Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Trip Reports: The Flights of The Geriatric Meerkats.

I have a plea for you: be gentle with me will you?


You see, this is my first time. I’ve read every how-to guide for 'Trip Reporting', by the very leaders in their field . So, if I make a right hash of this, then please blame me, not them. I am clearly not worthy of following their example. Apparently.

Here I am therefore, champagne in hand, backwards over Denver, CO, upper decked and watching the most beautiful sunset over the Western horizon of a spectacular trip. My left armrest is slightly rocky, the footrest has yet to be tested, and my Father is a row behind grumbling to my Mother about not being in First Class. However, the On Demand Audio and Video is currently pre-pre-menstrual (and therefore fully operational) and I’ve identified myself to the Cabin Services Director as a dab-hand at questionnaires. All is therefore well with the World and my loins are girded to give this trip report malarkey a whirl.

So, dear reader, sit back, relax and feel free to wholly ignore the index of reports, the titles of which will hopefully (or at least wishfully) make future searching easier. Collectively, however, they are to be known as ‘The Flights of The Geriatric Meerkats’ – the reason for which will become clear. If you care.

The Prologue

Not for nothing did St Frankie offer a prologue. It set the scene. Laid the foundations. Painted a picture. He was unique, a one-off, a narrative genius, a titan of the silver screen and awfully rich. I am none of these things and therefore this will be brief. My Mum was 60 in February. My Father’s Mum died a week later. My Mum’s Mum died two months to the day after that. Dad will be 65 in the Autumn.

I am sick of standing up in church delivering eulogies.

Mum nursed Dad’s Mum before having to deal with her own loss. She was knackered. Dad’s every waking moment was spent doing the ‘son’ things for his ‘Mam’. He was listless. They needed a holiday and have ‘big’ birthdays this year. I had points. Guess what happened next? From now on, if I am continentalclub then let’s just use CC. She will be MCC and he is FCC.

Newcastle to Vancouver – British Airways

Some people think that the best time to go on holiday is when the boss does. That way, nothing can happen while they’re away that the honcho can pick up on. Others take the view that the boss being away is as good as a holiday, so why waste the becalmed atmosphere that prevails in their absence by being away yourself? Me? I ended up not only booking my major client’s holiday for her and her husband and then taking mine at the same time, but also putting them on the same flight as me. Fool.

Anyway, notwithstanding that slight faux pas and mitigated by the fact that the common travel arrangements extended only as far as Heathrow, I set off to pick up my folks to begin our trip. Having safely fetched them and brought them back to CC Towers, there was time for a quick coffee and a last passport check. The now sadly defunct Windsor Cars were waiting outside for me 10 minutes before the booked time to whisk us off to Newcastle. A nice Volvo S80, which was a bit of an oddity amongst their fleet of Chrysler 300Cs, Vianos and 7 Series. Comfortable, reliable and good value anyway - a shame that they're no more.

On Line Check In had worked flawlessly and we arrived at Newcastle with loads of time to spare. Fast Bag Drop is, relatively speaking, anything but at Newcastle – compared to any kind of alternative. Having said that, it was more of an LBD – Leisurely Bag Drop – and we were on our way to Security relatively speedily. I was ready to try out the aggregate British Airways' policies of guest access to lounges when travelling First Class, and access to lounges at domestic regional airports when connecting to a First flight and, in so doing, getting the client and her Him Indoors into the NCL Terraces. In the event, they elected to shop and Starbucks (or somesuch swill) and I’ve yet to prove that the combined policies do indeed work.

The Newcastle lounge is spacious and fairly under-used since the demise of the oft-lamented Gatwick, Bristol and Aberdeen connections. There are sofas and easy chairs, steamers and parasols, a TV, coffee station, wine and spirits bar and a selection of snacks to suit the time of day. Washrooms are in the lounge and despite the management being outsourced to Swissport, it’s not a bad place to be. It looks directly on to the BA gate as well.

One of Newcastle (and England’s) most famous sons was in the lounge at the same time, but dignity and valour prevent me from identifying him. That and the fact that one of my jobs is looking after a number of famous faces from time to time, none of whom would I dare to out on the ‘Celebs’ thread. His presence made lounge photography a little difficult too.

Boarding was called on time and the newness of the waiting Airbus A321 was heralded by the smell of leather at least halfway up the jetty. So, not much surprise to find the aircraft clean, fresh and showing off BA very well indeed. Given that newness, it was however a surprise to note that the safety demonstration was carried out ‘a la main’ with no screens in evidence at all. Odd. Another surprise was to find, amongst a cabin load of just 113, that my good friend Fadia was on board. Fadia is a beautiful, elegant, classy Jordanian who lectures at Durham University (where I’m a pastoral tutor) and you must immediately order one of her books – shameless link.

She was off to a conference in Basle, connecting to another BA flight, so this would present a great opportunity to test out the Concorde Club Room guest policy at London Heathrow.

Takeoff was on time and a sandwich choice was offered. Frankly, I think it would have been nigh on impossible to tell the difference between the choices, such was the frigidity of them. In fact, they were so cold, I could well be the first sufferer from lettuce-induced tongue frostbite. Bar service and Tea/Coffee was presented at the same time, and I traded some fresh milk for the promise of a completed questionnaire.

Landing at Heathrow was slightly ahead of time and we taxied onto the last North gate at T5. We said goodbye to Client #1, intercepted Jordanian author #1 and passed swiftly through Flight Connections.


So this is Terminal Five! It looks fantastic. The shops? The bars? The restaurants? Magnificent! A signpost? Don’t be ridiculous.

How in God’s name can you design a terminal from the ground up, for one airline, with supposedly the finest lounges in the World – and then give absolutely no indication whatsoever as to their whereabouts? Incredible. So, thanks to a friendly (if eye-rolling) assistant at Travelex and the amassed recollections of earlier conversations, we eventually rocked up at the ‘secret’ door to the Concorde Room. “Three and a guest please.” Not a whiff of a problem and in we are ushered. Same at the desk of the Inner Sanctum.

It’s lunchtime. We take a seat in the Dining Room. Now, this is nice. It’s the day that the second wave of flights transfer into T5, but all is calm. Too calm. There’s no sign of any kind of service, so I go and find some. We order drinks and then, not too long later, someone comes to take a food order. Perhaps surprisingly after the initial delay, the food comes quickly too – Burgers for CC and FCC, Eggs Benedict ‘sans jambon’ for the veggie MCC. Fadia, the BAA lamb that she is, sticks to Apple Juice because she wants to go shopping.

The food is good, but we wait an age for the plates to be cleared or dessert to be offered, so off I go to find a body myself. This really does strike me as poor. I mean, how difficult can it possibly be for one of the unfailingly smiling, helpful and courteous staff to make a leisurely loop of the dining room every couple of minutes to see how folks are getting on?

The desserts are rather nice though and then we retire to the main CCR lounge for the remainder of our wait. Here, where the staff have clear lines of sight, the service is great. Free wifi is working perfectly all over the lounge, until you venture out on to the (rather warm) terrace however. Since there’s obviously a chance of the proletariat nabbing some bandwidth out here from their retail-dominated hell below, the router doesn’t stretch this far. Sitting here though, we’re repeatedly checked on to make sure that we’re not in need of tea, sympathy or something stronger. I’m quite happy to take advantage of the free-flowing Perrier-Jacquart Rose, thank you very much and, since lunch had been the priority and I’m now in no condition to subject myself to it, we forego a trip to the Elemis Spa. Next time, perhaps.

We decide to leave the lounge and head over to the T5B satellite terminal a little before the screens prompt an enforced exit. So it is that we glide from the CCR, do all we can to ignore the fetid masses below in the so-called premium shopping ‘experience’ and wait all of 90 seconds for a train ‘thing’ to arrive at the transit station. Moments later we arrive at B and ascend to a similarly airy if somewhat less retail-obsessed space and find BA85 boarding already. There’s no queue for Club World, First Class or shiny card-holders and we are on board in a moment. I have to say here that the initial ascendency to the gates is very impressive indeed – bringing you up as it does from subterranean depths to nosewheel and then cockpit level. Quite the most memorable gate arrival I’ve encountered.

This is MCC and FCC’s first First and, despite all the conflicting preferences, I have them in Row 1. We are greeted by name at the door and the Purser moves to take us to our seats. MCC always looks happy but FCC has already spotted that the maintenance panel on the back of his 1K is wonky and, sure enough, the seat is (temporarily, thankfully) inoperative. He knows this because on every flight I have ever taken him on that has involved some kind of flat bed, he insists on checking the horizontability of said device before he’s stowed his cabin luggage. God love him. Anyway, a bit of a jiggle and a poke later and we have full operation again. There are other ways (ones where things are designed and built properly, maintained correctly and updated regularly) and there’s British Airways.

Anyway, we’re strapped in, we’re doors to automatic, the sun is shining and I’m on my second Bollinger Grand Annee ’99, so who cares about 1K? I’m in 2A and rather pleased that we’ve got this far.

The flight itself is smooth. On Demand Audio and Video packs in after about 35 minutes, but two reboots gets it flying again. Amenity kits are offered and sleeper suits are available on request, including plenty of the elusive Medium-sized ones. The Bolly flows freely and MCC/FCC buddy-up for lunch. I take FCC’s 1K and we have a jolly time in the pointy bit. It really is like a private party and even the lovely Cabin Services Director comes up to join us for a good long while, heading back to the galley to fetch more fizz. Poor dear insists on resting on her haunches the whole time; she must be a martyr to her knees ‘n’ heels. I like to think that she’s treating us especially well, but really she does the same with all the First passengers in a full cabin and chats with all of them by name.

The rest of the crew are excellent too – engaging with each of their charges and finding out bits and pieces about them. In fact, I believe (but stand to be corrected) that we’re never spoken to by any of the crew throughout the flight without being addressed by name. I accept that the job was made easier by there being three of us with the same name, but it was lovely nonetheless. The food and drink are really very good and it seems little or no time before afternoon tea is served and we begin our descent into Vancouver.

This daytime flight gives me the opportunity to enjoy the childish fun of the famous F toilet window, which is opaque on entry and then clears when the door is locked. The ultimate loo-with-a-view. Childish fun is one thing, but taking a camera to the toilet is just plain sad. So, sadly, here is what it looks like:

The Captain heads us out over the Pacific before lining up on the sewage outfall for our final approach into Vancouver Airport. After a smooth touchdown, we have an interminable taxi the length of the runway, the width of the terminal and then half the length of the parallel runway back to stand. In a shock to all those used to Heathrow arrivals however, the airport operators appear to be expecting the arrival of one of those aircrafty things and have taken the rare precaution of arranging guidance and a jetway operator. They must be psychic. Or professional.

The International Terminal at Vancouver is one of those rotten places that is guaranteed to get on the wick of your average Brit. It is clean, spacious, calm, organised and generally so proud of its own damn perfection that you just wish a Thomsonfly to Ayia Napa would get horrendously lost, disgorge its load there and have it vomit a belly-load of Stella all over it. Bile aside, we were at Immigration in a flash and there had to face the barrage of inane questions that apparently only Canadian Border Control have yet mastered. Past them and we head to Baggage Reclaim.

Here too, the effect of LHR handlers and their loading of priority labelled luggage, for our three wheelies came off variously 4th, 204th and 404th. Then past the utterly pointless agriculture control and, at last, relief. Yes, blissful relief in the form of the utter decimation of any pretence whatsoever that this place is perfect, with the lengthy and circuitous trek to the Hertz desk to pick up the Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo (or similar). The clue is in the parenthesis…….

Final verdict for British Airways First (taking into account high expectations and including T5 CCR): a very commendable 8.5/10. Roll on ‘new’ First to take up at least some of the remaining 1.5.

Vancouver, British Columbia – Part One

After a really very good flight from London, we left the Chatham Dockyard flag and our wonderful crew far behind and trekked through a building site to the Hertz desk at Vancouver Airport to pick up our trusty steed for the next 8 days. Having trawled around, we’d got by far the best deal through American Express Centurion on a Jeep Grand Cherokee (or Dissimilar) with Hertz PermanentlyLost fitted as well.

And so it was that, many days (it seemed) after first smelling the fresh British Columbian air, we clambered into our Jeep, sorry, Ford, Explorer and struck out for East Hastings Street. Quite apart from the clear difference between a two-tone burgundy and gold (sickness bags are to be found in the seat pocket in front of you, should you so require them) Ford and a Jeep, the other thing that struck me immediately was the absence of any kind of loadspace cover. This had been removed by Hertz in light of the luggage compartment’s additional seats, but struck me as a worry given the fact that we intended to tour with all our cases now on view. Privacy glass was our only defence.

The drive from the airport downtown was uneventful, passing through what are clearly the rather nice Southern suburbs of Vancouver. The PermanentlyLost lost it as soon as the high-rises began, but sign posting was simple enough and, within 30 minutes, we were turning into the forecourt of the Marriott Hotel, Vancouver Pinnacle Downtown. These particular lodgings had been selected on the basis of TripAdvisor and FT recommendations and also a rather nifty rate that included valet parking and a $25 gas card per night. The rate rules said that the card could only be used at a local gas station, which might prove to be a problem, but all of the above, coupled with being MHRS Platinum, meant that I thought it worth a punt.

With memories of our crew fading fast, one of several available valets greeted us at the Marriott. We checked in and were (correctly) upgraded to the Concierge (25th) Level. We were given a little card with the lounge opening times (more of which later) and, turning round from the desk to head to the lifts, we were met by….. the crew off the BA85. I mean, the shame of it. Staying in a crew hotel ;-)!

The room was not overly-spacious, but came with a great view of the harbour and the sea-plane piers. Over the coming days, the ever-changing panorama would come to compare with the outlook from the (former) Regent in Hong Kong as a wide-screen feature.

Indeed, much as is the norm at the Regent, the curtains were left open at all times. So it was that, woken from their slumbers on this first morning in the West, MCC and FCC lifted themselves simultaneously from their repose, seemingly without elbow-assistance, and craned up and around to survey the view from behind their mound of Marriott duvetry. This choreographed display forever earning them the moniker of ‘The Geriatric Meerkats’.

Back to practicalities and the room itself also came with the bonus of being adjacent (though silently-so) to the Concierge Lounge. This meant that the free WiFi offered in the lounge permeated the wall and saved a tidy sum.

Breakfast in the lounge was a plentiful spread of coffee to drink in or go, the usual juices, a hot selection, cold cuts, cheese, radioactively-hued smoked salmon, fruits and cereals. All in all, very nice and a harbour view to boot.

Now, the Pacific NorthWest is not known for its great weather, but our first day dawned merely drizzly, so we headed along the harbourfront to the Seabus terminal . This service runs, very much in the manner of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, Sydney’s Manly, Auckland’s Harbour and countless others, pretty much continuously on a walk-up basis. Tickets are valid on all public transport systems for 90 minutes and are zoned. So, a sail across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver is a 2 zone job. On the other side, you’ll find a great ‘market’ at Lonsdale Quay, selling arts and crafts of varying quality, but mostly some superb provender. Eat here or buy the components of a global picnic.

At the rear of the Market, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Your ferry ticket would also take you there, but if you’ve had a look around the market then your 90 minutes will have expired. So, by the totem pole, the free shuttle pulls up hourly and whisks you to Capilano. This is really a private pleasure garden (and not all that cheap either) but is a very pleasant way to spend a few hours in a temperate rainforest on bridges and boardwalks, trails and terraces, adjusting to the time difference from Blighty. The on-site ‘Tatarama’ is at the slightly higher-quality end of the scale and you can grab a snack or a meal at one of a number of eateries.

If there’s no shuttle imminent then the service bus stop is right outside the gates of the park. And if, like us, there’s no shuttle in sight and you have no change (buses only take the coins of the Dominion) then you may be lucky like us and score a free ride off the bus driver. His view was that, since we would then be heading over on the Seabus back to the city, we’d be buying a 90 minute ticket when we got off anyway. He also helped passengers with pushchairs on and off and was by far and away the nicest bus driver I’ve come across in a long while. He also started the rot of me thinking that this really is a rather fabulous place.

The bus takes a windy route through neatly manicured suburbs, with lush gardens, soaring trees and opulent homes. The raised vantage point gives you ample opportunity to over-hedge peer too.

Time for a siesta back at the hotel and then a visit to the gym and the pool, both of which are more than fit for purpose, Lockers are secured by means of a lock (supposedly) obtained from the Concierge Desk, but having been looked at like the man from Mars when I enquired, then them failing to find any such thing, I resorted to the perfectly suitable TSA lock off the suitcase. The gym has a good selection of, er, gym things, and the pool is not huge but good for laps. There is a sauna and steam poolside, alongside a spacious Jacuzzi. The one rather strange thing was that, in the Gents changing area, there were a number of perfectly acceptable single showers, but then also a sort of ‘group’ one, like you get at school.

The facility is open 24hrs, keycard accessed but unmanned. There are plentiful supplies of (acceptable) toiletries and towels. Perfectly useful if you like that kind of thing.

Probably the most unusual thing about the hotel is that it doesn’t have a ‘lobby’ as such. Sure, there’s a reception area, but no lounge bar adjacent. Rather, it’s the Showcase restaurant that leads straight off Reception and then, at the far end of that, a sports bar which fronts the corner of the block. The restaurant is very pleasant in a chain-hotel-tries-hard kind of way. Sadly however, the hotel has decided that the ambience of the sports bar will define the entire space. This is not the place for a relaxed dinner therefore. That said, the food – chosen from a reasonable selection on quite a sensible menu – was rather good. It’s just that conversation was impossible.

It was a bit of a relief to find that, at breakfast the following morning, the mood was altogether more relaxed. Per the opening hours of the Concierge Lounge (ie closed at the weekend) we were to take breakfast in the main restaurant for the next two days. We therefore found ourselves in the midst of four (yes, four) BA crews. Breakfast was (as you’d expect) more generous in depth and breadth than the Concierge Lounge, but the Lounge’s offer remained fairly unshamed by comparison.

Vancouver, British Columbia – Part Two

As we were by now more attuned to the time zone, the time had come for a more adventurous expedition. The car was summoned from the cavern beneath and we more or less retraced our path through the suburbs, past the airport but this time onward to Tsawassen for the BC Ferries service across to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. This has got to be one of the bargains of the century. Although you may book (and would be advised to do so at peak periods), the 90 minute Ro-Ro crossing is essentially turn up and go for CAD35 for a car and three passengers, on the CoastSaver promotion which was running at the time. The scenery is initially pretty banal, but the intensity is turned up as the tub swerves through the Gulf Islands. Stay on deck and you may (though we didn’t) catch glimpses of dolphins and whales.

Look overhead and you’ll see a continuous trail of the almost ubiquitous seaplanes, plying between Vancouver and the Island in a fraction of the time and reportedly offering a quite fantastic experience. This had been very high on the list of possibles-to-do, but I worried that MCC, who’s not a great flyer when not horizontal, might not enjoy it and that might prejudice a later part of the trip. So, car and ferry it was, with two Insular targets. Secondly, the provincial capital, Victoria, but first the World-famous Butchart Gardens.

To be honest, the only reason that I’d ever even heard of Butchart was thanks to a school friend having completed an internship there some time ago. She had waxed lyrical about them, so I felt the need to check them out. Now, I am no horticulturalist, but they really were quite stunning. Even more impressive was the fact that there was not a sign of anything being done to actually manage them. They were in a state of perfection which looked as though no hand-of-man was needed. There were no roped-areas, no areas ‘under construction’. It was if some sort of magic created this wonder, and then only when visitors had long gone. The gardens themselves were largely the work of Jennie, the wife of the industrialist Robert Butchart, who initially redeveloped a disused quarry in the shared grounds of what was his factory and their home.

Certainly a very pleasant place to spend a few hours, with a selection of cafes and restaurants as well as the obligatory tea towels and nick-nacks at the onsite Tatarama. There are also opportunities to enjoy concerts and fireworks in the gardens at certain times of the year.

We were by now being blessed with some unusually bright weather, and it was but a short drive to the British Columbian provincial capital, Victoria. We arrived mid-afternoon, parked the car and set off for a walking tour along Government Street to the harbour. Backed by the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Buildings, this is the hub of maritime and seaplane activity. There is a harbour wall promenade and a multitude of cafes and bars from which to people-watch.

The shops of this part of the city cater largely to the tourist market; in the gentrified and restored streets leading between Government Street and Wharf Street there are bars and restaurants aplenty and it certainly looked to be a pleasant place to enjoy a relaxed evening on the pop.

Having not reserved passage on BC Ferries back to Tsawassen however, we felt the need to limit our time in Victoria and head back to Swartz Bay. Nevertheless, we did so only after driving through the picturesque Southern streets, packed with Colonial villas, to the south shore for some quite spectacular views across to the Olympic Mountains of Washington State in the US. A worthwhile detour before the drive back North to the ferry.

A word of warning at this point though; if you are in any way peckish then do grab a bite before you head for the boat. The terminal and general onboard catering is rotten and should be avoided at all costs.

On the return journey in particular though, you may be tempted to take advantage of the Seawest Lounge on board. At a cost of CAD10, you can access this lounge for (marginally less rotten) complimentary Starbucks, nibbles, newspapers and a rather more relaxed atmosphere than the main decks. If, as a tourist, your priority is to enjoy the Gulf Island scenery however, then the lounge does, frankly, seem a bit pointless and you are more likely to spend your time on the open decks above.

Back to Vancouver quite late, so dinner was skipped and, instead, to bed and the prospect of a wander around the city in the morning.

Which of course dawned wet. Very wet. Breakfast with BA again in the main restaurant and then out into the rain-glazed streets for an exploration of Gastown, which is (allegedly) named after a local blackguard and innkeeper – ‘Gassy’ Jack. It’s a pleasant few thoroughfares of restored and renovated harbourside buildings, housing a varied selection of bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. Centred around a unique steam-powered clock, Gastown is a nice enough place to spend a morning and, by the looks of it, a fun place to frequent of an evening. A kind of Sydney’s Rocks, but in a downpour.

Heading South brings you into Vancouver’s CBD and the usual selection of high-end malls, stores and cultural attractions. Here you will find everything from Sears to Ermenigildo Zegna, the historic Fairmont Vancouver to the City Art Gallery. Walking back towards the hotel, you’ll pass Villeroy and Boch for the domestic goddess, and Alfred Dunhill for the man about town. You'll also find peculiarly local products for sale (batteries not included):

One of Vancouver’s principal, and most natural, attractions is Stanley Park. This vast expanse of public space occupies the North Western corner of the city and plays host to cafes and restaurants, an aquarium, running tracks, lakes, beaches and forest walks. It also anchors the Southern end of the mighty Kingsgate Bridge, which links Vancouver with its North Shore. So, a pleasant afternoon stroll turned into a seven mile hike through the trees and around the banks of Burrard Inlet, watching cruise liners pass just feet away while all ages played, exercised or just enjoyed their afternoon in one of the World’s most liveable cities. And, always, with the company of the ubiquitous seaplanes.

No surprise then that, after our impromptu trekking adventure, our final night in Vancouver was an early one.

Vancouver to Kamloops

After soundly sleeping off the effects of the lengthy exertions of the previous day, we headed bright and early to the reopened Concierge Lounge for a final breakfast and lingering look at the Harbour view. We packed and headed to check out, calling ahead to have the Explorer recovered from the bowels of the garage once again.

As is the norm in such circumstances, FCC and MCC were positioned in comfortable chairs while CC deals with the dirtiness of payment. As would become somewhat of a theme of the trip however, this was not a straightforward process. Although the basic bill seemed to be correct, we had been charged in full for the breakfast taken in the restaurant on the Sunday. This despite being a Marriott Platinum cardholder and the Concierge Lounge being closed (which should prompt a credit). I queried this and was somewhat taken aback to be told that there was no credit because the Lounge had in fact been open. When I pointed out that my keycard wallet had been overstamped with the lounge opening times, the times were posted on the door of the lounge and, when checking in, the agent had confirmed the opening times verbally – ie weekdays only – he said I was wrong. I’ve never actually had that in a hotel before, least of all a Marriott, which I normally rate as consistently-good-if-ploddy hotels. So, when I also pointed out that the requested Platinum Amenity of a bottle of wine and tub of ice cream had yet to make it to the room, four days after check in, I was told that I had selected 500 Marriott Reward points as the amenity instead. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

His only offer was an additional 500 MR points, bringing the total to 1000 and, with impatient parents and a 300 mile drive ahead, I left. Worse still, when the points posted, there were only 750. The one unexpected bonus was that the ‘gas’ cards included in the rate ($25 per night = $100) proved to be valid at the Petrocanada chain of filling stations – and we weren’t to be limited to just a local outlet where we would probably have struggled to squeeze the full value of the cards into the tank.

The postscript to this bit of the story is that, having taken the time to subsequently email Marriott Rewards, I had a superb phone call from the Front of House Manager who seemed genuinely keen to repent, and I was somewhat mollified by a 10,000 MR point bung, which I felt reflected more accurately the service failure.

Anyway, time to leave and, it has to be said, not through the most salubrious part of the city as we struck East and headed for the hills. Or, more accurately, the Rocky Mountains. Woohoo.

The first part of the drive along Highway One – The Trans Canada Highway – is through suburbs and then pastoral land of pleasant beauty and general non-descriptness. Only at Hope do things begin to get a little more interesting, as the Fraser River really begins to make its presence known.

The most direct route from Hope to Kamloops is on the (toll) Coquihalla Highway, but our Moon guidebook (purchased in Vancouver, thanks to the Geriatric Meerkats having been lent all the books for the trip months beforehand, and then forgetting to pack them) strongly suggested taking the original Highway One North for more a more interesting drive.

Having not sampled the toll road, it’s impossible to compare, but H1 certainly didn’t disappoint. Our target, for a picnic lunch purchased from the frankly fantastic Urban Fare on Pacific Boulevard in Vancouver, was Hell’s Gate. Once we had enjoyed the laptop repast of bounteous provender, we headed for the entrance to this famous attraction. Every second, more water passes through this 110 feet wide gash in the rock than does over the whole of Niagara. The difference, of course, is that the water at Hell’s Gate is 175 feet deep.

The torrent is reached by way of the Hell’s Gate Airtram, a cable car notable mostly for the fact that it descends from the principal point of departure, rather than ascends. Trams run every 10-15 minutes from the top station, which also contains a Tatarama of fairly low quality. It is therefore something of an achievement for the equivalent emporia at the lower station to be in possession of an even more flea-market air.

That said, the sway down to the river is charming enough and you are then free to mooch around, cross the bridge and have a wander onto the tracks used by the Rocky Mountaineer touring train. In fact, our re-ascendency to the top station coincided with the passing of said train beneath us, including its observation cars and mighty locomotives.

The road on to Kamloops took us through sometimes lofty, sometimes more low lying countryside, forested and fielded but all the time accompanied by both rail and river. It’s largely unremarkable in itself but, all the while, the expectation of the Rockies ahead fills the traveller with anticipation. In fact, the most notable thing about the road would appear to be the prevalence of field after field covered with black netting – a protection, it transpires, for the valuable crop of Ginseng beneath. Who knew?

Our arrival in Kamloops confirmed that which we had expected – a railhead in a wide valley, neither overly industrial nor particularly scenic, but a place which seemed to have a purpose to it. We swung into the carpark of the Four Points by Sheraton, eager to shower and rest – and also to try the adjacent restaurant which had garnered good online reviews from those who had gone before.

The first surprise to be offered by this Holiday Inn Express equivalent was that the restaurant, Ric’s, was not just the hotel's in-house facility, but in fact part of a rather swanky chain whose outlet we had also noticed during our whirlwind tour of Victoria.

We were met at the door by a porter and Reception had our keycards all ready. As an SPG Gold, we had been upgraded to a two-bedroomed suite which was very acceptable. We had coffee and a freshen and then headed down for dinner, expecting to be able to walk straight in to this Travelodge-attached diner in a backwood town.

As the lift took us closer, we could already hear people and, when we entered the restaurant, it was fairly obvious that, alternatives or not, this was the place to be in Kamloops on a Monday evening. The girl on the desk was clearly unused to out-of-towners and first-timers, and looked at us as if we were nuts for expecting a table hasta pronto. In fairness we were. Since there was no room in the bar either, we were dispatched back to the suite for 45 minutes, in advance of some of the earlier troughers vacating.

Having made it back down, we enjoyed a quite superb dinner of great quality and quantity, friendly service and a pleasant view (helped by the local brew, it has to be said).

The bill, almost uniquely for the trip as it would turn out, was 100% correct upon check out the following morning after a blissful sleep in excellent quality beds. The total, for accommodation and dinner for three, coming to just CAD300.

Kamloops to Jasper

So, we left early, again spurred on by our guidebook, which suggested that a visit to the Wells Gray Provincial Park would be a worthwhile way to spend some time en route to our next stop, Jasper.

When I say en-route, what I really mean is 120 mile round-trip detour to land us back almost where we started, with the bulk of the journey to Jasper still to face. As it turned out however, it was indeed more than worth it.

The guidebook had mentioned a ‘bakery’, just at the beginning of the Park access road in the town of Clearwater, so this was our dawn chorus target as we struck out on Highway 5 North from Kamloops.

The Flour Meadow Bakery opens at 5am, is housed in a log cabin somewhat hidden in the trees, and is quite obviously a hub for the community. Notices at the entrance advertised for pickers to pluck surplus produce from locals’ back yards for distribution to the needy and, inside, a team of the most friendly staff rustle up a wide selection of delights. We enjoyed wholesome breakfasts and coffee refills at 50c a cup, then ordered gourmet sandwiches for our foray into the park itself.

There are a number of attractions ahead, not least of which are the Helmcken Falls shown above, but the undoubted highlight of our trip was coming across a real live bear.

The weather was by now beautiful, we could catch our first glimpses of Rocky Mountain peaks and then, while quite alone on the dirt park road, the bear lumbered from the trees on the left and began a slow, laborious pad along the roadside. Well briefed, we held back and kept the recommended three bus lengths away. As it moved toward the roadway, it took a cautious look over its right shoulder as if to check for traffic and framed its snout perfectly for an out-of-the-sunroof photograph. It crossed, walked a little further along on the right and then disappeared back into the forest. What a treat.

Wells Gray presented us with waterfalls and lakes, a close-up of a beaver dam and soaring forests. It also teased us with the first tingles of what was to come in the Rockies proper and provided a most favourable venue for our Flour Meadow Bakery lunch.

So, with a little regret at the brevity of our visit, but high hopes for what we were yet to see, we headed back to Clearwater to rejoin the ‘5’ for our hurtle for Jasper. We made time, of course, to stop at the Bakery again for coffee and cake.

As the road heads first North and then East from Clearwater, you are certainly aware of increasing elevation – much before the shoulders of the landscape around you heave themselves up to become more craggy and looming. Ahead of us lay the highest of them all, Mount Robson, and so it was that late in the afternoon we arrived in Yellowhead Pass to see Robson framed majestically by surrounding mountainsides. The National Park Center was by this time closed, but the car park gives chance for a leg-stretch and photo opportunity, albeit slightly obscured by peak-hugging cloud on our visit.

Heading East from Yellowhead brings you to the Jasper National Park gate, where a permit must be purchased if you intend to stop and visit within the Park. Permits are valid until 4pm of your planned exit day and can be extended at National Park Offices within the Park. An Adult permit is currently CAD9.80.

Descending from the Pass, it is no great distance before the town of Jasper approaches, lying within a broad valley bound on all sides by towering peaks. Our home for the night would be the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, the most famous (and salubrious) of all Jasper accommodations and built on the site of the first tourist lodgings in the area, a tented camp erected by the brothers Brewster in 1915.

Occupying a favoured position on the shores of Lac Beauvert, the hotel has been made permanent and developed into a highly-rated property of international repute. Which all rather made our experience a little disappointing. Think absent door staff, limited parking, upgrade to wholly unsuitable room (there were three in the bed, and the little one said – call yourself a 5-star hotel?), inability of hotel concessions to post charges to the main account expeditiously and a complete failure to apply the advertised rate rules (AMEX FHR) at checkout and you do question spending CAD600 for bed and two breakfasts (third person extra).

The upgraded accommodation – Lakeside Junior Suite – was well located and pleasantly furnished, with a reportedly very comfortable bed. The sofabed which had to be pressed into service was less so. The bathroom could be charitably described as pokey and the chalet-style construction was about as sound-proofed as a Millets tent. Signing up online to (free) membership of the Fairmont President’s Club before check in at least afforded complimentary (wired) internet access however.

We grabbed a quick snack in the lobby bar, served by friendly and helpful staff, before retiring just ahead of an avalanche of conference delegates arriving for a post-dinner expenses-fuelled booze-up.

The second check-out battle of the trip ensued after a very acceptable breakfast in the Meadows Restaurant, and we were untroubled once again by any door staff upon departure. Likewise, the much-advertised herds of calving elk which were allegedly a peril to all around, steadfastly refused to show a hoof.

Jasper to Banff

Here again, we were presented with a false start to a roadtrip as we made tracks for Maligne Lake - the access road being in completely the opposite direction to our ultimate destination for that day, Banff.

The road commences from the foot of the Jasper Park Lodge’s own drive, and there are numerous distractions en-route to delay the traveller yet more. The Maligne Waterfalls are worthy of inspection, connected as they are by footpaths and bridges through the forest. Medicine Lake too occupies a few megabytes of the SD Card. The target however is Maligne Lake itself, hero of countless postcards and tending, in the right light, toward that famous turquoise hue borne of suspended ‘rock flour’. It rained for us.

Looking at just the right angle, from just the right elevation, with slightly more squint in the left than the right eye, we could just about detect the colouration, but after a quick scoot around the shoreline near the boathouse and a cursory examination of the distinctly second class Tatarama, we retraced our path to Jasper, passing Medicine Lake once again and then numerous clumps of tourists huddled by the roadside, apparently peering into the gloom of the forest to inspect a rapidly-retreating moose bum.

The weather presented a finer aspect for our lunchtime arrival in Jasper, a town noted for its adventure sports and peak season traffic jams. We were treated to little congestion however and, under blue skies and sunshine, we toured the streets taking in gardens and shops, the most handsome railway station and the slightly Hansel and Gretel Park Offices.

Having been impressed by the sandwiches at Flour Meadow, the Other Paw Bakery on Connaught Drive offered a similar opportunity to stock up in preparation for a picnic. We were not to be disappointed and, having refuelled the Ford, we found ourselves not half an hour later at a look out heralding the start of the famous Icefields Parkway.

With time marching on and much still to see, we travelled the Parkway a short distance before plunging downhill and West towards the old highway and the Athabasca Falls. The rock flour is clearly present here, as the vivid waters hurl themselves from placid meander to thundering verticality through a sink hole in the rock. Unperturbed by the numerous coach parties, it’s still relatively easy to find an unpopulated turn in the path from which to view this mighty force of nature at close quarter.

Leaving the massed bands of blue rinsers behind, the Icefields Parkway continues South, gaining altitude almost imperceptibly as every rise in the wide, well-graded tarmac is followed by a slightly lesser downhill run. All the while the waters which have yet to power through the downstream falls are just to the Western side – sometimes calm and glassy, sometimes racing and rapid.

The highpoint of the roadtrip, in every sense of the word, is the Athabasca Glacier itself. Approaching from the North, the nose of the ice appears to creep from behind the scree as the road rounds a sweeping meander of the meltwaters to arrive at the Glacier Visitor Centre.

From the Visitor Centre, coaches depart regularly to take guests through the ancient forest of stunted, four hundred year-old pines, to a transfer station on the lateral moraine. From here, passengers transfer to the specially designed Snowcoaches for a spectacular journey down the side of the moraine and onto the glacier itself. Flat out at little more than walking-pace, these behemoths of the ice trundle on oversized, monster truck style tyres, up towards the headwall of the glacier and the Continental Divide marked by this finger of the Columbia Icefield. From just above this vantage point, ice and then meltwater flows to the Antarctic, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and also into the cupped hands of tourists who take the opportunity to scoop up a taste of pure, pure water. To all but the most experienced of mountaineers and ardent students of geography (and then maybe even for them too) it’s a unique and fascinating experience.

This being the final tour of the day, we were treated to a slightly extended trip and, by the time we reached the Visitor Centre once again, the sun had dipped behind the mountain tops and the sparkle of a Rocky Mountain day was being overtaken by a gentle merging of colours into dusk.

In this most atmospheric of lights, the continuing drive along the Icefields Parkway takes on a different mood, with shadows lengthening and the last rays of sunlight turning isolated peaks to into glowing beacons. To this, an air of expectation grows as minds turn toward the end of the road and our target for the day – the Banff Springs Hotel.

Banff to Calgary

In a World obsessed by spin, it’s all too easy to be carried away by hype and history. Faded glories trading on mythical reputations from times past abound, and countless are the disappointments of those who believe them too readily. It’s also much too lazy to resort to cynicism, to discount anything which prompts praise as being over-rated. And so it is that the approach to the Banff Springs Hotel (BaSH) brought with it hope, expectation and not a little fear that it would turn out to be a right royal let-down.

We need not have worried.

Hindered only slightly by roadworks in the centre of town, signposts point their way clearly toward this Victorian palace of hospitality, this fairy-tale tribute to a Caledonian castle which clings to the pine-clad slopes. The drive sweeps up a gentle rise between edifice and mountain and then doubles back to the porte-cochere. Serried ranks of porters and bell hops jump to attention, evacuate passengers and luggage from their chariots and then spirit them away to unseen garages. Inside, the baronial Reception welcomes guests with that most rare of preparations – the correct reservation and package details. No in-room check in or accompanied guide here, but a map of the sprawling wings and annexes is all that’s needed.

Come December, each guest room at the Banff Springs is decorated with its own Christmas tree, all 500 of them. It’s clearly obvious where the tree is to be placed in our suite, and no finer position could there be. The window it seasonally frames looks straight along the Bow Valley, across forest and river, to distant mountains whose snow capped peaks flame with the reflected glory of an unseen sunset. Closer, and to left and right, darkly forested and brooding foothills swoop up to yet more lofty summits.

At the other end of the cosy living room, a high mantled fire place is topped by a large recessed plasma screen. The Bathroom is luxurious and, though hardly wildly spacious, matches the proportions of the rest of the accommodations. The bedroom is similarly homely, looking out on that same spectacular valley view.

As with the Jasper Park Lodge, the Banff Springs is a Fairmont Hotel – and yet the experience here is altogether more worthy of the rates charged. President's Club membership affords free (wired) net access once again, but here in these suites, all gratuities are included and staff will politely refuse them if offered. In North America, this is absolutely stunning.

Too late for dinner and exhausted by the day’s assault of spectacular scenery, we turned in for the night to revive and restore our constitutions as best we could.

Banff is only a short drive from the world-famous Lake Louise. Indeed, the Icefield’s Parkway from Jasper passes close by just before arriving into Banff. Numbed into partial surrender by the sheer volume of spectacles already enjoyed however, this was one sight that would go unseen on this trip, in favour of a leisurely trawl of the vast breakfast buffet at the BaSH, and then a stroll around the township itself.

Breakfast, naturally, takes longer than planned when backfilling for a missed dinner, but a table by the French windows onto the terrace afforded yet more opportunity to drink in the same Bow Valley view enjoyed by our own suite. Blue skies and sunshine glaze a frosty air and photo opportunities abound on the stroll back around the outside of the hotel to prepare for the day.

It was almost with resignation (if not utter defeat) however that our gentle, unchallenging potter into town became an all-out assault on the senses again. Somehow little, if any, mention is made of the stunning Bow Falls, which inconveniently hove into view as the path from hotel to town sneaks past the golf course. No wonder they don’t talk about them; it would surely put off lesser mortals who could take no more natural wonders, those who are all waterfalled-out.

Bravely, we consumed yet more megabytes of the SD cards and pushed on into town, fearful of glimpsing yet more stunning views which may arrest our progress.

Roadworks aside, Banff proves to be the pleasant little town our earlier brush with it had suggested. A few streets of tastefully-stocked shops, outdoor sports emporia, bars, restaurants and galleries. Riverside parks, pleasure gardens and elegant street furniture lend an air of quiet confidence, well-planned and organised.

With the senses returned to a general status of pleasurable taxlessness, the BaSH provides a welcome comfort to well-walked limbs. Lunch in the Bow Valley Grill is as gargantuan a spread as breakfast, but this time with chef’s stations preparing freshly cooked delights, alongside cold cuts, salads, pastas, roasts, seafood and desserts galore.

Though not unique, the hotel is one of few that have numerous public areas, and many a spare moment can be enjoyed exploring the landings and galleries, halls and lobbies of the vast building. Even more surprisingly, the shopping arcade which occupies part of this space offers goods at prices which undercut many of those in the town outside. There is also an interesting exhibition space given over to the history of the hotel, the visionaries and the railway that brought it about.

American Express’s late check-out arrangement affords the opportunity to retain the room until 4pm but, mindful of potential teatime traffic and a 7.25pm flight from Calgary, our time at the BaSH would come to a well-fed conclusion shortly after 3pm. Not before a small blot on their copy-book was marked however. Initially, the front desk refused the late check-out request when telephoned. A confirmatory visit to the front desk brought forth an English Supervisor who apologised profusely and, of course, granted the extended check-out time. All seemed well, until the housekeeper-whose-first-language-was-not-our-own banged on the suite door and demanded to know why we were still there. At 1pm……

Final check-out itself was relatively smooth, notwithstanding the usual tussle with the bill to get all parts of the AMEX Fine Hotels & Resorts rate applied correctly. All the more surprising here, as a little card explaining all the benefits had been presented at check-in. It’s something AMEX really should take up with their partner hotels as it’s seems a constant and universal struggle to sort, in my experience.

The drive to Calgary is no more than 90 minutes, with the valley widening progressively past Canmore and then flattening out into the first taste of prairie. The mountains retreat into the rear-view mirror, disappearing and reappearing alternately with the rises and falls of the freeway. The signposts would take you on a three-quarter loop of the city to reach the airport but, for once, the Permanently Lost comes up trumps and navigates a single quadrant shortcut through suburbia to reach the airport from its less salubrious side. The gauchemoble abandoned, it’s a short walk to Check In and the first steps of the impending leap from nature to nurture, fresh to furnace, mountain to desert and Alberta to Nevada.

A sightseeing tour-de-force comes to an end and the decision to drive West to East, to let the excitement and anticipation build gently from Vancouver to Kamloops and Jasper, with only a short final hour to Calgary of less than memorable scenery, is well and truly vindicated.