A Travellerspoint blog

Canada

Toronto

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera and images from the scrap book I made afterwards.


View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today is one of only two free days on the entire trip (until Pangkor Laut), so we can actually have a bit of a lie-in this morning. Having looked at the prices in the hotel, we decide to take breakfast at a local café before venturing along Yonge Street in search of a Cyber Café. We have eight new messages: Kate (she’s not leaving B&W after all), mum and dad, David & Jenny, Jersey Flowers (about the flower order for my parents), Hippo Staff (can we take the 17:00 tour today instead of the 16:00 for technical reasons) and two adverts. As the fee for the e-mails is so reasonable, we spend 1½ hours writing our replies and checking out the polar bear live web-cam site. The bears aren’t doing much today.

Back at the hotel, we commission Franco, the concierge, to get us some theatre tickets. We would like to see Mamma Mia tonight, but tickets are all sold out. Franco knows a few dealers and is able to get us seats – at a premium rate of course. Franco also reconfirms our flights, it emerges that the time has changed by 30 minutes. After the 23 changes we had prior to leaving the UK, I am not in the least bit surprised. In fact, I am more amazed that everything has run so smoothly so far. Touch wood.

The rest of our monumental journey is being taken in warmer climes, so we deliberately arranged to have an extra day here in Toronto in order to dispatch our winter clothes back home rather than carry them with us for the next four weeks. Despite the fact that it cost us over £50, I feel it is going to be worth it. I have room for souvenirs now, and with all those warm layers, my case was dangerously near 20kg. According to our tickets, we have a weight allowance of 2 pieces, not weighing more than 32kg each, but I don’t trust this. I am sure some check-in clerk somewhere would dispute it.

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When we came to Toronto in 2000, we discovered a delightful hot-dog vendor in the financial district, and we are determined to locate the same one this time. The weather is cold and windy with some brief sunshine, but with all our winter clothes on their way home, it feels bitter. We both have some idea where this food cart is to be found, and we track it down fairly easily. The same lady is serving, so we know we have found the right one. The food lives up to its memory and we hide in a door way to eat it, out of the wind. What sad individuals we are, getting excited about a hot dog!

From the guide book we have chosen to visit the Post Office Museum this afternoon, but it is such a long walk that we wish we hadn’t bothered. It is quite a pleasant place, mildly interesting, but really not worth the effort of reaching it. At least they do not charge an entrance fee.

As it is so cold, we walk straight to the Hippo Tours, hoping to find somewhere warm to sit down before we go off on the trip. We had the e-mail this morning changing the departure time from 16:00 to 17:00, so when we arrive at 15:55 we intend to just collect the tickets and have a drink in the bar while we wait. Their ‘office’ is just a desk in the entrance to East Side Mario’s Restaurant, and there are two people in deep discussion with the representative when we arrive. There appears to be a major mix-up. The other couple have tickets for 16:00 departure, but are told the trip is cancelled due to lack of numbers. We are immediately approached and asked it we would like to go early – at 16:00 – instead of 17:00. Confused? Neither the rep, guide or driver can understand why our time was changed, but it has all worked out well, and we go off in a large amphibious bus with just the four passengers (David & myself, and Mary-Ann & Gary), Kathryn the driver/captain and Natalie the guide.

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The bus is modern and good looking, very spacious inside, but quite cold. I can’t remember half the places we pass from last time we came to Toronto, so it is very interesting to tour through the city. To reach the water we have to travel some way out of the city centre, but the entry into the canal is certainly dramatic. The water splashes right over the windscreen and we make an impressive splash. There isn’t that much to see in and around the Marina, a few Canada Geese (which should have flown south by now) and a large War ship which was moored there before they built the bridge and now can’t get back out again.

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Miles is turning out to be quite an ice breaker and everybody makes such a fuss of him. When we agreed to take him with us, I was concerned that it would be embarrassing to take photographs of him everywhere, but without fail everyone we have met so far has loved him. He is quite a talking point, and many people have heard of the concept. Kathryn let him ‘talk’ on her radio, and Natalie gave him a badge ‘I rode the Hippo’. Before we left the UK, I was worried that his ears would get cold here in Canada, so my mum knitted him a bright red woolly hat. He also has a useful green rucksack that a previous ‘friend’ gave him.

At East Side Mario’s we share a table with Mary-Ann and Gary, who we get on with famously. The music is very loud and so are the other patrons, but we can just about make out that Mary-Ann and Gary come from New York, she’s a keen needle-worker and they and are also into travelling. When a group of 70-odd school children arrive, the noise level goes from loud to deafening. I am impressed with how the restaurant copes with such an influx of diners without compromising the service to other customers. For dinner we have Caesar Salad again, followed by Devil’s Kitchen pasta – a spicy chicken dish. It is served with a strange-looking chilli – shaped like a tomato. The waiter is astonished that I had eaten the whole chilli, and Mary-Ann is horrified. She doesn’t like spicy food, and I have to admit it was HOT!

Time for a glass or two of draught cider at the Elephant & Castle pub before the theatre. Outside is a street musician playing a fiddle. Over his head he has a brown paper bag with holes cut out for the eyes. Bizarre. David and I are still wearing our scruffy sightseeing clothes and we do feel rather dishevelled once we’re in the theatre. Unlike English theatregoers, the Canadians seem to like dressing up, and most men are wearing a suit and tie and the women are in evening wear. I feel the need to apologise to the usher for our attire. It’s a nice old theatre and we have really good seats. Good old Franco. We get chatting to the girls in front of us who are in from out-of-town and they have paid well over the odds for their tickets too. I feel better now.

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The show is excellent. Although there isn’t much of a story, the music more than makes up for it. The actors all seem right for their characters and it is very clever the way they have managed to weave the plot around Abba’s songs. I am showing my age by knowing all the songs. There are some funny moments and the theme is based around a girl who lives on a Greek island with her mother. When she gets married she decides to invite three men who are all mentioned in her mother’s diary as possible candidates to be her father. Mayhem ensues and of course a little romance.

Outside in the rain a large limousine and a film crew are waiting – there must have been someone famous in the theatre tonight. We arrive at the hotel soaking wet to discover other theatregoers have taken rickshaws back. We walked.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:33 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Churchill - Winnipeg - Toronto

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.


View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Today it is goodbye to Churchill. I feel very sad to leave, but this is just the beginning, we have many more places to visit. At breakfast in Churchill Motel we tell Jennifer all about last night; she is very excited for us. She’s a first class guide, with a fine mix of attentiveness and a laid back approach. Eck and Jim from our original group are also in the restaurant; they are very interested to hear about last night’s adventure. Eck is a very keen photographer, and carries both a stills and a video camera. He must have taken hundreds of images up here. The others in the group are travelling back to Winnipeg by train tonight which sounds like a fun option, but unfortunately we do not have enough time to do that. We modified a basic package to suit our requirements; Eck was rather impressed that we were able to do that.

As we have a little bit of time before the airport transfer, we walk down to the Tundra Buggy Shop to collect our free gift. I didn’t even attempt to photograph the Northern Lights last night with my camera as I know it would not come out. You would need a tripod and a timed exposure, and even then it would be very much trial and error to get any sort of image from it. I leave it to the professionals, and buy some post card depicting the lights at the Arctic Traders. We even have time to write the last few post cards.

Jennifer booked our transfer taxi last night, but it does not turn up as arranged – according to Pam in the Tundra Inn, this is quite common here. There is only one Taxi Company, and often the telephone calls go through to the drivers on a job, who forget to pass on the message to ‘control’. Pam rings them again and they have no knowledge of the booking, but send someone out straight away. As nowhere is very far in this town, that only takes five minutes.

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The airport is almost deserted. For the check in you need no tickets, just give them your name, hand over the luggage and you’re on. No security check, no ex ray. Very laid back – or is it irresponsible? Especially in this day and age with the threat of terrorism. In the departure hall (which is also the arrivals, check in area, gate lounge, a small museum and café), we bump into the couple we met on the outward flight. He’s from Fort Lauderdale and she’s Colombian. We swap bear stories and gush about what a wonderful time we’ve all had. Once it’s time to board, we’re at the front of the un-orderly queue and head straight for the first seats for the extra leg room. Before we can take off, they have to de-ice the wings, but we’re soon on our way. In-between sleeping, I try the in-flight meal of pasta salad, but I’m not impressed.

We arrive at Winnipeg at 14:00 and head straight for the Air Canada check in desk. International Wildlife Adventures had recommended that we booked the latest flight out of Winnipeg today; just in case the flight from Churchill to Winnipeg was delayed due to bad weather (as often happens). Thus we have tickets for the 19:30 flight, but we are hoping to be able to get on the 14:30 as stand-by passengers. On the way to the gate we pick up a couple of souvenirs for my mother and keep everything crossed that there is room for us. There isn’t. Everyone gets on board except us. We now have to return downstairs to collect the luggage and go back to the check in desk to get stand-by tickets for the next flight. It transpires that the luggage handlers were told that all stand-by passengers got on board, so they have loaded our cases. By this time it is too late to get them unloaded, so our luggage goes to Toronto without us. The officials are rather concerned how this breach of security could have happened. I don’t feel entirely confident that the cases have actually been loaded, but I decide not to worry about it – yet.

We now have stand-by tickets for the 17:15 flight and have time to visit the pub for something to eat and drink. The delightful barmaid from earlier in the week recognises us and we are welcomed back with much delight. I have acquired a real taste for Caesar Salad and so order one to go with my sandwich. David chooses fries with his burger, and we both have a have couple of Blue each of course.

Back to the gate, there is still no room for us on the flight. We now discover that we have seats far apart for the next flight, but the lady at the gate easily changes that for us. As it turns out, the flight is not full anyway, so we end up with three seats for the two of us and can spread out. A small compensation for having to spend all day at Winnipeg Airport. This is the first time I have been served pizza on an aircraft, but as most airline food, it doesn’t reheat well.

The official at Winnipeg Airport told us to go to the Left Luggage office at Toronto Airport, where our cases should be waiting for us. Once we’ve entered the airport building I am busy looking around for the said office, when David catches sight of our suitcases going round and round on the carousel, all by themselves. They must have been left there from the 14:30 flight. It is lucky we passed that carousel and that David is so observant. I am not impressed with Air Canada luggage handling operations.

As luck would have it, by picking up the cases instantly, we are able to get straight on to the Airport Express which leaves within two minutes of us boarding. We are only just able to scrape together the fare – there was nowhere to change money in Churchill, so we have run out of Canadian currency. The difference in traffic from last time we arrived is incredible, this time it only takes ½ hour to get to the hotel. I am impressed when the receptionist recognises us from our last visit; it is after all a 500-room hotel. Although the rate is not very good, we change a bit of money in the hotel for convenience. This room seems smaller than the last one, perhaps because we have two large double beds. David has a runny nose – as is usual on holiday – and I have a tooth-ache, so we are both feeling sorry for ourselves. Bacardi & Coke raises the spirit somewhat.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:58 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Churchill: Huskies, Bears and Aurora

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.

semi-overcast -14 °C
View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Breakfast at Churchill Motel again this morning, as are others in our group. The weather outside is cold, snowing, windy and bitter. We walk up to the Post Office to buy some stamps and get our passports stamped with a gorgeous Churchill mark complete with a polar bear of course.

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This is a free service, and we spend quite some time in there chatting to the two ladies behind the counter. They both grew up in the town and tell us about the pros and cons of living in such a small place where everybody knows everybody else. Crime is not a real problem, apart from the odd joy-rider, but they normally find out who the culprit is eventually. You can’t get away with any childhood mischief in a place like this, without your parents knowing all about it sooner or later. Our next stop is Traders for a thimble for my mum. They sell lots of lovely, quality souvenirs and I feel almost embarrassed asking for something as small and cheap as a thimble. We decided before we left home that we wouldn’t purchase any souvenirs on this journey especially not this early on. I do want a mask from Papua New Guinea though.

It is only in the last few years that the Meti people have been recognised as an ethnic minority in Canada. Meti is a mixed race Indian and White and Myrtle’s granddad was Scottish while her grandma was an Indian. Both her mum and dad are Metis, her father was a trapper, and she spends two hours telling us about her childhood. I have never known a story teller so captivating, everybody is spellbound; nobody even starts to fidget during the time she is talking to us. Myrtle tells us about the trapper’s line, the food they ate, their traditions, prejudices she experienced at school, their art and their music. She uses no notes and the stories flow from one to the next. It is extremely interesting. The hall has traditional items used by the Meti on display and Myrtle sells her home made arts and crafts. She creates beautiful pictures from animal skins, but they are dear and would look out of place back home.

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In the Eskimo Museum there is nothing older than 70 years, and it isn’t as interesting as I thought it would be. Perhaps if we had received a guided tour talking us from exhibit to exhibit, we might have gotten more out of it.

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There are plenty of stuffed animals: polar bear of course, ptarmigan, eagle, musk ox, walrus, fox and wolf amongst others. Carvings tell various folk tales and are about the most interesting. I would have loved to have spent some time with Eskimos / Inuits hearing about their life style and traditions, but that is not part of the itinerary. Some of the more unusual exhibits are carved human teeth. Different.

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Lunch is taken en masse, although it is not included in the price. We get to Gypsy’s Bakery before the others (we didn’t spend as much time in the museum shop) and get our order in first before the rush. Most people just opt for a cake or pastry, while we go for Reuben’s Sandwich with fries and a couple of Blues. We are the only people who order alcohol. Oh well, we might as well show our true colours. The sandwiches are good and very filling. Most people have finished their activities for the day, we’ve only just started. We are picked up from the café by John Stetson who runs a Husky Sleigh outfit from the Northern Studies Centre out on the Tundra. The centre is a former US Rocket Launch pad, now used by various scientists studying polar bear behaviour, astronomy and anything else of interest. As this is not part of the normal package, we join a German group of 17 with a most peculiar guide. I can’t make out whether he is gay or just slightly odd. David thinks he is a she. The group aren’t bad - to be Germans - but it is irritating that their guide has to translate everything John says for them. John was the first person to walk right across Antarctica and he has crossed both poles with dog teams. His photos are stunning and he is witty and interesting in his speech. He even claims you get ‘used to constantly feeling cold and uncomfortable’. Really?

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From the Research Centre we travel out on the tundra, half the people in a bus, the other half on dog sleds on wheels. The dogs are so excited, the just love to pull the sleds, and they jump up and down, rearing to go. There are two types of huskies, racing dogs who wear little booties to protect their feet and the bigger Inuit dogs. There are 70 dogs in total at the centre, and John knows each dog by its bark. He is currently planning his next jaunt, from Alaska to Greenland and the North Pole. Since his last expedition he has married Shelly and they now have a son, Nelson. Shelly has accompanied John on minor treks, and they are hoping to introduce Nelson to the joys of dog sledding expeditions soon.

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Once out on the tundra, we take it in turns to go off in ‘proper’ sleds, two at a time. We only travel half a mile or so, and much as the dogs are gorgeous and it’s a fun experience, it is rather commercialised.

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Back to the centre it is our turn to travel in the sled. I was determined this morning that I would not get cold out here in the dog sleds, so I am dressed in so many layers I waddle when I walk: knickers, tights, leggings, sweat pants, microfibre trousers, cargo trousers, bra, vest, 2xT-shirts, polo-neck jumper, fleece and a thick warm jacket. 2xhats, 2xgloves and a scarf wrapped around my face. I am boiling!

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We are not going back to town with the German group so we get a guided tour of the Research Centre. It is all very basic, with dormitory accommodation, working labs and a self-help kitchen. They serve us hot chocolate and cakes and we spend some time chatting to one of the research assistants. She spends her days in the observation tower (obviously made it past the first date) studying polar bear behaviour with and without tourists around. Her opinions gave us a totally different perspective to that of the tour guides or the local people. It’s an interesting comparison. Steve and Jennifer are both as excited about seeing bears as the tourists they ferry around. Some local people are excited, some blasé and some find the bears an absolute nuisance. For the researcher they are a fascination of a different kind.

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Michele from the Tundra Buggy picks us up to take us to the buggy departure point which is only a few hundred yards away. Our driver is Steve again – good! Only a very small group this time. We are only meant to be six people, but we somehow end up with a freeloader from Australia who’s very condescending and derogatory. Is she Steve’s girlfriend? Whatever you say she’s been there, and done it better, longer, smarter etc.

Nice sunset as we drive out on the tundra. Frozen willow bushes are backlit by the low sun with beautiful reflections in the semi-frozen ponds. Very photogenic, and we ask Steve to stop the buggy a couple of times so that we can catch this wonderful vista on film.

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The Aussie girl spots an Arctic Hare sitting in amongst the bushes, stretching, scratching and just generally doing what hares normally do. It is too far away to photograph with my little compact camera and anyway, the light is fading fast. That’s one of the things I miss about the SRL – the longer range lens and the flexibility. It’s not to be though. Right by the side of the track are a small flock of ptarmigan grazing – they are hard to spot as they are white on white. Not like the polar bears which are actually rather yellow against the whiteness of the snow – the ptarmigan are whiter than white.

We spot a couple of bears not too far away; one is sleeping, the other just out for an evening stroll. Out on the ice one youngster gets the jitters when he spots us and scampers off. This is the first time that has happened; usually they are totally oblivious to our presence. He is probably too young to be used to lots of large vehicles around.

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We continue to the same lodge area we were at yesterday, this is obviously where they all congregate. There are several bears here already, and as if on cue, one of them ambles up to the buggy to check us out. He is as curious about us as we are about him. Wonder if he goes back to his mates and tells them about all the cute little humans he has seen today? Just like us with the bears. He sniffs around a bit and Steve shines his spotlight on him for us to see him better.

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Then it happens, the classic shot that I have been waiting for all the time I have been out here: he stands on his hind legs and tries to peer into the buggy. Wow. He must have been just a foot or so away from Steve’s face. Cameras clicking, we are all uttering sounds of ‘aah’ and ‘ooh’ and ‘gosh’.

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The bear walks around the buggy a few times, and although it is cold, I decide to go out on the little viewing platform at the back of the buggy. Waiting for what seems like ages out there in the freezing temperatures eventually pays off: I get the magic photo of him on his back legs from straight above. Wow, wow and double wow! I didn’t realise that polar bears are unable to bring their front legs above their heads when standing on their hind legs. Therefore, the highest point of an upright bear is his nose. There’s a bit of useless information you can use in a pub quiz!

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Our little friend is performing well tonight and does this trick several times in a number of places around the vehicle, giving everyone the chance to capture this amazing display.

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Dinner is pasta with chicken and a Caesar Salad on the side, bread roll and dessert, and accompanied by Canadian wine, coffee, tea or hot chocolate. While we are eating, other bears are just walking around, inspecting the buggies that have gathered here or just generally being nosy. I find it utterly humbling merely to be here in the first place, and the whole experience of being served a full dinner with a choice of beverages in the warmth of the buggy while two polar bears are having a stand-off outside, is totally bizarre. How can you ever beat this in terms of wildlife experience?

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Once we’ve had our fill of food, wine and bears, Steve makes his way back to town. We spot a sleeping bear nearby and stop for a closer look. Actually we are not 100% sure whether it is a polar bear or just a rock, even with the spotlight on it, but out on the viewing platform we discover something altogether more spectacular: the sky is full of dancing lights. Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. The whole sky is covered with greenish swathes of light, moving in waves and creating dramatic patterns of illumination. There are curtains of vivid glare appearing to come down to engulf us in the most outer-worldly fashion. Really quite spooky. It varies from an intense flash to a gentle glow and an amazing radiance across the entire sky. The atmosphere is electrifying and almost illusory – like something from the film ‘Close Encounters’. This really is the icing on the cake and there are not enough superlatives to describe the experience. Steve’s favourite word is ‘awesome’, but even that doesn’t seem adequate to express how incredibly fortunate we have been to witness this wonder of nature. David is so thrilled – this has been his ambition for a number of years. I have been lucky enough to observe the Northern Lights once before – many years ago in Norway.

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I don't even try to photograph the lights with my little camera, instead I just enjoy the spectacle for what it is. Here are a few bits and pieces I cut out of magazines etc for my scrap book.

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We keep stopping and getting out to catch another glimpse of the scene unfolding before us on the way back to town. None of us want to let go, we would like to be able to freeze this moment of splendour forever. At the Buggy Departure point the transfer bus has been left (unattended) with its engine running to keep it warm for us. Steve just leaves the buggy locked up and drives the bus back to the various hotels to drop us off. As we near town, the mist is coming in and getting thicker and thicker the nearer to civilisation we get. A realisation dawns on us – they probably haven’t seen the Borealis here tonight. Despite the generous thought of leaving the bus engine running, I feel very cold and hunch my shoulders against the chill in the air. By the time we reach the Tundra Inn, I am in much pain with my neck. The room is warm though and a Duty Free Bacardi seems to loosen the tight muscles nicely. While we’ve been out, Jennifer has dropped off an Anniversary card for us. Steve is a very skilled photographer and has arranged for some of his photos to be printed as greeting cards. This is one such card and Jennifer has been to the Post Office to ensure that there is a Churchill stamp on the envelope. What a kind thought. Can life be any sweeter than this? Wow! What a day!

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:44 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Churchill: Tundra Buggy

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.

snow -10 °C
View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Another early start this morning. Although the hotel advertises a bar and restaurant in the guide book, neither is available. Jennifer recommends Churchill Motel, and we order their Hungry Man breakfast which consists of 3 eggs, 4 rashers of bacon, 3 slices of toast and a mountain of fried potatoes. That’ll set us up for the day. Today is the day we are going to see polar bears. I am as excited as a small child at Christmas. Polar bears are big business here, and it is all very well organised. School buses are used to ferry passengers to the Tundra Buggy Terminal. Yesterday a woman fell on the ice and fractured her ankle, so today she is unable to climb on board the school bus. She still wants to go out to see the polar bears, so several locals carry her from the hotel to a waiting 4WD truck and again from the truck to the buggy the other end. Such service!

The Tundra Buggy Terminal is 20+km outside town in the middle of nowhere. It’s very bleak and desolate. Getting there seems a lot further as the school bus really is just built for children whose legs are quite a few inches shorter than mine. The bus is full so we can’t even spread out. Feeling a little like a sardine and trying not to be grumpy, my spirits soar when we get on board the buggy.

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It is enormous and there are only 14 in our group. It is quite a decent group, considering. Apart from us they are all Canadian and American. We have enough room to use a bench seat each, and the middle section is wide, allowing for easy movement from side to side when spotting bears, which hopefully we will do.

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The banter between Jennifer, our hostess and the driver Steve makes for a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. They both live in Banff and are good friends. Steve is a French Canadian and has some lovely expressions he uses. They are both very knowledgeable and take the Mickey out of each other all the time – Jennifer even manages to make Steve blush, much to everyone’s amusement.

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There is a joke going around that the best place to take anyone for a first date in Churchill is the Rubbish Dump to see the polar bears that congregate there. If that goes well, the second date is at the observation tower.

After an hour of driving we still haven’t seen any bears, just some tracks across the ice. Disappointing. Steve turns off the main track to go towards the shore line where there are two other trucks. Way in the distance we can see a sleeping bear, just a yellow blob through the binoculars. We would all like to drive a little nearer, but Steve has other ideas. He seems to think he knows of a place where we can see bears a little closer. We have to trust him. The tracks are interesting, lots of frozen potholes, puddles and mounds of ice. It makes for an exciting drive. You couldn’t get across the tundra in any other sort of vehicle. In the distance we spot lots of other buggies and when we get nearer we realise that it is the Tundra Buggy Lodge. There are several bears hanging around, mostly sleeping.

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Occasionally one lifts his head to look around and goes back to sleep. In the distance we can see a bear walking across the tundra. Then another bear arrives from behind the lodge. He thinks he has found a food source in the grey-water outlet from the lodge and fiercely protects is from another bear approaching.

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Two more bears wake up and the young males start sparring. Cameras clicking, we are so excited about the spectacle that unfolds before us. Steve tells us that until yesterday the bears did nothing all day except sleep. We are so lucky to be seeing so much activity today.

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One of the young males walks up to the buggy next to us and stands on his hind legs peering into it. Wow. I feel incredibly privileged and honoured to be here, this really is incredible.

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Bears sniff around the lodge after food smells, trying to look into the kitchen, checking out their mates and taking part in a little play-fighting. Then cool off by spreading themselves out flat on their stomachs. Another little walk, then let’s check out the tourists again.

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This is so amazing. I can’t believe I’m sitting here in the comfort and warmth of the buggy, eating soup and sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate while it is snowing horizontally outside and within a few feet there are several large polar bears. It seems utterly unreal. We stay in the same spot for several hours and see probably about 15 bears in total.

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On top of the Tundra Buggy Lodge roof is a live cam, recording the polar bears constantly for the six weeks or so that they congregate here in the Churchill area. The bears will have spent the summer months inland, surviving mainly on berries and grasses and by now their energy levels are low. They are just waiting for the water in Hudson Bay to freeze over so that they can go out on the ice again and hunt seal. They are conserving their energy and generally move as little as possible; hence we are very lucky to see so much activity today.

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Helicopter flight
Only three of us take up the offer of a helicopter flight over the tundra.

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That is, three of us plus Miles. Miles is a little teddy bear who is travelling with us, having his photograph taken in different locations throughout the world. He belongs to friends of ours who have a travel clothes shop, and they lend him out to whoever is off on their journeys, then displaying his photographs in the shop on his return. He has already had his photo taken with his cousins, the polar bears, in the background, now he gets prime position on the dashboard of the helicopter.

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We fly no higher than 100ft above the ground and from the helicopter spot another dozen or so bears. It is almost as if we are watching a film: ‘there’s one, there’s another one, look over there – a polar bear’. Please don’t ever let me get blasé about seeing wildlife of any sort! Apart from a bear skeleton, all we see is snow, ice and polar bears, but I’m not complaining.

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The flight is great and gives a totally different perspective on the tundra – you realise just how big and desolate it is out here – but I don’t know if it is worth the money. Never mind, we’ve done it now!

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On the way back to town, one of our fellow passengers snoozes and falls off the seat onto the floor when Steve goes over a particularly big rut in the track. Steve is mortified and rather worried, while the passenger is embarrassed but unhurt. The rest of us are very amused. It is snowing quite heavily now. The temperature is around minus 10 °C but with the wind-chill factor, that drops to about minus 20 °C. Cold! Back in ‘town’ we walk to Traders and the Tundra Buggy shop to look for post cards and then to the other end of town to the helicopter office to get our certificates. We are famous at last, or at least Miles is: as we walk in to the office our pilot tells the manager ‘this is the lady who had Miles’. Ken, the manager has just taken our certificates to the Tundra Buggy Shop so he drives us down there in his truck to collect them. His truck is left outside with its engine running, which seems to be the norm here in Churchill. The certificates are not at the Shop, so Ken drives us to the Seaport restaurant where we are having dinner tonight, promising to deliver the certificates there later on in the evening. Again I am impressed with the service here.

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For starter we have a salad, main course is steak and mash and dessert apple pie. It is rather good, even better the fact that Jennifer is paying as we will be missing the included dinner tomorrow night. One of the waiters plays his guitar and we all join in with ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’. Jennifer is particularly good at singing as it turns out. Our itinerary is very action packed, and we only just have time to walk back to the hotel to deposit the certificates in the room before we are picked up for our long journey to the Town Centre Complex. It would have been quicker to walk. We are treated to a slide show with some fantastic photos of Churchill and the surrounding area in the different seasons. The only problem is the temperature in the hall, it is so warm we are all starting to drop off (in fact, one or two people do). We decide to decline the lift back to the hotel and get there quicker than those who go by bus.

Posted by Grete Howard 05:12 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Toronto - Winnipeg - Churchill

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.


View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Getting up at 04:30 is no trouble - I have been awake since 02:00 this morning. We get a pleasant surprise when we check out – the hotel hasn’t charged us for the e-mails last night. Good old Angela. It appears that information available about the Airport Express is rather sketchy: First there was the confusion last night about where the bus stops, this morning we are given the wrong departure time from the hotel. The receptionist tells us 05:15, fortunately we are outside a little early – the bus leaves at 05:00 and we only just make it. After check in we have some breakfast at the airport. Canada is not a cheap place to holiday – we shall have to watch our pennies. The landscape we can see from the aircraft is flat with hundreds of small square farms. Each square has a dwelling in one corner, but they look too small to be able to make a decent living out of.

There is not much at Winnipeg Airport to occupy us during our 4 hour wait. We find the only pub in the building and order a couple of sandwiches and some beer. When we arrive we are the only people there, but it soon fills out. Great little waitress, not pretty but quite attractive in a gothic sort of way. I have a steak Philly sandwich while David’s is filled with spicy chicken. In the true North American way, we order fries on the side. The food is good and the local beer – Blue – is very acceptable. It whiles away a little time – there will be a lot of time spent at airports on this trip, we might as well start as we mean to go on – in a bar!

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Churchill is serviced by a small Saab (34-seater) aircraft. The airport is modern but very small and the transfer taxi is not there. There is no reply from the freephone at the terminal building, it’s probably just a small firm and all drivers are out. While we are contemplating what to do, a taxi van turns up and we share the ride into town with another lady from our flight. We are glad to find that the Tundra Inn is expecting us.

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In the room is a welcome letter from Jennifer Kennedy, our International Wildlife Adventures rep here in Churchill. She is apparently staying at the same hotel as us and gives advice on various aspects of the ‘town’. One thing she recommends is making a reservation for Traders Table, the best restaurant in town, which we promptly do. The room is big and basic, with two double beds, a massive fridge and a writing desk. Perfectly adequate. There are no luxury hotels in Churchill, this is as good as it gets. We go for a reconnaissance walk to the supermarket for Coke and Pringles. There is snow on the ground and the roads are very icy. The local traffic consists of 4WDs, quadbikes and skidoos.

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After a quick shower and some Duty Free while we get ready, we walk (gingerly) down to Traders Table for dinner. It isn’t far, but it is cold, slippery and windy. The restaurant is like a log cabin with a lovely rustic feel. The menu is basic, as we find it to be everywhere in Churchill. David has steak while I try the local char. From the salmon family, it is enjoyable but nothing special. We contemplate the wine list, but settle for a couple of beers each, and two hot chocolates to finish off.

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Outside on the balcony of the restaurant are some husky puppies, they are absolutely gorgeous and love to be fussed over by tourists. We get quite cold while playing with the dogs and chatting to a couple from Winnipeg.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:16 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Bristol - London - Toronto

This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera.


View Around the World for our Silver Wedding 2002 on Grete Howard's travel map.

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The journey up to Heathrow’s Terminal 4 is uneventful. As usual I sleep for a while during the drive. At the airport there are long queues for check in – more people than I have ever seen there before. Apparently it is a combination of the Half-Term holiday and a computer breakdown. By asking around we find out which check-in desk we will be using, and cheekily join before our flight is announced. That way we save ourselves a lot of time in the queue. As it is, we wait for over an hour before we get to the front of the queue and we have only just enough time to have breakfast, buy some Bacardi and go to the gate. In the rush to get David another camcorder battery in Dixons, we miss the entrance to our gate, hurrying past. Another queue. Our seats are right at the back of the plane, behind an extended Indian family.

The front page of my scrap book, showing the route and all the different modes of transport we used.

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The usual activities on the flight: sleep, eat, sleep, drink. Toronto Airport is enormous, much bigger than Heathrow. At the luggage carousel we are patiently waiting for our cases to appear – only to find that someone has already taken them off for us and they have been sitting on the floor the other side of the carousel all along. Doh! Toronto is the only destination on this trip where we do not have airport transfers included and pre-arranged. Not through choice, it just wasn’t available. We manage to locate the Airport Express which goes into town every half an hour, and establish that we need to get off at the bus station and walk from there to reach our hotel. Just outside the airport an accident has blocked the highway and the bus has to drive the opposite direction and take a long detour to rejoin the carriageway into town. We recognise parts of Toronto from our last visit and look out of the window as we are nearing the place where we have worked out that the hotel must be located. At one of the stops for another hotel, we see ours right across the road. The lady in the information booth didn’t tell us there was a bus stop just a few yards from the front door of the hotel!

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The Metropolitan Hotel is a standard, pleasant four-star hotel. Large, but the staff are friendly. We are apparently upgraded to a Superior Room, not sure what the difference is. Angela, the Concierge very kindly reconfirms our flights for us. The hotel has a Business Centre with e-mail access, and although it is closed, Angela takes us up there, unlocks the door and leaves us there to close the door behind us when we leave. At $20 per hour, we don’t linger at the keyboard. It is too early to eat, so we wander along to the Wolf and Firkin Bar, as recommended by Angela. Where would we be without dear old Angela! The bar looks like it’s part of a chain, they serve bog-standard food, but the barmaid is extremely efficient and very chatty. David is in his element as they serve Cider on tap! We get chatting to one of the regulars; he used to live in Churchill and tells us all about it. He was only 18 at the time, having jumped ship, and I get the impression that he was only there for the easily available sex. Like many others, he tells us that we won’t be able to see the Northern Lights in Churchill. We have been told that it is ‘not far enough north’, ‘not cold enough’, ‘wrong time of year’. We prepare ourselves that we won’t be seeing the Aurora Borealis after all – David was really hoping to. I saw them many years ago in Norway, and they really are spectacular. The guidebook mentions Churchill as one of the best places in the world to experience the lights, but perhaps it’s not meant to be.

This being the first day of a very long trip, we don’t want to overspend on dinner, so we end up in a fast food restaurant on Yonge Street serving Burritas and Pizza, before having an early night in the room. The Rolling Stones are staying in the same hotel; their rather fantastic mobile home is parked outside. We couldn’t work out whether it was a bus or a truck; it was the bus driver who informed us it belongs to the Stones.

Posted by Grete Howard 03:53 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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