Sunday, 14 October 2012

Lakes Of Canada

Aloha again. Here's an account of our final travels in mainland North America – a trip out to the Canadian Rockies.

In Vancouver we picked up our hire car and began the journey east towards Alberta and the Canadian Rockies. Sadly there was no free upgrade from Avis this time so we ended up with the crappy class of car we'd booked. Our Hyundai Elantra 'Touring' was functional but made overtaking a slow, slightly embarrassing process.

Nice view, shame about the car
We'd decided to spend three nights in each of Jasper and Banff national parks and gave ourselves one overnight stop to break up the 10 hour journey to Jasper. I'm not sure what - if anything - there is to do in Clearwater but we certainly didn't do it. The next day, after a relatively easy 4 hours on the road, we arrived in Jasper, checked into our nice little guesthouse and went out to explore.

Check in, dump bags, find brewpub
There really isn't a great deal to do in the town of Jasper itself but it served as a good hopping off point for exploring the awesome hikes and sights of the park. First up: glacial lakes:

Medicine Lake
Post-hike lunch at Maligne Lake
Reflecting at Lake Annette
Second up: more lakes

Our first glimpse of glacial turquoise in the Valley Of Five Lakes
Lake 1. Pretty good
Lake 3. Awesome.
Bonus lake. The most stunning reflections of the trip.
From Jasper it was another 3 hour drive down to Lake Louise in Banff, though it's hard to complain about driving the Icefield Parkway - 200km of views out over mountain lakes, ancient glaciers and broad tree-lined valleys.

In Banff we stayed at the HI hostel in Lake Louise. While the town of Lake Louise makes Jasper look like a sprawling metropolis, it didn't really matter as we filled the days with hikes in areas of natural beauty rivalling anything we've seen in the past 7 months.

Rangers at the local visitors centre had warned us that certain hikes would require being in a group of 4 or more due to the threat of bears. Either they didn't have the latest info or we weren't listening properly as we arrived at the trailhead for the Larch Valley / Sentinel Pass trail to find the 4-person restriction in place with a $5,000 fine threatened for failure to comply.

Fortunately the first group to turn up after us were nice enough to let us hike with them and walked at the same sort of pace we'd normally take. All four were 20-something locals from Calgary and happy to chat away with us, swapping stories and making jokes as we tackled the 2-hour climb to get up to the pass.

At our lunch stop among the endless larch trees
Looking down from the mountain pass
If you do encounter a bear the situation can be resolved with a simple hi-five
By the time we'd completed the epic return descent we were tired but happy, and making various plans to take it easy the next day. 'Best laid' plans, it turned out.

The next day we chose to stay local - to see Lake Louise, try a few nice hikes in the area, picnic for lunch and head back to give our weary calves a break. We achieved this more or less - the more bit being the hiking and the less bit being the break.

Michelle, Greg and Louise
We started at Chateau Lake Louise itself, pleasant surprised to find that, whilst busy, the lake area wasn't the overrun Disney resort we'd feared. As we set off for the Plain of Six Glaciers the number of tourists decreased as the climb steepened.

The Swiss tea house made for a very welcome break after an arduous 5.5km hike - harder than the distance would suggest, particularly on legs already weary from the day before. The views up at the plain were fantastic and you could even see (and hear!) avalanches every half hour or so.

An avalanche. Not spectacular but safety-wise that was probably a good thing
Returning from the tea house we had the option go back the way we came, but why make life easy? Instead we forked onto the Highline Trail, a gentle climb along a beautiful forested path sheltered from the afternoon sun. So far, so good. That soon changed on the optional hike up to the peak of Beehive mountain. Only 1.3km further but a grueling elevation gain that left us feeling as broken as we were relieved when we finally reached the top for a swimming pool view of Lake Louise.

Just to finish us off the descent down the back of Beehive to Lake Agnes was a series of switchbacks seemingly designed to inflict pain when least welcome. All this knowing we still had another 5km from Lake Agnes back to our starting trailhead. Pfff.

It was a fantastic day's hiking but one of those trips where the last two hours just feels like a long walk back to the car. Still, worth every step.

After 5 days in the national parks it was time head west back to Vancouver. The next two days were mostly spent on the road, with stopovers in the towns of Revelstoke (not much to see) and Kelowna (pretty) before eventually making it back to Vancouver, returning the car (with an additional 2,043km on it) and checking into the downtown HI for our last hostel stay of the entire trip.

Like most HIs this one was clean and friendly, a little pricey for a hostel but better than spending the same money on a ropey hotel. That said, I look back on the first night with mixed feelings - on the one hand it was free, on the other it was only free because we shared with a mouse, scurrying around all night. The next day the staff - apologetic but clearly unsurprised - moved us to a different room and refunded the previous night's charge. Woo.

We'd left ourselves two full days to explore Vancouver before jetting off to Hawaii. Depressingly I spent each morning working on my CV before we made it out to sightsee but with only a couple of weeks left until we arrive in Aus it needed to be done.

On our first day (well, afternoon) we were taken out for a whistlestop driving tour of the city by Mike, a friend of Gurm, with whom we'd worked in London. Mike took us to Granville Island to visit the markets and then to the Granville Island Brewery. If you've been following our progress up the coast of the US you'll know I'm not normally one for beer tasting but it seemed rude not to partake.

Mike's excellent – and comically random – tour continued on to Stanley Park and to the hip and historic Gastown district. For a 20yr-old he certainly knew more about the sights and history of his hometown than I do mine, even if he did admit to making a few dates up when he wasn't certain.

On our second afternoon – with a first draft of my CV finally complete – we set off on foot to Stanley Park to walk the sea wall and stretch our still-aching legs walking through the park and forested areas. Before visiting I wasn't sure why a park would rank as a top attraction in a city of this size but after whiling away an afternoon there I think I get it now.

Vancouver was our last stop in mainland North America and the last destination for the blog. From Canada we flew here – to Hawaii – but this is our honeymoon so there'll be no more blogging now until Aus.

As I write this I'm able to say 'Next week we move to Australia'. It feels more than a little weird; for so long it's just been something far off in the future.

Right now the change feels as daunting as it is exciting. On the one hand it's going to be awesome to see friends and family-in-law again, and to return to some semblance of normality – to not be living out of a rucksack, constantly on the move from city to city. On the other hand we'll need to find jobs, get bank accounts, register for doctors, get new mobiles, and generally spend lots of money on dull necessities. The 7 months we've spent travelling have been a fantastic adventure across the world but they've also been a handy way of putting real life on hold. Now, real life wants revenge.

Next time: a land down under.


Sunday, 7 October 2012

Crosstown Traffic

Aloha from Hawaii this time... but bear with me and pretend we're on the train from Seattle up to Vancouver as I'm still way behind with this increasingly pesky blog.

Our final two nights in a tent were spent at Camp Creek in Mount Hood National Park. This was the only place we'd stayed at that didn't have running water but the beauty and tranquility of the site and park more than made up for the lull in personal hygiene. Our one full day was spent on a 7 mile hike around Ramona Falls that was worth persevering with, even after an extra hour's hiking in the wrong direction at the start.

It's the final campsite (di do di doo)
This is not drinking water
Worth the long hike
Outdoors and happy about it
Stretching with style
Mount Hood and Intrepid Hiking Chelle
Who was I to argue with the sign?
From Mt Hood it was on to Portland - the last leg of our 1,500 mile US roadtrip. In Portland we checked into an Econolodge (as classy as it sounds), returned the hire car and attempted to make ourselves look presentable for a night out on the town.

Whilst planning our roadtrip Rachel - the girl we stayed with in San Francisco - had deferred to her Portland-based friend Julie for advice on interesting itineraries in Oregon. Julie's enthusiastic route suggestions were perfect for our needs (get from A to B, see cool stuff) but she went a step further and offered to take us out on the town when we eventually made it to Portland.

With 29 breweries within the city limits Portland is the microbrewery capital of the world. We only made it to 3 (Rogue, Bridgeport and Lucky Lab) on our Saturday night out but still ended up sampling plenty of north-western hops and accompanying pub grub. Portland's über-tattoed hipster crowd can be a little intimidating so it was helpful to have a local guide show us that skinny jeans and a severe side-parting weren't hard requirements for having a good time in the city.

Yes, the first two are called 'Yellow Snow' and 'Brutal'
Portland marked the end of our epic roadtrip up from LA and the end of our camping adventures. Our trusty Ford Fusion went back to Avis and our camping gear went to Julie to clean up and drop off at a charity shop. From here on in it would be trains between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

With no must-see list of attractions we resorted to our usual approach of endlessly wandering on foot. In this case the city turned out to be a little more sprawling than expected so we ended up bussing about a fair bit, encountering yet more crazy people enjoying the cheap public transit alongside naive tourists like ourselves.

One such bus trip was out to the celebrated Laurelhurst Theatre (opened in 1923) to catch a matinee showing of a second-run (recent, if not current) movie - for only $3! Cost savings were slightly offset by the availability of fancy pizza and craft beers - and the ability to take them in to the movie - but it still felt like a bargain and the film turned out to be a lot of fun. If you get the chance to see Safety Not Guaranteed take it.

Hill Valley, 1955
Another of our bus adventures was out to the laundrette. Probably not on everyone's list of top attractions but hey - our clothes were stinky and they had free wifi (now like a drug to me). And ninjas:

After 3 nights in Portland it was time to say farewell to Oregon and continue north up to Seattle, birthplace of Hendrix, grunge and Starbucks.

We arrived in Seattle by train, took the bus (free, so even more crazy people) to our hotel and not only managed to check-in 3 hours early but also charmed our way into a room upgrade. This sort of thing doesn't happen to us often and - combined with a complete lack of perma-rain threatened by the guidebook - marked the start of a thoroughly enjoyable stay in the city.

Our first full touristy day took in the Pike Place market, the first Starbucks (no different aside from the logo - you can see the mermaid's boobies), the Space Needle and the awesome Experience Music Project. The EMP is a slightly grandiose term for a Hendrix/Nirvana museum but in addition to those (excellent) exhibits it offered two bonus features that really made the visit worthwhile. Firstly: rehearsal studios full of gear.

Not only could you play and jam at crazy levels in soundproofed rooms but they also offered computer-based interactive lessons, particularly good for taking our first steps towards rock drummer stardom:

Little drummer girl
Michelle picked it up more quickly than me and our afternoon session concluded with a ropey stab at Back In Black, Chelle on full acoustic drum kit and me on a suitably bashed up electric guitar hooked up to a monster Marshall stack.

"I like to play"
The second bonus of visiting the EMP is that it shares a building with the Science Fiction museum and one ticket gets you into both. Upstairs you have guitars burned by Hendrix and smashed by Cobain, downstairs you can see Captain Kirk's chair and zombie evening wear from the Thriller video. If you have no shame you can even dress up and experiment with rudimentary special effects:

Decisions, decisions
It was only later I realised I looked like a bad Elvis
Bad Elvis defeats the sky panther
"...issued threats when needed"
The next day's fun began with a superb street concert by a local navy brass band. I'm not quite sure of the best way of sharing the video we took so here's one they prepared earlier:

From here it was swiftly up to the pretty district of Fremont for a targeted beer tasting (the brewery shares a name with a friend so we were obliged to go and get a t-shirt) swiftly followed by a tour of a local independent, organic chocolate factory. Whilst the lack of chocolate waterfall and oompah-loompahs was disappointing the chocolate was superb and the samples were plentiful. If you ever visit Seattle book yourself in for a visit and prepare to gorge.

A world of pure imagination
Our feet were deemed a threat to the chocolate
Not what we were expecting to find at the brewery
It's beer o'clock somewhere
Following the fun we'd had at the ball game in San Francisco we thought we'd spend the evening seeing the Seattle Mariners in action. Being fickle I'd decided to adopt the Mariners as my MLB team of choice - should they actually manage to win (the Giants had let me down in this respect). Sadly they turned out to be as poor as the game was boring. Still, a fun evening out even without home runs and garlic fries.

Nice view, shame about the baseball
From Seattle it was time to bid à bientôt to the US as we boarded an early morning scenic train to Vancouver. Here we planned to fit in an afternoon's sightseeing before setting off the next day on the road to Alberta to see the Canadian Rockies.

Sadly the combination of fatigue and miserable weather meant that we ended up spending the afternoon crashed out in our tiny hotel room, summoning only enough energy to head out for a cheapo sushi dinner. We left Vancouver the next morning without a great impression of the city but fortunately it would redeem itself on our return from the Rockies.

Phew. Only 2 weeks behind on blogging now. Next time: glacial lakes and awesome hiking in Jasper and Banff national parks.



Saturday, 22 September 2012

Walk Around The Lake

Hello again, this time from Canada. We arrived in Vancouver on the train this morning after a few days sightseeing in Seattle.

I need to backtrack here though as there's still a fair bit of the US to cover. Apologies if this is confusing. Here's an account of our trip from San Francisco up to Bend in Oregon.

We arrived in San Francisco on a Saturday, returned the hire car and were picked up by Rachel - one of Michelle's never-ending supply of former housemates from London. Rachel would be our hotelier, local guide and all-round superstar for the five days we spent in the city.

Our first night in SF started early with margaritas at a Mexican and ended late with long drinks in a lively local bar. During drinks and dinner we got to meet Rach's boyfriend Arthur and their collection of international friends - I think there were only two Americans amongst the nine at dinner. Fortunately no-one objected to the presence of two travelling hobos who - despite wearing our bestest going-out clothes - probably still smelled a little of campfires and wet wipes.

The next day, after a necessarily slow start, we set off for a day tasting wine in the blissful green and gold land of Napa. We were kindly chauffeured by Arthur and Rachel and joined by Christine who we'd met the night before at dinner. It was Labor Day weekend in the US so the area was busy but we still managed to find a table in the sun for bubbles, a table in the shade for a picnic and a couple of smaller wineries where we could do tastings with a chance to talk to the winemakers.

Rach and Arthur after a few tastings
Our mornings in SF were largely spent lazing at the flat, hunched over computer screens trying to plan and book the next few weeks - a roadtrip up through a little of northern California then in through Oregon all the way to Portland. Eventually we'd make it out in the afternoons for a spot of sightseeing - one day wandering the city, one visiting the SF Museum of Modern Art and one day taking bikes out across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and onwards to Tiburon.

The Golden Gate in the standard SF fog
A highlight of the stay was a trip to the AT&T park for my first ball game. I admit that I'd had no previous interest in baseball but it seemed like a quintessential American experience, and I'd heard there would be beer and garlic fries. I didn't have any idea how the game was supposed to work but fortunately Chelle's comprehensive understanding of softball meant she was able to patiently answer all of my questions. Patient, up until the point I referred to the catcher as a wicketkeeper for the umpteenth time.

Our adopted team for the night
Going in I had grand plans to buy a giant foam finger, try a corn dog and drink piss-weak beer. Instead we had bratwurst and the garlic fries we'd been recommended (awesome), skipped the foam finger in favor of a surprisingly tasteful Giants cap and enjoyed superb local craft beers - both those carried in from the onsite brewpub but also those sold by the food carts. God bless America.

Garlic fries - better than you might imagine
But it turns out the ball game has so much more to offer than calories and merchandise; we'd showed up on Bruce Lee tribute night. Things kicked off with local kids demoing their judo chops, got even weirder with videos of a bobble-head Bruce taking on the Giants team and the craziness culminated in Bruce Lee's daughter belting out the Star Spangled Banner.

Half-time singalong to Journey
The game itself was really quite entertaining. Several home runs, including one hit out right of the park into the water, to be rescued by two guys (who spend the whole evening loitering in kayaks in case this happens). The Giants ended up losing in extra innings - to the Arizona Diamondbacks - but they tried jolly hard so I'm sure no one minded too much.

It's like rounders for grown-ups
After 5 days it was time to bid a sad farewell to Rachel and Arthur so we headed over to Avis to pickup our hire car for the second US leg of the roadtrip - onwards to Oregon.

We normally book a pretty basic class of hire car - one above the most basic, assuming it looks big enough to lug our gear. In this case we were informed that the car we'd booked wasn't available so we could either wait or take an alternative. First up, an SUV. While this would've had plenty of space for our luggage neither of us were keen on familiarising ourselves with a gas-guzzling monster whilst negotiating downtown San Francisco traffic and out on the endless twists and turns of Highway 1. Second up... a shiny red Mustang convertible:

This is as close to driving it as we got. We politely declined this free upgrade, partly as it wouldn't really fit all of our bags and camping gear, but largely because we could see ourselves taking a bend on the coastal roads too quickly and driving straight into the Pacific.

This wouldn't have fitted in the nice red car
Nor this
Eventually we ended up with a thoroughly sensible Ford Fusion and we were back on the road. Our first stop was a campsite in a tiny place called Gualala, our first and fortunately our only experience of arriving in the failing light and having to set up the tent in the dark. The campsite itself was sparsely populated and far enough from the highway to be eerily silent - all it took was three pairs of shining eyes reflecting my headtorch for the horror movie experience to be complete. We raced through dinner, headed to bed and tried not to speculate on what rabid monsters were circling our tent.

Fortunately Gualala was just a stopover and the next day we set off for Humboldt Redwoods State Park and two nights camping in a quiet - but not too quiet - site amongst the giant trees. It was another long day on the road but we still found time to drive through a tree:

How could you not stop for a drive-thru tree?
In Humboldt we stayed at Burlington Campground, which was a beautiful spot and a nice hopping-off point for exploring the area's many hiking trails. Also they provided bear-proof lockers for food (and toiletries - bears love their hygiene) though I'm still not sure whether to be reassured or terrified by the availability of these things.

Not a bad spot for a tent
Trees. Lots of trees.
Green giant
You don't really get bored of umming and ahhing at these things
This one had a basement
After a full day exploring the stunning forests on easy trails it was time to move on again - leaving Highway 1 and the coast for the last time to cut in towards Oregon. Our first night in the Beaver State was spent at a KOA ('Kampsites Of America') site in Klamath Falls. Situated next to a main road but with just enough of a stream to ensure our pitch was plagued by flies, the KOA felt more like a bad motel for tents than it did a campsite but it sufficed for a night, breaking up the long trip up to Crater Lake.

I got my revenge on the flies
Crater Lake National Park is the fifth oldest national park in the US and features a huge lake containing a remnant of the nearby destroyed volcano Mount Mazuma. We arrived early enough to spend the afternoon touring the epic lake by car and checking off the list of scenic viewpoints.

Viewpoint 1. Pretty good
The lake really is this colour
We'd only planned to stay one night in the area but it became apparent on the drive into the park just how beautiful it was. This, combined with a quiet secluded pitch in a scenic and friendly campsite, helped make the decision to stay a second night. As long as it wasn't too cold...

The nights in Crater Lake were our first experience of camping at sub-zero temperatures in the US. While we'd survived (begrudgingly) -5 in Peru at least then we'd had down sleeping bags and plenty of thermal gear. Our budget bags from Walmart only just did the job and the next morning we decided that the decreasing temperatures - combined with the increasing bear threat - meant that we should probably retire the camping gear in Portland and stick to h/motels and hostels when roadtripping through the Canadian Rockies.

Trying to stay warm using marshmallows
This esky/coolbox was a wise investment
Testing our new Christmas decoration in the wild
On our second day in Crater Lake - after defrosting in the showers - we ventured out to try some short hikes, only to find the roads clogged with 2000 cyclists touring the area as part of some sort of Cycle Oregon lycrathon. We made it around and managed a few trails but the drive was a challenging experience due to a few inconsiderate pedalers making the twisting, undulating mountain road just that little bit more treacherous.

From here we continued up through central Oregon to the smallish city of Bend, known for its outdoorsy scene (the mountain biking capital of the US, apparently) and its microbreweries (the Bend Ale Trail even has its own iPhone app).

While not widely noted for its badass quilting scene our visit to Bend started with a 3 hour stint visiting 4 out-of-town quilting stores in a row. Michelle had been on a mission to find a particular fabric - a mission that had led us to several quilting stores all the way up the coast - and fortunately her perseverance (and my patience) were rewarded in the fourth store.

A fabric store for really big quilts
Eventually we made it to our B&B and the brewpub bonanza that is downtown Bend. We'd spotted an offer in the guide book of a four course dinner special at a fancy restaurant if you arrived between 4.30 and 5.30. Since we'd missed lunch due to the quilt hunt we decided to splurge on the fancy dinner offer, not knowing that this would be our downfall. It all started well - a beer tasting tray (naturally) and two superb appetisers of mussels and beef carpaccio. The problem was the portion sizes. I know the US is famed for providing more food than any diner could possibly eat but I assumed that our special offer would mean small portions - like similar special offers in the UK. Not here, it seems. We left the restaurant already suffering the beginnings of a food hangover and finding the prospect of further beer tasting slightly nauseating. We made it to Deschutes and ordered their sampler only to end up leaving it half-finished as we retired for the night. After reading so much about Bend's breweries (and downloading the app, of course) it was gut wrenching to bail out so early.

It's as if somehow I knew the evening would end badly
At least our one night in Bend was spent at a B&B - a great relief after the cold nights in a tent - though it was a slightly odd setup: self check-in via electronic code and an unfriendly cook at brekky. Still, apparently someone had found the cook unfriendly enough that they complained, resulting in us being offered half our money back on check-out. Excellent.

From Bend it back on the road to our final national park and our final campsite. The story of Mt Hood up to Seattle will have to wait for next time though, as it's late and we've got an epic drive tomorrow.