Banff, Canada

  • Visited October 2018

Banff is without doubt one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. The town is situated within Banff National Park and the natural beauty of the area – mountains, lakes, falls – is truly spectacular. I’m sure it is equally as lovely in the summer months but I felt lucky to visit in October as there was some early snow fall and watching the sun rise over snow-capped mountains – which allows visitors to observe the ‘Alpenglow’ (the mountains shimmer with dusky pink light) – is really quite special indeed.

To get to Banff, you can fly to Calgary and then book a shuttle to take you to Banff. The Banff Airporter shuttle can be booked online and they provided a very efficient service. The journey time is around two hours and the shuttle makes a stop in Canmore first.

Banff offers fantastic hiking opportunities in the day time and a very lively social scene in the evenings so it’s the perfect place to come if you want to get back to nature, recharge your batteries, and have fun. Banff downtown area, with Banff Avenue running through it, is very attractive, surrounded by mountains, with touristy shops, cool bars and a wide variety of eateries.

Suggested sights/things to do:

  • Lake Louise – you can get a free shuttle from outside the high school. Lake Louise is an hour away from Banff downtown. I would recommend taking the 7.30 am shuttle as the lake is particularly beautiful when viewed early. You will see the full mirror effect and as the sun rises, the lake appears bluer. After a stroll along the lake side, you can get a breakfast roll and a coffee at the Fairmont Chateau hotel (beside the lake) at their Chateau Deli before taking the 11am shuttle back to town (I would take this one as the next one isn’t until 5.30 pm).
  • Banff Upper Hot Springs – $10.20 gets you a towel and a locker. You can also hire a swimming costume if needed. We had a great experience here.
  • Banff Gondola (only a short walk from the Hot Springs) – £67 but the view at the top is worth it, simply phenomenal. You can get free hot apple cider on the top level. Layer up though as it does get very cold up there – we visited after going to the Hot Springs and my hair actually froze!
  • Nice walks: Bow Falls trail to the Bow Falls and Fenland Trail to Vermillion Lakes.
  • Popular hikes: Sulphur Mountain and Tunnel Mountain.

Recommended bars/eateries:

  • High Rollers – bowling, wide variety of craft beers (my favourite was the Blueberry Sangria), and food (the mac and cheese bites were amazing!). Daily specials on offer.
  • Maple and Stump – big tequila menu and very tasty Mexican food (loved my veg quesadillas).
  • Bear Street Tavern – £10 Stein beers on a Sunday with delicious pizza.
  • Melissa’s Missteak – very popular party place.
  • Devil’s Gap – don’t really remember much about being here but I know I had fun (too many shots …ha ha).

Note: when planning a visit to Banff, do take into consideration the seasons. When I arrived mid-October, I had no idea that I would be unable to do some things. The Banff Upper Hot Springs closed on 15th October for a couple of weeks for cleaning. The road to Moraine Lake is currently closed until May 2019. Some trips have stopped running, for example, I was unable to visit the Columbia Icefield as that is now closed off until May 2019 and this was a big disappointment as I’m told this is stunning and a must-do. If you intend to hike around this time of year, you will want to bring along hiking boots or get yourself some ice clips as early snow can make trails icy and very slippery. 

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Ottawa, Canada

  • Visited October 2018

Ottawa, the capital, has been called the most boring city in Canada so my expectations were not high when I visited. However, I enjoyed my time here very much, although I did have the added advantage of having a friend in the city – it was lovely to be reunited with my French-Canadian friend Sophie, who I shared a dorm room with in Jerusalem. I found Ottawa to be an attractive city with welcoming people and lots to do.

Ottawa is an easy city to get around by foot. I stayed near the Byward Market area, a very touristy place, not far from key landmarks such as Parliament, the National Gallery of Canada, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica and the canal. Surrounding the Market, there are numerous restaurants and bars to enjoy, as well as boutiques and the market stalls. Le Moulin de Provence proudly sells the famous ‘Obama Cookie’ – a cookie shaped in maple-leaf form, with the word Canada piped on in white icing – that Obama requested during a visit to Ottawa, and I can confirm is very tasty! The Irish bar Auld Dubliner is a chilled place to grab a drink and a snack after a mooch round the market. The staff were friendly and attentive when I popped in and the barman took the time to talk through beer recommendations with me (I opted for a pint of Brooklyn which hit the spot nicely…). Currently on display in the Market is a giant pumpkin (weighing over 1,000lbs apparently) which I found quite charming. If you fancy a sweet treat when in this area, get yourself a Beaver Tail. I’ll let you find out for yourself what this is, though I can say it is definitely not a real beaver tail, which my Canadian friend tried to jokingly convince me it was (“it’s a local delicacy”, she said…. ha ha).

The nearby Andaz hotel offers a great view of the city from the rooftop bar and is a good spot to watch the sun go down. Sophie and I enjoyed a couple of proseccos and snacks there one evening.

If you want to catch a movie when in the area, Bytowne Cinema is a cute old-school one-screen cinema that shows latest releases and independent films.

Other highlights for me were my visit to the National Gallery of Canada, the Notre-Dame and the National Arts Centre. Sophie and I had a delicious pre-show dinner at Le Cafe in the Arts Centre complex before seeing a contemporary dance performance of ‘Xenos’ by the Akram Khan Company. A walk by the canal is also very nice and I’m told in the winter it becomes a long ice-skating rink, with places that serve Beaver Tails and hot chocolate along the route, which I’m sure is lots of fun.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to visit inside the Parliament building. Free tours are offered in French and English which you have to book at 90 Wellington (on the street opposite the Parliament building) but when I went along at noon on the day I intended to visit, I was told all of the English tour tickets were taken. As the only way to go inside the building is with a tour, I was invited to do the French-speaking tour but I declined. It was a very foggy day so that may explain why all the tickets were gone but if you definitely want to visit, then perhaps go early to book a tour slot to ensure you don’t miss out.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Montréal, Canada

  • Visited October 2018

Well ladies and gentlemen, Montréal is what I call a ‘grower’. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight, but spend a few days here and Montréal gets under your skin and into your heart, especially if you are an arts and culture junkie like me.

Architecturally Montréal is a mish mash of styles. Old Montréal and the Old Port area is predictably lovely to look at and stroll around but the real Montréal is to be found in areas like the Plateau (official name Le Plateau Mont-Royal) which has lots of character. You can practically hear the Arcade Fire (the band originated here) soundtrack pulsing as you walk the streets. Look out for quirky boutiques, hip bars/restaurants and phenomenal street art murals visually representing this city’s creative vibes and free spirit.

A real highlight for me was visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica. I always enjoy visiting religious buildings for their architecture and iconography but the interior of the Notre-Dame Basilica is absolutely stunning. It also photographs beautifully and I really enjoyed capturing this venue. It costs $6 entry which must be paid in cash and you may find a long queue to get in when you go along, but it is well-worth any wait.

Being a fan of modern and contemporary art I was disappointed to find that The Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal – situated within the the Place des festivals in the Quartier des spectacles, part of the Place des Arts complex  – is currently closed as the museum is preparing for upcoming exhibits. It is due to re-open October 19th. I was, however, fortunate to catch the contemporary ballet ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, performed by Les Grands Ballet Canadiens de Montréal, at the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in Place des Arts. It’s a good venue (I paid for the cheapest ticket in the upper mezzanine and had a great view) and the ballet itself was fantastic.

My hostel was located in the lively area of Quartier Latin, part of the Quartier des Spectacles, which is known as a student-friendly neighborhood with vibrant nightlife. Rue Saint-Denis is full of bars and restaurants and also has an Odeon cinema – I caught a showing of the latest Mission Impossible movie here. Some films are shown in their original English versions as well as dubbed in French so double check when you buy your ticket. I accidentally watched the French version of ‘Mission Impossible: Fall Out’ but luckily my French was good enough to get the gist of the action ha ha. Rookie error.

Another notable feature of Montréal is the RÉSO (also known as The Underground City), an underground network of interconnected malls, hostels etc. It is the largest underground complex in the world and a great place to escape the cold Canadian winters.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Québec City, Canada

  • Visited October 2018

La ville de Québec est magnifique! Very French and very beautiful, I loved my time in Québec City. It’s the perfect blend of French and Canadian influences. Strolling the streets of the old town, Vieux-Québec, is like stepping back in time, and I spent most of my time in this area of the city. Divided into two levels, the Haute-Ville (Upper Town) and Basse-Ville (Lower Town) are both full of lovingly-preserved buildings, historical buildings of note, cool shops and restaurants providing a range of cuisines, including traditional quebecois delights (you have not done Québec if you haven’t had poutine…), for the intrepid traveller. I spent three nights here and that felt like enough time to get a feel for the city and do everything I wanted to.     

My itinerary:

Day 1 – explored The Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec (stunning interior!), the Château Frontenac (most photographed hotel in the world apparently), Terrace Dufferin (lovely promenade next to the Château and a great place to people watch when the weather is good), Quartier Petit Champlain (oldest commercial district in North America and can be accessed by funicular or via the oldest staircase in Québec City, the Breakneck Stairs) and Place-Royale (a cobblestone square with 17th and 18th century buildings).

Day 2 – took a walk past the Parliament building and the Citadelle to visit The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec. Absolutely loved this place, was right up my street. The museum predominantly features the work of Québec artists. The site is modern, a fab place to photograph, and the exhibits were excellent. In the evening I enjoyed food and drinks at Pub Saint-Patrick. Food is decent and the service provided by friendly staff is very good.

Day 3 – strolled along the Ramparts, mooched round the Marché du Vieux-Porte, and visited Québec City’s most popular museum, The Musée de la civilisation à Québec. Interesting place. They have a current exhibition on London, ‘Ici Londres’ which I really enjoyed. When I visited The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec I was given a discount voucher of 20% off various venues in the city, including The Musée de la civilisation à Québec so the ticket price was $18.

Québec City is not simply a beautiful, historical place to visit – it’s a state of mind. A place to slow down, enjoy life, and wonder at the spectacular sites of the city. C’est vraiment spécial!

Note: It is cold visiting in October so bring your winter woolies with you!

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Halifax (Nova Scotia), Canada

  • Visited September 2018

What a place! The people of Halifax have been voted the friendliest in Canada so when choosing somewhere to base myself to celebrate my birthday, this was a no brainer, and I was not disappointed. It’s impossible to come here and not come away having made at least one new friend – spend some time at popular Irish bar Durty Nelly’s and that’s guaranteed! I met a great couple in Real Estate from the Niagara Falls area who got chatting to me at the bar and proceeded to buy me drinks to celebrate the last day of me being forty ha ha. The weather wasn’t great during my visit – although the sun magically came out for my day trip to Peggy’s Cove – but the warmth of the people and plenty of indoor venues to visit meant I still enjoyed myself. If all else fails and you get torrential rain like I had, there are a plethora of pubs ready and willing to serve you and give you a Halifax welcome.

Halifax offers heritage buildings for the historically-minded amongst you, top-notch restaurants for the foodies and craft beer houses galore for beer gourmets. The aforementioned Durty Nelly’s is good craic everyday – I really enjoyed the seafood chowder, a beer called Dirty Blonde (sounded made for me ha ha) and the live music. Lower Deck on the harbour-front is the perfect al fresco venue weather-permitting and the place to be on a Sunday apparently. For a fantastic treat meal, I can recommend The Five Fishermen. This was the chosen venue for my birthday meal as I was drawn to the history of the place (it was once a mortuary for victims of the Titanic and reports of ghostly sightings persist) and reputation of its seafood dishes. In a lovely heritage building you will find a casual grill downstairs and fine dining restaurant upstairs. I received excellent service at the bar upstairs and thoroughly enjoyed my dish of The Five Fish – salmon, scallops, shrimp, swordfish, lobster served with an asparagus risotto. The oyster festival was on on the weekend I visited and you can find fresh oysters, lobster etc at various places in the city.

Being an Art lover, a visit to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia was a must-do for me. They are particularly known for their exhibition of the work of local folk artist Maud Lewis and for having her famous little painted house on display. I recommend watching the film Maudie before visiting to really appreciate the beauty of her work and the house itself.   

Other venues perfect for rainy days include the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (free Tuesdays 5 – 8pm), Museum of Natural History (free Wednesdays 5 – 8pm) and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. I should also note that The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia is actually free on Thursdays 5 – 8 pm and the Discovery Centre (Science museum) is free Wednesdays 5 – 8pm. There is a good cinema in the Park Lane Mall, in the downtown area, so I actually popped to the movies a couple of times as I’ve missed seeing films whilst I’ve been travelling in other places.

Nova Scotia is, of course, known for its spectacular natural beauty and many people come to Halifax to do the Cabot trail. Autumn is a popular time to visit as visitors like to see the changing foliage reflecting the seasonal transition. Absolutely unmissable is a half day visit to Peggy’s Cove (you can buy tickets at the ticket hut beside the entrance of the Maritime museum and the bus leaves from this location at 1pm daily). Peggy’s Point Lighthouse is said to be one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world and I was thrilled we had good weather on the day I went and was lucky to take some fab photos. The cove itself is really quaint and you should buy yourself a lobster roll when there.  I didn’t get to Lunenberg, the port town and UNESCO site, unfortunately as the weather was so foul but would like to return in the summer time one day to explore more.

Overall: loved it!

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St John’s (Newfoundland), Canada.

  • Visited September 2018

Visiting St John’s in Newfoundland is akin to rubbing balm on your soul. Everything you have heard about the warmth and hospitality of Newfoundlanders is true.  Everyone I encountered was lovely – genuine, polite, chatty (but not obtrusively so). I was greeted with hellos by strangers as I walked around the city, doors were held open for me and I could enjoy an iceberg beer in a bar watching local musicians play without being hassled. It was a refreshing change and explains why increasing numbers of travellers are being drawn to visit this part of the world; for the people as much as for the stunning landscape.

Appearing on maps as early as 1519, St John’s is said to be the oldest city in North America and it is known for its colourful ‘Jellybean’ rows of houses. Newfoundlanders are very proud of their heritage and culture, and I would recommend a visit to The Rooms, a cultural centre with excellent exhibits, if you are interested in learning more. If you have an interest in history, you will find walking trails all over the city with informative signposts detailing the significance of various sites, and I throughly enjoyed my walk up to Signal Hill, the spot where Marconi received the first wireless transmission signal in 1901. Signal Hill provides magnificent views of the city, the harbour, and Cape Spear Lighthouse so this should not be missed. The Basilica of St John the Baptist is also worth a visit.

Downtown St John’s is where you will find most of the action. Water Street has some excellent restaurants, shops, and the obligatory Starbucks. George Street is full of bars and clubs, including Trapper John’s which is a popular place to get ‘screeched in’. A Newfoundland tradition, getting ‘screeched in’ involves non-Newfoundlanders doing a shot of screech and kissing a cod! I spent a great Sunday at Green Sleeves Pub knocking back beers, enjoying tasty food, and watching a very entertaining singing duo who sang a range of crowd pleasers and traditional folk songs. You will find live music daily at various venues on George Street.

Another favourite venue of mine was Mussels On The Corner, on Water Street, which offers mussels served different ways and has 18 beers on tap, including Quidi Vidi Iceberg Beer, a light and refreshing lager. This place had a cool vibe and the service was very good. Recommended.

I would definitely visit St John’s again and hope to explore more of Newfoundland in the future.

Tip: bring a warm coat, hat, scarf and gloves with you. When visiting in late September I was grateful for them. Found myself wearing sunglasses, jumper and scarf during the day when the sun was out but it does get very cold in the evenings so you will want to layer up…

Selection of pictures from my stay: