Island Time:Vancouver Island N + Quadra

IMG_1249After cruising around Denman and Hornby Islands (see previous blog) we headed north. The road and the vegetation made me feel like we were headed for the Yukon. But this was north on the island. Right after Campbell River there were no more towns, no gas stations, not many side roads. Just a road north. The clouds settled in low and grey. The drizzle was steady. After a few hours we managed a quick picnic at a rest area. We had not seen any stores or restaurants since we left Campbell River so we were glad to have our own food with us. We drove into Port Hardy and I was surprised at what a small town it is. Gas was 15 cents per liter more than down south. We tried a few hotels/motels and all were well over 100.- for a simple room with a bed. After a stop to the local tourist information office, we walked over to a backpackers’ hostel. A private room was 50.-. Good deal. The place was interesting since it was in a converted movie theatre. A hallway, kitchen and rooms had been build in what was the theatre part. Bathrooms had been added and everything was neatly painted and decorated. It was clean and the managers exceptionally friendly. IMG_1239

With a cheap room, we decided we had earned a nice diner in the pub next door: fresh prawn and mango taco’s. IMG_1203

The following day we drove slightly south to the ferry in Port McNeill, a small seaside town. We stopped in a small hamlet on the way,
Fort Rupert, where old totem poles lined the water front. A beautiful First Nations gravesite was full of decaying totems, carved from cedar, with proud ravens and orcas.
Then continued to Port McNeill where we boarded the ferry for a 45 minute ride to Cormorant Island and the tiny town of Alert Bay. IMG_1216This First Nations village has many beautiful totems ranging from new to ancient. We walked along the wooden boardwalk, saw the run down buildings that were a cannery, fishery and net storage. A tiny library, cute shops, even a bannock place. It felt like Alaska or the Yukon. The best place to visit was the impressive Cultural Centre with many masks and other artifacts and films about potlatches. I highly recommend a visit to this remote, unique village.IMG_1209

Back on the main island we drove just minutes out of Port McNeill, down a dirt road, to a newly developed golf/disk golf resort with a small RV park and cabins. The one room cabin we had booked online turned out to be a nice, new and quite large room with a bathroom and sitting area. We enjoyed a glass of wine outside, looking out over the water, a cruise ship chugging by, and Cormorant Island in the distance. Bald eagles glided over and perched in trees around us.

Driving south, the clouds had lifted and the drizzle was replaced by blue sky and sunshine. It seemed a different world. We made our way down the coast to Telegraph Cove. IMG_1260

We had heard a lot about this picturesque village on the northern coast but were quite disappointed. A few buildings were indeed perched on stilts in the water. But not an entire town. The cove itself was chockfull of a marina. The few buildings there seemed to all be part of the same tourist resort. It was nice to see history preserved, with old buildings and wooden boardwalks, and plagues describing the history of the original town. But overall it felt like a tourist trap, not truly worth the drive in and out.
From here we drove south in one stretch, straight to the ferry terminal in Campbell River and from there to Quadra Island, the largest of thIMG_1270e Discovery Islands. We had found it difficult to find much concrete information about facilities and accommodations prior to visiting this island. Even at the ferry terminal we couldn’t find a map for the island. We had made a reservation at a campground. Turned out to be at the Heriot Bay Inn, an old pub and restaurant. The campsites lined the cove, with murky waters but a bustling marina. At $37.- per night this was not great since it felt like a parking lots, with our neighbours less than a foot away when sleeping in our tent. We didn’t use the sewer or power in the site but still had to pay extra for a shower. The pub was fairly noisy at night. If we go again, we would likely try to find a spot at Wewaikai Campground (wewaikai.com) which had more attractive coast views and beach access. IMG_1224

We did enjoy driving every road on Quadra, from the lighthouse on the southern tip, through the First Nations village with a cultural centre, having coffee at Café Aroma, browsing at the fabulous bookstore, to exploring the rugged north end. The best part, I think, was hiking Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park, with the sheltered bay on one side and the open waters of the Strait of Georgia on the other. IMG_1237

Island Time: Northern Vancouver Island

IMG_1142IMG_1190We have a week and a half to explore close to home. Often our trips take us across the world. This time, we don’t need to content with carry-on luggage or airports. We simply load up the car and leave home.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are close to some of the world’s most beautiful natural areas. We have seen much of it but have never been to northern Vancouver Island.

 

Most visitors come to the large island, about the size of The Netherlands, to visit Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. And while this is a gorgeous, friendly city with lots to do, the island has so much more to offer. On a previous trip we took our Westfalia camper through Victoria to Sooke and around the southern tip of the island to Port Renfrew and back to Cowichan. On this trip we saw stately rain forests, bears and isolated beaches.

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Cable ferry

We’ve driven through Port Alberni across the island from east to west to visit the small, quaint towns of Ucuelet and Tofino on the breathtaking west coast where surfers roam white beaches and hippies inhabit the coffee shops in town.

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Qualicum First Nations Campsite

But this time, we drive north through Nanaimo and Qualicum to our first camping spot on the shore of the Salish Sea: the Qualicum First Nations Campground. This beautiful piece of land along the east coast of Vancouver Island offers many RV sites right along the water. Each site had water and a picnic table, several had sewer service. There were no toilet buildings but a few very clean, odourless port-a-potties did the job. We enjoyed staring over the water and listening to the waves as we fell asleep in our tent.

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Only on the islands…

The next morning we packed up and drove north to the ferry to Denman and Hornby Islands. I hadn’t, until then, realized that you need to go to Denman first to get to Hornby. The brand new cable ferry ride took about 20 minutes. The fee of around 40.- was for two people and a car and allows us to stay on either island for as long we like, return fare included.

We decided to work our way back and scooted straight across Denman to Hornby. There we were surprised to find much still closed, even on the last day of May. The pub/restaurant by the ferry landing was closed. The bookstore was closed. And several signs along the way said ‘closed’. We drove several of the few roads on the island and liked what we saw: pastoral farms, very green, forests of tall evergreens and ferns. We found an eclectic cluster of Coop store, coffee shop, craft and clothing shops.

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Hornby

The detailed (free) island map showed a B & B, which did not seem to exist in reality. But a resort which, according to its website, was closed turned out to be open. Moral: don’t believe it until you see it.

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Sea Breeze

The resort where we ended up staying two nights because it was so wonderful, is called Sea Breeze: http://www.seabreezelodge.com.

It offers spacious cottages right along the coast line. We sit on our porch in adirondack chairs to sip our morning coffee. The cottages are very private. Ours has a kitchen and fireplace. At $145.- this was not cheap but the kitchen allowed us to make all of our own meals, which made it the same or less expensive than a B & B room plus having to eat out.

There’s even a very good hot tub to soak in. And on the blustery nights we spent here, we sure enjoyed the fireplace. IMG_1164

We managed to go for a wonderful hike during the only time it rained while we were on Hornby. We did the return Ford Cove to Shingle Spit Trail, about 2.5 KM one way. Gorgeous setting, relatively level and a well maintained trail along the coast, amid towering cedars, ferns and gleaming arbutus. Nice to spot lots of fossil rocks along the way. But no cafe, no patio, no pub on either side. Just a marina at Ford Cove with a little store.

From Horny we drove back to Denman, which is apparently nicknamed ‘Hornby’s speed bump’ since most visitors race across it to reach the ferry to Hornby. To us Denman did indeed seem less attractive. Many of its roads were unpaved and we saw a plethora of signs telling us to “keep out” and “no trespassing”. There were not many services on the island – we did’t find a patio on the water, nor a cute little pub. We did discover a very good coffee shop, well hidden inside the local hardware store! In the back, a secret garden with brand new adirondack chairs invited us to linger. The bookstore next door was open and well stocked with good titles.

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Denman

A 15 minute ferry ride took us back to the main island and we drove north to Comox, where we had booked a perfect AirBnB: the ground floor of a brand new house. A small living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom offered luxurious bedding and towels and everything we needed in a kitchen including muffins, fruit and coffee. For 75.- this was a perfect find and highly recommended.

Next blog: Port Hardy, Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove

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I Looked Over Jordan and What Did I See?

Sleeping in a Bedouin Tent in Jordan

The bus from Tiberias drove south, as far south as you can go in Israel.
We slowly descended to the Dead Sea which, at 417 meters below sea level, is the lowest spot on earth. Crusted salt deposited clung to the shore line. The air was hazy with sand blowing in from Egypt. All day we drove along a solid wall of light brown mountains to the east – behind which we knew was Jordan.
Via Jericho and Masada, we drove south through the Negev desert. Considering that the bus cost us only about $25.-, the bus seems to be one of the most economic ways to travel throughout Israel.
Eilat, the southern most town in Israel, was a disappointment. It seemed a dusty, run-down version of Las Vegas with glitzy hotels, a small strip of beach and lots of amusement places. The worst thing was the airport. It is right smack in the middle of town. Huge airplanes come thundering over, missing the mall by a few feet. You can sit sipping beer on the beach and watch the belly of an airplane come right overhead.
We were glad we hadn’t planned on spending more than one night here.

The next morning we took a taxi to the Jordanian border. The paperwork on the Israeli side took perhaps a half hour because of line ups. The Jordan side was faster. Then we sat sipping Turkish coffee until our taxi showed up. We had booked this via our accommodations in Petra. A beautiful new car with a lovely guy who spoke English picked us up and drove us the 2 hours to Petra, at a very reasonable rate.
Driving along we noticed large white tents with U.N. logos. “Tents given for free to Syrian refugees,” our driver explained. Then he grinned. “Once the refugees move to the city, they sell these free tents for a profit to the Bedouin!” Probably not what the U.N. had in mind…
The accommodations I had picked from the internet. Petra is surrounded by regular hotels: the Ramada Inn, the Marriott. But, I thought, why would you want to stay in a normal hotel when you visit a place as unusual as Petra? Especially when you can stay in a bedouin camp?! On the website, Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp looked like fun. (http://www.sevenwondersbedouincamp.com/homepage.html)
We decided to be brave and booked a 3 night stay in a tent. And we were glad we did. To us, three nights was the perfect length of time.

The camp turned out to be a collection of square white tents, with inner and outer shells, a sold frame with a door. Inside were two metal bed frames with a big soft mattress, topped by 3 heavy blankets. When we crawled in at night, we felt like we were in a big warm nest surrounded by cool desert air and no sounds at all. Until 6 AM when bleating sheep strolled by. And until our last night when we laid awake listening to the distant thunder of shooting in the Gaza strip.
We only had electricity between 7 PM and 11 PM but didn’t miss anything. Internet was turned on for about an hour at night and one could see why it was so limited. As soon as they had internet, guests were staring at their devices instead of talking to each other! We met people from all over the world in this camp, and there were only about 14 people there at the same time, which was lovely and quiet.

Besides the 20 some guest tents, there were several very large, black traditional Bedouin tents. These had carpets on the floor, and many large woven pillows for reclining. At one end was a primitive wood stove belching smoke into the tent. And heat. We were toasty warm and ended up eating most meals here. We also drank endless small glasses of tea. We liked that this camp, as many Muslims sites, was alcohol free. But tea, in contrast, flowed freely. A sweet black tea with sage. Very addictive…
On the first night we were told that they made a point of serving something different for dinner every night. Every night we had rice, chicken, salad and potatoes. It was good – but no variety :-)The camp was run by several very nice, friendly young guys. They were very thoughtful and kind, bringing us tea, offering rides, etc. At night they played a traditional string instrument and a drum, singing long, soulful ballads in Arabic. At US 45.- p.p. for one night, including breakfast AND dinner, this was likely a fraction of the cost of one of the fancy hotels and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

On our first afternoon, we strolled down to “Little Petra” – a small version of cave dwellings and carved facades, which is still ‘in the wild’ without entrance fee or any protection. It was a Friday afternoon – weekend for the Muslims who were out in full force: family after family squatting in the shade of rocks, making campfires, cooking tea and grilling meat. Children were running everywhere, women sat in the shade visiting. Smoke twirled up behind every rock from their little fires while they laughed and sang and enjoyed a sunny afternoon.

When I watch a real shepherd, complete with crook, walking through a field of boulders with his flock, wearing a long black dress and flowing head scarves, I marvel at how little seems to have changed in this area over the ages.
Until he whips out his cell phone…

Our dinner is cooked in a pit in the ground.

Petra – truly one of the Wonders of the World.

The 1 KM long Siq of Petra

How can words describe the world wonder that is Petra?
Before we left on our trip, I read many books and websites. Lonely Planet perhaps described it best of all: “Nothing you read about Petra will prepare you for your first glimpse of the Treasury when you emerge from the Siq.”
And that proved to be true.
I had read about the Nabataeans who lived here more than 2,000 years ago. How they carved facades of buildings out of the rocks in which they made their homes. About how Romans eventually conquered them by cutting off their ingenious water supply systems. I had seen many pictures of the red rock carvings. I knew from tourist information that the Siq, the long steep gorge leading to the site, was over a kilometer long.
But indeed nothing prepared me for that first sight. It truly did take my breath away and left me all choked up.

Beforehand, I had found it hard to picture it all. Turns out that ‘Petra’ only refers to the actual archeological site itself. The town immediately around it is called Wadi Musa.
That’s where the hotels, the restaurants and everything else is. But there’s a part of town right outside Petra, so that you can walk there. And then there’s most of Wadi Musa which is way up on the hills and much too far to walk.
Our Bedouin Camp was a 10 minute drive away, near Little Petra – a small, more natural side of cave dwellings, not incorporated into the preserved area. Our camp offered rides to and from Petra whenever we needed them.
Entrance tickets are expensive: 50 dinars (about $75.-) for one day, 55 dinars for 2 days. So we bought 2 day tickets, which really is the minimum you need to do the place justice.
We walked past the customary tourist traps toward the Siq – a good 10 minute walk. The Siq is a canyon with steep rock faces on either side, sometimes not more than 2 meters wide. I was surprised to see that most of the ground surface is ‘pavement’ – even when it is ancient Roman roads. Inside the Siq it is cool and shaded.
After just over a kilometer, you spot a top glimpse of ‘The Treasury’. A few more paces and you emerge from the shade onto a large, dirt ‘market place’. At first glance all you see is The Treasury: sunlight paints this facade orange. It towers almost 40 meters high. Especially when people stand in front of it, you realize how huge it is. How did these people carve these facades, and pillars? Did they build scaffolding? Use ropes? It boggles the mind to think these masterpieces were made some 2,000 years ago.

The other thing I had not quite realized, is that Petra is not the odd ancient building, but the actual remnants of a large city. Once you emerge from the Siq, you enter what once was a complete and bustling city. Old roads are still visible, some lined with columns. There are many homes, also used as tombs. Besides the large Treasury, there are many other major buildings, including the Monastery. There is a large amphitheater and numerous other buildings. It is believed that some 20,000 Nabataeans lived here.

Walking around Petra all day, climbing staircase after staircase, I kept thinking of the Swiss traveler who rediscovered Petra in the early 1800’s. He would have been so amazed to come across these unexpected sights. Petra was, by then, a city in ruins and used by Bedouin who made their homes in the convenient caves. It is believed that only 15% of Petra has been uncovered today. Perhaps one day scientists will learn why the Nabataeans seized to exist.

We walked in the hot sunshine, climbing, scrambling over rocks. Two days gave us a good impression. I wouldn’t want to “do” Petra in any less than that. The Bedouin women everywhere try to sell you jewelry, tea, anything. I was shocked to see little children, as young as 5 years old, selling postcards to tourists.
One of my favorite books ever is I Married A Bedouin by Marguerite van Geldermalsen. This New Zealand woman traveled to Petra when she was about 20, fell in love with a Bedouin, married him and spent much of her life living in a cave and raising her children there. (http://marriedtoabedouin.com/)
The book is a fascinating account of an unusual life. After her husband died, she left but has now returned to Petra to make silver jewelry with local women. It was fun to meet the author and chat with her. She confirmed that those little Bedouin children should be in school and that tourists should avoid buying from them. Every penny they earn is discouragement to send them to school.
We climbed the 850 steps to the impressive Monastery, the largest structure in Petra. By then I was willing to pay well for fresh lemonade! Which we did…
The books also did not tell us about the piles of warm donkey dung we would encounter on most steps… Donkeys raced through the Siq, their hooves clattering on the old stones, as they gave rides to tourists who had underestimated the amount of hiking you have to do in Petra. Donkey and camel owners everywhere shouted at us “Ride a sexy donkey for a sexy lady?!” “Taxi with air conditioning!”

I am forever grateful that we were able to visit Petra and see the amazing sites with our own eyes. Hope you can visit it, too, some day.

For more details on Petra’s history read: http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/archaeology/lost-city-petra/