In the summer of 2011, I was writing full time, and keeping a strict routine meant the difference between meeting deadlines and unproductive days. A crucial part of this routine was the fourth hour of the “Today” show, hosted by Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. It was certainly not my go-to source for news, but the show became a part of my daily structure, and on a bit of a whim, I applied for the show’s “Fan of the Week” segment. Lo and behold, I won it. Beyond the title that I hold proudly, the show sent me on a fantastic five-day trip to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada. Boy, am I glad they did. I’ll admit, I may never have visited Vancouver on my own. But now that I’ve been, it is high – very high – on my “to return” list. Most that do consider a visit limit Vancouver to a winter destination for the ski-enthusiast, but my summer holiday to this seaside cove was a marathon of fine dining, sightseeing and shopping – coupled with the most luxurious hotel stay of my life. To do the trip justice, I have to dedicate some space to the breathtaking views and unparalleled service at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, where guest Lady Gaga had checked out just days before we checked in. Any of the Fairmont properties in Vancouver are stunning, but the new Fairmont Pacific Rim (built within the last five years) has incorporated the newest technologies for efficiency and also eco-consciousness. With a turn-down service that goes beyond a piece of chocolate (jazz music, soft lighting and a nightcap, anyone?) and a lighting panel that also includes a “privacy please” light to the outside of your room, the staff at the Fairmont leaves nothing overlooked. The lobby and its bar speak for itself. Throughout my five-day stay, my travel companion and I took advantage of many of the sites, both historic and modern. One of the unforgettable adventures of the trip was the whale watching tour that set sail from Steveston, BC. We went with Vancouver Whale Watch, which provided a lively (read: tiny touch of whiplash) Zodiac ride out to the Fraser River, where orcas come to feed on spawning salmon May through October. Oh man, did we pick a great day for whale watching. We came upon a pod of 29 resident orcas, including one baby swimming with its mother. (Resident orcas are smaller than transient orcas, which are the commonly recognized ‘killer whales.’) There is something indescribable about seeing one of these majestic animals not behind glass, not enclosed, but instead moving freely in its own social hierarchy. It was a touching moment for everyone on the boat, and even though we also saw three independent transient orcas later in the expedition (which are larger but don’t travel in family groups), it couldn’t compare to the experience of seeing the family pod and the little one. Not all visitors are so lucky, but the company guarantees a sighting, or you can return for free every day (for life!) until you see a whale in its natural Pacific habitat. Upon the return to Steveston, we feasted on giant fried oysters – purchased from the fisherman we greeted on the docks where we had just landed. It doesn’t get much fresher than that! For nature-lovers, another must-see site is Stanley Park. This 1,000-acre oasis of west coast wildlife is perfect for a day of bike riding, picnicking and a visit to the Vancouver Aquarium. While all the outdoor activities were great, what attracts me to a city is the array of dining and culture options, and Vancouver did not disappoint. I consider myself a bit of a sushi snob, and the sushi I had in Vancouver (from multiple locations) blew my former favorites out of the water. I would fly all the way back just for another Aburi Salmon Oshi Sushi (Aburi is a signature technique which involves partial grilling of the fish to add another dimension of texture) at Miku, a short walk from our hotel and one of the upscale options recommended to us by a local. It’s always a goal of mine to try as many restaurants as possible in a new city, but I just couldn’t resist a second meal at Miku before our departure. The expertise in the sushi and seafood preparation is not a surprise when considering the Asian influences that saturate Vancouver. As the site of large-scale Chinese immigration in the mid-nineteenth century, Vancouver Chinatown is one of the world’s most expansive, the fare so authentic you won’t know what continent you’re on. Small shops, specialty services and hole-in-the-wall restaurants make up the primary strip of Chinatown, just a few blocks from the famous Dr. Sun Yat Sen Chinese Garden. The garden is the first of its kind outside of China: an authentic representation of the garden tradition that reached its peak in the Ming Dynasty. Spend an hour taking in the balanced architecture and seclusion of what National Geographic named the “World’s Top City Garden.” The world influences on the city also manifest themselves through the many festivals hosted throughout the year. On our last evening, we literally stumbled upon a South Asian festival with musicians from India, incredible food offerings and vendors selling vibrant fabrics, all overlooking Vancouver Harbour at sunset. Another festival that was no accident (we timed the trip for it specifically) was Bard on the Beach, a Shakespeare festival that produces each show on a special stage that employs the sky and ocean view as the backdrop. Be sure to check the calendar before booking your trip – you’d hate to miss one of these cultural festivities by a matter of days. Although Vancouver hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics (you should visit the facilities or at least check out the massive Olympic Cauldron still lit by the Harbour), this is not a city with an always-on-the-go attitude. Find an authentic English pub, sit back and relax at an organic coffee house (Trees was a Vancouver-based favorite) or take a day to sample the offerings of a local brewery, such as Granville Island Brewing. In fact, Granville Island deserves a day of its own. With a public market boasting some of the freshest catches of the Pacific plus local produce and other delicacies, enjoy the process of picking out a perfect lunch (I still dream of the crab pot pie and fresh blueberry cobbler) and enjoy the water views. A stop at the brewery for a flight or two is the perfect break for tired shoppers – and believe me, you’ll want to shop! So thanks, “Today,” for introducing a love affair with a city I may never have otherwise visited. With a European flair, Asian influences and a flight cost that beats tickets to either of those continents, I found Vancouver to be the perfect seaside retreat. Have a great trip, eh?
For more information about planning a trip to Vancouver: www.tourismvancouver.com