By Tina Fox
We recently returned from a guided trip to Canada with Riviera Travel – tiring but very worthwhile. The highlight was two wonderful days on the Rocky Mountaineer.
Because the flights only went from Heathrow and we had to get there from Scotland we decided to fly down the night before and stay over. We have tried a few airport hotels so this time we gave the Thistle a go and I would give it a thumbs up. The new Pod system to get you from the airport and back is excellent, quick, and easy to use, and you can include the cost in your hotel stay if you book via someone like Airport Extras. The room was comfortable and quite quiet for an airport base. Breakfast was adequate though not lavish and no vegetarian sausages!
We flew to Calgary the next day with Air Canada. As usual they messed up my food and I could not get anything to eat on a 9-hour flight except a small pasty and some ice cream because the veggie main food was curry. Airlines are always doing this and I just can’t eat spicy food so it is very frustrating.
We arrived around 4.30pm (7 hour time difference) at the Delta Bow Hotel in Calgary, which was comfortable though not pretty to look at. All the hotels also had facilities to make tea and coffee machines, which we had not expected.
Calgary was a strange place and seemed like a ghost town on a Saturday evening. Apparently most people live outside the city and don’t bother to come in. We had immense difficulty finding anything to eat because Calgary is known as the 'cow town' and is uninterested in the vegetarian guest. There was quite an extensive China town but many of the menus were in Chinese so not too helpful! Calgary has a lovely river front but other than that not a great deal to recommend it, and I would not go there on any future trip. The wildlife like it though; lots of Canada Geese and black squirrels.
The next day (Sunday) we set off to Banff for three nights. Not too long a journey and the scenery on route was wonderful, as were the eagles flying above Banff National Park and the deer and elk en route. Because we arrived around lunchtime we had time for an afternoon trip to the gondolas, which take you high up in the heart of the mountains. It was not cheap but worth every penny. Definitely the best view I have ever had with my coffee!
Banff itself is very picturesque – rather Swiss-style wooden buildings – and our hotel, Banff Park Lodge Hotel, was excellent. Banff is well provided with shops, cinemas and museums, and being tourist-focussed we did not find any problems with eating. Although there was a totally veggie place, Nourish, we decided to forgo this because the menu was too spicy/garlicky for me. Instead we had an inventive meal at Coyotes. Tom had an interesting polenta dish, which he claimed was one of the best meals he had ever had, with a large variety of flavours. I had a homemade veggie burger.
Woke up next day to more sunshine and had a good breakfast at the hotel. Most Canadian hotels seem to have a buffet selection, and although they never have specific vegetarian products like we do in the UK, they do great 'Bennies': variations on eggs Benedict with spinach, mushrooms and avocado. I noted that all hotels only used cage-free eggs and there was a strong emphasis on recycling everywhere, which was great.
We had a long coach trip through the Rockies to Lake Louise, which is normally a gorgeous turquoise colour. This year it had not thawed sufficiently and was still most frozen. We saw more elk and some bighorn sheep but sadly no bears!
In the evening we ate at the excellent 'Old Spaghetti Factory', which has a very inexpensive menu (unusual in Canada where prices are high) with great homemade food. An excellent minestrone soup with bread, veg lasagne for Tom and pesto linguine for me, ice cream, Italian cream sodas and coffees all come to around £22 for the two of us with no complaints about the quality. I wish we had this chain in the UK.
Tuesday was a free day to explore Banff and its museums, though the weather sadly was not too kind. We went for a river walk and to the First Nations Museum and later went for a meal at Athena Pizza House. It was good pizza but Tom had a dire spaghetti dish with little sauce and no flavour, so we had to have a nice beer at the next door Banff Brewery Co to compensate!
The next day we bid a sad farewell to Banff but were delighted to board our Rocky Mountaineer train to Vancouver. We had a brand new carriage; so comfortable you hardly noticed you were sitting from 7.45 am to around 6.00pm! The airline seats were set comfortably apart from the row in front and behind, and you could adjust the temperature, the angle, the hardness and the footrest angle. The view through the glass sides and domes was spectacular and you went downstairs for the breakfast and lunch. Those on second breakfast were brought homemade fresh scones to compensate and similarly wine and cheeses for those on second lunch sitting to compensate. Breakfasts were excellent, though we found the first day lunch a bit limited: nice soup and dessert but the main was a risotto with very little veg.
The scenery was just spectacular, no dozing off on this journey! Some people spotted bears (sadly not us) and we saw deer, osprey and I saw a moose swimming in one of the rivers but not quick enough to get a pic! Overnight we pulled into Kamloops.
On Thursday we had our second day on the train; scenery a bit different but still fantastic. We saw more birds on the second day: osprey, bald eagle, golden eagle and also bighorn sheep. The experience was a little diminished by the fact it took around 2 hours to get into Vancouver through scruffy areas that contrasted badly with the beauty we had become accustomed to. It also meant a late arrival when we had hoped to go to the Rogers Arena to see some of Canada’s ice skating champions – good job we had not booked the tickets in advance.
Our hotel in Vancouver, the Coal Coast Harbour, was again very comfortable, though we found it had no fridge or kettle. It did have a fancy electronic toilet-cum-bidet called a washlet, which seemed to counteract the emphasis on being green with three separate bins for our waste. It was well situated being only a short walk from the harbour where various activities could be had including a short trip from a seaplane.
The next morning we had a coach trip to the beautiful Elizabeth Gardens where we were surprised to see a hummingbird. Next onto Stanley Park to see the Totem Pole collection and also a visit to the original Gas Town area. We went back to the latter in the afternoon for a quick lunch (not very successful) and a fabulous cheesecake, and we went to Flyover Canada – a VR Trip recently developed on the front, which was very enjoyable. We just shared a mushroom burger with fries for our evening meal because we were fed up with food. I do like Canadian fries though because they are thin but keep the potato skin on, which seems to give more flavour.
Saturday was our last day (half really because our flight was in the afternoon) so we just went for a walk. Vancouver is a lovely green city with trees everywhere, even on rooftops. But it has a big problem with huge numbers of homeless people who are either asleep in the middle of the pavement or begging around the harbour. It seems an odd contrast. We had lunch before we left, in the cafe at Urban Fare supermarket. This is a chain with a reasonably priced restaurant and a good choice of veggie food. We noted it was very popular, especially with tourists.
The flight back was much worse than the one going – they had squeezed four seats in the middle aisle when there were only three coming. Consequently everyone was squashed and had no room under the seats for bags. Food was even worse than coming – pasta with no sauce and awful-tasting banana bread for breakfast. The TVs on the back of the seat did not work, and the staff were far from helpful. I would not travel with Air Canada again given the choice.