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June 27, 2008

Alberta 2008 Day 1: Long Beach to Calgary

Friday June 27, 2008
I find it humorous that I haven’t updated the site since I was in Phoenix last week, and here I am in another airport with free wireless updating the site. Why you ask?
It’s mini-vacation time, and with the price of air travel as well as gas, a mini-vacation is all anyone can afford. Last week, I visited my mom in Phoenix and we were trying to think of places we could go. I had five days off in a row – I originally planned to go to San Francisco to see Charo in concert, but those plans fell through so I decided that I needed to get away to someplace unusual. My first choice was St. Maarten in the Caribbean, but that just proved to be too costly, so I mentioned to Mom my second choice: Alberta. At first, I didn’t think we would be able to arrange something on a short notice, but Mom was able to redeem her frequent flyer miles and get us a few hotels with some other points. In the end we only had to buy one ticket and two hotel nights for the whole extended weekend.
I chose Alberta, because I have wanted to visit Lake Louise and Banff National Park, but it wasn’t on my top 10 list. Ultimately, because it was closer than say Montreal and Toronto, and I had been to Vancouver and Victoria way back in 1987, and I have an overwhelming desire to visit new places on vacation, we ended up going to Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, and Edmonton.
Today I had to work first thing in the morning to help cover the area, but I was able to leave in time to finish packing as well as be ready for the Super Shuttle to take me to Long Beach Airport. The last time I took Super Shuttle, I was forced to take it from LAX to my apartment when my ride forgot to get me. It was not a pleasant experience, but with my last minute holiday making, there really were few alternatives. The Shuttle arrived about 20 minutes late, and I knew once I was out on the road I would remember if I forgot anything, and sure enough, I forgot my phone charger. I really should just keep a spare one in my backpack, but I am not sure if I should buy a new one. I will see if they have anything in PHX, but I might have to wait until tomorrow morning in Calgary. I also do not know if we will have cell signal out in the boonies, so it might be a moot point since I can just power down the cell phone and re-use it when we get to Edmonton.
I have never traveled out of Long Beach Airport. It reminds me of old school Burbank. It has just a few temp trailers and a tiny art deco design terminal. Yet, despite the quaintness, it has free WiFi access unlike the more posh Orange County Airport. Long Beach has a nice homey feel to it, but of course the airport screeners at smaller airports tend to be the most strict on what you can carry on the plane and such. It amazes me that the same items I traveled with from SNA to PHX last week are not allowed on this flight. I ended up having to check my bag, and since I am traveling with US Airways (first time in forever) I am worried it might end up in Philadelphia. Our schedule in Alberta is a bit tight, so I am not sure we will be able to wait for baggage to show up should it disappear. Our plane is tiny so I would have had to gate check it anyways. So I thought what the heck, its better than lugging the dumb thing all around.
US Airways Express runs puddle jumper flights to Phoenix from Long Beach. I did not think much about it until I saw the plane and the elevated ramp to get on it. It was a pretty small plane (the kind where you have to check most carry ons), but at least it had jet engines. My “window seat” was really a bulkhead seat since the windows did not match up with the seats, and it looks like no one has really cleaned the plane in a few weeks – maybe months. At least the flight to Phoenix was only a bit over an hour so it was tolerable. I was concerned with how I would be able to survive the 3-hour flight to Calgary.
I waited in Phoenix for two hours for the connecting flight and eventually Mom and Gary showed up with time to spare. I enjoyed some decent overpriced airport Burger King while I waited. Sadly, I was not in the gourmet section of the Phoenix airport near Southwest. The flight to Calgary was more of the same, but there was a few more smelly people on it. I suspect it had to do with the people who were living in 110-degree heat. There were some colorful characters including two cowboys in front of us, and a student from the University of Saskatchewan who was returning home from a year in Paris in the seat next to me who was enjoying Season 4 of 24 most of the trip.
Thank goodness for my iPod otherwise I would have gone insane from the heat (it got very warm on the plane – enough to melt Mom’s medicine together) and the stink and the uncomfy seats. I totally forgot my Nintendo DS!! That would have helped a lot as well. After getting stiffed by the Passport control officer in the Calgary airport – no stamp – we headed out to catch our shuttle van to our Hampton Inn and Suites for our first night. The hotel was clean and comfortable, a bit warm but perfect for our first night in Alberta.

June 28, 2008

Alberta 2008 Day 2: Calgary to Lake Louise

Saturday June 28, 2008
It was up early today – we have lots to do and a long way to drive, and most importantly, we had to get to the free breakfast. Gary and I went to pickup the rental car from Discount Car Rental Service. We got upgraded to a Chevy Cobalt. It is an OK car, I shudder to think what the car we were supposed to get was like. One plus is that despite not having power anything, it had XM Satellite radio which will be useful when we are out in the boondocks. We lucked out because our car rental place was off airport property, but turned out to be just around the corner from our hotel.
We checked out and loaded up the Cobalt and headed into Calgary. The one main touristy site we wanted to visit was Calgary Tower. Located downtown, it is one of the icons of Calgary and since we did not have a lot of time it seemed like a logical choice. At 525 feet tall, it actually is the tallest observation tower in the world (if you take elevation into consideration). After navigating the road construction around central Calgary, we arrived at the tower and took the one functioning elevator to the top. We were surprised to see a young couple getting married at the top of the tower. They stood over the glass floor section of the tower and exchanged vows. It was short small sweet ceremony. After the photo ops, we headed down to ground level and went off in search of an ATM. We took a walk down the Stephens Street Mall. We finally found one that would accept our cards, but not after my Wells Fargo business card with the toll free number accidentally went into one of the ATM machines. Oops!
It was then time to get on the road. Before we left Calgary, we stopped at a Safeway store at the edge of town. It felt like we took forever to get there due to traffic and traffic lights, and then once we shopped for food for the road trip, it was an hour after we left the tower. We finally hit the open road, and I was dozing on and off. The weather was gorgeous and the sun bright and it just felt so good to just close my eyes for a few seconds. Our first stop in the mountains was Canmore. We wanted to get a collapsible cooler for some of the food and water we bought at Safeway. We looked at Rexall and the Canadian Dollar Store before settling on the hardware store at the edge of town. A quick bite to eat later and we were back on the road to Banff. Getting into Banff National Park is very much like getting into the Grand Canyon. There was a lengthy queue and they charge you by the day for access to the parks. It was a good 15-20 minute queue to get the pass, but once we had it we were practically on top of Banff.
Banff is a lovely town that has a very mountain hamlet feel to it. We took the driving tour of most of the highlights, since we still had to make it to Lake Louise. One sight we missed was the Fairmont Banff Springs resort. It is really picturesque, and we caught sight of it from afar, but we decided to skip the close-up and head for Lake Louise.
I totally was excited to head to Lake Louise. It’s postcard perfect and the one place I really wanted to visit. We stopped at a photo lookout along the way, but before long it was time. I had read that Lake Louise was a small town, and boy they were not kidding. It is a few hotels and a strip mall that is the gateway to the beautiful lake. We drove up to the Lake to see what it was like before we looked for the hotel, but the parking lot was crowded so we headed back to locate our hotel. After a moment’s confusion, we located it and checked in. It turns out our room is next to the main highway, but fortunately, the balcony faces the inner courtyard and its super nice. There are a few worn bits here and there but its to be expected from a ski and vacation resort.
After relaxing for a bit, it was time for the mother lode – Lake Louise. We parked in the lot at the lake shore and made the slow trek to the shore. It didn’t disappoint! One of the great sights in the world. It is tough to appreciate things when they are crowded, but despite the hoards of visitors it still is a great place to visit. The Fairmont Lake Louise is a fantastic hotel as well; I would love to splurge for it one of these years.
We took in the view and then headed down the hill into the village to grab a bite to eat at the Lake Louise Family Restaurant. It reeked of tourist trap cafe, but mom liked her food and as long as you like your food it is a good meal. Everything is expensive here, but that was expected.
It was time to crash at the hotel. I discovered that my sofa bed was not made yet, so I had to call and get some sheets for it. Its time for bed and it has been a long day! Hopefully, we won’t get woken up by the hordes of tour buses in the parking lot.

June 29, 2008

Alberta 2008 Day 3: Lake Louise to Jasper

Sunday June 29, 2008
We woke a bit later than we had wanted to do, but it was needed. Sleeping on the sofa bed was a bit uncomfortable, but thanks to the generous Internet connection, my laptop downloaded the latest Doctor Who episode while I was sleeping. As we were all getting ready, I watched the first half of the episode and I was blown away! I could not wait to watch the rest of the episode, even though I know it is a cliffhanger and will not be resolved until next week.
After packing and loading the car, I checked out of our hotel and we headed to the breakfast buffet. We could not believe it was already 11am! We ate as much as we could and then got on the road. Our first stop of the day was Lake Moraine. Located about 12km from Lake Louise Village, it is a smaller, but equally beautiful lake. There was a landslide at the closest end of the lake that had tourists swarming all over it to take a great photo of the lake. Not wanting to miss a good photo op, I headed across the logs to the rocks. Unfortunately, I stepped on a log that I thought was stable and my right foot disappeared into some bone chilling glacial water up to my ankle. One of the things I hate more in the world is wet feet in sneakers, but you know what? When you are up in the Rockies having a great time it just didn’t seem all that bad.
I sloshed my way up some rocks to take a few photos, then scrambled back down to the lake shore and met up with Mom and Gary. We took a few more photos and then it was time to hit the trail. When we got back to the car, I removed my wet shoe and sock. At first, I tried to dry my sock in the front windshield and my sneaker with the AC Vent on the floor. After 30 minutes or so, I moved my shoe to the back window on Mom’s suggestion. A little while later, I moved my sock back there to get it dry.
We decided to forgo the Lake Louise tramway and instead we will do the one in Jasper tomorrow morning. Along the way to the Columbia Ice fields and Jasper, we stopped at several scenic overlooks. With a little bit of imagination, you can imagine just how awesome a spectacle it must be in the winter when all the lakes are frozen over. Let me tell you, it is not that bad in the summer as well. We stopped at Payto Lake to look at the Crowfoot glacier, and as we made our way towards Saskatchewan Junction we encountered a mini-traffic jam as a young black bear decided to cross the road near the Weeping Wall, much to the delight of the tourists (including us!). Another great aspect of this highway is that there were tons of hanging waterfalls due to the high temperatures (around 90F). Each time we stopped at a turnout to take photos, I would check my shoe, and it was certainly drying.
After an hour and a half, we finally made it to the Columbia Icefields and the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park. We were trying to decide if we wanted to pay the combined $100+ fee to take a tour tractor out onto the glacier. When push came to shove, we went for it. I was glad that we did as well. We had to go back to the car to get our gear, and I had to put on my slightly still damp sock, but mostly dry shoe. Despite the many noisy tourists (some who even kept talking louder to the point that the tour guide had to shush them), it was an amazing adventure. We took a bus up the lateral moraine of the glacier and then transferred to an icebus thingy, which took us out onto the actual glacier. The tour guide told us to stay in the turnaround area due to the dangers of the crevasses, but I was amazed at the number of people who just took off out over the regular glacier proper. I am glad I took my sweatshirt because it got breezy up on there and a bit chilly. We decided to heed the warnings and took our 15 minutes in the immediate area and posed for some photos. All in all it took about an hour from start to finish, but well worth it if you are in the area.
It was then time to finish our trek up to Jasper. We only made one more stop this time at Sunwapta Falls. People had mentioned that it was majestic and beautiful, and while it was beautiful, it was not majestic. It was a nice smallish area to walk around and I took some good photos, but we did not want to linger too long as it was now approaching 6pm. I still can’t get over the fact that it stays light up here until after 10pm. Before too long, we descended into Jasper’s outskirts and made a b-line towards the Fairmont Jasper Springs Hotel.
Talk about luxury! Mom is a Presidential Club Member so they had all of our check-in details at the bell desk so we didn’t even have to go inside. We found our cabin – yes that’s right we are staying in one of a series of linked cabins (usually in clusters of 5). When we got to our room it was a bit steamy since it had been so hot and they do not have air conditioning. We started airing out the room and then headed down to the main building where we enjoyed an expensive dinner, but you could not beat the view. The terrace overlooks the lake and the grass with the Rockies in the background. We stayed well past dinner just to linger and soak it all up. We didn’t realize that it was after 9pm (again its still bright outside).
Back in our bungalow cabin, Mom and Gary socialized with our neighbors on our porch as I finished my Doctor Who episode (SO GOOD!). In the middle of downloading the photos on the laptop and beginning my journal, an elk just happened by our patio. It lingered for quite a bit chewing on the clovers in the grass before it continued on its way. The sun finally set on our day and it was time to call it a night. Mom really wants to spend another night here, and I don’t blame her – it really is the pinnacle of our vacation. Tomorrow it is off to the Jasper tramway and then the long trek into Edmonton.

June 30, 2008

Alberta 2008 Day 4: Jasper to Edmonton

Monday June 30, 2008
We woke up to a much cooler Jasper Park Lodge. It was the kind of morning that really makes you feel like you are on vacation. We packed up our things, and instead of paying through the nose for a scenic breakfast, we headed into the Jasper township to enjoy breakfast at Smitty’s, a Canadian coffee shop. On the way to the township, we encountered another rubbernecking traffic jam as people stopped on the side of the road to look at a herd of elk in the middle of the Northern Saskatchewan River. Its hysterical that people stop on a major highway to take pictures, but we were just as guilty. Just for Mom, I recorded a bit of their sounds. Arriving at Smitty’s, we had to wait a bit to get in, but the food was actually very good. It took a bit longer than expected to get through breakfast, but we finally were on our way to the Jasper Tramway.
When we arrived at the tramway, we discovered a 30-minute queue just to buy tickets. On top of that there was an additional 15-minute wait for the Tramway. We thought about it for a bit, but ultimately decided not to do the tramway. Unlike the Columbia Icefields, this was not a wholly unique experience, and we were all itching to get on the road so we can get into Edmonton at a reasonable time. So with regret, we ditched the tramway and headed downhill to Edmonton.
People had said that the road down slope was pretty boring, and they were right. We had been spoiled by the majestic Rockies. Most of the scenery to the end of Jasper National Park was still scenic and we managed to see some mountain goats for another rubberneck stop. I actually liked the countryside we passed through at the edge of the park – lots of lakes as well as rolling hills.
Once we left the national park, it was pretty normal grassy farmlands and prairie country. We made a stop in Hinton to visit the Alberta Welcome Center where we met a few nice people who told us the ins and outs of what to do in Edmonton. The rest of the drive was just a long journey through some nice scenery. We veered off onto the Alberta 16A highway and headed to our Marriott hotel at the River Cree Resort. Mom selected this one because it was close to the West Edmonton Mall as well as she got a better deal with her Marriott Rewards. As a bonus it is on a Native American Reservation and therefore has an adjacent casino.
We got our room and relaxed a bit and then headed downstairs to enjoy the Prime Rib Buffet. It was then time to head into Edmonton proper to visit the largest mall in the world – the West Edmonton Mall. From the outside, it looks very 1970s mall, but on the inside it was indeed huge. On the overall scale of malls, it is indeed huge with an Ice Hockey Rink, Amusement Park, Water Park, and several themed dining areas. On the downside it is not as well kept up as say South Coast Plaza or the Mall of America. Gary picked up a flash drive so I could give them a copy of my photos, and I really wanted to get a Chocolate Shake, but I was still full from dinner.
Leaving the mall, we took the scenic tour of downtown. Edmonton seems to be a nice town, and reminds me a lot of Grand Forks, North Dakota, just a bit larger. We then headed back to our hotel to call it a night. We have to be up early to get to Calgary in time to catch our flight back to the US. It’s going to be a long day, but it is all worth it. Before turning in, we decided to try our luck at the Casino. Sadly we did not pay for the trip with any winnings, so after a brief trip to the business center to check some emails, we turned in for the night.

July 1, 2008

Alberta 2008 Day 5: Edmonton to Long Beach

Tuesday July 1, 2008
It was early rise today as it was time to head home. Silly us, we flew in and out of Calgary instead of flying home from Edmonton. We headed downstairs to enjoy our complimentary buffet breakfast thanks to Mom’s Marriott connections. It was actually a nice buffet and it was nice that all of their eggs were made fresh and not sitting in a heated pan for hours on end.
We loaded up our rental car, and I got to drive back down to Calgary. It was a fairly quick journey – faster and more pleasant than the drive from Jasper down to Edmonton. We made one stop at a Wendy’s/Tom Horton for a coke and washroom break, but other than that it was smooth sailing. I do wish we had some extra time on the way. There was a few interesting sights that seemed like fun to stop at. There were several corn mazes, which probably were not operating this time of year, but a great photo op was missed at the information station just south of Edmonton that featured an oil derrick. I never knew they pumped over a million barrels of heavy crude out of this area of Alberta. There was an article in the paper that mentioned how people were investing a lot in this area to dry and get more efficient and environmentally friendly drilling established. Sounds like a good idea.
We arrived at the Discount Car Rental place after gassing it up and cleaning out the trash. I was glad Gary went for the extra insurance waiver, because after we got back on the freeway from our stop in Red Leaf, a rock hit the window and we had a nice chip in the window. Interestingly, the lady at the rental car place took us to the airport in our rental car as opposed to transferring us into a bus. “Its just much easier that way”, said our rental agent. We had a pleasant conversation with her back to the airport (rather than the awkward silence with a new person in the car). Turns out, she is a recent emigre to Calgary coming here from Toronto and North Africa.
It would have been fun to see the Calgary Stampede, but I am glad to be heading home. We checked in at the US Airways counter and discovered our flight is over an hour and a half late departing. Good thing I had a two and a half hour layover in Phoenix. If the plane pushes any later that a 1700 departure, I will be late! We ate at a local Harvey’s fast food. It reminds me of a combo of Fat Burger and Subway. And then we waited and waited and waited. A bit of anxiety because at 1430 they pushed our flight back from the already delayed 1600 departure to a 1630 departure.
After finally getting underway, the flight actually was way better than the flight coming to Calgary. Even though we had a compressed turnaround time, the plane was clean and we had new magazines to read. Also, as an added bonus, the seat next to me was empty. The only hiccup was a plane had some mechanical difficulties on the runway at Sky Harbor, causing us to circle an additional 15 minutes. There was also a bit of turbulence heading into the landing due to some 20mph winds at the airport. With all the delays, I only had an hour to kill at the airport before boarding my flight back to Long Beach.
When I boarded the plane to Long Beach, I thought I had stepped back in time. The entire flight crew was the same one from Calgary! I think that was the first time I had ever changed planes, but kept the flight crew. The flight back to Long Beach was packed, but blissfully short. People wanted to move around, but there was nowhere to go. The gate agent was doing a lousy job of screening the oversized carry on baggage as several people made it onto the plane with huge bags.
Before I knew it I was back in Long Beach. After a bit of waiting, Daniel finally showed up and he was a sight for sore eyes. We headed back to my apartment and it was time to call it a trip!