“There’s a great new place in Gastown, called The Slaughterhouse. We have to check it out.”
“Wow – that sounds great. So what does it serve?”
“Oh, the entire Looney Tunes cast – Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweetie, Pepe …”
“Sick. Thursday night?”
Well, of course the conversation did not go like that: not even a place called l’Abattoir would serve skunk. But there you see the essence of marketing, in those two words: the one evokes blood and guts and the awful stench of death, the other an other-worldly, insouciant, ironic sophistication. And the restaurant was, if anything, quite sophisticated.
There were rabbit (“rabbit breast stuffed with rabbit legs, served on a bed of greens and wild rice”), duck and pork on the menu; and scallops, which I had (“served with grilled porcini mushrooms and lightly breaded and sautéed zucchini rings”). Before the scallops, there was smoked sturgeon, which I had not had for nearly twelve years. (Last time was at a Persian restaurant in Brussels; grilled, not smoked, as we used to do in Ye Olde Countrie.) A lovely Loire red complemented the meal, and superlative company completed the evening: I was there with a former student – already a successful CEO of a start-up – and his new bride, a successful tax lawyer in her own right.
The food on board the Canadian (www.sarkesh.net) had been good, if not inspired. And no matter how good the chef and the restaurant, three meals a day for three consecutive days tries the patience of anyone not used to a boarding school regiment. It was already great to be back on terra firma and an actual bed and shower; we particularly welcomed a choice of restaurants and venues.
Our first culinary experience in Vancouver was at the Raincity Grill, recommended by a friend from Winnipeg. Because that is what friends from Winnipeg do; very helpful when it comes to restaurants in Vancouver, those Winnipeggers. (Or is it Winnipeggians? Winnipeggishes? Winnipegites? Winnipegois? My spell-checker gives me the same red squiggly line for all variations, so I am assuming they are equally wrong. Or right.) Overlooking English Bay, the restaurant gave every possible vibe of being a tourist trap, including a few other tourists from the train, but – Jim, this shows much I trust you – we pressed ahead … and were duly impressed. (For lunch a couple of days later we tried out the other recommended restaurant and were appropriately satisfied.)
Food is not the only thing I think about. Being vain and not inclined to bulimia, I do worry about what to do with the calories I put into myself, especially considering that I pay little attention to how many I consume. As it happens, Vancouver begs calorie expenditure, and so there was less to worry about on the revenue side.
The next day began with glorious sunshine and, naturally, a long walk/hike in Stanley Park. The place is simply enchanting. Walking along the seawall, the view changes at every turn. Cutting through the inland walkways, you pass under massive firs, around a waterlily-covered beaver lake, through a rose-garden and by a natural lagoon.
After lunch, we headed (walked) to the waterfront for coffee. I remembered Canada Place from my last trip to Vancouver, but nothing else looked familiar. There is of course excess in all the glass towers – two Fairmont hotels, side by side? Really? – but then, there is also the odd gem. The new Convention Centre, grass roof and all – yes, that is not a spelling mistake, it has a grass-covered roof – reflects the natural beauty of the surrounding mountains and the forests; it is a fine addition to the harbour.
Vancouver has been selected “the most liveable city in the world” for most of the last ten years by people who know these things. It is not perfect. Like most peninsular cities that rely either on towers or the hinterland for growth and living space, Vancouver has a congestion and price problem. The bridges going into the city are famously turned into parking lots at rush hour; a new two bedroom apartment in downtown Vancouver starts at over $6-700,000 – and income levels for the average Vancouverite do not really reflect these prices. And yet, for the throngs who basked in the sun in Granville Island eating their lunch, for the businessmen jogging in Stanley Park, for the topless sunbathers in Kits, and for the couples who sat, hand in hand, on the beach around English Bay to watch the sunset, housing prices, though relevant, are just background data.
After all, it is not the glass towers or the grass roofs that make the city; there are mountains and parks and oceans elsewhere; and good restaurants are not native or unique to Vancouver. The city is cosmopolitan and vibrant because its citizens make it so. They are blessed by nature – cherries, apricots, peaches and grapes from the Okanagan are everywhere, while in Ottawa we are lucky to find local beets and potatoes* – but it is what they do with the bounties of nature that should make Vancouverites proud of their city.
[* My buddy notes that I am being unduly harsh, as Ontario does have peaches and cherries – and very good ones, too. I was, of course, exaggerating, for effect … we do not have only beets and potatoes; there are also local onions and parsnips, and the occasional fiddleheads.]
If you look for a note of sarcasm in my praise For Vancouver so far look in vain.
But I have not gone soft. I will indulge in a mini-rant in closing this missive.
Unless you have pre-paid your hotel by the internet, the hotel bill is one of the last interactions you have with a city. If you have had a good experience, the hotel bill should not spoil it; if a bad one, it should not exacerbate it.
Let me be clear: it is not the size of the, er, bill bill that matters. Within reason, if you know your room rate, and you should know your room rate, you should know roughly how much you will end up paying. And of course, any traveller by now is used to a multiplicity of “charges” and “fees” tacked on any transport-related bill.
(Or, any bill, for that matter. In Singapore, I ordered two items and got a bill for four. There was a charge for bread – I had not ordered it and had not touched it, but accepted it as the price of doing business. There was also a charge for “stuff”. I asked the waiter what “stuff” the “stuff’ was referring to, given that in front of me were one dinner plate, one beer bottle and an untouched basket of bread. And cutlery. With nonchalance bordering on insolence, the waiter replied, “Well, stuff.” After some further discussion, I had the item, and the bread, removed from the bill.) And yet, there has to be a limit.
Now, the “room tax” is so common that it is pointless to rail against it. But a daily Eco Energy fee by a hotel that markets itself as being eco-friendly? Worse, a “marketing fee”? I booked the hotel through their own reservation desk; I now have to pay for the privilege of having found the hotel on my own, and having called in to make reservations? This really should not be the last thing I remember from and about Vancouver …
It is a contagion all around. On a typical Air Canada flight, additional charges labelled “fuel”, “departure” and “tax” add up to well over half the total fee. EasyJet charges as low as $20 for a flight and $30 for your luggage. There is an airline in the US that charges as high as $45 for a carry on. What next? “The Nike sneakers, sir, are only $10; you have to pay a $75 ‘Michael Jordan’ marketing fee.” Or, “The carbonated water and caramel mix are 3 cents per ten fluid ounces; we just ask that you pay a $1.22 Coke is it! membership fee.”
Then again, maybe that level of transparency would bring some sanity to the market.
Pics to follow.
Next: On the High Seas.