The Canaries and Canada
Wow!! Looking back over our register and my travel folders, a year which we thought was quite quiet, was actually quite a busy one.
January saw us out in the Canary Islands again, this time exploring the smallest & most remote – El Hierro, as well as spending some time on Tenerife. Irene had another BASI Ski Instructors Assessment in March and in May & June managed to fit in 4 transits of the Lairig Ghru, the major route through from our side of the Cairngorms to Braemar in Aberdeenshire.
By way of light relief, we also nipped down to Manchester to see Paul Simon & Sting in concert, a tremendous evening it must be said. I take my hat off to these two global mega-stars – they started the concert on time (!) and, either separately or together, were on stage for over 3 hours of continuous enjoyment.
Los Islas Canarias. January.
But let’s wind back the clock to our arrival in Tenerife where we encountered two problems!! Firstly, despite asking for a quiet room, the apartment we were shown to in the Royal Sun Resort in Los Gigantes was right opposite the Lift Gear room, machinery whirring and grinding away 24 hours, day & night. We very nicely demanded our money back – and got it – and then hot footed it up the hill to La Vista Pension in Guia de Isora, where Martin & Mina had looked after us so well 2 years before. (Sad to say, they have now retired and the Pension no longer operates.)
After a few nice days of walking, we moved round to Puerto de La Cruz, our first stay on the northern side of the island. Arriving at our hotel, we were told that they were fully booked and could not accommodate us. It happens to the best of us! A nice lady in the tourist office recommended that we try the Casablanca Apartments, so off we went, in we went and after a few minutes wait because reception was busy, we were shown to an apartment which would not have disappointed a Russian Oligarch!! Sorted.
Using this as a base, we explored a number of walks up in the Las Canadas Crater (complete with snow!) and around the town of Ortiva, a part of the island which was new to us.
Then it was off to Tenerife Norte airport for our first flight with Binter. Let it be said that Binter are simply great – they even give you Barley Sugars to suck so that your ears don’t pop. 40 quick minutes after take-off, we touched down on El Hierro, grabbed our trusty hire car and headed off to Frontera, a village with a great central location. We were shown in by the owner, a very nice lady who speaks no English and tested our very rudimentary Spanish. Great apartment though.
El Hierro, is very, very different from Tenerife, not commercialised at all and focussing very heavily on sustainable tourism. The vast majority of what is consumed on the island is from the island, except for Pork – well, we didn’t see any pig farms on our travels!! It is a very narrow lump of rock, with an even narrower “waist” where, millennia ago, there were massive landslips to the east and to the west, carving great gouges out as millions of tons of island swept into the seas.
As we discovered, everywhere on El Hierro involves going up or down or both. Flat and level isn’t a concept they’ve got to grips with. I can also proudly state that El Hierro is the owner of the road that has frightened me the most as we headed round the western end of the island, took a sharp turn inland and crawled up the most vertiginous zig zags we have encountered – ever, anywhere.
We made it to the top, though, thoroughly enjoyed the walk around Sabinar, the views and the wind (you’re never very far from wind here either – see the photo with the famous leaning tree!). Then our return route took us via the HI 400, major road towards the capital, Valverde and back to Frontera. The mighty Corsa coped well with this road, which, despite its official numbering, has seen no tarmac, no grading, and very, very little signposting!! It has got free WiFi at various points though and some of the views were simply stunning.
We also used the bus network to get about to do linear walks. A memorable one was to the southernmost tip of the island and the community of La Restinga which has one of the most magnificent harbour walls we have come across.
Back in 2011, there was a small volcanic eruption some 7 km south of the village, The resulting tsunami did some damage to the village but claimed no lives. The superb harbour wall is, of course, newly built and stands as a monument to this rather exciting event in recent history.
One rather odd thing about El Hierro (home of pineapples by the way) is that from an arable point of view, it is a bit upside down!! There is some cultivation on the (steep) lower slopes, but when you get up top, you come across a world of pastures, cattle, dry stone wall, farming etc., etc. Quite, quite unlike any other of the Canaries in our experience.
All in all, we’d have to say that, if you are fans of the Canary Islands but haven’t made it out to El Hierro, you are missing something. Everyone we met was very welcoming and friendly, despite the inevitable language barrier – no swarthy, bow-tied English mangling waiters serving in restaurants here, you know!
Binter then whisked us back to Tenerife for our last few days, one of the highlights of which was a visit to the newly opened Cuevas de Vueltas (Caves of the Winds) which are actually lava tubes and where a guided visit is well worth it, for the fetching yellow hats they make you wear, if for nothing else!!
By special arrangement with some regular guests, we were permitted to take some time off in July to pop over to Canada to tick off a couple of things on our Bucket Lists, especially as I got my Bus Pass in 2014!! I know, you’d never have guessed!!
Our trip was put together by the excellent Rochelle at Canadian Affair and, after a hop, skip and a jump via Gatwick, we arrived in Calgary and jumped on the Shuttle to our hotel. 10/10 for location, top marks!! We were in Calgary to experience the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, at least that’s what they call The Stampede. Our hotel was a mere block from the route of the Opening Parade , which took place on our first morning there. Whilst it wasn’t at the same stratospheric level of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, it is a very varied and interesting couple of hours or so, which we would not have wanted to miss. There was, of course, the almost inevitable Pipe Band, the skirl and the kilts get everywhere!!
One block back up past our hotel and we jumped on the urban tram system out to Stampede Park where we joined the throng. Our documentation quickly got us all the passes we needed and we settled back to enjoy a couple of very entertaining, sometimes breathtaking, days watching all manner of activities involving horses, bulls, dogs, you name it.
What these boys and girls can do on the back of a horse, knows no bounds. You know how low the Grand Prix Motorcycle riders get on their bikes when they’re cornering? Well, the riders and horses are at much the same angles.
We witnessed every aspect of “Canadiana” (like Americana, but Canadian, yee hah!) – Marching Bands, Clydesdale show horses, horse races, bronco riding, chuck wagon racing, bull riding, dog competitions and cattle penning (which is a lot more exciting than it sounds, I promise you.)
During a short Cirque Eloise show (quite like my beloved Cirque du Soleil but with hip hop soundtracks) there was an almighty hailstorm – we emerged into a white world, with sodden folk ambling everywhere. The sun soon popped back out though and everyone was steamed dry quite quickly.
After a really great couple of Stampede days, which we’d be only too happy to do all again, it was into our hire car for a 2-day drive through the Rockies, which we’d only ever seen on our ski trips in the Winter. Unsurprisingly, it is very different when it is not under a blanket of metres of snow. En-route, we called in to Banff for a coffee and to Lake Louise, just to see the ski area with no snow, very odd it was too. Something else which we didn’t know is that, if you’re walking there in the Summer, you have to take the cable car to get above the tree line and walk above that. “There are bears in them thar trees!!”
It was a wonderful drive through gorgeous mountains, verdant forests, alongside raging rivers, stopping overnight in a tiny place called Salmon Arm, before following the older route, via a café on an Indian Reservation (can I call them that?) and the excellent cable car ride at Fraser Canyon (recommended to us by guests) to Vancouver. Navigation to our hosts’ home was surprisingly easy and they were there to welcome us, much as we welcomed them to Crubenbeg in 2014.
In their company, we explored what is a delightful city, remarking what a difference it makes when there’s water which comes right into the city centre – Sydney, San Francisco are similar.
The air was a tad hazy because of smoke from forest fires up north, but nothing like as bad as we expected. We turned in our rental car and were chauffeur driven thereafter, simply superb, thanks Duncan & Sheila. We cycled round Stewart Island (not a real island) with their grandson Alex who can really make his wee bike fly, we joined his father for lunch, rode up to a dam for spectacular views well above the city, out over Vancouver Island and ate very well indeed – salmon on cedar being one of the local delicacies.
Next day, it was all aboard for us as we bade our hosts a fond farewell and joined the compliment on board Ms Volendaam for our cruise up to Alaska – another tick on that Bucket List.
Setting sail, we cruised under Vancouver Harbour Bridge (just under, by the look of it), past Vancouver Island, which is a lot bigger than I thought. Over the next 7 days, Holland America looked after us very, very well indeed, as they took us to Tracy Arm, Juneau, Skagway, Glacier Bay and Ketchikan thence back to Vancouver.
Magnificent whales were watched (nice show, Spot) and receding glaciers were viewed. It is true, they are galloping back at an alarming rate. Take a look at the photo, the glacier was at the point from where I took the picture and the lake didn’t exist a mere 10 years ago!! In addition, trails were hiked (not surprisingly, eh?), the White Pass Railway, a magnificent construction achievement, was ridden on, the Yukon Gold Rush was learned about and off-road karts were piloted - slowly, in convoy and very disappointingly boring. (Won’t be doing that again, should have done the zip wire trip!!) All this without having to pack and unpack, glorious.
On board, we enjoyed good food, especially in Irene’s favourite Italian which we visited 3 times, lots of stuff in the gym – static cycling for me, Body Sculpt Boot Camp for Irene – and the wonderful company of Phil, the Piano Man, each evening. We took part in as many quizzes as we could get to, actually winning on one occasion and took part in a sponsored 5k walk, a tremendously sociable event careering around the decks on a delightfully bright, sunny morning, all in aid of Cancer Support, a network of international charities in 6 countries for which Holland America have raised $4.3 million, to date.
Off the ship, off to the Airport thence back home via Gatwick and back to work.
But 2015 doesn’t finish there – Part Two to follow.
To view more of our photos, please visit the Gallery.