I’m ashamed to admit it but this is the first time I’ve been up to Grouse Mountain in the winter; I don’t ski and charming though a trip on Santa’s sleigh sounds, I just hadn’t made it up there. But whereas I’m a take it or leave it girl when it comes to sleigh rides, when it comes to a light show you can count on me to be there. Continue reading →
I never used to get into the festive spirit: the sound of sleigh bells and carols on the radio left me cold, those supposedly-heart tugging Christmas adverts made me feel even more Grinch-like than usual and really, it just seemed so… ugh. Not for me. No thanks.
But all that changed when I arrived in Canada.
It felt less commercial here and really just more about being joyful and enjoying the season. There are special foods and flavours, and fun events which ring in the holidays, and I’ve grown to love them all. For me the festivities begin the moment that Avalon’s eggnog goes on sale. Avalon is a local organic family-run dairy who’ve been in business since 1906. They use ethical animal husbandry, no GMOs, no pesticides and they make the best damn chocolate milk ever! Once their creamy ‘nog arrives, it’s time to crack open the Kraken run, break out the Moose Mug and get merry… Continue reading →
It’s one of my favourite events in Vancouver’s culinary calendar, the Vancouver International Wine festival; a blizzard of fun wine-based events, tastings, and special winery dinners which takes place each February, just in time to give us all a boozy lift in those grey winter days. Each year the festival’s focus shifts to a different country –last year celebrated Australia – this year it’s all about Italy with 60 wineries from nine regions representing the country and offering visitors to the festival a chance to sample some 50 varieties in the tasting room.
I love this event for so many reasons; I’m just starting to learn more about wine and each year I come away with a little more knowledge and a whole lot more favourites, thanks to the fascinating seminars and winemaker dinners. Last year I was lucky enough to attend an incredible event showcasing rare wines from California winery legend Robert Mondavi. A gloriously Vancouver-ish event, it took place at the Observatory restaurant, a the tope of Grouse Mountain. I got to watch the bright winter sun set over the city and then learn more about Mondavi’s divine wines in the company of their winemaker Nova Cadamatre, all paired with Observatory’s Chef Dennis Peckham’s inspired cooking.
If you’re planning a trip to Vancouver now’s a great time to snap up discounted tickets on tasting room events until December 31 (or until quantities last). Or, for an excellent bargain, you can score a free ticket to the tasting room, which, this year along with Italy, will showcase 156 wineries from 14 countries by booking a hotel via beVancouver.com. Best paired with a ski holiday to Whistler or maybe a city trip to Victoria, start planning your wine break to Vancouver now…
Further booking info:
Phone: 604-873-3311, toll free 1-877-321-3121 (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
In person: 305–456 West Broadway, Vancouver (Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.)
Canadians are obsessed with hockey in a way that makes even the British love of football seem like an idle fancy. I’ve tried my best to get interested but when it takes me around 10 minutes to spot the puck on-screen (it’s so small and moves too fast!) it’s hard to sustain an interest. However, recently I got to watch the Vancouver Canucks play live and I think I may have discovered the key to becoming interested. I LOVED watching it up close; the hiss and slither of the skate blades and that satisfying thwack and slap of a stick hitting at the puck. I’m not going to pretend for a second that I had a clue what was going on, but I did love it and I’d suggest a night at a game as a perfect way to see Canadians at their most Canadian.
- It’s just ‘hockey’ not ‘ice hockey’.
- It’s a ‘game’ not a ‘match’.
- I’ve been told (by a man, through gritted teeth), that’s a ‘puck’ not a ‘ball-thing’.
- The game starts with the national anthem, if it’s a USA/Canadian game there’ll be both. Charmingly, everyone stands and sings, rather than boos.
- Whenever pretty much anyone does anything on the ice (scores, falls over, gets sent off) a cheery burst of 80s rock anthems and pop tunes bellows from the sound system.
- It’s easy to pick a team, there are only seven Canadian teams in the NHL, I suspect this makes for fiercely passionate supporters. It’s not like so many UK cities where you have to choose which team to support – and potentially split family loyalties.
- Fighting seems to be accepted. I’m told it’s not but hey, there was so much punching and pushing and shoving on the ice, it made football look squeaky-clean in comparison.
- They take a LOT of breaks: there are breaks to smooth down the ice with a Zamboni, breaks to seemingly get everyone on and off the ice (no idea why), breaks that are actually intervals.
- If you’re lucky enough to watch the Canucks at the Rogers arena, thanks to some rather smart staffing, award-winning bartender Jay Jones is in charge and so it’s possible to drink a well-made cocktail, a BC wine or craft beer while you watch. On the food side, new chef Robert Bartley has introduced a programme of pleasingly-delicious stadium food from chunky ocean-fresh lobster rolls to house-smoked pulled pork sandwiches.
- My best advice? Get seats in the ‘club’ section, you can order food and drink to be bought to your seat here so you don’t miss a moment of the action. Failing that, make it dinner and a ‘show’ by booking a table at the Centre Ice Grill which has a great view from the top of the stadium.
Thank you so much to the Fairmont who treated me to a night at the hockey, special thanks to Nancie Hall who put up with me asking a thousand questions. Also thanks to Jay Jones for a delicious round of Vancouver cocktails.
Useful guide from The Guardian – a Beginner’s Guide to the NHL
There are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky; I whisper that to myself as I walk along the beach, my dog racing ahead of me chasing stones and dive-bombing the sand. On a day like today I need that mantra; I need to see the snow and the mountains and feel them break my heart with their beauty. I need to look out to the sea and believe that whales and dolphins are there – just out of sight. It’s hard being an immigrant. There; I said it. Immigrant – not expat – I don’t want to go ‘home’ I want this to be where I stay and make my life. I’ve fallen in love with Canada and oh, it is a capricious thing to have fallen for.
Today I spent five hours taking exams in reading, writing, listening and speaking… English. I have to pass to prove that I can understand my own language. A $300 piece of red tape to add to the rest. When my lawyer asked if I had taken the test I assumed they were joking but of course, lawyers don’t joke – not even good-humoured ones like mine – I’m glad Wildy are with me on this winding, confused, painful journey through the Canadian immigration system, I’d have become impossibly lost without them.
But yes, on a day when it feels that the hoops you have to jump through are just too high and too many you need a miracle and that is exactly what happened. Two pods of dolphins swam into the waters of False Creek – just outside my flat – this is, according to experts at the Vancouver Aquarium, very rare indeed. I watched them swim under the Burrard Bridge, past Granville Island and then head back – again and again. There were so many of us watching them in absolute delight from the beach, just as we thought they’d gone – back they’d swim again. Because it was a grey day, it was hard to see them but oh! when you did… it felt like magic could really happen. I watched a pod of five swim along, their skin glinting as they dipped in and out of the water. All this – just outside my front door.
Later at my desk, I looked up and saw an eagle swooping just beyond my 21st floor window; its wings stretching impossibly wide, circling against a backdrop of the mountains, their snowy tops peeking out from a wispy pashmina of mist. So bring on the endless forms and the crazy exams because there are dolphins in the sea and eagles in the sky.
I shot this rather shaky video – but oh! DOLPHINS!
It’s easy to make new year resolutions – and so much easier to break them, so this year I’ve decided to skip the usual list and go with just one resolution that should be easy to keep: Do More New Things. I want to dive into brand-new Canadian experiences every month this year and I decided to kick off by joining the Polar Bear Club on Vancouver’s English Bay for an icy January 1st dip.
Walking down to English Bay with my friend Felice, who I’d shamelessly whined at until she came too, I can’t pretend my heart wasn’t hammering – what if it was too cold? What if I wanted to back out? But once we arrived excitement took over; this was the 94th year of the dip and the biggest in its history with some 2,500 people jumping in. Jostling for space amongst the guys dressed as disgraced Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, and a guy dressed as a rasher of bacon, I decided to just try and enjoy it. We jumped the wooden fence to the beach and stripped off to our swimming costumes. The sand was wet and cold, within a few minutes my feet were numb. And then it began -there was no formal bell or whistle, no ‘ready, steady, go!’ but as we saw everyone race forward we grabbed hands and made for the waves.
I didn’t feel the water at first, not until it hit mid-thigh, I ducked, shoulders-down and then it hit me – I gasped at the icy cold; I genuinely felt like I was having a heart attack. For a few seconds I couldn’t breath – the water was shockingly, painfully cold, I jumped back up, mouthing frantically then shrieked! Then the adrenaline flooded through me, man! This was great, I raced back out of the water and joined my friends – all of us wild-eyed and beaming – we’d done it!
I was in the water for maybe 30 seconds at the most but it’s half a minute I’ll always remember and it feels like it was 30 crucial seconds that will shape the rest of the year. We raced back to my apartment building and hopped in the hot tub to thaw out. Over the next half hour, more frozen polar bear veterans joined us; I loved the feeling of camaraderie, of a moment of craziness shared and the start of something adventurous beginning.
Here’s to a new year of Canadian experiences and fantastic first times…
I’m falling a bit in love with Whistler; every time I go there something new and rather lovely happens and I start to ponder how I can sort out some kind of weekend cottage there; tucked away with a view of those beautiful mountains and within easy reach of all the great bars and restaurants.
This time it was a trip up with two friends who’d come to stay from Brighton. It’s ridiculous how fast you become blasé about breath-taking scenery, I remember the first time that I made the journey from Vancouver to Whistler on the Sea to Sky highway and it reduced me to a state of slack-jawed, tearful nature worship. It was great to see it through fresh eyes again and be reminder that yes; this one of the most gorgeous places on earth.
I usually head to the Galileo cafe on the way up but this time tried somewhere new and definitely off the beaten track. Up in Squamish, Fergie’s cafe was tucked away at the end of a trail that left us wondering if we’d made a wrong turn off the highway. Eagles winged overhead and we could hear the rushing of a river. We found Fergie’s – a small slice of paradise in a woody grove. In the summer they have glamping and white water rafting trips: we sat outside under blazing blue skies and devoured one of the best breakfasts I can remember eating. The bacon was free-range; juicy and crisp and the eggs had the kind of golden yolk that told you the hens got to scratch and peck and run outside and my cheesy-buttery biscuits were carb-heaven on a plate. All that with a view that made me long to give everything up and just live in the woods.
Our home for the night was at the Westin; we had a two bedroom suite right in the heart of town. Whistler hotels seem to have the rather canny knack of being the exact opposite of inner-city hotels; flooded with light and space they feel like a home from home (if you’re lucky enough to live in a home that boasts a fireplace and a balcony that looks out over a mesmerising mountain range, that is). There is a small kitchenette so you can whip up a late-night snack or breakfast, in short, plenty of room to lounge and chat.
We headed to the village and I left them to shop while I curled up in the October sunshine in a cheerful yellow-painted Adirondack chair overlooking one of the squares and I watched the scarlet and russet leaves fall. Vancouver had been wreathed in dense fog for days and I knew the rain season would soon be here: it felt like the most precious gift of all to lie in the sunshine just a few hours away from home.
I’m a huge fan of the Scandinave spa just outside of Whistler and was excited to take my friends there for a treat. I’d never visited after dusk and the usually meditative atmosphere that comes from being able to unwind amongst stunning nature took on a magical shape at night with those mountains and trees cloaked in velvety darkness. I lay back in one of the hot pools and watched the stars twinkle through the drifts of steam. I’ve finally mastered the art of just ducking under the icy plunge pools without shrieking and learned to love the feeling of being so cold your skin pulses and tingles… then slowly warming up again as you lie curled up on a beanbag or wrapped in a towel in a solarium.
I’d got great plans for a night at my favourite Whistler restaurant, the Bearfoot – a session in the Belvedere Vodka Ice Room perhaps or a lesson in Champagne sabering in the basement? But we were all sleepy and just a bit too relaxed, so headed back to the hotel. I dreamed of mountains and woke to a sunrise which had turned the peaks an blushing apricot-pink. That ‘Whistler effect’ of leaving you feeling quite changed within just a short time had happened again: just 24 hours left us feeling like we’d had a few days holiday. In the months ahead through the rain and the snow and biting cold, I’ll close my eyes and think of that yellow chair and that blue, blue sky and of those wonderful eggs eaten outdoors, my appetite sharpened by the soaring peaks and the sunshine on my face.
I was hosted by Westin Whistler and the Scandinave Spa – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.
Thanks also to B.C. Ford who loaned us a C-Max Energi hybrid for the trip. I’d never driven a hybrid before, it was pleasingly quiet and I genuinely loved it. I’m lucky to live by one of the charging stations and it felt ridiculously cool to just plug my car in to charge. Best of all? A trip to Whistler and back only came to just under $40 in gas. Impressive.
It’s been a year; a whole year since I arrived in Vancouver and I feel like I never want to leave. If I thought I was flirting with the idea of being here before then it’s turned into a full-blown passion. All year long Vancouver has delighted and astonished me; its fierce almost overwhelming rain, the clouds which shroud the mountains; the relentlessness of autumn and winter which – just as you thought ‘I can’t take another dark, grey rainy day!’ would amaze you with a crisp blazing blue sky of a day. And then spring and the riot of flowers; the streets carpeted with pink and white pom-poms of cherry blossom, the beauty of Stanley Park. Summer, I knew I’d love summer but who knew that the days would be so long and the sunsets last for hours?
My view at the moment is all autumn again; the green leaves are turning rusty-auburn, candy-apple red and lemon-drop yellow. There was a dusting of snow on the mountains last week but the warm weather of the past few days has melted it away again, but oh – it’ll be back. I like to imagine myself easing into the seasonal cycle for years to come. But for that to happen I need to fill out my residency application forms and I am not the world’s best form-filler-out-er. I’ve plagued my poor lawyer’s office with what are probably achingly dim questions – and, bless them, they have been patient and helpful each and every time. It’s clear already that if I’d tried to do this alone it would never have happened so yes, a thankful shout out to Amy at Wildy Immigration who has the patience of a saint.
People often ask if I miss home and really – it’s not the place so much as the people. The time difference is a killer, after long a day, I want to curl up with a glass of wine and talk with my girlfriends on the phone and I can’t; it’s probably 3am for them. I wish I could just walk around the corner and see my friends and their kids and I miss being able to walk into my local pub and know most people there. But I’m building a life here; making good friendships and finding kindred spirits. The people that I’ve met here have made Vancouver feel like home. Fingers crossed that it really can be one day soon.
Travel used to be such an elegant affair; a tempting world of steamer trunks and porters, slow boats to China and postcards that arrived travel-worn and a little wrinkled at the edges bringing a whiff of far-flung adventure to your breakfast table. There’s no room for bus replacement services or low-cost airlines in that world and it’s a world that seems to have almost melted away. Almost.. but not quite. Not as long as there is a Rocky Mountaineer that is.
It was the inaugural run across the border from Seattle to Vancouver – a short journey of just a few hours – but a first for the company and a trip that I felt lucky to be part of. I’d watched in Seattle as the station staff lined on up the platform waving their flags to greet the first Vancouver train, “It’s here! It’s really here!” one exclaimed. This meant a lot to the railway – a new train – a new route – a chance to show off the great and grand things that train travel can be. The bags seemed to come first – whisked away by hustling porters, then the passengers piled off the train, each of them fluttering little flags, chattering happily as they were greeted by smartly uniformed staff. Within minutes the excitement and happy fuss had gone and I was left alone admiring the blue and gold train that I’d take back home.
When I got onboard a day later I was happy in that very particular way that comes from scratching the surface of a big, beautiful playground of a city that you’ve never been to before that’s just a few hours away from home. Seattle looks like being all kinds of good times and I will be back again soon. Stepping onboard this beautiful shiny train was the cherry on top of an already perfect weekend.
I’d ridden the Rocky Mountaineer from Jasper to Vancouver a few years before – a wonderful trip that made me lose my heart forever to the mountains that give the service its name. This time instead of snow-topped mountains it was the shining sea that delighted me: the new Coastal Passage route takes you along the shimmering coastline of the Pacific Northwest. We rocked gently past wooden docks stretching out into placid water, hugged by lazily curving mountains. As we thundered past, we were met along the way by small groups waving; fishermen saluted us from their boats, picnickers returning home after a long day on the beach smiled, and kayakers raised their oars in greeting from the stillness of the clear water.
I drifted downstairs to eat dinner – a crisp salad, a juicy slab of beef with a generous swirl of buttery garlic mash and fresh berries with ice cream – as the world passed by the windows. Even in the restaurant car, with its heavy white linen tablecloths, silvery cutlery and glassware, the views are great – and above, back in the lounge car with its wrap-around glass roof for panoramic viewing they cannot be beaten.
We crossed from America into Canada as the sun began to set. Sunsets this far west are – and I say this as a wildly-biased sunset lover – absolutely stunning and this was a corker. It began as a golden glow and then ran through every shade from peachy-orange to guava pink the light bouncing from the water reflecting into the carriages. It felt magical. It had been just a short trip but one which had crossed a border and taken us into a world where train travel was a joy again and the journey easily as pleasurable as the destination.
I travelled as a guest of the Fairmont (more of which in another post)
& the Rocky Mountaineer but my words and opinions are – as ever – 100% all my own.
Find out more:
There are some very cool things happening in Vancouver’s downtown east side. The DTES, as it’s known, has a bumpy relationship with the rest of the city: it’s notoriously home to Canada’s ‘poorest postal code’, it has a large and troubling homeless population and drug issues and mental health problems clearly play a huge part. But things are changing. There are some incredibly inspiring stories to be found in the DTES – I’ve written about Maggie and her doorway at Rainier Provisions before and the wonderful work that the East of Main café do – here’s a new one to add to the list: the East Van Roasters.
A coffee shop and bean-to-bar chocolate maker – the only one in Vancouver – East Van Roasters stands alone offering some of the city’s best coffee and truly delicious chocolate – but add in that it’s a social enterprise which helps women who’ve been out of the workplace for a while get back into employment and open up new avenues of training for them – then you have something very interesting indeed.
One thing strikes you as soon as you walk in: this looks like a very funky coffee shop: it’s no shabby, corners-cut kind of operation. As you walk in, you can see the chocolate making going on behind the large glass windows. It’s a fascinating process – it takes some 40 hours for the women to hand-winnow the beans – cracking the shell and removing the nib. That 40 hours of work produces enough nibs to make one 30KG batch which creates 600 bars of chocolate – and of course the nibs then have to be ground, blended with the cocoa butter and other flavours, tempered and finally turned into bars.
Once you factor in the time that it takes to grow the beans it almost makes you feel guilty that you are gobbling down years of work in just a few seconds… almost – but not quite. I tried a tasting plate of different kinds of chocolate – I love discovering new flavours this way – sampling the nibs and then the finished product. You can sip on mugs of rich creamy hot chocolate or do as I did – have an espresso made with the smooth house-roasted beans. Snap up bars, truffles and other take home treats along with aprons or cool tote bags that some of the women make – all of which goes towards supporting this innovative enterprise that makes a real difference in the lives of so many women.
When chocolate and tastes this good – and does so much good too – the only sin is not eating it.
Find out more:
East Van Roasters. 319 Carrall Street, Vancouver.