Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Favorite travel books - a never-ending list

As a travel writer, the one question I get asked more than any single question is: "Where's your favorite/most memorable/most exciting place/trip/experience you've been/had...etc.?" in all its shapes and forms.

My answer is pretty standard: Don't have one. Unless it's the next place I'm going to, maybe... I've had memorable experiences - good and bad - everyone I've traveled. There is no one place I would pick over any other. I'm not fence-sitting - that's just the way I feel. It reflects my experiences and the way I deal with things, I guess. Doesn't matter where I've been - Thailand or Peru, the Cayman Islands or Africa, Malaysia or Belize - I've had some good times and some bad times. Obviously, I've had much more good than bad, or I wouldn't do this any more. But I digress from the real subject of this blog post.

Probably the second-most asked question I get regards travel books: What's my favorite?

Again, I don't have one favorite. I do have several I'd recommend, though. (You know what's coming next, don't you? Another list ...)

Some of these are literary travel books; others are guide books; some are collections of travel stories and some are not even strictly travel, per se, but there is an element of travel to them.

Some I've read only once; others are I've poured through and dog-eared the pages or highlighted the trips (if they're guidebooks). Some I read almost daily, like a religion.

Hard to pick a Top 10 in this category, for, as the title of this post suggests, it's really always growing. But as of this moment in time, to the best of my mind's recollection, these are my current Top 10 Favorite Travel Books. They aren't in any particular order, they're just in the order in which they popped into my head.

1. From a Wooden Canoe by Jerry Dennis. So, right off the bat, I name a book that probably has much less to do with travel than it does the outdoor life. However, my first real "travels" did involve canoeing. Besides, it's my list. This book features a collection of essays Jerry wrote for Canoe & Kayak magazine over the course of several years. At times funny, at other times poignant, but always very well written, I read stories from this at least once a week. My favorite is the essay on "Camp Coffee" that begins, "Morning isn't morning without a cup of coffee, but not just any cup will do ..."

2. 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz. If you're making a bucket list, this book is indispensable. Before I even got it, I'd done several of the trips described in its pages. I've done more since then, and it helped me plan part of my itinerary for a recent trip to Thailand. Great book to read for fun while planning holidays during a long winter evening, it's also great for the kind of quick glance required during "bathroom reading" sessions.

3. Smile When You're Lying by Chuck Thompson. A hilarious read for travel writers and tourism industry reps alike, even if you're not in the biz, it's an entertaining read. If you are considering a career switch to travel writing, you might think twice after reading this - or maybe it'll push you to jump even quicker! He's come out with a sequel I have yet to read, but sooner or later, I will get around to it.

4. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm. Along the same lines as Thompson's book, but much more fictitious in nature. Entertaining - but don't believe that everything the author cites in here actually happens to guidebook writers on assignment. This book cause a bit of a stir in Vancouver in 2008, when a local columnist for a North Vancouver weekly who shall remain nameless (she knows who she is) reviewed the book, but also used it as a vehicle for launching into a critique of travel writers everywhere (she's not a travel writer herself). While some of her points were valid, publicly critiquing others in your profession is a bit unethical; if a lawyer or doctor or accountant had done that, they would have quickly lost their accreditation in any professional association in which they held membership. That aside, it is funny and worth a read - just bear in mind it's as much fiction as it is fact.

5. Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel. This book is part memoir, part travelogue, part conservation story. It details the author's travels around Asia, in an effort to try to see every species of the seven tiger species left in this world before more become extinct. In addition to describing the hoops she has to jump through to try to see these animals, it details her own struggles to find a way to make a difference, to help them survive and avoid extinction. She also sprinkles in moments about the kinds of struggles most travel writers - or travelers, for that matter - can relate to: the scramble to find ways to pay for her odyssey.

6. Travels on my Elephant by Mark Shand. A memoir about the author's journey around India, riding the back of an elephant. It's been years since I read this, but I loved it. The one thing that's stayed with me about the story throughout the years is the end of it: Shand forms a very close bond with both his elephant and the mahout hired to take the pair around India, and the author finds it incredibly difficult to part ways when their journey is finally done.

7. Dining with Headhunters by Richard Sterling. One of my favorite writers, he combines food, adventure and travel into all his books. This collection is kind of unique, because it consists of short anecdotes based on his travels around southeast Asia, mainly while stationed aboard a U.S. naval vessel during the Vietnam War. Each story has food in it, and at the end of each story, recipes are supplied so you can re-create his experiences. So it's a cookbook as well as a travel book. My favorite? The "Feasts of Fatima," wherein the author falls in love with a lady of the evening. Very poignant. Great satay recipes, too.

8. Shadow of the Bear by Brian Payton. Very similar to the Padel book described above. Vancouver writer Brian Payton wanders the world, trying to gain a view of every kind of bear found around the globe. His travels are much more global than Padel's, since wild bears can still be found on four of the six continents, the exceptions being Australia (koalas are not bears) and Antarctica (those are penguins, not small bears in tuxedos!). He asks many of the same questions about bears and their future in our world as Padel asks about tigers. If you enjoy one, you'll probably enjoy the other.

9. The Tent Dwellers by Albert Bigelow Paine. Okay, you there had to be at least one book in this list that details a paddling trip, right? This is it. Paine was Mark Twain's biographer. He also spent a summer canoeing, camping, fishing and generally exploring the wilds of Nova Scotia in the first decade of the 20th century. That tale is told in this little volume, which I read myself back in 2000 - right before I planned a canoe trip in Kejimkujik National Park, which I then wrote about in Ski Canada's Outdoor Guide and the Georgia Straight. I didn't follow his path precisely, as he and his companions only spent a bit of time in the waterways of the national park, the rest of the time paddling outside of the boundaries in the vast waterways of the area.

10. The Art of the Airways/All Aboard! Okay, so I fudged it. These are really 10 and 10A. But I didn't know how to include one without the other. They both feature vintage art from the Golden Age of Air and Rail Travel. The first is a beautiful hardcover, coffee-table type book with many reproductions of posters from the airlines that first began taking people around the world. The second is a paperback book that I enjoyed while traveling across Canada by train, myself. If you love history, art deco style art, if you're in love with what many refer to as "The Golden Age of Travel" - or any combination of all three, you'd probably enjoy these books.

Well, there you have it. It was tough keeping it to 10 (well, okay, 11!) but I did have to cut off the list somewhere. Of course, now that I've done this, next week I'll probably read a new book that I'll wish I could have included here. Just like the wistful adage of travel (So many places, so little time...) there are so many books, and so little time ...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thai-vs.-Thai : Chiang Mai - or Vancouver?

I had a chance to eat at the Pink Elephant Thai Restaurant in Vancouver a few weeks ago. It's not an authentic Thai restaurant in the same way places like Talay Thai on Vancouver's Granville or Tom Yum on Hastings Street in Burnaby (both really good restaurants), rather it's a kind of Thai-fusion eatery, combining traditional Thai flavors with some Western touches in an upscale, modern eatery.

Thai Pink Shirt cocktail.

The food here is very good. What really made it interesting for me was my main course: Keaw Teaw Num (or Num), a.k.a., Thai Noodle Soup. I had just eaten that dish - or one very much like it - in Chiang Mai, Thailand, less than a month before, at Just Khao Soy Restaraunt. In other words, I was comparing two very similar - if not exactly the same - Thai dishes, one from Thailand, the other made in Vancouver.

First things, first, though. Started off the dinner at Pink Elephant with one of its signature cocktails: the Thai Pink Shirt. And it was served to me by a bartender in a pink shirt. Don't know if he was Thai, although he was definitely of Asian ancestry.

The drink consists of a mixture of vodka, cranberry juice, grapefruit juice and strawberry liqueur. Very tasty. I could have drank those all night, but once the food started coming, I switched to beer, opting for one of Thailand's most popular brews, Singha.

Our appetizers consisted of giant scallop seared with Thai chili and something called a "Floating Market" that consisted of deep-fried spinach tempura and tiger prawns served with spicy Thai applesauce.

A "Floating Market" at Pink Elephant Thai

On to the main course. Well, three main courses really: In addition to the noodle soup, I had an order of Pad Thai and my companion ordered Taley, a seafood combination sauteed with peppercorn and Thai spices.

(This is how you can tell it's a trendy rather than a traditional Thai eatery; in traditional Thai eateries in both Vancouver and Thailand, the practice involves ordering several different small dishes that everyone shares; at Pink Thai, it was a very western-style "one-dish-does-one" approach.)

So how did the Vancouver Thai noodle soup compare with Chiang Mai's noodle soup?

They were both darn good.

Khao Soy noodle soup in Chiang Mai.

No, I'm not sitting on the fence; fact is, they shared some similarities, but there were many differences, as well. All you have to do is look at the photos.

Khao Soy offered three choices of noodles, as well as three-different heat levels (I opted for hottest, of course - and it was hot!) and a selection of different types of meat.

Similarly,  Pink Elephant offered different meat, broth, noodle choice and topping, the latter which was extra.
The noodle soup dish at Pink Elephant.

However, the crispy noodles at Khao Soy were much bigger and crispier and numerous than the ones at Pink Elephant.

I'd still go to Pink Elephant again, mind you. As I would to Khao Soy, if I'm ever back in Chiang Mai.

One other plus for Pink Elephant: they make really good coffee - something most restaurants do not do. Unless they have "cup" in their name or used to be owned by an NHL all-star defenceman, most places just don't serve good coffee. These guys do.

And as anyone who knows me will be able to tell, I do love my coffee. So an eatery that actually serves a decent cup - not even special, mind you, just decent - scores BIG points with moi.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Favorite paddling destinations: the world

Last post, I listed my favorite paddling places in Canada. Now, to paraphrase broadcast news legend, Paul Harvey, "here are the rest of the places."

In other words, some of my favorite paddling trips around the rest of the world.

It's kind of a mirror image of my Canada trips, in that while my Canadian favs all involve canoeing, most of these are kayaking excursions - the notable exception being the Okefenokee Swamp.

1. The Oriente, Ecuador
Dawn along the Rio Shiripuno,
in Ecuador's Oriente.
Specifically, the Rio Shirpuno. We spent five days paddling along this jungle river, camping along the riverbanks three of the nights, staying a fourth night in a Huaorani village. The chief of the tribe, Moi, was our head jungle guide. Saw plenty of parrots, toucans and other birds, plus some caimans. One of the unique aspects of this trip was the face we were paddling small touring (sea) kayaks on a moderately fast-moving river. No rapids or whitewater to speak of, though. Read more about at A Journey Back into Time. 

2. Belize Barrier Reef
My first foray into sea-kayaking, took place at this UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1991. Great trip, we spent five days cay-hopping out to the reef - the second largest in the world - and back, camping on desert islands, snorkeling and learning the secrets of a good rum punch. Lots of outfitters run trips here.

Canoeing Okefenokee.

This is the largest national wildlife refuge in the U.S., east of the Mississippi. It's home to deer, black bears, plenty of birds and - the animal most people associate with the swamp - alligators. Spent three days paddling there, camping out two nights, and I must have seen 50 gators, many up close. Saw plenty of birds, too - herons, cranes, songbirds, raptors - and even some deer.

4. Everglades National Park, Part 1
Mention the Everglades, people automatically think, "swamp." Yes, there are swamps there, but much of the park consists of a "sea of grass" as well as mangroves, coastal islands, and wet "prairies." I spent half-a-day paddling a canoe through the Big Cypress National Preserve. Saw a few gators, and plenty of birds.
5. Everglades National Park, Part 2
I spent much  more time paddling a kayak among the Ten Thousand Islands, a series of coastal mangrove islands in the park. Saw plenty of wildlife - dolphin, sea turtles, manatees, herons, egrets, songbirds, ospreys, and many very small but pesky raccoons - but nary a gator, the animal many people associate with the 'Glades. It actually reminded me very of Belize - we camped on sandy island beaches every night.

Camping in the Everglades:
no swamps to be seen, anywhere.

This river provides plenty of opportunity for paddlers to get up close to anhingas, herons, egrets, many varieties of songbirds - and alligators. It's within shouting distance of Cape Canaveral, so you could see gators one day, gantries the next. I spent an entire day paddling a very stable, open-pit kayak - kind of like a cross between a canoe and kayak, really - and the river is slow enough that you have plenty of opportunity to stop and check out points of interest along the shore.

7. The Mangroves of Grand Cayman Island
I've never really trusted those "sit-on-top" kayaks after spending an afternoon trying to stay atop one in the surf at Lake Malawi. But on this trip, I had no choice - it was the only type of kayak the tour company provided, at least for this particular tour. And I was even put on a-two person kayak with a non-paddler. But since we weren't dealing with big waves in the mangroves, we never really risked tipping (whew!) We did learn lots about the different kinds of mangroves, though - red, white and black - and the role they play in coastal ecology.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Favorite Paddling Destinations: Canada

Okay, so the title of this blog includes the word "Paddling." But I haven't posted anything about paddling since starting the blog back in March.

Up until now.

That has now been corrected.

I've paddled canoes for 40-plus years, sea kayaks for 20 years, so I've seen a lot of water, both fresh and salt. As a writer/photographer covering the subject, I've been published in Canoe & Kayak, Canoe Journal, Paddler, Canadian Wildlife, Nature Canada, the Georgia Straight, Fast Forward, Synchronicity, the Calgary Herald, Travel Writers Tales and its affiliated newspapers, Ski Canada (yep, that's not a misprint!), several online sites, and the book, More of Canada's Best Canoe Routes, edited by Alistair Thomas.

These are my favorite places to paddle in Canada. Some of them I've paddled multiple times, some just once - but they're all magic.

You'll notice two things: this is not a Top 10 list, although the total trips I've taken in all these parks combined would equal more than 10. Also, there are not kayak trips included; that's because most of my kayaking has taken place in warm, tropical waters. That'll come in my next blog post, Favorite Paddling Destinations: The World

These are not in any particular order; they're all wonderful trips.

1. Algonquin Provincial Park (Ontario)
This is where I first paddled on an overnight canoe trip without adult supervision, kind of a rite of passage, back in my high school days. I have many fond memories of paddling, hiking and camping here. I've had some incredible wildlife experiences paddling here, including my first heron sighting, first wild deer sighting, first American bittern sighting ... the list goes on.

Beaverlodge: Grey Owl's cabin.
 2. Prince Albert National Park (Saskatchewan)
Visited Grey Owl's cabin at Ajawaan Lake during a trip here, in October 1999. It's a beautiful park, we saw and heard lots of wildlife, including bald eagles, foxes, otters and wolves.

The latter serenaded us from across a small lake with a chorus of howls one morning while we were finishing breakfast.

3. Kejimkujik National Park (Nova Scotia)

Harry Lake, Nova Scotia,
just outside Keji's boundaries.
Once paddled by Alberta Bigelow Paine , the biographer of Mark Twain. Covered part of the same route Paine did in 1908 on a fishing trip in the area, later chronicled in The Tent Dwellers. Encountered deer, loons, owls and porcupines while paddling here.

4. Bowron Lake Provincial Park (BC) Located almost dead-smack in the middle of the province. I've paddled this one twice, the first time just the west leg, the second time, did the entire 110-km circuit. A great trip, both times.

It's a wonderful trip, almost anyone can do it, although some paddling experience would be helpful along sections of the Cariboo River portion of the trip. Both trips, we saw a moose in the exact same place in the same lake. Figured he must be on the park's payroll.

Bowron Lake staff moose.

 5. Dinosaur Provincial Park (Alberta) I was really fortunate to spend three days paddling and camping among the hoodoos and cottonwoods along the Red Deer River that runs through this park, I was with Calgary's Bow Waters Canoe Club at the time, we had to get special back-country permits to camp there. I saw the biggest beaver I've ever seen in my life while canoe-camping here. Also, my first prairie rattlesnake, indigenous to the area.

6. Pinecone Burke Provincial Park (BC)
Paddled here a few times, once as part of a paddling-hiking combo to see Widgeon Falls, the other times as just a day trip through Widgeon Slough. Lots of birds and wildlife to see. There's a recreation campsite at the trail head, giving you the option of camping overnight after a few hours of paddling, before hiking to the falls.

7. Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park (Alberta)
This icy alpine lake features one of Canada's most photographed images: Spirit Island. There are two back country camping areas, one about halfway up the 25-km lake just before Spirit Island; the other at the very end of the lake. The latter is much nicer, because the large boats that take tourists up to Spirit Island do not go past that point, so it's quieter and much wilder.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Candy counters for travellers, travel writers

About a week ago, I was involved in a cool discussion on Facebook about the types of stores women and men typically frequent; a friend of mine, Nicole Yamanaka, co-owner of Le Physique, commented in a post that she much preferred to go to a place like Home Depot or RONA as opposed to a women's shoe store or clothing store.

It's really neat to see the way people like Nik (and many of the others who participated in the discussion) do not let gender stereotyping dictate or limit who they are as people.

Me? I'm not very handy, so building/home repair stores are not exactly my cup of tea. Now, I love to go to kitchen/cookware stores like Sonoma-Williams, certainly not something high on the list of "male" things to do, at least not up there with watching sports, tinkering with old cars or being able to belch out the national anthem, but since I do most of the cooking at home, it makes a certain amount of sense.

(I also like to go to spas for massage and other types of body pampering, although I do draw the line at waxing as a means of body hair removal - or any other type of hair removal that is not restricted to the head or facial area, or involves anything other than scissors or a razor.) 

More in line with the so-called "masculine" side, I also love outdoor stores that sell camping supplies - tents, backpacks, canoes, paddles, cool outdoor kitchen gadgets (which gives me the best of both worlds - camping and cooking... and yeah, I have a campfire cappuccino maker!) 

Anyone for a campfire espresso?

A distant cousin to outdoor stores are travel stores. As a travel writer (and obviously an avid traveller), I love these stores.

Letting me loose in these kinds of stores is tantamount to turning a six-year-old loose in a candy store. Hide the plastic! Don't let me go in with more than $20 in my pocket! I might end up paying for the owner's kids college fund!

Two of my favorites in Vancouver are The Travel Bug and Wanderlust.

Both of these stores are located in Vancouver's west end. The Travel Bug is right on Broadway, a couple of blocks past MacDonald Street. Very close to the Banana Leaf, a Malaysian restaurant I've eaten at more than a few times (but that's another story...)

Travel books galore
 The Travel Bug offers a wide assortment of travel guides and books, including some really good (and sometimes esoteric - which is even better) travel literature books. They also sell Putamayo world music CD's, and assorted travel paraphernalia like electrical outlet converters, airplane sleep masks, passport wallets, and so on.

They also host events from time to time. For example, a few years ago I attended a slide show there, put on by Leslie Nevison of Mama Tembo Tours in Africa. I also saw a presentation there about Myanmar.

Wanderlust is located on West 4th Ave. between Cypress and Maple, and just a stone's throw from Las Margaritas Mexican Restaurant (eaten there a few times, too!)

It's a larger store, with a larger selection of books and a huge room full of luggage of all kinds. Like the Travel Bug, is also has a host of accessories like travel journals, travel clocks, money belts and so on.

Cool stickers
It also used to sell these cool vintage travel labels - the kind you used to see plastered on people's steamer trunks and suitcases. I have a bunch of 'em myself. You still might be able to get them there, not certain, though.

I haven't spent as much time in Wanderlust as at the Travel Bug (guess I like Malaysian better than Mexican!). I have bought books from both stores, as well as accessories.

There are other travel stores in Vancouver. But I love these ones so much, I've just never explored any of the others.

Now, where did I put that credit card ...?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Burger quest: the Lower Mainland's best

How do I feel about burgers?

Well, Samuel L. Jackson (a.k.a. "Jules") kind of sums it up best in the 1994 movie Pulp Fiction:

"Mmm-mmmm. That is a tasty burger. … I do love the taste of a good burger. Mm-mm-mm..."

Could not have said better, myself.

Of course, these days, if you want to guarantee a really tasty burger, your best bet is to make it at home, with your own ingredients, varying it depending on your tastes. I make Mexi-burgers, Teryaki burgers, lamb burgers ... you get the idea.

That's because most of what passes for burgers these days is fast food crap you get at places that feature golden arches, marketing monarchs or little girls with pigtails prominently displayed outside their establishments.

However, there are places you can still go to get a good, homemade-style burger in a restaurant. I'm constantly on the lookout for great burger joints, and this blog post is the result of a few years' worth of research I've conducted since moving to Vancouver in 2003.

(Hey, travel writers get hungry too - and I can't always be roaming around other continents and countries, eating exotic food, you know...)

Greek God Burger: one of many offerings at
New Westminster's Burger Heaven
Around B.C.'s Lower Mainland, there are a handful of places to get decent burgers, but for me, hands-down, the best burgers in Lotusland are to be found at Burger Heaven in New Westminster.

I've been sampling their burgers there since the spring of 2010, and I have never been disappointed. Just recently had their "Greek God Burger" which comes with feta cheese, black olives, tomato and onion. Yum!

The burgers are hand-made, of course.

In addition to great burgers, BH also offers awesome onion rings. In terms of beverages, they have a cool daily offering called "Just Gimme a Damn Beer" - you never really know what brand it is you're getting on a given day, but again, I've never been disappointed.

If beer is not your thing, try one of their spiked milkshakes: a Bailey's shake, a B-52 shake ... the list goes on.

Occasionally I will go elsewhere for burgers - mainly if I'm nowhere near New West - but if I'm going to make a serious burger run, it'll be for Burger Heaven.

It's the best, here are the rest ... (a.k.a., the runner-ups - and a few others worth at least a mention)

Flying Beaver Bar & Grill.

I haven't been there in a few years, but obviously the burgers there made an impression, because I still remember them. (Try the Bi-plane Burger) One of the cool side benefits to eating there, is the fact it's located in Richmond, across the road from the YVR South Terminal and you can watch Harbour Air seaplanes landing and taking off on the Middle Arm of the Fraser River while eating. Good draft selection, too.

Sunshine Diner

Just tried this one a few days ago. Not bad...I liked the fact they offered orange milkshakes (my fav) and they're REAL milkshakes, that is, they come in those big steel drum-like containers used for the old-style milkshake mixers. Speaking of old-style, they really did this up nice with decorations, lots of 1950's memorabilia featured inside and out, including close-to-life-size statues of Marilyn and Elvis on the sidewalk outside the diner. The Sunshine Burger - this West Broadway restaurant's specialty - is nice and juicy. This might be my go-to burger place, except, well, it's not as close as Burger Heaven and parking is more of an issue. But if you're in that part of Kitsilano, you can't beat it. 

Marilyn, if the breeze is that bad, come inside and
join me in a burger at the Sunshine Diner.

This one is in downtown Vancouver at Bute and Davie Streets. It features a retro look as well as some good burgers - with plenty of options: beef, organic beef, chicken breast, veggie, wild (ostrich, bison, venison), turkey, and occasionally, lamb. Good shakes, too. If I lived closer, I might go there more often, but I'm at the opposite end of the city, closer to Burnaby, Richmond and New West than the downtown area, so ...

Wally's Burgers

If you need to grab a quick burger on the run in Southeast Vancouver, Wally's is probably your best bet. Located in the Killarney Centre at the corner of East 49th and Elliot Street, it's a grab-n-go kinda place, although there are a few seats there. Good burgers, quick service, but not a place I'd make a special trip to, just to have burgers. Certainly nothing wrong with it, it just ain't Burger Heaven. No website I could find, either.

Moderne Burger

Just down the street from Sunshine sits this icon. I was there last summer, and frankly, I was disappointed. I'd heard so much about this place, and I took a friend visiting from out of town there. The burgers were okay ... but I can get "okay" burgers just about anywhere. I'm looking for outstanding. Sorry, Moderne. They just weren't as juicy as the ones at Sunshine. At least they served orange milkshakes, there.

Get it on the run at Wally's Burgers.

Vera's Burgers

This company certainly tops everyone when it comes to slogans: "You can't beat Vera's Meat."

The problem, is you can. There's a reason why this place is at the bottom of my list.

At one point, they may have been pretty darn good. But there are several outlets around the Lower Mainland, and that means even though the burgers are "hand-made" there is an institutional quality to the food at Vera's that is almost a necessary evil when you want to maintain consistency across the chain. Again, not bad, better than most of the other chain fast-food burger places - but not at the top of my list.

Do love the slogan, though.

Special mention: The Rod and Gun Club Cafe and Pub

This isn't in the Lower Mainland; in fact, it's not even on the Mainland, it's on Vancouver Island. But if you are ever in Parksville, stop here to satisfy your burger cravings. If this place was located in the Greater Vancouver Area, it might be up in the #2 spot for me.

Friday, May 6, 2011

All a-b-o-a-r-d!

In the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (played by the actor James Stewart) says: "You know what the three most exciting sounds in the world are? ... Anchor chains, plane motors, and train whistles."
As someone who has chosen travel writing as a vocation, I'm obviously in full agreement with all of those. But these days, you rarely hear the anchor of a ship going up (at least on most modern cruises), and plane motors are really the whine of jet engines - not quite as romantic.

However, you can still hear train whistles; whether traveling on a train or just sitting at home at night, hearing the lonely sound off in the distance, there is still something about that sound that seems to awaken the wanderlust in me, beckoning me to yet another destination, another adventure.

All aboard! (Photo courtesy of Via Rail)

In my daily perusing of the twitter-scape, I just learned today that there is actually a National Train Day in the U.S., to celebrate train travel.

Wow! What a cool idea! There are events in various cities across the U.S. to mark the occasion.

This brings back reminiscences of my most memorable train trip.

It took place back in 2007, and actually completed, in a loose sort of way, a dream I'd held for many years of traversing Canada by train, coast-to-coast.

I say "loosely" because the two legs of my journey were separated by about 30 years.

While attending the University of New Brunswick in my student days, on more than one occasion, I ended up taking the train from Toronto to Fredericton and back. I even went as far as Moncton once, due to a communication foul-up during a bus strike in the Maritimes back in 1975.

At the time I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to go right across Canada by train, like people might have done back in the late 19th century?" when it was the only way to safely and quickly get from the east to the west.

Flash forward to 2007: The Travel Media Association of Canada's annual conference took place in London, Ontario.

One of the TMAC industry members, VIA Rail, offered writers attending the conference an "offer we couldn't refuse," and many of us took it. For me, that meant traveling by rail from Vancouver to Toronto, thus completing the circuit I began three decades earlier.

Moncton was as far east as I ever went by train, so I guess, technically, I haven't gone "coast-to-coast," but you know what? That's okay by me.

The two legs were quite different.

During my train trips between Toronto and Fredericton (the latter, by the way, is the host city for the 2012 TMAC conference), I often traveled "economy" class. That meant I spent an overnight trip sleeping in my chair. Not the greatest way to go, but certainly the cheapest.

On one or two occasions, I actually had a berth, meaning I could sleep lying down in a proper bed. Better than economy, but still not much privacy or flexibility.

However, on the 2007 trip, it was a stateroom, all the way! My own room, bed, bathroom and sink, as well as a closet for my luggage and a porter to look after me. Now that's the way to travel!

You know it's going to be a good trip when you're welcomed on board with a serving of complimentary champagne in the Dome Car.

Royal York Hotel
(Photo courtesy of Fairmont)
 The meals served on board in the dining car were exquisite; we were given a choice of wines with the meal and we could purchase other alcoholic beverages if we so desired.

Much of our free time was spent in the Dome Car, watching the mountain, then prairie, then Canadian shield scenery roll by. When not there, we could often be found socializing in the lounge car, where tea and nibblies were served every afternoon. We could also choose to stay in our rooms and read, nap, journal or just watch the countryside roll by - the ability to do the latter being one of the great assets of a train journey.

As with any journey worth making, there were some interesting and humorous situations that arose during our trip. Like when some of the water pipes froze, causing the water from my sink (and whiskers from shaving) to back up and rise into the sink of my neighbor's stateroom! Luckily, it turned out to be Andrew Renton , a long-time colleague and pal of mine, and we both had a laugh about it.

Trying to shower in a moving train always proved to be an interesting experience as well.

There were also some wistful remembrances for me as we passed through northern Ontario. It was in the dark of early morning, but I said a silent "Hello, old friend," as we passed the community of Gogama. I'd spent an entire summer based near there in 1973 when I worked in the province's junior forest ranger program. It was still arguably one of the best summers of my entire life. It later influenced me in a way I never could have guessed: a forest ranger there recommended I try UNB for forestry. I ended up going there, and it actually resulted in my career in the media, a result of being bit by the student radio/newspaper bug. But that's another story...

We rolled into Toronto's Union Station at about 3 o'clock in the morning, across the street from the beautiful Fairmont Royal York Hotel - alas, too late for our "Valentine's Night Drink" in the hotel lounge, but not too late to appreciate the splendour and majesty of my home for the night.

And while I may have been too tired to realize it then, later that morning, while enjoying a much needed hot bath, it did dawn on me that I had completed that cross-country journey wished for so many years ago. I'd linked the two chains together, finally, fulfilling that dream of my youth.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The mother of all upgrades

Often when I tell people outside of the travel industry that I am a travel writer, they almost scoff as they invariably get around to coming out and saying, in one way or another, "Oh, you get paid to go on vacation!"

Of course, any full-time, professional working travel writer worth his or her salt knows it's not all cold Mai-Tais on the beach or five-course dinners served on board a yacht.

That's not to say the job doesn't have its perks, mind you ...

Fountain in front of the hotel.
 If you're not a travel writer (or maybe, even if you are!) you might want to get up and walk away from the computer before reading this post any further...you could end up being a tad envious (and rightly so, this time!) or even developing a serious case of jealously by the time you finished read about this particular experience.

So I'm in Malaysia, at the end of a 16-day media trip hosted by Tourism Malaysia. We start our day by waking up at 5 a.m. in the jungle in Sabah, at the tip of the northeast corner of the island of Borneo. We spend the morning on a wildlife river cruise, then boat back downriver from our jungle lodge, the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge to visit some more tourist sites in the city. We then fly out, through two connections, to Kuala Lumpur. We're boarding a plane at noon the next day to fly back from the Malaysian capital to Vancouver, via Taipei.
 In other words, it's a typical travel writer's day on the road: very long - with lots of ground covered, and lots of travel miles piled up.

We arrive at our hotel for the night, the gorgeous and glorious Shangri-La Putrajaya Hotel, 30 minutes outside of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. It's 9 p.m., so we've been on the go for 16 hours. We're tired, grubby, hungry and definitely in need of a drink.

Welcome to my humble abode.

Our city guide, Aliza, makes sure we get the registration process started, then, since she's local, she bids us good night and heads home, telling us she'll be back at 11:30 the next morning to make sure we get to the airport on time.

So I get up to the desk a few minutes later, give them my name and the man starts looking at his computer screen for the information about my room.

Then he says, "I'm very sorry, Mr. Geary, but the room we had hoped to make available to you is no longer available."


My heart jumps a beat. My guide is gone. I've just been told I don't have a room. For half-a-second, I'm feeling, "Whoa, what the heck am I to do?"

I don't know if he was doing it for dramatic effect, but before I've recovered from that mini-shock, before I have a chance to catch my breath, before I have a chance to say anything, he continues.

"However, we can provide you with an upgrade to the Presidential Suite, if that would be acceptable."

Double whoa!

Except this time, my heart went pit-a-pat with a happy beat rather than an alarmed one.

Keeping my cool as best I could, I simply replied in my best "quiet-and-reserved" tone, "Yes, that would be fine, thank you."

Let's get clean - one more time!
Meanwhile, inside, I'm doing a happy dance. "Yes-yes-yes!" (Picture the dance Wesley Snipes - a.k.a., Willie Mays Hayes - does in Major League when he finds out he's made the club - that's how excited I was!)

The Presidential Suite. It deserves to be capitalized.

I'd never stayed in anything that even sounded so luxurious, so palatial.

Well, it was all that ...

And more.

There must be something about even being a resident of that suite that bestows special status upon you. The bellhop carrying my bags up showed me in, and was very nervous as he toured me around the room, showing me where everything was. Then someone else came in with a bowl of fresh fruit as gift, and he was nervous, too. Hey, for all they knew, if I was staying in the Presidential Suite, maybe I was president of something ...

The tour was quick, but I found myself wandering around again, afterward, trying to find my way around. The room was bigger than my house! No exaggeration: My house in Vancouver is 1500 square feet; this suite was 2255 square feet.

The master bedroom was as big as my living room/dining room at home, complete with king size bed, office, big screen TV on the wall and a large sofa with a coffee table.

The suite also came with another bedroom with two queen-size beds each with their own TV, as well. All the bedrooms featured en suite bathrooms. There was also a common bathroom accessible from the hallway.

Between the three bathrooms, I had three showers and two jacuzzi tubs.

View of the main living room, from the main office desk.
Rounding out the suite was a small but fully equipped kitchen (no beer in the fridge, though, damn it!); a large living room area, complete with a bar; a dining room and an office area separate from the one in the master bedroom.

I thought, "Man, I've died and gone to Hotel Heaven!"

Two minutes after that, I thought, "Holy crap! I organized a last night final-drink-together party in the bar downstairs! But I don't wanna leave...but I gotta show up, it's my party!"

So, down I went. Duty called, after all.

I didn't say anything when my colleagues asked me how my room was, other than, "Oh, it's great!"

After all, I didn't want the "riff-raff" invading my sanctuary, did I? (Snickers, tongue-in-cheek).

After drinks, I went back up to the room and took a bath in one of the suite's bathroom Jacuzzis.

I had a hard time sleeping...I knew I had to leave in about 12 hours and why would I want to waste it, sleeping in this wonderful suite? I wanted to enjoy it!

In the morning, I took a shower in another bathroom (as a travel writer, I'm obligated professionally to test everything out, right?)

I'd booked a massage with the hotel spa the previous night, but, since I really didn't want to leave the suite, I had the masseuse come up for an in-room massage. Because how often can you get a massage in the Presidential Suite - any presidential suite?

So, after a very good breakfast, and another bath (I swear I was the cleanest guy in the hotel by the time I left!), I lounged on the sofa for a while before answering the knock on the door when my massage therapist showed up.

It was a great massage, befitting a setting like this. Very elegant room, very elegantly dressed masseuse, and a very relaxing, elegant massage (I blogged about this a few months ago). All-in-all, a great way to finish off my stay at the hotel. Well, after just one more shower, that is. Have to wash off those excess massage oils!

All too soon, it was time to call for help with my bags. As much as I was looking forward to getting home after 16 days on the road, I really could have stayed one more night here...

As I walked down to meet our group in the lobby, I reflected on what a contrast I'd experienced in 12 short hours during my final full day in Malaysia: starting my day in a very Spartan cabin at a jungle lodge to finishing it in the most luxurious accommodation I'd ever stayed in.

I glanced back one final time at the door to the suite.

What a room. To quote Bogart from The Maltese Falcon, it was "the stuff that dreams are made of."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Brr--rr--rr ... Sabering, chilling and nitro-ing at the Bearfoot Bistro

Are you a fan of those epic swashbuckler movies of the 1930's, '40's and 50's - you know, the ones that featured great sword fights with heroes like Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and even, on occasion, Gene Kelly?

Even if you're not, you really should get to see someone "saber" a bottle of champagne, at least once in your life. Better still if you can do it yourself, but if not, at least watch someone else do it "live."

I had the chance to do that a few months ago during a visit to the Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, B.C. During a tour of their wine cellar, one of our group was allowed to actually saber open a bottle of pretty good champagne. I actually tried to volunteer, but one other member of our group got her hand up more quickly.

 Sabering a bottle of bubbly

For those not familiar with the term, "sabering" a bottle of champagne is exactly what it sounds like: it involves using a sabre, or sword, to open the bottle by lopping off the cork and surrounding glass neck cleanly enough to pour the champagne without fear of getting glass in the glasses.

Technically, the art is called "sabrage" (not to be confused with "road rage" or "roid rage!). Its history dates back Napoleonic times.

It may sound daunting, but Jennifer Patterson, our selected saberer, did a fine job under the tutelage of J.S. Dupuis of the Bearfoot. Personally, I would loved to have had a chance to do it myself, partly for the experience, but mainly because the champagne went down way to easily with the oysters we enjoyed. Would have liked a few more flutes of the bubbly, myself ...
Na zdrowie!

But we were not done, yet. From the wine cellar, we migrated upstairs to the Belvedere Ice Room, which holds in excess of 50 different kinds of vodka from around the world.

It literally is an ice room, the walls are solid ice, the vodkas are kept on shelves chipped out of the ice.

It is cold - you have to bundle up in warm coats and hats - supplied by the Bearfoot - to spend any time inside the room.

We tried two or three premium vodkas, including one from Poland and one from B.C., actually made from organic potatoes.

Note to spirit afficianados: It's a myth that vodka is always made from potatoes. While it can be, it's usually made from grain, like most spirits. In Russia, potatoes were substituted for grain during World War I, as all the grain was being used to feed the troops at the front - at least until the Russian Revolution took place - then everyone could drink as much vodka as they wanted, from grain or potatoes!

Personally, I preferred the Polish vodka. Nice clean, crisp taste. The B.C. vodka had to heavy an after-taste for my liking. But, to each his own.

After champagne, after vodka and after a wonderful meal, there was one more "chilling" experience we had at the Bearfoot that night. 
Nitro ice cream, anyone?

Following dinner, we were treated to the creation of "Nitro Ice Cream." It's made by taking a bowl of slightly sweetened cream with a bit of vanilla in it, then adding liquid nitrogen (really!) to the cream so it freezes instantly while your server mixes it.

So what does Nitro ice cream taste like? Is it really as good as its hype?

Well, I'll tell you ... it was the creamiest, smoothest ice cream I've ever had.

Eating it was like letting vanilla velvet melt on your tongue.
Batman's old foe Mr. Freeze would have been very jealous indeed, of the icy trifecta of champagne, vodka and nitro ice cream we enjoyed that night.