January, 2014


29
Jan 14

Challenge #2 Learn to Skate Like a Canadian

I started 2014 off with a splash – by leaping into the freezing cold sea at English Bay in Vancouver with a heap of other Crazy Canucks for the Polar Bear Swim – and I vowed to make this a year of fresh challenges – well, here’s my latest. This weekend I plan to skate the Rideau Canal in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. My challenge? Um, I don’t know how to skate… or rather – I didn’t, but thanks to my hero, Raymond – now I do.

My Hero, Raymond

My Hero, Raymond: he doesn’t usually wear antlers – this was his christmas special! 

It seems to me that Canadians are pretty much born with a pair of skates or skis strapped to their feet (their poor mothers!). I’ve sighed so many times over enchanting stories of my new friends’ Canadian childhoods: playing hockey out on a frozen pond, skating at home on a rink that their dad made by flooding the backyard – none of this was ever possible back in England, of course, and even skating rinks are few and far between. Not in Canada – I was amazed to discover eight beautifully maintained rinks in Vancouver and there was one just around the corner from me – and that is where Raymond skates into this story. We met last year at a Wine Festival event and once I realized I needed to learn to skate, then I knew he was my guy: an ex figure skater and now heading up the teaching programme at the busy Denman Street rink, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. 

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

I was terrified even lacing the skates up; all I could think of was falling and hurting myself. Bambi-like I wobbled onto the ice but accompanied by Raymond (and some pretty cool Lorde tracks) it all felt slightly less terrifying.That was five weeks ago and since then I’ve practiced, learned how to stop, fallen over and – crucially – worked out how to get up again. Just after Christmas I splurged and bought my own skates and last week I went for a truly joyful glide around the outdoor rink in Whistler. I may not be skating like a Canadian yet, but I’m giving it my best shot: Ottawa: here I come.

 


25
Jan 14

Vancouver Getaway: 48 hours in Seattle

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Take a look at a map of Canada, go on – there – see? Vancouver is perched on the west coast and really, just a hop, skip and jump away from the US border. One of the things that you notice about life in Vancouver is that people are always popping down to Seattle for the weekend, I guess it’s the equivalent of a Eurostar Paris mini-break for us Brits. But what to do when you get there?

A bit of culture:

Thanks to smart city planning you can tick off all your must-visit attractions without slogging your way around Seattle. The Space Needle, Chihuly Gardens and the EMP museum are all within a minute’s walk of each other on the 74 acre site of the 1962 World Fair. Get there by the pleasingly-retro monorail. On a clear day, views from the 520 feet high observation deck of the Space Needle are wonderful and you’ll see Mount Rainier as well as a full 360 view of the city and its waterfront. The Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery is filled with the ultra-bright, other-wordly creations of American glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly. Just around the corner you’ll find the Frank Gehry-designed EMP museum, founded in 2000 by Microsoft co-Founder Paul Allen which focusses on popular culture from music and comic book art to sci-fi and fantasy. Interactive fun for all ages.

Drinking and dining

Seattle’s food scene showcases west coast fresh, local and sustainable cuisine; head to funky Ballard to dive into seafood at the wildly popular Walrus and Carpenter and feast on oysters -raw and fried – house-cured charcuterie and local cheeses, or sample the moles and salsas of Oaxacan comfort food at the Carta de Oaxaca. Down by Pike Place, Matt’s in the Market is the place for zingingly fresh fish or try Cafe Campagne for a taste of French cooking. One of North America’s most innovative cocktail bars, The Canon is tucked away in the Capitol Hill area, but well worth seeking out for their carbonated, foamy and ice-cream based cocktails. In the same neighbourhood, the kooky Unicorn bar is a must-visit for their curious list of carnival-friendly cocktails,  shots and fun line up of pinball games and live music.

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Hit the shops

You can buy high street brands at home, so head to Capitol Hill to score unique local designer labels and one-off creations. You can make a loop exploring E Pike on Capitol Hill, for men’s skate gear and hip-hop inspired local designers like 13th Floor, try 35th North. Pick up jewellery by Beachstone, a professional rock climber who makes delicate stone trinkets at Retro Fit – look out for women’s vintage finds and Seattle designers at Le Frock. For foodie finds, head down the street to the famous Pike Place market – a wonderful place to browse for a few hours. Of course, popularity brings crowds and at high season it’s likely to be jammed as cruise ships dock nearby, but you can’t go to Seattle and miss it. If you’re a foodie sign up for the Savor Seattle two-hour food tour with 16 different sample bites and sips and a chance to chat with some of the personalities around the market including its famous fish throwers.

Doing it for the kids

The bustling waterfront holds a treasure trove of family-friendly activities – but perfect for the (inevitable) rain shower that will happen summer or winter, is the aquarium at Pier 59. It’s well laid out, the staff are wonderfully friendly and kids big and small will be engaged by the hands-on exhibition areas, petting aqua-zoos and the chance to get kitted out in diving gear.

Time for bed

Tap into that fashionably hip scene and stay at The Ballard, which opened in May 2013 although it gives the impression of a far more established hotel with lashings of retro detail. Ideal for fitness fans, the gym is one of the largest I’ve seen in a hotel and they have an adults-only saltwater lap pool. Want something more central? The splurge and book in at the Fairmont Olympic for their lavish marble staircases, victorian parlour palms and trademark world-class customer service. Pro-tip? Sign up to the free-to-join President’s Club to scoop free wi-fi and use of their chauffeured town car for local trips.

Seattle's most familiar monument

Seattle’s most familiar monument

 

 

For further info:

Seattle Monorail

Seattle Space Needle

The Hotel Ballard

The Fairmont Olympic

The EMP Museum

Chihuly Garden and Glass

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Unicorn


9
Jan 14

Shangri-La Toronto

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.

“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”

I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think:      “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.

They were.

shangrila2

I know. It’s just carpet. But really – it’s more than that. It’s about the attention to detail and making every small thing beautiful.

I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.

mirajTO

Curl up and relax…

I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouverthis is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same -  and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.

Modern fine dining

Modern fine dining

Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.

More Info:

The Shangri-La

188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

Phone:(647) 788-8888

Web:  Shangri-La Toronto


2
Jan 14

2014: the Year of New Experiences #1 Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver

It’s easy to make new year resolutions – and so much easier to break them, so this year I’ve decided to skip the usual list and go with just one resolution that should be easy to keep: Do More New Things. I want to dive into brand-new Canadian experiences every month this year and I decided to kick off by joining the Polar Bear Club on Vancouver’s English Bay for an icy January 1st dip.

Walking down to English Bay with my friend Felice, who I’d shamelessly whined at until she came too, I can’t pretend my heart wasn’t hammering – what if it was too cold? What if I wanted to back out? But once we arrived excitement took over; this was the 94th year of the dip and the biggest in its history with some 2,500 people jumping in. Jostling for space amongst the guys dressed as disgraced Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, and a guy dressed as a rasher of bacon, I decided to just try and enjoy it. We jumped the wooden fence to the beach and stripped off to our swimming costumes. The sand was wet and cold, within a few minutes my feet were numb. And then it began -there was no formal bell or whistle, no ‘ready, steady, go!’ but as we saw everyone race forward we grabbed hands and made for the waves.

polarbear swim

I didn’t feel the water at first, not until it hit mid-thigh, I ducked, shoulders-down and then it hit me – I gasped at the icy cold; I genuinely felt like I was having a heart attack. For a few seconds I couldn’t breath – the water was shockingly, painfully cold, I jumped back up, mouthing frantically then shrieked! Then the adrenaline flooded through me, man!  This was great, I raced back out of the water and joined my friends – all of us wild-eyed and beaming – we’d done it!

We did it!

We did it!

I was in the water for maybe 30 seconds at the most but it’s half a minute I’ll always remember and it feels like it was 30 crucial seconds that will shape the rest of the year. We raced back to my apartment building and hopped in the hot tub to thaw out. Over the next half hour, more frozen polar bear veterans joined us; I loved the feeling of camaraderie, of a moment of craziness shared and the start of something adventurous beginning.

Here’s a great video from Tristan Harvey which shows what happened:

Here’s to a new year of Canadian experiences and fantastic first times…

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