March, 2013


26
Mar 13

Bordeaux bliss in Vancouver: Château Olivier winery dinner at Le Gavroche

They like to keep busy in the winter months, these Vancouver types… hot on the heels of  the excellent Dine Out festival, the Vancouver International Wine festival clinked into town. What began as a one winery, two-day event back in 1979 has grown into Canada’s premier wine show, featuring 175 wineries from 15 countries pouring an astounding 1,850 wines at 54 events. The ever-popular Grand Tasting evenings are an amazing opportunity to sniff, swirl and sniff your way around the world of wine; tasting everything from First Nations wine made right here in BC to vintage Champagne, Japanese Sake and even the first (surprisingly good) non-sparkling wines from Freixenet.

Blissfully divine wine

Blissfully divine wine

This year the focus was on California and Chardonnay wines and yes, I did mean to dive into exploring both, but flipping through the thick glossy brochure, something decidedly tempting caught my eye and well, it was too much for me to resist. French food. Dazzling Bordeaux. A restaurant I’ve been eyeing up for a while… Hey – I’m not made of stone, which is why I wound up at Le Gavroche enjoying their wonderful French food paired with heavenly wines from Château Olivier one rainy night in February.

Le Gavroche opened its doors the same year the wine festival launched – in Vancouver restaurant terms, a successful 35-year old restaurant is a venerable vintage indeed. I’ve written before about this city’s seemingly unquenchable desire for NEW! NEW! NEW! but for me, I like somewhere that’s shown it can do what it takes year after year, long after the bloom of a hot new opening fades. I had impossibly high hopes for this evening and I wasn’t disappointed.

Seeing double?

Seeing double?

I’ll confess: I’m new to the world of Getting Serious About Learning About Wine and I know my linguistic limits, so I’m not going to even try to write in any kind of intelligent way about the wine – perhaps after a few more ‘lessons’ I may be able to offer up something smarter than “I loved it”  – but I’m discovering that maybe I like the elegance of old world red wines better than almost anything else at all. Paired with a perfectly fruity lavender crusted duck and a meltingly-meaty sous vide lamb (that came with witty side of sheep’s milk yoghurt) we had three different Château Olivier Rouge to try; the 2001, 2005 and 2009. Easy to see, after listening to  estate owner, Alexandre de Bethmann talk about the process of creating these velvety reds and the history of the Château, what a seductive hobby ‘Being Serious About Wine’ could be; exploring the subtle differences between the wines, then trying them with food – and without – to see the flavours develop and change.

We finished the meal with a Château d’Armajan des Ormes Sauternes; silky and sweet, it was the perfect foil to an espresso chocolate cake. Swirling the golden liquid in my glass, listening to the talk of vintages around me, I realised that like when I went back to ‘school’ at the Victoria’s Art of the Cocktail festival, I learn so much when I’m around people with a passion for what they love. If you even have the slightest suspicion that you may ‘like wine’ then go to a winery dinner and learn from those who love it. Perfect food, fascinating company and world-class wine – what’s not to love? Make a note in your diary for November 1st, 2013 as that’s when advance tickets for the 2014 festival go on sale. I can’t wait…

Thanks to Le Gavroche, Château Olivier and Waldorf Wine for hosting me. As ever – my views are 100% my own.


21
Mar 13

The Yukon Quest 2013

And so it begins

And so it begins

The Yukon has fascinated me. I’ve waited to write about the Yukon Quest race because I just keep reading more and more about it, losing myself down a rabbit hole of myths, legends and impossible-sounding stories which turn out to be true. This is a race like no other: one thousand miles in bitter sub-zero temperatures following the route of the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush route between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Just mushers, their teams of sled dogs and the bone-numbing cold and unimaginably vast spaces of the Great White North. On average it takes between 10-20 days to cover the route. Unlike other endurance races, there are only ten checkpoints along the way – some are more than 200 miles apart. The originators of the Quest decided to make it harder than other races, more ‘woodsman-like’ as they wanted it to be a race where ‘survival would be as important as speed.’

I was taking photographs at the start of the race. I lay in snow at the side of the track, I had my Canada Goose parka on; gloves, scarf, snow pants, I was well-wrapped up, but some 45 minutes lying in that snow, slowly feeling the cold bite at my face and fingers, made me look at these mushers with awe. To be that cold; to race through the day and night, frost forming on beards, eyelashes icing up, with no hope of a warm bed at the end – took courage that I couldn’t imagine possessing.

Late sun in Whitehorse - this was about 1030 am

Late sun in Whitehorse – this was about 1030 am

There’s a romance about the race for sure; I shared a lift into town with a couple from Vienna who’d come to Whitehorse to see the lights and had been bitten by the bug, “It’s highly non-technical,” enthused Peter Pollak, “It emphasises self-reliance, there’s no one there to pick you up, you have to take care of your dogs first and then yourself.” His wife, Mary, agreed, “We didn’t know about it before we came, but there’s something addictive about it. We’ve already planned to come back next year to follow the trail.”

Race into the snow

Race into the snow

I’ll come clean – before I came, I couldn’t imagine being interested in this at all. This has “NOT MY THING” all over it in neon letters, but I got excited by the atmosphere and found myself pulled in; I talked to the handlers, petted the excited dogs and chatted to a few of the mushers, like Christina Traverse who saw the Quest on TV and thought, “I want to do that one day”. This was to be her first Quest, but I saw on the site, that she lasted just 41hrs, 44mins before being retired from the race and hospitalised. I remember the trepidation – and excitement – in her eyes and I know she’ll be back again another year.

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

Brent Sass, a Quest regular, running his seventh race, came in third. He first got started after he saw a dog team, “I wanted to do that. One dog turned into five, turned into 10, then 25. The first time I did the Quest was scary; all the uncertainties of the trail and the obstacles ahead, you don’t know what you’re going to run into, but I enjoy it all, I thrive when the hard weather comes.”

The love of the mushers for their dogs was clear; the last musher to run spent time kissing, hugging and talking to each of his dogs, who were all excitedly pulling and jumping, desperate to get racing before stepping behind his sled and heading off into a thousand miles of snow and ice.

They adore their dogs

They adore their dogs

I looked at the stats and the times of all the mushers from this year’s race, there’s a section on the site where you can leave messages for them – there must have been thousands. School children who were studying the race who saw the mushers as their heroes (I found this amazing Yukon Quest maths sheet!), fellow dog-lovers, even relatives and friends leaving messages of love and support that had me welling up. I thought about how they must feel – anxious for their loved one but bursting with pride – imagining them far out in the snow with nothing but the sound of bootie-clad paws racing across the ice for company, nothing but 250lbs of packed equipment and provisions on their sled between checkpoints to keep them going. I saw wisps of straw fall as I lay in the snow, I imagined the dogs curled up on it, resting, and the musher, after massaging their feet, changing their booties, feeding and watering them, eventually curling up too, grabbing a few short hours sleep before pushing on again to that finish line.

Ready to go

Ready to go

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism - as ever – my views are 100% my own.


20
Mar 13

Discovering the Yukon spas and Takhini hot springs

I didn’t know that walking in the snow made such a crunching sound until I moved to Canada. Like the wrong type of leaves, I guess we always got the wrong type of snow. So, when I left the warmth of my cosy Yukon cabin to explore, I walked the trails happily listening to the unexpected sound of the snow.

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

I was staying at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa,  some 20km from Whitehorse. I’d hoped to catch a glimpse of those elusive lights, staying far from the glare of the city; I had an image of waking in the night and seeing them from my bed, actually – my ultimate Northern Lights Fantasy involves seeing them from a hot tub as snowflakes fall on my face. Alas, it wasn’t to be – first because the lights were covered by cloud and second I wasn’t allowed to use the tub after 10pm. I guess that’s what happens when you try and make fantasy reality. It pretty much never works out.

Perfect balcony view

Perfect balcony view

I had fun though, staying out in the wilderness; I loved seeing nothing but snow and forest, hearing the howls of excited sled dogs all riled up with the scent of the Yukon Quest in the air and it was great to sit down with locals and share a meal at the dinner table too; I even learned a new phrase; ‘shack wacky‘ which is the northern version of ‘cabin fever’ – a state bought on by too much winter and not enough daylight, which can apparently only be quelled by hard drinking and much dancing. I like these people.

Spa is an elastic term these days – it can be an all-singing, all-dancing palace of relaxation or it can be as simple as the hot tub, sauna and Swedish-style massage on offer here. A nice soft touch in the harsh wilderness of the Yukon. Or – it can even be an outdoors experience like I had at Takhini Hot Springs, a public pool fed by the natural hot spring. In February when we visited, snow lay all around, steam hung over the water and families were all enjoying the bone-warming heat in the middle of soul-crushingly cold weather. There’s nothing fancy here at all. The changing rooms are basic to say the least. Plastic strips separate the indoors area from the pool, you wade through, batting at the plastic as you go. This is far from a luxe experience, but oh! It was magical.

 

Spa Yukon-style

Spa Yukon-style

The sky was impossibly clear and blue that day, I kept my shoulders under the 40°C water until I felt dizzy with the heat and then went for it… scooted out of the pool, carefully avoiding slipping on the ice and threw myself backwards into a drift of snow. Trying hard not to shriek, I rubbed the snow on my face and arms then scampered back into the water. It felt wonderful; I could feel the blood pumping around my body, my arms and legs felt almost burnt by the hot/cold/hot change and I felt giddy with euphoria. Apparently they have late sessions till 2am in the winter and just like that, my fantasy changed. Forget a Jacuzzi – this was more like it – a huge shared hot spring where you could bob around and watch the magic of the Northern Lights zip across the sky – and if the lights don’t come, well, how often do you get to be in a hot spring surrounded by snow? That’s a real-life fantasy right there.

No. I'm not showing you me rolling in the snow...

No. I’m not showing you me rolling in the snow…

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism and the Northern Lights Resort and Spa - as ever, my views are 100% my own.


13
Mar 13

All aboard Le Massif de Charlevoix train

I’m a sucker for a good train journey. I fell in love with Canada on a four night, three day, 2,775 mile journey from Toronto to Vancouver onboard The Canadian on the wonderful ViaRail a few years back. It was a transformative journey in so many ways for me; it was the first time I’d been to Vancouver and I just knew that the city and I would get along (and yes, two years later we moved in together…) it was also the first time I met Marie-Julie Gagnon, a French-Canadian blogger, writer, TV travel pro and all-round splendid woman.

The start of a beautiful friendship...

The start of a beautiful friendship…

We’d been at the same travel writers event in Toronto, not met at all and then spent the next few days delightedly discovering that we were absolute sisters under the skin, writer-soul mates with a love of food, spas, cocktails and laughing very loudly. I’ve probably spoken to her almost every day since then and we try to co-ordinate travelling together whenever we can. So yes, I try to see Canada by train whenever I can and if I can see it with Marie-Julie, so much the better. The train which travels to Le Massif de Charlevoix in Québec is quite different from the ViaRail train. This is a privately-owned train which runs on privately-owned tracks, which means, that unlike other train journeys in North America, which are subject to what can be hours of delays as they have to give way to freight, this train runs to a tight timetable. It’s a beautiful shiny, neat train. Huge picture windows so you can watch the impossibly beautiful landscape whizz past. 

 

A few minutes before boarding

A few minutes before boarding

We boarded at Parc de la Chute-Montmorency, just 15 minutes drive from downtown Québec City, at 8am we’d arrive at Baie-Saint-Paul at 1045am. Along the way we were served breakfast and got to see the astonishing sight of the frozen Saint Lawrence river and the beauty of the Charlevoix landscape blanketed in snow.

Frozen waves

Frozen waves

I’ve never seen a frozen river before; the waves had carved the ice into tiles, scattered on the frosty surface. It seemed unthinkable, impossible, that a river so wide – so vast that I couldn’t see the other side – could freeze, but here it was. The houses on the other side of the river told a story of warm summers ahead though; almost every home had a round blue swimming pool, topped with white snow. Little wooden porches with benches below told me that it got so hot they needed shade and sat out often. We trundled along and I sipped hot coffee and thought about the people who lived out here, far from the city, under this thick blanket of snow, in a climate that was cold enough to freeze waves in a vast river, but had a summer of soft nights and long meals outdoors and all the good food of the region to look forward to.

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

You can stop off at Grande Pointe and ski, or, do as we did, and get off at La Ferme, a modern gem of a hotel that made me feel like I was in the heart of Soho in London, rather than miles from anywhere in the frozen east of Canada. If you don’t want to stay, you can hop back on board at 330pm. Plenty of time to explore the quaint little town of Baie-Saint-Paul, stop to taste its craft brewed beer at MicroBrasserie Charlevoix, have a bite by the fireplace at Chez Bouquet or pick up some art at one of the many galleries and still be back in Québec City by 645pm.

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

I’d love to see how it changes in the summertime, to follow the curves of the tracks as the sun sets, there’s a great twilight gourmet dinner package which runs from May till August, with an ‘exquisite terroir meal’ created by the kitchens of the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, picking the finest, freshest produce of the region.

We arrived bang on time. That’s the pity of the private track, I’d happily have sat there, watching this natural wonder for hours. Stunning scenery, great company and no need to worry about driving or getting lost.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Québec – my views are 100% my own

Find out more:

http://www.lemassif.com/en/train

Hotel La Ferme


13
Mar 13

Dreams of the Yukon Quest

As I sailed backwards through the air, landing in an undignified heap in a snow drift, I can’t pretend for a second that I felt surprised. I knew I’d fall off my sled. I’d told the others, ‘If someone’s falling off, it’s me!’ And I really wasn’t being self-deprecating.  So yes, there I was, with the snow in my face to prove it.  Wearily, I propped myself up on my elbows and watched my team of four gorgeous huskies disappear at breakneck speed, past our instructor, and off through the trees.

So now what?

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

It had all started so well; a beautiful drive half an hour from Whitehorse to the Sky High Wilderness Ranch to start our mushing adventure. We ate, family-style, around the table at the old-fashioned wooden ranch house; steaming bowls of chili with sweet juicy berries for afters. Our instructor Jocelyn was a veteran of the Quest. She’d battled her way 1000 miles in the punishing sub-zero cold with sixteen dogs, made it through the other side from Alaska to Whitehorse. All we had to do was a short 20 km with a team of four. A walk in the park in comparison. “Oh, I’m gonna fall off.” I said, as we walked to the dogs.

You hear them way before you see them; whining and yowling, yapping that high-pitched bark of pure excitement  that any dog owner would recognise as the Noise That Spot Makes When He sees The Squeaky Ball. There were some 150 dogs up on the property at Fish Lake. That’s a lot of excited dog noise. Jocelyn showed us the basics of mushing, (put your foot on the brake. No, really. Put your damn foot on the brake) and then how to put harnesses on our teams of four dogs. We took up position behind our sleds, full weight firmly on the brake as Jocelyn attached the dogs to the sled. With a final admonition to take it easy, off we went. I timidly took my heel off the brake a little, the straining huskies jerked forward and I reflexively tightened my grip on the sled handlebar.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

The dogs left in the yard howled their displeasure as we set off. The sleds hissed across the snow, the scamper of the huskies’ surprisingly dainty paws a pattering counterpoint to their excited panting. I know we went past snowy pines, along a track and on to a frozen lake – imagine! Mushing your own dog sled team across a frozen lake in the Yukon! – but I was so obsessively fixed on my feet that I almost saw nothing those first fifteen minutes. You see you’re balanced on two ‘skis’, with the brake in the centre. Lift your foot off one of the skis and then onto the brake, but then you have to work out which side to lean to balance it all out and, of course, where to put your foot back without falling off. I’m not great with this kind of thing. That’s why I knew I’d fall.

But I was loving it all the same. I had an epiphany around half an hour in, I was getting into the swing of it, if I leaned like that then I could go a little faster… this was easy! This was something I could get good at… this was – and then it hit me – this was the story of a lifetime! This English girl, who moved to Vancouver and then tried dog sledding, turned out to be AMAZING at it and entered the Yukon Quest, the most punishing race on earth. Of course, just as I was basking in the imagined glory of passing the finishing line, we went around a corner, I slammed the brake on too hard, parted company with the sled and well, you know the rest. 

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. Heaven.

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. I get the appeal.

They had to send a snowmobile to find my team. As I made the humiliating climb into Jocelyn’s sled, frantically apologising all the way, she told me to not worry. It happened all the time. So I lay back and enjoyed the view; the stunning scenery, the excitement of the dogs and yes, admired their skill at being able to run and poop at the same time. We should all be so talented.

Realistically, I’m probably not going to enter the Yukon Quest, but I’m definitely going to give mushing another go. We caught up with my naughty crew 20 minutes later and I managed another hour or so without falling off. By the end my feet were painfully cold and my hands trembling from gripping the bar so hard. We’d done just 2% of what the amazing mushers of the Yukon Quest do. I have so much respect for them and their dogs and after just a short time doing it, I can see exactly why they do it.

Thanks to all at Sky High Wilderness Ranch – especially Jocelyn for being so patient and Ian for rescuing my dogs. I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon, however, my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: 

Travel Yukon 

 

Get there with Air North


12
Mar 13

Carnaval in Québec City

In my head, the Caribou candy canes were not so big. Oh, I’d heard about them; a cute Carnaval attraction, filled to the brim with ‘Caribou’, a kind of souped-up mulled wine, spiked with brandy or vodka or both. Perfect for keeping out the icy chill and keeping up the party spirits, I thought a small stripy pipe o’ booze would be just the ticket, but when I was handed what looked like a walking stick, rather than the compact little twig I’d anticipated, I realised I was out of my depth. I was swimming in French-Canadian waters now but it wasn’t like I hadn’t been warned… “They know how to party in Québec” everyone had said and oh boy, do they ever…

I was mesmerised by the skill of the ice and snow statue carvers

Just… wow.

I’d been so excited about attending the Carnaval. For years I’d heard about the bikini-clad snow bathing, the ice sculptures and I’d dreamed of seeing people genuinely enjoying the cold weather rather than cowering away from it as we do in Britain. And it was everything I’d hoped that it would be; parents towed their red-cheeked, snowsuit-ed infants around in lightweight plastic sleds, couples held hands and ice-skated around the park, children shrieked with laughter as they played on the slides and begged to queue up to meet the star of the show, Bonhomme.

Ah, Bonhomme, the spokes-snowman of the Carnaval, who is idolised and adored in a positively Bieber-like fashion. Unlike most mascots, Bonhomme speaks (here he is meeting the Canadian PM), throughout Carnaval he has a hectic schedule gracing parties and doing his trademark high-kick dance at endless photos calls. I walked past a queue of some 100 people, waiting to get a photograph with him.

Queuing to see Bonhomme

Queuing to see Bonhomme

Even entry to the Carnival is with a cute little Bonhomme ‘effigy’, I tied it to my trusty Canada Goose and walked through the lyrically-named Plains of Abraham, straight into a winter wonderland. I’d been given a ceinture fléchée to wear, a sash with an arrowhead design, part of the traditional outfit of the French-Canadians in the 19th century.  I tied it around my waist, its ends peeking out under my parka. This was my first clue that this wasn’t just a party, the Carnaval had its roots in a more interesting place. Over the speakers, traditional French folk songs played, everywhere, the heavily-accented Québecois French was spoken, make no mistake – when you are in Québec City, you are in the heart of French-speaking French-Canada. You really need to try to speak French. It’s their language and it’s who they are. Québec baffles and fascinates me in equal measure. It feels like another country and its winter celebrations, the wearing of the ceinture fléchée, the pride in its long historical culture and traditions are all part of cherishing that uniquely French side.

Bonhomme's cheeky snow bath party

Bonhomme’s cheeky snow bath party

It was the last weekend of Carnival when I attended, I’d missed the ice canoe racing and snowboarding, but the ice sculptures from around the world still held their shape and Bonhomme’s Ice Palace continued to shine in the sun under the impossibly blue sky. They’ve built an ice palace each winter since the late 1800s, I stroked the glossy walls  of the latest incarnation and thought about how lucky I was to have a warm centrally-heated hotel to go to later and gratefully wriggled my toes in my  thermal socks.

It's official: Bonhomme's beach is open...

It’s official: Bonhomme’s ‘beach’ is open…

The big event of the weekend was the bain de neige, one of our group, a Lonely Planet reporter, Regis, decided to take the plunge – it looked like so much fun! I cursed my sprained ankle… next time. Although my consolation prize was a sleigh ride, something I’d never have done if I wasn’t limping. The bells jingled, the ponies stamped and we were off;  I burrowed under the fur throw as we trotted through the snow, up and around the park. I felt like I was in the most romantic of fairy tales, and yes – it was schmaltzy and cheesy and I absolutely loved it.

Cheesy, yes. Fun, definitely

Cheesy, yes. Fun, definitely

Later that night we watched the Carnaval parade, a whirl of lights and colour, dancing and music. The cold bit brutally at our fingers whenever we de-gloved to take photos. I was amazed to hear French versions of Mary Poppins songs as a float with a flying Poppins wheeled past, accompanied by a dozen dancing sweeps.

Parade time: it got a trifle weird

Parade time: it got a trifle weird

The final treat of the night was dancing at Bonhomme’s ice palace. Of course, dancing with a badly-sprained ankle is a terrible idea… but an irresistible one after a few Caribous. I’m still limping three weeks later. I can’t help thinking dancing in the snow, zipped up in my coat, having a blast in the minus-whatever-it-was temperature, the lights bouncing off the ice, the music so good and loud and the company so much fun probably has something to do with it… Oh, and that damn candy cane. The size of a hockey stick and full to the brim of hot, sweet, deceptively-strong Caribou… We shared it between us, waved the stick in the air to the music and by the time the hot drink was cold I somehow didn’t care so much about the sprain and the pain.

I think this just about sums things up...

I think this just about sums things up…

But I got it; when winter is so cold and harsh, when the weather beats you down every day with its intensity, you have to go out and embrace it. Celebrate being alive and enjoy all the good things that living in that climate can bring, connect with your inner snow-bathing, high-kick dancing Bonhomme.

Bonhomme's Ice Palace

Bonhomme’s Ice Palace

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec, however – as always – my views are 100% my own.

Find out more:

Carnaval de Québec

Quebéc Tourism

I travelled as a guest of Québec Tourism and stayed at the Hilton.


7
Mar 13

The story of Maggie, her doorway and Rainier Provisions

Pantry full of treats to take home

Pantry full of treats to take home

I heard something over lunch yesterday that made me tear-up over my roast beef sandwich. I was at Rainier Provisions, checking out Sean Heather’s latest Gastown foodie-magnet. Gastown is a tricky district to define. On the one hand it’s Vancouver’s oldest and most tourist-friendly; home to the ‘Gassy Jack’ statue, the singing Steam Clock, cobbled streets and twinkly fairy-lit trees. There are more hipster joints here than you can kick a hackysack at. It’s also home to the Downtown Eastside, where you’ll find more crushing poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and downright misery than any other area I’ve encountered in Vancouver. These two extremes live uneasily side by side. Occasionally, as with newcomer Pidgin, things break out and get weird.

I get it. Gentrification brings its problems between the haves and have-nots but I have to wonder – what would you rather? If it’s a choice between an empty building and no jobs, or a buzzing establishment that makes a conscious effort to give back to the local neighbourhood, well, it feels like a no-brainer to me.

Large room which can be hired for parties

Large room which can be hired for parties

Sean’s been in Gastown for almost two decades. He’s got a solid record of giving back and getting along with his neighbours. Rainier Provisions is next to the Rainier Hotel, a women’s single-room occupancy hotel, which just had a block of federal funding removed. Thanks to Sean, residents get fed, for free, once a week and a similar meals programme has been in place for years at another of his places, The Irish Heather. I got all mascara-smudged yesterday because I was told about Maggie, a lady who’d lived in the front door of the previously-disused building for three years. When Rainier Provisions was being constructed, instead of evicting Maggie from her doorstep home, it was decided instead to give her some security. So they frosted windows on three sides of one of the unused doorways, added a combination lock on the gate and now Maggie has a place to leave her things where she can come and go as she pleases. She says she feels safer now.

That’s what made me cry. So yes, while many talk up a storm about what gentrification may or may not mean for an area and those who are less well-off, I put all my support behind a company that pays more than lip-service to the idea that we all deserve a place in our community and a damn good meal too.

The food? It was perfect.

The food? It was perfect.

Oh – the food? Hey, it’s Sean Heather – a by-word for excellence – small producers, local suppliers trying to get along with their foodie dreams, so on the menu, great sandwiches, a daily roast (a huge plateful for as little as $8) and jaw-clangingly great ice cream from Vancouver’s finest, Earnest Ice Cream.

Love at first lick with their salt-caramel

Love at first lick with their salt-caramel

Pop in for a meal, or to stock up on deli items like East Vancouver’s Moccia Urbani, D-Original Sauage Company, Germany’s Drews Driessen, and England’s Neal’s Yard Dairy. Take an empty bottle to fill up on peppery olive oil and choose a treat from the towering pantry shelves. And say hi to Maggie if she’s home.

I ate here as a guest of Rainier Provisions. As ever – my views are 100% my own.


7
Mar 13

On the hunt for Northern Lights in the Yukon

All the conditions were perfect. It should have been a dazzling display...

All the conditions were perfect. It should have been a dazzling display…

One of the major draws of the Yukon is the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. I’ve dreamed of watching the night sky dance with colour since I was a child. I had high hopes for this trip to Whitehorse; there were “elevated activity” signs on the aurora forecast site, the skies were clear and all the conditions seemed right. But nature is a fickle thing and it turns out that the Yukon Northern Lights have decidedly diva-ish tendencies.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed when they failed to show, but compared to last time when I tried my luck in Iceland and froze my butt off shivering outside a bus in a deserted field, this trip was definitely more welcoming. Unlike many Aurora tours, instead of chasing the lights, Northern Tales have a camp set up, around half an hour beyond Whitehorse, far from the light pollution of the town. All the creature comforts that you could possibly need are there, from a crackling campfire to heated yurts and a slightly alarming drop-toilet.

There was something rather comforting about being tucked away in the warm, our hosts were boiling maple syrup on the stove to make maple taffy lollies, I sat and warmed my hands on a mug of cocoa and felt, well, not as sad as I thought I’d feel. I kept popping outside, to sit on a chair in the snowy field, to get my frosty fix of staring at the sky and feeling the bitter bite of cold air. After all, if you get a great reward like dancing lights in the sky shouldn’t you have to suffer a little first? I stared until my eyeballs got cold; every once in a while, I could see the clouds part; the stars twinkled and the more I stared, the more convinced I was that I could see… something. It felt like the sky sighing. Something moving and shifting and shimmering. And then disappearing again.

Turns out I am terrible at drawing hearts

Turns out I am terrible at drawing hearts

Our hosts were phenomenal; born cheerleaders and optimists, we stayed out till past 1am, hoping that our diva would show. They made snacks and hot drinks and even entertained us shooting slow-mo light shots… but no northern lights. I just read this morning that according to NASA, the ‘Solar Maximum’ – the summit of the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity, which gives the best Northern Lights – has shifted from May to autumn. That means it’s not over yet between me and my quest to see those dancing lights. If there’s a yurt and a campfire, turns out I’m happy to keep on chasing…

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon. My views are 100% my own.

Travel Yukon


6
Mar 13

All hail the Alaskan King Crab

I love it when things come together. I went to a party last week and shared a lift home with Alexandra Gill, a food writer I’ve been enjoying reading for a while in the local paper, the Globe and Mail. I was telling her about my plans for ‘Asian Month’ a dine-around of ten different Asian countries and their cuisines in Metro Vancouver. (I’ve been inspired by walking around my new neighbourhood, the West End, in a few short blocks you could eat your way around Asia and I planned to make a good start by setting myself a target of ten new-to-me styles of cuisine by mid-April).  Alex said that one thing not to miss was the short but oh, so sweet season of Alaskan King Crab. We swapped numbers and a few days later, I got the call… The Crab Had Landed.

Hello Mr Alaskan King Crab

I was caught unawares, so this is a rather terrible photo. Apologies.

I drove across Vancouver to Marpole to the Red Star Seafood http://redstarvancouver.com/en/ restaurant to join a table of 12 crab aficionados and had probably one of the most exciting meals I’ve had for some time. I’ll confess; I know less than nothing about Asian food, so very nearly every mouthful I ate that night was new to me and – apart from the red bean soup for dessert, which I found watery and rather weird – I loved it all. There was a great deal of intense discussion about exactly how much crab we needed. The largest was a 10 pounder and that wouldn’t be enough for our group but it seemed that the consensus was that two smaller crabs wouldn’t yield enough meat, so a large and a small was decided on. Then, a seemingly-furious debate kicked off about what else to have and how to have it. I sat back, beaming as the melodic Cantonese washed over my head.

Sweet, juicy and fragrant with garlic

Sweet, juicy and fragrant with garlic

The crabs were bought to the table in a huge bowl, waving their spiny legs. OK, so I didn’t expect them to be alive but hey – at least you know it’s fresh! One of Alex’s friends, Lee, was born in Hong Kong and was incredibly kind answering my questions all night, he told me that ordering was important; there needed to be a balance of cooking styles, of heat and spice, of vegetables, fish and meat – it would be a bad meal if everything was cooked the same. Imagine applying this to European or North American dining styles – so many meals are ‘a roast’ or  a fry-up – greedy gal that I am, I love the idea of mixing everything up.

Knuckles delivered a powerful spicy kick

Knuckles delivered a powerful spicy kick

We had the crab five different ways; its legs came first, butchered into little cigars, served with steamed minced garlic. It tasted sweet and buttery – all from its own juice. Next my favourite, the crab knuckles fried with spicy garlic chips ‘hurricane shelter-style’. There was so much juicy meat, it was almost like a chunky cod goujon, but eye-poppingly hot. The knuckles were also cooked a second, milder way with spring onions, ginger and ‘first draw’ soy sauce.

Sweet and mild with ginger

Sweet and mild with ginger

A noodle dish next, delicate noodles tossed in crab sauce, then a Portuguese baked rice dish, sweet with coconut milk and flecked with crab meat. The noodles and rice were presented at the table, stuffed into the head of the crab and then taken away and bought back in small bowls. Two different vivid green veggie plates, pea tips with garlic and gai lan (chinese broccoli) with ginger. Lee showed me the care that the chefs had taken as every single stem had a small leaf attached, just as it was meant to. Beautiful.

I love that there is no waste at all

I love that there is no waste at all

I was dizzy with food at this point. Everything so new and so delicious. We also had a peking duck, first the skin with pancakes and a plum sauce, then the rest of the duck, chopped which went into a crisp lettuce leaf with another spoon of that lip-smacking plum sauce. Finally, the best sweet and sour pork I have ever tasted. I’ve never enjoyed Chinese food in the UK – and yes, before you say so – undoubtedly I was just going to the wrong places, but it feels like there are no wrong places to eat Asian food here in Vancouver. The city has an almost 20% Asian population – that means the different Asian foods available are going to be authentic, fresh and plentiful. This is a great start to ‘Asian month’ – I cannot wait to see what else this city has for me to tuck into and I’m already excited about the arrival of the King Crab next year.

I'd happily have tucked into this all by myself

I’d happily have tucked into this all by myself

 


4
Mar 13

Thrills and Spills at Valcartier Sliding Park, Quebec

Ow. The spill that came after the thrill...

Ow. The spill that came after the thrill…

I lay on the ground, my ankle crumpled beneath me, pain so sharp I pressed my face into the snow and tried hard not to throw up. No dazzling ski injury for me though. No heroic face-planting after some daredevil antics on the slopes, nope – typically, for a klutz like myself, I had fallen awkwardly and sprained my ankle trying to get up from an inflatable rubber ring at a ‘tubing’ park.

So much fun. Sit back and enjoy the view!

So much fun. Sit back and enjoy the view!

Injury aside, if you’ve never been tubing before, I cannot recommend it enough. We drove 20 minutes north of Quebec City to visit Valcartier and I loved everything about it; in the summer you splash around, having fun in water under the blazing sun. In the winter, when the temperatures plummet and the snow lies thick on the ground, they turn it into a sliding park so you can whizz down the slopes on huge rings, zoom around an ice track in mini-racers and enjoy treats like gravy-soaked poutine and fresh-made maple syrup lollies poured over snow to set.

Snowy-chewy super-sweet maple syrup lolly

Snowy-chewy super-sweet maple syrup lolly

They have 35 snow slides, an insane snow raft run where you hurtle down an icy slope at alarming speeds flying out of your seat as you sail over bumps and a crazy circular ‘tornado’ raft which spins you around as you power down the hill. For 50 years, this park has been making kids and adults screech with excitement and they recently welcomed their 13th million visitor. It’s old-fashioned, unashamedly low-tech fun with a family-friendly vibe and if you’re ever visiting Quebec, it’s an absolute must-do.

Madness. But terribly addictive!

Madness. But terribly addictive!

So, it’s two weeks later now and I am still limping after my bad sprain, but you know what? Worth it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Next time I’ll just fall out of the ring, rather than trying to get up…

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Quebec. As always – my views are 100% my own.

For more info:

Valcartier Village

Visit Quebec

Quebec City Tourism

 

 

Featuring WPMU Bloglist Widget by YD WordPress Developer