Category Archives: Holiday Trips

Kwazulu-Natal – La Lucia Winter Warmer

La Lucia for a week’s holiday in Winter

During June 2013 and again in June 2014, Gerda and I travelled to La Lucia, a suburb of Durban on the north-east coast of South Africa to spend 8 days at La Lucia Sands Resort.This was a holiday trip with Gerda rather than a birding trip, but I took the opportunity here and there to do some good birding (no surprises there).

We have owned timeshare for the last two weeks of June at La Lucia Sands Resort for about 30 years now, but had only used them occasionally up until a few years ago as they fell outside the school holidays. Latterly we have started using at least one of the weeks on a regular basis and now enjoy the chance to have a warm holiday in the middle of winter in tropical Durban, with lunches mostly taken at local restaurants to make it super relaxing. The KZN north coast has superb weather in Winter, with warm days and cool nights and none of the humidity that can make it uncomfortable in Summer.

Getting There

The 2013 trip began with a fairly stressful drive to our overnight stop in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands, due to the very busy highway which did not allow for a moment’s relaxation. We spent the night at Granny Mouse Country House, which had expanded since we last saw it many years ago, but had still retained its charm.

Granny Mouse Country House, Midlands KZN
Granny Mouse Country House, Midlands KZN
Our room at Granny Mouse Country House
Our room at Granny Mouse Country House

The room was very comfortable with a log fire to ward off the cold (-3°C in the morning) and the Bistro where we had supper and breakfast was excellent. Our simple supper of soup followed by fish and chips could not have been done better and breakfast was equally tasty.

Saturday morning saw me up early to fit in some quick birding before breakfast and a stroll around the garden produced 19 species including a Dusky Flycatcher.

After breakfast we completed the journey to La Lucia just north of Durban and settled into “our” apartment, still in good condition and well maintained.

A Motoring Interlude

Sunday was Top Gear Festival day for me joined by the Genis males, while Gerda and Anlia Genis did their own thing at the Mall. More about Top Gear on another occasion (thinks : is this the cue to start an “All Things Motoring and Mechanical” Blog?)

Relaxing at La Lucia 

Monday was the start of our holiday routine, which included some light birding from the balcony overlooking the lush tropical gardens, typical of the north coast beyond Durban. One of the first to appear in the large trees along the front of the property was Rose-ringed Parakeet – only my second sighting of this species after seeing them a few years ago in Irene near Pretoria. Other regulars in the garden were Bronze Mannikin, Black-collared Barbet, Black Flycatchers, Cape White-eye, Sombre Greenbul and Dark-capped Bulbul.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, La Lucia
Rose-ringed Parakeet, La Lucia
Bronze Mannikin, La Lucia
Bronze Mannikin, La Lucia
Black-collared Barbet, La Lucia
Black-collared Barbet, La Lucia

The beach lies directly in front of the complex and is accessed through a gate – I rustled up some energy for a late afternoon walk along the beach, which produced Kelp Gulls, Swift Terns cruising past in the strong breeze, Cape Gannet offshore and even an Albatross which was just to far off to positively ID, but was most likely a Black-browed or Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross.

La Lucia beach with the Moses Madiba stadium in the background - built for the 2010 World Soccer Cup
La Lucia beach with the Moses Madiba stadium in the background – built for the 2010 World Soccer Cup
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
The iconic lighthouse at Umhlanga Rocks
The iconic lighthouse at Umhlanga Rocks

On another day a commotion amongst the Parakeets, which were flying in a group of 6 or 7 in wide circles, led me to spot a Lanner Falcon higher up in the air, probably on the lookout for an easy meal.

Lanner Falcon, La Lucia
Lanner Falcon, La Lucia

Daily walks on the beach were always interesting – the changing tides, weather conditions and the subtleties of the light at different times of the day meant that no two walks were ever quite the same, not to mention the passing “traffic” of interesting people and seabirds either cruising rapidly by in the same direction as the prevailing wind or using their wing power and streamlined shape to fly against the wind.

La Lucia beach
La Lucia beach
La Lucia beach in the evening
La Lucia beach in the evening
Lonely girl on La Lucia beach
Lone girl on La Lucia beach

Out at sea there was also an ever-changing landscape, with surfers catching the strong waves and large ships either at anchor, waiting their turn to get into busy Durban harbour or steaming away over the horizon, headed for the high seas.

A surfer off La Lucia beach
A surfer off La Lucia beach
Off to the high seas
Off to the high seas

One afternoon a few fishermen were fishing off the beach and the Swift Terns were watching closely for left over bait, occasionally being rewarded for their efforts – a Cape Cormorant stood nearby hoping for a look-in but the Terns were too quick for him (is that why they are Swift Terns I wonder?).

Fishermen on La Lucia beach, Durban in the background
Fishermen on La Lucia beach, Durban in the background
Swift Tern
Swift Tern
Cape Cormorant
Cape Cormorant

Oyster Box Treat

We like to do something special on our anniversary, often going away to some special place for a weekend. This year’s anniversary treat had been missed, so we thought to make it up with a special lunch at the renowned Oyster Box Hotel, a five-minute drive from La Lucia. They serve lunch on the terrace which we chose as it was fine weather and the view is unbeatable, with the iconic red and white Umhlanga lighthouse as the centrepiece. It’s the sort of place that you look around at the other guests and wonder if they are rich and famous (not that it matters of course) or just ordinary folk like us.

The Terrace Restaurant, Oyster Box Hotel
The Terrace Restaurant, Oyster Box Hotel
Lunch at Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga
Gerda and I enjoying Lunch at the Terrace Restaurant
Oyster Box Hotel, Umhlanga - the view at lunchtime
The view from the Terrace

The meal was just superb and the service as we like it – attentive without being obtrusive. Our main course was a full plate of prawns, perfectly prepared.

Seeing the week out

Over the remaining days I made a couple of outings to some of the listed Durban birding spots, which I will tell you about in later posts – Kenneth Stainbank Nature Reserve and the Durban Bayhead were both interesting spots to visit but the best was the forest gem in the middle of Durban suburbia, known as Pigeon Valley Nature Reserve, where I found a lifer and some other specials.

The rest of the week was more of the same and we returned home on a less busy day after a wonderfully relaxing week.

A Frog’s tale

 

Prince Albert – gem of the Karoo

Since our first visit to this charming Karoo town a number of years ago, Gerda and I have made a point of stopping over in Prince Albert on our way back from Mossel Bay to Pretoria, particularly in January after our annual long stay in the Southern Cape. We generally try to stay at least 2 nights so that there is a full day to explore the town and it’s attractions.

We have tried a few B&B’s but keep going back to the one that fits our preferences best – Saxe-Coburg Lodge in the main street, which is run by Dick and Regina and offers pleasant rooms set in a long narrow garden with big trees and a pool. The rooms have aircon (essential in this part of the world) and all the other comforts you would expect of a decent B&B as well as a patio which is perfect for relaxing with a book or magazine in the afternoon when you have done enough exploring.

Saxe-Coburg Lodge in Prince Albert
Saxe-Coburg Lodge in Prince Albert
Cape Bulbul on nest, Prince Albert
Cape Bulbul on nest, Prince Albert

Breakfasts are served in the main house – a Victorian style cottage from the mid 1800’s – and Dick and Regina are always there to chat and advise on the best restaurants and places to visit.

One of our visits was in January 2013, when we had booked to stay 2 nights at Saxe-Coburg Lodge and then proceed to our next overnight stop between Colesberg and Springfontein at the Orange River Lodge, a convenient halfway stop on the way back to Gauteng.

We had settled into our room at Saxe-Coburg and I had placed the potted plants, which we had bought in Mossel Bay and were taking with us to Pretoria, on the patio of our room so that they would enjoy some shade.  I was doing some birding in the garden when I noticed a small frog on the patio, also sheltering from the hot sun and took a photo with the intention of identifying the species from the frog book that I usually have with me on trips.

Cape River Frog on the patio, Prince Albert
Cape River Frog (I think) on the patio, Prince Albert

I thought was able to ID the frog as a Cape River Frog, a common species in this part of SA, and once I had a photo, I let him get on with his existence.

Next morning we did the round of Prince Albert’s attractions, which includes some excellent restaurants, speciality shops, an Olive farm a liitle way out-of-town, a small wine farm in town that produces some good fortified wines and Gay’s (that’s her name, to avoid confusion) Dairy for some really good cheeses and yoghurts, rounding off the day with a dinner at the Karoo Kombuis which serves a small selection of basic but very tasty dishes. On Saturdays there’s a market with fresh produce and other goodies.

Home weavers shop, Prince Albert
Home weavers shop, Prince Albert
Array of pumpkins at the Saturday market, Prince Albert
Array of pumpkins at the Saturday market, Prince Albert

Birding is always interesting in the area around Prince Albert :

Pale Chanting Goshawk, Prince Albert
Pale Chanting Goshawk, Prince Albert
African Pipit, Prince Albert
African Pipit, Prince Albert

A Frog’s Perspective

So there I was, a young frog finding my way in the world with not a worry other than the one many of us face on a daily basis – where is my next meal coming from?

I was getting to know my surroundings, since escaping from that pond where I seemed to spend an awfully long time just swimming around, waiting for my legs to grow and let me start exploring the garden in which I found myself (see, even frogs can avoid the trap of ending a sentence with a preposition).

It being a typically hot summer’s day in the Karoo, I made sure that I stayed in the shade as far as possible and found that one of the rooms had a nice shady patio with some plants to shelter under (OK, you can’t always avoid that preposition trap). I duly found a nice cool nook in and amongst the foliage and used this as my base for the next day or two…..

Next Stop Orange River Lodge

After breakfast under the vines the following day, we packed our vehicle, with the plants being the last to go in so that they would not get damaged, said our goodbyes to Dick and Regina and set off on the road to Colesberg and beyond, a distance of some 600 kms, where we arrived at Orange River Lodge, close to the N1, by about 5pm that afternoon.

Orange River Lodge
Orange River Lodge
Orange River Lodge
Orange River Lodge

As this was a short overnight stop, I left most of our baggage in the car and just unloaded the essential bags as well as the plants which I placed outside the car so that they could get some fresh air …………

The only thought that went through my head was that the people in the room were quite considerate in placing these fresh young plants on the patio – how did they know this was my home and that frogs just love cool foliage to hide behind.

Next day was quite pleasant – a bug or two came my way and the plants provided a good spot to while a way the hours.

The following day seemed as if it would be a repeat and I found a great spot in one of the pots itself where the soil was moist and cool. The day had hardly begun when I found myself and the plant that I had made my new home being lifted up and placed in the back of a large vehicle and very soon after we were on the road to goodness knows where ……..

Just as I was putting one of the plants down, I noticed a small frog, partly concealed by the foliage and on closer investigation I realized it was the same frog I had found and photographed on our patio at Saxe-Coburg Lodge!

Not wanting to take him even further from his birth place, I looked around the garden for a suitable spot and found one near a dripping garden tap which was grassy and moist.

If he ever has grandkids this frog will have a memorable tale to tell of the day he went for a drive across South Africa.

There was still time to fit in some birding in the gardens and surrounding typical Karoo habitat :

Rufous-eared Warbler, Orange River Lodge
Rufous-eared Warbler, Orange River Lodge
Northern Black Korhaan, Orange River Lodge
Northern Black Korhaan, Orange River Lodge
Ant-eating Chat, Orange River Lodge
Ant-eating Chat, Orange River Lodge
African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile), Orange River Lodge
African Fish-Eagle (Juvenile), Orange River Lodge

 

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 4 – the Eastern side (continued)

 

Sunday 31 August : Classic Nova Scotia

After breakfast we took up our by now customary positions in the Cadillac XTS for the next stage of our trip, having decided not to try to do PE Island as it would have involved even more road travel and we were feeling somewhat jaded from the many hours we had spent in the car. (mental note – next time see more, travel less)

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Travelling south-west it wasn’t long before we reached the attractive town of Halifax on the south coast where we found parking near the waterfront and took a walk through the shopping area and other attractions, including the historic ships on display.

Halifax waterfront
Halifax waterfront
Halifax waterfront
Halifax waterfront

Canada east-62

HMS Sackville
HMS Sackville

Lunch was at a very pleasant outside restaurant called Stayner’s Wharf.

Halifax waterfront - Stayner's Wharf restaurant
Halifax waterfront – Stayner’s Wharf restaurant

There was time for a quick tour past some of the landmarks such as the Citadel Hill and Public Gardens before heading out-of-town to see some of the coast west of Halifax.

Peggy’s Cove

The next “look-in” was at Peggy’s Cove, certainly a desirable place to stop and visit, but unfortunately a few thousand other visitors had the same idea, so we did a slow circuit past the lighthouse where hordes of people were clambering over the rocks and filling the streets, followed by a short stop at a particularly scenic and picturesque spot and that was that.

Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia
Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia

The scenery from there along the coast was classic Nova Scotia and most charming, with many coves, bays and inlets (don’t ask me what the difference is between those three) lined with colourful Nova Scotia style clapboard houses. At the town of Liverpool we turned inland and drove across the breadth of Nova Scotia to Digby on the North Shore, where Sam had located an Inn at Smith’s Cove, which turned out to be one of the nicest locations we had stayed in.

Smith's Cove
Smith’s Cove
Hedley House Inn at Smith's Cove
Hedley House Inn at Smith’s Cove

Fried Clams to go

The manager’s recommendation for a late supper was a take-out in Digby, which we duly found alongside the road and ordered combinations of clams, chicken, fries and mushrooms – all were served in large quantities and deep-fried. This turned into one of those memorable meals, but for the wrong reasons, as we filled our hungry stomachs with masses of oily battered food, the effects of which followed us for the next two days. I’ll spare you any further details.

The take-out joint that caused some problems
The take-out joint that caused some problems

Monday 1 September : A Ferry, A Bore and the Wilderness

Ferry cross the Fundy

The 5am alarm was not very welcome but we had to be at the ferry in nearby Digby by 7am or wait half a day for the next one. Breakfast was at 6am, but we were a bit early for the owner’s wife who had the fright of her life when she saw me in the semi-dark house – the front door had been left open by her husband, so we walked in.

The ferry trip went smoothly, although heavy mist meant no bird – or whale-watching was possible as we traversed the Bay of Fundy, reaching the town of St Johns 3 hours later.

Misty outlook from the ferry from Digby to St Johns across the Bay of Fundy
Misty outlook from the ferry from Digby to St Johns across the Bay of Fundy

Once we had threaded our way out of this seaside town we headed north-east towards Moncton, where we hoped to catch the phenomenon known as the tidal bore in action, having confirmed via google that the tide was expected at 15h09, which was confirmed by the electronic display at the Park

Tidal Bore Park, Moncton New Brunswick
Tidal Bore Park, Moncton New Brunswick

Bore-ing

We duly arrived in Moncton and let the gps guide us to Tidal Bore Park, where, with lots of time to spare, we walked in search of a restaurant and found the Pumphouse Brewery in a side street, which seemed to be the only open venue nearby. The food and service were good and we wandered back to the park to witness the tidal bore.

Now here I could get clever and call it “boring”  but I’ll refrain from being so corny – suffice to say it wasn’t as spectacular as expected, nevertheless it was interesting to see the small wave progressing determinedly up the river to signal the change in tides in the bay many miles away – certainly a unique sight.

On the verge of Bore-dom
On the verge of Bore-dom
The Tidal Bore arrives at Moncton New Brunswick
The Tidal Bore arrives at Moncton New Brunswick

Into the Wilderness

That done, we set off to get as close to Quebec City as possible before finding an overnight spot which, with John at the wheel, meant non-stop driving until late at night. We followed a different route back via Miramichi and from there the GPS took us via the shortest route along Highway 108 which turned out to be an hour and a half of twisting bumpy road with very few other cars. This had me wondering what would happen if we broke down on this lonely, wilderness-like road with unbroken forest on both sides all the way along. Eventually we emerged out of the “wilderness” to our relief at a couple of small towns and were soon back on the Trans-Canada for the final push to Edmunston where we found a Days Inn.

Tuesday 2 September : Quebec City

Quebec City turned out to be another highlight of the trip as we explored parts of this absolutely charming and picturesque city, a fitting end to our lightning tour of the eastern provinces of Canada.

Handsome building
Handsome building
Quebec City - Looking down onto the river
Quebec City – Looking down onto the river

Once parked in the Chateau hotel parkade, we walked around the historic old town, admiring the handsome buildings and the narrow cobbled streets of the lower town, which we accessed via a series of stairs and pathways. A sudden rain shower forced us into a local eatery where we enjoyed classic onion soup, done in the oven with bread and cheese – very tasty and quite filling, just the thing for a rainy day.

Quebec City, Quebec

Quebec City - the Old Town
Quebec City – the Old Town
Quebec City - the Old Town
Quebec City – the Old Town

The streets were filled with music from itinerant musicians playing a variety of instruments, adding to the already special atmosphere. The girls enjoyed some touristy shopping while John and I explored the streets further before they joined us again.

Wall art blends with reality (clue : the guy with the cellphone) in the Old Town, Quebec City
Wall art blends with reality (clue : the guy with the cellphone is real) in the Old Town, Quebec City
Pop Art in Quebec City, (man, this is for the birds)
Pop Art in Quebec City, (man, this is for the birds)

More walking took us to some monuments including one to the Canadian soldiers involved in the Anglo-Boer War.

War Memorial, Quebec City
War Memorial, Quebec City
Inspiring words at the War Memorial, Quebec City
Inspiring words at the War Memorial, Quebec City

All that remained was to get back to the farm, which we did by just after 8pm, thankful to be back “home”

Last few days – Local Touring from the Farm

Our last few days on the farm gave us a chance to do some local touring and just relaxing in the peaceful surroundings of rural Ontario.

John and Gerda checking out the dahlias
John and Gerda checking out the dahlias
The dahlias
The dahlias

Wednesday was a quiet recovery day with just a couple of trips into town, one in John’s 1950 MG TC which was a new experience for me – real “seat of the pants” motoring where you feel and smell the surroundings in addition to just seeing them. The area surrounding the farm is ideal for this kind of motoring, with long, mostly traffic-free country roads, bordered by lush farmland – perfect!

John's lovely little MG TC (1950)
John’s lovely little MG TC (1950)

In town I admired some of the big “trucks” which we call bakkies, but they are mostly super luxurious and comfortable and make our “big bakkies” look very small by comparison. Prices were substantially lower than SA and American brands dominate completely.

Taking the MG through Alexandria Ontario
Taking the MG through Alexandria Ontario

Late afternoon  we took the MG for a tour of some nearby historic sites, including St Raphael’s Church ruins (burnt down) and St Andrew’s Church where we were invited inside by the kind lady in charge, who showed us the beautiful wood interior.

St Raphael's Church ruins
St Raphael’s Church ruins
St Raphael's Church ruins
St Raphael’s Church ruins

St Andrew's Church St Andrew's Church

St Andrew's Church inside
St Andrew’s Church inside

Clearly the Scots have had a big influence on the area and many names reflect this. Back at the farm Sam made coconut chicken and corn on the cob for supper which was very welcome after all the fast food and restaurant fare of the past week.

Thursday brought another hot, humid day – never imagined we would be uncomfortably hot in Canada in early September, but apparently the first frosts are a mere 2 to 3 weeks away.

For lunch we visited Gaetans (a roadside caravan) in Alexandria for hot dogs (“all dressed”) and their version of Putine – said by Sarah and Rachel to be the best, which we could only agree with compared to the Calgary version – very tasty but soon satisfies you and you don’t want to see it for a while.

Gaetans in Alexandria do a good Putine - don't let the looks put you off
Gaetans in Alexandria do a good Putine – don’t let the looks put you off

Heading back to the farm we popped in to see the neighbours and admire some of Ray’s “toys” including a pristine Ford Mustang from the ’60’s and a couple of Skidoos (Snowmobiles)

Ray's pristine Mustang (one of the neighbours)
Ray’s pristine Mustang (one of the neighbours)

Then it was time to view John’s museum collection which was absolutely stunning and probably represents the finest collection of Canadian military uniforms spanning all the conflicts since confederation. John knows every detail of each one of the 60 plus mannequins, known as “the boys” – and there are even a few “girls” (the nurses).

John's Military collection
John’s Military collection

John's Military collection John's Military collection John's Military collection John's Military collection

Friday we visited friend Darryl to view his collection of exotic pheasants, mostly from China. His gun collection in an immaculate basement room was even more impressive and so was the trophy room – if you like the upper halves of dead animals filling every available space on the double-volume walls – most were animals well known to us and were the result of several trophy hunting trips to Southern Africa, which caused some mixed feelings for us.

Late afternoon we loaded the car and travelled the 90 kms or so to Ottawa where we stayed in John and Sam’s condo (fancy name for a flat if you ask me) and had melt in the mouth ribs at the Baton Rouge across the road.

And so our last day, Saturday, in Canada arrived – time to explore Ottawa, the Federal capital. Driving around the city, we passed beautiful gardens, parks and canals in perfect sunny weather – after parking we took a walk downtown towards the market and mall and admired the historic buildings from closer up – Parliament, the Chateau Hotel and several state buildings.

Ottawa Houses of Parliament
Ottawa Houses of Parliament
Ottawa - unusual replica car
Ottawa – unusual replica car
Ottawa park
Ottawa park
patriotic cookies for sale
patriotic cookies for sale
Downtown Ottawa - the market
Downtown Ottawa – the market
Unusual sculpture
Unusual sculpture
Ottawa - Churchill's photo in Chateau hotel
Ottawa – Churchill’s photo in Chateau hotel
Ottawa - the distinctive Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel
Ottawa – the distinctive Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel
John will know who this is Nice hat anyway
John will know who this is
Nice hat anyway
Parliament
Parliament
Ottawa - the superb War memorial
Ottawa – the superb War memorial
Ottawa - the superb War memorial
Ottawa – the superb War memorial

Finally it was time to get to the airport for our long flights to London and onwards to Johannesburg.

Plenty to reflect on and remember after 4 weeks in Canada and Alaska!

Quebec City, Quebec

Canadian Adventure : Part 3 – the Eastern side

 

The Story so far………..

With Calgary, the Canadian Rockies and the Alaskan cruise behind us, we headed east for the next phase of our adventure, looking forward to catching up with sister Sheila (Sam) and brother-in-law John and seeing a bit of the eastern side of Canada.

On the downside Gerda’s suitcase had gone missing on the Air Canada flight from Calgary to Ottawa, another of those trying irritations of modern air travel. It was delivered to the farm a couple of days later so the use of the term “delayed baggage” that airlines now use instead of “lost baggage” turned out to be accurate – it only becomes lost if it is never traced again.

Monday 25 August 2014 : The Farm and some light birding

The farm, which is close to the town of Alexandria in Ontario, and which we had only ever seen in photos and heard about in communication with my sister over the last 40 years, came to life today as we explored the rambling house and outbuildings (but “the boys” were held over for another day) and took a walk around the large garden.

The farm house
The farm-house
We were greeted on arrival by a handsome prince - just a pity he had been transformed to this
We were greeted on arrival by a handsome prince – just a pity he had been transformed to this

The bird feeders were drawing a constant stream of mainly House Sparrows and Mourning Doves plus a few other interesting species such as American Goldfinch and Chipping Sparrow. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were taking sugar-water from the nectar feeder – this was one bird I was looking forward to seeing and I was duly excited when they literally buzzed in at high-speed, sounding like bumble bees. They performed their special tricks such as hovering (which only a handful of species can do) and flying backwards and straight up and down (which only Hummingbirds can do) as I tried to get a photo, not an easy task at all.

American Goldfinch
American Goldfinch
Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)
Chipping Sparrow (Juvenile)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (through a window)
Ruby-throated Hummingbird (through a window)

A birding walk around the garden had me sweating in the 30 degree heat and high humidity but did produce a selection of new species for my growing Canadian list, amongst them:

  • Eastern Wood-pee-wee (where do they get these names?) – a flycatcher like bird
  • White-breasted Nuthatch – white and grey with a black crown
  • Swainson’s Thrush
  • Canada Warbler – quick and elusive in and among the low bushes
  • Several other small Warblers which were difficult to ID but I’ve had a go along with some valuable assistance from Ronald Orenstein
Eastern Wood-Peewee
Eastern Wood-Peewee
Eastern Bluebird
Eastern Bluebird
Probable Pine Warbler
Probable Pine Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Possible Mourning Warbler
Possible Mourning Warbler

The relaxing day was rounded off with a ribs dinner (delicious!) and a movie in the cinema room, which is John the movie buff’s pride and joy, complete with recliner chairs and twinkling ceiling lights (super comfortable!)

The day after was more of the same, while getting ourselves ready for our trip to Nova Scotia the following day and included a late lie-in. I joined John on a trip to nearby Cornwall and Alexandria to take care of a few chores and when we got back I took another birding walk around the garden, adding a few more species in the process including :

  • Great Blue Heron – flying overhead
  • Northern Harrier – in the fields
  • American Crow – they are everywhere
  • American Robin – around the house
Northern Harrier on the farm
Northern Harrier on the farm

Later it was time for pasta (lekker!) and a movie before doing final preparation for the trip

Wednesday 27 August : On the Road

Leaving the farm around 10am, we headed north-east, bypassing Ottawa and Montreal as we crossed into Quebec province, then on past Quebec City and Riviere-du-Loup into New Brunswick.

They're a funny lot in Quebec!
They’re a funny lot in Quebec!

We reached our overnight stop in Fredericton after 9pm having done close to 1000 km and found a Howard Johnson motel and burger joint nearby – our first taste of motel accommodation was not inspiring, but as it turned out this was one of the older motels of those we stayed in for the next 6 nights and was showing its age.

One puzzling feature of all the motels is the variety of plumbing fixtures used – showers and basin taps and even toilets took some working out to figure out how they operated and we spent some minutes pulling, pushing, twisting and turning the various bits of chrome until we found the correct combination.

The scenery along the highways was a fairly constant stream of trees and more trees, which became the standard for much of the road trip until we reached the coast.

Trees of New Brunswick
Trees of New Brunswick

Our second day on the road took us from Fredericton to Baddeck in Nova Scotia, continuing along the Trans-Canada Highway through seemingly endless kms of forest on both sides. On the spur of the moment John diverted to Fundy National Park and Hopewell Rocks where we had a pleasant lunch of lobster sandwich before taking the golf cart ride to the lookout point for Hopewell Rocks, which we found were large rocks with interesting shapes projecting out of the sea. At low tide the open sands can be accessed, but these same sands are inundated by the tidal change of a massive 10m, one of the highest in the world.

This Dark-eyed Junco joined us at lunch in Fundy National Park
This Dark-eyed Junco joined us at lunch in Fundy National Park
Hopewell Rocks
Hopewell Rocks

Canada east-16

On the way there we passed by the little fishing village of Alma, where there was more evidence of the extreme tidal changes, with boats moored far below the landing.

The beach and small harbour at Alma - the tide gets the boat back up to the jetty
The beach and small harbour at Alma – the tide gets the boat back up to the jetty

Further along Hopewell Cape historic village caught our eye and we spent an hour or so walking the site which had a number of original buildings such as the County Court house, Stores and County Gaol all in beautifully restored condition.

Canada east-19 Canada east-18

The old Court House
The old Court House

Canada east-21

From there we found our way back to the Trans Canada which took us via a series of towns to Baddeck Nova Scotia where we found a pleasant motel with a view across part of Bras d’Or Lake.

Friday 29 August : Driving the Cabot Trail

After breakfast we set off to drive the famous Cabot Trail and were soon on the trail proper where it branches off the 105 route from Baddeck. The trail, which is actually a tarred road all the way, runs right around Cape Breton for about 300 kms, twisting through hills, mountains and along the coast with many places to stop and admire the beautiful views. We were surprised to see all the Gaelic signs along the first stretch, once we turned off at exit 11 to St Anns – testament to the Scottish pioneers who first settled in the area

Cabot Trail scene
Cabot Trail scene
Our comfortable ride - Cadillac nogal
Our comfortable ride – Cadillac deluxe
Another way of doing the Cabot Trail
Another way of doing the Cabot Trail

Some light rain fell to start with, but it gradually cleared up into a bright sunny day, albeit windy – at one viewpoint where we ventured onto the rocks, the wind tried its best to knock us off our feet, making photography of the many Gannets and Cormorants particularly difficult as they flew by in numbers close to shore.

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A wild part of coastline along the Cabot Trail
A wild part of coastline along the Cabot Trail
Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet

At Neil’s Harbour we turned off to find a lunch spot and came across a charming restaurant, almost on the rocks overlooking the sea, called Chowder House and we, appropriately, had a delicious bowl of chowder with fresh bread and the best atmosphere for a sea-based meal.

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Gerda and Sam enjoyed the lunch at the Chowder House
Gerda and Sam enjoyed the lunch at the Chowder House

At Cheticamp we stopped at Flora’s for some shopping where Gerda was drawn by the quilting being done by a local lady. Then it was just a question of completing the circle back to Baddeck and finding a motel not far from Englishtown, where we were due to catch the boat to Bird Islands the next day.

Cabot Trail scene
Cabot Trail scene
Ruffed Grouse (why did it cross the road?)
Ruffed Grouse (why did it cross the road?)
Ruffed Grouse, Cape Breton
Ruffed Grouse, Cape Breton
Through a motel door....
Through a motel door….

We found Kelly’s View motel in Boularderie with a very nice homestyle restaurant called Fitzgeralds right next door.

We enjoyed a couple of good home style meals here
We enjoyed a couple of good home style meals here

Saturday 30 August : Bird Islands, Louisbourg and full motels

After yesterday’s windy conditions which stirred up the sea, Saturday broke calm and sunny (obviously heard about my birthday) – perfect for our “Puffin Expidition” by small boat to the Bird Islands which lie 45 minutes from the harbour at Englishtown.

The harbour at Englishtown where we caught the boat to Bird Islands
The harbour at Englishtown where we caught the boat to Bird Islands

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Three Mackerel in one go! A salty old fisherman at the harbour in Englishtown
Three Mackerel in one go! A salty old fisherman at the harbour in Englishtown
On the way to Bird Islands
On the way to Bird Islands

As it turned out there was very little chance of seeing Atlantic Puffins as they had completed their breeding cycle a couple of weeks earlier and had left the islands – a great pity the Puffin lady didn’t inform Sam properly as it would have saved a lot of effort and trouble getting there, however we did get to see other interesting birds and some Grey Seals which made up for the disappointment on the Puffins. What a sight it must be when some 1200 Puffins and several thousand Razorbills occupy the rocky islands.

Grey Seal at Bird Islands
Grey Seal at Bird Islands
Double-crested Cormorant
Double-crested Cormorant
Cormorants - Bird Islands
Cormorants – Bird Islands
Great Cormorant - Bird Islands
Great Cormorant – Bird Islands
Cormorants at Bird Islands
Cormorants at Bird Islands

The highlight of the boat trip was the Bald Eagles who obligingly swooped down when Donelda threw  a freebie Mackerel or ten into the sea alongside the boat, snatching the offering from the sea surface at full stretch with talons extended in spectacular fashion. What a photo opportunity!

Bald Eagle approaching
Bald Eagle approaching
A split second before the fish is grabbed by those fierce talons
A split second before the fish is grabbed by those fierce talons
The magnificent Bald Eagle
The magnificent Bald Eagle

Leaving Englishtown behind us we had a decent lunch at Fitzgeralds then headed to Sydney (still in Nova Scotia) for  a quick drive through the uninspiring town, then onwards to the Fortress of Louisbourg, a beautifully reconstructed town from the 1700’s where we spent a few hours taking it all in and enjoying the location on a small bay and the period-dressed people who added to the atmosphere.

Fort Louisbourg
Fort Louisbourg
Fortress of Louisbourg - Gerda is suspected of spying!
Fortress of Louisbourg – Gerda is suspected of spying!

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Fort Louisbourg
Fort Louisbourg

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They take re-enactment seriously at Fort Louisbourg
They take re-enactment seriously at Fort Louisbourg
The band arrives
The band arrives
Fort Louisbourg
Fort Louisbourg

By now it was around 5pm and we made our way back via Baddeck, across the causeway to New Glasgow, where, much later, we at last found an available motel room after a few failed attempts in earlier towns (something to do with it being Labour Day weekend). By this time we were fairly desperate so even the fact that there was just one room available did not deter us – as it turned out the room was a suite with a bedroom and separate sitting room with a pull-out double bed. Needless to say we slept very soundly after getting some snacks from the vending machine in the foyer and making a soothing cup of Rooibos tea.

To be continued……….

The Big Canadian Debate – Which is Best – West or East?

My niece Sarah is nothing if not persistent and I just must get this one sorted otherwise it may turn into a family feud —

This arises from our trip during August / September 2014 (wow it’s already “last year”!) to Canada with a cruise to Alaska thrown in. When they heard we were coming, both my sister Sheila (Sam), representing the “East”, and her daughter Sarah, ably assisted by other daughter Rachel, representing the “West”, went out of their way to make sure we had a wonderful trip and there were no holds barred when it came to their proving that “their side of Canada” was the best.

Now, being the totally fair and objective person that I am, I thought the only way to settle this would be a series of 20 “tests” based on a set of criteria that is completely without bias or favour, so here goes :

1 – Best Welcome at Airport

Unquestionably the one we got at Calgary! Sarah arranged a “White Hat” ceremony for us in the Arrivals hall so this one goes to the WEST

2 – Best Party

OK it wasn’t arranged just for us but the Pig Roast at Alex and Sarah’s place the day of our arrival was really special – has to be the WEST

3 – Best Mountain Scenery

Our trip through the Canadian Rockies was sensational – no mountains to speak of in the East (well the parts we visited anyway, although they made up for it with trees) – has to be the WEST

4 – Best Coastal Scenery

The trip around Cape Breton on the Cabot Trail was a treat and we didn’t get to the west coast so this is a win for the EAST

5 – Best Historical Site

Hands down winner was the wonderfully restored Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia where we spent a couple of interesting hours exploring its delights – the EAST takes this one

6 – Most Memorable Meal (Restaurant)

This has to go to the Raven Bistro in Jasper which was also the most expensive meal we’ve had but worth it! Yes it’s in the WEST

7 – Best Poutine

Only Canadians will know what this is – rather good but very filling, it’s soggy French fries with brown gravy and smothered in cheese curds. The one we had in Calgary was not bad but even Sarah and Rachel told us that the Gaetans roadside wagon in Alexandria served the best poutine and so it turned out. The EAST is superior in this category.

8 – Friendliest Neighbours

No offence to the people we met in Alexandria, but Alex and Sarah’s neighbours in Dalhousie, Calgary were super-friendly and we felt like old friends when we left. The WEST takes it.

9 – Most Spectacular Vehicle Ride

The ride onto the Athabasca glacier in the Rockies outdid anything else we did so an easy win for the WEST

10 – Most Spectacular Boat Ride

This has to go to the boat trip (on my birthday) out of Englishtown Nova Scotia which took us to Bird Island – no competition as there were no boat rides in the west, so the EAST wins it

11 – Most Memorable Meal (Home cooked)

Sorry Fave Sis this must unfortunately go to Sarah’s 5 star gourmet meal on our last night in Calgary, but you were a close second – Sarah worked hard for a win for the WEST

12 – Best Driving Experience

Well, I didn’t get to drive in Calgary due to time running out but John made up for it by letting me drive his 1953 MG TC around the country roads near Alexandria, Ontario – nice one for the EAST

13 – Best Military Display

Once again John clinched this with his wonderful mini-museum of Canadian military dress  – no competition. The EAST wins

14 – Best Home Entertainment

The home cinema at the farm was a delight and made for a few relaxing evenings when we were not trying to set new records for travel in a day. The EAST is superior in this department

15 – Most Enthusiastic tour Guide/Organiser

Sarah puts a lot into everything she does and we had a ball with her at the helm. My Fave Sis was also a star but she has trained her daughter too well so the WEST gets the honours

16 – Best Garden Birding

I had some good birding in both Calgary and the farm but the latter obviously had more scope and turned out to be the better birding spot, so EAST wins the round.

17 – Most Miles Travelled

We saw a lot in a few days of touring the Rockies but distance-wise the EAST was by far the winner as we traversed Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and in the process we saw many trees – I lost count of them at 1 Trillion…..

18 – Best City

We only spent half a day in Quebec City but were taken by its beauty and history, so a triumph for the EAST

19 – Best Lakes

No question here – the scenic lakes of the Rockies take some beating when it comes to beauty so the WEST is on top

20 – Best Town

This would be a toss-up between Banff and Jasper but I think the former has more going for it – both are in the WEST

So where does that leave us? Let’s count the WEST’s and the EAST’s …… I don’t believe it, both get 10 points! Who would’ve thought?

I can only come to one conclusion and that is that Canada as a whole wins! (groans all round)

Cheers for the Canadians!

Enjoying the gondola ride
Thanks Canada!

 

 

 

 

Alaska – Cruising the Last Frontier (Continued)

Soon we were close enough to “hear” the glacier as it rumbled like a distant thunderstorm, and we watched in awe as chunks of glacial ice suddenly broke away from the towering face”.

The Story so far……

So, where were we – oh yes, our last stop was Skagway where we rode on a train – next stop was to be Ketchikan, but not before spending a day cruising the smooth, ice-blue channels and bays of Glacier Bay National Park.

Thursday 21 August 2014 – Glaciers galore!

Incredible scenery awaited us when we woke up, as we sailed into Glacier Bay National Park and were flanked by mountains on both sides, some snow-capped or with glaciers glinting in the bright sunlight, others covered in green forest.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park – a massive glacier meets the sea
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Ice floes take on strange shapes as they slowly melt

Spectacular landscapes followed one after another as we progressed along the channels and chunks of ice, weathered into strange shapes, appeared in the water as we got closer to the first point of interest – a gigantic glacier jutting into the sea and disappearing into the distance up the slopes of the surrounding mountains.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park – another monster glacier as high as our ship
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park

Soon we were close enough to “hear” the glacier as it rumbled like a distant thunderstorm, and we watched in awe as chunks of glacial ice suddenly broke away from the towering face. A large chunk “calved” and fell into the sea below with a roar, creating a small wave that disturbed the smooth sea surface – surely one of the most impressive natural sights we’ve seen.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Chunks of glacier calving

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Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park

Our Captain showed his expertise at handling his large ship as he had it do a merry-go-round manoeuvre, turning on its own axis so that all sides of the ship were afforded great views of the glacier.

Gerda enjoying the merry go round
Gerda enjoying the scenery
Another cruise ship passes by
Another cruise ship passes by

Gulls aplenty wheeled around the ship and one turned out to be a Black-legged Kittiwake – an exciting new “lifer” for me (more about the birding in a separate dedicated post)

After spending some time in this amazing environment, the ship headed back down the fjord and gradually the ice chunks and floes diminished and the sea changed colour to its more natural shade as the influence of the glacial silt became less pronounced.

Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park
Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Taking a coffee break

Later we passed a couple of prominent rocks offshore which held numbers of birds, including the ubiquitous Gulls but also a sprinkling of Pelagic Cormorants, as well as Harbour Seals by the dozen, mostly just blobs of brown as they lazed the day away on the little islands.

Harbour seals by the dozen
Harbour seals by the dozen

Alaska-9781

All the while a Parks official, who had boarded the ship by small boat during the early morning, had been giving a running commentary on what we were seeing and providing plenty of interesting background information – a nice touch by the shipping company and the Parks board.

Glacier Bay National Park cruise
Glacier Bay National Park

With the day’s extended excitement over we relaxed through the rest of the afternoon, had dinner in the Summer Palace restaurant and got to bed early-ish, as we were due for an early start the next morning to be in time for our last excursion of the cruise.

Stern view
Stern view

Friday 22 August – Ketchikan, Misty Fjords and T-Shirts

The alarm had been set for 5.30 am, by which time it was light and the ship was docking at Ketchikan, our last but one stop of the cruise.

Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska

After a quick breakfast we disembarked and walked along the dock to our excursion boat – a catamaran equipped with water jets – which was to take us on the excursion with the grand description of Misty Fjords and Wilderness Explorer.

Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion boat

By this time we had seen many beautiful sights of Alaska and were wondering if there was much more to be seen – well, fortunately, this excursion turned out to be more than worthwhile as it took us into the Misty Fjords National Monument, a series of waterways and fjords running through a unique wilderness of forests, waterfalls and sheer cliffs rising out of the sea.

Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Ketchikan Harbour
Ketchikan Harbour
Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion

The trip started with a sighting of a Bald Eagle perched high in a tree right on the water’s edge and soon after we came across a pod of Orcas (Killer Whales to give them their popular name) which was the day’s highlight for us as they surfaced from time to time, gracefully showing off their characteristic tall dorsal fins and glimpses of the white patches on the lower part of their bodies. There were at least four in the group and they remained visible for about 15 minutes.

Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan
Orca Whales, Ketchikan

The turnaround point of the trip was Rudyard Bay where we had close up views of tumbling waterfalls and sheer cliffs with nesting Gulls high up on the face.

Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan
Misty Fjords excursion, Ketchikan

Misty Fjords excursion

Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords – some of the markings are man-made by early inhabitants
Misty Fjords excursion
Misty Fjords excursion

At water level, a group of Pigeon Guillemots – a small black water bird – showed nicely alongside the boat and a Belted Kingfisher sat patiently on a low branch eager to be photographed (or so it seemed to me). I couldn’t resist asking our guide which one it was, suspecting that there was only one Kingfisher in Alaska, and casually mentioning that “where we come from, there are seven species of Kingfisher”. Our guide, a charming lady who looked like a favourite Aunt,  took this in good spirit and told us she was in SA a couple of years ago and loved it.

While the boat powered its way back to the dock next to the Pearl, a couple of other crew members gave some background on local Ketchikan life (pop 14000), Salmon (5 types) and Native customs. We learnt how to remember the 5 types of salmon using the five fingers of your hand :

  • Thumb rhymes with Chum hence Chum Salmon
  • Your Pointer finger is something you may use to sock someone, hence Sockeye Salmon
  • Your middle finger is largest and therefore king, so is King Salmon
  • Your ring finger is where you may wear a silver ring, thus Silver Salmon
  • Lastly your pinkie – obviously stands for Pink Salmon

Now, there’s some really useless information

There was a little time left before departure, so we walked to a nearby promising looking dockside shop which had lots of really nice T-shirts and other tourist stuff at not too outlandish prices, so we were able to purchase easy-to-pack gifts for the family back home.

Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska
Ketchikan, Alaska - they are everywhere
Ketchikan, Alaska – they are everywhere
The Pilot disembarking
The Pilot disembarking

That was enough action for the day so we took it easy for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Saturday 23 August – Victoria BC through the Mist

Back to our normal lazy, breakfast in the stateroom routine for our last day of cruising, heading for our last stop in Victoria, BC Canada.

More towel art
More towel art by our Thai chambermaid

After breakfast I got myself into lookout mode, reading and keeping watch for passing birds – not so easy when the ship is doing 20 knots and you have a limited field of view out of the cabin. The problem was solved when a heavy fog closed in and I could relax in the knowledge that there would be nothing visible until it cleared. The fog lasted until we were in sight of Victoria, when it dissipated and cleared like magic.

Approaching Victoria, BC, Canada
Approaching Victoria, BC, Canada
Harbour Seal, Victoria
Harbour Seal, Victoria

Once docked in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada, we disembarked and joined the queue for the shuttle bus ride into town where we found a Starbucks pick-me-up cappucino before exploring the part of town where we had been dropped off.

Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
A long way from home

Although it was by now already 7.30 pm the town centre was throbbing with tourists off the several cruise ships that had docked almost simultaneously and we joined them in admiring the beautiful stately buildings and the harbour which was a hive of activity as the sun slowly set.

Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada – a little reminder of Cuba
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada
Victoria BC, Canada

With our lightning tour done we returned to the ship for a late dinner in the Garden Café and once back in our stateroom we got our bags ready for the morning disembarkation.

Sunday 24 August – Cruise over!

Back in Seattle
Back in Seattle

By the time we woke we were already docked in Seattle – we enjoyed our last breakfast in the Stateroom with the fruit amazingly just as fresh as the first day. Then it was time to disembark in organised fashion, collect our baggage and find a taxi to the airport for our flight to Ottawa via Calgary

Needless to say, the US Security personnel at Seattle airport once again showed their paranoid and unpleasant nature and made it hard for Gerda to remain calm when one particularly mean official berated her for not declaring her knee implants before being screened. You would hope that people of our age would be treated with some respect but obviously age means nothing to these types. They give you the feeling that the US doesn’t really want visitors.

Next stop John and Sheila’s (Sam’s) place in Ontario

Alaska – Cruising the last frontier

“As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst…..

The Highlight of our Trip

Outside of spending time with family in Canada, we saw the cruise on board the Norwegian Pearl as the highlight of our month-long trip to Canada and the USA for a few reasons – most of all that this would be the one week when we would totally relax and leave the organizing, catering and ‘driving’ to others. This was also our very first cruise and we hoped that everything we had read about Alaska, known as The Last Frontier, would be true.

Sunday 17th August 2014 : All aboard!

Arriving by taxi at Pier 66, Seattle, courtesy of Hassin our Ethiopian driver, we saw what looked like a city block berthed at the dockside and looming over us, with much activity in the immediate area.

Boarding in Seattle
Boarding the Norwegian Pearl in Seattle
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus
Don Gerda Lynette Jakobus

Boarding a large cruise ship with a couple of thousand others from around the world was bound to be an experience, but it went off really smoothly and before we knew it we were being photographed (for later collection of a souvenir photo) and guided on board, up to the 9th level and to our stateroom (no “cabins” on this ship) on the port side. Our stateroom No 9572 was pretty much like a compact hotel room, with a bathroom which would not be out of place in a caravan (cue John Denner : “It’s a Trailer – what is it with you Africans!”), nevertheless very comfortable with a large bed, small sitting area inside, kitted out with a tea/coffee maker, and a small balcony outside. This was to be our home for the next week and we relished the prospect of relaxing and enjoying it to the full.

Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
Cabin on Norwegian Pearl
On board - the long passages
On board – the long passages

The balcony was a real boon, allowing constant viewing of the passing scenery and I was soon enjoying the many seabirds, mostly Gulls, either on the sea surface or floating in the air above it. I’ll go into the details of the birding during the cruise in a separate post dedicated to that subject – suffice to say it kept me busy and alert for most of our waking hours, sorting out the many different Gulls and the other seabirds. 

Not having done a cruise before, we were curious to experience the meals on board and overall the catering scored very highly during the week of indulging in just about everything on offer. Before setting sail from Seattle at 4pm, we had already tried the buffet restaurant for lunch, and the only thing you could complain about if you were really fussy would be having to stand in a queue for more than a minute for your second helping of ice cream. OK, it was crowded and noisy, but we were always able to find a table and the choice of food covered every taste and whim – our eating companions were a constant source of interest, clearly coming from diverse nations and many of them getting through astonishing amounts of food.

Quart in a can
Quart in a can

We’re off!

The ship left Seattle precisely on time in perfect sunny weather, which changed later in the afternoon to heavy mist, blotting out the view altogether, but the sea was very calm and we just glided along – it probably helps to be amidships where our stateroom was located, as any motion is not as pronounced.

Leaving Seattle
Leaving Seattle

Later we tried the “Summer Palace” a la carte restaurant – the largest of the restaurants and serving dishes of equally high standard with mostly friendly waiters, in a much quieter atmosphere with piano music in the background – really nice as we headed north towards Alaska.

Monday 18th August : Puffins sighted!

This was to be an auspicious day without doubt!

We awoke at our own time (ie “lekker laat”) and our breakfast arrived not long after – a plate of quality fresh fruit, corn flakes, yoghurt and a muffin – simple, but what a luxury! It was overcast and just too chilly to eat on the balcony, so we sat at our little table inside and enjoyed breakfast while gazing at the sea passing by – very serene.

Breakfast in the stateroom
Breakfast in the stateroom

Between breakfast and lunch, we whiled the time away and I was on the lookout for any birds, as usual – I soon spotted some small black birds on the water, swimming away as the ship’s wake caught up with them. It was difficult to get a fix on them with my binoculars with the ship travelling at some 20 knots and the birds moving away, so I grabbed my camera with long lens attached and rattled off a few photos. To my surprise and delight they turned out to be Tufted Puffins, thus fulfilling a long-held dream of seeing a Puffin – in fact over 50 years since I read about them in a “Famous Five” Enid Blyton book in my primary school years, long before I became interested in birding.

They were quickly followed by other species including Albatross and Storm-Petrels. After this burst of action, the birds disappeared and hardly any were visible for the rest of the day.

Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship's position and conditions (roughest day)
Ship’s position and conditions (roughest day)

The sea had changed as we headed into deep waters, no longer protected by nearby land and the ship was rocking and rolling for most of the day – this didn’t deter us from eating as we tried the Italian restaurant in the evening, along with a bottle of sparkling wine from Italy to celebrate the Puffins in style. Then it was time to do the 9.30pm show in the large theatre, which was surprisingly good and most enjoyable.

Celebrating the Puffin
Celebrating the Puffin

Tuesday 19th August : Juneau Visit

After yesterday’s ‘rock and roll’ seas, we awoke to a magical scene of calm waters and a backdrop of glacier-capped mountains in shades of blue, green and white. The skies were filled with fluffy white clouds, the blue gaps allowing splashes of sunlight to fall on the mountains.

Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage
Calmer waters of the Inside Passage
The Inside Passage

As we progressed along Frederick Sound, the largest body of water in the Inside Passage, Pacific Humpback Whales appeared, blowing and displaying their graceful tails. The sea’s surface was mirror-like at best, goose-bumped at worst – speaking of which, a skein of Canada Geese flew by in formation as the ship glided along.

Pacific Humpback Whale
Pacific Humpback Whale
Canada Geese crossing the bow
Canada Geese crossing the bow

For the rest of the morning we relaxed in our room as the ship glided by the beautiful scenery on both sides and just after lunch we docked in Juneau, with Gulls wheeling around the ship in large numbers. The area is known for its Bald Eagles – a few were seen as we approached Juneau and one was perched on a tall pylon as we disembarked, almost as if placed there to welcome us (maybe it was a stuffed one, wired to the pylon).

Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen's Passage en route to Juneau
Stephen’s Passage en route to Juneau
Arriving in Juneau
Arriving in Juneau

 

Shuttle buses took us the short distance into town where the ‘girls’ went shopping while Koos and I looked for a good angle to photograph the ship, majestic against the backdrop of the surroundings.

Alaska-9405

Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Norwegian Pearl at berth in Juneau
Juneau - seaplanes are popular
Juneau – seaplanes are popular
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Local character
Local character

I took a walk up an inviting hill away from the main shopping road – I always like to see the “real” town with interesting houses, some neat others scruffy, and not be bumping into fellow tourists all the time. I came across a few totem poles, each of which carried a number of symbolic messages.

Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska - the back streets
Juneau, Alaska – the back streets
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles
Juneau, Alaska - totem poles
Juneau, Alaska – totem poles

When we were all done with our various pursuits, we found a nice coffee shop and late afternoon we made our way back to the ship, but not before stopping at the “Crab Shack” which we had seen earlier and which had been recommended as a ‘must try’ by my sister Sheila (Sam). It turned out to be a spot on suggestion when we tasted the sensational Giant Alaskan crab legs – just two of them cost $50 but were so good we forgot the heavy (for us currency-disadvantaged Sefricans) price. A Ukraine family next to us got through about $300 worth and were in 7th heaven.

Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Alaskan King Crab delight
Lynette with Alaskan King Crab delight

Back on the ship it wasn’t long until dinner, this time in the Takkanyaki Restaurant, where they prepare the food on a large hot plate in front of you with circus-like tricks thrown in – fortunately not heavy food after the crab feast. There was still time to catch the show in the theatre which was mostly 1950’s musical fare.

Leaving Juneau 10pm
Leaving Juneau 10pm

Wednesday 20th August : Skagway and a train trip to remember

By the time we awoke we were docking in Skagway and we followed our by now familiar routine of breakfast in the room and relaxing until around 11.30 am when we made our way to the Garden Café for a combined late-morning tea and lunch (would that be a tunch?).

Skagway harbour
Skagway harbour
Harbour Seal, Skagway
Harbour Seal, Skagway

We had to be ready for our excursion at 12.30 so we made our way to the end of the pier, where the train was waiting to take us on a trip up the mountain. Called the White Pass and Yukon Route, it first operated in 1900 taking fortune-seekers to the Klondike Gold Rush – on this trip we only went for 20 miles but in the process climbed 2,865 feet (way more impressive than 873.25 metres) to the White Pass summit.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

On the way we passed a number of interesting landmarks and truly spectacular scenery, marvelling at the engineering that went into constructing the winding railway through granite mountains, steep grades and cliff-hanging turns. In 1994 it was designated an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark and deservedly so.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

At some points trestle bridges remind you of the old Western movies where the train inevitably ended up tumbling into the gorge when the baddies blew up the frail bridge – sometimes the goodies too, depending who was on the train. The coaches were mostly modern reproductions, the locos were powerful diesel-electic units dating from the 1960’s, all modernised over the years.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway

All in all a great way to see the mountains.

Back in Skagway we walked the small town and I did my usual diversion to the back street to get a feel of the real town – it is unfortunate that these small towns on the cruise ship routes are so tourist-driven and -reliant that they end up like Hollywood film sets with a main street full of tourist shops and facades, while just one street back they look like any other small town ie a bit ragged at the edges. Immediately I came across a couple of birds in a garden, which was pleasing after not seeing a single bird on the train trip of almost 3 hours.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
White Pass and Yukon Route Railway
Cool old ambulance
Cool old ambulance
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway main street
Skagway main street
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway
Skagway

Back on the ship we enjoyed dinner – this time in the French Restaurant, Le Bistro which was good but not inspiring (we really are getting fussy in our old age)

To be continued …………….

 

Seattle USA : Just a Day and a bit

While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them… “

Arrival – Sleepy in Seattle

First time in the USA
First time in the USA
Seattle Airport
Seattle Airport

Seattle Airport

Our first views of Seattle were on the limo trip from the airport, but we were barely recovered from our experience at Calgary airport where we encountered the worst of US security and we were just looking forward to getting to the Silver Cloud hotel and relaxing until Jakobus and Lynette, friends from SA, arrived. They were due to join us for our day and a bit in Seattle followed by the 8 day Alaska cruise which we had booked together some time ago.

Once they had arrived, and before the 9 hour time difference got to them, we joined up for a trip downtown and back – the hotel has a shuttle service to various drop off and collection points, which was an absolute boon during our short stay – followed by a walk to a nearby restaurant for pizza and back to the hotel for a good night’s sleep

Heading to the waterfront
Heading to the waterfront
Seattle - Street scenes
Seattle – Street scenes
Old-fashioned transport
Old-fashioned transport
Modern transport - this carriage has more horses than the other one! (It's a Lambo)
Modern transport – this carriage has more horses than the other one!
(It’s a Lambo)
Nice hair
Nice hair
Jakobus and Lynette
Jakobus and Lynette

Saturday 16th August 2014 – Discovering Seattle by foot and “Duck”

No major city can be fully experienced in a day so we decided not to rush around just so that we could say we had “been there, done that” which is the normal temptation, and rather took it easy, deciding as we went how we would spend the rest of the day. This proved to be a good approach and in the end we were well pleased with how much we managed to see and do.

After a late-ish breakfast, we headed to the downtown Westlake Centre for some shopping therapy (not my scene but I whiled away the time doing some people watching), followed by a walk to the Pike’s Place Market to jostle with the crowds of visitors and locals and marvel at the goods on display – seafood of all descriptions, fruit to drool over and a multitude of other fresh delights.

The waterfront market
The waterfront market
It's crowded on a Saturday
The market is crowded on a Saturday
Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market
Seattle - Pike Place Market
Nice crab
Pike Place Market - lobster anyone? Just R1,000 a kilo
Pike Place Market – lobster anyone? Just R1,000 a kilo

This was also the ideal place to buy some of the fresh produce for a hotel room supper later on and we left the market with fresh bread, enormous tomatoes, the best cheese, some magnificent looking peaches and a reasonable bottle of wine – all of this hectic shopping meant we deserved a Starbucks coffee and it wasn’t far to go to find one (apparently there are 170 Starbucks shops in Seattle including the original one which started the chain).

Seattle - Pike Place Market
Seattle – Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market - shopping for supper
Pike Place Market – shopping for supper
Seattle - Street scenes - Pontiac TransAm
Pontiac Transam cruising the waterfront

Returning briefly to the hotel to offload the purchases, we once again headed downtown, this time to buy tour tickets for the “Duck”, which we had spotted cruising around town filled with tourists and which looked like an interesting idea – basically a semi-open amphibious vehicle which not only does the usual city tour but takes you onto the waters of the lake which makes up Seattle’s harbour.

The Duck tour
The Duck tour
Seattle - Street scenes - Davy Crockett? The one on his head is a skin, the one on his shoulder is alive!
Seattle – Street scenes – Davy Crockett? The one on his head is a skin, the one on his shoulder is alive!
The first car wash in Seattle!
The first car wash in Seattle!
The "Duck" takes to the water
The “Duck” takes to the water like a ..er duck

It turned out to be well worthwhile and a unique way of seeing the city – something which has taken off in North America it seems, as we saw similar tours being offered in a couple of other cities in Canada.

Our “Captain” of Scottish descent drove through town then towards the lake where our bus took to the water with no trouble and chugged along while he gave us an insight into the waterside life and activities, amongst others exploring the difference between “floating homes” and “houseboats” – important because of taxation issues apparently.

Seattle - Touring the harbour - a floating house
Seattle – Touring the harbour – a floating house
Seattle - Touring the harbour - houseboats and floating houses
Seattle – Touring the harbour – houseboats and floating houses
One girl - and a dog - in a boat
One girl – and a dog – in a boat

Along the way we also had good views of the old gasworks, now part of a recreational park and saw the lakeside house where the film “Sleepless in Seattle” was partly filmed. The return journey was along a different route so we had a view of quite a lot of Seattle and really enjoyed this introduction to the city.

The old gasworks (1906 - 1956) now part of a park
The old gasworks (1906 – 1956) now part of a park
The city skyline from the lake
The city skyline from the lake
Seattle city skyline
Seattle city skyline
Seaplanes abound
Seaplanes abound
Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge
Interstate 5 Ship Canal bridge

Seattle – First Impressions

Seattle has a lot to attract the visitor and we hardly touched on the interesting spots that can be visited, but felt we had got to know it just a bit in the short time we spent there.

What really struck us was the “unusual” (for want of a better term) people we came across and perhaps it’s unfair to judge a place on the people you encounter in a city during a short stay, which is hardly representative of the population of the whole place, however it came across that Seattle has a very cosmopolitan population, including 20,000 Ethiopians apparently and many more cultures.

It also has more homeless people, druggies and mentally disturbed folk than any city of our experience – we came across them on every city block, every street corner, which made us wonder what the reason could be. Most just drift by, the dregs of society, some beg, others talk to themselves and whoever is in listening distance. Then there are the religious people peddling the message at every second street corner, including a group who, by their dress, seemed to have been transported from the 1960’s.

While having a break in a Starbucks shop, we watched fascinated by a tall, thin guy enthusiastically eating his take away lunch on the pavement, shirt off (so he didn’t get it full of food, we guessed) all the while rushing around, talking animatedly to no one in particular, reading papers which he pulled out of a nearby bin as if his life depended on them and generally behaving pretty strangely.

All quite fascinating and seemingly part of normal city life in Seattle.

Sunday 17th August 2014 : Time to set sail for the Last Frontier!

After another good breakfast at Jimmy’s, the restaurant next to the hotel, we packed and labelled our bags for the cruise, gathered in the lobby and called a large SUV to take us all, along with our copious baggage, to the Cruise Ship pier for the start of the next leg of our adventure – now I know going on a large cruise ship nowadays is hardly unusual, so probably doesn’t score highly as an adventure for most, but this was to be our first time on a cruise and it was to Alaska, billed as the “Last Frontier”, so for us was really adventurous.

Anyway more about our cruise next time…..

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 2 – More of The Rockies and Cheers to Calgary

The Story so far…

Our whirlwind trip through the Canadian Rockies had been exciting so far, after just a day and a half – it seemed much longer as we had crammed a lot into it already, but even better stuff was to come as we headed to Jasper.

Jasper National Park
Jasper National Park

The rest of Tuesday : Athabasca Glacier – a Highlight!

Not long after leaving beautiful Bow Lake behind us, we turned off at a busy parking area for a memorable trip on to the enormous Athabasca Glacier – certainly the highlight of our trip so far. Tickets had been purchased along with the Banff Gondola tickets the previous day, but we still had to wait for an hour or so to get on a bus for this popular excursion, which is enjoyed by up to 3000 people per day during peak season, which is where we found ourselves, so we had a snack in the cafeteria while waiting.

 

Alex and Cassie on the bus
Alex and Cassie on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus
Don and Gerda on the bus

A “normal” bus took us to the departure point for the glacier tour, where we switched to special balloon-tired vehicles, specially built for the purpose and capable of taking on 18 degree gravelled slopes (doesn’t sound much but quite hairy when you are looking up or down at them from the inside of the vehicle) and slippery glacier “roads” with ease. They are said to cost $1,2 million each!

Athabasca Glacier
Athabasca Glacier
Quite a bus
Quite a bus
Serious stuff!
Serious stuff!
It's climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
It’s climbing an eighteen degree slope on gravel!
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease
Big soft tyres handle the ice with ease

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The perky driver kept us informed and entertained along the way, even handling the banter from a bunch of Harley-Davison bikers on the bus, who had plenty to say, and soon we were standing on the glacier itself, tasting the icy crystal clear run-off water which was gushing out of the ice and just enjoying the sensation of standing on a veritable mountain of ice which was probably as thick as the Eiffel Tower is high, if not more. All in all, nothing short of spectacular!

On the glacier
On the glacier
The icy run off water tastes good
The icy run off water tastes good
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
Sarah and Rio with Gerda
More run off water
More run off water

I just had a concern that allowing these vehicles and so many people onto the glacier on a daily basis must be contributing to its demise, where it is already receding at the rate of some 10 m per year, nevertheless we were glad we were able to experience such a unique excursion.

Gerda and Don on the glacier
Gerda and Don on the glacier
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days
This is what they used for glacier trips in the old days

Jasper National Park

Leaving the ice fields behind us, we drove a short distance before stopping to view the tumbling Sunwapta Falls which lie in Jasper National Park.

Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls

Next stop was the town of Jasper itself and once checked in at the Best Western, we made our way to the town centre and the Raven Bistro which Gerda had read about in some publication – it turned out to be a good choice with comfortable chairs (more important than many realize), great creative food and friendly service. My steak, accompanied by a unique thin, very tasty sauce was superb as were the other dishes including Gerda’s lamb dish which was declared to be sensational by the team.

Great place!
Great place!
A steak to remember
A steak to remember
The lamb dish
The lamb dish

Back at the hotel the kids were put to bed and we enjoyed a glass of wine with Sarah and Alex out in the garden, chatting beyond midnight (Sarah comes into her own at these late hours).

Wednesday 13 August : More falls, lakes and other good stuff

Sarah had arranged a late check out so we had until midday to enjoy the $9.95 breakfast which included my favourite for a change – oatmeal!

Best Western hotel, Jasper
Best Western hotel, Jasper

We spent some time exploring Jasper town around the station and surrounding streets and found it more than pleasant with a real small town feel.

Old steam loco in Jasper - nicely maintained
Old steam loco in Jasper – nicely maintained

 

For those who want more info
For those who want more info
Jasper street scene
Jasper street scene
Gerda in Jasper
Gerda in Jasper

First stop on the road back to Calgary was at the Athabasca Falls where the wide milky water rushes into a narrow gorge creating a mini “smoke that thunders”. Three hawks caught my eye in the top of a high tree – the light was too bright in the background to make them out clearly but the photos I took helped to ID them (probably) as Swainson’s Hawks.

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Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls

Further along we stopped briefly at a viewpoint above another scenic lake where some tame Chipmunks (yes real ones) came right up and perched on my sandals for a moment.

Real live Chipmunk
Real live Chipmunk
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Roadside lake
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside
Lake at roadside

The Rockies were quite magnificent today – not spoilt by haze and we especially enjoyed the stop at Bow Summit where we took a walk up the road and along forest paths to the lookout with an incredible view down at yet another glacier-fed lake nestled between the slopes far below. Meanwhile Gerda and Sarah were enjoying themselves finding and identifying flowers and berries at the stops.

Bow Summit
Bow Summit

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Bow Summit
Bow Summit
Wild strawberries
Wild strawberries

On the birding front a Clark’s Nutcracker in the parking area broke the short drought of lifers for me.

Pitstop
Pitstop
Our ride to the Rockies
Our ride to the Rockies
Someone else's ride - Buick Eight "Woody" from the 50's
Someone else’s ride – Buick Eight “Woody” from the 50’s

Next, and the last stop for the day, was Lake Louise, a stunningly attractive lake with a background of mountains and glaciers setting it off to perfection. A number of people were on the lake in small boats, while others sat at the water’s edge, like us fascinated by the special beauty of the scene.

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The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
Boats are popular on the lake
Boats are popular on the lake
Lake Louise - Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise – Cassie having a paddle
Lake Louise - just spectacular!
Lake Louise – just spectacular!

Complementing the scenery was the Chateau Hotel with its unique architecture and lush, colourful gardens fronting it right down to the turquoise water of the lake.

Lake Louise
Lake Louise

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The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise
The gardens of the Chateau Hotel at Lake Louise – Cassie in the foreground
The gardens with the lake in the background
The gardens with the lake in the background
View from the Chateau Hotel
View from the Chateau Hotel
Canada help! I can't remember what this is
Canada help! I can’t remember what this is

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away we travelled the final hour and a half back to Calgary and the new familiarity of the Najm residence

 

Thursday 14 August : Last day in Calgary

A quiet day (well, relatively) to recover, nicely set in motion with a slap-up Canadian breakfast of eggs, crispy bacon, pancakes and sausages. It was abundantly clear Sarah was going all out to prove her constant mantra that “The West is Best” and we were rapidly coming to that same conclusion – however (patience, Sarah) we thought it would only be fair to give the East a chance to “state their case” when we eventually got there, before bestowing the “Best” title on either the West (ie Calgary and the Rockies) or the East (ie Ontario and the other parts of eastern Canada we were to discover).

Not having had the chance to see a bit of Calgary, Alex set out to change that and took us on a quick drive into the country along roads which bisected verdant farmlands, giving us a glimpse of typical cultivated lands in this part of Canada. Swainson’s Hawks were the most common bird around, favouring the round bales of hay to perch on.

Farmland just outside Calgary
Farmland just outside Calgary (can you see the Hawk on the hay bale?)
Pump jack at work near Calgary
Pump jack at work near Calgary

We were hardly back at the house when Sarah took a break from preparing a special dinner (told you she was going all out) to take us on a driving tour of Calgary, covering all four “quadrants” – Calgary comes across as an organised, busy, spacious city with plenty of open space and considerate drivers – a very comfortable place to live I imagine.

Another surprise awaited us at the house as Sarah and Rachel had arranged an early birthday celebration for the two of us (our birthdays are just 13 days apart and were coming up in the next few weeks) with hats and masks, banners, balloons, bubbly and all. Clearly the Denner girls like arranging parties!

Surprise birthday party
Surprise birthday party

The evening was spent enjoying a superb dinner of four courses prepared by Sarah and Alex with wine pairings to savour and remember.

A laminated menu - this lady has class!
A laminated menu – this lady has class!
The starter
The starter
Sarah's delightful dessert
Sarah’s delightful dessert

Thanks Sarah and Alex, not to mention Cassie and Rio, for making our week “in the west” so unforgettable!

 

Friday 15 August : Seattle here we come

Travelling time again! Up early (poor Sarah, not her forté) to get to the airport for our 8.50 am flight to Seattle, which ended up being beyond stressful, only because we weren’t thinking – at check-in they wanted to charge $70 for our extra bag and, prompted by the check-in clerk, we decided to take it as carry on baggage, only realising once we got to security (USA heavy style) that the bag was full of “non-allowables”. With dry throats and pounding hearts (airports do this to us) we tried to work out what to do and eventually I decided to work my way back through security and passport control to the check in which, thanks to sympathetic personnel (maybe it was my wild pleading eyes) I was fortunately able to do, much to our relief. But it left us shattered and cursing the hassles involved in long-distance air travel.

The Air Canada flight was short and just more than an hour after taking off we were in Seattle where, after collecting our baggage, we got ourselves a bagel and a large cup of tea to calm our troubled spirits, before finding a limo to take us to the Silver Cloud Hotel on Broadway. We  had some  time to relax before Lynette and Jakobus van Dyk were due to arrive to  join us for the next few days in Seattle and on the Alaska Cruise …..but more about that soon.

 

Canadian Adventure : Part 1 – Calgary and the Rockies

Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West”…

Some Background to our latest Adventure

Gerda and I had been wanting to visit Canada for some years and, spurred on by family in Canada, we decided that 2014 would be the year we finally ticked this box – not least because my sister and brother-in-law had visited South Africa the previous year  from Canada and told us we “had to” come and visit them in Ontario at the earliest opportunity.

When nieces Sarah and Rachel, both of whom live in Calgary on the western side of Canada, heard about our trip, they made it clear that Calgary would “have to” (it’s a Denner thing) be part of our itinerary and Sarah in particular tempted us with her plans to show us the Canadian Rockies, all of which was an offer we definitely could not refuse.

Just to make such a long trip worthwhile, we decided to include an Alaskan cruise in the itinerary – something we had heard about from friends and which promised to make the trip really special.

And so our trip developed into four “stages” – week 1 in Calgary and the Rockies, week 2 on a cruise ship to Alaska, week 3 touring Nova Scotia and week 4 on the farm near Ottawa with Sheila (Sam as she is known) and John.

Getting there

The easy bit was purchasing the air tickets – the actual trip to Calgary was a series of ups and downs, literally and mentally.

To start with, we arrived at OR Tambo airport Johannesburg well before our flight to Heathrow on Thursday 7th August, which was scheduled for 8 pm, only to find it was delayed by 12 hours and would depart next morning at 8 am. SAA put us up at a nearby hotel and we duly caught the flight next morning. On the positive side, a daytime flight is a lot more bearable than an overnight flight as it is not essential to try to sleep. The result was we missed our connecting flight to Calgary and had to overnight at a hotel near Heathrow (also paid for by SAA) to catch the next day’s flight – such are the joys of modern-day travel.

After breakfast the next day (Saturday 9th) we returned to Heathrow for the 9 hour flight to Calgary, which departed from the brand new “Queen’s Terminal” which impressed with its modern architecture and spacious security area with state-of-the-art systems, largely automated to make the experience a tad more bearable.

The brand new Queen's Terminal at Heathrow
The brand new Queen’s Terminal at Heathrow
Queen's Terminal
Queen’s Terminal
Now that's a "draadkar"! (just a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around the village)
Now that’s a “draadkar”! (a giant version of the cars made from wire that African kids love to push around their villages)

Welcome to Calgary!

Despite arriving 1 day later than planned, and unbeknown to us, niece Sarah had arranged a surprise on arrival in Calgary, in the form of an official tourist welcome with white cowboy hats for both of us, a ceremony in the Arrivals hall to pledge allegiance to Calgary and a certificate to prove it. What a nice way to be introduced to “The West” and a lovely group of volunteer ladies who arrange it all.

The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport - what a nice welcome!
The White Hat ceremony at Calgary airport – what a nice welcome!

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We immediately felt at home when we got to Alex and Sarah’s house in Dalhousie, where we met their offspring Cassie and Rio. They were in the final throes of preparing for their big “pig roast” which they have hosted for the past 5 years. By this time we were quite tired after a long day which was extended by some 8 hours of time difference, but after a nap we regained some energy and joined the party, which by now was gathering momentum, meeting lots of interesting and friendly Canadians from the neighbourhood and further afield.

The "Pig Roast" in full swing
The “Pig Roast” in full swing

IMG_1352 IMG_1353

By 10 pm (6am the next morning for us) we called it a day and collapsed into bed while the party continued well into the early hours – even the fire brigade turned up, responding to a call about a fire in the yard!

The Morning After….

Next morning (Sunday) was a quiet one – amazingly everything was cleared up by the time we surfaced – Alex and Sarah were up till 4am clearing most of it and finished the rest in the morning. We took it nice and easy on the outside deck with coffee, more coffee and leftover dessert cake and were joined by Derek and Karen from next door – seems they have a very friendly neighbourhood going here.

Lunch was cheeseburger and fries from a fast food place that had queues of people waiting outside 2 windows to be served – good filling food and we tried the poutine, which is a Canadian dish that we came across a few times, comprising fries, a gravy-like sauce and topped with cheese curds.

Feeling a little bloated after this healthy lunch, I took a walk through the neighbourhood to a nearby park – birds were not plentiful but I did spot a Swainson’s Hawk cruising the skies, other than that it was Magpies, Crows and House Sparrows.

Back at the house it was more chilling followed by a walk to the local shopping centre where we had a look at the local retail offerings and had a cappuccino at the Starbucks located inside Chapters bookstore. The perfect weather was holding, so we sat outside and chatted until late evening, mostly about what we could expect to see over the next 3 days touring the Rockies.

Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Sarah and Gerda chilling on the deck
Moon over Calgary
Moon over Calgary
Cars for rental on the street - pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!
Cars for rental on the street – pay via phone, get a code to activate the car and drive off!

Monday 11 August – off to Banff

We awoke to warmer weather and a busy day of travel ahead, but initially the day was quite relaxed, plenty of time to pack our bags for 3 days on the road and enjoy “Lebanese eggs” for breakfast, courtesy of Alex – a tasty dish of fried eggs and yoghurt eaten out on the deck.

There was even time to check out the local bird life along the back paths and I was pleased to find Chickadees and Thrushes – but more about the birding in a future post.

Rachel, my other Canadian niece who we last saw in SA back in 2000, joined us for the first part of the trip, which we did in her car so it was an ideal opportunity to catch up on the intervening years.

We left around midday and headed west to Banff with one stop at Canmore to say hi to Rachel’s sister-in-law Kirsty, who has a charming house right on the Bow river

IMG_1377

The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
The famous Canadian Pacific trains pass through Canmore
Canmore street (being redone)
Canmore street (being redone)

We spent some time admiring the view of the Bow River from the house

Bow River
Bow River at Canmore – how’s this for a view from the front garden

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We followed this with a pop-in to the local knitting store (for Gerda’s benefit)  and an iced coffee at the local coffee shop. Canmore has a nice small town feel to it.

Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore
Coffee shop in Canmore

From there it was a short drive to Banff through increasingly scenic countryside with beautiful mountain backdrops as we approached the Rockies.

Banff National Park
Banff National Park

 

Before entering Banff, Rachel took a short detour to show us Lake Minnewanka, the largest lake in the Rockies, probably because it is also a dam which was constructed back in 1941. This was the first of the large lakes we were to see, which did not have the turquoise colour of the glacier-fed lakes that we came across later in the trip – nevertheless an impressive sight.

Lake Minnewanka near Banff
Lake Minnewanka near Banff

Next a visit to Banff Springs Park where we took a short walk along the pathways and board walks with views of lakes and wetlands, bordered by pine forests

Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park
Banff Springs Park

Our Best Western hotel was easy to find on the main street and we checked in, then headed straight to the Bison restaurant for an excellent meal.

Cassie kept busy at the restaurant
Cassie kept busy at the restaurant

Summer evenings are long and light until late in this part of the world, so we decided to squeeze in a visit to the Banff Gondola (no it’s not a boat – that’s what they call a cable car in these parts).

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Banff Gondola
Banff Gondola – going up Sulphur Mountain
Enjoying the gondola ride
Enjoying the gondola ride
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola
Rachel with Rio and Cassie in the gondola

We were just in time to catch the last gondolas going up for the day and had to rush a bit when we got to the upper station, as the last one was due to depart for the lower station in about half an hour. Nevertheless this gave us enough time to get to the watch tower at the pinnacle and enjoy the spectacular, albeit hazy, views before heading back down.

Gerda at the upper station
Gerda at the upper station elevation 2,281 metres – the plaque says “Pretoria 15,844 kms”

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The last climb to the pinnacle
The last climb to the pinnacle
Sulphur Mountain
Sulphur Mountain
Banff far below
Banff far below
From the pinnacle
From the pinnacle

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Alex and Sarah had decided the day was not done yet, so off we went to the Bow Falls for a view at the spot where the Bow River tumbles  over a 9m drop, which we managed just in time as dusk was well advanced. From there it was a short drive to the famous Banff Springs hotel for late night coffee and a look at this impressive hotel, before returning to our more ordinary, but very pleasant, hotel in town for a good night’s rest.

Bow Falls at dusk
Bow Falls at dusk
Banff Springs hotel
Banff Springs hotel
Coffe on the patio
Coffee on the patio

Tuesday 12 August

By now we were getting into the swing of things and the fact that non-stop action was the order of the day, but Alex and Sarah and the kids were looking after us so well that it was non-stop pleasure as well!

Breakfast was at Melissa’s Restaurant which, according to Alex and Sarah, served the best breakfast in town – hard for us to judge, but we could vouch for the Eggs Benedict being the best we’ve had and to go with it there was a great atmosphere plus friendly service, so we would have to agree.

Melissa's Restaurant
Melissa’s Restaurant

Well satisfied, we strolled back along the main street to our hotel and could see that Banff is very much a tourist-driven town, but none the worse for it, with neat architecture that has a real Swiss feel to it, especially with the mountain peaks always visible in the background.

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Banff street scene
Banff street scene
Even the sidewalk is attractive
Even the sidewalks are special in Banff
Love those big trucks - this one has "doolies" (double rear wheels)
Love the big trucks that are so common in Canada – this one has “doolies” (double rear wheels)

Once checked out we said goodbye for the time being to Rachel, who had to return to work, and headed along the road to Jasper for our next planned stop at the Icefields.

Part of the way there we stopped at Bow Lake to admire the scenery – and what scenery it was! This lake is fed by glaciers which are visible high up the mountain in the background, imparting the special colour to the water and the lake in turn feeds the Bow River which we had seen at a few places en route and which, according to Alex, runs all the way across Canada to the eastern side and eventually into the Hudson Bay.

Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Cassie and Rio at Bow Lake
Bow Lake
Bow Lake

This was a good spot for the kids to expend some energy and for us to stretch our legs and just enjoy the setting – my usual quest for birds turned up a White-crowned Sparrow and Alex found a pair of nesting Barn Swallows under the eaves of the small shop, which was interesting as we only ever see them as non-breeding visitors from the Northern Hemisphere.

This is where I am going to cut off this post and continue the story in the next post, which will cover the rest of our Rockies trip, crammed full of great experiences as it was, and the last day or so in Calgary. The highlight of the trip was still to come when we had a spectacular and unique trip up onto the Athabasca Glacier….