I was chatting at work this past week with my boss (who, like me, used to live in Toronto) about the differences between visiting Toronto and hosting friends from Toronto. Neither of us feel like tourists when we go to Toronto because we know the city; nobody needs to show us around or, for that matter, show us how to get around. But when our friends from Toronto come to Vancouver, we end up playing tour guide because it’s often their first time in Vancouver (or their first visit in many years) and they want to see and do everything.
Which is all good. I had a friend from Toronto visit me this month and we had a fabulous ten days together playing tourist in my home city. My conclusion? Staycations are highly underrated.
Which brings me to today’s post. Until now, I’ve always taken visitors on walking tours of my own design. For something different, I decided to take this particular friend on a “professional” walking tour. We went with the Tour Guys because they advertise free tours ― and they really are free. They ask only that you tip them if you like them (we did), and give them a favourable review on Trip Advisor.
The Tour Guys describe themselves as “history geeks.” As a history geek myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the value they offered in a 90-minute tour. I do a lot of research about Vancouver for this blog, but on both tours (we did one of Gastown and another of Chinatown) I learned something new. Did you know that the term “skid row” originated in the Pacific Northwest? (Both Seattle and Vancouver claim to have used it first.) The phrase originates from “skid road” ― the road used to skid logs through what is now the Downtown Eastside (often referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code) to the Hastings Mill on the shores of Burrard Inlet.
Most importantly, the Tour Guys do not gloss over some of the more shameful aspects of Vancouver’s history. Both guides talked about the riots that have taken place throughout the past century, from the race riots of 1907 all the way to the Stanley Cup riots of 1994 and 2011. Our guide on the Chinatown tour explained the federal government’s policies that deliberately targeted Asian immigration (namely, the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and also talked about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
Affable with both children and adults alike, our Tour Guys were entertaining and kept our interest the entire time. There were a few careless mistakes with some facts ― the Millennium Gate in Chinatown went up in 1986 (Vancouver’s Centennial), not 1967 (Canada’s Centennial), and BC joined confederation in 1871, not 1886 ― my guess is those errors were simply slips of the tongue. But an egregious error was this one: environmentalist David Suzuki lives in Vancouver, not Toronto.
Having said that, here’s my recommendation: take a walk with the Tour Guys if (1) you have out-of-towners you want to impress (I’ve already recommended them to my boss) or (2) you want to learn more about your own city.
And if you’re a visitor to Vancouver, you most of all need to meet the Tour Guys. You won’t regret it. Promise.
Now that I’ve told you how we got to Seattle, and how we got back from Seattle, you might be wondering what there is to do and see while in Seattle. The city, I was pleased to discover, is the perfect size for a weekend visit. It’s large enough that there’s something for everyone, but small enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the choices.
Let’s start off with the architecture. Upon arrival, you can’t help but notice the Space Needle, a prominent landmark of Seattle’s skyline that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. It’s impressive when you stand beneath it, but … well … not so impressive I wanted to pay money to go up it.
Never mind. At the base of the Space Needle is a building that did impress me enough to want to pay the admission fee. That would be the EMP Museum, designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. The building’s deconstructivist style is just so fun to look at, and so shiny and colourful and fluid that you can’t resist reaching out your hand to touch the building as you walk by.
Inside the museum is even more fun, with exhibits more entertaining than I thought possible. Want to learn everything there is to know about Nirvana? It’s here. Jimi Hendrix? Him too.
The museum also has also some really cool artifacts from the world of fantasy and science fiction TV and film. As in: the Cowardly Lion’s costume, Susan Pevensie’s bow and quiver of arrows, Yoda’s staff, Darth Vader’s light sabre, Data’s uniform … they’re all here. Geekdom heaven, wouldn’t you say?
Seattle scored a second “starchitect”-designed building with the Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Don’t just walk around its exterior, though. Have a quick look inside too, taking the time to go all the way up to the top floor for a remarkable view over the atrium.
Once you’ve seen Seattle’s architectural highlights, I recommend checking out one of the most unique art installations I’ve seen anywhere: the Chihuly Garden and Glass. (It alone is worth a visit to Seattle.) The museum opened a year ago, so it’s rather new, and it’s rather extraordinary. Dale Chihuly is an American glass sculptor who creates exquisite works of blown glass. Photos don’t do his work justice, but, forgive me, I’ll post one anyways.
A Seattle institution you shouldn’t miss is Pike Place Market, located near the downtown waterfront. In operation since 1907, it’s one of the oldest farmer’s market in the United States. Fresh local produce, seafood, and flowers are at street level, while the lower levels are filled with shops of all sorts, including bakeries, restaurants, clothing, and local crafts. Be sure to see the fishmongers in action as they throw the fish to each other before wrapping them up for the customer. Oh, and there’s a coffee shop in the market you may have heard of: Starbucks. Not just any Starbucks, though ― it’s the first ever one, which opened for business in 1971.
We stayed in Belltown, which turned out to be a great neighbourhood full of funky coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and lively bars. It is also conveniently located halfway between the downtown waterfront and Seattle Center (where the Space Needle, the EMP, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass are located).
One thing we didn’t have time for: a ferry ride across Elliott Bay. And there are dozens of other Seattle neighbourhoods I’m told are worth checking out. In other words? I plan to return for another weekend visit soon, because there’s lots more of Seattle to see.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last weekend I was out with friends who are busy planning a spring trip to England. I was pleased at how excited they are, and I had great fun answering their questions and throwing out suggestions of what I thought they had to see and do in London.
My brain kept churning after I said good-night to them, however, and by the time I arrived home I had another long list of must-sees and must-dos. At which point I said to myself, “Enough, already! There’s your next blog post half written.”
So, here it is: My ideal itinerary for a week in London.
Day 1: Direct flights from Vancouver to London arrive mid-day. Buy your Oyster card (more on that later) and take the Tube into central London. After check-in and a shower to wash the detritus of air travel off your body, set off for a few hours of sight-seeing. You’re jet-lagged, so find something simulating enough to keep you awake, but nothing too strenuous or that takes too much thought. A couple of summers ago, a friend and I zipped over to St. Paul’s Cathedral and went to Choral Evensong on our arrival afternoon. The services are held daily at 5 p.m.; for me, personally, there’s nothing more English than choral music at St. Paul’s.
Or, if the weather is cooperating, take a walk through one of London’s beautiful parks to stretch your legs after the long flight. St. James’s Park and Green Park are beautiful, and from either park you can catch your first glimpse of Buckingham Palace. By this point, the fact that you are in London should start to feel very real.
Day 2: My friends will be in London too early to see Buckingham Palace as it’s open to the public in the summer months only. But Changing the Guard in the Palace’s forecourt takes place every second morning in the winter and daily in the summer. If you want to see this colourful ceremony, I have two words for you: Go Early. And if the crowds are too much for you, walk over to the Horse Guards Parade where you can watch a smaller change ceremony, or stake a spot anywhere along the Birdcage Walk to see the regiments as they pass by on their way to or from Buckingham Palace.
In the afternoon, check out an art gallery. All of the major ones have free admission, so duck in and out of them throughout the week according to your mood. My advice, after you’ve decided on which gallery to go to (there are enough to suit any taste), is to choose a wing to focus on ― that’s plenty of viewing pleasure for one afternoon.
Bear with me now, as London has some heavyweights. The National Gallery houses Western European paintings from the 13th to early 20th centuries. The National Portrait Gallery is the British portrait collection from the 16th century to current day, and Tate Britain focuses on British art from the same period. (It has a particularly fine collection of works by J.M.W. Turner.) Tate Modern holds international modern and contemporary art.
If spending an afternoon looking at art is not your cup of tea, then I recommend the Churchill War Rooms located at the opposite end of St. James’s Park from Buckingham Palace. The museum is inside the actual bunker used by the British government during World War II.
Day 3: By now, your internal clock should be adjusted to Greenwich Mean Time, so you’re ready for a heavy day of sight-seeing. Buy your tickets online to avoid the long queues at the Tower of London, the highlight of which is the collection of Crown Jewels. I was 13 years old when I last saw the jewels, but I still remember how dazzling they were.
When you are finished touring the Tower, cross Tower Bridge and take a long walk along the South Bank of the Thames. You might stop for lunch at the many outdoor terraced restaurants. Or, treat yourself to a splendid meal at the top of the Tate Modern where you have a million-pound view of the Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s.
Once fortified, continue walking until you reach the London Eye. If you are keen to get up high for a good view, this is the best there is. It’s pricey, but it will help you get your bearings if you’re still trying to orientate yourself in this massive city.
Day 4: If you enjoy museums, then the world’s your oyster in London. Again, they are all free admission. Head to the British Museum in the heart of Bloomsbury if history’s your thing, and don’t miss the Elgin Marbles on the main floor, just off the Great Court. When you are all mummied out, take a walking tour of what might be the most literary neighbourhood in the English-speaking world and see where Virginia Woolf lived and where T.S. Eliot worked as an editor.
For more recent history, go to the Imperial War Museum. Walk to the Thames afterwards for a photo op of the Houses of Parliament. Once there, you’re just around the corner from Westminster Abbey. Both are open to the public.
And if art and design are where your interests lie, you need to be at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Post-V&A, enjoy everything Hyde Park has to offer: Speaker’s Corner, the Albert Memorial, and the Diana Memorial Fountain are all within this vast park.
Day 5: It’s time for an excursion. Windsor, home of Eton College and Windsor Castle, is an hour from London by coach or train. Greenwich is closer and also offers a full day of sightseeing including the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, and the Old Royal Naval College, all situated in beautiful Greenwich Park. The Royal Observatory is the home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian (longitude 0° ― for those readers interested in this sort of trivia).
Day 6: If you find the big museums and galleries too intimidating, then take a day to check out some of the smaller ones. I can recommend Keats House in Hampstead, where the Romantic poet John Keats lived from 1818 to 1820, after which you must take a turn on Hampstead Heath. There’s also the Handel House Museum, where the composer lived from 1723 until his death in 1759, or the Sherlock Holmes Museum at ― you guessed it ― 221B Baker Street.
These last two museums are near Oxford Street. If you’re interested in a bit of shopping, this is where you want to be, but be aware that Oxford Street on a Sunday afternoon is as busy as any North American mall in December. Charing Cross Road is the street for bookstores, Portobello Road for antiques, and Camden Market is where you’ll find that one-of-a-kind souvenir to bring home to your kids.
Day 7: Your last day! I’m sure there’s something on your list you still haven’t gotten to, so this is your chance to squeeze it in.
Wondering what to do in the evenings? If you’re into theatre, be sure to check out the board at the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square. The deals are great, and the acting in London’s West End is the best I’ve ever seen. I still get goose bumps when I think of the mesmerizing performance I witnessed of Derek Jacobi, Trevor Eve, and Imogen Stubbs in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which I watched from the front row of the Albery Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane. Or, bring back memories of your high-school English classes by taking in a play at Shakespeare’s Globe, the modern reconstruction of the original Globe Theatre.
My friend’s husband is a jazz musician, so they’ll be checking out some jazz clubs. Another option for live music is the opera; tickets to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden are a bargain at £9 if you don’t mind sitting in the upper slips (and aren’t afraid of heights!). Book your tickets online before you leave home. Or find something you’re interested in hearing at Royal Albert Hall, if only to get a look at the inside of this magnificent concert hall.
A suggestion to help you save money on transit: buy an Oyster Card to use on London’s Underground. They are valid on both the Tube and the buses, and are much cheaper than buying individual fares. And remember, although the Tube is faster, nothing beats seeing London from the top of a double-decker bus. The Heritage Routemaster service (Route 15) is a fun way to get from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London.
So there you have it: my ideal itinerary for a week in London. One last bit of advice: leave something on your to-do list to make sure you come back. Because London is a city that requires repeat visits.
So many people have asked me how I got into home exchanging that the topic deserves a blog entry all on its own. Home exchanging is exactly what it sounds like: you exchange homes with another person who lives in a different city or country from your own. Now, if you’re the type of person who gets uncomfortable (Baby Bear–style) at the thought of someone sleeping in your bed or eating from your porridge bowl, then home exchanging is probably not for you. If not, then read on.
I started home exchanging the year I wanted to meet up with family members in Amsterdam in August, and then join some friends for a long-planned trip to Italy in October. I couldn’t afford to fly back and forth. Since I can work anywhere I have an Internet connection, I looked into renting an apartment for the month of September. That, too, was a bit beyond my budget, so I signed up with a home exchange site. These sites typically charge you a fee for posting your profile, but everything about the exchange is arranged privately between you and your swap partner. I posted my photos, wrote up a description of my home and a few details about my neighbourhood, and then … I waited.
I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to receive my first home exchange offer within days. After some back and forth negotiations and a phone call, my partner and I agreed to exchange for a month. Both of us were “home exchange virgins,” but speaking with him on the phone helped alleviate any concerns I had.
The key to home exchanging is to be flexible. I had dreams of spending a month in a Parisian garret, but “settled” for my first offer ― a house in Zaandam, only a twelve-minute train ride from Amsterdam. I say “settled,” but it wasn’t, really. It was a great offer. I spent four weeks in that house, and then went on to London where I’d arranged a swap with a couple who had a family wedding in Vancouver. Since then, I’ve done four more exchanges. Not all of them were long term or overseas ― a friend and I once spent a weekend in Portland, Oregon, and my closest exchange was in Victoria, BC.
Home exchanging is perfect if you’re interested in experiencing a foreign city “as the locals do.” I loved shopping in the supermarkets of London’s East End and in northeast Paris ― far from the tourist zones ― and commuting home at the end of a day of sightseeing along with the Londoners and Parisians heading home from their offices. That’s not to say all home exchanges are out in the suburbs ― far from it. One of my exchange homes in Paris was only a ten-minute walk from Notre Dame.
Obviously, the other benefit of home exchanging is having free accommodation. That’s not to say you don’t have to do a bit of work. I use each home exchange as an opportunity to do a massive spring cleaning and to make sure everything in my home is in good repair. On the other end of the exchange, you have to clean your partner’s home before you vacate it. The deal is you each leave the other home exactly as you found it.
Keys are exchanged in person, sent through the mail, or left with a neighbour. I prefer to meet my fellow exchangers in person, simply because they are all such interesting people, but when circumstances don’t allow it, I can’t say not meeting my exchanger detracts from the experience.
Still interested in home exchanging? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years:
1. There are dozens of home exchange sites out there; choose one that suits your interests and needs. Some, for example, cater to particular types of travellers, such as teachers and academics who have similar holiday schedules. Be sure to do some sample searches to make sure the site you sign up with has enough listings in the areas you’re interested in travelling to. I thought it would be easier to find a long-term exchange with another single person, so I signed up with a site that caters to singles. However, the site had so few listings that I received only one offer through it, whereas I’ve had dozens of offers through a second site I signed on with. Guess which one I’m still with?
2. Read each profile carefully before sending an exchange offer. I was surprised to get an offer from a family who wanted a house with a pool ― clearly they hadn’t read my profile! I myself have learned not to contact people with school-aged children because my preferred travel time is in the fall, when kids are in school.
3. Think of ways to make your offer sound more attractive. If you have a young child, advertise your home as baby-friendly to make it more appealing to other young families. Like animals? Offer to cat- or dog-sit if your potential swappers have a pet.
4. Be flexible and plan ahead. I can’t emphasize this enough. Arranging a home exchange is not like booking a hotel. If the location is important to you, offer a lot of flexibility in timing. If getting an exchange for a particular date is critical, be open to locations that might not be on the top of your list. When I was searching for an exchange in Portland, I had specific dates in mind. To sweeten the deal, I offered my potential swappers the choice of staying in my home during the weekend I wanted to stay in their house, or for an entire week in the summer when I was going to be away visiting family. They took the week and arranged to visit a daughter who lived out-of-state the weekend I and my friend stayed in their home. They thought they got the better end of the deal, but I was happy because I got my swap on the exact weekend I wanted.
5. Be clear about all expectations. Are long-haul flights involved? Confirm your dates before booking flights and, after booking, confirm your flight dates and times with your swap partner. Want to have friends or family members visit you at your swap home? Ask for permission before you invite guests to stay for a weekend or longer. Under what circumstances would either of you back out of the exchange? Make sure you have similar expectations about what you would do and what you would offer in compensation. After four successful, problem-free exchanges, I was shocked when a home exchanger told me I’d have to vacate her Parisian flat only days after my arrival. We had agreed to a three-month exchange, but hadn’t discussed any what-if scenarios. When personal circumstances required her immediate return to Paris, I had to find a new place to live ― or return home. Fortunately, I found another suitable home exchange within a week, but that was a close call on my part. In future, I will be much more careful about discussing all aspects of the exchange with my swap partner.
6. Once you agree to a swap, prepare your home. Put away any belongings you don’t want your swappers to use. Make sure everything is in working order. Leave written instructions for how to access the Internet, and how to use the TV, stereo, and appliances. Leave an emergency contact number. Make some room in your closets and clear out a dresser drawer or two, especially if it’s a long-term swap.
7. Be a good host. Leave plenty of brochures and perhaps a guide book of what to see and do in your home town. I also provide transit schedules and take-out menus.
8. When you arrive at your home exchange, expect to be a little self-reliant. There’s no concierge to call when you can’t figure out how to turn on the stove or if the hot water goes off. Also, after swapping with bachelors (twice), I’ve lowered my expectations about what a well-stocked kitchen contains.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to reply to my latest exchange offer: a beach house in southern California for eight weeks next summer.