Monday, October 24, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 13. Edmonton

[ Continued from Part 12 - Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure and Skywalk  ]


On the highway from Hinton to Edmonton

It was surreal to think I was walking in the streets of Edmonton, a city just under 3,500 km away from Toronto. I had always wanted to see the West Edmonton Mall, ever since seeing one of my friend's pictures of it on his visit. And here I was, walking in the mall.

An item crossed off the bucket list, as they say.

To be fair, Edmonton isn't exactly a touristy town. You see it on a Western road trip because, well, it's the biggest city out here north of Jasper. From Jasper we drove to this little town called Hinton, where we stayed the night. In the morning, after a good breakfast, we headed for Edmonton. In just under three hours, we reached our hotel in Edmonton. A quick freshening up later, we were ready to tour the city.

Well ... there's really ONE big attraction in Edmonton.

The West Edmonton Mall.

This mall is the largest mall in North America, and up until 2004 it was the largest mall in the world. The mall opened its doors in 1981 and is really the original mega mall, from which other cities building huge malls got their ideas.

Here's a bit of comparison with the world famous Dubai Mall.

Dubai Mall is the world's largest mall by total area. However, if taking gross leasable area into account, the West Edmonton Mall is the tenth largest in the world, while Dubai Mall is the nineteenth largest. While walking around in the mall, I realized that it was much easier to walk across the whole of West Edmonton Mall than Dubai Mall (which is really huge in terms of total area).

The West Edmonton mall has 800 stores, while Dubai Mall has over 1200. West Edmonton mall gets over 32 million visitors annually, while Dubai Mall hits 54 million. 20,000 vehicles can be parked in West Edmonton Mall, while Dubai Mall has parking for 14,000 cars.

I really don't have too many pictures to share of Galaxyland, but this place is the second largest indoor amusement park in the world (behind Ferrari World). There's all sorts of rides here, including Mindbender - the world's largest indoor triple loop roller coaster. Incidentally, the parking lot next to Galaxyland is the best place to park in the mall if you are looking for a centralized location.

We didn't visit the World Waterpark - apparently the world's second largest indoor waterpark, with the world's largest indoor wave pool. There's a hotel (in the mall) right next to the waterpark, and if you are visiting Edmonton with only this mall in mind, this is somewhere you can stay.

There is Sealife Caverns (also known as Sea Lions Rock). This is a place that has an indoor lagoon which contains a salt-water habitat with sea lions, as well as a replica of the Santa María.

The ship is huge (apparently to scale) and you can visit it for $2 / person. This is also the most picturesque location in the mall.

There's also submarines (that you can pay and control - it's lot of fun!) as well as aquatic life that lives underneath the exhibit. Quite cool, if you think about it! Apparently this whole structure was badly damaged during a hail storm in July 2004 (of course long since promptly repaired).

The gently shimmering water is really a pleasant hue of blue (I wonder how they maintain that colour) and makes for nice pictures if you are so inclined. I saw dozens of people with tripods and cameras there.

The lagoon is also used for sealion shows throughout the day.

The shows are free if you want to watch from the balcony in the upper level of the mall, but you have to pay if you want to sit up close in the amphitheater in front of the lagoon.

Honestly, it's not the Sea World or Marineland, so you are better off just watching it for free.

There's the typical small exotic animals (such as a baby alligator or newt or something).

This is followed by the sea lions executing some tricks such as jumping through rings, swimming through hoops, listening to (and dancing with) their trainer and one cool trick - cleaning litter from the pool.

There's also a huge ice rink in the middle of the mall (incidentally this was the "inspiration" behind the ice rink at Dubai Mall).

If you have visited Dubai Mall, should you visit West Edmonton Mall?

Well, if you are in Edmonton, you might as well. It's the only big attraction in town. However, it's attractive in its own way. For one, the Galaxyland and the waterpark is something that's not there in Dubai Mall, and also - this mall is actually busy with real shoppers buying stuff. You know .. it's a mall.

There's also another nice place in Edmonton we visited. It was the next morning, after breakfast, and before we headed back to Calgary. This was the beautiful Edmonton City Hall.

They have a nice fountain setup and a pool right in front of the City Hall, and it was a nice and sunny hot day (almost 30 C!).

There was also some festival going on in front of the City Hall, with performers, street dancers, vendors and the works.

Over all, Edmonton is a nice city that you can completely visit the highlights in two days, and something worth checking out. It's only 3 hours north of Calgary, and as can be seen in the map at the beginning of this post, Calgary-Banff-Jasper-Edmonton-Calgary is a nice circle and a great road trip.


















Friday, October 21, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 12. Columbia Icefield Glacier Adventure and Skywalk

[ Continued from Part 11 - The Crossing Resort  ]

The Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre is roughly just under an hour's drive from the Crossing Resort. We checked out of our hotel early morning and headed for the Centre. This would be the only activity we would do in Jasper National Park, having spent most of our vacation time in Banff National Park.

It should be noted that some say Jasper is even more beautiful than Banff. However the activities in Jasper are mostly outdoorsy like hikes and walks, and require a lot of time. Moreover, unlike Banff, some of the attractions in Jasper are quite a bit off the highway. With kids in strollers in tow, a full exploration of Jasper would have to wait for some future time for us.

The Athabasca Glacier

As we neared the Centre we could see the Athabasca Glacier in the distance. Now I had only studied glaciers way back in high school in Geography, so it was pretty cool to think soon we would be on top of one. A glacier's a (very) slow and continuous moving mass of dense ice, formed where accumulation of snow is usually greater than the rate it melts.

The Athabasca Glacier is the most visited glacier in North America. It actually moves several cm per day, and has receded more than 1.5 km (0.93 mi) and lost over half of its volume in the past 125 years. We actually saw pictures of the glacier from the turn of the century compared to present day in the Centre. For those of you interested in the stats, the glacier is approximately 6 km (3.7 mi) long, covers an area of 6 km2 (2.3 sq mi), and is measured to be between 90–300 metres (300–980 ft) thick.

A view of the glacier from the Centre
You park at the Centre (which is on the other side of the highway as the glacier) and make your way to purchase tickets. We didn't have to purchase tickets as we were using up the final portions of our Ultimate Explorer Combo, which meant we could go to a special (express) line. We had used up the first portion way back when we were exploring the Banff Gondola and Lake Minnewanka Cruise.

One note of caution here: it could be a sunny summer's day at the base of the Centre, and yet it could be freezing up in the glacier. You are going into a giant freezer. We all wore light jackets (which was enough). The Centre was a relatively balmy 20C, but up in the glacier it was 9C. It sounds crazy, but each elevation of the mountain can have its own weather system.

You are boarded (very systematically and efficiently) into a large coach bus and this takes you across the highway and to the base of the glacier. And then you get into a special customized vehicle that is the snow coach.

Our guide driving the snow coach was a young lady who first came here as a tourist during her university years, fell in love with the place and had been here ever since. Her interesting (and funny) facts and trivia about the glacier almost made you forget that suddenly the vehicle you were in was tilted at an insane angle going uphill.
This picture of the snow coach is by Marilyn Peddle
from England - Athabasca Glacier, CC BY 2.0
The gradient is 30%! You could not do that with your average car. The secret was hydraulics, gears and something else she said that I can't now remember. All I know is that it was so cool.

Once you are on the glacier, you are allowed 20-25 minutes to explore at your own pace. They have marked areas within which you must stay, as crevasses and weak ice is always a possibility outside of the marked areas.

You can see one of the huge snow coaches in the distance

It's a desolate landscape that is beautiful in its own way

This is the glacier, or the massive "snow river"

The is a stream of glacier water - the freshest water you can ever taste!

We all took turns drinking this beautiful water from the freshest of sources
After we used the snow coach to return to the place where the bus had dropped us off, another bus took us to the Skywalk. I was surprised to find out that while we were up on the glacier, where it had been very sunny, it was actually pouring cats and dogs down at the Centre! As I said, different weather systems at different elevations.
The Skywalk is a glass floored observation platform built 918 feet (280 m) over spectacular glacier formed valleys and waterfalls.

Unfortunately it started to rain when we were on the Skywalk so while we could enjoy the view, there wasn't much we could do about photographs. That's OK, the main point of a vacation is to enjoy the experience!

The staff was constantly mopping and sweeping the glass floor so it wouldn't get slippery in the rain. Trust me, you don't want to fall here.

The canyon below is quite deep and the glass floor offers really great views of the Athabasca river as it flows from the glacier and into the park.

Every one in our family (even the little ones) were brave enough to walk the entire length on the glass floor, staring deep into the canyon below!

Once you are done (at your own pace) you can catch one of the buses that will take you back to the Centre.
It was a full 4-5 hours we were out, so everyone was hungry. I took a picture of the menu at the café in the Centre that I am including here. While the choices are a lot, remember this is really the middle of nowhere (and no cell phone service!). So no halal and very limited vegetarian / seafood choices. Nevertheless, greasy food usually tastes good!

Over all, this is a must do if you are in Jasper. Yes, it's somewhat gimmicky and touristy, but how often do you get the chance to walk atop a glacier? Most glaciers in the world are inaccessible, so no wonder this is such a popular thing to do in Jasper.

My boys waving good bye to Athabasca Glacier as we headed for Edmonton

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Western Canada Diaries - 11. The Crossing Resort

[ Continued from Part 10 - Lake Peyto and Bow Summit Lookout  ]

Where you wish to stay on your trips through these national parks depend on a lot of factors: budget, travelling group, needs, activities planned etc. For us, we had kids with us so we needed something that was convenient (close to the highway), on the way, and had all the amenities. For the first part of our trip we were based in Calgary and Banff, but as we headed north we needed to look at another place.

A lot of these lodges and "resorts" outside of Banff and Canmore are very barebones, made for hikers or couples or young people who will camp a lot. We chose one resort that had every thing on site - a couple of restaurants, a gas station, a convenience store, telephone and internet and of course, a comfortable place to bed for the night.

Welcome to the Crossing Resort.


This "resort" is a three and half star motel, with rooms in cottages spread throughout a huge area. As a bonus, it was nestled right in between several huge mountains, making for an awesome background. And I mean awesome. For once, the pictures on a hotel's site matched what you actually see.

There was also a BBQ area and a fire pit with a gazebo should you feel the need to take a guitar out and strum a few songs. Just watch out for the wildlife at night, though.

There were a couple of restaurants on site. Now you have to be prepared to pay a premium for everything, since this is right in the middle of wilderness, but it's pretty cool to wake up and be able to eat a full breakfast (albeit at a much higher price) right in the centre of what is essentially a Canadian jungle.

Now why am I posting what is literally an unpaid ad for this place on my blog?

First of all, this was a great place to stay as it was right in the middle of Banff and Jasper. A little north of this place was where Jasper National Park started. It was not too far from the Columbia Icefields that was our next destination.

Second, to wake up early in the morning after Fajr prayer and take a walk amidst some glorious mountain scenery was amazing in itself. Now I have used this word - amazing - a lot, but it's something you will find yourself saying again and again while in these parks.

The scenery? Amazing!
The mountains? AMAZING!
The lakes? Amazing!

And third, the convenience. There is a full service centre here for all your car needs. There is a convenience centre should you need something. The restaurant also takes orders for packed lunches on the go if you are going hiking during the day.


So, if you are looking for a place to stay near the Columbia Icefields, do check out the Crossing Resort.