Dressed in my 20 year old bright yellow smock, resembling a giant, skiing banana, I had forgotten just how much I enjoy skiing until I hit the slopes in Whistler. For me, skiing is a perfect mix of physical activity, difficult skills, speed, risk, challenge, beautiful scenery and booze. I must admit that the booze is easing off a little as I get older and think back, with some fondness but mostly embarrassment, to the days when I was either drunk or hungover on the slopes, skiing with a speed and confidence that my skill most certainly didn’t warrant.
Whistler is a great place for skiing, with a huge amount of varied terrain and good old Canadian efficiency. The big draw back is the cost. At CAN$ 170 a day for a lift pass, CAN$750 for a day of private lessons and CAN$250 for a day of group lessons, it makes France look bargain basement.
We jumped in to the group lessons and am not sure I would again. The good news is that there are only 4 people in a class, but that where it ends. Groups change each day, so the first half hour is spent with instructors ensuring the groups are right. There is then the tension between breaking for lunch, wanting to maximise time on the slopes and acknowledging that not everyone can easily manage 5 hours on the slopes…….. On two days, my instructor was a little bit lazy and I think I probably had about 20 mins proper coaching in those days and spent the rest of the time merely following her.
I had 6 days on the slopes and J had three. Mostly I was smiling from ear to ear.
The initial plan was to bounce through Vancouver, fly to Toronto for a few days, then on to the UK….. until we found out that internal flights are far more expensive than international flights, so we changed plans to have a few more days in Vancouver then only connect in Toronto.
It was an opportunity to do some of the things that we hadn’t done because of our previous illness, to catch up with L&S one last time, and to eat really, really well (The Jam Café is absolutely fantastic).
I ran, we walked, we ate, we slept and we were re-united with some foutas we bought in Tunis and which Fiona had very kindly arranged to ship to her brother, Iain, in Vancouver (we have quite a lot of stuff in various places around the world right now (thanks Guy, Liz, Melinda, Tom and Nic…………).
It was lovely to visit Canada, to see Larry and Sandra, to ski and to be in a land of plenty. It felt rather more like a nice holiday than the adventure of the past 8 months, but that can be no bad thing. It is easy, relaxing and a perfect place to explore further when our bodies are less up for adventure.
It was bloody freezing, there was snow on the ground and J went out on the water………twice! Why? Creatures!
Tofino is a small town on Vancouver Island, a large Island off Vancouver. When I came last time, I thought it was a large island like the Isle of Wight but at 32,000 sq km, it’s 100 times bigger. Bloody huge.
Larry and Sandra knew a great place to stay just outside the town and it was our chance to enjoy a bit of wilderness without going too wild.
The Pacific Sands sits on a beach about 7km outside Tofino town and the windswept beach was a gorgeous backdrop. It was here that we realised that when it comes to being organised and wanting things to be right, J is an amateur. Sandra showed us how it is done and by the time we settled into our cottage on day two, at least 20 man hours had been spent getting it right. It was a very clean cottage!
Tofino has some great stuff to see; whales, sea otters (the dirty little fuckers), seals, eagles, a hot spring and some really, really big trees. We got to see most of the above on a day long trip to the hot springs; Humpbacks and greys entertained us on the way back, seals lounged on rocks and sea otters (the dirty little fuckers) frolicked at the entrance to the bay. The hot springs could have been a bit of a mare as only a few people can fit in at any one time. Luckily, when it’s 7c outside the majority of sensible people do something other than sitting in a small hot spring on the edge of a bay, so for the majority of the time, there was just J and I and the other guy on our trip (who we think was competing in the ‘Most negative man in the world’ awards and would have been drowned by us if the springs had been any deeper). I did feel sorry for the group of 12 who passed us as we were leaving as they were going to experience lots of strangers pressing cold flesh against their own…… It would have been like a very intimate none sexual orgy where everyone is wearing swimmers (so not that much like an orgy……. I imagine).
Hot Springs and Whale Watching
The big trees and the eagles we saw on a kayaking trip around the bay, wrapped up warm in a kayak made for two, guided by the lovely …… from Paddle West Kayaking. We covered about 10km and walked for a couple of km along the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island, which is exactly that. Some of the trees are 1800 years old which seems unimaginable. They are huge and rather awe inspiring.
The only downside is that J’s cold turned into such a violent cough that she sounded like a 90 year old Chinese man with a 60-a-day habit….who had a bad cold. She was so worried that she was likely to offend the rest of us that she confined herself to our room one day and missed out on the lovely surroundings.
When not out and about, we ate well, drank some booze and had a thoroughly relaxing few days.
From here, we headed back to the mainland, then on to Whistler!!
Out and About Around Tofino
After a few days acclimatising to Canada, we jumped on a flight to Yellowknife, which is a mid sized town about 400km south of the Arctic Circle. At this time of year people go there for one thing: to see the Northern Lights. Whilst seeing the Northern Lights, you get to do one other thing; get fucking freezing. The coldest it got was -37c, and for those who have not been in this kind of cold, this means it is really, really cold. Snot freezes, I got a nosebleed, exposed bits of skin go red, lakes have ice metres thick covering them and ice roads become a normal thing. And no matter how cold it is, when you say to a local ‘This is fucking freezing’, the say ‘This is nothing, you should be here when it is really cold’. After 7 months in sunshine our bodies asked ‘WTF?’.
It is a strange but rather wonderful place to go. To survive up there, people do things differently; they dress differently, rarely walk anywhere, drive cars that need to be plugged in at night and seem to have lots of live music.
They also go curling, which is a very cold version of lawn bowels. We went to visit a curling club, which is like a very cold version of a bowlo in Oz; cheap beer and a mixture of the very serious and the very amateur.
Out and About in Yellowknife
We had two goes at seeing the lights. One was with an Aurora Hunter and involved a 45 m drive to the middle of a frozen lake and parting with a significant amount of cash. The other involves Sandra driving 10 mins out of town, alternating between sitting in the warmth of the car and standing on a lake looking skywards.
Nature doesn’t care how much you have spent to see something and generally does its own thing, so on night one we had an ok display and night two, with just the 4 of us in the car, we had a much better display.
It is a very special experience, to stand in the freezing cold, watching the green light swirl about in the sky, peeing in the snow whilst a fox sniffs about (‘Is that a sodding wolf?’) and I am very glad we did it (not so much the peeing in the snow with a furry audience). I was also reminded how lucky some of my army experience was. In 1996 I was based on the prairies of Alberta at BATUS and spent many nights under the stars. I remember one night waking up and seeing an amazing show of colour above me, swirling and shivering like a bad effect on the 60s version of Lost in Space (if it had been in colour). I had no idea what was going on and had to ask someone. It’s only now I fully understand the lengths people will go to to have such an experience.
The other thing I was reminded of is that I like North American bars. They have more in common with UK pubs than Aussie ones in so much that both men and women go in roughly equal numbers and they just feel friendly. You can sit at the bar and chat to people without seeming like a weirdo for doing so (though some may conclude you are a weirdo after doing so) and it feels like a comfortable place to be.
I took a liking to the Black Knight bar, as it had everything a simple man like me needs: good beer, good service, proper pub food and atmosphere. We had a lovely experience on our first visit, when on asking for our bill after chatting to a local at the bar who left before us, we found that he had bought us a round. How friendly are Canadians!!
One of our visits coincided with a open mike music night upstairs which featured some great acts, so great that when we heard some were moving to another place to play, we followed them there, watched some great line dancing and local drunkenness and nearly followed then to the after, after party…….
A musical highlight was a visit to The Northern Arts and Cultural Centre to see 2 DJs, who together are know as Miraj, play an ‘Ambient Trance’ set, complete with light show. Sandra booked this. Now, at 48, I was the youngest of the group and the oldest had more than 30 years on me…. From the outset I wasn’t convinced that everyone really understood what ambient trance was, and knowing Jodie’s taste in music was pretty convinced only I would enjoy this. I was mostly right. As I sat with about 40 other people in a hall that could take 800, with 3 people dancing oddly (one of whom was obviously a man who needed help), watching two people put together reasonable music on a stage decorated with pot plants and and lava lamps, my appreciation deserted me after about 45 minutes.
It didn’t last too much longer, though no one was sure about that. In fact, the end was so un distinctive, they came back on stage to tell us all it was over, took some applause then started packing up their pot plants. Larry had the right idea; Larry slept.
The Music Scene
Far better than the DJs was a trip to see the ice cave, pulled over the frozen lake by a pair of husky’s. It’s amazing what these creatures can do; just hanging around in -20 something without lots of cloths is a feat in itself, but add to that, pulling a beer and fatty food fuelled man, and it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Whilst the change in temperature was a little extreme, it was a fascinating way to spend a few days and I would recommend it.
We flew from Cuba with Air Rouge, Air Canada’s budget airline, as few full service airlines service the place and whilst we had images of the squalor, elbowing and general rudeness of Ryanair in our minds, we were pleasantly surprised from the off. The wonderfully helpful and cheerful Taylor in the premium cabin took note of our rather ‘spoilt kids’ need for comfort and variety after a month in Cuba and did what ever she could to make us feel comfortable. This mostly involved keeping the booze and food coming, both of which were good and we became happier by the minute. It was the perfect start to the Canadian adventure.
It was almost less perfect when we got carried away in the lounge in Toronto when waiting for our connection and where so close to missing our plane, the guy at the gate said down the phone ‘You can stop off loading their bags, they are here’. That is as close as you want to get to missing a flight.
After so long in hot, non English speaking countries, why Canada? Our primary reason was to visit our lovely friends, Larry and Sandra, who we met in 2010 in the Antarctic and had then met a number of times in Sydney, London and Las Vegas. What we hadn’t done is see them in their natural environment of Vancouver and despite, their nervousness about us visiting at that time of year, we had decided this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Arriving in the snow was a bit of a shock to the system, especially for J whose wardrobe was very much a summer only thing and had only Birkenstock’s to keep her feet warm in 0c, so first stop was an outlet mall. Talk about from famine to feast. From empty shops with grumpy staff to an orgasm of consumerism, staffed by people who are so helpful and charming it can feel a bit creepy to a stiff Englishman. It made us feel giddy.
The other shock on arrival in Canada was the cost of everything (besides all the goodies in the Outlet Mall). Mostly in Cuba and Colombia, as long as we didn’t go to international hotels or the very best city restaurants, it was pretty easy to stick within budget, without really thinking about it but in Canada it is all but impossible. The prices on the menu are high, but the cost at the end is so much higher. There is normal tax, liquor tax and then the tip. The tip thing is all very odd. In Oz and the UK, mostly you tip for good service. In Canada, poor service demands 15%, good service 18-20% and exceptional service 25%. On top of that, chambermaids expect $5 per day, taxi drivers at least 10% and pretty much everyone who provides a service expects something. The English in me wants to push back on this, but the only people to suffer from that would be the pleasant, hard working people who, in accordance with Canadian labour law are allowed to be underpaid by the employer who takes the profit. It’s all a bit odd and shit. Luckily we have a slush fund to ensure we can do most of things we really want to do that don’t fall in the normal daily budget.
On the upside, mostly this results in good service, though it can feel a little insincere at times (FWP). I’m not sure what is better; insincere politeness or genuine grumpy shits.
If I were to describe Canada with one word, it would be easy. By that, I mean the word is ‘easy’, not that it would be easy to come up with a word, though it is easy to come up with easy.
Firstly, whilst our Spanish is now ok to get by with, it hurts my head to think so much about just talking about normal stuff, so to be able to just talk without thinking (not something I admit to too often, but something my friends will agree with) is a real delight.
Secondly, it is a proper first world country so everything works. In the west we take much for granted; getting drinking water out of taps, having public transport that is understandable and reasonably efficient, safe roads, shops with everything you could ever need or want, restaurants selling every type of food etc. The last time all of this came together for us was September last year in Berlin so we really do know how lucky we are to be in such an environment.
The difference in places was hugely apparent on night 2, when we went for dinner followed by going to La Boheme in Vancouver (though we did get Cuba flashbacks when we were confronted with the not so faint smell of sewage in the first place we went to. We left). Being surrounded by the better off element of Vancouver society, watching a highly polished performance was a world away from our last cultural experience, watching ballet in Camagüey but not so different that I could resist some very ‘long blinks’ during it, which could be also described as a very expensive way to sleep.