Category: Travel

US Road Trip 2014 – Arizona to Florida… and Caribbean

US Road Trip 2014 – Arizona to Florida… and Caribbean

Free, for the moment, from the need to reside in Canada full time, after returning to our house in Tucson, Arizona, I’ve started on a road trip of about 4800 miles / 7700km.

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There’s something “zen” about long distance, solo driving for me (Scott) and this trip is no exception. The route is Tucson, Arizona to Lubbock, TX, on to friends in East Texas, a couple of days to party in New Orleans, a visit with a colleague from long ago in St. Petersburg, FL, rendezvous with Kathy in Orlando and a couple of days at Disney, then on to the Florida Keys where Kathy’s dad has a house. And that’s just half way – we still have to drive back to Tucson.

The trip has been long but cathartic. I had initial trepidation: had been “torn” from the comfort of my urban lifestyle in British Columbia to our lovely if relatively (compared to Vancouver) “rural” Arizona home, then after just a few days, starting a road trip, mostly solo eastbound, with no pre-identified time or route back.

Our trusty-steed, a 2007 bright red Toyota RAV4 is much easier to spot in a big, unfamiliar parking lot, and eminently more practical for long distance touring than a dark blue BMW. Much as I miss the bimmer, our little SUV is the right vehicle for us now (much as I remain nostalgic over the Teutonic precision). Anyway… as I write I’m in New Orleans Louisiana at a bed & breakfast outside the din of the French Quarter in the adjacent Faubourg-Maringy neighborhood. Its quiet-ish and you can park a car – both safely and for free. Neither of those is an option “in The Quarter”.

But once en route, armed with trail mix, tortilla chips, a surfeit of pop/soda and enough audiobooks to get us to the at least Argentina (hypothetically), plus our 3rd generation of “Priscilla” (our GPS), I didn’t even need a rendition of “On the Road Again” to experience the joy of The Road Trip.

Lubbock

The first stop was Lubbock, Texas – my first experience with a couchsurfing host, and I picked a great one. I’ll skip the details, but “a good time was had by all”.

Second stop was Gladewater, Texas, a town rural enough that many Texans haven’t heard of it. But it is home to decades-long friends – we’ve seen their kids grown into adulthood, experiencing some of their growing pains (and their parents’) vicariously. They’ve all turned out well, and two out of the three find themselves back in Gladewater. The visit was short but sweet – just two nights – and the next, about 400 miles across Texas and Louisiana, I find myself in…

New Orleans

I’ve been here many times – perhaps a dozen times. The city is at the same time dynamic and invariant: on one block are scenes I remember from being here in the 1990s, yet others have changed completely. Case in point North Rampart street; when I was first coming to N.O. I was admonished not set foot there particularly a night. Walking along it today towards Armstrong Park, I noticed the signs for “luxury condos”. At the same time, New Orleans institutions – Cafe du Monde; many of the French Quarter joints – are frozen in time.

As I age (I am 57 + 11/12ths as I write this), my reasons for coming to New Orleans shift. A decade ago (still not exactly a youngster) I was attracted to the French Quarter “scene”, the drunken adolescent revelry I never really experienced as an adolescent, as if I could somehow reclaim that period of my life vicariously. Now it is more nostalgic: old haunts whether visited or not; restaurants that I associate with some long-ago pleasant memory. I guess it doesn’t really matter why I return, only that it is enjoyable and… harmless. I was about to stop at an old-favorite bar but I was a bit hungry. I asked for recommendations and they suggested a place with which I was already familiar. After a tasty burger there I’d lost the motivation to hang out a bar, and headed back to my comfy bed. The previous night’s Bacchanal might have contributed to that decision. Perhaps I DO learn from my excesses.

the-renewed-covenant-houseI did a couple of different things (from past visits) in New Orleans. First, I went on a long rectangular walk from the Faubourg-Maringy neighborhood where I was staying, out to Armstrong Park (which is lovely), down to the CBD (Central Business District) – and along the way I stumbled upon Covenant House (I volunteer with them in Vancouver). We chatted for a while, comparing the needs and offerings between the two “chapters”. Vancouver (to my knowledge) doesn’t do anything special for the change in weather: New Orleans has special programs for when the weather is freezing – uncommon there but dangerous. Otherwise, the programs themselves and the clientele are about the same. It was an interesting happenstance. Along the way back to my B&B, I had a “Ferdi Special” at old favorite “Mothers” in the CBD. Costs more, but still delightful. That evening I met up with a fellow (Vancouver) volunteer – Sofia – and her husband — we’d been working together and discovered we’d both be in New Orleans at the same time. Remarkable coincidence (and nice to have company).

Next: Bob Hessinger after 30 years, a meet with The Mouse, and holidays in the Keys. Watch this space.

The Road Home – Canadian Rockies 7

The Road Home – Canadian Rockies 7

After saying goodbye to our friends, we headed west to Kootenay National Park. The sun lasted long enough for us to explore Marble Canyon. It’s a deep, narrow canyon carved by a bright blue glacial stream. Quite the sight. The surrounding area was burned by a huge forest fire about a decade ago – you can just see the re-growth starting.

As we walked back to the car after visiting the Canyon, the heavens opened up with rain. So we gave up on the rest of our hiking plans for the day, pointed the car homewards, and arrived home before 6pm. Can’t wait for our next trip!

Saving the Best for Last – Moraine Lake, Banff 6

Saving the Best for Last – Moraine Lake, Banff 6


The original impetus for our Rockies trip was to visit a couple we had met on a cruise ten years ago. Like us, they were focused on travel and very early retirement. They are from Atlanta, but have a rental property near Banff, and had planned to spend a month there enjoying the Rockies in the falls. Fortunately for us, they invited us to spend a couple of days with them. Their property is beautiful – if you need a place to stay in the Rockies, check out Birch Haven. We had a wonderful time trading tips  on the ins and outs of frugal living, investment strategy, and traveling cheaply.

The rain  finally relented, and we set off for an awesome hike near Moraine Lake (another bright blue glacial lake), through Larch Valley. “The Larch”, besides being the punchline of a Monty Python skit, is also a deciduous pine tree – ie it loses its needles in the winter. And, up in the mountains in mid-September, the larches turn bright yellow before they drop their needles. We had a 10+km hike on the Larch Valley trail, with sweeping views of golden trees, topped by a row of 10 mountain peaks. It had snowed the night before – first time this season – so we were treated to bright white peaks.

It was a (here’s that phrase again) a stunningly beautiful hike, the best of the whole trip. Check out the slide show below.

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Traveling in the Canadian Rockies – 5

Traveling in the Canadian Rockies – 5


Though we had absolutely no problems whatsoever, there some things you should beware of when traveling (driving or hiking) in the Canadian Rockies.

The first danger is the infamous Rental RV. We believe that 14.5% of the BC population rented RVs and drove them to the Rockies the exact week we were there, and we offer the following picture as proof. Every third vehicle on the road is an RV. And they all drive slow. And the narrow, twisty roads have few passing zones. (Though, to be fair, Canadians are so polite that the RV drivers will often pull over when they see they have a line of cars behind them.)

Although more of an annoyance than a true danger, the main east/west Canadian railroad threads its way through the Rockies right next to the roads you drive on and the towns you stay in. Simply because there isn’t any other way through these steep mountains. As long as you don’t mind whistles and rumbling every 20 minutes throughout the day and night, it’s not a problem.

Then there are the avalanches. While we weren’t in much danger in mid-September, they can be pretty dangerous much of the year. Every few miles, it seems, there is an “Avalanche Danger” sign. In some sections of Glacier National Park, the avalanches are so frequent that they bow to the inevitable, and build “avalanche sheds”, so that the avalanche will just skid over the roof of the shed, and continue on downwards. To be sure the avalanches don’t get too big, the road crews have mobile howitzers they shoot into the snow building up to trigger a (smaller) avalanche.

Hiking carries its own dangers. Besides black bears and grizzly bears, one must be especially careful during the elk rutting season. And there is always the danger that the glacier you are hiking up to see could calve a huge iceberg into its glacial lake, sending a flash flood over the trail, carrying away everything in its wake (think tsunami, but much colder). And the ever present avalanche danger imperils hikers as well.

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Going up and down mountains brings still more perils. Still more challenges on the steep mountain roads – chain-up areas, runaway truck lanes, steep grade warnings, signs flashing “extreme and changeable weather”, and switch-backs that require large vehicles to back up in order to make the turn.

Still not deterred? Consider the results of an impact with a moose, herd of caribou, or other multi-ton animal. On the upsides, this is an indirect way of learning about which (large) animals are most common in the area you are driving through. . .

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Never a dull moment traveling in the Canadian Rockies…

Yoho National Park – Canadian Rockies 4

Yoho National Park – Canadian Rockies 4

West of Banff, and back across the BC border, is the beautiful and relatively unknown Yoho National Park. “Yoho” is the Cree word for awe and wonder. Besides being stunningly beautiful, it is also home to the Burgess Shale, one of the world’s most celebrated fossil beds.

We stayed at a hostel in the tiny town of Field. It was still raining during most of the visit, but we did manage a couple of excellent side trips during the breaks in the clouds. First stop was Takakkaw Falls, the second highest falls in western Canada, and reachable only through a steep series of tight switchbacks. It’s name comes from the Cree, “it is magnificent”. And it was pretty awesome.

Next stop was the aptly named Emerald Lake, a brilliant green lake surrounded by mountains and glaciers. We hiked entirely around the lake. One one side is a dry micro-climate, the other is rain-forest like. The two sides were completely different in their trees and plants. The dry side was repeatedly overrun with avalanches – as evidenced by the lack of trees on that part of the mountain (which you can see in the picture at the top).

One of the mountains surrounding the lake is home to the Burgess Shale. This site is famous because of its fabulously well preserved fossils from the Cambrian Explosion, a time when life madly diversified. We really would have like to have hike up to it, but it’s an extremely strenuous all day hike up a steep mountain side, and we decided we weren’t fit enough yet. Maybe next year.

Enjoy the pictures of  our Emerald Lake Hike. 

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Icefields Parkway in the Rain – Canadian Rockies 3

Icefields Parkway in the Rain – Canadian Rockies 3

After  two stunningly beautiful hot, sunny days of sightseeing in the Canadian Rockies, reality set in as the first rainy cold front of the fall season swept in. Unfortunately, this was the day for us to drive down the “Icefields Parkway”, a ~100 mile stretch of (here’s that phrase again) stunning beautiful glaciers and glacial lakes and glacial rivers. The Columbia Icefields, at the continental divide, feed eight major glaciers along the parkway, including one that comes down just about to the road itself, pictured above. One can tour this glacier with a purpose-built bus-like vehicle with huge tires (to prevent it from plummeting into any crevasses that may have opened up). In the picture above, you can see them as tiny ants about a third of the way up the glacier. Given the icy driving rain and wind, we decided to hold off on this tour until our next visit.

We saw a few of the sights between rainstorms, but it was a pretty miserable day…

 

 

 

 

 

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Jasper, Alberta – Canadian Rockies 2

Jasper, Alberta – Canadian Rockies 2

We headed out from Vancouver, our first time across the interior of British Colombia, on our way to Alberta. The BC interior is very big, quite mountainous, without a lot of people or towns. Lots of logging. Quite beautiful, but not pristine. Scary signs about sudden changes of weather, chaining up, avalanche zones, falling rocks, beware of bears…. Fortunately, we were traveling on bright sunny 80 degree day and proceeded without a hitch. We spent the night in Tete Jaune, BC at a lovely little motel on the Fraser River, whose owner supplied us with free pizza because the only nearby restaurant had closed for the season.

Next morning, we were off to Jasper, Alberta, a small town in the heart of Jasper National Park, where Scott purchased a polarizing filter that he had forgotten to pack – an expensive mistake but pretty much a necessity for this kind of photography.  Our first stop was Lake Maligne, a beautiful glacier-fed lake about thirty miles away through thick wilderness.  Like most  mountain lakes in the Rockies, this one is stunningly blue or green, because of the “glacial till” in the water – basically flour-sized particles of rock that have been pulverized by the glaciers that feed the lake. We took a boat ride around the lake, including the world-famous view of Spirit Island you see at the top of the page. We just missed seeing a mama bear and three of her cubs at a pond next to the road on our drive back into town.

We stayed at an inexpensive B&B in Jasper — hotel prices, even in mid-September, are very high, so this was a lucky break. Some really excellent restaurants in town – we especially liked Raven Bistro, an innovate, mid-priced bistro right downtown.

Next morning we went on a strenuous (for us, anyways) 12km hike to Cavell Meadows & Angel Glacier. Yet another chance to be gobsmacked – soaring mountains, hanging glaciers, hoary marmots, chirping little pikas, glacial terminal moraines, babbling mountain streams, you get the idea. See the slide show below for our favorite views from the hike.

Despite our exhaustion after the hike, we immediately headed south to Athabasca Falls, a thundering waterfall that has dug its only little mini-canyon.

 

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Gobsmacked by the Canadian Rockies

Gobsmacked by the Canadian Rockies

At the tail end of our beautiful British Colombian summer, we headed off in our car for a week in the Canadian Rockies, on the border of BC and Alberta. Having seen the US Rockies several times, we thought we knew what to expect. Well, we were wrong!  We were gobsmacked by how stunningly beautiful the whole area is — much more rugged, glaciers everywhere, not nearly so commercialized. Hard to believe we’ve lived next door to this natural wonder for nearly 10 years, and haven’t visited until now.

The instigation for this trip was an invitation we received from a couple we had met in 2002 on a cruise around South America. They own a beautiful rental property in the southern end of Banff National Park, were going to be staying there for a month, and invited us to join them for a few days. We had met them just after we had retired; they were seated at the same cruise table we were at. In an amazing coincidence, they were undertaking a similar retirement/travel strategy as we were. Our get-together in Alberta would be a chance for us to compare notes for the first time in over ten years!

We did a circular tour through the Rockies, visiting five different Canadian National Parks – Jasper, Banff, Yoho, Glacier, and Kootenay. We’ll take you through some of the highlights in the following pages. Here’s the route we took; the northern leg was outbound. You can click on the map to see a more detailed version.

 

Next: Jasper

“Why Americans should not be allowed to travel”

“Why Americans should not be allowed to travel”

(this is an old document Scott recently dug up from his computer)

The following are actual stories provided by travel agents:

  • I had someone ask for an aisle seats so that his or her hair wouldn’t get messed up by being near the window.
  • A client called in inquiring about a package to Hawaii. After going over all the cost info, she asked, “Would it be cheaper to fly to California and then take the train to Hawaii?”
  • I got a call from a woman who wanted to go to Capetown. I started to explain the length of the flight and the passport information when she interrupted me with “I’m not trying to make you look stupid, but Capetown is in Massachusetts”. Without trying to make her look like the stupid one, I calmly explained, “Cape Cod is in Massachusetts, Capetown is in Africa.” Her response … click.
  • A man called, furious about a Florida package we did. I asked what was wrong with the vacation in Orlando. He said he was expecting an ocean-view room. I tried to explain that is not possible, since Orlando is in the middle of the state. He replied, “Don’t lie to me. I looked on the map and Florida is a very thin state.”
  • I got a call from a man who asked, “Is it possible to see England from Canada?” I said, “No.” He said “But they look so close on the map.”
  • Another man called and asked if he could rent a car in Dallas. When I pulled up the reservation, I noticed he had a 1-hour layover in Dallas. When I asked him why he wanted to rent a car, he said, “I heard Dallas was a big airport, and I need a car to drive between the gates to save time.”
  • A nice lady just called. She needed to know how it was possible that her flight from Detroit left at 8:20am and got into Chicago at 8:33am. I tried to explain that Michigan was an hour ahead of llinois, but she could not understand the concept of time zones. Finally I told her the plane went very fast, and she bought that!
  • A woman called and asked, “Do airlines put your physical description on your bag so they know whose luggage belongs to whom?” I said, “No, why do you ask?” She replied, “Well, when I checked in with the airline, they put a tag on my luggage that said FAT, and I’m overweight, is there any connection?” After putting her on hold for a minute while I “looked into it” (I was actually laughing) I came back and explained the city code for Fresno is FAT, and that the airline was just putting a destination tag on her luggage.
  • I just got off the phone with a man who asked, “How do I know which plane to get on?” I asked him what exactly he meant, which he replied, “I was told my flight number is 823, but none of these darn planes have numbers on them.
  • A woman called and said, “I need to fly to Pepsi-cola on one of those computer planes.” I asked if she meant to fly to Pensacola on a commuter plane. She said, “Yeah, whatever.”
  • A businessman called and had a question about the documents he needed in order to fly to China. After a lengthy discussion about passports, I reminded him he needed a visa. “Oh no I don’t, I’ve been to China many times and never had to have one of those.” I double checked and sure enough, his stay required a visa. When I told him this he said, “Look, I’ve been to China four times and every time they have accepted my American Express.”
  • A woman called to make reservations, “I want to go from Chicago to Hippopotamus, New York” The agent was at a loss for words. Finally, the agent: “Are you sure that’s the name of the town?” “Yes, what flights do you have?” replied the customer. After some searching, the agent came back with, “I’m sorry, ma’am, I’ve looked up every airport code in the country and can’t find a Hippopotamus anywhere.” The customer retorted, “Oh don’t be silly. Everyone knows where it is. Check your map!” The agent scoured a map of the state of New York and finally offered, “You don’t mean Buffalo, do you?” “That’s it! I knew it was a big animal!”

 

Alaska – Homeward Bound

Alaska – Homeward Bound

After a too-brief week in our luxury suite, it was time to head home, southward through the Inside Passage. As usual, the weather varied between sunny and foggy. Big islands, little islands, mountains – beautiful scenery, and very little civilization, other than some occasional timberless areas that have been recently logged. And we did see a whale (very briefly!) We celebrated our final evening on the back deck with a bottle of champagne.

Some reflections on the cruise: This really has been a fun trip. We’re a bit conflicted about the cruise line: on the plus side, it’s been run very efficiently, we had a fabulous suite at a sweet price and excellent service on board. On the down side, the cruise industry in Alaska is somewhere between oligopoly and monopoly, with Carnival Cruises owning themselves as well as Holland America, Princess and who knows who else. They also own many of the major shops (“we have all the diamonds and tanzanite we need, thanks”). The merchandizing on board is _endless_ with lectures on “the best tours in X” (tours are among the top 3 revenue sources for cruise ships), “the best shopping in port X” (where Carnival owns the shops), the special drink of the day (liquor sales are also in the top 3 revenue sources). And of course, shopping on board and the never-ending art sales… How many diamonds does one couple need? (hint: the ones in our wedding rings are more than sufficient).

Upgrading to a suite (the largest on the ship other than the Owner’s Suite) brought our cost up beyond what we’re normally willing to pay for cruising – but is really only the equivalent cost to a low-end inside cramped (no windows/portal) cabin at normal prices. And we got a ton of perqs – special Concierge and lounge services, free laundry and dry cleaning (which can cost a fortune), a wrap-around deck/veranda of about 33’ / 10m in length, at the stern of the ship and around the port side). We got invited to multiple parties (free drinks…) with the Captain on down, a complementary bottle of wine… the list seemed endless. Did we mention the Jacuzzi tub?

Our advice for taking an Alaska cruise:

  • Find a way to escape the shopping streets. Some of the towns are worth exploring a bit. But a lot of the best experiences are outside of the towns, in the great outdoors
  • Ship excursions are generally high quality, but are very expensive and involve three or four dozen fellow passengers (ie big crowds)
  • To book non-ship excursions, check out tripadvisor.com for highly rated local vendors. Book as far in advance as you can – most of them were sold out by the time we contacted them two weeks ahead of our cruise
  • Another option is to use third-party shore excursion companies like portcompass.comViator.com or Shoreexcursionsgroup.com. Plus, you can always find local vendors on the dock peddling a range of last-minute tours.
  • If you’re ever going to splurge on a balcony, Alaska would be the time to do it – because so much of the beauty is just cruising through the inside passage and  along the coast.
  • There are some great last-minute bargains, starting about six weeks out. We purchased at about three weeks out. Most of the bargains seemed to be out of Vancouver rather than Seattle. Factor in the additional flight costs if you book at the last minute. I use the 90 day ticker at www.vacationstogo.com  to search for the deals – they have the best cruise search engine in my opinion. You can make the actual booking elsewhere if you want.

Enjoy some pictures from the inside passage below, and stay tuned for our next adventure!

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