GuestBlogger: Banff & the Canadian Rockies (Post by Jessiclick)

Hello! I’d like to start out by saying thank you to Anya for the opportunity to guest blog on Itchy Feet 🙂  You can catch my regular (by which I mean sporadic) updates on jessiclick.com or be thoroughly inundated with tweets (@613jess).
I was never much of a traveler, growing up.  My folks tried to arrange some family trips, but my brother and I were always pretty typical teenagers who didn’t want to spend all that time in the family van – if only I knew then what I know now!
My first trips – that were for the sake of the trip – were in 2008, when I visited Vancouver in the spring, and Italy in the fall.  I was hooked (but also broke)!  The Italy trip was incredible, and I can’t wait to explore more of the world – but that trip to Vancouver was when it really sunk in how vast my own country is, and how fortunate I am to be able to travel within it.  I’ve since travelled to Newfoundland (with Anya) and now to Alberta.

Fortunately, my visit was before Alberta was hit by the recent devastating flash flooding, and have written the below post before the flooding happened.  I’ve just added this little caveat now, and would encourage you to support those affected in Alberta by visiting the Canadian Red Cross website to learn about how to make a cash donation.

Folks, let me tell you about Alberta – it is stunning. Calgary is flat – and just barely, off in the distance, you can see the Canadian Rockies almost 100km away.  My final destination was to be the small mountain resort town of Banff – the first town incorporated within a national park, the community with the second highest elevation in Canada (after Lake Louise) and a population just north of 7,500 people.  I had the opportunity to stay in the beautiful Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, one of the luxurious railway hotels of the 19th century.  Throughout the town of Banff, and especially at the Banff Springs, you’ll hear reference to Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne’s expression, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”
I was travelling with a friend who was in Banff on business, so I had most of the days to myself while my friend worked and then we would get together for dinner. Banff is fairly easy to navigate – I got around the town on my own two feet most of the time, though there is public transit and plenty of taxis as well, as a tourist town.
There are two sites in particular that I want to talk about – since the draw to Banff is the natural wonder that surrounds you, not the town (which is lovely and clean, though is just one giant tourist trap, with every store seeming to sell t-shirts and shot-glasses adorned with moose and maple leaves, not to mention a wealth of maple-based consumable products).  The first site is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and the other is the Icefield Parkway and Athabasca Glacier.

The Birth of Canada’s National Parks

Cave & Basin - Birth of Canada's National Parks

Basically the Canadian Rockies are so beautiful that your ‘to do’ list could literally be simply ‘look outside, wander around.’  But nonetheless, I was doing some research on things to see and do and came across the Cave and Basin National Historic Site – located in the town of Banff, it is the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks system.  While working on the railway, three workers stumbled across a cave opening – had the guts to go inside despite the sulphur smell – and discovered a beautiful underground hot spring.  After the discovery came the plan – a plan to profit from this incredible place – sparking controversy over the ownership of the land, and in 1885 the Canadian government protected 26km2 of land, the Banff Hot Springs Reserve.  In 1887, the Rocky Mountains Park Act expanded the protected area to encompass 674km2 of land – Canada’s first National Park, and the second in North America.  Banff National Park, along with Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks, Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber Provincial Parks, are also a World Heritage Site.
The day of my visit called for rain – but as the weather changes quickly in the mountains, I was fortunate upon waking to find a beautifully clear day.  I made my way on foot the 2.5km to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, meeting a mule deer on the side of the road along the way.  I arrived before the site itself opened, and so I wandered some of the outdoor trails – including the Discovery Trail and the Marsh Loop, both of which have lots of interesting information posted along them and offer stunning views of Cascade Mountain and Mount Norquay.  Finally, I was able to enter the site – which has a display about its history – and at last the cave.  Stunning.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site

Outside, you are able to view the Basin, another hot spring on the site.  There, I learned a bit about (and see, for real, live and in person) an endangered species, the Banff Springs Snail, the entire population of which apparently could fit in a 1L container.
The Cave and Basin National Historic Site has recently reopened after some major renovations and building improvements, and as I have at other National Historic Sites I found the Parks Canada staff friendly, welcoming, and informative.  It is well worth the stop.

Icefield Parkway and Athabasca Glacier

I’ve not done many organized tours in my limited travels, but after reading about the tour offered by Discover Banff Tours for the Columbia Icefield, I was convinced that this would be the way to see it.  Discover Banff Tours is a smaller tour company operating out of Banff, and I’m really happy I went with them – their tour size was small (about 14 people), their guide was experienced, friendly and knowledgeable, and their price was very reasonable ($159/person for a 10 hour tour, complete with picnic lunch and the ice field explorer tour).  Visit www.banftours.com to learn more about the other tour packages they offer.
My morning started at 8:30 a.m. when a small tour van picked a few other guests and me up at the hotel.  From there, we made our way to a site in town where some other guests were waiting and we hopped on a larger (but still smaller than a greyhound, again nice tour size) bus with our guide for the day.  My tour had a few people from England, a couple from Ireland, some folks from Australia, another Canadian couple from Toronto, a woman from South Africa and another from Germany.  We were promptly whisked away to our first stop – Lake Louise.  Wow.

Lake Louise

We had a number of stops along our journey, while our tour guide told us about the history of the area – predominantly from the perspective of the tourism industry, guides and outfitters, the early settlers to the area and the families who’s legacies are still evident throughout the town today.  We learned about the difference between a glacier and an icefield, and about the wildlife in the area.
Our lunch stop was near Saskatchewan Crossing – where the North Saskatchewan River meets the Howse River and Mistaya River on its way to British Columbia.  Not a bad view for lunch, eh?

Saskatchewan River

From there we weren’t far from the Columbia Icefield – after arriving at the centre, we transferred first to a greyhound along with other tour groups and individuals, which would take us on the eight minute journey to the ice explorers at the edge of the Athabasca Glacier.  This eight minute ride is full of more information from another great guide – learning about the moraines, and what really stuck with me were the trees – all were very small, despite some being 300 years old – and others, in the distance, a remarkable 800 year old ancient forest.  The trees are so small due to such short growing seasons.  Also, there were areas where the trees only grew on one side – due to how cold the glacial winds are, freezing the sap in the trunks, stunting the growth.
We transferred to the Icefield Explorer – an industrial machine worth over $1M each (they have a whole fleet of them – the only similar machine not located in Banff National Park is trotting around Antarctica).  They are built especially to climb the incredibly steep moraine – basically wall of dirt and rock – at the side of the glacier.  It’s an impressive piece of machinery, and again the guide was a delight.

Ice Explorer at Athabasca Glacier

Getting to walk around on a glacier – to touch the ice, to drink the water – is amazing.  The word one of my tour buddies, a lovely woman from South Africa used to describe what we were seeing, was “blessed.”
Our ride back included some discussion about the environmental impact of these tour groups driving and walking on the glacier.  It was an interesting conversation, and I think it’s a delicate balance that needs to be achieved in our national parks – a balance between preserving and protecting our land and our water, and providing people with the opportunity to experience and make use of these incredible places.  That access helps solidify a connection, and enhances your understanding of just what is at stake as our world changes.

Banff Gondola - View of the Town of Banff, Tunnel Mountain and the Canadian Rockies

I left Banff feeling refreshed by the beauty of the land, and grateful for the chance to visit such a wonderful place.  I hope I’ll get to visit again, but first there’s still so much of Canada to explore…
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More Travel Tips

So after I wrote and published my post from the other day, I remembered that I had left off a few important sites.

Electircal Outlets and Plugs
How many times have you wondered what type of electrical outlet you’ll be dealing with at your destination? If you travel like me, probably often. This site lists the different electrical systems around the world. At first glance, the information seems a bit much and confusing but if you click the letter link under the “plug” column, it takes you to a write-up, including picture!, of that type of plug. I find it really helpful when figuring out which adaptor(s) to pack.

Budget Travel.com
I like the website for the sheer amount of information. It’s geared towards budget travelling, and has tips, deals, writes up on different locations, contests. It’s good for single travellers, couples, familes. It is geared towards Americans, so a lot of their recommendations are in the US, but it’s still a good resource for budget planning.

Wanderplex
This site is much like Budget Travel.com, only it’s more for world travel. Again, it has a little bit of everything – photography tips, packing tips, cruise tips, and ideas for your next travel. There’s a lot here, so just start clicking.

Packing List
I like this site because it has items listed in different categories – so you can easily focus on what type of trip you’re taking (will you be going somewhere fancy? Are you doing a lot of hiking? Will you be at the beach most of the time?) and you can ignore the columns that have items that you won’t need.

Happy trails!

How to Plan Your Trip

I went to a talk today that was supposed to be on backpacking, and travelling without breaking the bank.

It was horrible.

The lecturer talked of hitchhiking, sleeping out in the open, carrying thousands of dollars on you so you don’t waste money using a bank machine in another country, and buying separate plane tickets to get the best deals. He spoke of getting accosted on public transport, and how he carries peppery spray as a deterrent while travelling. He told us not to get caught in tourist traps (good advice, yes) but lectured us that it was never, ever, ever to be done. He gave an example of a couple who paid to go up in a hot-air balloon in Turkey, while he got up early while they were being filled and took photographs, for free.

Never mind that sometimes a person wants to do, or see, a tourist trap – the Eiffel Tower is a tourist trap, but will you not visit it while in Paris? My safari was a tourist trap, but I am forever grateful that I spent that $900.

Never mind that it should be up to traveller to decide – if you are aware that it is a tourist trap, but are willing to pay the money to experience it, if it is on your bucket list, by all means pay the money and go! Do! See!

One thing this man missed in Turkey was the experience of floating, in an open air basket, in the quiet, still morning air as it floated over a foreign country. Taking pictures of the hot-air balloons on the ground is fine, but that I can do at home. Flying over Turkey in a hot-air balloon will look nothing like flying over Ottawa in a hot-air balloon.

Suffice to say, I was not pleased with the lecture. Besides being encouraged to participate in some rather risky behaviour – hitchhiking? Really? – he gave us no information. He talked of his trips, of planning where he was going next, but gave no information on what websites were helpful, what resources he uses to research his trips, how to apply for visas, or anything. It was, in a word, useless. (Also, scary.)

So here’s my list. Here’s what resources I use, what websites I visit, and how to find out if you need a visa.

PLANNING

Once you know you want to go somewhere, you have to decide where. I usually end up walking by travel agencies, to see what places are advertised that week, or by hitting the Air Canada website to look up various destinations.

Travel Cuts
You’ve got your location, now you need a ticket. Travel Cuts has, by far, the best deals I’ve found. I haven’t found them cheaper anywhere else – not Expedia, not Kayak, not Travelocity. That isn’t to say that you can’t find cheap flights on these webistes, and I still recommend you do some price checking, but Travel Cuts is where I always end up buying my ticket. Sometimes the routing leaves a little to be desired – when I went to Costa Rica my itinerary was Ottawa – Newark – Houston – Liberia, Costa Rica, and on the way home it was Liberia –Houston – Chicago – Ottawa, but it was all on one ticket (if I had missed a flight, the carrier was responsible for getting me on another one, rather than me having to pay for a new ticket), and I had enough time between flights that I wasn’t rushed to get on the next one.

Lonely Planet
They don’t always have the best guide books (I’ve been told that Bradt travel guides are the best for Africa, Moon travel guides are the best for Central America) but their traveller forum, The Thorn Tree, is a wonderful resource for planning. Used by other travellers and locals, you can search previous posts matching your inquiry, or post a new one, to find current information, recommendations, and advisors.

Hostels.com, Hostel World, Hotels.com
So you’ve bought the ticket, you’re researching what to do, now you need a place to stay. All these sites provide an easy, hassle-free way to book rooms. The first two are, of course, cheaper than the third. However, cheaper does not necessarily mean cockroach filled! It also does not automatically mean you will be sharing a dorm room with 15 other people. It is possible to book private (some with an ensuite, some with shared bath), double, or triple rooms, at a hostel, at a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Check it out, look at the pictures, and read the reviews.

Trip Advisor
This site is a great resource for double checking the reviews from the links above. Just type in the name of the hotel (or company) and you can read other reviews – you can see how many excellent, good, average, poor or terrible reviews a place has, to help you decide where to stay in an unfamiliar city.

Google Maps and Google Images
You can check out how far (or how close!) to an attraction hotels are by using Google Maps. It also allows you to check out the neighbourhood of the hotel. Google Images allows you to see photos of not only different hotels (just type in the name and off you go) but also of sites – how easy is it to get around? Is there anything there actually worth seeing?

Hotwire
If it doesn’t matter where, exactly, you end up staying, this site is great at offering great deals on hotels. The only catch is, you don’t know where your staying until you book. The site will give you a general location (say….within 2 or 3 miles of the location you picked), the number of stars the hotel has, and what big-name chains fall in that category, but it won’t tell you the address or name of the hotel until after you’ve booked. If your location is very important (i.e. you’re attending a conference, and need to be close to the conference centre) this might not be the best site.

Currency Exhange
Once you’ve started looking at what to do at your destination, you may find prices quoted in the local price. This is a fantastic currency converting website, and really easy to use.

I usually bring enough money to get me through the first few days. I put all my hotels/hostels on my visa, and use atms to withdraw more money in the local currency. The exception to this is when I went to East Africa. Occasionally, I was in places where there were no atms, and so I had to carry more currency with me than normal. But for most destinations, I carry about $500 with me. (This number could go up if you’re travelling as a family.)

TRAVEL DOCUMENTS

Passports
If you’re Canadian, and need a passport, Passport Canada is where you need to go. Their website covers everything from how to renew a passport, how to apply, what to do it your passport is lost or stolen.

One thing to keep in mind, is that some countries require that your passport be valid 3 to 6 months after your departure. The link for travel advisories below also includes that information.

Visas
How do you know if you need a visa? If you’re Canadian, I can help you with that. Or rather, the government can.
Travel.gc.ca is a government website full of information, on which countries require a visa, what travel advisors are in place (both topics available here http://travel.gc.ca/travelling/advisories) to health precautions in different areas. I (personally) take the warnings with a grain of salt – I take note of where, exactly, the warning is for, and how close it is to my chosen destination, and decide how comfortable I feel.

Google
By now we all probably know that google is the go-to when you need information. Sometimes you need to apply for a visa in person, sometimes you can apply online. Type in “Canadian Visa application for ….” with your destination, and you’ll find lots of info on what to do next.

HEALTH

For information on what vaccines you may need before you leave, check out the Public Health Agency They’ll tell you what you definitely need, and what is only recommended. Occasionally, if you are only going to built-up urban centres, you don’t need a lot of vaccines beyond a regular booster. However, if you intend to travel outside these areas (into jungles, deserts, forests, etc.) you may need a vaccine. For some, such as yellow fever, some countries require proof that you’ve been vaccinated, a small yellow certificate.

Ultimately, you definitely want to talk with a doctor to find out what vaccines are the best for you. These websites are merely guides and should not replace a doctor’s supervision.

Tips on Travel:

1. You should get your vaccines early – 6 weeks prior to your trip is the typical timeframe for vaccination, at a minimum.

2. Know yourself. If you like to be prepared, book things before you leave. If you like to wing it, leave it open. No one way is best. I like to have at least the first night booked when I’m going to a foreign country. It gives me time to get my legs under me (to borrow some hockey lingo) and allows me time to adapt and find my way around.

3. Take all reviews with a grain of salt. Do some other research – did this person book into a hostel, expecting a five-star resort? Read some of their other reviews to get an idea of who they are, and how they travel. And again, something that bothers them may not bother you.

4. Don’t pack your money in your checked luggage. Keep it with you at all times, but not all in the same place. I usually put my passport and a large portion of my money in a money belt, and put enough money for that day in my wallet. That way, if I get pickpocketed, they only get what I would have spent that day, not everything.

I hope this helps you plan your trips, and makes for some smooth(er) travelling.