Saturday, July 30, 2011

Luxurious Layover at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel

     Imagine taking a bubble bath while sipping champagne and nibbling on chocolate-covered strawberries within half an hour after getting your luggage from your flight to Vancouver, while your fellow passengers are fighting it out in a taxi stuck in traffic. Sounds like a dream? Well, it is possible - and here's how.

Chocolate-covered strawberries, compliments of Fairmont YVR

      The Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is Canada's second busiest airport, having 16.8 million passengers go through their gates in 2010. It serves as Canada's gateway to the Far East, and with multiple connections to places including China, Japan and Hawaii, there is a good chance that Canadian passengers traveling to these exotic destinations will transit through here.

     The airport does have multiple well-lit seating areas for whiling away the hours waiting to catch a connecting flight. However, if you are in the mood for a more luxurious and private place to layover, there is a AAA four-diamond rated hotel located within the airport, a short walk away from the domestic terminal, and directly above the US ticket counters in the international terminal - the Fairmont Vancouver Airport.

Escalator to the Fairmont Vancouver Airport lobby

     We stayed there recently after having arrived a few days early for a cruise to Alaska on Holland America Line's Zuiderdam. It was easy to get to the hotel upon arrival - you can load up all your luggage on the airport's free carts and without going outside, wheel them all over to the hotel entrance, at the far end of the US/international terminal. The hotel lobby is located one floor up, and there is a bell desk with hotel staff ready to help you transport your luggage. (Unfortunately, you cannot bring the airport cart into the hotel, so the luggage needs to be transferred here).

     This hotel has a pool, gym and spa, so once you have checked in to your room, you can work-out in your hotel-loaned Adidas workout gear (free for Fairmont President's Club Premier and Platinum members) or get a massage to help you relax after the madness of the airport. Alternatively, get a drink and enjoy the view of the runways at the Jetside Bar.

Jetside Bar

     The Fairmont Vancouver Airport also has a side product that it produces and sells - their own branded honey. I tried in vain to see the million bees that produce this so-called "liquid gold", but unfortunately they are kept behind a secure area on airport premises at the McDonald Beach Park. I had to content myself with a taste from a jar purchased at the front desk. It was ..... sweet!

     My favorite thing(s) about this hotel, though, sweet honey aside, are the rooms. Every room, even the lowest category (Fairmont) is large and has a view of the runways where you can watch jets arriving or taking off. Deluxe category rooms and above also have a telescope to allow closer inspection of these behemoths in the sky. Also, every bathroom has a large soaking tub, and a separate tiled shower. The sliding doors on the "window" between the bathtub and bedroom allows you to be as private or all-inclusive as you like. (Careful, though - there isn't any lock on these shutters, nor on the sliding doors leading to the bathroom, so your privacy could easily be disturbed by a curious kid or roommate!)

Fairmont Room

Inviting bathtub with direct view to the TV

     Arriving at this luxury hotel room after suffering through an interminable flight jammed like sardines in the back of the plane was like finding an oasis in the desert. We stayed the night, transferring to Canada Place the next day, but you can enjoy all this luxury even if you only have a few hours between flights. Day-use rooms are available at $99 for four hours between 8am and 8pm, with each additional hour at $20 each, up to a maximum of eight hours. It sure beats trying to sleep on those banks of padded metal airport chairs while hoards of travelers swarm around you!

For more information on Vancouver, try one of these travel guides:
Frommer's Vancouver and Victoria 2011Lonely Planet Vancouver (City Travel Guide)Fodor's Vancouver & Victoria, 2nd Edition: with Whistler, Vancouver Island & the Okanagan Valley (Full-Color Gold Guides)The Rough Guide to Vancouver (Rough Guides)

Friday, July 29, 2011

A Balcony with a View: Zuiderdam Penthouse Suite 7046

Zuiderdam at the dock in Skagway

     The balcony of the Penthouse suite on Holland America Line's Zuiderdam is not just a balcony - it is your own private outdoor dining room, living room, nature-watching observation deck and pool deck (well, jacuzzi deck) all-in-one.  We had the good fortune of sailing Alaska's Inside Passage in the Zuiderdam Penthouse Verandah Suite #7046 last week, and the balcony served as all of these things for us, as well as being a comfortable gathering place for our family reunion cruise.

Champagne toast sail-away from Vancouver!

     This suite is one of two penthouses on the Zuiderdam, and is located on the port side. For our cruise to Alaska, this turned out to be the perfect choice, as it seemed that the port side spent more time turned towards the main sights, such as the Margerie Glacier in Glacier Bay, than starboard. Other members of  our group had starboard cabins, so we could easily switch sides to follow interesting views - however, we still seemed to spend most of our time on the portside penthouse balcony.

     Of course, this may have something to do with its enormous space, comfortable furnishings and convenient layout. According to Holland America Line's website, the penthouse suite on the Zuiderdam measures 1, 150 sq. ft., including the balcony. We didn't measure the suite nor the balcony, but a consensus group guess put the area of the verandah about one-third of the total size, or approximately 400 sq. ft. Our party of ten could easily stand outside and not feel crowded. In fact, there was probably space for at least ten more.

Left side: dining area with cozy built-in bench and lounge chairs

Right side: medium-sized jacuzzi tub and more lounge chairs

     Our group used the dining area on the balcony mostly for afternoon snack time. On the first day at sea, while cruising the inside passage, we had high tea delivered to the cabin and enjoyed our treats while looking for wildlife in the water and on shore.

Tea time in the Inside Passage
A hungry visitor

     To cap off an amazing week, we had spectacularly beautiful weather in Glacier Bay, and could sit outside comfortably with just light jackets and sunglasses most of the day. At least one member of the group wasn't too impressed with the glaciers, however - he only had eyes for the jacuzzi tub!

Swimming at the Margerie Glacier

Related Posts:
Cruising Alaska's Inside Passage on HAL's Zuiderdam
 A Photo Tour of Zuiderdam's Penthouse Suite #7046
Shore Excursion: Gold Panning in Juneau
Shore Excursion: Supper at the Gold Creek Salmon Bake in Juneau 
Shore Excursion: White Pass Railroad in Skagway
A Taste of Tracy Arm Fjord
Cruising Alaska's Glacier Bay

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Canada Line - Cheapest transfer from Vancouver airport for a cruise from Canada Place

Canada Place, viewed from Zuiderdam balcony!

     The 2011 Alaska cruising season is now well underway, and Vancouver's Canada Place is one of the main ports from which Alaskan Inside Passage cruises depart. We were there recently for the July 16th sailing on Holland America Line's Zuiderdam, and tried out a couple of options for getting from the Vancouver airport to the port: the traditional taxicab, and the Canada Line light railway, built just before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

     For those with manageable luggage, the Canada Line is an inexpensive and relatively quick option to get from the Vancouver airport to the Canada Place port.  One ticket purchased at the airport station costs $8.75 per adult and the train runs frequently (every 8-12 minutes during the day), directly to the Waterfront station in approximately 25 minutes. There is no need to change trains, although it does stop along the way. If you arrive after 6:30pm or on a weekend or holiday, it is a little cheaper at $7.50. Note that the cost of the ticket  includes a $5.00 add-on fare that is charged for every ticket purchased at the airport - if you take the Canada Line from the Waterfront station back to the airport following your cruise, the cost is only $3.75 (or $2.50 after 6:30pm and weekends). This makes a round-trip fare for one adult between $10-$12.50, which pretty much beats all other options.

Canada Line Vancouver Airport Station

     The Canada Line station at the Vancouver airport is accessible right from the departures level (between the domestic and international terminals), and hauling luggage is easy with elevator and escalator access. Your ticket is purchased from a vending machine, and there is no need to validate it - you just get on the train with ticket in hand. There is no gate or guard at the entrance to the train - this is an honor system, but if you are caught riding without a valid ticket, you will be fined $173.

Waterfront Station - Cordova Exit : Turn right at the exit, walk 1 1/2 blocks, turn right on Howe, then one more block to Canada Place

     The train itself is clean, with wide seats, but I didn't notice any luggage storage areas - I had to block the seat next to me to keep my carry-on sized roller bag out of the aisle. Luckily, there weren't too many people riding the train when I was there on a weekday evening, but I imagine that rush hour could get crowded and problematic for transporting suitcases. In any case, the Waterfront station, where you get out, is a 2.5 block walk from Canada Place, so this method of transportation is only recommended for people with not too much luggage to carry.

     For comparison's sake, my husband took a taxi from the airport to Canada Place. He took a Delta Surrey Green Cab, which was waiting curbside at the airport, all the way to the port. There was quite a bit of traffic and lots of construction downtown, so the ride took about one hour (as compared to the 25 minutes by Canada Line), and cost $50. However, the trunk was plenty wide enough for all the suitcases two people could carry, and the driver helped to unload them too. If you have not planned your transfers through your cruise company and you have more than a medium-sized suitcase per person, this might be the better way to get to Canada Place. If you travel light, though, I recommend the Canada Line. It is quick and easy to use and maneuver, and costs a whole lot less!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Hilton Lac-Leamy: Loto-Quebec Art Gallery

     The Hilton Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, Quebec, is rated four diamonds by AAA, and five stars by Tourism Quebec. On top of that, this hotel has won the Hilton Hotels "Connie" Award (named after founder Conrad Hilton) four times, in 2002, 2004, 2005 and 2006. The Connie Award is given annually to the Hilton hotel that has excelled in customer service, as rated by customer surveys. It's a big deal for Hilton-branded hotels, and the four trophies are proudly displayed in a glass case in the Lac-Leamy lobby.

Hilton Lac-Leamy's Connie Awards

     However, that's not all that is on display at this hotel, which is owned by Loto-Quebec. In 1979, Loto-Quebec began an art collection (La Collection Loto-Québec) with the goal of stimulating the creation of artwork by Quebecois artists. It now has over 4300 pieces of art, representing the work of over 1200 Quebec artists, and many of these are on display within the Hilton Lac-Leamy hotel. This makes a visit to this luxury hotel more than just a weekend getaway to be spoiled at the spa or by fine dining. Visitors also have the opportunity to discover the many works of art that make up the Collection Loto-Québec, such as this dancing bear statue located next to the elevators.

"Dancing Bear" by Davie Atchealak, Loto-Quebec Collection no. 3155

Chihuly chandeliers in Lac-Leamy lobby

      The largest and most striking works of art that hang over the hotel lobby are the blown glass sculptures by American artist Dale Chihuly. These amazing confections are completely made of glass, blown by teams of glass-blowers in the Venetian style and held together by braided wires. Chihuly sculptures are on public display in many museums, gardens, art galleries and hotels around the world, including the Bellagio and Mirage in Las Vegas. The Hilton Lac-Leamy, however, is one of only two locations in Canada where Chihuly statues are on permanent display, and there are several. These range from the four giant chandeliers hanging in the lobby, to the smaller works mounted on a staircase column leading from the lobby to the Arome restaurant, where you can get a closer look at these intricate, serpentine pieces.

Chihuly sculptures on staircase column
     The next time you visit the Hilton Lac-Leamy, take a closer look at the "decorations" on the walls - each piece of art and its creator is named, giving an introduction to Loto-Quebec's formidible art collection and adding a touch of culture to a walk through a hotel lobby.

Read more about Lac-Leamy: Fabulous Martini Flights, and Restaurant Le Baccara.

Monday, July 11, 2011

5 things you can buy at the grocery store in Shanghai that you can't get in Montreal

     There is a large community of "expats" in Shanghai. This refers to expatriates, of course, or "foreigners temporarily residing here".  A large proportion of these expats buy their groceries at a place called Carrefour. This is partly because there are many North American and European products here that you can't get elsewhere, and partly because it's pretty convenient and resembles the big grocery stores back home, selling clothing, toys and household items along with milk, juice and other foods.

Shoppers at Carrefour Liang Yang, Shanghai, China

     Here are the top five items on sale at the Carrefour grocery store in Shanghai that we can't get back home in Montreal. The Carrefour store where these pictures were taken is located at 185 FanDian Road, Shanghai, but there are many other Carrefour stores all around Shanghai and other cities in China.

1) 50 kilograms of unwrapped Chinese sausage (if you need it)

2) Dried Sea Cucumber (we think)

3) Live turtles

4)  Dried pig faces

5) A down-filled orange (or fuchsia, if you prefer) winter coat for 99RMB (about $15 CAD) - very cozy and warm, and definitely easy to spot if you get lost on a snowy mountain!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Café Olimpico : Montreal's best coffee - even the cops can't resist it!

Café Olimpico on Urbanspoon

     We had been advised to try out Café Olimpico by a loyal regular customer. This homey, no-nonsense Italian coffee-sports bar is located in Montreal's Mile End neighborhood (124 Rue St. Viateur Ouest), and has been in business since 1970, according to its sign.

     On the hunt for a coffee fix, I was a bit wary during the drive there - it's in a residential neighbourhood, and not much seemed to be going on Friday night at 10pm. The search for caffeine won out, however, so we parked the car and went over just in time to see two of Montreal's finest walking away with coffee cups in hand. Hey, if the cops like it - it should be good, right?

A perfect cappuccino!
     Joe, the barrista, laid all fears to rest by quickly serving up two perfect cappuccinos, with just the right amount of froth on top of hot, rich espresso, at only $2.50 each, to boot! There wasn't much else on the menu in the way of food, so we took a seat inside the oddly decorated sports bar to savour the coffee, and watched the lineup at the long counter ebb and flow. There seemed to be a mix of regulars who chatted with Joe while waiting, and passers-by just wandering through. Either way, there was no shortage of customers that night, of all ages - even a baby!

      There is also an inviting outdoor terrasse attached to this neighborhood coffee shop, and there were more customers seated here than those inside watching the baseball game on giant TV screens hanging from the walls. The terrasse looked quite peaceful and seemed to be a nice place to hang out and chat over a cup of coffee and a biscotti on a warm summer evening. 
Waiting in line at Cafe Olimpico

     During the 30-minutes or so that we were there, four other policemen came and went, caffè latte in hand - which proves two things - Montreal's police appreciate good coffee, and Café Olimpico is one safe place to sip a cappuccino!

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Le Meridien Cancun: Saved by a Mexican Dinner

View of the pools and beach from my room
     The hotel Le Meridien Cancun Resort and Spa is located on a prime stretch of Cancun's coveted beach in the "zona hotelera". Its enormous swimming pool area overlooks and has direct access to the soft, sandy beach, and the hotel has lots of free-for-hotel-guests plastic beach chairs just in front. However, the weather was unseasonably cold during a January visit, so there weren't many guests taking advantage of the unique three-tiered infinity pool (you can only see two of the tiers in the photo.) This was despite the multi-temperature design of the pools, so that you can find the one that's "just right" for you.

New hotel under construction next door
     The view of the empty pools and beach was considerably better, however, than my view of the concrete shell of a building being constructed next door. Although there wasn't any problem with noise during my stay, despite the fact that my room was facing this construction site, the forlorn framework for an edifice was a real eyesore, and also kind of creepy. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing anyone actually working on this building during the week I was there, so who knows if or when it will ever be finished.

     One thing, however, did turn out to be "just right" for me - and the saving grace for this stay - and that was my Mexican dinner, ordered through room service!  For just $30US, I had this three course meal complete with a frosty Margarita (I could have had a beer instead) delivered to my room within 30 minutes of placing my order. This was a great deal, since everything else on the in-room dining menu was both more expensive (ordered à la carte) and less interesting (think club sandwich and pizza).

Mexican Dinner!!
     My Mexican dinner started off with a delicious, spicy tortilla soup, which was at the perfect temperature - hot but not scalding. The main dish was a generous serving of chicken fajitas, and the meal was rounded out by a small cake for dessert. The cake was so-so, but the fajitas were very good, and served with three kinds of sauces, which were interesting and offered a variety of tastes. I liked it so much I ordered it twice!

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Dim Sum at La Maison Kam Fung

      It was raining today in Montreal, which made it a perfect day to lunch on dim sum at La Maison Kam Fung (1111 rue St-Urbain). The convenient underground parking lot in the building housing this long-time Chinatown restaurant allowed us to indulge our cravings for tasty Chinese dumplings and other treats without getting soaked in the downpour.
Kam Fung on Urbanspoon
     Just how long has this restaurant been around? Well, according to the harried hostess: "Oh, long time, long time!"  So there you have it - it's been around a loooong time! This is probably due to the fact that the cooks at Kam Fung have been churning out delicious steamed and fried dumplings and other dim sum delicacies all these years.
     We arrived just before the noon-hour rush, and were seated right away. Beware the long, long lineups, though, if you are thinking of brunching here some weekend. The wait can sometimes drag on to hours, with hoards of hopeful diners crowding the corridor outside the restaurant, all clutching pieces of paper with a number to indicate their place in the wait.
     Dim sum is a special form of Chinese meal, served with a steaming pot of tea and chosen by diners from passing carts pushed by vendors shouting out the names of what they have inside their bamboo steamers, or arranged on small plates. It is loud - very loud, and people don't tend to linger here. Dim sum is delicious but utilitarian - eat it while it's hot and while you are hungry. Then, you "mai dan" (pay the bill) and leave your place for someone else.
     We had some excellent spring rolls (one of the best I have ever tasted) and the pan-fried Chinese chive dumpling was good too. Classic dim sum menu items "har gow" (steamed shrimp dumpling) and "shiu mai" (steamed pork dumpling) were abundant and satisfying. Everything was hot and the choice was good, so if you don't feel like having chicken feet or fried squid, you can still go for the steamed spare ribs or BBQ pork buns.
     Our lunch was both tasty and efficient. Our table was filled with small plates of goodies within minutes of sitting down, and we were back at work about half an hour later. It didn't make a huge dent in our pocketbooks either, costing $25 for two, tax and tip included. If you want to know the names and ingredients of popular dim sum menu items, Liza Chu has authored this handy guide you can take to the restaurant.
Dim Sum: A Survival Guide

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Fairmont Tremblant's Most Steamy Asset

Fairmont Tremblant Outdoor Pools

     We have been to the Fairmont Tremblant resort in winter, spring, summer and fall. I have gone alone to attend a conference, with my husband on a romantic getaway, and with the kids during a family vacation. And what is our number one favorite (steamy) asset of this five-star hotel, as chosen unanimously by every member of the family? ..... The 400-square foot outdoor year-round therapeutic hot tub! (far right in photo)

     While other hotels may have an outdoor pool open from May to September, sometimes partnered with a small jacuzzi or two, the Fairmont Tremblant offers a swimmer's dream come true. With two pools (indoor and outdoor), three regular-sized whirlpools, and one enormous, designer-shaped outdoor hot tub bigger than many rival hotels' cookie-cutter-rectangular-shaped swim tanks, this hotel's swimming facilities are unbeatable. What's more, the amazing set-up is open all year round, allowing lucky hotel guests to enjoy below-freezing winter temperatures outside in their bikinis, with snow gently falling on their heads, while keeping toasty warm in the bubbling 37°C (98.6°F) hot tub.

Year-Round Hot Tub

     The hot tub is not only useful in the snow, however. During an unseasonably cold holiday weekend recently, plenty of under-dressed vacationers (us included) kept warm by soaking in the oddly-shaped hot tub, with plenty of cozy corners to cuddle up. Kids of all ages are allowed full access, and there is a lifeguard on duty at all times, making this incredible pool complex one of the best (and family-friendly) we have ever seen. Life-vests are available for the little ones, as well as swim noodles. Kids can even get appropriately-sized bathrobes upon request through housekeeping.

Adults Only (upstairs!)
     For adults looking for more mature company and some privacy, there is a smaller, secluded jacuzzi hot tub just for them, located several steps up from the main outdoor pool complex. This clever location has the advantage of being mostly hidden from view of the swimmers at ground level, and therefore remains safe from the unwanted invasion of little feet.

     Without a doubt, this hotel's swimming pool complex is one of the best. Not only is it spacious and offers plenty of choice (indoors and out), but the jewel in the crown - the gigantic outdoor hot tub that is more like a hot pool - is both unique and pleasing to all ages. Two thumbs up, Fairmont Tremblant!

   Reader's Poll: What's your favorite hotel pool?