24 December, 2019

Bound for Belle-Ile...

One of our long-term bucket-list items is to visit Mont-Saint-Michel and Belle-Ile-En-Meron the far west coast of France, and a family Christmas in Perth gave us the opportunity to "quickly" get to Europe from Western Australia on one of the new direct flights to London, a mere 17h45 duration. How would we handle such a long stint in an aeroplane? Well, we would soon find out, although we've done the epic Sydney - Dallas-Fort Worth hop enough times to know that it should be bearable!

Afternoons at Perth's Scarborough Beach always seem to feature a southerly gale which attracts dozens of kite surfers.

Our plan is to get over jet-lag in London for New Years, then take the Eurostar under The Channel to Paris. After a few days, another train will take us to Rennes where we will rent a car for a drive around the Atlantic coast of Brittany. We plan to visit Belle-Ile early, and Mont-Saint-Michel late in the drive, and spend several weeks in between exploring what we hope will be picturesque locations on the way.

Aerial image of Mont-Saint-Michel at low tide from Wikipedia by Ryan R Zhao.

The map shows our intended route, but its not fixed. We've made bookings at critical hotels on Belle-Ile (Sauzon) and near Mont Saint-Michel but we'll just wing it with what's in between. It's winter, so we don't expect big crowds, but not everywhere will be open. The overall drive is less than 1000km, so we'll be able to take it easy.

Map of intended driving route around Brittany

Brittany (Region Bretagne) is the westernmost of France's 13 regions, set on the Armorican Peninsula, and takes pride in a Celtic heritage which distinguishes it from the rest of the country. The name comes from the Britons who crossed the English Channel south from Cornwall and Devon in the dark ages (450-600AD) to escape Anglo Saxon invaders.

10 November, 2019

On the Dock of the Bay...

We flew from Winnipeg to San Francisco for a day or two's relaxation and fun before the big hop across the Pacific and home. The second leg from Calgary was an international flight, of course, but we were delighted to be able to save time by completing USA immigration formalities in Calgary (i.e. at a time when we had time!) so we could be a domestic arrival in San Francisco. This civilised system is available at a number of Canadian airports, we think. We were surprised that the Air Canada international flight was in a flying cigar, a Bombardier CRJ900, but we later realised that this 90 seat Canadian manufactured regional jet could be a perfect choice for a low volume route, as this one apparently is.

Art installation at Calgary Airport is so evocative of the Canadian countryside. 'Where The Mountains Meet The Prairies', by Jason CARTER, 2016.

For days, we had been reading about wildfires in California, especially in Sonoma County at the north of the San Francisco Bay area, and that the local electricity utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), was being blamed for causing some significant fires due to obsolete equipment. PG&E's incredible response was to shut-down power widely across its network, including in Marin County where our San Francisco hotel was located, in Sausalito. On picking us up, our driver told us the worst - Sausalito was still totally blacked out. We girded our loins for no lights, no television, no internet and no restaurants for two days, but (and we took the credit for this!) at the very moment the Lincoln Navigator limo backed into the hotel driveway, the power came on and stayed on! We put the candles away and enjoyed a normal stay.

As we arrived in Sausalito, a deliberate blackout had been imposed by PG&E to prevent its equipment starting wildfires.

Sausalito sits on Richardson Bay in San Francisco Bay with direct views to the Bay Bridge and downtown.

In retrospect, natural disasters seem to follow us in the USA. Several years ago, we endured the polar vortex, extreme cold weather, during our entire zig-zag drive down the Mississippi River, culminating in a State Of Emergency in New Orleans preventing us leaving for Miami. Then this year, the US101 Pacific Coast Highway was closed by landslides on the day we needed it to get into Los Angeles. This put us back maybe 6 hours, hardly a big deal, but memorable nonetheless.

Brilliant blue sky despite the nearby fires, and with the power back on, the Taste of Rome was a very popular spot for breakfast and good espresso.

Halloween decoration in Sausalito.

Richardson Bay is home to many small boats and houseboats. This pic taken from a bar where we enjoyed a sunny afternoon.

Sausalito is a "city" just north of the Golden Gate Bridge with a population of only about 7,000 and a land area less than 5km2. It is bounded by the Bay and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The name is from the Spanish for a small willow grove, the first known European arrival being in 1775 looking for safe anchorages and reporting "friendly natives and teeming populations of deer, elk, bear, sea lions, seals and otters" (Wikipedia). Most of those have gone now, starting with development of the area around 1825. In the prohibition era, the town was a centre for bootlegging and rum running. Now, it is a tiny but popular tourist destination (many of whom arrive by bicycle across the Golden Gate and catch the ferry back) and an out-of-town residence for wealthy families. There are 400 houseboats docked in Sausalito and Otis Redding's Sitting On The Dock of the Bay was composed while he was staying on one of them.

What a treat for us to stay in a glorious ground floor room at The Inn Above Tide.

We were in San Francisco only last January, but this time was to be a bucket-list ticking splurge by staying in The Inn Above Tide, a boutique waterfront hotel in Sausalito. It was fabulous - our room's balcony overlapped the water, and only about a meter above the high-tide mark. We did nothing here but relax and drink and eat, and walk around. A ferry ride into downtown San Francisco gave us some fresh air and wider choice of restaurants. The balcony of our room was a delightful place to relax and drink wine as we enjoyed (and photographed) smoky sunrises and the spectacular late afternoon skyline view of San Francisco to the south-east. A fine way to wrap up our crossing of the North American continent.

Sunset panorama of San Francisco as seen from our balcony in Sausalito.

Smoke from the Sonoma County wildfires make for an eerie sunrise over the Bay Bridge.

In San Francisco for a short break before our return to Australia.

San Francisco's iconic retro-trams pass the ferry terminal.

Dappled reflected light makes for a nice view of the beleaguered Pacific Gas & Electric Company building.

Chinese tea shop provided a lunch break in downtown.

Harlequin jigsaw sculpture near the ferry terminal.

Drag queen busker displaying not much talent at the San Francisco port terminal.

Alcatraz as seen from the Bay ferry.

Sunset view of a container ship heading for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean.

Gateway to the West...

Winnipeg's welcoming sign near The Forks.

We've seen numerous references to Winnipeg as a town to pass through rather than visit, and that's exactly what we did a couple of weeks earlier on that snowy night when The Canadian trans-continental train made a stop there. But it's not like us to ignore a place we haven't been to before, so on our return from Churchill, we stayed 3 days in this city, the capital of Manitoba. It was bitterly cold, sub-zero, but that didn't discourage us from getting around, and we discovered one gem that must make this city the envy of the world, to some anyway.

The bell tower on the Holy Trinity Church looks like an afterthought.

Winnipeg is strategically located at the intersection (The Forks) of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers and has been a meeting and trading centre for indigenous peoples over at least 6000 years. Europeans first appeared when French fur traders built a fort in 1738, trading successfully with the aboriginal peoples. In 1873, the city of Winnipeg was declared, the name being that of a nearby lake and (in Cree) means "brackish" or "muddy" waters. In the early 1900's, as an important cross-roads and railhead, Winnipeg grew to Canada's third largest city, but the Panama Canal reduced the need for trans-continental shipping and the city slowly lost its place (now eighth) in that league table.

Irresistable, beloved by Winnipeggers, probably derlict, heritage-listed 1905 Nutty Club building standing by the rail line through Winnipeg.

In 1869, local inhabitants, headed by a Métis leader (recognised as one of Canada's aboriginal peoples) Louis Reil, were angered that they had not been consulted over the transfer of Hudson Bay Company territory to the fledgling nation. They took control of Red River Settlement (at The Forks in Winnipeg) and commenced their own negotiations culminating in Manitoba becoming Canada's fifth province in 1870, by Act of the British Parliament. Reil is celebrated in a pedestrian bridge across the river connecting to Saint Boniface, a decidedly French community in Winnipeg.

Ex-town hall clock restored and now installed in a Winnipeg shopping mall. Despite a plaque saying that the carillon bells would chime evry quarter hour, they stayed silent.

Winnipeg's Union Station is well located downtown, and it's rather sad that so few passenger trains pass through here. The trans-continental The Canadian stops here twice a week in both directions, and the recently repaired railway north to Churchill terminates here, maybe twice a week. We're not aware of any others, and the city has no subway. The building is grand, supposedly in the style of New York's Grand Central Station (aren't they all?) but much smaller. The station concourse provides a link from downtown to The Forks and the incredible Canadian Museum for Human Rights, as well as the pedestrian bridge to the French quarter of Saint Boniface.

Downtown Winnipeg with Union Station in the foreground, and the historic Fairmont Hotel behind its dome.

The Forks is probably Winnipeg's most historic site, where the Assinboine River runs into the Red River with signs of aboriginal occupation going back over 6000 years. From 1886 to 1923, four competing railway companies operated major goods yards here. The goods trains still go by, but the yards are gone or elsewhere now, but some of the original warehouses and locomotive sheds form the basis of a reinvention into a trendy hotel, shopping and restaurant precinct which was quite busy during our visit, a warm haven from the freezing cold. An observation tower provides good views of downtown and the two rivers. In winter there are skating rinks and trails in and around The Forks, and snowboard and toboggan runs too, but, for us, the snow was mostly gone and the Red River was visibly in flood from the thaw.

One of few passenger trains to pass Winnipeg's Union Station every week.

The now defunct railway goods yards at The Forks has been reinvented to become a popular shopping and dining precinct for locals and visitors alike.

Ceramic guitarist in his bath with his dog in an art shop at The Forks.

Canada Geese enter the Red River by a flooded walkway.

Winnipeg's uncontested gem is, in our opinion, the Museum for Human Rights (MHR) next to The Forks. It's housed in a custom-built and wonderful, tall glass and steel building (2014) behind Union Station. Architects from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Antoine Predock and Chris Beccone, won a design competition for the building into which visitors enter via the basement and slowly climb through a maze of ramps past exhibitions depicting the world's human rights successes and failures, eventually arriving in the Tower of Hope at the top. Both the building and the exhibits are stunning and moving. Australia's abuse of the human rights of asylum seekers would not be out of place here, and there's room for new exhibits just in case. Unsurprisingly, we read of controversy over many curators' decisions, inclusions and omissions, but the size of the museum is finite! How this important national museum came to be in Manitoba is itself controversial, but a significant local benefactor would certainly have had some influence.

The exceptional architecture of the Canada Museum for Human Rights.

One of many vast spaces in the Human Rights Museum.

Animated projection of welcome in a multitude of languages.

Visitors climb through the Human Rights Museum along a series of long, steady ramps.

Impressive sculpture in the Human Rights museum, each bead bearing the handprint of the child who molded it.

Foreigners awarded honorary Canadian citizenship due to their human rights achievements. AungSan Suu Kyi features, but her light is extinguished and her award withdrawn because of her failure to resist persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.

Volunteers in the HRM basement sew poppies onto a massive #poppyblanket planned to be unveiled on Remembrance Day 2019. (http://www.poppyblanket.ca)

Poppy sculpture in the lobby of our Winnipeg hotel.

Esplanade Riel pedestrian bridge spans the Red River.

Having crossed the (slippery with ice) bridge past the closed restaurant, we wandered around the main area of Saint Boniface hoping to sit down for a crepe lunch but found nothing suitable, only a take-away joint. The most spectacular building on this side of the Red River was the 1906 Roman Catholic cathedral, but it was destroyed by fire the same year, and, within its footprint, a newer smaller cathedral was constructed in 1972. Nearby, is the also impressive, silver domed, Catholic University of Saint Boniface.

The cathedral of Saint Boniface lasted less than a year before it was destroyed by fire.

The silver dome of the University of Saint Boniface.

Splendid home in Saint Boniface.

Cute and open, but not for the light lunch that we wanted, in St Boniface.

We enjoyed our stay in Winnipeg. That magnificent museum alone makes it a worthwhile stopping place despite its reputation, but the time eventually came for us to start our journey home.

07 November, 2019

Small town on Hudson Bay...

On the day of our departure from Seal River Lodge, we had an hour or two at Churchill before the Calm Air flight back to Winnipeg. Remote small towns are so interesting, and in retrospect, we would have liked to overnight here for a better look, but in the end, we had to be satisfied with Churchill Wild local representative Glen taking us around town in a mini-bus. While he showed us around town, Glen explained that he is proudly related to the orginal founders and builders of Churchill Wild, Mike and Jeanne Reimer. We didn't get to see inside the apparently interesting Community Centre, or the town railway station constructed in the classical Canadian style, or anything out of town.

Aerial view of Churchill as we arrived from Seal River Lodge.

The VIA Rail train parked at Churchill Railway Station proves the train is up and running after several years out of action.

Glen, our Churchill guide, tells us of his relationship to the founders of the Seal River Lodge.

Churchill is a bustling little town, its declining industry overtaken by tourism. We saw that there were numerous hotels and lots of tour operators offering wildlife experiences (bears, whales and birds). Many visitors were seen walking around (the locals drive), enjoying the relatively mild conditions, about 0C. It has a population of 900 and is remote, being 400km north of the nearest bigger town, and 1000km north of Manitoba's capital Winnipeg. It is just south of the border with Canada's newest (1999), largest (1.9M sq.km) and northiest territory, Nunavut, dedicated by treaty to the Inuit people.

Classic milepost at the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill.

The Thule first arrived around Churchill around AD1000, and they later evolved to the Inuit. A Danish expedition in 1619 heralded the arrival of Europeans, and by 1717, the Hudson Bay Company had established a fur trading post Churchill River Post named after John Churchill, an ancestor of Winston Churchill, who was governor of the company in the late 1800's. The town hosted the US military during WW2, and a rocket launch facility from 1956-1984. To quote Wikipedia, "In the 1950s, the British government considered establishing a site near Churchill for testing their early nuclear weapons, before choosing Australia instead".

Glacier smoothed rocks line the Hudson Bay coast of Churchill.

There are no roads to Churchill, and the only ground-based access is via the Hudson Bay Railway. A washout (due to "unprecented flooding") broke the line in 2017 and funding disputes delayed its repair until December 2018. Occasional derailments continued, which foiled our Plan A to come to Churchill by train, and in the ensuing uncertainty we finally commmited to flying in and out. The loss of the railway caused the already struggling town great difficulty as it decimated tourism and spiked consumable prices.

Sadly, that's a real polar bear in the Lazy Bear Lodge gift shop.

It's taken some time for the town to be made safe from polar bears, a growing need as tourism increases. Bears which cause trouble are sentenced to maybe a month in a polar bear jail, more officially referred to as the polar bear holding facility. This is a rather attractive big steel shed near the airport, and visitors are no longer allowed inside because it acclimatises the bears to humans, something authorities are trying to avoid. In fact, bears in custody are watered but not fed in a strategy meant to punish the animals and discourage repeat offenders. Recidivists are appearently flown to near Seal River to try to make sure they don't come back.

Inuksuk on the Hudson Bay coast in Churchill.

Detail from mural 'Peace + Circumstance' on the side of Churchill's polar bear jail by Kal Barteski.

One of many bear traps lined up outside Churchill's Polar Bear Holding Facility.

We saw the outside of this jail during our tour, with the other most interesting features of Churchill being a spectacular inuksuk (Inuit for "sculpture representing a man") and an old fishing boat at the beach converted to a picnic area, and many really good murals installed on the side of old buildings, sponsored as a 2017 environmental project to promote ocean conservation.

'Power of Nature', by Arlin Graff, the bear being rendered with artifacts of 'what humans have destroyed in nature'.

Two stories here: aircraft 'Miss Piggy' which crashlanded in 1979, and mural 'A Small Northern Town and our Common Crisis Emergency Transmission' by Pat Perry about the perils of a town reliant on one industry.

Not sure of the provenance of this mural, but Glen said that it's based on an actual observed friendship between a bear and a wolf.

Our tour over, a takeaway lunch from the Lazy Bear Lodge inside us, our group returned to the airport for our Calm Air flight back to Winnipeg.