Posts in the “Vancouver” category...

Vancouver, British Columbia – Part One

by Continental Club on July 30, 2008  |  Leave a comment

After a really very good flight from London, we left the Chatham Dockyard flag and our wonderful crew far behind and trekked through a building site to the Hertz desk at Vancouver Airport to pick up our trusty steed for the next 8 days. Having trawled around, we’d got by far the best deal through American Express Centurion on a Jeep Grand Cherokee (or Dissimilar) with Hertz PermanentlyLost fitted as well.

And so it was that, many days (it seemed) after first smelling the fresh British Columbian air, we clambered into our Jeep, sorry, Ford, Explorer and struck out for East Hastings Street. Quite apart from the clear difference between a two-tone burgundy and gold (sickness bags are to be found in the seat pocket in front of you, should you so require them) Ford and a Jeep, the other thing that struck me immediately was the absence of any kind of loadspace cover. This had been removed by Hertz in light of the luggage compartment’s additional seats, but struck me as a worry given the fact that we intended to tour with all our cases now on view. Privacy glass was our only defence.

The drive from the airport downtown was uneventful, passing through what are clearly the rather nice Southern suburbs of Vancouver. The PermanentlyLost lost it as soon as the high-rises began, but sign posting was simple enough and, within 30 minutes, we were turning into the forecourt of the Marriott Hotel, Vancouver Pinnacle Downtown. These particular lodgings had been selected on the basis of TripAdvisor and FT recommendations and also a rather nifty rate that included valet parking and a $25 gas card per night. The rate rules said that the card could only be used at a local gas station, which might prove to be a problem, but all of the above, coupled with being MHRS Platinum, meant that I thought it worth a punt.

With memories of our crew fading fast, one of several available valets greeted us at the Marriott. We checked in and were (correctly) upgraded to the Concierge (25th) Level. We were given a little card with the lounge opening times (more of which later) and, turning round from the desk to head to the lifts, we were met by….. the crew off the BA85. I mean, the shame of it. Staying in a crew hotel….!

The room was not overly-spacious, but came with a great view of the harbour and the sea-plane piers. Over the coming days, the ever-changing panorama would come to compare with the outlook from the (former) Regent in Hong Kong as a wide-screen feature.

Indeed, much as is the norm at the Regent, the curtains were left open at all times. So it was that, woken from their slumbers on this first morning in the West, MCC and FCC lifted themselves simultaneously from their repose, seemingly without elbow-assistance, and craned up and around to survey the view from behind their mound of Marriott duvetry. This choreographed display forever earning them the moniker of ‘The Geriatric Meerkats’.

Back to practicalities and the room itself also came with the bonus of being adjacent (though silently-so) to the Concierge Lounge. This meant that the free WiFi offered in the lounge permeated the wall and saved a tidy sum.

Breakfast in the lounge was a plentiful spread of coffee to drink in or go, the usual juices, a hot selection, cold cuts, cheese, radioactively-hued smoked salmon, fruits and cereals. All in all, very nice and a harbour view to boot.

Now, the Pacific NorthWest is not known for its great weather, but our first day dawned merely drizzly, so we headed along the harbourfront to the Seabus terminal . This service runs, very much in the manner of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, Sydney’s Manly, Auckland’s Harbour and countless others, pretty much continuously on a walk-up basis. Tickets are valid on all public transport systems for 90 minutes and are zoned. So, a sail across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver is a 2 zone job. On the other side, you’ll find a great ‘market’ at Lonsdale Quay, selling arts and crafts of varying quality, but mostly some superb provender. Eat here or buy the components of a global picnic.

At the rear of the Market, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Your ferry ticket would also take you there, but if you’ve had a look around the market then your 90 minutes will have expired. So, by the totem pole, the free shuttle pulls up hourly and whisks you to Capilano. This is really a private pleasure garden (and not all that cheap either) but is a very pleasant way to spend a few hours in a temperate rainforest on bridges and boardwalks, trails and terraces, adjusting to the time difference from Blighty. The on-site ‘Tatarama’ is at the slightly higher-quality end of the scale and you can grab a snack or a meal at one of a number of eateries.

If there’s no shuttle imminent then the service bus stop is right outside the gates of the park. And if, like us, there’s no shuttle in sight and you have no change (buses only take the coins of the Dominion) then you may be lucky like us and score a free ride off the bus driver. His view was that, since we would then be heading over on the Seabus back to the city, we’d be buying a 90 minute ticket when we got off anyway. He also helped passengers with pushchairs on and off and was by far and away the nicest bus driver I’ve come across in a long while. He also started the rot of me thinking that this really is a rather fabulous place.

The bus takes a windy route through neatly manicured suburbs, with lush gardens, soaring trees and opulent homes. The raised vantage point gives you ample opportunity to over-hedge peer too.

Time for a siesta back at the hotel and then a visit to the gym and the pool, both of which are more than fit for purpose, Lockers are secured by means of a lock (supposedly) obtained from the Concierge Desk, but having been looked at like the man from Mars when I enquired, then them failing to find any such thing, I resorted to the perfectly suitable TSA lock off the suitcase. The gym has a good selection of, er, gym things, and the pool is not huge but good for laps. There is a sauna and steam poolside, alongside a spacious Jacuzzi. The one rather strange thing was that, in the Gents changing area, there were a number of perfectly acceptable single showers, but then also a sort of ‘group’ one, like you get at school.

The facility is open 24hrs, keycard accessed but unmanned. There are plentiful supplies of (acceptable) toiletries and towels. Perfectly useful if you like that kind of thing.

Probably the most unusual thing about the hotel is that it doesn’t have a ‘lobby’ as such. Sure, there’s a reception area, but no lounge bar adjacent. Rather, it’s the Showcase restaurant that leads straight off Reception and then, at the far end of that, a sports bar which fronts the corner of the block. The restaurant is very pleasant in a chain-hotel-tries-hard kind of way. Sadly however, the hotel has decided that the ambience of the sports bar will define the entire space. This is not the place for a relaxed dinner therefore. That said, the food – chosen from a reasonable selection on quite a sensible menu – was rather good. It’s just that conversation was impossible.

It was a bit of a relief to find that, at breakfast the following morning, the mood was altogether more relaxed. Per the opening hours of the Concierge Lounge (ie closed at the weekend) we were to take breakfast in the main restaurant for the next two days. We therefore found ourselves in the midst of four (yes, four) BA crews. Breakfast was (as you’d expect) more generous in depth and breadth than the Concierge Lounge, but the Lounge’s offer remained fairly unshamed by comparison.

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Vancouver, British Columbia – Part Two

by Continental Club on July 30, 2008  |  Leave a comment

As we were by now more attuned to the time zone, the time had come for a more adventurous expedition. The car was summoned from the cavern beneath and we more or less retraced our path through the suburbs, past the airport but this time onward to Tsawassen for the BC Ferries service across to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. This has got to be one of the bargains of the century. Although you may book (and would be advised to do so at peak periods), the 90 minute Ro-Ro crossing is essentially turn up and go for CAD35 for a car and three passengers, on the CoastSaver promotion which was running at the time. The scenery is initially pretty banal, but the intensity is turned up as the tub swerves through the Gulf Islands. Stay on deck and you may (though we didn’t) catch glimpses of dolphins and whales.

Look overhead and you’ll see a continuous trail of the almost ubiquitous seaplanes, plying between Vancouver and the Island in a fraction of the time and reportedly offering a quite fantastic experience. This had been very high on the list of possibles-to-do, but I worried that MCC, who’s not a great flyer when not horizontal, might not enjoy it and that might prejudice a later part of the trip. So, car and ferry it was, with two Insular targets. Secondly, the provincial capital, Victoria, but first the World-famous Butchart Gardens.

To be honest, the only reason that I’d ever even heard of Butchart was thanks to a school friend having completed an internship there some time ago. She had waxed lyrical about them, so I felt the need to check them out. Now, I am no horticulturalist, but they really were quite stunning. Even more impressive was the fact that there was not a sign of anything being done to actually manage them. They were in a state of perfection which looked as though no hand-of-man was needed. There were no roped-areas, no areas ‘under construction’. It was if some sort of magic created this wonder, and then only when visitors had long gone. The gardens themselves were largely the work of Jennie, the wife of the industrialist Robert Butchart, who initially redeveloped a disused quarry in the shared grounds of what was his factory and their home.

Certainly a very pleasant place to spend a few hours, with a selection of cafes and restaurants as well as the obligatory tea towels and nick-nacks at the onsite Tatarama. There are also opportunities to enjoy concerts and fireworks in the gardens at certain times of the year.

We were by now being blessed with some unusually bright weather, and it was but a short drive to the British Columbian provincial capital, Victoria. We arrived mid-afternoon, parked the car and set off for a walking tour along Government Street to the harbour. Backed by the Empress Hotel and the Parliament Buildings, this is the hub of maritime and seaplane activity. There is a harbour wall promenade and a multitude of cafes and bars from which to people-watch.

The shops of this part of the city cater largely to the tourist market; in the gentrified and restored streets leading between Government Street and Wharf Street there are bars and restaurants aplenty and it certainly looked to be a pleasant place to enjoy a relaxed evening on the pop.

Having not reserved passage on BC Ferries back to Tsawassen however, we felt the need to limit our time in Victoria and head back to Swartz Bay. Nevertheless, we did so only after driving through the picturesque Southern streets, packed with Colonial villas, to the south shore for some quite spectacular views across to the Olympic Mountains of Washington State in the US. A worthwhile detour before the drive back North to the ferry.

A word of warning at this point though; if you are in any way peckish then do grab a bite before you head for the boat. The terminal and general onboard catering is rotten and should be avoided at all costs.

On the return journey in particular though, you may be tempted to take advantage of the Seawest Lounge on board. At a cost of CAD10, you can access this lounge for (marginally less rotten) complimentary Starbucks, nibbles, newspapers and a rather more relaxed atmosphere than the main decks. If, as a tourist, your priority is to enjoy the Gulf Island scenery however, then the lounge does, frankly, seem a bit pointless and you are more likely to spend your time on the open decks above.

Back to Vancouver quite late, so dinner was skipped and, instead, to bed and the prospect of a wander around the city in the morning.

Which of course dawned wet. Very wet. Breakfast with BA again in the main restaurant and then out into the rain-glazed streets for an exploration of Gastown, which is (allegedly) named after a local blackguard and innkeeper – ‘Gassy’ Jack. It’s a pleasant few thoroughfares of restored and renovated harbourside buildings, housing a varied selection of bars, restaurants, galleries and shops. Centred around a unique steam-powered clock, Gastown is a nice enough place to spend a morning and, by the looks of it, a fun place to frequent of an evening. A kind of Sydney’s Rocks, but in a downpour.

Heading South brings you into Vancouver’s CBD and the usual selection of high-end malls, stores and cultural attractions. Here you will find everything from Sears to Ermenigildo Zegna, the historic Fairmont Vancouver to the City Art Gallery. Walking back towards the hotel, you’ll pass Villeroy and Boch for the domestic goddess, and Alfred Dunhill for the man about town. You’ll also find peculiarly local products for sale (batteries not included):

One of Vancouver’s principal, and most natural, attractions is Stanley Park. This vast expanse of public space occupies the North Western corner of the city and plays host to cafes and restaurants, an aquarium, running tracks, lakes, beaches and forest walks. It also anchors the Southern end of the mighty Kingsgate Bridge, which links Vancouver with its North Shore. So, a pleasant afternoon stroll turned into a seven mile hike through the trees and around the banks of Burrard Inlet, watching cruise liners pass just feet away while all ages played, exercised or just enjoyed their afternoon in one of the World’s most liveable cities. And, always, with the company of the ubiquitous seaplanes.

No surprise then that, after our impromptu trekking adventure, our final night in Vancouver was an early one.

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Vancouver to Kamloops

by Continental Club on July 30, 2008  |  Leave a comment

After soundly sleeping off the effects of the lengthy exertions of the previous day, we headed bright and early to the reopened Concierge Lounge for a final breakfast and lingering look at the Harbour view. We packed and headed to check out, calling ahead to have the Explorer recovered from the bowels of the garage once again.

As is the norm in such circumstances, FCC and MCC were positioned in comfortable chairs while CC deals with the dirtiness of payment. As would become somewhat of a theme of the trip however, this was not a straightforward process. Although the basic bill seemed to be correct, we had been charged in full for the breakfast taken in the restaurant on the Sunday. This despite being a Marriott Platinum cardholder and the Concierge Lounge being closed (which should prompt a credit). I queried this and was somewhat taken aback to be told that there was no credit because the Lounge had in fact been open. When I pointed out that my keycard wallet had been overstamped with the lounge opening times, the times were posted on the door of the lounge and, when checking in, the agent had confirmed the opening times verbally – ie weekdays only – he said I was wrong. I’ve never actually had that in a hotel before, least of all a Marriott, which I normally rate as consistently-good-if-ploddy hotels. So, when I also pointed out that the requested Platinum Amenity of a bottle of wine and tub of ice cream had yet to make it to the room, four days after check in, I was told that I had selected 500 Marriott Reward points as the amenity instead. You could have knocked me over with a feather.

His only offer was an additional 500 MR points, bringing the total to 1000 and, with impatient parents and a 300 mile drive ahead, I left. Worse still, when the points posted, there were only 750. The one unexpected bonus was that the ‘gas’ cards included in the rate ($25 per night = $100) proved to be valid at the Petrocanada chain of filling stations – and we weren’t to be limited to just a local outlet where we would probably have struggled to squeeze the full value of the cards into the tank.

The postscript to this bit of the story is that, having taken the time to subsequently email Marriott Rewards, I had a superb phone call from the Front of House Manager who seemed genuinely keen to repent, and I was somewhat mollified by a 10,000 MR point bung, which I felt reflected more accurately the service failure.

Anyway, time to leave and, it has to be said, not through the most salubrious part of the city as we struck East and headed for the hills. Or, more accurately, the Rocky Mountains. Woohoo.

The first part of the drive along Highway One – The Trans Canada Highway – is through suburbs and then pastoral land of pleasant beauty and general non-descriptness. Only at Hope do things begin to get a little more interesting, as the Fraser River really begins to make its presence known.

The most direct route from Hope to Kamloops is on the (toll) Coquihalla Highway, but our Moon guidebook (purchased in Vancouver, thanks to the Geriatric Meerkats having been lent all the books for the trip months beforehand, and then forgetting to pack them) strongly suggested taking the original Highway One North for more a more interesting drive.

Having not sampled the toll road, it’s impossible to compare, but H1 certainly didn’t disappoint. Our target, for a picnic lunch purchased from the frankly fantastic Urban Fare on Pacific Boulevard in Vancouver, was Hell’s Gate. Once we had enjoyed the laptop repast of bounteous provender, we headed for the entrance to this famous attraction. Every second, more water passes through this 110 feet wide gash in the rock than does over the whole of Niagara. The difference, of course, is that the water at Hell’s Gate is 175 feet deep.

The torrent is reached by way of the Hell’s Gate Airtram, a cable car notable mostly for the fact that it descends from the principal point of departure, rather than ascends. Trams run every 10-15 minutes from the top station, which also contains a Tatarama of fairly low quality. It is therefore something of an achievement for the equivalent emporia at the lower station to be in possession of an even more flea-market air.

That said, the sway down to the river is charming enough and you are then free to mooch around, cross the bridge and have a wander onto the tracks used by the Rocky Mountaineer touring train. In fact, our re-ascendency to the top station coincided with the passing of said train beneath us, including its observation cars and mighty locomotives.

The road on to Kamloops took us through sometimes lofty, sometimes more low lying countryside, forested and fielded but all the time accompanied by both rail and river. It’s largely unremarkable in itself but, all the while, the expectation of the Rockies ahead fills the traveller with anticipation. In fact, the most notable thing about the road would appear to be the prevalence of field after field covered with black netting – a protection, it transpires, for the valuable crop of Ginseng beneath. Who knew?

Our arrival in Kamloops confirmed that which we had expected – a railhead in a wide valley, neither overly industrial nor particularly scenic, but a place which seemed to have a purpose to it. We swung into the carpark of the Four Points by Sheraton, eager to shower and rest – and also to try the adjacent restaurant which had garnered good online reviews from those who had gone before.

The first surprise to be offered by this Holiday Inn Express equivalent was that the restaurant, Ric’s, was not just the hotel’s in-house facility, but in fact part of a rather swanky chain whose outlet we had also noticed during our whirlwind tour of Victoria.

We were met at the door by a porter and Reception had our keycards all ready. As an SPG Gold, we had been upgraded to a two-bedroomed suite which was very acceptable. We had coffee and a freshen and then headed down for dinner, expecting to be able to walk straight in to this Travelodge-attached diner in a backwood town.

As the lift took us closer, we could already hear people and, when we entered the restaurant, it was fairly obvious that, alternatives or not, this was the place to be in Kamloops on a Monday evening. The girl on the desk was clearly unused to out-of-towners and first-timers, and looked at us as if we were nuts for expecting a table hasta pronto. In fairness we were. Since there was no room in the bar either, we were dispatched back to the suite for 45 minutes, in advance of some of the earlier troughers vacating.

Having made it back down, we enjoyed a quite superb dinner of great quality and quantity, friendly service and a pleasant view (helped by the local brew, it has to be said).

The bill, almost uniquely for the trip as it would turn out, was 100% correct upon check out the following morning after a blissful sleep in excellent quality beds. The total, for accommodation and dinner for three, coming to just CAD300.

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