Factory direct: Tours behind the scenes

HMMM, THAT'S A LOT OF BEER: A visitor looks into one of the vats at the Big Rock Brewery factory in Calgary. Fascinating, often free, factory visits can be informative, delicious and fun.

By: Debra Cummings, Special to the Star

August 18, 2001- Ever wonder how a fortune gets curled up in a crispy fortune cookie? Tea into a tea bag? Or, how sheet metal gets welded onto a jumbo jet, or how wood is shaped into baseball bats and curved hockey blades? If so, then maybe you should take a behind-the-scenes factory tour which often ends with a bagful of freebies or a sample of the goods. Besides being cheap (many are actually free), typical factory tours often include a movie, a tour of the plant and a pile of propaganda.

Here are some you can visit in Canada:

FORT MCMURRAY: This province's biggie, which has snared all sorts of international tourism awards, is a sophisticated visit to the sprawling oil sands. The tour of Syncrude includes a visit to Crane Lake, the humongous reclamation sites for each mine, and a visit of the Oil Sands Discovery Centre. Cost is $15 per person and tours run throughout the summer. Call 780-791-4336.

BALZAC: Alta Genetics: They've recently stopped their popular tours in Balzac (15 minutes north of Calgary) due to foot and mouth disease, but they're hoping it's just a temporary suspension. Hundreds of people, from international groups seeking reproductive strategies, to local 4-H clubs, take these free tours where they can view the bulls, tour labs where frozen semen is stored, and so on. Call 403-266-0666.

CALGARY: Bernard Callebaut Chocolate: During a 25-minute tour, you'll discover how pralines, passion fruit and marrion berries get squeezed into the dreamy Belgian recipe wonders, whipped up by world-renowned chocolatier Bernard Callebaut, in his downtown Calgary plant. Tours both independent and guided are free, should be booked ahead, and include wonderfully decadent freebies at the end. Call: 403-265-5777.
Big Rock Brewery: On the 60-minute tour visitors see the whole brewing process. Click on the link for details.

British Columbia
VANCOUVER: Capilano Salmon Hatchery: After you've tottered along the Capilano Suspension Bridge in north Van, head to this fascinating respite in the heart of a rainforest where you can watch thousands of salmon battle their way over ladders, en route to their birthing place, where they'll lay their eggs and eventually die. Some 26 km of well-marked trails fan out from the hatchery making it an easy spot to while away half a day. Call 604-666-1790 for details. Steveston Cannery Row: Located in Richmond, this heritage site tells the story of how 100 years ago Steveston was the soul of the sockeye salmon industry. Known internationally as "salmon city", Steveston supported 15 canneries and was a port of call for some of the largest and fastest clippers in the world.

VICTORIA: Rogers Chocolates offers tours (ending in a shop loaded with half-price morsels) as does a decommissioned Russian sub and the Vancouver Island Brewery.

VANCOUVER ISLAND: Toodle around vineyards in Duncan, Nanaimo and Cobble Hill. Or, get inside the very belly of a monstrous cave and see what they're made of in Parksville. Then there are mill tours in Campbell River and hatchery visits in Courtenay, Campbell River and Qualicum Beach as well as an historic dockyard tour in Esquimalt.

WHISTLER: One of the coolest finds we came across was a tour of Prior Snowboards Manufactory on Alpha Lake Road on the outskirts of Whistler. See how a snowboard is made, from start of finish, by legendary snowboard shaper, Chris Prior, right here at the factory. Call in advance for a tour at 1-877-93-PRIOR. Visit their Web site at www.priorsnowboards.com.

VERNON: This is a semi-precious find in itself the Klinker Opal Mine, 40 km from Vernon. Poke around the store in downtown Vernon or fork out $30 for a day-long dig in the mountains. Day digs at Canada's only opal mine run during the summer (9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and include guided services, lots of geological information, safety equipment and the chance to haul out to 2.5 kilos of material (opal, agate, rock, etc.) from the open pit mine. Visit www.opalscanada.com

ARMSTRONG: An award-winning micro-cheese factory, the Village Cheese Co. famous for its Stilton and cheddars offers plant tours, displays of century-old artifacts and informal chats and demos with their master cheesemaker, Ivan Matte, who still makes cheese the old-fashioned way. Visit www.villagecheese.com.

SUMMERLAND: What began as a fruit-based candy factory in the early '60s now produces jams, jellies, syrups and spreads using local produce. Visit www.summerlandsweets.com.

THOMPSON/OKANAGAN COUNTRY: Also known as B.C.'s wine country, there are scores of wineries to visit, and stay overnight. Simply follow the pretty road signs of grape clusters and you'll know you're on the right track. Visit web site www.hellobc.com/bcescapes/regions/thompson_distinctive.jsp.

KITIMAT: Take your pick and visit the world's largest aluminum smelter (Alcan), a pulp and paper mill (Eurocan) or a petrochemical facility (Mathanex). All three offer tours.

HUDSON'S HOPE: Two canyon dam tours are offered here the North Peace and the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. Guided tours of the power house at W.A.C. Bennett take you down some 152 metres underground. Call North Peace Dam at 250-783-5211 or W.A.C. at 250-783-5211.

SPARWOOD AND ELKFORD: Coal mine tours that take you through actual inky black shafts are offered in July and August. Both chambers of commerce organize the tours. Visit http://www.tourismelkford.ca .

Nova Scotia
HALIFAX: Tour Canada's oldest brewery here. Alexander Keith's Original Brewery is a massive ironstone and granite structure built in 1834 which still pumps out tall, frosty pints. It also delivers daily tours, run by costumed guides full of Acadian pride. Also in Halifax is the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, the world's third largest marine research centre. Guides take visitors by labs where they're conducting actual experiments from breeding fish to chipping away at parts of the Titanic. Also in downtown Halifax is Nova Scotia's Crystal and Glass Factory as popular for its glass-blowing and cutting tours as its deals. On the Dartmouth side of the harbour is Esso's Oil refinery that offers two-hour tours of the gargantuan operation where you'll see everything from liquid propane to turbo jet fuels, kerosene, stove and furnace oils.

PICTOU: The world-famous producer of fine Grohmann Knives offers free 30-minute factory tours, from Monday to Friday. Call 902-485-4224 or visit www.grohmannknives.com.

PUGWASH: Seagull Pewter, the renowned producer and exporter of pewterware, offers daily tours of its plant and also has a great little retail shop, often full of bargains. Call 902-243-2516.

CAPE BRETON: The Margaree Fish Culture Station offers tours of its hatchery (full of small Atlantic fish such as salmon and speckled trout) as well an interpretive centre. Also on Cape Breton, in the charming seaside town of Cheticamp is Flora's famous for its rug-hooking demos and shop. Call 902-224-3139. There's also the Glenora Inn & Distillery North America's only single malt whiskey distillery. Call 800-839-0491.

SMITH FALLS: Home to the Canadian plant of Hershey Chocolate, this self-conducted free tour includes video explanations and open galleries where you can watch the entire gooey process. There are free samples and the best viewing times are before 2: 30 p.m. Call 613-283-3300.

COLLINGWOOD: The Candy Factory was established in the early '70s with the aim of preserving the candy makers' art by sticking to traditional recipes using fresh, pure ingredients without additives. Free tours run year-round. Call 705-445-2400.

INGERSOLL: Sharing the same site is a cheese factory museum plus a sports hall of fame. Some of the buildings from the cheese factory date back to the 1860s plus there's also a small community museum jammed with household and commercial artifacts depicting Ingersoll's history. For details call 519-485-5510.

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE: A French perfume factory and museum demonstrates 19th-century techniques of perfume distilling. Brand-name perfumes are available for purchase at factory prices. Visit www.tourismniagara.com/perfumefactory.

WINDSOR: Take A 45-minute tour of the Hiram Walker Canadian Club Distillery. Visit www.canadianclubwhisky.com.

Debra Cummings is a freelance writer based in Calgary.

Photo - HMMM, THAT'S A LOT OF BEER: A visitor looks into one of the vats at the Big Rock Brewery factory in Calgary.

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