I was recently invited to speak at the annual leadership conference for Coast Hotels, which took place at the Coast High Country Inn in Whitehorse. The theme of the event was Bucket List, and so naturally, I felt right at home. Since it’s January, and Whitehorse is the most accessible northern city to see the aurora, especially from Vancouver, I brought my Dad along for the ride. It’s been his dream to see the aurora since watching an 80’s movie called St Elmo’s Fire, which doesn’t feature the lights at all, other than, as I write in my book, the “light going out of Ally Sheedy’s acting career.” No offence to Ally Sheedy. Or Andrew McCarthy, an actor in the movie who is now an editor-at-large for National Geographic. #Everythingisconnected. My Dad and I had previously spent five nights in Yellowknife and saw no lights, but we did kinda-sorta see the aurora (if you squinted just so) in Hay River after flying over with Buffalo Air, but never got the full razzmadaddle. Whitehorse would be another kick at the aurora can. What’s more, Coast had arranged for attendees to tick off a full blown Whitehorse bucket list, including dogsledding with Muktuk Adventures (as featured in my books), slurping back the Sour Toe Cocktail brought down from Dawson City, and dipping in the thermal springs of the Takhini Hot Pools. Throw in some elk sausage and Arctic Char from Burnt Toast, my favourite restaurant in the city, and you’ve got a comprehensive winter Whitehorse bucket list covered!
My Dad and I finally see the light
We arrived via Air North, which is the only airline I know that serves hot baked cookies, refreshments at the gate, and affordable flights to a northern city. Settled into the Coast High Country Inn (which is owned by the same folks who own the Best Western Gold Rush Inn, so they have you covered), we took off for our first shot at seeing the lights at a remote aurora viewing cabin. Fire pits were burning, the tent cabins were heated and cozy, and the sky cleared nicely. The aurora report gave us just a 4/10 chance at seeing a 4/10 display, but sure enough, green waves began to pop on the horizon. No fireworks, but fine enough. That we threaded the needle on our first night in Whitehorse is a testament to Coast marketing director Sarah Kirby-Yung’s delightful optimism trumping my Dad’s northern lights jinx.
“Can we tick this one off Dad?” I ask?
“Yes we can.”
And so we did.
Unless you're the lead dog, the view's all the same
Racing a dogsled on a frozen river is pure bucket list too. I’ve had the good fortune to dogsled with Muktuk Adventures filming an episode for my TV show, and researching a chapter for my book. The happiest puppies on the planet were lined up and rearing to go on our arrival, and off they go, running along the side of the Takhini River, pausing only for breaks and cuddles from Muktuk’s caring staff. Go dog go! It was the highlight of the trip for my Dad, which speaks volumes about the quality of the experience (and perhaps the performance of the aurora as well).
Easy listening, easy reading
Your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe!
If only I could do all my book signings at a bar, beer in hand. Every attendee received a signed copy of my book at an evening event, soundtracked by a three-piece jazz band, and the arrival of the notorious Sour Toe Cocktail. It’s the fourth time I’ve had someone else’s severed toe in my mouth, although this time I think some of it flaked off and got stuck in my teeth, which continues to make me gag just writing about it. I got my Dad to join the club too, the toe stubbornly refusing to slide down the tumbler of Yukon Jack to touch his lips. As the Toe Captain will tell you: “Drink it fast, or drink it slow, but your lips must touch this gnarly looking toe.”
Feeling good on stage for Coast Hotels
The Wooden Skyscraper of Whitehorse
After finally getting a decent photo of Whitehorse's iconic wooden skyscraper, Tourism Yukon's Jimmy Kemshead drive us along the Alaska Highway to check out the Mount Sima Ski Hill outside of town, and the scenic taiga on the drive to Carcross. Our final night featured a soak in the Takhini Hot Pools, a natural thermal spring located 25 minutes drive from Whitehorse. It was a late night soak, well enjoyed by all and spiced (and chilled) with a half-naked roll in the icy snow. As usual, the travel buzz moment came when I least expected it. Our bus got stuck in the ice in Takhini’s parking lot, and while the driver revved and tried to roll free, the cold night sky burst forth with stars, falling meteorites, and the wispy dance of the aurora herself. Not quite green, but a large distinct light flickering across the dark sky. Eventually we managed to free the bus by lining up and pushing it out in reverse. Rescuing a passenger bus beneath the northern lights in the Yukon? Now that’s bucket list.
Montreal to Fredericton is an eight hour drive. Quebec’s ice-scarred highway runs into the smooth double lane bliss of New Brunswick. My Mom and I listen to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, a thought-provoking three hour podcast about the decision to use nuclear weapons in World War II, which is more interesting than it sounds (especially after our recent visit to the Diefenbunker). It’s a smooth, uneventful drive east, although more and more snow appears on the hills that bracket the highway. New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia got nailed with the worst winter in living memory. Everyone we meet tells us about it, shows us pictures, and is obviously relieved it is finally over. In Fredericton, I take my Mom to see the Dali masterpiece, and the Santiago el Grande delivers its magic. We pop into the Lunar Rogue, which offers over 300 whiskeys (described in a “bible” that defies description, see Gallery above), and I give a talk at the local Chapters. Onwards to Saint John, for a booksigning, polar bear dip, and a fascinating visit to the Jewish Historical Museum, and Moncton, where Magnetic Hill was closed due to snow. Without being able to see it, my Mom still doesn’t believe the car rolls uphill (it does). Our Moncton accommodation is in the new Sheraton Four Points, a welcome option if you’re visiting. Best line from a local in New Brunswick: “The Nova Scotia Tourism guys should give its annual award to the New Brunswick Highway Authority!” You simply won’t find better roads in the country, but the Bucket List has proven there are plenty of attractions in New Brunswick along the way.
There’s plenty of sea ice floating beneath the Confederation Bridge as we make our crossing on a crystal blue day, a welcome return the Gentle Island. Snow and rust-red earth had yet to turn Prince Edward Island’s countryside into the lush green hues I know from my summer visits. I’m reminded how different places look in different seasons. We head straight to the famous Water-Prince Corner Shop to feast on a lobster dinner, rejoicing that they’d opened for the season just the day before our arrival. I host a hilarious trivia night at my favourite pub The Churchill Arms, awarding prizes I’ve picked up along my journey, including a Voyageur scarf from Winter Carnaval in Quebec, Roughrider mittens from Saskatchewan and water bottles from Banff-Lake Louise. A book signing at the local Chapters, and blessed with a sunny day, I take my Mom to Prince Edward Island National Park, with the incredible Gulfshore Parkway practically deserted before tourism season kicks in. We gaze over the red cliffs at Orby Head, explore Cavendish, pop into the Dunes Gallery dusting off its wares after the long winter, and hear how the snow was piled up so high locals had to dig tunnels to their doorways. I also learn from my new friends atBookmark on Queen Street that The Great Atlantic Canada Bucket List fills a niche, with nothing else on the shelves like it. I celebrate with a taster flight of a dozen brews from Gahan House.
Back across the Link, and now we’re in Nova Scotia, which instantly seems wilder and more untamed than the farmland of PEI. We roll into Halifax just in time to tape a segment with CTV’s Jayson Baxter at Garrison’s Brewery. It’s the second taster flight in 12 hours and not a pip of a complaint from me. Opposite the craft brewery is the grand Westin Nova Scotian, one of the original CPR Hotels with hallways bigger than highway tunnels. We drop our bags and head out for a lovely walk on the waterfront, locals in shorts and sandals already, on what we’re told is the first true day of spring. We’ve been bringing the weather with us, all the way from Vancouver. The next day, Ford gathers some of the city’s most dazzling lifestyle bloggers for me to wine and dine at the fabulousOcean Stone Seaside Resort near Peggy’s Cove. We learn to shuck huge oysters, sip back sparkling pink Nova 7, and after a decadent lunch (lobster-stuffed chicken breast!) I give my final presentation about the importance of journeys. One of my key points is that a journey is only as important as the people you share it with. Illustrated beautifully by the afternoon’s visit to Peggy’s Cove and Lunenburg.
Last time I was here, the sky was muted, a dull grey failing to light up the wonder of these Nova Scotian marvels. This time, I’m with my Mom, the sun is shining, and she’s beaming on the rocks next to the iconic lighthouse, and exploring the grid streets of Lunenburg. The memorials of the Swissair Flight 111, which crashed near Peggy’s Cove with the cost of 229 lives, and the list of vessels and people that drowned off the coast of Nova Scotia, is a telling reminder to enjoy these special moments. Having spent 12 days with my Mom crossing the country, she has proved to be a friendly roadie, fun travelling companion, and proud promoter of the Canadian Bucket List. Not to mention a doting Mom. With two book signings in Halifax, a steady stream of people arrived to chat and talk about the book, having seen me on TV or my profile in the Halifax Chronicle. Many told me their own stories of exploring Canada, or ticking off their Bucket List.
A final hop to the Rock – St John’s Newfoundland, looking out over the port from our room at the Sheraton, exploring the jellybean houses the likes my Mom had never seen. We shopped for gifts on Duckworth and Water Street, had a delicious lunch at the Rooms, watched Irish music at Shamrock City (my Mom ordered tea in the Irish bar. I’m surprised the musicians didn’t fall off the stage). Hopes for an iceberg tour were dashed by poor weather, this being Canada’s windiest and foggiest city. The plane over was not fast enough to bring our weather system, for the teeth in St John’s icy wind cut right through us. I signed some books and that’s a wrap! We’d travelled 7500 kilometres promoting the joys and wonders of Canada, meeting t hundreds of peoples across a dozen events, not to mention in the many restaurants and activities we popped in along the way. The Great Canadian Bucket Listsold out its 5th print run, and according to Amazon, we’re sold out the first batch of The Great Atlantic Canada Bucket List too. Don’t worry, more is on the way. As for my own Bucket List: I got to drive a Mustang, visit an urban castle, surf in a river, polar dip in the Bay of Fundy, and show my Mom some of the most incredible spots on Canada. Tick!
The 2015 Bucket List Tour is finally here. After ticking off 18 cities in 2013, this time I pick up in Toronto and head east east east, all the way to St John’s Newfoundland before a final talk in Vancouver. Click here for dates, venues and times. Joining me is the most able roadie I know, my Mom! For the first leg, Ford Canada graciously provided ahot blue Mustang. Because everyone should travel across Canada with their mother in a Mustang!
The first event was at MEC Toronto. Right after that, I met some lovely Toronto bloggers for a talk at the Toronto Archives, and a visit to Casa Loma to see if it is indeed bucket list-worthy. First time I saw the huge medieval castle, I couldn’t believe it! Dozens of visits to the city and I had no idea it existed. It was built by Henry Pellatt, the city’s richest man back in 1911. 96 rooms, no expense spared, just for him and his wife. Needless to say, the guy ended up in financial ruin. We got a site tour, including the underground tunnels now refashioned with images of Toronto’s dark past (plague! fire!). I also recognized the hallway from the X-Men movies. Geek note: X-Men will also appear later in the blog post as well. Casa Loma is bizarre, unique, fascinating and memorable…definitely a new chapter for Canada’s Bucket List.
From Toronto, I did a talk at the Sandford Fleming College in a small town called Lindsay. A couple years ago I received an email asking me if I could stop by to give a talk to help raise funds for the local segment of the Trans Canada Trail. Glad I could! Fantastic turnout in a lecture hall at the college, lovely people, and a passionate commitment to this Bucket List trail. My Mom and I spent the night on a farm outside of town with the kind of people that make Canada the place it is. Click here to learn more about the Trans-Canada Trail.
I’ve never driven a muscle car before, and as a skinny guy, the muscle felt great. I felt like hunting a Prius on the highway. I had a 6 speed manual transmission, bucket seats, and a dashboard that lit up like the Starship Enterprise. My Mom called the Mustang Sally, of course. A sweet ride. We’re swapping Sally out for a hot red Focus in Ottawa for the rest of the drive.
Before arriving in Ottawa, I returned to the Diefenbunker to meet with some local bloggers and media and introduce them to this quirky, historically bonkers chapter in the book. I appeared on CTV Morning News in Ottawa, gave a quick presentation to some lovely folks at the Ministry of Tourism, stopped off for a book signing at theChapters-Indigo on Rideau, and gave an evening presentation in the offices of World Expeditions (who have created guided and self-guided itineraries for many experiences in my books through their Great Canadian Trails division). Never a dull moment on tour!
Starwood Hotels have been my generous hotel sponsor for the tour. An amazing room overlooking Lake Ontario from the Westin Harbour Castle in Toronto, a bucket list view from my room on the 22nd floor at the Westin Ottawa, and tranquil room in the Le Meridien Versailles overlooking Sherbrooke Avenue in Montreal. With this much racing around, I need more than just a comfortable bed and hot shower at the end of the day. I need an inspired ambiance. Well played Starwood, well played. I signed up for their SPG Program, as should you.
In Montreal, I got to tick off another bucket list item: surfing on the standing wave of the St Lawrence River. There’s only one other major city in the world that has anything remotely like this (Munich) and let’s face it, Munich is not Montreal. After snacking on Schwartz’s and poutine, Ford arranged for me to visit KSF Surf School with some fetching local bloggers to learn how to surf a river wave. As with most things in life, it’s a lot harder than it looks. The river flushed me through the waves, but snug in a 3mm wetsuit, it was awesome just to be in the water, with good company, on a beautiful spring day. A Bucket List is only as special as the people you share it with, and the five of us (led by guides Luka and Hugo) had a memorable Montreal adventure. I also appeared on Breakfast TV Montreal.
After an eight hour drive, we arrived in Fredericton, New Brunswick! The highways of New Brunswick are legendary, and even though I left the Mustang behind in Montreal, the Ford Focus Hatchback ate up the black-top with no problem whatsoever. I have to run to the first of eight events in Atlantic Canada events, so this is where I leave you for now.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.