It’s been an amazing few months travelling around British Columbia researching for the 2016 edition of the Rough Guide to Canada. It’s been exhausting, frustrating, hard work made a privilege thanks to exploring the jaw-clanging beauty of this huge province. Researching for a guide book means a life on the gallop, you never really have time to explore or to take a breath, always going on to the next place, and the next. Spending your days in a blur of checking attraction and museum opening times, room inspections and switching hotels every night, endlessly checking in and out. But although I was bone tired, I always had moments of heart-soaring happiness thanks to the dazzling wild nature of the province. Early in my trip, I had to pull over to see if I wasn’t hallucinating at this green-blue lake on the Sea to Sky Highway to Lilooet, that looked for all the world as thought has been photoshopped, all ready for a spread in a guide book. Continue reading →
I’ve missed the sun.
I’ve dreamed of seeing Canada’s desert since I first knew it existed. It sounds like the most ridiculous of contradictions: to think of Canada is to imagine snow and skiing, moose and mounties, but here I am amongst the cacti and rattlesnakes in Osoyoos. Below me are the smooth calm waters of the lake and rising up on either side barren, scrubby, arid hills dotted with determined Ponderosa pines. Continue reading →
We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave the arctic crawler. Our guide, rifle loaded and cocked, walked out onto the rocks and scanned the area making sure it was safe for us to explore. Once out there, I crouched down on the pebble-grey rocks, flecked with coppery lichen and picked a handful of the shiny jet-black blueberries which lay tucked under the sparse sprigs of greenery which somehow grew on the barren land.
“Polar bears eat this,” I thought to myself, as the tart sweetness of this most determined Canadian berry flooded my mouth, “I’m tasting what they taste.”
It had been a morning of excitement already out in the wilds of Churchill, Manitoba on the edge of the edge of the world. Where else could you enjoy a drive-by Beluga whale sighting? We’d bumped along through the pot holes and past the shoreline in the old school bus that our lodge used as transit and seen them from the road, their snow white bodies glittering in the sunshine as they swam through the waves.
Today we were on the hunt for the polar bears who’ve made this remote part of northern Canada famous around the world. Each winter between October and November, the bears lumber away from their sumer time habitat and back across to the pack ice to hunt seals. Every hotel room in the sleepy town of Churchill sells out as it becomes the ‘Polar Bear Capital of the World’ with fully-booked tundra vehicles heading off onto the ice for bear watching safaris. There are even mobile hotels which pitch up wherever the bears are, so visitors can spend a few days out on the ice, witnessing the beauty of the bears. More elusive in the summertime, but still possible to see, we were heading out onto the protected tundra in a giant buggy to see if we would be lucky enough to track any polar bears down.
“Let’s go and see something big and white and furry!” exclaimed our guide as we got on board. Furry and cute they may be, but the reality is they are wild animals–and potentially lethal ones at that. In a town like Churchill, living with bears, and all that entails, becomes second nature. For instance, all car doors are always left unlocked in town, if you spot a bear in the street you need to get away fast and find cover, so you can jump in any vehicle and call for help. Guides travel with rifles and ‘bear bangers’–firecrackers which hopefully will scare a bear off, as no one wants to have to shoot a bear. Churchill is proud of its record of no human deaths by bears since 1983 and takes its bear conservation very seriously.
We slowly juddered across the rocks in the massive arctic crawler, scanning the miles of wind-flattened landscape for bears. So often my heart would leap with excitement, there, a bear! A huge one, curled up by the… no, just a rock. And again and again, it was just a rock; the tundra makes perfect camouflage for the creamy-white bears, being, of course, all creamy-white glacier-formed quartz and scrub with patches of low-lying greenery. But then we saw one, a real bear, elegantly doggie-paddling across a small pond. We stopped the crawler and turned off the engine to wait and watch. As we did, our bear turned to look at us, his black nose and eyes clearly visible against his fur, before deciding we were uninteresting and resuming his dip. Fascinated and delighted, we watched him, before some twenty minutes later he strode out of the pond, fur dripping and shook himself, like an immense dog, before slowly walking away to a patch of rocks, and then he disappeared from sight, cloaked by the landscape.
That was our only sighting that day but I wasn’t sad; I felt like I’d witnessed something wonderful and rare. I’d seen this creature who belonged in a world of snow and ice sun himself on a warm August day. I’d watched the pleasure he clearly felt in bathing in the cool water. This whole vast tundra was his domain. This unforgiving landscape was his home, despite having a climate so harsh that even the trees only have branches on one side, so fierce are the icy winds. We were just privileged visitors that day, lucky enough to share a brief sunny moment with this rare and endangered bear.
“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.
So – 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.
I 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.
To 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.
Right 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.
I’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.
We 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.
I’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.
I’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.
We 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.
Fairmont Chateau Whistler [Official Site]
Sunwolf [Official Site]
Tourism Whistler [Official Site]
“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; but first we have to catch the mackerel.
As 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, 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,” Kenny 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.
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.
The 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]
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.
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.
We 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.
Over 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.
One 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.
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…
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.
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?
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.)
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?
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.
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 cocktails – there 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?
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.
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’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.
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.
Sunwolf – Rafting, Cabins, Whitewater rafting and Eagle river floats – plus – Fergie’s delicious cafe!
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.
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.
For further info:
“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.
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.
I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouver – this 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.
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.
188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3
Web: Shangri-La Toronto