Bear ‘Grills’

Very soon my spouse and I will set off on our Canadian adventure. We will be air-dropped into a remote location near Calgary sometime in the next week. Thereafter we have been set the challenge of crossing British Columbia, escaping across the border to the US and making our way to San Francisco in time for our extraction sometime in early October.

There will be eating. There will be sightseeing. There might be bears.

We will expect the unexpected, and we do expect to gain weight.

You can join us if you wish. I’ll write it with or without you.

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Preparation is Everything

In preparation for our insertion into the wilds of Canada we undertook that most popular of training ordeals, the Great North Run. This is our third (and last) Great North Run – it’s just too busy.

If you are training for an expedition that requires you to run more sideways than forwards, that requires you to stay constantly vigilant in case the man or woman in front stops suddenly and lights up a fag, or that prepares you for the day you need to respond to a shout of ‘oggie, oggie, oggie’ in an appropriate manner (‘oi, oi, oi’) – then this run is for you. If you want to run a half marathon – I’m afraid it’s not been possible to do that for some years and I have been too kind to the organisers in returning three times to see if it is possible. Unless you are an elite, an excellent club runner or a celebrity you will not be able to unravel yourself from the pack in order to get any kind of running rhythm.  Far too many people clearly overestimate their ability to run 13.1 miles, submit that they will go round in two hours and then take three, stalling the entire field behind them in the process.

In my humble opinion – it has got too big. It’s just a fun run now.

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We did get some good preparation for our trip though, through our experience of the British service industry (yet again). If ever we needed reminding that we were heading for a place where visitors are welcome!

Our hotel, like so many in the UK, was comfortable and clean but anything resembling ‘added quality of service’ was chargeable. Breakfast was extra even though we were over a hundred a night for basic accommodation. And the thing that annoys me more than anything else – wifi is £3 per 24 hours.

So of course I didn’t pay. And when I couldn’t search the web for sights of interest in Newcastle – Newcastle’s sights of interest didn’t get my custom – and probably never will. Is that good business?

Before the run we ate at Jamie’s Italian in Newcastle which was very good (it costs ‘very good’ of course).  We went to a favourite of ours the next night ‘Five Guys’ and walked back out when we realised they have hiked their prices into the sit-down dining league without providing any of the sit-down dining experience.  The thing we loved about ‘Five Guys’ was the quality at a low price, fast food experience.  I predict the demise of ‘Five Guys’ in the UK.

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Jamie’s Italian Carbonara

We enjoyed a very good sit-down dining experience at Byron’s Proper burgers. The prices were the same and we got someone to serve and clear up after us into the bargain.

So with a dodgy hip from skipping left and right to avoid joggers dressed as cartoon characters and mixed feelings about my eating out experiences, we set off for Glasgow to get our plane to Heathrow and on to Calgary. This was yesterday at about half one, it is 24 hours of sleep deprivation later as I write this. Subtract seven hours for the time in Western Canada.

The food on the flight was quite good to be honest and after watching three fairly new movies we arrived without too much pain. Of course we were exhausted on arrival and I knew we still had to sort out the hire car and find our hotel without SatNav.

Now when we booked out holiday the hire car was a bargain at $20 a day …  I think you know how this is going to go:

Thrifty Rental Girl: Good evening Sir, can I have your name?’

I spell my name and pass a few pleasantries in a weary but genuine desire to be polite.

Thrifty Rental Girl: I see you have booked a compact car (shows picture Noddy’s toy car). Would you like to upgrade to an actual car with an engine, a steering wheel, seats and stuff?

Me (smiling knowingly): No thanks – just the compact model will be fine.

Thrifty Rental Girl (smiling smugly): That’s fine Sir. Would you be requiring navigation?

Me (wondering how the hell I will find my hotel): How much is that?

Thrifty Rental Girl: Just $14.99 per day Sir. Shall I include it?

Me (calculating the cost of almost $150 being the cost of a new SatNav): No – I will be fine thanks.

Thrifty Rental Girl (pursing her lips – a right one here!): Would you like our breakdown cover in case the car breaks down?

Me: No

Thrifty Rental Girl: So you will be happy to be left stranded in the wilds of British Columbia surrounded by bears and wild Deliverance-type mountain men while smoke comes out of the engine compartment of your Noddy toy car?

Me: Yes

Thrifty Rental Girl (smiling – as she knows she has the killer blows yet to deliver): Sir is aware that there is a $250 one- way drop charge at the other end?

Me (who forgot but did actually know this would happen): Yes.

Thrifty Rental Girl: Finally Sir. Would you like to take our insurance policy for $11 per day?

Me: What do you mean? I’m not insured in the price?

Thrifty Rental Girl: Oh yes Sir. But this covers you for up to $500 in case you accidentally damage the paintwork or any other part of the vehicle – which our valet team frequently pick up during the post-return inspections.  This is the cheapest way – its $11 a day or $500 at the end (sudden threatening expression).

Me: Hmmmnnn…..

Thrifty Rental Girl: They truly are expert at finding $500 worth of stone chips on returned cars.

Me (knowing that at least I avoided the SatNav cost): Fine!

Thrifty Rental Girl (commission totted up): Would you like some help with directions, Sir?

Me: Yes please.

Now I am not accusing the girl of anything untoward, but without the help of SatNav and following her annotated map as a guide we took a full two hours to get to our hotel – and only after completing a full night-time tour of Calgary and suburbs, and stopping at a 7-eleven to be told that our map made no sense whatsoever. There were moments when I thought we would have to bunk down in the car or abandon it and get a taxi. I was sorely tempted to go back to the airport and rent the bloody SatNav.

We eventually found it using an old fashioned navigational trick my wife’s father taught me from his time driving buses around unfamiliar cities – dumb luck. We more or less drove everywhere until we landed upon it. Well – we did do a bit of mapping with the help of our 7-eleven hero – but our success owed more to chance than anything else.

So we wearily entered our hotel and fell into bed almost immediately. Desperate for sleep we hit the pillow and conked out.

Four hours later we woke up and realised it was midday back home!

Unable to sleep we planned our day and went down to breakfast.

More of that later.

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Prepared for Canada using free food from the GNR 2016

Calgary Tower(s)

Sleep deprivation can play funny tricks on the mind as I am sure you all know … but a decent breakfast in a Best Western? Included in the price?

And free wifi thrown in for good measure?

I do wish the UK would take a long hard look at itself and try to understand what it is to provide a service for people. In one day, Canada has surpassed any experience I have had in my own country.  And they don’t even realise how good they are!

But that’s the last time I will go on about it. From now on I am just going to enjoy the fact that the Canadians and the equally wonderful citizens of the USA are probably going to smash it out of the park every day. I hope so anyway.

The Best Western buffet is not designed to cater for discerning diners, it simply offers quick and fresh breakfast favourites for business people and other travellers who want something to set them up for the day. There’s no massive buffet of once-hot food. No rubberized fried eggs or steamed bacon. It’s just a few choice items, mainly cereals packets and bought-in pastries. But the coffee is nice and hot, and the waffle making machine is the greatest steam-punk invention since H.G. Wells’ time travelling bath chair.

You pour out some batter and fill up the hot iron thingummyjig. Then you have to turn the crank to spin it over. It clunks heavily while the internal wheels, gears and cogs move into the magical waffle making position. It hisses at you to tell you it’s working on a masterpiece. After about two minutes it lets out a beep. You reverse the turning over process, open it up and there is the most marvellous waffle ever created. It’s like it came directly from Willy Wonka’s factory.

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Sample of my breakfast – the fact it is sticking two fingers up at the UK is a coincidence.

Get these damn things exported to my country for heaven’s sake!

Calgary in a day isn’t really possible so we had to be selective as we set out on the first day of our adventure. Clearly we would be eating at some point and so we selected a fast food burger for lunch and arranged our morning activities around that destination. I know we eat a lot of burgers in this blog but this is cowboy country for heaven’s sake. We have to know if they know how to handle beef. We did think about a nice Sirloin but, as we say in Scotland, why have steak when you can have mince?

Our first problem was car parking. Still without a satnav to guide us we picked an easy to find parking area from Google and set off in the morning to secure a slot before the rush hour traffic took over the city. The price of parking in Calgary is one of its least redeeming features. $20 for three hours of Downtown parking is just taking the contents of one’s bladder.  Of course if I had been better prepared I might have realised that a short walk away I can park for free in one of the city’s biggest attractions – Fort Calgary (more of it later).

A selection of Calgary city-scapes for your enjoyment follows.

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Olympic Park built for the winter Olympics in 1988

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Some feminist nonsense in the park.

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Unusual architecture in Downtown Calgary.

Now the Calgary Tower is a marvellous experience, much more nerve-jangling than the Willis Tower in Chicago and a full 360 view of the city to boot. We were given to understand that the ticket allowed us to return at any time during the day but this was false. The security chap at the door described our precious ticket stub as a ‘bookmark’ after we enquired into this. Impertinent fellow!  It will no doubt be displayed by my dear wife along with other bits of paper acquired on this journey inside a glass frame and hung on my living room wall to remind us of our tower experience. But if it falls down it won’t go up again either.

We then did the obligatory shopping much to my thrill and amusement. It was a beautifully sunny day and far too warm for all the walking we did. But we walked nonetheless.

After moving the car out of the danger zone and into the car park at Fort Calgary, we entered to investigate the real history of this great city. We paid $14 each which is a bit steep but it wasn’t really grudged if it helped keep history alive for our children and our children’s children.

Sadly the Fort at the site of Fort Calgary is not in existence for any child to see. It’s a field and a visitor centre. Of course the museum they have set it up explains everything but my hopes of standing on the ramparts and gazing out across the Bow River to the North were badly dashed when it turned out the ramparts could only be seen inside a glass case and were Lilliputian in scale. If it wasn’t for the fact that I got to dress up as a Mountie and get my picture taken beside a big horse I’d have been deeply disappointed. As it was, the experience is worth having – if only to know you have walked in the same path as the first Calgarians.

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This is not me as a Mountie beside a big horse.

Now it turns out Calgary is a Scottish invention. The Fort was positioned here as a means of preventing the illicit Whiskey (their spelling) trade. The founder, James Farquharson MacLeod of Drynoch on the Isle of Skye, emigrated to Canada in 1845 and became a senior police/militia officer. Having set up the Fort here, people came from far and wide to ask the Mounties what the hell they could do for a living now that the illicit stills had been taken from them. Rear cattle, it was suggested. So they did and now Calgary has a rich ranching heritage and is the centre of an annual rodeo which we have arrived too late for (insert sad emoticon if you remember).  And while digging wells for farming in Saskatchewan some lucky beggars chanced upon the largest oil reserves in the western world making the area the largest supplier of crude to the US.

There’s quite a bit of money in Calgary. It shows in the buildings, the cleanliness of the streets. The new-ness of the place.

Anyway – the food.

We still had to secure a satnav for our future journey and decided to walk to 17th Avenue where there is a very large Best Buy full of electronic bargains, and the completely unobtrusive but unbelievably excellent burger heaven, Clive Burger.

It was a good old hike in the heat to get there and we glanced in at Clive’s on the way past and wondered if we might consider pizza instead. It seemed a bit quiet. We carried on securing our satnav for the princely sum of $126 (or eight days worth of hiring one from the Thrifty girl). Given we are here for nearly twenty days and will certainly return some day to these shores, I believe the little Tom Tom unit with lifetime updates for USA, Canada and Mexico represents a bargain. Take that Thrifty!

We again looked over at a pizza place on the way back but stuck with the original plan. Clive Burger were tops on Trip Advisor so best not change plans at the last minute and end up disappointed.

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Well we absolutely loved the burgers at Clive’s. Not only did these sweet Alberta beef patties get cooked perfectly by the grill maestro Nyemike, they were double or triple stacked into a soft brioche bun with relishes, crisp salady bits, cheese, onions, japapenos and Clive’s special sauce (can’t say that without saying it like ‘Bully’s Special Prize’ in a Yorkshire accent). It was a towering triumph. And it was certainly the best burger I have eaten since I travelled Route 66.

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Hello! My name is Clive….

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This is my friend Clive….

Not only was the burger wonderful – the staff were too. Way too friendly and pleasant for us British to understand.  These people really ought to be serving these burgers to the world – and teaching us how to do it with a smile.

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Clive is a artist as well as a burger.

So we rolled out of Clive’s and resolved to eat no more today. There’s no room.

As I finish this we are just back from Walmart where we bought a case of water bottles for our travels and some other bits and pieces to ease the miles away.

Cakes.

Tomorrow we embark on a climb into the Rockies. Dangers may lurk amid those frost covered sentinels of the Pacific, but we will push forward resolute. We have been on top of the world today in more ways than one, and we press on with renewed inspiration.

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The Gift of Banff

Since Banff is only an hour and a half from Calgary we were able to enjoy almost two full days in this amazing place. It’s not nearly enough, of course, but we have worked very hard to make sure we have filled every moment with thrills, spills and … food.

We actually travelled via a place called Canmore which is perfectly lovely but a poor cousin to the main event when placed in context. By the time we reached Canmore the mountains were touching the sky, Canadian Pine trees were carpeting the lowers slopes and my belly was rumbling. The breakfast that morning was excellent but an hour and a half of driving had taken its toll on our sugar reserves and we needed at least a cup of tea and a cake.

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‘Yep – it’s time we had some cake in Canmore!’

The Good Earth Cafe in Canmore struggled with Black Tea and I had to settle for a coffee I didn’t really want – but the Cinammon Swirl was very tasty. My Canmore experience was marred by being caught ‘crossing the carriageway to park’ which it turns out is unlawful in Canada (it is only unlawful at night in the UK). The patrolman who stopped me gave me a right doing for it (I suppose I should be grateful he didn’t fine me) and my dignity was hurt badly. I got over it by decrying the efforts of the fine men and women of the Canadian police to my wife. She knew I’d made an arse of the parking but listened and agreed anyway.

We travelled on to Banff, checked into our hotel and headed straight out to pick up a free bus to the Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain. At $40 this is a pretty expensive way to climb a hill but I didn’t know you were allowed to take a tourist path up until we got on to it. My terror-stricken other half might even have preferred to walk too.

Anyway the view are breathtaking. The pictures don’t do it justice – you need every sense to really understand it.

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Perfectly relaxed in the Gondola.

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Banff from the Sulphur Mountain.

Despite the warnings about bears and the dangers of feeding wildlife, the things that creep amongst the Canadian forests made no appearances for our lens. We saw a couple of chipmunks chatting animatedly about the downturn  in tourists this year and the effect that was having on the economy, but aside from that there was nothing. It didn’t lessen our enjoyment of the visit, it was just sad that the bears and wolves out there didn’t get to feature in this blog.

Lunch at the Gondola was flipping awful. Not that it was their fault – I chose badly. Really badly.

I had a ‘kind-of-a-roll’ with ham and cheese on it, and grain mustard. It was too salty. In my naive attempt to embrace the local culture I decided to have a root beer with no concept of what it was. It’s popular here so what could possibly go wrong? Well if you have never had one of these I can only say you would be wise to keep it that way. I swallowed a mouthful and immediately wanted to throw up. Why? Well it’s probably because the last time I had this taste in my mouth I had accidentally licked my fingers after applying a liberal amount of Deep Heat to a muscle injury. Deep Heat! That’s for external use only!

The manufacturer of my bottle of ‘Essence of Deep Heat’ said it all.

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After the Gondola adventure we spent the rest of the day in Banff itself working out if any of the ‘local’ gifts are made anywhere else but in China. No is the answer.

You have to marvel at the business genius of the Chinese people. They work out what a tourist might be interested in for any given location (bears, elk etc.) and then manufacture cheap gifts for export to the main street traders (often Chinese coincidentally).  I am certain we will find this throughout our trip. All the holiday gifts I have obtained I could probably get on eBay from China sent directly to my door. In fact I could order all my gifts for each location I intend to visit for delivery home now and they will be there by the time I get back. No need to fill my suitcase and worry about the weight!

For dinner we ate pasta at The Old Spaghetti Factory which is very good value because the (reasonable) price of your main course includes garlic bread,  a starter (minestrone or salad), ice cream dessert and a cup of tea. It seems to be their selling point and it had me sold. Very tasty too and nice friendly staff.

A pretty dire breakfast this morning at the hotel (no waffle iron would you believe it?) but we ate enough to get going for a lake cruise on Lake Minnewanka (pronounced Minnewonka – for obvious reasons). Now I am not a sexist in any shape or form. I know very well that women can work mechanical objects just as good as men, probably better in many if not most cases. But when the female pilot of our vessel is introduced as Captain ‘Becca’, wears jeans, t-shirt and looks just a few days short of her fourteenth birthday I get a little twitchy. I’d be the same if a similarly aged boy called Captain ‘Bazza’ took the helm. I want the people responsible for carrying me and my spouse onto the ocean waves to be called Reginald or Montgomery or Hildegarde – and to have stripes on the sleeves of their perfectly pressed white suits.

As it turns out Captain Becca would handle the vessel perfectly well and we had a very nice (and safe) trip on the water.

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‘Please stop the Captain shouting ‘wheeee!’ whenever we turn!’

After out boat trip we decided to skip lunch and just have a small ice cream and some fruit before heading on our first serious mountain expedition. The ice cream at Cows is apparently famous throughout the world – and deservedly so. It is delicious. The flavours are bizarrely named but very descriptive. I had a mix of Cowconut Cream and Gooey Mooey flavours. A perfect combination.

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Followed by that nice apple to freshen the palate it was good fuel for our climb up Tunnel Mountain, so named because they decided NOT to build a tunnel under it (honestly). More stunning views at the top and the perfect way to build up an appetite for dinner.

We tried hard to find a decent place to have dinner but the prices in Banff for food are way too high. They are tourist prices and I don’t pay tourist prices.

So the only way for us to go was to find a non-tourist eatery. It was a little rough round the edges, off the grid and full of locals, but Bruno’s turned out to be cheap and highly effective. The ‘Tragically Hip’ Burger enjoyed by herself featured bacon and peanut butter! I had an elk burger with Swiss cheese. Elk cost a little more than beef and tasted a lot like – beef. In fact it tastes so much like beef if they had given me a beef burger and added the extra two dollars on I would have had no idea.

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After this last feast we walked to the Bow River Falls for a final amazing view before we set off tomorrow morning.

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It’s difficult to sum up Banff, it is truly a beautiful location and we were blessed with unseasonably good weather. We were told it is often overcast, cold and damp – so we feel very lucky to have caught it just right. The Autumn colours were amazing and the sights are breathtaking.

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Strange Tree! Where have I seen this before…..?

AHAA!

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The Bear Myth

Well the weather certainly took a turn for the worst when we left Banff for Revelstoke. As we exited Alberta and entered British Columbia you’d not be wrong if you thought they had named it ‘British’ because of the similarity in climate. In actual fact, on the road to Revelstoke we could have been anywhere in Scotland – except that someone would have eventually had to swerve to avoid me being on the wrong side of the road.

Before getting to Revelstoke we stopped to view some very large Cedar trees just off the Trans-Canadian Highway. They were impressive but it was very wet and difficult to really appreciate the majesty of these amazing trees. The toilet facilities were pretty impressive though!

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Why bother with the pan?

We then stopped at a little village called Golden for lunch and a bit of sightseeing. We saw the sight at about midday and then moved directly into the town centre to find a suitable place to eat and to refuel the car. As it turns out the local eateries could not outshine the offerings at the 7-eleven where you can pretty much get anything to eat for about a quarter of the price elsewhere. I know it is clarty but a big tub of nachos, 2 corn dogs, and a jug of diet coke for under ten dollars can’t be beaten. We had two nice cakes from the local bakery for dessert and returned to the sight to gaze at it while eating in the car.

I’m being unfair to Golden which, according to the internet, looks a lot better on a good day. Our day just wasn’t one of them.

The people of Golden decided to build this wooden bridge when they realised that there is nothing else to see in the town when the weather is poor. It takes a good ten minutes to first marvel at the feat of engineering, read the history on the signs along the balustrades and cross to the other side and back. It’s rivetting!

Fed and fuelled we headed to Revelstoke keen to arrive early to find out about all the exciting things to do there and to start exploring. What is clear about Revelstoke is that it too is the perfect place to be in good weather, or in very poor weather (i.e. three foot of snow). It’s a little dull in dull weather.

As it was – we had the dull sort of weather and had to head for indoor pursuits. The number of indoor pursuits in Revelstoke that you can do in an afternoon turns out to be one. The Railway Museum.

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The highlight of the Railway Museum.

Now, while not quite a trainspotter, I do love railways and trains. Especially steam trains. There is something almost symbiotic about the relationship between the fireman, the engineer, the conductor and the train itself that floats my boat. Sad – yes? Don’t care.

Now the best railway museum in the world is probably the one in York but the one in Revelstoke has something nothing in our country has. The story of pioneering engineers as the railroad was built through the Rockies. I can’t possibly bore you with all the details of this visit but if you would like an insight into the museum’s story you can view the full 21 minute film they are charging $25 in the gift shop for at https://www.nfb.ca/film/railroaders/

I said I loved it – I didn’t say it wasn’t a tourist con. But they didn’t bargain on my unique ability to find cheap (or free) stuff on the internet.

We wasted all afternoon in the museum which was fine because the rain outside was teeming down. When we eventually got out we headed Downtown to find food.

And find it we did.

At Emo’s Restaurant we ordered our first steak (well I did). My nearest and dearest had chicken and a French/Canadian Speciality called Poutine incorporating pomme frites, fromage râpé avec le sauce au jus de viande. We would know this as cheesy chips with gravy.

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Peppercorn Steak

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Chicken with ‘Poutine’ – off menu

Destroyed by the food we returned to our hotel about five miles from the town where the weather was even worse. In fact it was almost very poor!

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Well it wasn’t really snowing and, to be honest, Revelstoke really needs the snow. The view from our window waking up this morning was breath-taking though.

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Just imagine what those snow-capped mountains must be like!

One of the things we have been struck with since arriving in Canada, is the amount of warnings about bears. They’re everywhere. You aren’t allowed to walk in some areas unless there are four of you, you carry a bell and ‘bear spray’ and you ‘talk loudly’. The bins are bear-proofed too – using a special catch you need to reach inside a cavity to release. Back home it would be filled with chewing gum so it’s a little unsettling trying to get rid of rubbish. I’m not sure what would be worse. Fending off a bear after I dispose of my corn-dog stick, or having to scrub my hand for hours to get rid of the smell of chewing gum from some teenager’s slobbering mouth.

I have a theory brewing that there are, in fact, no bears in Canada’s wilds and the whole thing is a tourist gimmick. Much the same as the Loch Ness Monster is in Scotland. We can’t prove there are no bears of course, and the odd sighting (when one is taken out of its cage to create a stir prior to the season starting) only adds to the mystique of it all.  In fact Scotland should learn something of the Canadian style. A few warning signs dotted around Loch Ness warning boaters, swimmers, picnickers etc. would go a long way to build the tension around the Loch. We can’t prove the Loch Ness monster doesn’t exist so the least we can do is warn people they might die if one suddenly leaps from the deep and bites their heads off.

Anyway – we did in fact get to see a few bears today. We saw two Grizzly Bears and a white Kermode Bear. All three were beautifully behaved and didn’t once leap at our throats or even attempt to open a single bin.

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A Kermode Bear is a Brown Bear with a recessive fair hair gene!

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They were, of course, residents of the British Columbia Wildlife Park in Kamloops.

We spent the afternoon in the park after arriving in the city of Kamloops. The weather was much improved but the scenery is not so dramatic here.It is wine-growing country so we considered a winery tour – but since neither of us touch the stuff we saw no point. Kamloops is kind of wasted on us for that reason.

Plus I got to ride on a ‘real’ train…..

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Lunch was at the wildlife park and more Poutine was had with a Club Wrap. Both perfectly acceptable. Having truly slummed it at the 7-eleven yesterday we hit a new low this evening by going to Walmart and buying a microwave meal and some crisps. There’s only so much eating out you can do before you need an evening by the telly in a motel near a busy main road. And there’s nothing quite like a night with nothing but an inch of panelled door between you and the bear-infested city streets to keep you safe.

It’s a good job I don’t believe they exist.

 

Shades of Grey

We drove from Kamloops to Vancouver through some of the most horrendous rain I have ever experienced. Yes – even Scotland doesn’t get weather this wet and grey. I have not said too much about the driving on this holiday but, like Route 66 last year, I have usually enjoyed the long stretches of road and the opportunity to dip in and out of the small towns and villages that depend on the road for at least part of their economy. The roads are in good nick over here but there are many miles of single carriageway winding through the mountain areas and both climbing to over 1300 metres and descending finally to the sea in Vancouver Bay. I imagine this is much more enjoyable when the sun is out and the scenery can be appreciated. For us – 50 shades of grey didn’t give us the thrills we were told it would (maybe we misunderstood the reference?).

That ‘shades of grey’ reference is a subtle (and clever I would suggest) reference to the fact that the book and movie of that name are set in Vancouver.Now I know absolutely nothing about either other than the fact that the book turned a mediocre author into a multi-million earning best seller almost overnight. The secret of her success was delivering sado-masochistic soft-porn to the masses under the guise of romantic fiction. Or at least that’s what I am told!

Now I discovered this fact after researching the internet to try and find out what Vancouver is actually all about. It’s a very vibrant city, it has a stunning park (Stanley Park) which is bigger than New York’s Central Park, it has a huge harbour area with leisure and commercial craft (of all sizes) both served, there is a terrific football stadium and ice-hockey venue, it attracts the great and the good – and there is no denying the beauty of the place.

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But I still don’t get it. And I will explain  – later.

When we arrived yesterday we dropped off our bags and returned the hire car (we have to bus it over the border). After that we returned to the hotel to log on and get some ideas for dinner and to suss out the tickets for the trolley bus system. Knowing nothing about the city we wanted to ‘get the tour’ to unlock the mystery of the place. It’s an expensive way to go but in other cities I have found it gets you straight to the key sights and offers a little bit of local knowledge to boot.

We had already decided that for Vancouver, Seattle and San Francisco we would take this approach and we researched the two companies in town promising to ‘take us straight to the heart of the city’. While idly surfing the various vendors looking for cheap prices I drifted over to an old favourite stubhub.com looking for a bargain. I also thought I might secure some hockey tickets but it turned out the Vancouver Canucks were not at their home Rogers Stadium. Instead that legend of Country and Western music, one shade of blond, Dolly Parton was in town.

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So that’s how we spent our first evening in Vancouver – ‘Working 9 to 5’.

Bur before we did that ‘Two Doors Down’ we had some food at the Old Spaghetti Factory’s home in Gastown. This is one of Vancouver’s ‘cool’ areas and, having discovered this restaurant chain in Banff, we enjoyed our grub again.

Up at the crack of half eight-ish, our heads still buzzing with the sounds of the rhinestone Queen, we headed straight out for breakfast at Cora – right next door to our hotel and ate ourselves silly. It was delicious – but priced appropriately. We were not getting a bargain in Vancouver.

Jumping on to the trolley bus we sat waiting for the guide to enlighten us. What makes Vancouver tick? Why do Canadians come in their droves to this remote end of the country? What sights are we about to marvel at?

Bridges that are like other – more famous bridges.

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The Lionsgate Bridge – being blue and not Golden.

A clock powered by steam.

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Gastown’s Steam Clock with enthralled onlookers.

Some shops you can get anywhere.

And that really big park.

Oh come on! There’s surely more to it than that?!

Oh yes – really big trees…

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In reality, Vancouver doesn’t have a Tower of London or an Empire State Building. It just doesn’t have any age to it. The oldest building is about 100 years old with most of them less than 30. I have socks closing in on that age.

It is probably quite sad that we love places like New York and Los Angeles just because we have seen them in movies. For those of us who have not seen 50 Shades of Grey, the scenery is alien to us. Yes it turns out a superhero film called ‘Deadpool’ was also filmed here but who over the age of twelve has bothered to see that?

This website details quite a lot of films that have been made in Vancouver. Most of them, apart from the 50 Shades one, were filmed but not ‘set’ in Vancouver. I think that is part of the problem.

http://www.tourismvancouver.com/activities/sightseeing/filmed-in-vancouver/

So in the absence of  internationally understood history (movie or otherwise) – Vancouver can’t present you with a famous or infamous anything really. There’s no depth to the culture. It is too recently fabricated.

As part of our tour we took a short boat ride to Granville Island where (given the name) we would have loved to have seen a replica of the ‘Open all Hours’ shop. But Vancouver doesn’t have a Ronnie Barker or a David Jason – it has Ryan Reynolds. Instead we had a little village of local craft shops which were very charming – and very expensive. We got our lunch at a bakery called Stuarts – a maple syrup cheesecake – which was delicious.

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After that we re-boarded the trolley bus with a guide who was more cynical about Vancouver than I was! Passing the new condo developments on the river-side he rued the day they tore out all the wonderful wild-berry trees to erect these monstrous and over-priced towers. Seeing teenagers performing amazing tricks on their skateboards under the highway he tutted and said they were ‘competing to be the first into hospital’. One of Vancouver’s genuine highlights – the massive Cedar trees – was pointed out by our dry-witted driver. ‘They call that art’ he said of the five cars stacked on top of a huge stump in the middle of town. It was the best thing we’d seen so far! At least it was interesting. The ‘almost a hundred years old’ building now housing a burger restaurant was crap by comparison but he stopped to allow us to photograph that!

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At the end of the tour we returned to walk in the park and then to make our way down to the football stadium for dinner at Boston Pizza.

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Dinner was very good here and I enjoyed the fact that the USA and Canada hockey game was on large screen in the restaurant. Apart from the hockey it was not as a good as Asda’s build-your-own pizza and cost ten times more. But that’s eating out in Vancouver for you. They don’t have Asda.

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So -this is our last night in Canada and instead of stepping out into the vibrant city streets of Vancouver I am sitting writing this blog. I still don’t get this city – and have to admit that probably says more about me than it does about the place which has everything going for it. If I had seen the 50 shades film and had enjoyed ‘the scene when Christian Grey jogged along the seawall’ – I could have done that too and connected with the city. I didn’t though – and since I will not be seeing it (or Deadpool for that matter) I have no prior or future relationship with Vancouver. I’m glad I came but equally happy to sit here waiting to set off for a new adventure in the morning.

Speechless in Seattle

The bus trip to Seattle from Vancouver is best described as extremely tiresome. Best because the truth involves too many expletives to keep the blog at a polite enough level for my children to read. Our driver appeared to have some sort of sudden braking and accelerating obsession, the wait at the border was painfully long in the heat, and when we arrived in Seattle the city centre was blocked up in the mad rush to see a baseball game and/or the amazing Dolly Parton who had followed us to this great city for the next leg of her tour. I hope she wasn’t well over an hour late in arriving like we were.

Anyway I will not bore you with a mediocre breakfast in the station in Vancouver or dwell any longer on our Canadian leg other that to mention one little thing I forgot in all the entries north of the border. Almost everywhere we went walking in Canada we saw little stone constructions the locals call ‘Inukshuks’. Similar to a cairn in Scotland, people build these little towers when they have arrived at a place to let others know they were there -and as a symbol of friendship. Rather than just a lump of stones though, they are formed into the ‘likeness of a person’ which is the meaning of Inukshuk in the language of the Arctic native people.

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I mention this because the locals also make little Inukshuks for selling in gift shops. They glue a few stones together, varnish it and place it on sale for about $10. I have not purchased any of these and will instead, make some from good old Scottish stones when I get back and give them to family members as a gift from Canada. Only those who bother to read this blog will know I have cheated!

But back to Seattle.

Well if for any reason you thought I had become a little cynical and tired from my travels (bearing in mind my attitude to Vancouver) I can tell you right now – I absolutely LOVE Seattle. This is a really, really great city!

We lugged our cases to the hotel about six blocks away on arrival. A taxi would have taken another hour in the traffic so it seemed the best option. The hotel we found to be well situated, if a little tired. After that our visit to Seattle was just perfect.

We walked out in the evening to the waterside where we jumped aboard the Seattle Great Wheel just as the sun was setting. At around $15 this is a tremendous bargain when you consider the London Eye costs about forty quid. The views are fantastic and, with the sun setting, we were really lucky to get the timing just right.

To eat we stayed at the waterside and enjoyed some great burgers at Red Robin on Pier 55. It was a good old feast with unlimited juice and fries. I’d not rate it above the burgers we had in Calgary but it was terrific.

We then walked along the harbour area which is a buzzing tourist trap and investigated the weirdest gift shop called Ye Olde Curiosity Shop which is part museum. There are two real mummies and a range of other unusual exhibits amongst the touristy stuff.

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This is not a Mummy – my poor wife was just starving….

We couldn’t fit much more in to the first evening so we returned to plan our next day. We had already formed an impression of Seattle being a labyrinth of discovery and wanted to make sure we filled every hour.

It’s easy for me to understand why Seattle has borne such creative and enterprising minds as Jimi Hendrix, Bill Gates and Kurt Cobain. Companies like Amazon and Starbucks were started in Seattle and, of course, Tom Hanks found love with Meg Ryan in one of the finest films of the romantic genre (‘pass the sick bag’). It’s a city that raises curiosity, it is multi-dimensional in culture as well as in it’s landscape (the city seems to be on a number of levels), and it is jam-packed with unusual street art, market stalls and curiosity shops. It’s a genuine joy for anyone who loves to explore and you find something new at every turn.

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Sketch of Seattle

Our first stop today was the Pike Place Market which was just setting up as we walked through. It would be easy to get lost and not care in this huge market area. Covering several blocks of the city, it is interconnected through passageways and stairs that can confuse the mind into all sorts of rash purchases. There are antique shops, magic shops, comic books shops. You name it – it’s there.

We bought a doughnut there.

On the way home.

It was just too much to take in!

We headed to the Space Needle next. Built during the space race, this tower resembles a flying saucer hovering over the city with spirals of dangly tentacles reaching down to the ground beneath. The imagery is intentional. This tower was a homage to the science fiction obsession of the period and has clearly inspired countless young people in this area to develop some of the most incredible technology we enjoy today. It’s also a pretty good view from the top.

My favourite of the whole holiday came next. The EMP Museum. You can read about this for yourself. I need say no more – just watch my video below and you will understand.

Onward from the museum we walked by the water though the Olympic Sculpture Park all the way back to the waterfront where we had ice cream for a late lunch (as you do). At the Seattle Bay Creamery where they make their own waffle cones I had a Huckleberry and Pecan double scoop and could barely finish it. Less than five dollars too!

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The last couple of hours of our day was spent exploring some of the underground of Seattle in the Beneath the Streets tour. The tour guide made this hour long walk into the bowels of the city much more entertaining than it could ever be without the history. Essentially speaking, Seattle was flooded in its youth so they abandoned the first floor of many buildings in the Pioneer Square area of town and built the town over it. There are around 20 blocks of sidewalk (not connected) that can be explored and, in some cases, you can still see the original shop fronts. You need imagination to enjoy the tour though, there’s not that much to see.

Fortunately Seattle fires the imagination and it’s not difficult to get into the story.

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For dinner we returned to the Pike Place Market and enjoyed the fare at the Pike Seattle Brewing Company. With countless local and internationally sources ales, this pub provides a great choice of drinks to have with your burgers and pasta. We had two diet cokes.

Well they refill them. They don’t give away the beer.

The sun going down we returned to our hotel. On the way we remembered that Seattle has another curious feature that helps fire the imagination – legalised recreational drugs. Not being smokers we settled for something more palatable to our conservative natures.

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And if you believe that you will understand Seattle.

It’s unbelievable.

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Meet Trixy

Did I mention I loved Seattle?

Well as if to ice the cake – yesterday morning the usual fight at the car rental company was completely effortless. You will NOT guess how this went:

Me: Good Morning. Sorry we are a bit early but we have a rental for 12 pm.

Alamo Rental Girl: Oh dear! There’s normally a charge for that. Let me see what I can do.

Me (to myself): Here we go….

Alamo Rental Girl: That seems to be fine. You are aware of the one way charge though?

Me: Eh … yes.

Note: I am not remotely tense at this moment because the $250 I had to pay in Vancouver I later discovered was originally quoted as being only $40, and after an excellent response from my holiday company the balance will be refunded on my return and so will any difference in this one way payment. So I thought – bring in on!

Alamo Rental Girl: Now I see you have booked a tiny little totty car made of left-over plastic bottle tops and propelled with an elastic band….

Me (almost about to interrupt): I …

Alamo Rental Girl: Would you be interested in an upgrade FREE OF CHARGE?

Me: I’m confused – you mean at NO EXTRA COST?

Alamo Rental Girl: Yes but I’m afraid it’s a Ford Mustang and only holds two people.

Me (anxiously counting me and my wife and sweating profusely when my confused mind comes up with three point six): I … er….

Wife: It’s just the two of us.

Alamo Rental Girl: That’s good. There is another small problem.

Me (here we go!): Yeeessss….?

Alamo Rental Girl: It’s a convertible – but I think you might be able to suffer that when you get into the glorious weather of California in the next couple of days.

Me: Yes I think we could suffer that.

Alamo Rental Girl: OK that’s all arranged for you and I have managed to reduce the one way return fee to under $200.

So with no further haggling over anything we went into the parking lot to view our Black California Plate Ford Mustang Convertible. There was a scary moment when we thought we might not get our suitcases into the damn thing and my poor lady was going to have to take the bus, but we persevered and off we went chuffed to bits.

We named her Trixy (after my sister who has sworn me to never reveal I call her that) and noticed that she already had a personalised plate. What a stroke of luck!

I’ll admit to a few nerves navigating out of Seattle in this car – especially when the Satnav kept dropping out due to the skyscrapers – but once on the open road it was just amazing. The fact that the speedometer measures ‘Ground Speed’ tells you all you need to know about this vehicle.

And we get to take her all the way to San Francisco.

Oh I know it’s a return and the rental company aren’t really doing me any favours. I’m saving them fuel money returning it for them and they get my one-way fee to boot. But they could have chosen someone else.  They chose me.

Yeah yeah … and my wife …

I told you Seattle is a great city.

In actual fact the rain put a bit of a damper on the drive to Portland (not that much though) and we were scheduled to arrive at our hotel late afternoon.

Lunch on the way was in the city of Kelso in Cowlitz County.  It was rough and ready, it was big and tasty though.

It was KFC.

Not KFC like our British version though. KFC out West in the USA is proper KFC.

Our hotel was on the outskirts of Portland in a place called Gresham, and we decided that this was a day we would just have to write off as a ‘travel and planning day’. We had some of the best scenery in the West Coast to travel through today and we wanted to be sure we chose the right route to Bend. We also had a mountain of washing to attend to and, with this hotel having a guest laundry, it had to be done.

After the chores we felt underwhelmed at the idea of a big feast so settled for a short trip across the street to get some juice and ice creams.

This morning we consumed something that the hotel claimed to be breakfast and set off early on our journey. The first leg was to take us to a place called Hood River which is east along the Columbia River. Hood is a reference to Mount Hood which overlooks most of this area and was named after someone whose name was Hood (isn’t it marvellous the education you get here!).  It is a quaint little town with sloping streets that all seem to terminate along the riverside and start up amongst the pine trees. We visited a Saturday market and bought some home-made doggie biscuits to take home to Harry.

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River Hood – Much quaintness in Oregon

The journey then continued to Government Camp which is a ski town right on the shoulder of Mount Hood. There is also a pretty stunning wood lodge hotel at the ski area, Timberline Lodge, and it is well worth the visit just to see the views down the valley, and the incredible lodge itself.

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Timberline Lodge

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That Mount they call Hood.

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That Mustang they call Trixy

We ate lunch in the village of Government Camp (named after someone found a government camp there). Our fare was of German origin for some strange reason, at a local Oktoberfest themed pub called Glacier House. The menu looked pretty good so we stepped inside and were advised that – because it was pretty damn close to October (really, really close in fact) – the nice menu was off and the new Oktoberfest-not-quite-so-nice-but-a-damn-sight-more-expensive menu was on. I had bratwurst with sauerkraut while my good lady had roast pork with sauerkraut.  We asked if there was anything without sauerkraut in it and we were told the schweinshaxe with sauerkraut only has a little sauerkraut in it at which point ten Vikings dressed in lederhosen leapt out of the back kitchen and started singing sauerkraut, sauerkraut, sauerkraut … until I had to tell them to shut up.

As it was I thoroughly enjoyed the bratwurst with sauerkraut and most of the pork too because German food doesn’t agree with my good lady. Neither do Vikings dressed in lederhosen for that matter.

It was much too expensive at $42 for what it was.

We travelled on to a place called Madras but passed right through because there is nothing really in the place. The landscape changes were pretty dramatic though as we descended the slopes of Mount Hood and headed into the desert area around Madras.  It got quite hot and we finally got the chance to take the top off the car. It wasn’t quite as hot as we first thought though and instead of looking cool on arrival we looked bloody freezing.

We also stopped to watch some people doing bungee jumping and resolved that one of our party will do this before the trip ends.

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Which one of us will take the drop?

Our home for the night, Bend , takes us halfway down Oregon and this is a much prettier place. There are a few things here for us to explore in the morning but our arrival was too late to consider anything more today. We looked at a shopping area called Old Mills but you can find this pretty much anywhere in the world. Our dinner was waffle cones with ice cream from Ben and Jerry’s because the sauerkraut was still returning on us. Over and over and over …. sauerkraut, sauerkraut, sauerkraut…

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I vote for her….

The Heat is On

Leaving Bend behind we ventured further South into Oregon. The miles between Bend and Klamath Falls are pretty spectacular – it’s just the towns themselves that are dire.

After an extremely mediocre breakfast we made our way to the only listed ‘sight’ near Bend of any interest to us – the Lava Butt. Now this was not yet another metaphor for Kim Kardashian’s rear end, but a mound of (fairly) recently erupted lava and the resulting expanse of lava rocks strewn across the landscape. Recent means the last 7,000 years but ‘still there was little sign of vegetation getting hold in this alien looking place’ (quote from tourist sign).

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Wow! It’s so ….er …. rocky….

We walked one of the trails examining the ash-pan environment and marvelling at our ability to make the best of what is basically a really terrible tourist attraction. OK so there’s a few signs to help build the story and it IS genuinely interesting to see where a volcano spat out a bit of molten rock, but surely there is more to Bend than that.

Well not much.

There is the Lava Cave – which really is quite fascinating. This is a mile long cave created by lava which apparently makes its own ‘pipe’ by solidifying on the outside and then emptying at the end of the eruption. We travelled to this cave outside Bend and parked outside the entrance. The great thing about this cave is that it is free!

Well except that you have to pay $5 for parking in the National Parks.

Other than that it’s free.

Except you may not have brought a torch with you in which case it’s $5 each.

Other than that it’s free.

No really it IS free..

So you set off into a hole in the ground. There is a good set of stairs for the first hundred metres. Other than that it’s you, your rented re-chargeable torch and one mile of unlit cave.

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Wooooo – dark isn’t it?

Well there’s the others in your party of course.

And some teenagers pretending to be interested and ‘whooping’ at every opportunity.

Because we were there so early we actually had a really good visit and there were very few others in the cave. The silence, apart from your own feet crunching in the sandy cave floor, and the total blackness really give you the explorer experience. You almost expect to meet Indiana Jones down there. Or better…

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You walk to the end and then walk back – an hour for your imagination to do whatever you want it to. Mine did Photoshop ideas.

Having very little idea of what to expect on this section of the route we chose next to stick with the volcano theme and visit Crater Lake which looked like it might be a decent enough place to enjoy some of the improving temperatures.

Well this place is just wonderful!

Every time we took a photo and looked at it we thought, ‘no-one will believe that wasn’t filtered to make it look better. The colours are just so perfect. There’s an almost cartoon-like quality to it.

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We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the park surrounding this Lake, climbed another mountain to get a view and emptied our camera batteries. We got so engrossed we forgot to eat and just stopped at a gas station for an ice cream on the way in to Klamath Falls.

No what to say about Klamath Falls ….

What indeed …

On arrival at the Shiloh Inn, Klamath Falls we contemplated the meaning of the word ‘Shiloh’. Google says is a Hebrew name for the Messiah. But in American History it is either an important Civil War battle near a small log church called Shiloh in Tennessee or the name of one of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s adopted children (oh dear!).

We approached the desk and met the eye of the receptionist who instantly gestured to the space in front of her and said ‘there is someone here!’

Now it eventually transpired that she mean’t she was already engaged in serving a guest and he had momentarily left to do something, but her lack of explanation suggested something more sinister in our minds. Was she mad? Did she really think there was someone there? Should we go along with her and smile politely at the invisible person ahead of us in the queue? Should we call an ambulance for her or alert the other hotel staff that a hospital patient obsessed with the idea that she is a hotel receptionist has escaped again?

No – it turns out she was just a rude bitch.

And so unusual for this country! We have never encountered anyone of this nature so it was quite natural for us to assume something along the mental health lines. And the Shiloh Inn didn’t just have one member of staff with absolutely no idea how to treat guests. We decided to have dinner there and were seated by fag-ash Lil (working in between smoke-breaks). Sadly we were left to our own devices as she presumably went off duty without mentioning we were there to fag-ash Liz when she came in from her smoke break. After half an hour we got up and walked out to find somewhere to eat where the waiting staff speak to you. I don’t think they noticed yet.

We headed into Klamath Falls and discovered that it was closed.

Well there was one place open – Roosters Steak and Chop House. It wasn’t exactly the best service we have ever had but at least they fed us – and well too!

This morning’s breakfast was not too bad and fag-ash Lola was on hand this time to tell us ‘that’s coffee, that’s decaff, that’s hot water and that’s scrambled egg’. Thank goodness because otherwise I could have ended up with very wet toast. She also cleared the plates.

We got the hell out of Klamath Falls and headed directly to Redding. The temperature hit 101 degrees and we had the top down for parts of our journey. Thank ‘Shiloh’ for Alamo in Seattle (and I don’t mean Angelina Jolie’s child).

Redding is one of those places that built a bridge (the Sun-Dial Bridge) so that tourists had a place to go sight seeing. In the pamphlet collected at the hotel it declared it unique as not only being a working sun-dial but ALSO having a quite unique glass panelled bottom. Now I don’t get excited by too many things, but glass bottomed bridges are one of the few things in the world I thought were just not possible. Imagine seeing the river flowing right beneath your feet!

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I also imagine the designer visualised this when he drew his sketches. I would imagine the civic leaders who funded the bridge also had an idea that this would be a major draw of the bridge.

When you see the glass panels (which are ‘semi-translucent green’) – you can only assume that the builders did not share the vision – or they forgot to peel off the protective green film from the panels as they laid them. You can even see ripples at the edges where they have become dog-eared. Why do they need to be green?

However, it is a beautiful bridge otherwise.

We then went to Shasta Dam a few miles out of town and took the tour.

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‘Dam! That’s big!’

Dinner tonight was another mammoth serving of steak at the Cattlemen. The portions were diabolically large. Our starter of filled potato skins would have been a main course in the UK. In fact the salad and bread handed out to everyone in the restaurant would have been a chargeable starter in the UK.

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Starter?

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See this little knife….!

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We were damaged by it.

We know we have to come home to the UK.

Dam.

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That’s a dam overused joke….

 

 

 

Tall Tales

After a very humid night in Redding we set off sharp for the west coast where we were due to join the Historic Route 101 down to San Francisco. The weather was still hot and the road through the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, while better than most roads I have travelled on, was below US standards and therefore held up by road works every few miles.  Stopping frequently we were struck by the number of women who appear to take employment in the road construction industry as ‘flaggers’ – or traffic controllers as we would know them as. At least 80% were women.

Now back home the guys that do traffic control generally look like they are being punished for having a heavy night on the lash and turning in late for work. They are more often than not, young males who joined the industry to learn to drive the digger or to work the pneumatic drills, not to stand in front of tired motorists turning a sign from ‘go’ to ‘stop’ every now and then.  You can see it in their faces – they would love to punch the foreman’s lights out, grab the keys to the really big machinery and dig up a storm. But they have to learn to do the boring stuff first – it’s that or make the coffee.

In the US being a flagger is the job. They train people just to do this and they have no aspirations to sit in the earth movers. And it’s more complicated than you might think. This link opened my eyes to the skill of the flagger. Those young lads back home should take a good look at this and realise how important they are.

And they should set up a website called flaggerdating.com because they would find out pretty quickly that flagging in America is a young women’s game.

Apart from flagger watching we saw a few small towns on this route that have a variety of ways of drawing you in for a look. It’s a clear sign of American entrepreneurship when you go through a town that specialises in carved tree trunks, or one that has set itself up as the centre of everything Bigfoot. Whether or not they can claim to be a place where Bigfoot has been seen many times or not is beside the point – they needed a way to get people to pause and spend money. So set up a Bigfoot visitor experience. They truly do know how to make the most of what they have got – or haven’t got in some cases.

It got me to thinking about an old idea I had about how Scotland should redesign its entire tourist strategy. Let me paint the picture with the storyboard for the TV launch of the campaign.

  • The first shot is a blank background with the words –‘Thinking of Scotland?’
  • Suddenly a fast paced heavy rock tune plays (note to visitscotland – I have a nephew in this business if you have the need for original soundtrack sometime soon).
  • A series of short clips now shows with strong visual connection to the driving theme music. It’s fast paced and rapid. First we see a man and his son on mountain bikes, huge smiles on their faces as they splash in muddy puddles. Next we switch to a race where people are in a ‘tough mudder’ event happily getting covered in muck while racing to the finish line. Switch to wind surfers in the far North of Scotland. Switch to a boat full of tourists all screaming with joy as they are taken down a rapid river. Next we have a rally car spraying mud on the camera. Next a skier sprays snow on the camera. A couple kissing romantically in the rain. A family building a snow man. Etc. Etc. We switch back to the father and son as they both spray the camera one after the other.
  • The music switches to a different style – calmer and incorporating a Scottish folk theme. We are in a pub with the fire going; people are eating and having a dram while it is dark and pouring down outside. Everyone looks delighted.
  • The music stops and we see the man and his son putting on their rain jackets and bike helmets. They wheel their mountain bikes out of a doorway with smiles on their faces. We see their smile suddenly turn to disappointment. The shot switches to a stunning mountain scene with perfect blue sky and the sounds of wildlife in the background.
  • The camera pulls away from them and the final catch line is displayed.
  • SCOTLAND – BAD WEATHER CANNOT BE GUARANTEED.

You get the idea. We need to sell what we have got – not what we very rarely have.

So as you can see the journey to Eureka was pretty long and uneventful.

Now Eureka is a strange place. When they named it they might have meant ‘you reek ugh!’ and intentionally changed it. Or it may well be the Greek ‘Eureka!’ expressed when Archimedes came to America specifically looking for the arse end of nowhere. Either way – it’s quite an unfair thing to say.

Though say it I do.

Unfair because – yes – if you arrive the way we did and stop at the Econo Lodge and then walk to the town, it does look like there is nothing worth sticking around for.  But when you get into the car and head for the suburbs where they hide the Sequoia Park and the best restaurants, it is quite lovely. In fact it is mammoth!

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I am not sure why they placed all the hotels in the area they did. It’s not nice at all. Close by is the sheriff’s office, next to the court house, next to a long street of law firms and bail-brokers, next to the correctional facility. On the same street is an employment exchange, a church and (for those people who have dropped through every one of these) the Econo Lodge. If you go beyond this area you start to meet America’s lost souls who wander the streets with trolleys full of trash-treasure and politely wish you a ‘nice day’ even when you don’t give them as much as a glance. My wife calls them the ‘Walking Dead’. It’s cruel and funny at the same time.

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In the brochures Eureka claims to be like this….

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… but it’s mostly like this…

Anyway – the good thing about Eureka is the huge trees and the equally huge pizza at Babe’s Pizza and Pasta. You couldn’t see the top of either and both were too wide for our camera lens.

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The pizza was even too big for our appetites. Most of it came with us in a box to the hotel fridge. In the morning it went into the bin outside where, in all probability, the Walking Dead will dig it out and eat it.

It wasn’t a very peaceful night. The Econo Lodge is obviously the first port of call for those who drop out of the employment exchange and find themselves homeless. I should have read the review on yelp before booking. It sounded like the Walking Dead had smelt fresh meat and were screaming all night desperate to break down our door and get tucked in. Whoever stopped them is our hero and we were sharp getting out in the morning.

We drove then down the Avenue of the Giants and ticked off a bucket list item of driving through a tree. In fact I drove through two, and one twice! Driving through trees is my favourite thing in the world.  The only thing that comes close is walking through them.

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‘Look – driving with no hands!’

Lunch was at a quaint little tea room called the Eel River Cafe in Garberville, a small town full of hash-heads. That doesn’t make them bad people (probably the opposite) – it’s just a fact. The legalisation of recreational drugs seems to have created mini sixties-style communes amongst the small towns of Northern California.

We enjoyed the lunch and drove on to our final destination in Napa. This is wine country and the drive through the vineyards was pleasant and would have been more enjoyable had I not been on the road for around nine hours with a pretty restless night in advance of it. No walking dead in Napa though- the place reeks of money. Wine is good business it seems.

Our final meal of the day was a supermarket special. It was better than usual and the cheesecake was superb.

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Our last destination tomorrow. San Francisco. Before we take that journey you should join me below – driving through a tree!