Welcoming warmth in The Deer.

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We apologize for the lack of updates over the last little while.  Life has held many transitions, commitments, and deadlines which have unfortunately meant limited time for blogging.  But I’d love to catch you up on what the past 2 months have held.

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First off, we would just like to say that Red Deer definitely looks much better in green than it does in brown or white.  Well, this is probably true of just about anywhere.   The arrival of warmer seasons brought a welcomed lightness and hope to our days.  It’s wonderful to walk outside and have the air not hurt your face.

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The spring held a visit from Brendon’s mom, Fay, and sister, Karly.

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We enjoyed some fun Neilson family times at Luke’s ball games and cheering on Naomi in her first Triathalon.

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Speaking of Triathalons, a shout out to our bro-in-law, Craig, for an incredible performance in the Coeur D’Alene Ironman race and qualifying to go to Worlds in Kona again.  Congrats, Craig & Team Schmitt!!  So proud of you.

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Brendon is now in the final revision stage of his thesis work.  It has felt like a long haul, and he feels quite ready to be done, but there is still a bit more refining and revising to do before the final product can be submitted.  I keep reassuring him that he’ll get there soon enough!

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We were delighted to celebrate Morgan’s graduation from Grade 9 and be there to see Morgan rack up a series of awards at her end of year prizegiving, including the prestigious “Elmer S. Gish Family Award,” given to a student who is well-respected by peers and teachers and who has made a significant contribution to the school community.  Way to go, Morgo!!  So proud of this girl.  In general, it’s nice to be back for these sorts of things, you know?

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My first school year back in Alberta is now complete- hooray!   I had a great year with my Gr. 3’s and 4’s, and my current school has been an awesome place for me to grow as a teacher.  I really feel fortunate to be able to work in such a positive, supportive environment, and with some excellent teaching colleagues, some of whom have become friends.

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As for what next year will hold?  Well, it looks like our feet will be sticking around The Deer a bit longer.  I have kindly been offered a position teaching Grade 2  next year with the same school, and am pleased to continue my journey as a teacher working for and with people I have a lot of respect for.   As much fun as teaching a split class is, teaching a single grade again will be a nice change, and it’s been a while since I’ve taught Grade 2… it’s good to keep things fresh, right?

Staying on with the same school meant preparing to move to a new school campus over the summer.  Along with packing up the entire contents of my classroom, we also packed up the contents of our apartment and put all our belongings in storage while we do some travel over the summer months.

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The spring held its share of uncertainties, decisions, moves, and transitions.  But it did open up its share of hopes about returning to Red Deer for another year.

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On leaving NZ: One year later.

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One year ago, we said goodbye to beautiful Aotearoa.

To commemorate this occasion, I made a pie.

When people find out we spend three and a half years living in New Zealand, the most common question that follows this discovery is “Why did you leave?”

While this question does ring in our ears from time to time, (especially during the depths of the winter months), we suppose the main answer to that question has to do with the people whose love sustained us despite the physical distance that separated us.

While that “settled” feeling still has yet to come, and while we miss the beaches, the lushness, and the beauty of New Zealand’s land and people, we do have a peace about being back in Canada, in this land that is our home.

We continue to look back on our time in New Zealand with awe and thankfulness, knowing that we will be forever shaped by those years spent in the land of the long white cloud.

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Mel & Breno’s Red Deer.

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For the past 9 months, Red Deer (or Rouge Deer, as we like to call it), has been our place of residence.

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We have done our best to try to embrace what Rouge Deer offers, and although we may not have discovered all of its gems yet, here are our favorite places & aspects of this rural city of Central Alberta.

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We will begin with what we consider the gem of The Deer: Dose Coffee Company.  Dose has been Brendon’s haven and saving grace amidst his year of thesis writing.  They alternate between serving Transcend and Phil & Sebastian coffees, and sell beans from a few reputable roasters.  The owners, Roland and Alison, are great people whom we have really enjoyed getting to know.

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What we would have done without Dose this year, I have no idea.  I personally enjoy the Dulce’s, and they also have a nice selection of teas.  Recently, Brendon began working Fridays at Dose and was featured in an article in the Red Deer Advocate earlier in May.

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Auckland has its iconic Sky Tower, but towering above Red Deer’s skyline is this distinguished water tower.  Painted an attractive seafoam green, isn’t it a beauty?  Seeing this majestic structure peeking out from over the treeline brings me just a little bit of joy, every time.

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Red Deer’s historic downtown quarters have quite a charm to them.  The city has done a nice job preserving the historic aspects of buildings, and numerous statues and murals give glimpses of days passed.

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The Dented Can is one shop that you must check out when wandering the downtown, especially if you are into antique/vintage wares.

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We initially over-looked what enjoyment we would get from this mounted radio/cassette player upon first moving into our little apartment.  Listening to the “Strombo Show” on CBC Radio 2 has become a favorite Sunday evening past-time.  “The Signal” with Lori Brown at 10pm is another favourite.

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The river valley trails in Red Deer are excellent.  I feel fortunate to live very close to them, and utilize them frequently.

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For fitness, I tend to do more interval-based training these days, rather than long distance running.  This painted concrete pad looking over the river is a great little spot to get a bit of a workout in.  I especially enjoy that it gets great late-afternoon sun.

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So far, I have located one set of stairs next to the river valley which I have also enjoyed utilizing as part of my fitness regime.  It recently became “closed for construction,” though, so if anyone else knows of another (perhaps longer) set of stairs within the city, I would love to hear about its whereabouts.

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Galbraith Park.  Just a block from our place, this is a nice spot to take an afternoon nap on a blanket, play some catch, do some wildlife watching, or just close your eyes and imagine you are on a beach (while ignoring the sound of the obnoxious motorcycles and trucks roaring by).  Just last week, we spotted this young deer meandering through the park.

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From May to October, Red Deer runs a pretty substantial farmer’s market- probably the most eclectic one we’ve seen.

Red Deer Farmers Market

A wide mix of produce, craft, packaged product, and antiques… you never quite know what kind of gems you will find.

Red Deer Farmers Market

To quote our friend Matthew Cairns, “The Red Deer Farmers Market is a great to place to go if you need: a new bag for your vacuum, hemp jewellery, Titanic on VHS, and sausage.”  Truth you speak, Matthew.

Red Deer Farmers Market

The RD Farmers Market has grown to be quite immense in size, and is very well attended by central Alberta folk.  Strolling this vibrant, diverse market is a truly lovely way to spend a Saturday morning.

Red Deer Food trucks Chedda'Heads and the Stache

Food Truck Fridays start up again in the summer, with a gathering of the local food vendors in the city’s central quarters.  You can also find the food trucks at the Farmers Market on Saturday.  Chedda’ Heads and The Stache are two of Red Deer’s most popular food trucks.

Bower Ponds

Bower Ponds is a lovely place for an afternoon promenade (or a skate in the wintertime).

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We haven’t dined out a ton in Red Deer, but some local restaurants we have tried out and would like to recommend Addy’s (run by a sweet family from Syria, serving Middle Eastern cuisine), Reuon Thai, and Blue Dragon Thai & Cambodian.

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Sylvan Star Cheese, a local cheese-making company from the heart of Alberta.  We highly recommend the Old Grizzly.  Available at many grocery stores around the city, or a trip out to the Sylvan Star Cheese Shop out in Sylvan Lake can be a nice excursion.

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Did we mention that Red Deer has a couple of pretty great thrift (op) shops?  Red Deer is well known for having one the best Value Villages around, but my personal favourite is the Bible For Missions Thrift Shop.  BFM’s prices are quite a bit more reasonable than VV’s, and it is run entirely by volunteer.  We have to admit, we have found some real steals there.

RedDeerFamily

Our Red Deer Family.  It’s been wonderful having Brendon’s sister, Nicole, and her family here in Red Deer.  We have so loved being able to be there for our niece and nephews’  birthday parties, hockey games, and holidays… something that feels a bit novel after having been away for so long.

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We have also shared some great times with the lovely Schultz’s, who have been good friends of ours for a long time.

Yep, so that’s pretty much The Deer… as experienced through our eyes.

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We recognize that there are probably many other fantastic things in Red Deer aside from what we mentioned, but we wanted to moreso give you a glimpse of the Red Deer we have experienced over the past year.

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Red Deer friends (who probably know the city MUCH better than we do), feel free to contribute your favourite spots and recommendations that we may have missed in our post.

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Halong Bay: Bay of a thousand islands.

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At this point in our journey, we were beginning to feel a bit tired and travelled out.  The idea of an organized day tour where all your transportation and food was taken care of sounded awfully appealing.  So we signed up for a tour of Halong Bay through APT Travel.

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After a four hour ride on a minibus, we arrived at the Halong Bay pier.  The Nu’u Nghi boat was waiting for us, and minutes upon setting sail, we were presented with a beautiful seafood feast.

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The perfectly timed meal ended when we pulled up to the Don Thien Cung caves, and got off the boat to explore them for about a half hour.

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(The coloured lights are just for effect.  The inside of the cave is not actually rainbow.)

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Next stop was a fishing village, where a small group of Vietnamese people live year-round.  There is even a school here on the water, where children attend until age 11.  After that, students leave the village to continue school on the mainland.  We were given the chance to kayak in and around the fishing village and surrounding cliffs.

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It was crazy to fathom the unique challenges of living in a small fishing community such as this one.  We wondered how they felt about their existence being a tourist attraction.

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As you can see, Halong Bay is a pretty stunning place.  Although impossible to capture in one photo (unless from the air), Halong Bay is comprised of 1900-2000 islets.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Limestone cliffs, partially covered with lush plantlife, jet starkly around of the water.  Though pictures do not do justice to the immense awe that this place conjures, perhaps they convey more than words.  We’ll leave you now with a few images to take in.

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It felt kind of weird to be the tourists in the tour group, but hey, after several weeks of organizing our own adventures, it was actually kind of nice to sit back and enjoy an excursion that someone had already done the work of orchestrating for us.

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We got to know Halong Bay better than we were planning to.  Left behind again by our transport, after the agent PROMISED we would not be forgotten, we got to spend a bit of extra time hanging out in Halong Bay.  (But of all the places to be stranded… we suppose it could have been much worse.)

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The town itself didn’t have a lot to offer, but we spent some extra time chilling out by the water.

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The beach is where Halong Bayers seem to flock to in the evenings.  And why not?  It’s beauty is hard to ignore.  Young and old alike go for a dip to escape the heat.

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It appeared that some organized swimming lessons were going on.  This was definitely the busiest beach we encountered throughout our time in SE Asia.

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We highly recommend you visit the world wonder of Halong Bay if you ever get the chance!  (We heard the overnight cruises, or the ones that overnight on Cat Ba Island are pretty epic, but weren’t able to make it work.)

Thanks, Halong Bay, for sharing your splendor and beauty with us!

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Hanoi: A place to sit and watch the world go by.

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I hit a low point in our travels once we reached Hanoi, which we travelled to by rail.

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After being dropped at the wrong location by our taxi driver, finding our hotel was obstacle number one in Vietnam’s capital.

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Traffic was insane. Imagine, literally, a river of scooters flowing through the streets.

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Crossing the street was at your own risk, and definitely a risk at that!  You just kind of had to go for it… slowly.  The general principle is that the traffic will go around you.  We are proud to say that we managed to avoid being hit by a scooter through the entire duration of our stay in Vietnam.

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Appealing restaurants were a little harder to come by in Hanoi, as were people who spoke good English.

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Northern Vietnam appeared less tourist-friendly than their neighbours in the South.

Sidewalks

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The smells, the chaos, the noise, the dirt, the cluttered sidewalks, the persistent nagging of street vendors… they were starting to get to me… one could say I was nearly “Asia’d out.”

THANKFULLY, I stumbled upon this article by Steve Jackson, who offered some wise & timely words:

“THERE IS NOT ONE SPECIFIC THING WORTH SEEING IN HANOI.

NOT ONE.

And yet Hanoi itself is unmissable.

Spend your time rushing around to see any of the sites on the above list and you may miss its charms.”

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We thought Steve’s words to be very knowing, so we took his advice and did a little research on the Hanoi cafe scene.

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After strolling around Hoi Kim Lake, we caught a cyclo who pedalled us to the doorstep of Cong Caphe.

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On the walls inside this reputable Hanoi Cafe hang Vietnam war paraphernalia.

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On the menu, a variety of coffee beverages, and a limited number of snack items, including pop corn.

Cong Caphe coconut coffee shake

Highly recommend the coffee and coconut coffee shake. An interesting flavor combination, but it works! Brendon says his best Vietnamese coffee experience was here as well.

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Although the view was somewhat limited, the cafe itself was a great place to sit and think about Hanoi.

Beware that within the small cafe, smoking is permitted, so air quality has the potential to be quite poor. You’ll have to forgive Cong Caphe for the lung damage.

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Thanks to Steve Jackson, we adapted a much more relaxed perspective about our time in Hanoi, which challenged me to focus less on ticking things off a list, and instead, look around and appreciate who and what was around me at that moment.

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Mochi

Hanoi sewing machine

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Hanoi

Saigon: A sensory tour.

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What were we doing precisely this time last year?  Exploring Vietnam.  Since I wasn’t able to keep up with blogging about all of our South East Asian escapades, now seems like a fitting time to re-visit the places we encountered one year ago.

Saigon Breno

As our first impression of Vietnam, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) was a pretty cool city to visit.  Let us take you for a bit of a sensory tour through the streets of Saigon.

Taste

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Pho, pronounced “fur” (with a British accent.)  Essentially, pho consists of noodles in broth with your choice of chicken, beef, pork, and sometimes if we were lucky, vegetable.  The option to add in fresh herbs and sprouts on the side added flavour as well as nutrient value.

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In our search for the best pho in the city, we learned an important lesson: Lonely Planet doesn’t know everything.  The option that was NOT in Lonely planet turned out to be our favourite.  *International travel tip: Locals are a better resource than the travel guides that everyone else is using.

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Fresh vegetables and herbs, wrapped in pretty bundles.

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Basil.  Lots of basil.

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Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese sizzling pancake.

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Spring rolls.  Crispy awesomeness.

Smell

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Fried sweet baked goods being sold by Vietnamese women on the roadside.

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Char grilled meat.

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Durian, or other over-ripe, aromatic fruits.

The pungent aroma of seafood left to dry in the sun.

Hear

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Aggressive marketplace ladies.  “Lady, what you like?”

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Cyclo drivers, eager for business.  “Where you go?  I take you there?”

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Constant honking of horns.

The sizzle of street food.

The roar of Bui Vien Street (pictured above) at night as the people come out to live it up.

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Children playing.  Sometimes not so cooperatively.

Feel

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Sweat dripping off your brow, and down every other part of your body.

The breeze from scooters whipping by.  Another near miss.

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A moment of tranquility in one of Saigon’s serene parks, as well as some mild relief from the heat.

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The sweet, layered refreshment of a Vietnamese iced coffee.  The cold glass against your overheated skin is heavenly.

See

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Helmets for scooterists.

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Tall buildings.

Scooters zooming in and out of days and nights.

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Lights.

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Inspiring boutiques with upstairs cafes.  A few of our favourite finds included L’usine and Magonn.

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Wires, criss crossing the streets in all directions.  And COLOR.  So much color.

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The Notre Dam Cathedral.

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Boats that are fish.

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As you can see, Saigon was a full-out experience for the senses.  We hope this post allowed you to have a taste of this vibrant city, if you havn’t had the chance to visit yet for yourself.

Victoria. Charmed and completely delighted.

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And then, we met Victoria.

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It was a long-awaited reunion with members of our NZ family, Mark & Laurel, who had become among our favourite adventuring companions and like family to us while in NZ. 

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Spending time with these two was at the top of our Victoria highlights, but there is more to this city worth mentioning.

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Victoria wooed us. 

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With her rugged, log-cluttered beaches,

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pink cherry blossoms, 

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moss-covered trees,

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lush plantlife,

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and thoughtful range of cute boutiques. 

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It boasts a strong coffee scene, with a few fairly established roasteries.  Fernwood, Bows & Arrows, Discovery, & Habit were among the cafes/roasteries we visited.  

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We appreciated how easy it was to find parking and get about in the historic but funky downtown core.  There are a number of areas by the seawall that are lovely for strolling.

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Mark and Laurel took us out to China Beach, one of their favourite beaching spots, where we set up camp for an afternoon and enjoyed the company of friends, some unexpected bouts of sunshine, and the rugged beauty of Canada’s West Coast.

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The natural beauty of the provincial capital was very evident.  Rain was forecasted for the week, but still the sun shone. 

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Having these amazing people to explore the city with made our time there all the more epic.

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We had high expectations going in, but feel that they were met and probably exceeded.

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Victoria, oh Victoria.  It is only a matter of how long we can bear to be apart.  Until we meet again!

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Tofino: Raglan of Canada.

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Rumours of Tofino’s loveliness had made their way to our ears before our feet touched down upon Canadian soil, so we couldn’t set foot upon Vancouver Island without checking out this destination for ourselves.

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As we ventured North on the Island, the vegetation became increasingly lush, to the point of being quite reminiscent of the tropical jungle of our adoptive nation (NZ).

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This cute beach town exudes a strong sense of community and an outdoor lifestyle which revolves primarily around the sea.

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In many ways, this ocean-centric town reminds us of the NZ surf town of Raglan.

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Much like Raglan, Tofino boasts a hippy vibe, and has a quaint collection of cute boutiques, surf shops, cafes, restaurants, and health food shops.  A large percentage of its inhabitants surf year-round.

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Just a 10 minute walk from our accommodation was this lovely beach.

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The lapping ocean waves were soothing to our land-locked souls and brought a familiarity that made us miss the days where visiting a beach was a matter of asking, “East Coast or West Coast?  White sand or black?”  Wow, were we ever spoiled in New Zealand.  Not sure how we’re ever going to get over it.

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Other gems we uncovered in Tofino were…

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Tacofino (food truck).  The fish tacos come highly recommended in our books.

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Tofino Brewing Company.  Brendon found the kelp stout highly intriguing.

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Tofino Coffee Roasters, as mentioned in a previous post.

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Misty, log-cluttered beaches.

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And lush vegetation that felt oh so exotic to our Alberta eyes.

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We were told we were very lucky to experience a sunny morning, as Tofino receives mainly rain this time of year.

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It was a pretty quick trip, so we probably didn’t get to experience for ourselves the fullness of what Tofino has to offer, but what we did glimpse, we certainly liked.

Vancouver: Reunions, restaurants, and roamings.

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Vancouver is a big city.  Filled with lots of awesome things.  It took us a while to get out here together, but we were certainly glad we did.

Reunions.

Our visit to Vancouver held some long-overdue reunions with some excellent people.

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On our westward journey, we stopped in to see Ashley & Kevin in Abbotsford, and had the chance to meet their sweet little girl, Cassidy.  

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An awesome discovery we made just shortly before our visit was that the two sets of friends we planned to visit while in Vancouver were already friends with eachother!  A group dinner was arranged.  It was so great to catch up with Jarret & Jessie (who we connected with in NZ) and Carrie & Mike (friends from Edmonton).

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So special it was to meet Ethan, Carrie and Mike’s little guy, for the first time.  He’s certainly a charmer!

Restaurants.

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We dined at Chambar one evening, upon recommendation by a friend.  We weren’t quite sure what to expect, other than being told to order the mussels. 

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We obeyed orders, and also sprung for the spiced nuts, along with some cured trout with char-grilled octopus, and beetroot carpaccio, which were complex and delightful.  The hospitality was commendable, and whole experience was entirely delightful.  A visit to Chambar comes highly recommended in our books next time you visit Vancouver.

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What a fabulous establishment Meat & Bread is.  It highlights the beauty and simplicity of a sandwich.  Quality ingredients prepared carefully and presented on a nice piece of bread.  With mustard on the side.  What more can you ask for??  

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Oh, and not into gluten?  Get your meat in a bowl!  The porchetta with salsa verde is also excellent this way.

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The communal table is a great way to meet people.  Though a few Vancouverites told us not to expect the locals to be overly friendly, we did have a nice conversation with a friendly chap who was involved in the film industry.

Roamings.

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We roamed primarily in the downtown areas, exploring the districts of Gastown, Yaletown, Chinatown, and Granville Island.

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Highlights from our wanderings included perusing boutique shops & cafes in search of gems and inspiration,

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stumbling upon some cool street art,

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running our fingers through some green grass,

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marvelling at the signs of spring,

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and breathing in some ocean air.  Maybe not the typical attractions that people come to Vancouver for, but for us, these were much appreciated.  

Overall impressions.

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The city of Vancouver has an abundance of offerings.  The bustle of being in a big city again was enticing.  We lucked out and enjoyed two sunny days, with temperatures around 10 degrees.  It felt familiar… like a day in NZ’s “winter.”  We appreciated how the downtown core was easy to navigate on foot, and how the city as a whole was so pedestrian-friendly.  We also noticed that the First Nations culture seemed to be more embraced in this seaside city, evidenced through the public display of art.  We thought this was neat.

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Vancouver, while we are only just getting to know you still, you have impressed us enough that we will likely see you again.