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Posts Tagged ‘Canada

Slow train to Winnipeg

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There is no fast train to Winnipeg. VIA Rail’s meandering service from Vancouver to Winnipeg fits a country that’s meant to be savoured. Yes, you could fly in under three hours, but if you’re looking for a more immersive experience and can spare three days, take the train. It’s not meant to be fast.

Leah and I checked in at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver on a sunny, Friday morning in late July. The forest fires that shrouded most of western Canada were still two weeks away and clear skies beckoned. Friends had been surprised to learn of a rail connection. Almost as surprised as by our destination. True, Winnipeg’s not the first place you think of for a summer holiday, but we live on the Sunshine Coast. A break from tourists would be good for the soul.

Our noon departure left 15 minutes late, but few passengers seemed to notice. Most people were busy exploring their new home for the next two nights; four nights for Toronto-bound passengers.

Private sleeping quarters in Prestige class come with your own concierge.

A large American tour party, each traveller wearing a name badge, patrolled the corridors for the first hour, marvelling at the cleverly concealed shower closets, the premium-class cabins and the viewing cars. With 72 hours ahead of us, we decided to pace ourselves, watching East Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster pass us by before venturing from our seats.

VIA Rail trains come in three classes and various carriage designations. The best views are to be had in the Skyline cars with their scenic dome sections, and the Panorama car, which features windows to the ceiling. The Park car in the caboose is an elegant throwback to bygone lounge luxury and is limited to the train’s Prestige passengers at certain times of the day.

Prestige is the priciest of VIA’s three travelling classes, offering private sleeping quarters and a personal concierge. We travelled in Sleeper Plus, which saw our seats being transformed by a carriage attendant at night into comfy bunk beds shrouded behind a thick curtain. (The attendant reverses the process in the morning while you’re at breakfast.) For Economy Class, picture your seat becoming a La-Z-Boy with pillow and blanket. All meals are included in the price for Prestige and Sleeper Plus.

An excellent three-course lunch, including a sautéed prawn and scallop salad, set the tone for our meals ahead. Duck, rack of lamb, and beef wellington were among the hot, fresh dinners somehow served from a tiny kitchen, which also offered vegetarian options for every dining course. Canadian wines and craft beer choices from Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, were a nice surprise too. We soon got to know our Winnipeg-based crew, who were proud of their hometown and quick with recommendations.

Seats by day transform into bunk beds by night in Sleeper Plus.

Meal times presented a chance to meet fellow passengers – mostly American visitors, including one woman from San Francisco who had been suffering Trump-induced anxiety attacks. “Two days with no news has done me the world of good,” she confided.

There were other little surprises along the way. Complimentary mimosas went down well on Saturday morning while stuck for an hour outside of Jasper. Informal wine tasting with one of the crew in the dome car eased us through the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. Lounge car patrons were entertained by a classical guitarist in an afternoon performance.

The real star of the show though was the view, otherwise known as Canada. First criss-crossing the Fraser River and then the Thompson, the train follows a route largely uncharted by the highway. At dinner on Friday night, heads swivelled to see a series of attractions appearing on or by the Thompson: a solitary eagle, a herd of elk, an abandoned church and a forgotten Chevy truck, circa 1960, all punctuated the dry beige canvas of thirsty cottonwoods and parched underbrush.

Dinner-time distractions as we skirt the Thompson River near Kamloops, BC.

Sun set to be replaced by a full, blood moon. It cast its spell on us as we settled into our bunks and watched it rise, glowing red and irresistible over Kamloops Lake. I fell asleep realizing that after almost 12 hours on the train, I had yet to crack a book or suggest a game of Yahtzee with Leah.

VIA Rail’s not quiet. There were times during the night that I thought a crash was imminent, such was the screeching on the rails. “You’ve got all day to nap,” I told myself as I opened the blind to see daybreak in the Rockies. Our attendant told us we’d made good time overnight, getting up to 80 kilometres an hour, which might have explained the noise.

After a night on the train it was good to stretch our legs in Jasper on the Discovery Trail.

The American tour party alighted at Jasper where the remaining passengers had a couple of hours to explore. In minutes we were walking Jasper’s Discovery Trail, heading towards Old Fort Point. At the first viewpoint overlooking the city, a menacing gang of Bighorn Sheep blocked our path. We hesitated for 10 minutes, taking photos from a distance. The sheep looked less menacing when a jogger breezed right by them.

Bighorn Sheep – not so menacing in hindsight.

It took all day to reach Edmonton. Numerous stops for freight traffic, (which have priority) including a two-hour standstill, put us in at 7 p.m., a few hours behind schedule. We disembarked to skip rope a while on the platform (three solid meals a day and a sedentary lifestyle take their toll) and take photos of the City of Champions in the distance. By 8 a.m. the next morning after a better night’s sleep, we’d caught up an hour or two and were in Saskatoon for another 20-minute stroll on the platform.

Our final day of gazing out of the window introduced us to place names that seemed to herald a story: Punnichy, Ituna, Spy Hill and Atwater – population 30. Potash mines are the only hills on the Prairies, looming on the horizon occasionally like elongated pyramids. The old, wooden grain silos, so iconic to this region, seemed harder to find. Kelliher, Saskatchewan produced a nice one though.

Our last stop before Winnipeg was Melville, Sask., home of the Melville Millionaires junior hockey team and named after Grand Trunk Railway president, Charles Melville Hays, who died on the Titanic. We rolled into Winnipeg at 8.40 p.m., 90 minutes late but still warm and sunny outside.

We never did play Yahtzee!

 

 

 

 

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Get up, stand up!

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With ocean and an abundance of lakes and tidal rapids, stand-up paddleboarders are spoiled for choice on the Sunshine Coast. Photo by Alpha Adventures

One evening last year, Jamie Mani was driving home late after coaching at Chatelech Secondary, where he teaches. Awed by the beautiful sunset at Davis Bay, he instinctively pulled over to inflate his stand-up paddleboard. A few minutes later, he was plying the calm ocean with just the setting sun and a rising full moon for company: alone, or so he thought.

“This whale appears,” recalls Mani. “So, it was just me, a whale, the sunset and a full moon!”

Whether on an inflatable or a hard version, a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP as it’s commonly known, offers a variety of escapes depending on your location. On the Sunshine Coast that could mean a peaceful, flatwater glide on Trout Lake; a touring adventure up Sechelt inlet on boards equipped with dry-bags full of gear under deck-line bungees; or an ocean jaunt to Keats Island or Pasley Island off Gibsons. For experienced SUP boarders, there’s world-class surfing at the Skookumchuk near Egmont.

“We’re so lucky on the Sunshine Coast, we have access to so many styles and bodies of water – coves, lakes, inlets, open strait, wave, no-wave,” says Mani. “And on any given day, if you’re willing to travel, you’re probably going to find calm water.”

Even old people can standup paddleboard! Hitomi Makino photo

Mani runs the Wilson Creek-based outdoor adventure store, Alpha Adventures, and was among the first group of instructors to be certified to teach SUP by Paddle Canada. He introduced SUP to the Sunshine Coast through Alpha shortly after trying it while on vacation in Hawaii.

“It was early to mid 2000s and in Hawaii, SUP was already taking off. I rented a board and loved the experience. Having been a kayak guide for decades, I do love paddling. But paddle-boarding is a completely different interaction with the water. I could go surfing on it. But I could also just look down at a reef, see turtles, see fish, check out the sunset. There the visibility is so good, it was almost like I was snorkelling, but standing up.”

An avid old-school surfer, Mani quickly realized another SUP advantage.

“I’d always liked surfing so when I saw those other surfers on SUPs, I thought: ‘It looks so easy because they’re out of the water, and they are able to catch waves, and they are always back out in the lineup way faster than any of us.

“That was kind of my second epiphany; this is amazing and I’m getting older, so this is easier, so it was a natural. Whether or not it was going to work for the business, we knew it was going to be part of our lives. We were hooked.”

During the mid-2000s, as the boards began to appear in adventure stores like Alpha, many viewed SUP as a craze, sure to be short-lived.

“One of our customers, who’s actually a teaching colleague, said to me: ‘Is this going to be the Crocs of watersports?’ I can almost remember the day he came in seven years later, and he said: “I was wrong. I’d like to know more about buying a board.

“We’ve always had a strong instructional component in our business, our foundation is on teaching and lessons. We really worked hard at getting people out on the water and realizing, we don’t live in a high surf area, so you can paddle in flat water conditions, sheltered coves, lots of lakes, calm days in open water like Davis Bay.

Alpha Adventures rents and sells boards, runs lessons, and hosts Summer SUP nights. Alpha Adventures photo

“It took a little while for people to realize, I can find a use for this where I live here on the Sunshine Coast.”

Board designs have changed a lot from the 12-foot behemoths that launched the sport. For surfing, SUPs are becoming shorter with more rocker (a more dramatic curve in the board upward from nose to tail) allowing quicker turns. Hybrid SUPs are good for calm, sunset paddles or small waves at the beach. Boards are increasingly tailored to weight and body size, says Mani, with children a growing demographic. There are even highly stable SUPs for anglers!

For the extra-adventurous, there’s foil boarding, which incorporates a hydrofoil beneath the board to elevate it and create the experience of levitating across the waves. “It’s just jazzy, you’re flying!” says Mani, who is bringing a foil board to the store.

What hasn’t changed about SUP is the benefit of instruction and the need for safety.

“I see people out paddleboarding, and there’s no personal flotation device (PFD) on their vessel or on their body. They don’t have a leash, and they’re definitely not prepared to fall in the water.”

Alpha’s SUP lessons spend about 20 minutes on land discussing the board, stance, style, and safety.

“The lesson philosophy is that it’s a whole paddling experience. It’s not just ‘hey, this is a board, here’s how to paddle.’ We look at safety considerations, the weather, immersion gear.”

That way, everyone is prepared, says Mani. Perhaps for a whale, even!

Alpha Adventures photo

The one that didn’t get away

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Ryan Judd consoles himself with the thought that it’s a dry cold, as he patiently waits for a bite.

Brad Knowles doesn’t care much for bananas. Not when he’s fishing, at least.

“Did you bring bananas?” he asks from the driver’s seat.

I check with my son Ryan, sitting across from me in the back of Brad’s truck. No, we didn’t bring bananas. We check our packed lunch. No bananas, although the hot chocolate seems to have spilled.

Bananas will jinx fishing every time,” says Brad, who double checks that his assistant guide, Matt, has not brought bananas. Matt, a bass fisherman from Mississauga – where he’s known to some as “The Bassassassin” – knows better than to bring bananas.

We’re on our way to Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton. From mid-November to late-March, give or take, the 6.5-kilometre lake near D’Arcy is ice fishing country.

6.5-kilometre Blackwater Lake, about an hour out of Whistler, east of Pemberton.

At this time of year, Brad’s company, Pemberton Fish Finder, runs ice fishing tours. “It’s for people who want to escape the Whistler bubble and experience the lakes, wildlife, catch some fish and listen to some stories,” says Brad.

Brad has lots of stories. He grew up in Pemberton and is something of a local celebrity, starring in his own fishing show on Whistler Cable for a while. Together with running a fishing store, Pemberton Fish Finder keeps him busy year round.

My only adult fishing story involves a crab trap and a capsized canoe. I had always assumed ice fishing would involve a flight to Prince George or Edmonton.

Brad Knowles, owner-operator of Pemberton Fish Finder.

Blackwater Lake is idyllic. Serrated peaks loom all around us and under blue sky, the ice is blinding. The air temperature is just below freezing, there’s no wind, and the sun is flirting with the clouds. But for a creek in the distance, the only thing I can hear is my heart beating.

“Australians lose their marbles when they see this,” says Brad. “They ask me, ‘You’re sure we can stand on this?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m 300 pounds, you can stand on this.’”

Brad sets about cutting holes in the ice with a gas-powered auger. He and Matt set us up with rods and we bait the hooks with freshwater shrimp, which are native to the lake. Everyone gets an upturned bright orange bucket and a thermal pad to sit on.

And that’s it, we’re ice fishing.

We immediately get bites. Brad and Matt coach us on setting the hook, otherwise known as the hook-set – a quick upward thrust of the rod before reeling in. One by one though, we lose the bites and rue our bad luck.

“Well there’s a reason it’s called fishing and not catching,” says Brad.

After about an hour, Brad carves out new holes and we spread out. Under his guidance, I switch bait from shrimp to trout roe. Ryan and Matt are several hundred yards away but the air is so still, it’s easy to talk without raising our voices.

A lone whisky jack keeps us company, occasionally stealing a shrimp from the bait bucket, and otherwise mocking us.

A lone whisky jack steals bait and taunts us.

Brad’s been fishing in this region for about 35 years, chasing all five salmon species, plus pike minnows, steelhead, cutthroat, bull, brook, lake and rainbow trout. Together with his dad, Ivan, and his brother, Sheridan, Brad has carved out a living here and now employs his wife in the guiding business while raising three kids.

“There’s not a day I don’t wake up and look at the mountains, excited to go to work,” he says. I can see why. Fish or no fish, Blackwater Lake is quite an office. There’s a small forestry campground nearby with a dozen sites and in summer, lily pads and extensive weed beds flourish here. And somewhere beneath our boots and buckets today are rainbow trout ranging from 10 to 25 inches and weighing as much as six pounds.

Just as I’m beginning to think the shrimp bait looks tasty we decide that it’s lunchtime.

Brad carves pairs of holes a few inches apart and sets up a shelter in seconds. We’re not cold but from inside the shelter the water appears even clearer through holes that take on a luminous quality. “Sometimes you can see the fish before you catch them,” says Brad. For now, we watch our bait descend beyond sight and remain ever hopeful.

No bites but the sandwiches help.

As 2 o’clock nears, Brad suggests we concentrate on a shaded corner of the lake. We exit the shelter and set up one last time, trying to ignore the creeping cold. I start to wonder whether one of us is actually carrying a concealed banana. Then I think back to growing up in the UK. As a schoolboy, I used to accompany friends on night-fishing trips in the Kent countryside. In two years of those fishing trips, I never caught anything but a cider hangover. It occurs to me that not only have I never caught a fish, I’ve never actually seen anyone else catch a fish.

Perhaps I’m cursed?

One rainbow trout, about 10 inches long and just in time for dinner!

I decide not to share this thought with Ryan, and instead concentrate on the hole, which I realize is freezing before my very eyes. Then I’m shaken from my thoughts.

“YEAH!” shouts Brad. I turn just in time to see the rod bend for a moment and a plump rainbow trout flop into Brad’s palm. “No way we were going before we got one,” says Brad as we celebrate the catch. It’s closer to the 10-inch end of the scale and a beautiful looking fish.

Hopeful of more to come we continue fishing for another half an hour, but to no avail. “That’s fishing,” says Brad philosophically as he drops us back in Whistler. Ryan and I both warm up while a friend cooks our catch. It’s more than worth the wait: fresh, flavorful and not even a hint of banana.

nevjudd.com

If you go

For more information about guided ice fishing trips with Pemberton Fish Finder, visit pembertonfishfinder.com.

Do not bring bananas.

Trail and tribulation in Powell River

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Make it to the top of Tin Hat Mountain and you will be rewarded with 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes. Plus you’re half way to finishing the trail! Photos courtesy Eagle Walz

Connecting Sarah Point, near Lund, to the ferry terminal at Saltery Bay, the 180-kilometre Sunshine Coast Trail now ranks among the greatest hiking trails in the world, according to Explore Magazine’s Top-50 list. Not only is it more than twice the length of the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, it’s Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail, and it’s free!

The trail’s mix of old growth forest, mountain peaks and sandy shoreline, attract thousands of visitors from around the world each year. Fifteen beautifully constructed huts en route provide overnight accommodation on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“It’s beginning to be seen as an economic driver in Powell River,” says Eagle Walz. “It’s the biggest recreational tourism resource we have.”

Walz is a trailblazer, one of a handful of outdoor enthusiasts who in 1992 realized that accessible old growth on the Upper Sunshine Coast was fast disappearing. They formed the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society (PRPAWS), a non-profit committed to setting aside protected areas on a trail sufficiently unique to lure locals and tourists alike.

Eagle Walz in his element, hiking the Sunshine Coast Trail. Walz is a co-founder of the Powell River Parks and Wilderness Society, the non-profit behind the trail’s creation and upkeep.

PRPAWS mobilized volunteer work parties and began connecting the bushwhacked paths, deactivated roads, and disused railway grades left behind by a century of logging. In some places that meant constructing bridges – some 120 feet long – to ford creeks and rivers. They found enduring allies in a group of bloody old men, otherwise known as the BOMB (Bloody Old Men’s Brigade) squad. Comprising mostly retirees, many of whom practiced their trades at Powell River’s paper mill, the BOMB squad helped build bridges and huts, and are still counted upon for help in the trail’s never-ending maintenance.

The first time I interviewed Eagle for a story back in 2000, he was fending off criticism from a variety of sources over liability issues and the environmental concerns about sensitive wildlife areas. Walz and his cohorts had run into a host of jurisdictional challenges, too. Crown forest land, private land owned by logging companies, and Tla’amin Nation land are among the eight jurisdictions through which the trail crosses.

Seventeen years ago, he addressed those questions with a question of his own: “Would the trail have been built if we’d settled all these issues first?”

When I caught up with Eagle earlier this year, that question at least, appeared to have been answered. “You couldn’t start this trail now and try and make this happen,” says Eagle. “But that doesn’t mean the logging companies won’t stop logging. Western Forest Products, with their tree farm licence, they are the biggest interest. We manage to work together and eke out considerations. I only wish it would be a bigger buffer along the trail than we get most of the time.”

That buffer can be from 10 to 30 metres, sometimes more. Occasionally, the trail must be relocated in places. Overall, says Eagle, compromise and varying levels of protection ensure the trail’s viability.

“Our vision is that in 100 years, we’ll have no more logging near the trail,” he says. “It will be designated an old growth trail to be enjoyed by future generations. It needs someone to be the champion for it. We’re hopeful the younger generation will take over and certainly a lot of younger people are using it. People of all ages.”

Perhaps more challenging to PRPAWS is pressure on the trail from non-hikers.

“Mountain biking is very popular here, as it is everywhere else. The pressure is always to turn something into something else. But a multi-use trail wouldn’t have the same appeal as a single-use trail. We’re struggling to remain a hiking trail only because that’s what’s given us the edge in the market place. That’s what is bringing people by the thousands from all over the world to Powell River.”

In the meantime, trail maintenance keeps Eagle busier than ever. Ten years retired as a teacher, Eagle says he has time to enjoy the trail, but it’s usually when he’s part of a work party. The day I call him, he’s about to leave on just such a mission – a five-night trip to Confederation Lake, a steep section of the trail in Inland Lake Park, north of Powell River.

Eagle Walz takes in the view from the hut atop Tin Hat Mountain.

It’s a favourite spot, he says, before adding: “I think usually where I’m working, I like that part the best.” Eagle’s other cherished locations include Tin Hat Mountain with its 360-degree views of more than two-dozen lakes; and Mount Troubridge, popular for its magnificent stands of Douglas fir and yellow-cedar old growth.

When Eagle’s not on the trail, he’s writing about it – though not in the way he might have envisaged in 1972, when he moved to Powell River to write poetry: “I write hundreds and hundreds of emails,” he says in a deadpan voice. “That’s basically the extent of my writing.”

  • Visit http://sunshinecoast-trail.com/ for everything you need to know about planning a trip, including the definitive guide to the trail, written by – who else? – Eagle Walz.

Breaking bad never felt so good

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It’s not easy admitting your bad habits, but Sean Parrinder wants to know.

Sean is my personal trainer and confidante for the day at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. He bears a passing resemblance to Justin Timberlake and I like that he doesn’t appear to be judging me.

“My body’s a temple,” I want to say. “A temple subjected to repeated bouts of vandalism at the hands of microbrewers and artisan bakeries.”

Instead I tell Sean: “Every year it’s the same. January rolls around and I follow my wife to the gym with extra pounds and good intentions. Trouble is I just meander from machine to machine, avoiding eye contact and wondering what the levers and pulleys do.”

Sean nods. “And then what do you do?”

“I walk the treadmill until it’s time to go.”

5.0.2

Sean applies his kinesiology degree and love of sport to helping kids and adults achieve fitness goals. At this time of year, his services are in demand as part of the Fairmont’s Breaking Bad Habits Whistler Getaway, a new year’s kickstart for that age-old resolution of getting fit.

Among other treats, the package includes an ‘energizer breakfast’ of strawberry and banana smoothie with dates, bee pollen, honey and orange juice, along with a toasted bagel with cream cheese. And there’s a Detox Body Wrap at the Vida Spa. But now is the hard part.

We’re in the discovery process of Sean asking me about my fitness goals and the habits I aim to break. I tell him that I need process, not procrastination; method, not mediocrity. Sean understands. He tells me to leave cardio till last and begin with tougher compound exercises, designed to work out multiple major muscle groups. We’ll focus on a lower range of repetitions – from five to eight – but increase the weight each time. Finally, we’ll monitor our rest periods and focus on breathing.

I warm up on the rowing machine and try to ignore Matt Damon staring at me from the cover of Men’s Fitness. We move on to the seated leg press – a machine I actually know how to use. You just sit down with your knees to your chest and straighten your legs by pushing away a weighted plate. The most I’ve ever pressed is 140 pounds, yet Sean starts me on eight reps of 180, eventually rising to eight at 200.

5.0.2

During the course of an hour, through lunges, squats, back extensions, and bar curls, Sean pushes me harder than I ever would have ever pushed myself. True, there are times when I want to punch him, but we high-five as I complete my final exercise; three sets of dips – gripping parallel bars, lowering my body so my arms are at 90 degrees before pushing my body up again. I learn which of my muscles are benefitted by each machine and feel better prepared for my next visit to the gym. But my excitement at completing the circuit is tinged with embarrassment. I realize I’ve been a bit of a wuss until now.

Ninety minutes later I’m acutely aware of the muscles I’ve worked. They’re aching, but I couldn’t be in a better place. Vida Spa claims to restore energy and promote well-being via a range of therapies, facials, wraps and exfoliations. The Breaking Bad Habits package includes an hour of the latter. As I’m rubbed down with course sea salt I can’t help thinking of an old soccer coach who used to recommend a meat pie and a pint as the best post-exercise routine.

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After a quick shower I’m back on the massage table for a full-body application of shea butter and a scalp massage. My body has almost forgotten this morning’s workout. I feel like a basted turkey. Blissed out, I’m reluctant to leave the table but I’m instructed to take another quick shower. I return for a classic massage. Face down and somewhere near nirvana, I realize my body almost does feel like a temple!

I cap my afternoon’s decadence in the Fairmont’s Health Club, alternating between the sauna, steam room, hot tub and pools. I ponder how jealous my wife will be when I tell her about the shea butter, the scalp massage …

Sean spots me and recommends that I take a cold shower after each session in the sauna and steam room. “Always finish cool,” he says.

I decide to tell my wife about the cold showers.

  • The Fairmont’s Breaking Bad Habits Whistler Getaway costs $569 per person and is available all year. It includes two nights’ accommodation, a Morning Energizer breakfast, a two-course Lifestyle Cuisine dinner, a 60-minute Detox Body Wrap at Vida Spa, Fairmont fit gear, and the choice of one of the following Fairmont Chateau Whistler Health Club activities: Aquafit, yoga, personal training session, resistance stretching or a one-hour personal running session per adult. Visit www.fairmont.com/whistler/ and click on ‘special packages’ or call 1 800 606 82441 800 606 8244.

Written by nevjudd

March 31, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Quebec City by bike

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Taking a break in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

Resting in Quebec City at Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France.

The older my children get, the more discerning they become about holiday activities. My teenagers Ryan and Emma are not big on cycling, history or museums. And like most people they don’t like rain much either.

So there we were with our bikes in the rain, standing outside The Museum of Civilization in old Quebec City.

“Well at least it’s dry in the museum,” I reasoned.

“Can’t we just find somewhere to eat?” asked Ryan.

It wasn’t the first time Quebec had witnessed a clash of wills – what military historians might call an impasse. After a three-month siege in 1759, it took General Wolfe and the British about 15 minutes to beat Montcalm and the French in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

Keep your head up riding through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes.

It took the Judds about the same time to finish arguing, lock their bikes and enter the museum. Then something remarkable happened. “Game Story, the exhibition you play,” read the sign in the lobby. Yes, besides first-rate exhibitions about Quebec history and a showcase of Paris between 1889 and 1914, The Museum of Civilization was hosting a video game exhibition, featuring 450 artifacts and 88 video games to play. Everything from World of Warcraft to Pong was available.

We were still in the museum long after the rain had stopped and the sun had returned. It was just the first of several surprising events during our two-night stay in Quebec City. That night we cycled our bikes to the Port of Quebec Agora, an amphitheatre hosting Cirque du Soleil’s Les Chemin Invisibles. Quebec City might just be the only place where Cirque du Soleil is free! Had they been charging, our floor tickets would have cost a fortune because most of the show unfolded just a few yards from where we stood.

The Harbour of Lost Souls is the fifth chapter of Les Chemin Invisibles. The employees of an old customs officer decide to put on a show for his birthday in the hopes of helping him to find purpose in his life. The show is spectacular in its conception with performers suspended from cranes just a few feet above the audience and on moving stages that spring up in the crowd.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It's a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Just across from the National Assembly is the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos and knackered cyclists.

Cirque du Soleil is a tough act to follow, but the Image Mill is timed to follow it and succeeds if only for its epic setting. A legacy of Quebec City’s 400th birthday in 2008, the Image Mill is a sound and image show projected onto massive grain silos in Quebec’s harbour. We joined the hordes lining the harbour to watch this summer’s show, a tribute to Scottish-born, Canadian filmmaker, Norman McLaren. A pioneer in synchronizing animation with music, McLaren, who died in 1987, would surely have approved of his work being presented on the biggest ‘big screen’ ever conceived.

Back at the Hotel Royal William in Quebec City’s trendy New St. Roch neighbourhood, we locked up our bikes and I ventured out for a nightcap on Boulevard Charest Est. The Mo Resto Bar had one more surprise in store for me; beer pumps at the table! The beer is metered of course (it’s not heaven) at 35 cents an ounce. But for my wife, I might still be there pouring modest amounts of Belle Gueule Blonde or Red ale.

Thanks to the success of Day 1, we sold the kids on a guided bike tour the following day.

At first glance, Quebec City doesn’t appear built for bicycles. Narrow lanes, cobblestones and hills usually look good in postcards, not from a saddle. But first impressions can be deceiving. A few bumps and the occasional grind are a small price to pay for a two-wheeled tour of North America’s only walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site. For visitors with more time, there are several hundred kilometres of bike trails to ride beyond the fortress walls.

Our guide, Marc Lupien of Cyclo Services, has been riding the same Nishiki road bike for 35 years (“I changed the brake cable once or twice – and the seat!”) and has seen the growth of bike culture here.

Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.

Chateau Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world and surely the inspiration for Hogwarts.

“It’s not uncommon to see people buying $10,000 bikes in Quebec City,” said Marc. “It’s a relatively short season, but cycling is growing faster than golf here.”

While bike lanes line the edge of the St. Lawrence River and part of the escarpment above, cycling through Vieux Quebec itself takes some improvisation. In summer the streets are busy with pedestrians preoccupied with their centuries-old surroundings. Fortunately, it’s legal to ride the sidewalk and we were soon slaloming on either side of the kerb.

Marc’s tour skirted Laval University, formerly the Seminaire de Quebec and the oldest centre of education in Canada; the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham; Quebec’s National Assembly and Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. (I’d swear it was the inspiration for Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.)

Just across from the National Assembly we stopped at the Fountaine de Tourny, built for the city’s 400th birthday and a popular spot for wedding photos. It was hard not to notice the monolithic Hilton and Delta hotels, whose desperately unimaginative architecture is in dramatic contrast to most buildings in Vieux Quebec.

We lingered in Place Royale, site of Samuel de Champlain’s first permanent settlement in New France. Grey stones mark the footings of where Champlain’s home once stood, right outside Notre Dame des Victories, the oldest stone church in North America, dating back to 1687. There are similar grey stone markers all over Old Quebec, said Marc, signalling other historic sites that would be impossible to excavate now.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

Near the Citadelle atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham.

We rode the waterfront and part of the old port of Quebec before an adventurous ride through crowds of shoppers in the narrow, cobblestoned lanes of Quartier Petit Champlain. Once a fur-trading portside village, it’s now full of boutiques, bistros and frescoes. A funicular railway connects the area to Dufferin Terrace, a beautifully landscaped boardwalk with the best view of the St. Lawrence River. It seemed like a fitting place to stop for an ice cream and consider the view Champlain enjoyed in 1608.

People had told me that Quebec would remind me of an old European city. Aside from medieval Bruges in Belgium, I don’t know of another place as beautiful as Quebec City. Even Ryan and Emma liked it!

If you go:

In the heart of old Quebec City since 1995, Cyclo Services offers bike rentals and a variety of guided bike tours. Visit http://www.cycloservices.net or call 1 877 692-4050.

The Hotel Royal William is in the heart of New St. Roch, a neighbourhood full of great bars, coffee shops, restaurants and independent stores. It’s a few minutes bike ride from the old city and the train station. Packages start at $99 per person. Visit http://www.hotelroyalwilliam.com/en/

Free shows by Cirque du Soleil and the Image Mill are known collectively as Rendezvous sous les Etoiles and run Tuesday to Saturday, concluding with a Sunday performance Sept. 1.

For more on Quebec’s Museum of Civilization, visit www.mcq.org/en/mcq

For all other travel information about Quebec City, visit www.quebecregion.com/en

Written by nevjudd

October 2, 2013 at 9:09 pm