Trip Report: Edmonton, Calgary, Rockies

Old Jul 5th, 2005, 11:57 PM
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Trip Report: Edmonton, Calgary, Rockies

First, I'd like to thank those who gave me advice regarding accomodations in Jasper. Great help!

Second, this is going to be long. I wrote these types of reports mostly for my own enjoyment. Sorry if they bore you.

Third, I love planes/trains/cars. Don't love so much about nightlives or cultural stuff. A good part of the report will be about transportation and logding logistics.

---

Friday July 1, Canada Day

Got off work a little early Friday in Houston, ahead of the long weekend, and got to IAH (Houston Intercontinental Airport) early. No line at security on the supposedly busy Friday evening. Had dinner at the Pappadeux (Cajun restaurant) in the new Terminal E.

My flight to Edmonton (YEG) was delayed for about 45 minutes, as the inbound was late. Load was light at around 50-60%. I had assigned myself an exit row seat with like 6 feet of legroom. Continental flies once daily to Edmonton, leaving Houston around 9pm, arriving 12am. Departs 1am YEG, and arrives IAH back 6am next morning. On a 737-500. Will cut to just 4 days a week later in the fall, returning to daily early next year.

I had seat 14F on the right side of the plane. Cruising over Alberta past midnight, I could still see some glow in the northeastern sky. But most incredibly, I saw some Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, to the east, where the sky was dark. Not very bright, but it's definitely there. Looks huge, but far away. I've travelled to many places, but this is the first time. [Not visible from lower altitude, or on ground.]

Finally, we arrived at YEG close to 1am. 4 immigration booth still open for about 60 of us. No problem. Hertz also stayed open for us. The guy at the counter was drinking Diet Pepsi from a 2-liter bottle to stay awake. But he told me he didn't mind. Working on Canada Day, late shift, and extra-late to wait for our flight meant about 5x pay for him... Not bad. And he upgraded my rental from intermediate car to any Ford SUV I want. Could have gotten an Expedition, but I passed. Also passed the Explorer, and got the smaller Freestyle. It's a loaded SEL version with leather seats, sunroof, etc. <C$80 for 3 days, tax included. Not a bad start.

Headed straight north on the road that has many names. It was Alberta Highway 2 until last month when the Queen came over to celebrate Alberta's 100th birthday. Now it's called "QE2". Hm... QE2 became Gateway Blvd, but it's also called Calgary Trail. Passed through the Old Strathcona district where lots of people were still celebrating Canada Day around the pubs/restaurants there, past 1:30am.

The road ended high up the south side of the N. Saskatchewan River valley. I dropped down the hill and took the Low Level Bridge cross the river, then climbed up the hill and got to the Westin in Downtown Edmonton.

The Westin's probably the 2nd best hotel in Edmonton, after the Fairmont Macdonald. I got it as a 4* through Priceline for US$55 + tax. They gave me a nice corner room with curved window that looks north along 100th St and the CN building. It was already past 2am Mountain Daylight Time, or 3am Houston time, 7/2.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 07:31 AM
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Thanks for the report, rkkwan. I'm looking forward to the next installments. I'm curious to hear how Hinton worked out.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 07:41 AM
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Judy - I ended up staying at the Athabasca Hotel in Jasper. Which was one of the best decision I made. You guys are absolutely correct that Hinton is too far from the main sites around Jasper.

More on that later on.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 08:32 AM
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the athabasca use to be a big party place and run down. what is it like now? thanks.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 09:13 AM
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Good start for the trip report!! Can't wait to read th rest!!!

Just a note about road names - Calgary Trail northbound and southbound was - not so long ago - the name for the two streets (both one way, one in each direction) that led into and out of Edmonton from the south. And then a few years ago Calgary Trail Northbound was renamed Gateway Boulevard, while Calgary Trail Southbound remained Calgary Trail. So to us in Edmonton, Calgary Trail means the southbound street (also 104th) that eventually heads out of the city.

Glad you saw some aurora borealis !!
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 12:18 PM
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Saturday, July 2

This is an "easy day" for me. Went for a swim in the indoor pool at the Westin, and then had buffet breakfast at the lobby cafe. It was real quiet in the city. The service and staff at the Westin was great, but for some reason this hotel uses neither the curved shower curtain bar nor the twin shower head. A slight disappointment.

My cousin came pick me at for dim-sum lunch in Chinatown, which is just a few blocks NE of Downtown. It's a decent-sized one, and I like it. It's cleaner and nicer than something like Toronto's or Vancouver's old Chinatowns, but the whole area is more compact than the "new" Chinatowns like Scarborough or Richardson that one have to drive from store to store. It's somewhere in between, and I like it. Food may not be as fancy as Toronto or Vancouver, but still pretty decent. [If Vancouver's Chinese food gets an "A", Edmonton will get a "B". While here in Houston I give it a "D".]

After lunch, walked around the Alberta Parliament building. Lots of kids playing in the pool, and two sets of newlyweds taking photos there. 2005 is centennial year for Alberta, so lots of banners. Then drove over to U of AB and along Whyte Blvd in Old Scrathcona before heading south towards Calgary on QE2 at around 3pm.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 03:06 PM
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The drive from Edmonton to Calgary was pretty easy. Very straight freeway with two lanes each direction. Traffic's moderate. Similar to the drive on I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, or I-45 between Houston and Dallas. It's just about 3 hours.

My Priceline hotel in Calgary was the Marriott. 3* category for US$45+tax. I tried bidding 4* for the new Hyatt Regency next door but failed. But the Marriott was just fine. Right underneath the Calgary Tower; and again good service. I used the pool, and it's larger than the one at the Westin Edmonton. I'd say this Marriott is definitely up to regular 4* Priceline standard.

I have been to Calgary once before, in 1998. I was connecting to Regina, SK, and have about 5 hours between flights. I took the bus from YYC to downtown, and had lunch on top of the Calgary Tower. So I don't really need to go up there again. [I had wanted to stay at Banff/Canmore; but hotel prices were very high, and no luck on Priceline up to US$80-90 for a 2*.] I'd rather stay at a Marriott for half that price.

Right behind the Marriott are lots of restaurants on 7th and 8th Ave. However, I really wanted to watch the Tour de France rebroadcast on TV, so I ordered room service. The New York Strip was excellent. I also like the local Big Rock traditional ale. One surprise was that there was no mandatory tips or room service charge. Don't know if this is worldwide Marriott policy or not.

So, a easy day for me. Swim, eat, eat, drive, swim, eat. That's about it. The next day will be drive drive drive drive drive...
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 03:08 PM
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You see so few detailed Alberta trip reports! I am really looking forward to the rest of this!!

The multiple names for Calgary trail is a bit funny. Borealis is right about Northbound being Gateway Blvd and Southbound being Calgary Trail. Of course, these streets also go by 103rd and 104th streets!! These are only the names inside the city though - not the highway portion.

Less confusing though than Calgary, where "Edmonton Trail" doesn't actually lead to Edmonton!! It must have at sometime . . .
 
Old Jul 6th, 2005, 03:22 PM
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Oh, thanks all of you for the explanation of the road names. Now it makes perfect sense. While driving out of town on 104 St/Calgary Trail, I saw signs for U-turn to Gateway Blvd. At that time I was thinking, wasn't I driving on it already? Now I know that Gateway Blvd is only for the northbound 103 St. Hahhaha...

I'll have more to say about names later on. I spent a lot of time in the Icefields Center the next day just to learn everything that's named Saskatchewan, Athabasca or Columbia. It'd be a lot easier if they can come up with more names.
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 09:27 PM
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Sunday, July 3

Got up around 6:30, planning for a early departure towards the mountains. But then I realized the Formula 1 race in France was live on TV. Oh well, room service again! Yes, it was pretty pathetic. I did not get out of the Marriott during my whole stay in Calgary!

Got onto the Trans-Canada heading west. Now, a little background. I've driven in BC, SK, MB, ON, QC, NB and NS before this trip, but first time in AB. And I'd driven the following main parts of Trans-Canada, from W to E

BC: Vancouver - Hope (Hwy 1)
SK: Moose Jaw - MB border (Hwy 1)
MB: SK border - Winnipeg (Hwy 1)
ON: Ottawa - QC border
QC: ON border - Quebec City
NB: Fredericton - NS border (Hwy 2)
NS: NB border to Sydney (Hwy 104 & 105)

So, this is adding to my Trans-Canada collection. About an hour west of Calgary center, I entered Banff National Park. [Only previous Canadian national park visits: Fundy, NB & Cape Breton Highlands, NS.] A fee is accessed. Single driver is C$8, and is good until 4pm the following day. Quite reasonable, and it's C$16 for a car with two or more passengers.

[But what's kind of strange is the following: if one's driving West to East on Trans-Canada, from Golden, BC, through Yoho and Banff national parks to Canmore, AB then paying is optional. No booth to pay if you're not using park facilities. Toll booths/check points are however on Trans-Canada westbound, Yellowhead both ways, and at either entrance of Icefields Parkway.]

Anyways, got to Banff, and walked through and around Banff Springs Hotel. Then drove down to the Bow Falls. But I found the best spot for pictures of Banff Springs Hotel is from across the river, at a turnout on Buffalo Street. Beautiful view. I didn't stop at the town center as I was in a big hurry. What's the rush? You'll find out later.

Heading west out of Banff, I took the Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A) which parallels the Trans-Canada. But it was slow, with some campers driving below the already slow limit. I jumped back on Highway 1 to get to Lake Louise. This is one of the most famous scenic spots in Western Canada, so no need to descibe more. It was about noon by now, and bus loads of Chinese and Japanese are arriving.

Not in the mood for hiking, with all the tourists around, I got back on the road and headed west on the Trans-Canada again! But I was supposed to stay overnight at Jasper, so why was I going West, instead of North on the Icefields Parkway?
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Old Jul 6th, 2005, 11:12 PM
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Guess #1 - You wanted to see the all the lodges and there is one in Yoho.

Guess #2 - You planned to drive back down the Icefields Parkway on your return trip and didn't want to do it twice since you thought the road might be difficult.

Guess #3 - You have a goal of completing all of the Trans-Canada Highway and so wanted to drive that section.

We just got back from Canada a week ago and I am enjoying your trip report. I finished up my trip journal yesterday.

Debbie
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Old Jul 7th, 2005, 01:37 PM
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Guess #3 by traveler2005 is pretty close.

I love train and train history, and CP's trans-con over the Rockies and the Selkirks is one of the more marvellous technical achievement, ever. And the history is extremely interesting too - how CP chose Kicking Horse Pass rather than the much easier Yellowhead Route, and how they started laying tracks across the prairies without knowing how to cross the Selkirks, etc... Absolutely interesting.

Anyways, I've long decided that I would cross Kicking Horse Pass into BC; but Rogers Pass is another 120km over 2-lane highways. On a busy summer holiday weekend with lots of RVs and campers on Hwy 1. But I decided to do it, so off I went.

The approach to Kicking Horse Pass from the east is very gentle. I was now in Yoho National Back in BC. Not far over the top, there's a viewing area of the lower of two spiral tunnels on the CP line. Just then I saw the headlights of a train coming towards me, and a whole bunch of people with long lenses standing around. I was SO LUCKY to get there at the right time.

Initially, I had no idea whether the train was going east or west, up or down; but after looking at the map, I realized it is going downhill towards Vancouver. It just got out from the upper spiral tunnel, and was actually heading EAST at that time towards the 2nd spiral tunnel. Going downhill at around 10MPH with a full grain load with the locomotives roaring and smoking (dynamic power on) and brakes screeching. It was amazing to see the train disappeared into the tunnel, came out under the rear part of the train which had yet to enter the tunnel. It was a railroad fan's dream to see that, and I just got there in time!

It's about 70km from Kicking Horse Pass down to Golden. It's steep road with some 6-8% grade, sharp turns along the canyon walls of the Kicking Horse River, and the road dropped about 3,000 feet. Very slow going as most of it is 2-way, with lots of RVs, campers, and some trucks. [I was a truck driver for 2.5 years, and I know how dangerous down-grades are for heavy trucks!]

After fueling up at Golden - lots of restaurants, gas stations and motels there - the Trans-Canada followed the Columbia for a little stretch, and then climbed up to Rogers Pass in Glacier National Park. Well, it was a little bit anti-climatic (pun intended) to be going there in a July day. While scenic, I don't think I can appreciate the dangers and difficulties of the Selkirks in the summer. But the snowsheds over the highway certainly remind drivers what it may be like in the winter time. Another reason why it's not that exciting now is that there has been a tunnel for the trains since ~1915 under the pass, so no active trains to watch there.

Anyways, I saw the exhibit at the visitor center (free with the "mandatory" National Park daypass I bought entering Banff in the morning), saw the monument for the Trans-Canada Highway (completed only in 1957), and then turned around and head back towards Lake Louise.

It was a really really long detour, as I didn't get onto Icefields Parkway until almost 6pm; about 5 hours after I left Lake Louise. But there was daylight out until past 10pm. So, still very safe to drive the Icefields Parkway at speed in very light traffic.
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Old Jul 7th, 2005, 07:06 PM
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Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) is really a magnificant road. The scenery is outstanding, no question about that. But it is also a well engineered and well paved road with very wide shoulder. Easy passing, and the grades are not excessive. I was making good time, passing lake after lake, mountain after mountain at 109km/h. Bow Lake - the source of Bow River - was beautiful, but I didn't stop.

[I often drive 19km/h over speed limit, as the last ticket I got in my life was in Virden, MB; where I was clocked at 21km/h over. The RCMP officer said he wouldn't have stopped me if I were <20 over.]

I also learned something interesting during this drive. Not long after getting on, I was following a tour bus. After passing a curve, I saw about 3-4 vehicles stopped along both side of the roadway, and the tour bus also pulled over. Hm... That was odd, I thought. Maybe someone's vehicle had broken down? But I couldn't help anyways, so I passed all the vehicles and got back to cruising speed.

Well, after some miles, again there were cars parked along side of the road. Only this time, I saw someone crossing the roadway in a hurry with a SLR and long lens attached. Ha! Only then did I realize people were stopping to look at wildlife. So, I stopped as well, and there was a small black bear there in the meadows.

Since then, I've stopped for mountain goats and mooses after seeing cars parked along side the roadway.

[I do not have an altimeter, though I wish I do. But here are some elevation numbers of the places I've been so far. Numbers are found by Google searches, all approx:

Edmonton 668m/2,192ft
Calgary 1,139m/3,740ft
(I certainly didn't feel any elevation gain on the 300km flat highway!)
Banff 1,383m/4,537ft
Lake Louise 1,537m/5,039ft
Kicking Horse Pass (Rockies) 1,647m/5,400ft
Golden 790m/2,591ft
Rogers Pass 1,330m/4,362ft]

Okay, back to the Icefields Parkway. The climb from Lake Louise to Bow Pass (2,067m/6,780ft) is quite gentle, so I didn't quite feel it. In fact, Bow Pass is the 2nd highest paved highway passes in Canada, after Highwood Pass just to the south. It then dropped down to Saskatchewan Crossing at 1,424m/4,670ft.
It followed the N. Saskatchewan River to a huge rocky beach where the road made a very gentle but HUGE 180-degree arch before climbing up the hills.

I stopped there to take some pictures at a lookout, but I didn't realize until later that the rocky beach is actually the bottom of the Saskatchewan Glacier - one of many that empty from the Columbia Icefield. The vista in that area is really something hard to describe with words.

The road climbed over Sunwampta Summit (2,035m/6,675ft - 3rd highest pass in Canada), and I entered Jasper National Park, the 4th of the day. A little downhill and there was the Icefield Center.
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 09:27 AM
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I am enjoying your trip report. I was amazed at what a great road the Icefields Parkway was. Before our trip, I posted questions about the roads in Canada worrying about whether they were drivable. I had memories of staying outside Denver once thinking that 37 miles was an easy drive for the day we wanted to go to a ball game. I was shocked when I found out that it was 2 hours of switchbacks.

Instead, in Canada, it seemed like suddenly I was in the midst of the Rockies and then drove through them with hardly even a curve.

A walking tour I took pointed out that the Icefields Parkway was built as a relief project with the men being paid 20 cents a day. Just amazing. That road is indeed wide, flat, and with great shoulders.

Like you, we've found that you don't have to look for wildlife so much as just for parked cars with people gaping.

Debbie
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 11:03 AM
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I will continue with the Athabasca Glacier and Icefield Center later, but I want to point out that my review of the Athabasca Hotel in Jasper has been posted on tripadvisor.com.

The URL is really long, so I won't post it here. Just go to tripadvisor and search for "Athabasca Hotel Jasper". My review is at the top right now - I'm the one from Houston, TX.
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 01:26 PM
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Fantastic tripadvisor review. This is my dream review when looking for hotels. It tells me exactly what to expect.
 
Old Jul 8th, 2005, 07:03 PM
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Very good rkwan. We are leaving VA next Friday for Glacier NP, Waterton, Claresholm, Canmore, Banff, Jasper, Golden and Revelstroke. You make the driving sound interesting.
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 07:05 PM
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So, I got to the Icefield Center about 7:30pm. I wasn't planning to do the C$31.95 anyways, but the last of the 90-minute tour departed 5pm. What was disappointing was that all the "snocoaches" had been garaged somewhere, so I couldn't even see them. Oh well...

On the good side, the exhibits inside Icefield Center were still open that late, and no admission charge. I spent a lot of time in front of the model of the whole Columbia Icefield, trying to understand all the names of the mountains, glaciers and rivers.

What I gathered (please correct if wrong) is that the Columbia Icefield is a watershed of 3 river systems. The N. Saskatchewan River eventually flows into Hudson Bay, still part of the Atlantic; the Athabasca River system flows into the Arctic Ocean; and the Columbia River flows into the Pacific, of course.

But what's super-confusing are the nomenclatures of the glaciers. Saskatchewan Glacier flows into N. SK River - no problem. But the big Athabasca Glacier across from the Icefield Center flows into the Sunwapta River, which later joins the Athabasca River near Jasper. The Athabasca River itself starts at the Columbia Glacier. But other glaciers feed the Columbia River, not the Columbia Glacier. Get it?

Anyways, I also figured out that Jasper National Park is in the Arctic Ocean watershed, while Banff is in the Atlantic watershed. The boundary at Sunwapta Summit seperates the two.

Across the Icefield Center, there's a road that lead to the bottom of the Athabasca Glacier. Along the road are signs that indicate where the tongue of the glacier was during the past 100 years. It has retreated a very very far distance indeed! That was the bad news. "Good" news is that it was already retreating quickly 100 years ago, which suggests to me that we really can't blame human activities on the planet for all its ills - as the industrial age has started not long ago in 1900.

It's time to head down to Jasper. Icefields Parkway follows the rocky beaches of the Sunwapta River. I passed the signs for the Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls, but it was getting late. Maybe tomorrow, I told myself. Got to the Athabasca Hotel on Patricia St in the center of Jasper (1,030m/3,380ft) around 9pm.

As I posted earlier today, my review of the Athabasca Hotel is up at tripadvisor.com. I know there are quite a bit of interest about this place, and two different Fodorite suggested me to look into the Athabasca rather than a motel in Hinton. And it was absolutely the right choice. Nothing's cheap in Jasper. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is C$300+, most B&B and other lodges are C$160+. My shared-bath room with one queen bed is C$89+tax. While a little more expensive than what I paid for the Westin Edmonton, it's still the cheapest place I can find. Can't complain.

I ate at the excellent O'Shea Restaurant in the hotel - nice Alberta prime rib. Good place to eat even if you're not staying at the Athabasca. After 13 hours of driving, I was too tired to check out the club, or the town...
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 07:15 PM
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ronkala - Sorry that my report is longer than the trip itself! But I'll finish it by tomorrow.
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Old Jul 8th, 2005, 08:00 PM
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I'm enjoying this trip report.

>>>But what's super-confusing are the nomenclatures of the glaciers.<<<

You're so right, rkkwan. As you said in an earlier post, we need more names for things. This applies also to

* Banff National Park and Banff townsite

* Jasper National Park and Jasper townsite

* Lake Louise village and the lake of Lake Louise

* Whistlers Mountain just outside of Jasper townsite and the mountain resort town of Whistler that's 2 hours from Vancouver

* Vancouver and Vancouver Island

* the West End (which is at the west end of downtown Vancouver) and West Vancouver, which is a community that is across Burrard Inlet and some distance from downtown Vancouver

* Stanley Park in Vancouver, Stanley Park (the park) in Calgary, Stanley Park (the neighbourhood) in Calgary, Stanley Park in Regina, Stanley Park in the Rural Municipality of Stanley, Manitoba, Stanley Park (a neighbourhood) in Kitchener, Ontario, Stanley Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia (although I don't think anyone is confused as to which is THE Stanley Park)

* Niagara Falls (the falls) and Niagara Falls (the town)

* Quebec (the province) and Quebec (the city)

The list could go on, but that's probably enough for now.
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