The idea behind this trip was to combine a long over-due visit with my college roommate in Seattle and a Vancouver art gallery tour. Since we were visiting in spring, we added Victoria on Vancouver Island because it is noted for its fine gardens. (And because there was a show at the museum there that Lane wanted to see.) To do as much of this as possible in the short time we had, we spent the beginning and end of the trip with Michele and her family and then spent the rest of our time on our own in Canada.
Air: Northwest Airlines is our hometown carrier and we were able to get an inexpensive direct flight that got us into Seattle about midnight. In order to assure aisle seats, I paid extra to get premium economy seating when I e-checked us for the flight. These seats seem to fill last (duh, they cost more), so the extra $15 may also buy you a seat without anyone in the middle – but don’t count on it.
Rental Car: I booked the rental car through Budget via Travelocity. I used to book through Priceline, but as rental companies have gotten pickier about where you take their cars and whether your spouse can drive without a second driver charge, I’ve started booking only through companies that publish their fine print online. On this trip, I needed to be sure I could bring the car into Canada. Picking the car up at Sea-Tac adds to the bill because the airport charges are so high, but since transit options to and from the airport are limited, there aren’t a lot of options.
Having a car also adds substantially to the cost of ferry travel, but getting around Vancouver Island without one would be difficult. (Amtrak runs regular service between Seattle and Vancouver each day, so travel there does not require a vehicle.)
BC Ferries: BC Ferries provides regular service between Canada’s mainland and the coastal islands. The “Vancouver” terminal is located about 30 minutes south of the city in Tsawwassen. (When you think you must have missed it, keep driving.) Ferries depart every few hours, so advanced ticket purchases are not required. Early arrivals will find a large modern terminal fully equipped with a broad array of fast food restaurants and souvenir shops.
Washington State Ferries: Regular ferry service between Anacortes, Vancouver Island, and the islands of Washington state is provided by Washington State Ferries. Advanced reservations should be made when traveling between Victoria and the US, as daily service on this route is limited. Reservations can be made online.
La Conner: At this time of year all of the activity seems to be found here, where there is an abundant supply of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants. There are lots of places to eat in town. We had breakfast at the Calico Cupboard, which has lovely baked goods, huge servings of good food, and a deck over the water. There are also a number of fine-dining spots that look very tempting.
La Conner is also a bit of a shopping mecca, with some of the most interesting spots (to me anyway) being Earthenworks Gallery (be sure to visit the courtyard garden in back), the Wood Merchant, and the Courtyard Gallery. There is also a nice Italian cooking shop, a spot that specializes in olive oil, and a variety of other specialty shops.
Deception Pass: Deception Pass State Park has a small parking lot near the west end of the bridges. A concessionaire there offers boat tours, as do a number other private operations.
Mount Erie: Part of the Anacortes park system, this wonderful look-out is easily accessible and signed from the main highway, although not from all routes.
Burlington: Because we had my friends’ children along, it was a little harder to find lodging in the area. Most spots on Whidbey Island, for example, doesn’t welcome children. We ended up at the Holiday Inn Express, a budget quality hotel. (The pool area was horrible, with no ventilation, but the breakfast was better than expected.)
Options for dining here appear to be limited to chain restaurants – the staff at our hotel recommended restaurants in La Conner, admitting without being asked that there wasn’t anything but chains in Burlington. We ended up at Johnny Carino’s, which was pretty good, served ample quantities of food, and was set up to accommodate split plates.
The Chuckanut Drive is very scenic and, with more organization, I’m sure it would be a great place for hiking.
The drive ends in Bellingham in the Fairhaven area. This quaint downtown is a shopping mecca, which includes a large number of galleries and shops. My favorite was Renaissance Celebration, which has an extensive collection of glass and jewelry – including glass floats, one of which now has a home in my backyard pond. (All of the shops are in the downtown area. The beach and marina are only have industrial and marine businesses.)
Downtown Fairhaven is also filled with restaurants. We ate at Skylarks, which was overwhelmed late on a Sunday morning. We missed breakfast by ten minutes and lunch service was very, very slow, although the food was fine (not incredible, but fine.) I wish we would have eaten at Mambo Italiano, another spot that was recommended to us.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The greater Vancouver area has a diverse, multi-ethnic population of over two million people. It is situated in one of the most scenic spots in North America, making it a dynamic place where nature is always close at hand. There are lots of online resources available to assist with planning a visit to the city, including the Greater Vancouver Visitors and Convention Bureau site, the Associated Cities’ Vancouver site, the municipal government‘s site, the personal (but extensive) site Vancouver dot Travel, and (just for fun) the blog Vancouver Daily Photo.
I wanted a hotel near Gastown, but couldn’t find anything decent at a reasonable price. (a lot of places actually came up as unavailable or were located next to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Not the atmosphere I wanted in the evening.) Priceline stated that the Plaza 500 was downtown, but – while you can see downtown from there, it isn’t within walking distance.
The location worked well for us though, despite the road construction on all sides. (TripAdvisor had lots of complaints about the road construction, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal.) I suspect the on-going road work (digging tunnels and laying light rain lines, I think) was the reason we paid so little for such a lovely hotel. Parking was expensive, but convenient and no more expensive than anywhere else in Vancouver. As noted in my entry, the hotel isn’t near anything in particular, but the surrounding neighborhood is pleasant.
Priceline is ideal for finding a hotel if you don’t mind getting something fungible, don’t care exactly where you end up, and don’t mind paying in advance. When I couldn’t find a decent, reasonably-priced hotel in Gastown, I finally gave up and turned to Priceline a week before we were scheduled to depart. There are lots of stories about customers getting terrible service at hotels they have booked through Priceline, but I’ve never had that experience. The few times I’ve used it I have ended up with a far better room than I had any right to expect for what I was paying and the service has always been excellent. Knock on wood.
Dining: Vancouver is a foodie’s delight. We appeared to be staying in the Thai end of town, as every block seemed to have a couple Thai restaurants, but while Asian restaurants seem to predominate, just about every ethnic group imaginable is represented. (And by Asian I’m including everything from those ubiquitous Thai restaurants to Malay, Indian, and a host of others.) It would be hard to get tired of the dining options here.
I love sushi and Vancouver is sushi heaven. We had sushi tapas (think a amazingly fresh and sometimes rather exotic sushi – tuna with mango – and a side of zingy salmon tataki or sushi pizza — scallops, tuna, and salmon on a bed of sushi rice, baked briefly and served hot with salty cold roe) at the amazing Yuji’s in Kitsilano. Yum, yum.
‘We had a lovely lunch in Gastown at Jules Casual French Bistro, which was recommended to us by the gentlemen at Spirit Wrestler. It was a perfect place to enjoy a tasty meal on a rainy afternoon.
Restaurant reviews and recommendations are available on a variety of independent websites: the Martini Boys review the coolest food, drinks, and nightlife in town; and the blog Nancyland, Vancouver Foodie Fun has a wealth of detailed reviews and photos.
Shopping, Activities, and Things to See and Do: Vancouver is an outdoorsy sort of place, but with the exception of our first afternoon there, every day was raining or on the verge of doing so. So no real long hikes into the mountains or along the beach for us.
One end of the city is dominated by the University of British Columbia (UBC), which has a beautiful campus that sprawls along the coast. It is adjacent to large areas of open space and some of the city’s best beaches. Of course, we spent a good deal of time here visiting the Museum of Anthropology, Nitobe Memorial Garden, and the Botanical Garden.
The most interesting and fun areas for shopping appear to be in Kitsilano, Gastown (with visitor information available in both a business-focused format and a less formal site), and Granville Island. With a “must visit list” and limited time, we restricted our shopping escapades to Gastown, where we visited the Inuit and Northwest Coast galleries Inuit and Spirit Wrestler. Both galleries have high quality work at a variety of prices, but these are art galleries, not souvenir shops. We also stopped in at Marion Scott, which is a small gallery specializing in classic Inuit art for serious collectors. (Sorry, but that is what we are interested in.)
There is so much more to see and do in Vancouver, but that was all our time allowed on this trip. (And our interest in shopping was also damped by the strength of the Canadian dollar. How I miss those days when a Canadian dollar was worth 60 or 70 cents American!)
Victoria, British Columbia
Victoria (information is available through the municipal website and on the tourism site) used to be the cutesy oh-so-British seat of government in British Columbia. Despite the elegance of the parliament building, the city used to be a caricature of itself. No longer. Today the city surrounding the government buildings seems vibrant and multi-ethnic.
Lodging: I was disappointed with our hotel in Victoria (another Priceline reservation), not because the Marriott Inner Harbour Hotel was bad (it was very nice), but because it cost as much as the one in Vancouver without being nicer or having as good of a view.
Dinning: The wonderful Blue Crab Bar and Grill is located way down along the harbor in the Coast Victoria Harbourside Hotel and Marina. It is trendy inside, but the food and the view through the windows are both excellent. We ate in the bar, which was wonderful. Had we been in town longer, we would have returned to eat in the regular restaurant as well.
Funky little Café Brio was equally good, with its focus on local ingredients a welcome bonus. When I was feeling most stressed, the owner walked by and told me to let her know if I needed anything. Something in her manner made me believe she really meant that and I felt so much less alone and I was able to relax a little. I would have liked to have returned here too.
Shopping, Activities, and Things to See and Do: This is another outdoorsy place with culture. On this trip, my interest was mostly linked the island’s gardens. Butchart Gardens is justifiably world famous. It is an amazing place in any season. Like so many other small beautiful places, elegant little Abkhazi Gardens was almost lost to development. It is now protected as a property of the Land Conservancy.
Lane’s goal in coming to Victoria was to see the Dundas collection, which was on display at the Royal BC Museum. Unfortunately, it was an expensive collection to view, as the museum was also featuring a Titanic exhibit and charging a high entrance fee to all visitors – regardless of whether one was actually attending the Titanic show.
We didn’t get to do much shopping in Victoria, but the old town area looked like it had enough shops to keep one busy for weeks.
The regional art scene is covered in depth in the Seattle Art Blog by the publishers of the Seattle Art Guide.
We only got around to a minuscule portion of what is available around Pike’s Place Market, Pioneer Square, and downtown. In addition to the shops listed in my posting, we had hoped to get to the Glass Eye Studios, the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum, and the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. With our tight time frame, we didn’t make it to any of them. We did, however, managed to stock up on Market Spice Tea. (Really, Michele, just send me a big bag of the regular loose leaf for Christmas!)
If you remember Tacoma from the past, forget it. That stodgy old place seems to be gone. The city has been undergoing a renaissance, with fancy new museums, first class transit, and blocks of up-scale ocean-view condos. Throw in the city’s proximity to Mount Rainier, and this seems to be an up-and-coming place.