Monday, August 31, 2009

Ghosts of Holidays Past - Canada

West Coast trips - I may have been broke in Vancouver, but I went a few places.

Okay so, exactly a week ago Alan and I were in Victoria...

We took public transit out to the ferry at Tsawwassen. From Burnaby, granted, as I was working, but it took 2 hours. More annoying, a few stops before the ferry terminal is a bus stop where the bus just sits for about 15 minutes. Then they arrive 5-10 before the Victoria sailing so that you have to run to make the boat. Why do these things not run together more logically?

The ferry ride was beautiful, the whole weekend was 26degrees Celsius and sunny. Everything was so blue. The photos are incredible-though it helps that we shoot almost exclusively with professional film now. And we've found a good developer, which is also important. You know, I had always assumed that the higher the number the better, so I tended to shoot 400. And at photo shops, they even tend to recommend 400 for point and shoot cameras. However, we've shot a role of professional 100 in my camera once and the photos turned out beautifully. And in Alan's camera they are incredible. Back to the ferry-it was delayed, because we had an unscheduled stop at Mayne Island. So we missed the connecting bus to Victoria and there was quite a crush to get on the next one, since the next ferry had arrived by that point. By the time we hit downtown, it was 11pm. We left on the bus in Vancouver at 4.

The HI hostel in Victoria is really well located. And it's nice enough as well, though it was rather noisy when we were there. We got up fairly early, as is the way when you are staying in a dorm, and had breakfast in the hostel of the leftovers we had brought with us. See, the trip was very last minute so the week before I had done a monster shop. And, as I do, I bought tons of fruit and veg, in an attempt to be healthy. So we had all this stuff to take along and finish. I made Alan bring it all, since I had been at work, and he was none too pleased as it included a whole cantaloupe. Ah, well, it'll help build his arm muscles.

We wandered along the water towards the Inner Harbour. Victoria is really beautiful and relaxing. It's got Vancouver's laid back vibe and fantastic natural surroundings, a view of the mountains, but it is a nicer city in terms of architecture, cleanliness. It also lacks Vancouver's "a nutter on every street corner" thing. Victoria is by far my favourite BC city. The Inner Harbour is cool. Some old looking sail boats, lots of float planes arriving and departing, people selling crafts, and a fantastic view over to the Parliament Buildings. Alan complained awhile back that none of my friends ever send postcards. And generally, this is true and his friends send tons. I mentioned this to Jasmine who cheekily sent us a postcard of Victoria's Parliment Buildings from Toronto. Alan was a bit miffed, which is good cause he's cute when he is. Just wait till she gets her mail... Anyway, the Parliment Buildings are pretty, as is the Empress. Pretty pictures were taken. There was a wee boy in a kilt doing the Highland Fling next to a totem pole-he was half First Nations, half Scottish, which seems to sum up Victoria well. It's all about the British tackiness and First Nations stuff. Victoria manages to get the tackiness just right though-it's fairly posh, stereotypically British stuff. Like expensive high tea at the Empress (we didn't go. i might have, but Alan thought it was crazy.) And red phone boxes, and double decker buses, that sort of thing.

After our morning wander, we went to the Royal British Columbia Museum. It was very nice and everything, but after the train trip to Vancouver, with it's many fantastic museums, I must say it wasn't that much better than most. The one in Edmonton was definitely as good. Loved John Lennon's car (I've seen another of his cars, in Ottawa-why are all the British lad's cars in Canada???) And there was a scientist type guy there (speak with the experts!!!) who talked to us about octopus. We got to see some octopus eggs, and photos of one that imitates other animals to escape predators. The First Nations bit was good, but again much like the Provincial Museum of Alberta. We didn't get to see the big mammoth, cause the display was being changed. Out the back we took some photos of totem poles in Thunderbird Park and glanced at Helmcken House. Alan commented that if he was to make up a country it would definitely contain totem poles...

In the afternoon we did my two favourite tourist attractions in a long time. The first was Miniature World, located within the Empress. This place does exactly what it says on the box-there are mini dioramas of Dickens novels (in fact, rather a large number of Dickens novels, someone must have had a fetish), the trans Canada railway from the Maritimes out to BC, complete with nighttime/daytime cycles, battles-medieval and modern, olde London, an apartment building with a naked woman bathing AND a naked woman posing for an artist, all sorts of stuff. I really liked it, apart from the bratty kids that were overrunning the place. Then we went to Victoria's Bug Zoo. Now, hearing that, I'm picturing bugs flying about the place, lots of plants with ants crawling everywhere, that sort of thing. This place had the decor of a play school, or kindergarten, and all the bugs were in aquarium things. But I liked it-fantastic yuck factor. Beetles are such pretty colours, and there was one whose nose looked like a big knife thingy. Some scary tarantulas and other spiders, a colony of leaf cutter ants, but in a plastic home. And lots of cool stick and leaf insects, looking much like... wait for it... sticks and leaves :) The kids in here were not so bratty, and the gift shop was too die for. I loved it! Bugs are cool!

After the bugs, we wandered around the old town, which mostly consisted of shopping for tourist tat. However, we had tea in Murchies with some lovely cakes, and went to Munro's bookstore, which is in a beautiful building. We then wandered over to see Fan Tan Alley, as Victoria has Canada's oldest Chinatown. It is rather unexciting these days, but used to be the home of opium dens, prostitutes, and gamblers. These days they have a gate across it that was locked. We attempted to find the Gates of Harmonius Interest, but couldn't so went to eat and have a pint at Swan's Brewpub. On our way back to the hostel we stopped to take photos from the other side of the bridge. From a neighbourhood called Esquimalt. I thought Esquimalt was a city up in northern BC somewhere, don't know why, but work has a project there and I just got it into my head that it was in the interior. My BC geography is terrible.

The next day we had the best breakfast. Really nice French toast with tons of fruit one it. Yum. Then we headed to Beacon Hill Park. On our way we saw a sign with what really should be BCs motto (ok, only some of BCs population adhere to this stereotype, but hey): Night is for sleeping, Day is for resting. The park was cool. The first bit we were in, we could have been in the middle of nowhere. Then it changed to a normal park-gardens, a petting zoo, playing fields, ponds with ducks. On the other side of the park are beaches where you can see across the Juan de Fuca strait. Very pretty.

That afternoon we went on a whale watching boat ride, though we didn't see any whales. We did see a cloud of birds feeding, and when we got closer saw that it was some seals pushing a school of fish towards the surface while they hunted. We saw some porpoises, as well, and a bald eagle catch and eat a fish. It was a nice boat ride, went along San Juan island and had a great view of the Olympic Mountains and Mount Baker. It was a zodiac, and while it went very fast, which was cool, there was no bumping around since the water was so calm. Got a sunburnt nose.

After dinner that night we walked out to Craigdarroch Castle, which is really just an oldish house. And as Alan pointed out, it doesn't look old so much as it looks like it's trying to look old. Bit of a long walk considering the view in the end...

We had yet another fantastic breakfast, at Swan's Brew Pub again. No beer in the morning though. It did come with 2 wee Easter Eggs at the end though. Then we sort of intended to do a bit of shopping, but the store Alan wanted to go to was closed unfortunately. So off we went to the Butchart Gardens. Since it is sort of halfway between Victoria and Swartz Bay (ferry terminal), off we went with all of our bags. Look at the One Bag link in my wee column thingy (what do I call that?) -we are not these sorts of people apparently. I guess having a huge camera and tripod to carry doesn't help. And actually, my bag was much smaller... Anyway, the gardens were really nice, lovely sunny weather, and even really impressive. Thing is, it feels like somewhere your gran would go, you know? We had a photography mishap, couldn't figure out why the focus area was set the way it was, turns out the lens wasn't quite on. However, the pictures turned out ok, only one or two out of focus ones. Took the bus over to the ferry and had another gorgeous ferry ride. We were up on the top outside deck, lovely sunny weather, saw a seal, with two guys playing a drum and guitar in the background. Another long bus ride back to the house.

To see the rest of the scanned photos: go here

Salt Spring Island
Friday morning Alan and I began the trek to Salt Spring. Just getting to the ferry terminal is an adventure in itself, as it involves three buses from Dunbar. And of course, the ferry left late. There were just oodles of children on that ferry, far more than you would usually see on a form of public transit, one can only assume it was because the ferry stopped at all the wee islands- BC's "cottage country". We caught a cab to the hostel and discovered the key downer on Salt Spring Island-no public transit and a hostel in the middle of nowhere.

The hostel was the main reason we visited Salt Spring, as we were booked into the adult treehouse. Now, the fact that I am allergic to trees and there was going to be one in the room with us didn't really hit home until we saw the room. It was a really cool treehouse, and for some reason had a Winnie-the-Pooh theme to it. The ladder was less cool at 3am when you needed a pee, but otherwise it was fun to get to sleep in a tree. The treehouse experience was complimented by the composting toilet experience, which remarkably didn't smell at all (though I didn't really feel a need to learn more by reading the "Humanure: Composting Human Manure" handbook provided). So the treehouse was cool. The hostel in general, I was less complimentary of. We found out that the owners intend to shut the place down to take a year off and when they reopen it will not be as a hostel. This doesn't really surprise me, as most of the available beds are all in private rooms, which cost as much as a cheap hotel. Or a B&B. Thing is, they don't really provide any of the additional services these sorts of places provide in return for the heftier price-for example, when we stayed in a B&B in Ottawa, we were kindly picked up at the train station. Mike and Paula of the "Forrest Retreat" didn't seem like the types that would have picked us up at the ferry. The staff weren't especially friendly, and they certainly weren't about to make us breakfast-in fact, though every other hostel I have ever stayed at has always allowed use of the facilities to guests after check-out, we were told be a girl working there that if Mike and Paula saw us having lunch the day we checked out, we wouldn't be allowed to use the kitchen to cook. As well, they were having their roof fixed, it needed to be done but it was loud and the fiberglassing was smelly-thank god we were out in the treehouse because it stank in the main house. Not exactly a "Forrest retreat" sort of vibe.

In our treehouse there were two guestbooks that made extremely funny reading. One entry was so funny, I'm going to rip it off. It summarized the other entries by genre:
1. "Short but sweet". Great treehouse, what a gem.
2. The "host homage" genre. Mike and Paula, your warmth, your vision, your dedication to operating a superior travellers' retreat has made this the perfect vacation, even though we never once met you.
3. The "tree worship" genre. The tree's spirit guided me to sleep, its strength, beauty and stability model the sort of life we ought to lead.
4. The "capital improvements" genre. Great treehouse, but it would be much improved by adding a skylight, a radio, a toilet...
5. "Childhood fantasy fulfilled" genre. I always wanted a treehouse and now I have finally been able to experience to joy.
6. The "Pooh" genre-oh, bother, I'm writing just like A.A. Milne, or quote him-"This is an exciting sort of day. I have a feeling somewhere round my middle that an expedition might happen before lunch."
7. The "in my language" genre. It is hard to describe my feelings about the treehouse, but in my language we would say (here genre demonstrated in Californian) "like, whoa, dude, I'm totally stoked on the treehouse!"

What this guy failed to notice was the "Too much information" genre--it isn't called the adult treehouse for nothing. One rather long poem has the chorus "sweet lovin' in the tree, never felt so free" and another guest said that it wasn't "quite the mile high club, but we've joined the ranks of the 20-foot-high club." There were also a few in the "this wasn't worth the money" genre or the "this place has far too many rules, so we just went ahead and broke them" genre. To these entries, Paula and Mike responded by gluing the pages together (which subsequent guests had just ripped back apart) or by inserting comments asking guests to please follow the rules.

Hostel owner issues aside, the problem with it was entirely down to our lack of car and its remote location. The first day, having paid to get the taxi out to the hostel we stayed there. Went on a very short walk to a tiny waterfall/stream, which while pretty wasn't quite the amazing site the hostel would have you believe it was. Then we walked to Lake Cusheon, where we could have swum, had we been willing to fight our way through the hordes of children to the water (or even had we possessed bathing suits in which to swim.) We did these two things very, very slowly and that brought us to dinner time. When, of course, the power went out. So, though we had brought along the makings of pasta and veggie filled sauce, we ended up eating some chili made by the only people who had managed to cook previous to the power going out. About halfway through our meal, the power returned. Now, it should have been a restful day. Lounging around, walking about, just hanging out and relaxing. Except the roof fixing was rather on the loud side, so it felt a bit more, well, boring.

The next day we took the taxi into Ganges, the main town on the island, to go to the Saturday market. Lots of crafts, art, and tons of food/veg. Generally, organic hippy sort of stuff. Some of it was very nice, especially the pottery guy who made beautiful bowls and plates with dragonfly designs, but without a house to buy stuff for (or a car to transport any of it) it wasn't as fun as it could have been. Nice to look at, but not all that exciting. We did buy some fantastic goat's cheese made only the day before, some organic rosemary bread, and homemade ice tea for a nice picnic lunch spent sitting on the grass, listening to the town band, and watching a clown make balloon animals for cute kids. We went for a wee wander around the harbour--I love harbours. Maybe it comes of growing up in Ontario, where I didn't have any chance to see the sea, but I just love that salt water smell, and the sun on the water, and all the fishing and sailing boats and the docks... And the purple starfish!!! They are so cool. We went to see a Robert Bateman exhibit of wildlife paintings, some of which were really cool, and then had a very leisurely meal before hopping in a taxi back to the hostel.

Our last day we hung around the hostel in the morning again, this time walking 45 minutes along the road to Beddis beach. It's a beach, apparently the island's nicest, but after the beaches of Tofino and Scotland, this one wasn't terribly exciting. We made our lunch in the hostel kitchen, thus breaking the rules, and then took a taxi out to Fulford to catch the ferry. We just missed one, which left us hanging around for almost two hours with not much to do, as the bags made it a bit hard to explore the town-backpacks and craft shops don't really mix.

While not a wildlife extravaganza as so many of our trips here in Canada have been, we did see some animals. The hostel had two pet pygmy goats and a very weird none-quacking South American duck. We saw three deer, one in the field just out back of the hostel, one on our way to the beach, and a baby deer on the hostel driveway. Aside from the fawn, the deer were very unafraid-we walked right up to the one deer talking very loudly and only noticed it at the last moment, grazing without a single concern about our presence. And best of all, we saw a pod of orcas, must have been at least 8 or 9 of them, spouting and jumping on the ferry ride home.

All in all, it was a nice weekend away. Slow, fairly relaxing, just not really the best destination for the carless. It was our last planned trip before we leave Vancouver, unless we go somewhere nearby with Alan's parents once they arrive in three weeks. I am amazed at how quickly time has passed since we arrived in November. I met a girl in the hostel who is also off to Korea to teach, in July to a suburb of Seoul. Just got another email from the school today, I think just to remind me that they are working on my work visa and everything is moving along, albeit at a slow pace. It has been so long since the excitement of the interview/contract signing that it all feels a bit unreal, but in just two months I will be leaving Canada once again.

However, we were off to Tofino for the weekend and it was fantastic. It's a small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island and is very eco-touristy. We had to leave the house to catch a 6.15 bus, and we didn't hit Tofino until 3 because there was a one hour wait for construction crews to blast some rocks. We attempted to visit Cathedral Grove, but it was too far back along the road. Nice walk in the sun though. However, by the time we got to Tofino the sun was gone. We wandered around the town, booked a couple of tours and bought some postcards. And broke Alan's lens. Alan will say I broke it, and certainly I was involved, but he had a minor role as well... Since we had forgotten my camera as well, we were left with a telephoto lens-not so good for pictures of huge cedar trees, though we may end up with some interesting pictures of bark. We picked up some disposables.

The hostel is realy nice-the rooms are big enough that they could have sqeezed another bunk bed in, but had chosen not to. The place was fully booked-even the overflow was full. We saw hummingbirds at the feeders and outside our window each morning we were woken by loud birds. One morning in particular there was a lot of noise and we assumed that some birds were chasing a bald eagle away from their nest. There were bald eagles everywhere-there are more in Tofino than the entire United States. The first day we were there one glided to a tree just feet above our heads. I was never much of a bird person until last summer, when my visit to Shetland and Orkney demanded that I become interested and now I'm fairly hooked. I don't think I'll ever become a bona fide "twitcher" but they are quite interesting.

Anyway, our first day the weather was still dull. We went on a Zodiac over the open ocean to the Hot Springs. We saw two grey whales (no orcas, sadly), some really cool sealions who bob around the sea in groups, seals, tufted puffins (I've seen them on both oceans now). The half hour walk to the Springs was cool, though once we'd been in the pools relaxing, it was hard to drag my lethargic self along the boardwalk. The springs were cool, made up of a small waterfall and three pools. The last pool periodically filled with very cold water from the sea when the waves came in. We bumped into two Scottish people. There were only 3 couples on our tour and I'm glad we went the day we did. It wouldn't have been much fun if there had been too many more people there. There were a couple of other tour companies, some sailboats but there weren't too many people. One of the couples were in Tofino for their honeymoon. Just before we left for the tour, there was a guy from the local Global station doing a story on Luna, an orca who has been separated from his pod and has become very friendly with humans-bumping boats that sort of thing. They've spotted Luna's pod nearby so are hoping to reunite them. There were shots of us going off on the Zodiac and listening to the guide tell us about the area.

We went on another Zodiac trip the next morning, this time up an inlet at low tide to see Black Bears. We saw 8 adults and 4 very cute cubs. The telephoto lens came in handy. And it was sunny! Alan preffered being in the inlet, as he had felt a bit ill on the sea the day before. It was really beautiful. That afternoon we went kayaking. Double kayaks being more stable, we went in one and I was forced to sit in the back and do all the steering as Alan's legs were too long for the steering lines connected to the rudder. I loved kayaking-very similar to canoeing really but you are that much closer to the water. Very cool. We kayaked around the islands and went ashore on Meares Island to walk part of the Big Tree trail. Huge cedars, banana slugs, salamander eggs, nurse logs-very interesting generally. We saw another seal and an osprey. After a day of ocean air, Alan wanted fish for dinner so we ended up at Schooners. The food was fantastic.

That evening we went along to Tonquin beach, just a short walk from the hostel. It was pretty and a very normal being-on-a-beach experience until two police officers showed up. Alan suggested that maybe they just wanted a wee walk on such a beautiful evening, but I think it was more likely they were looking for illegal campers, drink and drugs.

The next day we took the beach bus out to walk the Rainforest trails in the national park. They were only about a half hour each, but were interesting. Then we went to Combers Beach, part of Long Beach, and wandered along for hours to the next bus pickup point. The waves and the mist coming off the water made the whole place so beautiful. There were other people there, but not many for the huge size of the beach and it all felt very cut off from the rest of the world. Slightly burnt our noses. We got back to town in time to see the Roy Henry Vickers art gallery-I was quite devious-I like his prints but they were very expensive. However, he has also illustrated a book and there were cheap chinese copies of it on sale, so I bought that and can cut my favourite pictures out. We had fish and chips at a picnic table in the sun for dinner.

Our last day we just relaxed around the hostel, with the fantastic views across the bay and of the islands and read the paper while waiting for the bus back to the Nanaimo ferry. The ferry was very crowded and they had a Celtic fiddler performing to keep us all entertained. Didn't get back home until about 10.

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