Thursday 29 December 2022

Oh the Weather Outside is Frightful

Where to begin with the brutal delays and disappointing cancellations that have hit this holiday season?  So much "news" and social media has been swirling and tempers flaring over the unfathomable number of travel disruptions that have been experienced over the past 8 days.

Would-be travellers were so looking forward to once again being able to board planes and whisk off to exciting destinations for the holiday season or travelling home to see family and friends for what should have been one of the first Christmas gatherings in the past few years due to pandemic restrictions.  Then, WHAM-O!  

Environment Canada is predicting extreme snow fall warnings for the west coast which materialize and cripple not just the the City of Vancouver but much of the province.  Keep in mind that while Vancouver often does experience snow, never is it the icy, heavy, wet, volumes that fell this past week.  It left people all throughout the lower mainland grappling.

This was the start of a downward spiral throughout the country and it triggered massive airline cancellations and delays which eventually led to all inbound and outbound flights in YVR being at a complete standstill.  In some areas, roads were impassable.  Airline crew could not make it to the airport to work at the check-in counters, or to board flights.  Incoming crew that were to continue on to further destinations were stranded, just like passengers, at mid way points on route.  Airport staff such as cleaning crew, food vendors, baggage handlers faced the same fate.  And, just as there were signs of recovery at the YVR airport, Environment Canada again predicted more severe weather to sweep across the country into Ontario and Quebec.

Freezing rain and high winds, downed trees and power lines gripped much of eastern Canada. The Niagara region had declared a State of Emergency with blizzard conditions and zero visibility.  50,000 Ontario customers were without power.  Via Rail trains were halted due to the unsafe conditions. An additional 151,000 in Quebec were without hydro for 2 days and longer.  New Brunswick contended with one of the largest power outages in a a decade with 70,000 customers in the dark.  Essentially, the only provinces without weather warnings or special weather statements were Nova Scotia, Nunavet and Manitoba which lead to disbelief for travellers departing from those areas. 

And these extreme weather events were not only in Canada.  Oh no!  Mother Nature asserted her authority elsewhere too! Much of the USA experienced a similar fate wreaking havoc with Southwest Airlines at major gateways from Denver, Chicago, Phoenix creating a domino affect across the country and a major computer failure due to the antiquated software not being able to manage the endless volume of changes.  Delta Airlines, American Airlines and United all saw a higher than usual number of cancellations.

Here in Canada, Westjet, at last count, cancelled more than 1400 flights.  To add insult to injury, the baggage belt at Toronto Pearson Terminal 3 broke down and has been causing a mountain of displaced luggage mostly for Sunwing passengers.  The baggage loading equipment is frozen (literally encrusted in ice).  The issue compounded and all culminate into one massive &@!%show across the country giving a new definition to #ThePerfectStorm.

I truly feel for those passengers who have been misplaced and find themselves with delay after delay or cancelled travel plans.  It's a busy time of year and this is the very last thing anyone would hope for. The disappointment would be terrible but this is a unique situation that no one has control over. Anyone who knows me would understand the lengths I will go through to support and assist a client.  Christmas morning I was trying to do just that.  In this case, I do feel there is an education piece that is missing.  Rarely do I side with an airline or tour operator but these are extreme weather events hitting 3 of the major hubs in the country and very much out of the control of the airline. There!  I said it!  Not what the travelling public wants to hear but I'm nothing if not a straight shooter.  Allow me to slightly temper that with the fact that I'm speaking in general.  Some situations across Canada are not attributed to the weather but the large majority are.

From an travel agency stand point, we proactively reached out to all clients with travel planned up to the 27 Dec to advise about likely delays.  We handled frustrated, disappointed and in some cases, tearful clients when the calls, emails and text messages began arriving on Christmas Eve, in the middle of the night, Christmas Day, and beyond.  We did out absolute best to re-accommodate were possible, reschedule, cancel, process refunds, and rebook. There were some success stories but not nearly as many as I would have liked. While it was far from perfect for so many of our clients, I'm proud of my team and their efforts to make it the best it could be and ease just a little bit of the stress.

 All of this does not negate in any way the crushing disappointment in missing out on the planned travel experience - be that a European adventure, a multi-generational beach vacation with family, travelling to the next door province to spend the Holidays with loved ones.  Many had planned and booked well in advance so to have the rug pulled out from under them was devastating.  Many drove to alternate airports to re-unite with loved ones and while inconvenient and terrible winter driving conditions prevailed, they were the lucky ones. Thankfully, cancellation and interruption insurance is designed for these exact kind of situations. No, it doesn't give you the holiday you had planned but it does protect your financial investment and if you were one of those in destination unable to return as scheduled, it pays for your additional hotel nights, food and transfer expenses.  Rather than camping out on the floor at the Cancun airport, they could be sitting beachside with a margarita in hand trying to make the best of a bad situation.  Of course, it's never quite as simple as it sounds but it's these very situations that interruption insurance was designed for.  Insurance is a very important aspect of any travel itinerary and while one may think they don't need it, we urge you to consider the events of the past week+ (or the pandemic itself) and the many ways it could have helped.  Who would think any of this could happen? No one plans to take ill, for there to be road closures, for a death in the family, for a fire to your home or any number of other causes for cancellation, but they do happen. 

Now, that said, refunds are being processed by the airlines and tour operators even for those without insurance coverage but let's be clear...this is not a given.  Airlines do not have to refund in many cases such as weather related delays/cancellations, but they have done so and I commend them for that.  I'm fairly certain that saying they don't need to do refund will be an unpopular statement but the fact of the matter is it's true.

While the Winnipeg weather may have been nothing like what was experienced elsewhere in Canada, flight crew could not "commute" to their starting points.  For example, a flight attendant or pilot may live in Calgary but be scheduled to start their assignment in Saskatoon.  They would board a flight in Calgary and move within the system network to get to Saskatoon.  When the flights are grounded in some locations, it's impossible for the crew to get were they need to be.  Then, with the delays, often they would time out after sitting in cities for longer durations that had been intended.  Add to that, reservation and customer service staff at the airlines and throughout the airports could not make it to work due to treacherous road conditions or their home being without power and facing possibly freezing pipes.  Many crew were also stranded in airports missing the Holidays with their own families too because they too could not get back home or where they were intended to go or possibly timed out of their duty making then un able to continue on.  Those checks and balances are in place for safety reasons.

I would be remiss if I didn't address the lack of communication from the airlines to the travelling public.  Yes, it was a complete shmozzle!  No other way to say it.  Passengers had no idea when they were getting home or departing, flight times kept changing and it was long hold time to contact the airlines.  All of this is true and contributed to the chaos and confusion.  Airlines need to do better, of that I have no doubt.  That said, Mother Nature didn't exactly pin point a time that her wrath and fury would subside either so it's slightly more complex than just saying there is a need for communication and updating passengers.  

Christmas has come and gone - a disappointment for far too many.  Some are still awaiting return flights to Canada from various destinations and while the network is improving, we know we sit on pins and needles awaiting the next shoe to drop. A rainfall warning which may leave to ongoing flood hazards is very much a real possibility in BC and parts of Ontario, so we are not yet out of the woods, although we are in much better shape than a week ago.

From this blog, my hope is that the travelling public can be a bit more understanding of the devastating cascading effect that a weather event has on an airline and cast the blame where it belongs in this specific case - Mother Nature.

Wednesday 3 March 2021

Here we are...basically at the one year anniversary before everything shut down and still no resumption of travel and no roadmap as to how things may look as we move forward.  But, despite that lack of clarity, I do see many emerging trends for when the world starts moving again.  Some of the trends are based on surveys of both Canadian and American travellers, others purely from conversations from my clients and others have no "scientific" backing but rather just things that seem to make sense to me with my 30 years in the industry.  Like everything relating to Covid, take this with a grain of salt because the situation is constantly evolving!

Ok, so, everyone is saying that they can't wait to travel but what does that really mean?  Is it a plane ride a couple of provinces next door to see family and friends? Maybe it's recharging on a beach in the Caribbean? Or maybe it's setting off on a long awaited bucket-list trip?  My point is that "travel" looks very different from one person to the next and while I'm anxious for ALL of it to return, I don't think we are going to get a green light from government and then with the flick of a switch everyone is heading out in all different directions!  I believe it will be a slow and gradual build and if "they" (whomever "they" are) are correct, it will be well into 2023 before we see all of the flights, routes, destinations, and volume of travellers back to pre-covid levels.  Let that sink in for a moment.  That means more than 3 years to regain the business that I had in February 2020.  If you could actually see me know, you'd know that I'm shaking my head in disbelief.  Even though I'm living it every single day, I still can hardly believe it.  Anyway....I digress (as I often do).

So let's break this down.  WHO is going to travel? It seems those between the ages of 18 and 31 are first up as are those 45 - 55 and then followed by the 66 - 72 age categories.  There are many reasons these demographics are trending to be the first to resume travel.  

  • The youngest have a desire to travel and have been one of the least affected age groups by Covid.  Yes, they have maybe done their university courses online and limited their social circle, missed out on family gatherings but many have been able to carry on a relatively normal routine. 
  • The second age bracket has either continued to go to work as usual or had to transition to a work from home routine.  Either way, their life has involved making sacrifices, like so many others, all while trying to help their kids with schooling, while trying to keep a balance.  
  • For the oldest demographic of the group, it could be that they have many things they want to see and do while they are able and after a year of limitations, they want to be bold and start doing! Being housebound was not their vision for retirement.

WHEN/HOW/WHERE   For this, much depends on the roll out of the vaccine itself and the restrictions and protocols for specific countries.  Either way it will be a slow and steady climb a we rebound.  Once provincial borders open and any requirement for self-isolation is gone, Canadians in general will be exploring closer to home for the bulk of 2021.  This may be extended self drive holidays, or flying for example to one locations, renting a car or motorhome and then exploring on their own.  Also trending is the idea of vacation homes for a week at a time.
  • For our younger travellers, their focus may be on more authentic experiences and depending just how things progress with Covid or any variants, this group may start to be on the move as early as January 2022.  They tend to see life as an adventure - be that the destination itself or the style in which they choose to travel.
  • For the middle group, I feel they may be more inclined to resume All-Inclusive style holidays but at resorts that may be smaller, possibly boutique style resorts, that are adults only properties.  These resorts will have a high focus on new protocols and customer care and may be more upmarket than perhaps they may have gone to in the past. Again, depending how these next months go, they might be ready to holiday in this upcoming winter season.  This group of travellers also seem to be looking for a longer duration when it comes to holidays and many are siting 11 days or more as their preference.
  • For the oldest group, IF they have been vaccinated, I think we will see their return to travel in the second quarter 2022.  There will be some comfort knowing they have been vaccinated and that specific destinations are well set to welcome tourists.  It seems there is an interest in longer trips (ie: 16 days or longer). Travel for this demographic may be in the form of river cruises and escorted holidays where the number of travellers is limited and within a confined group.  Multi-generational family travel is likely to surge as well as everyone has the desire to be together an make up for all these lost months.  

WHAT kind of travel do we see as the hottest trend?  

  • The market with the highest uptick is definitely river cruising.  The ships are smaller, more intimate and have a high degree of attention to the details.  No other industry has made such strides in their cleaning protocols and healthy and safety as the travel industry.  
  • Bubble or pod travel is all the buzz as well.  This works well for the escorted holidays, multigenerational travel and even for the youngest demographic looking for local, socially conscious options. 
  • Adults only all inclusive holidays will remain popular but only with the resorts that have done the work to ensure their standards have gone above and beyond to ensure guests wellbeing.
  • Ocean cruising will see a spike in 2023 with many looking to cruise for durations of 14 days or more.
  • Self-drive holidays - whether this means here in Canada or renting a car in Ireland and exploring on their own, there is a sense that travellers can be in control of their own safety when driving and in many respects that is true.
  • Bucket-list travel will be on the climb.  No longer will travellers be ok to put off their dream safari in Africa or that epic Italian adventure.  Too much has been given up and now is the time to reclaim the dreams.
  • Wellness travel is another huge trend.  After all the months of being cooped up, we see the importance of self-care for mind, body and soul.

As I said at the start of this post, there is no roadmap.  We're all just figuring things out as we go but as we do that, trends begin to emerge and we see the potential in what may have been hidden only months ago.

Whatever your travel plans look like, we know one thing for sure and that is more and more will want to work with a travel professional.  If this past year of experiences has taught us anything it is that we need someone in our corner when things take a turn.  Someone who understands the ins and outs, who will work their tail off to get your home, to ensure you're safety and who will fight for credits and refunds and be there to answer your questions. Travel is not simple and even less so now and into the future.

We will travel again and although things may look different, there is still an amazing world full of incredible experiences just waiting for you when you're ready!

Friday 11 September 2020

Looking Back

Like everyone else, I know where I was when I heard the news. On the morning of September 11, 2001, shortly after 8 am, I was getting ready for work.  It wasn’t just an ordinary day – it was more than that. It was an exciting day as it was officially the first day that I was the owner of my travel agency. 

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for Coronavirus.  It was on my radar (albeit in the background only) as I had clients who had been or were to travel to Asia and the virus had already been making its mark in that corner of the globe. Even though I knew of Covid-19, I truly had no idea the impact it would have or still be making so many months later. 

9/11 was an unforgettable tragedy that left 2,977 people dead and that event forever changed the travel industry.  As of this morning (11 Sept 2020), Covid has killed over 900,000 and counting globally. Every life is precious, every loss is devastating and yet, I can’t help but draw comparisons and differences to these 2 catastrophic events.

With 9/11 the impact was instant and gut wrenching and it unfolded before our very eyes.  We sat glued to the TV and saw the footage of those planes crashing into the towers, we saw the explosions, we saw the towers collapse, the smoke, the ash, the people fleeing the buildings. Later, we saw dazed people searching for their loved ones, signs and pictures of the missing.  We saw the tears and perhaps we even shed them. We saw the first responders using their training they hoped they would never need, we heard the wail of sirens and we saw everyday people become heros.

 A 3rd plane had hit the Pentagon, and a 4th had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  Even if you knew no one on those planes or in those towers, you could feel the horror and anguish unfolding in front of you. US airports began to close, airspace shut down.  Flights were diverted – many to Canada where the passengers and crew were welcomed with kindness and  compassion.  If we hadn’t heard it before, the word ‘Al-Qaeda’ became common in nearly every household.

In 2001 there was somewhere between 36,000 to 40,000 flights taking off each and every day in the USA. All these planes were grounded and no flights were allowed into US airspace. Many Canadian and global flights were also grounded.  

A short 2 days later, on September 13th, air traffic resumed. Airport security was stricter, screening had new benchmarks and as time went on, we saw many new safety and security regulations be added and enforced.

Travel and Tourism was hard hit. Demand dropped due to fear and the winter (traditionally high season) of 2001 was a washout. The years that immediately followed saw many companies involved in travel – wholesale, retail or aviation, being sold, consolidated or closed. It was not the best of times but we persevered.  9/11 was not the only blow to the Travel and Tourism sector.

SARS quickly followed it – a big issue especially in Canada for the 2002-03 winter season although some what more of a regionalized issue in the east. In 2008 there was a global financial crisis, then along came the H1N1 Swine Flu, followed by Ebola, MERS and the Zika scare. In the midst of all this, Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano erupted shutting down European airspace for several days and affecting approximately 10 million passengers.

Despite it all, the industry survived, coming back stronger as people’s desire and need to travel, both for business and pleasure, outweighed the issues of cramped seating, higher prices, surcharges for fuel, currency fluctuations, extra baggage costs, and the inconvenient security screening procedures. Whatever came our way did not deter the wanderlust.

And then, along came COVID-19.

COVID crept up on us. A strange flu in Wuhan that was hugely contagious and was spreading to other countries. Not all countries reacted the same way. Some responded immediately instituting various travel protocols, warning citizens to return home, and advising social distancing, the wearing of masks and washing of hands.

Once again, we watched this unfold on TV news coverage.  The tragic scenes of those on respirators, sobbing relatives, exhausted front-line health care workers, bodies being loaded into vans. But the impact – while initially shocking – was different. As tragic as these scenes were and still are, as horrific as the news is, unless we know someone, unless we are personally impacted, we often seem to be somewhat removed from the reality and truth of it all.

Many of us wear masks, we keep 6 feet apart in our attempt to social distance, but we are also more casual about it all. Sure, maybe we are not going to wild parties, or political rallies, or crowded beaches but many of us seem to have relaxed somewhat.

We do meet friends on patios or head to the cottage with a few friends for weekend fun. We visit family without wearing masks, schools have re-opened.  We are human and as such, we need human connection and interaction and so, we assess the risk and decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with and what we’re not.

So, the big question is, are we ready to travel?  Perhaps some are while others may not be.  As an industry, 1 in every 10 jobs around the globe are related to Travel and Tourism.  That said, we do hope travel bounces back quickly but realistically, it’s going to be a slow recovery.  This industry was the first (and hardest) to be hit and we will be the last to recover.  But make no mistake…We Will Recover!

Even if you’re not ready at this moment to travel, we encourage you to keep the dream alive!  So many tour operators, airlines and travel providers have stepped up to provide safer travel options.  From small “travel bubbles” with a limited number of travellers, to flexibly changes to $99 low risk deposits, they are doing all they can to make travel possible in the future.

For those of us in Travel and Tourism it has been a devastating year. For the airlines, the cruise lines, the tour operators, hotels, transportation companies, the theme parks and attractions, the destinations, and travel agencies who represent them all – it has been brutal. There have been massive layoffs many with no recall dates on the horizon, a continued workload for months on end with no compensation all to ensure clients make it home safe and sound, refunds get processed, ever changing credits are tracked. To my industry friends and colleagues, I tip my hat to you and understand the incredible stress that has been our lives for many, many months. No one can possibly understand unless they too have lived this reality.  Travel isn’t what we do – it’s who we are.

So, as I reflect on the tragedy that was 19 years ago, I can’t help but also give some serious contemplation to the time we are living in right now. Let’s be considerate of the people around us. If we are going to travel, go to the bank, or buy groceries, please, please, do your part by to physically distancing, and continuing to follow health recommendations. 

When the time comes and you’re ready to travel again, please book with an ACTA certified travel consultant.  Find one in your area:

Tuesday 24 March 2020

We Are Here For You

I feel exhausted; both emotionally and mentally - uncertain, grateful, fearful, anxious, and hopeful.  Yes, all of these emotions have been swirling around and come in waves.   If there’s one thing I have learned from the rapid spread of the Corona-19 virus is that this job is not for the faint of heart.  For the nay-sayers who feel our job description has been replaced by impersonal online giants or that we’ve gone the way of the dinosaur, I’m here to say otherwise.  My role as a Travel Agent/Consultant/Advisor (use whichever term you prefer – I will answer to any) is more important than ever in these difficult days. I know my undeniable value and thankfully so many of my amazing clients do as well.  In the span of a couple weeks we have seen the world take an unprecedented turn our industry has not experienced since 9/11.  Even that isn’t a true statement as this is undeniably more impactful and far reaching.  We’ve never before seen this.

Everyone has heard the stories or seen on social media about the unimaginably long hold times to try and reach the airlines, tour operators and online travel agencies like Expedia or  Endless stories circulate about the hold times for hours on end only to be disconnected.  Travellers scheduled to be departing for fun-filled destinations in a matter of days were unable to get through and unleashed their fury when there were unable to speak with anyone to process their cancellations, refunds or future travel credits.

Que the Travel Consultants and immediately we were in springing into action by prioritizing those clients with the most immediate travel plans and those who need to return home.  Sure, we might be traditional and Mom and Pop storefronts but we were reaching out to clients (not sitting back waiting for them to call us).  It was the agents advising clients of the options for refunds, credits or rescheduling.  This is a service and human connection not a single online travel provider is able to duplicate. 

The impact of the pandemic is hard hitting and immediate for everyone in the industry and I suspect it will be for many months to come.  Just how long is the question.  For my own agency, it isn’t just the half a million dollars worth of travel that has been cancelled in a matter of days (sales that originally took months to build throughout the sales cycle) , nor the 20+ hour days that we dedicated to getting our clients home safely, the sleepless nights, the late night text messages from clients and their concerned families, DMs and facebook conversations (on personal accounts not just work) but also the fear of how the future looks for travel in general and for my agency, my staff and myself.  I feel a personal obligation toward clients to ensure that each and every one who are currently in destinations from Scotland to Mexico to Thailand and Peru, know that we are here for them, ready and able to assist in repatriation back to Canadian soil.  There is the concern for our team members who may be facing lays offs in light of the growing economic impact and immediate loss of revenue. The uncertainty of my own financial stability also weighs heavy.  Despite all of that, we work diligently to assist in this time of crisis with little regard for the extra work load for no additional pay. 

We had many people contacting us who hadn’t even booked with us in the first place but needed help.  Some we were able to assist while others because of the very nature of the privacy policies in place, we were unable to access their reservations.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t want to help or that we wouldn’t have lent a hand in their time of need.  We have been here, doing what we can, as quickly as possible and doing a damn fine job of it!

But here’s the thing. We continue to do everything we can for our clients, regardless of our own losses (and don’t think for a single moment that they aren’t staggering figures) but arguably most importantly, we’re answering our phones.   You can reach us!  You can’t say that about an online travel agency!

There is a common misconception out there that travel agents are just for those who can “afford it”.  It’s thought that our fees can be avoided by taking advantage of online options like the big dogs such Travelocity or FlightHub or by going directly to the airlines.  The fact of the matter is that it is more likely we don’t have any fees associated at all because in many cases we are paid a commission that comes directly from the supplier (airline, cruiseline or tour operator for example).  There are some products or fare levels that do not pay us commission and to those, yes, we add a fee, for which we are unapologetic because with that comes experience, knowledge, guidance, personal connections and a responsibility to YOU – our valued client.  
Frankly, we are middlemen (actually mostly women) that provide customized personal service that the giants like Expedia simply can not.  Have you ever heard of an online provider calling with a genuine interest in how your trip went? Hint, call-bots just don’t do that.  We provide all of this and more at little to no added cost to you.  Seems almost too good to be true, but it isn’t!
As travel agents, we are trained in the art of crisis management.  Goodness knows we’ve seen more than enough of it!  From SARS, Ebola, 9/11, Zika, H1N1....we’ve handled everything that gets thrown our way.  More often is the phone calls from destinations with emergencies on a much smaller scale such as a broken bone, a missed connection, or a lost passport but the point is that we go above and beyond for our clients.  This is simply the standards that we all adhere to.
Now, how about this one?  Picture having booked a $10,000 vacation.  Wham! Coronavirus hits and you make the tough decision to cancel. You first call the cruise line to inquire about your options. After a long hold, they tell you to call the big-market online wholesaler because that’s who you booked it through.  So, you call the number provided. Three hours of terrible music later there’s a click and then nothing. You’ve just been cut off. You finally get through after repeated attempts and the person on the phone — someone who you have never spoken to before — informs you that there is no insurance on the package so it’s non-refundable. You opted out of the insurance because there wasn’t someone personally explaining its importance. It’s easier to click no when you don’t fully understand what it is all about.
In all these ramblings... (yes, I’m well aware I’m off in many directions but at this point it’s really more for my own mental health)... there are a few major points I’d like to highlight in all of this.
1)     Find a travel consultant you are comfortable working with and use them.  Small fee or no or no fee at all, they have your back when the unforeseen and unthinkable may happen.
2)     Take travel insurance!! Of course no one could have predicted a pandemic, nor the death of family member, nor sickness of a child, a broken leg before you’re to leave on vacation, a gall bladder attack, the loss of a job or that your home may burn. This is precisely why you need insurance!  

During any crisis there is bound to be mass hysteria.  With that comes mass confusion and it’s so vital to have someone there to give you peace of mind, especially in times like these. Use an agent!  A real, live, trusted agent – they are worth their weight in gold.

In a do-it-yourself world that frequently leans more towards independence, automation and instant gratification, it could take an event like this outbreak to make us realize that customer service is still alive and well.  We're still out here ready to tackle these major travel issues with our clients' best interests in mind.  My fear is that the value of the travel consultant will be top of mind right now because of the uncertainty and unknown at the present time but how quickly we soon forget.  We've seen it before - agents "save the day" for someone but a year later that same person who needed "saving", is back clicking and mouse-ing around on the internet thinking they can do our job just as well as we can.  My hope is that the travellers learn from this and allow those who have the skills, knowledge and training to do what they do best.

As the days have progressed and the virus has reached every corner of the globe it’s become apparent that it’s more than just the travel industry being attacked.  The economic fallout is already apparent in the stock markets and current investments.  While some surge with additional demand and business such as the producers of hand sanitizer, don’t forget the others that are not so fortunate.  Remember our frontline health care workers putting on a brave face when danger is staring right back at them. Think of those airline crew who volunteered to rescue flights to bring Canadians home. Keep in mind the amazing people who are ensuring  that the food supply is still intact from the farmer to processors to the delivery folks and the people you see every time you go to the grocery store.  This pandemic has made superheroes out of everyone who is doing their part to fight this virus. 

Sunday 24 March 2019

Canada's North - a true gem!

The entire concept of this “cool” adventure all started back at the annual Ensemble Travel Group  conference that took place in Nassau, Bahamas in October 2018.  Each year Ensemble, works with many very generous suppliers and partners who donate prizes that are then featured at the Circle of Excellence dinner and charity auction to benefit the Children’s Make-a-Wish Foundation.   As part of the evening Ensemble invites a Make-a-Wish child and their family to tell their story at the gala event.  This year was a very courageous and incredible eloquent 12 year girl.  As she shared her story it was easy to see that this girl had something special – you could sense her ambition and her gratitude and excitement.  By the time she was done, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.  The charity auction raised over $272,000 that evening which pushed the 8 year total to almost 1.15 million dollars.  I can’t help but think it was this incredible girl, her ambition and ability to tell her story that made everyone want to open their wallets!

 I will admit that the only vacation thoughts on my mind at this time were ones that involved sunshine, sand and tropical umbrella drinks but as the auctioneer was announcing the details of the next item up for bid, my excitement and need for a different adventure grew.  The trip was to Yellowknife!  Sure, it might be sunny, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking sunshine.  Suddenly out of nowhere, my hand was flying up to bid.  It was as though it wasn’t even an extension of my own body.  At one point, Ken leaned over and asked if was “just bidding up the auction item or if I really wanted to buy it?”.  It seemed like the kind of trip that was very much out of the ordinary, at least for me...and just like that I was awarded the honor of the highest bidder. Yeah me!

This Yellowknife experience was put together and donated by Touch the Arctic Tours, NWT Tourism, Canadian North, The Explorer Hotel, My Backyard Tours, Bluefish Services, and RCO Tourism Marketing Services.  We embarked on this adventure with no real expectations.  My one goal was to get at least 1 decent photo of the aurora dancing across the sky and we certainly succeeded! (more on that later)

As we boarded our flight in Edmonton on Canadian North, it was the first glimpse of “northern hospitality”.  What a delightful surprise to be served a full hot breakfast during our short 1hour, 51 minute flight into Yellowknife.  You certainly never get to enjoy that sort of service much anymore unless on long haul international flights.  The plane itself is not very roomy, especially if you’re travelling with your bulky winter coat or parka but that said, it’s comfortable enough for the short duration and the surprise of the meal and free luggage, easily made the squishy quarters all seem worthwhile. 

Upon landing, My Backyard Tours was there waiting for us and just as soon as we had collected our luggage we embarked on our introduction to Yellowknife with a city tour, which helped us get the lay of the land for the days ahead.  We were driven past and/or stopped for photo ops at iconic things such as the Welcome to Yellowknife, the Wildcat Cafe, stopped at the Pilots Monument, Prince of Wales Museum, Mining Heritage Museum, the famous Snow Castle, legendary Bullock’s Bistro, Legislative Assembly, Yellowknife’s answer to Starbucks – the Birchwood Cafe, drove the Dettah ice road, regaled with stories and the history of the area.  It was the perfect introduction to a new city!  My Backyard Tours also provided us with our arctic gear.  Of the 4 of us, 3 had good fits overall however I always have to be the fly in the ointment.  One call to Amanda and a time was set to meet the next morning to try some alternate options.  What a doll – she came to the hotel loaded down with different makes and styles for me to try on and seemed more than happy accommodate me on my quest for the best fit!  We did find a gem and I was toasty warm the entire time!

We arrived at the Explorer Hotel around 12:30pm with the intent to just leave out bags and gear but, as luck would have it, were able to check in right away.    We were accommodated in the new section of the hotel.  The rooms were great – new, of course, but very comfortable beds, crisp sheets, fluffy duvet, contemporary furnishings and everything we could need.  The Explorer is well located and within a 5 minute walk to many things like the Prince of Wales Museum (great lunch spot by the way), the Legislative Assembly, Black Knight Pub, Shoppers, NWT Diamond Centre, etc.

Queue the dog sledding with Tugah Northern Experience - this was probably my second most  anticipated excursion.  I love wildlife and animals of all kinds but in particular dogs
 so it was very exciting to see these 'fellas' in action.  Tolson and his team were ready and waiting when we arrived.  They did a brief tour, showed us how to harness up the dogs and then, just like that, we were off and running.  Literally!  Now, I'm going to be a prairie girl, I've always had this vision of sled dogs being more husky-like...thick fur coats with the distinctive markings and coloring, maybe at least one blue eye...but these guys...well, they were built for speed.  They were a little mix of everything and everything but clearly they possessed the most important characteristic needed in a sled dog - they loved to run!  After the dog sledding we enjoyed hot chocolate, bannock and some tales in the cabin.  All in all, a great time but next time, I want to learn how to be the musher!

All this fresh air has our tummy growling and thankfully had called ahead to make a dinner reservation.  Bullock’s Bistro had been highly recommended and it did not disappoint – what a treat!  So fresh and tasty!  This is a must visit and as a self proclaimed foodie, it was quite amazing watching as the one lone cook was banging out dish after dish, all the while chatting with patrons in a very relaxed way from behind the counter of the open concept kitchen. 

For the aurora viewing, it initially felt like we may not see anything at all.  We tried to temper what would be our disappointment and kept reminding ourselves that you can not control the weather or the solar flares.  If clouds rolled in or the sky decided not the put on a show, we’d still enjoy the experience of sitting out on the hilltop watching the night unfold, the dogs yipping and barking in the distance, shooting stars darting across the sky.  By 11:45 at Aurora Village, we were rewarded for our patience as the faintest white shadows began to appear.  That haze was very quickly replaced with an amazing sky filled with a 360 degree view of choreographed lights that ever so slowly grew with intensity.  Aurora is nothing new for me being from Manitoba.  Often we will see the white and green dance at the horizon.  This experience was different because it started at the horizon and went straight up and all the way across to the opposite horizon.  Of course, when you take photos, you’re able to capture even more color intensity than is visible to the naked eye.  So, yes, we did manage to get a few really great shots of the beautiful aurora.

Ice fishing in the comfort of the snowbear with Greg of Bluefish Services was such a fantastic afternoon!  It was so relaxed and comfortable and Greg was just delightful telling stories of the lake and fishing
and OHH his excitement at seeing a lake trout on the camera!!  Sorry to disappoint you Greg but we’ just couldn’t convince that trout to jump into the frying pan.  We each did have some nibbles on our lines  (apparently I may have been able to actually
catch a fish had I listened more/talked less!)  but in the end, no one was able land anything.  It didn’t matter though – ½ the fun of fishing was the time spent with friends and the fish tales!  Greg even arranged for one of his buddies to bring out a special delivery by snowmobile – Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts.  What could possibly be more Canadian than delivering Tim Horton’s on snowmobile to a group of people ice fishing in the middle of the lake!  Love it! :)

The temperatures during our stay were perfect!  We had daytime highs of around -12C and the nights were -20C.  Again, being from the prairies, I’m no stranger to the cold but this was actually at least 10 degrees warmer than I had been thinking we’d experience.  The challenge was figuring out the optimum clothing and outdoor gear to wear for the different activities.  It’s hard to know how many layers and what the right combination is in order to be not too hot but not too cold.  I felt like Goldie Locks trying on multiple options before settling on my “regular Manitoba jacket” for our next excursion, “Shopping in the Birch Grove”.

What an incredible afternoon spent with Rosie of Strong Interpretation!  We snow-shoed  approximately 3 kms on mostly unbroken or semi-broken trail through the boreal forest.  Rosie would point out specific animal tracks, plants indigenous to the area and explain the various uses for medicine or for cooking, baking and even in martinis. (she had me at martini!)  She carried with her a bag of “visual aids” – a rabbit foot, candied pine needles and birch syrup to taste, and anything else she needed to help us interpret her stories.  At the end of the trek we settled in for a winter picnic in a small hut used when the birch trees are being tapped.  Before us were her tasty homemade offerings (some of which we had already heard rave reviews of from Greg during our fishing trip).  Everything she had prepared incorporated many of the forest items she had harvested in the fall from cranberries to mint and rosehips.  It was a delicious reward after a wonderful outing!  Interestingly enough, Rosie was originally from Manitoba!

For dinner we took a cab over to Old Town to try out the Woodyard/NWT Brewhouse, Canada's most northern brewery.  Great food, fantastic service and we almost had to roll out of there after several flights of brew!  This is sure to be a place for a few casual beverages and a great dinner.  Try their in-house brews made with Canadian grain and the freshest, clearest water in the country. 
The annually built Snowking Castle seemed to always have some sort of activity happen day and night.  Saturday was the Royal Ball and having no idea what to expect, we were blown away by the talented musicians.  It was such a fun event and in a very unique setting!  Those in attendance made dancing in winter gear look easy but I'm thinking that only comes with practice!  We even saw the ‘Snow King’ himself!

And what trip to Yellowknife would be complete without talking about a little bling!  Canada (and NWT in particular) is one of the world's leading producers of the 'girls best friend'.  A visit to the NWT Diamond Centre was interesting and informative to see how the diamonds are mined and the process to take it from its rough form to the polished and dazzling brilliant stone in the finished state.  I even tried my hand at polishing a diamond and held in my own hand a 4.02 carat diamond priced at $175,000.  Needless to say, that little bobble did not come home with us!  


Our final event before we headed to the airport was taking in the Sugar Shack Brunch, again held at the Snowking Castle.  We suited up one last time in our warm artic gear and enjoyed not just a tasty meal but some toe tapping entertainment too!

I feel truly fortunate to have experienced this part of Canada that is so often overlooked as a destination in itself.  This little part of Canada's Great White North is not just a northern gem but certainly a Canadian gem!   I’d like to extend my sincere thank you to Antje and Susan of Touch the Arctic for their part in helping us experience Yellowknife and this fabulous adventure and to our good friends, Garry & Alanna for being game to try something new and out of the box!