Things have been somewhat hectic around the casa (the story of our lives, non?) so I was counting down the days until our most recent trip to our neighbors to the north to celebrate my birthday. As you may recall, originally we had intended to go on a 12-day cruise to Alaska out of SF but that plan didn't pan out (decided when we go on a cruise we want it to be a smaller, nicer vessel) but having already been to Hawaii earlier this year, we needed something else to do for our trip. After researching various options (Paris, Italy, Maine), we decided to finally make our way up to Vancouver as it's somewhere we've been talking about going for quite awhile now. And Alan wanted to hit up Victoria while we were there and if we're going to be on Vancouver Island I'll be damned if I am missing out on Tofino, a place I've been longing to go since I first saw it in Conde Nast Traveler (or was it Travel and Leisure) all those many years ago. With that itinerary in mind, we set a very loose schedule (no briefing book or calendar this time - no time to make one!) and away we went.
SAN FRANCISCO TO VANCOUVER
Leaving bright & early on a Saturday morning is both good (cheaper airfare, more time in your destination city) and bad (pre-dawn wake-up calls, last minute packing, and a hectic running out the door to meet your train time instead of leisurely preparations for the day ahead). This trip was made even more convoluted by the fact that we've both been working very long, very stressful hours and hadn't done much planning beforehand. We've read various blogs advising us to visit x, y and z and of course we have a Frommer's Vancouver 2010 book, but otherwise this trip lacked the standard preparation I'm known for when vacationing.
Oh, and let's not forget the weather. Sunny skies, highs in the 80s and beautiful summer days were apparently going to be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this is the weather I had mentally packed for. Instead, we were set to encounter temps in the mid-50s to upper-60s, sunny but windy conditions and then rain, rain, rain. Packing for that weather requires a whole other frame of mind. So toodaloo to capris and t-shirts and hello jeans and lightweight sweaters. Oh, and where's my jacket? In the end, I packed more similarly to our Ireland trip than to last September's Seattle trip and that took some doing as our carry-on luggage isn't made to hold 9 days worth of wet, cold weather clothes and the actual packing process was a bit of a harried one.
That morning we made our way to SFO's international terminal (one of my favorites) to find that our strategic packing of our carry-on luggage not warranted because at 27 and 29 pounds respectively, we had exceeded the 22 pound weight limit for WestJet carry-ons and would need to check. I felt somewhat cheated as I had a lot of items in my giant travel purse that otherwise could have gone into checked luggage but now I had nothing to do but carry them with me since our Victorinox wheeling bags was stuffed to the gills. Our "hmm, that didn't go according to plan" morning would not end there though. Arriving at our departure gate (the same one we left for Ireland from), we learned that our flight was 20 minutes delayed. Then forty. Than over an hour. The culprit - San Francisco's famous fog.
After a rather calm, slightly under two hour flight that had us passing directly over Mount Ranier (what a gorgeous site!), we landed in Vancouver to find it sunny - albeit windy - with temps in the upper 60s, maybe low 70s. I was definitely too warm in thick socks, walking shoes, jeans and cozy striped cashmere sweater (head to toe Gap, FTW), and forget about that jacket I was carrying. Oh well, one must make the best of the hand one is dealt.
One of the first things we noticed in leaving the airport is that there are no freeways in to the city. We took S. Granville pretty much the whole way in, first passing what appeared to be either a neighborhood in decline, or one that is on the gentrification upswing, and then through what was definitely where the upper crust of society lives, driving alongside Aston Martin Vantages and brand new Jaguars as we passed giant mansions with their 12 foot tall hedges to prevent street noise and lookyloos. Then, we were smack-dab in the middle of a very hip shopping district and passing over a bridge and into the city.
Having booked our hotel on Hotwire, we really didn't have any idea where it was in relation to the rest of the city and some of the most well-known landmarks. All I knew was that it was a four star Sheraton property that was dirt cheap. Sold. (Oh, and a bit of a side fact for all the Twilight fans reading - this is where Rob Pattinson and Kristen Stewart stayed while filming the last movie. And no, that's not why I chose it - remember the whole Hotwire doesn't tell you what you're booking until you paid rule.) The location of our hotel, in my mind, isn't great but it's not terrible either - It's kind of in a weird area near a hospital and some government buildings. Thankfully it's less than a mile downhill to English Bay (more on that later).
Okay, going back to this Hotwire thing. I've booked plenty of hotels using both it and Priceline over the last several years. While I've been burned by Hotwire in the past (Oahu) I didn't think anything of it for this trip since I've routinely gotten Starwood properties and been treated quite well upon check-in. When we went to Seattle in 2009 we booked the Westin via Hotwire and never once did our booking mechanism come up during check in. We didn't get a great room, but later that first evening when I asked if we could be moved into a king room on a Starwood floor (I am an SPG member) the request was honored, and graciously. At the Sheraton Wall Centre I can't say the same. Almost immediately the young gentleman checking us in remarked how because we booked through Hotwire we'd get whatever he could find for us and that meant double beds. I asked if he had any king rooms (us being a married couple and all) and after looking for a bit he said he did but that it was an "accessible" room and then he remarked AGAIN about how we had booked via Hotwire so he was really doing us a favor. Dare I point out that clearly your hotel couldn't fill its rooms so your parent company pushed out that excess inventory to the booking engine in a hope of getting more people in the hotel at a rate that wasn't ridiculous so I'm not sure you should be quite so judgy about how we booked, but rather just welcome us here because we're spending money with you. I don't think he saw it that way. Whatever. In the end, I was somewhat happy with the room we got given how much we paid for it ($114/night). If I had paid the $200/night Expedia was quoting, regardless of the SPG room or not I'd have been very disappointed. In my mind the SVWC just isn't a four star property when you compare it to its Westin cousins. I'd classify it as a slightly upscale (albeit generic in its weird late 90s design aesthetic) tourist class hotel. Unfortunately, for the last leg of our trip - the one that takes us back to Vancouver - we used Priceline to book a room here for two nights. The fortunate part is that it was even less at $104/night. Again, at this price this is a decent place to stay. It doesn't, however, make me forget that where I really wish I was staying was someplace much nicer (the Pan Pacific overlooking Coal Harbor, maybe). But then again, you get what you pay for, no?
After arriving at our room and freshening up, we made reservations for dinner at Raincity Grill, a restaurant that prides itself on sourcing from local, sustainable farms and butchers and was one of the first Vancouver restaurants to implement a 100-mile menu, where everything you'll eat comes from within - as the name implies - 100 miles of the restaurant. Before dinner though we took a walking tour from the Frommers book, down through the West End to English Bay. Unlike in cities like Florence and Dublin where the tour showcases famous points in history or historic works of art or architecture, the tour here was a bit of a hodgepodge of items. Here's a cute park. Here's an ugly old folks home built in the 70s. Here's a mansion that was then apartments and most recently a Macaroni Grill (the book was somewhat out of date because no longer was it a restaurant, but rather a shell of a building clearly going through serious renovations). I think the authors of the book felt as if they HAD to have a walking tour so they put in the most random and strange items along the route in order to get you from Point A to Point B. I will say this though, the route we took was super clean, very residential and looked like a great neighborhood to live in (provided you don't mind hideous 60s architecture). I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention the little local parks with community gardens growing everything from tomatillos to sunflowers. Everywhere you look there was foliage and greenery and the amount of hydrangeas in the yards was quite abundant. The real gem of the tour though is definitely English Bay. It's everything I wish the beach in Alameda was and will never be. It's less magnificent in appearance than Puget Sound in Seattle, but certainly charming in its own, less grandiose manner with tree-dotted communities off to the left and to the right towering mountains covered in greenery. Oh, and the coastline is dotted with both new and old glass and concrete buildings that even in one day I've become to think of as uniquely Vancouver in their appearance. I imagine it's less about what the exterior of the building looks like and instead what is sure to be a fabulous view from any floor.
Because it was a beautiful day leading in to Labor Day there was an sense of frivolity in the air, with hundreds of people on the beach - and in the water - and large party boats circling the bay. Unfortunately said party boats were also blasting terrible techno music in an effort to up the party atmosphere of the evening. Why they did this, I have no idea. Why people on the boats liked this, I cannot say. It's something I have no point of reference for and something I hope to never personally experience.
After hanging out at the beach for a bit, we made our way over to the restaurant for dinner. We set out on the patio even though the wind was kicking up and ordered the three course prix fixe menu with corresponding wine pairing. I had a ham & parsley terrine, fresh halibut with spring vegetables in a garlic broth and a honey creme brulee. The terrine, with its salad and dijon mustard, was divine! Thinking about it makes me hungry. The halibut was certainly very fresh but the garlic broth was way too salty (and that's saying a lot coming from me) and the vegetables were undercooked. The honey brulee was subtle and pleasing, while creamy it seemed a very light touch and a nice way to end the meal. Alan had a crab bisque that was watery and thin and except for the fresh herbs lacked any sort of flavor, a beautiful pork loin that was cooked to perfection and tasted heavenly, and then a chocolate mousse and cranberry sorbet that had a lot going on but was generally very good in flavor. The wine pairings were all spot on, but the portion sizes - for the extra $20 charged - were a let down. All told I'd say we had 1.5 glasses of wine instead of the three that we should have received given the cost. Overall the meal was good, but I'm not sure that I'd go home and say, "oh my god, you have to eat there!" I'm finding myself very spoiled by the quality of foods in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland. And let's be honest, having eaten at The French Laundry within the last week I'm hard-pressed to find anything that can stand up to it (even Benu in SF, from former Laundry chef Corey Lee was a let down).
After dinner we walked down to the beach and along the seawall up to the Burrard Bridge and then back to the hotel, passing more local community gardens. We were both tired and full so rather than doing anything more that night, we hopped into bed to read. I promptly fell asleep before 9 p.m., only to wake up around 11:30 p.m. in quite a rude manner. I've come to decide that people in Vancouver responsible for celebrations like really bad music as at 11:30 I was woken up by the thump, thump, thump of bad techno from a party for a convention taking place in our hotel - Supernatural 2010. I finally fell asleep after midnight, but the thump, thump, thump continued on. So for those in the know - what is it with Vancouver and bad music?