Almost a decade ago, I came up with an idea to profile veteran concierges at hotels so that guests could get to know who they are and what they do. The plan was to make short, engaging videos which the hotel could use online or on their in-room video channels. We filmed a demo with my friend (and part-time Word Travels production team-member) Neil Maclean, who epitomized the concierge role at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. I pitched a few hotel chains, all of whom passed because every star in the universe did not align and that is what it takes to bring any great idea to fruition.
I uploaded the video to Youtube, and noticed this week that it has now garnered over 175,000 views. That's pretty impressive for our little video - shot and edited by Ian Mackenzie. Below is the video, along with a short interview with Neil about what he does, and why guests should stop by the concierge desk more often.
Our primary role is to make life easier for our guests. This could mean anything from making dinner reservations, suggesting tourist activities, helping with directions, ordering flowers, and helping to resolve any guest issues.
You could argue we’re obsolete, but we have insider information you simply can’t get on your smart phone.
The perception is that the concierge can get sketchy things, like drugs and prostitutes. Fortunately, this is not the case. In all my years I’ve never been asked to get anything illegal. I think the movies have given people the wrong idea.
The role of the concierge is to give, give, give. It’s a contrast to the front desk, which can take, take, take. We’re a free service. Where else will you find a free expert on the city?
Concierges used to be arrogant and stuffy, like overbearing maître d’s. The modern concierge is approachable, patient, loves their city, and knows how to listen.
There are some services many people don’t know we can provide: We can change your flights, so you don’t have to spend an hour on the phone. We have relationships with airlines and operators, and usually get special treatment. We can help track lost luggage, or even deliver flowers to your room. We aim to exceed guest expectations, because we really enjoy what we do.
I have heard horror stories of concierges being verbally abused, or being asked to find drugs and what not. But it’s way more rare than people think. Fortunately I like my job, colleagues, and this grand, old hotel.
There’s no protocol for tipping concierges. We’re not servers or bellmen. We do get paid more than those guys, but tips are always appreciated.
My most popular question is: “Where is the bathroom?” My most outrageous request: A guest was looking for moose antlers, so I found myself calling taxidermists around the city.
Every day I meet people from around the world, and sometimes celebrities too. Over the years I’ve helped out Robin Williams, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Phelps and Cindy Crawford, who used to hang out at the concierge desk and chit-chat. So many people wanted photos of her I told her she should do it professionally.
We once arranged a private screening for Jerry Seinfeld, and a belt for Bill Clinton. A few weeks later we received a personalized thank you letter with the presidential stamp. The reality is that we would treat all our guests the same way.
Vancouver is a world-class city increasingly recognized for its world-class cuisine. In late 2022, eight restaurants received the city’s first distinguished Michelin-stars. These were the Quebecois inspired St Lawrence, the Chinese iDen & QuanJuDe Beijing Duck House, the Japanese Masayoshi, and contemporary restaurants Public on Main, AnnaLena, Barbara, and Burdock and Co. As one might expect, all use premium, locally-sourced ingredients, but other than showcasing B.C’s outstanding seafood, would any be out of place in Quebec, China, Japan, or among other fine dining restaurants worldwide? No. If you’re looking for food of the land, food of the people, and food for thought, the restaurant to put on your bucket list is Salmon n’ Bannock. Take a seat inside the only Indigenous restaurant in Vancouver, and stop and smell the sage bush.
Located on West Broadway and tastefully decorated with Indigenous artwork, there’s a big heart at the centre of this small restaurant, and a story with every dish. It starts with a one-year-old girl swept up in the 60’s Scoop – a horrendous era when government authorities forcibly removed Indigenous kids from their homes. Inez Cook was taken from her Nuxalk community in Bella Coola and placed within foster care. Raised by loving white parents, she grew up with little connection to her Indigenous roots. As a flight attendant, she lived and travelled around the world, falling in love with cuisine, while nurturing a growing curiosity to learn more of her past. Salmon ‘n Bannock, inspired by a road sign and a dream, is the result.
When the restaurant launched in 2010, Inez was welcomed back by the Nuxalk, and has used great food to bring people together ever since. It’s a bold and confident act of what she calls reconcilli-action. Her friendly staff and kitchen crew serve up a unique menu of dishes native to the region, creatively adapted for discerning and adventurous urban palettes.
“Indigenous people used what was locally available,” she tells me over an alluring plate of appetizers. “Farm-to-table, the 100-mile diet, we were the OG trendsetters!”
With glowing reviews and profiles in global media including the New York Times, CNN and BBC, Salmon n’ Bannock is a fantastic story that literally breaks bread across the cultural divide. That said, you can’t eat a story, so what’s on the plate?
Hot smoked candied salmon with maple, cracked pepper, and delicate sweetgrass-infused cherries. Light elk salami and rich duck terrine. Citrusy salmon ceviche, double smoked cheese, homemade pickles, and the #addicitive wild BBQ salmon mousse. Baked bannock - which Inez corrects me rhymes with panic - makes a wonderful cracker, smothered with her updated version of traditional pemmican: smoked bison with sage-infused blueberries and cream cheese. I wash it down with a refreshing Bella Coola soda, infused with hibiscus, rosehips, orange and apple. No chance I’ll get to the bison pot roast, game sausage, Anishinaabe risotto, smoked sablefish, or urban sage-smoked salmon burger. One visit simply won’t cut it.
It’s healthy, sustainable and delicious, so when will Indigenous cuisine share a food court with Mexican, Thai, Greek, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other international cuisines? This is not a theme, Inez reminds me. “It gets me from zero to a thousand in lividness when we’re called a theme restaurant. Japanese or Italian food is not a theme. Indigenous is not a theme. We are living cultures.”
There are only a handful of Indigenous restaurants across Western Canada, but they’re winning both fans and awards. Scott Jonathan Iserhoff’s Pei Pei Chew Ow café in Edmonton won Best Trailblazer in enRoute’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants. You’ll find the Kekuli Café in Merritt and West Kelowna, Bear and Bone Burger Co in Golden, the Ktunaxa Grill at the Ainsworth Hot Springs and several others. Those flying out of Vancouver can leave with a taste too: Salmon n’ Bannock opened up their second location inside the international departures lounge of YVR. Business is strong, but there are still plenty of challenges.
“You might have bad Chinese food one day, but that won’t stop you ever eating Chinese food again. People have to get familiar with our food. We only get one shot, and I want to build everybody up,” she says.
Oh yes, Vancouver is blessed with dozens of fantastic restaurants (and we don’t need Michelin to tell us that either). Yet crafting great food through an Indigenous lens and doing it responsibly with the full support of the community, suggests we’re heading towards a promising, and uniquely regional, culinary future. Enjoy the feast.
The mountains overlooking Vancouver have several rockstars. There are the three ski resorts, the gondolas of Grouse, and the choppy crest of Crown. Perhaps the most distinctive peaks are The Lions, named in the 1880s because they resemble two sleeping lions (and because nobody back then deferred to Indigenous names). The East and West Lion peaks (reaching 5269ft and 5400ft respectively) inspired the BC Lions football team, Lions Gate Bridge, Lions Gate Hospital, and Lions Gate Entertainment. They also inspire ambitious hikers to brave a knee-punishing ascent with a memorable day-hike or overnight trek, complete with a challenging summit free climb. I am not an ambitious hiker, but conquering the Lions has been on my bucket list for years. This year, all my excuses finally ran out.
Before we get to the hike, it’s important to recognize that these are not Lions at all, they’re actually twin sisters. According to the Squamish people, the Twin Sisters are markers of peace between the Squamish and Haida, formed by the Creator to honour a treaty, or as a result of twin Squamish sisters captured by a Haida raiding party. Dismissing Indigenous legends and name places to honour colonial heroes and symbols has fortunately run its course, so this blog post would like to acknowledge that it takes place on the unceeded territory of the Squamish people, and is grateful for the opportunity to visit the hallowed peaks that mean so much more than a great view and a hiking adventure. I’ll call them Lions moving forward, but continue to pay my respects to the Twin Sisters and their cultural legacy.
There are two ways to hike the Lions. Park at Cypress Mountain Ski Resort and hike up and across the mountains, or park in Lions Bay and hike up… and up…and up. The Cypress route adds a few kilometres and requires some parking and driving coordination, especially if you’re descending on a one-way route through Lions Bay. The Lions Bay route requires a lucky parking spot in the few public spots available at the trail head, or get ready to add some asphalt road ascent to your journey. Be on the lookout for unimpressed NIMBY Lions Head neighbours who don’t appreciate hikers visiting their secluded mountain community. At least they didn’t seem to appreciate me, perhaps because I had arranged a parking pass and my Kia brought down property values for a day. Signs at the trail head to West Lion make no mistake what’s in store: Difficulty: Strenuous. Only be attempted by properly equipped and experienced hikers. The sign states it is 15km round-trip to the summit, with a hefty 1525m elevation gain. It suggests you budget an ambitious 7 to 8 hours. There are also bears in the area, along with cougars, bobcats, coyotes, lynx and even snakes (although the local snakes are harmless). As I started up the trail, encountering any wildlife would instantly become the least of my concern.
Up we go. And up. And up. And up further still. Ah, what’s this? A flat section! Through fairy beds of green moss and lush tree tunnels, beautiful, I needed that welcome breather, and…. nope, it’s up again. And up, up, and up further still. Poles are essential, as are frequent water breaks (I slugged through 2.5 litres of water on my hike, and I don’t drink that much). Loose rocks are waiting to roll your ankle, and slippery roots waiting to trip you up. We cross a bridge over a fetching cascade, which invites a cool dip in the rock pools, but there’s no time to dally. It’s an unseasonal warm and dry October, which means a lovely cool temperature and few bugs, but also shorter days. We were on the trail by 7:45am. The parking lot, incidentally, was already full.
The West Lions is a popular hike, and everyone I passed seemed in better physical and mental shape to do it. A group of bro’s (shirtless, tanned, bleached hair, ripped, backward baseball caps) were already on their descent. These are BC’s hiking equivalent to California’s surfing dudes. I encounter groups and couples, and a quick-footed solo teenage boy with parents that should be proud and worried. Up and up, over and up, until almost 4 hours in, we crest at a viewpoint and finally see the mighty Lions up close. Solid rock (hornblende diorite for you geologists), the two peaks are more imposing and intimidating when you stand beneath them, casting a shadow into the valley below. As we continue our ascent, the rocks become bigger and more challenging, remnants of several millennia of rockslides. Tears are flowing from my knees, and I’m cursing the weight of snacks I thought I’d need in my daypack. Finally, we reach a large outcrop where most sane people stop to enjoy the incredible 360-view of the Lions, the Howe Sound, and on a clear day, Vancouver far below. Most sane people will reach this point, say they’ve hiked the West Lion, and call it a day. The rest of us might continue on the 29-kilometre Howe Sound Crest Trail from Cypress Mountain to Porteau Cove, or decide it’s worth the risky free-climb up the rock to the West Lion summit. Cramping legs, blistered ankles, heavy breathing, no fitness whatsoever…of course I’m going for the top.
Other than one handy rope to assist with a 5 metre drop at the start, there are no chain ladders or ropes. I had to navigate up and over sheer rock face, balancing on narrow ledges while desperately searching for rock holds, doing my best not to think about the 30m – 50m plummet below. Some hikers brought helmets and climbing shoes. I had a flask of rum. Remember: three points of contact! It’s been a while since a physical challenge intersected so concisely with my mental fear, and several times I paused to breathe, stay calm, and recollect myself in that special place we all visit sometimes. It doesn’t take very long to get to the summit, but after a challenging 5-hour ascent, it’s tough as hell. My thighs cramped up just in time to collapse in a heap by the West Lion’s rock cairn, the only sign that you are indeed, as high as you can go. Oh, and the sweeping, spectacular view that surrounds you. It’s almost enough to make me forget that I now have to scale down the dangerous rock, and then hike down a trail so steep it could snap a shock absorber.
A few Band-aids, a swig of rum, some yummy sandwiches, painkillers, candy and nuts, and we’re on our way down. It’s always much quicker hiking down than up, but it’s also hell on your knees and tricky for your ankles. Yet with fine company, fine weather, and the intangible joy that accompanies any sense of accomplishment, we slowly made our way down to Lions Bay. You do not want to descend this trail in the dark, but we timed it perfectly, arriving at the parking lot at 5:45pm. With plenty of breaks and time to enjoy the views (and factoring the state of my fitness), it was a very long, 10-hour hike, and the second most challenging hike of my life (here’s looking at you West Coast Trail).
It took a few days for me to stop walking like a stepped-on spider, and yes, it definitely would have helped to have prepared with more than just a few games of pickleball. There’s plenty of reviews of the West Lion hike on various hiking sites, and yes, I can confirm the last scramble is as challenging as everyone says it is. Unless you’re that ten-year old girl who passed us on the way down, carrying her stuffy Snow Leopard.
As I lay in bed that night groaning with stiffness, my wife asked me why on earth anybody would ever want to do this to themselves? My reply was simple: “Every time I see those Lions, I can think ‘I’ve been to the top of that!’ It’s a personal accomplishment that just keeps on giving.”
Special thanks to Jon, Revelie, Mike and Stephanie.
You might also be a fan of the late author Douglas Adams, who wrote Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and the genius dictionary of made-up words, the Meaning of Liff. In 1992, he wrote a book called Last Chance to See, a travelogue about his journey to visit animals on the verge of extinction. Although the book has dated (some rare creatures have now completely vanished), I’m struck at how ahead of his time Douglas Adams was. Not only did he give us the meaning of life (the number 42, in case you forgot), but he foresaw the sad reality that a modern bucket list is not so much about doing something before you die, but before it disappears.
I write these words in the midst of a second unprecedented heat wave in a normally mild British Columbia summer. The first claimed over 500 lives in just three days, a staggering number that’s largely slipped under the flood of the 24-Covid news cycle. Meanwhile hundreds of wildfires are burning in the interior, smoking our skies sepia, evacuating thousands of people and torching the entire town of Lytton, a popular destination for river rafting. Scientists estimate over a billion marine animals cooked in the first heatwave, and more are undoubtably boiling in their shells this weekend as the temperature and humidex approach the mid 40°Cs. Climate change has come home to roost, and techno-evangelism (technology will save us!) suddenly rings a little hollow for Pacific Island nations soon be underwater, communities going up in flames, loved ones burying their dead or biodiversity battered by urban encroachment, poaching and agriculture. I know you come here for good news, but since I’m a pragmatic optimist, we have to accept that the near and far future will suffer increasingly extreme weather events, causing unparalleled environmental, financial and cultural devastation. All I can hope is that this finds you in a safe and stable nation with enough progressive foresight and resources to prepare for this eventuality. All I can hope is that my bucket list books do not become works of history – much like Last Chance to See - a review of destinations that also no longer exist. Unfortunately, not much has been gained in thirty years since Douglas Adams sounded his convincing warning bell, and so much has been lost.
My new ‘Bucket Listed’ column for Canadian Geographic Travel combines commentary with my travel recommendations. Each column is short and punchy and well worth reading, especially my second column about Indigenous tourism. My joyous and poignant Celebration of Canada column was sunk by the sombre nature of this year’s Canada Day, which coincided with horrific discoveries of residential school graves, sparking outrage at the nation and Catholic church’s complicity in an obvious attempt at cultural genocide. It’s a heavy topic for non-Indigenous Canadians to grasp, which is why I highly recommend reading Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth about Lies about Indians which uses a lighter touch to help us understand the many challenges and injustices that Indigenous communities face today. Next, I explored risk tolerance with a column entitled: Is it Safe to Travel Again? before jumping into practical tips for planning bucket list road trips and revealing some of my favourite, less-known experiences in every province.
Speaking of road-trips, I recently returned from a little adventure of Vancouver Island with the kids, ticking off some must-do experiences along the way. The new Malahat Skywalk was spectacular, with a few unexpected offerings (like a slide, boardwalk and adventure net) to elevate the experience well above just another roadside attraction. I’ve long heard about caving on Vancouver Island, so I’m a little shocked it took me so long to get to the Horne Lake Caves. I just assumed they were typical show-caves, but it’s more aligned with my best spelunking adventures abroad: hardhats, overalls, scrambling, twisting, ducking and climbing. Letting the kids hammer away for fossils under the guidance of an enthusiastic and experienced dinosaur museum curator was a stroke of genius, and we finished off at a fun camping festival in a forest near Courtenay. After 60 days of no rain, the heavens opened up and drowned us with the heaviest rainfall in years, soaking the thirsty fields and farms, and maintaining my 85% record of a mud-soaked fiesta whenever I camp at a festival. The Canadian government should just drop me off with a tent, a band and a DJ in the country’s most drought-impacted regions: statistical probability will take care of the rest. You can read about my Vancouver Island road-trip in my latest post on the newly relaunched www.canadianbucketlist.com
Finally, I want to give a shout-out to the team at Great Canadian Trails, who are also passionate about remarkable Canadian outdoor adventures. You don’t need to be a hardcore backcountry explorer, cyclist, hiker, or paddler to experience the joys of a true bucket list adventure. GCT offer guided and self-guided tours that take care of all the logistics and make these kind of adventures far more achievable, accessible and enjoyable than you’d ever expect. We’ve been working together for years, they’re great people, and I’m thrilled they’ve managed to endure the challenges of Covid to emerge even more determined to help me build your lifetime highlight reel.
Travel’s appeal is broad and encompasses varied experiences -adventure, food, history, romance – but I’ve always felt it keenest with the sense of discovery, of being absorbed in unfamiliarity. It’s personally invigorating to have to decipher a new set of rules, laws and cultural norms. Locals around us seem perfectly at ease, but we can’t shake the feeling that we are other, visitors, not from around these parts. Travelling alone further isolates us outside our comfort zones, as there’s nobody to share our experience with, no one to point out the wonders and absurdities. Disorientation can be challenging and difficult, which is why it’s not for everybody. I recall quite vividly my first few steps within it, in London 1997. I’d moved to the city on a two-year work permit with lofty ambitions to excel in online media. Tubing around, just another faceless face in a sea of commuters, I’d never felt so empowered and helpless at the same time. Several years prior, I had bought a small Robin the Boy Wonder figurine at a flea market in Grahamstown, South Africa (now Makhanda). Bashed, scarred and a little bashed and bruised, it quickly became a lucky charm and has joined me in the over one hundred countries I’ve visited since.
Alone in London, I popped into a pub near Angel to steel myself with a flat pint and escape the sensation of being overwhelmed. In my daypack was a little black notebook with addresses of companies to drop off my resume, and the Boy Wonder of course, anything to increase my odds. For reassurance, I grasped my figurine and noticed that Boy Wonder was pointing to his eye, as if to say: “open your eyes, look around, observe.” And so I did: noting the sticky carpet beneath my feet, pot lights reflecting off brass beer taps, the clientele of day-drinkers and office skirters. I penned these observations in my notebook, which I still have somewhere, and a travel writer was born. I now have dozens of these same little black notebooks (bought from the CNA newsagent in South Africa, others just don't cut the mustard) filled with scribblings and interviews, observations and thoughts. Viewers around the world have seen me writing in these same books in almost every episode of my TV show (Word Travels is now available on Prime Video in Canada). This week, I finally went travelling again, but I had forgotten my black notebook, its virgin pages eager to capture thoughts as I wandered about aimlessly. I was opening my eyes in a new world that felt alien and awkward yet fascinating and alluring at the same time. Most bizarre of all, this strange new destination was downtown Vancouver, the city where I live.
It’s been well over a year since I strolled the blocks of Granville, Davie, Hornby and Howe. This used to be my hood. In a former life I could tell you the names of most of the stores, and a funny anecdote to go along with them (I think I snogged someone in the alley behind The Moose / that’s the joint where I ate late-night soft-shell crab with a rock band, etc). These days I live and work 25 minutes’ drive away in a forested suburb, and even if Covid hadn’t come along, there’d be little reason to visit the music venues, offices, restaurants and coffee shops that line these particular blocks. Since leaving my apartment downtown, I’ve been harbouring an image of downtown Vancouver’s urban liveliness: it’s vibrant streets jiving with crowds and colour. Today, I found an inner city ravaged by the pandemic. Almost every third store was boarded up, tagged with graffiti or heartbreaking farewells from its broken proprietors. Homeless were sleeping in shoddy entranceways (wasn’t that an upmarket restaurant? wasn’t that a boutique?) some were shooting up as I walked by. Coffee shops were open but empty, except for the Starbucks on Howe which was boarded up and gone for good (a Starbucks closing, in Vancouver?)
There was an unusual abundance of street parking, and the few people walking around – some masked, some not - carried a heaviness about them, a sense of sorrow and guilt. Among this decay towered proud new condos that didn’t exist a year ago. Unlike Toronto or Montreal, construction has never ceased in development-mad Vancouver. The hip art gallery and cheap-eat restaurants on the corner of Robson and Seymour have been bulldozed, awaiting another glass tower jammed with million-dollar 600 square-foot studios. Opposite the city library - looking even more ancient than its bold Coliseum-influenced design - new buildings are transforming the city’s skyline, including a massive development in the former post office to ironically house a new headquarters for Amazon. The streets were familiar, but everything else? I may as well be walking Doha or Dallas or Derby or any other modern city I’ve yet to visit.
Tragic as it was discovering the cracking shell of my own city, I was nonetheless jolted by the nostalgia of discovering some place new, alone and lost, with only my thoughts for company. I may not be going anywhere for some time yet, but even if Boy Wonder is gathering dust on top of my bookcase, it continues to remind me, and all of us, to keep our eyes open as we observe the changing world around us.
Eilean Donan Castle in Scotland. There can be only one.
Have you ever been travelling somewhere and suddenly thought: “This looks familiar!” That’s because it is, as Hollywood location scouts scan the world for places that look just as dramatic on film as they do for tourists on the ground. Here’s seven of the best:
I love those offbeat romantic English comedies, a guilty pleasure on long-haul flights. I also see if I can pick out the locations used, like the big wedding scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral, filmed at the St Bartholomew the Great Church in London. Snowdonia, a national park in northern Wales, has served as Camelot in First Knight (starring Richard Gere) and is also seen in James Bond’s From Russia With Love. The historic manor of Chatsworth can be seen in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, as well as The Duchess (starring Kiera Knightley) and the 2010 production of The Wolfman, with Anthony Hopkins. The Highlander, a classic fantasy film, had locations including Eilean Donan Castle and Glencoe, a beautiful part of the Scottish highlands. Back to Hugh Grant, Notting Hill is a popular area of London, and hosts the boisterous annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Whenever the scene calls for a thick jungle, you can bet there’s a producer on the plane to Hawaii’s oldest island, Kauai. Remember that scene in Jurassic Park as the helicopter approaches a dramatic coastline, and lands right by a waterfall? Helicopter tours over the Na Poli coastline are hugely popular, and Island Helicopters even land right by the waterfall, now known as Jurassic Falls, just like the movie. You can swing on the same rope as Indiana Jones (in Raiders of the Lost Ark) right into Huleia River., or swim in the Fountain of the Youth as featured in Pirates of the Caribbean. Tropic Thunder, Hook, Outbreak, Lord of the Flies - if you think Wailua Falls look right out of Fantasty Island, that’s because they are.
Although it was inspired by the Philippines, The Beach, a hit book and movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio, was set and filmed in Thailand. Tourists flock to Phi Phi Leh to see this celluloid paradise for themselves, including the iconic beach of Hat Maya. There are daily ferries from popular resort towns of Phuket and Krabi. While in Phuket, you might recognize scenes from Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, and you can also take a boat out to James Bond Island, also known as Phang Nga Bay, as featured in the Man with the Golden Gun. More recently, the Hangover II used Bangkok as an able substitute for Las Vegas.
Hobbit tours in New Zealand
The Lord of the Rings trilogy put the Kiwi film industry on the map. The South Island, around the tourist mecca of Queenstown, was a perfect choice for Middle Earth. There are daily tours from Queenstown to over 20 locations featured in the movie, such as the Lothlorien Woods (Paradise Glenorchy), Rivendell (Lake Manapouri) and the Ford of Bruinen (Arrow River) where Arwen summoned a flood to dispel of the RIngwraiths. Fantasy fans might also recognize locations in the Milford Sound, and Kingston Beach on Lake Wakatipu, as featured in the movie Wolverine. There is also the Cook Strait, which was used for the ocean scenes in the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. As for the film’s Skull Island, it was none other than Lyall Bay near the capital of Wellington.
Paris inspires lovers, and filmmakers too. The list of films set or filmed in Paris is a long one. Amongst my favourites are The Bourne Identity, mostly filmed in Paris and Prague. You will recognize the Gare Du Nord, one of the busiest train stations in Europe, the Hotel Regina opposite the Louvre, the Jardin des Tuileries, La Grande Arche de la Défense in the business district, and the Pont des Arts, where Bourne disappears into the credits. Before Sunrise, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is a love letter to the city, as our two lovers discover the city and each other. They walk through the Sorbonne, along the Seine, on the Promenade Plantée, above the old Viaduc des Arts. As they tuck behind the Notre Dame at Quai de la Tournelle, it’s no wonder they didn’t bump into Jason Bourne, who was featured in the same spot in the Bourne Identity. Paris, je t'aime is a beautiful romantic comedy that will inspire travellers, but avoid From Paris with Love, a John Travolta disaster doing no favours for the tourism industry!
This North African country has not hosted many Hollywood movies, but the few that it has have been illustrious. Tunis doubled as Cairo in the Oscar-winning English Patient, along with Sfax on the coast. More famously, Tunisia doubled for Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in the first Star Wars movie. There actually is a place in Tunisia called Tatooine, but the scenes were actually filmed in Matmata, where people have been living in sandstone caves for centuries. A huge salt flat called Chott el Jerid allowed Skywalker to gaze longingly at two suns, while visitors flock to nearby Sidi Bouhel, now known as Star Wars Canyon, where R2D2 was captured. The series returned to Tunisia for its Tatooine scenes in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Scenes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian were filmed in the Ribat monastery at Monastir. Indiana Jones pops up again, with the “Egyptian” desert scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark actually filmed around the Tunisian UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kairouan.
Vancouver gets a familiar sci-fi makeover
Vancouver has the third largest film and television industry in North America, and the city often doubles for other locations. Simon Fraser University has been seen in Underworld 4 Spy Game, the X Files and Battlestar Gallactica. The Lions Gate Bridge makes a cameo in Tron: Legacy. The Fantastic Four flew into North Vancouver’s Pier 97, while X-Men: The Last Stand invaded Lynn Canyon Park and its popular local hiking trails. Chinatown doubled for San Francisco in Romeo Must Die, and the apocalyptic future in iRobot. Even the airport gets some screen time. YVR has been featured in Final Destination, Fantastic Four, The Killing, and Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. More recently, the smash hit Deadpool did something unusual for Hollywood. They filmed in Vancouver, and didn't pretend it was something else.
Fantasy, science fiction and spy movies gravitate to the Czech Republic, so don’t be surprised if some of the scenery looks familiar. Alien vs Predator, The Brothers Grimm, Hellboy, Von Helsing, Mission Impossible, XXX and From Hell were all filmed in locations around Prague.. Casino Royale was filmed at Barrandov Studios as well as in Karlovy Vary. The Bourne Identity pops up again, as Prague doubles for Zurich. Still on Matt Damon, the creepy Bone Church of Kutna Hora made an appearance in the Brothers Grimm, as did Kačina Castle and Kost Castle. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the winter park scene was filmed amongst the odd sandstone formations at Adrspach National Park on the Czech Republic-Poland border.
For all its hype as one of the world’s best cities, you don’t have to chat to Vancouverites for very long to hear frustration bubbling underneath. This past week, the topic of Vancouver’s shortfalls has come up five times, which inspired me to write this piece. Nobody denies the city’s beauty and quality of life, and while we’re mostly in the realm of “First World Problems”, it’s worth recognizing the issues that hold this city back. Having previously explored what makes Vancouver great, I asked myself one simple question: What should change for Vancouver to truly be the world’s best city? Here’s what I came up with.
Nobody can just relax in this city, because everywhere you go, the clock is ticking, and the dollars add up. Parking rates are outrageous, as is the fact that parking meters run to 10pm, even on many streets that are mostly empty. Good luck finding street parking in the West End or Kits (goodbye dinner parties) and confusing Residents Only signs in the suburbs inhibits social visits. Sure, a lack of parking encourages public transit, but buses and the Skytrain are not convenient when you have kids, multiple destinations and chores. Meanwhile, Easypark and Impark gouge our wallets with malicious glee. Paying by phone is super convenient, especially for Vancouver City Hall, which double dips when 2 or 3 cars pay for the same space in an hour.
Solution: Lower street parking rates, more lots at transit hubs, return parking metres to 8pm. Increase 2 hour limits to 3 or 4 hours. Hey, I can dream.
Look, compared to many other cities in the world, it’s not too bad…until you get stuck in it. The condo explosion brings with it a traffic mess. Marine Drive and Cambie was already a nightmare before they decided to build a new city above the intersection. Roads are choked, which means people drive like maniacs, and who can admire the cherry blossoms with stress burning the eyeballs? There also needs to be more left-turn signals. I’ve never understood the high-risk gamble of turning left with a car opposite (also turning left) blocking oncoming traffic.
Solution: Better street planning to accompany new condo developments. Better transit options. More left turning arrows. More incentives for ride share.
The biggest issue on the list, especially for those priced out of the city’s obscene housing market. A glut of overpriced one and two bedroom condos sold off to international buyers who don’t live in them; million-dollar tear downs (also driven up by international buyers) and a real estate boom that benefits the few at the expense of the many. I want to raise my kids, not lust for overpriced real estate while watching real estate agents tear each other’s throats out. Vancouver homes are more expensive than New York, but we don’t earn what people in New York do. This city’s unquenchable real estate boom is squeezing out its citizens, and suffocating its culture.
Solution: Make Vancouver a city for the people who actually live in it. Tax the hell out of non-resident owners, which will fund subsidies and new infrastructure while cooling off the market to something approaching reality.
$1200 a month x 2 = $2400. Monthly salary after deductions and taxes: $2600. How the hell is this supposed to encourage dual income households, women in the workforce, and a positive birth rate? Raising kids is tough and expensive as it is. There are not enough daycare spots (we waited 18 months to get my daughter in the nearest daycare) and what’s available is still the most expensive in the country. This became a political issue in the last issue and rightly so.
Solution: Subsidized daycare, with more community daycare programs.
A major issue in this city, the political hot potato, one that burns across the spectrum of mental health, underfunded community programs, social security, and crime. As someone who travels around the world, you should know this: Vancouver is often compared to Melbourne, Vienna, Perth, Auckland, Geneva – and none of those cities have anything close to the homeless crisis in Vancouver. Hastings and Main is NOT normal. Finding the solution involves more than just building new homes - it’s about looking at the issue holistically – the economy, healthcare, social programs, drug laws. There are smarter people tackling these issues, but for all the millions of dollars spent, it does not appear to be improving.
Solution: Improve mental health facilities, manage public housing efficiently, subsidize public education programs, create jobs, update drugs policy, your solution here.
Despite what cruise ship tourists think, just because someone told them the time outside Pacific Centre does not make Vancouver a friendly city. It is polite. Vancouverites are as mild as the weather – blowing neither hot nor cold. Not returning emails or phone calls, not inviting people to houses, bailing on plans at the last minute – this is a cultural norm in the city, acutely felt by immigrants from countries where such behaviour is deemed rude. Vancouverites (myself included) are self absorbed, busy with our lives, trying to keep our heads above water. There’s a perception here that making and maintaining friendships requires intense effort and sacrifice, and isn’t worth it. Garbage, but nevertheless entrenched in Vancouver culture, despite what tourists think.
Solution: Teach your kids that it’s not OK to keep options open so they can cancel plans at the last moment. Teach your kids that it is OK to invite friends over. It will take a couple generations to burn off the sludge of Vancouver’s social disinterest, but it can be done.
OK, it rains. Not much we can do about this one. Comes with the package. Certainly it appears that Vancouver is #winning as the world adjusts to climate change. The best thing we can do about the weather is to stop whining about it. We don’t live in Arizona, but Arizona doesn’t have coastal rainforest.
Solution: Get over it.
LIQUOR PRICES & LAWS
The current mayor has improved things considerably, but this is still a city that would rather chop down the tree than risk one bad apple. Our liquor laws are pathetically archaic. We have “medicinal” marijuana shops blossoming on every block, you can smoke your vaporizer walking down the street, but it’s illegal to open a bottle of wine on the beach. Big changes are underway, but we’re years away from what you might see in Montreal or Europe. There’s still too much red tape to set up an event, which is why public events are so few and far between. I admit it’s getting better (fifteen years ago this city was alarmingly dull) but Vancouver needs to be culturally progressive as well as environmentally progressive.
Solution: Streamlined application processes, alcohol in grocery stores, alcohol consumption in public (the sky won’t fall), investment in more community events.
COST OF GOING OUT
What a great lifestyle Vancouverites have, and boy do we pay for it! This is a city that wants you to kick the crap out of your credit card so you can go out for dinner, see a show, visit a museum, or take a yoga class. Admission is pricey all round, and don’t forget the parking! We have fantastic community centres and dine-out festivals, and I know that things today aren’t cheap. But the increasingly high cost of everything benefits a minority of the city’s wealthier population, shooting everyone else in the foot.
Solution: Heavily discounted, subsidized museum entrances for locals (or free altogether). Discount days for theatre, opera, ballet etc, encouraging family visits. Crackdown on price gouging for events, (aka TicketMaster). Extending nightclub hours, more all ages events.
Proud Vancouverites will scream: If you don’t like it, don’t live here! But that’s like telling someone to eat cold soup in front of a microwave. We know it’s good, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better.
It feels increasingly obvious that Vancouver is transforming into a Have/Have Not City, ironic given that its greatest asset is the free-as-air nature that encompasses it.
Ironic that Traffic is an issue, and so is parking. That homelessness is an issue, juxtaposed against the inflated value of homes. That it rains so much, and yet that rain gives us our gorgeous coastal rainforests.
Maybe I just need to accept the fact that unless I earn significantly more income, Vancouver is no longer an ideal place to live. The average two-household income is a struggle, as it is for not-so-average incomes. Maybe I should forego a view of the mountains for a big enough house to raise a family, without the stress of intense debt. Maybe I should be the change I want to see in the world. Maybe I should just shut up.
And that’s why I wrote this, to start a debate, to get the bitching out in the open. Vancouver doesn’t suck. It just needs a few tweaks. What do you think ?
ps: I know I should have titled this: "How Vancouver Can Be Better?" but clickbait is clickbait.
Every year, a research organization named Skytrax surveys millions of passengers around the world to come up with the definitive list of the World’s Top Airports. It’s ranking looks at 39 different airport services, based on reviews from over 11 million people travelling through 240 airports. There’s dozens of categories for Most Improved, Low Cost, Continents, Shopping etc, but no Worst Airport, so I added that myself.
Changi Airport, Singapore
Clearly, Singapore understands that passengers want more from their airport experience than being herded into gates like cattle, frisked like terrorists, and fed stale overpriced sandwiches stuffed with mystery meat. Changi’s free amenities (free being a defining factor) include internet, massage chairs, and a cinema to help pass the time during unexpected delays. Pleasing aesthetics come in the form of waterfalls, green spaces, even a butterfly garden. Clean, and efficient, Changi is currently rated the world’s best airport.
Incheon International Airport, South Korea
South Korea has been competing with and often outpacing their Japanese neighbour’s economy, automobile industry, and airports too. Incheon runs like a finely tuned, well oiled machine. Surgically clean and easy to navigate, survey respondents made special mention of the friendly and helpful service, along with amenities like showers, where passengers can rent towels for just $2. There’s an affordable transit hotel located in the airport itself too, and of course free internet, something most major US airports feel need to charge/fleece you for. The survey awards points for immigration and customs, and Incheon leaps ahead here too, with line-ups whizzing through
Munich Airport, Germany
Munich tops the list of Europe’s Best Airport, ranking 3rd overall in 2014. Survey respondents enjoyed contrasting it to Frankfurt, which falls further down the list, although one would assume smaller airports are easier to manage. How about free coffee or tea and a newspaper with your Bavarian sausage? A nice touch appreciated by passengers travelling in economy. The airport’s modern interior is elegant yet functional, good signage, with all the efficiency you’d expect from a German airport.
Hong Kong International Airport, Hong Kong
Hong Kong is one of only three 5-star rated airports, the other being Changi Singapore and Incheon in South Korea. Is there a coincidence that the three highest rated airports are in Asia? In the movie Up in the Air, George Clooney makes a stereotype that one should always get in lines with Asian passengers, who are efficient and move quickly through the system. No surprise then that Hong Kong is praised for its efficiency through the gate, check-in counters, even security. It also got full marks for having views of the runways and planes, a great selection of food options, public transport, cleanliness and, being Hong Kong, excellent Duty Free shopping.
Leave it to the Swiss to make everything run like clockwork. Zurich is prized for ambience and views, service, information and public transport to and from the airport. Yes, apparently you can set your watch to the train schedules. The self-service check in machines offer 15 languages, the toilets are spotless. Bare in mind, when the signs say it will take you 12 minutes to walk to your gate, they mean it.
Vancouver International Airport, Canada
YVR proudly remains the Best Airport in North America, cracking the Skytrax Top 10 list dominated by Asian and European terminals. I personally believe it belongs in the Top 3, but that might have something to do with the fact that YVR is my home airport, and is always a pleasure to return to. Renovations for the Winter Olympics helped create a spectacular bright space, complete with First Nations Art, water ponds, and new, reasonably priced restaurants. I feel a great deal of pride watching passengers ogle at the giant fish tank, with its luminous floating jellyfish, or the landmark Bill Reid sculpture in the Departures Hall. Free internet all around, and massive kudos for free baggage carts, in contrast to other major North American airports that feel compelled to nickel and dime passengers at every opportunity.
My Worst Airport Experiences
Africa’s three best airports are located in South Africa, still benefitting from renovations for the World Cup in 2010. My least fond airport memories lie elsewhere on the continent. In Addis Ababa, I waited two hours for my bags to show up, with no food, rank washrooms, and nobody knowing anything about nothing. The worst check-in chaos I’ve experienced was in Dubai, where Nigerian passengers overloaded with commercial goods practically stampeded anyone in their way. In Europe, I recall the hot Slovenian transfer shuttle that waited until the bus was jammed with passengers from the plane, and then drove ten metres across the maintenance road to the entrance gate. Ten metres! Security flagged me in Cairo for some reason, twice, and how could I forget Houston’s ridiculously long-winded double screening process, under the shadow of posters depicting the Twin Towers in flames?
Travel is stressful enough folks. Give us somewhere clean to eat, freshen up, relax, and check our email without taking out a mortgage. Is that too much to ask?
Like many Vancouverites, I was born and raised on a different continent. I am asked, almost daily, why I choose to live here out of all the cities in the world - especially since I seem to have visited a heck of a lot of them. This post is a great excuse to reveal my personal discoveries behind Canada’s third largest, and easily most fetching, city.
The first thing that hits you is the air. It tastes pure. It smells like a glacier. It’s like toothpaste for your lungs. With all the pollution and traffic found in any major city (and the yellow fog that settles over the Fraser Valley is no exception), Vancouverites still get that wonderful fresh onshore breeze, and crisp mountain air. One day they might bottle it, along with our water, which is cleaner and tastier than bottled brands anyway.
A lifestyle city means, simply: one doesn't have to earn as much to do as much. By doing, I refer to the beaches in summer, the mountains in winter, and the sea and parks across all seasons. Meanwhile, Vancouver gets a lot of slack for its lack of culture, and yet every week there’s theatre and live music and exhibitions and galleries and festivals and all the things those people who complain about “lack of culture” don’t go see anyway. Yet culture, as anyone who lives in New York can testify, costs a great deal of money. A walk on Stanley Park’s seawall, in the expansive UBC Endowment Lands, on the mountain trails of the North Shore or the paths along the Fraser River, is free of charge. Whatever your age, whatever your budget, with a pair of walking shoes and a love of nature, there’s always something to do.
It’s not just the mere diversity of restaurants in Vancouver - where neighbourhood streets can resemble the world’s best Food Court - it’s the overall quality and affordability that makes dining in Vancouver world-class. The offers the world’s best sushi, period. Indian, Thai, Malaysian, Mexican, Turkish, Greek, Italian, Ethiopian, Jamaican, Korean, African, and of course Chinese cuisines are well represented, across budget ranges. West Coast fusion, fine dining - hipsters, yuppies, students and vegetarians are in foodie heaven. My favourite restaurant: Jambo Grill on Kingsway.
It might be mid-January, and I’ll be out with friends wearing a thin hoodie on a wet winter night. Some people prefer the freeze to rain. Some people live in the desert. We’re a wet city, but we’re not a cold city, certainly when compared to the rest of Canada. I like not wearing too many layers. I like feeling my nose, and not worrying about my eyes freezing over. I like taking a walk in a forest when it rains, like a Hobbit on a quest for adventure. Constant drizzle occasionally gets annoying, but it comes with warmer temperatures that locals very much appreciate. Our seasons are clearly defined with the passage of time, our sunsets mesmerizing.
Vancouverites themselves are like their weather: famously mild. Neither hot headed nor cool tempered, we seem to be very busy, although hardly in a rush. We won’t stop you in the street and ask you for tea, but maybe that’s because it’s raining and nobody wants to get wet. There’s a certain amount of reliability that comes with Vancouverites – their outrage at scandal, their upbeat humour on a sunny day, their time-bomb potential to riot if a rock concert is cancelled (or we lose Game 7 of a Stanley Cup Finals). This is a city that is called both No Fun City and Vansterdam, stuck in its Victorian ways yet wildly progressive. With these extremes, no wonder the city's temperament sits firmly in the middle.
I love the views. I love the way the sports teams almost seem to finally make it big before imploding in one way or another. I love the way people who visit me from out of town react when they experience Stanley Park's Seawall for the first time. I love the way everyone seems to come from somewhere else, and yet calls this city home. Come on in, and make yourself at home too.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.