Canada Day 10 – Calgary

As Craig had planned to go on a mountain hike with our new local friend, I decided to stick around Calgary and wander around with my camera.

I finally made it outside after lunch and wasn’t walking around for long before a heavy hail shower hit. I retired as quickly as I could to the shopping mall we had discovered on our first day in the city to keep out of the cold and the hail – no conditions for photography.

Finally the blue skies reappeared and after I regained my bearings, I headed for some of the areas of the city that we had seen the night before from the Calgary Tower.

The cold weather began to chill me and so I headed back to the hotel. Craig returned around 1800 after his mountain hike (by his description I was glad I had stayed in the city). We then made our way to The Keg – a steak restaurant that Craig knew from his previous visits to the city as BA cabin crew. The meal was rather better than the one we’d had on our first night at Ruth’s Chris and was quite a bit cheaper too.

Canada Day 9 – Fort Calgary & Military Museums

As the day was due to be wet and cold, we had targeted museums for the day.

Fort Calgary is on the western edge of the city and is where it all started. The fort was established by the then North Western Mounted Police (NWMP) who were the force establishing law and order and overseeing the implementation of Treaty 7, which formed the basis of agreement between the new settlers and the indigenous people of what would become south western Alberta. The fort was originally a rudimentary affair and nothing now exists of it – the site was later used for rail expansion and was only rescued from further development towards the end of the 20th Century. The fort’s outline is marked by art installations but there is not much to see. The museum alongside is however a fascinating place that explains the whole history of the site and the city of Calgary that it started.

The museum had a number of displays showing what life was like in and around the fort for the NWMP, who later became RNWMP and then merged with another force to become the modern RCMP that we know today.

As well as cells and a carpenter’s workshop, there were recreations of a typical surgery, drugstore etc that were similar to those we’d seen the previous day at the Historical Village. The displays then moved on to show 20th century Calgary as it developed into the city it is today.

When we emerged from the museum, the sky was throwing sleet and hail through a biting wind and we walked as quickly as we could to take shelter beneath the canopy of the impressive Central Library, before taking an Uber to the Military Museums – with all three of Canada’s armed services represented there.

We started with the Army Museum, which explained the army’s roles in wars and later UN peacekeeping and observer roles. The horror of the First World War were explained, including Canada’s mounted regiments, before then covering the army’s role in the Second World War and then the Korean War. A Ford jeep, as often seen in the TV series M*A*S*H was displayed, along with accounts of UN roles in the Balkan war and other global flashpoints. The displays referenced some actions that some may wish to forget but which reflected the sometimes -confused rules of engagement and poor oversight by the UN.

After the Army Museum, we went onto the Air Force Museum which described the early beginnings of flying in Canada, their role in the First World War and then a little more about the Second World War, where Canadian crews lost many thousands of men in the Allies’ bombing campaigns. Many Canadians were stationed in the airbases that once covered Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, with familiar airfield names like Leeming, Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth and Middleton St. George (now Teesside International Airport).

Some very moving film footage was also being shown in a small theatre. As well as a film depicting a tragic raid over Berlin, in which local Alberta airmen were lost, a second film showed another airman’s experiences and his risky journey into USSR-occupied Germany to find the grave of his brother who was lost in that Berlin raid. Finally, incredible but chilling footage was shown from Luftwaffe fighter aircrafts’ gun cameras. The film showed the cannon fire from these fighters damaging and destroying Allied bombers. It was moving to realise that we were watching the last moments of some bomber crews’ lives in that footage.

By this time, the museums were not far from closing for the day and so we had little time to discover the Naval Museum. Being rather smaller than a naval vessel (and very much inland) the hall had various gun turrets, torpedoes, gun shells and an array of scale models of Canadian naval vessels. Given that my uncle visited Canada in the Navy at the very end of the Second World War, it is a shame that we hadn’t had enough time to see it all. I hope to put that right in Halifax…

Finally, after getting back to the hotel, we had some time to relax before going to our restaurant for an evening meal. We had booked into the revolving restaurant near the top of the Calgary Tower. While smaller in diameter and a little older, it brought back memories of dining at Auckland’s similar restaurant in its Sky Tower. Although already dark by the time that we were dining, it was still fascinating to watch the city unfold far below us. Our helpful waiter was very happy to help identify landmarks and the mix of period buildings and modern skyscrapers in the downtown area was very apparent, as was the network of enclosed elevated walkways that are characteristic of the city and which come in useful during its harsh winters.

Canada Day 8 – Calgary Historical Village

On our first full day in the city, we were keen to visit the Historical Village on the southern outskirts. With one of the C-Train lines out of action, we caught an Uber there, although could have used the busway which stopped very close by. The Historical Village was a similar sort of tourist attraction to the Beamish site back in North East England, primarily focusing on the early years of settlement in Canada’s west.

Having entered the park, the first attraction was Gasoline Alley. As its name might suggest, this was focused on cars but in fact there were lots of original gas (petrol) pumps throughout the display and several period tankers and breakdown trucks too, including the very earliest type with a basic pulley on the back of a truck. As would be expected, the focus was on rural vehicles that were in use in the Canadian outback and prairies and dated back to the earliest days of cars and trucks, including a Model T Ford. While most vehicles were in immaculate condition, some were displayed as they had been found, with rotted wooden elements and some of the metal elements rusted away. With some of the early vehicles on show, the very basic mechanics were clear to see. There were also some beautiful 1930s era cars, like the 1932 Auburn sedan shown below. The display was quite fascinating and well thought through.

1932 Auburn Sedan at Gasoline Alley, Calgary Historical Village

Having had our fill of all things gasoline, we visited the home of the equivalent to the UK’s suffragette – led by 5 women striving to be allowed to vote.

Next, we caught the park’s steam train around to the other side of the park. The locomotive was a very archetypal American-style example with cow-catcher and a Pacific 4-6-0 axle arrangement. Its whistle echoed through the park all day. It was only a short ride to the other side of the park and we alighted in the actual village, with a range of period shops, a hotel and civic buildings. Some of the buildings were replicas, but we learned that most had been moved there in one piece.

After buying a huge ice cream from the dairy, we wandered through the village. Staff seemed to be mainly volunteers and all were delighted to talk to us as foreign tourists. We were visiting Calgary as a mayoral election was looming and, not wanting to miss out, the village was holding their own election for mayor. A small acting troupe were recreating a number of hustings scenes throughput the day, with a woman seeking election and a rather stupid man campaigning against her with his wife as his agent. We also learned the running joke that the village’s current mayor was always napping during the day and unable to attend the hustings. All good fun and attracted quite a crowd.

The Village had a replica grain elevator/silo for storing grain and transshipping to wagons. Canada’s west was built up around the Canadian Pacific railway line. We’d already heard on the Rocky Mountaineer that stations were generally 8 miles apart because 4 miles was the maximum distance that a farmer could travel to take their crop to the railway for transhipment and still get home to their farms that same night. The railway company built the grain facilities, similar to that replicated here, to service the farms within 4 miles radius and then towns grew up around those. Some towns never thrived and subsequently died, but even now this pattern of development can be seen across the west, even after their original purpose has disappeared.

The town’s newspaper office was working too; the linotype lettering and engravings of a newspaper page being constructed in front of us. In the blacksmiths, a volunteer was working hard fashioning items from iron, while the reconstructed roundhouse had large snow ploughs and various track maintenance vehicles, along with a sister locomotive to the one we’d ridden behind but which had been converted to diesel. The building also had an iconic caboose – the brake van characteristic of North American freight trains, with a raised lookout post for the brakeman to watch the train and communicate with their colleague in the locomotive at the front.

The park also had a cottage hospital and a synogogue, with enthusiastic, chatty volunteers in period costume. The last building we visited, which was on a bit of high ground with views of the city, was a windmill. This particular example had been constructed without metal. The Eastern European family who’d originally built it had created components from bushel that had been cured into a very hard substance that was an old but effective alternative to metal. The family had apparently been gratified to find that the Canadian prairies were well suited to growing rye, which was familiar from their home country.

After returning from the village to the hotel, where we went for a couple of drinks in the bar, we later went to a ‘vegetarian forward’ restaurant, called Ten Foot Henry. While they had some menu items with meat ingredients, the majority were excellent vegetarian dishes, presented in a shared tapas style. Who knew that tomatoes on sour dough toast could taste so good? We were sat at a counter by the kitchen and could see the kitchen staff working very hard throughout the evening to create dishes for us and the other patrons; we were mesmerised by their hard work and speed.

Canada Day 6: Banff Gondola

We awoke to a surprise, snow was falling in Banff. The snow was quite heavy for a short while and gave the mountains a bit of a dusting, but by the time we had finished breakfast it had largely disappeared.

The plan for the day was to walk up to the Banff Gondola and take that to the top of a nearby mountain for some (hopefully!) spectacular views.

Google Maps and Apple Maps didn’t quite agree on the route, but the shorter route shown by Apple seemed logical and feasible so we took that. The Google route seemed to use roads, while Apple suggested a walk up through the trees. It soon became clear that the Apple Maps route was fine and we followed a track through the trees up the hillside. It was hard going at times due to the steepness of the track but we saved an hour and had a pleasant walk.

At the Gondola, we bought our tickets (about CA$50 each) and had little or no wait until we were ushered into a gondola and were on our way up. The views of the hotel and the mountains were spectacular as we soared over the treetops. We had a gondola to ourselves – two people in a cabin designed for four – so could really enjoy the views without getting in other passengers’ way. It only took about 5 minutes to reach the top and compared to other cable cars, was a fairly tame experience in terms of height above the ground below. Mer de Glacé in Chamonix and Montserrat near Barcelona remain my favourites!

At the top of the mountain was a visitor centre, with a small exhibition, a restaurant and a (closed) cafe. There was a viewing platform on the roof of the centre as well as a boardwalk stretching away from the visitor centre to the site of an old cosmic ray survey station on a slightly higher peak 200m or so away.

After enjoying the view from the rooftop viewing platform, we descend to the boardwalk and set off for the peak. The snow at this higher altitude had not completely thawed and a staff member was scraping the snow off where it had accumulated. The boardwalk was quite busy but gave some spectacular views across the Rockies around Banff. It wasn’t even particularly cold.

We’d been given a 90 minute stay at the top of the mountain (although you can have more time if you’re dining at the restaurant and can delay return when you’re at the top) . Our allotted time was perfect for walking to the old Cosmic Ray survey station and back with the slow pace required when taking lots of photos!

After returning to the lower gondola station, we headed back down the way we’d come. Within 5 minutes though, Craig pointed out a deer beside the track 100m or so away. A fawn joined the deer and we watched and photographed for a few minutes. Finally we walked slowly towards the deer so as not to startle them. We got very close before they moved away from us, but even then they seemed unconcerned.

A few hundred metres further down the path, we then heard and saw a squirrel in the trees. Again we stopped and watched for a few minutes and took some photographs.

After returning to the hotel, we had a free history tour booked. This was a fascinating insight into the hotel’s beginning, subsequent changes and a chance to walk around some parts we’d not seen. It really can feel like a castle sometimes!

For dinner, we were booked into the hotel’s own alpine-style restaurant in its grounds. The main theme of the food was fondue and so we shared a fantastic cheese fondue along with a schnitzel before having apple strudel (me) and a Black Forest dessert (Craig). We were sat beside a roaring log fire, which added to the atmosphere of the evening. At the end of the meal, we got chatting to a lady and her daughter at an adjacent table and were the last customers out of the restaurant at 10pm!

Canada Day 4: Kamloops to Banff

The Rocky Mountaineer was scheduled to leave Kamloops at 0700 and so we were picked up by coach from our hotel, with other passengers, just after 0600. 

Overnight, the train had gained a couple of carriages and an additional locomotive – presumably for the climb into the Rockies. 

The rear half of our carriage were called to breakfast soon after we left Kamloops, while we were given coffee and cheese scones. 

We were following the lakeside out of Kamloops and, as on the previous day, we found it relaxing to take in the scenery. We were soon called to our breakfast after the first sitting had finished. We were sat again with the lovely honeymooning couple from the previous day and quickly picked up our conversation from where we’d left off. Rather than having Eggs Benedict twice running, I chose a sunrise skillet – a mix of potato & sausage with a fried egg atop. All was of course washed down with plentiful coffee. 

Soon, we started climbing into the Rockies and the scenery became ever more spectacular. It’s hard to describe how stunning the view was outside the window. I took the opportunity of half the carriage having their lunch to stay on the outside vestibule a bit longer with my camera. 

Although it felt like we’d only recently finished breakfast, we were soon called for our own lunch after the other sitting had finished and the dining area had been reset. The main menu had not changed, although the starter and dessert was different. I had the steak, which was superb – some going when it had been cooked in a small, moving galley. 

By the time we finished our lunch, it wasn’t long until we reached one of the rail highlights of the journey- the spiral tunnels. 

The original line had been built as quickly as possible with a steep gradient but this prices fatally dangerous and an alternative solution needed to be found. The solution was to change height by creating spiral tunnels within the adjacent mountains, so that the necessary change in levels could be achieved at a gentler, safer gradient. As we negotiated the spiral, we exited the first tunnel with mountains changed from one side of the train to the other and the track we’d just been on far below us. We then navigated the second spiral so that we were again travelling in the right direction and higher again. 

By this time, in the mountains, the light was beginning to go from the sky but we could still enjoy the stunning glacial scenery outside. By the time we got to Lake Louise, where a few passengers were to disembark, it was dark. 

Finally, around 8pm we ended our journey just up the line in Banff – the limit of passenger rail operation on the Canadian Pacific line. We were again met by a fleet of coaches ready to take the 300 or so remaining passengers to their accommodation. 

Finally, we arrived at the Banff Springs Hotel, overlooking the town of Banff, tired but exhilarated after finishing one of the world’s Great Railway Journeys, and possibly the best rail journey I’ve ever made.

Canada Day 3: Rocky Mountaineer to Kamloops

An early start was required to get to the Rocky Mountaineer station for 0715, having checked out of our hotel. The Rocky Mountaineer leaves from a different station and seemed to be some sort of converted industrial building. The train was already alongside when we arrived and we were soon asked to board.

The train is split into two classes. Silverleaf is the standard class with single decker carriages with panoramic roofs and food served at passengers’ seats. Goldleaf Class, which we were booked into, uses bespoke double decker carriages. These have seating upstairs, along with panoramic glass roofs, and a dining area on the lower level. Open vestibules for viewing the scenery and lavatories are also downstairs at one end; there’s a lift for those who can’t use the spiral stairs. The seats in the upper deck recline, have integrated heating and tray tables, and have great legroom. The seats are arranged in forward facing airline style (with the ability to swivel when the train reverses after each journey). The higher level also helps passengers to better enjoy the view above trackside trees.

Each carriage has four staff serving passengers (or guests), with two upstairs and two downstairs. Each Goldleaf carriage then has its own kitchen with kitchen staff. our train was about 12 carriages long, with five Goldleaf carriages in two separate parts of the train, a similar number of Silverleaf carriages and other generator and stores carriages making up the total. There were two locomotives at the head of our train.

The train departed on time, first reversing out of the platform, before heading forwards when safely onto the mainline and given permission to proceed. This solved a mystery for me as I’d struggled to work out from satellite mapping how the train got out of the city – there was no obvious direct route from the station platform.

The food service started soon after departing but, as the dining car only had capacity for half the carriage, there were two sittings. We’d been allocated seats near the front of the carriage and were in the first breakfast sitting; those in the second sitting were served coffee & pastries upstairs in their seats to keep their hunger pangs at bay. On the second day of the journey, the sittings reverse with the front half taking second sittings for breakfast and lunch after the rest of the carriage have had their food.

We ate our breakfast (Eggs Benedict for me, but a range of options were available) while the train snaked its way through the suburbs, and across rivers, out of Vancouver. We were sat opposite a honeymooning couple from the UK, two of the only other British passengers we met. Eventually, well over an hour or so into the journey, we started to see lush farmland of the Fraser Valley. After breakfast we vacated the downstairs dining area for our fellow guests to have their breakfast – at about 10am. We continued to be plied with drinks and snacks upstairs, with the staff providing commentary on interesting lineside features and historical information, all in an entertaining fashion.

The scenery changed from verdant farmland of the Fraser Valley to more arid canyons areas as we snaked our way through the lower foothills of the Rockies. At about midday we were called downstairs to lunch – a three course meal with small starters, a good choice of main course (steak, chicken from Fraser Valley, pork, risotto etc) and a dessert. There was also a good choice of local British Columbia wines and beers.

On-train dining of this quality is always a very civilised affair with scenery passing by the windows and attentive service. We were sat opposite an older couple from Alberta and spent a pleasant 90 minutes eating, drinking and soaking up the scenery.

After lunch, the stunning scenery continued, with our train taking the original (Canadian Pacific) route along the west bank of the Thompson River; westbound trains take the later Canadian National rails on the opposite bank. We saw a steady stream of very long westbound freight trains across the river and, at one point, even saw a westbound Rocky Mountaineer pass us on the other track across the river. At one point, we passed through the Jaws of Death gorge, where the riverbanks became particularly steep sided and rapids are formed on the rocky riverbed.

All this time we were plied with snacks and drinks until we entered the outskirts of Kamloops, our home for the night. After again reversing from the mainline into the company’s main depot, we were all put onto a fleet of coaches and taken to our hotels in the town, where our luggage was waiting for us, having travelled separately while we were on the train. It was dark and well past 7pm when we got to our rooms.

Kamloops is a town of 100,000 residents and fairly industrial; there weren’t many enticing restaurant options in the town and so we had some food at the Sandman Signature hotel’s bar before retiring to our room. The next morning we had to be picked up at 0605, so it wasn’t a late night!

Canada Day 2: Vancouver

We only had one full day in Vancouver and woke early due to a bit of jetlag. The hotel was close to the seaplane terminal on the harbour and we watched a range of seaplanes taking off and landing in the fantastic harbour. With a regular flow of yachts and ferries passing the terminal, it’s impressive to see the seaplanes finding safe water to take off and land.

Seaplanes taxiing from Vancouver‘s seaplane terminal.

Having briefly considered a sightseeing flight, we focused on finding breakfast. This was easier said than done; 0800 on a post-pandemic October Sunday meant that few places were open and those that were had a wait for serving. We headed away from the harbour into Gastown in the hope of finding alternatives, but nothing that was open really appealed. Gastown itself is a lovely part of Vancouver and the steam clock is an impressive piece of mechanical engineering.

Gastown’s fabulous Steam Clock

After failing to find any appealing breakfast venues, we headed back to the harbour front to a place that had been closed when we had first visited. It wasn’t fantastic. It was a sports bar, so wasn’t really somewhere we’d normally choose but it was filling and fairly tasty. It served well for brunch; we were booked in at a restaurant that night and so didn’t need much more.

The weather had improved through the morning and so we took the decision to walk along the sea wall around Stanley Park. This is quite a walk – both for scenery and for distance. With good weather on a Sunday afternoon in October, the Stanley was busy with cyclists, joggers and fellow walkers. The walk passes a large marina before snaking around past the rowing club, the HMCS Discovery base on Deadman Island, under the impressive Lions Gate suspension bridge out to Burrard Inlet, which leads out past Victoria and Vancouver Island to the Pacific Ocean.

After our walk, which was about 10 miles in total, we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest, before heading out for our Rocky Mountaineer checkin at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre. This required a lateral flow COVID test in advance of our train journey and took an hour so to queue, get our test and get boarding passes for the next day. We were both nervous; a positive test here would lead to quarantine in a hotel and a big problem for the trip. Thankfully our test was negative and we headed to the bar of the Fairmont hotel to celebrate with a cocktail and wine.

We then had a booking at Black and Blue restaurant at 8pm – steak here is known to be legendary and they do a passable imitation of a Sunday lunch too (Complete with Yorkshire puddings!). The food and wine was indeed excellent, but both of us found the service a little frosty and forced. The ambience wasn’t quite right, although we still had a great night there.

After our meal, it was back to the hotel for an early start to catch the Rocky Mountaineer the next morning – check in at the terminal was at 0715.

Canada Day 1 : Flying to Vancouver

After my hurried, late packing the previous night, my housemate and travelling companion Craig and I were awake by 6am. Him to pack his bags, me to finish my own and ensure the house was left in a reasonable state for the cats and cat sitters. The taxi to Newcastle Airport was booked for 0800 and, following a trip with the grumpiest taxi driver in Newcastle, we were checked in and in the lounge well before 0900. The old British Airways lounge at Newcastle closed a while ago, but we still had access to the Aspire lounge, which wasn’t so bad.

It’s only a short 50 minute flight to Heathrow Terminal 5 and we approached from the west over Windsor Castle and Eton. There was none of the pre-pandemic holding patterns over south east England, so we were on the terminal stand in good time. It’s the first time I’ve seen Terminal 5 with no Boeing 747s and probably the only time in daylight that I’ve seen multiple empty stands – pre-Covid, it was a regular occurrence to have to wait for a stand to become free but this time we taxied straight to the stand.

I generally find travelling through T5 a pleasant experience; usually no connections to other terminals and, when arriving on a domestic flight, an easy walk into the airside departures concourse. Today it was busier than expected, particularly in the lounge where we were lucky to get a seat and, when I went for a wander later, the lounge was closed to new guests. Luckily staff let me back in!

Food in the lounges is currently ordered via a QR code link to the menu but is of the usual variety; rice with chilli, chicken etc. By about 3pm, the lounge was quieter but the Vancouver flight gate was called around 4pm and as we had to get the transit link to the “B” Stands, we made our way there quite quickly, only to have to wait for gate staff to arrive; in the end we boarded late.

British Airways Boeing 777 G-YMMR at its stand at London Heathrow Terminal 5 before flying to Vancouver as Flight BA0085 on 2nd October 2021

The aircraft was a 12 year old Boeing 777 (G-YMMR) with the classic style Club seats. On boarding it was clear that one of our fellow passengers was unhappy about something and the cabin crew had to move a few passengers around the cabin to get everyone seated. Even then, the passenger was insisting that her seat was sanitised and was only sat down as we were due to push back. Finally we left our stand about an hour late.

On the flight itself we were well looked after by a lovely crew who were very attentive. The new Best of British food menu with Roast Chicken offered on our flight was also remarkably good.

Watching flight progress from my seat

Finally, we arrived in Vancouver about an hour late, but we made up for time at the airport by getting through customs and immigration very quickly. We then headed to our downtown hotel via a Blacklane transfer before finishing up with a cocktail in the hotel bar.

Holidays in the COVID-19 Pandemic Age

As is the case for most people over the past 18 months, my holiday plans have been totally disrupted by the pandemic. For many, of course, this has been the least of their problems, after bereavements, missed healthcare and key workers becoming burned out.

For me, a holiday that was needed last year is absolutely essential now. My last few holidays haven’t been entirely relaxing for various reasons. A combination of work and personal pressures since, with very little time for myself, means that its been a hard slog to get to this point. I had very little time off at Christmas and very little since after two intense and tiring projects.

Holiday plans started off being a trip along the west coast of US and Canada in May 2020, before changing to Barbados in November that year as COVID struck. That holiday changed destination to Maldives as Caribbean flights were cancelled, before again being pushed back to January when travel in November became impossible. When the new UK lockdown was announced for January 2021, Maldives was clearly not possible either, and so October was chosen as a suitably distant time to try again. October was due to be Singapore, with an intention of going on from there to another destination after a few days.

As it got to August 2021, it was clear that Singapore wasn’t an option any more but, at about the same time, Canada announced their intention to open up to UK travellers (amongst others) in September. A new booking to Canada was therefore arranged.

I am typing this blog post in the Club lounge at London Heathrow awaiting a flight to Vancouver, so the saga of this holiday has hopefully ended well (just as long as we haven’t caught COVID on out travels!). Just to point out that I couldn’t normally justify or afford the cost of flying in Club class long haul, but the British Airways & American Express collaboration means that 2 of us are travelling for about £500 each (and Avios air miles of course). More details of the Amex Companion ticket here!