Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Vancouver, British Columbia – Part One

After a really very good flight from London, we left the Chatham Dockyard flag and our wonderful crew far behind and trekked through a building site to the Hertz desk at Vancouver Airport to pick up our trusty steed for the next 8 days. Having trawled around, we’d got by far the best deal through American Express Centurion on a Jeep Grand Cherokee (or Dissimilar) with Hertz PermanentlyLost fitted as well.

And so it was that, many days (it seemed) after first smelling the fresh British Columbian air, we clambered into our Jeep, sorry, Ford, Explorer and struck out for East Hastings Street. Quite apart from the clear difference between a two-tone burgundy and gold (sickness bags are to be found in the seat pocket in front of you, should you so require them) Ford and a Jeep, the other thing that struck me immediately was the absence of any kind of loadspace cover. This had been removed by Hertz in light of the luggage compartment’s additional seats, but struck me as a worry given the fact that we intended to tour with all our cases now on view. Privacy glass was our only defence.

The drive from the airport downtown was uneventful, passing through what are clearly the rather nice Southern suburbs of Vancouver. The PermanentlyLost lost it as soon as the high-rises began, but sign posting was simple enough and, within 30 minutes, we were turning into the forecourt of the Marriott Hotel, Vancouver Pinnacle Downtown. These particular lodgings had been selected on the basis of TripAdvisor and FT recommendations and also a rather nifty rate that included valet parking and a $25 gas card per night. The rate rules said that the card could only be used at a local gas station, which might prove to be a problem, but all of the above, coupled with being MHRS Platinum, meant that I thought it worth a punt.

With memories of our crew fading fast, one of several available valets greeted us at the Marriott. We checked in and were (correctly) upgraded to the Concierge (25th) Level. We were given a little card with the lounge opening times (more of which later) and, turning round from the desk to head to the lifts, we were met by….. the crew off the BA85. I mean, the shame of it. Staying in a crew hotel ;-)!

The room was not overly-spacious, but came with a great view of the harbour and the sea-plane piers. Over the coming days, the ever-changing panorama would come to compare with the outlook from the (former) Regent in Hong Kong as a wide-screen feature.

Indeed, much as is the norm at the Regent, the curtains were left open at all times. So it was that, woken from their slumbers on this first morning in the West, MCC and FCC lifted themselves simultaneously from their repose, seemingly without elbow-assistance, and craned up and around to survey the view from behind their mound of Marriott duvetry. This choreographed display forever earning them the moniker of ‘The Geriatric Meerkats’.

Back to practicalities and the room itself also came with the bonus of being adjacent (though silently-so) to the Concierge Lounge. This meant that the free WiFi offered in the lounge permeated the wall and saved a tidy sum.

Breakfast in the lounge was a plentiful spread of coffee to drink in or go, the usual juices, a hot selection, cold cuts, cheese, radioactively-hued smoked salmon, fruits and cereals. All in all, very nice and a harbour view to boot.

Now, the Pacific NorthWest is not known for its great weather, but our first day dawned merely drizzly, so we headed along the harbourfront to the Seabus terminal . This service runs, very much in the manner of Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, Sydney’s Manly, Auckland’s Harbour and countless others, pretty much continuously on a walk-up basis. Tickets are valid on all public transport systems for 90 minutes and are zoned. So, a sail across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver is a 2 zone job. On the other side, you’ll find a great ‘market’ at Lonsdale Quay, selling arts and crafts of varying quality, but mostly some superb provender. Eat here or buy the components of a global picnic.

At the rear of the Market, you can catch a free shuttle bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Your ferry ticket would also take you there, but if you’ve had a look around the market then your 90 minutes will have expired. So, by the totem pole, the free shuttle pulls up hourly and whisks you to Capilano. This is really a private pleasure garden (and not all that cheap either) but is a very pleasant way to spend a few hours in a temperate rainforest on bridges and boardwalks, trails and terraces, adjusting to the time difference from Blighty. The on-site ‘Tatarama’ is at the slightly higher-quality end of the scale and you can grab a snack or a meal at one of a number of eateries.

If there’s no shuttle imminent then the service bus stop is right outside the gates of the park. And if, like us, there’s no shuttle in sight and you have no change (buses only take the coins of the Dominion) then you may be lucky like us and score a free ride off the bus driver. His view was that, since we would then be heading over on the Seabus back to the city, we’d be buying a 90 minute ticket when we got off anyway. He also helped passengers with pushchairs on and off and was by far and away the nicest bus driver I’ve come across in a long while. He also started the rot of me thinking that this really is a rather fabulous place.

The bus takes a windy route through neatly manicured suburbs, with lush gardens, soaring trees and opulent homes. The raised vantage point gives you ample opportunity to over-hedge peer too.

Time for a siesta back at the hotel and then a visit to the gym and the pool, both of which are more than fit for purpose, Lockers are secured by means of a lock (supposedly) obtained from the Concierge Desk, but having been looked at like the man from Mars when I enquired, then them failing to find any such thing, I resorted to the perfectly suitable TSA lock off the suitcase. The gym has a good selection of, er, gym things, and the pool is not huge but good for laps. There is a sauna and steam poolside, alongside a spacious Jacuzzi. The one rather strange thing was that, in the Gents changing area, there were a number of perfectly acceptable single showers, but then also a sort of ‘group’ one, like you get at school.

The facility is open 24hrs, keycard accessed but unmanned. There are plentiful supplies of (acceptable) toiletries and towels. Perfectly useful if you like that kind of thing.

Probably the most unusual thing about the hotel is that it doesn’t have a ‘lobby’ as such. Sure, there’s a reception area, but no lounge bar adjacent. Rather, it’s the Showcase restaurant that leads straight off Reception and then, at the far end of that, a sports bar which fronts the corner of the block. The restaurant is very pleasant in a chain-hotel-tries-hard kind of way. Sadly however, the hotel has decided that the ambience of the sports bar will define the entire space. This is not the place for a relaxed dinner therefore. That said, the food – chosen from a reasonable selection on quite a sensible menu – was rather good. It’s just that conversation was impossible.

It was a bit of a relief to find that, at breakfast the following morning, the mood was altogether more relaxed. Per the opening hours of the Concierge Lounge (ie closed at the weekend) we were to take breakfast in the main restaurant for the next two days. We therefore found ourselves in the midst of four (yes, four) BA crews. Breakfast was (as you’d expect) more generous in depth and breadth than the Concierge Lounge, but the Lounge’s offer remained fairly unshamed by comparison.

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