Wednesday, September 25, 2013

WCRA mystery dinners put the 'fun' in fundraising

Inspector Clouseau. William Pinkerton. Sherlock Holmes. Bill Miner.

Two of them are fictional detectives, one from the movies, the other from books. One is a real-life detective. One is a real-life train robber from the Canadian west.

Inspector Clouseau, on the job in April.
So what do they have in common?

Well, if you attend one of the mystery dinner theatres put on by the West Coast Railway Association, you might run into one or more of these characters.

We ran into Mr. Pinkerton (well, an actor playing him) last Saturday during the most recent event hosted by the WCRA at the West Coast Heritage Railway Park in Squamish. And there were rumours that Bill Miner was floating around...but although a look-alike was found on the train, a true sighting never occurred.

This was the second time I'd been to one of these events. The first time was last April, when "Inspector Clouseau" (looking very much like Sherlock Holmes) was running around trying to solve a mystery, on the trail of a mysterious lady who claimed to be looking for her daughter, Isabella.

That play used three volunteer actors; this most recent one, "The Heist," involved five characters: Pinkerton, Constable Fernie of the B.C. Provincial Police, the Diamond Sisters and their friend Leroy.

The format for each event was similar, although there were some minor differences.
In September, two (?) coppers were needed.

Like most mystery dinner theatres, the actors interacted with the audience as much as possible, always staying in character, dropping hints about the crime while entertaining people before, during and after the meal.

The meals both took place in the park's roundhouse, with tables set up in and around restored train engines and cars. There is also a cash bar.

The first time, we had appetizers served while we milled around, prior to the buffet dinner of roast beef, vegetables and salad. While the dinner was similar - and just as tasty - the second time around, there were no appies served.

Dessert was handled differently, too. In April, it was served on the train (that's right - you get to ride an old restored train!) with champagne. Coffee came back in the roundhouse after the mystery was solved and the train returned.

This time, coffee and dessert were served back in the roundhouse after our train ride, and the play continued to unfold, as the saucy Diamond Sisters tried to make off with recovered money - only to be foiled by Pinkerton, Fernie and help from an unexpected source who must have paddled in from somewhere... (I don't want to give it away, in case they want to use the plot again, some day!)

Toot-toot...and it's not the train!

Both evenings were enjoyable, and if you're a train travel buff like I am, you probably will enjoy just seeing the old engines and cars and riding on the train. If you also like mystery dinner theatres, it's almost like a two-for-one deal. There are plenty of shenanigans during the train ride; this time, we were treated to a song and dance routine by the Diamond Sisters. (Like a parrot repeating itself, they could only sing one song - but an enjoyable rendition, it was, and humorously done, too!)

Of course, all the money raised goes toward the park/museum.

Be wary if the Diamond Sisters put the squeeze on you...
One of these days, I'm going to have just visit the facility when nothing is going on, just to see it during daylight.

The site presents a typical railway facility of the mid-20th century.

It provides visitors with the opportunity to tour authentic railway equipment in various stages of restoration. There is a gift shop and cafe on site.

And one of these days, I might even have to look at taking one of their rail tours, which include trips to Haida Gwaii, Barkerville and the Okanagan.

Ready to roll down the tracks.
The details about these trips are on their website.

If you want to hear about their next event so you can be a part of it, check out their website or "like" them on their Facebook page.

Or to make sure you're covered, why not do both? You might even get lucky...

For this most recent event, they ran a contest on Facebook and gave away two free tickets to the evening's event.

Then, it'll just be a matter of saying...All aboard!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Flyover Canada really takes off

IMAX move over, let Flyover take over.

If you are one of those who remember the very first IMAX film way back in 1971, you'll get it. For those who don't, well, let's just say if you missed the PNE, this might make up for some of the rides you didn't get to experience on the midway.

The "hangar"...all set to fly us across Canada
But this experience will be much more memorable, I assure you.

When IMAX first came out, and the movie North of Superior was playing at the Omni-theatre at Ontario Place, there was a buzz about it that it was like "being in a plane" while it was flying down a canyon, or it was like "being in a canoe as you flipped in the rapids."

I'll admit, there was a little bit of that element to it - but it was nothing like the Flyover experience I enjoyed at Canada Place in Vancouver earlier this week.

If you have ever wanted to experience extreme flying - without really flying - this is the place to do it.

The experience lasts about half an hour, spread through three segments.

In the first segment, we stood in darkened room with a more-or-less circular 360 degree movie screen around us, with Surround Sound and a constant collage-barrage of moving images flashing up on the screen.
Getting some pre-flight boarding instructions

After about five to 10 minutes of that, we're ushered into the "pre-boarding" area, we line up and watch a short video about safety and procedures on the "flight" we're soon to embark upon.

Then we file into the "flight room" and we're strapped into seats for "takeoff." The "flight attendant" has you tuck any carry-ons into the storage bin underneath your seat.

It was at this point the smart-ass in me could not resist asking, "When do you come around with drinks and snacks?"

I probably wasn't the first to ask, and probably will not be the last. She just smiled and laughed, saying, "Enjoy the flight."

You really do need to belted in, as the seats literally do lift up in the air. The screen opens up and suddenly you're "flying."

Our "flight crew" ready to serve us.
The seats bank and dive and climb as the camera pans around the vistas, which are from all over Canada, and took a year to film.

You even feel the mist from a cloud as you fly through it, the spray from rapids as you zoom down a river canyon. 

I'm not being poetic or colourful - there is a machine that is actually co-ordinated to spray you at the appropriate times throughout the film.

Up and down the mountains, across the prairies (where you can literally smell the flax seed), down rivers, past the CN Tower, along the seashore, flying above eagles soaring through mountain passes.

Hope I meet the height qualifications!
I felt myself grabbing the seat arms more than once during a steep climb or bank. At one point, the woman sitting next to me said, "Is it okay to scream?" I think she was only being semi-facetious.

All too soon, we're done our ride and the seats settle back into place as we prepare to disembark.

As we exit, I hear a horn blowing from one of the cruise ships docked at the Canada Place terminal, and for just a moment, I think, "I hope I my ship hasn't sailed without me..." before snapping back to reality and realizing I'm in a souvenir shop at the end of a virtual journey, not making an air-to-sea connection.

Before I even get a chance to look at the souvenirs available for purchase, my mind is already thinking:

Where do I get another "boarding pass...?"

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

One man's snack is another man's...nightmare?

Say the word, "piranha."

Now what images does that conjure up in your mind?

If you're like a lot of people, you're probably envisioning a swarming frenzy of blood-thirsty, flesh-eating fish that will strip you to the bone in a matter of minutes.

The fact is, not all piranha are like the ones you see chew up the bad guys when they fall into a pool of them during a James Bond movie.

While some species can indeed strip larger animals to the bone, they are not always in "attack" mode.

And sometimes you even get to eat them.

That's right - to quote Judges, "Out of the eater came something to eat." (Sorry, Samson).

I've had piranha. We caught them off the dock at La Selva Jungle Lodge in Ecuador, using a bit of bacon as a bait.

The house of Cuy.
The chef cooked them up for us. They didn't taste bad, although they were a bit bony. You'd have to catch quite a few to really have a feast.

Piranha is just one of the weird or unusual foods I've eaten during the course of my life and travels. (And you're right - there is another list coming up!)

Here is a list of some of the weird foods I've eaten (and some I still refuse to eat) around the world.

1. Piranha (see above.)

2. Cuy. Otherwise known as guinea pig. That's right - those furry little rodents sold in pet stores as pets are considered delicacies in places like Peru and Ecuador. I've had it deep-fried at a place called Mama Clorinda's (think, EFC - Ecuador Fried Cuy), and also served as a "con fit" in a higher-end restaurant in Cuzco, Peru. The former was a bit dry and greasy (the legs and head came to the table, deep-fried in batter; the latter, you couldn't tell what it was, it was so well prepared).

3. Alpaca. Again, this was in Peru (it does seem that Andean cuisine serves up more than its share of odd foods, doesn't it?) I had an alpaca steak at a little roadside cafe in a small town near the larger centre of Aguas Calientes, during a trip with Mountain Lodges of Peru. It was quite good, very rustic and simple, but very tasty, a bit like veal. Again, I tried it prepared slightly differently at a higher end eatery in Cuzco, and it was superb.

4. Ants. Back to Ecuador. Ate a bunch of small ants from the "lemon-ant tree" in the jungle during a five-day kayak trip. Just licked my finger, wiped it down the small tree trunk and popped them into my mouth. They really did taste lemony - but they were not very filling. You'd have eat a LOT to be even close to filled up.

5. Eland. Okay, taking a break from South America. Eland is a deer-like animal found on the plains of Africa. I had it in a restaurant in Zimbabwe called Ramambo's, which specializes in African game (NOT endangered species) that is farmed for the purpose of food. It tasted very much like venison.

6. Warthog. Also in Africa. Very strong flavour, like ham, but much gamier. not my favourite.

7/7a. Guinea fowl. African bird, very tasty, much like chicken. Not as tough as ostrich (which I also tried).

8. Crocodile. I ate this at a restaurant in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Deep-fried in batter, with a texture very much like fish - but it tasted more like chicken than fish.

9. Alligator. When people ask me what alligator tastes like, I say, "It tastes like ... (long pause)...crocodile." Of course, they're expecting me to say "chicken." I've had it in jerky form in Florida and cooked at Vancouver's Ouisi Bistro, a Cajun restaurant on Granville Street. I prefer the cooked version to the jerky.

The green stuff is mushy peas. "Brains" is Welsh beer.
10. Mushy peas. A traditional British side dish usually served alongside fish and chips in pubs around the UK. A friend of mine who had travelled in Wales suggested I try it when I went there, so, of course, I had to do so. The first time, it was awful. I don't know what they did to it, but an entire table of us could not eat more than one or two bites each. A few days later I had a chance to try it in another pub - much better, thank you!

11. Jellyfish. I ate this at a traditional Chinese restaurant in Richmond, B.C.'s Aberdeen Centre during a TMAC banquet. Never again. The taste and the texture were gross. Ugh!

12. Bear, grizzly and black.

13. Lynx/Cougar.

14. Beaver.

15. Deer/moose/elk.

I've lumped the last five together, sort of... Deer, moose and elk is not really odd or unusual if you have grown up or lived in rural areas for any length of time, particularly in the northern part of Canada. As for the bear, cat and beaver samplings: I ate them at the 1998 B.C. Wildlife Federation wild game banquet, held as part of their annual AGM in Fort St. John, B.C. It was actually the last event I covered for the Alaska Highway News before moving to Calgary.

Deer and elk, I like; moose, not so much (although my wife grew up eating it). Bear, wildcat and beaver - I can really live without.

16. Chicha - the good. It is supposed to be the equivalent of a traditional Peruvian beer, made from maize (corn). I had it in nice a restaurant in Quito, Ecuador, so it was not made traditionally (I hope). It was thick and sweet - more like a milk than a beer.


There is plenty of food I have not tried - and probably never will:

1. Balut. A Philippine delicacy, a cooked fertilized egg with a partially developed fetus inside.

2. Durian. A very popular fruit in southeast Asia, it reportedly "smells like hell, tastes like heaven." The first part of that description is why you see signs in hotel lobbies all over SE Asia: "No durian allowed in the room." Someone told me if you can get past by the smell, you'll love it. No thanks.

3. Bird's Nest Soup. The "nest" in real bird's nest soup is made from bird spit. No thanks.

Thai market offering: can't eat it.

4. Eel. Can't wrap my head around it. Sorry.

5. Kim chi. I guess it's supposed to be good...and maybe the stuff they sell in stores and Vancouver-area eateries is not made in the traditional way - but I don't even like sauerkraut, so forget this.

6. Most Mongolian dishes that involve brains, eyes, stuff rotting in the ground, etc. I would not do well at the Temple of Doom.

7. Bugs, slugs or anything else I've seen at traditional Thai markets. Especially if it's still alive.

8. Chicha - the bad. Had the chance to drink this traditionally-made brew in a Huaorani village in Ecuador. "Traditionally" made means the maize is chewed up in people's mouths then spit into a container, allowing the saliva to help it ferment. No, thank you!

So I guess one man's food is another man's reason for ... reaching for a bottle of Pepto Bismol and a packet of gravol.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Night the Fraser River Became Tropical...sort of

Rollin'...Rollin'...Rollin' down the river...

Like the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song, that's what we were doing on a Saturday night in July, to celebrate the Divine Ms. K's birthday.

We'd boarded "The Native," a restored paddlewheeler operated by Paddlewheeler Riverboat Tours of Vancouver.

This trip - a dinner and a cruise, with a tropical theme - was actually our third with the company. In 2008, we did a trip up Pitt Lake, their "wilderness cruise" (which at the time, was sponsored by the Nature Trust of B.C.); and in 2009, we rolled down the Fraser River one cold Sunday morning and afternoon, to historic Fort Langley and back.

We enjoyed both our previous trips, and each one was a bit different.

This one - officially labelled the "Sunset Dinner Cruise" continued in that vein.

Standing on the gangplank at the New Westminster Quay, waiting for our tickets to be taken, I noticed three women with leis in front of us - and suitcases!

All aboard!
"Boy, they're really getting into this 'tropical cruise" theme,' I said to Ms. K. "They brought suitcases!"

Turns out, they were actually dancers, from a local Polynesian dance group, there to perform in various costumes, in keeping with the theme. The costumes were in their suitcases.

But first things first. Once we pulled out from the dock, we checked out our table and the menu. The drink menu, that is...we already knew what was on the food menu. The drink menu had some special tropical drinks made up specifically for the cruise. Of course, in the interests of this blog, I had to sample them all...

I started with Blue Hawaiian martini (vodka, curacao and juices); followed it up with a "Tropical" (rum, grenadine and other potables) and topped off the pre-dinner cocktail hour with a coconut-pineapple concoction whose most important ingredient was rum.

The appetizers were good, but some of them were almost gone by the time it was announced that they were ready over the P-A system (we were up top, they were serving on the lower deck). But they must have realized their faux-pas, and we had first crack at the main course.

The appies - while not exactly tropical - were good: shrimp, cold veggies and dip, cheese and crackers, candied salmon. Ditto, the main course: not tropical, but we did not go hungry, with choices ranging from roast beef, roast potatoes, roast veggies, veggie or non-veggie lasagna, and salads.

Dessert was two choices of cake: tiramisu and chocolate.

Before and after dinner, we spent time wandering the decks, spotting some seals on a log boom going upriver, then as we turned around to head back downriver, we were treated to a beautiful B.C. sunset.

Then came the post dinner entertainment: The three ladies from the Kalaya Dancers doing a variety of dances in various costumes.

Nothing says "tropical" like Polynesian dance.

This was actually the second time we'd seen them; we went to their annual show in Port Coquitlam the previous summer.

They did a marvellous job, performing without a real stage and just a boom box for music.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed that tour did not put a bit more thought and detail into the "tropical theme." The music they played was just a canned collection of hits from the 60s-70s-80s. Not exactly tropical. Easy to remedy, too - you can walk into any HMV or even London Drugs and pick up some Hawaiian or Polynesian music CD's.

I guess the food could have been more tropical, too. Not real luau type food, but some tweaks could have made it more "tropical." The drinks were a nice touch, mind you.

Aside from the drinks, the table decor and (maybe) a group of guys who were obviously a stag party for one of their group who was getting married, the most "tropical" part of the evening was the dancers. Now I don't expect the cruise to be so tropical that it would have parrots on board, but a few simple things could be done to make it much better.

Tough to beat a sunset like this.
The other part that was a bit disappointing: when I booked it, I told them it was my wife's birthday, and the girl said they would do something - but they never did. I thought it would be looked after, so I didn't mention it to any of the staff. Should have said something on the ship, but hindsight is 20/20.

Doesn't mean I wouldn't go to any more of their cruises ... just not this one. I'd still do the Pitt Lake cruise again, and some of their others that I have not yet done.

And then there is that wonderful sunset...

The theme idea is good, but the presentation/delivery needs a bit of work to really make this "tropical" cruise more, well, "tropical."

I wonder if they're taking volunteers...?

(Want to see more photos from this event? Visit my Facebook page, Sunset Dinner Cruise.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Niagara Falls: slowly I turned ... and other great waterfall memories

John Muir wrote, "As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing."

There is definitely something magic about waterfalls - although usually if you're close to one, you'll be hard-pressed to hear birds or wind sing over the roar of the falls.

I've been extremely blessed in having seen waterfalls all over the world, some great gigantic falls of world renown, others very small but equally special natural places.

Here, in no particular order, are my top 10 favourite waterfalls, along with the memories and moments associated with each one.

Almost anyone who grew up watching the Three Stooges will remember the lines: "Niagara Falls - slowly I turned...step by step, inch by inch..." (If you don't, just search for it on YouTube).

I've been to Niagara Falls four times, three of those when I was 14 or younger. My first and last trips were the most memorable and meaningful to me, although all four had good memories.

The first one involved my very first road trip; I was seven, and my dad took a week off work so we could go to the falls, then spend a few days across the river in New York state. I still cherish that trip, I can still remember many details about it.

The last trip there I took in 2002, and during the trip, I visited the Niagara Falls Aviary. The falls were there, but they were secondary to my day spent with the free-flying birds.

Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe size.

2. Victoria Falls (Africa)

In visiting these spectacular falls, like Niagara Falls, I saw them from two different countries, as well: Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are spectacular; but what I most remember was the adventure I enjoyed below the falls, whitewater rafting through 20+ rapids on the Zambezi River. Just about drowned in a class 5 whirlpool, but I lived to tell the tale - and a great tale it is, especially when someone captures it on video!

I spent my first summer vacation as an Alberta resident exploring the central Rockies near Rocky Mountain House on horseback, in 1985. These falls presented one of the many scenic vistas during the three-day trip. We did not get really close to them; but watching them from horseback was pretty cool.

4. Cariboo Falls (B.C.)

These falls can only be accessed on foot, and only as a short hike from one of the lakes on the Bowron Lake canoe circuit. This was memorable, as it was the first canoe trip I ever took with Ann Kidston, the first summer we dated, in 1989. We survived and still paddle together today.

5. Grand Falls (New Brunswick).
The largest falls east of Niagara. That pretty much sums it up. If you follow the trail along the one side of the river below the falls, you will see some incredible vistas along the gorge.
Grand Falls, New Brunswick

6. Ragged Falls (Ontario)
Lots of memories associated with these falls, which are right outside Algonquin Park, just a short drive from the west entrance. Years ago on my very first canoe trip that did not involve an older adult supervising, me and a buddy decided to sleep up on top of the falls, under the stars. You are not really supposed to do that, but it was late when we got there, we decided it would be just as easy to sleep there, rather than getting back in the car, driving into the park and trying to find a campsite (that we were only going to use for sleep) in the dark. It was incredible, hearing the falls on either side of the rock we slept on, watching all the stars above. Very special.

7/8. Two different sets of falls in Belize.

Neither of these falls had names - but they are memorable for a couple of reasons. The first one was in the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Sanctuary. It was our first jungle waterfall. And while we did not see any jaguars, we could hear parrots and other birds squawking while we slogged down the jungle trail to a small waterfall and pool which we all eagerly dove into, to help cool us down.

The second one was bigger, and was in the pine savanna forest of Belize; we had to ride horses to get there. It was also cool and refreshing, after our ride. We also had lunch there, prepared by our Mayan guides.
Plenty of gorgeous waterfalls - like Akaka - in Hawaii.

9. Akaka Falls (Hawaii).
It is in Hawaii. It is gorgeous, the first (of many, I hope) waterfalls I will see there. What more needs to be said?

10. Widgeon Falls (B.C.)
This also involved paddling: we canoed through Widgeon Slough from Grant Narrows on the Pitt River, an hour east of Vancouver. 

We camped overnight at the recreation area campsite, then hiked up to the falls the next morning, then returned home that day. Great trip!

Other honourable mentions: Athabasca Falls (Jasper), an unnamed waterfall in Ecuador, Sheep River Falls in Alberta, Elk Falls near Campbell River, B.C. Alexander Falls, south of Whistler, B.C. and Bijoux Falls along Highway 97 in B.C. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Wales: more than pubs and poets, castles and celebrities

Sure, Wales has plenty of incredible pubs - there's at least a couple in every village (and many dotted around the countryside not even near what you could call a hamlet.) 

Of course, the country can certainly lay fair claim to its share of poets, too, the most famous being native son Dylan Thomas.

And don't forget all the castles. As for celebrities ... who hasn't heard of Catherine Zeta-Jones or Tom Jones?

But there's a wild side to Wales that is often overlooked.

It's not a place that comes up early on in most discussions about world-class ecotourism destinations. Yet it has quite a few wonderful wild places, full of wildlife.
Kenfig Pool, Glamorgan's largest lake.

Take for example Kenfig National Nature Reserve, within a stone's throw of the south Wales coast.

It's a sand dune reserve that extends right down to the seacoast.

When I visited there, I could only spend about an hour - but I would have loved to have spent the day. However, our schedule would not allow it.

We explored a few of the trails that criss-cross the 70-acre reserve, but the highlight was Kenfig Pool, the largest lake in Glamorgan County. While there, we were fortunate to see a pair of mute swans as well as some coots.

Avid bird-watchers may also see bitterns, scaups, goldeneyes and several duck species while visiting.

It's also a great place to visit if you're a wildflower enthusiast, boasting several species of orchids and helleborines.

A mute swan calmly grooms on Kenfig Pool.

For a very different type of environment, there's AfanForest Park, not far from Cardiff, Wales. Whereas Kenfig is open, Afan is very thickly forested - including some ancient oaks within its boundaries - with a large network of trails for hiking and mountain biking.

As you have probably guessed, it is much more developed than Kenfig. There are even 4X4 jeep safaris to help you explore the park (although that's not exactly an environmentally-friendly way to visit, no matter how it's spun) which, at 48 square miles in size (120 square kilometres or greater than 30,000 acres), dwarfs Kenfig.

Like Kenfig, it also offers some good bird-watching opportunities. Woodpeckers and nightjars are fairly common.                                                                                               
The gnarly trees of Afan.

In addition to birds, the very lucky may spot a fallow deer or brown hare - both of which call the park home.

Walking along the trails through the ancient trees, I could almost picture the druids of long ago, who held oaks to be sacred, walking its paths.

But if they were there, they were as invisible as the woodpecker I could hear drumming on a tree somewhere, but never could locate.

Some of the gnarly trees also brought to mind Mirkwood of Middle Earth fame. (And rather fittingly, nearby Lothlorien Cottage offers accommodations for visitors to the area. There's no word on whether or not you have to share rooms with a hobbit, though. But they can more than likely offer you a full pint.)

Again, the time we had to spend there was far too short. 

A few hours is nothing compared to a few days - the park actually has developed two-day itineraries for visitors, complete with guide maps, to help them explore the area.

Really, I've only scratched the surface when it comes to adventuring in wild Wales. If this has whet your appetite for more, Visit Wales can certainly help you plan your adventures or point you in the right direction, whether you want to hike, bike, paddle or bird/wildlife watch.

When you are out enjoying nature, remember to try to be as low-impact as possible, practise "no-trace" hiking or biking as much as you can, for as Dylan Thomas wrote:
"I think, that if I touched the earth,
It would crumble;
It is so sad and beautiful,
So tremulously like a dream."