Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Some people might say my life's in a rut

May 10th; Day 11

It was cooler today, our last full day on the Island and we decided to go and visit the local(ish) caves at Horne Lake. We were told that we needed to leave the Highway at Exit 75, and as we got on at Exit 60 we were prepared for a long drive. However it turned out to be the next junction; it was only at this point we realised that the exits are numbered according to how many kilometres they are from the start. This must be a cause for great confusion for Canadians visiting the UK!

The cave tour was great! There was only Ned and me and the two guides, Miles (from Alberta) and Sean (or Wayne - why is it I always get those names muddled?) from Australia. When they came out to meet us you could see their spirits sinking at the prospect of taking a middle-aged couple who'd probably be real drips. They soon changed their minds when, on the steep hike up to the cave entrance Ned and I set a brisk pace and the boys got out of breath trying to keep up; we were quietly amused.

It wasn't a cave tour like Wookey Hole, with walkways and ropes and atmospheric lighting. This involved helmets and headtorches and scrambling ("Make sure you always maintain three points of contact and don't touch the calcite"). We were very proud to uphold the honour of the Empire and didn't slip or get claustrophobic or scared in the dark!

Many of the stalagmites and stalactites are given names, some being more fanciful than others. The 'howling wolf' was okay at the right angle as was the 'bacon slices'. There was one unnamed one that reminded me very much of Nursey (from Blackadder)'s fancy-dress cow outfit.

The 'Buddha' formation (if you look carefully)

Miles and Sean/Wayne were very impressed and told us that we'd have been fine on the longer tour that involves a lot more squeezing, but I'm not sure they were right!

Something that struck us as being rather odd. They do several types of tour of the cave systems; the 'family' one that we did, the 'Wet & Wild Adventure', the 'High Adventure' and 'Extreme Rappel' and, bizarrely, night caving. Bearing in mind that it's pitch dark in the caves even in the middle of the day I really can't see the point of going at night.

Monday, May 30, 2011

And all that rat-race noise down in the street

9th May: Day 10

Another beautiful day, so after breakfast (everything is so 'healthy' here - everything is multigrain this, organic that) we decided to walk a short local trail to stretch our legs after yesterday's drive. It was only about 5k through the woods and along 'Englishman's River' - naturally getting a few caches along the way!

Looking out for bears

Later on we got back into the car and drove a short way to the village of Coombs where in summer one of the attractions is

Unfortunately it's a bit too early in the season for them to have been put up there, but we saw them in the field behind.

So we had lunch instead. We shared a bun called a 'beesting' which, being full of cream and covered in toffee, restored our junkfood levels back to normal.

The store is wonderful and a proper little tourist-trap; it sells local groceries, speciality foods (it has a stand of English goods), quality toys and non-tat souvenirs. In the adjoining courtyard there are other small arts-and-crafts type shops; really nice to look around. The temperature was up to 17°C - practically scorchio!

On the road again

8th May: Day 9

Today we left Tofino in brilliant sunshine to drive back the way we came to Parksville for a three-night stay. The sky was a clear blue and the sunshine was bright, which made the drive very pleasant. The road that had appeared to be downhill all the way didn't seem to be particularly uphill on the return - it seems hard to believe it was an optical illusion,but either that or this little car has a much more powerful engine than we thought. It was a shame that we had a few cars behind us so we couldn't stop and take photos, especially when Ned suddenly shouted "Bear!!". There it was, just on the other side of the concrete barrier at the side of the road. As the road is single carriageway, stopping to take a picture probably wasn't a good idea! But we were thrilled to have seen a real live wild black bear.

When we drove through the snowy area we did stop to take pictures:

but the snow was very crystalline and a bit rubbish for snowballs which is why the one I threw at Ned fell apart in mid-air.

Then we saw some poo on the snow; being in the middle of nowhere it was unlikely to be dog poo, but it definitely looked like carnivore poo. We got back into the car.

We found the Tigh-na-Mara hotel without a problem; our room here is amazing! There are a lot of little log cabins in the grounds, but we have a 'suite' on the top of a three-storey log cabin block.

(It only looks two-story but it's on a slope and the ground floor is lower than ground level, if you see what I mean.)
We have a sitting-room with a log-effect gas fire, a fully-fitted kitchen as well as a beautiful bedroom.

And a terrific view from the balcony.

Canadian TV is strange; there's no discernible moment when an advert break begins or ends, and with some programmes that can lead to great confusion!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

He bravely turned his tail and fled

7th May: Day 8

The weather being rather better today we decided to explore a bit of the Pacific Rim National Park. The coastline is wonderfully rugged and unspoilt, and has marvellous long sandy beaches with trees coming right down to the shore.

The driftwood is rather different to what we're used to seeing ...

We were discussing how the scenery looks just like in the movies, where bears come to the shore to feed - this got us briefly edgy, but we soon put it to the back of our minds. I don't know why we were so surprised to come across this notice:

We decided that the onward path didn't look as interesting as we'd first thought, and that retracing our steps looked the much nicer option. Later that evening at dinner we were told that bears (and cougars! Nobody mentioned cougars!) quite often stroll across the grass just outside the rooms. It’d be wonderful to see one, but not meet one face to face outdoors! I'd be very nervous if we were at the campsite a couple of hundred yards away.

Later on we paddled in the Pacific - well you have to, don't you? - goodness it was cold! But quite nice once your feet and ankles had gone numb.

An Englishman Abroad

Driving back we spotted this sign. Hurrah!

One minor mishap occurred when, although teabags were provided there was no kettle, only a coffee-maker. Obviously a coffee-maker doesn't get the water nearly hot enough to make tea, and a request at reception soon resulted in a kettle being provided. Who'd have thought that Pyrex mugs wouldn't cope with boiling water? As he tea was brewing one went "pop" and neatly broke in half, pouring scalding tea over the floor. When we reported the breakage to the management we were told that using a teapot might be a good idea. We agreed - but what a shame we didn't have one!

What a beautiful spot.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Where the whale-fishes blow

6th May; Day 7

This hotel, the Tin Wis (the name means 'Calm Waters', apparently) is different again from the others where we've stayed. It's mainly a two-storey building; our room is on the ground floor, with sliding doors onto a patio, from where you walk across an area of lawn to a beautiful Pacific beach.

Today was disappointingly wet, but that didn't deter us from doing one of the activities we'd been looking forward to; whale-watching.


There were only seven of us as paying customers on board a small vessel, and it was a good thing that Ned and I are both pretty good sailors because there was quite a lot of swell, and we would otherwise have been as miserable as the poor Japanese couple who spent the whole of the 3½ hour trip below decks enduring all the phases of seasickness known to man, and couldn't raise their heads to see anything. Ned did wonder whether they were overcome at the sight of all that food not being harpooned, but gave them the benefit of the doubt.

We up above in the fresh air were treated to a display of a group of three humpback whales blowing and banging their tail flukes on the surface, and another in the distance (too far for a photo) breaching.

It was such a thrill - the rule is that boats aren't allowed to go within a certain distance of the whales, but of course nobody's told the whales. Towards the end there were two, swimming side by side directly towards us, then they dived about 100 yards away. I was waiting for their tails to appear for an amazing picture but sadly they didn't. By crikey, it was cold! With all the excitement of actually seeing these beasts we didn't really notice the wet and the chill, but when we were returning to Tofino it really hit us, and I couldn't even put on my gloves because my hands had gone quite numb. On the way back we did a trip to see the sealions

but by then all I really wanted was a hot bath and to be able to feel my blood circulating again. Despite that we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

(And when we got back to the hotel there was an email telling me that Daisy-pup had passed her hearing test, so was ours!)

Over the hills and far away

5th May: day 6

Today we left Victoria on the longest leg of the driving - about 200 miles to Tofino on on the Pacific coast. And it was the first journey where we failed to get lost! The scenery was amazing; towering pines, mountains, rushing rivers.

We stopped for a break about halfway along the route at Cathedral Grove, an area of original forest with Douglas firs and hemlocks, some of which are 800 years old.

They were fantastic; and many of the trees were covered in moss, looking as though they were furry. Fir trees looking like fur trees!

The second half of the drive seemed endless. And it was odd because we'd started at sea level in Victoria and didn't seem to climb particularly high, but on this leg we seemed to be travelling downhill all the way, even after passing a lake which, according to the map, was tidal.

Still we descended. This poor little car (a Kia Soul) will struggle on the way back because then of course it'll be uphill all the way! At least it's not a busy road.

We were surprised to drive through an area where there was still snow on the ground.

We'd heard it's been an appalling spring out here but didn't realise it was this bad.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Viva Victoria

4th May: Day 5

The fire fairies have struck again; a building under construction in Richmond which we drove past when we were lost burnt down during the night ...

Our full day in Victoria was partly spent in the company of an internet contact who I met through a mutual interest in the early history of British Columbia; my great-great-grandfather was responsible for mapping the border between the US and Canada along the 49th Parallel - using astronomical instruments to decide exactly where the twenty-foot wide strip of forest should be felled to mark to boundary - all the way from the coast into the Rockies, in a dead straight line to the border with Alberta. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to visit the area. Anyway, this chap Simon is extremely knowledgeable about the period and very kindly drove us around to see various places my ancestor would have known. This small marker is the remaining one of three which were the starting point for the triangulation.

He was also very handy for giving us the correct pronunciation of the place-names in the area, which I only knew from my ancestor's letters. I'd always assumed that Esquimault was pronounced Eskimo, but instead it's Esk-why-malt. (In the 1860s this was a particularly insalubrious area, mainly populated by "Indian prostitutes and fornicating sailors". Luckily it's improved since then!) He also runs a very popular (judging by the length of the queue) fish bar on the harbour, called Red Fish Blue Fish and he treated us to excellent fish and chips.

As well as all this we splashed out (possibly the wrong turn of phrase!) on a floatplane sightseeing flight over the area, (somewhat smaller than the last plane we went on!)

as well as finishing yesterday's multicache by visiting Spinnakers brewpub then enjoying a very pleasant walk back into town for dinner, watching the funny little bumble-bee ferries buzzing from side to side of the harbour.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hit the road, Jack

May 3rd: Day 4

The weather's got its act together and is fine again. This has come as a great relief because today we picked up the hire car from downtown and gingerly drove back to the hotel to collect our luggage. We had a straightforward drive to the ferry port at Tsawwassen, if you discount getting lost in Richmond. The road signs aren't all as clear or as obvious as they could be to strangers. The road use, once you've come to terms with being on the wrong side of the road, is slightly different too. When the traffic lights are red and you want to turn right (so not crossing the carriageway) you can ignore the red light. However pedestrians will have been given the signal to cross, and you must give way to them. Luckily the speed limits are low so you don't feel hassled - and the other drivers are remarkably courteous - horns are hardly ever used.

Another slight hiccup was that the ferry company had never seen a travel voucher like ours, but after a phonecall to colleagues all was well (managed very efficiently and in a friendly manner). Phew! We're starting to feel like guineapigs for this tour company. They really haven't got their act together.

We reached the hotel in Victoria relatively painlessly; our room is on the 16th (or 15th when you take into account the missing 13th) floor and has a fine view over the southern part of the city.

The coffee-making facilities have improved and include a cooker, microwave and fridge!

We decided to make the most of the fine day and braved the chilly breeze to have a look around.

The Parliament building

Another hotel

We made a start on a multicache (geocaching is an excellent way of touring an area you don't know) but involved visiting brewpubs for clues (Swans and Canoe), and it would have been rude not to sample their wares (and get treated to free tasters of various unusual gins); we decided to complete the cache tomorrow!

We had dinner at The Wharfside which is supposed to do the best seafood in town. It was good, but not great.

What we find really annoying is the way purchase tax isn't included in the display price of goods. You budget for the advertised price and find the final bill comes as quite a shock. Thank goodness we don't do it that way.

The trees they do grow high

May 2nd: Day 3

Fire seems to be following us around; we were woken at about 6am by sirens which we later learned (watching the news in bed - how decadent!) was an old house about 4 blocks away burning down; I don't think anyone was inside. The weather today was on the side of the firefighters - a steady light rain.

We spent the day walking round Stanley Park geocaching. When we'd seen Stanley Park on the map we imagined something similar to Hyde Park but with more trees. In fact it is surprisingly hilly and the forest astonishing. Some of the trees are massive; here I give a sense of scale.

It's a shame that the tallest have been topped at something over 100'; goodness knows how tall they want to be. Old trees have been felled leaving stumps about 8' high; leaf litter forms on the tops of the stumps and new trees seed themselves into this and eventually their roots eat away the remains of the stump leaving a new tree growing independently but with its roots starting way up above the ground.

To take a bit of shelter from the rain we visited Vancouver Aquarium where they have everything from jellyfish

and treefrogs

and an injured porpoise (who seemed to be as curious about us as we were about her)

and rather tragic beluga whales.

We found eight caches, failed to find two, and must have walked about 10 miles - I wonder how stiff our legs will be tomorrow! We also saw two black squirrels and a very pretty bird which behaved very like a blackbird. I later found out it was a North American robin, which is indeed in the blackbird family.

Finally, with the help of Eddy Chau at the hotel reception, we've sorted out the cock-up by either the travel agent or, as I suspect, the tour company, and we now have our vouchers to show we've paid for the hotels and ferries for the remaining part of the holiday, which we'd been told would be waiting for us in Vancouver - and they weren't. I feel a strongly-worded letter of complaint will be written in due course - we could have done without the stress.