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Memorial Day weekend, with my having to take two floating holidays before the end of June, and Rich starting a new job, we decided to take a quick trip to Vancouver, Canada.

Our journey started on Thursday at 5:30 a.m. with Egg McMuffins and coffee at McDonald’s. We then headed south to the Bellevue park-n-ride to a catch a bus to the Seattle King Street Amtrak station. After checking in, we chatted with a special education school teacher from East Los Angeles, who along with three other friends, were also taking the train to Vancouver for several days of “partying.” Although, I suspect they were more interested in sightseeing and getting away from the smog, heat, and traffic, given East L.A. is the most populous place in California with 16,973.5 people per square mile.

Our seats were on the west-facing side of car #8, just ahead of the baggage car. Even though we were running a bit late, we weren’t concerned because our expected arrival in Vancouver, was a little before noon, providing us with most of the day to enjoy the city.

Less than ten minutes out of the station, however, just past the Marriot Waterfront, the train came to a stop. The conductor announced there was a flat spot on the engine’s tires, which they wanted to check. A flat spot occurs when a wheel has been dragged along the rail after the wheel/axle has stopped rotating, the result of faulty brakes or bearings, or if the wheel locks up.

We crossed our fingers, as the minutes dragged on. Finally, they announced the bad news: The train needed to return to King Street for the mechanical crew to assess the issue. We then waited another 10 minutes until the train was cleared to back-up. Once back to station, we were allowed to get off the train, at which point, we chatted with one of the maintenance people who explained the wheels were in bad shape.

Within in minutes, we were told to get back on the train, which traveled south for a few miles until it got to a turn-around (wye). Since there was an engine on the back of the train, this engine would be used for pulling the train with the bad-wheeled-engine tagging-along at the end. Car #1, which was initially in front of the train, was now at the back.

As we approached King Street, the train slowed and a maintenance man got on. He then walked through each car, flipping the seats so they facing forward. Unfortunately, our seats, which were on the left side of the train, ended up on the right. The left is preferable because it enables you to see out to the west and the Puget Sound.

Nevertheless, we were happy to be finally heading to Vancouver, over an hour late.

Train Travel Ain’t Speedy

Let me preface by saying, “I love taking the train.” It’s relaxing, stress-free, comfortable and scenic. Regrettably it’s not particularly fast. While in some sections, it zips along at a healthy pace – around 70 miles per hour – in others, it barely chugs along at 10 miles per hour. The curvy track in Washington, and especially Canada, coupled with rickety bridges, and waits for freight trains turns what would be a three hour trip by car into four hours by train. Or in our case six hours!

View King Street Station

King Street Station, Seattle

Plus, once you arrive in Vancouver, they initially unload all of the luggage, and then allow passengers to leave, starting with car #1. With us in car #8, we were the last to depart… and subsequently line up to go through customs. By the time, we hit the streets, it was nearly 3 o’clock! Fortunately, we’d packed food to eat on the train so our hunger was satiated with hard boiled eggs, scones, an orange, an apple, and trail mix.

Cranky and tired of sitting, I demanding we walk to the hotel, rather than figure out the bus system. We’d packed our clothes in a backpack (Rich) and messenger bag (Julie), so we just needed to start walking. Of course, what felt somewhat light after getting off the train, became progressively heavier with each step. Happily, the weather was splendid, the sites fabulous, and our determination energized by Starbuck’s frappuccinos.

Vancouver is known as the City of Glass with blocks of glass skyscrapers, divided into offices, condos, and apartments with birds eye views of English Bay, Coal Harbour, False Creek, and the Burrard Inlet. The fourth most densely populated city in North America – behind New York City, San Francisco, and Mexico City – Vancouver is masterpiece of efficiency. High-speed trains along with buses, and ferries whisk residents to-and-from work. Wide sidewalks make it pleasant to walk to whatever you need from up-scale, name-brand boutiques to restaurants, mini and suburb-sized grocery stores, barber shops and salons, PC repair, book stores, pet supplies, libraries, museums, performing art centers, shopping malls, hospitals and medical and dental clinics, florists, parks, marinas, and much more.

View Vancouver

Vancouver, B.C.

For more than a decade, Vancouver has been ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world, with the fourth highest quality of living of any city on Earth. On the downside, it’s Canada’s most expensive city to live in with the second highest overpriced real estate in North America. A 400-square foot condo in downtown starts in the mid $200,000. Near the Expo, a sign for high-rise under construction touted 1-bedroom condos, starting at $350,000. Check out some of the condos on Vancouver Condo.

Real estate is so loony in downtown Vancouver that if you can’t afford a condo, you can invest in a hotel room, and stay there for up to 30-days per year. That’s right for $168,000, you can purchase a 226-square foot room in the Marriott Pinnacle Hotel, and stay in the room for free for up to 30 days per year.

Room in the Sky

The walk from the Amtrak station to our hotel, the Empire Landmark was just 2 miles. Along with way, we passed many of the buildings, which were constructed in 1986 for the world fair held in Vancouver. Called Expo ’86, the fair featured pavilions from 54 nations and corporations, and was opened by Charles and Diana, Prince and Princess of Wales.

Both Rich and I went to the fair. At the time, Rich went with his girlfriend, mother, children, and nephew. I went with my mother. The only exhibit I remember from the fair was “Highway 86: The Middle of the Road.”

Making our way around False Creek, we walked by Science World, Plaza of Nations, and BC Place Stadium, all built for the fair. We then headed to Yaletown, where several high-rises were under construction. We stopped briefly at the Starbuck’s by the Microsoft Vancouver Development Center for frappuccinos before walking west on Robson Street to the Empire Landmark Hotel.

Robson Street is one of the key shopping zones with every imaginable store and restaurant from Aldo Shoes and Armandi to BCBG Maxazria, French Connection (which sported a sign that read “FCUK,” the abbreviation for French Connection United Kingdom), Gap, Foot Locker, Guess, J Crew, Lululemon, Sunglass Hut, and Tommy Hilfiger. And because Vancouver is a very diverse city, there is a plethora of Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian, Indian, Korean, Mexican, French, and African restaurants… along with bakeries, coffee shops, and juice bars. With blocks of high-rise apartments, condos, and businesses, every eating establishment was full.

View Empire Landmark

Empire Landmark Hotel

By the time we got to the Empire Landmark, I was super tired and cranky. Rich had made the reservation online as part of an Amtrak special. However, the offer was for a room with two twin bed, and it took several calls to the hotel to ask them to place us in a room with at least a queen-sized bed.

Needless to say, I was convinced our room would be on the 2nd floor of the 42-story hotel, with a view of an alley or next to the ice machine. I felt a bit more confident after chatting with Rachel, the desk clerk, who took a genuine interest in making our mini vacation a memorable experience. I could contain my glee when she announced our room was on the 18th floor. Surely, we’d have a view of something!

We took the elevator up, dashed around the corner, and inserted the key, and then in concert exclaimed “Wow!” Outside the sliding glass door was a VIEW! From the balcony, we had a 180-degree view, and were able to see Burrad Inlet, Stanley Park, English Bay, and everything in-between. We spent 15 minutes taking pictures from every angle.

While small, the room was charming, clean, and cozy with delicate white furniture, pretty sheets, and a lovely bathroom with chamomile shampoo, ginseng body lotion, birch leaves bath gel, comfrey soap, and fluffy ivory towels.

We couldn’t be happier!

Vancouver at Night

Refreshed after dropping off our bags and sitting for a few minutes, we set out for Stanley Park, which is 1,001 acres, encompassing miles of walking trails, swimming pools, aquarium, gardens, miniature railroad, outdoor theater, and monuments.

We started walking near the rhododendron garden, which was spectacular, and ended up by the seawall, which was crowded with walkers, runners, bikers, and in-line skaters. There are many establishments near the park where you can rent bikes by the hour. Many of the bikes we saw, I suspect were rented since they were stripped-down for leisurely riding.

Hungry after our walk, we sought out an ethnic restaurant. Rich choose a small “dive,” which offered freshly made saimin, similar to what he used to eat in Hawaii. He chose a soup with a miso broth, fish ball, slices of lean pork, boiled egg, noodles, bean sprouts, and green onions. Mine was similar, but made with a pork broth.

Our bellies full and feet refreshed, we set out for the Heritage District and Canada Place, which was originally built for Expo ’86. Resembling a large ship with fabric sails, it’s the main cruise ship terminal for the region. This is a great picture of what it looks like from above.

We wandered around, admiring the water and high-rises, absorbing the Zen of the city, and seeking out a place for a decadent dessert. With no bakeries along our path, we settled for A&W root beer floats. There are numerous A&W’s in Canada, but relatively few in America. Although, in America, they put soft-serve ice cream in their floats. In Vancouver, they dropped in an ice cream pellet, and added root beer. A bit strange, but tasty.

At any rate, our perception there’s an A&W on every corner was confirmed when I looked up on the internet there’s eight A&Ws from Tacoma to Everett, and seven just in downtown Vancouver, and at least another twenty in the neighboring suburbs. Canadians are obviously fans of A&W’s All American Food from hamburgers to hotdogs, chicken strips, and of course, root beer.

After a quick stop at Safeway for fruit, hard boiled eggs, and drinks for the following day, we then hobbled back to our room at 9:30 p.m., feet sore, but soul satisfied.

SkyTrain Around Vancouver

On Thursday evening, we’d plan to rent bikes to tour around the rest of Stanley Park, but the clear night turned into a rainy morning. Fortunately, Rich had grabbed a TransLink brochure, and talked to a street performer – in the transit center – who said we should ride the SkyTrains instead of renting bikes.

We awoke early Friday morning – after staying up late to admire the city from our balcony – and enjoyed a hearty breakfast in our motel room (food we brought or bought the night before), before pulling on our rain parkas, lobbed our bags over our shoulders, and heading to the nearest transit station to purchase all-day passes.

The driverless, automated SkyTrains run continuously, with no more than a 10 minute wait between trains. They’re clean, quiet, and highly efficiently. We enjoyed riding them for several hours to New Westminster, Richmond, and King George, watching commuters, college kids, and shoppers, easily hopping on-and-off, and seeing the many new shopping centers and high-rises being built near the SkyTrain stations.

At the Richmond station is the River Rock Casino Resort, consisting of a casino, two hotels, conference center, several restaurants, and theater for live performances. Upcoming performers include Martin Short, Justin Hayward (Moody Blues), Earth, Wind & Fire, Engelbert Humperdinck, Herman’s Hermits, and Boz Scoggs.

We had a sandwich bag full of Canadian coins, which we decided to spend in the casino, but when Rich went to turn it the coins in for script, they gave him a $5 Canadian bill, which is super cool with a plastic strip that has a cathedral and man, printed on it with iridescent ink. The bill is also embossed area. It was so pretty, I couldn’t bear to put it in a slot machine.

The pit boss, who figured out we were dumb-cluck Americans who were more interested in swooning over a $5 bill than spending it, explained all Canadian bills are color-coded, and equally ornate. Here’s the $20, $50, and $100 bills.

Bad Planning Lead to Disappointment

We’d planned on having dim sum for lunch in Chinatown, but with it only being 11 o’clock when we got back to downtown Vancouver. Instead, we opted to take a bus to the University of British Columbia (UBC). It was a regrettable mistake. Not only was the bus infuriatingly slow because of the traffic, and numerous stops, but we wasted time wandering around the campus, looking for totem poles I recalled seeing decades ago when I visited the museum with my mother.

The campus is ginormous, and we headed for “Totem Park,” when we should have gone to Museum of Anthropology at UBC. If we’d made it to the museum, we could have seen the totem poles by looking in the windows of the Great Hall! Plus, we would have seen the outdoor exhibits.

Instead, we trudged along, carrying our respective backpack/messenger bag, growling at each other, and getting more famished and thirsty, having only eaten an apple since breakfast. Frustrated, we traipsed back to the bus stop. Studying the map, we realized we could get off at the bus, and catch a SkyTrain to Chinatown. However, Rich got a phone call in the middle of transitioning to the SkyTrain, and followed the crowds up an escalator to an upscale department store… but the escalator was broken going down so we toured the floor several times before we found the elevators down…

Could it get worse?

Yes! Because it was nearly 2 o’clock, we didn’t think there’d be a good selection of dim sum at the restaurant we’ve eaten at previously. Instead, we chose Jade Dynasty, which advertised dim sum all day. It was the WORST dim sum we’ve ever had. Frozen dim sum from a convenience store would have been better! And it cost $23 for two cups of tea, and four selection of ghastly dim sum.

Even more disappointing, because we had to be at the bus station by 4:30, we didn’t have time to take a water taxi to Granville Island.

We did, however, stop in a Chinese bakery, and get three yummies for $5: a coconut tart, piece of Black Forest cake, and piece of mocha cake. Chinese bakeries have the most amazing pastries, buns, cakes, and other delicacies, at ridiculously low prices. Here is an example of what you might find in one of these bakeries.

With our mini vacation drawing to a close, we walked to the train station, and waited to check-in. We were amazing when we got the identical seats going back to Seattle, as we had coming, car #8, seats 11 and 12. This time, we were on the right side of the car to see the Puget Sound.

The rainy morning had turned into a sunny afternoon, and spectacular evening, making for a wonderful trip home. As we approached White Rock, British Columbia, we looked out over the ocean, and counted half a dozen blue heron… and then another cluster of blue herons… and two bald eagles on a rock… and more blue heron. The birds were obviously taking advantage of the low tide to hunt for fish before the sun set for the evening.

As we crossed into the United States, we saw a coyote in the marshes, and more blue heron and predatory birds. Because it’s nearing summer solstice, it stayed light for most of the trip.

Near Seattle, the conductor announced the Mariner’s game had just let out. Our first thought was “We’re never going to get on a bus.” As soon as we got off the train, we sprinted to the bus stop. Happily, there were few people waiting, which soon grew to a crowd. The bus, which finally arrived, was already full.

We pushed our way onto the bus, head to the back, and grabbed a handrail for the 20-minute trip to Bellevue. In spite of the conditions, people were gracious, striking up conversations, having come from the Mariner game or Northwest Folklife Festival.

Our 48-hour escape to Vancouver was a nice respite from our workaday lives, and the challenges we faced in the coming week.