Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travelling, the hard way

Colours are changing daily

One of my biggest mistakes this holiday was made when deciding how to get to Vancouver from Banff. To save on a night's accommodation we chose to catch a bus that took from 8pm until 8am. I will never do that again. We ended up being last on the bus, last two seats, both of us on the aisle and right next to the toilet. Half the night we were regularly crashed into by tired lurching passengers, banging toilet doors and smells I should not even think about. We switched buses half way through and got better seats sitting together. As we started to relax the lady in the chair in front of us broke something that inundated our seats with bean bag balls and the guy in the seat to the side spent all night trying to chat up the lady next to him, with her laughing loudly at regular intervals. Never again.

We got our bearings in Vancouver by doing a free walking tour and decided to spend a day at the Museum of Natural History. We don't often do museums as every city has one and we want to do things unique to that particular city. Every now and again we will relent when it is one of the top or highly recommended ones. For instance we went to the Louvre in Paris. This one came under the recommended category and my highlight was the great hall that showcases huge totem poles and art and artifacts from Canada's first nations. Brilliantly presented and fascinating exhibit.

The end point
Grouse on the way up
The next day we went up Grouse Mountain. To get to the top you have two choices: Skyride or Grouse Grind. The Grouse Grind is a local challenge that you can register for and swipe your card and it will track your times, or you can just do as a one off. It is a 3km straight up trek up the mountain that is so steep that stairs are carved into the mountainside most of the way up, 2830 of them. With an elevation gain of 853 m it is not for the faint hearted, but checking the website just now I see that today's record currently stands at 42 minutes and 13 seconds. Which way did we go? Grouse Grind of course, our time being 80 minutes.

Lumberjack show
Eye of the Wind
At the top was a huge resort and skiing complex (a bit early in the season though), with many other things to see and do. We watched the lumberjack show, very funny (see video below) and went up the Eye of the Wind tower. This was particularly exciting for me because you go into an actual working wind turbine with a platform near the top. The platform twists with the propeller to find the wind. Initially it was still and not revolving but while inside we started twisting as the wind picked up, we found the wind and the blades started turning and shortly after that there was a thump as the generators kicked in and we were told it was now producing electricity. This one turbine makes enough power a year for 400 homes.

Through the glass floor

From the turbine

Next was a trip to San Francisco: a 25 hour journey, 22 by train, again saving on accommodation costs by sleeping on the train, but the train was much more comfortable than the bus. Lots of leg room, quiet, dark, we actually slept quite well in the deep reclining seats. Did not go the couchette route as in Europe as they were the cost of four nights of our normal accommodation allowance. The only affordable accommodation I could find was the San Francisco party hostel. Free beer pong for the boys every night and free margaritas for the girls. I was disappointed to find it was not a normal table tennis table (as I felt like a game) but specially constructed for drinking purposes. Due to my allergy I declined several attempts to get me to play.

Of course we started our trip at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking advantage of a city-provided free walking tour. The guide was hugely knowledgeable about the bridge and filled in the time walking around and on to the bridge with loads of interesting information. For instance the ferry companies held it up in courts for years because they were afraid it would hurt their business. Because of the high currents coming in and out four times a day from the ocean many thought it could not work. (One of the engineers took the design and built the Tacoma Narrows Bridge that fell down - it was done on the cheap). The American Society of Civil Engineers awarded it the Monument of the Millennium and lots more. It's a beautiful bridge with the art deco design and unique orange colour. There are many warnings about jumping and a suicide hotline on the bridge itself, as this occurs surprisingly regularly.

Shall I let her out?
Briefly occupied by Indians
in 1969
We also visited Alcatraz, a brilliant day out as you get the boat ride as well as the island and its notorious prison. I found it funny that they claim no prisoner has ever escaped but five men are listed as 'missing'. The three that the movie 'Escape from Alcatraz' was based on I reckon got away; if they drowned I would have thought one of the bodies would have turned up somewhere.

We also saw the seals of Pier 39 and took a trip on the old cable cars (twice), apparently registered as the only mobile National Monument in the world.

Lumberjacks at play

Riding the cable car

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