Thursday 23 February 2017

Canada: High times in the Rockies

Rowena Walsh got a taste of western Canada's great outdoors and can't wait to return

Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

Use of this photo is governed by contract and intellectual property laws of Canada.

It was with mounting horror that I realised I was about to scream. And stamp my foot. It may have been my birthday but I was starting to regress by about, well, quite a few years.

It seemed that the two gentlemen sitting across from me didn't quite understand how strongly I felt about going for a cycle around Salt Spring Island on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.

It was the fourth day of our holiday. My husband Brian and I were spending 10 days travelling around a corner of western Canada. We had just enjoyed three fabulous days in Vancouver.

The ferry trip to Salt Spring Island, aka the most lively of British Columbia's Southern Gulf Islands, had passed by in a haze of breathtaking views.

We were going to spend a couple of days on the islands before returning to Vancouver and travelling east to Banff National Park.

The friendly folk at the Harbour House hotel recommended a nearby bike shop. There, sitting on the porch, were two good ole boys guarding the entrance to an Aladdin's cave of two-wheeled transportation.

They had bicycles, we had money. Surely we could come to some arrangement.

Actually, we couldn't. Our money was no good. The bikes are rented out by the day and the two most chilled-out individuals I have ever encountered weren't inclined to change their routine just because we wanted to cycle for a few hours in the afternoon.

After a tantrum (mine, not theirs) it was time for plan B. This started with a stop for sushi -- which was as delicious as you'd expect in an area where placards proudly proclaim that wild salmon don't do drugs.

Fully fortified, we wandered around the many, many bookshops and galleries in Ganges town and then drove around the hair-raising twists and turns to the top of Mount Maxwell.

The island is a haven for many wanderers. We met an Irishman who found his niche on a hotel-run farm, a woman from the north of England who specialised in making cheese and a marathon-running New Yorker who had hung up his trainers.

Once ensconced, they become evangelical about the joys of island living, and especially its food.

That night in the Harbour House, our dinner of goat's cheese and brie in filo with spinach, bacon and beets, followed by seared Pacific halibut and maple crème brûlée, was sourced solely from the island. Even the wine was local, from the Garry Oaks and Mistaken Identity labels.

This emphasis on indigenous, seasonal food isn't exclusive to Salt Spring though. As we ate and drank our way through BC, we were intrigued to see restaurants extolling menus where every item had been sourced from within 30, 50, 100 miles.

And they don't make exceptions. A chef we met wouldn't even serve tomatoes on her gourmet burgers if they weren't in season.

It's an intriguing notion, but it helps if you live in such a lush location. Other Canadians, even those in the neighbouring state of Alberta, aren't quite so convinced.

Then there is a lot of rivalry between BC and Alberta. Canadians are sports mad, but as the Stanley Cup ice-hockey championship would show, it turns out that the people of Alberta would prefer Americans to win rather than Vancouverites.

We had arrived in BC's capital on the second day of the competition. The Vancouver Canucks were playing the Boston Bruins in the best-of-seven-game final, and it seemed that the entire city was cheering on the team.

Days later, the Canucks fans would riot throughout the city when their team eventually lost.

They may be fanatical about winter sports in Vancouver, but they make the most of the great outdoors, too, and we followed their example.

We joined the morning joggers on their route around magnificent Stanley Park, biked through the Chinese quarter and spent a mad morning kayaking across the bay.

So it's not surprising that we needed a breather by the time we reached Salt Spring. One relaxed night later and we were back on the water again, on the short ferry ride to Vancouver Island.

After visiting the Averill Creek Winery -- we had been introduced to the fruit of its vines in Vancouver's Raincity Grill, which had pioneered the 100-mile menu -- and stopping for fresh crab in Cowichan Bay, we arrived in the lovely capital, Victoria.

There, we put on our flotation suits and went out on a 12-seater high-speed Zodiac (who could resist a company called the Prince of Whales?) to catch sight of a playful pair of killer whales.

Afterwards, we joined the crowd sitting outside Blue Fish Red Fish for the best seafood tacos ever and then indulged my husband's 1970s 'Beachcomber' fantasies by riding on a seaplane above the city.

We almost didn't want to return to Vancouver. Almost, but there was a lure. An irresistible one. And that was our trip on the Rocky Mountaineer from the west coast all the way across the Rockies to Calgary.

Spending two days on a train isn't for everyone. But then this is no ordinary choo-choo. We took our (reclining) seats and stretched out our legs in the purpose-built, double-deck glass dome Gold Leaf car.

Our route wasn't just beautiful, but also historically significant, too. We travelled over the old Canadian Pacific Railway, the country's first transcontinental line which opened in 1885, stopping for a night in hot, dusty Kamloops.

The scenery was spectacular -- of the many, many highlights, I loved Hells Gate, the narrowest and fastest-flowing point of the Fraser River -- and we bonded with our fellow passengers as, agog, we spied myriad wildlife including, for one thrilling moment, a fully grown black bear.

Safely ensconced in our luxurious bubble, we felt bereft when we had to disembark at Calgary.

Prince William and Kate may have chosen it for their first overseas tour, but the oil-rich city of skyscrapers gets a bad rep.

Calgary isn't immediately accessible. You need to seek out its charms, including the renowned Glenbow Museum and the get-your-runners-on inspiring Olympic Park -- which boasts the fastest zipline in North America -- but it's worth the effort.

Our hotel was in the heart of downtown, not great when you arrive on a Saturday night, but it was close to Prince's Island Park, a gorgeous oasis by the Bow River, and home of the River Café, where we enjoyed fabulous Pacific octopus, elk carpaccio and bison striploin in the best meal of our holiday; possibly one of the best of our lives.

Two days later, we were on the move again, this time to the mountain community of Banff and Lake Louise, a 90-minute drive west of Calgary.

We were determined to work off the many indulgences of the past few days and there was certainly enough room to do so in the 2,564 square miles of Banff National Park.

After two hours of huffing and puffing, we were thrilled to reach the top of Sulphur Mountain (7,417ft above sea level) and see a bird's-eye view of the snow-capped peaks of six mountain ranges and the unspoiled wilderness beneath.

We were positively smug on the eight-minute gondola ride which brought us back to the outskirts of the pretty town of Banff, which doubles as a haven for winter sports enthusiasts.

We were on a high, and we stayed there after driving north on the Trans-Canadian highway to Lake Louise.

The next morning, we set our alarm clock extra early, but even then we weren't alone when we made our early morning trip to ice-filled emerald-green water of Moraine Lake.

Later, we joined the masses climbing to the Lake Angus tea-house perched precariously above the flower-filled shores of the turquoise Lake Louise before rushing back to Banff.

After all, we couldn't miss the final Canucks game ...

We drowned our sorrows with a local brew in the Banff Avenue Brewing Company and the following morning the pouring rain mirrored our mood as we began the long journey home, vowing to return to the Pacific Northwest ... someday.

Weekend Magazine

Read More

Promoted articles

Editors Choice

Also in Life