Chinese Torture, Canadian Wine and the Mother of All Storms
San-Marié decided that we were falling prey to a Chinese people-trafficking syndicate when we arrived in Vancouver. I bear some responsibility for this as I refused to pay the extortionate hotel prices near the airport for a late-night arrival, especially when we were leaving early the next morning. So I found a lovely little spot a few kilometres from Vancouver International – cheap with some great pictures of it on the internet and, best of all, a free shuttle to and from the airport. Having been scarred by a visit to Spain many years ago, San-Marié , a little bit unreasonably I think, insists that she will not stay in a flat that also houses chickens, so I ensured there was no poultry on site, made the booking online and waited to receive details of how the shuttle operated. Nothing.
So, before we left Anchorage, I phoned the “guest house” and was surprised to discover that Canada was not the English-speaking country I’d assumed nor the French-speaking one I’d previously experienced. Between my broad South African accent and the Mandarin masquerading as English on the other side of the line, very little effective communication occurred. What I did gather was that I needed to phone again when we arrived in Vancouver. Which I did, once we had passed through customs. This time I received just a little bit more information – meet a medium-sized Chinese man outside the airport in a white van. San-Marié was perturbed by the white van. I was perturbed by the “medium-sized Chinese man” – we had arrived simultaneously with a flight from China and I know you’re not meant to say, “they all look the same,” but really, a “medium-sized Chinese man” amidst a mass of Chinese welcomers? Through an exchange of messages, we somehow connected up and we were whisked away to a house in a suburb near the airport.
The chap driving the car was friendly in a “I don’t understand a word you’re saying” kind of way and the house, for the most part, appeared clean and spacious. Whilst my wife was expecting us to be bundled into the white van again, most likely cuffed and gagged with our passports burned, I was fairly confident that my swarthy looks and hirsute torso would not be to the liking of their target market. Instead, I couldn’t help escape the thought that the building, perhaps because of its suburban veneer and creepy decor, was a house of ill repute. However, we survived the night without hearing any amorous exclamations of delight from the other rooms, or for that matter, the tortured cries of the chained and oppressed. Aside from encountering a bloke with a beatific smile and hair down to his shoulders in the communal kitchen (making me feel as if I were in a kung fu movie), our stay was relatively uneventful. Our host dropped us back at the car rental depot the next morning, but not before insisting that next time we’re in Vancouver we rent a car from him. San-Marié didn’t seem keen on the idea.
After escaping from our captors, our first stop was Naramata in the Okanagan Valley. We were there to sample wine in what is considered the best wine region in Canada. I know what you’re thinking – sampling wine in Canada is like trying to ski in the tropics – it may well be possible but for all sorts of reasons, least of all personal safety, it is best avoided. But we’d heard some good things about the evolving Canadian wine industry and we were keen to put it to the test. The initial signs were promising – the drive to our accommodation took us through some of the most scenic wine country we’ve seen anywhere in the world, steep-sided vineyards running down into blue waters, and we were greeted warmly at our cottage by a bouncy middle-aged woman in a summer dress, whose bralessness was impossible not to notice. Despite a continuous battle to avert my eyes and the new age literature scattered around our room, I was still optimistic about the prospects of the local wine.
The Canadian wine industry is intent on shedding the staid, stuffy image associated with wine-drinking and I applaud their approach to vineyard naming. “Elephant Island”, “Red Rooster”, “Black Widow” and “Laughing Stock” made a pleasant change from the austere surnames that are attached to many South African wineries. Perhaps not quite a laughing stock, but certainly less pleasant, was the wine itself. Although some may disagree, I am not a wine snob and I generally assess wines on whether I like them or not, rather than whether they have the requisite characteristics to make them quality wines. I did not like the Canadian wine. Neither, I suspect, do they possess the requisite characteristics. Yet we enjoyed our time there as the close proximity of the wineries allowed us to drink and then walk safely between wineries whilst appreciating the views. My memories of Naramata will be less for the wine and more for the scenery and the slightly odd people, including the middle-aged man with dreadlocks doing skateboard tricks and the summer dress lady with her flower-power desires trying to revive the sixties.
We headed to the Canadian Rockies. The mountains are imposing and impressive and clear turquoise lakes are scattered over the landscape. Our drive into Banff revealed a backdrop as dramatic as any we’d ever experienced. We spent most of our time in the Rockies on day hikes – San-Marié had devoted weeks to researching hiking poles (!) for herself which she had delivered in Chicago and there was no way that she was going to allow me to get away with sipping cappuccinos, reading my book and watching the world go by, which is really my preferred state of activity. After all, she had new and exciting toys to play with even though I found their lack of electronic gadgetry somewhat of a letdown. We tackled some small ascents which along with experiencing the natural beauty of the glaciers, valleys and jagged edges allowed us to get away from the masses that descend on this area in tour buses. We were there at the end of the season, and even then, certain spots were packed with people. This was easily remedied by walking a few hundred (vertical) metres, but it’s not hard to imagine the logjam at the height of summer.
We had slightly less success escaping from the marauding bands of photographers. One morning, we arose well before sunset to drive to Moraine Lake, an iconic sunrise location which once featured on the Canadian $20 bill. As we drove the empty road, I was a little bit surprised to note that we were almost the only car heading in that direction. It is a well-known spot and I expected to see at least some traffic. We arrived at our destination and I strode purposefully up a substantial rockpile from which my careful planning had dictated I take the photograph. It was only when I reached the top that I realised why we had seen no traffic. The rocks were littered with photographers and their hefty tripods – unlike my amateurish photographic planning, the serious photographers knew better and had been in place for some time, staking their claims to the best outlooks. Well before sunrise, it was pretty difficult to find some elbow room to set up my camera, let alone sit in silence and enjoy the beauty of the rising sun. This was a pattern we observed countless times in the Rockies as swarms of photographers, often as parts of large groups, descended on scenic spots, at dawn and at dusk. Unsurprisingly, I suppose, the desire to capture images of such beautiful places is not mine alone.
After ten days in the Rockies, we returned to Vancouver to sample its urban delights. We tackled the wide variety of restaurants on offer with our customary gusto and bottomless appetites, but what I was really looking forward to was a bicycle ride around Stanley Park. Stanley Park is larger than Central Park and is located on a peninsula alongside downtown Vancouver with a bicycle path running along the coast. I was expecting both fine scenery and a relaxing ride. More importantly, I was hoping it would exorcise demons that have haunted San-Marié and me for over a decade. I won’t go into detail, nor mention who was affected by what, but let’s just say that the last time we rode bikes together was in San Francisco over the Golden Gate bridge and it involved not knowing what gears were or how to use them; being blown over by a strong gust of wind in the middle of the bridge; being petrified by passing traffic and walking not only on uphills but on downhills too. But I knew Stanley Park would be different. It is flat. There is no traffic bar other cyclists and on the day we were there, it was windless. In short, perfect conditions for a cyclist with a lack of confidence. This time there were no falls, no walking on downhills nor pushing on uphills. And, importantly, no tears. But I’m never going to speak about it again.
We’ve just enjoyed the last week or so on Vancouver Island. We spent most of our time in the laid-back surfing hamlet of Ucluelet and then in a cottage just outside the little town of Sooke. As tempted as I was to join the pot-smoking wave riders in the surf, exposing my rippling abdomen to the masses as I nestled into the pipeline, we passed most of our days wandering the rainforest and drifting on the vast beaches at low tide instead. We engaged in a number of quests – to find big trees (success); to track down banana slugs (the name doesn’t lie); to discover a hidden waterfall (it remains hidden); to eat decadent ice-cream in freshly baked waffle cones (we were never going to fail on that one) and to hunt down multi-coloured starfish (on beaches meant to be teeming with these little fellas, we found only two forlorn and lonely souls). Whilst whales and orcas continued to remain elusive, seals and sea otters were present along with a healthy mix of gulls, herons, killdeers, hummingbirds and eagles. We also had a nerve-wracking view of a black bear and its cubs on a lonely beach where I did a less than passable imitation of the recommended “back away slowly without running” method when I stumbled upon them.
I am now writing this on the eve of our departure from Vancouver Island to the US, but sitting in our little cottage in Sooke, watching the storm clouds roll in, we may be here for a while yet. Islands are tricky beasts to get away from when the weather turns foul, and there are currently weather alerts for the whole region. Some forecasters are expecting a windstorm of “historical proportions”. Ferries don’t do so well in these conditions. I guess if you’re reading this, it probably means we got out at some point. Or, at the very least, the power remained on. And if you’re not, then you’re simply none the wiser.
To view our Canadian Day Hikes Gallery, click here.
To view our Banff and Jasper Gallery, click here.
To view our Vancouver Island Gallery, click here.