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 →
“Do you like to live so far away from everyone?”
“Yes. It’s nice to to be with the nature here, the city is too busy.”
I don’t think I’ve ever known what it meant to travel somewhere truly isolated before. Spending time in Manawan, a First Nations reserve for the Atikamekw (pronounced ah-tick-a-mick) nation some five hours away from Montreal pushed my limits like no other trip has done. You can only get to Manawan via a gravel path from the small town of Saint-Michel-des-Saints, or in winter by speeding over the frozen lakes on a snowmobile.
There is no road. There is no transit. You are alone. Continue reading →
The water is wreathed in mist where the pale milky grey sky, smudged at the edges with darker storm clouds, meets the gunmetal grey of the ocean through a soaking Pacific Northwest drizzle. But the ocean is still, with barely a white horse breaking the surface of the waves. Wisps of mist hang softly over the vivid green firs which cling tenaciously to the sloping sides of the mossy islands which quietly reveal themselves on either side of the ferry as we cruise through the fog. The clouds hang low and long in this part of the world with the mountains peeking through. It was dark when I set off for Horseshoe Bay, the green and amber lights of the tankers out at English Bay reflected on the water. I drove through Stanley Park and across the Lion’s Gate bridge with its lights twinkling in the sleepy December dawn. Such early starts remind me of being a child, of being carried from my bed in the arms of my mum and tucked up in the back of my parents’ car. Lulled by the sound of the radio and the rhythmic trundle of the traffic I’d fall asleep, then wake, confused but excited: ‘Are we nearly there yet?” blinking sleepily and wondering when we’d be at the beach. 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
Tell someone in Vancouver that you’ve ‘Not been to Tofino yet’ and it’s likely they’ll react with the kind of horror that’s usually reserved for statements like ‘My house just burned down.’ But finally, I have made it to Tofino. And yes, now I totally understand their consternation. There, just a few hours away, a short ferry ride from the mainland to Vancouver Island at the end of a long, narrow and winding road is a piece of pure Pacific Northwest heaven.
On the way to Tofino from Nanaimo is Cathedral Grove where some of the trees are more than 800 years old and it’s a rare chance to see what I imagine most of the island was like before the Europeans came and started logging and mass de-forestation in the mid-1800s: soaring ancient Douglas firs, glowing orange arbutus trees, red cedars. It was raining heavily when I visited. Wisps of cloud draped over the mountains, the sprigged leaves of the fir trees dripped water and the ferns shone glossy green. I set off along the boardwalk to find the oldest tree and after a few minutes bumped into the fellow I’d exchanged hellos with at the map on the side of the road. He’d not found the tree yet either, so we doubled back and carried on around the other side of the circular forest walk.
His name was Rory and he was a geologist, we strolled along companionably together and I (half-joking) asked, “Are you one of the good guy geologists or the bad ones?” He looked at me and smiled. “Do you like your camera? Your boots? They all came from something that was mined. If it didn’t grow then it was mined.” I’d watched logging trucks speed down the road on my way to the forest and it had felt like watching an abattoir truck roll past a petting zoo. Here were these precious rare trees. And here we were, hacking them down faster than they could possibly grow back. But yes, I do like my camera and my boots. And I was in the mood to listen and learn, so we talked as we walked.
I took a photo of a red cedar, delighted by its vivid colour. “They hold humidity really well,” explained Rory. “That’s why saunas are built from it.” I leaned in and inhaled, it did have that sauna smell and yes, I love a good sauna. We talked about logging and the necessity of a sustainable approach to harvesting the earth’s resources. He was pragmatic: people need to build things and to make things and that means that some trees will fall. I had to admit that he was right. Much as I want to rail against any assault on the natural world, people DO need to build and make things. It’s how we do that and how we protect what we have for the next generation that counts, I guess.
We realised at this point that we’d done a whole loop and still not seen the biggest oldest tree. We headed back to the roadside to check the map again. Aha, we were on the wrong side of the road. There’s a particular kind of Canadian reticence about this. I suspect that had this tree been in an American park, there would be more than one ‘This Way To The Big Tree’ sign. There’s barely even a roadside marker for Cathedral Grove and what signage there is, is frankly baffling and needlessly complicated. I could believe that I might get lost but this geologist was utterly perplexed too. But, I suppose that along with the excellent signage in an American park there would probably have been a McDonalds and a gift shop too, so as ever, I’ll take the Canadian way, please. Rory and I stomped through the pelting rain and finally found it, all 76 meters of the soaring bigger-than-the-Tower-of-Pisa Big Tree. Totally worth the trek in the downpour and truly humbling in its size and age, an ancient reminder to protect what we have and find sustainable ways to build and make things.
Get there: BC Ferries
Stay there: Wickanninnish Inn
It’s winter in Canada so what are you going to do but enjoy the great outdoors? This year, Victoria’s Fairmont Empress hotel is hosting an outdoor skating rink on its front lawn, which faces out towards the harbour all strung with festive lights. There is something rather magical about skating outdoors and it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful background than the Empress. Special events include a Christmas Eve skating session with elves, hot cocoa and cider and Sunday skates with santa. Tickets are $10/$5 per session and skate hire is $5. The rink opens on Friday 20th November and runs till mid-January. Open from 5-9pm weekdays and 1-9pm weekends.
So, now you’re in Victoria, what else is there to do?
BREAKFAST: Usually I’m not a doughnut fan, but Yonni’s Doughnuts at Discovery Coffee could be the one which changes my mind. I had a Honey Crueller, all eggy sweet and delicious, it matched perfectly with their Gob’s Magical Espresso blend. I took a bottle of the Cold Brew coffee home and had it for breakfast the next morning. Sure Cold Brew coffee may have more than a whiff of needless hipsterism about it but when it’s as buttery and chocolatey as this, well, call me a hipster and be damned.
LUNCH: Oh hurrah! My all-time favourite Vancouver sandwich, the Meat & Bread porchetta is now available at their beautiful new location on Yates Street. Taking the idea of doing one thing and then excelling at it, Meat and Bread’s empire is gradually spreading and you know what? Good. They do things right: the bread is a custom-made ciabatta roll and the meat in their legendary porchetta sandwiches is the finest grain-fed, free-range pork from Two Rivers Meats. If businesses must become chains then at least let them operate on an ethical basis. And yes, I know that Meat and Bread also do other daily sandwich specials but after two years I’ve still not managed to go through the doors and say anything other than ‘Porchetta with extra crackling, please’.
TIME FOR TEA: Silk Road Tea are based in Victoria’s Chinatown (the oldest in Canada! Take a look around on this Vine clip.), the creation of Tea Master Daniela Cubelic. I cannot say enough great things about this store! Going far beyond what you’d imagine a tea shop to sell, Silk Road have a wide range of beauty products (and an in-shop spa), shelves of wildly desirable tea paraphernalia –try going in and not immediately needing to own at least three tea pots, infusers and assorted pieces of cocktail ware – and best of all a long tasting table with comfy stools. I went to an iced tea event in the summer which was a blast and gave me so many ideas. This winter their free-to-attend workshop events include Winter Wellness classes, a tea jam-making event and learning about immune-boosting tea blends to ward off colds and flu.
DINNER: Sure, there are plenty of great restaurants in Victoria but right now I am OBSESSED with the ambrosial brisket at Hanks Untraditional BBQ. This place is a tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it barbecue joint but oh my, it’s worth stopping in. All the meat comes from those super-ethical Two Rivers chaps and you can taste the quality in every bite. My recommendation? Have one of the platters with the cornbread, all warm and buttery from the oven. The pulled pork is amazing and the potato salad superb. Damn, I am actually drooling just writing this.
STAY: With Veneto, one of the finest bars and restaurants downstairs and boasting a pole position slap bang in the heart of town, it’s hard to better the location of the Rialto. The rooms are both spacious and spotless and best of all, come with a pleasing raft of extras including free wifi, vouchers for coffee and pastry from the lobby cafe, and best of all, a voucher for a cheese plate at Veneto. Very cool! Oh, and the one thing that won me over completely? Ear plugs. Acknowledging that yes, they are a central hotel and so the street can get noisy is honest, but then immediately sorting that issue out is smart. I love that.
GET THERE: I am obsessed with the float planes which whizz across the waters here in BC. I can see them soar above Stanley Park from my window and it’s always a fantastic day if I know that I’m going to be onboard Harbour Air. My advice? Don’t hang back and be polite. Immediately ask the pilot is there’s a chance that you could sit up front, as sometimes there is a spare seat and it’s the best view in the house! If not, don’t fret, you’ll still be amazed by the view from the windows. Top tip: at the Vancouver terminal downtown you can score free espresso-based drinks and tea, as well as a muffin or fruit when you present them with your boarding pass. Also, the Victoria terminal seems to have a penchant for playing excellent 80s music. Prepare to rock out before take off.
We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.
“Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”
It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.
Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.
“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.
We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.
That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.