Oct 14

Crossing Canada By Train… Again

train1I don’t know when it stopped being grey outside. Lost in the passing landscape I looked up to see blazing blue skies peeking out from a blanket of grey and white cloud. Cows stood sociably together in a field to chew the cud and flick their tails against the flies. The storm had been exhilarating to watch from my train compartment: the rain thrummed against the windows, the sky bruised black and the clouds raced us on our journey.

train4I’d got on at Winnipeg and asked the steward for my bed to be put down. This wasn’t my first time on board ‘The Canadian’ train which chugs its way between Toronto and Vancouver. The last time I’d travelled had been in 2010 and I’d fallen in love with the Canada beyond my windows. The shining lakes of Ontario giving way to the endless flat land and shimmering corn fields of the prairies before the great tah-dah! moment of jaw-dropping beauty as the train rolls through the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. No, I wanted to see it all again, curled up against pillows and snuggled in a blanket.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To travel on VIA Rail is to step into a bubble away from the rest of the world, often – thankfully – there is no wifi, those work emails can’t be checked even if you wanted to. Instead there is time to sit and think and watch the world go by. There’s a kind of Holiday Camp cheeriness onboard: live performances in the lounge car from musicians who get a free ride in exchange for their songs, guided tastings of Canadian wine and even a movie night. You find yourself, for the first time in decades, musing over where a jigsaw piece goes in the huge puzzle that’s left out for passengers to complete. Over meals in the dining car you exchange snippets of your life story with strangers from around the world. Train Life, in short, becomes a little more contemplative, a little more self-indulgent and a little more gracious. No wonder people love it.

train3For me, also, it’s feeling that sense of great distance and being amazed afresh at the thought of those first Europeans who tried to make their way across this vast land. Of course, the more I learn of First Nations history, the more that feeling is wrapped up in regret and remorse. We Brits – and the French – have more to say sorry for than I could ever begin to write. But when I see this great land it’s impossible for the heart not to leap and thoughts of adventure and exploration not to immediately percolate through your brain. I love to see how truly huge Canada is: to look at its soaring mountains, its innumerable lakes, the relentless tangle of forest and oh! that endless flat prairie land. To choose to take hours, days to make a journey nowadays is a kind of wonderful indulgence but it’s one that I’d say gives a destination a special sort of meaning.

I travelled as a guest of Via Rail but, as ever, my words are 100% my own.

More info:

. VIARail [Official Site]

Jul 13

Weekend in Whistler: Summer fun at the Bearfoot Bistro

Six bloody Caesars - only one can win

Six bloody Caesars – only one can win

There’s something about Whistler that reminds me of my home town Brighton; oh, not in appearance, it couldn’t be different. Pristine and shiny, thoroughly modern Whistler is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, its inhabitants all seem to be like the girl or boy from Ipanema, all tall and tan and young and lovely. Whereas my beloved Brighton, in the words of Keith Waterhouse, “… looks as though it is a town helping the police with their enquiries.” But there is something in that ‘determined to have a good time even though it’s clearly hours past your bed time’ Brighton spirit that burns in Whistler too.

I recognised it the second I clapped eyes on the Bearfoot Bistro’s Chief Bad Decision Enabler, Andre Saint-Jacques, so no surprise at all that some of the best fun to be had in BC is always at his restaurant. The Bearfoot World Oyster Invitational and Bloody Caesar Battle took place this Sunday. A charity fund raiser for Playground Builders, an excellent Canadian charity who build playgrounds in areas of the world affected by wars. By the end of the afternoon enough money had been raised to construct three playgrounds in Afghanistan. So I’m not going to feel a jot of guilt about anything that happens here.

Judges Chefs Robert Clark and Pino Posteraro deliberate

Judges Chefs Robert Clark and Pino Posteraro get serious

Two contests were in play – six mixologists battling it out for the honour of the best Bloody Caesar (it’s a much-beloved Canadian drink – essentially a Bloody Mary with clam juice added) as well as the fastest oyster shucker contest. I couldn’t wait to see the shuckers in action, 13 competed from as far afield as Sweden, Denmark and Japan. Before the doors opened the judges got stuck into the cocktails, everyone else got to sample the six different kinds from booths set up around the restaurant and downstairs in its famous champagne cellar – which is usually where you’ll find M. Saint Jaques merrily sabering a champagne bottle or two. Along with the caesars, wine flowed freely and we were kept from slumping to the ground by a stream of bite-sized goodies from Chef Melissa Craig’s kitchen.

Delicious vanilla nitro ices

Delicious vanilla nitro ices

By the time the shucking contest came around it’s fair to say that everyone was feeling at their most Whistler-ish and the cheers were deafening. The rules are strict in these contests and closely adhered to. Each shucker is presented with a tray of three varieties of oyster, they have to shuck 30 and present them “upright, free from shell and blood in a whole top shell.” They are scored not only on time but also the appearance, presence of shell, grit and the cut of the meat. I was fascinated: each shucker had such a different technique, from the sorting at the start – some piled them like legos, others lined them up neatly – some wore gloves, others went in bare-handed (one was bare-footed) and others wound tape around their fingers. Each shucker has a timer and each heat must begin with the shuckers hands in the air above their oysters and the one to finish first must raise their hands again.

Adored Noriko, she seemed to be having such a great time

Adored Noriko, she seemed to be having such a great time

The first heat was over in a matter of minutes. It was shockingly fast. They tore through those shells like hot knives through butter; it was fantastic to watch. There were four heats in all and then a final round. My two favourites, Noriko Kamashima from Japan who shucked in a gloriously calm fashion with a beatific smille on her face and the looks-a-bit-like-Eric-off-True-Blood Dane, Simon Toensager didn’t make it, so I had to pick a new favourite from the finalists. I went with the only shucker to have cleaned the shells from his station to save the Bearfoot staff the trouble, the beaming bearded Eamon Clark from Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto who was the 2011 champion.

Eamon Clark: this is what winning looks like

Eamon Clark: this is what winning looks like

Turns out I can pick a winner. Eamon finished fastest and also – after a l-o-n-g deliberation by the judges – came out top on points. He scored a $5000 prize, a huge trophy that I wouldn’t have liked to try and take back on the plane and a whole year of bragging rights. I didn’t do so well guessing the best caesar. I liked Justin Taylor’s from Yew at the Four Seasons in Vancouver best, but local lad Scot Curry from the Alta Bistro scooped the $5000 instead. Full of nitro vanilla ice cream, awash with caesars and feeling like a girl who should go lie down somewhere, I sat on the stairs outside and waited for the Pacific Coach to pick me up. I’d stare out of the window on the two-hour trip back to Vancouver at the dazzling sea and mountain scenery on the lyrically-named ‘Sea to Sky’ highway, I might have been far from Brighton but oh – that town is starting to feel like home.

You can see why it's called the Sea to Sky highway

You can see why it’s called the Sea to Sky highway

I travelled as a guest of the Bearfoot Bistro  – thanks for that! Also thanks to Pacific Coach for the return ticket. As ever – my opinions are 100% my own.

More info:

Pacific Coach Lines

Whistler Hilton Resort

The Bearfoot Bistro 

Tourism Whistler


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:

Apr 13

Gulf Island hopping with BC Ferries

I’m a huge fan of slow travel. Not accidentally slow, like a replacement bus service or a delayed plane, no, the kind of slow that lets you get a sense of distance from A to B, the kind of slow which allows you to spot birds and spy wildlife along the way, maybe even time to see the sky bruise and sunsets blaze. Definitely the kind of slow where there’s plenty of time to watch out of the window and wonder. So, yeah – I was all set to enjoy travelling by ferry around the Gulf Islands, which lie some 20 miles off the coast of Vancouver’s Tsawwassen harbour.

This is an awfully cool way to arrive anywhere.

This is an awfully cool way to arrive anywhere.

I hopped aboard a range of different BC ferries on my travels between Vancouver and the Galiano, Pender and Salt Spring Islands – from huge multi-deck modern gleaming commuter ferries serving up sushi in the canteen to tiny single deckers without so much as a snackbar.

Getting there:
Take the Pacific Coach line bus from Vancouver’s Central bus station. This is the easiest option by far if you’re heading to Victoria as the bus drives onto the ferry and drops you off downtown. No need to stress about luggage, you can leave it all on board – plus the bus has free wifi. However, I was taking the Galiano boat, so needed to change. Fortunately my driver Larry was an absolute peach. He escorted me to the luggage area, tagged my bag so that it would be put on the right ferry (it was!) and showed me where I could get some food and a coffee.

Nerdy, but I adored this and have far too many photos of it.

Nerdy, but I adored this and have far too many photos of it.

I was impressed by the ferry market building – the floor is a highly polished ocean and islands map of the area – a gorgeous detail that I bet gets mostly missed. You could happily spend an hour browsing the stores, snacking on anything from burgers to sushi, or drinking organic Salt Spring Island coffee beside the fireplace here. It’s a far cry from any ferry terminal I’ve been to in Europe.

There. Don't you feel relaxed just looking at that?

There. Don’t you feel relaxed just looking at that?

But back to the ferries. It’s a restful experience, rain or shine, you pass through glorious scenery that I would happily have paid to drift around simply as a pleasure cruise. Mossy-looking mountains, impossibly green forests, startlingly golden beaches, and here and there a house built up on the shore that just begged you to imagine living there, watching and waiting for the pods of Orca whales come sailing through, each April to October.

Clouds finally lifting...

Clouds finally lifting…

It was drizzling as I went to Galiano Island. The sky was grey, the sea a gloomy kind of gun metal and no one apart from me was on the deck. I watched a gull showboating on the breeze, squinted in the distance and tried to work out which island was to be mine for the next few days. I walked around the ferry, past the solarium, with its sun-trap seating and imagined what it would be like in the summertime, the ferry bustling with day trippers and holiday makers. Feeling the sun on your face and the tang of the saltspray on your lips. Heaven. But it was March and it was drizzly, so I wrapped my scarf around my face and enjoyed the solitude, waiting for the clouds to clear.

 I travelled as a guest of BC Ferries and Pacific Coach Lines – but my views are 100% my own.

Mar 13

All aboard Le Massif de Charlevoix train

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

The start of a beautiful friendship...

The start of a beautiful friendship…

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


A few minutes before boarding

A few minutes before boarding

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

Frozen waves

Frozen waves

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

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

A syrup-y sweet breakfast

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

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

A few miles beyond Baie-Saint-Paul

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

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

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

Find out more:

Hotel La Ferme

Dec 12

Clouds in my coffee: brunch at Fable

Oof. Homesickness has hit. Just like Proust got sucked into a world of nostalgia and memory from one bite of a madeleine, so I found myself in tears after a sip of latte at Fable on West 4th. It was perfect; silky steamed, frothy milk and rich, smooth coffee – just exactly the way I love it – and how the fine folk at Small Batch make it in Brighton.

Silly, but it tasted of home and made me cry…

I thought of all my friends that I missed sitting and having coffee with and oh, it hurt. Silly really, to cry over coffee but isn’t it always food that makes you feel connected to memories and special occasions? I’m sitting back at home now, indulging in a small sob-fest. It’s three months on Thursday since I arrived in Vancouver and this is the first time I’ve felt truly homesick. How typical that it was because of a coffee!

Only another six days until I can brunch-out and eat this again…

Fortunately apart from weeping over the latte, I was also raving over the brunch menu at Fable. I went with my friend from Toronto, Alyssa, who confessed to being not much of a brunch person – but looks like she may have changed her mind after the dazzling meal that we shared. We kicked off with brunch cocktails; a pink grapefruit Cava mimosa for me (loved the tartness of this) and a tongue-tingly spicy Victoria Gin Caesar for Alyssa. We split the special, a smoked salmon benedict, which came with a satisfying wedge of almost-candied smoked salmon, completely different from the usual waxy sliver of salmon that arrives with a benny. Paired with a peppery olive oil hollandaise and dressed salad leaves, this had us both gurgling with glee.

An extra squirt of Parmesan foam? Yes please, chef!

The must-have is definitely scrambled eggs; served in a glass jar, layered with buttery spinach, salty bacon and topped with a parmesan foam; they arrived with hefts of fluffy brioche and a brilliantly-crunchy rosti. After one bite, thoughts of how far I was from home faded and instead I started to feel glad that I was within walking distance of these eggs instead.

Perfect scrambled eggs.

I tried the french toast – I’m not a fan as a rule, maybe it’s the cinnamon, maybe it’s the overly-sweetness of it? – but this might change my mind. I liked the chewy, carmelised, buttery edges and the smooth dollop of Mascarpone, along with the freshness of the blueberries served on the side, cut through the usual teeth-rattling sugaryness. Alyssa loved it.

Let’s just call it a possible game-changer.

We sat at the bar – recommended for fans of kitchen theatre and the sheer joy of watching a good crew work together – but next time, I plan to bring a crew of my own, maybe for the monthly boozy brunch, and sit in the back. It’s time I started to create new traditions in Vancouver, and I think brunch at Fable is just the thing to make me feel at home.

We were hosted by Fable, but my views are 100% my own. In fact I’ve been back for that boozy brunch a few times since – it’s still great!

Oct 12

Get around town: Car2Go car share scheme in Vancouver

I’m no fan of owning a car if you live in a city. To me, public transport should be an affordable, regular and clean alternative to car-ownership for those who live in busy urban areas. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case, certainly in the UK anyway. So I’m a big supporter of car clubs schemes, like Zipcar. You sign up, reserve your car and only pay for the time that you use.

Great! Except for one problem which has always been a frustration for me with the car share model – you have to bring the car back to its parking spot. So you can’t make an A to B trip.  You always have to do A to B, then back to A again. Until now…

Enter new car club players, Car2Go, who have a shiny fleet of blue and white smartcars in key cities across the USA and Canada and have their sights on the UK next. It’s the same concept – you join and pay for the time you use – except with Car2Go you don’t make reservations in advance and you can drop the car off anywhere in the city that’s either a registered spot or a residents’ parking bay.

Get around town…

Instant game changer. I love it. You download their app, click to see where the nearest car is, tap a reservation option which holds it for 15 minutes (so someone doesn’t nab it while you’re walking there) and that’s that. Drive to where you need to go. Park and sign out. That’s all you pay for. Genius.

I trialled the service this week and put it through its paces. It’s a simple to understand log-in system, just hold your card to the window and magically the car unlocks. Then tap in your PIN and that releases the ignition key. There’s an in-car navigation system so you don’t get lost and there’s 24-hour support by phone from the car too if you get in trouble.

Love the friendly welcome, but hey – why so formal? Call me Nikki…

At this point, yes, I know I sound like a big ol’ advert, but it’s a great idea for city folks who want to get around but don’t want the expense and hassle of owning a car. So how did it perform? 10 out of 10 all-round. I picked up my friend Niamh from the airport on Sunday; she had two suitcases, both fitted easily into the boot. I went off up Grouse Mountain for a day trip, I took the bus to the supermarket, but drove a Car2Go back with my shopping. I even used it to whizz into town for drinks and of course, that meant I only had to take a cab back rather than both ways - so much cheaper. I can already see that Car2Go will be one of my most-used apps in Vancouver – and best of all – I can use it in other cities too. Oh! And yesterday, I was out walking and found two of the Car2Go team valeting the cars – you report on the interior and exterior condition of the car on each trip – if it gets dirty, it gets cleaned. Love it! Keep an eye on the site or sign up to see when it hits the UK.

Thanks to Car2Go for giving me a free trial. I’m now a fully signed-up member and part-time cheerleader for the service. It’s great. As ever – my views are 100% my own.

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