10
Feb 14

Challenge #3: Skate the Rideau Canal

I want to give up; my shins are throbbing, my eyes smart from the snow storm, my feet are aching and my back, unused to the weight of the heavy snow boots that I’m carrying, really hurts. All I want to do is lie down on the ice and stretch out. And we’re only at 3 km. Not even half way. I’m never going to make it and I feel crushed by failure. What had I been thinking when I decided I’d skate the length of the Rideau Canal?

Getting patriotic on the canal

Getting patriotic on the canal

It all began a few years ago when I heard about Ottawa’s Winterlude festival; it sounded so magical, Canadians skating on a beautiful frozen canal, drinking hot chocolate under the blazing blue skies and munching on maple syrup-drenched ‘beavertail’ pastries. It’s the world’s longest skating rink and I wanted to skate it; to whizz gracefully on silver blades, skimming under bridges and around corners. There was, of course, just the one problem: I couldn’t skate.

A chance came to visit during the festival so I put Operation Silver Blades into action: I took lessons, I bought skates and 5 weeks later, boarded the plane to Ottawa feeling confident. But, of course, a canal is not like a freshly smoothed-over ice rink. There are no handrails, no way to steady yourself before you launch onto that bumpy ice. There are cracks and there are parents pulling children in sleds. And just to add an extra challenge – there was also a snow storm – in just a few hours 15cm of snow would fall on Ottawa that day – all things I’d never experienced at the rink. And then there was me and my failing nerve; I’m ashamed to say I froze. I was overwhelmed and scared I’d fall and really hurt myself. So for what seemed like an hour, I just stood there – willing myself to just, skate, dammit! Push one foot to the side, glide, other foot down, glide, push… like I’d done for hours around and around the Denman Street rink in Vancouver.

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

It was hard just getting ON to the canal…

Bambi-like, my legs wobbled underneath me as I eventually pushed off. I managed maybe a minute – and then a couple walked in front of me, I panicked and crashed to the ground, badly bruising my knees. I lay on the ice and felt defeated before I’d even begun. Getting up was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. If I’d been alone I’d have laid there and cried before crawling off to a bar. But I wasn’t -  and the humiliation of giving up was greater than the shame of failing so I got up. Put one skate in front of another and painfully made it to the first bridge. Just 15 more stops to go. Oh boy.

It was curvier than I imagined, this canal, and wider too and oh, there were so many more people than I’d thought. Young children zoomed past, fell, sprawled on the ice and then jumped up and sped off again. I saw older couples skating hand in hand, teenagers madly texted as they glided by. There was a carnival-like atmosphere and a definite pattern to the ‘traffic’ of the skateway. At the points of entry the ice was scuffed up, I’d wobble and slow down, awed by the challenge of staying upright and avoiding the mobs of people, strollers and sleds all converging at once. Things would even out after a few minutes, I’d have longer sessions with fewer people around, my confidence would rise and I’d whisper to myself, ‘you’re doing it!’. I loved those moments of getting into the perfect rhythm, my skates smooth on the ice, gliding along just as I’d pictured it.

You know it's snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

You know it’s snowing too much when you turn around and see this following you.

But it was hard and my muscles begged me to reconsider. I spent most of my time on the ice in a silent debate with myself over whether it was enough to have tried and failed or whether failure was simply not acceptable. There was pain written into the DNA of this canal; it was built in 1832 by immigrant Irish and French-Canadian workers as a way for British ships to avoid possible American attacks along a vulnerable stretch of the St Lawrence river. The work was brutal and many died in its construction. My creaky muscles and frozen fear were just one tiny snowflake in a blizzard in comparision.

Just after 3km I hit a mental wall; I felt used up and spat out with nothing left to give. Through the blizzard it was hard to see but ahead lay a rest spot. I made for the banners fluttering in the distance and followed the sounds of drumming and African singing. Queues of happy born-to-do-this locals cruised along with a cup in one hand and a pastry in the other. I skated to a bench and collapsed. I closed my eyes and listened to the drummers and breathed slowly; the air smelt of bonfires, braziers burned with dancing flames in the snowfall and there was a sweet scent of syrup from the boiling maple taffy that was setting on the snow at a nearby stall. I took my mittens off and pushed my hair back only to discover that it had frozen solid into little dreadlock-like icicles.

Did it!

Did it!

Boosted by a cup of hot, sweet apple cider, 4km came and went. Things were harder now; there were no more beavertail stands, no more hot cider and poutine stalls – this was serious skating – and I didn’t know if I could do it. The next stop was at 5km and now I admitted it; I knew now that the full 7.8km was not going to happen. I hurt too much. I was beaten. I’m told that making it to the Bronson Bridge by Dows Lake was pretty much considered ‘the end’ by locals and I have no idea if I was told that by someone trying to be kind but hell, I figured I’d take it.

It was hard not to cry when I rounded that final bend, a blend of exhaustion and driving snow in my eyes. My feet ached and face  was scarlet but I had done that most Canadian of things – skated in the snow on ice. Better than that –  soon I’d be taking those skates off and chugging hot chocolate. Nothing will ever taste so sweet again.

IMG_1022

That was yesterday…

It’s only as I leave after a hectic 48 hours batting around the city that I realise that maybe the badge of failure that I thought I had isn’t mine after all. We drive along the canal and I tell my taxi driver about what I did, and that I feel I maybe let myself down. And we keep driving and it’s so much further than I thought – as we approach the 3km mark, where I thought I’d have to give up, I feel a surge of pride: I didn’t stop. I kept going. Finally we arrive at Bronson and he slows down and tells me that it’s far. That I did well. That I’ve inspired him to try with his daughter next weekend. I sit back in the car and feel as warm and happy as when I took that first welcome sip of chocolate. I did it.

At the airport, my driver stood at the kerb and called me back, “Hey! Well done!” And then he began to clap. “Ottawa salutes you! You did well.” And this time, I believe it. I skated the Rideau canal – maybe not like I’d imagined but I did it all the same. Next time, I’ll make the full distance – or maybe I won’t – the only certain thing is that I’m going to keep on falling – all I need to do is keep on getting up.

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I travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism – but as ever – my words are 100% my own.

Info:

Ottawa Tourism

Rideau Canal Skate way


29
Jan 14

Challenge #2 Learn to Skate Like a Canadian

I started 2014 off with a splash – by leaping into the freezing cold sea at English Bay in Vancouver with a heap of other Crazy Canucks for the Polar Bear Swim – and I vowed to make this a year of fresh challenges – well, here’s my latest. This weekend I plan to skate the Rideau Canal in Canada’s capital, Ottawa. My challenge? Um, I don’t know how to skate… or rather – I didn’t, but thanks to my hero, Raymond – now I do.

My Hero, Raymond

My Hero, Raymond: he doesn’t usually wear antlers – this was his christmas special! 

It seems to me that Canadians are pretty much born with a pair of skates or skis strapped to their feet (their poor mothers!). I’ve sighed so many times over enchanting stories of my new friends’ Canadian childhoods: playing hockey out on a frozen pond, skating at home on a rink that their dad made by flooding the backyard – none of this was ever possible back in England, of course, and even skating rinks are few and far between. Not in Canada – I was amazed to discover eight beautifully maintained rinks in Vancouver and there was one just around the corner from me – and that is where Raymond skates into this story. We met last year at a Wine Festival event and once I realized I needed to learn to skate, then I knew he was my guy: an ex figure skater and now heading up the teaching programme at the busy Denman Street rink, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. 

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

Never would have believed I could do this! Thanks Raymond

I was terrified even lacing the skates up; all I could think of was falling and hurting myself. Bambi-like I wobbled onto the ice but accompanied by Raymond (and some pretty cool Lorde tracks) it all felt slightly less terrifying.That was five weeks ago and since then I’ve practiced, learned how to stop, fallen over and – crucially – worked out how to get up again. Just after Christmas I splurged and bought my own skates and last week I went for a truly joyful glide around the outdoor rink in Whistler. I may not be skating like a Canadian yet, but I’m giving it my best shot: Ottawa: here I come.

 


25
Jan 14

Vancouver Getaway: 48 hours in Seattle

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Behold! The astonishing work of Dale Chihuly

Take a look at a map of Canada, go on – there – see? Vancouver is perched on the west coast and really, just a hop, skip and jump away from the US border. One of the things that you notice about life in Vancouver is that people are always popping down to Seattle for the weekend, I guess it’s the equivalent of a Eurostar Paris mini-break for us Brits. But what to do when you get there?

A bit of culture:

Thanks to smart city planning you can tick off all your must-visit attractions without slogging your way around Seattle. The Space Needle, Chihuly Gardens and the EMP museum are all within a minute’s walk of each other on the 74 acre site of the 1962 World Fair. Get there by the pleasingly-retro monorail. On a clear day, views from the 520 feet high observation deck of the Space Needle are wonderful and you’ll see Mount Rainier as well as a full 360 view of the city and its waterfront. The Chihuly Garden and Glass gallery is filled with the ultra-bright, other-wordly creations of American glass-blowing artist Dale Chihuly. Just around the corner you’ll find the Frank Gehry-designed EMP museum, founded in 2000 by Microsoft co-Founder Paul Allen which focusses on popular culture from music and comic book art to sci-fi and fantasy. Interactive fun for all ages.

Drinking and dining

Seattle’s food scene showcases west coast fresh, local and sustainable cuisine; head to funky Ballard to dive into seafood at the wildly popular Walrus and Carpenter and feast on oysters -raw and fried – house-cured charcuterie and local cheeses, or sample the moles and salsas of Oaxacan comfort food at the Carta de Oaxaca. Down by Pike Place, Matt’s in the Market is the place for zingingly fresh fish or try Cafe Campagne for a taste of French cooking. One of North America’s most innovative cocktail bars, The Canon is tucked away in the Capitol Hill area, but well worth seeking out for their carbonated, foamy and ice-cream based cocktails. In the same neighbourhood, the kooky Unicorn bar is a must-visit for their curious list of carnival-friendly cocktails,  shots and fun line up of pinball games and live music.

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Luscious oysters at the Walrus & the Carpenter

Hit the shops

You can buy high street brands at home, so head to Capitol Hill to score unique local designer labels and one-off creations. You can make a loop exploring E Pike on Capitol Hill, for men’s skate gear and hip-hop inspired local designers like 13th Floor, try 35th North. Pick up jewellery by Beachstone, a professional rock climber who makes delicate stone trinkets at Retro Fit – look out for women’s vintage finds and Seattle designers at Le Frock. For foodie finds, head down the street to the famous Pike Place market – a wonderful place to browse for a few hours. Of course, popularity brings crowds and at high season it’s likely to be jammed as cruise ships dock nearby, but you can’t go to Seattle and miss it. If you’re a foodie sign up for the Savor Seattle two-hour food tour with 16 different sample bites and sips and a chance to chat with some of the personalities around the market including its famous fish throwers.

Doing it for the kids

The bustling waterfront holds a treasure trove of family-friendly activities – but perfect for the (inevitable) rain shower that will happen summer or winter, is the aquarium at Pier 59. It’s well laid out, the staff are wonderfully friendly and kids big and small will be engaged by the hands-on exhibition areas, petting aqua-zoos and the chance to get kitted out in diving gear.

Time for bed

Tap into that fashionably hip scene and stay at The Ballard, which opened in May 2013 although it gives the impression of a far more established hotel with lashings of retro detail. Ideal for fitness fans, the gym is one of the largest I’ve seen in a hotel and they have an adults-only saltwater lap pool. Want something more central? The splurge and book in at the Fairmont Olympic for their lavish marble staircases, victorian parlour palms and trademark world-class customer service. Pro-tip? Sign up to the free-to-join President’s Club to scoop free wi-fi and use of their chauffeured town car for local trips.

Seattle's most familiar monument

Seattle’s most familiar monument

 

 

For further info:

Seattle Monorail

Seattle Space Needle

The Hotel Ballard

The Fairmont Olympic

The EMP Museum

Chihuly Garden and Glass

The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Unicorn


09
Jan 14

Shangri-La Toronto

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

Rising by Shanghai-based sculptor, Zhang Hua.

“What’s that?” I asked my cab driver, “It’s gorgeous.” ‘It’ was a silvery sculpture that reached into the sky and bought to mind flight and freedom right there on the pavement in downtown Toronto.

“It’s the Shangri La” said my driver.

“You’re kidding!” I said. “I’m staying there tomorrow.”

I can’t help myself; I get giddy with delight over a fancy hotel. Holly Golightly may have gone weak at the knees over Tiffany, but for me it’s a top class hotel that makes me think:      “…the quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” The check-in was fast, the service with a real smile and within minutes I was leaving the airy lobby with its Fazioli piano and zipping up to my room. When you notice details like how cool the carpets are (reminiscent of cherry blossom and bamboo leaves) as you trot to your room, then you can bet that your socks will be suitably knocked off when you get inside.

They were.

shangrila2

I know. It’s just carpet. But really – it’s more than that. It’s about the attention to detail and making every small thing beautiful.

I was wondering how Toronto would compare to Vancouver and the TO did not disappoint; a ludicrously huge and comfy bed, a decadent bathroom with a big-enough-for-two soaker tub overlooking the city and a satisfyingly high count of amenities from emery boards and tooth brushes to a mini-loofah and lashings of L’Occitane to raid.

mirajTO

Curl up and relax…

I was there to check out the sister spa to the Miraj in Vancouverthis is a glossier and more sophisticated version of the great little hammam on West 6th – but the principal remained the same -  and the treatment and therapist was just as good – leaving me to relax on satiny cushions admiring my equally silky skin after a heavenly steam, skin-brightening scrub and a final oil application.

Modern fine dining

Modern fine dining

Drinks in the lobby lounge later were a treat – the menus come tucked away in a little compendium of books and champagne buckets stand ready for your bubbles. I’d heard wonderful things about the Bosk restaurant, and after a slew of strictly casual fine dining experiences, it was lovely to feel that here was a restaurant worth dressing up for. Bosk may have an east coast address but it certainly had a west coast feeling with local, organic and sustainable woven through the menu and the seafood treated with loving care. A pleasingly large by-the-glass wine selection makes food pairing a pleasure – my advice? Ask the sommelier to match for you – you won’t be disappointed and you’ll definitely try delicious new things.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Toronto and stayed as a guest of the Shangri-La– all views are, however 100% my own.

More Info:

The Shangri-La

188 University Ave, Toronto, ON M5H 0A3

Phone:(647) 788-8888

Web:  Shangri-La Toronto


02
Jan 14

2014: the Year of New Experiences #1 Polar Bear Swim in Vancouver

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.

polarbear swim

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!

We did it!

We did 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 a great video from Tristan Harvey which shows what happened:

Here’s to a new year of Canadian experiences and fantastic first times…


12
Nov 13

24 Hours in Whistler

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.

Breakfast with a perfect view

Breakfast with a perfect view

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.

Fall in Whistler

Fall in Whistler

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.

Meditative magic at night

Meditative magic at night

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. 


13
Oct 13

One year in Canada

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?

This lasted for hours every night.

This lasted for hours every night.

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.

Fallen in love with the shimmering city by the sea

Fallen in love with the shimmering city by the sea

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.


16
Sep 13

Rocky Mountaineer Coastal Passage: the first Seattle to Vancouver trip

Oh! Sunsets...

Oh! Sunsets…

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.

First time the Rocky Mountaineer arrives in Seattle

First time the Rocky Mountaineer arrives in Seattle

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.

Dinner with a view

Elegant salad

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.

Calm coastal waters all the way

Calm coastal waters all the way

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:

Rocky Mountaineer the Coastal Passage route here
Tourism Vancouver 
Visit Seattle
The Fairmont


03
Sep 13

Sweet taste of Vancouver’s DTES

East Van Roaster's Shelley Bolton

East Van Roaster’s Shelley Bolton

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.

Working hard cracking the cacao shells by hand to get to the nibs

Working hard cracking the cacao shells by hand to get to the nibs

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.

Try a tasting plate

Try a tasting plate

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.
(604) 629-7562
INFO@EASTVANROASTERS.COM


19
Aug 13

Gastown Eating adventures: Bambudda

Drinking rose-floral cava-y Fitzgerald cocktails and enjoying the late-evening sunshine. Officially the best new fun in Gastown

Drinking Fitzgerald cocktails and enjoying the sunshine. Officially the best new fun in Gastown

Fish are meant to symbolise good fortune or luck within certain Asian cultures and it was a serendipitous fish which led me to Gastown’s newest hot spot, Bambudda. I’d seen the most enchanting dessert picture on Twitter – two fish swimming in a perfect blue on a plate – the fish were white chocolate and lychee milk tea – too pretty but I wanted to eat it! The next day by pure luck I happened to meet someone who worked there, which decided it for me: fate had stepped in so I needed to go and check it out.

I’d mentioned to a few people I was going and everyone had two words for me “chicken skin”: turns out that they do a nifty fried chicken skin bar snack that was an absolute must-have. Guess what? Everyone was right on the money. But before we get to the crunch of the food – what’s the restaurant like? Well – on a warm Vancouver evening it was heaven to sit at the open-front bar. Their floor to ceiling windows pull right back and so we sat, red lanterns bobbing overhead, drinking pleasingly intoxicating cocktails while being charmed by barman Buck Friend.

Oh. My. God. Chicken skin of pure crunchy deliciousness

Oh. My. God. Chicken skin of pure crunchy deliciousness

Tardis-like, this place is far, far bigger on the inside than it seems on the outside. There’s a blue-toned private dining room that has ‘family party’ and ‘fun birthday dinner’ written all over it – then there’s the date-friendly dining space that spreads back through the building. Hand-etched wallpaper (which reminded us of Blanche from the Golden Girls’s palm-printed lair but in a really good way) and cute vintage accents make this new kid on the block feel like an always-been-there old favourite.

“But what’s the food like?” I hear you roar “Tell us about the skin!” Well – it’s pressed flat overnight, trimmed of any fat, baked in the oven and then quick-fried. And it’s so damn good that I went back two nights later dragging a friend with me. Give it a judicious squeeze of the black pepper-dipped lime and you have one of the best bar snacks I’ve ever tasted.

Mr Bambudda, Ray Loy and Buck Friend on bar duties

Mr Bambudda, Ray Loy and Buck Friend on bar duties with my new favourite Tsui Hang cocktail

I got to try a mini sampler of a few dishes from Chef Keev Mah’s menu: think nouveau Dim Sum  - the stars for me were the perfectly-cooked scallops, a sweetly-gooey spiced BBQ pork bun and Law Bak Go, a puréed buttered mash of a radish made into a hashbrown-like wedge and served with meltingly-tender brisket. It’s strange to feel so excited about a radish but this was magnificent – I tried this on the second visit and if anything it was even better. I tried the Crispy Pork Belly, Hong Kong BBQ style with a Maple Hoisin sauce, the texture of the pork belly was everything you’d wish for: it shattered in a satisfying bite, the meat a perfect soft juicy fall-apart counterpoint – but oh! too much salt… the one bum note in a perfect symphony.

And what of the dessert fish? A little sweet for me – but they swam prettily in their drinky waters of Blue Curaçao – frankly anyone who put something this delightful on a plate deserves an award. It’s rare to be so utterly enchanted.

Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang.

Also extra marks to the inspired Cold Tea-esque cocktail creation, Tsui Hang, served in a teapot, a Dark Horse rye made fragrant with salted plums, goji berries and iron budda tea – it had an infused Budweiser syrup in the mix – I adored this and to my knowledge it’s the first beer-infused syrup I’ve encountered in Vancouver.  Go drink and snack at the bar, flirt with the lovely staff and then stuff yourself silly: you can’t fight fate.

I was a guest of Bambudda the first time I visited – but as ever – my words are 100% my own 

BAMBUDDA 99 Powell Street, Gastown Vancouver

Website: Bambudda.ca

Twitter: @bambuddagastown

Facebook: www.facebook.com/Bambudda

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