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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.


21
Nov 12

Licensed to thrill at Vancouver’s Shangri-La hotel

It’s Vancouver’s tallest building and I’ve seen it shimmering at me for months…

I’ve had my eye on the Shangri-La hotel  ever since I moved to Vancouver. Towering above the other buildings in the city, it’s been a glittering landmark and one that I’ve been increasingly eager to check out. Turns out waiting two months to visit was two months too long. Where has the Chi spa been all my life? Why aren’t I there right now? If I ask nicely, do you suppose they will let me move in? 

Deliciously decadent private spa treatment room at CHI

Ahem.

Checking in was a breeze, I’d arrived early to visit Chi (OH MY GOD, THE SPA!) and the concierge had spotted me loitering in the lobby with my case. He immediately took it from me to save me the effort of wheeling it to the lift and promised to have it sent to my room. Case-less I zipped on up to the fifth floor… The lift doors open and you’re faced with a cascading wall of water over shimmering rock. A sense of calm is established immediately. I’d booked for the Element Vitality massage, a treatment which combined a variety of massage styles, Swedish, shiatsu and reflexology – blending the best of East and West – as the rest of the hotel does. I visit a lot of spas and I can say, hand on heart, that I don’t think I have ever seen treatment rooms like these before. Each room is its own fully-equipped spa, complete with huge soaker tub, steam room, fireplace, changing area, showers and relaxation area. Very impressive. I wish I could pretend that I am cooler than I am, but as I am not, I’ll confess that I WHOOPED when I saw it.

The first part of the treatment was a ten-minute steam. I love any massage that starts this way; your muscles warm up and the therapy is is much more beneficial. I steamed in my private cabin & then took a warm shower, wrapped myself in a robe and padded out to my therapist who’d prepared a herbal tea for me to enjoy while I chose which ‘element’ scented oil I preferred for my massage. I chose ‘water’ which she told me meant fluidity, travel and independence – exactly right for me. The combination of the different styles was superb, I felt positively boneless when I reluctantly left the couch an hour later. Just a great treatment. In fact, I felt so relaxed I couldn’t face dressing, so packed up my boots and all in spa gift bags, and wafted up to my room on the eleventh floor with a Mona Lisa-like smile on my face.

There! Look through the window – can you see? City, mountains and sea…

I had an impression of smooth crisp fine linens, a decadent bathroom with a gloriously waterfall-like shower and soaker tub, with a whole shelf of doo-dads and what-nots in the bathroom – combs and toothbrushes and all, but then I saw the bed and fell soundly asleep. Always the sign of a stellar massage. The need for unconsciousness immediately afterwards.

I woke to all that I moved to Vancouver for; that wonderful view of city, mountains & water. I sat on the edge of the huge bed and hugged myself with delight. I’d woken feeling refreshed and ready for action – and that meant dinner at MARKET by Jean Georges  and afterwards a party to celebrate the release of the new Bond movie, Skyfall in the Xi Shi Lounge.

And so – to MARKET, honestly? Not the most exciting of rooms, maybe it’s the lighting? Dim, but not intimate, something felt off, and truthfully, the menu didn’t have me leaping with anticipation either. Its focus is on “reinventing classic dishes by infusing eclecticism”. Hmm, a burger with black truffle and Brie, soy-glazed short ribs with apple-Jalepeno puree and a lot of mushrooms seem to feature (not great for me with my raging mushroom allergy).  I guess if I hadn’t been going to a slinky-dress party afterwards, I’d have dug in, embraced a loose waistband and had the beef tenderloin. But a slinky dress night it was, so I hit up a trio from the Raw Bar and planned to sample my date’s rack of lamb.

So, what do you think? Me? Not loving the room. The food is divine though.

How lovely when your expectations are shattered; the food was perfect. Just wonderful. The tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger dressing was one of the best things I’ve eaten. The flavours sung. So incredibly fresh and that perfect balance between spice and heat. The rice cracker-encrusted tuna was marvelous too and the oysters so good I’m afraid I had seconds. The lamb? Heaven. Perfectly pink and given an edge with a chili-crumb crust. I may have had more than my fair share. But I’m not changing my mind about the room, until I try lunch there in daylight, and see whether that makes a difference.

On to the party – I’d heard nothing but great things about bartender Jay Jones, who shakes it up at the Xi Shi Lounge – which would be because he’s rather superb at what he does. My new off-list love is a Last Word, a cheeky Prohibition-era blend of gin, green chartreuse, maraschino and fresh pressed lime juice. Jay whipped up one of the best I’ve had and, bless him, didn’t insist I stick to the evening’s Bond-a-licious creations, although, yes – I had to try the Vesper, of course… The night span past in a whirl of Bond themes, casino fun, glammed-up willowy women and towering Canadians in sharp suits. Hurrah!

Morning arrived with a sore head and (thank goodness) an in-room breakfast, complete with old-school warming cupboard so my much-needed eggs and bacon didn’t get cold. As I write this at home, I can see the Shangri-La through the rain clouds. If I squint I can just about see where the spa might be… how I wish I were there right now.

I stayed as a guest of the Shangri La, but my views are 100% my own. And I still wish I could go and live in that spa.


5
Nov 12

Ladies who lunch: Part 1. Glowbal Grill

If you’re going for lunch with a girlfriend you’ve not seen for a while, then there are a few important things a restaurant must have for it to be a success; patient staff who A) don’t try to hurry you up and B) don’t mind if you get a little flirty after that second glass of wine of wine, a secluded nook so you can spill major dirt without being overheard, a variety of things on the menu that you can share as you always end up wanting exactly what she ordered – cos hey, you split that amazing prawn thing that one time – and cool music that is loud enough to cover any snorts of “OH MY GOD, you did WHAT?” but not so loud that you can’t hear full details of exactly what it was that she did…

Impossible to not love a chef who shares his recipe secrets AND brings dessert.

At Glowbal Grill, I think I may have found all that, situated bang in the heart of Yaletown. Perched at a table for two in a quiet corner opposite the bar, I got to watch the action in the open kitchen as well lean in and listen to everything my girlfriend was telling me.

Glowbal is known for its steaks and satay and so that’s exactly what we ordered, I could have happily eaten a whole bucket of the crunchy spicy-sweet deep-fried Buttermilk Chicken as just one is plainly nowhere near enough and the Albacore tuna tataki was one of the best I’d tried; lightly seared and delicate. Lucky then, that we’d got the same each, as I could easily see a fight breaking out over Who Would Have The Last One.

Honestly, how beautiful are these Heirloom tomatoes?

Any place that has Burrata on the menu is somewhere I’ll probably like as it’s one of my favourite decadent cheeses – made from mozzarella and cream and tasting of heaven. Glowbal’s Caprese salad came with a satisfying wedge of creamy Burrata along with tomatoes that were like a little burst of sunshine.

It’s actually a fight for me to not just get up and go there and order this RIGHT NOW.

Satay, salad, you’d think we’d be full, but oh – you’d be wrong. Proper girl lunches (at least ones that I have) should have as many courses as possible, as that gives you time to catch up and everyone knows that food eaten in great company doesn’t add an ounce of weight… So on to the famous steaks, served with the best sprouts I’d ever tasted, flaky with Parmesan, zingy with chili and (yup) deep fried. We couldn’t stop eating them and neither will you – here’s the recipe. Make them. People will love you for it. Are the steaks worth the hype? I’d say so. I loved the crisp salty puff of fat on the outside and the meat was everything you’d wish it to be; tender and juicy and from prime Canadian stock.

For dessert, we split a trio of Crème brûlées. And, er, some cheesecake. AND yeah – we may have sampled a beignet or two…  before regretfully rolling out, some hours after we’d arrived. I mentally ran through my Ideal Ladies Lunch check list and yes, Glowbal Grill gets a tick in every box. So – apologies to Nick, our server, for the flirtiness, thanks to the cool music – Prince covers – for the funkiness and hurrah for a menu that offers Things On Sticks for us to share. We’ll see you again soon.

We ate lunch as guests of the Glowbal Grill, but my views are 100% my own.


2
Oct 12

Richmond Night Market

I’ve been eyeing up the Richmond Night Market ever since I first read about it, but every time I’ve visited Vancouver it was the wrong time of the year and it wasn’t on. Not this time! Finally I got to visit and it was just as good as I’d hoped.

Where to first?

I went with friends (by far the best plan if you want to eat as much as I did. Share and experience more!) we took the speedy Canada Line to Bridgehouse – just before it separates to go to Vancouver airport about 15 minutes from downtown – then followed the crowds across the gravel (wear flats!) to the market entrance.

Once inside we were overwhelmed with around 80 stands to choose from. I was glad I’d asked Sophia for a few pointers before I’d gone, especially about paying everything in cash – no one takes cards. First stop: the  ‘Rotato’ Hurricane Fries stand. Mmm!


Next, crisp and salty sweet popcorn chicken which was so good, I couldn’t even wait for it to cool down before eating it!

Popcorn chicken: sweet, spicy and so, so good.

Along with all the great food, there was a really sweet ‘wishing tree’ area – people write down their hopes for the future and tie them to the trees. It was hard to not get a lump in your throat reading everyone’s wishes… most were for a happy, healthy life for friends and family and there were many requests for a swift recovery for relatives who were ill. But one wish made me laugh out loud, “ROBOTS” – the perfect antidote to all that tear-jerking sentimentality.

The Wish Tree area, just write down what you want, tie to the tree and hope for the best…

By now we were on a huge, giggly sugar/salt high and feeling slightly crazed, which is the only explanation I have for what happened next… We spotted some children with the best balloon we’d ever seen, it had feet! And kind of walked along… Amy declared that she had to have one – which is why we ended up wandering the market with ‘Mr Happy the Pig-Balloon’. Oh boy.

Yes, that is Mr Happy being offered a cupcake. As I said, we’d had a *lot* of sugar at this point…

Definitely one of my most fun nights out in Vancouver so far; great food, hilarious company and the evening ended with a train ride home with a pig-ballon… now, how often can you say that?!

 

 


17
Sep 12

Travel tip #1: Learn to love jet lag

Almost ten hours flight from the UK and eight hours behind in time, jet lag is an inevitable part of any trip to Vancouver from Britain. After two days of 4.30am wake-ups, I decided that as an alternative to lying in bed, furious and unable to sleep, I’d try and turn this bitter lemon of an experience into lemonade instead.

Getting up and heading out before the sun has poked its head above the horizon always brings back memories of childhood holidays. We’d set off in the dark, bundled in our pajamas into the back of the car, sleepy and confused. The journey’s motion would inevitably lull us back to sleep again and waking on the back seat, far from home, seemed like one of the most exciting feelings in the world. This time I decided to spare any of my insomniac new neighbours my pajamas. Instead I dressed in layers to stay warm in the chill of the night and headed out into the dark, my excited dog at my heels.

 

Good morning, Vancouver

I’d Googled late night/early morning cafes and there was a 24-hour bagel place just ten minutes walk away. Siegel’s make Montreal-style bagels, which are boiled and then baked in a wood-burning oven, to make satisfyingly chewy-on-the-inside and crisp-on-the-outside bagels. Coming from the UK, where I’d be lucky to find perhaps 5 different varieties of bagel, to discover a great 24-hour place that had 21 different kinds had me gurgling with delight. I went for the Rosemary and Rock Salt breakfast bagel special: eggs and cheese with coffee – just $4.75 – bargain.

I stowed my freshly-made and wrapped breakfast in my bag. Freddie and I trotted down to the beach, me to feast on my bagel (just as good as I’d hoped), him to sniff out all those exciting new smells. Slowly the sun appeared and I watched it rise, the rays twinkling on the high-rises, turning Vancouver into the golden glittering city of my dreams. There I was, on a sandy beach, sitting on a driftwood log, full of hot coffee and eggy-cheesy herb-y fresh bagels, watching dazzling nature meet stunning architecture to create something new and wonderful.

 

Because everything's better with a bagel...

This wasn’t suffering from jet lag, this was a precious moment that I’d never have experienced without it. I vowed next time I couldn’t sleep, I’d do the same; not waste time fuming at my lack of shuteye, but seek out something to make me feel lucky to be alive. Preferably with a decent bagel to hand…

Keep exploring Canada 


11
Sep 12

Flying with your dog: happy landings

I’m here! Freak out over… My greatest concern about leaving the UK and coming to Vancouver was that Freddie, my beloved cocker spaniel, would not have a good flight. Turns out my dog is a better flyer than I am. I flew on Air Transat with Canadian Affair and they were just wonderful; incredibly calm, reassuring and understanding when I was wailing like a banshee at leaving my dog behind at check-in!

Freddie's been getting used to his travel crate for three months, so it felt familiar when he was on board.

When I got to the gate, I asked if Freddie had boarded safely and I was reassured again that yes, he was and was “quite vocal” about it! Once I’d sat down in my seat, one of the stewardesses even came to tell me that the captain knew there was a dog on board and everything was fine, no worries about temperature or air pressure in his part of the plane. Phew!

And off he went! *sob*

It was almost 15 hours later when I got to see him and I was overjoyed when I finally got through immigration and picked him up. I wheeled him outside in his crate and let him out and you have never seen a dog more happy to see a tree!

We’re just getting settled into our new flat by the seashore and there’s even a dog-friendly beach just 15 minutes walk away. More adventures to come very soon…

And here we are! On Freddie's new favourite doggie-only beach in Vancouver. Look at that smile.

Keep exploring Canada!

 


11
Sep 12

It’s hard to say goodbye…

There’s something they don’t tell you about when you’re getting ready to pack up and leave for a whole new life in a whole new country. I was expecting to be anxious about leaving; worrying over what to pack, what to ship and what on earth to take to the charity shops along my road in Brighton. I was even expecting to be upset about what the flight and trauma of the journey would mean to my dog, Freddie. But I wasn’t expecting to be weeping almost all the time in my last two weeks in the UK. Everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – has set me off!

Imagine your life becoming as easy to cry at as a paralympics montage! That’s how much I’ve been sobbing. I’m so upset at the thought of leaving my friends and my family that it’s overshadowing all the reasons why I want to try my luck in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities on earth.

But when life gets tear-stained there’s only one solution. Go somewhere no one can see you cry… and for me that means a spa with a good steam room! So that’s exactly what I did with my best friend Emma a few days before I flew off. I’d meant to check out the new spa opening at Ockenden Manor for a while. I’d stayed there years ago – dazzling Michelin-starred food and wonderful accommodation in the heart of beautiful Sussex countryside and heard good things about the spa. We weren’t disappointed.

The spa boasts wonderful floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a quintessentially English view and – best of all – they have a swim-through indoor/outdoor pool, so Emma and I could happily splash around under the rare September sunshine before heading off to the outdoor Jacuzzi to chill under the sky.

Later, wrapped in robes, we sat on a wall and watched placid chocolate-coloured cows graze before we did the same ourselves on huge quinoa super-food salads accompanied by a glass of champagne. We’d booked in to try the Ila Kundalini back massage and I have to say it was one of the best I’ve had; totally different from the usual long, flowing strokes of a Swedish massage, this used pressure point massage and hot stones and I found myself dropping off to sleep mid-massage – always the sign of a superb treatment!

Confession: this is not at the spa, this is Emma and I in Paris. But! I was all blotchy and pink and looked terrible. You don't want a photo of that ;)

Curled up in the relaxation room later, sipping tea, laughing and chatting I realised it would be a whole year before I got to do this with Emma… and yes, there were the tears again. Time to slip back into that steam room and hide my eyes.

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