Winter in Vancouver

As a recent emigrant to Vancouver from Toronto, I have come to my new city with an ingrained skepticism derivative of the age-old battle of east vs. west. But I did come here with good reason, and climate was certainly one of the major considerations for making the move. The autumn and early winter here have lived up to the reputation that Vancouver is a rainy, cloud-covered city that challenges even the most optimistic attitude, but I have become more accustomed to it (as I was told I would) and am having a minor love affair with my Hunter rain boots (superficial, I know, but we need to find our small comforts amidst the rainy days).
Although I love the snow covered lawns and evergreens of Toronto winters, I am starting to believe that the milder weather here, and the close proximity of snow when you’re missing it (Mount Seymour, Grouse Mountain, Hemlock Resort, and Whistler Mountain) are things I could easily become accustomed to. And it isn’t always grey – we’ve recently enjoyed almost a week of clear skies and sunshine, and as long as it isn’t raining, the mild temperatures afford plenty of opportunities to do a variety of outdoor activities. I would still argue that July is the best time to visit Vancouver, but if you chose to visit in the winter, here is a list of my favourite things to do outside this time of year:
1.       Walking
a)      The Endowment Lands near UBC – this extensive forest-covered group of trails are a great option, especially if you think it might rain. There are hundreds upon hundreds of old-growth trees, many of them cloaked in moss. Other groups of trees appear in curious formations that seem to creep along the forest floor, their arms reaching in all directions. And if you pay attention, there are always trees that spark the imagination – like the dead tree that looks remarkably like the mouth of a smiling crocodile.
Enjoying a Bean Bros. coffee along the Spanish Banks
b)      Spanish Banks (West of Tolmie St. on NW Marine Dr.) – if you park in the first parking lot and walk to and from the western tip of the Spanish Banks, you’ve covered almost 2.5 km of this beautiful oceanfront trail. With ample mountain views and opportunities for both people and dog watching, this walk will not disappoint. Be sure to watch the ocean too – if you’re lucky, you’ll see some of the wildlife – like a seal!
View of downtown from Kits Beach
c)       Kits Beach (on the west side of Vancouver) – go to Viva Fine Foods and Bakery (1555 Yew St., between Cornwall and York) to grab a latte and a delectable cookie to make your walk along the beach even sweeter. This walkway is often very busy with both tourists and locals, and with people young and old. Even in late December, you can witness people playing beach volleyball, while smiling kids enjoy a new playground next to The Boathouse Restaurant (previously The Watermark). You can walk all the way to Granville Island taking this ocean side route, but it is a long walk to do in the winter, and you might consider taking public transit for the way back.
Southlands trail on the Fraser River
d)      Southlands (south of SW Marine Dr. on Blenheim) – this little-known nook of Vancouver is as pastoral as the city gets. Chock-full of horse stables, nurseries and farms, there is plenty to see in this area, and there is a lovely trail that follows the banks of the Fraser River if you drive all the way to the end of Blenheim, turn right on Celtic Ave. and then left on Carrington. Here you will find a small parking lot and a trail that goes both east and west from the bridge to Deering Island. At one point on the east trail, you will have to walk on the road (east on Celtic) to catch the trail again. Gleaming new houses and a golf course provide sightseeing on your left, while the Fraser River and the mountains offer views on your right. Sunsets here are breathtaking.
Stay tuned for other great winter activities to do in and around Vancouver!

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Seattle: What’s Good Part Two

From the myriad of intersecting lines at city hall to the modern interpretation of the age-old library, Seattle has some very distinct architectural features that make walking around the city pure delight. While walking down James Street into Pioneer Square, a parking lot perched at a 45-degree angle seems to grow out of the sidewalk. Unassumingly, the entire side of a towering skyscraper on 5th Ave. is done in a simple, tiled mosaic of different colours, which you could easily miss if you weren’t paying close attention. Architectural gems, both hidden and on display, become more striking as you journey through the streets of Seattle.
The central library, located at the corner of 5th and Madison is a building made almost entirely of glass, and looks more like what I imagined the recent addition to the ROM in Toronto to be (instead, they ran out of money and replaced the glass with metal). Seattle’s library was designed by Rem Koolhaas, and the Dutch influence is apparent in the library’s geometric lines and splashes of bright colour amidst an overall more neutral colour palette. There is an entire section done in the colour red: walls, ceilings, floors, staircases, doors. It is both overwhelming and awe-inspiring; it feels as though you’re travelling through a human body, all red on the inside. The escalators aren’t difficult to miss either. They jump out at you, illuminated and fluorescent yellow, taking you all the way up to the top floor Reading Room, which captures the essence of reading pleasure. The glass walls and ceiling provide tons of natural light, even in the Seattle gloom, and people sit in absolute silence. Surprisingly, the entire library seems extremely quiet, or perhaps the acoustics are built in such a way so as to distil noise.
In addition to great architecture, seafood is also at a prime in Seattle. You can buy all sorts of strange, large fish with wide-eyed stares at Pike Place Market (where they throw fish just for your entertainment), not to mention piles of Dungeness crab you can eat to your heart’s content. Clam chowder is a popular staple in the market and throughout the city, and it is the perfect, hearty remedy for a cold day in the Seattle rain.
If you’re looking for a more substantial meal than soup, you can head to Blueacre Seafood Restaurant located at 7th and Olive (http://blueacreseafood.com/) owned by Chef Kevin Davis and his wife Terresa, who was our hostess that evening. She was charming and personable, offering advice on what to eat and claiming “I married my husband for those crab cakes.” The service was friendly and professional overall, and the meal was truly gourmet without being overly expensive (this was in fact one of the owners’ mandates when they opened the place, and they have succeeded). Having filled up on too many carbs, I chose not to have a starter, but they brought me two complementary smoked salmon bites, which I always equate with pure class.
It’s these small touches, such as lemon-infused butter for the bread and horseradish brown butter for the main, which make a meal memorable. I also liked that for many dishes, you can choose either 5 oz. or 8 oz. of fish, so you can leave room for dessert if you wish. My main consisted of parmesan crusted Alaskan halibut, which was crispy on the outside but tender on the inside, truffled parsnip puree, which tasted like a lighter and more complex version of mashed potatoes, wilted spinach, and the brown butter that garnished every bite and disappeared too quickly.
Even with a bottle of wine, this meal for two was under $100, making it a top choice for a delicious and memorable dinner out. If you only have one dinner out in Seattle, make it Blueacre.

Seattle: What’s Good Part One

Having only recently moved to the west coast, this trip to Seattle is my first. I was told it was just a smaller version of Vancouver, but it is so very different from our city across the border. First, Seattle has a longer history than Vancouver, which means more shops, restaurants and buildings with an authentic charm from decades past. And of course, one of the most striking things about Seattle is the architecture. I think as far as a city downtown goes, Seattle is one of the finest for design.  Elements of it remind me of Boston, New York and even London, likely because of the antiquated feeling to places such as Pioneer Square.
On Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, we learned that Seattle was established in the 1850s, when settlers from out east courageously ventured west to start a new town in which to turn a profit. Its first industry was lumber, but coal and gold also became important resources before the 1900s. The tour is underground because the current city is built above the old town. After a series of city planning blunders, including building on piles of sawdust landfill and constructing 10-35 ft. town walls to help with the gravity flow of sewage disposal and to avoid high tide, the streets were covered with bricks reinforced in the shape of Roman arches. This project was inspired by the need for safety in the streets: several people fell to their deaths off the town walls, while others had heavy objects, such as cast iron stoves, fall on them from the ledge above. It was an informative and entertaining tour with guide Rick, and I would recommend it to anyone who visits Seattle. The tour is 90 minutes in length and the cost is $15.
Next thing on my list is coffee. Coffee is good in Seattle, and probably keeps much of the population not only caffeinated but in the green, as it is so readily available. No doubt, we went to the first-ever Starbuck’s store near Pike Place Market (http://www.pikeplacemarket.org/), shedding light on their popular brew called “Pike Place”. It was decent coffee, but it definitely wasn’t my top cup this trip. We enjoyed a great local brew at Melrose Market’s (http://melrosemarketseattle.com/) Homegrown Sustainable Sandwich Shop located on Capitol Hill. Also worth mentioning is their breakfast sandwich made with local ingredients and packed with flavour. The sandwich comes with a semi-runny egg topped with cheese and avocado on a massive sesame bun, with a side of warm oatmeal. At $6 this is a top economical choice for a hearty and healthy breakfast.
Finally, my best coffee in Seattle was at The Cherry Street Coffee House (http://cherryst.com/) near Pioneer Square, the original site and namesake of the café, which has now spread out to four other locales in the city because of its popularity. We were drawn to the place because of the funky neon sign (of which there are many in Seattle, giving it an authentic 1950s vibe), and were pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the food and the complex, but smooth taste of the coffee. I enjoyed a delicious lox and cream cheese bagel, with a side of tomato ginger soup. If you’re looking for a quick, affordable lunch in a comfortable setting, The Cherry Street Coffee House is a fantastic bet.
Stay tuned for more Seattle highlights, including architecture and seafood in my next blog post!

Days Six and Seven: Roughing it in Magnificent, Cold Lake Louise

On the way down from Plain of Six Glaciers

Reluctantly, on Sunday morning we left Fernie to head back north and east to Lake Louise/Banff. Although it was out of the way, I had heard such wonderful things about the area and I felt that my cross country adventure would be missing something important if it was bypassed.

We stopped in the ski destination of Invermere, B.C. for groceries and some lunch on the way up, treating ourselves to a sit down meal before heading into a few days of eating on a camp stove in the wilderness. As we drove down the main street, we saw signs for Ray Ray’s Beach Pub, which claimed to have the best view in town. Easily convinced, we drove through the few blocks of the main strip and sat down looking out onto the mountains, a pond with a fountain, and the crisscrossing lines of the railroad track and electric poles. It was an artful view, but perhaps if we had been sitting outside (it had started to rain and was cooler now) we would have seen impressive Windermere Lake. The food was typical Canadian pub food: I devoured a sweet Thai chicken wrap with yam fries and salad, while Nick dined on a beef sandwich.

Lake Louise, Alberta is a tiny village with one main plaza (Samson Mall), which includes a few restaurants, a grocery store, gift shops, and a visitor centre. We spoke to a very helpful woman in the welcome centre, who gave us detailed information on hiking in the area, and where we could find the best vistas for taking photographs. We paid $6 for four litres of water (a forgotten item on our grocery trip in Invermere), and decided not to spend hundreds of dollars on warmer gear in Wilson Mountain Sports. My advice is to do your research on the weather (we were seriously underprepared for the cold mountain air), and make your grocery list and check it twice!

Our first evening was rainy and somewhat miserable. We shivered in weather that went down to 2 degrees Celsius, dreaming of toques, mitts, rain pants, long underwear – all things that were nicely packed away in a container on its way to Vancouver. In a few moments of weakness we considered going home; we were exhausted after the move and the drive and were just too darn cold. However, we steeled ourselves and got geared up for a hike around Lake Louise on Monday morning.

Although you are able to see beautiful views of the lake and mountains from just making your way around the lake, we wanted to do a proper hike to the ‘top’ of Plain of Six Glaciers, which had been recommended to us. The lake water is a turquoise blue and is an absolute complement to the dark, snow-capped mountains that form a curve at its tail end (from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise). Hiking along the shore is light and easy: you can take your time, stop to take photos, say hello to fellow travellers. One of my favourite things about hiking around the world is the number of different languages you hear along the way: Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Dutch, German and British tourists walked with us, ahead of us, around us. You feel a sense of global community by sharing in this experience with such a diverse population.

As you move beyond the lake, the trail starts to move upwards and becomes a little tighter; moving into the higher latitudes it is harder to breathe as the air gets thinner. It is a good idea to wear layers for the hike, as you start to warm up with the exercise of getting to the top. However, once you get there and settle in for a few minutes, you will want to layer up against the mountain chill in the air.

At the top, there is a tea house that was built in the 1920s by Swiss guides and still hosts a variety of food and drink today. They helicopter the raw goods and propane (there is no electricity) once a season, while the fresh goods come in on horseback or with the staff almost daily. Make certain you have some cash with you, as a nice, hot tea is a great treat after your 5.5 km hike! We ate our own packed lunch on the upper level of the tea house, enjoying a great view as we took a break from our efforts.

Afterwards, we treated ourselves to the hot springs in Banff. Not a huge space, it still has an impressive view of the mountains, and was a warm 39 degrees. Before heading downtown, we stopped at the Indian Trading Post, where we found toques for $5 (what a deal!) and some Manitobah Mukluks (slippers) to warm my feet on cold winter (or summer in this case) nights. We walked around Banff town, enjoying a coffee from one of the three Evelyn’s Coffee shops along the main street. There is a relatively good variety of stores and restaurants; overall, Banff is an inviting place that I would like to spend more time in.

Our evening was filled with attending to the campfire, drinking Fernie pale ale, and singing Sam Roberts. I’ve never felt so Canadian. It was an ideal end to a cross country trip filled with diverse history, landscapes and people. I love this country.

Day Five: Beautiful Fernie, B.C.

Castle Rocks hike

Fernie is a little known town, but is definitely worth a visit. It has a delightful main street with over one hundred years of history, and includes most of the amenities we are accustomed to in the big city. However, the wonderful thing about Fernie is the 360 degrees of pure mountain beauty meeting you at every corner. It includes a few restaurants, both casual and upscale; we grabbed a quick bite at Big Bang Bagel, one of the many shops on the main strip with a clever name, and found much needed energy for our day hike in the signature breakfast bagel. The town also has some great specialty stores, such as Womb to Grow, a maternity shop run by a doula (a woman trained to help during pregnancy, birth, and after the baby is born).

Our big adventure for the day was a 3 hour hike (return) to Castle Rocks. After twisting around a gravel road for several minutes, we parked on a side road and embarked from there. It is not that well marked for visitors from out of town, but fortunately we had a guide, a good friend from Ontario who purchased a condo there last year.

We followed three trails to get to the top: Roots, Hyperventilation, and Castle Rocks. Roots was mostly flat, wide and easy going as a trail, but it started to get steeper and was one-track after that. In difficulty it was a “Blue” which turned into a “Black Diamond”, the same rating they use for ski trails. For much of the hike we were in the woods, but when we approached Castle Rock itself, a dark orange and grey entity that rises starkly against the blue sky, the trail opened up. The views were magnificent panoramas of mountains with grey tops and green slopes, which lead down into the valley where the town resides. You can see Fernie Alpine Ski Resort, while The Three Sisters rock formation stands out above the rest of the mountains, majestic.

Mountain bikers are known to walk their bikes up the mountain and then bike back down. It seems like a magnificent thing, but much too extreme for my liking! Overall, Fernie is a wonderful place for those who love the outdoors; it is a haven for people who like to hike, bike, camp or swim, and is full of friendly people.

Day Four: A Welcome Transition

One of many windmills near the AB/BC border

Distance: 839 km
Time on the road: 9 hours
Highlight: Crowsnest Pass

We were off to an early start again, but this time we enjoyed the complimentary breakfast at The Holiday Inn Express before hitting the road for Moosejaw, which is less than an hour from Regina.

Moosejaw downtown, although small, holds much history and is charming in its own right. It has connections to Al Capone in the 1920s, the time of prohibition and high crime, and the city also has links to Chinese immigration of the early 20th century; men who were hired to do the dangerous task of building the railroad for the CPR; families seeking refuge from a time of political turmoil in the Far East. The Tunnels of Moosejaw tour covers the history of the town, and although we did not have time to take a tour, we did hear great things about it and at least got to enjoy the black and white photo museum depicting the early days of the town.

The drive was monotonous prairie for a long time, but when we approached the Alberta/B.C. border the view started to shift from wide plains topped with sky to rolling fields framed by the Kootenay mountains. I was somewhat overwhelmed by all of the new things to see: valleys, rivers, windmills upon windmills. Even the hay bales seemed artistically arranged by this point.

We were heading into Crowsnest Pass, a well known area to west coast dwellers, and a beautiful drive most cross country travellers miss because they usually pass through Calgary. However, we were headed south to Fernie, B.C., approximately 30 minutes from the Alberta border.

Crowsnest Pass features winding roads and mountains both green with trees and grey with impressive rock. We paused for a snack at Leitch Collieries in the pass, and learned that the NWMP were stationed there over one hundred years ago to patrol people illegally hiding cattle there on the way to the U.S. It also served as a coal mine, one of the most important resources in the area.

Once we entered B.C., very inconspicuously as the provincial border is not well marked, we paused for a pit stop in Sparwood to witness the World’s Largest Truck. Its tires doubled my height, and oddly enough, it looked like it was even road ready. One thing to note for travellers heading west – most provinces provide free road maps, which vary in specificity, however in British Columbia you have to pay for one!

Drinks in two Capital Cities: Regina, Saskatchewan (Day Three, Part Two)

The Prairies as we entered Saskatchewan

After our pit stop in Winnipeg, we embarked on our prairie adventure. Remarkably, for the first few hundred kilometres of the prairies, I really enjoyed the stark contrast to Northern Ontario. I even asked aloud: “Am I the only person who likes the prairies?” The province of Manitoba still has some geographic features to offer – a few minor rolling hills and tree formations, little lakes here and there, probably man-made for irrigation purposes. I discovered beauty in the symmetry of the great wide open; the perfectly spaced electric and railroad poles that look like religious crosses and the endless fields of yellow and green topped with blue skies. The prairies remind me of a Van Gogh painting rather than what I originally pictured as a Nevada highway. Still, I was amazed by what Manitobans refer to as “roads”. Anything off of Highway One was essentially a dusty or muddy or grassy mess, and trucks brewed up dust clouds that followed them like a train as we saw them pull off the main road. One wonders if small cars ever survive this terrain.

At 5 p.m. I looked around at the emptiness around me, the lack of cars, amenities, anything, and thought of rush hour traffic in the GTA. We went a steady 120 km/h the entire distance between Winnipeg and Regina (save a bit of roadwork), and the two lanes were a huge relief from the one lane of Highways 69 and 17 in Ontario.

About 100 km out of Regina I get it. The prairies are long and flat. They last for what seems like forever or maybe they represent what limbo feels like. I acquiesce to all those people who warned me about them.

However, one of the good things about driving west is that you gain a few hours in your travels. We set the clocks back one more hour before hitting Regina, so we arrived there with plenty of time to settle in and go out for a pleasant dinner at The Roof Top Bar and Grill downtown (http://therooftop.ca/). We ate outside surrounded by dark wood features and silvery aluminum table tops; there were two fire pits in each corner of the patio, and the trendy folk of Regina sprawled around them gossiping into the night. The service was attentive and friendly, and the meal affordable. Two salads, two meals (including a 14 oz. prime rib!), a bottle of Lindeman’s Cabernet Sauvignon and a three cheesecake sampler for dessert was under $100. What a nice change from big city dining!

Our sleeping accommodation was the Holiday Inn Express, which was conveniently located downtown close to the bars and restaurants. The room was well-sized, and had a spacious bathroom. We were told we had to pay for parking and I was surprised to hear it was $6. Again, it is always great to find that things are cheaper than you expect. I would highly recommend both the restaurant and the hotel if you choose to stop in Regina on your cross country travels.

Day Four entails more prairie-driving through Saskatchewan and Alberta, and then finally, the arrival into mountainous B.C. Stay tuned for more news!