Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 20. Victoria

[ Continued from Part 19 - Vancouver's Highlights  ]

This post will be the last in the Western Canada series, as Victoria was the last city we visited before heading back to Calgary, and then flying home to Toronto.

To drive from Vancouver to Victoria, you have to take the ferry. That means driving from Vancouver down to Tsawwassen, which is where the ferry terminal is.

The cost is both based on the type of vehicle, as well as the number of people on board the vehicle (hint: it's not cheap!). If you are lucky when you arrive, you can board the next ferry if there's room, otherwise you will have to park your car in a queue, shut it off and spend some time in the ferry terminal. We were lucky on the way to Victoria, but on the way back we had to wait an hour.

There's hundreds of cars inside the huge behemoth ferry, and once inside you get set for a roughly 90 minute ride.

The ferries are really huge, multi storied, and have excellent washrooms, restaurants, and seating arrangements on board. If the weather permits, you can even go outside and take in the lovely scenery as the ferry traverses past numerous islands.

Some of the richest people in the country own homes in these islands. The weather is moderately warm throughout the air, and most of these parts may not even get snow in the winter. It's really a different type of Canada.

A gong and an announcement lets you know when you should be returning to your car, since once the ferry docks, every one has to exit in queue, and you don't want to be holding everyone up!

We had started out quite early, so by noon, we had crossed the strait and the ferry had now docked at Swartz Bay. Our next destination was Victoria, but on the way we would visit the world famous Butchart Gardens.

The Butchart Gardens is actually a group of several floral display gardens. It's located in Brentwood Bay, which is a short drive north from Victoria.

The gardens receive close to a million visitors each year. They have been designated a National Historic Site of Canada. We met people who told us they visit the gardens every year - as there is always something new.

In 1964, the ever-changing Ross Fountain was installed in the lower reservoir to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the gardens.

The whole place was huge, and had numerous ponds and reflecting pools to relax and take a break.

It was a hot sunny day, but the garden provided respite from the heat. We were also quite unprepared for exactly how big the whole area was!

The layout was easy and straightforward, and wherever there were stairs, there was also an alternate accessible route, which was great for those with strollers, like us.

They even had a children's carousal (which surprisingly is the only carousal on Vancouver Island).

Even though tickets were slightly on the expensive side (something $30 odd), it's well worth it.

By the time we had finished sightseeing the Butchart Gardens, it was late afternoon (5 pm) and we hadn't eaten lunch yet. So we drove to our hotel in Victoria, had some lunch and rest, and then ventured out in the evening for the inner harbour.

Victoria is the capital of the province of British Columbia. It's also, as we soon realized, one of the most picturesque and British of Canadian cities. Named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1843.

Lots of people were out, taking in the glorious sunset and admiring the buildings lit up in bright colours.

The famous Empress hotel (which is where the royals usually stay) is a good place to go for British High Tea if you are inclined. The cost is about $60 per person.

The city has retained a large number of its historic buildings, in particular its two most famous landmarks, the Legislative buildings (finished in 1897) and the Empress hotel (opened in 1908). The city's Chinatown is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco's.

This reminded me of Kolkata's Victoria Memorial.

The Royal British Columbia museum is nearby, and is something many tourists visit when they are in Victoria.

It wasn't chilly at all. Slightly breezy, given that we were in the harbour, but fantastic weather overall.

Victoria is very popular with boaters with its beautiful and rugged shorelines and beaches. Victoria is also popular with retirees, who come to enjoy the temperate and usually snow-free climate of the area as well as the usually relaxed pace of the city.

The next day we visited Mile 0 in Beacon Hill Park.

Beacon Hill Park is also famous for its statue of Terry Fox. It's a myth that this is where he started running from (due to Mile 0, which is actually for the Trans-Canada highway).

Then it was time to head back to Calgary. This time we would choose a SANE route (unlike the crazy highway 99), and return to Calgary via Kelowna.

It was actually a long first day. We drove from Victoria to Swartz Bay, took the ferry to Tsawwassen, and then drove by Vancouver all the way to Kelowna, where we stayed for the night.

The next day we drove from Kelowna to Calgary. We started from Kelowna in the morning, drove to Revelstoke, where we rejoined the Trans-Canada Highway 1. Then it was simply going back the way we had come. Around two hours away from Calgary, we crossed the border from British Columbia back into Alberta.

We made a quick stop at Lake Louise (after all, how could we not) and then in Banff, before heading back, late at night, into Calgary. The only thing open that late was a halal pizza store, which was fine by us!

And that was the end of our great Western Canada road trip. We would fly back in two days to Toronto.

Over all, we spent slightly over three weeks, had lots of fun and adventures, and made highly cherished memories. I fell in love with the great Canadian Rockies. I would gladly redo this journey again.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 19. Vancouver's Highlights

[ Continued from Part 18 - Vancouver's Stanley Park  ]

Vancouver is a city where many people spend as much as a week to truly discover the city. We had three nights, and the city can be quite expensive. In fact, Vancouver had one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. It's also quite popular with Chinese visitors from across the Pacific ocean, and is often called Canada's gateway to Asia.

We had already visited Capilano Suspension Bridge and Stanley Park. Here's a few other highlights from the city. Vancouver was home to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and who can forget this cauldron.

We took a lot of pictures here, and the weather was quite sunny. So as soon as I decided I need some pictures without any one in it FOR THE BLOG, it became quite gloomy! Then, as soon as we walked away, it became sunny again!

They also have this structure nearby which I presume had something to do with the Olympics as well.

Nearby to the Olympic Cauldron is Canada Place. You will see the pictures of Canada Place in any background shot of Vancouver.

There's tons of restaurants here (even a couple of halal ones). The views across the harbor are also mindblowing. You see the full range of Vancouver's natural beauty - mountains, the ocean, and greenery.

This is also the location for Harbor Air, the airlines that you can take if you want to fly to Victoria. This is the very same flights used during the 2016 Royal Visit.

Following our visit to Canada Place, we made a quick jaunt to Gastown. This area of Vancouver is also known as Terminal City, since this was the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The most famous landmark of Gastown, other than the shops, streets, boutiques, restaurants is the Vancouver Steam Clock.

The Gastown steam clock is a rare breed of steam clocks around the world that is powered by steam and has whistles. It also has a colourful history.

On our last day here, we visited Granville Island Public Market.

Now this is diametrically opposite on the map compared to Canada Place, but the main island of Vancouver isn't that big and it only took us 10 minutes to drive.

There are many ways to get to the market and one of the touristy things to do is to take a water taxi from across the harbor. However, with a big family and kids, it was just easier to drive to the place. We also got lucky that we found parking in a free parking lot.

It's a public market like many others across North America (such as Toronto's St. Lawrence market), but what sets Vancouver's apart is its focus on artists. Despite the usual market stuff such as fresh fruits, groceries, restaurants, eateries, etc. this market also houses a vibrant artist community.

There were so many stores selling art sculptures, paintings, handiwork, crafts, music and so on. I just sat down and listened to these girls sing delightfully in the public square. There seemed to be a vibe here that was unlike other public markets. It's a great way to spend an afternoon here, and don't forget to taste the food! The bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese is a must try here.

This was to be our last night in Vancouver. The next morning, we would set sail for Victoria. I really miss Vancouver - it's a fantastic city with beautiful people, scenery and a slower paced lifestyle. Not to forget a much warmer winter than the rest of Canada!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 18. Vancouver's Stanley Park

[ Continued from Part 17 - Vancouver's Capilano Suspension Bridge  ]

Vancouver is an amazing place. Our hotel was in North Vancouver, quite close to Yummy Donair Kabab (excellent sandwiches, by the way).

You cannot come to visit Vancouver and not visit Stanley Park, which is one of the highlights of the city. For us, it was literally a drive across the Lion's Gate Bridge, and we decided to visit the park one sunny afternoon.

The Lion's Gate Bridge can be a little uneasy to drive through, if you aren't used to such bridges. Route 99 actually continues from North Vancouver into Vancouver via this bridge (so the bridge is part of Route 99). We used to joke that how Route 99 never really left us alone. The bridge rises steeply (although you don't feel it), and it's one lane, AND traffic moves really fast when there's no congestion. And not to mention it is quite high, so don't look down.

The very first exit is Stanley Park, and it's not clearly marked, so if you are driving on you will miss it and then have to go quite the distance into downtown Vancouver, turn around and come back.

The first place any one visits in the park is the Prospect Point lookout, which offers fantastic viewpoint of the city of North Vancouver, and of course the Lion's Gate Bridge. This is a really scenic viewpoint and also has an excellent gift shop.

After that, its your choice on what to do. Some people rent bicycles and cycle the 8km Seawall, while others roam around or find picnic spots. We decided to drive all over the island and take in all the views.

One of the landmarks in the park is the Hollow Tree. It's a Western red ceder tree stump. It's quite huge, and an elephant can easily fit inside the base.

You can drive along Stanley Park Drive in the park to go all around the park. Another landmark is the series of totem poles north of Hallelujah Point.

Totem poles are quite popular in British Columbia and you can see them everywhere. It's part of the First Nations heritage of the province.

The Vancouver Aquarium is also on the island and that's almost 2-3 hours by itself. You can also visit the marina, the site of many a rich man's toys, and see across the bay the city of Vancouver.

Vancouver's marina hotels (such as the Westin) are quite high priced hotels, with rooms in the summer sometimes going from as low as $700 a night.

Overall, Stanley Park is a delightful afternoon's worth of a trip, and you can easily spend 2-3 hours here, if not more. Just like every time when I visit Dubai I make a trip to Dubai Mall and the Dubai Fountains, for Vancouver it would be Stanley Park. It's right there by downtown, yet so far from the hustle and bustle of the city. So many things to see and do, or not simply do anything at all but just enjoy the nature.