Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Canada”

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day 7-8 – Kamloops -> Vancouver

Continental Divide

Another early day, another gourmet breakfast aboard our luxury train, the Rocky Mountaineer.  We head into our final day of mountain scenery – the northern Cascade range.  As our black-and-gold bubble threads its way in and out of tunnels and alongside the westward-bound Fraser River, we catch one postcard view after another: glimpses of bald eagles perched on power poles, rafters shooting through rapids, and funicular cars trundling on cables overhead.  We pass the Continental Divide (actually a tri-vide, as from this point rivers flow into the Arctic as well as into the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico). We follow the Fraser River down the slope, and too soon we are rumbling along next to  tankers and flatcars as we enter the railyard under the bridges of Vancouver – end of the line.  Rafters on the Fraser River

The  Hotel  Vancouver is the last of the chain of hotels built by the railroads to encourage travelers to tour westward. (They ran out of track at the ocean)  It is a stately building, with the hallmark high ceilings and decorative interior pillars that mark the Gilded Age of its birth.  It has been  renovated a few too many time, though – it doesn’t have the rich patina of age that coats its sister hotels in  Banff Springs and Edmonton.  I spied no exuberant self-congratulatory murals showing the founders, nor was there any truly campy pseudo-oriental or pseudo-Spanish décor left to amaze and delight.  Just large rooms, tasteful colors, and a lot of gilt paint to evoke the luxury intended by the builders. [p1050068web – (Kamloops-Vancouver folder)] Maybe it was the cafeteria-style breakfast option which broke the illusion of bygone grandiosity – can you image Jane and Leland Stanford pushing their trays along at a cafeteria?Hotel Vancouver Lobby

The  Hotel Vancouver is located in a bustling area near the University of Vancouver and the Art Museum.  I took advantage of a bright morning to enjoy a walk around the neighborhoodand includes architecture ranging from the ultra-classic columns of the  Art Museum to the playful ramps of the University Library.  This section of Vancouver has a sprightly, humourous vibe –the public art display called “soft rocks” which conists of giant beanbags ideal for sprawling in the sun, the pretty young fashionistas striding to work in their ridiculously impractical platform shoes, the bright banners on the buildings.  I would like to explore more but… Soft Rocks - Vancouver

We had planned an extra day or two in Vancouver, but family issues called us home a bit sooner.  I saw and heard so much that was new to me on this visit to the north  – places, politics and people surprised me at every turn.  I  only took baby steps in exploring this alien land.  Knowing that it IS alien, not just a colder clone of the US, still feels like a breakthrough. In this lifetime I hope to learn more. Vancouver Central (Hotel, Concert Hall, Art Museum)

Canada: The Alien Next Door – Day 6 (continued) – Kamloops

Lights of KamloopsIf you are traveling from Edmonton to Vancouver, you go through mountains.  If you are on the Rocky Mountaineer, the luxury tourist train, you are promised that you will the mountains in daylight.  The first day you see the Canadian Rockies.  The second day you see the northern Cascades.  And in between  you have to stop somewhere.  That would be  Kamloops.Kamloops Casino

After the historical majesty of Banff Springs, Kamloops is barebones, down-to-earth, and offers everything you need for a one-night stay.  There are at least two hotels with serviceable accommodations (we stayed at the Thompson).  There is a downtown, which features a brightly lit library and an even more brightly lit casino run by the Indian tribe whose reservation is across the river.  It is summer, and there is a college in Kamloops, so there is a lot of life on the streets even though it is mid-week.

Flood MarkerRiverside Park just over the railroad bridge sits at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Thompson River. Historically and pre-historically, the river has been even larger:  a marker at the edge shows the height of the river during several 20th century floods (Ankle, knee, and waist- high lines), during prehistoric times (head-high) and during the epochal flooding of 1894 (about twenty feet up there).

The park features lots of rolling lawn, graceful trees, a sandy beach, and a bandshell where free music concerts are given every night of the summer season (Heavy on the country-western genre.) Thanks to the balmy temperatures and the slow-moving river, it also features economy size mosquitoes, which limited our attention span for the concert.

RiversideBandshellWe strolled back from the park past a pizza parlor overflowing with families, an ice cream shop overflowing with children (including one practicing with a hula hoop). From the turn of the century opulence of the Banff Springs Hotel we had time traveled all the way to the 1950’s., We settled for dinner at The Noble Pig brewhouse, where the modest cuisine was considerably enhanced by the friendly service and outdoor dining.   I expected to see Ozzie and Harriet at the next table, with young David and Ricky fighting over the last piece of pizza.

Canada – the Alien Next Door – Day 6 – the Rockies by Rail – All aboard!

The view from the Rocky MountaineerBy 7 AM we are breakfasted. By 8Am shivering on the platform, waiting for our luxury train to arrive. A far-off whistle blows! We see an oncoming light! Everyone pulls out cameras, starts snapping photos. It’s coming closer! It’s getting louder! It’s not stopping! It’s a freight!Here it comes!
It’s a loooooooooooooong freight. Everyone puts their cameras away, goes back to shivering.
Another distant whistle. Another headlight. This time it’s the real thing – the Rocky Mountaineer, striped elegantly in black and gold.Dome car on the Rocky Mountaineer - outside

Uniformed attendants jump from the doors and spread  a red carpet on the platform to mark where you are to mount the train. We have been issued special red-enameled maple leaves which entitle us to seats in the bubble dome car and hot meals served in the downstairs dining space. (Lowly gold-enameled leaf-ers have to make do with box lunches served at their seat.)
Dome car, Rocky Mountaineer

On the train!Comfy reclinable seats!  Snack tables!  Scenery! Clean windows! Open bar! Food, snacks, local cuisine – hopeless! I haven’t seen a scale since we left, but I’m beginning to dread when I do.

Tonight : Dinner and overnight in cosmopolitan Kamloops

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day 5 – Banff Springs

View of Banff from the Cascade GardensThe day begins in a ballroom/classroom in the stately Banff Springs Hotel – we learn that it was originally built by the railroad to lure tourists to western Canada (just as the El Tovar Lodge and Ahwahnee Hotel were built in the US to bring tourists to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite).  How ignominious to know that this World Historic Site is now owned by a consortium fronted by the Fairmont Hotel chain and largely funded by Arabian oil moguls.    You can still see the Beaver logo of the Northern Canadian Railroad engraved  in the archway over the fomer main entrance to the Banff Springs Lodge.

P1040963After the lecture by our Canadian tour leader, we tour the hotel – the Ballroom, the Conservatory, the Cigar Lounge, the Alhambra Room – if a movie is made based on the game of CLUE, here is the natural setting.

Whyte Museum- BanffThen  a bus to downtown Banff and a tour of the Whyte Museum of the Rockies, with a lively introduction to the exhibits by a senior curator.  (I want to live in the Whyte cabin: all natural wood, built-in furniture, and thousands of books.)

After a rain – sprinkled promenade in the town of Banff (think Carmel with an influence of snow) and a lunch at the  Chinook Restaurant (Denny’s with a smile and a view), I walked in the Cascade Gardens overlooking the Bow River.  Sad to say, the historic cascades have dried up along with the maintenance funding, but the flowers are still brilliant, maintained by a dedicated group of volunteers).  The view from these gardens down the main street of Banff to the mountains opposite is post-card pretty (see above.

Steps down to the Bow RiverNext we wander along a shady  trail bordering the Bow river with  lots of wildflowers, a couple of close encounters with grazing elk, and a view of  the Bow Falls.  (Tip: If walking this trail going downriver, turn back at the bottom of the the 200-step stair to get the full effect.)

 There was another 200-step stair which brought up back to the Banff Springs hotel on its bluff overlooking the river.  Now that we had been to the falls, we could hear it rumbling in the background at all times – being a child of civilization, I had assumed the soothing low vibration was  traffic noise or air conditioning – a roaring waterfall is much more exciting!

Tomorrow: Bags are due out at 6AM as we prepare to board the Train.

Canada – the Alien Next Door: Day 4 – Via the Icefields Parkway to Banff

Lake Louise with Lodge and RowersThe geologic past and my personal past meet on the bus at the  Continental divide.  (How’s that for an opening summary?)

We leave Jasper early via our luxury bubble-bus.

30 minutes out of Jasper, a cluster of parked cars signals another wildlife sighting – a young grizzly bear with a broken or sprained left rear leg is limping as rapidly as it can along the side of the road behind a small scree of shrubs – best case, it was just nicked by a car and is hobbling in panic, may recover shortly;  worst case it is an older injury and this bear will be at a serious survival disadvantage through the winter.Bashful Bear

The Continental Divide – a marker by the road (see the streams reverse direction!)  I imagine being an early explorer – did they register, in this vertical landscape, that they had begun to trend downhill?

Athabasca FallsGlaciers –  Athabaska Falls – a swirling torrent carving narrow channels and deep bowls through layers of sandstone; the Athabaska glacier creeping out from the Columbia Ice Field, which coats the top like a smoothed coat of white sugar frosting.  Mt. Athabaska with its own glaciers,  glacial silt and gravel coloring the streams flowing into Hudson Bay, the Arctic, or the Pacific. (the Triple Divide).

We picnic by the Athabaska River with box lunches, surrounded by lofty peaks, fireweed, buffalo berry bushes,  friendly ground squirrels. Our companions, the nature guide and the professorial geologist, are  cascading fountains of natural and geologic interpretation.

The cheerful ride-along spouse of the tour organizer strikes up a conversation.  Turns out he student-taught at the same high school where my mother was Vice Principal, and remembers a number of the faculty members who were family friends and authority figures from my teen years.    Déjà vu all over again.

We make a stop at Lake Louise.  I flashback to an early trip when my husband and I were camping across Canada and a lot more energetic.  I can clearly remember the lovely summer day we spent walking around and rowing on this green lake cradled in the glaciers.  The lake has not changed;  younger people are still rowing on it;  the sky is still blue beyond the stately Lake Louise Lodge.

Banff Springs Hotel - original entranceWe ended the day at Banff Springs Lodge.  On that same trip many  years ago we set up our tent in the national park campground nearby.  Feeling grubby and un-washed after a hike, we managed to sneak into the Banff Springs Lodge swimming pool area and take a  memorable illicit dip;  I tried to reconstruct the memory as we re-entered as paying guests, but it was not easy.  In the intervening years the entrance has been re-positioned to accomodate large tour buses, and  the spacious outdoor pool with its grassy surround has been caged and over-chloriniated inside a glass dome.   The new outdoor pool is half the former size and surrounded by concrete.  Also,   the fencing and overall security have been improved to prevent riff-raff such as we were from sneaking in as we did.

We learned that in the time since our last visit the hotel has converted from a summer-only tourist hotel to a year-round tourist/ bus tour/spa/ski/corporate- incentive- trip resort;  hence closing in the outdoor pool (too expensive to heat year – round) and other changes.  Not changed:  the many nooks and crannies of the hotel – more small and large lounges, bars, restaurants, and meeting rooms than one could exhaust,  plus a second large extension convention center and staff rooms in an adjacent building.

In honor of our previous visit, we went swimming.

Canada – the Alien Next Door – Day 3 – The Jasper tourist loop

Mystery Island, Maligne Lake

Day 3 is fully scheduled.  We are given an itinerary review at our

8AM breakfast and STRONGLY CAUTIONED not to be the last on the bus.  We managed despite accidentally locking ourselves out of the room safe with all our desirables inside – security has its price. After breakfast, a

9AM  lecture by our Canadian co-leaderBarry on Canadian people and politics build on the theme of successive immigration.  I had somehow never thought about what was going on in Canada next door while the US was experiencing its two hundred years of history.   I hope I will never take Canada as lightly again. At

10AM, the group clears its collective head from all that back-room political talk with a ranger-led nature walk around the periphery of the lake.  I would have liked to go the whole route, but we were due back at the lodge by

11AM  to  purchase “lunch on our own.”  That’s codespeak for “we’d have no hope of getting you all out on time if we tried to organize lunch for you.” We munched and crunched sandwiches from the downstairs deli so that by

12 noon we were all on the bus to Maligne Lake.

12:30  – more sheep at a road turnout.  More photos.Tourist-savvy sheep

1:30 – on a boat tour of Maligne Lake.  This interglacial gem was put onthe Canadian maps by a woman  who had lost her 20-years – older husband and  both parents, within a short space, wanted to get away from her life, came to Jasper and married her 20-years-younger tour guide, a “Meti” (half Indian, half Anglo) who led her to Maligne Lake.  (“She was a cougar!” says tour guide Mark).  We take a boat tour out to the Photo Opportunity which makes all the post cards – a little island with a small grove of pine trees just off the shore.  (See the  Opportunity above).

3:30: Bus back to Jasper lodge.

4:45: we blow off a lecture on Rocky Mountain wildlife adaptation strategies and go swimming.  The Lodge includes a lovely 88 degree pool with  lots of sun, not too many children… very QUIET – no one lecturing or asking questions, blessed peace.

Beats a lecture!5:45:  We leave the swimming pool,return to our little cabin/haven to  dress leisurely for dinner.   Dinner is  outside on the deck with a 180-degree lake and mountan view,  fresh air and all the outdoors to dissipate the chatter of conversation.

9PM: The deck is the place to be, with the lake still glimmering, the late summer sun still loaning a glow to the sky,  and a storm visibly gathering, with clouds billowing grandly as if to belittle the mountains’ puny pretensions.  The wind picks up; the mosquitoes are gone, the stars are playing hide and seek beyond the clouds.

I have to keep reminding myself:  It’s probably not this perfect in February.  But for now – Wow!

Canada: The Alien Next Door – Day Two – Edmonton ->Jasper

 Baggage out by 7:30 AM – What kind of vacation is this?  We board the bus after a breakfast of respectable scrambled eggs and hotel fruit and mini croissants with authentic Canadian  bitter marmalade, washed down by a flood of commentary from the indefagitable conversationalists at our shared table.  No shrinking violets in this group!

A bus, no matter how well equipped and well-upholstered, is still a bus, and a bathroom break is still required.  Not even a Stanford brochure could make the loo at Entwhistl’s lone Esso station a four-star experience.  Well, maybe the INSIDE one, but the line was long, so we were directed to the outside auxiliary.

Problem: no window and no lightbulb. Not even the guys could see where to aim.  Happily,  in my day pack was a souvenir key ring from a months- earlier trade show with a miniature flashlight.  We passed this gem around – my former employer EMC got value for its money with this marketing tool!

51st street, Edson

51st street, Edson

Lunch at Epson – at the intersection of 4th and 51st streets. Yeah, right.   A total population of about 8000 people means that about 45 of those 51 streets are merely a gleam in a developer’s eye. A three course meal at the Mountain Pizza and Steak House, then back on the bus all woozy from too much food and not enough exercise. Busing through the anorexic evergreen forest with equally anorexic birch trees crowding together – so much more vertical-looking than the robust pines and aspens of the lower Sierras! Down timber combines with melted snow rotting into mulch across the rolling tundra. The Rockies are a low-lying cloud layer in front of us.Roadside Attraction
Then five minutes down the road we spot a giant – antlered elk on our side of the road, calmly grazing. More photos. Our guide is agog: “Never have I seen so much wildlife in such a short stretch. “ Fine with us!
On a clear day, I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to spend time than Jasper Lodge.  In addition to the breath-taking natural setting, there is  a large central lodge with lots of comfy chair groupings in which to sit and admire the wonderful view across Lac Beauvert toward the mountains. Lots of satellite cabins. Overflowing baskets of petunias and geraniums hanging from every lamppost and over every door. Blue sky, clouds rising and disappearing, mountains reflected in the glassy, forest-rimmed lake. Of the places we visit on this trip, none will invite us back more strontly.

Amenities of our tour include: A 5PM lecture on Glacial Geology by Scott Burns, the official Professor.  Drinks both spiritous and not  on the deck. Dinner of salmon with lentils and asparagus and a monologue on Canadian politics by Barry the Tour Guide.   We escaped to  quiet of our cabin.  Happily, we have another whole day at this bucolic refuge.

Jasper Lodge from Beavert Lake, with happy tourist

Jasper Lodge from Beavert Lake, with happy tourist


Lounge at Jasper Lodge

Canada: The Alien Next Door – Day One (Continued) – Intro to Edmonton

Pyramids across the river from the hotel terrace mark the amphitheatre

Across the Saskatchewan River from the Hotel Macdonald

P1040844From the 1916   pseudo-Chateau Frontenac architecture of the old Hotel MacDonald, a former railroad hotel,  to the pseudo-Gehry architecture of the Alberta Art Museum, Edmonton’s buildings bring smiles of surprise.  One of the nicest:  the City Hall with its celebratory arcade of fountains (unabashedly used as a cool-off pool by Edmonton’s children).  The boxy outside façade is relieved by rhomboid windows;  the inside of polished yellow marble and sandstone is a grand civic space with a monumental staircase sweeping upward under an I.M. Pei – like glass pyramid.

Contemporary Art Center, Edmonton

Contemporary Art Center, Edmonton

Too bad the bride I spotted disappeared before I could fumble out my camera – she was a brunette beauty in an elegant structured sheath gown of white satin with a black sash, and with bridesmaids all in black – this used to be considered weird but now appears to be the height of bridal sophistication. (See my earlier post to contrast with Russian brides.)

Edmonton is a city on the build – from 100,000 people at the turn of the 21st century it has exploded to over one million residents today, immigrants from all over drawn by the oil boom.  (Alberta oil shale provides 10% of the US’s oil needs and the share is growing.)  They are trying to keep pace by expanding the infrastructure, most notably with an expanding light-rail.  The resultant ongoing road destruction is known locally as “the Black Hole”. Meanwhile, bus stops in the central area link to 20 or more bus lines, with dozens of folks waiting for their public wheels at the bus stops.

Fountain with frolickers

Fountain with frolickers

Some of the creative destruction is admirable.  What used to be a grungy warehouse district bordering the railroad and the river has been converted into green parks, an arboretum, and an Arts District which includes a city-block-sized theatre and opposite it a city-block-sized public library.  A Folk Music Festival was about to begin on the Friday of our arrival and the area was swarming with pop-up restaurants, craft booths, and picnickers on the grass. Statues honoring everyone from Ukrainian farm women to Winston Churchill are scattered in every plaza.

By evening  across the river the open-air amphitheatre was filled  with thousands of listeners (Arlo Guthrie and his daughter were scheduled to perform).  We sat on benches watching the crowd grow.  As dusk fell, the mosquitoes rose, and we conceded the field, went in to dinner with our tour group.  This was our first experience together as part of a tour since a one-day tour of Beijing more than a decade ago;  we were curious to find out what the vibe would be like.

Dinner:  Open wine and cocktail bar; soup, salad, steak, sorbet. Lots of alums of the college which organized the trip, and a surprising number of professors (Iowa State, Portland State, Dartmouth), also wo brothers with wife and partner respectively; one family group with parents, two married daughters and spouses;  one Korean mother-daughter. Many have been on more than 10 Alumni Association trips.  Laughter, well-lubricated by the open bar, flowed freely as the co-tourists introduced themselves.   I talked of our previous attempts to see the snow-capped peaks by rail (both on Amtrak, both derailed by Amtrak’s famously inept scheduling) , and our having snuck into the Banff Springs  swimming area multiple decades ago as part of a camping trip across the continent – pulled a nice laugh from the group.

We stepped outside after dinner hoping to hear a few echoes of the festival across the river, but Arlo was singing into the wind in the opposite direction. Tomorrow we begin our expedition.

Slacking off in the sunshine - Edmonton Civic Center

Slacking off in the sunshine – Edmonton Civic Center

Canada: the Alien Next Door – Day One – San Francisco -> Edmonton, Alberta

O CanadaCanada to me has been like one of those neighbors who lives quietly, keeps their yard neat and their picket fence painted, says “Hello” and “Good morning” when appropriate, but who has never invited me into their house.  This summer I got past the picket fence and at least caught a glimpse of the family room;  my husband and I went for a trip across the Canadian Rockies by bus and by rail.  In many ways we traveled in a bubble of luxury tourism;  still, even the part visible through the bubble was much more exotic than I had imagined.  There is a lot going on behind that picket fence.

Day One:   SFO-> Edmonton

Mt. Shasta rises above California's central valley

Mt. Shasta rises above California’s central valley

On a sparkling day we flew northeast from San Francisco, flying over Mt. Shasta – America’s Mt. Fuji – stark and snow crowned alone in the middle of the flat-for-miles-around north Central Valley.  Further north, the  Three Sisters  and lonely Mt. Bachelor edged the dry plain of eastern OregonI had never realized the extent of the mighty Columbia River – our route echoed the course of this huge waterway twining its way across Oregon and up into Canada, looking like a Great Lake in flow.

Once past the Coast Range and the semi-desert of eastern Oregon, we flew over the orderly square acres of Alberta.  The farm plots and roadways seemed to be marked off along the original homesteading lines, many with an irrigated green circle  tangentially inscribed percisely within the square of boundary roads.

Edmonton International Airport

The Edmonton Airport – vast and empty.  A young woman passed us on the moving sidewalk, asked us our business in Edmonton, envied our Rocky Mountain railroad trip, said “I’m just here for a funeral.”

“Well at least you must know the area.”

She shrugged and said dismissively, “ Edmonton is kind of like Sacramento.”  She moved past us at a more rapid clip.  I mulled over what she had said and thought: even if this is true,  that’s not such a bad thing.  I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the leafy parks and rose gardens of Sacramento, bicycling its river trails and enjoying its street scene – “Like Sacramento” is an ok thing for  a capital city of a thriving province to be.

I was to find out that Edmonton is not so much like Sacramento, despite having both leafy parks and rose gardens, as it is like Houston (see my earlier posts).  Something to do with oil wealth and explosive growth, neither of which I had known was a factor in Alberta.  My elementary school geography showed the map of Canada with its chief exports – Alberta featured a shock of wheat and a cow.   Now the province would be pictured with an oil derrick and a coal car – who knew?

Tips on travel with the Oldest Old – Part IV– Trains and buses

Maybe you get seasick in swimming pools.  Maybe you get claustrophobia if there is no escape route from a boat.  A second alternative available in some areas is old-fashioned luxury rail travel.  I’m not talking about AmTrak with its erratic schedules and limited meal service.  There are excellent tours by rail if you search diligently – and are willing to pay.

For example, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer luxury train starts in either Jasper or Banff and winds its way through the Canadian rockies past glaciers,, wildlife, and snowcapped peaks.  You can choose to travel with three different levels of luxe– a car with picture windows with a box lunch brought to your seat,  a dome car with hot breakfast and lunch served at your seat, or a dome car with an open bar and a dining service below offering a choice of excellent gourmet meals with white tablecloths, crystal glassware, and attentive service.   The train travels only in daylight so as not to miss a scenic moment, and you disembark in the evening to stay in 4-5 star historic hotels  along the route.

Other luxury train travel opportunities are available in the UK, Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa.


You are likely to have different stopping points each night – lots of unpacking and re-packing

Use of the premium service requires that you must be able to negotiate the  narrow spiral staircase between the sightseeing and dining levels of the rail car.

Options are pricey, pricier, and priciest


A third alternative – luxury bus travel


Bus tours cost depends on the tour company, but are generally  more affordable than either cruise or rail travel

There is a wider variety of destinations available by bus than by boat or train. A top-end bus tour company will put its travelers into the same hotels as the luxury train might offer, and has more flexibility in offering excursions to restaurants and other attractions outside the hotel.


Bus travel, no matter how well sprung the bus and how insulated the engine, is more tiring than cruise or train travel, with more on-and-offs for trick knees and hips to endure.

Compared to cruise or train travel, there is more “dead time” on the bus between destinations, and less ability to move about.  If you get carsick trying to read on a bus, you have few entertainment alternatives, no matter how many sing-alongs and Draw-the-Moose competitions your tour guide instigates.  And if sing-alongs and Draw-the-Moose competitions are not your thing – so much the worse!

Like train travel,  bus travel is likely to  involve multiple overnight locations.  If you don’t want to pack and repack every day, check   itineraries for tours that have a central hub for overnights with tours branching out to different destinations each day.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: