Canada! Oh Canada!

On Sunday 2nd April 2017 (yes – a long time ago now, but better late than never) we arrived in Canada. Before even setting out from the UK we had known that Canada would be our final destination, so when we finally got there it felt fairly seminal.

We were staying with my uncle and aunt in Vancouver, BC. Anthony is my mum’s youngest brother and a treasured member of the family, but with the exception of a couple of famed cameos at mine and my sister’s weddings, we had barely seen each other over the years. He and Patty had kindly invited us to stay at theirs, which – given we were planning to hang around for almost five weeks – was an extremely generous offer and one we were very happy to accept.

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Our little Canadian bear riding Sugarlump the horse as we settle into Vancouver. Huge thanks to Uncle Anthony for restoring cousin Emma’s rocking horse for Amber for our stay

There was a lot to look forward to while we were in BC. Kate and Olly (my sister and her husband) were visiting for a couple of weeks, overlapping for a week with my mum who was also popping over for our final stint. During this overlap, a big family reunion had been planned with uncles, aunts and cousins from across Canada. Not only this, but we were going to do a couple of last trips on our own to discover the region for ourselves.

First things first

We were pretty chuffed to arrive in Canada. As soon as we got there, things moved into a different, more laid back gear, and we loved it. We had been on the go for a while, operating on high alert since James’ passport had been stolen in Chile, and still a little scarred from when Amber had been ill in Peru. Arriving in calm, clean and utterly stunning British Columbia, living in my uncle’s family home, and being cared for by him and Patty, we started to gradually let our guard down (in no small part helped by Amber who threw us a morning bone and slept until an unprecedented 7.30am for our first few days).

Anthony and Patty live outside central Vancouver on the northern shore, in picturesque suburb Lynn Valley. It is fairly far from the centre, and you feel a little like you are already in the mountains. In the fleeting moments that the rain clouds parted (located in a temperate rainforest, Lynn Valley bears the brunt of the city’s poor reputation for weather) they revealed tree-lined foothills of local mountains Mount Fromme and Mount Seymour, giving a teasing hint of the beauty of the Rockies that lie a little further inland.

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Wandering in and out of the towering pine trees of Lynn Valley Park

We took our first few days easily, partly because we were shattered, and partly because like most places in North America, you ain’t nothing without a set of wheels. We took advantage by meandering around Lynn Valley park (cracking trees and suspension bridge), the general North Shore (the bus system was having a laugh but we found a couple of good craft beer taverns), and the local Winners, (a Canadian version of TK Maxx and a wonderful find) fitting ourselves with entirely new wardrobes to replace the washed out and tattered gear we were suddenly very aware of sporting.

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A beautiful bay on the North Shore, looking across to famous Lion’s Gate Bridge

It was also absolutely brilliant to be back in an English speaking country. Immersing ourselves in Spanish for so long had been exciting and exhilarating, and we had both come a long way. But there is nothing quite like the feeling of speaking to people and actually being understood.

A family do

Kate and Olly touched down in Vancouver towards the end of our first week. Eight months is a long time to not see such close family, and it was bloody good to see them again. We wanted to get away for a few days together, and with the wealth of destinations on our doorstep we had struggled to decide where to go. At the last minute we settled on Victoria, the capital of nearby Vancouver Island and only a reasonably short drive away from North Van (short maybe, but unbelievably stressful due to a bum-clencher of a will-we-won’t-make-it journey to the ferry that easily shed hours off of our collective lifespan).

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Surveying nature

Victoria is charming, nestled into the south eastern tip of Vancouver Island and surrounded by wall to wall beautiful coastline. We were staying on Gonzales Bay, just outside the city centre, in a beautiful apartment that had expansive views of the beach and sea beyond.

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Enjoying Gonzales Bay (our sweet little apartment is in one of the houses in the background)

Victoria is small, but sweet, the sort of city where you never really feel like you’re in a city at all. We finally had some wheels (lovely cousin Emma lent us her tank Bruce) giving us new found freedom to explore and take advantage of the stunning local scenery. We spent our time roaming round forests and lakes, climbing mountains (well, hills), chatting to seals and pottering around a sweet little botanical garden and connecting tea room (that bewilderingly refused to sell us tea).

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Feeding seals at Victoria’s Fisherman’s Wharf

All too quickly our time in Victoria came to an end, and we made our way back to Vancouver for Easter. It was here that the family reunion kicked into a new gear. My Mum and her sister Jane were there waiting at Anthony’s to greet us, the reunion with Mum being another emotional one after a whole six months apart. We were shortly followed by the arrival of David (uncle) and his wife Pat, as well as Anne (cousin) and Emily (Anne’s daughter, making her second cousin once removed, or something like that). It was the first time my mum and her three siblings had been together in 21 years, and the first time many of us cousins had seen each other in probably longer.

What followed was a funny, raucous and surprisingly boozy affair, filled with delicious food (huge props to Patty for sublime cooking day in day out), a lot of banter, and a fair bit of one-up-man-ship (fraternal and sisterly competition at its best). Anthony and Patty were truly wonderful hosts, having us all to stay under their roof and (seemingly) never tiring of our presence. It was lovely to catch up with so much family after so long.

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Gathered for brunch on Easter Sunday

Due to the number of people camped out throughout the house, we had Amber sleep in with us, meaning that our nights were woefully short and our mornings were eye-wateringly long (Amber’s day begins the second she so much as sniffs our presence in the room, usually as early as 5am). On the Saturday this actually worked in our favour, as James had (for some unknown reason) booked himself into a 10k race, meaning that come 8am we found ourselves standing in some athletics stadium somewhere in North Van, still tipsy from the night before and freezing to death in the driving rain. Somehow though, he absolutely smashed it, coming a bewilderingly impressive 8th place.

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What a dismal morning for a race! James bravely takes on (and smashes) a 10k run despite miserable conditions, barely any sleep and an overwhelming hangover

On the Sunday, with no race to get up for, a 5am start was far from ideal. We took advantage however of being the only ones awake (in the world), and went for an awesome drive out of the city to a couple of viewpoints, having them completely to ourselves given the ungodly hour.

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Vancouver and beyond

By Monday the cracks were starting to show and we were exhausted. The nights had been late after day 3 it started to take its toll. We had however come to the end of the  weekend, so we said our fond goodbyes to Dave and Pat who were heading back to Toronto, hired a new set of wheels, and with mum on board we headed off into the mountains to have some much needed R&R.

Post-Easter

We had wanted to go to Whistler, but that was further away (and ridiculously expensive). So, knowing in advance we wouldn’t want a big drive, we aimed for Squamish, a mere hour north. Situated in a little valley surrounded by mountains, it was a pretty small place, but the views were gorgeous and our flat was perfect, looking out over this glorious scene:

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Breathtaking scenery in Squamish

We took it pretty easy, making the most of Amber’s naps to rest and recharge and going out for some lovely little pootles here and there. We went to Alice Lake, a sweet little place with a (deserted) campsite, and although it was literally pissing it down, the abundance of pine trees kept us sheltered as we ambled around. We went to Whistler, had a quick peek around the town, and then took the opportunity to head into the stunning Blackcomb mountains that lay a little further beyond, driving as far as we could before we had to reluctantly turn around to get Amber home for bed.

Another little pootle was to Murrin Provincial Park, which at first glance seemed to be a fairly average place, but what started as a little stroll ended up being an epic hike (that James to his credit did with Amber on his shoulders in nothing more than flimsy plimsolls) through rocks and trees that opened out onto incredible views of the mountains and lakes below:

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Mum, who had been fairly knackered following the weekend’s shenanigans, came to life during the climb, surprising herself at her own ability and fitness, and finally shaking the post-weekend cobwebs out of her hair.

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An exhilarated mum

After a relaxing (and liver restoring) few days, we headed back to Vancouver. My cousin Anne and her daughter Emily were still in town, so with Kate and Olly (who had just come back from a few days in Seattle) and Emma, we headed into Vancouver proper for a night out to celebrate what we wittily referred to as the ‘youngs’ of the family. Emma led us to Gastown, Vancouver’s famous nighttime district. The evening was fun, and (unsurprisingly) drunken (there’s a theme here…). James and I ended the evening early (if you call 2am early), knowing as we did that Amber would inevitably wake up at an earth-shattering 6am.

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The youngs

Birthdays

A couple of days later (enough time to get some sleep and make a bunny cake) it was Amber’s 2nd birthday. She is still a little young to really ‘get’ birthdays, but we made a fuss nonetheless. It was a Sunday, so everyone hung out together, and by the end of the day, she had definitely figured out that this was an important one. We kept it fairly relaxed, gathering together for Sunday brunch in the morning (another one of Aunty Patty’s specials), followed by a trip to a local farm in the afternoon where Amber (read everyone) could coo at the newborn calves and cute little bunnies, and snigger immaturely at a decidedly overexcited horse.

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Our sweet little girl on her birthday – in her new bunny wellies, and about to stroke the biggest bunny in town. Bliss

A couple of days later, it was my turn to turn a year older. By now most of the extended family had left (we had said a tearful goodbye to Kate and Olly on the evening of Amber’s brithday), but happily mum was still with us, and so she, James and I spent a lazy morning lounging, drinking bubbles and trying to teach Amber – who had very much got the hang of receiving presents – the importance of giving them (a tricky lesson for any 2 year old).

Months earlier we had spontaneously booked tickets to see one of our favourite bands for that evening – it was too much of a coincidence that they were playing in Vancouver on my brithday. And so it came to be that later that night, with Amber safely looked after by the very capable Nana, we found ourselves in the company of The (beautiful and formidable) XX. Pretty incredible way to spend a birthday so far from home.

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The XX. Love them so much

We were bloody loving Canada, and at this point were only half way through our stay. And with the family-focused first half now coming to an end, we started looking ahead to the final installment of the entire trip: our road trip through the Rockies.

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