and that is such a great way to see this iconic mountain region), then be prepared for some seriously great scenery round every corner. Apart from the initial route out of Vancouver, we mainly drove along the flat, not OVER the mountains, which was a pleasant surprise. Ali and I took it in turns so we could enjoy the view and take photos through the van window. Once we got to the Jasper National Park we could barely speak for excitement at the views. (The signage improved too.)
The Rockies in Jasper National Park
We spent one memorable night in the pouring rain at Gregg Lake Campground, in William A Switzer Provincial Park. It was notable for the limited facilities (we had no water or sewage pipe but there was a shower block) and the abundance of pine trees. On the way there we saw the most splendid rainbow arcing over the Rocky Mountains.
Rainbow from RV window
6. Keep your eyes open
Rocky Mountain Sheep at Miette Hot Springs
Keep your eyes open, not just so you don’t fall asleep but also to spot the vast array of wildlife you’ll see along the way. We saw mountain sheep at Miette Hot Springs and TWO black bears beside the road in the Rockies. Tip: if you see a number of vehicles pulled up by the roadside, chances are there’s a wild animal nearby.
Black bears from the RV
“Zoe, wake up. There are elk all round the RV.” It was about 6am in Whistler’s Campground near Jasper and Ali woke me up to see these elegant animals, which were sleeping, eating and totally unbothered by all the RVs and two avid photographers nearby.
I’ve left this to last as it is possibly the most important. Before you leave home, have a good look at a map and talk with anyone who has been to the area you’re visiting. Your hire company can help too. Hopefully you’ll have lots of stops and time to explore, but remember the distances can be great, there are strict speed limits (National Parks max 90 kms ph), and there is so much to see you’ll want to stop often. We could have driven the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff in about 3 hours. It took us all day; it truly deserves its reputation as one of the world’s top road routes.
Stutfield Glacier – Icefields Parkway
You’ll need to take time out to rest as sometimes you’ll probably have long distances to drive. On our RV road trip we drove over 3,500 kilometres in two weeks from Vancouver to Calgary, which meant just about every other day was a long drive. Sharing the driving really helps. When you’ve got your route clear, choose your campgrounds carefully. They usually have more facilities than UK ones, and are geared up for big RVs but some have more amenities than others. You may want a shop or restaurant and a launderette is very handy. Our shower was small so we used the wash blocks on all the sites we visited. At Spring Creek RV Campground in Canmore, not far from Banff, there was everything we needed, though it was more crowded than some others. BOOK in ADVANCE, especially during high season or in popular areas like the National Parks.
Spring Creek RV Campground
And finally …
Our last stop was in the really quirky town of Vulcan, which is the Star Trek capital of Canada … in some ways it was a very suitable place for our last night with Rocky. No mountains, rivers or glaciers, just the wide prairies of Alberta and a space ship! The sun set as we had our last meal (sausage and sweet potato mash with red wine) as we reminisced.
RV in Vulcan
Ali and I loved every minute of our RV Road Trip and we were really sad when we handed Rocky back to the Cruise Canada depot in Calgary. I hope you get a chance to experience something similar – if I can do it, anyone can …
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#ExploreCanada Road Trip
I visited British Columbia as a guest of Explore Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign. Many thanks to Alison Bailey for her unfailing good humour, practical advice and excellent driving. Much gratitude to all the people we met along the way who made it such a memorable trip.
The large red sign on the highway summed it all up; ‘Horses always have Right of Way. It’s a Stampede Thing’. The Calgary Stampede is Calgary’s USP. Billed as the Largest Outdoor Show on Earth, it attracts over 2.5 million visitors every July (plus lots of horses) and brings a wild-west tang to the city. Originally a small agricultural fair started in 1886 to promote Calgary and lure farmers to move from west to east, it quickly grew in popularity. The exhilarating covered-wagon races were a huge draw in the 1920s and still attract big crowds today.
Covered Wagon exhibit – BMO Centre
I was in Calgary just a week before this epic festival kicked off and the whole city was ablaze with all things Stampede-related. It was the final day of our Canadian RV Road Trip through British Columbia and Alberta from Vancouver via the Rocky Mountains. We’d left the iconic mountains to cross the ‘endless’ prairies, so very flat after the spectacular ups and downs of the majestic Rockies. The sun shone and the heat increased as we reached Calgary, the sunniest city in Canada.
Cruise Canada Calgary
My fellow traveller, photographer Alison Bailey, and I had driven our Cruise Canada RV (Recreational Vehicle = motor-home), nicknamed Rocky in honour of our route, over 3,000km and were very pleased to have arrived in Calgary, not only unscathed, but having had an absolutely wonderful trip. We dropped Rocky off at the Cruise Canada RV depot on the outskirts of the city and had 24 hours to explore Calgary before we returned home to the UK.
Calgary City Centre
We stayed overnight at the Lakeview Signature Inn, close to the airport. Our comfortable suite of rooms seemed very luxurious after 2 weeks in our RV (though I am a total convert to motorhome travel now). The helpful receptionist gave us a map and suggested we got the C-Train (Light Railway) into the city centre, where we could see all the main sites within a fairly small area. Skyscrapers soared above the Alberta prairies as we got nearer, crossing the Bow River, which we’d last seen winding sinuously through Banff in the heart of the Rockies. We got off the train near the Town Hall and headed to the Calgary Tower, which my guide book said was home to the Tourist Information Centre.
Not any more. It’s a dedicated tourist attraction, selling tickets to whiz you up 190m, 62 floors, in just over minute, but no sign of the Tourism Office. Never mind; Calgary city centre is built on the classic North American grid system so it’s very easy to get around. Everyone seems to gravitate towards Stephen Avenue, a pleasant walkway, lined with cafes, bars and restaurants and some attractive older buildings.
The Tourist Information Office is now situated on Macleod Trail and they suggested visiting the Glenbow Museum, on the corner of Stephen Avenue. It’s one of Canada’s largest museums and hosts a number major temporary exhibitions as well as having over 20 permanent galleries. They chart the history of Canadian West with First Nation exhibits, with a special section on the Blackfoot people and displays from the 19thC pioneering era. It’s also home to contemporary art and militaria from around the world. Or so the marketing blurb says; unfortunately it was closed the day we visited …
You might imagine, in a place famous for its ‘frontier’town’ atmosphere, there would be ‘cowboys’ sporting stetsons all over the city. No. There were plenty of people dressed for work in shirt sleeves, dresses, suits and more casual tourists, but hardly a stetson in sight. I saw one guy on the train; that was it. However, we were told that as soon as the Calgary Stampede started, “everyone thinks they’re a cowboy” and everyone dresses up. But fear not, you can buy the iconic headgear on street stalls and shops all over Calgary, with prices varying from a few dollars to much more, depending on the quality of the hat.
Stetsons for sale
As the sun sank down behind the skyscrapers, we decided to have a meal in town before returning to our hotel. We chose Milestones on Stephen Avenue, as it was Happy Hour and their cocktails looked great. I can highly recommend their Original Bellini; very colourful and moreish. We had a selection of small bites including crisply perfect Asian Chicken Bites, followed by Steak Frites; melt-in-the-mouth fillet steak, golden Parmesan fries, delicate buttermilk onion rings and truffle aioli. Perfect meal for our last night in Canada.
The next morning we checked out of our hotel, leaving our luggage to be collected after lunch. We got the C-Train back into Calgary, where we split up. I wanted to visit two major sights, whilst Ali wanted to do some photography. I got another train to Stampede Park, home to the famous festival, which was gearing up for opening the following week. I wandered into the BMO Centre (Bank of Montreal) where I found a perfect little gem of a museum; the Grain Academy. Volunteer and enthusiastic raconteur Gordon showed me round the quaint exhibition which tells the history and importance of grain to Canada and the rest of the world. There’s a very big model railway showing the journey of grain from the Alberta prairies through the Rockies to Vancouver. (If you travel through this part of Canada you can’t miss the VERY long trains transporting this valuable commodity for global distribution.)
Grain Academy Mural
On the main corridor outside the Grain Academy is the wonderful Calgary Stampede ‘Parade of Posters‘. There is one poster from almost every year since 1912 to the present day. Not only does it give a fascinating summary of the way the show has grown over the decades, but it also illustrates the history of art and poster making.
The most famous is the 1923 poster. The sketch of a cowboy on a bucking bronc by Edward Borein, called I See Uwas designed vertically so the poster would fit on a telephone pole. This image has been immortalised in an electrifying bronze sculpture at the entrance to the Park.
‘I See You’ sculpture
There’s a really excellent Art Trail which takes you round all the Public Art works on display here. They illustrate the history of Alberta and reflect an aspect of Canada’s heritage in an original and entertaining way. ‘By the Banks of the Bow’ is one of the biggest sculptures in North America.
There are a number of stadiums which host events and entertainment. You can visit the Stampede Ground any time of the year.
‘By the Banks of the Bow’ sculpture and Saddledome
The last place I went to was Fort Calgary, It was built by the North West Mounted Police in 1875 due to its strategic position where the Bow and Elbow Rivers meet. Reconstructed in modern times, Fort Calgary now houses an award-winning interpretative centre telling the story of Calgary and its pioneering past. There are some interesting recreations including a carpenter’s workshop. I didn’t have time to walk beside the river, but it looks like a nice way to end your day.
Fort Calgary and Colonel McLeod statue
Ali and I met up for a quick bite to eat; we only had time to grab a sandwich from a street cafe, before we got the C-Train back to the hotel, picked up our luggage and headed off to the airport. Even though we’d only had 24 hours in Calgary, we’d managed to get a really good feel for this vibrant, historic city of contrasts.
Flying into Knight Inlet Lodge by sea-plane on a May morning is like entering another world, where time stands still and bears rule the wilderness …
Grizzly bear cubs at Knight Inlet
On our ever-noisier digital planet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hear nature’s voice, to tune in to the subtle nuances the seasons bring, to smell, not the aroma of man-made coffee, but damp grass during a rain-storm. Yet we all need to be around nature or we start to internally combust. We are animals, not machines and spending hours a day ‘relating’ to a computer screen or mobile phone does us no good in the long term. Every so often we need a digital detox to remind ourselves what life is REALLY all about and put things into perspective. That’s what a few days with the bears of British Columbia provides. Here’s how …
Bear Viewing at Knight Inlet
Digital Detox with Bears in BC
There’s only one way visitors can get to the bear lodge and that’s by float plane (seaplane) from Campbell River. Watch the BC float plane video (Some people go into Knight Inlet by boat but that’s for day tours or personal trips.) You have a relatively small luggage allowance as the planes only seat 8-10 people in a tight space, so you’re forced to ditch the party frocks, suit jackets and unnecessary fripperies, to be left securely locked up at the airport until you return. You’re also asked not to bring perfumed toiletries that might attract the bears. The Lodge provides unscented shampoo and soap, waterproofs, safety gear, footwear and even binoculars so you can just take the ‘bear necessities’ …
View from plane
As you fly over the rugged, tree-clad landscape you realise you truly are getting away from it all as signs of human habitation are few and far between. The aerial view of Knight Inlet Lodge, nestled on the shore of Glendale Cove highlights its isolation amidst the magnificent forests, snow-capped mountain and fathoms-deep fjords of the Pacific Northwest region of Canada.
Aerial view Knight Inlet Lodge BC
With just 18 guest bedrooms, the Lodge is never over-crowded. The rooms have queen-size beds, en-suite bathrooms and views out across Glendale Cove or craggy rocks. However, there is NO TV in the rooms and NO internet, so you have SWITCH OFF! Yes, it may sound a bit like going ‘cold turkey, but believe me, it’s not difficult to do and you very quickly adapt to a different pace of life. With excellent food (meals and wine included), interesting talks every evening and like-minded guests from around the world to chat to, it’s easy to keep occupied – or just relax and watch the ever-changing scenery outside.
Daily Itinerary Knight Inlet Lodge
The daily itineraries are well-organised into small groups which mean you get to know others but in a low-key way. Each day there are grizzly-bear viewing tours, up until August by boat and during the salmon season from Viewing Platforms over the river. These are the highlight of the stay and why most people come.
Boat in the rain
Puttering out into Glendale Cove in the rain in a little boat in search of bears is one of the most memorable things you will ever do. The mist swirls around the shoreline, shrouding all like a scene from a Japanese woodcut. Sea gulls and herons perch atop barnacle-encrusted jetty posts or on half-sumberged rocks. Little ducks called marbled murrelets, described by our guide as ‘floating potatoes’, dive below the rain-pocked water and overhead a bald eagle swoops down onto its giant nest.
Glendale Cove in the rain
Once the engine is switched off it’s the silence that enchants. Gradually the natural sounds of the Inlet come to the fore. The swooshing of waves as a pod of dolphins comes alongside for a quick play. Raindrops pattering on the roof of the boat and onto the surface of the water all around. The swirl of water as a curious sea-lion pops its head up to see what’s going on.
Sea lion in the rain
Then, on seeing a bear, you hear the crunch of its jaws as it munches its way through mussels and tiny shrimps on its endless quest to fill its stomach after months of hibernation. Of course, camera shutters click and videos whirr but you get so long to look, that eventually you know you’ve got enough photos and stop so you can enjoy this life-enhancing scene. The bears, used to humans watching them all day long, take little notice and go about their daily business oblivious to the pleasure they bring.
Young Grizzly Bear on Knight Inlet shore
Yes, I’d have liked one more day to be able to enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting on the deck of the Lodge and watch the natural world go by for a few hours. We stayed for two nights and, though almost every minute was busy, including going ‘bear-tracking’ and on a fast boat cruise of Knight Inlet (find out more on my Bear Watching trip to British Columbia), I found the whole experience both absorbing and de-stressing. Being totally immersed in this ruggedly beautiful environment, far from the world of technology, sharing it with diverse wildlife, was a potent reminder of what really matters.
“Do you have any food on you? Chocolate, chewing gum, sweets? Please make sure you don’t have anything edible; bears have a very strong sense of smell.” We looked at each other in slight trepidation and patted our pockets to make sure we weren’t carrying something that might attract a hungry bear. The canopied, flat-bottomed boat inched slowly away from Knight Inlet Lodge and out across the narrow inlet. The guide scanned the opposite shoreline. Suddenly he whispered, “There’s one over there to our left. I’m going to take the boat a bit nearer. Keep very quiet and try not to make any sudden moves.”He then silently slipped over the back of the boat and gently pushed it closer to land. With mounting excitement, we peered along the shore, unable to distinguish between moss-covered rocks and what might be a bear. Then we saw it against the fir trees …
… a young male, maybe 3 years old, quite thin, with capucchino-coloured fur, making his way slowly through the sedge, seemingly unbothered by the boat only 50 metres away. He looked up as we started taking photos but was clearly used to curious humans and carried on eating. With a big furry paw, he turned over a heavy rock covered in moss and seaweed, searching for tasty morsels hidden underneath.
Grizzly bear cub turning over stones
Crunch-crunch went his strong jaws as he munched on fresh mussels. Water slooped against the side of the boat and the occasional cry of duck echoed through the valley, but otherwise the only sounds were the bear eating and shutters clicking as we tried to capture this moving sight.
Half an hour passed by quickly; it was almost hypnotic to watch this totally wild animal in its natural habitat going about its vital task of building up body mass after its winter hibernation, totally unbothered by the nearby watchers. His powerful shoulders rippled everytime he moved a stone or stood up on a log to get a good look around. Round ears twitched at any noise and his shiny black nose sniffed the air regularly but he was clearly unafraid. It was such a treat to be so close to one of this planet’s mightiest animals. Eventually the guide pushed our boat away, got back in and we went further round the cove to see if any other bears were about. They weren’t, but for a first day this sighting was more than enough.
Grizzly bear cub
My bear watching adventure had started earlier that morning inCampbell River, a small town on Victoria Island inBritish Columbia. We had left from a tiny airport aboard a seaplane, or ‘floatplane; as they are called in Canada. It set off at a sedate pace, sailing past shiny yachts and old boats, scattering swans with gay abandon. Trundling along the water, the plane had slowly gathered speed until it inched its way up into the sky. It soared above tree-clad mountains, over finger-like fjords and sun-reflected water, its engine rumbling loudly. The mountains got higher and a narrow river snaked its way though a grassy meadow.
Short video of our flight to Knight Inlet here
Our destination appeared below; a collection of blue-roofed buildings perched on the edge of dark green water. The little plane circled slowly down and came to a gentle landing on the calm water.
Eager hands helped us off the plane and the Lodge Manager Brian Collen explained how the timetable worked. We had to make careful note of a giant whiteboard which showed what activities we would take part in and with whom we’d be adventuring. After off-loading luggage in my cosy wooden cabin, we were shown the Changing Room with its vast array of bright red waterproof suits, wellies, binoculars and other equipment vital for an intrepid bear watcher. We had great fun helping each other into our Michelin-man suits, taking photos to capture our sartorial elegance.
Gary Bembridge and me in our waterproofs
Our first activity was a scenic cruise in a high-speed boat ride from Glendale Cove out intoKnight Inlet. Waterfalls thundered down craggy rocks, bald eagles kept watch from enormous nests, ancient glaciers loomed above deep turquoise waters. A lone whale came close and was gone in the blink of an eye. Myriad ducks dipped and dove in the wake of the boat and the sun glimmered through steely clouds, sending flashes of brilliance all around. So many shades of green and silver …
Knight Inlet waterfall
Back at Knight Inlet Lodge, we sat down to a much-needed lunch from the buffet selection of fresh seafood, pasta, salads, fruit, chocolate desserts and a whole lot more. And then the moment I had been looking forward to so very, very much; my first grizzly bear watching boat trip. Donning different waterproofs we had boarded the little boat and sailed to the opposite side of Glendale Cove.
Knight Inlet Lodge, set amidst theGreat Bear Rainforest, is surrounded by one of the biggest concentrations ofgrizzly bearsin Canada. In the spring, when I visited, the grizzlies, along with someblack bears,come out of hibernation and the females bring their cubs down the Glendale River. Here the bears, lean from months without eating, feed on the nutrient-rich sedge, grasses and crustaceans along the shoreline.
Young grizzly bears
From August onwards, many bears come to the Glendale river to feast on the salmon that spawn near the Lodge. But we were here on a Spring Watch visit, where, ‘ … you get remarkably close to some of these wonderful animals. Seeing them at eye level without disturbing them is a powerful experience. The spring season offers some of the year’s best photographic opportunities, with the grizzly bears moving about in a lush green environment with spectacular backdrops.’Knight Inlet Bear Tours
Grizzly bear on log
After that first successful bear watching excursion, we enjoyed a delicious dinner. The food is excellent here; guests from around North America, Europe and especially the UK praise it highly. That evening we had a fascinating talk on the sex life of bears from one of the resident guides. Apparently female brown bears only come into season every 2-3 years; they don’t mate whilst their cubs are still with them, which can sometimes be for over 2 years. A long wait for the males, who may try to kill the cubs to get at the female. This is why the female bears around Knight Inlet are content to be nearer humans as they provide a shield for their young cubs from the predatory males.
Grizzly bear slide show
Over the next couple of days we went bear watching many times, in the early morning, the best time to see the bears, and later in the day. We saw at least 10 different bears including females and their cubs, a huge grizzly male standing up on its hind legs and a big black bear just feet from the Lodge. We had a close encounter with a pod of dolphins playing around our boat as they took a little detour on their way out to sea.
Dolphins at Knight Inlet
Pretty little hummingbirds flittered and whirred around sugar feeders on the Lodge jetty and swallows swooped over the water at the sun set. Curious seals and sea lions popped up to see what was going on. We watched as one of the guides pulled up a haul of crabs to be served up for dinner. We occasionally saw the two cubs who starred in ‘DisneyNature’s Bears’ movie; they are now 3 years old and foraging on their own.
By the time our flight plane arrived to take us back to civilisation, I really didn’t want to leave. I’d experienced something very special. Getting up close with the grizzly bears in the wilderness has left a lasting impression. Learning more about these much-misunderstood creatures from people who are passionate about their well-being and doing everything about their conservation was a valuable life-lesson. However, it’s the sound of a grizzly bear munching on fresh mussels that stays with me as a reminder of those precious few days in the Great Bear Rainforest …
Two young bears
‘In 2005, Knight Inlet Lodge, in partnership with Dr. Owen Nevin and the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, began a long term population study of the grizzly bears of Knight Inlet. We have successfully satellite collared a number of bears, allowing us the ability to track denning and range characteristics on their sub-population. We have gathered data that will help policy makers in making sound land-use and wildlife management planning decisions for the region that take into account the importance of the grizzly bear to the area. We are working unequivocally to ban the currently legal trophy hunting of grizzly bears in British Columbia. In the meantime, we have adopted innovative strategies of working with the hunting community to restrict trophy hunting in critical grizzly bear viewing habitat in coastal British Columbia.