Saturday, June 29, 2013

My butler caused the blister on my bottom

Not directly, I admit, but if it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't still be nursing a raw patch on my buttock. The travel editor of the NZ Herald is also implicated, although in a more tenuous way.

I recently sailed with Silversea on a week's cruise from Alaska along the (no comment) Inside Passage to Vancouver, on their delightful 380-passenger small ship Silver Shadow. Fortunate enough, thanks to an earlier cruise with them, to know that my stateroom came with the services of a graduate of the Guild of Professional English Butlers, I intended this time, for the purposes of the story commissioned by the Herald, to make full use of this feature. I even wrote the first sentence before I left home: "It would have been uncool to ask, but I hope the butler appreciated my new knickers". (I have, incidentally, done this sort of thing before, and it backfired then, too, that time involving a dead mermaid under Brooklyn Bridge.)

The backstory was that, having decided to take the butler up on his standard offer to unpack my suitcase for me, I had specially gone out before leaving home to replace my comfortable but sadly saggy underpants with a whole new set complete with snappy elastic (foreshadowing). That I did so, at surprising expense, the day before the shop had a 60% off sale is neither here nor there; although I'm still not over it.

So that's just what happened, and I had the real pleasure of returning to the suite to conduct a kind of treasure hunt, discovering my clothes and other items stowed in unexpected places throughout the stateroom's walk-in wardrobe, bathroom and many drawers and cupboards. My nightie is still not over the thrill of rubbing up against real clothes, on a hanger for the first time in its life.

The other services performed with cheerful efficiency by handsome young Kripesh are not the subject of this post, although it's tempting to regard them as the ganache icing on the rich chocolate mudcake of a Silversea cruise experience. Back to the blister.

Some days after the cruise ended - a triumph in every way other than the result of the Trivial Pursuit tournament, in which our Operation Deep Freeze team came third, to the deep dissatisfaction of Delta Don, whose long pencil calculation of an interest-rate sum I'm sure he still maintains was correct - I was in Banff. There I went on a trail ride through the woods, to breathe the pine-scented air, look for wildlife, get up-close with all that nature. It was, I admit it, purely my mistake to opt for the serious 3-hour version, rather than the frivolous 1-hour taster in the company of city girls who started shrieking before they were even mounted. (Mind out of the gutter, please.)

The first hour was pure pleasure, the second very, er, real, and the third sheer torture, as to ease the pain I stood in the stirrups, leaned on the pommel and sat crooked on Marshall, who compensated by constantly bearing right and scraping me up against tree-trunks and bushes. When I got back to the hotel, it was to find that the tight and snappy elastic of my new knickers had raised a 50c-sized blister on my right buttock, which subsequently burst and wept and caused considerable discomfort for the rest of the trip which involved, collectively, days' worth of sitting on several buses, two trains and an aeroplane. It's only just healing now, two weeks after the event.

So, quod erat demonstrandum. The butler caused my blistered bottom. But I forgive him, because of the freshly-drawn bubble bath with candles and rose petals, and the beautifully-lettered billet-doux, that awaited my return from a glacier excursion.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sister cities, almost

Out this morning, on the old constitutional again now I'm back home, I was struck by, first, how lovely the day was, the boats on the inner harbour all perfectly mirrored in the still water, the air fresh and clean, so much green around me and blue above - and then by how much like Vancouver Auckland is. The same gift of a naturally beautiful setting, its suburbs (or this one at least) tucked neatly into the bush by the water, the people out appreciating it on foot, by bike or with their dogs. They both have a bit of an edge in parts of the central city, but generally they're orderly, safe places to live with, despite their traffic problems and ridiculous house prices, an abundance of pluses.

I get why people accuse Canada of being boring, but personally I like that everything works, that people on public buses are alert to the needs of others for the priority seating, that places are generally neat and tidy and that most of its citizens have a sense of responsibility. Because they also have a great appreciation for what they have, and they enjoy it, every chance they get. That first evening of the visit, when I took the photo of Coal Harbour above, was the end of the first sunny day they'd had after weeks of rain, and it seemed that every one of the 600,000-odd downtown residents was outside making the most of it, walking, running, biking, skating, dancing, reading or just sitting. The atmosphere was so relaxed and friendly, people smiling and saying hello to me, that I really couldn't have had a better welcome to the country - or a more appropriate introduction to what turned out to be two full weeks of just the same sort of thing.

Plus furry mammals. That's the main thing that Canada has, and we don't. I really enjoyed them all, even the squirrels that many seem to despise, fluid and graceful and quick, and the chipmunks and ground squirrels and sea-otters and seals, and elk and moose and deer, all of which we saw. And, of course, the bears: thrilling and fascinating and adorable and scary. It was brilliant to see them going about their normal business, the ones in Whistler so close to where people work and live. It's a whole added dimension that I'm going to miss. What do I see on my walks, besides birds? Cats. No contest with a black bear, whichever way you look at it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Bears to beavers

Our last full day in Canada began early, with a 6am meeting with Geoff the bear man, who took us up the mountain through the fog, checking - well, I was going to say the traps, but that's not right: the opposite, the meadows where the black bears come to graze. And there they were, four of them, the first an unknown female, on her own; then another, shaggy Alice who was nervous - with good reason, as a young male, brown and eager, was after her, sending her galloping down the hill as he came into sight, big and brown; and then another female with a splendid thick black coat.

Though Michael Allen is better known, Geoff was great, full of knowledge, stories and opinion, and the 3 hours passed very quickly - he would have extended the time if we hadn't found bears, but he knew just where to look. Forget about using that cliche alternative to 'yes', by the way: bears poop everywhere, including right in the middle of a parking lot.

Then we left Whistler, its peaks still shrouded in cloud and unseen by us, sadly, and took the bus back down Howe Sound, which was muted and blue and pewter, and lovely. Though Whistler was busy, Vancouver was really humming, as the weather improved and everyone was on the streets and in the parks and on the water, enjoying the sunshine - as you would, if you lived in an apartment as so many do. They were out walking with dogs and kids, on paddle-boards on False Creek, cycling, skateboarding, sitting enjoying a jazz (spit) festival, and thronging Granville Island's market stalls, shops, restaurants and cafes.

Further along the Creek, near the silver sphere of Science World, as the first day of the dragon-boating festival got sociable, we finally found what I've been looking for for days: a Beaver Tails van, making deep-fried pastry topped with cinnamon sugar, apple, maple syrup icing... a Canadian specialty since 1978 and clearly super-healthy. And delicious!

So now we're at the lovely and luxurious Fairmont Waterfront, in a classy room overlooking the grassy roofs of the Convention Centre and across the harbour to where the sun is taking its time in sinking, the sky behind the Coastal Mountains going a deeper and deeper saffron. Beautiful.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Not well weathered

On a trip like this, it’s easy to get to expect too much – simply because each day so far has delivered just that, thanks to the good people at Fairmont and the various tourism organisations that have been generously hosting us. So when you have a more low-key day like today, it tends to feel slightly disappointing. It’s called ‘being spoilt’.

It began very well, with two superb Dungeness crabcakes topped with perfect poached eggs and grilled asparagus at the Wildflower with Kerry of Fairmont – we’re staying at their Chateau Whistler which is one of the grand ones, though not so grand it doesn’t welcome dogs, which is lovely to see. Our window faces the mountains, and that was the problem: whiteout, on our day for going to the top for the Peak to Peak. Encouraged by patches of blue, we went up anyway, on the lookout for the bears and deer which we’d been told could be spotted under the gondola, but all we saw were distant Darth Vaders skimming down the mountain on their bikes.

It was a restful and pleasant 25 minute trip up to the peak of Whistler Mountain, all 1850 metres of it; but the top was in the cloud, with snow, and there was nothing to see. Undaunted (or, with no other choice) we transferred anyway to the bigger cablecars for the Peak to Peak, choosing the special silver one with a glass floor panel. Well, it was like being in a bubble of colour, the rest of the world rubbed out: really, quite weird. The swirling mist did clear now and then, and we had an eagle’s eye view of the trees below, odd but striking. The trip from Whistler to Blackcomb takes just 11 minutes. Only 4 towers carry the cables over 4.4km, including the longest unsupported span in the world of over 3km – all pretty impressive engineering, built for the Winter Olympics in 2010, and we did our best to get excited, but it would have been far better if we’d been able to see the alpine scenery. Or even a bear.

Afterwards, we walked to Lost Lake along a couple of the 45km of paved paths through the forest, well-used by the locals, to a muted silver stretch of water surrounded by tree-clad hills – pretty, but today remarkable primarily for the plague of caterpillars that covered the bridge railings, zigzag fences, leaves and path. One of them hitched a lift on me, I discovered later in our hotel room on the 7th floor: I gave it a taste of flight from the window, which on second thoughts may actually have prevented it from becoming a butterfly. Oops.

I hope tomorrow is more rewarding, especially as it begins with a 6am meeting with the local bear expert…

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Araxi, and other delights

Sorry to lower the tone so soon in the post, but when you’ve spent a couple of hours swigging sparkling Badoit in between half-glasses of Okanagan Valley sparkling and sauvignon blanc, a Californian pinot noir, back to Okanagan for a cabernet sauvignon and finally the triumph of a Jackson-Triggs Riesling ice wine, take it from me, the last thing you need on the 15-minute stroll back to the hotel is the crossing of a tumbling mountain stream, all roar and rush and tinkle.

We’re at Whistler, a very scenic and comfortable 3+ hour ride on the Rocky Mountaineer Sea to Sky from Vancouver along the edge of first a sound and then a river, all the way up into the mountains to this ski resort which actually gets most of its visitors in the summer. Today, as it happened, didn’t look much like summer: our wonderful run of sunshine has come to an end, and our journey was through low cloud and rain. Typical BC weather, as it happens, but it didn’t show the scenery off to its best (although, misty mountains, silver sea, blue islands, rocky canyons and verdant green forest do have their - albeit subtle - attractions).

The village is lively and busy with more young people than I’ve noticed so far on this Baby Boomer-type trip; and the public music is heaps better than the throat-slitting Frank Sinatra-type elevator music that our hotel foyers seem to favour (Ingrid Michaelson, yay!) We watched mud-splattered young men leaping out of the trees over a small cliff at the end of the mountain-biking trail that’s the summer substitute for snowboard thrills, and nodded approvingly at the wash-off hose provided and the stand of cable-secured tools for on-site repairs to – what? Loose derailleurs? Anyway, thoughtful.

Best of all, though, was going tonight to enjoy – oh! how we enjoyed! – the chef’s selection at Araxi, a fine-dining restaurant in the Village Square that was buzzing with people this Thursday night. Such treats we had! Melting seared albacore tuna with magical ponzu pearls, crisp wild BC salmon in a scallop foam, rabbit! wrapped in pork cheek and prosciutto, super-tender (spit) Australian lamb – all with interesting vegetable detail; and then a fabulous lemon tart with raspberry and a little hot doughnut to dip into crème anglaise with gold leaf on top, and espresso icecream – plus that glorious ice wine, the grapes picked at night when they’re frozen, to concentrate the sugars. Bliss! Go there: honestly, it’s the best meal we’ve had, the whole trip. Araxi. James Walt, chef. Knows what he's doing, y'know?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Tours by Locals - Vancouver Hiking

The sunshine became more liquid today, so when we arrived back in Vancouver and I met up with Lois of Tours by Locals, she scrapped her original plan of a high-level hike. Instead we went to Deep Cove, a neat and pretty (and expensive) little pocket in North Vancouver surrounded by forest and on the edge of a small bay on Indian Arm.

It’s only 20 minutes from the city centre, but you’d never know it, once you’d climbed up the flight of steps at the start of the Baden Powell trail. We were surrounded by lush, ferny forest, the new tips of the hemlocks brilliant green (also tasty and a great source of vitamin C, according to Lois, who knows all about these things). The trees kept the rain off so we could enjoy the trail that picked its way through rocks and roots. It was a steady climb – very steady, at Lois’s measured and unhurried pace – all the way up to Quarry Rock, a huge bare boulder of granite with a stunning view over the inlet.

The sky had cleared and the water was a pewter sheet textured by the ripples of the yacht fortuitously crossing the bay, of kayakers and stand-up paddle boarders. Deep Cove had a little marina of pleasure boats, there were a few distant skyscrapers poking above a hilltop, other hikers were picnicking on the rock, eating something that smelled delicious, but mostly it was all nature: trees, water, sky. Fabulous.

But, honestly, nowhere near as fabulous as the promised doughnut at Honey's café back in Deep Cove: glistening with honey-glaze on the crisp outside, inside soft and fluffy and perfect. Apparently they also come with maple or chocolate icing, but it’s hard to imagine how such glory could possibly be improved. It was the best doughnut of my life, and my mouth is watering now. Is yours?

Tours by Locals: how to discover the secret delights of a destination that will take your visit to the next level. Friendly, easy-going, interesting and well-informed, Lois is particularly recommended.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

To Vancouver via VIA

Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is a lovely place, all log cabins scattered around neatly-kept grounds in amongst the trees, and the girl who's in charge of watering the 750 hanging baskets daily is a star - but it has to be said, the hotel's no match for the beauty of its setting. It's a bit out of town, between two lakes, this one, Beauvert, stunningly clear and colourful (though really it should be Beaubleu) with views across it to a snowy range including the impressive Mt Edith Cavell. We slept well in our huge and comfy bed, but I was woken at dawn by a noise under the window, and peeked through the curtains to see an elk grazing on a bush directly outside, to our mutual surprise.

Sadly, we only had the morning here before catching the train back to Vancouver, but we took a bike ride around the edge of the lake to the golf course, hoping to see the grizzly but instead encountering another elk peacefully grazing beside the road. It looked calm, but there were calving grounds marked nearby and we'd been lectured about how dangerous they can be, so we had to take a bumpy detour around it. Later the concierge, taking us into town, said he'd been charged four times in the last year when he's been out mountain-biking, and that the elk are much more of a danger than the bears. So we didn't feel like complete wusses.

Then at lunchtime we boarded the Via train, which was a chaotic business but found us eventually installed in seats in a dome car, waiting hopefully with jolly fellow-travellers for the rumoured champagne and canapes - which did eventuate, thanks to obliging barman Luko, who was even persuaded later to put on a wine-tasting for us as the mountains and trees and rivers and waterfalls went by. Dinner was delicious, and tucked up into our bunks later, magicked into place by Pierre, we slept like logs. Which was appropriate, I guess.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Along the Icefields Parkway

It was yet another day without breakfast as we woke early to a sparkling morning again. We were picked up by Sue of SunDog Tours who spent the day driving us to Jasper. Not that it’s so far from Banff – it’s just that the route is along the Icefields Parkway, which Nat Geo has placed fourth on its list of the world’s best 10 alpine drives, and it's not for rushing. I don’t think I could cope with the other three: it was hard enough today gawping at the peaks and the glaciers, marvelling at the brilliant blue of the lakes and rivers, trying to do justice to photos of waterfalls, and keeping a close watch out for the wildlife, from roadside to cliff to treetops.

We did see plenty of animals today – a grizzly in the trees, big horn sheep and mountain goats by the road, ground squirrels at our lunch stop and elk and chipmunks here at Jasper Park Lodge where we’re cosily tucked up in a log cabin just along from where the Queen stayed in 2005. Mostly, though, it was the mountains and their thick caps of glaciers that took centre stage, especially the Columbia Icefield where we were driven up onto the Athabasca Glacier.

It had clouded over by the time we got there and the top was a white-out, but we ground up to the glacier anyway, first in a bus and then the snowcoach with huge tyres and a powerful engine, able to cope with 1:15 gradient on ice. We stepped out gingerly onto the ice, but it wasn’t slippery and, even better, there was a patch of blue above the top step of the glacier. Soon the sky was clear again, the ice was dazzling, and the water running from it was eerily blue (and delicious, once it had warmed up a bit – glacier ice may be ancient and pure, but it’ll give you brain-freeze if you drink it straight off). It was well worth being fodder in a large and efficient tourism operation to get up there.

Back on the road there were mighty waterfalls and lots of peering into the tops of aspen trees for black bears, and a fair bit of bumping on tarmac that has to cope with -30 degrees in the winter, but finally we arrived in Jasper. We won’t see much of the place at all as we’re out of town at this lovely log-cabin resort where chipmunks scoot under the tables on the terrace and there’s apparently a resident grizzly on the golf course. Makes a mockery of calling a sand pit a hazard, I reckon.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hi-def Banff

No time for breakfast today – we were straight out on a SunDog Tour of Banff that left me feeling the town is like Queenstown on steroids, in HD. The towns are very alike, surrounded by mountains, on the shores of a lovely expanse of blue water, the buildings are neat and stone-built, and they’re busy with tourists – but it’s all so much bigger here. The mountains, the river, the hotels and resorts, and there are more visitors here, from more places. And the air! On a warm sunny morning as we had today, with the bare peaks still streaked with white snow, the edges were so sharp and clear, the details so crisp, that it was like high definition in real life.

We did the usual Banff sights: the Bow Falls (not actually as impressive as Huka), the Sulphur Mountain gondola, which was high and fast and took us to a magnificent panorama of mountains, Cascade Mountain towering and distinctive, Mt Rundle an extraordinary example of uplift. Then there were the trees again, the billions and zillions of trees, mostly pine but also including poplar and aspen. There were lakes, hot springs, reflections and waterfalls: all postcard-perfect on a warm sunny day.

Then I made up for my disappointment last week at Seward, and went on a 3-hour Spray River trailride on Marshall, who had a streaked dark-blonde mane to die for but an irritating tendency to drift to the right under bushes; and whose intermittent jog I’m blaming for the actual blister on my behind tonight. But it was glorious to be out in the pine-scented woods, with only birds and distant train whistles to listen to above the clatter of hoof on rock, following narrow tracks through the tall trees and crossing the blue river twice, washing off all the mud from the extraordinary ‘mud steps’ cut by the horses themselves. So never mind the blister, I’m mollified now.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rocky Mountaineer to Banff

After yesterday's disappointment, it was shake, rattle and roll all day today, from an early start at the railway station in Kamloops all the way through to our arrival in Banff at 7pm - which is not the same as dinnertime, because after a day on the Rocky Mountaineer, the last thing you need is another meal.

We travelled Gold Leaf class and had a wonderful time, sitting in spacious seats at the back of the end dome carriage, so we had a 360-degree view horizontally and 180 vertically. Just as well: the scenery was terrific. Mountains, lakes, tumbling rivers, endless forest - I've never in my life seen so many trees - blue sky above, bridges and tunnels, snow sheds and other trains. We didn't want to miss a thing, and nor did we, as even while dining we were able to slip out to the open viewing area behind at a moment's notice.

The service was cheerful, efficient and generous: the bar opened at 9am ("It has to be 5pm somewhere") and the food was really delicious and beautifully presented. The commentary was interesting and informative, there were hot towels and biscuits still warm from the oven, and the only disappointment were the famous spiral tunnels, since you can't really appreciate them from inside. There were deer and eagles, geese and elk, and most wonderfully of all, a bear: big and close, too briefly glimpsed for a photo but assuredly there in all his ursine glory. Great trip!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Kamloops compo

We were a little slow on the uptake yesterday (blame 7 days of assiduous unwinding on the Silver Shadow) so it didn’t occur to us to wonder until this morning why we weren’t taking the coach to Kamloops instead of flying, since at least that way we would see some of the route we were missing on our cancelled Rocky Mountaineer trip, day one. Obedient as ever, we were just doing as we were told by our minders – but, as it happened, within minutes of thinking of it our minds were put to rest by Tara here in Kamloops, who assured us that the best of the rail trip was assuredly still to come. So that was all right.

And, in compensation, we had an afternoon exploring Kamloops that we wouldn’t have been able to do had today’s rail trip not been made impossible by a rogue derailment (is there any other sort?).

So first of all we went out of town to the BC Wildlife Park, where David showed us the mostly indigenous, mostly rehabilitated animals in their natural and spacious enclosures, including 3 black bears happily wrestling, two wolves, a lynx and two cougars contentedly dozing in the long grass, some busy raccoons, an even busier badger, a poser elk called Thunder, a couple of young grizzlies hunting for hidden food, and a pair of dainty coyotes. We learned some interesting and useful stuff: take it from me, you never want to risk getting vomited on by a turkey vulture.

Then there was some sad stuff to do with the Secwepemc people, who for the best part of 100 years had their children taken from them by the Church who wanted to ‘Christianise, civilise and assimilate’ them. Sound familiar? Australian Aboriginal stolen generation all over again, except worse because for longer. Sigh.

And then I wandered around a leafy suburb of Kamloops, charmed by the pretty mock-Victorian and Arts & Crafts houses with their shingles and verandas and tapered pillars, their shutters and stained glass and pastel colours, and their cottage gardens bright with peonies and irises. Finally we had a tasty dinner at Quattro Bistro, excellent from start to finish – and that’s not just the Marlborough wine speaking. As compensations go, today was one of the better ones

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Plan derailment

I’m rather kicking myself that it was only on the last night of our cruise that I remembered to ask Kripesh the butler (graduate of the English Guild of Butlers, natch) to supply me with a different pillow from the available menu, the extra soft one with the silk pillowcase and the lavender sachet in the corner. Bliss! But then came the cruel parting from the Silver Shadow, dragging our feet ashore, knowing that some other smug couple would be sleeping in our bed tonight. Sigh.

At least, though, Vancouver was putting on a bright and cheerful face for us this morning, the sparkling harbour buzzing with little flight planes nipping over to Victoria. We checked in to the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a splendid and very grand old lady with a French chateau roofline in oxidised copper, marble floors, high ceilings and upper-end shops in the lobby, as well as a large and comfortable room. A Canadian Pacific Railroad hotel originally, she fits neatly with the next stage of the trip, which is the Rocky Mountaineer to Banff, via Kamloops.

Best-laid plans... Turns out there was a derailment on the line today so tomorrow we have to miss the first day’s journey and instead fly to Kamloops. Disappointing, certainly, but these things do happen – and I’m heartily glad it’s not my job to rearrange the itineraries of all those passengers.
Instead, I spent the afternoon gliding around the roads and byways of the city, taking an Art Wheelers bicycle tour of Vancouver. Dan, Josh and Matt escorted me along cycleways and the sea wall, stopping at some of the many art installations throughout the city, from sculptures and statues to street art and advertising to architecture and parks. It was a perfect day for a bike ride, and I did enjoy it (no real hills to speak of) – though possibly even better was being one of the locals, out relaxing in the sunshine, sneaking through lanes and past pretty gardens that I would never have found by myself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

First time unto the breach

Our last day on the Silver Shadow, sniff, and it dawned more typically grey and damp – in fact, a grey-out at one stage, the sea merging indistinguishably into the sky. But there were compensations. One was a speed-merchant dolphin hurtling through the water after prey, performing a nifty figure-eight movement after some presumably panicked but doomed fish. Then there was the land, an ever-changing outline of hill and beach, but all of it swathed in green. Never in my life before have I seen so many trees.

They, or the logging rafts, had shed so many logs into the water that it was hugely frustrating to us whale-watchers staring at the sea as conscientiously as any sailor from a century ago. Again and again I thought I’d spotted something, and it was only a bit of wooden flotsam providing a handy resting spot for a couple of gulls. But then there was a humpback, spouting noisily as it cruised away from the ship.

Really, I wanted orcas. Humpbacks I’ve seen often enough not to be that excited any more – but then, after lunch, I was standing on our veranda looking out at the glossy water as we slipped along the Inside Passage between the mainland and Vancouver Island, and saw more than just spouts. There were two small humpbacks, busily breaching, over and over, which I’ve never seen before, though others on the ship, doing different excursions, had had exhibitions of, close up. They were beyond the limits of my little zoom lens, but still, it was great to see.

So that was exciting, and coming an honourable 3rd in the Trivial Pursuit tournament was mildly satisfying; and then dinner at La Terrazza was delicious tonight, in good company, by the window with the sun slipping down behind ranks of hills and peaks, a sliver of a thumbnail moon above and a fernleaf trail of rippled, coloured water below. It was just a shame, that it was all for the final time.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Zippidee-doo-dah

After a blessed lie-in this morning, we cruised into Ketchikan on yet another blue and sunny day, hanging over the rail spying on the captain as he manoeuvred us – skilfully - towards our berth. He was focused, but we were shamefully distracted by humpback whales spouting and diving between us and the shore, amazingly barely 10 metres from land. And then there were the float planes and helicopters bustling in and out of the inlet, and the fishing and crab boats, and the other cruise ships (big and ugly compared with Silver Shadow’s svelte form).

The town is known for its rain: if it’s not actually raining, it will in half an hour – but not today. The multi-colours of the houses and town buildings were bright in the sunshine against a backdrop of Sitka spruce and western hemlock trees, with white peaks beyond. There was time for a quick trot around the prettiest bit, Creek Street, lined with little wooden houses perched above the creek: from the beginning, offering services. Now it’s sheer tourism, but back in the early 1900s it was a place where, as they say, both the salmon and the town’s menfolk came to spawn.

My excursion today was out of town, past the totem poles and moored fishing boats, in Herring Bay where the salmon have just started their run, though the bears were AWOL today because it was so warm. I was there for the ziplining: eight runs high in the forest from excitingly (and unexpectedly) un-guard-railed platforms built around the tree trunks. It was a lot of fun, with added eagles, and we girls were much better at it than the blokes, who swivelled and got stuck and earned no points at all for style. We all enjoyed ourselves, though, and it made a nice change from what’s been up till now quite a sedate experience. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Then it was dinner on the pool deck, filet mignon self-cooked on a hot rock at the table, rugs over our knees and a serviette round our necks, while the sun slipped down with far less drama than last night, and there was, finally, as the BBC shipping forecast has it, ‘precipitation within sight’. It makes no odds with us, though – we’ve had the sun where it counted. Then a Motown concert, and bed again, rocked to sleep like a baby.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hitting the White Pass Trail

Number Two of this trip’s five train journeys came today: the White Pass and Yukon Railway, from Skagway up to the pass and back down again on yet another fabulous morning. We’ve been so lucky so far – the locals are feeling obliged to say “It’s not always like this, you know” and, in Seward, “We call weather like this ‘cloud failure’.”

So the conditions were perfect for the ride in the old carriages behind Engine #73, puffing gallantly up a remarkably steep gradient, across trestle bridges and through a couple of tunnels. The mountains were high and sharp-edged, in both senses, and there was plenty of snow, as well as trees with fresh foliage and carpets of bright dandelions. Waterfalls splashed down the rockfaces to join the muddy, tumbling Yukon in its narrow gorge.

It was so warm and sunny that it was hard to imagine how it was for the Stampeders in the winter of 1897-98, who had to climb up the pass not once, but up to 30 times each, ferrying the one ton of gear and provisions the Canadian police insisted they brought with them. We also ran alongside Dead Horse Trail, where 3,000 horses died, of starvation, overwork and maltreatment by gold-crazed miners, poor things. Meaning the horses, though the men (and women) had it hard too, and very few found much gold when they eventually got there, though a few did make their fortunes.

There’s plenty of gold in the town now: the tourists bringing their money (four ships in today) and also in the windows of the many, many jewellery shops that line Broadway. It’s still pretty there, though, the buildings are charming, and the setting is lovely beside the water, below the snowy peaks. Up at the Pass, we drank a toast of champagne to “the men who built the rail, those who followed the trail, and you who came by sail” – a bit naff, but tourists are undoubtedly the saving of Skagway. Well done, us.

And what better way to finish a day of public works - sort of - than to sit at a window table in La Terraza on the Silver Spirit and have a pleasant dinner while the ship glided past mountain peaks under a lowish sun, the sea smooth and the sky above clear? Magic.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Perfect day, Juneau

Sometimes there are advantages to having to get up early. For a start, of course here in Alaska in June, there’s nothing unnatural about 6am, because the sun’s already been up for hours. And then, since it’s too early for the restaurant, we had to have breakfast in our suite; so there was Kripesh prompt at 6.30 with tablecloth, serviettes and covered dishes, laying it out just so for us to enjoy in the sunshine looking out at a perfect morning.

Today we took the glacier excursion option, being collected from the Silver Shadow by a comfortable catamaran and whisked away up the Tracy Arm to see the two Sawyer Glaciers, North and South. But not before stopping to stare at a bear fossicking long the shoreline; and then at lots of harbour seals sunbathing on icefloes, fat pregnant ladies or mums with pups. There were bald eagles too, and Arctic terns, which for migration marathons beat even the godwits: they travel from Alaska to Antarctica.

Most spectacular of all though were the glaciers, sheer 100m-high walls of ice above the water, white, black, blue and transparent. Even the guys on the boat, who see them every day, were as fascinated as us, saying that they change every day. The immensity was too much to grasp: 300m below the water, a mile wide and a mile away although it looked so close. We saw both of them calving, bits of ice splashing into the water followed by, moments later, the “white thunder" roar into the deep silence of the fiord as we sat there watching, the boat’s engine cut.

Gliding past the sheer, glacier-smoothed cliffs with their horizontal scars, we saw all sorts of icebergs, some white and pock-marked, others ethereal blue, still others totally clear. A little one was netted and brought on board for us to touch: smooth as, and filled with bubbles of air that might be 500 years old – or possibly 10,000. It was a wonderful morning, topped by two more bears scraping mussels off the rocks as we returned to Juneau. Lucky us, today.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Whales and otters and bears, oh my!

Sitka is a little town with only 14 miles of road but plenty of sea. We took an excursion around the bay and its inlets on local catamaran St Eugene, looking for wildlife, and found two humpbacked whales within the first 10 minutes. It was local personality Domino, known for being a somewhat irritating individual, and hence a loner – except this morning he had a companion (cue violins) to the great interest of Capt. Mike. “This is a first!” So we watched them wallow and dive a few times, and then headed off to see what else we could find.

It was a greyish day, with the odd patch of blue sky, and Mt Edgecumbe the cartoon dormant volcano named by James Cook (scraping the barrel – there’s an Edgecumbe in NZ too) was trailing a plume of cloud. It was a green and pewter day of spiky spruces clinging to black rocky islets and beds of kelp surging in the tide. That’s where we found our first raft of sea-otters, a dozen or more mothers floating on their backs with their cubs on their tummies. Once we’d got our eyes in, we spotted lots of odd otters in the water, lolling or diving. Later we found another raft, of guys this time, that we got much closer to – they are big, up to five feet (pardon my imperial measures, it’s catching. I mean 1.2m). And so fuzzy and cute!

Back in Sitka, we went to the Fortress of the Bears, a rather grand name for 5 brown bears living inside two big water purification tanks. They seemed happy and behaving naturally – Toby the girl, who had PMS, cuffing her brothers – and at least they were alive, not shot as cubs when their mother was killed, but surrounded by so much real wilderness it was hard not to feel a bit sorry for them.


Sitka itself has a lot of Russian history and a pretty Orthodox church with an onion dome and lots of actual icons inside; but, fishing aside, the town is mainly focused on tourists, with lots of souvenir shops selling matryoshka dolls, Christmas ornaments, jewellery and furs. So since we’re not souvenir people, we went back to the Silver Shadow moored out in the bay, to snuggle back into our cosy luxury.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Brrrrr!

Well! It was quite a rough night – literally. It’s unusual here, apparently, even crossing the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska, since there was no wind; but the good old Scopaderm patch did the trick and I rather enjoyed the rocking and rolling in my cosy bed. Last time I sailed with Silversea I was faintly insulted to be offered a waiter’s elbow as I was shown to my table for breakfast (though it’s not age-related: all the ladies get this service) – but I was glad of it this morning as I staggered through the door into a sparsely-peopled restaurant.

We’re on the starboard side and so far that means only horizon to look at – on the other side is a continuous line of pristine white peaks, some of them really high and cloud-capped. Today’s focus was the Hubbard Glacier, at 76 miles the world’s longest tidewater glacier, and very active, ripping up and down the fiord with great haste, glacier-wise, and continuously calving.

As we approached it, gliding up the inlet, we saw more and more icebergs, bigger and bigger, some dirty black and others pure white, even blue against the light. We’re not talking Titanic, they were small compared with the Silver Shadow, but plenty big enough to support sea lion mothers and cubs, which we saw several times. Distances were deceptive, and though the glacier looked big, we were still actually 3 miles away from the terminus. Everyone gathered on deck, shivering and glad of the offered hot chocolate or gluhwein, but eventually they all went away and it was possible to hear the ice below clinking as the ship gently stirred the water, and a low growling roar from the distant glaciers. As I watched, a little (up close, big) section of ice calved off, falling in slow motion from the face and splashed into the water.

And then we turned to leave the inlet, and the water in Desolation Bay was blue and silky smooth, and the sun was hot through the glass doors of the suite; and ahead are cocktails and a dress-up dinner at the Captain’s table. Oh, and an Abba show.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Silversea sail away

And so we bade a fond farewell to little Seward today, home of the Iditarod, to good-hearted Shelley who cooked and served our breakfasts, to helpful Wes, Alaska’s sharpest fisherman, to the ladies at Nellie’s who serve the best-ever seafood chowder… But first, Wes’s attempts to get me out on a trail ride on this perfect day sadly (oh, so sadly) coming to nothing, he took us to see the salmon weir out of town, where clusters of sockeye salmon were hanging in the water until the urge took them to head further upstream.

There, waiting for them, was a sneaky mesh fence and a fish ladder with a girl poised above it to count them as they passed. The lucky 3000, paired-off, would get to wait in the pond to be inoculated – yes, injected individually – against a kidney disease, before heading up to spawn, their eggs to be collected and raised in the fishery. The others would meet their maker, one way or another (including via bear), quick smart.


Did I think of that when I tucked into a share of a whole roast salmon in the Panorama restaurant tonight? Er, no. I was just enjoying being back aboard a Silversea ship, our clothes unpacked by our butler, our cupboard stocked with our own choice of drinks (all included), our toiletries selected, ditto the pillows… And here I am in our little sitting room, the sky outside fading from pale pink to silver, the sea from pale turquoise to silver, the motion restful, the wake breaking rhythmically outside the veranda, the room creaking quietly, a faint hum from the engines barely perceptible, more of a vibration. I expect to sleep very well tonight.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Anchorage afoot

I'm glad I've been in training for this trip. All those brisk morning constitutionals have stood me in good stead for days like today, when I've been on my feet from the beginning with only brief respites: hard streets, stairs, museum corridors, footpaths... It's been tiring, even so, although very enjoyable and productive. Remember, this is not a holiday. I'm working, gathering material and images for stories, and looking for angles and ideas all the time. But it's also fun, of course, and interesting.

The first bit was actually seated, and fun, and interesting: the trolley tour of the town with Jaden who was local, bright and funny. He took us into the suburbs to Earthquake Park where 77 houses disappeared on Good Friday 1964 - we saw one of the owners describing her amazing experience yesterday at the Visitor Centre - and then to Lakes Hood and Spenard that were thickly edged with parked Cessnas, Beavers and Cub floatplanes. You can get a pilot's licence at age 14 here, you know; but have to wait until 16 to drive a car.

Then we went out to the Native Heritage Centre and were shown around typical homes of some of the native tribes, many of which were dug into the ground, as there were no trees where some tribes lived, and the winds were fierce. Imagine: no wood, so no fires, no cooking, no hot water. Just bodyheat. Me, I'd have lit out for another sort of territory, something less hostile, but then I'm soft. And I did have to hand it to the Indians - they knew what to do with a ground squirrel skin and a few lengths of seal intestine. Very impressive. They had a great display of those sorts of artefacts at the very flash museum back in town.

There was an excellent display of Alaskan Aviation there, too: boy, those bush pilots were a tough breed, I decided at the Snow City Cafe as I worked through my stuffed French toast and gallons of maple syrup. Then it was out to the Alaska Zoo for some just-in-case animal spotting: wolves, foxes, a surprisingly solid lynx, a lazy polar bear hardly stirring, some brown bears ditto, and a couple of very active black bears climbing up the fence to hook out some bits of grass someone had thrown there. Lots of good views of teeth and claws there, and I was finally glad of the belt-and-braces fencing that had frustrated me up till then. Best animal of the day though was the snow leopard from Central Asia - fabulous beast, big, beautiful and so much a cat.

Then dinner at Ginger: 5-spice duck breast and crabby jasmine rice, and fireweed honey icecream. Yum! And to bed with the sun again still high in the sky, and the brain protesting. But the feet happy at last.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Rhamphotheca


That's today's new word: it means a fancy protective sheath that grows over the base of the bill of a puffin during mating season. And that's a new fact, too: that puffins for most of the year don't look at all like the classic clown-faced birds they're always portrayed as. No, they're rather dull and black in eclipse plumage, nowhere near as cute and colourful. So we were lucky that our meeting with the puffins in Seward this afternoon took place at the right time of year. Even that little line over their eyes goes, you know: it's an actual crest that grows, not coloured feathers - and then it falls off.

I learned all this during our Puffin Encounter at the Alaska SeaLife Centre. It's a flash, modern place that doesn't fit very well with the rest of the town's slightly ramshackle appearance, but it was funded by Exxon reparations, and does a good job displaying often rehabilitated animals like an absolutely massive Steller sea lion bull called Woody - just the 770kg - and harbour seals, octopus, salmon, and the birds in roomy and natural-looking enclosures where we could watch them diving and flying underwater like penguins.

We got here today by spending 4 hours on the Coastal Classic train that brought us to Seward from Anchorage, along Cook Inlet and over a mountain pass via an impressive series of S-bends to Resurrection Bay. We were so lucky to have a clear day, and there was plenty of snow around to make the mountains pop, especially reflected in unusually still water. And for us to speculate about what made all the tracks through the snow that we could see - bear country, you know. And we saw 3 moose. It's a lovely train, and Gold Star class gave us the upper level with the glass ceiling as well as an outside area, so we really did well.

And now we're in little Seward, colourful and cheerful, in a setting even Queenstown would envy: mountains all around, high and snowy, the bay big and - well, not actually as blue as they promised, but perhaps tomorrow. The museum was good, especially about the tsunami in 1964 that swept away half the town (one story, about a family in a truck racing up the road with the wave right behind them "roaring like an express train" - and then their engine died was especially riveting); and the Seward Brewing Company was excellent: raspberry wheat beer, crab cakes and a huge wedge of triple-layer carrot cake that would challenge anyone.

The sun's still high, spotlighting snow-streaked peaks, there's a bird singing in the tree outside the window, it'll be light till 11.30pm and then not really dark, but it's time to sleep after our early start this morning. I'll just try to forget about the frozen roars from the golden grizzly and the black bear down in the foyer, the monster moose head with 7-foot wide antlers, the lynx, the flattened mountain goat, the weasel and stoat, the stuffed musk ox, and mounted reindeer head... the Hotel Seward is a distinctive (but comfortable) place.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Gone north

And now we're in Anchorage, Alaska, with the sun still high in the sky at 9.30pm, not due to set till 11pm, which is something we haven't experienced since Oslo in 1980. It's a disorientating business, on top of jet lag, so thank goodness for melatonin tablets, which seem to do the trick.

We didn't arrive till 2pm, so we've only had the afternoon so far, but first impressions are that this is a plain, hunkered-down sort of place with a frontier feel to it, where everybody drives big trucks and there's not much of a dress code. It reminds me of Darwin (whereas Vancouver's a bit like Perth). There are a few rough-looking types around, but the people we've encountered have been really friendly and welcoming, like the man at the Captain Cook statue who pointed out Mt McKinley to us and was quietly thrilled that we'd come so far. Less appealing was the rigmarole we had to go through to get into the Alaska Public Lands Information Centre which we went to thinking it was the visitor centre and had to do the whole photo ID, scanner and Xray thing to enter.

It was good inside, though, with some excellent short films (we saw the Klondike one - amazing - and another about the 1964 9.2 earthquake, which was a bit chilling) and big stuffed animals. Even better for that though was the Antique Gallery store we wandered into that was crammed with all sorts of CITES-unfriendly items, such as scrimshawed whale jawbones, carved walrus tusks, all sorts of mounted heads including polar bear, bison and moose, mink coats, plus real moccasins, Winchester rifles and Purdey shotguns, fossils, jewellery... it was fascinating. As was the fur shop with its thick, soft beaver pelts, fox furs, lynx and mink. "Trapped!" the lady said cheerfully. "But the foxes are farmed." Fox farms, eh? Now there's a concept.

Then we found a theatre showing a movie of wonderful footage and photos of the Northern Lights, which was a colourful and restful way to spend half an hour before crossing the road to the lively chatter of Humpy's Alaskan Alehouse with its dozens of beers on tap (Alaskan White recommended if you like wheat beer), cheerful waitress and very filling smoked salmon chowder.

Now we're back at the Copper Whale Inn, which is a sweet little clapboard place on the corner, cosy and comfortable and very welcoming (and gay friendly, according to Lonely Planet, if that's important to you!) to try to sleep despite the broad daylight and the haunting train whistles from down by the sea.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bienvenue a Canada

So here I am in Vancouver, remembering why I like it so much. It helps that it's a beautiful warm sunny day and everyone is in relaxed and cheerful Sunday afternoon mode - but the city is so clean and the air so fresh, and walking along Robson Street, at every intersection there's a glimpse of water and forest, mountains and snow, close and accessible. It also helps that everyone we've met so far has been so friendly and nice.

Flying in over Vancouver Island, I was surprised all over again at how big it is, though we won't be going there this time; and beyond were the Rockies, which we will be getting a much closer look at: in, up and amongst them. Though it's so warm, there's still plenty of snow on the tops, even if it's "Indian snow" (old and pre-PC coach-driver's joke: "Apache here and Apache there"). Today is just a flying visit - we'll be back later for a proper nose around.

We're staying at the Listel Hotel in Robson St, "Vancouver's most art-full hotel" - we haven't had much chance to explore yet, but there certainly is art everywhere - paintings and sculpture (notably a fraternity of red squatting men) both in the public areas and in the rooms, which are comfortable and elegant. We ate here at Forage with Sue, who guided us through a very tasty menu of BC dishes including crab-stuffed morel mushrooms, halibut cheeks, juicy spot prawns and insane prawn oil popcorn mixed with super-crackling that our bubbly waitress Karen poetically - and accurately - described as "crunchy clouds". Plus a golden pinot gris that's on tap at the bar. All this, and sustainable too!

And I finished the day with a long walk along the waterfront into Stanley Park, where the paths were humming with cyclists, roller bladers and skateboarders, and with walkers and runners and photographers, everyone ready with a smile and enjoying the beautiful warm, still evening. It was a perfect way to end the day - shame I ruined it by tripping over a kerb and twisting my ankle and grazing my knee, tch.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Planes and boat and trains

Yes, things have gone a bit quiet around here lately, sorry about that - but it's all going to get a lot more lively and interesting from tomorrow onwards. Only one more sleep before the Big Trip: first leg Air NZ to Vancouver, just the 13+ hours, but overnight; and then we're into it. Vancouver, Anchorage, Seward, then fabulous Silversea along the *ahem* Inside Passage back down to Vancouver. There we reluctantly disembark from the Silver Cloud's seductive luxury... and consign ourselves to 5-star Fairmont hotels and Gold Leaf class on the Rocky Mountaineer over the Rockies to Banff. Then more hotels, trains and indulgences including Jasper, Lake Louise and Whistler - and finally, after 3 weeks, back home where, hopefully, the cat and hens will still be alive and well, the Firstborn having remembered to feed them all.

Though it's a very busy itinerary, all the hard stuff has been done by first Silversea and then, more admirably, by the super-efficient Kim at World Journeys, who had to contact all the suppliers for the post-cruise fortnight and fit it all together. It was a massive job that I began but soon found hopelessly complicated, so I was both delighted and relieved to have her take it over for me.

So ahead will be lots and lots of lovely rooms and beds and thoughtful touches and yummy breakfasts and dinners; and spectacular scenery of mountains and glaciers and forests; and colourful fishing towns and pretty mountain resorts and interesting cities; and - I do hope so - bears and sea otters and orca and whales and moose and other novelty mammals. Can't wait!

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