I’m ashamed to admit it but this is the first time I’ve been up to Grouse Mountain in the winter; I don’t ski and charming though a trip on Santa’s sleigh sounds, I just hadn’t made it up there. But whereas I’m a take it or leave it girl when it comes to sleigh rides, when it comes to a light show you can count on me to be there. Continue reading →
Things to do
I never used to get into the festive spirit: the sound of sleigh bells and carols on the radio left me cold, those supposedly-heart tugging Christmas adverts made me feel even more Grinch-like than usual and really, it just seemed so… ugh. Not for me. No thanks.
But all that changed when I arrived in Canada.
It felt less commercial here and really just more about being joyful and enjoying the season. There are special foods and flavours, and fun events which ring in the holidays, and I’ve grown to love them all. For me the festivities begin the moment that Avalon’s eggnog goes on sale. Avalon is a local organic family-run dairy who’ve been in business since 1906. They use ethical animal husbandry, no GMOs, no pesticides and they make the best damn chocolate milk ever! Once their creamy ‘nog arrives, it’s time to crack open the Kraken run, break out the Moose Mug and get merry… Continue reading →
It’s one of my favourite events in Vancouver’s culinary calendar, the Vancouver International Wine festival; a blizzard of fun wine-based events, tastings, and special winery dinners which takes place each February, just in time to give us all a boozy lift in those grey winter days. Each year the festival’s focus shifts to a different country –last year celebrated Australia – this year it’s all about Italy with 60 wineries from nine regions representing the country and offering visitors to the festival a chance to sample some 50 varieties in the tasting room.
I love this event for so many reasons; I’m just starting to learn more about wine and each year I come away with a little more knowledge and a whole lot more favourites, thanks to the fascinating seminars and winemaker dinners. Last year I was lucky enough to attend an incredible event showcasing rare wines from California winery legend Robert Mondavi. A gloriously Vancouver-ish event, it took place at the Observatory restaurant, a the tope of Grouse Mountain. I got to watch the bright winter sun set over the city and then learn more about Mondavi’s divine wines in the company of their winemaker Nova Cadamatre, all paired with Observatory’s Chef Dennis Peckham’s inspired cooking.
If you’re planning a trip to Vancouver now’s a great time to snap up discounted tickets on tasting room events until December 31 (or until quantities last). Or, for an excellent bargain, you can score a free ticket to the tasting room, which, this year along with Italy, will showcase 156 wineries from 14 countries by booking a hotel via beVancouver.com. Best paired with a ski holiday to Whistler or maybe a city trip to Victoria, start planning your wine break to Vancouver now…
Further booking info:
Phone: 604-873-3311, toll free 1-877-321-3121 (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
In person: 305–456 West Broadway, Vancouver (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
I guess it makes sense that the prairies are so utterly cycle-friendly: flat, wide open spaces and oh, those endless skies. I got to spend some time in Alberta recently on trips to Calgary and Edmonton, both cities that I’d always associated with gleaming high rises and traffic-packed downtown cores. Turns out I was wrong: there’s plenty of green space and winding rivers in both cities and good cycling to be found in both.
I took a tour around Calgary, freewheeling across bridges and pedalling through the recently opened St Patrick’s Island Park, a gorgeous newly renovated leafy space in the middle of the Bow River, with hiking and biking trails and killer views across the city’s skyline.
in Edmonton I cycled the River Valley Trails and had to stop a dozen or more times to take photographs of the lush parkland all around me. It was the start of fall; the seasons were sliding from one to the next and the trees blazed with their autumn finest. I love it when I’m genuinely surprised by a city –and to have two such similar experiences in a matter of days delighted me. It always reminds me: forget what you think you know – go find out for sure what things are really like.
The last time I can remember this scent in the air was in Sri Lanka; the smoky perfume of incense mixed with the sweet smell of flowers left as offerings to Buddha. But this time I’m not in Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth, there is no elephant tethered outside, no mischievous monkeys clambering the temple walls, nor gaudily-painted tuk tuks or King Coconut sellers ready to take your money. No, despite the incense and the gloriously golden glitz of the multi-armed Guan-Yin, I’m actually just a few miles from Vancouver in Richmond.
A short stop away from the Canada Line train, along the Highway to Heaven (the poetic name for No. 5 Road) you’ll find some 20 different places of worship: temples, mosques and churches co-exist peacefully together, side by side. Take a turn on to the Steveston Highway and you’ll find the most dazzling of all, the International Buddhist Temple, North America’s largest, modelled after China’s Forbidden City in Beijing and the start of my exploration into how to celebrate Chinese New Year in Canada. The festival is a big deal in Richmond, where some 60% of residents are Asian-Canadian, so before each Lunar New Year in February, the temple does a brisk business in the golden baubles and flowers trade, with the devout stopping by to purchase armfuls of each to take home and to give as gifts. Continue reading →
I was wrong about the weather. As we set off from Vancouver along the twisting turns of the Sea to Sky highway, the rain lashed down, blocking our view of one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The tail end of the Pineapple Express, a west coast storm system that had dropped what felt like a river of rain over the city in a few short days, was putting a decidedly damp start on our trip to Squamish’s Sea to Sky Gondola. I’d been excited to see far out across Howe Sound as we made our way up the Stawamus Chief, Squamish’s famous granite domed mountain. And from seeing photos, knew that it would be a knock out view when we got up there. But the rain and clouds had put paid to that. Or so I thought. We rose gently in the gondola, coming what felt close enough to touch the wet rock of the Chief, then we were plunged into a dense mist, like being wrapped in cotton wool, as we floated upwards, unable to see a thing. But then we broke through the clouds, weak rays of sun piercing through the dappled shades of grey and oh, what a sight! Continue reading →
The waves break first on the rocks that jut out to sea before crashing and flooding over the ones which lie directly below my window. The spray soars in the air–higher than my balcony– before falling back into the swirling white-foam waters. I snuggle up, swaddled in my Hudson’s Bay stripe woolen blanket and revel in that joyous feeling of watching a storm rage while I’m warm, dry and toasting myself by a roaring fire. The floor to ceiling windows of the Wickaninnish Inn bring the raw chaotic beauty of the outside world to the cosy calm of indoors. This morning, before the sky darkened like a fresh bruise, I pulled on the bright yellow gum boots and rain jacket that were in my wardrobe and headed out to Chesterman’s Beach. There are curious sights to see here with the beach ringed by fir trees and red cedars: out to sea there are several small low-lying islands, bristling with trees which soar up, looking for all the world like greenly-mossy whales. Rubber hose-like bull-whip kelp seaweed lines the beach with a frill of sandy-coloured sea foam whipped up on the wet sand like so many egg whites. I walk to the far end of the beach, feeling the wind get colder.
The clouds scud past the weak December sun, flicking the day’s switch from light to shade and back again. I look back to the Inn and see the water lapping higher up the beach than when I first set off and I turn back at once, keenly aware that in a fight between the pounding waves and I, I would certainly lose.
Back in my room, I do what storm watchers have done for generations: find myself the perfect spot that’s not too far from the fire and just close enough to the windows, and savour a mug of creamy hot chocolate. The waves have a rhythm, the water gushes into the inlet below hissing before it slaps the rocks and then sighing as it floods out again. Here in Tofino, in this picture-perfect slice of Pacific Northwest heaven at the end of a long and winding road, they get around 12 feet of rain each year. They are battered by hurricane force winds. And you couldn’t find a more contented set of people. Out in Tofino they know that there’s no such thing as bad weather– just the wrong clothes. Storm watching season at the Wickaninnish Inn is as popular for visitors as the idyllic days of summer. And I understand why. It’s mesmerising. At first, I try to capture the perfect wave, the arch of spray before it falls back into the sea. But after some hundreds or so snaps I finally put my camera down and just…watch. Each wave as it smashes against the shore smoothes away a paper-thin layer of stress. I’m glued to my window all afternoon, watching the waves and listening to the ocean’s music. By the time it’s dark I’m in a dreamy state of pure relaxation and I don’t close the widows for my whole stay: each night I go to sleep lulled by the hiss and crash of the waves, warmly wrapped up in a blanket-topped duvet, dreaming of capturing that perfect wave. Thanks to Tourism Vancouver Island, Tourism Tofino and the Wickaninnish Inn who hosted me. As ever – my words are 100% my own.
They come dashing through the water, their shiny white bodies flashing in the sunlight, cutting a streak through the greeny-blue gentle waves. Beluga whales. One, two, a dozen, maybe more, swimming with their gunmetal grey new-born calves in the millpond stillness of the Hudson river at the mouth of Hudson Bay. This is Canada’s Great White North, Churchill in Manitoba, where this morning I saw a polar bear lumber past at the side of the road as we left the little airport. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow I’ll see the Aurora Borealis shimmer for the first time. I’ll cry tears of joy and hold my friend’s hand tight as the sky pulses green and purple above us in the velvet-black of the night sky.
This feels like an enchanted place: far away from the modern world, impossible to reach by road, only accessible by train or plane, sketchy phone signal and scant internet. A refuge, in fact, and it’s here for a few weeks in the summer that you may be lucky enough to see a polar bear and her cubs as you stroll on the beach. And it’s also where you can strap on a life jacket, push a kayak into the water and paddle out to see belugas whales swim right up to you and playfully nudge your oars.
They’re mischievous, these whales. They want to play. I push myself hard, thrashing my paddle fast through the water, speeding across the shallow waves to try and catch a pod a little further out beyond the harbour. For a brief moment they join me, one on either side, rushing me along making me part of their pod for a few tantalizingly short seconds. I know already these are moments that I’ll run and re-run in my head for the rest of my life. Nothing to the belugas and everything to me. I laugh out loud, whooping with glee before my arms tire and I rest my paddle. But the best is still to come: two juveniles, seeing that I’ve stopped, race towards me at breakneck speed, darting under my craft, creating a white water wake. I shriek like I’m on a roller-coaster and lift my paddle to ride the beluga-made wave. The sun begins to set and I paddle off into the gloriously gaudy peachy-pink sunset.
Magic hums in the air here: polar bears doze on beaches, haunting lights dance in the sky and glittering white whales wait to play with you in the rosy waves…
I stayed in Churchill as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge, but as ever my words are 100% my own. More info: . Lazy Bear Lodge [Official Site] . Travel Manitoba [Official Site] Images thanks to Jenafor Azure at Blue Sky Mush [Official site].
Over on Vancouver Island if you make the trip down the narrow winding two lane road to Tofino you’ll discover Canada’s surf capital, which boasts 35km of stunning sandy beaches ringed with pines and soaring firs plus reliable rolling waves. Winter is meant to bring some of the best surf so I planned to try and catch my first break here.
I’d signed up with Surf Sisters three hours introduction to surfing. The day starts with Surf School 101 where we learned the basics from Nicole, our good-natured surf coach: from not peeing in the wet suit (dude, manners!) to what type of board we’d be surfing on (a longboard–good for beginners and apparently a more ‘elegant’ surf style) and also the names of the parts of the board (it’s always good to know the name of what’s about to smack you in the face). We also learned surfing etiquette (one person per wave) and the difference between rips, waves and swells and how to spot a ‘green wave’ – the ones that we’d hopefully be riding.
What no one mentioned though was one of the most complicated things about surfing is actually wriggling into the kit. Wetsuits are not easy to put on, but as I was to find out later, that’s nothing compared to taking them off. I seriously contemplated finding out the cost of taking a knife to it and cutting the thing off me. Take a friend and beg them to help you with this, as you will need a wetsuit to surf in Tofino where the water temperature ranges between 14-7 degrees Celsius– too cold to really enjoy suit-less. I was surprised– and very happy to discover –that the suit and gloves meant that I was actually toasty warm on a December day after spending almost 90 minutes in the water.
Wading out into the water, clutching my board under my arm as the waves kept coming, I realised that surfing was going to be a lot more demanding than I’d imagined. First just getting out to a gap between the waves was tough, the board kept trying to escape my clutches and the sting of saltwater in my eyes made me gasp. Getting on the board and lying down was relatively simple, but going from that to standing? Impossible.
Time after time, Nicole lined me up and gave me a good push off. I’d paddle, wriggle forward and try to jump up then tumble over. Once I got properly dragged underwater, my board got away from me and as the waves tossed and pounded me under I cradled my head with my hands, remembering Nicole’s warning that the most dangerous thing out there would be my own board hitting me. I took refuge in the shallows for a while, catching my breath and coughing up the last of the sea water from my lungs whir admiring the view.
It turns out that surfing is yet another sport that I am simply no good at. However, thanks to the efforts of Nicole and beginner’s tenacious luck, I at least managed to stand up once on my board, before calling it quits and staggering off to do battle with my wetsuit in the carpark. But as I fell off again and again, what kept me going was the thought of the traditional Tofino post-surf treat just a few minutes away at the Tacofino food truck. Heavenly fresh baja fish tacos. Piping hot. So, so good after surfing.
Thanks to my fellow students for so patiently letting me photograph them. Thank also to Surf Sisters and Tourism Tofino/Tourism Vancouver Island for hosting me.
Canadians are obsessed with hockey in a way that makes even the British love of football seem like an idle fancy. I’ve tried my best to get interested but when it takes me around 10 minutes to spot the puck on-screen (it’s so small and moves too fast!) it’s hard to sustain an interest. However, recently I got to watch the Vancouver Canucks play live and I think I may have discovered the key to becoming interested. I LOVED watching it up close; the hiss and slither of the skate blades and that satisfying thwack and slap of a stick hitting at the puck. I’m not going to pretend for a second that I had a clue what was going on, but I did love it and I’d suggest a night at a game as a perfect way to see Canadians at their most Canadian.
- It’s just ‘hockey’ not ‘ice hockey’.
- It’s a ‘game’ not a ‘match’.
- I’ve been told (by a man, through gritted teeth), that’s a ‘puck’ not a ‘ball-thing’.
- The game starts with the national anthem, if it’s a USA/Canadian game there’ll be both. Charmingly, everyone stands and sings, rather than boos.
- Whenever pretty much anyone does anything on the ice (scores, falls over, gets sent off) a cheery burst of 80s rock anthems and pop tunes bellows from the sound system.
- It’s easy to pick a team, there are only seven Canadian teams in the NHL, I suspect this makes for fiercely passionate supporters. It’s not like so many UK cities where you have to choose which team to support – and potentially split family loyalties.
- Fighting seems to be accepted. I’m told it’s not but hey, there was so much punching and pushing and shoving on the ice, it made football look squeaky-clean in comparison.
- They take a LOT of breaks: there are breaks to smooth down the ice with a Zamboni, breaks to seemingly get everyone on and off the ice (no idea why), breaks that are actually intervals.
- If you’re lucky enough to watch the Canucks at the Rogers arena, thanks to some rather smart staffing, award-winning bartender Jay Jones is in charge and so it’s possible to drink a well-made cocktail, a BC wine or craft beer while you watch. On the food side, new chef Robert Bartley has introduced a programme of pleasingly-delicious stadium food from chunky ocean-fresh lobster rolls to house-smoked pulled pork sandwiches.
- My best advice? Get seats in the ‘club’ section, you can order food and drink to be bought to your seat here so you don’t miss a moment of the action. Failing that, make it dinner and a ‘show’ by booking a table at the Centre Ice Grill which has a great view from the top of the stadium.
Thank you so much to the Fairmont who treated me to a night at the hockey, special thanks to Nancie Hall who put up with me asking a thousand questions. Also thanks to Jay Jones for a delicious round of Vancouver cocktails.
Useful guide from The Guardian – a Beginner’s Guide to the NHL