… the Okanagan Valley

To the west of the Rockies and south-east of Vancouver lies a fertile strip of land that’s home to British Columbia’s burgeoning wine industry and its longer-established fruit orchards. The many lakes also provide a popular vacation playground for thousands of Canadians with their RVs and trucks and boats. In August, the shorelines and better known wineries are packed with citizens of the world, but we also found a couple of quieter spots for a refuel and the odd glass or two.

20180804_113917Driving north-west from Revelstoke, we left the Trans-Canada for Highway 97A and soon came across the small town of Armstrong. By sheer chance we also came across the Brown Derby Cafe, a bustling diner along Pleasant Valley Road. What drew us in, though, was a chalk-board advertising ‘Full Breakfasts for $2.99’. $2.99? After days of overpriced hotel food we had to do that and we weren’t even hungry.

Clearly a local favourite, we sat in the front yard and swapped banter with the proprietor as we waited for our food. Afterwards I took the wide ramp inside and snuck into the bathroom which, while clearly a multi-purpose facility, was perfectly useable. The winters there are said to be not too harsh so, I believe I shall retire to Armstrong in due course and eat a full breakfast every day.

Not much to say about Kelowna; our hotel was in an unlovely spot off busy Harvey Avenue. Like true Brits, we left the car and hiked a mile west along it to the City Park, where we ate an ice-cream by the lakeside. For our return however, we offset ourselves a mere block to the north, parallel to Harvey, and discovered an entirely different town. Leon Avenue was quiet and leafy, lined with small parks and period timber houses. It seemed surreal that, 100 metres to the south, eight lanes of traffic continued to thunder by.

20180805_111813Our first Okanagan winery (how did that even become a proper word?) was Mission Hill Estate, a swanky place with obelisks, statues and even a bleeding amphitheatre. The setting is stupendous, however. The tasting rooms were packed with tourists who clearly were not aficianados like wot we were. We bought a bottle of their sparkling Exhilaration Brut (more of a mousseuse, IMHO) to celebrate Juanita’s imminent birthday.

We felt more at home at the Crush Pad Winery, off a proper winding country lane near Summerland. They specialise in raising organic grapes and wines, and take pride in storing the latter in concrete tanks for both making their own wines and selling to other estates. Being a bit further away from the Rockies, they have a little more flexibility over grape varieties than Mission Hill, say, during the short, intense growing season. Linda bought a bottle of white to go with the salmon that Ryan had just caught off Vancouver Island. He’s in bloody heaven, that boy.

20180805_171715Our sole AirBnB stay turned out to be at the St Andrews-by-the-Lake golf club, which rents out a row of rooms beneath the club house. Heather looked after us well, but beware the steep slope conecting one to t’other; I couldn’t do it on my oen. Beautiful setting though, I think you’ll agree.

The final winery stop was at Hester Creek, which is temperate enough to help them make a decent fist of reds. We tried their Character Red with cheese and olives on the patio, and bought a bottle of it to take to my friend Gordon’s for dinner in Vancouver. More of him later.

The closer we got to our final destination, the more nervous I felt about damaging the Terrain — especially when we took a wrong turning off the highway while in search for top-up fuel. I still didn’t understand the four-way crossing protocol. Stay cool, Johnny.

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… the Rocky Mountains trail

Call me a sentimental old fool but, as you join the Trans-Canada Highway out of Calgary, you can’t help feeling you’re blazing a trail into a strange new land. Imagine it. Just me and you, and maybe a dog named Blue, steering our trusty Conestoga wagon and team of four from the bountiful Alberta prairies, through the tempting temperate foothills, into a forbidding landscape of ice and rock. In the vague hope that somewhere wonderful just might lie beyond the horizon. Somewhere we might, one day, call home.

Luckily, today’s teamsters don’t have to take all the wrong turns, nor be fooled by every box canyon. Johnny drove his GMC Terrain hard from the get-go; hard enough at any rate to stay in the slow lane, along with some bloody big trucks. Juanita made the first of over 100 helpful commments about his driving.

Canmore was the first stop, a smaller town with more reasonably-priced accommodation than its more touristy neighbour Banff. The winter skiing resort has year-round gondola access to the 2,400 metre-high Sulphur Mountain. I was dubious of parting with the $64 fare (plus tax, annoyingly, like in the US), since the visibility was not great and, in peak season, it seemed suspiciously easy to book a slot.

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But I am glad Linda talked me into it. Sure, the visibility was affected by cloud, and smoke from the British Columbia forest fires. Yet you could see the peaks and, as the sun lowered, the cloud lifted to reveal more detail. There’s some fun stuff to do at the top; the ‘interpretive centre’ is actually quite good, the guides are helpful and we stayed for pretzels and beer with a man and his guitar.

There was a storm in the air and some lightning flashed nearby. One lady claimed she’d been struck by it, but only to the extent that her left foot tingled. Dicing with death, I tells ya.

20180802_110006From Canmore on to Golden, but not before a diversion to some of the most wonderful scenery I have ever clapped eyes on. The pictures speak for themselves. Lake Louise is hugely popular, both with pioneers like us and guests of the enormous Fairmont Hotel that borders it.

I had brought my blue badge from the UK and, over the whole trip, it must have saved us hours of tramping through car parks. They are signposted ‘full’ from about 10am and, by lunchtime, the roads to views like this are lined with parked cars. But where there were attendants, they always seemed to find space for us.

We also bought a National Park pass in advance, here. During our own trip we only had to flash it once so, probably, could have saved a few quid without it. Yet it is manifestly selfish not to make any contributiont to the upkeep of such wonders.

20180802_133411Emerald Lake is marginally less popular than Louise, probably because there just isn’t the same amouunt of viewing space. Yet it’s busy enough for tail-backs so, again, just keep driving. I wanted to hire a canoe but Juanita has depressingly little faith in my skippering skills. I used to navigate an aircraft carrier, I’ll have you know. The colours of the water in these images, by the way, barely do the true hues justice.

Do take care crossing the traffic flow on the Trans Canada. After stopping for gas near Emerald Lake, we spent ten minutes wating for a clear left turn onto the four-lane highway (those trucks travel deceptively fast). Later that day, someone died at the very same spot.

Golden was OK for a stopover but we were particularly taken with Revelstoke, which has much more of a small-town feel about it. It caters very much to the activity crowd so there are lots of purposeful young folk in hiking boots; many of the stores are also given over to the outdoor life. Lots of restaurants too and, since it was August, free music in the evenings from the town bandstand.

20180803_105459Midway between Golden and Revelstoke by the way, just off the Trans-Canada, lies the Hemlock Grove Interpretive Trail, a 350 metre, wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that explores an ancient forest of immense giant cedars and hemlocks. It’s a fascinating diversion that also makes for a useful lunchtime picnic spot.

As we left Revelstoke, Juanita announced we were also leaving the Rockies. I felt mortified that we hadn’t done nearly enough pioneering. But if we were done with the National Park, there were still lots of stupidly big stony hills ahead of us.

 

… to ‘Toronno’!

The start of a long-anticipated and carefully planned trip to the land of Linda’s birth; from Toronto in the east to the foot of the Rockies, then along the Trans-Canada highway through the mountain range, down the Okanagen Valley wine-country and finally west to Vancouver, to see our eldest son Ryan and his girl, Cheryl.

Our first stop, Toronto, we liked from the start. We felt welcomed and appreciated throughout our stay. Pearson international airport is connected to Union rail station by the efficient and accessible UP shuttle (named after the two destinations). Once downtown we dived into the maze of city transport services and found that the TTC subway system could get us closer to our hotel. The Osgoode stop has an elevator but, like many older networks, some don’t.

We spent the rest of Day One orientating ourselves around the hotel, taking photos at the nearby big-letter Toronto sign and working out the details of our Sunday pilgrimage to Oakville.

The next day was spare. Between research visits to the bars and restaurants along the waterfront, we watched water taxis plying for trade out to the hugely popular offshore island chain. God, but Canadians are active. If they’re not skiing or snow-shoeing by winter they are rafting, kayaking or (in this case) cycling everywhere. It’s exhausting. Unprepared for this, we strolled past tall ships and critiqued the approach techniques of smaller planes, on finals to Billy Bishop Airport.

Caesar.

Hail Caesar

I also experienced a Eureka moment. At the Amsterdam Brew House I consumed possibly the finest alcoholic drink of my entire life. A Caesar is the Canadian version of the Bloody Mary, but made with Clamato juice rather than TJ. Mine was garnished with a wedge of lime and a delicious pickled bean pod, and rimmed with celery salt. Not just a ‘lunch in a glass’; on that hot day, in that bar, with that cool sea-breeze and with ma best girl ba ma side, it was perfect.

The next day we caught the GO (Government of Ontario!) train to Oakville. The carriages are double-deckers and wheelchair users will find a raised platform ramp to the door of a passenger car, where a helpful guard will admit you via a level bridge. On our way back, by the time we’d gone down and¬† up in the lifts to the platform, the Toronto train was ready to pull out and the doors had shut. The engineer saw us rolling madly towards the ramp and reset his brake, radioing his colleague to open the door for us. I can’t see that hapenning on Southwest Trains, or whatever they’re called this week.

BridgeThere is no blue plaque at Linda’s birthplace, on Bridge Road in Oakville. Now more of a dormitory town to Toronto, the timber houses have little in common apart from automatic garage doors (for the winters) and cellars. The Failey family spent two years there until Alan, an aerospace engineer, lost his job overnight in what became known as the Avro Arrow scandal. He had to quickly leave his growing brood to seek work in the US, before returning home to join the British Aircraft Corporation. At the time he lost on the resale of their home but, with its proximity to Tornto and the rail ink, it is worth a bit more now.

We couldn’t not do Niagara Falls. I initially blanched at the idea. First weekend in August? In a coach? Are you mad? But I dutifully followed Linda onto one of several buses collecting from our hotel alone. Our only hope was that the low grey cloud would put off the thousands of fellow travellers.

A coach trip there has its advantages though, I have to say. Primarily, your booked slot in one of the boats means you don’t have to queue for hours. It’s also a flog from the rail station. Side trips are usually included; we visited the manicured lawns and spotless streets of Niagara-by-the-Lake, and the enthusiastic staff of the nascent Ontario wine industry. (They make a passable Riesling and a concentrated ice-syrup that works well as a topping or Balsamic-type dressing.)

And you get a courier. Ours was Alex, a giant Canuck with an accent straight out of Just for Laughs (Juste pour rire). He taught us how to say ‘Toronno’, ‘Kebeck’ and ‘Hawkey’, pointed out the queues we were about to jump and the (other operator) attractions that were best avoided. He kept up the patter all the way there and concentrated on the driving all the way back.

You have to do the boat ride. It’s a life experience. It is indeed an awe-inspiring sight from the cliff-top but you only get the full thunderous roar of the falls from being set practically alongside in a boat. Not the Maid of the Mist any more, by the way. Its operator lost the Canadian contract and now services the US side. The only real downside is struggling with a plastic kagoule. But you will otherwise get soaked. And it is free.

Being at the bottom of a sheer drop, wheelchair access involves taking an alternative route to that used by the hoi-polloi. It involves several lifts and some steep slopes. It is do-able but perhaps not solo. You need someone like Alex.

It was hard to imagine Toronto in the winter; it gets some horrific snow-dumps off the Great Lakes. On days like these the denizens take to the PATH; a mostly underground pedestrian walkway network ithat connects more than 371,600 square metres (4 million sq ft) of restaurants, shopping, services and entertainment. That must make a great difference to wheelchair users’ mobility.

On our last night we visited the Senator, this year marking its 70th anniversary as a diner and the oldest one in town. The Thai Red Curry Bowl certainly packs a punch, but after an initial coughing fit I took to the task. The server told that, before me, no one had ever finished it.

I bet she says that to all the boys. Roll on the Rockies.