Saturday, November 27, 2021

Canada Road Trip 2021 ✈ Driving from Canada to US

When Canada finally reopened its border on 9 Aug 2021 (after 17-months), we wasted no time rebooking our Canada trip that had been cancelled twice prior to this. We opted to drive to Canada from the US (instead of flying directly into Canada). We started our road trip in Spokane, spent a few days in Banff National Park, and ended our trip in Seattle. Thank you Canada for reopening the borders to fully vaccinated travelers!

This was our 2nd international trip this year, and we're absolutely aware of the risks we were taking to travel during a pandemic. As we were renting a car and visiting national parks where we could easily avoid crowds, Canada was a rather safe and ideal travel destination. To be clear, we have been and are still taking the pandemic seriously. We're both fully vaccinated (hubby had his booster shot), we wear our KN95/KF94 masks whenever we're out in public, and we're still avoiding people. =P

Canada Road Trip 2021:

After a wrapping up 3 successful days of sightseeing at Banff National Park, it was time to continue our journey to our next destination in Canada...Vancouver. We chose to cross the border back to the US  from Vancouver as we wanted to tag on a visit to Seattle on this trip. We definitely fully utilized our rental car to cover a whole lot of miles in both US and Canada within 7 days. 

16 Sept 2021 (Thurs): Canmore - Vancouver

We had a long day of driving ahead of us so we checked out of the hotel and departed at 6.15am. Fortunately, we didn't need to execute our last resort of visiting Lake Moraine right before leaving Banff (thanks to the beautiful weather the day before), else we would have had to depart even earlier. 

The route we drove from Banff to Vancouver was an easy one along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1), with a detour through Whistler before ended our day in Vancouver. The total journey was about 900km (560 miles) and took us about 14 hours without any sightseeing stops...certainly a long day of driving but we gained 1 hour going from Mountain to Pacific time zone. Thanks to hubby for driving the entire day! =) The following are some random photos I took along our long drive...

First 1.5 hours of our drive took us from Alberta province to British Columbia province (Banff National Park - Yoho National Park - Golden). There were quite a number of constructions along the way which slowed us down a lil'.

Foggy drive through Canada's Glacier National Park and Mount Revelstoke National Park for the next 1 hour. We made a stop at the town of Revelstoke to fill up our gas and got breakfast at Tim Horton's.

Cute lil' resort close to Revelstoke - Three Valley Lake Chateau.

5 hours into our drive and we were about half way through our drive at the town of Kamloops. We had a quick lunch break around 1.30pm at a small town called Cache Creek and filled up our gas again before taking the turn off Highway 1 into British Columbia Highway 97 and 99. The first part of BC-99 Highway along Fraser River, close to the town of Lillooet, had some interesting landscapes and canyons.

The rest of our drive in the afternoon was actually kinda boring. We passed by Whistler, a popular ski area around 4.30pm but didn't stop in the town coz there weren't much to see. The main reason we took the route through Whistler was to drive through the Sea-to-Sky Highway (Sky-to-Sea for us as we were going the other way). This 163km (101 miles) route between Vancouver and Whistler is known for its awe-inspiring scenery and we had a few stops pinned along the way. However, after 3 days of amazing drive in Banff, we weren't impressed by the Sea-to-Sky Highway at all, partly because it was cloudy and we've had a long day of driving. The cloudy weather also killed our mood for more sightseeing in the city of Vancouver so we ended up not making any stops and headed straight to our hotel.

It was around 6pm when we entered Vancouver and we were welcomed by rush hour traffic. =.= Welcome back to the city and thanks for the reminder that I don't miss traffic at all. After being stuck in slow traffic for about an hour, we finally made it to Holiday Inn Express Surrey at 7pm where we spent the night before driving back to the US. Phew...what a long day!! I went to a Korean supermarket near our hotel to grab some ready-made food for dinner. This hotel would have costs $137/night but we redeemed 12,500 IHG points for our stay so this was another free stay.

17 Sept 2021 (Fri): Vancouver - Seattle
After a restful night and filling ourselves with free breakfast at the hotel, we checked out of the hotel at 9.45am and started our drive back to the US. There are several border crossings between Vancouver and Washington, and the one closest to our hotel was the Blaine Port of Entry, about 30min from our hotel. At the time of our travel, the US border was still not opened to Canadians yet so the border entering the US wasn't busy at all. I thought about using our Global Entry but since there weren't any other cars, we just pulled up to the counter without any wait. We handed our passport and my green card to the officer, he scanned through it briefly and asked what we were doing in Canada. We said vacation, and he said we were good to go...fastest border crossing ever in less than 1!! 

Even though the US requires a negative Covid test to enter the country, this rule only applies for people flying into the US, not for people entering via land. So driving across the border was definitely a good choice as it saved us from having to find and pay for a test. =P

Hubby wanted to check out a video game store at Lynnwood (2 hours from the border) and coincidentally, there was a H Mart right next to it so it worked out perfect. I stocked up some Asian food & snacks, and bought kimbap and makgeolli for lunch before continuing our drive to Seattle. 

We arrived Seattle at about 1.30pm and made another stop at Pink Gorilla video game store before starting our sightseeing in Seattle. Our first photo stop was Gas Works Park, the site of the former Seattle Gas Light Company "gasification" plant, with a view of downtown Seattle.

2nd photo stop was Kerry Park, a very small public park in a neighborhood with great view of downtown Seattle and the Space Needle.

3rd photo stop was Pike Place Market, where the original Starbucks was located. We thought about trying some food here initially, but when we saw all the people there, we lost interest in being in crowded areas and left after taking some photos.

Quick drive-through Amazon Spheres and Seattle Chinatown before heading to our hotel.

Checked into Holiday Inn Express Seattle Sea-Tac Airport at 4pm. The suite we got was spacious. This hotel costs $161/night and same as all other hotels we stayed throughout this trip, we used our IHG credit card free night certificate for the stay. We chose to stay close to the airport because the we had to return the car that night and picked up another rental car for our last day in Seattle. 

After dropping our luggage, we drove 10min to the Westfield Southcenter Mall to pick up Din Tai Fung for dinner. Hubby loves DTF's xiao long pao and since we don't have any DTF close to us, we made a point to enjoy it while we were in Seattle.

After dinner, we drove to the airport to return our 7-day rental car and picked up another new 1-day rental car for our last day in Seattle. National only allows free rental redemption of up to 7-days, which explains why we had to 'break' our rental into 2 separate reservations. I was able to choose any car from the Executive Elite aisle but we decided to go with a Toyota Camry for fuel efficiency. =)

18 & 19 Sept 2021 (Sat & Sun): Seattle - Nashville - Huntsville

We didn't have much planned for the last day of our trip so we just chilled and hang out in the hotel until 2pm (I requested for late checkout). We were trying to rest more before taking the red-eye flight back to Huntsville. 

After a chillaxing morning, we drove to Redmond where Nintendo America's HQ and Microsoft's HQ were located. Hubby loves these two companies so this photo stop (of the buildings) was for him. =P It was Saturday and nobody was working so the place was quiet.

After making another stop at the Westfield Southcenter Mall to check out the Uniqlo and Daiso stores, we made it to the airport at 6.45pm to return our rental car and catch our flight home. Seattle airport was pretty empty and everything went smoothly and quickly. I used my United Travel Bank cash to book our flights from Seattle to Nashville for $116/person. My United Travel Bank was funded with the $250 airline credit from my Hilton Aspire credit card so our flights were technically free.

Went to The Club lounge using my Priority Pass to have some snacks while we waited to board our flight to Chicago at 11.30pm.

We were upgraded to 1st Class for our flight from Seattle to Chicago thanks to my United Silver status. I was surprised that they served a meal for this 4-hour flight. =) Our 2nd flight from Chicago to Nashville was quite full but luckily it was only a 1.5 hour flight. 

We arrived Nashville at 9am and picked up another rental car and drove 2 hours to our home. This one-way rental from Nashville to Huntsville was yet another National free rental day redemption. =)

That's a wrap for our US/Canada Road Trip, another successful pandemic travel for 2021. We are glad that everything went smoothly and we were able to stay safe and healthy throughout the trip. I'm certainly not taking for granted the opportunity and ability to travel safely and freely during the pandemic. Let's hope 2022 will be a better year for travels. 

Daily maps of our road trip.

9 rental days and 2,283 miles (3,674kms) for a total of $43 (RM181). =)

Friday, November 26, 2021

Canada Road Trip 2021 ✈ Banff National Park

When Canada finally reopened its border on 9 Aug 2021 (after 17-months), we wasted no time rebooking our Canada trip that had been cancelled twice prior to this. We opted to drive to Canada from the US (instead of flying directly into Canada). We started our road trip in Spokane, spent a few days in Banff National Park, and ended our trip in Seattle. Thank you Canada for reopening the borders to fully vaccinated travelers!

This was our 2nd international trip this year, and we're absolutely aware of the risks we were taking to travel during a pandemic. As we were renting a car and visiting national parks where we could easily avoid crowds, Canada was a rather safe and ideal travel destination. To be clear, we have been and are still taking the pandemic seriously. We're both fully vaccinated (hubby had his booster shot), we wear our KN95/KF94 masks whenever we're out in public, and we're still avoiding people. =P

Canada Road Trip 2021:

Banff National Park had always been on my bucket list as the first destination I wanted to visit in Canada. Even though Canada is so close to the US, we've been waiting till I got my green card to visit because I was too lazy to apply for a Canadian visa with my Malaysian passport. As mentioned in my last post, our experience entering Canada via land was easy, smooth and seamless. We didn't even need to apply and pay for the Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) to enter coz we were not flying. Banff may not sound familiar to a lot of people, but I'm pretty sure many have seen photos of this place. Scroll on to see the many photos we took during our road trip.

13 Sept 2021 (Mon): Calgary - Banff National Park - Yoho National Park - Canmore

Departed Calgary at 9.30am and drove 1.5 hours east towards Banff National Park. Drove by the Canada Olympic Park where the 1988 Winter Olympics was held. The first half of the drive was fairly boring, but as we got closer, we were welcomed by endless Rocky Mountains ahead of us. 

Random stop at the first of many lakes over the next few days. Look at that perfect reflection! 
P.S. Since Canada drives on the same side as the US, hubby was the designated driver for this trip.

We arrived at the entrance of Banff National Park around 11am. Since we were only visiting for 3 days, we opted for the day pass which costs $10/day/person and provides entry to all the national parks in the area, including Banff and Jasper. We didn't buy the passes online beforehand coz it was easy to buy the pass at the entrance. After using our credit card to make the  'contactless' payment, we were given a receipt with tapes on it, which made it easy to display on our windscreen. The good thing about this day pass is that it's valid until 4pm on the day after purchase, regardless of what time you purchased it. We strategically planned our itinerary where we ended up only purchasing for 2 day passes for our 3 days in the park. =P

First photo stop for the day...Two Jack Lake...our first introduction to the many incredible mountain sceneries, rocky cliffs,  and emerald green waters over the next few days. The good thing about visiting during shoulder season is the lack of crowds and ease of finding parking. Best of all, the parking areas areas are all conveniently located right at the sites, which made it super easy to park, take some photos, and hop back in to continue our journey without wasting time.

Next photo stop was Minnewanka Lake, the largest lake in Banff, which is just 5 minutes away from Two Jack Lake. Look at the clean and crystal clear waters!! It’s impossible to be all laked out in this area – there are dozens of lakes in the national park, each one better than the last. 

After driving through Lake Minnewanka scenic drive, we continued our drive on Bow Valley Parkway, also known as Highway 1A. This was another scenic drive surrounded by pine trees and mountains.

3rd stop for the day was a short hike at Johnston Canyon, well I wouldn't even call this a hike as it was just a walk. We walked along the narrow forest walk for 1.1km (0.5 miles) to the Lower Falls. Took some photos and left shortly. Round trip of this 'hike' took us about 40 minutes. Honestly, I didn't enjoy this as much because of the crowd and it was hard to social distance on the narrow trail.

Another quick photo stop along Bow Valley Parkway....Castle Mountain viewpoint.

We were hoping to spot some wildlife and got lucky to spot 2 elks on our first day as we were driving along Bow Valley Parkway. These elks were just casually eating grass on both sides of the street so we were able to stop and take some photos. We quickly figured out that when the traffic slows down, that means there may be wildlife spotted nearby. =D

Last stop along Bow Valley Parkway was Morant's Curve, the most well-known scenic spot to capture a passing train with the gorgeous Banff National Park behind it. We weren't patient enough to wait for a train to pass by so all we got was the train track. =P

Continued our drive towards Yoho National Park. 

Our one and only stop at Yoho National Park was Emerald beautiful and tranquil. 

We made a detour to Lake Louise and Lake Moraine area on the way back from Yoho National Park since it was still early and the weather was nice, but found out that they stopped allowing cars to enter when the parking lot is full, and it's not possible to walk to the lake coz it's way too far. We weren't aware of this limitation initially, so I'm glad we took the detour and figure out this on our first day as we still had 2 more days to strategize and try our luck.

Final photo stop for the day at Vermilion Lakes before heading to the town of Canmore, where our hotel was located. Canmore is a town located just outside of Banff National Park, about 20 minutes away from Banff town, and is surrounded by gorgeous mountains. 

After a successful day of sightseeing, we finally checked into Holiday Inn Canmore at 5.30pm. This hotel costs $210/night but we redeemed our IHG credit card free night certificate so it was free for us. This hotel looks aged and there was nothing fancy about it (apart from the exterior looking like a castle), but the location was good. There aren't many big hotel chains within Banff National Park where we could redeem our hotel points, so this IHG hotel and a Marriott hotel in Kananaskis were the only 2 options closest to Banff.

We met up with Brantyn and Anna for dinner at the Iron Goat Pub & Grill, which was located close to our hotel. There was a wedding that took up the indoor seats so we waited for about 40 minutes to get seated at the patio. This was our first time 'dining in' at a restaurant since the pandemic, so we were actually glad to be seated outdoor, and with a good view of the surrounding mountains. Hubby ordered the bison burger and I had the Alberta beef burger. Food was ok, but we weren't impressed. 

14 Sept 2021 (Tues): Canmore - Lake Louise - Icefield Parkway - Jasper National Park - Hinton

After our failed attempt to visit Lake Moraine the day before, we decided to go early in the morning to make sure we can enter before the parking lot gets filled up. We checked out and departed our hotel at 5.15am, and when we arrived at Lake Moraine around 6.10am, we were told that the parking lot was already full and they wouldn't let us enter. Ughhh...we thought we were early but dang there were so many more people who were crazier than us!

Since Lake Moraine was another fail, we decided to just visit Lake Louise instead. The parking lot at Lake Louise was starting to fill up as well when we arrived at 6.30am. Sunrise was 7.15am so it was still dark when we got there. We waited in the car trying to stay warm for awhile before heading towards the lake. As you can see above, there were quite a good number of 'early birds' there already before sunrise.

Lake Louise....absolutely stunning!

While waiting for sunrise, we decided to go for a hike at the Lake Agnes trail, which leads to the Lake Agnes Teahouse. But there weren't much views along the hike so we decided to turn around and hike back down after 30 minutes.

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise...the expensive hotel with breathtaking views of Lake Louise and the surrounding Canadian Rocky Mountains. Can't afford to stay here so just a photo will do. =P

Here's an example of how many same same but different pictures we took at Lake!

So beautiful!! I took so many photos I don't even know how to choose anymore so here are more same same but different panoramic photos of Lake Louise and the Rocky Mountains.

After taking way too many photos at Lake Louise, we finally left Lake Louise area around 9am and continued our drive on Icefield Parkway, a 232km stretch of road from Lake Louise to Jasper National Park. The Icefield Parkway is rated as one of the top drives in the world which took us through majestic rocky mountain, glaciers, waterfalls, and emerald lakes.

Our first photo stop along Icefield Parkway was Bow Lake, with the Bow Glacier in the background. 

2nd photo stop was Waterfowl Lakes. I love how we could easily pull over at the parking area to see these stunning views all along the Icefield Parkway.

3rd photo stop...Bill Hill and Big Bend with expansive views of the valley and river below. 

Bathroom stop near Parker Ridge...not a bad view for a bathroom break.

4th photo stop...Saskatchewan Glacier. 

5th photo stop...Tangle Falls...a random waterfall at the side of the road.

6th photo stop...Sunwapta Fall and Canyon.

7th and last photo stop on Icefield Parkway...Athabasca Falls.

All above were photo stops we made along the Icefield Parkway. The total journey from Lake Louise to Jasper took about 4 hours, and of course, I took a lot more photos along the drive...

Sceneries along Icefield Parkway. Very thankful for the beautiful weather along our drive.

Entered Jasper National Park at 1.10pm, and made a quick detour to Pyramid Lake. The weather was nice all along our drive on Icefield Parkway but it started getting cloudy when we got to Jasper.

Another wildlife sighting of mountain goats along the road from Jasper to Hinton. Hinton was outside of the national park so we made sure to leave Jasper National Park before the day pass we bought the day before expired at 4pm. 

After another full day of driving, we finally made it to Holiday Inn Express Hinton around 3pm. This hotel is located around an hour from Jasper, and it was an IHG hotel closest to Jasper. This hotel costs $150/night, but we redeemed 17,500 IHG points for this stay. It's a pretty standard Holiday Inn Express with all the amenities we need, including a microwave, and it also includes free breakfast.

15 Sept 2021 (Wed): Hinton - Icefield Parkway - Lake Moraine - Canmore

After a restful night and filling ourselves with free breakfast at the hotel, we checked out at 10.20am and started our drive back to Banff. The park pass we bought on the first day had expired so we purchased another park pass for $10/person at the Jasper National Park entrance, which was good through 4pm the next day (i.e. the rest of our trip as we were leaving Banff the next morning).

One of the few sightseeing stops we had planned for the day was Maligne Canyon and Maligne Lake, which was about an hour drive from our hotel. The weather was nice for this part of the drive, which was good because it was rainy when we drove through it the day before.

Arrived Maligne Canyon at 11.40pm for a quick photo stop. 

From Maligne Canyon, we drove another 45min to Maligne Lake. 

Maligne Lake...not impressed because of the cloudy weather. Definitely not worth the extra 1.5 hours round trip to drive to this lake.

Cloudy day for our drive back on Icefield Parkway. We were definitely lucky with the weather on our drive the day before. It felt like we went from summer to fall... winter...wait what's this snow out of nowhere?!?!  3 seasons within an!!

The rest of our drive on Icefield Parkway was pretty much just cloudy, foggy, and rainy...which was actually a good thing coz it stopped me from taking more same same but different photos of the same highway we just drove through the day before. Glad we opted to break our drive on Icefield Parkway into two days to hedge our risk for bad weather. =P

It was about 4.30pm when we got back to Banff and at that time, the weather still wasn't looking good and I wasn't optimistic that the weather would get any better soon so I was gonna ditch our plan to try our luck at Lake Moraine. But hubby said since we weren't in a hurry to go anywhere else, we might as well drive by and see how it goes. Honestly, after 2 failed attempts to visit Lake Moraine the past 2 days, I wasn't expecting to be able to enter, especially not during that time of the day. Lo and behold, I was so excited when I saw the sign flashing 'parking limited'! 3rd time is a charm I guess? We had to drive another 15 minutes after turning into the road that leads to the lake, and it started snowing again as we got closer to the lake...oh c'mon!

It was around 5pm when we arrived Lake Moraine's parking lot and the weather was still crappy. But since we were already there, we quickly 'geared up' for the cold/rain/snow and took some photos. We read that the best place to get a panoramic view of Lake Moraine is to hike up the Rock Pile Trail. It is a very flat and easy hike which took less than 10 minutes. What google and the bloggers didn't tell you is that the view is only good when the weather is! When we finally made it to the view point, it was windy, foggy, snowing, and cold. It was like a freakin' blizzard...wth!! We could see the turquoise waters, but we couldn't even see the mountains in the background. I was not happy. After taking some photos and freezing our a** off, we decided to hike back down and come back again early the next morning before we leave Banff.

Few more photos at ground level before we leave...

Just as we were about to leave, we saw the skies starting to clear up and fog were clearing away from the mountains. This all happened within 5 minutes...I'm not exaggerating. So we decided to hike back up the Rock Pile Trail again for the 2nd time...

...and O-M-G!!!! Yaaass....can you believe we went from a freakin' blizzard to this within 10 minutes?!

OK...I give up selecting the best photo from all these same same but different photos I took within 20 minutes. I'll just upload them! Anyway, thank you Lake Moraine for the reminder to not give up even when things look bleak.

After a successful sightseeing at Lake Moraine...we finally left Lake Moraine at 6pm and made a quick detour to Banff town to take photos with the Banff sign before heading to our hotel.

We stopped in the town of Canmore to get some gas and took out dinner at Tim Hortons, a popular fast food chain on our way back to the hotel. We got super lucky to spot 2 elks in the middle of Canmore to a Shell!!

Checked in to Holiday Inn Canmore at 7.45pm for our last night in Banff. This stay was also 'paid' for with our IHG credit card free night certificate.

That's a wrap for our 3 days in Banff, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks. We're so thankful for the stunning sceneries and wonderful weather over the past 3 days. Banff has been amazing!! Stay tuned to the next post for more on our road trip as we continue our drive west bound to Vancouver before making our way back to the US.

Daily maps of our road trip.