Banff Weekend

My best friend from Toronto came to town last weekend and we headed straight to the mountains to spend a couple of nights in Banff. We had a lovely fall weekend with great weather. Banff is an easy day trip from Calgary and no matter how often I go it is still one of my favourite trips to do in Canada. It is a quintessential mountain town with amazing views from any part of the town and easy access to the Banff National Park, ski hills, hiking trails and Lake Louise.

Our first day was spent wandering the main street, having lunch at the Elk & Oarsman (great pub in Banff) and then we shopped. If you are in the market for ski equipment, hiking gear or just a warm winter jacket, Banff is a great place to find it. There are at least 10 shops with specialty outdoor equipment or clothing. Many of the other shops are other kinds of specialty shops, including the Christmas store, jewelry shops and the delicious candy, chocolate and fudge stores. The Roots store in Banff has many items unique to the Banff location, I always find better stuff here than in other Roots stores. It is also a great store for gifts or souvenirs, lots of nice Banff logoed items that are good quality.

There is so much to do in Banff. The hot springs are amazing, even though they are more like a pool now than the original Cave and Basin springs. I prefer them in the cold weather, it is great to sit outside in the hot water in a bathing suit with the snow falling.  Right beside the hot springs is the Sulphur Mountain gondola which takes people up to the summit. There is a restaurant and walkway at the top. The views from up there are amazing! It is a great place to spend some time wandering the walkway and then ending with a drink in the restaurant where there is a gorgeous view over the mountain range. The cost of the gondola is $35.95 per person and it is about an 8 minute trip each way up and down the mountain.

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The Banff Springs hotel is worth a visit. It looks like a castle and is one of the Canadian Pacific hotels built along the railway. The original section of the hotel was started in 1887 and finished in 1888. If you can afford it, the hotel is a great place to stay and includes access to their own hot pools. If not, it is still worth a visit, the back patio has a beautiful view over the mountains and Bow River which can also be enjoyed from the Rundle Lounge inside the hotel where you can have a drink, dinner or high tea. The other restaurants in the hotel are also very good, especially for a nice dinner out.

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Behind the Banff Springs is Bow Falls, stunning any time of year but particularly impressive in the spring as the water is high and rages over the falls. It is a popular spot for wedding photos and can be taken over by tour groups at times. It is a great stop for photos of the falls and the river with the mountains on either side.

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In the winter there is of course skiing, both downhill at Norquay, Sunshine or Lake Louise, and cross country. There is also snow-shoeing around Banff and area, Lake Louise has a nice trail for both snow-shoeing or cross-country skiing. Another fun winter activity is dog-sledding, the dogs are amazing and really could anything be more of a stereotype of Canada?

On this trip we ended up on a tour of Banff and Lake Louise (we were supposed to go horseback riding but the hotel unfortunately put us on a bus tour of Banff instead, which we didn’t find out until we were on the tour! It was a bit of a shock.). I have never done a tour of the area before, since I live so close and go there regularly I never saw the need. The tour ended up being great, our guide was fantastic and I did see one place I had never been before, the hoodoos in Banff National park which are just above the Bow River.

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We stopped at the main sights in Banff (the Banff Springs, Bow Falls, lookout over the Bow River and the hoodoos) and then drove to Lake Louise. It is definitely worth the trip. No matter the time of year it is beautiful. During the winter the lake freezes and in January there is an ice carving festival. There is always a carving of a castle on the lake and you can walk through it or skate through the castle or around the lake. In the summer the water is a gorgeous turquoise colour which is caused by the sediment from the rocks being suspended in the water and the reflection from the sun thereby creating the unique colour. As the sun was about to go behind the mountains the colour was not as visible on all parts of the lake.

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The tour then took the Bow Valley Parkway back to Banff. It is a beautiful drive and provides a great view of Castle Mountain. It is a wildlife corridor and therefore a good place to try and spot animals. Unfortunately we didn’t see any there this time but we did see mule deer in Banff.

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Castle Mountain

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View over the mountains from the rest stop near Banff on the TransCanada Highway (Highway #1).

Aside from the beautiful scenery, tourist attractions and shopping, Banff is also great for food. One of my favourites is the Grizzly House, it is a unique experience, they serve fondue with either oil fondue or hot rocks with garlic butter for the meat/seafood portions, and a really yummy cheese fondue. You can finish with a chocolate toblerone fondue with fruit and cookies. So good! For the meat fondues, they have standards like chicken and steak, or wild game such as elk, caribou and venison, or more exotic meats like snake and ostrich. It also used to be a swingers club and there are still phones on each table that actually work, you can call any other table in the restaurant, there is even a phone in the bathroom. Other good places to eat are Saltlik, the Maple Leaf Grill, the restaurants at the Banff Springs or Rimrock, plus some really good pubs like Elk & Oarsman, Bear Street Tavern and Rose & Crown.

Alberta has many other sights to see as well but any trip to Alberta, particularly Southern Alberta, would not be complete without a trip to the Rockies and Banff.

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Thanksgiving Wine Touring

Last weekend I went to B.C. to the Shuswap for Thanksgiving. I love B.C. in the fall! Beautiful colours on all of the trees. Perfect place to spend Thanksgiving. It is such a gorgeous drive through the mountains with the yellow, red and orange leaves on the trees. The drive was sunny most of the way but sadly once we got to B.C. the weather turned cloudy although it stayed fairly warm and didn’t rain.

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Aside from spending Thanksgiving in the beautiful surroundings in B.C., the other thing that made it perfect was that it was the Okanagan wine festival. There were events at most of the wineries in the area and around Kelowna. We stopped at three of the wineries for tastings, Mt. Boucherie, Volcanic (they have amazing ice wine) and Mission Hill. All of the wineries are picturesque, especially with the fall colours and the views over the lake, and they all had some very tasty wines. Mission Hill is one of the biggest wineries in the area, it is up on the hill and is definitely worth a visit, the setting is gorgeous, with views over the lake and vineyards, and the winery itself is reminiscent of an Italian winery.

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After touring the wineries we went to the Old Vines restaurant at Quail’s Gate winery for our Thanksgiving dinner. The dinner was a special wine festival set menu dinner with wine pairings. It was delicious! Four courses, all of them very tasty.  The dessert was especially impressive, a dark chocolate disk on top of a cake then covered with a warmed fruit sauce. Delicious! The view from the restaurant is one of the best in the area, unfortunately it was not a clear day but the setting was still lovely with the trees in full fall colours.

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The next day we drove out to the Adam’s River and Roderick Haig Brown provincial park to watch the salmon run. Every four years there is a surge in the number of salmon that come back to the rivers in central B.C. to spawn. This was one of those years and the Adam’s river was full of sockeye salmon. Apparently only two fish from the thousands of salmon eggs laid by one female actually make it back to the river where they were born. During the Salute to the Sockeye festival at the park, which takes place the first three weeks of October, a fee of $5 is charged to enter the park and watch the salmon. There are nice walking paths, a viewing platform and signs along the paths providing information on the salmon run.

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It was actually the second Thanksgiving I spent wine touring and enjoying the lovely fall colours. The first was a couple of years ago in Ontario. I went with a friend from Calgary to spend Thanksgiving with my best friend in Ontario. We toured Toronto and Niagara to see the fall colours and also stopped by some of the wineries around the Grimsby area on our way to and from Niagara on the Lake where we stayed for a night. Similar to B.C., many of the wineries have restaurants with menus which include wine pairings and of course the wineries offer regular tastings. I have found that most of the winery restaurants are delicious (Hillebrand is one of my favourites in Niagara on the Lake, Angel’s Gate along Beamsville Bench is amazing), plus the wine pairing menu is a great way to taste different wines. There are wineries scattered from Grimsby all the way to Niagara on the Lake, ranging from boutique wineries, like Organized Crime, to the big producers like Jackson-Triggs. The wine route is well marked, although many of the boutique wineries are off the beaten track, but there are maps of the area that make it easy to find all of the wineries.

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Niagara on the Lake has great shops, restaurants and is surrounded by many wineries. In the fall the Shaw Festival is still on with plays at the theatres throughout the town. After spending some time in Niagara on the Lake we drove the wine route from Niagara on the Lake to Niagara Falls.

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Although I missed getting turkey dinner this year, I loved spending Thanksgiving at the wine festival. During the fall around Thanksgiving there are often wine festivals and other events making it a great time to visit the wine regions. Plus it isn’t the high season so some of the hotels will have package deals that include dinners or wine tours. I think I may need to make wine touring a Thanksgiving tradition, at least every couple years since I would hate to miss turkey every year no matter how good the wine is.IMG_2356

Ireland – There is a Reason it is Called the Emerald Isle

Ireland is one of my favourite places in the world so I decided to repost a post I made on HH World Travel, with some minor changes, which is a blog I wrote with a friend of mine. Such a beautiful country, can’t wait to go back!

Writing my post on the Inca Trail and thinking back on all that rain made me think of other rainy vacations I’ve had.  I’m generally a fair weather traveller, I try and go places when the weather is likely to be decent, although the weather doesn’t always cooperate of course. There are some exceptions, I’ve been to England for New Years a couple of times, Iceland in April, the Faroe Islands in early June, the Inca Trail in Peru in January, and of course out to the mountains in the winter as they are beautiful any time of year. I knew for each of those trips that it was unlikely to be warm and sunny. Generally for me too much rain has the potential to ruin a holiday, but in Ireland somehow it didn’t matter. Of the 14 days of the trip I only had one day when it didn’t rain. Yet it is one of the best trips I’ve ever taken and I would go back to Ireland in a heartbeat. Rain suits Ireland, gloomy clouds swirling around castles, black clouds on the horizon while the wind whips your hair as you stand on the cliffs, fog covering the gap of Dunloe and then lifting as you turn a corner in your horse pulled cart. There is just something about it. And after all, there is a reason the place is so green.

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Bad weather is practically a source of pride, it is expected. You can always tell the tourists, we’re the ones with the umbrellas pulled out with the first few drops of rain while the Irish people barely notice. Its one of those places you can grab a car and drive, which does help keep you get out of the rain, of course only until you turn the next corner and have to jump out to see a gorgeous view of the sea or countryside, wander a small town or explore castle ruins.

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I flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland and rented a car.  I started out of Belfast and drove the loop North along the coast past the Giant’s Causeway to Derry/Londonderry, then South into the Republic of Ireland through Galway to Kerry to stay in Killarney, East along the South coast to Kinsale and Cobh and then North through Kilkenny to Dublin.  I hit the main tourist spots along the way, such as the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, the Giant’s Causeway, cliffs of Moher, Ring of Kerry, Blarney Castle and the sights of Dublin.

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The rain didn’t stop me even though it rained every day except one. Only one place was it a real detriment, I could not see a thing at the cliffs of Moher.

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Luckily there was a visitors centre where there were some nice pictures so I knew what I had missed. Its a good excuse to go back.

In spite of the weather it is one of my favourite trips. Every part of the country is beautiful, there is so much to do and see and the people are truly amazing. Everywhere you go the people are friendly and helpful. My best tip for Ireland is talk to people because, aside from the lovely accent, some of my best tips on what to see around Ireland came from chatting with locals. One of the easiest places to meet locals rather than tourists is in the pub. There are few things to do in the evening which are more fabulous than sitting in a pub in Ireland, drinking Guinness, and listening to a band while chatting with the people around you. One of my favourite stops was based on a tip from a local in Killarney who said we had to stop in Cobh (which I had never heard of). Cobh was the last stop of the Titanic before it set sail. It is a beautiful town on the coast, with a gorgeous cathedral, quaint main street along the water and a fantastic museum about the Titanic and Irish history, particularly the mass Irish emigration around the world.

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Plus I stayed in two castles, hard to beat! A true princess fantasy come to life, one an 18th century style, very elegant, and the other 15th century style, it was even heated by a roaring fire, felt like I was in Henry VIII’s era.

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Ireland is full of fantastic things to see. Its tough to choose favourites, but if I had to choose my top highlights, in no particular order, are:

  1. Gourmet dinners in Kinsale in County Cork. It is known as the gourmet capital of Ireland and has some great restaurants in a beautiful town which was an old fishing port.
  2. The horse-drawn cart ride through the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry.  The horse’s name was Jovi, he had a partner named Bon who wasn’t working that day (the driver was a fan).
  3. Staying in as many castles and manor houses as I could afford. They are gorgeous, charming and usually have a delicious restaurant.  I found amazing deals in September and only had to book about a day in advance.
  4. Wandering Kilkenny castle and after that a night at the pub listening to an Irish band playing traditional Irish songs, with a few modern ones thrown in.
  5. The Northern Coastal highway where there are awe-inspiring sights every kilometre including the surreal Giant’s Causeway.
  6. Wandering the streets of towns like Cobh and Killarney. I didn’t spend enough time in either place, especially the Cobh museum, and cannot wait to go back.

P1100687Giant’s Causeway – Northern Ireland

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And remember to stop and have a Guinness. Somehow it just tastes that much better in Ireland when sitting in an Irish pub listening to live Irish music. Or at the Guinness factory in Dublin, you can even pour your own pint.

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I recommend Ireland as an amazing destination, even though you should expect it to rain some, if not all, of the time. A raincoat and an umbrella are a must. But, as everyone in Ireland told me to remember, you don’t come to Ireland for the weather.

 

Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Pictures

As  I was writing my post on Machu Picchu a few days ago I of course looked through all of my pictures from that trip. There were so many shots I loved but I couldn’t post them all so I decided to do a second post of a picture tour of my travels from Cusco along the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu using some of the pictures I wasn’t able to fit into the first post.  So here they are.

First stop on my G Adventures tour was the Incan capital city of Cusco.

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Cusco Cathedral in Plaza de Armas

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Qorikancha

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View over Cusco from Qorikancha.

After touring the city we went out to some of the Incan sights around Cusco. The sights we saw were Saqsaywaman, Q’enqo and Tambomachay.

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Saqsaywaman

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Alpacas at Saqsaywaman.

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Q’enqo

Next we were off to hike the Inca Trail. By far the most difficult part of the journey and if you read my previous post you already know we were plagued by rain and sadly were not able to really see and appreciate some of the sights along the trail. I still managed to get some great pictures though, as you can see below, and I think some of them are even improved by the clouds and mist as the trail and ruins acquired a mystical, even surreal quality.

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Before reaching the trail we stopped at a small town (sadly its name escapes me) along the way to grab supplies and have a quick coffee before starting our hike. As you can see it was a beautiful spot with the mountains in the background and the clouds sitting quite low.

Next stop was the trail itself. After acquiring all of our gear we had our passes stamped, crossed the bridge and we were on the trail.

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It did start out sunny, if only it had lasted! And look how nice and flat the trail is here, that didn’t last either.

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Here are the first ruins we came to on the trail. It was quite a large site with an even larger site visible down the hill.

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Hiking up up up in the pouring rain.

We encountered ruins periodically along the trail, most in great shape. Everything was also very green, as it should be with all that rain. The mountains were gorgeous with waterfalls either beside the trail or off in the distance.

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View of the final ruins we saw on the trail from the other side of the river just after we left the Inca Trail. We then walked a couple of hours along the train tracks into Aguas Calientes. We were so excited to be on the final leg and heading for a hotel where we would finally be dry.

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Final walk into Aguas Calientes.

And now Machu Picchu. After 3 days of hiking in the pouring rain we finally made it.

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It was an amazing trip full of highs and lows and lots and lots of rain. We started in the sun and thankfully the sun shone down on our last day too when we were in Machu Picchu making it the perfect end to the trip.