Sunday, February 26, 2017

San Francisco's Gorgeous Palace of Fine Arts

San Francisco is full of structural and architectural marvels: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Pyramid, and the old, stone walls of Alcatraz prison to name a few. I was aware of all of these interesting sights prior to visiting San Francisco last September. One that I happily discovered while researching the vibrant city was the majestic Palace of Fine Arts. I knew it had to become part of my itinerary - it was too beautiful to miss.

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco

The Palace of Fine Arts is located in the Marina district of San Francisco, very close to Presidio Park and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is extremely easy to find due to its convenient location and its sheer size; you can't help but notice it as you drive past on the 101 through the city. For those of you looking to find it with your GPS, the official address of the Palace of Fine Arts is 3601 Lyon Street and Marina Boulevard. There is also tons of available parking, and we didn't have any issues finding a nearby spot for the stylin' rental mom van we were driving.

My ladies and I getting ready to explore the Palace of Fine Arts (I am on the far right)

Originally built in 1915 for an art exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts has undergone several transformations. It was rebuilt in 1965, and there aren't many original pieces from the first building left standing. In 2009 the structure was again renovated to resist earthquakes and seismic activity. Today the Palace of Fine Arts still hosts art shows and exhibits, but is mainly a popular tourist attraction and a favourite site for locals to take their wedding and graduation photos. When we visited there were at least two wedding shoots being held on the grounds.

The inside of the rotunda at the Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts sprawls over 17 acres and includes the massive Romanesque rotunda, equipped with massive pillars and decorated with exquisite sculptures and statues (over 1500 statues are said to be found throughout the grounds).

One of the 'weepers' on top of the Corinthian columns

The rotunda is surrounded by a giant stone pergola, supported by Corinthian columns approximately 150 feet high. There is also a large lagoon where catfish drift lazily to the surface to eat bugs, and a lawn filled with twisting trees and floral gardens.

The Palace of Fine Arts and its beautiful lagoon

It is a very peaceful and beautiful space. We began by wandering through the pergola, weaving around the columns, necks craned to the sky. Atop each column are four maidens, called "weepers", carved into the stone. The figures are called "weepers" because they were designed to collect rainwater and redistribute it to planters that were built into the tops of the pergola. Nothing is actually planted in the planters, but that is why the maidens were nicknamed "weepers", as their rainwater 'tears' were meant to water and nourish plant life.

A peek of the rotunda through the pergola columns

Past the pergola, visitors encounter the main structure, the awe-inspiring rotunda which towers 165 feet into the sky. I felt very tiny and humbled inside the rotunda, but also very grateful that there are places like this that exist in the world.

Me feeling small outside of the rotunda
The ceiling of the rotunda

Thank goodness the city of San Francisco decided to preserve and rebuild the Palace of Fine Arts, instead of letting it fall to ruin or simply bulldozing it to the ground.

Trying to put the rotunda columns to scale

After we were done exploring the rotunda, we followed the shale pathway around the lagoon, enjoying the pretty gardens and various wildlife. There were tons of herons lounging in the water, catfish nibbling at the surface of the lagoon, and feathery pampas grasses looming over everything.

I love that tall, feathery pampas grass

We strolled the circumference of the lagoon, enjoying the warm sun and peaceful atmosphere. We climbed trees. We signed a petition against dog farming in China (there was a small but polite protest occurring on one section of the path). We spent the better part of a morning getting familiar with the Palace of Fine Arts and what it had to offer.

Six ladies climbing a tree at the Palace of Fine Arts

While there is nothing particularly exciting or thrilling about visiting the Palace of Fine Arts, I would still say it is worth a visit. The architecture is amazing, and the rest of the facility is serene and very pretty. Take a picnic. Enjoy the sun. You will be glad you did.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Explore Calgary's Spark Science Center and Calgary Tower

Last weekend, my husband and I had a fun weekend exploring Jasper National Park, away from home AND the kids. It was a bit of a break from the whirlwind of potty training, shape sorting, macaroni making, and everything that comes with two busy toddlers. However, even though I know they had fun with their beloved grandparents, I felt bad leaving them while we went out and had all of the adventures. (I know, you can't wait to take a break from your children, and then when you leave them, you miss them. There's just no pleasing mothers sometimes!)

This weekend, I decided it was the kids' turn to have some adventure. It also helped that I enjoyed myself immensely the whole time too. And their auntie got to tag along, so it was an exciting weekend for everyone!

My kids were due for an adventure, so off we went to Calgary for the night!

Last year, my husband won a gift basket from Big Brothers Big Sisters that featured a free night's stay at the Delta Bow Valley hotel in downtown Calgary. Our coupon for the hotel stay was set to expire at the end of February this year, and still we hadn't used it. So it seemed like a fantastic idea to take the kids into Calgary for our weekend trip, and stay for free at a nice hotel that was in a great central location to some of the things we wanted to see.

We began our exploits at the Telus Spark Science Centre, located just off of Deerfoot and Memorial in Calgary. This is a great place to take kids if you are in Calgary, simply because there is just SO MUCH to do and you can spend hours keeping the kids entertained and happy in one location. It isn't a cheap date ($19.95 for adults, $12.95 for kids 3 to 12, and $15.95 for teens 13 to 17), so I do recommend you plan to spend as long as humanly possible inside the science centre to make the most of your money.

Excited to be exploring the Spark Science Centre in Calgary.

However, it is entirely possible to spend the whole day at the Spark Centre if you so desire. My kids could even stay in just the one room the whole day, no problem. They love the Creative Kids Museum section, which features a giant jungle gym climbing area, a water play area, a bubble pipe organ, a reading nook, a glow-in-the-dark theatre, and tons of other little play spaces that dabble in air pressure, gravity, magnetism, light, and other science themed activities targeted for younger children.

Getting soaking wet in the water table play area.

We spent three hours in the Creative Kids Museum section this time around, and last time we visited it may have been longer. I was glad their auntie was with us, or I am certain I would have lost someone, as they were flitting about from activity to activity at a breakneck pace.

The beautiful bubble organ at the Creative Kids Museum.

There are other exhibits throughout the science centre. We danced up a storm in the electricity exhibit, where the kids' energy on the dance floor was 'converted' into battery power. The faster the kids danced and jumped, the faster they 'charged the battery' on the TV screen. It was a great workout for them, and I was like, "Yes! They'll be all tired now." But I was wrong. They have unflagging energy and it just isn't fair.

My son marvelling at the multitude of colors.

In the earth sciences room, we learned about light with beautiful jars of coloured water filtering the bright sunshine into a kaleidoscope of color. We learned about sound by experimenting with bird songs. And my daughter LOVED the hands-on erosion display they had set up, which allowed her to play with the sand and water and just get filthy. Good times.

So many pretty colors!

In addition to those rooms, there is a feature exhibit section (we didn't go into it this time around, but last time I had the pleasure of seeing the frightfully delightful "Bodies" exhibit). There is also a viewing dome, where you can watch planetarium videos, or movies about bugs to name a few examples. We also didn't do that this time around - I knew my kids would be too full of energy to sit and watch a movie, no matter how cool it might look on the ceiling of a giant dome.

After about four hours at the Telus Spark Science Centre, it was time to go check in to our hotel and move on to the next activity. We found the Delta Bow Valley hotel very easily, as it was only a four minute car ride down Memorial Drive into the downtown area. The kids LOVED the view from the 20th floor, and my daughter was very excited to stay in "The big city!" as she kept proclaiming.

The Calgary Tower from below.

We didn't loiter in the hotel room for very long, as daylight was burning and we didn't have too much time to waste. The plan was to take the kids up the Calgary Tower next - if they enjoyed the view from the 20th floor of the Delta, then they would go crazy over the view from the top of the tower.

Looking down, way down, from the Calgary Tower.

We arrived at the Calgary Tower base by 5:30 p.m., which was plenty of time since the Tower is open from 9:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. However, there was no one else waiting in line so we sailed right on up and purchased tickets to ride the elevator to the top.

Going up the elevator to the top of the Calgary Tower.

Tickets range from $18.00 for general admission (13-64 years of age) to $9.00 for kids 4 to 12. My babes were free, which was nice because beyond the viewing platform, there really isn't too much to see up top for kids. (There is the Sky 360 restaurant, which spins slowly around the circumference of the Calgary Tower and offers a 360 degree view of the city skyline, hence the name.)

Some cool old photos of the tower under construction.

Even though it was basically dinner time when we arrived at the Calgary Tower, we opted not to dine at Sky 360, mainly because it is quite pricy, and probably not the best place to take two hungry and very tired toddlers after a busy day of exploring.

My son and I sitting on the clear glass observation deck.

We did, however, enjoy about 30 minutes of fun play atop the Tower. My kids adored the viewing platform and were fearless, walking on the clear glass platform, laying on their stomachs, and even pretending to fall through the sky. I was able to walk on the platform myself, but I always get a touch of vertigo and am pretty happy to step back onto the opaque floor again.

A floating child on the Calgary Tower.

The kids had a good time wandering the perimeter of the tower, but there isn't much there beyond a small gift shop and a penny machine. With one more venture out onto the clear glass platform and some cuddles for their auntie while suspended in the sky, we headed out, in search of cheap and kid-friendly food.

My daughter had zero fear on that observation deck!

It was a wonderful day with my children and their aunt. I hope to do more little weekend trips with my kids now that they are old enough to appreciate a hotel adventure and some light sight-seeing. It is fun to see some classic local tourist sites through their eyes, so stay tuned for more!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hiking Maligne Canyon in Alberta

I always have a hard time shopping for presents for my husband. He is the kind of guy that when he needs something, he simply goes and gets it and puts whatever item he has bought to practical use. He doesn't even like receiving presents. So gift-giving is tricky with that man. Especially gift-giving for his birthday, which comes so close after Christmas.

For Joey's birthday, we go on adventures instead of opening gifts!

A few years ago, I decided I'd start giving him 'experiences' rather than physical items. And it has worked out for the best for both of us! His birthday is one of my favourite times of the year, because I know we'll be doing something very fun together. In the past, we've flown a helicopter over the Rocky Mountains, danced the night away in a raucous piano bar at the Fantasyland Hotel in West Edmonton Mall, and gone dog-sledding with a baby. This year, we spent a weekend in beautiful Jasper National Park going snowshoeing and hiking in Maligne Canyon.

Now, when I say hiking in Maligne Canyon, I literally mean inside the canyon itself. In the winter, the water levels drop drastically inside the roaring river canyon, which is a class 5 rafting experience were you to raft within the actual canyon section. In the winter, you can hike deep down within the canyon basin where normally rushing water would engulf you. This is a very cool fact, but this isn't what makes a stroll through Maligne Canyon's winter wonderland special.

Spectacular ice formations in Maligne Canyon make this a special place.

Hiking the canyon in winter is apparently open to everyone, although it is strongly recommended to attend as part of a tour group for safety purposes. Parks Canada ensures that the guides who bring you through Maligne Canyon are well-versed in first aid, safety procedures, and whatever else they need to bring you in and out of the canyon in one piece. When we went last weekend, there were tons of people crawling all over the canyon without guides, but I do agree that there are certain safety issues you should be aware of before venturing out on your own.

Our tour company was Pure Outdoors, and they did a great job.

We booked our tour with Pure Outdoors in Jasper, which offered a three hour tour at a very reasonable price. Included in the price was our guide and tour, transportation to and from the canyon, and ice cleat rentals for our snow boots so that we could traverse the slippery interior of the canyon without falling. The bus picked us up at our hotel, took us to Pure Outdoors where we were fitted for our cleats, and then off we went to Maligne Canyon with a small group of about 15 people.

Fifth Bridge, where the hike to Maligne Canyon begins.

We began the tour at Fifth Bridge, which is located just beyond the parking lot. The bridge spans the narrow Maligne River, and leads up towards the canyon entrance. Once past the bridge, you find a map that shows you the network of trails and bridges surrounding Maligne Canyon. Our guide, Chris, showed us the route we were planning on taking, and led us further on the path and down towards the water's edge.

Our guide, Chris, shows us the way to the canyon on the map.

We stopped for a moment to learn a little about the geography of Maligne Canyon and its surrounding area. Huge portions of Maligne River stay unfrozen all winter long because they are being continuously fed by run-off with a balmy temperature of +5 degrees. This temperate water comes from Medicine Lake, which is called the "disappearing lake" because each winter it seems to vanish into nothing, only to return in the spring.

Medicine Lake's vanishing water is what makes Maligne Canyon so amazing. The water from the lake seeps into the underground tunnel and cave systems, leaching downwards and traveling about 15 kilometres to reach Maligne River, where it trickles in and prevents the river from freezing. It also trickles into the canyon, freezing along its walls into stunningly beautiful ice sculptures and frozen wonders.

Maligne River stays unfrozen because of Medicine Lake.

At a point just beyond the unfrozen river, but before we entered the canyon itself, we stopped to marvel at the small but extremely pretty Bridal Veil Falls. This little waterfall was given its name because of the way the water spans out delicately over a triangular area, resembling a bride's flowing veil.

Bridal Veil Falls - small but pretty!

And then, just a short hike beyond Bridal Veil Falls, we entered Maligne Canyon. It only took a moment before we began to see some gorgeous examples of nature's art. Frozen logs, shrouded in flowing ice, resembled hooded monks wearing traditional robes. Blades of tall grass hung over the edge of the canyon rim, weighed down by fringes of icicles longer than my arm. There were so many tiny but marvellous natural ice phenomena, it is impossible to describe them all. (Be sure to watch the video at the end, since I tried to get clips of most of them.)

So many fascinating ice formations!

There are three big frozen waterfalls inside Maligne Canyon: the Angel, the Queen, and the Knight. We saw ice climbers traversing the Angel and the Queen, which was quite impressive. (The Knight is too dangerous to climb, as it features an open hole at the base which leads to the river. One fall gets you sucked into the river and drug under all of the ice in the canyon, where your body would be lucky to emerge on the other side.)

An ice climber halfway up a frozen waterfall.

If you choose to go to Maligne Canyon without a guide, please be respectful and aware of the ice climbers. As they climb up, they are using ice-picks, toe-picks, and other climbing gear to grip the ice. As they hack into the ice, or pull their tools out of the ice, chunks go flying.

Joey tries to lift an icicle that has broken off a waterfall.

Even small pieces of the heavy, dense ice weigh a lot, and can cause significant damage were they to smoke you in the head. Never walk under an ice climber: stick to the opposite side of the canyon wall, wait until it is safe to move, and keep your wits about you.

This might be the closest I ever get to ice climbing.

The climbers were also very polite, and descended from their climb a little early for us so that we could explore under the frozen waterfall. There wasn't much of a 'cave' behind the waterfall, but seeing the ice from a different perspective was gorgeous. All of the different shades, combined with the light filtering through the ice, were spectacular.

Underneath and behind a frozen waterfall - so pretty!

And it wasn't only the ice formations that were breath-taking. The canyon itself is a sight unto itself. The limestone walls have been smoothed and formed over time into rippling waves, undulating along the gorge gracefully. When you look up, way way up, you see a ribbon of blue sky lined with trees through the swirling lip of the canyon.

The canyon walls were incredible to see.

At one point in the canyon there is a sharp turn where the river has cut a deep section from the canyon wall. It is nicknamed "the Cathedral". Last year when the river was high, several large pieces of debris got stuck inside the Cathedral, leaving behind what looks like a giant eagle's nest. We were able to climb up into the nest and enjoy an elevated view of the Cathedral, which was very neat.

Standing on the 'nest' in the Cathedral.

Our hike of the canyon ended at the Knight. We couldn't go any further due to that gaping hole I described earlier. None of us felt like getting sucked into the river never to return. At that point, we turned around and headed back the way we came, where our guide Chris enthusiastically volunteered to take photos of everyone in front of all the majestic ice formations.

We emerged from the canyon happy and amazed. I have never appreciated ice more than I did that day. Chris led us back to Fifth Bridge via the "High Trail", a trail that overlooks the lower path, the canyon and falls, Maligne River, and provides hikers with a fantastic view of the valley and Pyramid Mountain. He taught us about juniper berries, which are used to flavour gin (but provide no alcohol value so don't go around eating them for a buzz).

The view from the "High Trail".

We returned to the bus, shed our ice cleats, and headed back to Jasper. It was a great way to celebrate my husband's birthday, and a wonderful reminder of how beautiful winter in Canada can be.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Go Snowshoeing in Jasper National Park in Canada

Item number 57 on my bucket list has been "Go snowshoeing" for years. Despite living in rural Alberta my whole life, where it is winter three-quarters of the year and always full of snow, I have never even stood in snowshoes before. It was actually a little sad that I had never checked item 57 off my list yet.

That is, until this past weekend, when I finally went snowshoeing in Jasper National Park in Canada's scenic Rocky Mountains. It was a beautiful experience, and I am pretty sure I'll be asking for snowshoes for my birthday this year.

Snowshoeing was so much fun that I want my own pair now!

My husband's birthday is in a couple of weeks, and for his birthday gift, I decided we would slip up to Jasper and have a little winter adventure on our own. My parents drove up to our home and stayed with the kids for the weekend, building snowmen, tobogganing, and gorging on Dairy Queen ice cream. So my kids were completely fine with being parentless for the weekend. They love their grandparents to pieces.

Off Joey and I went, on a four and a half hour drive to adventure. Well...

Our adventure up to Jasper was exactly that: an adventure. We drove up on Highway 11, heading from Rocky Mountain House to the Icefields Parkway Highway (Highway 93) via the Saskatchewan River Crossing. For us, this is the fastest and most efficient driving route to Jasper. EXCEPT, stupidly, we didn't check the road reports before we left, and about halfway between Rocky Mountain House and the Saskatchewan River Crossing we saw flashing lights alongside the highway, indicating that Highway 93 was closed.

Little bunny tracks in the snow - better than cougar tracks for sure!

Frantically, I began Googling information on what that meant for us. Before we lost our signal, as we were basically in the middle of nowhere, I learned that the Icefields Parkway was closed for 'avalanche maintenance' and wasn't opening until maybe 5 p.m. that evening, if that. We could either turn around and forget about our weekend away, or reroute ourselves somehow. In the moments before we lost cell phone signal, I found us a logging road, Route 734, that would take us up north through backwoods country to a town called Hinton, and then we could drive on the TransCanada (Highway 16) into Jasper. It was supposed to add about two hours to our route, but we were determined not to miss out on our winter adventure weekend, and decided the logging road was our best course of action.

We found Route 734 without incident, and were pleasantly surprised that the wide gravel road had been smoothly plowed and was well-maintained. With the knuckle-biting twists and turns, rollercoaster-esque hills, towering trees, and lack of any other signs of life it seemed as if we were driving along in the middle of an apocalypse movie. However, we made good time and arrived, finally, in Jasper only an hour later than our original estimation.

Route 734 to Hinton was an extremely pretty road, even if it was unplanned.

When I had booked with our hotel, the Maligne Lodge, I had mentioned that it was my husband's birthday weekend. Upon our arrival, we found that the hotel staff had prepared a lovely bottle of wine and birthday card for my husband, and our beds were decorated with two towel swans giving each other a kiss. It was such a nice touch and made us feel very welcomed after our long, long drive to Jasper. So thank you to the Maligne Lodge and the amazing staff there!

Joey's birthday greeting from the Maligne Lodge staff. Thank you!

The next morning, it was time to check off snowshoeing from my bucket list. Joey and I went to Edge Control Ski & Outdoor Store where we rented snowshoes for each of us for the day. We had only planned to be using them for the morning, but the daily rental fee of $15 per person was pretty low so we rented for the whole day, just in case. The ladies working at the counter were extremely helpful and suggested a few places where we could easily and quickly access some great snowshoeing areas.

Happy to be out and about in such a breath-taking environment.

We ended up snowshoeing around Patricia Lake, with the notion that if we wanted to snowshoe again later in the day, we could try Pyramid Lake just a bit further down the road. However, after one hour of snowshoeing half the perimeter of Patricia Lake, we were tired and happy and ready to retire the snowshoes for the day!

We strapped up in the parking lot and then took the well-packed trail towards the lake shore. Walking on the packed trail in snowshoes wasn't that thrilling, and actually a little difficult. When you are snowshoeing, you have to walk with a different sort of gait: wider in your stance to avoid treading on your own snowshoes, and wider in your stride to gain traction with the longer length of the snowshoe.   It is a great workout for your butt and hips, but I really felt it in my upper thighs, especially the adductor hip flexors. And then doing all of this on a packed trail with not much snow makes it even more tricky.

Crossing the bridge to access Patricia Lake. 

Once we veered off the main path and into the deeper, untouched snow, things became easier. It felt like you were walking with pillows strapped to your feet. I thought that by using snowshoes I would be walking on top of the snow, but of course, you sink in a little. However, you don't sink in as deep as you would had you just been walking with boots. I know this because Joey didn't strap his snowshoe on tight enough and it came off, and his booted foot sank into the snow significantly more than his snowshoed foot.

Demonstrating how far down you sink even with snowshoes.

We wandered around the edge of Patricia Lake for quite some time, getting the hang of the snowshoes and our adapted stride, experimenting with snow depths, and just admiring the scenery. We looked for signs posted about whether or not we were allowed to walk on the frozen lake, but there were none to be found. We saw some tracks made by other snowshoers on top of the snow-covered lake, circling the perimeter of the water, and decided that it must be okay.

Snowshoeing the perimeter of Patricia Lake.

I was a little nervous about falling through the ice, even though it was February and the weather had only just turned warm after a two-week -30 degree cold snap. To appease my nerves, we decided to trek just around the edge of the frozen lake, so that if I did fall in, I'd be able to get out. Eventually, we ventured a little further out, the lake frozen solid and sturdy beneath our feet.

Enjoying the pristine Jasper snow.

The views from Patricia Lake are incredible, with Pyramid Mountain hovering over it, shrouded in clouds. Roche Bonhomme, or Old Man Mountain, is also visible from the frozen lake. It is called Old Man Mountain because it looks like an old man reclining in the mountain range, his eyes to the sky, hands folded on his belly. Once you see him, you can't believe you didn't notice him before. It is a very cool illusion.

Frozen canoes dot the shoreline of Patricia Lake.

We made our way halfway around Patricia Lake before deciding to head back due to time constraints. I would like to say that I was disappointed that we had to wrap things up after only an hour, but to be honest, my hip muscles were burning and I'd worked up quite a sweat. I had spelled my name in the snow using my feet, and moving those snowshoes around in cursive writing was a pretty good workout!

Joey exploring Patricia Lake.

Finally we returned to the lake shore where we had begun. I was tired but very happy, grateful to have checked off this bucket list item in such a beautiful locale. Unfortunately, after our next activity that day, which was hiking Maligne Canyon, we ran out of steam and did not go snowshoeing again before the rentals were due to be returned by 6:00 p.m.

We will definitely be going snowshoeing again, and next time it will hopefully be with my own pair and not rentals!