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5 Must-See Spots from Banff to Jasper Along the Icefield Parkway

This week as we trekked our way from Banff to Jasper, it was through Hwy 93, also called the Icefield Parkway. Because Banff and Jasper (and Yoko) are national parks monitored and maintained by the government, we needed to purchase a pass not only to do certain things in Banff and Jasper, but also to drive across the highway. It’s about $20 per day and lasts until 4 pm each day at which time you can enter the highway to make your way to the other side.

To start off, this is probably the most beautiful and scenic drives you can do across Canada, and definitely one of the top in the world. It is vast amounts of peaks and plains, with a good mix of falls, canyons, rivers, lakes, glaciers, and hidden gems. The highway is well maintained by the government and the drive is easy. You make your way through the mountains along long, straight and windy roads, taking in the sights of the magnificent Rockies.

Lakes galore on the Icefield Parkway – right on the highway’s shoulder
Abdullah chilling on the empty Icefield Parkway
Views of the highway

Here are 5 stops you must make along the way to the little mountain town of Jasper:

Peyto Lake – This lake is famous for its vivid turquoise waters, and how turquoise they are indeed! This was our first stop and you follow the signs along the highway to come to the parking lot. The shot walking trail leads you to the top of the hill where you can look down at the lake and its surroundings and enjoy the first stunning views the area has to offer. Surrounded by peaks (as much anything else you stop at along this route), it’s a lake with a unique shape and beautiful bright colours. It’s famous on social media and it truly is a scene out of a postcard. The hike from the parking lot to the lake is an upward climb and there is one steep (but small) area – not difficult whether you’re young or old. As you make your way to the lake views, make sure to stop and enjoy some of the flora and fauna along the way as you are right amongst the trees you look out at the whole drive. You’ll also notice a variety of wild mushrooms growing around and squirrels making their way along the trees and trails. When we arrived at the summit to look out at the lake, it started flurrying hard and got chillier than it already was (+12 in early September). Make sure to bring a sweater as you’re high up in the mountains and the temps usually run lower than at the bottom. The whole climb took us about 40 minutes from beginning to end – you want to spend time taking pics here as it’s not a sight you see every day!

The blues of Lake Peyto
Peyto Lake stems from a small glacier

Howse Pass /Saskatchewan River Crossing – the second stop on our way to Jasper was the Howse Pass, close to the Alberta-British Columbia border. This is a lookout point where you see along the immense grass/marshlands below you where Natives used to live and hunt their food. It too is surrounded by mountains with white ice-covered peaks and a large peak we saw on the left of us at this lookout point looked like it was once the victim of a forest fire. The trees along the right of the mountain were all green and tall and untouched, whereas the conifers all along the left side of the mountain were barren and toppled and grey. Between them was a natural waterway separation where glacial water makes its way from the top of the peak downwards in Springtime. This was a neat thing to see as this is not something you look at every day, even while trekking through Banff and Jasper. Signs are posted all around telling you the stories of the Natives who lived and thrived in the area (it was one of their favourite places to live because of the number of animals that would come there to feed on the low plains in the valleys, making it easy for hunt), and the whites who came there for fur trade and settlements. It’s a shame that in today’s times, just over 200 years later, not a single sign of the Natives exists (where they once flourished), and the plains are empty and have taken over their natural state once more.

Lands where the Natives flourished

Big Hill and Big Bend – Just before we got to this cool area along our hours-long ride to Jasper, we’d made a short stop on the left side of the highway where a river runs along right next to the highway most of the time. At this time of year, the river water was low and so we decided to make a stop and walk to the shallow waters, crossing a guardrail and stepping along rocks and the wet bottom of the river floor (it had become muddy but did not dirty our shoes). This was a unique experience – we were the only ones there in a land filled with travelers. This was truly stepping off the road and doing something non-touristy. My parents picked out unique rocks off the retreated river floor for my nephews while my siblings skipped rocks in the water, seeing if they could make it to the other side of the stream. We spent a good half hour here before getting back on the road and driving again. Little did we know we’d start to see a road that seemed far away and much higher than where we were down in the valley/ gorge. On the right of us was a big mountain that was smooth and velvety (Big Hill) and ahead of this was this long windy road that did a big circle around the mountain (Big Bend). This seemed like an avalanche zone as there were many small and large rocks splayed all along this area, looking like they’d fallen off the top of the mountain at some point (there are also signs posted on the highway which warn when you’re entering or exiting an avalanche area of the highway). We made our way to the top of this curvy road and stopped in the designated parking to look down at the immense valley below us, with the road we were just on snaking its way and disappearing into the mountains. I’d say if you’re just getting on the highway and not going all the way to Jasper, to at least do the drive up until this Big Bend before turning around. Taking in the views from here and the expansiveness of the region is an experience you only get exposure to a few times in your life, if not just once. It is just a bit more than the halfway point on the Icefield Parkway.

Can you spot our little red van?
Walking on the compressed sands of the riverbed
Skipping rocks in the shallow river off the side of the Icefield Parkway
On top of the Big Hill – Can you spot the winding road in the far back?

Athabasca Glacier – Drive another 20 minutes or so and you start to see signs for the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier. This is one of the largest glaciers people can visit in Alberta, if not North America. You can park nearby and walk up to the “toe” of the glacier, which should give you some clue to the size of this thing, even if you can’t see it all. It’s almost a 4 km long glacier and is receding yearly at a high rate. There’s an option to walk to the toe of the glacier, however you do have to climb a hill which may not be easy for older folks. (The views from the glacier center and close up were pretty much the same so if you see if from afar, don’t think you’re missing out too much). One option to be on top of the glacier is to buy a pass to a glacier coach bus that takes you up on the glacier, so you can step and walk on the glacier. I can imagine this being a lifetime experience for many people. With 6 of us however, the $115 per person was too expensive so we enjoyed the views like many others from the toe of the glacier. I guess to the unknown observant such as myself, it only seems like a hunk of dirty ice. But the deeper meaning of being here really hits you when you realize how in a hundred years or so, the glacier might recede all the way behind the mountains, if it even exists then! Climate change and its apparent effects come to mind all too quickly thinking about this, seeing as there’s a sign along the walk to the toe that point out how much closer the glacier was to us in 1982. It also gives you a surreal feeling – we might be one of the last remaining generations to see a live glacier before they disappear from our earth altogether – a sobering thought and experience for sure along this beautiful highway.

The toe of the glacier
Snow coaches that take people up on the glacier

Athabasca Falls – After seeing the first 4 things above on the long drive on the Icefield Parkway, suffice to say we were exhausted by the time we saw signs for the Athabasca Falls. We decided to tackle it on our way back. We did however come to a smaller falls along our way to Jasper after the glacier, called Tangle Falls. This is right by the highway, so you can park easily in the designated area and cross to the other side of the road to view this small but charming little falls. We took some pictures (while my brothers climbed to the top of the falls) before making our way to Jasper. On the way back, we made a stop at the much larger Athabasca Falls. This comes soon after you leave the town of Jasper, maybe within half an hour. We parked and could hear the rush of water tumbling down somewhere close but hidden from us. Quickly though, we were right by the falls and taking in the strength of this falls – the water moves fast and quickly and looks beautiful and intimidating all at once. I am sure there is enough power being generated here to energize a small town. The water from the falls cascades down the tall canyon and ends up in a lake on the other side. There are signs posted warning that people have lost their lives going past he guardrails to take pictures of the falls and tumbling to their death due to the hypothermia that sets in right away (glacial water is always freezing!)  The falls itself is just one part of the whole picture that makes the area gorgeous, with mountains in the backdrop and chipmunks nibbling on pine cones on conifer-filled trails. It definitely is a must-see on the way to or from Jasper and right off the Icefield Parkway.

Tingle Falls – before Athabasca Falls on the way to Jasper
My family climbing Tingle Falls
The powerful Athabasca Falls with a gorgeous backdrop
Athabasca Falls

As you can see, there are numerous stops to be made on the Icefield Parkway to and from Banff to Jasper and vice versa. I’ve only outlined the ones we stopped at – there are many more stops one can make on this highway to see other landmarks: Herbert Lake, Mistaya Canyon, Panther Falls. The best thing about this highway is how little you have to walk to see the major attractions – the Parks Canada has ensured you have access to all the amazing natural wonders of the region. Even if you don’t stop ANYWHERE along the way, just the drive amidst the titanic peaks and along the turquoise rivers is well worth it!

Driving on an almost empty Icefield Parkway
Approaching a lake at sunset with beautiful reflections
Mountains reflected in the water
Stops like this along the Icefield Parkway are worth it

Kansas City and What It Taught Me About Relatively Unknown US Cities

I just came back from a work trip to Kansas City and this blog is less about my trip there and more about my perception of the trip before and after. Kansas City is an interesting one on the map, half the city is in the state of Missouri and the other half is in the state of Kansas. I don’t think I or many others knew about this until we looked at a map on our trip. We were in Kansas City, MO for a trade show conference and spent 4 days working and a little bit of exploring.

Kansas City Jenkins Music Hall

When I first found out I was going to Kansas City for work, I looked at my boss in a slightly “Are you serious? 😐” sort of expression. My first trade show and in such a Podunk place! No one even knew where it was on the map, and quite frankly I wasn’t excited. I was going to meet my team who works remotely out of their own locations and this was probably the exciting part of the trip. As the trip got closer, I felt wearier because not only was I going to be incredibly busy on the trip but putting in all that effort to fly to a town I literally called Po-dunk Town was not exactly thrilling. I mean, this isn’t New York or Louisiana or San Francisco or Chicago or any other lively town in the US that I’d love to visit (even on a busy work trip). This was a city I had to look up on a map before I was going there, and most people would also probably have to look up on the map to figure out where exactly in the US it is. And as a travel blogger (or someone aiming to be one), this wasn’t exactly a cool, social media savvy place I could write about!

Kansas City Marriott Hotel at Night

Well…as I neared the end of my 4 days, my perception had changed. And a bit dramatically. Firstly, I no longer saw KC as the Po-dunk town I had long imagined it to be. And that’s because it wasn’t! Kansas City, on the Missouri side, is quite quaint and has its own old school, new world charm. It’s a small city and we were in the financial district. When I managed to notice the city, I realized it was clean and the architecture was beautiful. They’ve perfected the art of having new buildings right beside renovated old buildings from the turn of the last century. Red brick with statues, next to tall shiny glass panels. An empire state lookalike with a big cake topper sculpture on top. The architecture of this town was its most striking feature and one thing I appreciated about the town. They had managed to keep the old with the new and make it look beautiful. I also felt safe and never worried about anything, even if we were walking around past midnight.

Kansas City Financial District
Kansas City Music Hall
Night time KC

Kansas City’s greatest surprising feature was probably how little traffic there was on the streets we were staying. At one point, I told my coworker it felt like the Venice of the US, since there are no cars in Venice. About 4000 people had descended on the town because of the conference, yet city traffic was nowhere to be found, at 9 am or 5 pm. Perhaps there was traffic in other parts of town, but it’s hard to imagine because we got used to crossing the road even when the lights were green. And this was such a refreshing change than the crazy downtown Toronto traffic I’m used to (or still not used to)!

9 AM traffic in Kansas City, MO

Despite the heat (one day it was +45 with humidity), the city itself is very picturesque. There are lots of parks and open spaces, there are fountains in many places (KC is the City of Fountains in the US with over 200 fountains across the metropolitan area). And they are lovely – looking at them you wouldn’t know if you were in a plaza in Italy or a modern-day city since the fountains are so historical looking and decorative.

Before I left, I’d thought Kansas would be a city with few people, and certainly no young ones. Once again, I was wrong. The City was teeming was young men and women, students and young professionals, all enjoying the music and the food scene the city has to offer. We spent a lot of time hanging out in the Power and Light District, where nightly concerts took place in the Sprint Center across from a cool open-air plaza we visited, and where old warehouses had been turned into restaurants. You went in and saw lofty ceilings, silver pipes and old stained windows, but in fact it was a modern restaurant you sat with pop music blasting and people enjoying beer, BBQ (of course) and tapas and canapes.

One of the unique restaurants – Rings of Honor all around the walls – you need to drink 400 beers to get one and the Kansas folk are good at it.

All in all, I was surprised by the time I made my way back to the airport, and in a good way. About all 14 of my coworkers felt the same – they’d all come thinking KC was a small town with nothing but the likeness of tumbleweed to offer, located somewhere in mid-US.

I guess the adage applies to travel also – if you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t judge a place before visiting it. I now see traveling to smaller cities in the US as something that offers an opportunity to explore (and self-explore), rather than as a time-wasting chore. Hopefully if you happen to pass by this town on one of your travels, you stop to appreciate all the big and small it has to offer and check out one of its many fountains.

Open air Entertainment Complex

 

Cinque Terre – Part I

I’m going to step away from Rome for a bit… and step into the colours, the waters and the beauty of Cinque Terre. A few hours’ drive from Florence, it is a must-see detour if you have a day to spare. A lot of people automatically think of the Amalfi Coast and places like Positano when thinking of seaside villages in Italy. The wonderful thing about Italy is, there are two places like this in the country – the Amalfi Coast in the south and Cinque Terre in the north. Because we were visiting mainly northern cities, we decided to go to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre literally translates to ‘Five’ (Cinque) Lands (Terre)’ or 5 villages off the coast of the Ligurian Sea. And they are indeed villages – little, compact and standing still in time. Although I’ll let you know they are not as vivid and bright as all the filtered Instagram posts – they’re more subdued in their colours but still postcard worthy and worth the travel distance.

The first little fishing village of Cinque Terre

Before we planned to go to Italy, it was a must of mine that we visited these beautiful seaside villages since I’d seem them so much on social media and wanted to take them in, in person. Thus it is no surprise that this was part of the trip I was very excited about. We booked a tour to take us from Florence to Cinque Terre and show us around the 5 villages. There are two tours you can book through Viator – one is where they drop you from Florence to the first village and you hike your way across the rest of them yourself. The second option is where they take you through them with a train to each of the next village and you avoid the hike if you don’t want to do all the walking. Seeing as we were going in Summer, (and given my fasciitis foot condition), Imran and I decided we’d take the 2nd option and hop on the train each time with our tour to take us around. This turned out to be SO much easier because when I say it’s a lot of walking to each of the next village, it’s not an exaggeration. I saw people hiking through the narrow pathways from one village to the next and it did not seem easy at all, given the hot temperatures when we went in June. Perhaps it is easier to walk when the weather is cooler, and you want to enjoy the views all along the coast (they are beautiful views!). I’d recommend taking the hiking tour starting late September onwards, when the weather cools and the crowds die down a bit. Cinque Terre is more of a Spring to Fall place, so I imagine in the winter it’s cold with less businesses open than the other seasons.

Okay I digress. Let’s come back to the morning we were to depart for CT. We went to a meeting point by the Florence train station around 7 am and met up with the rest of the crowd while there along with our tour guides. Once they’d registered everyone and all the administrative stuff was taken care of, we were off! Traveling in a coach with a large crowd (we were part of the crowd that didn’t opt in for the lunch option with the tour), we were let alone to sleep for an hour or so since it was still early in the morning. We were making our way through the region of Tuscany, but not exactly the postcard countryside views we are used to seeing. As we got closer, the tour guide started giving us more information on the region. One of the cooler things I remember traveling to our destination is, along the way, we passed along mountains in the distance that seemed like they were covered in snow in June– except they weren’t. These were mountains in a town called Carrara where inside them marble was discovered so they’d been mined for their marble to create all the pieces of work we see all over Italy. Hillsides literally cut up and carved out for precious Italian marble that from afar look like snowy glaciers on mountains. I imagine up close it’s a fascinating sight to see.

The Sarzana region on our way to Cinque Terre

As we got closer to Cinque Terre, we began to see glimpses of the houses on the mountains but it’s not until you are quite close to Cinque Terre that you view the colourful villages in their entirety. There is only one place where you can glimpse all 5 fishing villages at once and it’s while you’re driving and can’t stop on the road unfortunately. That was our first glimpse of the place we’d be spending the day and it was a sort of surreal experience – going from liking things on Instagram and Facebook to getting a sneak peek in person. The one thing you do see though is the farming that the people of each village have done on the sides of the hills. It’s beautiful and picturesque and not easy for the farmers – the hills are steep and going up and down them requires clever footwork. But these farmers can grow olives, lemons and grape vineyards for their famous Cinque Terre region wine. Some farmers have created little pulleys for themselves so it’s easier going up and down these slopes and it’s fascinating to see how resilient the people of this place are and have been through the centuries.

Just before you glimpse the villages
Farmed hills and a tiny cabin on the hillside

While we were on the coach traveling to Cinque Terre, we were told we’d be visiting 4 villages out of the 5. And as much as I felt robbed of the “full” experience, I am so glad we did not visit all 5. In fact, I would have been glad to visit 3 of the 5. The reason for this is, by the time you’ve seen 2 or 3, you get the gist of what Cinque Terre is and you’d rather spend more time at each of the villages you visit than trying to rush to the next. The views of the water are similar from each village’s coast, and the colours, shapes and layout of the towns do not change much from one to the next.

The famous view of Manarola

 

The 4 fishing villages we saw were Manarola, Vernazza, Monterosso and Riomaggiore, in this order.  Although all are super picturesque, Manarola is the one we see the most posted all over and stepping into this village first satisfies the heart like no other. It is small yet stunning. Walking through the streets and seeing the inside of the town is a pleasant experience – you go through shops with lemon smelling soaps, Cinque Terre crafted scarves, the smell of delicious fish cooking somewhere in the distance. I liked going through the town just as much as stepping away from it to see it in its entirety.

First step in the village of Manarola

As you start walking the narrow, unpaved pathway away from the town, you come to the delightful, famous view of the colourful houses contrasting the deep greens of the high farms behind the village, and the vivid blue shades of water of the Ligurian Sea on the other side. We here in Ontario go to visit Tobermory for waters like this – in Cinque Terre that’s just the everyday view of the people living there. There are fishing and speed boats scattered around in the water, and although there’s bulging rocks instead of a beach, you see many people sunbathing on the rocks and jumping into the water to cool down. The sea is dramatic yet the view almost delicate. As much as you want to be there to see it in person, you also want to preserve it so it stays like that for much of time.

Couldn’t get enough of looking at the water

That was just Manarola – we visited 3 more villages, and each was an experience on its own. But I knew this post would be long so I am going to cover the next 5 hours of our day here in Part II (to come next week, hopefully!)

 

More pics:

 

 

I took these below images from online just to show the marble mountains (from far and up close).

Look like snowy mountains from far away

 

Marble mountains up close!

 

Getting to Rome & Visiting the Trevi Fountain

First day in Rome

This is my first blog post about our first day in Italy. After the hassle of getting there (we missed our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Rome due to added airport security screenings and bad airport organization), we finally touched down in Rome, Italy! Having arranged for the hotel to send a car to pick us up, the driver was waiting for us at the front of the airport with a little placard with Imran’s name on it. He was not the only one – there were probably 50-70 other drivers waiting to pick people up in that small area. Trying to find the one with your name can be a challenge to say the least. Thankfully ours was standing a ways away from the crowd so Imran spotted him quickly and off we were to our hotel in Rome.

The minute I stepped out of the airport area and we started driving on Roman highways, I knew we were in a different part of the world. Stone pine trees line the roads, rising high above the city, looking down and providing shade to the people of this region. They are absolutely beautiful among the backdrop of ancient ruins, shaped almost like dark green umbrellas. It was in this moment of me staring out the car window, looking at these trees foreign to me, that I fell in love with Rome.

The other thing we noticed on the way to Rome’s downtown was how many ruins you see on the way there from the airport. The Old City walls were our first glimpse and we were both wide-eyed and in awe of the place already. Then you come across the sculptures and ancient ruins. When I glimpsed at the high and mighty Coliseum, the driver pointed out that was not THE Coliseum but a smaller and older look-alike (Theater of Marcellus – Coliseum 1.0). He then pointed out the actual Coliseum from far away as we passed it and had Imran and I grinning at each other (we were going to check it out the next day!)

We got to our hotel, rested up for a couple of hours, and headed out to explore Rome. Being close to Termini, we bought a bunch of subway tickets so we could travel easily without having to keep purchasing them. We hopped on the subway and got off at the Trevi Fountain stop. You have to walk quite a bit form the stop to where the fountain actually is, little signs guiding you along the way. It’s not easy the first time but eventually you start hearing the water flowing and it almost sounds like you are nearing a big waterfall in the middle of the city. Making our way through narrow streets, we started coming to shops that seemed more touristy, and stopped for our first (of many!) gelato shops in Italy, before following the sound of the water to the fountain.

Trevi really sneaks up on you – it’s not built in a large square like much of everything else in Rome. It’s in the middle of bigger buildings and is the front façade of a building itself. When you come to it you notice the 100s of people all sitting or standing in front of it, taking pictures or just enjoying the beauty of the fountain. We visited both during the day time and nighttime and it is magnificent both times. The people never stop coming and going. Even when we went around 11 pm at night, there were flocks of people just like our earlier visit around 7 pm. The beauty is not only in the creation of the fountain’s sculptures itself but also in the blue water falling into the fountain. It is a serene blue in a city made of bricks – this might be why it’s so eye catching and still popular to this day. We both tossed in a coin, making the wish to come back to Rome someday before sitting down to enjoy the glitz and glamour of the fountain.

Some of the details of this magnificent building.