North to Alaska, then on to Canada by Richard Jones

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Rugged-up Richard with the Winter Olympic rings at Whistler.

WE’D heard a lot about cruising and cruise ships from family and friends so we decided to take the plunge, so to speak. But just in case we weren’t fans of life on the ocean wave we decided to make our initial journey just an eight-day affair.

So after flying in from Cancun and staying a couple of nights in British Columbia’s biggest city Vancouver we eventually boarded the good ship Noordam, berthed in the enormous Vancouver harbour. Off we sailed northwards towards Alaska and the goldfields regions around Skagway, and the whale watching waters of Juneau.  It was pretty relaxing while the cruise ship headed northwards and we were just sailing, but on each occasion when a town was reached frantic excursions were arranged.

Our Juneau whale-watching safari, undertaken on a small tourist boat with a very boring guide, was only fair as it resulted in just one sighting of a female humpback plus some seal hunting by hungry Orcas.

For me the real highlight in Alaska was the rail journey out of frontier town Skagway which had once been the gateway to the Klondike during the gold rush of the 1890s. The little train chugged across a narrow trestle bridge and through tunnels blasted by Chinese railway workers. One could only wonder at the courage and determination of the gold prospectors who had to endure freezing temperatures and extremely tough terrain to even reach the gold digging areas to stake their claims.

After the cruise, memorable particularly for the nightly cocktail happy hours, it was across to Victoria from Vancouver by ferry and onto the next stage: nine days in Canada, including another rail journey, this time on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Once again I had the opportunity to catch up at a special sporting venue. This time it was in Whistler, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. We visited the Olympic rings area and ran into the first of the many Aussies we encountered in north America. Our waitress in the Whistler Hilton’s sports bar was from Adelaide, a bloke playing pool just down from our table hailed from Sydney while one of the desk clerks in our hotel was a Sunshine Coast boy.

On a boat trip not far from Jasper we saw our first grizzly bear. He was sauntering along besides Lake Maligne although the three moose we viewed on the other side of the lake were safe – they were a long way from the bear.

The Athabasca glacier situated between Jasper and Lake Louise could be walked on quite safely. Jasper was memorable because one of the eating highlights of our Canadian safari were two dinners at a delightful little Irish-themed pub in the town.

Then it was on to Lake Louise with a giant hotel built beside the lake and Banff in the state of Alberta. Even though it’s the northern fall season, or autumn in our language, the overnight temperature in Banff was minus seven.

We joined the Rocky Mountaineer train at the little rural station in Banff and headed through spectacular countryside highlighted by the Kicking Horse Canyon, a name coined by an early explorer. Now even though you’re travelling on a prestigious passenger train, in the Canadian rail hierarchy freight traffic take precedence. We arrived at our overnight stop four-and-a-half hours behind schedule. There’d been a fire in a freight locomotive’s cabin a few miles ahead of us with the engineers eventually hospitalised because of smoke inhalation. We were stationary a few miles behind while the ambulance officers did their job, so it was a long-ish cocktail hour in gold class that evening. Not to worry. After breakfast in the Mountaineer’s gold class restaurant the next morning, we passed though the spectacular Fraser River valley before arriving back in Vancouver.

Our group held its farewell dinner in our assigned Vancouver hotel as Judyth and I prepared for what we considered would be the highpoint of our entire trip: a few days in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. But before we left Breakfast with the Bears was on the agenda. We went on our second and last gondola trip up a Canadian mountain and were introduced to two 17-year-old grizzly bears: Coola and Grinder.

Both had been orphaned as cubs and both were found by rangers. And even though they’re both male they’ve been neutered and apparently sleep together during their long winter hibernation period. You don’t realise the power of a grizzly until you see them just two arms-lengths away — behind the wire fence, obviously. Coola came and stood upon the weighing station, apparently thinking some eats were forthcoming. The 1050-pound bear stood there impassively, his massive front claws hanging over the metal podium.

The Breakfast with the Bears outing was well worth waiting for and although it fell on the very last day of our Canadian trip was perhaps our overall highlight.    

Next up: the lights, noise and colour of Vegas plus the memorable Getty Museums in LA.

   

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