Before I share some thoughts on Canada then it is only apposite to mention that we never nearly made it to Manchester Airport. The drive from York suffered delays due to traffic jams. After reaching the M60 via a tortuous route over Saddleworth Moor, we started to move nicely for the first time in over an hour. At a junction an old Audi came onto the motorway and in heavy traffic made a dash for the outside lane. The only problem was that he was steering directly into the side of our car at 70mph. I swerved toward the barrier in the centre, our car hit the grass and gravel and we slewed along as the Audi made the outside lane but kept accelerating. Thanks to presence of mind and a great car, with superb handling, we kept control, didn't hit the barrier, go into a spin and take out the cars behind us or those beside us. This fool could have killed 5 or 6 people in a heartbeat.
Anyway more than a little shaken we made the flight to Toronto. I'd been here in 2015 and thought it fabulous. Arriving and exiting by bicycle was a very different experience to that of doing it by car. My time on the bike was spent by Lake Ontario and then when arriving at Niagara I only ever saw the Falls (not the town) before continuing south into the USA via Buffalo.
Toronto is organised and attractive but busy. Our hotel was massive and choked with international tourists passing through. Our city bus tour was remarkable for revealing that Toronto might be modern and important but it had no history that you could repeat or remember. In fact I remember more about the Toronto Blue Jays playing baseball at the Rogers stadium and the window cleaners at the large children's hospital dressing as Super Heroes to entertain the young patients than anything else. The tour involved a trip across the harbour to some islands.
The main reason for this stop over in the east before heading to the Pacific was to show Anna Niagara Falls. The drive to Niagara Falls was on a rammed motorway and when we got to the waterfalls we saw the resort, just off the main drag past the Falls. This rather reduced the magic of the natural phenomena. It is literally 'kiss me quick' hats, burgers and amusement arcades. However, you cannot take away the majesty of these wonderful waterfalls and I can barely imagine the impact it had on the first Europeans who came across it.
From here we drove to Niagara-on-the-Lake and it was simply delightful. A small resort on Lake Ontario at the head of the Niagara River (that is part of the waterway between Ontario and Erie). This quaint and historic town is beyond manicured and full of tea shops, restaurants and most things that would carry the tag of 'upmarket'. The flower beds and hanging baskets were a vision to behold.
Needless to say there were many other tourists there. The surrounding area is planted with vines and it appears a considerable wine producing area. We tasted some 'icewine'. This is fermented from grapes that are frozen at the time of picking in winter. It was very sweet, like dessert wine. After this it was back into the traffic and back for a vegetarian meal in the centre of Toronto.
Our flight to Vancouver, to complete the journey west was another four hours. This is a very large country with the 4th biggest land mass as a country but only 36m inhabitants. You quickly learn that everyone lives broadly up against the US border and some Provinces (out of the 10) such as Yukon, only have a total population of 36,000! Clearly the terrain and climate offer no incentive to live there or many places north.
Vancouver is a fine city and Anna booked us into a more luxurious hotel this time near Downtown where we were to discover the first of a lot of German tourists. They flood across from Europe and love the west coast of the Americas. We did a Chinatown walking tour on our first morning, which was surprisingly engrossing. The Chinese came in the 19th century to build the railways. As part of British Columbia becoming part of Canada it needed a rail link. The Chinese, from the Pearl River Delta, can be viewed just as indigenous as many of the Europeans. However it was a long road for their equal rights, they even had to overcome racists laws in the 20th century. Our Canadian Chinese guide slightly gilded the story of local ethnic Chinese heroes bringing about change. I’m sure their efforts were vital but in fact the post war Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 meant things had to change for the Canadians. (The plonker with the Mohican is from Australia...)
Coming up to the present day then several conversations talked of 'Asian' immigration or property buying throughout the main cities. These properties were not always to live in but as a speculative investment. (A lot of nations in post communist countries buy property speculatively outside their homeland e.g. Russians in London). In addition there were hundreds of Mainland China tourists in the resorts. This even led to the recycling bins having script in Mandarin to ensure tins didn't go in the wrong bin! Like York then they are bringing considerable revenue to these tourist destinations but the cultures of China, Europe or North America do appear uncomfortable together at times.
Even more energy sapping was being behind two people who's first language was not English in a shop. Such was the accent that they either spent sometime repeating things to each other or, even worse, one poor lady at a fast food joint I went to only partially got what she came in to buy. Who’d be an immigrant? This partially explains the lack of integration I expect.
In Vancouver we tried to get over the jet lag, ate well, rode bikes around Stanley Park and soaked up the more laid back vibe of Canada. Eventually we picked up our second hire car and headed for Victoria Island. I paid scant attention to the holiday booking details and getting a 'compact' car seemed fine. It ended up being a little small and under powered. The power was undermined by the statutory North American automatic gearbox. To dust off an old politically incorrect comment then our little Nissan couldn't pull a sailor off your sister. This meant that on some busy winding roads putting your foot down to overtake took courage and blind faith. I am a Leeds United fan: I coped.
To get to Victoria on Vancouver Island (on the south tip of the island) meant an hour and a half ferry and we absorbed the majestic views before we disembarked and made our way to the hotel.
Here one of the staff, a chap called Waddingham, told us of his family's origins in Hull. All good although we did correct him on his name's pronunciation of Waddingham and not 'Wardingharm'! Victoria is the Province capital of British Columbia and has a legislature and fine older architecture. I find it quaint that they still have 'British' in their name and, frankly, any residual attachment to the UK. In 1931 Canada gained their independence and any involvement of the British Parliament went in 1982. The Royal Family is still affectionately regarded. Will and Kate visited Victoria fairly recently but frankly when the Queen passes I think the majority of the Commonwealth, let alone Canada, will call time on any remotely formal connnection.
We saw the city by bicycle and here Jessica steered us up and down hills and kept us away from traffic. Vancouver Island was the first settlement in British Colombia and hence it became the capital despite being detached.
Today Vancouver is several times larger but the Parliament resides here. I expected a distinct difference between the USA and Canada to be evident: it wasn't. The Canadian's accent, TV channels, road signage, chain stores, cars, types of food, ambience etc seemed just a continuation. Even detail like the yellow school buses were evident. To this end the shadow of the USA looms large and not larger than Trump. In fairness he has freaked out the world with his language, behaviour and perceived priorities. He has many people all caught like rabbits in the headlights and for better or worse then sensibilities and fears of many are heightened to the extent that he is a preoccupation. I sensed it in a few conversations and as always you could rely on the ubiquitous CNN to talk negatively 24/7 on all things Trump - I don't doubt some of the negativity is well earned.
From Victoria we weaved on a motorway and then minor roads to Ucluelet on the west coast of the island. There are several names that originate from the Native Indians or First Nation people who were here long before the Europeans. In this small coastal town there was tourism and also facilities for fishing trawlers. The trawlers brought ashore hake (for McDonalds!), salmon and other white fish. We had a fabulous trip off the shore in a launch with other tourists. The expedition was to find Grey Whales but sadly there were none to see. However we saw many Sea Lions, Sea Otters and Bald Eagles. The tranquility of the sea near the shore and the clear fresh air were glorious and enervating. Back at our apartment we dipped in the jacuzzi and ate our store bought provisions. The following morning we sadly had to depart but not before a quick hike around a trail directly on the shore. Wonderful and I think we’ll be back.
So another ferry and then a straightforward drive up to Whistler. Whistler is a skiing resort but in the summer there are some scenery seekers, like ourselves, but also hundreds of mountain bikers. When we got there we discovered competitions which brought in many young chaps on expensive bikes. However many others with the right head and body apparatus took the lifts to the top of the mountains and came down on the trails. During the winter then these would be the various ski slopes. It looked great fun for all ages as the gradients, like ski slopes, were graded. We were in a hotel with some catering facilities and on arrival popped out to the supermarket. Licensing laws meant that the store didn't sell alcohol and as it was 9 pm nowhere else was open. To rectify this crisis I went to the hotel bar and returned to the lift with 2 pints to ascend to the room. A crowded lift turned toward me to note my 2 pints. I felt clarification was necessary and I did blurt out"they're not both for me!"
It was here that it struck home how expensive Canada was. Two people eating out with a drink and basic fare would bash £50. I wouldn’t pretend that we didn't budget for this but you do get to a point where it isn't as if you are doing more than refuelling at a high cost.
Whistler hosted part of Vancouver's 2010 Olympic set up and it is a well laid out town with great facilities, links and transport for skiers. However, frankly it wasn't suitable for folk like us passing through with just scenery and relaxing in mind. I think it's reputation blinded us and so we went. Don't go unless you're on a mountain bike or skis.
One notable thing to mention about Canada is pedestrians, of which Whistler had many, and the car. The pedestrian has priority and courtesy is shown by the motorist at all times. Not only do the cars wait for walkers to complete their progress to the kerb but hold back some distance. This courtesy is extended to cyclists. It's just in the culture. There is endless debate in the UK about making the roads safe for cyclists. Solutions include car exclusion, cycle lanes on roads, specially built cycle paths, execution for offending drivers by beheading etc. Frankly a good start would be the elevation of the pedestrian and cyclist, when sharing the same space, to be respected and protected. Costs nowt an' all.
The drive to Kamloops, the biggest town in this part of the Rockies, was tough. It was single lane and slow traffic made the going miserable. On the odd occasion that an overtaking opportunity arose I gunned the poor little Nissan within an inch of its life past a bus or dawdling SUV. I’d never heard Anna pray out loud before...
Our first stop for some lunch was Lillooet where our sandwiches were prepared by a lady from Glasgow. Her escape to this absorbing scenery and clear mountain air made a lot of sense. This small settlement has had many incarnations, not least as a rail stop and mining town. The heritage of the town is preserved by a number of graphics that mainly hark back to the 19th Century. However, one piece of recent history was the incarceration of the Canadian Japanese population in WW2 after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Many were shifted from the coast, where they traded and were fishermen, to the interior. In retrospect then this seems very harsh and wrong. If, given the issues, you can understand that then maybe not the confiscation of Japanese property and assets which they received scant compensation for, if any. They weren’t allowed freedom of movement until 1949 or an apology until 1988.
A brief stop at Blue Water was to again break the journey and buy an ice cream. This settlement had experienced forest fires and the road had been closed recently. It was pleasing to see that a sign in the Welcome Center offered fire fighters free drinks. Attached to the Center was the Gift Shop. The Canadians are no slouches in every part of British Columbia or Alberta at flogging swag. As I sauntered back to the car my bride bought four very nice coasters made of slate and etched with the images of elk or moose. Pleased with her purchase as we drove off I volunteered that a First Nation Indian had not spent a winter's day sat on the unheated clay floor of his wigwam holding the slate between his feet whilst he chipped away with tools made from flint and animal bones. More like that a man called Mr Lee based in a large factory on the outskirts of Shanghai had been the machine operative who was producing about 500 coasters per hour. Naturally this 'negative' comment was dismissed until she established the country of origin on the box. She was partially correct in that his name probably wasn't Mr Lee but Mr Wang.
Kamloops is a large town and due to the lack of other big towns miles around it seems to be the centre for every car dealer, motel, lawyer, appliance showroom in the area. We were located just outside of town at a hotel that might be described as more of a 'country club'. It had a gym, bikes to ride, swimming pool and a wedding! We partook of the first three and then drove back into town for dinner. The weather was getting warmer and despite being in the Rockies, and our experiencing some rain, then we were regularly above 20° C.
Rain greeted our residual drive to Jasper. The first thing you feel is the deep local welcome when you get there: from Australia. There appears to be an acute shortage of bar staff and shop assistants throughout the Rockies. Australia (and New Zealand) has stepped into the breach. Many of these millennials have been here for some time. We talked with a few, usually the opening line was, 'you're a long way from home?' Many had come and stayed. Given the flight time and cost to the Antipodes I can see how they had ended up residents. By way of variation the present Mrs Ives had booked us into a log cabin on the banks of Lake Patricia.
Everyone likes a picture of a train, be honest.
Jasper is small, mainly summer driven, resort overwhelmed by Brits, Germans and Chinese. It is on the famous Canadian Railway line and hosts the tourist train that pulls through every day. It is also ideally located for local lakes - Maligne, Pyramid and Patricia. It's on the latter that we stayed in a log cabin. (Just to return to an earlier theme, then on Lake Pyramid you could hire canoes by the hour - $40). We tripped out to see the lakes and absorb the beauty. It was chilly and overcast for some of the days and the beauty is cast into monochrome only to fully hit you when the sun comes out and glorious Technicolour abounds.
Anna had so wanted to see bears and as you drive along then there are many road signs warning of wildlife. Needless to say our sightings were limited but we did see one bear on a bank near the road. That was it. Elks were not so hard to find and this moose was caught early evening grazing.
The Icefields Parkway is the 180 mile stretch of road that takes you south in a long valley. Either side are lakes, glaciers and creeks can be found often with bus loads of other tourists.
Our pleasure was taken in a steep hike to the top of a very tall hill/mountain to look down on Lake Peyto. The colour of the water is made by a fine silt that is found in the lakes.
Our last stop was Canmore, a mere stone's throw from the famous Banff. This is an upmarket little town full of expensive second homes and a main street selling specialist bagels, artisan coffee, gifts and craft beers. Our B&B was exceptional and a very Continental breakfast afforded talking to the other guests who were mainly Canadians. Topics from Bonnie Raitt, Alberta oil sands, speaking French and that bloke Trump (again) were discussed. There were a selection of great eating options and one owned by a brewery that did small samples for $10.
We drove back to Banff to see what the fuss was about and it was just a little bigger with more tourists and shops selling stuffed elks, key fobs, cushions with Mounties on them and similar tat. I believe it is more important in winter when the skiing season will fill all the hotels on the outskirts.
Back in Canmore we rode bikes along the river, drank coffee, drank beer and headed back up the road past Banff to see Lake Louise. It was so named after Queen Victoria's fourth daughter. The graphic telling this described Victoria as the 'Queen of England' - slightly disappointing to read given Canada's place in the Commonwealth.
To celebrate our disappointment we ascended 1,000 feet for over 2 miles for a cup of hot chocolate and a large piece of banana bread - a fair exchange in my book. The step count on the iPhone said we had ascended 79 floors!
A return to Canmore for a bagel was bewildering. I was asked by the young man, resplendent with tattoos, hat and piercings, what I wanted? Such was the enormous choice that I took some time to answer. Like all attentive youngsters dealing with older people he patiently smiled and then repeated the question. I did gently ( a major concession on my part) say that I understood the ‘kin question but was considering my choice. His mother loves him.
It would be remiss not to talk about what the Canadians have done to our language. Despite some British spelling then they mangle 'aluminium’ like the Yanks. Their metal is pronounced aloominum and Hyundai is bastardised to Hundi. By way of forgiveness we did enjoy some of the language such as a dog accessories shop was called 'Mutt Hut' and the children's section of the menu at one restaurant called 'Cub Grub’. I would add the establishment was called The Grizzly Paw.
Our last day was spent in pursuit of retail joy. We found two malls that sold CD's and vinyl LP's and Anna found Gap and Coach. The Canadian economy benefited.
Whilst waiting for Anna to pay for the unbelievable 'bargain' purchase I chatted with the young lady handing out '50% off' vouchers at the entrance. She is a student and this is a Summer job. She hopes to become an optician. She suggested that the 27° C weather outside would soon fall apart and that Calgary would be cast into a freezing winter and only emerge in May. No thanks. The Mall attracts a lot of tourists and many from Mainland China bulk buying - Anna followed a lady at the till buying 9 identical bags no doubt for redistribution back home.
We wended our way to the Airport and dropped off the hire car. A diligent chap looked around the car for damage, checked the fuel and what not. I did advise that the engine was missing. Now usually my profound hilarity is met with 'tumbleweed rolling across an empty street'. However, being a bright bunny he did reflect and surmise that such an underpowered car in the mountains was sluggish and disappeared to provide a $5 free coffee card and a free car upgrade the next time we rented with Alamo. Being a prat does on occasion pay off!
The flight home, via Heathrow to Manchester, was routine.
So Canada? Kind, beautiful, genuinely interested in the environment, organised, quite expensive compared to the USA but similar in taking a lead from, culture, food, language, appearance and system. A bit ‘vanilla’, somehow too gentle and giving the impression of a new country that's still finding its identity.
So where next?