Monday, 20 January 2014

Travel tips: Everyone loves a Top Ten list.

After travelling for four months there are a lot of things I've wished I knew right at the beginning, some of them I had seen on blogs and things before I came but I didn't really pay attention. I searched for all the "Top Ten" lists I could, so here's my own.

1. Buy solid shampoo & conditioner, or suck it up and buy travel size.

This is the tip that sticks out so much in my memory. I remember reading it and thinking "HA! As if I'm buying travel size for four months!" I got to Toronto and bought myself a regular size shampoo and conditioner and was happy. Then I moved onto Niagara, and realised my error. In the travelling scheme of things, those bottle are enormous. My bag is full to the brim anyway, I had to carry them around separately, wrapped up in a second plastic bag because those bottles carry water like a camel, secreted away so you only discover it when it's soaked through everything else. The tops of both broke swiftly too, meaning I had to tape them closed. I eventually gave in and bought solid from Lush. Yes, it's more expensive...I got the tins to hold them in too, but it's so worth it. The tins can be stashed in my bag with not too much more effort and they last ages. I also managed to lose both original bottles by leaving them in the shower, I'm much more precious about my tins.

2. If you're in the west, don't bother bringing a sleeping sack.

This was a tip I actually paid attention to, and I wish I hadn't. The idea is that you have your sleeping sack to avoid the possibility of bed bugs, but every hostel I've been to (or researched) don't let you use them as there is just as much of a possibility of you bringing the blighters in with it. Mine took up space in my bag the whole time...I couldn't quite bring myself to throw it away in case I came across a grotty bed.

3. A torch is a must.

Some beds I slept in had a lamp, some didn't. I bought myself a little torch that could hang above my bed and it was invaluable. I often got up very early to check out and catch an early (cheap) bus, and you don't just turn on the lights in a dorm of 10. Well, some people do, and I hated them with a violent burning passion. I packed everything I could the night before I left so that in the morning my tasks were to get dressed and get my bags out of the room. I'd pack up the last bits outside the room to spare the others. You often have huge backpack sized lockers and searching through those in the dark isn't easy. Sometimes the rooms are very dark as a result of all the bunk beds. Bring a torch. Go to a Poundland equivalent. You're welcome.

4. Buy some sandwich bags.

When I bought these I never imagined they would be as helpful as they have been. Yes, sandwiches, standard. But I've used them for all sorts, tea bags so I don't have to carry the box, washing powder, crisps (because apparently a bag for one is impossible to find here) makeshift bins on the go...all sorts. I've found myself digging them out much more often than you'd expect, you will too.

5. Trust instincts.

It will never cease to amaze me how often my instincts are spot on. It would serve me well to remember this in the rest of my life, there have been numerous occasions where I was convinced something was about to happen and I chastised myself for being stupid before finding out I was on the money. We're not psychic, we're just so much better at reading people than we will ever give ourselves credit for. If someone walks into the dorm and you get a bad feeling from them, then just stay away. It doesn't even necessarily have to be a bad feeling, maybe you just think "I don't think they're my kinda person..." and you decide to stay in rather than go out with them. That's fine. Because I was away and alone I paid much more attention to these feelings than I usually do and I know it's done me good.

6. Remember you're allowed to do nothing.

It took me a long time to realise that I didn't have to go out and do something every day, that I could stay in bed and watch films or read if I wanted to. I always felt obligated to go outside and have a walk, if nothing else. Each time it was "come ON, you're in Montréal!" or "Look at that view! Go outside and look at the view from somewhere else!" I felt like I would hate myself in a couple of months time, when I'm back at work and wishing I was out exploring in Banff or watching the water in Vancouver. But I won't. If I was at home I wouldn't go out each and every day. I'd relax and watch tv and drink tea. I started doing this a bit more occasionally here and then realised how much I missed it once I got to Kelowna. The hostel was a fantastic place to relax, with comfy sofas, friendly staff, and plenty of films available. I spent most of my time there sitting with my ipad and some tea, relaxing exactly how I would if I were home with my friends. It was so good for me, and made me all the more excited about exploring Vancouver afterwards having had a break from being a hectic tourist, walking miles every day and aching all evening.

7. Embrace the selfie

I took a hell of a lot of photos whilst away, some places taking numerous shots of the same view because I was so desperate to capture that wonderful sight. This is all well and good, and you shouldn't not take thse photos, but people want to see you. You want to see you. Now that I'm back I feel a bit like...well I might have taken this photo but I could certainly find the same image, better, somewhere else. I prefer the photos that prove to myself that it actually did it! It feels unreal that it ever happened now, but seeing myself at Niagara cements it as fact. In the future, when I'm looking at these photos with my children/cats/minions the views won't be interesting, it will be seeing how I looked then. Whenever we look back at old family photos we're most interested in the people in them. I'm not a fan of the arm length photo, I feel like a fool, not to mention it's not particularly easy when you're using your DSLR rather than a phone. I really wished I had a remote for my camera, but settled for taking a few consecutive photos on timer to increase chances of a better shot.

8. Don't bother with a least in the west.

I left my phone at home, reasoning I'd be able to buy a cheap phone to use over there. I was expecting it to be like it is in the UK, it's not. Rather than being able to buy a bog standard phone for a tenner and putting a tenner of credit on it, I got to Toronto and found I would have to buy a $80 phone and have a $20 a month plan at least. No thanks. I won't deny there were a couple of points where I longed for the ability to text, but certainly not $160 worth of moments. Unless you have a magnificent deal from your provider at home and a phone you truly don't care about losing, don't bother. Wifi is everywhere and it might be an annoying walk back to find it if plans aren't running as smoothly as you thought, but you'll save a lot of money.

9. Consider online back up

The likelihood of me not having something break whilst I was away was ridiculously small. I love technology, but it hates me. I've had multiple phones stolen, a fair few broken (some my fault, some not), things get lost or just decide to shuffle orf. This was a big reason I left my phone at home when I went, my luck would dictate that it would be stolen like the last two. I was victim to a failing memory card at had on it two pieces of coursework, one due in a week and the other in a fortnight. No words can describe the moment I discovered it had corrupted *cry* . Anyway, knowing my luck as I do, I wanted to make sure that the photos I took would be safe from me. I signed up to Flickr Pro with unlimited storage, and I'm so glad I did. I now tend to keep all my photos there, partly to take them out of my tech killing hands, and partly to free up space. Uploading with the Flickr Stackr app is nice and easy, and the editing options are passable...good enough on the move!

10. For goodness' sake, write stuff down.

Sometime you don't feel like writing, sometimes you forget, sometimes it only pours out when you're not actually feeling that great...but you'll kick yourself if you don't. I wrote a bit here and there, mainly for the blog, and I wish I'd written so much more that was just for me. I'm so happy I have the posts here for me to look back on, there will always be things that get forgotten and your writing jogs your memory. It all feels immensely unreal to me that I was ever IF I managed that! But the writing is proof...and looking at the books will take you back to the places you were when you were writing. I started writing this post in Vancouver. I was in Starbucks with a cup of tea I had bought to spite a rude old woman who was shouting at everyone who wasn't leaving the second their drinks were finished, I conspired with the man with a pram next to me to keep our tables safe from her, and shared grimaces with the baristas she had been lambasting for not doing her bidding. I finished writing it in Chatham, contemplating a further cup of tea and half watching Doctors.



Friday, 17 January 2014

Vancouver...Part 2

We arrived back in Vancouver on New Year's Eve. Before leaving for Victoria we had popped into the hostel we were now staying at and asked what they recommended for New Year celebrations, and were informed that there was going to be a great big firework celebration on the waterfront, the first for a number of years and that it would be well worth going to. Brilliant! Sorted!

We sorted ourselves out some food and had some drinks in our room. A lot of time was spent taking amusing photos of each other and singing Elephant Love Medley extremely loudly. I'll admit, there was a point when we were both considering just staying in for the evening...we managed to talk ourselves out of it. We walked down Granville Street, there was a great atmosphere of fun that we were looking forward to rejoining after the countdown. On we walked, stopping for a drink at a bar before getting ourselves a spot at the waterfront. There were plenty of other people there ready for a countdown, though it wasn't obvious where the action would be taking place.

It all kinda...went wrong from there. Samantha seemed to very suddenly get bad heartburn and wasn't able to stand and watch, so we were a little distracted when people around us started counting down. Not in your traditional 10...9...8...7.......kind of way. No, more in an abstract, you can't tell me what to do sort of way. TEN....SEVEN......FOUR....EIGHT....SIX....TWO....ONE....NINE.....

I spent the first minute or so of 2014 wondering whether it was 2014 or not.

We found a bar to get Samantha some water and use the loo, then as the heartburn passed we found another with some delicious daquiris, before admitting defeat and going home. New Year has expectations too high to be an awesome night, but it's certainly one I'll never forget.

Our next excursion was to the Aquarium, I'd read about their bioluminescence shows and was intrigued. We got ourselves there and enjoyed a few hours looking at the jellyfish and dolphins and a looooong time watching the belugas. We waited around for a long time to see this show, and were less than impressed to find it was called 'It's glow time!' and aimed entirely at children. I'm sure it was fantastic for them, but not quite the impression I had got from leaflets...

Another trip out was to Stanley Park, taking a wander round the beaches and through the trees. I could never get bored of Stanley Park, and will miss it hugely. We got to take a better look at the smiley statues and actually understand why they were opposed to just how they were feeling.

We had read about the Vancouver Art Museum and that we got a discount with an HI membership and took ourselves over there, finding to our joy that the membership gave us free entry not just a discount! Win! That's pretty amazing really, the entry was $17, so to get down to free was brilliant. There was a fantastic exhibit on Charles Edenshaw, a Haida artist from British Columbia, amongst many others. Absolutely worth a visit, particularly if you have an HI membership (it's a YHA membership in the UK and Australia, but they're linked to HI).

One day's adventures took us on an epic walk around Vancouver. After eventually finding the Jimi Hendrix shrine, we discovered it was closed. Damn. We took the opportunity for a wander back round to Granville Island, though it took much longer than expected...we went a little bit mad on the way, sitting for awhile watching a couple across the water and making up their conversation. It involved cheese, that's as much as I can remember, or as much as was coherent.

Another day took us through Gastown, the older part of Vancouver. It was mostly souvenir shops...but there was a steam powered clock, which I loved.

The last few days were filled with walking and Tim Hortons and relaxing. We saw The Big Lebowksi at midnight in a mega cheap cinema in East Vancouver, and then took ourselves back over there to watch Anchorman 2. It's worth a watch - some points are trying desperately hard to be just Anchorman, but there were some real laugh out loud parts and it's just as instantly quotable as the original.

A couple of days before Samantha was due to fly home I discovered my funds had run low much more quickly than I had thought, terrifyingly so. I felt a real panic and on top of already feeling ready for home, I was lost and worried and not sure what to do. Thanks to my wonderful parents I was able to book myself onto an earlier flight home, one less than an hour after Samantha's. So her last day turned into our last day...we had a last coffee in Tim Hortons, and left behind some playdough for other people to enjoy. I hope they have. We went back to our favourite eatery in Vancouver, The Famous Warehouse, and enjoyed some delicious $4.95 food. We perused some shops, careful not to buy anything as everything had been precariously packed.

Reasoning that at an airport one expects to wait, we head off a little earlier than we thought we would, hoisted bags onto ourselves and got to the train. The ride is unbelievably easy, particularly compared to home, and we were soon at the airport and checking in. As we got there we discovered Samantha's flight was delayed by an hour and a half...and mine by 4 and a half. Doh.

Somehow, the wait didn't seem too long. There is no huge great trek to the gate like there is at Heathrow or Gatwick, mine was almost opposite Samantha's, so I waited with her until her flight left and ambled over to my side. The delay had been decreased to three and a half hours, so it seemed like nothing at all until the time printed on my ticket for boarding. It came and went. Someone asked if we were still supposed to be leaving at the time displayed on the board, and they were assured it would be....despite it being ten minutes until that time and there being no sign of boarding.

Eventually, we boarded, and proceeded to wait there for an hour before finally departing. Unlike other flights who might try and get people into their new time zones as quickly as possible, Air Transat decided to keep us well and truly in Vancouver. At midnight we were served dinner, and just before landing in the UK we were given breakfast...despite it being nearly 5pm. The flight was long and uncomfortable...the screens are tiny and terrible quality and the food shouldn't strictly be called food. The only reason I didn't hate the flight entirely? I saw the northern lights! They weren't the brightest and most exciting, like the kind you see on leaflets, and airplane windows are not the best for giving views. But it was absolutely wonderful to have actually seen them on my trip in some way, though it has just fuelled a desire to go and see them somewhere properly.

Finally landed and bags retrieved I got out of there as quickly as I could, finding my mum waiting for me in arrivals. I could never have squeezed her hard enough! She took me back home to a dinner at my sister's house, squeezes with siblings and niblings and parents all round.

So....I did it. I went to Canada. I had the most amazing time, I met a huge amount of people, some people who I was glad to part company wit, some who I'm hoping are back in the UK soon so I can see them again! There were times when I wished desperately that I'd just stayed at home, some when I thanked my stars that I had gone through with the trip. I saw beautiful places and some less beautiful, but no less memorable. I caught the sun and stood waist deep in snow. I spent 5 days of my life on a tour with people who didn't speak english, but 4 evenings of those 5 were spent in hot tubs. My camera broke almost the instant it got to Canada, but thanks to my amazing family I got a new, lighter, and better one. I got so used to huge distances I thought "oh, only 5 hours on the coach, it's not that far!" and spent 3 days on the train. I spent a night picking frozen grapes at -15 and confused a whole lot of Canadians by asking for goose fat.

I am so proud of myself for going, and I'm looking forward to seeing how my experiences have changed my outlook on the the moment I'm still emerging, dazed, from jet lag. I appreciate my bed like never before, not to mention not having to dress in a barely metre square space after a shower and drying or straightening my hair? Hello luxury!

Of course, over this time I finished my photo challenge. It's been a mental year, and I've got tell you, I'm loving not having to have my camera with me all the time. I will certainly be keeping my blog...I like it. I think I will like it more when there's less expectation for regular posts like before!

Thank you for reading over the past year, and over my wonderful journey. This year is going to be an adventure of another sort, I'm sure, and I look forward to keeping you all informed.




The Tour

That morning we got up, sad to leave our flat but excited about our tour. We were off for 5 days, visiting Kelowna, Banff and Lake Louise, what could be wrong? Oh my.

So we got to the airport well ahead of time and had a coffee while we waited. Then we went and hung around in the meeting spot for awhile...then a bit longer. After another while we called the tour company, who told us to look out for an Asian man in a red coat with the sign Super Vacation. Hmm.

Eventually he turned up with his sign, which had Super Vacation in English below what I'm assuming was Super Vacation in Mandarin. When we spoke to him his accent was incredibly thick and we struggled to make ourselves understood. He consulted his list of names and said we weren't on it and walked away. We went back after him and insisted we were with his he checked the next page and there we were. The only western names on the sheet. We were taken to our hotel and told we had to pay a $2 tip per person to the driver. Fine, ok.

Things got better when we arrived at the hotel, it was much nicer than we were expecting and we had even been upgraded by the hotel to an apartment suite and there was a hot tub on our floor. Win! We dropped off our things and went back downstairs to join the tour of Vancouver. This was where we realised what we were in for for the next few days.

We quickly realised we were the only non-Chinese people on the tour, which would make a huge difference to our experience versus those of our fellow travellers. We were put on board a mini bus and travelled round Vancouver at break neck speed with a truly terrifying driver.

First stop was Queen Elizabeth Park, where we took some amusing photos with some statues before jumping back on the minivan and rushing down to Granville Island. Here we piled out, were given tickets, directions to the ferry, and instructions to be on the other side of the river by 4pm. We had very little real time on Granville Island, which has a fantastic little market, before we had to find our ferry. We bought ourselves a smoked meat bagel (DELISH) and found the ferry, which was the tiniest little boat you've ever seen, so freaking cute. Extremely rocky, but it added to the fun, try it. Due to my insane inability to cope with being late ever we were able to get back on time, however we were the only ones who appeared to make any effort to do so...half an hour of waiting on a dark cold bus later everyone else arrived and we zoomed back off.

Something we would come to get used to would be how little translation we would receive. The guides would speak for about 10 minutes in Chinese and then we'd get a few seconds. One such example was on this tour, there was a 10 minute portion in Chinese, the translation for us being "there are some statues...they are very happy."

I want to be clear - the tour website says this tour is bilingual. It's not. Neither guide we had could be described as fluent in English. They could do very well, but their accent was so thick it was at times impossible to understand. The tour is completely aimed at Chinese tourists, and that is absolutely fine, it should just be properly advertised as such.

Anyway. Because of everyone else arriving back so late at the bus before, we had to cut short everything else. We went by Stanley Park and were able to glimpse the views before getting back on the bus and going back to the hotel, where we had to pay $6 per person for the tour guide as a 'service charge'. Hmm.

So far unimpressed with the tour, we decided to make the most of the situation and went for a relax in the hot tub. We had it to ourselves and it was absolutely wonderful. We googled the other hotels we would be staying at and discovered they all had spa areas, and so spawned the decision that every day of the tour we would be in some form of hot tub. It was a great decision.

Up early next morning we waited 45 minutes for the coach. Peeved that we had foregone breakfast so that we wouldn't be late we were sat on the bus wondering what we had got ourselves into. Our seats for the first day of the tour were right at the front on the passenger side, so we had a glorious view. A glorious view of the chips in the windscreen and the large crack in one side. One that we saw grow as our journey progressed. Sigh.

The first stop on the tour was in Kelowna. As the rest of the tour departed to the restaurant determined by them paying the extra $120 for meals (almost every restaurant they went to was a Chinese buffet) we head off in the opposite direction and found Samantha her first poutine. We made sure we were back perfectly on time for the coach, only to drive for roughly a minute (almost back to where we had just eaten) and be deposited on the lake for another walk. Very pretty, but not enough time to explore, something we'd come to expect of anywhere we stopped. Yet again as we were supposed to be leaving a group decided that the time limit didn't apply to them and we waited for about 20 minutes for them. We started to leave and then had to stop as they appeared with coffee cups at a crossing. Grumble.

The second stop in Kelowna was much more interesting - it was at the winery. More proof that this was a tour organised with mandarin speakers in mind, we arrived and there were two employees ready to give everyone the tour. This worked out well for us though, we had a man talking to us alone rather than to a crowd. I finally got to sample some Icewine! It really is delicious, it's a dessert wine so it's very sweet, but hugely enjoyable. Our wine guide told us that every four weeks or so they see a couple of westerners on the tour, people who clearly had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. To go some way to making us feel better he gave us a taste of another couple of kinds of wines, and they too were delicious. I shall try and keep an eye out for them, though I suspect they will be hard to find in the UK and/or rather expensive.

As we waited in the coach for everyone to board, the coach driver informed us he was scared about try to leave because the last time he was there he couldn't get up the hill because it was too icy, which was nice and reassuring. Sure enough, he could not get that coach up the hill and, after about 20 attempts which left Samantha and I fearing for our lives, he finally turned round and drove up the entrance route. Good grief.

That evening we stayed in Salmon Arm. Again, I have nothing bad to say about the hotel. We twin double beds and a rather fancy bathroom with bath and shower separate...whaaaat. Sadly, there was no real chance to test out the bath. We went for a swim in the so-called heated pool and, true to our promise, a relax in the hot tub. It was outside, there was snow on the ground, and the water was 40 degrees. So happy. Ahhh.... We didn't quite think it through completely though. We left our towels inside in the pool room, and the walk back was not the most pleasant I've had in my lifetime.

Up early the next morning, we started on our journey to Banff. On the way we stopped at Rogers Pass. I would love to be able to tell you more about Rogers Pass, but as usual we were hurried round and back onto the coach without really being able to explore the museum in the way I would have liked. I can confirm it is something to do with the rail system built from East to West, and was discovered by Major Rogers but I'm afraid, dear reader, that that's pretty much the extent of it. There was a hat to try on. We love hats!

The most exciting part of Rogers Pass was the enormous amount of snow. The kind of snow you'd never see at home, and exactly the kind of thing you imagine when you think of Canada and mountains.

We arrived in Banff in the afternoon, and our first stop was at the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. This took you up the mountain, sometimes swaying rather alarmingly, and gave a spectacular view. Up the top of the mountain there was an area to wander round, and a path across to another viewpoint. Unfortunately we were not given enough time to go across, something I would have loved to do. As it turns out, when we did get back down it was almost exactly on time for the coach leaving. Something someone else was unable to comprehend (again) and he was left behind to make his own way to the springs. Lucky for him, these are just around the corner.

Unluckily for us, everyone and their auntie was planning on a dip at the springs. I'm sure everyone who saw the tour group rocking up as they joined the queue hated us quite considerably. We eventually got in, and it was worth the wait. It was a little strange, being in a 40 degree pool with everyone sitting around and yet no bubbles like a hot Samantha said it was like sharing a bath with 50 or so other people. I still loved it though. Again, we were outside, in a hot tub, snow on the ground and falling through the air. As it's so warm they recommend you only stay in for 10 minutes, I think we stayed for about 20 and then got ourselves dried off and back on the coach.

The hotel in Banff was a little more dated than in Salmon Arm, but we were still given a decent sized double twin room, and there was a spa. As per our promise, we got ourselves ready and headed down in the evening. We had a sit in the sauna and steam room, which was perfect, though we decided against the hot tub as there were some horribly leary men sitting in there refusing to budge. We decided the springs would do just as well for our hot tub quota for that day.

Before our spa adventures, we went for a wander around the town. I enjoyed a last Beaver Tail and tea from Evelyn's and tried to take in the place for the last time. Banff was my favourite place on my travels, and I shall miss it hugely.

Next morning our journey took us on to Lake Louise. We arrived, and were provided with snow shoes to walk on the lake. As fun as it was to strap ourselves into the things, they weren't strictly necessary. The snow was very thick in some places, but most of our walk was on snow much the same as anywhere else we had been walking and very little was pure ice. That still feels insane to on earth was I walking on a lake and it didn't feel icy?!

As lovely as Lake Louise is, it's not the most exciting place apart from the Lake. There's a lake and a hotel...and that's about it. So imagine our confusion when having been rushed up and down a mountain in an hour and in and out of springs in 45 minute, we were given 2 and a half hours at Lake Louise. I think this had more to do with the fact that there are some expensive hotel boutiques there than the fact that there was just too much to do there. The people on the meal plan (all but 4 of us) were taken off to the restaurant whilst we hung out in the lobby and waited to get going again. Plus point, we were given some free (and delicious) hot chocolate. Mmm.

We piled back on the coach and headed back to Salmon Arm. The snow was getting heavier as the drive went on, a drive that seemed to be going on forever. The guide told us every 45 minutes that we were 45 minutes away. Well, that's what we thought he was telling us. We could honestly make out little to nothing of what he said, which pushed our feeling of amusement at our situation into pure frustration and annoyance. This was not helped when the coach driver pulled off the road and down into a rest stop. As usual, everyone had to get off the bus, regardless of whether or not they wanted to go to the toilet...leading to us being stood in thick snow for 20 minutes.

As we got off the coach we heard someone shouting to our guide "What are you doing?! The highway's being closed in an hour, why are you stopping?!" Needless to say, this was alarming. Our guide laughed as if it was some great joke and paid no attention. We turned back to relay this information to the driver who just reeled off excuse after excuse as to why we simply had to stop. "You guys understand but everyone else doesn't, they'll complain" "It's on the itinerary, we have to stop" "It's the law, I have to stop every two hours" and on and on.

We were stood in the snow, tired, cold, and fuming, hoping this time would be the time we actually were 45 minutes away. That hope was boiled away by pure rage when the guide said that rather than going to the hotel first, we would be going to the restaurant. The restaurant that was part of the meal deal (which seemingly consisted only of chinese buffets) and we would not be eating at. We protested, he said the restaurant was only 30 minutes away so it made more sense. Our point was that in this snow was it not safer to make sure that we got to the hotel where there was food if need be, rather than get to a restaurant (where you're clearly getting a hand out) where not everyone wants to eat and there is nowhere to sleep should the weather get any worse. We were ignored.

Our feelings were compounded when, once again, the coach struggled to get up the slop out of the rest stop due to ice and snow. After about 10 minutes of trying he finally managed by going back the way we came and turning around. We were not happy. All the time we had been thinking "It's an experience, we'll laugh later" flew away, all I could think of was how angry I was that I had paid money for this tour. Finally, karma smiled on us, and they discovered they were too late to go to the restuarant so they would have to go back to the hotel first and then find somewhere else to fit them in. The hot tub was desperately needed that night.

The next morning we got up just feeling glad that we were nearly done with this stupid tour. We had a stop at a Ginseng factory, then we would be going home. Hmm.

We arrived very quickly at this place, and as Samantha and I walked in we were ushered to one side to have a tour with the one english speaking person there. Our tour last all of 5 minutes, whilst the other lasted about 20. Ginseng is horrible and disgustingly expensive. We got back on the coach and ate some crackers, settling ourselves in for a couple of hours drive before lunch. Barely 15 minutes later we stopped at a 11am. We were told that we simply had to stop now because the traffic if we carried on at that time would be terrible. It definitely had nothing to do with the restaurant (chinese buffet) that they were stopping at. The place we stopped was in the middle of a mix of a residential and industrial our lunch was Tim Hortons. A lunch we were by no means hungry for, having just snacked so we wouldn't get too hungry before lunch at a normal time.

A further infuriating trip home, being told that there was simply no way they could drop us at our hostel as they were doing for everyone else because there was nowhere for the coach to stop. This became obvious as a complete lie when the coach stopped in a tiny road in Chinatown.

Well. There were some great times on the tour, wonderful sights and the hottest of tubs. But the overriding feeling I have when I think of this tour is annoyance that we spent money on this without knowing truly what we were paying for. That the site so hugely hid what the tour truly was. That we got so much less out of the tour than everyone else. That if we had just looked at the reviews in more detail we would have found this out earlier. All I can say is that I will be posting reviews of the tour agency far and wide, just to make sure that no one else has to have the experience we had.

Onto the last week in Vancouver!




Tuesday, 14 January 2014


After Samantha booked her flights to join me we decided that we would find ourselves somewhere nice for Christmas. Somewhere where we could cook our own dinner, somewhere where we wouldn't be sharing a room with strangers, somewhere that would feel a bit more like home for Christmas. We started looking on airbnb, and after a little while we found our lovely little flat.

Our place was the bottom floor of a house in Victoria on Vancouver Island. The owners lived upstairs and were the most fantastically friendly people we could ever have hoped for. Upon our arrival in Schwartz Bay we were met by Keith, the husband of the couple, and he drove us back to the flat. This was amazing all by itself. The day of moving on anywhere was always so exhausting, never knowing where you're supposed to be heading and with everything you own on your back is fairly stressful. Just getting in a car and ending up where we were heading was bliss. After we got in and dropped our things off he then took us to the shops so we could get our food in for the week without lugging everything back on the bus. Fantastic couple, I will put a link to our flat at the end of the post, keep them in mind if you're ever heading to Victoria!

The flat itself was just what we had wanted. The place could fit up to 8 people or so in, so we had plenty of room and we were extremely comfortable in our beds. Mmmm, bed. There was a lovely kitchen, albeit it with a slightly overenthusiastic smoke detector. Everytime we opened the oven it would go off, we soon learned that this meant if something was going in or out of it that meant someone had to be standing waving a tea towel frantically at the alarm to prevent it going off. This was not annoying in any way whilst making Christmas dinner.

The bus stopped barely a minute's walk away, so we took ourselves into town most days. I was met with my usual frustration with Canada's buses - exact change only. Grumblemumblegroan.

Our first day in we had a little wander round before heading to the BC museum, currently exhibiting the wildlife photographer of the year. There were some amazing photos, if it comes somewhere near you check it out. The rest of the museum was as interesting as most, though we cut our meander slightly short to watch an imax film - Titans of the Ice Age. Most enjoyable.

Second exciting day in, we visited Butchart Gardens. Again, our hosts were extremely helpful. After hearing that we were planning to go over there, Keith gave us a lift again and was able to get us a slight discount on our entrance! Butchart Gardens was once an old quarry that is now, as the name might suggest, a garden. We went round it twice, first in the daylight and again once the sun had set. The whole place was covered in lights, it was truly beautiful. It seems like it was some kind of tradition for a lot of families there, which was nice to see. There was a 12 days of Christmas theme to the decorations, which took us until the 5 gold rings for us to notice properly.

Christmas Eve we found another gingerbread house exhibit, much more exciting than the first I had been to in Vancouver. There were some wonderful constructions, including an AT-AT and the Griswald's House. My favourite was this Cinderella Steampunk house, I loved how smooth the curves were.

After the houses we decided to partake of a 'gingerbread tea' in the restaurant of the hotel in exhibition was in. I'll be honest, my favourite part was the pot of tea, but the gingerbread biscuits with eggnog cream was pretty tasty too. Tea will always win though.

Back in the flat we attempted to watch Elf, one of the three dvds Samantha had brought over for our Christmas enjoyment. Unfortunately the dvd player was not multi region. Honestly, how long has it been since you had to worry about the region of your dvd? Luckily for us, Netflix came up trumps and had Elf available to watch. Mulled wine in hand, we sat down and watched Elf on a tiny little screen....then proceeded to quote it for the rest of our trip. I managed to watch It's a Wonderful Life before going to sleep, and all was well.

"So, good news, I saw a dog today. Have you seen a dog? You probably have."

Christmas Day! First things first, we both Facetimed home. Over the previous three days we had been making our own 12 Days of Canada video for people back home to enjoy, and had sent it over last thing on Christmas Eve. My delight when the last line was sung back at me as my family answered the facetime call was enormous, to put it lightly. After Samantha called home we finally sat down to some presents, like the ridiculous grown ups that we are.

We both had some things from our families to open which was truly lovely, and had both had chats with Santa about some things to leave in each others' stockings. He's a very accommodating man. Presents opened and fawned over, it was time to start our Christmas dinner prep. I'd been desperately looking for goose fat for our potatoes, but apparently Canada hasn't discovered this gift from the gods, so instead we got some beef fat from the meat counter and had a pretty wondrous mix of beef dropping potatoes and roast chicken. We did pretty amazingly, I've got to say. Maple honey parsnips was our sole nod to Canada, everything else was designed to remind us as much of home as we could. Mum had sent over some proper gravy and stuffing, so we didn't have to use the dishwater rubbish we'd bought at the shops previously. We had numerous crackers and wine and Baileys. It was a happy meal. Our only disappointment was that we had bought what we thought was a chocolate toffee cheesecake, and it looked delicious. After defrosting it and opening the box we discovered it was 4 miniature cheesecakes that were not delicious. Sad times indeed.

It was a strange Christmas Day. I've got used to loud, busy, full of children Christmas Days, with lots of games played in the evening. Here we had a civilised, quiet Christmas Day, with some playdough and charades, nothing like I was used to. But it was fun. It was different. It was significantly quieter than any Christmas I've ever had ever.

Boxing Day we popped back into Victoria for a last wander and explore before we left early on the 27th for our tour, once again given a lift by Keith.

Victoria is a great place, a place to go for a quiet holiday. There is whale watching during the right months, and wildlife tours during the wrong months, both are expensive but not too expensive not to be factored in if you're desperate to see some orcas and know about it ahead of time. If you do go, consider staying at Keith and Sybil's, they're wonderful people.

Also, don't miss miniature world. It's


Off now for our tour. If only we knew.