How to have the best time ever on Salt Spring Island

When Helen (my sister, for those not in the know) first booked her trip to Canada, she had a list of ‘Canadian’ things she wanted to tick off while she was here. The list included swimming in a lake, staying in a cabin, hiking in forests and eating lots of pancakes. I also wanted to go somewhere new, and the islands off the coast of Vancouver looked very nice, and like they would enable us to tick off quite a few things from Helen’s list, so basically just picked one and went with it. It turned out to be a good choice. Salt Spring Island is known for it’s hippy, artisan feel, and is home to lots of tiny galleries and studios of the hundreds of artists who live on the island, as well as being a big producer of food (cheese, jam, oils, etc.), but with plenty to do outdoors too.

We managed to formulate the perfect trip, just by following a few simple steps…

Step 1. Order perfect weather

We were insanely lucky to have pretty much perfect weather for the entire 3 days we spent on Salt Spring Island – blue skies and temperatures around 20-24 degrees. I’m sure we would’ve still had a great time had it rained the whole time, but hiking and swimming in lakes is a lot less enjoyable in the rain, and I’m pretty sure that the constant sunshine had a lot to do with us having the best time ever.

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Step 2. Find an excellent AirBnb

Our first choice AirBnb got snapped up before we had a chance to book it, so instead of a remote, rustic cabin with ocean views we ended up with a quaint looking country cottage close to the main town, Ganges. I’ll be honest, the main draw was the numerous reviews of the host’s homemade granola and baked treats – she did not disappoint – but it ended up being the best of all worlds as we could walk into town for dinner, but it was nice and quiet. The place itself (and the hosts) did conjure up memories of a stay with the grandparents, but it was so sweet (and the freshly baked bread was so good) we couldn’t fault it.

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AirBnb breakfast

Step 3. Hike all morning

Due to the aforementioned good weather, we spent most mornings exploring some of the trails on the island. We managed about 6km along the coast in Ruckle Provincial Park, a beautiful rugged forest trail with mostly fairly gentle ups and downs, but when the round trip option including a potentially strenuous climb and I’d already been freaked out by a snake spotting, an out and back suited us just fine.

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Ruckle Provincial Park

The best hike was to the top of Mount Erskine – the trail was only about 1.5km each way, but it was quiet and had incredible views to the north of the island from the top. We also drove to the top of Mount Maxwell along a very dusty road full of pot holes, where the viewpoints looked out to the south over the San Juan islands in the US. We also had an encounter with a couple of hikers who for a moment we thought were dead…they were in fact just enjoying a post-hike afternoon snooze until we freaked out and yelled at them. Sorry again to those poor, poor, people.

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Views from Mount Maxwell

Step 4. Swim all afternoon

After all that walking, we enjoyed a little dip most afternoons – the most lake swimming I think I’ve ever done. There are several lakes on the island of varying sizes, and it’s a bit of an adventure finding the swimming spot at each one. None of them have much a of beach to speak of, and the maps of the island aren’t totally clear on where the best place to stop is, so we spent quite a lot of time driving slowly along the edge of the lakes, watching to spot a tiny strip of sand and a tell tale strip of cars parked on the road, then mastering a tricky parking manoeuvre (often involving a blind bend) before changing into our swimming things between the car doors or under our towels – memories of childhood beach days coming back to haunt us.

Cusheon Lake won the top prize for best lake, largely because there was a decent amount of space to park and there was a reasonably clean portaloo to change in, but also because you could walk onto the dock from the beach. We also swam in St. Mary’s Lake (the biggest, with the largest ‘beach’ too, but very busy as it was a Sunday when we visited) and had a quick dip in Stowell Lake (the smallest lake and closest to the road) but someone saw a snake in the grass there too, so I wasn’t keen to hang around for too long.

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Helen (the fish) jumping into Cusheon Lake

Step 5. Eat excellent food, drink excellent drinks

 

As mentioned in Step 2 our AirBnb host supplied us with a huge array of homemade breakfast treats, and even made a special trip to the farmers market to top up our supplies for the last morning, so we ate breakfast in the garden every morning. We stretched it out to lunch a couple of times too, keeping the backpacking dream alive. I had my first experience with a Weber one evening, which was thankfully uneventful, but we tried a couple of places in Ganges for food too, including the Tree House Cafe, which was like the Garden Cafe in Frome on steroids. Salt Spring has a reputation of being a bit of a hippy hotspot, but this was crazy. A folk group called Adam, Gwen & Friends was playing, and I’ve never seen so many people with long, grey, wavy hair and kaftans in one place before. After we managed to avoid being sat at a table right in front of the live music, we did have some really good food and an incredible sunset topped off the night nicely.

 

I’ll also mention Salt Spring Island Ales as it was really good, and in a lovely little forest lined spot in the middle of nowhere.

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Amazing sunset in Ganges

Step 6. Order a pod of orcas to spot on the ferry home

The ferry across to the the Southern Gulf Islands is notoriously beautiful, especially on a clear, sunny day, and spotting whales is something that people often talk about but it seems like it’s quite rare that it actually happens… We were about 10 minutes from docking back in Vancouver, and the captain announced that we should go back to our cars, oh and that there was a pod of orcas on the starboard side of the boat. Cue lots of very excited people trying to work out which side of the boat is starboard…luckily someone (not us) figured out it was the right hand side, so we walked casually (read: skipped so excitedly we almost tripped over) so see what was going on – it was pretty darned cool.

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Incredible orcas

And that just about rounded off a perfect little Canadian trip. Apart from we got stuck in terrible traffic on the way back from the ferry which made me quite ragey. Sorry again about that Helen. 

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To Portland we went

Last weekend was Victoria Day here in Canada, which is a Bank Holiday to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday – confusing as we don’t get this holiday in the UK…anywho, it meant an extra day off work, and what better to do than go on a little road trip south of the border to Portland.

I’m not really sure why Portland is on people’s radars, as there isn’t a great deal in terms of sights to see, but Vancouverites kept telling me to go there, so who am I to disagree?  We made an early dash to the border on Monday morning, and it turns out crossing with a Canadian is a lot less suspicious than with someone else who also isn’t from either of the countries you’re coming from/going to (sorry Chloe), and while we still had to get a secondary check and add to the border guards’ doughnut money fund, we were through pretty quickly.

The drive to Portland is basically on one very long, very straight highway all the way from Vancouver. You skirt around Seattle (or crawl, depending on the traffic) and continue south for another 3ish hours to Portland. Google Maps will confuse the heck out of you as it can’t tell whether you’re on the main highway or the smaller road parallel, but as with most north American cities, it’s pretty easy to find your way through the downtown core thanks to easy block navigation.

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Giant falafel wraps

First stop was lunch at one of the many clusters of food trucks set up around the city. We munched on falafel wraps the size of our heads while stretching out our legs from the long car journey. Oh, and it was a balmy 34 degrees, so we melted a bit too – seriously, after months of temperatures barely hitting double digits this was quite a shock to the system. We do what all cool climate dwellers do when in a hot city and ran from air conditioned shop to air conditioned shop, complaining about the heat (which we moan we never get normally when it’s raining and cold). We went to Powell’s Books, which is the world’s largest independent book shop…what else can I say other than there were a lot of books?! I wasn’t really in the market for anything (plus I have a Kindle…) so we moved on pretty quickly once we were sufficiently air conditioned.

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Random pet books at Powell’s Books

We booked an AirBnb in the south east of the city, in an attic conversion of the home of our hosts, Chuck and Carole. They were lovely, if a little intense – Carole wanted to know what we were doing alllll the time, although I think this was a motherly thing more than anything else, and she was quick to make sure we were following house procedures accordingly (taking our shoes off at the door, shutting all the windows IMMEDIATELY when you turn the air conditioning on).

What Portland lacks in tourist sights, it makes up for in quaint little neighbourhoods filled with boutique shops, coffee shops and independent restaurants, so we basically spent most of our trip hopping between different areas to explore. On the advice of many, the first place we headed for was ice cream at Salt & Straw – luckily there was a branch a 15 minute walk from where we were staying, and cold treats were very much needed in the aforementioned heat. The ice cream itself didn’t disappoint, however we both agreed that the waffle cones weren’t a patch on our Vancouver favourite, Rain or Shine.

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Ice cream from Salt & Straw

We followed this up with a couple of frosty beverages (we shamefully had to sit inside for the second one as we were wilting in the heat by now), and we went to Pok Pok for dinner, which had also been recommended by several people. It was mainly food from Northern Thailand (I think), and while a little more expensive than some places, was really tasty and also served a decent G&T.

To the disappointment of Carole (who wanted us to join her in the garden for some special cigarettes) we were not the young party animals she thought we were, and went to bed pretty early, but the heat also meant we were up at 7, ready and raring to go (ha) for a run before it got too hot.

We contemplated driving across the city to some of the trails to the west, or even out to Mt Hood National Park for some hiking, but after spending a lot of time in the car the day before, we decided to keep it local, and set out to run to Mt Tabor, about 3km away. Mt Tabor is an old dormant volcano, which now has a reservoir at the base, and some lovely shaded trails at the top. I should add that Ali (who knows stuff about rocks and geology) informed me that Mt Tabor never actually erupted, which means some people could be in for a rude surprise at some point. Anywho, volcanos (dormant or otherwise) are quite steep, so it was quite the slog to get up to the top, especially when fuelled by a mountain of Thai food, several beers and accompanied by intense heat. We pottered around at the top for a bit, enjoyed the views, found a water fountain (thank god) before heading back down in search of breakfast.

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View over Portland from the top of Mt Tabor

We headed for a French style bakery on the promise of an excellent Turkey croissant (weird), but it was hot, busy and only had warm water to drink so we snuck out, which is always really awkward when you’ve already spoken to the person behind the counter and drank their free water… Anywho, there was another place next door that served excellent eggs on toast (they put cheese in their eggs too – sooooo good) and coffee, and had breakfast al fresco, which is one of my absolute favourite things to do.

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Alfresco breakfast

Carole was basically waiting for us when we went back to freshen up, flabbergasted that we’d already been out running and had breakfast too. We decided to take advantage of Portland’s shared bike scheme (which is sponsored by Nike – this would work perfectly in the UK where people say Nike as one syllable without the e, so Nike bikes. Unfortunately, they say Nik-e here, so it’s really a missed marketing opportunity in my eyes) and use them to get around the city for the day. As with most shared bike schemes around the world, the bikes themselves are somewhat heavy and cumbersome, which made for some interesting manoeuvres at times. We made a couple of stops in small neighbourhoods in the suburbs for a wander, then headed downtown to cruise along the river for a while. It was all downhill (literally) to the water, so we made the immediate decision that we would not be cycling back again later.

We had a bit of a wander around the Pearl District after lunch, which was very similar to Yaletown in Vancouver, and with lots of murals and things painted on the sides of buildings. We had another little cycle along the river before retiring to one of the many, many breweries in Portland. We are not beer aficionados, so we basically just went into the first brewery we saw and each ordered a flight of 4 samples to try. The Commons Brewery is apparently famed for it’s European style beers, so maybe that’s why I liked them so much? Or maybe just because it was pushing 30 degrees outside again and they were cold and refreshing.

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Small world syndrome kicked in again in Portland, and we went over to the North East part of the city to meet one of my sister’s best friends from school (who I used to babysit – she’s now married to an American guy. I feel old) who lives in Portland for a drink in another cute little neighbourhood full of cafes, restaurants and breweries. On advice of the local resident, we walked a few blocks to find dinner at a taco bar (tacqueria?!) called Porque No? and while the queue was out the door, things moved quickly and the wait was worth it – the tacos were amazing, as were the pint sized margaritas, and freshly cooked tortilla chips. YUM.

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We finished the night with another ice cream, this time at Ruby Jewel, but I think I was a bit ice creamed out by this point. I definitely couldn’t manage one of the ice cream sandwiches. Rejoicing in reasonably priced taxis, we took an Uber home, which when confirmed on the app was labelled as ‘Spaceship PDX’, and our ‘Captain’ was on his way… Turns out it was just as weird as it sounds – after leaving his tech job, the guy had started driving Ubers and wanted to try and make it more fun, so fitted his car out with all kinds of crazy spaceship type paraphernalia. It was weird, but entertaining nevertheless.

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Inside Spaceship PDX

We tried to make a run for it the next morning with bumping into Carole, but she was on patrol and having none of it, so we endured the obligatory small talk goodbyes before we headed off. But I’m not done yet, sorry folks, this is a long one. One last breakfast was unintentionally at a veggie/vegan cafe where the guy behind the counter heard my accent and tried to engage me in football talk, specifically Arsenals latest woes. Whhhhhhhyyyyyy. Just give me my eggs.

We decided to venture west to the hills overlooking the city before heading home, and first stopped at the rose gardens, which were decidedly underwhelming thanks to the massive amounts of construction and late blooming of the roses this year. Still, we managed to see a few nice flowers and made an old couples’ day by giving them the left over time on our parking ticket (after they realised Ali wasn’t trying to attack them). We made a quick stop at Pittock Mansion, an old building by US standards, which was built in 1909. It made me quite nostalgic for a good National Trust day out, but we really just went for the views over the city, which were non existent thanks to the cloud that had settled in.

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Views (of sorts) from Pittock Mansion
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How to be a cat lady circa 1948

One last stop at Trader Joe’s and we were on the road back to Canada. That I-5 seemed even longer on the way back, even after stopping for lunch at NW Sausage & Deli – don’t ask. I even got to drive a manual car again for the first time in over a year – poor Ali probably thought she was going to die a passenger in her own car. Not only was I a little rusty on the gears, but using the gear stick with my right hand took a bit of getting used to. Still, we made it back alive.

So that was Portland! Lots of eating and drinking, lots of bumbling around on bikes, lots of converting prices back to Canadian dollars – the exchange rate is terrible right now, which is strange, given the whole Trump debacle. Oregon does have the bonus of not having a sales tax though, so finally I was able to pay the shelf price for things again – it’s the little things.

Rain, rain, go away

So, again I should apologise for not keeping my blog up to date – I’m nothing if consistent at being consistently bad at updating it.

I can’t exactly say I’ve been full of the joys of Spring since my last post – after the ridiculously cold winter here, we were treated to an insanely wet March, and only this week has it been warm enough for me to stop wearing my down filled coat. This has also made me very jealous of all the gloriously sunny weather back in the UK over the past few weeks…hopefully the tables will turn soon.

Anyway, some highlights from the last few weeks for you…

Because of the aforementioned rain and large amounts of (very wet) snow in the mountains, activities have been somewhat limited, but I braved the rain with my friend Ali a few weeks back for a repeat of the Quarry Rock hike out at Deep Cove. I got to try the famous Honey’s doughnuts this time too, which definitely lived up to the hype. Highlight of that hike was seeing people hiking with umbrellas.

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This is a colour photo, I promise

I also recently got to experience my first taste of North American football (by this I mean soccer, or just football to us), which was just a little different; the crowds are a lot less rowdy, there is a lot more emphasis on eating whilst watching the game, and once the Whitecaps scored more than 3 goals, everyone in the crowd was told they could take their ticket stub to a local hairdressers for a free haircut, and to a smoothie place for a free drink… The Whitecaps were playing LA Galaxy (quite sad that David Beckham doesn’t play for them anymore, Ashley Cole does though – this lead to some extensive UK celebrity googling when I got home about Cheryl Cole, or just ‘Cheryl’ as she apparently now wants to be known?! And as if she’s had a baby with someone from One Direction?! Sorry, this is quite a tangent) and every time someone scored a goal, the crowd would chant the players name three times, but shouting the last name really loudly, and then chant ‘Thank you – YOU’RE WELCOME!’ at the end. SO Canadian.

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Whitecaps vs. LA Galaxy at BC Place 

At the end of March, two people who had become really good friends here left Vancouver to move to their (sort of) native Toronto. It was a bit weird saying goodbye to people already, but a trip east is surely on the cards at some point.

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Mike & Alison will really thank me for this one, I’m sure

Trying to keep up with the crazy levels of running here has also started to take it’s toll a bit, and my poor 32 year old body has started objecting somewhat, so while I don’t have race plans on the horizon, I’m trying to take it a bit easier on the mileage and get reacquainted with the foam roller. Warning to anyone who runs: DO NOT neglect your foam rolling. I promise doing it regularly and consistently is a far better option than screaming into your fist whilst foam rolling for the first time in year.

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Trail running fun

Easter was a weird one here – only Good Friday is considered a Bank Holiday, so I had that day off but had to work the rest of the weekend, and you only get Monday off if you work in a Government type job. I did manage an Easter Sunday roast dinner though, which included Yorkshire puddings made with wholewheat bread flour in a mini muffin pan – surprisingly successful. I also attempted my first ever gravy from scratch, which also wasn’t terrible.

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Easter eggs on snowy trees on a Good Friday hike

While I don’t have enough new content for a full Canadianisms post, my latest discovery about this maple syrup loving nation is that they seem desperately terrified of their groceries touching anyone else’s on the supermarket conveyor belt. Seriously, if there aren’t any dividers available and I start to put my shopping down behind theirs, they give me a petrified glare – do they think I’m going to expect them to pay for my shopping? And when I’m the one in front, as soon as I put that divider at the end of my shopping, they will invariably give me a gracious ‘thank you’ before quickly unloading their shopping onto the sacred space.

Well, this is all quite dull isn’t it?! I think I was going to write a post about snowboarding at some point, so maybe I’ll line that one up for my next one. And I have a trip to Portland planned for May, so that’ll give me something a bit more interesting to write about.

In the meantime, don’t forget that my sofa bed is available for guests – it doesn’t rain here ALL the time…

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A rare sunny day 

Since my last blog…

Not that I haven’t done anything recently, but nothing seems exciting enough to warrant its own blog post – there’s only so much I can write about the new mattress I bought this week. So, here’s a little summary of things I’ve been up to since January.

A sunrise hike (of sorts)

The idea was to hike Hollyburn peak at sunrise, but our plans were thwarted when we arrived at the base of Cypress Mountain (where we needed to go to get to Hollyburn) to find the road blocked and a very grumpy man who was strictly enforcing the road closure that was in place until 7am. As soon as the clocked ticked over we up there at break-neck speed, and while we missed actual sunrise, we were still able to catch some amazing views on our (very steep) hike up to the top.

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Jamaica – yeah man 

 

I spent an amazing week with my family in Jamaica, celebrating mum’s 60th birthday. Highlights included:

  • Spending most of the week horizontal with a book in my hand
  • Drinking more margaritas than I can remember
  • Dad getting a bowl of cheese at the breakfast buffet, thinking it was exotic fruit
  • Climbing Dunns River Falls (although not so great was battling HUGE crowds, and being made to hold hands with a random man from Manchester)
  • A general feeling of being warm all week and being able to wear flip flops
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A blurry family selfie
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Dunns River Falls 

Also, this was the first time I’d been on a plane since arriving in Canada – 9 MONTHS AGO. I think that must be some kind of record. I also couldn’t tell you the last time I went on a train – how times have changed.

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Caribbean seas and skies

Whistler Days

Because apparently I’d had enough of being warm, I spent a day snowboarding up in Whistler, and while the snow was a bit icy for my liking, the views were amazing. Of course they’ve now had almost a metre of snow in the last week, such is my luck. I did finally get to go on the Peak2Peak gondola though – it’s was closed the previous 4 times I’ve been to Whistler, so I was glad to tick that one off the list. I won’t lie, it was a bit sketchy being attached to what looks like a piece of string whilst hundreds of metres from the ground, half way between two mountains.

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Peak2Peak

 

Birthday fun

I turned 32! The celebrations kicked off the night before my birthday with savoury waffles and a trip to an Irish bar with my friend Chloe. Things escalated when she told the barman that it was my birthday and he bought us shots of Jamesons. Ugh. I’d been drinking red wine, so that made for a nice fuzzy head the next morning when I got up at a reasonably early hour to go for a run (what else?!). My lovely friends made me wear a birthday sash to run in, and despite my less than ideal state, we enjoyed a little loop of the seawall. Bacon for breakfast and I was back on track. We pounded some burgers for dinner, topping off an excellent start to my 32nd year (or 33rd? this always confuses me).

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My face is a treat as always (photo credit: Devon)

More snow

Seriously, this is most unlike Vancouver. Luckily it hasn’t been as debilitating for the city this time around, but the last dump in February cost me four delayed flights on my way to/from Jamaica, and it’s now lead to two cancelled running races. It does mean that the snow on the local mountains (and Whistler) is still amazing, but I am quite looking forward to not having to wear a down coat every day at some point in the not too distant future.

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Snowy trails in Capilano Canyon in March

 

Engagements

Two of my lovely friends here, Megan and Allan, got engaged last week in front of a group of us after a run. It was lovely and I cried like a baby – congratulations again guys!

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A blurry screenshot from the moment it happened!

Life lessons with Ali

My lovely friend Ali is helping me work through all those life skills I’ve never quite mastered. Lesson one: french plaiting (braiding) my own hair – important stuff.

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First attempt – not too shabby

Snowy Adventures

Disclaimer: this post is basically an excuse to share jealousy inducing photos from snowy mountain tops.

Whilst I love snowboarding, it’s not the cheapest habit and not having a car makes it more logistically challenging to do easily on a regular basis. I’ve only managed to go snowboarding three times so far this winter, but with December seeing incredibly high snowfall on the mountains local to Vancouver I’ve been trying to get up and amongst it all as much as possible, even without a plank of wood strapped to my feet.

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Snow on the beach 

December in Vancouver was ridiculously cold and snowy – most people would expect this from a Canadian winter, but the west coast is notoriously mild and wet during the winter especially in the city as it is right at sea level. When it snows in Vancouver, people lose their minds – more so than when it snows in the UK. To begin with it made everywhere feel lovely and Christmassy, and snow on the beaches was a beautiful novelty, but once it become obvious that they don’t salt any roads other than the main streets, and it’s down to individual residents to shovel the pavement in front of their house (which about 20% don’t do) the city was a hot mess of slipping and sliding around and running was pretty much a non starter.

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About an inch of ice on the roads near my house

You may remember me talking about Grouse Mountain in some of my earlier posts, and the vertical hike up the Grouse Grind, which is closed during the winter. Once the snow hits there are some trails at the top of Grouse which you can snowshoe/hike – one of which is the snowshoe grind (SSG for short), shorter than the original GG, but just as steep in parts.

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Modern day snowshoes 

The first time I tackled it was with Hollie and Alison on a freezing cold but beautifully clear morning (they claimed there was ‘unlimited’ visibility, but I have some scientific doubts over that claim). We hired proper snowshoes, the modern version of the wooden tennis rackets you see people strap to their feet in old school ski resort photos, and hiked our way up to the top. Wearing giant things attached to your feet, especially whilst trying to negotiate narrow trails is quite a challenge, but the views at the top were completely worth it.

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Hollie & Alison at the top

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Coming back down was also interesting – we resorted to a bum slide in parts where it was really steep, but where we could almost run down it was a lot of fun and knowing that you’re only going to fall into a pile of soft snow was incentive just to leg it*

*realistically, a light jog – unfortunately I do not have much of a ‘no fear’ mentality when it comes to these things

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Only a few days later Hollie and I ventured up to the snow again with a group of running friends to snow shoe up to Dog Mountain, along one of the trails on Mt Seymour. It was snowing in the city so the drive up was a little interesting and views non existent, but we also had a rude awakening when it became apparent that we were expected to actually run the route. It was very cold, but I was wearing two base layers, a ski jacket and a thick woolly hat, making for quite a steamy experience overall. Luckily the running was interspersed with plenty of selfie breaks so we had a chance to recover every few minutes.

As running in on the pavements of Vancouver was a death wish for most of December, the saviour of this winter has been crampons – definitely something I never thought I would need to have. On the trails, the ground turned to packed snow and ice but that was no match for these wondrous metal spikes. They saved me from falling flat on my face around the Killarney Lake trail on Christmas morning (we passed a man without such help on his feet who was death gripping a tree to try and get up a hill, his feet slipping back down behind him) and on a particularly beautiful run through Lynn Valley in early January.

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Oh, and on another hike up the Snowshoe Grind.

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I’ll write something else another time about snowboarding, but this is also a great advertisement for winter holidays in Vancouver – you don’t have to be a skiing expert to be able to be entertained by the snow here!

A Canadian Christmas time

I’ve spent a few Christmases away from home, but it’s been a while and I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Christmas in Vancouver. Canadians aren’t quite as enthusiastic about it as Americans, but they still give it a good go. My last Christmas in Canada involved a packet of turkey slices, pan fried ‘roast’ potatoes, and the largest and cheapest bottle of white wine we could find – I was keen not to replicate that one.

Mince pies are a festive favourite of mine, so I was quite disappointed to learn early on in my time here (got to start researching these things in advance) that they aren’t really a thing in Canada. I did manage to hunt some down, but they weren’t quite the same as the supermarket bought (or mum’s homemade ones) that I am accustomed to. Instead, Canadians go nuts for Christmas cookies and baked goods in general (don’t we all), not necessarily with a Christmas theme. I was invited to a Christmas cookie decorating party, and was given two giant tins worth of baked goods from friends – running really is just damage control at the moment.

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Wine fuelled cookie decorating.

Canada has jumped on the Christmas market bandwagon, however they charge entry to the one in Vancouver, so on principle I didn’t go. Instead I spent my hard earned cash on ‘Enchant’ – a festive themed light maze with markets and food trucks. Vancouver has so far had an unexpectedly cold winter (more on that another time) and the evening we went was about -5, just a little chilly for outdoor activities. We managed about 45 minutes of walking around in the maze (photos below) before retiring into the heated tents for mulled wine and a browse around the markets. Despite the large number of people (children) there, it did help me get into the Christmas spirit.

For actual Christmas, I was very kindly taken in by Hollie and Alex (basically my Canadian parents – they often feed me and taxi me around everywhere, for which I am very grateful) who were going over to Bowen Island for a few days and asked me to join them. I lucked out and had 4 days off work over Christmas (Boxing Day isn’t technically a bank holiday here, let alone any days in lieu of holidays on weekends), so took the ferry across on Christmas Eve and had a couple of days of festiveness in a gorgeous cabin overlooking the ocean, eating all the food (we had a strategy meeting to plan everything) and working off about 2% of it with walks and a token Christmas morning run.

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Leaving Vancouver for Bowen Island
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Chocolate yule log (plus Roses all day every day)
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Christmas Day sunrise from the cabin

 

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Christmas morning run

We almost got snowed in on Boxing Day until the rain came and saved us (or ruined our fun, whichever way you want to look at it) and before we knew it we were back to grey and rainy Vancouver, minus  about $30 worth of cheese and half a turkey which we accidentally left in the fridge of our Airbnb. Our waistlines may have been saved, but it took at least a day of mourning for me to get over it.

New Years Eve saw more snow, but luckily I was just a short shuffle/skate away from my friend Ali’s house where a few of us gathered for some drinks and nibbles (or ‘appies’ as they call them here), a quick power nap just before midnight for some of the group, and a glass of fizz to welcome 2017.

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New years party blower thing fun

It’s always a bit weird being away from home at Christmas, but I’m very lucky to be surrounded by some great friends who have taken me and fed me more than enough cookies. What have I learnt this Christmas is that I liked Strictly Come Dancing a lot more than I ever knew – nothing beats good old BBC TV at Christmas.

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Christmas Day sunset

 

Seattle Road trip

I hadn’t been to another country for over 6 months, and it had been almost 2 months since I’d even left Vancouver. For someone accustomed to going everywhere all of the time (for work or fun) this was not sitting well. Luckily, Chloe and I had made a pact a while back to go down to Seattle before Christmas, so we booked a car and a hostel (*shudders*) and headed for the border.

Vancouver is really close to the US border – Google tells me it was about 30 miles from the city to where we crossed, and we set off early on Saturday morning so the line of cars was relatively short when we pulled up to enter the land of the free. As neither of us are from the US or Canada we had the fun of being sent into a building for ‘secondary processing’ where a sleepy looking man with tiny hands struggled to grasp the concept that two people from different countries could possibly meet in a third country and become friends without it being some sort of conspiracy. Our finger prints were taken and we were forced to pay another $6 “processing fee” for the privilege (definitely doughnut money) before we were allowed to get on our way.

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Fun times queuing at the border

The drive down was fairly uneventful; the highway wound through the outskirts of various towns and around the edges of some of the nearby national/state parks which were quite scenic, before we hit the edge of Seattle and outlet malls lined the road on either side. We had a bit of fun finding the hostel as we missed the turning and ended up in downtown Seattle, a place where left turns are not allowed, resulting in some interesting manoeuvres and going back and forth over the same bridge approximately 4 times (I wish I was joking).

We were staying in Fremont, which is a 20 minute bus ride outside of Seattle itself and set on the side of Lake Union. Once we’d checked in we headed downtown, quickly realising that neither of us had done any research into what there was to do in Seattle, and we both had no clue where anything was. We managed to follow our noses to Pike Place Market, Seattle’s famous fish market, where we had a quick wander before going in search of somewhere we could sit down and make a plan for the rest of the weekend. Beer and wifi located, we did our best tourist impressions and trawled through various leaflets and websites before deciding that the market and the Space Needle were about as exciting as it gets in downtown Seattle.

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Pike Place Market

We returned to the markets briefly where I enjoyed an excellent jacket potato topped with pulled pork, and we bought a huge bag of mini doughnuts to share (we ate about 3 each – 12 seemed like such a good idea). We then got blown away walking along the seafront, and browsed some shops in Pioneer Square before heading to the Columbia Centre for some views.

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Chloe enjoying the mini doughnuts

Why didn’t we go up the Space Needle I hear you cry?! Following the advice of several people I’d talked to, the Columbia Centre is actually taller than the Space Needle, so the views are better. Plus, it’s cheaper to go up and you can see the Space Needle from it anyway. I am a connoisseur of tall buildings: take me to a city and I will find you the best view point.

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Moody views from the top of the Columbia Centre

The moody skies of sunset quickly turned into a very wet and dark evening in Seattle, so we headed back to Fremont and took shelter at Fremont Brewing, sampled a few of their (excellent) brews, and ordered in Vietnamese food from a local restaurant – a great concept for bars that don’t serve food. A quick night cap in the bar next to our hostel and we were in bed at 9.45 like the rock and roll adults we are.

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Sampling the beer at Fremont Brewing

I am always keen for an exploration run when somewhere new, and even more so when there’s an opportunity to run by the water, so the next morning I took myself off on a little 10km jaunt around Lake Union along the very well signposted Cheshiahud Loop (apart from where someone had turned the signpost the wrong way up a very steep hill – thanks for that) before a hostel breakfast of peanut butter and banana on toast. As a side note, I didn’t hate this hostel but we did decide that hostels all have a very distinct smell – slightly musty with a hint of wet trainers. Mmmm.

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Seen on my run

The sun was shining so we headed out for a walk to nearby Gasworks park, famous for its views back across the lake towards the city, and for being the setting of the paint balling scene in the teen classic film ’10 Things I Hate About You’ (thanks Helen for that fact). We stopped off at at a place called Miir for coffee (recommended by Alison – she might do a blog post on her trip to Seattle one day. It will be better this one) before strolling around the Sunday markets of Fremont and Ballard. Both were so hipster it hurt – they had stalls selling beard oil and vintage Christmas jumpers for goodness sakes.

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Views from Gasworks park

We finished off our weekend with a trip to Trader Joe’s – essentially a supermarket that sells lots of slightly random, but very delicious treats at reasonable prices (even with the ridiculous exchange rate). Shamefully, we enjoyed it far too much and spent an indecent amount of money too.

We chased an amazing sunset for an hour or so on our way back to the border, and although the line was a lot longer to get back into Canada (what a surprise!) there was less questioning, even though they do love to get you to name as many tourist spots in the place you’ve visited as possible, just to ensure you really did go.

I would definitely go back to Seattle – it’s different enough from Vancouver to give a good change of scene, and there are likely hundreds more hipster cafes I am yet to explore. But the real question is will I stay in another hostel? People seem to keep making me do it…