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21
Jul 14

Challenge #7: Find A Truly Dog-Friendly Break in BC

fred2“Come to Vancouver! It’s so dog-friendly!” they said. And yes, looking at the maps with all the amazing parks and beaches sure, it looks like a pooch’s dream. But the reality is that for a dog owner used to British rules and regulations, life here in Vancouver is pretty tough. I can’t take Freddie on a bus, in a pub, into any shops, restaurants or cafes – and most baffling of all, you can’t even take your dog in a beer garden. No – not even if they lie quietly under your chair. You have to tie them to the fencing outside so they are on the street. We love the parks and beaches but it’s no place for a dog-friendly holiday.

But Whistler seems to be a different beast altogether. Many of the patios (what Canadians call any outdoor space attached to a bar or restaurant) in Whistler Village are on public walkways so your dog can curl up (legally) next to you and, of course there is all that dazzling wild nature of the Pacific North West mountains and lakes to explore and tire those paws out so they snooze while you eat and booze. So: the challenge this month -  is it possible to have a fun few days with my dog on a mountain break? Or will I be dining off gas station sandwiches in a  car park? I planned to try two kind of breaks – the smarter side and more causal to see if everyone could be happy and actually, it amazed me just how well it all worked out.

fred3So – first check-in was at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler. I figured that if a hotel has Canine Ambassadors then you can be fairly sure that they’ll be dog friendly too. In line with most hotels over here, they charge a cleaning fee of $50 a night capped at $150. When we got to our room there was a special welcome pack waiting for us; a smart lead, a guide to all the dog-friendly places in Whistler and beyond, a pack of treats, poo bags and an absurdly comfy bed. As you can see – Fred was a fan, and after that welcome, so was I.

I miss going to pubs with my dog but it felt like almost everywhere in Whistler Village was perfectly pet friendly. After Freddie had given every single inch of our room a good sniff, we went for a stroll. I stopped off for happy hour at The Mix By Ric’s and sat outside in the sunshine, happily sucking on a tall gin-spiked cocktail as Fred curled up underneath my chair. Normal in the UK yes, but the very first time I’ve done it for almost two years thanks to the laws in BC.

fred4I was on my way to check out dinner at The Grill and Vine at the Westin who’d suggested that I could sit at their patio on the back, attached to the FireRock Lounge restaurant. It was actually kind of perfect; everyone else was on the front deck so we had the place to ourselves. I sat warmed by the dying rays of sunshine; just me, my book and dog. I sipped on a glass of Tinhorn Creek rosé, feeling utterly content. After a full day of exploring the trails as we’d stopped off for a long walk around Shannon Falls along the way up from Vancouver, and so many new sights and smells, Freddie was flat-out. I’d heard sad news that week from a friend whose dog had died after 17 very happy years as her companion, so I cherished that feeling of Fredde’s warm, soft muzzle resting on my foot more than ever.

As he snored under the table, I had a creamy burrata salad, dotted with wobbly cubes of peppery jelly and tomatoes tasting of sunshine, then a crunchy quail with waffles drizzled with a sweet maple dressing. It was almost two hours before Fred roused himself by which time I’d had another few glasses and watched the sun sink behind the mountains before enjoying a peaceful walk back to the hotel.

fred5To my delight there was not one woof or whine from Fred all night. He slept like only a tired dog can on a plump and comfy cushion. I’d checked out the guide and just beyond the Fairmont is one of Whistler’s most lovely trails; Lost Lake, perfect for a pre-breakfast walk and there is even an off-leash beach along the way. We explored the trails there for a few hours to work up an appetite for breakfast.

fred9Right next to the Chateau is their Portobello cafe, where you can get really good coffee (oh, thank you!), huge breakfast sandwiches and heaped portions of yoghurt, fruit and granola. Whistler is packed with outdoors-y people who never seem to stop hiking, biking and boarding – and man, they need to carb up! You can sit outside and people-watch while you eat, with your dog happily snoozing, post-walk, at your feet.

fred6I’d been loaned a Ford Fusion Energi for the week, so decided to make the most of it by driving up to Pemberton, around half an hour away from Whistler. It’s a stunning drive; the Sea To Sky Highway is a jaw-clanging route at the best of times but with the misty rainclouds capping the peaks, shot through with occasional shafts of golden sun it was even more lovely than usual. We stopped at One Mile Lake along the way and walked around the dog-friendly off-leash boardwalk. The lake was dotted with waterlilies and the tree branches overhanging the path were thick with glossy leaves. We sat under them for a while, taking shelter, listening to the pitter-patter of rain and watching the clouds scud past the peaks.

fred7We had lunch at The Pony, there’s a shady dog-friendly place out the back with a rail where horses are usually tethered. Today it was a tuckered out cocker spaniel who slept while I laid waste to a ridiculously good poutine and fantastically garlic-y caesar salad.

Casual dining with a dog seemed easy enough to achieve in Whistler but what about something more up-market? Incredibly, that’s a yes too. I met a girlfriend for the oyster specials at Araxi on their spacious patio where, if you pick your seat, you can tie your dog next to you and still keep things perfectly within the law. Araxi is one of BC’s best restaurants and to be able to sit there and enjoy their wonderful hospitality without worrying about my dog was a rare and happy treat.

fred12I’m always pretty sad to check out of a Fairmont, but this time I didn’t pout too much as at least the break wasn’t over. I’d be swapping the luxe grandeur of Chateau Whistler for something a little more rustic – a cabin in the woods at Sunwolf in Brackendale. I’d visited Jess and Jake before when I went to spot eagles on a rafting trip in the winter, but summer in Squamish is quite different. I’d noticed in Whistler the rushing water sound wherever I went. All that snow has to go somewhere, of course, and the rivers and brooks become gushing torrents in the summertime. Sunwolf is based on the Cheakamus river, which had become a racing and rushing body of water; there is something profoundly soothing about being surrounded by vivid green with the sound of the forest and water all around and after checking in to my cabin I felt myself slip into an even deeper gear of relaxation.

fred10I’d got one thing wrong though; I’d expected the cabins to be rustic but they were far from that! Mine had a bathroom that wouldn’t have been out of place in a boutique hotel, plus a comfy couch, a wood-burning stove, basic but well-equipped kitchen and best of all – a lovely little bedroom, tucked away in the eaves upstairs. I lay on the bed and looked around, every window looked out on to the trees.

We went for a walk along the river, with Fred sniffing excitedly at everything along the way. He’s usually a fairly highly-strung dog but after a couple of days enjoying all that Whistler had to offer he was clearly loving Sunwolf too. He kept beaming at me, his tail a blur, as he sprang across the rocks and darted through the trees, utterly in doggie heaven.

fred11We could have cooked in the cabin or used the communal barbecue, but owners Jess and Jake invited us over for a table-bangingly delicious steak dinner. I slept soundly that night, lulled to sleep by so much mountain air and the sound of the river just beyond my windows. Waking to the sight of green, green trees the next day and finding Freddie snoring happily away on his blanket downstairs I plotted how I could come back again soon.

Thanks to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler and Sunwolf for providing accommodation for me and to the Grill and Vine and Araxi for dinner. Also, massive thank you to Ford for loaning me a Fusion Energi hybrid car which runs quite happily on both petrol and electric. Pleasingly quiet and impressively thrifty, the whole journey – some 300km – was done on $37 of petrol, which works out to around 20 quid! You don’t need to have a special charging station as the car has its own set of plugs that you can attach to any plug – and yes, Sunwolf had one outside the cabin for me to use.  As always, my words are 100% my own.

Further Info:

Fairmont Chateau Whistler [Official Site]

Sunwolf [Official Site]

Tourism Whistler [Official Site]


25
Apr 14

Diving Birds and Bluefin Tuna on Prince Edward Island

“Making $5 on a lobster is a dream; at $4 we make money but we’re at $3 right now.” Veteran fisherman Captain Kenny looks out to the choppy gunmetal-grey water and grins ruefully before putting the ‘hammer’ down to speed us out to sea towards the horizon. There are seals out there bobbing and diving in the water, snacking on mackerel and somewhere—hopefully— Atlantic Bluefin tuna. The plan is to find them and hand-feed them with mackerel; we just have to catch the mackerel and then track down the tuna.

boat2As we crash through the increasingly rough sea, Captain Kenny yells out fishing stats above the roar of the engine and the rhythmic slap of water against the windscreen. The cod seem to not be coming back; they disappeared, over-fished into almost extinction in the 1990s and have barely been seen since. There are strict regulations on fisheries now, necessary for the survival of the oceans but hard on those who’ve made their living for generations from the ocean. A recent wild halibut season was only 12 hours long, Kenny tells us, there’s a quota and once that’s met, that’s that. It’s the same for the Bluefin Tuna that we’re seeking out right now, “I’m only allowed to catch one tuna, the weight is checked at the port,” he explains. “You clear $6,000 on one tuna if you’re lucky - often far less – there are 360 people with licenses to catch them and our quota is 125m tone of bluefin tuna for all of PEI.” The weight is subtracted from the quota and then – incredibly – names are picked out of a hat to decide who can fish for more than one.

boat3

We stop to catch mackerel, alas, it turns out I’m a rotten fisherman and the only thing I catch is another person’s hook. Fortunately there are others on board less ham-fisted than I when it comes to finding big tuna’s dinner. We bag half a bucket’s worth and speed off again until, eyes narrowed against the horizon, Captain Kenny slows the boat down and we all peer at the sonar monitor which he uses to find the tuna.

boat4The green and blue display looks pleasingly like a vintage Atari video game, and I find myself watching for fish icons to come swimming across the screen. But there is no sign of tuna – even though fisherman’s lore tell us that they are there – fishermen have always looked for these giant fish by watching birds. From their aerial vantage point birds can spot of schools of fish and they’re always on the look out for easy pickings. If they spot mackerel close to the surface and start bombarding the water, it’s likely that the tuna will be close and feeding too. It’s incredible to watch the birds dive again and again for their supper; they flap their wings, circle close and then just a few feet away from the water hurtle beak-down into the waves. The sky becomes a white-winged squadron of dive-bombing birds, It’s mesmerizing.

I watch the birds wheel overhead and then smash into the water, just beyond us wind turbines spin slowly in the breeze and all around the boat, seals bob in the water like beach balls, “Swimming dogs is what they are,” grins Captain Kenny, and offers around a plastic bottle of his home-brewed Moonshine. It’s surprisingly smooth but makes you catch your breath as it burns a heady trail down. It’s just what’s needed to numb the disappointment of a no-show tuna trip. They’re down there alright, Kenny explains, pointing to a dark pattern at the bottom of the sonar screen; just too far down for us and they’re not hungry enough to come to the surface.  Maybe it’s that second (third?) gulp of Moonshine or maybe it’s just the excitement of the boat and the seals, the kamikaze birds and the thrill of the hunt but as we chug back to harbour I’m really not feeling sad at all. You can’t schedule nature, tuna won’t swim up to be fed on demand and there’s always something a little refreshing about that in this overly-organised world. A nice two-fin salute to us humans who’ve messed things up so much perhaps? But oh, we’re trying now are trying to fix things and  eco-tourism initiatives like this and Captain Kenny’s Hook & Release fishing excursions are what will keep fishermen in business and – hopefully – give the oceans time to re-stock with fish.

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

· Giant Blue Fin Tuna [Official Site]

· Tourism PEI [Official Site]

· Ocean Wise – Find Sustainable Seafood Choices [Official Site]


31
Mar 14

PEI: My Island Pictures

PEI1

There are some trips that you make which seem a little magical and dream-like even at the time. Of course; memory softens the edges; that annoying wait for the car that one afternoon or the rainy morning which made you pout, they all melt away with time. But there was something special about Prince Edward Island right from the start.
PEI3
The sharp bright colours of the island made you feel as though you’d stepped into a child’s drawing; the sky so blue, the grass and trees so green and this vivid, almost-glowing red soil and red sand. The coastline dotted about with reminders from the past and standard bearers for the future; lighthouses painted with quaint deckchair-stripes next to bright white bands of wind turbines stretching their arms as they scraped the sky.

PEI4We took a sightseeing trip in a small plane, rising just high enough to make the illusion of it all being a child’s colouring book seem real. We saw the cold, clear waters where some of the world’s best lobsters, mussels and oysters thrive. That iron oxide-rich soil which grows such sweet flavoursome potatoes, the lush green grass which feeds some of the most-prized cattle in North America.

PEI6Over the next week I’d eat and drink so many delicious things – all from just a few miles away from where I was staying in its historic capital Charlottetown. I’d meet some of the warmest and most hospitable people I’ve encountered anywhere in the world; a friendly acceptance and a delight in sharing and showing the best that they had, that felt as gracious as something from a more sepia-tinted age.

almorrisonOne afternoon I met an elderly man in a cafe and fell into conversation with him. He insisted on giving me a copy of a book, ‘My Island Pictures’ a History of Prince Edward Island by folk artist, A.L. Morrison. The pictures have that child-like dreamy quality that the island conjured up for me. I wish I knew if it had been the artist who gave it to me; I was in a rush but adopting island ways, I made time to stop and talk. But I put the book in my bag as I left and didn’t look at it until I got back home to Vancouver; now I can’t match the hazy memory of the lovely old man with the author shot on the book. Flipping through its pages now, it’s all as I remember it, almost like he drew it for me just as I remember it. He must have been the author –  who else would carry around spare copies of their book but an author? And where else would such a thing happen but PEI?

I travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism PEI but as ever, all my words are 100% my own.

More information:

Tourism Prince Edward Island

Air tour in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk thanks to FD Airtours

 

 


21
Mar 14

Challenge #4: Go to Whistler and Zipline Down a Mountain at Night

I’m trying to be brave and try new things—truly I am. But as I hang in my harness, my teeth chattering in the sub-zero cold, swinging in a cradle as helpless as a baby, I began to think, ‘hey – what was so wrong with the old ways?’. It’s pitch black ahead of me on the mountain, just a small twinkling light, god knows how far away – that’s where I’m heading on this insane zipline and god help me, if they’re not about to release the brakes

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you'll see the lights below.

Ready to swing off into the dark void. Squint and you’ll see the lights below.

A curse on this whole ‘try something Canadian and new’  plan. I’ve given ziplining at night a whirl and decided that, nope, it is absolutely not for me. Was it the screaming through the darkness god knows how high up – just attached by a wire – that made me turn my stomach? Or perhaps it was the fatal-crash feeling every time I ‘zipped’ into the end of each line? Or maybe it was the weird sensation of being horribly scared as I flew in darkness across the mountain and yet at the same time - feeling weirdly bored because I couldn’t see anything? Whatever, as fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, this girl has gotta never do this again. And yet… I could see that if you liked it (and I was with a crew who clearly adored it) then this would be all kinds of fun.

Making tracks up the mountain

Making tracks up the mountain

It all started rather nicely with a heated snowcat ride up Rainbow Mountain. I loved this! The snow was deep, it felt like the most delicious sort of rufty-tufty Canadian fun inside the ‘Cat; blankets-over-the-knees and the rumble of the engine as we climbed at a thrilling angle up, up the mountain. The light was on in the cabin and my fellow zippers-to-be were excited. I peered out into the night: nothing. Sadly the fun bit was over too soon – we got dropped at a yurt half-way up the isolated mountain for dinner.

Normally I’d have been dancing with excitement over this; it had been catered by the Bearfoot Bistro – one of my favourite Whistler restaurants – but as I sat down and sipped on water (never have I wanted a glass of wine more) and watched the flames dance in the log fire, I realised I was genuinely nervous about what lay ahead. I pushed my perfect short rib around the plate, forcing down a few mouthfuls of whipped buttery mash and savoury gravy before giving up. Bad enough to scream, but how much worse if I threw up later?

See - how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

See – how perfect and lovely is this adorable yurt?

When you dread what lies ahead, there comes a point when you don’t want to delay – you just want it to be over. Make the dinner, end, let’s just get this done, I wished to the gods of bad decisions and perilous ideas. Who knows – I was not letting the tiny flame of optimism burn out at this point – maybe I would love this. But every minute we spent in that gorgeous little wooden yurt made me doubt it more and more. For those familiar with the drill, you know what lies ahead – you carry your own kit from line to line over your shoulder. I wasn’t expecting this and as I slid around on the narrow trail in the half-light on the ice and snow, I wondered if I wasn’t about to find a far, far faster way down.

The two staff with us on the mountain with us were fantastic – friendly, helpful, fun and – kind – when it was clear that I was struggling to stay upright one of them shouldered my load and I was never made to feel like I was making a fuss. One of the group after one line decided that was enough; and they were kind to her too. Idiot that I am, I decided to stick with it. Maybe I’d grow to love it? (I didn’t.)

Not everyone hated this. OK - so ONLY I hated this...

Not everyone hated this. OK – so ONLY I hated this…

There were only 4 ziplines but it felt like oh, so much more; one was the longest in Canada, 600 feet above the ground and over a kilometer long. The part of me that wasn’t hating it all, was wondering what it would be like in the daytime? Maybe if I had all that stunning scenery to distract me from me grinding terror, I’d have had more fun?

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

It was very cool hanging out in the trees.

Not so my companions, who whooped their way through the evening. They flew down the mountain, their helmet lights like little halos, and whooped like bad angels as they went. Apologies for this most anaemic of phrases but really: if you like this kind of thing, you’d love this. It’s well organised, if you could stomach the food it was delicious, the yurt and snowcat were a lot of fun and yes, if hurtling through the night is your bag then have at it.
I plan to keep my feet on the ground for now.

God bless them for having me – I was a guest of Superfly – who were so nice to me even though I clearly loathed it.

Also thank you to my chateau home away from home, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler who gave me somewhere beautiful and serene to rest my very achey bones after all this crazy. Oh, how I wished I’d have been able to stow away one of their special mustard-spiked cocktails with me on the line – maybe that would have helped?

As ever – my words though are 100% my own.


17
Feb 14

Welcome to the world’s eagle capital

EF5

I’d never imagined myself to be a birdwatching enthusiast before but like so many other things Canada has changed me completely. From my new-found love of leaf-peeping and attempts to develop ice skating skills to my enthusiastic embrace of drinking clamato juice cocktailsthere is apparently no limit to what I won’t adore about Canada. So, now I’m a ‘twitcher’ – why else would I be floating down a river on a bluebird sky day in early February, gazing with delight into the leaf-less trees? My new rationale being that if the world bald eagle capital is just 45 minutes drive away, well – you hop into a car, right?

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

Jake from Sunwolf gets our craft ready

A little explanation: half-way between Whistler and Vancouver lies Squamish, known as the Outdoor Adventure Capital of North America. You can hike, mountain bike, kayak, whitewater raft – everything. Ten minutes drive from Squamish is Brackendale, and as well as being a huge draw for enthusiastic types in North Face-branded clothing, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s greatest concentration of bald eagles, if you visit between November-February.

I’d visited Sunwolf late last year en route to Whistler and eaten a spectacular breakfast at Fergie’s cafe there. As well as dishing up quality rib-sticker brekkies, Sunwolf’s British owners Jake and Jess also have cosy cabins to rent along the Cheakamus River and host guided whitewater rafting trips and eagle float adventures.

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

Let the Eagle-Spotting begin

It was a perfect day for a float along the river; after what seemed like endless grey skies and non-stop rain, the soft warm touch of sunshine on skin felt like a long-forgotten magic. And the sun was blazing down that morning. But it was cold on the river, so we suited up in the Sunwolf lounge in waist-high waterproof trousers and bundled up in scarves, mittens and hats.

Hopping into the dinghy without A) falling in or B) embarrassing myself, was surprisingly easy – my kind of outdoor adventure – all I needed to do now was sit back, listen to the soft splash of paddles on water and watch for eagles as Jake told us stories of the river and the Chum salmon which brings the eagles here in their droves. It’s a circle-of-life thing;  beautiful in its complexity and simplicity. Each year the salmon come to spawn in the pristine glacial-fed waters of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers where they – in turn – were spawned.

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It would have been hard to pick a more perfect day

It’s incredible that these fish who spend their lives out in the ocean return ‘home’ to start new lives – and it’s also where they come to end their life too. After spawning, the salmon die and in turn become a necessary life-giving food to another species. In some parts of the world bears feast on the salmon, but here it’s the eagles who thrive and survive. For a few months, the river is becomes an all-you-can-eat sashimi buffet and the eagles the stretchy pants-wearing regulars.

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the rotting salmon aka eagle-dinner

Waters so pristine you could clearly see the eagle’s dinner

I lost count of the number of eagles that we saw; mostly perched, presumably digesting huge meals, in the branches. Whenever one took flight the awe of seeing their impossibly wide wing span hit me every time. I may not be a fully fledged bird-spotting enthusiast but damn, I’m enthusiastic whenever I see a beautiful wild creature – especially in such jaw-clanging surroundings. Only the prospect of another meal at Fergie’s could cheer me after our trip was over. I really loved it: so peaceful, so much beauty and so many new things to learn along the way.

I travelled as a guest of Sunwolf but as ever my words are 100% my own.  

Also, thank you to BC Ford who loaned me a Ford Focus Titanium for my road trip. I’ve never driven a car that could actually park itself before! Genuinely amazing feature. 

More Info:

Sunwolf - Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!


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


17
Apr 13

Gulf Island Hopping Part 3: Pender Island

Nope - still not the caribbean - welcome to the Gulf Islands...

Nope – still not the caribbean – welcome to the Gulf Islands…

It’s as we cross the slender bridge which joins north and south Pender Island together, that I realise I really should have hired a car. I’d cheerily walked off the BC Ferry at Otter Bay and hopped onboard my shuttle ride to Poets Cove Resort, but twenty minutes drive and we still weren’t there. In my head, everything had been an easy hike away; in reality Pender was a lot bigger than that, steep hills and narrow roads put my usual ‘borrow a bike’ plan off the slate and an already wonky ankle definitely put any long-distance hikes out, so as we drove along I tried to formulate a cunning Plan B

On the road and the view is wonderful

On the road and the view is wonderful

Poets Cove is pretty much all that’s on the south island. It’s a family-friendly holiday spot with its own bar, coffee shop and restaurant. Windy pathways lead down to the pretty sandy beach and from my room, I could see the boats bob on the shallow waves down at the marina. I’d arranged to borrow a resort car for the morning before I was scheduled to travel to Salt Spring Island, but that left me with a day and half to do… nothing. I’ve no practice at just staying put, so to find myself with a suddenly blank schedule sent me into a tailspin. Until I realised – this is what people do on holiday… so, Plan B: experience a holiday resort as though I am ‘on holiday’.

I read a book, I watched the sea, I pottered around a little and even had a nap. My major activity was visiting the ‘steam cave’ in the spa; a fun way to re-design the typical steam room, it really felt like a cave and I spent a happy hour flitting between the cave and the hot tub on the deck overlooking the sea. And yes, I felt really relaxed, but I was definitely ready to go when it came time to explore. Turns out that I’m no good at ‘being on holiday’ after all.

I would have demanded we move here if I'd seen this when I was 8

I would have demanded we move here if I’d seen this when I was 8

Pender Island landmarks seemed to have been named by a committee of Disney employees; Magic Lake, the Enchanted Forest and I even found a junction where Shark Road met Pirate Road.  Less densely forested than Galiano, Pender seemed to tend more to rolling farmland which let you peek away from the road to see the cliffs and sea beyond. I drove over to the north island, to Hope Bay and took a stroll along the boardwalk there. It was closed for the winter season when I visited, but it was easy to see how lovely it would be in full swing of summer, to visit the little parade of shops and stop for lunch at the Cafe. I read later that a group of 27 islanders banded together to buy the land after a fire destroyed the original historic buildings there as they were worried the site would be over-developed. They achieved their goal and maintained the spirit of the original and now it’s owned by a local island family.

I'm glad they managed to preserve this site...

I’m glad they managed to preserve this site…

Alas the cafe there was closed, so I drove on to the Bakery Cafe where I could happily have tried one of everything. Double-chocolate mint cookie sandwiches, vast slabs of peanut butter fudge-y tarts- I wished I’d stopped here on the way to Poets Cove and picked up a few treats.

Excellent car-lift share scheme

Excellent car-lift share scheme

On my whistlestop tour around the island, I discovered that it was a rather beautiful place – and smart too – as I was driving around, I discovered one of its nifty ideas -  the ‘car stop’ system. Dotted around the island are designated areas where you can stand and wait for a lift. There are a few simple rules and the system apparently works well. On Salt Spring I had a car and picked up a few teenage hitchers myself. So maybe all isn’t lost if you don’t have a car after all…

Find out more: http://www.penderislandchamber.com/


8
Apr 13

Feeling at home in Fairmont’s Charlevoix Chateau

Out of all the things I imagined that I’d miss about home, one thing I didn’t anticipate missing was old buildings. Vancouver is such a modern city, it celebrated its 125th birthday in 2011. Gleaming high rises are everywhere and but it wasn’t until I arrived at the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu in Quebec’s Charlevoix region and beamed at its stone exterior and gleaming wooden interior that I had a sudden flash of realisation; I like old buildings, they feel comforting and like ‘home’.

I could not love this more.

I could not love this more.

Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu certainly ticked all my Heritage Building boxes, just an hour or so drive along the stunning St Lawrence river, it was a world away from the funky modern delights of La Ferme. The original hotel was built in 1899, but burned down in 1928. I can’t imagine what dazzling riches the workers who rebuilt the hotel were offered but it was redesigned as a French Chateau and inaugurated in June 1929. Good work, chaps! I loved the huge fireplaces, the lavish lounge which looked out over the river and the spacious comfortable bedroom which came with the only hotel toiletries I ever ‘steal’ – I’m such a fan of the Fairmont’s rose-scented range.

How I wish I'd had time to laze around under the sunshine here...

How I wish I’d had time to laze around under the sunshine here…

Although the hotel has a pleasingly old-fashioned vibe, thanks to a multi-million dollar refurbishment, the facilities are bang up to date; well equipped children’s area, gorgeous outdoor hot pools and and all winter fun activities are catered for, you can hire everything from skates to tubes to go sliding. There is an Amerispa on site too which offers some interesting ice-cider treatments – I love the use of local ingredients – even in the spa.

After reading about the magnificent food that made the Charlevoix region so famous, I was excited about dinner; a tasting menu of the region created by Chef Patrick Turcot. The restaurant works with ultra-local producers, sourcing food within a 50KM radius. I ate  foie gras from a small farm, served with a brandy snap, honied fruit and a dollop of whipped cream, it came served with a glass of Le Pedneault, a local ice cider. At first taste it was syrupy sweet, but it became pleasingly dry with each forkful of foie and was easily a decadent day of calories in a few bites. I’ve found the flavours of the east coast of Canada to be so much richer and sweeter than those of the west coast. After a few days enjoying the riches of their terroir, I’m always just about ready to crawl back to Vancouver’s seafood and kale – no wonder they stock up on winter sports equipment! This is hearty food to fortify the body and soul through bitter winters – but so delicious!

Yes please.

Yes please.

I spoke with Chef in the morning, before I left, he was full of excitement that his plans to create their very own breakfast sausages with local organic suppliers was finally coming to fruition. He’d be making 20kg of sausage over the next few days and looked like a man who couldn’t wait to start. In the wake of the horsemeat scandals in Europe, it’s genuinely refreshing to spend time with a chef who can tell you the name of each and every one of his suppliers and can point to them on a local map. You could taste the care and dedication in every bite.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Charlevoix and Le Manoir Richelieu. As always, my views are 100% my own.

Find out more at Tourism Quebec.

Chef Patrick Turcot

Chef Patrick Turcot


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.

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