Archive | May 2013

Amtrak Cascades

In my last post, I told you how my friends and I travelled to Seattle. Wanna know how we got home?

We took the train.

Semiahmoo Bay

Semiahmoo Bay

I’ve been down Interstate 5 to Seattle more times than I care to count, both by car and by bus. The I-5 extends from the American–Canadian border all the way down the West Coast of the United States to Mexico. If you’re inclined to drive that far, it would be quite the road trip.

But, as efficient as they are, American interstates aren’t known for their beauty. I’ve always felt that taking the I-5 was a bit of an endurance test to get through before the prize: your final destination (in my case, usually Sea-Tac Airport). And thanks to the collapse three days ago of the Skagit River Bridge on the I-5 just north of Seattle, that will most definitely be true for many months to come until the bridge is repaired or replaced.

But the train! What a revelation that was.

The Amtrak Cascades is the name of the Amtrak route from Eugene, Oregon, to Vancouver, Canada. The northbound leg from Seattle to Vancouver hugs the Pacific shoreline for the first while, moves inland for a bit through some of Washington’s fertile farmland, and then heads back to the coast and crosses the Canadian border at White Rock, BC. Unless you’re paying close attention, you don’t even realize you’ve crossed the border. (All passengers, both northbound and southbound, go through customs in Vancouver.)

After rounding Boundary Bay, the train takes you across the municipality of Delta (named after the Fraser River delta) and east along the Fraser to New Westminster, where you cross the rail bridge beside the Pattullo Bridge. Then it’s a quick ride northwest through Burnaby to Pacific Central Station near downtown Vancouver.

Pattullo Bridge, with the Skytrain Bridge behind

Pattullo Bridge, with the Skytrain Bridge behind

If you book your tickets far enough in advance, the train costs about half of the bus fare. It’s a far prettier route than the I-5, and the wait to go through customs is far shorter. My second travel tip of the week? Take the train.

Pacific Central Station

Pacific Central Station

Repositioning Cruises

Deck Chairs

Those in the know (which, believe you me, is seldom yours truly) know that “repositioning cruises” can offer some of the best deals on cruise fares. What’s a repositioning cruise, you ask?

Princess Ship and Lions

A repositioning cruise is when a ship based at one port sails to another port where it will be based for the next season. Typically, repositioning cruises take place on ships relocating from northern-hemisphere ports to southern-hemisphere ports, or vice versa, and they occur at the beginning or end of a season.

Promenade Deck

Twice a year, in May and September, there are repositioning cruises that stop to pick up passengers in Vancouver. These ships sail all the way to … Seattle. Yup, these would be the shortest of all repositioning cruises.

Swimming Pool

I’ve taken a couple of these cruises. One was a few years ago in the fall, when a ship was relocating from its base in Vancouver to the South Pacific after a summer of cruising up and down BC’s Inside Passage to Alaska. A friend and I boarded the ship in Vancouver. After we got off the next day in Seattle, the ship sailed on to Hong Kong and Australia.

Life Preserver

The other was just two weekends ago, when my friends and I were on a ship that was repositioning from San Diego to Seattle, but made stops in Victoria and Vancouver along the way.

Swimming Pool and Whirl Pools

Mini-cruises are a great deal. Included in the fare are three meals, transportation from Vancouver to Seattle, and a night’s accommodation for less than you’d pay for one night in a Vancouver hotel. While on board, we saw couples, groups of couples, groups of friends, and entire multi-generation families who, like us, were enjoying all the amenities these ships have to offer.

Happy Hour

The cruises are also a great way to get a wee taste of cruising life before you commit the time and money to a longer cruise. For Vancouverites who are looking for something different to do on a weekend, but don’t have the time or inclination to go far, take a cruise to Seattle.

Cruise Ship and Bridge

Through My Lens: Kits Pool

It’s summer ― though you wouldn’t know it by the temperature outside. No, I’m not talking about today’s weather, but the date.

Today is the first day of the May Long Weekend, officially known as the Victoria Day weekend. It’s the weekend when Canadians traditionally open up the cottage or go off on their first camping weekend of the summer.

In Vancouver, it’s also opening weekend for our collection of outdoor swimming pools. Which is why I’m posting a photo of Kitsilano Pool.

Kits Pool is 137.5 m long, making it the longest pool in Canada, and is the only salt-water pool in Vancouver. It’s located alongside Kitsilano Beach.

Kits Pool

Cruising Season

Yup, it’s that time of year. The cruising season is upon us here in Vancouver.

A cruise ship sails out of Vancouver's Burrard Inlet, with Washington's Mount Baker in the distance.

A cruise ship sails out of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, with Washington’s Mount Baker in the distance.

The first ship arrived on April 18, but the season didn’t really kick into high gear until this week with the arrival and departure of 13 ships in eight days. From now until the end of September, between five and seven ships will dock in Vancouver every week, with each ship staying just long enough to offload its passengers and get the next bunch safely on board.

It's rush hour — three cruise ships leave Canada Place within an hour of each other.

It’s rush hour — three cruise ships leave Canada Place within an hour of each other.

A total of 17 cruise ships will be based in Vancouver this season, setting sail each week for Alaska. Their route takes them through the Inside Passage along BC’s coast. Later this afternoon, I’ll be boarding one of those ships, but my destination is nowhere near as exotic as Alaska. I’m headed south — to Seattle.

Holland America has five ships based in Vancouver this season.

Holland America has five ships based in Vancouver this season.

Bonne Fête, Notre-Dame!

Notre Dame

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is celebrating a pretty significant birthday this year, and, at 850 years old, I think she’s looking pretty good.

The cathedral began celebrating its Jubilee last December, and the party continues until next November. Special events have been going on all year long, including major renovations, the welcoming of pilgrims, and celebratory services. Nine new bells were commissioned, which were rung for the first time this past March, and today, on World Organ Day, the newly refurbished cathedral organ will join in on 850 organ concerts to be performed around the world within a 24-hour period.

I posted a photo of Notre-Dame’s Great Organ some time ago, so today I am posting a photo of the exterior of this grandest of cathedrals.

Dishing: Bitter Tasting Room

Bitter Tasting RoomMany years ago (too many to share with you), I was backpacking around Europe with a friend. One hot, sunny afternoon in late September, we climbed 509 stairs to the top of Cologne’s beautiful cathedral. Once back on terra firma, we headed straight to McDonald’s for some lunch. (I know, I know … but what can I say? We were students on a tight budget.)

When I saw beer on the menu, I ordered one, despite the fact that I didn’t actually like beer and had never managed to swallow more than a sip or two. But hey ― it was a really hot day and I had just climbed up and down the equivalent of a 30-storey building. And yeah, I did think it was pretty cool that I could buy a beer at McDonald’s.

You know what? It was the best beer I had ever tasted. I became an instant and committed convert to the beverage. My theory is that, until that point in my (then) young life, I had simply not been introduced to the right kind of beer. It took a German beer ― in McDonald’s no less, but German nonetheless ― to get me hooked on the stuff. I’ve enjoyed many a cold one since.

Bitter

Why do I have beer on the brain, you ask? It’s because this past weekend was the first of the year that we Vancouverites enjoyed summer-like temperatures. And so, I thought, what better time to introduce my readers to one of the best craft beer taprooms in the city.

Bitter Tasting Room is located near the corner of Hastings and Carroll in what is actually more Downtown Eastside than Gastown. I’ve been here a couple of times ― the first time, ironically, at the suggestion of a friend who doesn’t herself drink much beer (so I knew it must be good if she was willing to go), and the last time with my sister just last night.

Czechvar

Bitter offers a selection of more than 60 bottled beers from North America or Europe, with a particularly strong selection of Belgium beers. Scotch EggsYou can also order a pint of draught from a choice of about eight local craft beers. Or you can order a flight of beers, and sample three at once.

The food is typical German and English pub fare — sausages, Scotch eggs, and a killer kale Caesar salad are a few examples. In wintertime, I enjoyed a tasty dish of cassoulet, a slow-cooked stew made with duck confit, pork belly, sausage, and braised beans that comes from the Languedoc region of France.

Bitter is part of the Heather Hospitality Group and I have yet to be disappointed by an evening spent in one of their establishments.

We Want Beer