Friday, 17 January 2014

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!




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