Canada under your own steam
INTERESTED in saving some substantial money on your next holiday? Then consider doing some or all of the organisation yourself.
This is not to say that you should abandon your favourite travel agent altogether. We were grateful for our agent's know-how on a recent South American visit, but when planning a holiday to Canada - a better known spot for us anyway - we decided to try doing virtually the lot ourselves.
And guess what? There were no dramas and we saved a bundle. All it took was a fair bit of leg work - actually, "hand" work, as we surfed the net to organise boats, trains, planes, buses, tours and accommodation.
So, to a few first-hand trip tips:
Trains: We simply checked out the Via Rail website to buy tickets at little more than $100 each for the two-day trip from Prince Rupert on the British Columbia mainland down to the stunningly scenic Rocky Mountains town of Jasper. Two days on a train may seem like hell on wheels for some, but it was a leisurely ride in a roomy carriage, with stops along the way to check out the mountain scenery, particularly at Smithers. This trip involves an overnight stay at Prince George so you have to find digs for yourself that night (see below).
All in all, a good trip, even though I found it hard to get used to a purser's Canada-speak. "We will detrain at Smithers", she announced.
Tip: Grab a seat on the left-hand side to maximise the scenic sights.
Do it again? Absolutely.
Planes: Our Air New Zealand trip from Brisbane to Vancouver was good, if you can tolerate the safety messages starring the All Blacks which wear a bit thin after a while. While in Canada, we used West Jet for a couple of side trips and again, absolutely no problem although we had the misfortune of flying on the chock-a-block Thanksgiving weekend.
Boats: We used BC Ferries for the main trip: up the Inside Passage from Port Hardy at the top of Vancouver Island. It was the last day trip of the season and virtually empty. We chose the Rolls-Royce seats up the front for an extra $30 (all up each ticket was $210) and there were only six people in a lounge able to fit 150.
Again, the weather wasn't the best for the 15-hour glide ride to Prince Rupert, but still a trip worth taking as the giant boat manoeuvres the passage which is only 400 metres wide in parts but, at the same time, 500m deep,
Earlier, we had grabbed a BC Ferry for the pleasant little trip from Vancouver (city) to Vancouver Island: about $15 for the 90-minute crossing.
It's like taking a bus.
Buses: The main bus journey was the 500km trek by Greyhound from Victoria at the bottom of Vancouver Island up to Port Hardy at the top to meet the Inside Passage ferry.
Again, no dramas (cost $50 each) even though one driver gave us a lecture about not booking online because it would cost someone in the office a job. Fair enough, but I wanted some certainty in getting a seat.
Out of season, you could probably risk just turning up, but when you've got a big boat to catch …
We used Greyhound later for a day trip from Vancouver to Whistler and again, no dramas. Remember to sit on the left-hand side for the best view.
Tours: We used Sun Dog- Brewsters for a scenic day trip in the Rockies from Jasper to Banff at $150. The highlights were a walk on the Columbia Icefield's Athabasca Glacier (impressive but not nearly as good as Franz Josef in NZ) and the gloriously greeny-blue Peyto Lake.
Accommodation: All done from home and all good, much to my wife's amazement. We chose self-contained units all the way and paid no more than $120 a night and some included breakfast.
Best of a good lot was Arbor in Prince George where the hosts picked us up from the train and even detoured to shops so we could buy our evening meal. A pancake breakfast was icing on their cake.
Telco House in Port Hardy was comfortable and friendly with the host remembering his years in Brisbane.
Aspen in Jasper was a basement - old but cosy - and the host went out of his way to iPad some walks for us.
Rocky Mountain in Banff was a big unit on the top floor of a convenient old house with stunning mountain views and a cooked breakfast.
Sunset Inn in the West End of Vancouver was good and very handy to the inner city.
Vancouver Island: The highlight is a visit to the impressive Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria. It's 22ha of blooming beautiful gardens and plants, although the $30 entrance was a touch steep. The pick of this bunch, a historic site that was once a limestone quarry, was the stunning Sunken Garden.
Jasper: Our favourite of the Rocky Mountain towns. Smaller than Banff, a touch less commercial, and where the mountains soar most impressively.
Try the Tramway to get a panoramic view even on a cloudy day.
Jasper had lots of walks just near town and we spotted elk near a lunch spot, obviously hopeful of leftovers.
Bears had been seen on the nearby golf course, but not on our day.
We took an organised dusk tour in Banff to check out native life but saw only elk (but plenty of them) including a couple locking horns on a golf course.
What is it about golf courses?
Vancouver: a delight and with the bears at Grouse Mountain and the walks in and around the substantial Stanley Park the pick.
Grouse Mountain is in North Vancouver (a ferry and/or bus ride from downtown) and you start with a cable car ride to the top to see the attractions, although their adopted wolves roam at the base.
The orphaned grizzlies Grinder and Coola put on quite a show, ambling around, posing on the logs in their 2ha home complete with cosy log cabin.
Grouse Mountain still charged top entrance dollar ($39.95) even though some attractions (including the lumberjack show) were shut.
Stanley Park, a peninsula on the edge of downtown Vancouver, is a must if you want a scenic stroll, an energetic walk, ride or swim. It's a massive 400ha of forest, sandy bays and attractions. Allow a few hours.
Highlights here include close encounters with animals such as raccoons, one of which wasn't at all shy in coming forward for a feed.
Other highlights: The courtesy of bus drivers in Victoria and Vancouver and the low cost of public transport in both cities.
Lowlights: Much of the coffee (yuk) and some of the food. I had the worst BLT sandwich in my life there!