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Here at Travel With Jules we have been planning tailor made holidays to Canada for many years. So I was delighted to accept an invitation to travel there myself, along with a small group of other independent travel agents, with Prestige Holidays – who are our tour operator of choice for Canada (and AITO partners) in May 2018.
As with all these ‘FAM’ trips (familiarisation) I knew we were in for an action packed few days and it certainly was! The aim is for the local hotels, tourist boards and operators to showcase their products to us, so that we can see for ourselves the options available to our clients. We research and make notes, finding out the 'inside information' which enables us to create very special holiday experiences and make first hand contacts with the people in each destination. Given the short space of time, we normally end up not sleeping much, having no ‘down time’ to ourselves and cramming into a few days what our clients would take two weeks to experience .... so please don't tell me I've been on a 'jolly'!
So leaving home in Suffolk at 4am and having been stuck in traffic on the M25 I arrived a little late at Heathrow to meet Maggie from Air Canada and Hayley from Prestige Holidays who were our hosts and tour leaders. Once airside I met with the rest of the group and we were delighted to find that Maggie had worked her magic and Air Canada had offered us the chance to experience their business class cabin, which was of course fabulous - Thank you!
Business Class with Air Canada is four rows wide (2 seats in the middle and on each window side) with all seats forward facing at an angle, so lots of space for stretching out and not having to climb over other passengers (which you do with some other airlines!). There were USB ports for charging and ample pocket storage. The food was superb and the cabin crew were lovely – two of them wanted to know where I had got my red cowboy boots from as they wanted a pair!! (The return in economy and premium was more cramped as you would expect as the Vancouver plane was a lot busier and it seemed an older plane, the in-flight entertainment, food and service was not a patch on the outbound).
Landing in Calgary around noon Canada time, we were met by the local ground agents and once loaded into our mini bus Judy gave us a commentary around the city as we tried to orientate ourselves! They took us to a view point looking back towards the skyline and the stampede ground, from where I saw my first 'Canada Geese in Canada' in the river below!
The group in Calgary
Rising from the grasslands of the Alberta prairies, Calgary is a majestic city and since the 1970's has prospered as a result of the oil and gas industry. Prior to that, Calgary was a cattle town and their Cowboy heritage is celebrated every summer in the famous Calgary Stampede.
If you would like us to plan a trip to the Calgary Stampede for you, this major cowboy event books up a long way in advance so let us know as soon as you can, dates are usually early July for a couple of weeks.
There are many museums and attractions to see in Calgary and it’s definitely worthy of a couple of days, whether you are travelling solo, as a couple or with children, there are plenty of sights to enjoy. We visited Heritage Park which is a historical village where you can interact with people showcasing how the ‘west’ of Canada used to be and it’s also home to Gasoline Alley a wonderful motor museum showcasing the gas pumps and old cars and planes of yesteryear.
Calgary is a very ‘young’ city with an average age of 36 we were reliably informed! The lovely Bailey from Tourism Calgary hosted us for the first evening which included a trip up the Calgary Tower (with it’s glass floor which was a little challenging for those of us who didn’t like heights!) and amazing 360 degree views of the city and surrounding mountains.
We were then taken to one of the many craft breweries which seem to be the ‘in thing’ throughout Canada and one of the many restaurants and bars in Calgary where the young and trendy like to hang out!
We also visited an Artisan Coffee producer for tastings with Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters which is based in a converted industrial warehouse also housing a fabulous bakery and a butchers, they produce all their coffee on site and I was interested to hear about Phil’s regular trips to Africa to source responsibly produced coffee beans and ensure the farmers receive the correct remuneration for their work. On to Studio Bell, we had a fascinating tour of the building which is five floors of interactive exhibitions which tell the stories of music in Canada, you can play a guitar or a piano, sing along and make a noise – great fun if you have kids (or if you are a big kid yourself!). Among the exhibits we saw Elton John’s piano and Elvis Presley’s guitar.
We drove past Olympic park which has hosted the winter Olympics made most famous by Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bob sleigh team – their chariot used in cool runnings can be seen outside the entrance! There is plenty for children to enjoy in Calgary, including the Calgary Zoo, the World’s largest dinosaur (near Royal Tyrrell Museum), SPARK the new science centre and Fort Calgary Historic Park.
THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, BANFF & LAKE LOUISE
Leaving Calgary we travelled with our ground agents, Brewsters Tours, by luxury coach to the Rocky Mountains, a journey of around one and a half hours to Banff and another half an hour or so to Lake Louise. Sadly, the beautiful sunny weather and clear skies of Calgary had been left behind and as we got closer to the mountains there was a drizzly mist surrounding us!
Arriving somewhat later than planned at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, we were hosted to a lovely lunch of flatbreads, cheeses and cold meats (accompanied by a glass of fabulous Canadian wine!) by hotel manager Bruce, who we then ran round the hotel with (literally!) on a whistle stop viewing of their lovely rooms. It would have been lovely to spend more time here, but as is the case on a FAM trip, it was a quick dash to the washrooms and back on the coach! The Fairmont is the only hotel right ON Lake Louise with a stunning view and private lake access. The lake was still frozen when we visited – so if you want the classic turquoise blue waters head to the Rockies in the summer months!
On the drive back to Banff there was great excitement when we saw a gorgeous Black Bear right on the roadside from the coach!
Arriving into Banff, we stopped to have a look around Fairmont Banff Springs hotel which is just a short drive from the town centre and has a lovely, historic ‘castle’ feel to it then quickly back on the bus up the hill to the Banff Gondola. I’m reliably informed that on a clear day the views from the top of the mountain is wonderful but I’ll just leave that thought as when we visited it was very cloudy and as I watched the gondolas disappear into the mist I decided that with my vertigo (which had already been tested up the Calgary Tower!) I would give this one a miss ….!
Finally, around 7 pm we were allowed to check into our rooms at the Rimrock Hotel and it was another very quick change for dinner where we were hosted in the Primrose restaurant to a lovely meal (there was an amazing ice sculpture in the entrance hall!). The following morning we had been told to have our bags ready for collection at 5.45 am so had to do a very quick re-pack later in the evening to get ready for our two days on the Rocky Mountaineer train. The view down the snow capped valley from the hotel in the early morning was beautiful.
ROCKY MOUNTAINEER LUXURY TRAIN
Transcontinental train travel in Canada began in 1886 when the Pacific Express left Montreal to take a 139 hour / 3000 mile journey across Canada through the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean. The then president of the Canadian Pacific Railway said “if we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists”! So the seed for the train which eventually became the Rocky Mountaineer was sown …..
Having been parted from our luggage very early, we were then met by Randy, our RM tour manager in the lobby of the Rimrock Hotel at 7 am who issued our boarding passes and told us about the experience to come! Driving back through Banff town we had a brief glimpse of what was on offer there, I’m sure our clients could easily spend several night in the Banff area, there are so many activities and excursions on offer.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a sightseeing train which uses the same railroad lines as the freight and public trains, so it’s worth bearing this in mind when planning a journey. Looking at the map (and having sold the RM many times over the years), I had wondered why it took two days for a train to travel relatively short distances, but now having experienced it I can see why! The train travels at a very slow pace to enable the best views of the surrounding scenery and has to give way to other trains on the tracks. The station at Banff had the red carpet out and we were quickly boarded to the smiling faces of the crew who settled us into our seats.
There are two levels of carriage to choose from, Silver and Gold Leaf. Gold Leaf is pretty much all we would book for our clients as this has the double storey viewing cars and all meals and drinks included. The upper level is the ‘viewing deck’ and your aircraft style seats all have heaps of leg room, a meal tray and ample storage for day bags. The lower deck houses the restaurant car and an area outside at the back so that you can feel the wind in your face – a fabulous experience!
The crew on the RM were superb – they came from all around the world and the same crew look after you for the full two days, making sure you never go hungry and keeping the drinks flowing, whilst telling stories about the places you pass through and the history of the RM and the railroads in Canada. In our carriage we had Rory (from Australia), Jocelyn, Carlo, Candace & Natasha.
The food as you can imagine was gorgeous! Breakfast and lunch were served on board both days, the breakfasts in particular were very yummy – lovely fruit smoothies and eggs in a hundred varieties! I’ve taken home the RM cookery book as a souvenir to try out some recipes myself.
There are several options on the routes you can take the most popular being the ‘First Passage to the West’ between Banff and Vancouver, which is the journey we took. There is also the option to travel in or out of Jasper, which I would recommend as you can then have more time in the Rockies and experience the Icefield Parkway between Jasper and Banff (either self drive or on a tour). There are pros and cons of either way round to do the RM journey, some say that starting from Vancouver is better as the mountains are in front of you and you can see them for longer as the Rockies get closer (whereas starting in Banff or Jasper you are already IN the mountains so don’t travel through them for long).
Having now done this I can tell you that travelling as we did from Banff to Vancouver there were still mountains even around Vancouver! On the Banff route, the RM travels through the ‘spiral tunnels’ as it winds it’s way through the mountains and the Jasper route travels past Whistler National Park. Once at Kamloops all the trains (in either direction) stop for the night and the passengers are taken by coach to their hotel. Note that all hotels in Kamloops are pretty basic and room only but perfectly OK for one night. We stayed at Sandman Signature where the rooms are all large suites.
Kamloops is a bit of a ‘one horse town’ and originally was a rail road trading post, some of the old carriages can be seen near the station. The name means meeting of the waters and it was also a junction town for early settlers heading to the Cariboo gold fields.
That evening, having finally got to our hotel after around 12 hours on the train, no time for a shower we were off for an evening meal, this time hosted by Lisa and Howard from Tourism Kamloops and Destination British Columbia. I hadn’t realised it at the time but most of us were suffering from motion sickness after so long on the train which was an odd feeling, sitting on a bar stool (in another craft beer restaurant where this time I ordered a local cider!) until you realised what was going on!!
Day 2 of the Rocky Mountaineer saw us being taken back to the train by coach (a military operation as by now we had been joined by the Jasper train, so many hundreds of people were being moved around!) and settling back into our dome car. The scenery by now had flattened out but we were delighted by many twists and turns of the track from where we had a good view of the other ends of the train (!) as it follows rivers and lakes along the way. The crew told us about the different waves we could use, seeing that many locals liked to interact along the way, the most comical being the ‘moose wave’ which involves putting your thumbs in your ears and waving your fingers like antlers!!
Eventually the train arrived into Vancouver and we were met by Land Sea Adventures who looked after us during our time in the city. Struggling with the traffic we at last arrived at the Marriott Downtown and checked into our rooms – at last, somewhere to empty our bags for two nights! Still no time really to change as we wanted to have a drink with Maggie (Air Canada) who was leaving us early the next day to fly to Toronto for a travel event.
So, cocktails at the bar in the hotel (which were very nice!) and an early happy birthday to Sharon (one of the other agents), after which some of us walked round the corner to the harbour front and had a drink at the Cactus Club …. Which had a bit of an odd atmosphere and very strange videos playing …. However, the local wine was tasty as always!
The following day we had our only full day in Vancouver. Gorgeous tour guide Kieran met us and took us on a drive round of the city to orientate ourselves past the main hotels and through Yale Town, China Town and Gas Town back to the harbour front. We stopped at the cruise ship terminal and walked past it to ‘Fly Over Canada’ which is a virtual reality experience like no other! As you are strapped into your seat and the lights dim you feel the wind hit your face as the surrounding 3D cinema flies you across the vast lands from fjords and river canyons to sweeping grasslands and the mist rising over Niagara Falls .. Finishing with a spectacular sight of the Northern Lights. I have to say due to my slight fear of heights I spent half the time with my eyes closed and having thought that it wasn’t for everyone and that my parents wouldn’t enjoy it, I spoke to them on my return and found that they had done it (they visited Canada a while ago) and loved it!!
Then we moved on to the Whale Watching trip which had been booked to depart from Vancouver Harbour. I won’t go into great detail here as the seas were very rough and many people were unwell! The blue skies above us betrayed the swell which was going on mid channel …. Never mind, I’m sure on another day it would have been a different experience (and the day before they had seen a large pod of Orcas). Kieran did say that he had only ever done whale watching from Victoria before (Vancouver Island) and to be fair, most of our tailor made clients would do whale watching from Vancouver Island (many options) or would be travelling on to the bear lodges and Alaska further north where you can also do whale watching.
Back on dry land and with legs still swaying and hair full of sea water (!), it was back to the hotel for a spruce up before walking to beautiful Hotel Rosewood Georgia in central downtown where the lovely sales manager Ayfer hosted us to cocktails and canapes in their lovely ‘Reflections’ garden restaurant which has a great atmosphere and lots of cosy sofas and soft lighting. The rooms themselves at Rosewood Georgia are stunning and we have in fact been using this hotel for many of TWJ’s clients for years now. It is a historic hotel with a colonial feel to it and, as with most hotels in Vancouver, is still only walking distance to the harbour front and shopping malls.
Last day in Vancouver saw us checking out early (having to pack for the flight as we were heading straight to the airport from our tours) and enjoying a hosted breakfast at nearby Sutton Place Hotel. This is a lovely hotel and well placed again. We couldn’t see any rooms as they were fully booked but the manager explained about the facilities and their public areas.
Back in the bus with the entertaining Kieran again, we laughed our way across the city round the harbour to Stanley Park and on to the Capilano Suspension Bridge and finally to Granville Island.
Vancouver is an amazing city – cosmopolitan, friendly and safe. It’s possible pretty much to walk everywhere from the main hotels and there are bikes to hire which can be picked up and dropped off in different locations. The harbour is home to the sea planes, yacht club and local boats and you can walk along the sea front round to Stanley Park and to the Vancouver Aquarium. It would be easy to fill a week in Vancouver, there is so much to do! It’s also home to quite a few movie stars and celebs, the city is a popular location for many films and TV shows. The city is set between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains and is only a few hours to Seattle just over the USA border on the Pacific Highway and a jumping off point for Alaska cruises, bear watching lodges and Vancouver Island.
Stanley Park covers 865 acres which is bigger than the whole of downtown Vancouver! There are formal gardens, semi wild forest areas, hiking and biking trails and beaches, plus home to Vancouver Aquarium. From Prospect Point you have a great view of the city and there are several totem poles here. In summer there is a free shuttle bus connecting the seawall and major attractions.
Grouse Mountain (which can be a day trip alone!) gives the visitor a chance to take in the vast panorama that surrounds Vancouver from the top of the mountain (plus skiing in winter), via two swiss-built cable cars.
All around the city there are parks and museums celebrating the history of the British Columbia First Nations People. Take a trip to the Museum of Anthropology to find out more.
After Stanley Park we crossed the bridge to north Vancouver and visited the Capilano River Regional Park. The Capilano Suspension Bridge is among the most visited attractions in the province where tourists walk over the 137 metre swaying footbridge. Not for me, I accompanied a couple of the other agents who were terrified at the thought and contributed to the local economy in the gift shop instead!! There are giant totem poles and a treetop adventure, plus a cliff walk and on the other side of the suspension bridge some beautiful indigenous forests.
Back on the bus (where the air-con broke so I was glad I had packed my fan from India!!) we travelled past the beaches of Vancouver with a hilarious commentary from Kieran to Granville Island. If you are a foodie and or love shopping you could spend a week in Granville Island alone!! (Well, I could)…. You can take a bus or ferry to the island, if you have a car don’t even think about driving there, the parking is a nightmare!
Granville Island is a success of urban regeneration, being reclaimed from swampland in 1917 and then rebuilt in the 70’s having become a derelict wasteland. It is now one of the heartlands of the city containing one of the world’s greatest food markets and a mix of galleries, walkways, speciality shops, restaurants and artists studios. All this surrounded by street buskers and the waterways of the city.
We were escorted through the food market by our lovely guide from Vancouver Foodie Tours (who was a private chef in the evenings having trained in Michelin restaurants the world over!), where we sampled tea, apples, nuts, cheeses, cold meats, artisan breads, truffle salt & most peoples favourites freshly cooked doughnuts! (These are not like any other doughnut you will ever have tasted, believe me!).
Sadly, our visit was all too soon over and we had our last (and only!) chance of the trip for a bit of shopping with 30 minutes to hurtle round the shops before getting back on the bus. Saying a sad goodbye to Kieran, we were then dropped at Vancouver and after a quick change (which involved running barefoot through the departures hall to the washrooms and re-packing my check in bag!), we eventually found the right check in desk and after a huge queue at security (isn’t it the same the world over?!) we grabbed a few last minute souvenirs and laden with maple syrup we boarded our Air Canada flight back to London!
So … a huge THANK YOU to Prestige Holidays for arranging the FAM trip for us, to Air Canada for the flights and to the many hoteliers, local ground agents and tour guides who hosted us.
If I had to pick one overriding thing which I loved the most from the trip I would have to say it was the Canadian people! Everyone we met, without exception, was so friendly and welcoming – amazing place with amazing people…
I AM LOOKING FORWARD TO BOOKING LOTS OF LOVELY HOLIDAYS TO CANADA FOR OUR CLIENTS!
Get in touch either by phone or via the website enquiry form and Jules will contact you to discuss your requirements for your own bespoke holiday to Canada. Don’t forget, if you prefer to join a group on an escorted tour, we can book that as well. Or, maybe a combination, join a tour or cruise for part of the time and have some time with your own car or own arrangements.
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Travel With Jules is a national award-winning Independent Travel Agency offering travel concierge services based in Suffolk, UK.
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