Dec 14

Challenge 12: Kayak with Belugas

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

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.

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

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.

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

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…

Image via Jenafor Azure

Image via Jenafor Azure

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].

Dec 14

Challenge 11: Learn to surf

Learn to surf in Canada. In the wintertime. Oh boy…  surf3

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.

surf1I’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.

surf5What 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.

surf4Wading 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.

surf8Time 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.

surf7It 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. 


More info:

Tourism Vancouver Island  Surf Sisters  Tacofino

Dec 14

Challenge 10: Watch a hockey game

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.

IH1Ten things you probably need to know before you watch an ice hockey match: 

  1. It’s just ‘hockey’ not ‘ice hockey’.
  2. It’s a ‘game’ not a ‘match’.
  3. I’ve been told (by a man, through gritted teeth), that’s a ‘puck’ not a ‘ball-thing’.IH2
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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. IH3
  7. 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.
  8. 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. IH5
  9. 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.
  10. 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. 

More info:

Rogers Arena


Useful guide from The Guardian – a Beginner’s Guide to the NHL

Dec 14

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island.

tml3Tell 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.

TML5On 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.

TML4His 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.

TML2 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.

tml1We 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.

More info:

Get there: BC Ferries

Stay there: Wickanninnish Inn

Find out moreCathedral Grove   Tourism Vancouver Island

Nov 14

Get Your Skates on to Victoria

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?

wiv2BREAKFAST:  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.

wiv1LUNCH:  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’.

WIV6TIME 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.

wiv4DINNER:  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.

wiv5STAY:  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.

wiv3GET 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.


Tourism Victoria



Nov 14

Challenge 9: Spot a Polar Bear

bear4We 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.”

bear3It 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“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.

bear1We 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.

Look hard - yup, that white dot is my polar bear,

Look hard – yup, that white dot in the water is my polar bear

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.


I stayed 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]

Oct 14

Art Of The Cocktail Festival 2014

PA041115For  relatively small city, Victoria punches well above its weight when it comes to its cocktail scene. Talented bartenders like Veneto’s Simon Ogden and Little Jumbo’s Nate Caudle and its manager Shawn Soole are leading the way in innovative cocktail creations. The city’s annual Art of the Cocktail festival brings together like-minded boozehounds and bartenders alike for three days of seminars, parties and tastings.

PA041140The Grand Tasting event is always an excellent opportunity to discover new spirits and learn more about old favourites too. For so many cocktail fans it’s the stories behind the spirits which are part of the attraction, and there was one which really stood out for me this year. It’s a truly Canadian spirit Ungava gin, made in NE Quebec. Covered in snow and ice for nine months of the year, with the aurora borealis shimmering overhead, this remote part of Canada produces the botanicals which give the spirit its sunny colour and herbacious taste. Hand-harvested by Inuit on the tundra, the gin contains: Nordic juniper, Labrador tea, crowberry, wild rose hips, arctic blend and cloudberry.

PA041148I was excited to see New Theatre Spirits & Tonic, who I’d met on my first visit two years ago back with another delicious creation, this time it’s a ginger ale which was based on a 100-year old law suit which was debated in the House of Lords and concerned an old lady who discovered a snail in her drink. You can read the full story here – and it’s a good one – but more importantly it’s a delicious drink, so look out for their Donoghue & Stevenson’s Dead Snail Ginger Ale – guaranteed to be 100% snail-free.

PA051252From cocktail contests and bar games which pit bartenders against each other in a battle of speed, knowledge and style, to a vintage fashion show and etiquette chat during cocktail hour, your cocktail festival weekend can take in plenty of fun – as well as booze.

PA051190Education is a huge component of the festival and I attended a fantastic seminar with Peter Hunt from Victoria Spirits on Bitters, those mysterious little bottles which are the spice cabinet of any back bar. Bitters in cocktails are similar to acidity in wine or hops in beer; they balance out sweetness and add complexity to the flavour. Peter took us through the history of bitters from their medicinal use in Egyptian times to using Pink Gin (gin with angostura bitters) in the 1800s as a traditional seasickness cure. Until the creation of the FDA in 1906, Bitters companies could – and did – make wild claims about the properties of their Bitters from saying they could do anything from curing the ‘impure state of your blood’  to fixing liver complaints.

To be certified as a Bitter the botanical blend used (herbs, spices, fruits) need to be bitter enough not to be able to be drunk by itself. We got to make our own Bitters, but a warning, care needs to be taken with making bitters at home, sure, natural is best, but Mother Nature has teeth and claws: for instance, tonka beans are banned in the US as they contain courmain which can cause liver damage – although it has a delicious vanilla-like smell and flavour, almond kernels contains cyanide, nutmeg can be toxic… the list goes on. However, in the hands of an expert you’re perfectly safe. Bitters can be used in the kitchen as well as on the bar, Vancouver’s Bittered Sling Extracts were created by a chef-bartender combo with the express purpose of creating products which would add a depth of flavour to both cocktails and culinary creations. You can use Bitters in sauces and in salad dressings, in baked goods like brownies or as a marinade for meat, there are some great recipes here to tryPA061323


I travelled as guest of Tourism Victoria and Art of the Cocktail, however my words are 100% my own. 

More Info:

Tourism Victoria 

Harbour Air

Hotel Rialto

Art of the Cocktail 

Ungava Gin 

New Theatre Spirits & Tonic 

Victoria Spirits 

Bittered Sling Extracts 


Oct 14

Crossing Canada By Train… Again

train1I don’t know when it stopped being grey outside. Lost in the passing landscape I looked up to see blazing blue skies peeking out from a blanket of grey and white cloud. Cows stood sociably together in a field to chew the cud and flick their tails against the flies. The storm had been exhilarating to watch from my train compartment: the rain thrummed against the windows, the sky bruised black and the clouds raced us on our journey.

train4I’d got on at Winnipeg and asked the steward for my bed to be put down. This wasn’t my first time on board ‘The Canadian’ train which chugs its way between Toronto and Vancouver. The last time I’d travelled had been in 2010 and I’d fallen in love with the Canada beyond my windows. The shining lakes of Ontario giving way to the endless flat land and shimmering corn fields of the prairies before the great tah-dah! moment of jaw-dropping beauty as the train rolls through the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. No, I wanted to see it all again, curled up against pillows and snuggled in a blanket.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To travel on VIA Rail is to step into a bubble away from the rest of the world, often – thankfully – there is no wifi, those work emails can’t be checked even if you wanted to. Instead there is time to sit and think and watch the world go by. There’s a kind of Holiday Camp cheeriness onboard: live performances in the lounge car from musicians who get a free ride in exchange for their songs, guided tastings of Canadian wine and even a movie night. You find yourself, for the first time in decades, musing over where a jigsaw piece goes in the huge puzzle that’s left out for passengers to complete. Over meals in the dining car you exchange snippets of your life story with strangers from around the world. Train Life, in short, becomes a little more contemplative, a little more self-indulgent and a little more gracious. No wonder people love it.

train3For me, also, it’s feeling that sense of great distance and being amazed afresh at the thought of those first Europeans who tried to make their way across this vast land. Of course, the more I learn of First Nations history, the more that feeling is wrapped up in regret and remorse. We Brits – and the French – have more to say sorry for than I could ever begin to write. But when I see this great land it’s impossible for the heart not to leap and thoughts of adventure and exploration not to immediately percolate through your brain. I love to see how truly huge Canada is: to look at its soaring mountains, its innumerable lakes, the relentless tangle of forest and oh! that endless flat prairie land. To choose to take hours, days to make a journey nowadays is a kind of wonderful indulgence but it’s one that I’d say gives a destination a special sort of meaning.

I travelled as a guest of Via Rail but, as ever, my words are 100% my own.

More info:

. VIARail [Official Site]

Sep 14

Challenge 8: See the Northern Lights


Image Credit:  Jenafor Azure

Image Credit: Jenafor Azure

It finally happened: I’ve been chasing the Aurora Borealis for years. Ever since I was a little kid I’ve dreamed of seeing those lights in the sky. I can vividly recall watching a cartoon about a little bear who skated under the northern lights. I couldn’t have been more than five but I remember thinking, “Woah: that looks amazing. I want to see that for real.’ Well – almost 40 years later I finally have.

See, my typical Northern Lights adventures involves driving for ages in a minibus, far away from any kind of warmth, coffee and civilisation wrapped up in chunky arctic-friendly clothing. Then my personal long, slow journey into disappointment: I freeze and feel my hopes fade away – and then, of course, the long bus journey home again, hoping my fingers won’t succumb to frostbite.


Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

Gerald Azure, our incredibly kind and generous host at Blue Sky Mush

But not in Churchill. Manitoba. Oh no! Here at the edge of the edge of the world magical things just seem to happen with ease. That day we’d been dog carting (more of that in another post) at Blue Sky Mush and our hosts Jenafor and Gerald Azure had offered to pick us up and take us to see the lights. We got back at 10p.m., Jenafor was already there “They’re here!” she beamed.

Oh great, I thought – surely that means I’ll miss them again.

But no: a quick 10 minute journey to their place and I hopped out the van and looked up. I cried: I did. I wept like a baby when I saw them dancing in the sky, it took my breath away and filled my heart with pure wonder. It’s everything people say it will be and a little more amazing on top of that. It looks unreal: a green glowing flickering disco across the sky. It looks for all the world as though the sky was sighing in colour. You feel elated and fortunate, just so lucky to be standing there and able to see this natural wonder. I stood on their porch and stared and stared. Whenever I got cold – and I was only wearing a light fleece and a hat for protection!- I’d go inside the wood-fire lit warmth of their yurt.

lights2To celebrate our trip, Jenafor had even made us a cake in the shape of a beluga – and yes, oh – so much to come about those shiny white whales. It may have taken most of my life to get to see them but they were worth the wait: and who knew I’d finally get to see them in the summertime with a slice of cake?

I stayed as a guest of Tourism Manitoba and the Lazy Bear Lodge. Gerald and Jenafor of Blue Sky were kind enough to host us.  But as ever my words are 100% my own.

More info:

Blue Sky Mush [Official Site]

. Travel Manitoba [Official Site]


Jul 14

Challenge #7: Find A Truly Dog-Friendly Break in BC

fred2“Come to Vancouver! It’s so dog-friendly!” they said. And yes, looking at the maps with all the amazing parks and beaches sure, it looks like a pooch’s dream. But the reality is that for a dog owner used to British rules and regulations, life here in Vancouver is pretty tough. I can’t take Freddie on a bus, in a pub, into any shops, restaurants or cafes – and most baffling of all, you can’t even take your dog in a beer garden. No – not even if they lie quietly under your chair. You have to tie them to the fencing outside so they are on the street. We love the parks and beaches but it’s no place for a dog-friendly holiday.

But Whistler seems to be a different beast altogether. Many of the patios (what Canadians call any outdoor space attached to a bar or restaurant) in Whistler Village are on public walkways so your dog can curl up (legally) next to you and, of course there is all that dazzling wild nature of the Pacific North West mountains and lakes to explore and tire those paws out so they snooze while you eat and booze. So: the challenge this month –  is it possible to have a fun few days with my dog on a mountain break? Or will I be dining off gas station sandwiches in a  car park? I planned to try two kind of breaks – the smarter side and more causal to see if everyone could be happy and actually, it amazed me just how well it all worked out.

fred3So – first check-in was at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. I figured that if a hotel has Canine Ambassadors then you can be fairly sure that they’ll be dog friendly too. In line with most hotels over here, they charge a cleaning fee of $50 a night capped at $150. When we got to our room there was a special welcome pack waiting for us; a smart lead, a guide to all the dog-friendly places in Whistler and beyond, a pack of treats, poo bags and an absurdly comfy bed. As you can see – Fred was a fan, and after that welcome, so was I.

I miss going to pubs with my dog but it felt like almost everywhere in Whistler Village was perfectly pet friendly. After Freddie had given every single inch of our room a good sniff, we went for a stroll. I stopped off for happy hour at The Mix By Ric’s and sat outside in the sunshine, happily sucking on a tall gin-spiked cocktail as Fred curled up underneath my chair. Normal in the UK yes, but the very first time I’ve done it for almost two years thanks to the laws in BC.

fred4I was on my way to check out dinner at The Grill and Vine at the Westin who’d suggested that I could sit at their patio on the back, attached to the FireRock Lounge restaurant. It was actually kind of perfect; everyone else was on the front deck so we had the place to ourselves. I sat warmed by the dying rays of sunshine; just me, my book and dog. I sipped on a glass of Tinhorn Creek rosé, feeling utterly content. After a full day of exploring the trails as we’d stopped off for a long walk around Shannon Falls along the way up from Vancouver, and so many new sights and smells, Freddie was flat-out. I’d heard sad news that week from a friend whose dog had died after 17 very happy years as her companion, so I cherished that feeling of Fredde’s warm, soft muzzle resting on my foot more than ever.

As he snored under the table, I had a creamy burrata salad, dotted with wobbly cubes of peppery jelly and tomatoes tasting of sunshine, then a crunchy quail with waffles drizzled with a sweet maple dressing. It was almost two hours before Fred roused himself by which time I’d had another few glasses and watched the sun sink behind the mountains before enjoying a peaceful walk back to the hotel.

fred5To my delight there was not one woof or whine from Fred all night. He slept like only a tired dog can on a plump and comfy cushion. I’d checked out the guide and just beyond the Fairmont is one of Whistler’s most lovely trails; Lost Lake, perfect for a pre-breakfast walk and there is even an off-leash beach along the way. We explored the trails there for a few hours to work up an appetite for breakfast.

fred9Right next to the Chateau is their Portobello cafe, where you can get really good coffee (oh, thank you!), huge breakfast sandwiches and heaped portions of yoghurt, fruit and granola. Whistler is packed with outdoors-y people who never seem to stop hiking, biking and boarding – and man, they need to carb up! You can sit outside and people-watch while you eat, with your dog happily snoozing, post-walk, at your feet.

fred6I’d been loaned a Ford Fusion Energi for the week, so decided to make the most of it by driving up to Pemberton, around half an hour away from Whistler. It’s a stunning drive; the Sea To Sky Highway is a jaw-clanging route at the best of times but with the misty rainclouds capping the peaks, shot through with occasional shafts of golden sun it was even more lovely than usual. We stopped at One Mile Lake along the way and walked around the dog-friendly off-leash boardwalk. The lake was dotted with waterlilies and the tree branches overhanging the path were thick with glossy leaves. We sat under them for a while, taking shelter, listening to the pitter-patter of rain and watching the clouds scud past the peaks.

fred7We had lunch at The Pony, there’s a shady dog-friendly place out the back with a rail where horses are usually tethered. Today it was a tuckered out cocker spaniel who slept while I laid waste to a ridiculously good poutine and fantastically garlic-y caesar salad.

Casual dining with a dog seemed easy enough to achieve in Whistler but what about something more up-market? Incredibly, that’s a yes too. I met a girlfriend for the oyster specials at Araxi on their spacious patio where, if you pick your seat, you can tie your dog next to you and still keep things perfectly within the law. Araxi is one of BC’s best restaurants and to be able to sit there and enjoy their wonderful hospitality without worrying about my dog was a rare and happy treat.

fred12I’m always pretty sad to check out of a Fairmont, but this time I didn’t pout too much as at least the break wasn’t over. I’d be swapping the luxe grandeur of Chateau Whistler for something a little more rustic – a cabin in the woods at Sunwolf in Brackendale. I’d visited Jess and Jake before when I went to spot eagles on a rafting trip in the winter, but summer in Squamish is quite different. I’d noticed in Whistler the rushing water sound wherever I went. All that snow has to go somewhere, of course, and the rivers and brooks become gushing torrents in the summertime. Sunwolf is based on the Cheakamus river, which had become a racing and rushing body of water; there is something profoundly soothing about being surrounded by vivid green with the sound of the forest and water all around and after checking in to my cabin I felt myself slip into an even deeper gear of relaxation.

fred10I’d got one thing wrong though; I’d expected the cabins to be rustic but they were far from that! Mine had a bathroom that wouldn’t have been out of place in a boutique hotel, plus a comfy couch, a wood-burning stove, basic but well-equipped kitchen and best of all – a lovely little bedroom, tucked away in the eaves upstairs. I lay on the bed and looked around, every window looked out on to the trees.

We went for a walk along the river, with Fred sniffing excitedly at everything along the way. He’s usually a fairly highly-strung dog but after a couple of days enjoying all that Whistler had to offer he was clearly loving Sunwolf too. He kept beaming at me, his tail a blur, as he sprang across the rocks and darted through the trees, utterly in doggie heaven.

fred11We could have cooked in the cabin or used the communal barbecue, but owners Jess and Jake invited us over for a table-bangingly delicious steak dinner. I slept soundly that night, lulled to sleep by so much mountain air and the sound of the river just beyond my windows. Waking to the sight of green, green trees the next day and finding Freddie snoring happily away on his blanket downstairs I plotted how I could come back again soon.

Thanks to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Sunwolf for providing accommodation for me and to the Grill and Vine and Araxi for dinner. Also, massive thank you to Ford for loaning me a Fusion Energi hybrid car which runs quite happily on both petrol and electric. Pleasingly quiet and impressively thrifty, the whole journey – some 300km – was done on $37 of petrol, which works out to around 20 quid! You don’t need to have a special charging station as the car has its own set of plugs that you can attach to any plug – and yes, Sunwolf had one outside the cabin for me to use.  As always, my words are 100% my own.

Further Info:

Fairmont Chateau Whistler [Official Site]

Sunwolf [Official Site]

Tourism Whistler [Official Site]

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