Saturday, 21 June 2008

Seattle, Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies

All my blogs seem to start with the word "Well...", so I thought this time it wouldn't (because as you can see I've started with "all" instead). Quite an opener for what promises to be a riveting blog I'm sure you'll agree.

So if you've stayed with me past the babble above, the lowdown is that I'm now in Whistler, which if you haven't heard of it, is one of the most famous ski resorts in the world and is about 75 miles north of Vancouver. Obviously it's not winter and so skiing is out of the question and anyway, seasonal excuses aside, I've never actually touched a pair of skis. 

Whistler in the summer however is almost as busy as it is in the winter. They're big on being active here you see. On the bus on the way to my hostel I must have passed about a million people on mountain bikes and even around the village itself, everyone seems to have the telltale 'panda-like tan' that proves they've been out and about being energetic with goggles.

Anyway, I only arrived this morning on the 8am Greyhound from Vancouver, and will be leaving on an 8am bus tomorrow as well and so haven't really seen everything (or even anything really) that I wanted to but I've still got quite a good vibe from the place. My hostel is lovely, and though smells half of wet paint and half like a guinea-pig hutch in places, is in a fantastic location, right on the lake, looking up to the mountains. It's a bit out of the way though and is most of the reason why I haven't been able to see much. There's a bus that goes to the hostel but it's only 4 times a day, and whilst their is a walking trail to the village, I'm too scared of getting eaten by a bear to do it on my own (the downside to travelling on my own that I didn't foresee - bear danger).

Though it may sound funny, 'bear-awareness' is a big deal here. Throughout BC and Alberta (and probably the rest of Canada, though I haven't been there), they have 'bear-proof' bins that stop them raiding them, and there are signs everywhere telling you not to leave your food lying around. As for what to do when confronted with a bear I've received mixed advice. Apparently you're supposed to curl up into a ball and let them sniff you and decide if you're a threat or food (not sure if there's any middle ground there for not being eaten). Or you should try to scare them with an aggressive front, something not really on my list of options given all 5ft2 of me. So you see, I would actually have little chance of survival if confronted with one of these grizzly specimens and they were in a bad mood. So the walking trail was out.

I caught the second bus of the day to my hostel, got there around half 11, found out that check in wasn't until 4pm, and then had to wait another couple of hours for the next bus into town, only to spend a few hours there exploring, before catching the last bus back to the hostel. Thus not much wiggle room there for proper exploration. Though I quite liked Whistler Village itself. It's obviously a complete resort town that preys on the fact that it can charge what it wants for things given you're half-way up a mountain and your options are slim, however it does have a charm about it. Not to mention the buzz that's going on in these parts as Whistler and Vancouver are about to jointly host the Winter Olympics in 2010 - it really does feel like quite a nice place to hang around. However, what with time restraints and my desire to see other parts of Canada before I leave, I just can't afford the time. A shame, but not a big deal really.

So going back a week or so, after getting on a plane in San Francisco, I spent a few lovely days in Seattle before heading up to Canada. It's safe to say that I was feeling a bit bummed about travelling alone after 2 weeks with Barney but luckily I have various family/family friends in Seattle who kept me entertained.

On landing, my Aunt's best friend and partner picked me up from the airport and took me back to her incredibly beautiful waterfront condo where I was to spend the night. Having been none to keen to return to staying in dorms in a hurry, having my own room and bathroom was pure luxury. The next day Karen and her parents took me to  see the Salmon ladders (things that help salmon breed in the rivers) and Snoqualmie Falls, which is about 20 miles outside of Seattle, and we had a lovely meal there. All in all, I had a really nice day and was even lucky enough to be dropped at my hostel.

I needn't have feared the return to communal living - my hostel in Seattle was nothing short of fantastic. Huge bunk beds with individual power sockets, reading lights, fans, and curtains around each bed. Not to mention the free wireless, free meals and generally great atmosphere. So basically the next few days I mostly spent chilling out around Seattle's various coffee houses (being the home of Starbucks, there is actually one on EVERY corner) and doing minimal sightseeing, for which I felt not the least bit guilty. I finally had time to sort out my camera (the memory card was full), back things up on my laptop, and generally get together the last few weeks of my time away. There are obviously things I still want to do in Seattle, and since I fly out of there on Thursday next week, I'll still have the opportunity to go up the Space Needle (maybe... bit bored of high-up, city-view buildings) and do the Experience Music Project. Whilst I was in the city I also met my father's cousin for the first time which was nice to put a face to the name and in general, to be able to see a bit of the city suburbs.

From Seattle, I got the Amtrak train up to Vancouver, which is actually only a short journey, and takes about 4 hours. The journey up there was brilliant - incredibly spacious seats (better than any plane I've been on) and the ability to move around occasionally (something you can't do on a coach). However, on arrival in Canada, I hadn't counted on being interrogated like a common criminal.

I've been quite lucky with customs/security through all the countries I've been through so far. Maybe too lucky and so my luck ran out. Either way, on getting to the station in Vancouver, I was greeted by a stuck-up, power-tripping, thought-he-was-all-that customs officer, who seemed to be of the belief that I was either intent on staying in Canada for an indefinite period of time in order to sponge off their state (despite my showing him my ongoing tickets), or that I was actually there to smuggle drugs - "you mean you've NEVER experimented with drugs?!" he says to me condescendingly as he searched through my bag. No Mr Wanker I haven't! Canada was the last place I expected to go through a tough time getting through. I mean, it is my Queen on the back of their ridiculously-shaped coins. Anyway, he did eventually let me go albeit with the feeling that I'd done something wrong - not a great start to a new country to the say the least.

This bad start was followed up by another couple of incidents, the first being Vancouver's way of charging you commission on getting some money out from the station (it's a big station yet none of the ATMs accepted VISA), and then once I got money and had walked 2 minutes to the SkyTrain (monorail) station, a tramp tried to give me an old ticket, and on my polite decline of this less than generous offer, he then proceeded to try to swipe my change from the ticket machine as I bought a proper one. Words can't describe how pissed off I was feeling at this point, and as he stood there with my money held tightly in his hand I yelled at him as loudly as possible in front of everyone at the station, until he looked so embarassed he allowed me to snatch the money back off of him. Canada and I really didn't get off on the right foot...!
It then took me ages to get to my hostel as I'd misjudged the distance with my heavy bags, and when I finally arrived at my hostel in the West End (the nicer suburban part of the city), I'd definitely strained something in my back/neck for sure. The hostel was nice, but by this point, having had an early start to catch my 7:40am train, and all the crap afterwards, I was far from enamoured with Vancouver. So, I decided pretty much straight away to book myself on to a tour to get the hell out of there ASAP. That's where my 'adventure' on the Moose Network (hop on, hop off backpacking bus) tour began...

To say it was a complete disaster would be an exaggeration. However, I can confidently say that almost everything that could go wrong, did. On the first day we got lost and ended up at the hostel hours too late to see anything. The next day the bus broke down on the side of the motorway and we were stranded for 6 hours before arriving at our destination at half 1 in the morning! The next day I had a different driver (mine seemed to carry all the bad luck with her poor thing) and so I made the short journey to Lake Louise from Banff hitch-free! However on getting back on my original driver's bus a couple of days later, she managed to lock the keys in the car with the lights still on. Thus by the time we broke back into the car (largely thanks to a Kiwi couple who were incredibly handy with a wire coat-hanger) the battery was flat. Thus we then had to find a car with jump leads to get the car started again. All in all, not a good start to the day! Then a few days later my poor driver (it should be mentioned here that it was her first tour), managed to clip the bumper of a car in the supermarket car park whilst reversing. Gutted. Anyways, the last day back to Vancouver was hassle-free (ish) and we managed to get back to town on time, giving me and some of the girls from my bus time to investigate Granville Island (not actually an island) market which was pretty cool.

Along the way I did actually get to see a few places properly as well. Shuswap Lake and Banff pretty much involved just sleeping there and leaving the next day quite early (Banff I think I even spent a record of just 5 hours in the hostel). Lake Louise was my first proper 'jump-off' stop though. The lakes around the Rockies are full of glacier water (excuse the shocking scientific explanation here) and so in the sunlight they look the most beautiful turquoise!
I've just discovered the ability of my blog to put photos in so I've shoved one in above so you can see how fantastic the colour is. Anyway, I had a lovely time relaxing in a lovely, alpine lodge style hostel and walking to/around the lake.

On the way back to Vancouver, we stopped in Revelstoke and Kelowna, and here I didn't really get to see much of them either unfortunately, due to the time we arrived. However what with a few pretty cool stop offs (a wolf centre where we learnt how to howl and a wine tasting - mmm), the trip wasn't a total loss, and a far preferable way of travelling to the Rockies without the 13 hour Greyhound journey.

On returning from the tour I spent a full day giving Vancouver another chance as we really did get off on the wrong foot. I explored around the Stanley Park area and along the coast line of the city. There's loads of lovely cafes and shops you can stop in around this part of Vancouver and so it was quite nice just to stroll around. Then the next day I went up to Whistler (see above) and on leaving Whistler this morning, I've now arrived on Vancouver Island and more specifically the Eastern coastal town of Nanaimo. It's quite a sweet place with little to do except wander the beach front and eat ice cream (no complaints here) and my hostel is beautiful (it's like an IKEA showroom!), however I'm pretty glad I'm only staying a night.

Tomorrow I'll get another Greyhound down to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and the main town on Vancouver Island. Having only today heard that the hostel there is less than stunning, I'm now a bit apprehensive about my 48 hours there, however I'm sure I'll find loads to keep me busy. As a city, it is supposed to be lovely.

But there it is. Next update probably coming after my long weekend in Denver/Wyoming with my cousin and family, but before I hit Washington DC and New York (the last stops on my travels). Well that's the plan anyway. This could well be my penultimate blog - sad times. 

More soon!

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