Tag: Bike travels

In 1995 I read about a trail that crosses British Columbia along former rail lines that weave through spectacular scenery including the Okanagan-Similkameen region. The railways through BC are comprised of five subdivisions that make their way across 500km of mountains and valleys from the Kootenays to the west coast. Built in an age when all freight and passenger movement was mainly by rail, by 1973 the trains had stopped running and in 1978 the tracks were removed. Finally, in 1990, the National Transportation Agency authorized the abandonment of the remaining tracks.

In the book ‘Cycling the Kettle Valley’, Dan Langford wrote that one could bike from Castlegar to Hope (over 700km) along these abandoned railway lines and that it would be a historical journey. I was single, care-free and decided to make my way by bus with my bike from Vancouver to Midway, the starting point of the Kettle Valley section of trail. The bus dropped me off at 4:30 am so I made my way to the Kettle River, pitched my tent and went back to sleep. I was pretty fit in those days and liked nothing more than a challenge so I traveled light with panniers to carry a small tent, sleeping back, cookstove and limited food. On the first day I planned to cycle to Beaverdell and then to Hydraulic Lake where I could re-supply at McCulloch Lake Lodge. It was April and quite chilly, but I was prepared or at least thought I was. After cycling 70km (and loving it), I arrived to Beaverdell and purchased a few things at the spartan General Store and explored what remained of this once bustling village including the Beaverdell Hotel, BC’s oldest. I then continued towards Hydraulic Lake and the McCulloch Lake Lodge, some 50km further. I arrived late afternoon quite tired and found the lodge to be closed so I kept riding, with my goal of reaching Chute Lake Lodge, another 50 km away. I rode across Myra Canyon’s timber trestles, which were quite spectacular – there was no-one else on the bridges or in the canyon so I had the surreal experience of enjoying the serenity of magnificent scenery alone.

Part of the appeal of this journey was the remoteness of this route, but it also meant there were very few opportunities to find food. Fortunately, there are lots of rivers and lakes so water wasn’t an issue. By about the 140km mark, I was quite tired, and it was dark so I camped along the trail. At 6 am, not being able to sleep (it was cold and I was hungry), I continued on by bike to Chute Lake, fortunately finding the historic lodge open, and the owner, Doreen, inside with the fire roaring. It was 8:30 am and although the door was open, she wouldn’t let me order food nor enter until 9am, so I sat outside in the cold morning air and waited with anticipation for breakfast. When breakfast was served, I devoured it and basked in the warmth and comfort from my table overlooking the lake. I continued on to Naramata through rolling vineyards, then through Kelowna which is one of the cities that the route passes. After a big lunch, I climbed up to Summerland, with its beautiful orchards and lakeside setting. It was here that I realized this trail would likely become very popular, as it really offered a great way to see this part of BC. But west of Summerland I ran into a problem. I arrived at a river crossing to discover that the steel bridge described in the book was gone. I tried several times to cross the river, but with the falling snow and freezing water it was too risky to attempt alone. I reluctantly turned around and cycled back to Summerland and boarded a bus back to Vancouver. I contacted CP Rail to enquire about the missing bridge. I was dismayed to learn that they had removed that bridge and 2 others, and that plans were in place to remove many more. The reasoning was that the BC government had only purchased the rights-of-way, but not the bridges, (something to do with liability), so they were intending on taking out steel bridges all along the route.

I decided to use my skills as an event organizer to raise awareness of the Kettle Valley trail and the bridge issue. I approached Mountain Equipment Coop (MEC) to let them know I was organizing a Kettle Valley Railway ride. MEC allowed me to set up a table in the lobby of the store and within 2 weeks, I had 26 people signed up to ride the KVR from Midway to Hope. I also called the Vancouver Sun and Dawn Hannah wrote a full-page article titled ‘Disappearing Bridges’. This generated additional press and CP Rail agreed to not remove any other bridges. By that time we had already pressed ahead with the planning of the bike trip. I explained to the participants that we would have a little beer and wine bar each night and the proceeds would go towards purchasing lumber and materials for a bridge repair project that I had in mind in the Tulameen section of the trail. I joked that the more they drank, the better the bridge would be. Our group included an eclectic group of mostly BC residents that included Leon Lebrun, the then president of Trails BC. During the trip, we succeeded in building a small bridge but realized for future events we would be better to donate to local rails-to-trails groups and let them build bridges and do maintenance.

The next year, we approached the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC and donated through their organization. For several years, we advertised a cycling event along the KVR, but never had more than 20-25 people register so we decided to offer multiple small-group trips through the summer and offer it as a regular tour along with our other trips. It became a popular trip for us but finding guides to lead this trip was tough; most guides preferred much easier trips where they got to stay in nice hotels and not have to do any cooking. But we had some hardy guides including Phil Rueben, who loved the history and route, and he and I lead countless trips together in the early years. In 2003, fires destroyed the Myra Canyon trestles and while they were being rebuilt, the number of people cycling this route declined significantly. We continued to run a few trips, finding a detour around the trestles, but even when completed (at a cost of $13 million) the Kettle Valley never really fully regained its popularity.

Despite the drop in client numbers, we continued to offer trips along what we called ‘Stage 1’: Castlegar to Beaverdell; ‘Stage 2’: Beaverdell to Princeton and ‘Stage 3’: Princeton to Hope.

In 2004, I invited a friend named Monika to do the Stage 1 trip with us – cycling from Castlegar to Beaverdell. Monika had lead cycling trips in Europe and around the world for years and afterward announced that cycling this route was one of her favourite trips – perhaps because her and I became a couple (and still are today). We had two children in 2005 and 2007, and although we ran trips as a company in the interim, I myself did not go back to lead a trip along the KVR until 2018. I wanted to return to see the current trail conditions and to decide if we should continue offering it.

On the 2018 trip, we had 8 people sign up. I loved the experience of cycling this route again and camping and cooking and all that goes with this. The riding itself was better than I imagined – the trail was soft in places but overall I thought it was great. I GPS’d the route and added POI’s (points of interest) and found a few other ways to improve the trip and I vowed to return the next year and to bring Monika and the kids (now 12&14).

So we did. In the summer of 2019 we set off with 12 people on Stage 2 from Beaverdell to Princeton. Our group included travellers from Australia, the US and across BC. I convinced a musician and BC native named Patrick Spencer to co-guide with me and having him sing and play around the campfire each night made the trip really special. Our children loved it, despite being the only children on the trip. We met fascinating people on the trail including a father and 6 year old daughter who had biked from Victoria and were riding all the way to Alberta. What an adventure! We also met a bike packer who had just completed racing 1040 km from Merritt to Fernie and was riding back to Vancouver afterwards.

One of the great things about people who sign-up for a guided trip like this is that they are often happy to go outside of their comfort zone. While there is some roughing-it involved, we provide enough support to make it a more comfortable experience. When our trip finished in Princeton, another group arrived to ride the Princeton to Hope section. My wife and kids headed back to Vancouver and Patrick and I (and two fresh guides) supported the final stage. We biked to Coalmont and down the Tulameen Valley, passing over the location of the bridge project we built back in 1996 (full disclosure – the bridge washed away in the interim). It brought back memories of that first trip and of the hundreds of people we had introduced the trail to. For the majority, the appeal of riding along the Trans-Canada trail was remarkable. I have done this trip now dozens of times and will likely continue to ride it annually. It really is a very special experience and for cyclists who are up for the adventure, one you should definitely have on your bucket list.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations
April 2020

To register
Great Explorations operates:
*’Stage 1′: Castlegar to Beaverdell;
*’Stage 2′: Beaverdell to Princeton and
*’Stage 3′: Princeton to Hope.

Video here (July 2019)

As much as we would love to be out exploring the world on bicycle and on foot, this isn’t possible at the moment. The next best thing to actual travel is reading about travel and thankfully, the world is full of outstanding writers that can take you there when our feet can’t.

I recently finished Kate Harris’ delightful ‘Lands of Lost Borders’ about cycling the Silk Road and heartily recommend. I also just finished Michael Palin’s ‘Erebus’ about polar exploration and the Ross and Franklin expeditions which is riveting. Here are a few books you might consider including some timeless classics and a couple that aren’t about travel at all; some you may be able to access digitally through your local library. We’ll add others periodically….

  • A Little History of the World: E.H. Gombrich
  • Memoirs of a Geisha: Arthur Gold
  • Catfish and Mandela: Andrew Pham
  • A year in Provence: Peter Mayle
  • Journey to Portugal: Jose Caramago
  • Professor & the Madman: Simon Winchester
  • The Alchemist: Paulo Coelho
  • Wild: Cheryl Strayed
  • In a Sunburned Country:  Bill Bryson
  • The Geography of Bliss: Eric Weiner
  • A year of Living Danishly: Helen Russell
  • Erebus: Michael Palin
  • The Worst Journey in the World: Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  • The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia: Paul Theroux
  • In Patagonia: Bruce Chatwin
  • A Lady Cyclist Guide to Kashgar: Suzanne Joinson
  • An Unsung Hero: Michael Smith
  • Lands of Lost Borders: Kate Harris
  • On the Trail of Genghis Khan: Tim Cope
  • Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life: William Finnegan

I first visited Vietnam in 2003 as part of a 3-month, 5000 km cycling adventure, some of which wasn’t entirely enjoyable. I brought along a copy of Lonely Planet’s ‘Cycling Vietnam’ which suggested that the ride to do was from Hanoi to Saigon, along Highway 1. I can definitely attest to the fact that this route is not suitable for cycling due to the constant trucks with loud horns that use the highway. The good news is that there are lots of amazing cycling routes in this country, but they aren’t in Lonely Planet or any other guidebook I could find. I found many of the best routes through our local guide who knows the myriad of tiny paved roads and paths that zig-zag through the countryside that make the cycling truly enjoyable. I call him the ‘Professor’ because of his immense knowledge of the history and culture of Vietnam, of which there is a lot.

When we initially designed the trip, I knew that we had to include the cities of Hanoi, and two nights in each of the Imperial City of Hue, Hoi An (Vietnam’s most charming town), Nha Trang (for its beaches and Ana Mandara Hotel) and Dalat (for its history and cool temperatures and the variety of fruits and vegetables that are grown here). For those that want to extend their trip, we offer two day extensions to each of Halong Bay, Mui Ne, Saigon and Angkor Wat (Cambodia) so travellers have the option to do more cycling while seeing more of Vietnam and Cambodia.

I have returned to Vietnam several times since 2003, my last trip taking place in February 2020.

The good news is that Vietnam is actually more appealing than ever, and here is why: there are more and more e-mopeds and e-bikes on the streets of Hanoi so it’s still chaotic to cross the street, but quieter. There have been lots of additional roads paved out in the countryside so the surfaces are better, but still very little traffic on the roads we cycle. Finally, there are new restaurants, some of which are of international standard, providing more variety.

I arrived in Hanoi on February 1, just after the Tet holiday of 2020. This is an interesting time to visit because it is relatively quiet and homes and villages are still decorated for the holiday. As you walk through Hanoi there are reminders of the French occupation in the architecture, bakeries and cafés. The group met up at 4 pm in the lobby of our 5-star hotel, The Hotel Metropole, for a bicycle rickshaw tour of the historic district. After the tour, we walked to dinner at Quan An Ngon for authentic Vietnamese cuisine. The owner of this restaurant recruited some of the top street-food vendors to cook their signature dishes in the courtyard of an old villa… Most of the group had returned earlier in the day from the Halong Bay Extension, which I would highly recommend as it gives you two days to acclimatize while cruising through the 5,000 limestone islands that make up Halong Bay.

On Day 2 of our trip, a short flight whisked us to the Imperial City of Hue, where our bikes were waiting just a few km from the airport. My wife, who had never been to Vietnam, was fascinated by the sights of  temples and rice paddies and an abundance of cultural sites. We cycled just 30 km on almost completely flat terrain through to the Citadel of Hue. Here, our guide took us through the Imperial City, explaining how the Nyguyen dynasty (1802-1945) lived inside the Forbidden Purple City with eunuchs and concubines. After our tour, we transferred the short distance to our hotel, the exquisite 5-star Pilgrimage Village Resort, with its Olympic size swimming pool and well-tended gardens. We met at the bar prior to dinner for an in depth history/cultural talk, where our guide gave us a thorough introduction to the history of Vietnam.

Next day, we cycled from the Imperial City through more scenic countryside ending at the home of a princess related to the Nguyen dynasty. The guests were quick to realize that on this trip, there was so much to see along the way. After our visit, we walked to the aptly named Perfume River, where a dragon boat awaited and we cruised upstream while enjoying lunch. This was a very peaceful and enjoyable way to see the countryside and after disembarking, we visited the tomb of an emperor. Afterwards, most in the group elected to zip back to the hotel (that swimming pool beckoned) but some of us did the extra ride which was a rolling and scenic 15 km spin back to the hotel.

Day 4, we biked about 50 km, again quite flat and gently rolling. We got our first views of the coast here and cycling through small villages with waving children yelling ‘hello’ was quite a sensation. After lunch, everyone had the option of cycling up and over Hai Van pass, which took those of us on bikes about 1 hour followed by an exhilarating descent towards Danang but again, most opted to shuttle straight to Hoi An where another lovely resort hotel and pool awaited. Hoi An is Vietnam’s most charming village, filled with lanterns, and lots of artisanal shops and great restaurants. We went for a walking tour of town followed by a visit to a tailor that makes ‘made to measure’ suits and outfits in less than 24 hours at bargain prices.

We took part in a cooking course for dinner and our instructor was absolutely charming. We do cooking courses on many of our trips in Europe, but I must say this one is in a class of its own. On our second day in Hoi An, we cycled from the hotel out through the gardens of the city and met an old man who was in his 90’s and had farmed here his whole life. Back in town, everyone took the opportunity to walk the streets of Hoi An. Some took advantage of the spa and massage services on offer (for as little as $13/hour), and then for our OYO (on your own) dinner, some of us went to a new Japanese fusion restaurant called Tadioto which was superb.

On Day 6, we flew from Danang to Nha Trang, a bustling city on the sea that boasts my personal favourite hotel – the outstanding Ana Mandara hotel located right on the beach with two swimming pools, swish spa and more. We arrived to lunch at the hotel’s restaurant and then some in the group cycled along the coast – on this day we encountered lots of local cyclists on race bikes which was fun to see. On every trip (even our luxurious ones) we try to have at least one local night out and our guide took us to his favourite Vietnamese BBQ restaurant. It was a night to remember and for some in the group, a favourite meal. Next day, we cycled out through the countryside and then returned to the hotel for time to walk the beach or relax. In the evening, we had dinner at the hotel’s beachside restaurant where a dozen staff served a delicious feast of sea-food and other specialties of the region. At meals like this, we dine family-style which is fun and everyone loves the variety of cuisine on offer.

From Nha Trang, we rode inland on Day 8 towards Dalat and the temperature dropped a few degrees as we gained elevation. After lunch, we got back into the vehicles and climbed higher and higher. Closer to Dalat, some of us got out to ride mostly downhill towards town. I love this day as the riding is quiet and the scenery is spectacular. In Dalat, we stay at the 5-star Dalat Palace, a historic property that recently added a new wing for those that prefer modern décor and updated rooms. I personally love the historic rooms in the original hotel, with hardwood floors, clawfoot tubs, high ceilings etc. We dine out on this evening at one of the hundreds of local eateries in town.

On Day 9, we cycled from the hotel out through the countryside descending almost 1,000 m, stopping to taste coffee and to visit a silk factory. Back in Dalat, we toured the local markets and people shopped for souvenirs. As this was our final night of the regular trip, we met at the piano bar for a reception and then moved to dinner in the formal dining room overlooking the lake. It was a festive finish to a great trip. The following morning some of our group departed for Saigon by flight but many continued on with our Extension to Mui Ne (two more splendid days of cycling). Everyone who did the Mui Ne Extension really enjoyed it as the cycling was superb and two more days at a beach village added nicely to the trip. The Saigon Extension followed this with one more day of cycling along the coast towards Saigon, followed by a ½ day tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels. We had lunch at L’Usine, a cool and hip restaurant above a gallery and then in the evening, dined at Xu, a fantastic restaurant just steps from our hotel. These two restaurants would attract a following in places like NY or San Francisco. Saigon is a fascinating city, much different from Hanoi. The next morning, some flew on to Angkor Wat for two final days of temple touring. After two weeks of glorious cycling, vibrant culture, outstanding food and great company, we returned home. I am already looking forward to returning.

Robbin McKinney, Owner of Great Explorations
February 2020

If you go
Great Explorations operates cycling trips in Vietnam in December, January, February and March. The trip itself is 10 days/9 nights with 7 days of cycling; US$ 3,650 pp. Bike Rental: US$ 280. For an additional 3 days of cycling, book the Mui Ne (US$ 695 pp) and Saigon (US$ 695 pp) Extensions. Halong Bay is also amazing, especially by cruise and Angkor Wat also deserves at least two days.

Video here

After 5 days of glorious sunshine, riding through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, I was leaving the town of Kobarid, Slovenia, when the skies darkened and a downpour began. My luggage had been sent ahead to Cividale, where I had intended to reach late afternoon, but I thought to find some shelter to let the storm pass. As luck would have it, I pulled into a charming Inn, called Hisa Franko, owned by Slovenian couple Valter and Anna. I later learned that this Inn and famed restaurant were known throughout Slovenia and Europe. I was met by Vander himself at the door who ushered me quickly inside, taking my bicycle and offering me a table in the glass enclosed dining room, where I could sit and decide on a plan. He suggested I stay the night but I responded that I didn’t have any clothes, just the wet bike kit I was wearing. He disappeared into his house and came back with an Armani shirt, pants, socks and shoes and with that, I decided fate required me to stay over. After reading, and a wee snooze, I came down to dinner for what was to be one of the most memorable meals of my life. Before dinner, Valter showed me the kitchen, which was presided over by Anna, the chef de cuisine extraordinaire. And then it began – a 9 course tasting menu. Valter is a master sommelier with an extensive wine cellar and I lost count of how many bottles he opened to serve. Each was the perfect compliment for the perfect course. I rarely dine alone but the service and soul in this sacred room was such that boredom was impossible. After the last course, I was invited to the next table by a group of visitors from Denmark  on a fly-fishing trip and Vander joined us with a bottle of Prosecco we which we enjoyed until after midnight. It was an extraordinary dinner and evening that I will not forget. But this was getting ahead of myself…

 

I was in Slovenia to develop a new cycling trip as the country has been getting some press lately about its attractions (NY Times, National Geographic Traveler and others). I knew the cycling was great from our guides who had traveled there extensively and I had an overview plan of what we wanted to do. We clearly wanted to start from Ljubljana and finish in the Friuli region of Italy, combining two countries. It made sense to us to begin in Slovenia because the prevailing wind is from the north – who likes riding into the wind? The other important reason is Vrsic pass, which has cobblestones on the hairpin turns on the north side, which are not a problem to ride up, but potentially dangerous when descending – there are no cobblestones on the southern descent, and this days’ ride, descending the Soca valley ranks as one of the best all-time rides of my life. The scenery is that good.

 

When we research a new trip, we look to see what others are doing and obviously try to come up with something that is unique and better than any other trip. I think we have done it and if you read on you’ll see how. The first question to ask a tour operator is how they (and their tour) differs from what is out there.

How are we different?

 The first thing to note in Slovenia, is that quality local bikes are simply not available, so we have brought in our own line of light-weight bikes with proper gearing (shimano 105 with 11-32 and triple). Lance Armstrong was wrong about a few things, and when he said ‘it is not about the bike’ we think that on a bicycle tour, it is, perhaps for many, ALL about the bike. We know that if you don’t enjoy the ride, you won’t enjoy much else.

The second thing of importance here is support. On our guided trips, our guides are simply the best, with proper training and local knowledge that will make the difference in your trip experience. Hotels are obviously a key determinant in the quality of your trip. We don’t hide the names of where we stay. Our Classic trip stays at the charming Lesar Hotel Angel in Ljubljana, the Hotel Astoria in Bled, Hotel Mangart in Bovec and Al Pomo D’Oro in Cividale. On our luxe trip, we use the Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa in Ljubljana, 5-star Grand Hotel Toplice in Bled; luxurious Dobra Vila in Bovec and at the 4-star wellness resort, Al Castello in Cividale.

Our route begins in Ljubljana – we don’t think a trip to Slovenia should skip this city, which New York Times describes as having “ its fair share of charming Old World Plazas, baroque churches, and dramatic castles, and having a rich cultural scene that would be impressive in a city twice its size”. We have carefully researched the quietest routes in each of Slovenia and Friuli, Italy and with our extensive list of local contacts (you’ll meet some on tour), share our secret viewpoints, wine tasting opportunities, castles and more.

We don’t like to start comparisons by highlighting the value of our trip, but compared to the $4,000+ that, for example the another company charges, our trips offer superb value. We make this promise: you will love your bike and the riding and you will experience Slovenia and Friuli in a way that only this kind of travel can.

If you go

Great Explorations offers guided 7 day/6 night trips beginning in Ljubljana and finishing in Venice.
Classic: Departures May through October
Luxe: Departures May through October

Partner company Randonnee Tours offers 6, 7, 8, 9 day self-guided trips that can start any date.