Holidays and Other Excursions

Month: May 2015 (Page 1 of 2)

Canada, O Canada

Friday 22 May 2015

Homeward bound we finally reach our front door lateish on Saturday afternoon, my thanks to Cerys Matthews (Radio 6; Sunday mornings), Johnnie Walker (Radio 2; Sunday afternoons) and Mike Brown (CHBN – the Friday Alternative, should be compulsory listening) for providing an aural disguise to the jet engines on the 747.  No photographs on this section!

If I have not gushed enough about Canada on the individual blog posts then this is my last opportunity.  Taken in the round we loved the trip itself (with diverse views on the sleeper accommodation on the Canadian between Toronto and Jasper); we thought it gave a wonderful representation of the country and speaking personally I would hope we can find an opportunity to visit the eastern part of the country that was missing on this trip.  Oddly Victoria was outstanding as we were completely ignorant of the place and another trip covering just there and Vancouver might be planned – simply because we feel there must be more to see than just the highlights we hit.

Not a single meal which could be rated as poor over the entire holiday – and in general service was outstanding – usually friendly chats with waiting staff provoked by an initial enquiry about our accents and of course a shared history and interest.  The good service rating does not extend to VIA Rail who should take up operating freight trains given their incompetence and complete absence of passenger service (and passenger needs are far higher than any mere customer).

It is impossible to single out a highlight – up the CN Tower, Rocky Mountaineer, Jasper, Victoria, Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff, Vancouver – there are too many good bits.

We enjoyed it and had a great time.  I think the sunshine helped – apparently we were somewhat lucky in this respect.  If you can go then do so.  Another great holiday.

Victoria, Vancouver Island

Wednesday 20 and Thursday 21 May 2015

We had initially wondered why this “excursion” existed at the end of our holiday as frankly we knew nothing about Victoria and given that we lose a large chunk of one day travelling we did wonder about the value of it.  So coach travel to the ferry – Spirit of British Columbia – which operates in much the same way as the ferries to France being RORO.  Then a further 40 minutes or so down the highway to Victoria.

First point of positivity – the hotel room here is a suite with an extra living room – so it is all very spacious.  Second point of positivity – the sun is shining even brighter than in Vancouver.  Travelling takes it toll and so we decide to take a rest this afternoon.  We have a free day tomorrow and want to make the best use of day.

In the evening we head out for a meal at Matisse which is, according to Trip Advisor, the best restaurant in the city.  Given the name it is hardly surprising that it is French and we have an excellent meal based around their tasting menu.  I open with an excellent lobster soup, follow it with a stuffed crepe and then I have a rather nice piece of stuffed rabbit leg which had been deboned and sliced; this is the second time I have eaten rabbit on this holiday and I hope that is representative of the frequency it appears on Canadian menus.  Jackie had a piece of char for main course and the original plan had been to eat half each and swap – but once she saw it she decided she was eating all of it!  We have the wine flight and the total bill was about £120 in total – pretty good value for money anywhere.

On Thursday with the sun still shining we wander around the back of the hotel for a croissant and coffee as recommended by a member of the hotel cleaning staff (many thanks – a good croissant).  We then did what we would do if we arrived here on a cruise ship – we took the open top bus tour ride.  We always find these to be pretty good value in giving an insight into the place we have landed and also hitting the highlights in terms of sights to see.  Which I have managed to catch in some of my photographs.

Once we have returned to the city centre we take some pictures of the Empress Hotel and then take a walk along the shoreline to Fisherman’s Wharf – it turns into a car park at one point and seems a little inconsistent, but it is great to watch the little ferries popping about around the inner harbour and the seaplanes coming and going.  Number one seaplane airport in the world apparently.  There is a colourful floating village plus the usual range of expensive yachts to admire.

Victoria is a lovely place; rainfall is about half of Vancouver and it enjoys a far less extreme climate change.  No sign of the less fortunate and opportunities to sit in the sun and enjoy a drink.  Something I have hardly mentioned is the existence of local breweries across Canada – there seems to be a real craft brewing background and there has been a wide selection of beers accompany meals.  Around Victoria there are gardens and other attractions which our fellow travellers strike out to do.  One common occupation for visitors such as ourselves is whale watching which we had planned to do.  However our earlier bus trip had allowed us to see out to sea – with a huge fog bank hanging between the Canadian and American land masses.  Those who do go out to sea admit on their return that the whales had not been visible and indeed the boats were cold and not entirely smooth.  I am sure Jackie’s objections to water borne transport would have been heard.

We catch one of the little bobbing ferries back across the harbour.  Interestingly they do not seem to have a particularly fixed timetable.  The captain asks where we wish to go ($5 each per journey) and then sets off to the furthest point before heading back.  Our stop is actually closed so he drops us off at an adjacent pier – which is alarming for my wife as she can see the water through the boarding.

Dominating the harbour is a bascule Johnson Street bridge built by the same engineer as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.  Originally there was another span for the trains but these ceased operation a few years ago.  The bridge now limits the traffic flow and is in the process of being replaced.  Somehow it seems unlikely the trains will return.   We head to Johnson Street for lunch – “Il Terrazzo” which is but a few steps away and well signposted as it is slightly off the street itself.  Another good meal is enjoyed before we wander back to the hotel for a rest before thinking about packing ahead of our return home – which is going to be a long journey tomorrow.



Tuesday 19 May 2015

Good morning Vancouver.  Our swift trip through the streets last night was followed by a retreat to bed and some sleep but this morning we have a tour of the main city area commencing with Stanley Park.

Pictures of the totem poles and other sights in Vancouver are together in this location.

Stanley Park was originally heavily wooded and the initial foreigners who landed culled the wood for use and so this is a modern replanting.  The First Nation occupied this area during summer and at the heart of the area was a very large collection of shells going back over 6000 years of dumping of rubbish.  At the end of the Park is the Lion’s Gate Bridge which leads to the West Vancouver “British Properties” built by the Guinness family in the 1930’s.  The bridge is named after the “Lion’s Ears” twin peaks in the distance (see the photos).  The Lion’s Gate name was then appropriated for the film company – Vancouver has a large and flourishing film industry; presumably the light attracts film makers in the same way as Hollywood.

Vancouver is, like Toronto, at heart a modern city – total recent history only reaching back about 150 years; but it has been a place which has found favour with a weather pattern not unlike the UK, more rain perhaps; although our stay is blessed with unbroken sunshine the local residents advise that this is unusual.  We drive through one of the residential areas and past very expensive car showrooms – later on the streets we see evidence that ownership of very high end models seems very common. Queen Elizabeth park, named after HM The Queen Mother, from a Royal visit to open the Lion’s Gate Bridge is reached and is in glorious bloom.  We do not have time to visit the local equivalent of the Eden Dome which stands in the park.

We pass through Chinatown which along with the one seen in Toronto does not seem so attractive as in London; we are told that it has “moved”; but my wife feels it looks down at heel.  Our tour terminates close to the regenerated area of Gastown which no doubt was once run down and decrepit being close to the Docks and railways originally.  However now full of small boutiques and pubs and antique shops it provides a more welcoming view of Vancouver, particularly in this warmth.

We dine at the Old Spaghetti Factory, which improves the budget position somewhat; clam chowder soup and a salad.  Financially we have spent more than planned on this holiday; without doing anything silly.  It is unfair to say Canada is expensive – but we have had to buy virtually all breakfasts whilst on many other holidays that would be within the price for accomodation.  We knew this would be the case (no complaint on that front) but we had perhaps expected them to be a little less costly than has been the case.  This morning we ate at Forage – which was on the list of possible dining locations and the lunch cost little more than breakfast!

Around the city we see evidence of older men sitting on corners and in motorised wheelchairs making requests for money and are several times approached by younger men for assistance, the latter all well spoken and polite; presumably the lack of a complete welfare state.  As mentioned above there is evidence that there are some pretty rich people around and also this contingent of those with some form of difficulty.  The range somehow seems wider than at home.

Later in the day we had decided to eat at Joe Fortes restaurant – I wanted some decent fish and it had the added benefit of being close at hand.  The food delivered was excellent – a shrimp ceviche to start was rightly spicy and my cioppini was an amazing collection of fish (and shellfish).  This went down well but the noise inflicted a headache on my wife (usually I am the one who finds the noise in many restaurants objectionable).  Perhaps not the best choice.  It has been a long holiday and we have been on the move now for some time.

Overall this post may seem to be a little harsh.  We both thought Vancouver was a wonderful city and in the warm sunshine seems outwardly highly attractive and potentially worth another visit but I cannot deny some concern at the existence of apparent beggars.

Rocky Mountaineer

Sunday 17 May and Monday 18 May 2015

I have rolled these two days together for the photographs and thought I might as well do the same here in the blog.  Wordpress seem keen for me to use a new format for writing the blog so I wait to see how long it takes to learn new software (or revert … why do people who improve things actually make them worse?).

Once at Banff station the train headed by a surprising total of three diesels, one in a scruffy CP livery, brings in the train from its overnight resting place.  The operational arrangements are that the train working up from Vancouver uses the CP rails and splits at Kamloops on the outward journey overnight with a section going over CN rails to Jasper.  We are using CP rails from Banff to Kamloops, our overnight stop but tomorrow we use CN rails after the two sections re-unite.

We board, knowing our total tour group has split; a number are in Red, which is discontinued after this season, Silver which is a relatively new introduction and a small group of us in Gold as we always said that if we did it we would do it in style.  Gold has the benefit of hot food (so we only need light food if anything for dinner) and alcohol.  Our group is sandwiched between Americans (in front) and a large and increasingly raucous group of Australians behind.  Surrounded by colonials!

Once a very long freight train has passed us by we head out after it heading towards Kamloops.  We follow much the same route as yesterday so the surroundings look familiar and our first stop isthe  at Lake Louise station used in the film Dr Zhivago.  It looks very different in the spring sunshine!  The seating is more or less full and we are travelling in a brand new coach – only a week old we are told.  There are lots of announcements over safety and other aspects and we have a team of six hosts (normally four) as two are new recruits on their first trip.  Even so they are pretty busy.  They swap around so the three on the upstairs team on this return journey were downstairs on the table waiting team on the outward trip; with a further three in the galley.

The front half of the coach are given first sitting today (second sitting tomorrow) and we descend the stairs to the lower level where a cooked breakfast is served – with about five choices.  All good stuff and better eggs benedict than at the hotel in Banff.  There is no hurry over service and second sitting is called down about two hours after us.

Outside Canada rolls gently past.  This section is mainly single track and our progress is no doubt not enhanced by the freight train ahead, especially when another train has to be passed.  Key to this section are the famous spiral tunnels where we loop around losing height.  These were built to replace a very sharply graded bank which suffered numerous runaways and problems.  Being inside the mountains they are harder to comprehend but we cover a cursive L shape as we descend.  Inside we can see the lights of the coach ahead are at quite a sharp angle to our own coach.

On the first day we are clearly still in the real Rockies with mountains, snow capped above the tree lines, and for a while we follow the Kicking Horse river, so called because an early explorer was kicked so hard by his horse that his fellow explorers deemed he had died and he recovered to find that they had already dug his grave and were preparing to bury him (I believe he was the medical man in the party!).  One other major site we pass is “Craigellachie” the place where the “Last Spike” was driven to link the CP line from east to west and also cementing Canada into a single nation as British Columbia had only agreed to join if a railway was completed within ten years (it was achieved in six).  The name came from the Scottish financiers who sent the clan cry “Stand fast Craigellachie” to confirm that they money to pay for the line had been raised.

Our train’s progress is steady and gentle and we sometimes pass a freight going the other way.  These can have locos at both front and rear and front and middle to ensure they can cope with the climbs.  There are some sharpish curves as well but getting decent photographs proves difficult due to the internal reflections on the windows which tend to inhibit decent pictures.

Soon after 12 we descend again into the lower cabin and this time we have a wide choice of main meals to follow on from a tomato and basil soup.  Rib of beef to follow – we are advised the menu tomorrow will be different so make your first choice here!  Following the heavy lunch, I develop heavy eyelids and spend part of the afternoon snoozing (although it could also be something to do with the alcohol consumption too I suppose).  For once the diabetic information did reach its destination and I enjoyed a large bowl of strawberries for dessert and fruit was distributed during the afternoon.

Early on the trip we are lucky to see a black bear and then a grizzly bear – the latter have only been spotted a couple of times in recent years; sadly getting a picture proved beyond my competence – I was more interested in seeing it!  Other wildlife seems to be keen on avoiding us, although some eagles are seen and one even made it into a photograph.

Overnight is spent in Kamloops.  Like other towns which have been based around railways it is not overly attractive and we do not venture out of the hotel.  Nachos followed by biscuits and cheese and then to bed.  We have another full day tomorrow.

Coaches return us to the “station” which is situated on a link line between CP and CN and the train has been completely reformed with the combination of the segment from Jasper.  We now have the beenfit of a good view out of the front of our coach along the train allowing some better trains shots during the day.  Getting the road coaches in the right order alongside the rail coaches is quite a good demonstration of getting organisation right – but it is done very well.  As yesterday our main luggage goes by road to our destination and will be waiting in our hotel room in Vancouver for our arrival.

The scenery is more open today for much of the journey as we have descended out of the mountainous area.  We pass the Painted Bluffs which is a very small national park near Kamloops, the Black Canyon (no photos sadly) and “Hells’ Gate” canyon which proved very difficult to navigate with only one steamship – the SS Scuzzy – managing to negotiate the river at this point in the lowest of water in early spring carrying construction kit for the railway.  The original explorer found travelling through the area using the First Nationals paths and routes so difficult that he felt he had reached the “Gates of Hell”.

On second sitting today but the food is again of excellent quality and well presented.  Salmon and scrambled egg at breakfast.  The diabetic information has gone missing and I do not share the chocolate brownies which look lovely when they turn up for dessert at lunchtime.

For the Canadians it is a “long weekend” and I think this accounts for the paucity of crossing trains on the second day.  We certainly make very good time reaching Vancouver by about 6pm.

Overall we are well looked after on this service and enjoy the  friendly hosting, the comfortable seats and we can acknowledge that this is a well run business with some wonderful scenery to do.  Very much part of a trip of a lifetime.


Saturday 16 May 2015

In the itinerary this was a free day to do as we wished.  The main possibilities offered by Richard, our tour guide, was to visit the Whyte Museum or to ride the Banff Gondola (a cable car in plain English).  Jackie however had put her sleuthing hat on and found that on Saturday evenings only the Restaurant at the Banff Gondola have two special meals at 5 and 7pm.  The fee for the ride is normally $40 each; special price including a three course meal was about $60 each.  She booked the early sitting.

They sent through the email confirmation with pdf attachment.  On careful reading we find the latter has to be printed to enable the barcodes to be scanned.  Who takes a portable printer on holiday?  Technology is not that good!  And they cannot scan the barcodes on the ipad screen.  Cue panic.  Eventually however I managed to get the internet PC off reception to print the magic pieces of paper.

Instead of eating breakfast in our hotel we walked down the street about 6 hotels / hostels etc.   Jackie had spotted  restaurant in another hotel called “El Toro” and inside we found comparative peace and quiet – our hotel had a noisy dining room – plus much better prices and a huge breakfast.  Jackie is now quite addicted to blueberry pancakes and I had a “combo” – scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and a lot of potatoes I did not eat.  Plus the inevitable fruit with your Canadian breakfast.  And the waiting time is such that it was all freshly cooked.  Not quite beating Jasper breakfasts but pretty good.

We visit the spa and spend 10 – 15 minutes in a 28 seater jacuzzi.  104 deg F – hot!  We retire to our room, Jackie to sleep and I attend to photographs and so on.

Buses today are running to time so we are at the Gondola base station in plenty of time; as it is not busy we are granted immediate access and we are lifted into the sky to the top of Sulphur Mountain.  The weather is unattractive but I walk most of the way to the old weather station but retreat when the snow joins the cold wind.

Photos of this excursion are not outstanding and can be found here.

At 5 we take our seats in the restaurant and although circular it does not revolve.  We can look down on Banff and sometimes it is visible and sometimes it vanishes behind a combination of snow and low flying clouds.  Yet another good meal of a huge salad, a piece of rib of beef and strawberries in my case and a wonderful chocolate concoction for Jackie certainly made the whole thing worthwhile.

A couple of observations about buses.  Firstly know what your local stop looks like in a strange town, or you may have to walk back from getting off a stop too soon.  In Banff they also have a wonderful concept – they allow travellers to strap their bike to the front of the bus (certainly at one point we had two on the front).  Somehow I cannot see that catching on in Bracknell; nor on the front of SWT 455’s – but it is better than them being dragged into the passenger areas!

Banff National Park

Friday 15 May 2015

Another day and so the tour continues.  Although it had been looking a little grey overhead it starts to brighten up and we head up towards Norquay for a great view down on to the town which is laid out below plus some more long horn sheep and some praire dogs running around the field.  The latter tend to be far too small to be visible in photographs unless I invest in one of those extreme telephoto lenses – which is unlikely.

Pictures today are here.

Our tour today is essentially to see bits of the huge Banff National Park and to enjoy some of the highlights.  So back on the coach everyone and try to stay awake in the hope of spotting wildlife.  Although I and others can be seen dozing from time to time, particularly on some of the longer runs through the lush fir forests.  The fir trees are in fact very close together which we gather tends to limit the ability of the animals with large antlers to be able to progress through the forest, which looking at the road side is clear as spotting animals any distance into the wood is impossible.

The established view over forest fires has changed in recent years.  Historically the aim was always to seek to extinguish fires to prevent loss of trees – they can happen from natural causes such as lightning strikes as well as man made intervention.  Now the pendulum has swung and a small amount of controlled burning of the woods has happened, although we were told in one case that it had spread further than planned.  Working out the right ecological balance must be difficult.

Our second stop should have involved coffee but once again we are slightly early; the lights in the restaurant are on but the door is locked. Cleaning and preparation for the season is underway!  This is Johnston Canyon where we have time to walk as far as the lower falls before returning.  I saw a variety of small creatures running around whilst stopped here, chipmunk like but even though I was at ground level photos are not worth it as they tend to say.  In the car park was a “Beaumont” car – a General Motors marque used between 1966 and 1969 and in good condition.

The coffee stop is taken at Samson Mall (damn fine coffee in Laggan’s Bakery – no sign of any cherry pie anywhere in Canada so far) plus some sandwiches to eat at our next halting place – Lake Louise; another beautiful piece of scenery which I would love to look at for even longer.  But do not turn around; behind you is a modern hotel, with no style or design; you could find it in Dubai or almost anywhere. And it is huge.  Never mind, most of the time whilst facing the lake it does not impinge on the pictorial quality of the place; just do not turn around.  Shame it is not panto season.

We temporarily leave Alberta for British Columbia and the Yoho National Park.  In theory there is a one hour time change at the border but as we are returning to Banff later this change is not made.  I wonder how local residents popping across the border cope – or perhaps there is actually very little local traffic?

Our purpose is to visit the Kicking Horse river where there is a bridge which has been left by the water cutting through the rock and later we move onto the very peaceful and quiet environs of Emeral Lake; although we are in Yoho the photos to be found at this link.

Our journey then reverses to head back to Banff; I note for the first time Canadian Pacific trains as opposed to CN which has been the mainstay betweenToronto and Jasper; but this more southerly area was CP dominated.

In the evening we decide on something completely different and catch the bus into Banff.  We wander around the town assessing the various eating possibilities but our choice is unaltered – it is time for a greek meal in Balkan, which occupies the Cascade Hall.  Pita bread and three dips is probably to much; Jackie has a moussaka which I acknolwedge looks good and apparently is good to eat whilst I consume some skewered steak, rice and potatoes.

On the journey into town the bus was running late on the timetable and this continued as we found when we returned to the bus stop.  Indeed the gap was such that we reckoned we could walk back to the Caribou Lodge first and so it proved as we were back indoors, walking at Jackie’s usual leisurely pace without being passed by the bus.


Icefields Parkway – Jasper to Banff

Thursday 14 May 2015

Time for the travellers to roll onwards; not by train.  Asif our local guide (for whom we have to thank for the pointer towards Syrah last night) is in charge both of driving us to our next destination but also describing the places along the way.

Essentially today we are heading in a largely southerly direction along Highway 93 moving from Jasper to Banff taking in the sights along the way.  We will also revisit part of the route tomorrow on our Banff National Park tour.

As we leave Jasper we first past Whistler mountain which is on the edge of the town and then a little further along Mt Edith Cavell after the famous nurse who was killed in the first world war.

Our progress is soon halted by a sighting of a black bear and photos of all of the day’s activities can be found here.

Excitement marginally reduced we head on to our first stop at the Athabasca Falls where once again the power of the water cutting its way through the rock bed provides another illustration of the impact of 11,000 years of activity can achieve.

Moving a way down the road we reach the main Columbia Icefields where there is yet another tour highlight with a trip out onto the Athabasca Glacier and for which we had originally anticipated the need for warmer clothing.  I have put on a long sleeved shirt as my preparation for the day!  The pullover remains deep inside a suitcase.

The transit to the glacier is in two stages; a normal bus takes us over the main road to a staging point at which we climb aboard one of 22 special glacier vehicles.  There are 23 in the world – the odd one is somewhere in Antarctica.  They are of several generations and are not built by coach builders but by heavy equipment movers.  The whole operation is run by Brewsters who have been operating in this area for well over a century and seem to have control of much of the coach and other operations in both asper and Banff.

On the glacier itself is not actually incredibly cold (thanks to the sun) although it cools when we lose the sun behind some clouds.  Disappointingly in retrospect the photographs taken on the glacier do not record the area in the way that you see it.  No doubt it is true that everything is white and the photos cannot do justice to what we actually see, where refraction and other effects do make edges of the ice above appear blue to our eyes, adding subtle tone and shadow.

Underfoot of course the glacier is advancing slowly, but also retreating in that each year it reaches less further into the valley.  The last ice age was about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago and when the ice receded in this area the ground rose – providing these glorious mountain ranges.  Since then it would be fair to assume that the world has been steadily warming and of course this period covers much of the known human history, with civilisation appearing in Egypt around 5000 years ago.

Off the glacier and following a quick lunch we are heading south again to our next stop at Bow Lake and Glacier.  Bow Lake is largely frozen – the near edges are just liquid and so makes an interesting contrast to the lakes visited earlier.  Here as elsewhere the coffee stop facilities are not available as yet.  We are a little early in the season for these things but it matters little.  Indeed it means we return to our coach a little earlier and head off for Banff.

A quick town tour leaves me confused as to just where we are on the map at the hotel when we arrive.  Banff is clearly larger than Jasper and indeed there is a bus service to the town centre from the hotel, the Caribou Lodge, which in theory runs every 40 minutes.

Once settled in we visit the restaurant in the hotel and initially determine on a light meal – starting with some shared Nachos.  The delivered pile would have been a completely adequate meal (if a little unbalanced); we had however also ordered a salad each.  These came and the remaining Nachos departed – well they would hardly be good for breakfast would they?

The salads were also sizeable and although we both managed to eat the steak (Jackie) and seafood (me) on top of the salad leaves, the quantity of the latter defeated us.  Near the end of eating my plateful I found half an avocado which was waiting for attention and that was demolished.  Service this evening was provided by a girl from New Zealand but she had had to participate in a tour around the Banff National Park as part of the conditions for the job so that she could talk about the local sights and activities.  Someone around here really cares how their town comes across to visitors like us.

Jackie goes to bed and sleep whilst I do some catching up with the world.


Wednesday 13 May 2015

Before starting this little update I should mention that the Winnipeg posting from a couple of days ago has had a small update.

When we arrived last night there was a quick tour round this little town.  Essentially two main streets and with only a slight deviation we reach our hotel – Best Western Jasper Inn.  Now re-united with our luggage we can unpack and also we can catch up with social networks at home and news (little enough of that goes a long way).  Also a proper shower is welcome.

Come the morning it is a half day tour around the lakes and mountains which are part of the Jasper National Park and we are bouyed by reports from fellow travellers who had encountered elks when they sauntered into town for dinner the previous evening.  Sadly Maligne Lake is still frozen and therefore not worth the trip but instead we go to Lake Patricia and then to Medicine Lake whilst seeking visibility of deer and hopefully more bears.

The photographs of this excursion can be found at this link.

We are enjoying more wonderful sunny weather, a nice crisp morning but the sun is beating down, very slight breeze if at all and at Patricia Lake (that well known film star) we are able to obtain some lovely pictures of mountains with pitch perfect reflections.  I know that the weather we are enjoying is unusual for the time of year but it is all part of a wonderful experience and random photos through the coach windows hardly do the scenery justice.

Our next stop is at Medicine Lake which has no obvious outflowing river. This caused much investigation and it was found that the water drained from the bottom of the lake through rock and re-appears many miles away at Athabasca Springs.  Many attempts were made initially to block the outflow when the cause was found but nothing was successful.  In recent weeks the residents of Ambridge would have welcomed such a self draining arrangement.

The sky is blue and we are enjoying glorious sunshine – this is at some elevation; at sea level I would probably be resorting to shorts.  This little town has mountains surrounding it, lovely clear air and the residents are friendly and welcoming.

We find a small pizza place for lunch and have a small salad and a smallish pizza which we consider is more than adequate and then wander back to the hotel as the warmth and fresh air has taken its toll and we need a sleep!  One matter on which I have not previously remarked is the apparent Canadian addiction to sport.  It seems a bar cannot exist without one, two or three screens showing sport and indeed often several screens showing different sports.  Even in the relatively upmarket bar in the hotel in Toronto this was evident, I am sure I hear people moving round to obtain a view of a particular event; thankfully some of the better restaurants have not adopted this as yet.

Come the evening we wander back along the road into town and whilst we do not see any elks, we do see something which could well be elk poo; so they must indeed visit the town – presumably much later in the evening.  Unless our fellow travellers were suffering the effect of alcohol consumption.

A brief mention of the hotel breakfast.  Outstandingly good.  My wife has fallen in love with blueberry pancakes on this tour and the scrambled eggs on one morning and green eggs and ham on the second (which I ate) were both excellent.  Sometimes scrambled eggs can sit around in a watery “grave” waiting to consumed.  Not here.  And the quality of everything is good.  by now it goes without saying that the service is friendly even if a little run off their feet with the entire tour appearing at almost the same time.

Our dining target this evening had been identified earlier in the day – Syrahs – a restaurant which we discover is celerating a first birthday with a special menu arrangement – $59 for two, although there are some minor exclusions of the signature dish of elk.  This is not a difficulty and we make selections from the menu – I open with an elk carpaccio and follow that with a very nice piece of salmon.  Jackie had had salmon bruschetta to start and an Albertan steak to follow.  We shared a cheeseboard – the local “mozarella” like cheese was tasteless but the harder “parmesan” cheese and the blue “stilton” were both excellent.  The overall meal was lovely and complimented by a decent beer, a good bottle of red wine and the usual customer friendly service which we have come to expect during our stay in Canada.

During dinner we are entertained by the activities of two small birds outside the window.  They have obviously discovered that the bugs smeared on the front of cars are very tasty and being dead are not difficult to catch.  The two of them seem to attack the front grill (one can hardly refer to radiator any longer) or spoilers and one tends to knock the dead bug down for the other to eat.  At one stage one of them seems to disappear for a period and it seems likely that he/she was on the inside with the other one still hopping around at ground level.  Then another car would arrive and they would switch their attention to the new arrival.

We wander back through this delightful town, still warm and free of elks.  We take in once again the surrounding mountains and note from the rusty four by fours as they drive past that it is clearly the case that the winter can be very difficult.  But what a wonderful place to be able to visit and enjoy whilst be looked after so very well.

Good night.

Westward to Jasper

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Around Winnipeg the scenery changes and becomes very flat and is major grain and potato producing countryside; the line is pretty straight compared with earlier and we no longer seem to always have the lineside telegraph poles – they come and go.

Come morning the scenery has changed again, pleasantly undulating and a mixture of small lakes, forestry, farming and even some nodding donkeys as we are in oil country apparently.  There are even some curves to try and get some pictures of the locomotives at the head of our consist.

Again the photos can be found here.

The meal arrangements change again with a “continental” breakfast followed by “brunch” at an early lunchtime.  Early because we are due to arrive in Jasper before three normal sittings could be achieved.  However we are still running around five hours late and apparently management has now become aware that we are late.

So we watch the world going by and reach Edmonton about the time we should have been in Jasper having consumed a very nice lobster ravioli for my brunch.  At Edmonton an extra observation car is cut in about half way along the train and now we are due to start climbing through the run to Jasper.  Anyway in the dining car over lunch we are allocated to the second sitting for dinner (at 7pm) if we are running late and have not reached Jasper.  It seems likely however that we will reach our destination about 18:00.

Actually in general terms the food on the train has been pretty good.  The menu has contained a couple of vegetable soups – in four meals why repeat anything? – a good chicken soup and some excellent huge veal chops at dinner.  Good generally well prepared food has been a welcome comfort in the light of the other aspects of the operation.

The same cannot be said of the choice of wines.  All Canadian, three white, three red.  I am advised by my resident advisor that only one of the reds is consumable – a pity as evidence in Toronto was that local wines are not that bad.  Perhaps whoever chooses for VIA Rail has a different set of taste buds.  A reasonable selection of local beers for me; but no cider and the local ice wine is on the menu but not in stock.
Disappointment – no cheeses provided in the dessert selection; the chocolate cake and others are highly recommended but the diabetic is offered a fruit cup which eventually and reluctantly is admitted not to be entirely fresh but to contain an element of canned and therefore contained in syrup fruits.  This seems to be mixed as certainly a couple of the fruit cups were not drowned in syrup.  It seems the diabetes problem does not exist in Canada.

As we run in towards Jasper the Canadian Rockies initially appear as snow capped distant hills but develop steadily as we close on our destination, still nearly 6 hours late.  On the outskirts we traverse a tunnel and as we emerge there are two black bears on the hillside above the train as if they were looking for a can opener!  We arrive and board a coach for a trip around the town and into our hotel.  We have wifi and communication with the rest of the world and we can stop counting how long the freight trains are as the ground is now stable under our feet.

The Canadian – Winnipeg

Monday 11 May 2015

We lose time on our travels, an hour on departure, (originally I suspected an hour being turned but subsequent research shows that this is a normal operational move) and then we reach a loop which we are told is 30 miles short of Hornepayne where motion ceases.  We have lost more time (about an hour) to a points failure where we had to draw through a loop and out the far end, then set back into the loop from the wrong end to allow a passing freight to pass and we have to give way as the train is, I suspect, one of those longer than the loop!  The sequence of events and stopping pattern clearly indicate a problem which someone had difficulty solving easily.

Finally the engineers have reached their 12 hour driving time limit and may not drive further – but the replacement engineers are at Hornepayne.  Now someone, somewhere knows the rules and knows that this problem has been coming probably for around three hours.  We have been passing freights coming east as we progress west.  Quite easily our replacement engineers could have hopped aboard and been transported to meet us to enable a changeover to be facilitated and keep us moving.  Sadly not.  Nor presumably do the contracts have a clause whch permits the application of common sense which allows the 12 hour rule to be over-ridden so that the engineers can – if they consider themselves fit and able to continue.  And if they did not then I entirely accept it – but so far the passengers (who are not dumb pieces of freight) are only told there will be a short delay; this is eventually quantified at around three hours.  In any terms a disaster which poor management makes worse.

This line is busy and each line occupation takes up operational space.  So they use a special vehicle to bring the engineers to us – preventing movement of a freight train and the same vehicle then uses further paths to take the end of shift staff to their lodging.  They have worked hard and deserve their rest period – but putting the problem right needs managing and that is not thinking at the moment.

Consequently we reach the plains and Winnipeg near to six hours late.  Well I am on holiday – does it matter?  Oddly it does because this is where I feel that decent management would have mattered.  We knew we were six hours late before we went to bed and instead of arriving at around 8am we were likely to arrive at 2pm.  A number of people were allocated to the third sitting for lunch for 2pm.  As there is a crew change at Winnipeg it is a lengthy stop and allows travellers a chance of fresh air and legs to be stretched.

There are some photos of the refurbished station at Winnipeg can be found here.

Shortly before arrival our cabin staff member advises we should not get off at Winnipeg as third sitting would be called on time.  Then he pops back to say that we could get off on arrival (actually 13:15) but must return to the train when called at 14:30 to enable immediate service (clearly the new crew had to board but it would be reasonable to assume that much of the food had been cooked and was being kept warm for final sitting).

Not a problem, chance to wander down, see the restored station area and use the wifi. At the bottom of the slope there is a check in desk and a notice confirming the times. Good I thought someone does know how long it takes to load and go – the stop here is normally around three hours and is I suspect often used for running recovery.

After some fitful wifi use (I am not sure Colin ever did get that email) I return to the barrier to reboard the train at 14:30, along with everyone else.  No announcements, although some were told it would be another 15 minutes.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Come 15:15 I had had enough.  Locking us out of the train was not explained.  So I ask.  We don’t know answer say the “Customer” staff.  Sadly in this day and age that does not wash.  We were 45 minutes beyond the time when we should have been on the train and 35 minutes beyond the stated departure time.  Clearly no management was managing.  I asked for a manager this caused a concern and walky-talkies were deployed, in my view the manager should be on the front line managing.  I decided that this was a time for action and walked through the unlocked door and back up the ramp. It was subsequently alleged that I had left the three girls in tears.  I was neither rude nor did I physically touch them.  Good people providing service know the answers.  Nothing I did would cause tears to be shed – a shaking of heads perhaps; but not tears.

If the oft quoted health and safety was the reason for keeping us off the platform I could have pointed out that was a lie.  There was one piece of equipment which could be easily avoided and frankly there had been far more potentially serious bits of kit around when we disembarked – without warnings or guides.  Reasoning that despite the obvious lack of problems the platform had been declared dangerous I re-entered the train itself and returned to my cabin to appraise my wife of events.  I went through the dining car and the serving staff were sat not working, dining places were laid and I could not comprehend why steps were not being taken by management to get at least the diners back on the train and the final sitting served.

This could easily have been achieved once the crew swap was complete and the new stores had been put away.  The diners could have been gathered at the bottom of the ramp and one of the girls could then have called down the dining crew; each of the latter could have escorted a table of four to the top of the ramp and onto the train (the internal corridor HAS to be kept clear as there were still passengers on the train).  Once on the train they can walk through and the next table could be escorted.  The seating could and should have started at the published time of 14:30 and explanations could have been made.

Once on board I voiced my wish to see a manager and she eventually appeared towards the end of the meal.  She lacked any iota of customer care or concern and apology was only extracted almost under duress.  I expressed the view that it was not right and she agreed.  I proposed that those eating, who were the ones who had suffered principally should be offered a free drink.  She made it clear that she would offer us a free drink but could not extend the offer.  In the event no free drink was provided so even that offer was not kept.

The lack of communication throughout the period, given that this had all been foreseeable many hours in advance, merely re-inforces this passengers view derived from the problem over driver hours that there are a set of rules and no-one is empowered to think or behave outside the rules.  The lack of follow through on the proposal of a free drink (and the failure on the promise to talk to the others who were in a similar situation) is plain rude and this is a pity as all of our earlier encounters show no evidence that Canadians generally have any knowledge of how to be rude.

The problem we were advised which delayed the return to the train was the failure of some toilets.  These had been out of service from Toronto (and presumably earlier).  Attempting to fix them may mean people and kit on the platform – but there are ways of managing these things and providing ongoing explanations should be an element of that.  Whilst VIA Rail cannot fix the track or the pathing the matters on which they have failed are capable of being fixed.

[Amendment] Whilst in Whingipeg mode another couple of comments about VIA Rail.  A nice little Toronto – Vancouver route guide has been printed and provided; no doubt at some expense but did anyone copy approve it?  Inside it purports to give mileages between stops (none of this metric nonsense I am pleased to note).  Until you get to Gogama which is mile 86, whilst the previous stop was Capreol at mile 276.  Even more annoying Winnipeg (yet again) is Mile:0, yes zero, even though the prior distance was 1the Manitoba border at mile 159.  Complete nonsense as someone has just taken the miles from the VIA guide and not applied any thought.  Similarly in terms of attention to detail was the provision of some customers with timetables so they might have some idea of where they are (and consistently were not) and not to others.

No doubt the defence from VIA is simple – you are one time travellers and will never come back for repeat business so it does not matter how we behave.  And no doubt few people will read this blog.  My wife has published her thoughts on Trip Advisor and I can only hope that will get some response from VIA because writing letters (according to TripAdvisor) does not work.

Until such time as there is evidence that they understand caring and cossetting of passengers (not mere customers) I cannot recommend this trip through beautiful countryside and providing a wonderful vista of Canada; sorry.

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