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A Suepur Destination: Northern Exposure, Canadian Style

by Susan Purdy

 

Feeling like Thelma and Louise, my good friend Carney McGuire and I packed our bags, left our men at home, and set off on a great Canadian adventure.  Unlike Thelma and Louise, we didnt see anyone who even remotely resembled Brad Pitt, nor did we plunge off the side of a cliff. 

Our adventure began with a two day stay in Vancouver, British Columbia, and boy does that city cook --  so many restaurants, so little time.  We first checked into the Hotel Vancouver, a magnificent architectural masterpiece that has an exterior of carved mustachioed faces, Greek mythological figures, and a roof line that resembles a French chateaux.  The interior is just as awesome with Montinello marble floors in the lobby and antique furnishings in many rooms.  But the staff is what makes this hotel comfortable.  Helpful, gracious, and smiling, they took great care of us, especially at the concierge desk, where we asked questions daily. 

With a recommendation for lunch, we set off for The Teahouse Restaurant (604-669-3281), in Stanley Park.  This romantic spot overlooks English Bay and is listed in the book, The Best Places to Kiss in the North West.  Where was Brad when we needed him?  We sat in the conservatory under the leaves of a large rubber tree whose branches touched the glass ceiling; and people-watched out the windows as bikers, roller bladers, joggers and strollers passed by. English Bay is also where cruise ships depart, on their way north, to the Inside Passage and Alaska. They say this is the place to be if you want to see the longest sunsets in the city, but we were at The Teahouse for lunch.  And what a lunch.  Fresh salmon and desserts to die for. 

While were talking about food, lets discuss the oysters and seafood at Joe Fortes on Thurlow Street.  We ordered one of chef Brian Fowkes specials, washed it down with a cool, frosty Kootenay mountain ale, and left room for dessert.  I had the fresh fig tart and Carney is still talking about the coffee flavored Creme Brulee.  But the most elegant dining experience we enjoyed, in a tasteful and sophisticated setting, was at Diva at the Met in the Metropolitan Hotel.  This multi-tiered space, with an exhibition kitchen had well-spaced tables covered with beige and cream colored linens and wall pockets filled with fresh red anthrium, bear grass and palm branches.  The fois gras was so sinfully good, Carney and I could only discuss it in whispers. Set atop a paper thin slice of apple, and served with grapes and walnuts, ummm - ahhhh.  But I digress. 

Fortified with fabulous food, the two senior women from Long Island were ready to explore some of the 1,000 acres in Stanley Park, said to be the largest city park in the world, and filled with both indoor and outdoor attractions. We visited the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (www.vanaqua.org) and fell in love with the Beluga whales.  These five gentle giants performed aquatic tricks and sang by blowing through their blow holes (they sound like sea ducks, but then again, so do I when I sing).  We opened the doors to the Amazon Gallery and found ourselves in the steamy tropics.  Some animals and birds are loose in this jungle setting, and we saw a brilliant scarlet ibis, a family of cuddly ducks, and a furry snoozing sloth.  We nearly jumped out of our skin when the entire area cracked with lighting and shook with thunder, and soon discovered that one of the displays creates this ominous rainstorm attraction.  Disney World has ruined us for reality.  We both watched a silent crocodile at this display, assuming it was wired to move at some point. We were shocked  when we realized the dark green, glistening thing was real. 

We rode the Vancouver Trolley Company cars around the city, jumping on and off at attractions we wished to see.  Granville Island was great fun with its indoor public market of succulent fruits and vegetables, fresh flowers, fish, and meats, and luscious  hand-made chocolates.  We found shops that sold art, jewelry, candles, china and more.  Another stop put us in Gastown, the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver, where we saw the only steam clock in the world, and walked along the original cobble stone streets. 

And then we discovered the spiritual and serene place known as Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, located in Vancouvers China Town.  This oasis from the bustling city is well hidden behind 40 walls.  A faithful reproduction of a private Ming dynasty garden that was created in the Chinese city of Suzhou in the 1300s, it was transported in 950 crates of building materials and artifacts.  Our guide, Mr. Julian Law, explained that the garden paths were circuitous to ward off evil spirits who can only travel in a straight line. Bats, a sign and shape of happiness are represented in the hinges, and roof tiles, he explained, and limestones, brought over from China, can make wishes come true when touched.  A round ball sitting atop a graceful pagoda, represents a pearl, as pearls mean peace.  The various halls hold Ming dynasty rosewood chairs, a table carved in the shape of a bat, and silk needlework.  Red maples, ginkgo trees, and Mungo pines are reflected in the small pond, and gardens are separated by open-worked walls to allow for privacy. Carney and I agreed this place touched our souls, and was the highlight of our visit to Vancouver.

The next portion of our trip was going to be quite different.  We were off to see the southern border of Canada by train.  Train travel is growing in popularity, as everyone wants to leave the driving to someone else.  In our case, the driving was done by capable
engineer, Royce Barber. We boarded CanadaVia Rails, (www.viarail.ca) flagship train The Canadian, for the full three days and three night trip.  The double room was small and comfortable, with two bunk beds that stowed away during the day. We had two chairs and a large picture window, a tiny sink, and a private toilet.  The shower was down the hall and shared by other passengers in our car.  I took the upper berth , that was an adventure in itself.  We took too many clothes; and we both pack light.  Dressing for dinner is not necessary, and our porter, Jim Grant said all we needed was a garment bag and a small carry on, all other luggage could have been checked.  Jeans, slacks, a sweater and some tops or blouses did the trick, and a jacket or fleece top kept us warm in the all glass bubble car in the evening when it chilled down.  Chef Ron Woods prepared the most incredible meals for our dining car, such as rack of lamb and prime rib, and he worked with his staff in a kitchen so narrow that they could barely stand sideways. 

Our train travel was great fun.  We explored the lounge, often sat in the bubble car, read, and met great people like Betty Schnaar, a librarian from Los Angles who travels alone and has seen the world.  Betty likes to travel by all modes and said, Train travel is a great adventure.  It gives me the ability to get off and on at my own pace, at no extra charge, as well as providing all the creature comforts.  Betty detrained in Winnipeg and was going to explore this great city and The Forks market before heading back home.  We also had dinner one evening with Jane Carver from Tampa, Florida.  She and her husband Lewis were on The Canadian to see the Rocky Mountains, and because Jane just loves trains. Lewis came to oblige me, she said, but hes loving it too. 

Our short stops along the way included the town of Jasper.  Next time, Carney and I said, we would get off the train here and stay a few days. We would rent a car and explore the National Park, visit Lake Louise, said to be breathtaking, and bask in the sunlight that reflects off the snow capped Rocky Mountain peaks.  And, we would make sure to visit the shop with the big neon sign that read, ICE CREAM & SUSHI. 

Our great train trek ended in Toronto, where we gave our bags to a porter and walked across the street to the majestic Royal York Hotel. How convenient!  If you like old-world hotels, refurbished with all the modern conveniences, this is it.  We entered our junior suite and reveled in all the space.  It was late, and we were flying home in the morning, so we headed for bed.  Carney drank the ice cold glass of milk that was waiting for us when we checked in, and we shared the dish of assorted cookies.  What a nice touch of home.  Next time we return to Canada, we vowed Toronto will be the city to explore.

Susan Purdy can be emailed at Suepur@aol.com for comments and questions.

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