Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Our honeymoon in Canada - Part Two: The Rockies, Banff, Toronto and Niagara Falls

This is part 2 of my Canada honeymoon posts - you can read part 1 on Vancouver here. Rather than doing a day-by-day account of the second part of our trip, I decided to focus on my favourite things we did and my absolute highlights.

The Rockies and Banff


Grouse Mountain

"So," said Phil, "The gondala up Grouse Mountain is $60 each, but if we walk up it's only $15 down. It's about a 2 hour walk but it's all on paths and it's a pretty easy walk."

"Okay, that sounds good, I said."

It was a foggy day with rain focast, but I put on my trail shoes and leggings and warm jacket and we headed to Grouse Moutain.We parked and found the entrance to the Gondola and saw some nice-looking tshirts in the gift shop, but there were no signs pointing to the walking path. It wasn't even mentioned in the leaflet for Grouse Mountain.

We made some friends with a couple of girls also looking for the start, and eventually we found a sign for the walk. The Grouse Grind.

Now that should have been a sign, but no, it wasn't. Even the sign saying "this is a challenging hike, be sure you have enough food and water" didn't deter us. And then we laughed at a sign saying bears had been spotted in the area (we even took a silly picture!).
So we start walking and... it was pretty hard. And it wasn't on path. At all. It's thousands (2,830 to be precise) huge steps (there's a reason they call it "Nature's Stairmaster"), most way above knee height on me. And just as we were getting going, it started to ran. Torrentially.

I'm not sure at what point we realised what kind of hike we were in for, but I think we had some inclination at the 1/4 of the way mark sign which declared "That was the easy part" and "after this point you can no longer turn back as it's too dangerous to climb back down". This was not the easy walk we had in mind.

So we kept going. We took breaks. We realised we'd had no idea what we had gotten ourselves in for. We realised Phil had definitely mixed this mountain's hike up with another mountain's hike. We passed people running. We stripped off sodden layers. We made friends. We agreed if we managed this hike we were buying those tshirts in the gift shop.

And eventually, after an hour and a half of slippery rocks and steep drops and thousands and thousands of steps, we could see the light. We scrambled to the top. We'd made it!

We had the most well-earned cup of tea of our lives, and while Phil was in the bathroom I had a look through the leaflet. And my heart dropped.

"We're not at the top"

I thought we were both going to cry. We had to get to the top.

So we grabbed our cups of tea and swapped into slightly less-wet clothes and went to find the top. We passed two grizzly bears in an enclosure (they were huge and amazing!) and asked where the top was. We passed a sign saying that rocks and debris were falling and it was dangerous to get to the top, but we had to. There wasn't a single other person climbing to the top but us. Mostly because, as we realised when we got up there, there wasn't anything there but a ski lift. But it was the top.
We found out after that the hike is known as The Ground Grind and it has a 1.8 mile ascent. People train to climb up it.  It was once rating one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. And yes, we got the bloody tshirts!

Sea to Sky Highway



After Vancouver, our next stop was a night in Whistler before we headed over to Banff, so we hired a car from Vancouver. I cannot recommend this more! The drive between Vancouver and Whistler is known as the Sea to Sky Highway and it's one of the most beautiful drives I've ever been on. This was the shortest of our drives (after Whistler we drove to Salmon Arm for the night to break up the journey to Banff which is about 10 hours total) but everywhere you looked there was a moutain or a lake or oh, turn a corner there's another lake. We had our carefully curated roadtrip playlist on and it was just absolutely gorgeous. While this was the shortest drive we had we did stop at Shannon Falls on the way to admire the waterfall which I also recommend if you're doing that drive. There are also absolutely loads of lookout points too with amazing views along the route.

Whistler Bear Trip

Whistler is a very cute little town. It's used predominantly for skiing in the winter, but it was busy in the autumn. It hosted part of the Canada Winter Olympics in 2010 and it has loads of little cute restaurants and bars and shops.

But we were there for one reason.

When I lived in America I never once saw a bear. I knew people in Minnesota who had seen them and when I went travelling I apparently just missed one in Yosemite, and I'd always wanted to see them. So when we were planning our trip to Canada "go see bears" was high on my list.

The bear trip had been the biggest challenge to book, everyone in the travel agent knew about us and our bear trip, but I wouldn't budge.

So this was the reason we were in Whistler.

We met the group at 7.30am where we were split into two groups - one per car. We were grouped with a lovely British family and their two children, and our guide was Harriet, who was also British. 

She drove us up the moutain and we were to keep a lookout for bears. It was berry season and she was taking us right into their natural habitat so we could see them.

It was all a bit nervy for the first half an hour when we didn't see any bears (the trip was 3 hours), but then, there one was! Just eating berries!

We were allowed to get out of the car and stand 50m away, but even without binoculars you could see them so clearly (with bincoulars it was incredible!). They know you're there (bears can smell for 18 miles!) but they're pretty happy to ignore you. Black bears don't really eat meat unless they discover it, and tend to stick to berries (they eat 20,000 berries a day!) plus they prefer to flight rather than fight when approached.

We ended up seeing 7 bears in total! It was absolutely incredible! Harriet was absolutely brilliant and gave us so much information. I know so much about black bears now! Did you know they give birth while they're hibernating? And that female bears can mate with multiple males and have babies from more than other father in one litter? But that the eggs lay dormant after conception until it's time to hibernate? And the more they eat before hibernating the more babies they have? (I have so many more facts seriously hit me up if you want to hear facts about bears!)

It was one of the best things we did seeing them up so close. We didn't end up seeing any other bears on our trip (probably for the best because there were a few spots on our hikes where I really did not want to see a bear!) so I'm so glad we did this!

Canoeing on Lake Minnewanka

It was my friend Ellen who recommended canoeing on Lake Minnewanka (pause to laugh at the name). She'd been to Canada over the summer and said Lake Minnewanka was bigger and quieter than Lake Louise where they canoed.

Lake Minnewanka ended up being our first stop on the four and a half hour drive from Salmon Arm on the way to Banff (except a quick toilet stop!). It was the first taste we got of how beautiful Banff National Park was.

We were fortunate that it was quite quiet the day we arrived at Lake Minnewanka. September was a lovely time to visit Canada in general - while we had a few wet days, it was generally mild and quite warm in Vancouver, and nowhere we went was especially busy, even the tourist-y bits.
We hired a canoe straight away and got straight onto the lake. I've never canoed before so that was fun! It took me a bit of time to get going, and we did get stuck on some rocks and one point and when we finally pushed off, we found a group of tourists applauding us!
The whole experience was dream-like. It was absolutely beautiful and surreal and one of the best things we did on the whole trip. The weather was perfect and the lake was incredible. It was such a good introduction to Banff National Park and I can't recommend it more.

Johnston Canyon

We arrived at our hotel in Banff in the late afternoon (more on Banff town later!), but we still had a few things we wanted to see before the end of the day. So we grabbed what has now been defined as "the best sandwich of my life or was I just really hungry" from Wildflour Bakery and headed straight out to Johnston Canyon before it got dark. Johnston Canyon is about half an hour away from Banff town and we were told it would take us a couple of hours to get around both the falls.

Johnston Canyon is free to enter and open all the time, and there are two beautiful waterfalls to explore. It only took us about an hour and a half to explore everything (except the track which was marked for horses only!) including a viewing point behind the lower falls.

Moraine Lake sunrise

The plan for Thursday was to get up early to see the lakes. We'd watched a lot of YouTube videos before heading to Canada and we knew the parking for the two most popular lakes - Lake Louise and Moraine Lake - got filled up early, so we wanted to make sure we beat the rush.

So we planned to get up and grab the hotel breakfast, and leave about 8am.

However, as we were paying our dinner bill the night before the waitress asked what we had planned for the evening. "Oh nothing really, we're going to go to the lakes tomorrow so we want to be out early". "Oh yes," she said, "You probably need to be getting there for about 5.30am to get parked."

"Five thirty am?"

"Oh yeah definitely. The car park will be full by seven."

What they don't tell you when you stay in Banff is while you're in Banff National Park, Banff National Park is huge, and Moraine Lake is an hour away. 

So suddenly our alarms were set for 4.30am.

We woke up in the dark, threw on our clothes, had a quick coffee and were on the road by 5am. The roads were pitch black and we didn't pass another car for miles. We arrived at the Moraine Lake car park just before 6am. And true to her word, there were maybe 5 parking spaces left. At 6am.

Other people had head torches. We sat in the car with the interior light on. 

At just after 6 we got out of the car, still pitch dark, and followed the groups to Moraine Lake, which at this point was still pitch dark. Oh and it was freezing. And we waited. And we waited. After about half an hour a pop of blue started to appear. After an hour it was starting to lighten, and by 7.15am the sunrise started to appear over the moutains. It was absolutely incredible. The photos I have from that morning are some of my favourites from the trip.

And then it was 7.30am, and we had to rush to Lake Louise.

Lake Louise and Lake Agnes Tea Room

We arrived at the Lake Louise car park before 8am and we really thought we were going to have to turn around. We drove around the car park twice before finally finding a spot.

Lake Louise is absolutely beautiful and we were lucky in September it was nowhere near as busy as we'd seen in some photos. We watched a few videos that recommended the hike up to the tea room which sounded amazing, so we headed off for the hike.

There were so many gorgeous stops along this hike! There's an amazing view of Lake Louise from a viewing point, and a stop at crystal-clear Mirror Lake on the way up. But the top is where you get the real reward - at the top of the hike at beautiful Lake Agnes is the Lake Agnes tea room which is so worth the walk! The tea room was built in 1901 and has been serving tea to hikers since 1905! It has no electricity and staff bring up fresh suppliers daily up the hiking trail! It's the most beautiful stop after a gorgeous hike and the hot chocolate is amazing!

Peyto Lake

Peyto was the last lake on my list to visit on our lake-filled day, and it was one of my favourites! You can't actually get close to the edge of Peyto Lake and instead see it from a viewing point. It's a bit of a walk from the car park (which we didn't expect!) but the view is absolutely incredible - it's so blue!

Sulfur Mountain

Remember at Grouse Moutain when Phil told me the hike was pretty easy and all on paths and took a couple of hours and then you got the gondola back down? It turned out he'd got the Grouse Grind confused with the hike up Sulfur Moutain! This was my absolute favourite hike of the trip. It was absolutely pouring it down on our last day in Banff but we were desperate to do this hike. As we waited for the shuttle bus we debated whether to wait for the weather to blow over, but in the end we thought, come on, this is our last day in Banff! Let's make the most of it! When we arrived at the base of the moutain, as with Grouse Mountain, the start of the trail was hard to find! We weren't even completely sure we were going the right way when we started!
This hike was amazing. It was all along switchbacks so it was a straightforward hike and we waved at people in the gondolas going up and down! We had our eye out for bears on the way up but honestly, I was a bit scared because we didn't see a single other person doing the hike and we were definitely not prepared for what we'd do if we saw a bear! I was so proud of us when we got to the top and the view was absolutely insane! You get so used to incredible views in Canada but this was one of the absolute best. 

After a cup of tea, like at Sulphur Moutain, we had to climb to the very top viewing point up hundreds of steps. We heard someone say it took 30 minutes so we made it a race - getting up all the steps and right to the top in 10 minutes just to make a point! The view was even better from there. 
The gondola back down was great fun too. Unlike Sulfur Moutain, which had huge gondolas with a few dozen people in, these were small cable cars so we got one just the two of us. The view on the way down was so beautiful and it was great to admire how high and how far we'd hiked!


Banff Town



I wanted to do a separate section to celebrate Banff town itself - my favourite place of the trip. It was bigger than I expected, with lots of little shops and restaurants and hotels. The roads have the cutest names - I laughed every time the sat nav said "turn onto Bear Street" or "turn down Beaver Street onto Wolf Street." It's also, of course, absolutely insanely beautiful with the mountains all around. Our favourite places were Banff Avenue Brewing Company (which we went to twice in one night!), Cows ice cream, Cascade Gardens, the Banff Fairmount Springs Hotels (you have to visit! It's like the Overlook Hotel combined with a cruise ship!), Park Distillery for their housemade gin, the Bow River Trail and Block restaurant. But honestly, just walking about Banff town was an absolute dream. It was beautiful.


Toronto

From Banff we drove to Calagary Airport where we flew to Toronto. 
We had a lovely couple of days in Toronto, the highlight being a screening at Toronto International Film Festival! We hadn't realised we'd be in town for the festival until a few weeks before, and we were lucky enough to get tickets for a screening for the last day of the festival. It was so cool to attend a film screening as part of the festival and we bought loads of TIFF merch to take home!

Other highlights included Funhouse Toronto, a weird, fun, slightly terrifying and completely unnerving immersive art installation with 16 different themed rooms. It was weird and wonderful and such a cool experience! 



We also loved CN Tower and reading all about how to tower was built and the records it broke, although I got a bit wobbly on the glass floor!



And we got an amazing view of Toronto from Toronto Island, and I loved going over on the boat!

We had amazing pizza at Pizza Libretto, cool drinks in the distillery district and discovered my favourite place in the city, Barchef, the coolest hidden cocktail bar I've ever been to! We didn't quite splash out on one of the insane $30 cocktails which come with a snack and a story, but I've been thinking about my strawberry and lavendar cocktail ever since!

Niagara Falls

Our final stop was Niagara Falls. Now super super long term readers of this blog might remember me going to the America side of the Falls back in 2012 when I lived in New Jersey, but I'd always heard the Canadian side was ever better.

This was the veiw from our hotel room!!

We were super excited for Niagara Falls because our itinerary said "falls view room" and it did not disappoint!! So much so that we spent our last night in Canada with a takeaway pizza sitting by the window in our room admiring the incredible falls!


We were absolutely knackered by the time we got to Niagara, and after a few rainy days in Toronto, the weather in Niagara was a welcome sunny treat, so we spent more than a few hours just lying in the park in the sunshine watching the falls!

Of course, we had to do the Hornblower Cruise. This was another of my absolute trip highlights. Even though we'd watched the boats loads of times before we got on board, we didn't realise quite how wet we were going to get! There was one point where we were right up under the falls and the water was coming down so fast and hard I was gripping onto the edge of the boat with my eyes closed and laughing so hard I could hardly breathe! It was absolutely hilarious!

Niagara Falls was an absolute wonder and I'm so glad we got to see the Canadian side, it was such a treat!

If it hasn't been clear, this was the best honeymoon we could have asked for and the best holiday we've ever been on! It was beautiful and exhausting and fun-filled and incredible and it was the perfect trip for our honeymoon. I love being able to close my eyes and remember how incredible the trip was and think back to all the amazing places we visited and the things we did!

I can't recommend a trip to Canada more!

Charlotte x

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