By Jane Mundy and Kate Zimmerman
“Get out your fur mitts and moisturize your ring finger,” Jane said to Kate in her best bossy boots manner. “We’re off to explore diamond tourism in Yellowknife.”
“F—– eh,” said Kate, always a class act.
The pair of us had glitter in our eyes. The PR material sent out in an effort to lure travel journalists north mentioned the dazzling high-end tours being offered by Horizon Tours, with words like “Lear jet” and “Cristal” being bandied about, alongside mentions of cushy lodges, hot tubs and dogsledding out to a tent where private chefs serve up local delicacies as guests watch the Aurora Borealis. We couldn’t help but wonder how the glamour of diamonds, with their heavy allure for status-seekers like Catherine Zeta-Jones and any hip-hop artist you can name, would mix with the reality of a small mining and government city in Canada’s north.
As a couple of refugees from rainy Vancouver, we also found the prospect of a few days of genuine winter titillating. With the unusual bait of “diamond tourism” — whatever that might be — thrown in, we were excited. So were our various editors — Jane had pitched hers on the title “Diamonds and dogsleds.” Little did we know that we’d get a lot more excited about the tail end of that phrase.
As it turned out, the Lear jet was not part of our package and indeed will cost Horizon Tour travelers an extra arm and leg. No Cristal was on offer, either, but we did enjoy the friendliness and informality of First Air. Because we wanted to get the jump on other travel journalists, Blachford Lake Lodge was not open for our accommodations, so we were put up in The Explorer.
Things were starting to seem a mite less glossy than had been suggested. Our rooms were fine, but The Explorer’s soul-less lobby and the never-lit fireplace in its dining room were a chilly way to start. An affable Yellowknifer took us on a tour of the city, but there was nothing sparkling about that, what with the defunct gold mines and the sorry shacks on Ragged Ass Road. We found ourselves asking each other, “Would this impress starry-eyed fans of big ‘rocks’?”
After a decent lunch of whitefish with friendly locals involved in the diamond world, we went to AuroraCollege to see its diamond cutting and polishing students in action. The college is located in an ordinary cinder-block building, the classroom a plain rectangle with polishing stations dotted about and illustrations of diamond cuts on its walls. There were no students in the house, as it was “potluck Friday.” So we listened as South African native Mike Botha, an expert in his field, told us about the college program he had helped establish.
Then it was off to the Arslanian Cutting Works factory, where row upon row of intent polishers sat, each with a tiny stone under his or her spotlight, shaving away anything that interfered with the diamond’s reflective qualities. We got a little closer to the gems in other rooms, but it wasn’t like we got to kneel in a vault full of diamonds, throwing them up into the air and watching them rain down upon us, which is what we imagined Diddy and co. might prefer. When the person showing us around actually pointed out the unprepossessing lunchroom, the tour reminded us of the episode on the Simpsons where Bart and his class go on a trip to the cardboard box factory for the umpteenth time.
The effect was not to make us long for a diamond to put on our own finger, but the reverse — it made the minuscule stones seem quite ordinary. What a pity. Diamonds are intrinsically fascinating, being something like three billion years old, with a remarkable and often decadent history — priceless gems have been discovered by children playing in South African riverbeds and coveted by sultans, starlets and social climbers. There are extremely negative connotations, as well. In countries other than Canada, the diamond trade has long had blood on its hands that only recently has started being addressed. So where was the NWT diamonds’ backstory?
The tour, we decided, needs to be better-organized and focused. Although the NWT government provides diamond certification that should set a conscientious buyer’s mind at rest, someone in charge of the tour should emphasize more distinctly the moral superiority of Canadian diamonds over those from poorer and less regulated countries, where the possibility of blood diamonds remains. Tourists are not allowed at the diamond mines themselves, but somebody might roll a film or slide projector somewhere to show visitors exactly how diamonds are extracted from kimberlite pipes, how they are cleaned, and how they are packaged and sent to be cut. What about presentations for tourists by a jeweler on how to choose the perfect setting for a diamond or the right shape and setting for the shape of your own finger?
Our bare bones experience neither delved into the scientific origins of these rare bits of pressurized carbon, touched on their literally multi-faceted history, nor explored their current associations with glamour, royalty and celebrity.
Our five days in NWT included a dogsled ride and a jaunt to Aurora World. But just as you can’t plan on the weather, there was a wild card thrown into this particular Northern adventure. Instead of being transfixed by diamonds, we were impressed by warm and welcoming locals, Japanese tourists wearing SARS masks as they waited for the appearance of the Northern Lights, and quirky Renata Bullock slinging wonderful fish at Bullocks’ Bistro. And what a treat to find that dogsledding, which we got to do with Grant Beck, was such a thrilling and primal experience?
Frankly, we’d happily return to Yellowknife for the Caribou festival, just to watch the tea-boiling contest. With extraordinary experiences like that to offer, we wondered why anybody would suggest that a red herring like diamond tourism was the real dazzler here. It’s like inviting people to Alberta to watch oil get refined. That province’s bread-and-butter is not the stuff of a luxury traveler’s dreams. Neither is watching somebody else’s sparkler get a spit and polish in the Northwest Territories of Canada.