As the plane began its descent, billowing clouds dispersed to reveal the sight of snow-dusted, tree-studded mountains flanking a shimmering lake. A rush of frosty air hit me as I descended the plane’s steps and walked into the airport. With no checked bags to wait for, I headed straight to the line of yellow cabs outside. Yes, cabs. No longer am I the super frugal 20-year-old student always looking for the cheapest mode of transport. There was no direct bus route from the airport, and I didn’t fancy waiting outside in this weather.
“So what are your plans for Kelowna, visiting family or friends?” asked my driver.
“Ah no, I’m here alone,” I replied brightly. “Just going to wander round, do some hiking, you know.”
“Do you ski?”
At this point the driver must have decided I was a weird person, because he didn’t ask me anymore questions.
This was my first trip to the Okanagan Valley in six years, having previously spent a week doing a Workaway exchange in a tiny town called Cawston. In bitterly cold late December, it was hard to remember how hot it can get in this region during summer. I had almost come to Kelowna in the late summer of 2017, but since it was mostly on fire, opted for the slightly less smoky Rockies instead. It was actually at the Kelowna Greyhound bus depot where my backpack went missing. But hey, that was six years ago, no grudges.
The 15k drive into downtown Kelowna saw us pass large department stores, car dealers and warehouses. I paid my $40 fare and walked up the steps to my airbnb motel apartment – an excellent choice for a solo traveller looking for simplicity and convenience. (If you’re new to airbnb, you can get $45 in travel credit by following this link.) I dumped my things and headed out to wander through City Park, located close by. Traffic roared over the bridge that leads to West Kelowna. The beach, scattered with bathers in the scorching summer months, was now swathed in snow and there were super pretty views of the mountains across the placid lake. I walked along the lakeside passing squealing children on an ice rink, a small marina, Canada geese gathered on a hill to escape the icy waters, and a Cactus Club Cafe pumping out music while its guests celebrated Boxing Day. Near Waterfront Park, two boys with hockey sticks zoomed up and down a frozen pond against the backdrop of a casino.
Tip number 1 when travelling to a new place it to research the nearest supermarket before arrival. Bernard Avenue had a nice array of bars, cafes, bookstores and boutiques, as well as a Safeway. By now my face had probably frozen into an awkward expression and through my jeans my legs stung with cold. Thankfully there was a Starbucks inside the Safeway, as if the store manager had anticipated the visit of naive English girls to Kelowna in the winter. Normally I’d prefer to support local independent coffee shops, but right now I was desperate for a sugary liquid to warm my insides.
Setting off back to my apartment unashamed to concede defeat to the -10 temperature, I pulled out my keys and inserted them into the lock, excited for warmth. But the door wouldn’t open. I blew on my fingers and tried again, but to no avail. At first I laughed about it, until a further five minutes of failure inspired me to ask for help for one of my neighbours. Five different doors and no response. Worry levels starting to rise, I tried the lock again only to cuss in frustration when the door didn’t budge.
Suddenly the door two rooms down opened and out peeked a dozy looking topless guy, followed by a strong wift of weed.
“Oh, hi! I’m sorry, I was trying to -” The door shut before I had a chance to ask him for help, although that was probably for the best…
Looking around me, there seemed no other option but to ask one of the (slightly better off-looking) neighbours across the road. An elderly lady wearing bright red lipstick opened the door.
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” I began in my strongest English accent, “but I’m staying across the road and can’t seem to unlock my door.” *Rolls my eyes self-deprecatingly*
The lady “Ooohed” sympathetically and ushered me inside before calling down her husband. “Marcel, come help this nice young lady here.”
Marcel followed me back to my door, asking with a French accent where I was from, which inevitably led to the “long way from home” spiel I’ve heard many times the past year.
“I’m pretty sure the top one is unlocked, it’s just the bottom one that’s really stiff,” I explained.
Marcel took the keys and opened the door immediately. My mouth fell open. “More power!” he exclaimed.
“Oh, silly me!” I laughed, thanking him and apologizing profusely before he went back to his wife to mock silly young English girls.
Tip number 2 (or maybe that should be 3 after “learn how to unlock a door properly”) is to make the most of good weather for hiking, even if it’s been your plan to complete a certain activity another day. I awoke the next morning to see snow falling and wind blowing the tree branches. Appropriately layered, I walked up Ellis St towards Knox Mountain…only to realize I couldn’t actually see it too well. I had a head lamp and suitable footwear, but decided a solo hike wouldn’t be a smart move if I couldn’t see the trail. I should have gone the afternoon I arrived, when skies were clearer and I’d still had a few hours of light left. Lesson learned.
Instead, I headed back south and walked down Abbott St past cozy houses and small lakeside parks towards Mission Creek Greenway, where I commenced a 6k walk on a snowy path alongside the frozen creek. It was a nice walk during which I encountered dog walkers, runners who were somehow finding traction, and elderly couples. A pleasant oasis from the town, the greenway would make a lovely running route in the dryer months. About 3k into the walk, the views on both sides of the creek changed from residential properties to open spaces with hay barns and horses. Upon reaching Mission Creek Greenway Regional Park, I now had to find my way back to downtown. Returning the same way seemed a little pointless, but my only other choice was to walk along the fairly busy Springfield Rd. Most of this 6k walk was spent inhaling car fumes and focusing intently on the ground, because I did not want to slip on my backside in front of swarms of traffic.
I made it back downtown with my legs exhausted from around 15k of snow-walking. As I collapsed on a bench in City Park, I was greeted by a cheery elderly couple. Then I looked up to see a handsome hunky runner, who also looked at me but of course said nothing, because handsome hunky runners do not simply initiate a greeting with shivering pale people. And then a middle-aged lady jogged by and jovially remarked, “Now you just need a Starbucks cup!” Indeed, that seems to be the Kelowna attitude towards winter weather: get yourself a hot drink, and get on with it. Thankfully, it only took two minutes for me to unlock my door this time.
On my third day there was a snowfall warning in effect. It looked like I wouldn’t get any of my mountain hikes in afterall. I guess I should have been a little more realistic. Still, missing a hike wouldn’t detract from the trip. Ultimately I had a good idea of what views I could expect; it would just be a rewarding bit of exercise. Instead, heavy snow days are for art galleries, museums and cafes. Luckily for me, admission to Kelowna’s art gallery is free on Thursdays. While I’m not talented at creating them myself, paintings are something that I have recently realized I really appreciate. Based on Water St, the gallery had some lovely oil and acrylic canvases, as well as a rather dark but interesting exhibition exploring existential themes.
Outside the gallery, cars drove along the snowy roads as if there was nothing slippery on them. I spent the remainder of the afternoon reading in Pulp Fiction Coffee House on Pandosy St. Featuring a vintage bookstore and antiques section, this retro cafe played music by the likes of Johnny Cash, Jackie Wilson and Del Shannon. I resisted buying a cinnamon bun until I left. All for the good cause of supporting local, obviously…
I didn’t hike Knox Mountain and see views of Okanagan Lake from the summit; I didn’t see the trestles at Myra Canyon or witness the waterfalls at Crawford; I didn’t climb the extinct volcano of Mt. Boucherie, but I still got something out of the trip. I fulfilled my need to get off Vancouver Island for a few days and spend time alone exploring a new place at my own pace, with time to process recent feelings and events that materialized during what I found to be quite an emotionally challenging December. In the age of Instagram (which I foolishly joined recently), there is so much pressure to do the BIG things and get the BEST shot. This takes the attention off simply enjoying the experience of being somewhere different. Aimless wandering is an underrated activity. Sometimes you just need to get away to clear your head.
The next morning I booked another cab for 11am, my airbnb checkout time. My driver quickly commented on the volume of flight cancellations caused by snow the day prior. “Oh no!” I replied, not for a second considering that these circumstances might repeat themselves. The queue for security was huge. I got chatting to a man who hadn’t flown for 10 years and looked perplexed when he saw signs with the rules on liquids, and a lady originally from Liverpool going to visit her boyfriend in Cranbrook. 30 minutes later her flight would get cancelled. And then other flights were delayed…only to be cancelled because planes couldn’t land in the snowstorm. I soon learned that the stereotype of Canadians being sweet, passive folk is very misleading…
“Oh dear, what will you do?” asked one lady I’d gotten chatting to, after my flight was officially announced as cancelled.
I shrugged and smiled. “I’ll probably just sleep in the airport and get the earliest flight I can tomorrow.”
“I’d offer you a place to stay, but I’m all the way down in Summerland.”
“That’s very kind of you, but it makes sense to just stay here so I can leave as soon as possible tomorrow.”
Of course, I soon learned that all Saturday’s flights with my airline were fully booked. The next available flight was Sunday at the same time of 15:45. Oh good God. I quickly checked the Greyhound website to assess the possibility of an awkward reunion with the Kelowna depot, but all buses to Vancouver were fully booked the whole weekend. I saw little point in paying money to go back into Kelowna when I had no guarantee of a place to stay, and I didn’t know anyone who lived there. I mean, there was a hunky guy who also missed my flight and was in front of me in the queue to chat to the airline staff. He left the airport soon after, and I figured it might be a wee bit forward to tap him on his shoulder and ask if I could invite myself to a sleepover. It was official: I was going to slum it in an airport for two nights.
‘Kelowna really doesn’t like me,’ I thought as I headed towards Tim Hortons to commence my longest relationship with this national chain, the only catering option in the airport aside from a White Spot restaurant. As I ate my crispy chicken meal combo, I looked around at the other passengers with their disrupted travel plans and couldn’t help but wish I at least had someone to keep to company – to watch my stuff when I needed the washroom, to fetch me snacks, to make me laugh. Travelling solo definitely has its challenges in certain situations.
Airports are already draining enough when you’re waiting for an on-time flight. By 7pm I had already had enough of my temporary home, and in an act of desperation, I went to the next level of abandoning my frugal principles and booked a room at the hotel opposite the airport for the next evening. As I entered my credit card details on the reservations website, I tried not to think about the weeks of groceries I could buy with this money. But screw it, when do I otherwise have a reason to stay in a hotel? Why not treat myself to a bit of relative luxury?
After achieving a PB of four hours’ sleep in an airport, I spent the morning just watching all the people passing by heading off in various directions (when their flight wasn’t cancelled, that is). I was pretty much lying across a row of seats in the same clothes as the day before with my hair greasy and messy, looking like a true hobo and not giving a damn.
At 3pm I walked up to the Four Points at Sheraton Hotel, doubtlessly entertaining drivers as I struggled to walk through the knee-deep piles of snow at the junction island. While I don’t believe my room was worth the money I paid for it (and there was no complimentary breakfast!!) it was also so worth splashing out on. Privacy, a bath and a proper bed should never be taken for granted. I enjoyed reading the comments friends had written on my Facebook status about my situation. It hit me that evening that it was a year ago that day, December 30th 2017, that I had arrived in Canada full-time to start this crazy new adventure. My circumstances were a lot different then, and most of the people commenting on the status I hadn’t known back then. It’s crazy how one’s life can change so much in the space of a year.
On Sunday morning I watched out of my window to see planes taking off. The skies were a little clearer. Hopefully I would be back in Victoria before 2018! I naturally took away the room’s pen and toiletries (because hey, I mayaswell get my money’s worth!) and went to check out. My aim to get my money’s worth also included taking advantage of the free hotel shuttle that runs to the airport, even though I’d probably have walked there just as quick. A lady called Svitlana with a thick Ukrainian accent was driving the shuttle, and I happened to be the only passenger at this time. Svitlana seemed a little nervous, and I soon began to wonder how often she had driven the van in snow, if at all.
“What asshole!” she exclaimed at the 4-way junction when the driver opposite pulled out instead of letting her go. I settled myself back in my seat having been thrown forward by her jamming on the brakes, and laughed politely. As we precariously descended the hill towards the airport, I had to bite my lip to refrain from suggesting she use the engine brake a little more.
Having arrived in one piece, I went to check in for the second time. My flight was delayed by an hour, and with the airline having an open seating policy, never have I rushed up so quickly to get on a plane once the boarding call has begun. It was a tiny plane with one seat on each side. We set off down the runway to depart, only to turn back again so the pilots could double check the wings didn’t need de-icing. I’m a pretty chilled person when it comes to reacting to delays that are caused by safety-related issues, but at this point my weary soul was ready to have a tantrum. Thankfully no de-icing was required. We touched down at Victoria airport around 6pm on New Year’s Eve, and a friend kindly gave me a ride home where, exhausted, I went to bed at 9pm.
Getting away from Victoria and the Christmas-time blues for a few days (plus two extra) left me feeling mentally rejuvenated on the first day of 2018, but never have I felt so glad to be back in my Canadian home.