Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Vancouver, The Best Place On Earth

I always knew this was going to be emotional. Returning to Vancouver, that is.

Although we last visited the city two years ago, it was a short trip, a couple of days, a momentary blip in time. That vacation has haunted me since - there was much I wanted to see but didn't - and I hoped this five-day Vancouver experience on the Journey to TBEX: #ExploreCanada Blogger Train would lay to rest some of the ghosts of that visit.

If I had to pick a favourite city, Vancouver would win out again and again.

I have a personal connection to this city - it was our first point of entry when we emigrated to Canada in 2003; we became permanent residents and called White Rock and North Van our first Canadian homes; we were considered Vancouverites when the city secured the 2010 Winter Olympics; we embraced the local love of outdoor pursuits where before we'd experienced almost none.

Vancouver was a city of firsts, our city of firsts, and we never felt able to let her go.

This trip with my wife and son would reawaken much of that passion for the city. So much would have changed yet hopefully as much would remain the same as before.

English Bay, Vancouver.  Photo credit: Russell VJ Ward

Change is as good as a rest

The volume of change across the city as a result of the Winter Olympics has been profound. 

Walking around the city, I find naturally-inspired feats of design such as the Convention Centre on the Coal Harbour waterfront, while modernistic steel and glass apartment blocks in greens and blues push for the sky wherever the eye turns to. The Skytrain, a light rail system from the airport to the city, is now fully established after years of construction and it's easy to use - clean and efficient. Enduring impacts of the Olympics can be felt elsewhere - sculptures and inukshuks that crop up along the English Bay sea wall, the former Olympic village sitting squarely at the far end of False Creek, new walkways and landscaped gardens, brewpubs and wine tasting houses - these are all recent additions not remembered from times here before.

The city's eateries have also gone through something of a renaissance, creating an evolving foodie culture across this assured, self-confident city.  The street food cart scene in downtown Vancouver is an exciting development to see. Already a mainstay in many other North American cities, its late arrival in Vancouver has been readily embraced by the locals. Tucking into a serve of fish and jerk tacos at the Feastro food cart on the corner of Howe and Robson, I can't help but wonder why it took so long to arrive. And steaks and burgers are no longer the sole preserve of the downtown grill, with restaurants like Edible Canada offering bison meatballs, pea and ricotta rotolo, and sea salmon salads as standard fare.

Granville Street Bridge.  Photo Credit: Russell VJ Ward

The Olympics seem to have pushed Vancouver into tidying up its act, no longer wanting to be seen as an average Pacific North-Western city with a great backdrop, but rather a sassy, modern, outdoorsy kind of place.

The same but somehow different

Expecting a raft of wholesale changes across the city, I still knew that some things wouldn't have changed. And for this I was grateful.

For me, the gem in Vancouver's crown is the wonderful outdoor vibe it gives off - that ability to bring the wilderness in to your front yard, to deliver the mountains and ocean to your door step. Grouse Mountain, Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Stanley Park. No other Canadian city can provide such outdoors delights within easy reach of regular city folk. No other Canadian city - in fact, no other city in the world - can provide the kind of magnificent setting that Vancouver offers each and every day.

Vancouver's North Shore.  Photo credit: Russell VJ Ward

Often rainy, but on those rare moments when the cloud cover lifts and the sun starts to shine, Vancouverites become the most fortunate people on earth - three spectacular snow-capped coastal mountains framing the backdrop, soldier pines and giant Douglas firs crowding their slopes, the harbour water lapping at their feet. It doesn't usually matter which street you find yourself on in downtown Van - turn your head in a northerly direction and prepare to be astounded by the presenting view.

Vancouver's incredibly high cost of living - generally high property prices versus low wages - hasn't changed, but it's always been a reluctantly accepted part of the deal when living in this part of British Columbia - you have to pay for impressive locations. Other things have stayed constant including the ridiculously cheap and readily available coffee. Sydney arguably produces some of the best cafe coffee in the world and Vancouver can hardly compete, but I'd be kidding myself if I thought myself a coffee connoisseur. I want cheap, large coffees and I don't want to pay the earth for them. With over 200 Starbucks in the downtown core alone, Vancouver is a coffee addict's wet dream.

Story poles, Capilano.  Photo credit: Russell VJ Ward

Old passions reignited

Returning to Vancouver gave us the chance to return to old haunts - the Aquarium nestled in amongst the ancient firs of Stanley Park and a chance to introduce Elliot to the beluga whales, sea otters and pacific seals; Chinatown's resurgent night markets and a city skyline photo shoot from a special secret location; afternoon nibbles and drinks at the Brewing Company in the trendy and vibrant district of Yaletown; Granville Island by Aquabus and a walk around an overcast and moody False Creek.

On this visit, former memories were stirred and old passions reignited. I love this city and its people. I love its ambiance and its vibe. It has a look and feel that suits me down to the ground.

When I'm in Vancouver, I feel a peace and connectedness. I'd even go so far as to say I feel like I'm home.

What do you think of Vancouver - the highs and lows? What would your favourite city be and why?

If you want to follow along on my journey across Canada, either check in regularly on In Search of a Life Less Ordinary to read my blog posts or jump onto my personal page on the Keep Exploring tumblr site here. The Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Vancouver hosted me for the Vancouver leg of this cross-Canada journey.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Have Baby, Will Travel

Flying with babies.

Those three words scare me. Or at least they did.

Because having a baby should never stop you from travelling - the only thing that may stop you is a fear of the unknown. And the tears. And the public tantrums.

Before flying to Canada on Friday for the TBEX Travel Blogger Train, I desperately wanted to put out a post asking for any advice for travelling with infants. I suffered the odd cold sweat and a little anxiety about the long distance. My wife, meanwhile, sat in a corner chewing her nails down to the nub.

Predictably we ran out of time, hurtling around the house during the week while packing for what felt like a seven-month trip to the Himalayas. Who knew that a baby could need so much stuff?

Five tins of formula in one bag because we couldn't buy the same brand in Canada. Umpteen changes of clothes in another bag because the weather changes so dramatically from west to east that we had to prepare for all eventualities. A vast array of toys to entertain the little dude, colourful squeezee food containers to feed him, nappies and nappy rash cream to contain him, baby Panadol and teething gel to soothe him. 

In total, he had a carry-on bag, large suitcase, stroller, and a baby carrier. We, meanwhile, felt like overdone celebrities as we worked out way through the airport with an army of luggage following us.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Anders Young)

Once upon a time, we were fans of leaving our travel to the last minute, grabbing the best deal to be had and jumping on a plane the following week or month but how things have changed. Elliot has arrived on the scene and this week rapidly became a complex exercise in military planning.

Then the 14-hour plane journey came around. 

Would previous long-haul flights from England to Australia where we'd cursed at the family sat in front of us with a screaming newborn come back to haunt me? Would I be paid back for the times I'd muttered dark curses under my breath at the sight of a baby boarding the plane? I could hear the voice of Kirsty from 4 Kids, 20 Suitcases and a Beagle echoing in my head: "You once told me I needed to 'suck it up' when it came to flying with babies and toddlers. I can't wait to hear how it all goes for you."

It was going to be 14 hours of sleep-deprived hell with a red-faced, swollen-eyed baby balling his eyes out the entire time. 

In the end, it wasn't all that bad.

Elliot didn't have a melt down and we didn't need to fill him with Phenergan. Sure, the shuttle to the airport was late and Sydney's shameful traffic nearly scuppered us, but we made it to the gate on time and once they'd loaded our 27 cases of baby food onboard, the rest of the flight passed easily enough.

This first time travelling with an infant taught me a few handy things:

The Scouts motto "be prepared"always applies. Thanks to the mammoth efforts of my wife in the weeks leading up to the trip, we had everything and anything we needed for a smooth journey. No stone was left unturned and, exhausting as it was for her, the effort truly paid off.

Babies don't need drugs, they need entertaining and they also need to feel secure. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the folks at Air Canada and they did good by us again. Helpful, self-assured and ever friendly, they looked after us from start to finish. Armed with a sturdy bassinet, plenty of his favourite toys, and us with the stamina of kings, we got our little boy through 14 hours of jet travel with little more than a whine and the odd grizzle.

Wake, feed, sleep, repeat. Give them routine and they'll give you peace. It's not easy to create a routine on a plane in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but we tried and it seemed to make him comfortable and gave us the occasional break. Exact timings went out the window and any science to the process was shot through but we had a sleeping, feeding baby for the most part - and for that, we were ridiculously grateful.

I'm absolutely certain there are other things we'll learn as we continue to travel and fly with Elliot. But, for now, we're here. We made it.

We're in Vancouver.

The North Shore mountains look down on us, steep slopes bristling with firs and soldier pines, eagles soaring, the harbour glistening. We've arrived back in the place where our expat journey began almost ten years ago. It's a homecoming of sorts and an introduction for Elliot to this memorable city.

And now the real adventure begins. It's time to explore Canada.

If you have handy suggestions or helpful hints you've learned along the way, please share them below as the little guy will be back on a  long-haul flight in less than two weeks.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

'Britain Basks in Glorious Sunshine!'

It's a headline my fellow countrymen back in the UK could only dream of a few weeks ago.

After what seemed like 22 months of unending cold winter weather, Britain is finally emerging from its annual deep freeze. With a brutally determined cold snap lasting until late April and records tumbling as the country shivered its way through one frigid month after the other, the Brits can finally breathe a sigh of relief.

For winter is over.

And the weather isn't the only tell-tale sign. There is one other sign those dark days are behind the British.

People are coming out of hibernation.

Facebook is buzzing with activity, status updates glowing with stories of sunburn, unbearably hot weather, and impending heatwaves.

The talk is of an end to those desperate days of January, February, March and April, and the arrival of better times - long weekends away, Spanish holidays, hosepipe bans, summer festivals, fruit picking in farmer's fields, and the triumphant return of the British BBQ, charcoal briquettes n' all.

A visit back to the motherland suddenly looks much more appealing. There'll be alcohol-fuelled beer garden stop offs, lazy afternoons spent paddling in local rivers, and an Australian summer tan topped up and finished off by the persistently hot summer sun.

If we head back to the UK while this stretch of high temps continue, we'll take advantage of off-peak airfares, a strong Aussie currency, cheap car hire, rent ourselves a quaint cottage by the beach, drive down to the coast, and seek out some Vitamin D in these unusually warm days.

The long awaited British summer is here and the people are waking from their slumber. Life is good.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Peter J Dean)

I hear hearing nothing for months from loved ones and close friends, wondering where they've gone to and why they've hidden. It's as if a deep freeze sets upon the British Isles like the coming of the second Ice Age and only now, with the onset of a late thaw, are people surfacing from their burrows to breathe in the fresh spring air.

I'm suddenly contacted by folks I'd long ago assumed were missing or worse.

And the cycle repeats every year.

As winter hits in early November, emails drop off, online contact disappears, and all attempts at positivity seem to be abandoned. Then the sun arrives and the country erupts in a much improved frame of mind.

The weather is such an important part of life in the UK and the mood shifts and turns with the weather's own movements.

The return from the summer holiday, the autumnal depression, the growing quiet and negative mood as winter approaches, long absences from the electronic airwaves, then a glimmer of hope, a flower, a green tree bud, an early outburst of colour, followed by a sunny day, temperatures in the 20s, unexpected heat, obligatory sunburn and obvious relief.

Then the dismay returns.

Because the weather does what it always does best in Britain. It never stays the same. It changes and it often disappoints.

I take it for granted in Australia because the weather often delivers - consistent, generally according to plan, with not many surprises. And because of this, I forget about it, don't talk about it - it simply doesn't crop up in daily conversation the way I remember it did in England.

If things were different here, I'm certain I'd be more vocal.

As I watch my countrymen and women share their joy at the recent run of good weather, I remember back to how important something as simple as the sun is - the warmth, the feeling on your face, the positive impact around you, and the flicker of hope that maybe, just maybe, this year will be different and the summer will persist and endure.

According to the Telegraph this week, after one of the dullest winters for decades "sun-deprived Britons must worry whether they are D-deficient. Vitamin D, the "sunshine vitamin" being crucial to good health".

When that sunshine fails to last and when the weather changes for the worse, I too worry for my fellow Britons because it won't be long again before, in the words of Game of Thrones' Ned Stark, winter is coming. Again.

Have you recently come out of hibernation where you are? How important is good weather to you? Is it the be-all and end-all?

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