Thursday, June 30, 2011

Behind the Scenes with a Hotel Concierge

Michael Fazio on the Roof of One Times Square

I don’t usually recommend travel literature for beach reads. Sure a good travel book can get you to the right beach. But once there, folks tend to prefer paperbacks that get their hearts racing: thrillers, romantic novels, the latest New York Times bestsellers.

The exception to that rule may be the surprisingly frank, unashamedly gossipy new memoir by Michael Fazio, “Concierge Confidential”. Starting with Fazio’s days as a talent agent in Hollywood (when he once had to discretely retrieve Charley Sheen’s gun from the diner he’d accidentally dropped it in) and ending in the present day with Fazio as the co-President of a prestigious firm that oversees concierges, the book gives juicy details about what life in the service industry is really like. And yes, concierges are regularly asked by hotel guests to break the law by procuring drugs and prostitutes. They also make the wackiest fantasies come true from filling bathtubs with 80 gallons of Hershey’s syrup to hiring string quartets to play clients off Amtrak trains.

Beyond his adventures, Fazio gives solid advice on how to get what one wants on vacation and in life. Eager to return to the hottest restaurant in town without the hassle of getting reservations months in advance? Ask to meet the chef at the end of your meal, befriend him (aka butter him up) and then call him directly next time you want to get in.  Wondering if you can trust the concierge’s recommendations for meals and entertainment? Linger by his desk before you ask your questions. If he’s giving all respondents the same answer it likely means he a)doesn’t know what he’s doing or b) is getting a kickback from the places he’s recommending.

Pick it up. I think you’ll find it to be a quick, fun read.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Helpful, Online Compendium of Learning Vacations

Photo by Brendan Lally
You always hear folks in the travel industry touting the experience of travel as one that will create "lasting memories." Yes, they'd better be lasting, as that's all you've usually got at the end of an expensive trip (unless you're a souvenir hound, but that's another ball of wax). But what if you were to come home not just with memories but with a new skill? A good investment, eh? As a Chinese proverb says "Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere."

I recently stumbled across a British website called which is entirely devoted to different types of learning vacations across the globe. Those interested in dancing, for example, might find themselves studying tango in Buenos Aires, salsa dance in Ecuador, flamenco in Spain, merengue in Costa Rica or belly dancing in Turkey. Cooking classes, wine appreciation, painting seminars, photography workshops, French jewelry making, music lessons, language classes, and instruction in various sports are also featured. The site even covers such unusual topics as gladiator schools and perfume-making.

Singles are particularly targeted by the site, a smart move as learning vacations are an excellent choice for solo travelers. They allow singles to meet others who have similar interests to their own. And because the group learns together, friendships form in a more natural, relaxed fashion.

Perhaps most tempting for those of us on this side of the pond will be the cross cultural exchange. Not only will participants be traveling abroad, but they'll be doing so in the company primarily of Brits, a situation that can be quite fun for us Yanks.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Responsible Charity for Travelers

Two young girls we met at the Guatemalan school
One of the highlights of my last tour to Guatemala had nothing to do with sightseeing. In the guesthouse of the small Mayan village I was staying in, I met a group of Canadian missionaries. They were at Lake Atitlan building a house for a local woman who'd been left by her husband for a younger woman (she was 26!); and to deliver school supplies that the children in the Sunday School of their church had raised money to buy. I helped them lug large sacks of pens, paper, soccer balls and textbooks to the school and then got to share in the joyous reception that followed as the teachers and students opened the care packages.

It was kismet, a case of being in the right place at the right time. I'd have had no way, otherwise, to know about the needs of this small village school.

Until now, that is, thanks to a lovely website called It informs travelers of worthy organizations around the world that need help, in the form of supplies that can be carried to them in, well, a rucksack (better known as a backpack here in North America). In many cases the organizations are in rural areas without regular postal service, so getting supplies via tourists' bags is a huge opportunity. Most of the organizations requesting help are in Asia, Africa and South America but volunteers are doing research to keep the list growing. Besides schools, they include orphanages, social service centers and hospitals.

Do something really good when planning your next trip and check the website out.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Hotels Within Walking Distance

A Dangerous Looking Stroll (Photo by JC Henkes)
Urban sprawl is a buzz kill, especially on vacation. You've booked yourself into what seems like a decent hotel in Dallas or Fort Lauderdale or Billings, and though the hotel itself is fine, you find that to get anywhere--a restaurant, a theater, a drugstore--you have to drive it. So instead of taking a relaxing stroll, you find yourself battling commuters on the interstate just to get a bite to eat.

A relatively new website called WalkScore has the solution. Enter in any address and it will return a numerical ranking of how car dependent you'll be if you choose this property. A rank of 90-100, for example means "walkers paradise--daily activities will not require a car". Choose a property with a score of 0-24 and you can be sure that "all activites will require a car."

I tested WalksScore out with a Marriot that I thought was in the heart of Tampa but returned a dissapointing score of 45, meaning "car dependent". A map showed me my options for restaurants, coffee joints, groceries, shopping, etc and the pickings were slim. Yes there were two restaurants in walking distance, but one would necessitate crossing a highway!

Obviously, the site has uses beyond hotels. For those looking to buy second homes, or spending a day in an unfamiliar area, the perks of this type of info are obvious.

Apparently, AARP has partnered with WalkStop for info on its travel site, though frankly I searched and couldn't find any of the walk scores. For now, go directly to when you want that type of info.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Nights at Westin

(Photo by Chris Clark)
I like deals that are straight-forward and easy to redeem. Such is the cases with today's freebie.

Stay three nights or more and get one of those nights for free. Okay, it won't count if you arrive on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, but other than that, this is a simple one to snag. And the freebie nights are collectable through the end of the year, at participating Westins around the globe.

For full details, or to book, click here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Disneyworld's Neighbor Becomes a Destination in its Own Right

Bok Tower Gardens (Ricardo Marta)

It’s not on the beach. And it doesn’t encompass DisneyWorld or Universal Studios.  But the Polk County region has long turned those potential pitfalls into perks, at least for value-conscious travelers.

It’s these folks who choose to do their theme park vacations from here, commuting over the county line just 15-minutes to the Magic Kingdom. Who head to one of the county’s hundred-plus lakes for some serious bass fishing; or to Bok Tower Gardens, with its Olmstead design, for a taste of the gracious Florida of the turn of the last century. Aviation nuts swarm the county for its two flying museums/attractions; sports teams choose the area for their tournaments, due to the wide variety of sporting facilities the area boasts. And very soon (in October), families with elementary school aged children will be coming here in droves to enjoy the new Legoland,  which will be the largest of the chain.

So why am I featuring Polk County today? Because DirectAir starts its service to Lakeland Airport today, which will give residents of a number of smaller gateways  cheaper, direct flights to this emerging Florida hotspot.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Terrific Website for All Your Rail and Ferry Travel Questions

Sometimes even us "travel experts"get stumped. And I was thoroughly stumped recently by what I thought would be the simple process of booking a sleeper car on a train in Poland.

First move: I went to the website of the Polish State Railways. Alas it was all in Polish (ie Greek to me). I tried soldiering through with an online translation tool, but I kept getting words for trees rather than arrivals and departure info. Next! was up, but it couldn't help me online and directed me to call. I did so, and ended up buying a rail pass (since I would be taking several journeys it was the most cost-effective way to proceed). But after many phone calls back and forth, they informed that they couldn't book space in the sleeper for me and that I'd have to wait until I got to Poland. Not a great strategy, since I'd be traveling with an 8-year-old who can do a pretty good, if unintentional, imitation of Linda Blair in the Exorcist when she doesn't get sufficient sleep. Waiting to book was not a risk I was willing to take.

 Then one of those internet miracles happened, and I stumbled upon (Its official name is "The Man in Seat 61"). Dedicated to train and ferry travel, its encyclopedic in its scope and very practical in its advice. Within two minutes of scanning the Poland page of the site, I had the website of an excellent Polish Rail Travel Agency, and 15 minutes after that, with brisk email correspondence (on a Saturday) back and forth with an agent named Tomaz, I'd booked my sleeper car on a direct train (RailEurope had wrongly told me there were only connecting trains between Warsaw and Gdansk).

The site gives advice on buying passes, follows service changes on popular routes ("Paris-Hamburg City Nightline Sleeper Train Reinstated!" is one enthusiastic headline), and offers a nifty widget that allows users to compare the prices and times of different ferry operators for varying European routes.

So thank you Man in Seat 61--I'll be looking for you in Poland!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Broader Hotel Searches More Important Than Ever

Here's another reason why it may be smarter to just go to an aggregator site such as or (sites that "aggregate" info rather than selling travel) rather than one of the major online travel agencies. According to a recent article by Danielle Douglas of Capitol Business (an off-shoot of the Washington Post), the major hotel chains are giving such sites as Expedia, Orbitz and Priceline far less inventory than they used to. In fact, the amount of rooms being supplied by Starwood, Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, Intercontintal and Gaylord sold 14% of their inventory through the agencies listed above. In the first quarter of 2011, sales were down to 9% according to industry research firm Rubicon.

Photo by F. Delvenhall

I know, it all sounds very "inside baseball". But consumers should care about this switch as it may mean fewer deals, especially through their favorite online travel agencies. Which is why I'm recommending using the aggregator sites ( is another option ), as they search the inventory not just of the major players and discounters (,, etc.) but also of the hotel chains directly.

The hotels chains are also going after those travelers who prefer to bundle together airfares with hotel nights (in an attempt to score savings). Many are now partnering with airlines, rental car agencies, tour operators and more to give the customers who come directly to their sites the same sort of inclusive experience they're used to getting on a Travelocity or an Orbitz.

To read Douglas' complete piece, click here.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Vacation Days Without Hassle: Why You May Want to Change Jobs

My husband works at a hospital and has to plan his vacation days a year in advance. These are planned separately from weekend days (he has to do two of these per month), so its not unusual for an employee to request a week's vacation, only to find that his weekend work date cuts his time away short. The weeks during which we figure out which dates to request may be among the most stressful of the year.

But there are companies that have gotten rid of vacation days entirely. No, they don't chain their workers into their cubicles. Instead, they tell them that if they get their work done, they can take as many vacation days as they wish and (with their manager's consent) when they wish. According to officials of these companies interviewed in a recent Fortune profile, employees don't take advantage of this level of freedom and all parties are pleased with the arrangement.

Among the companies with this liberal policy are:

  • Netflix
  • Best Buy
  • IBM
  • Morningstar
  • Motley Fool
  • BlueWolf
  • HubStop
The company quotes a professor of psychology as endorsing the policy noting "it can afford employees a level of control over their own work styles and work pacing."

Hey, this may be something you bring up with your boss before the weekend...

Friday, June 17, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Shore Excursions from Orbitz

I have mixed feelings about this offer, as I'm not sure if it will always add up to real savings. But here are some of the factors you may want to look at before booking:
  • Orbitz is not generally known for getting the best overall prices on cruises by which I mean it seems less likely to offer such valuable extras as free upgrades and on-board ship credits than other cruise-only agencies do.  So be sure you're getting more gimmes than other agencies are offering before you book.
  • The shore excursion offered is not one of the official tours sold by the cruise lines. Instead, it's from an outside company partnered with Orbitz. So when you're crunching all the numbers, be sure to factor in the original cost of these shore excursions before booking to make sure the deal's worth it.
  • Alas, the freebie only goes to one passenger per cabin. Unless you like to divide up for your days on shore, here's another reason to look at the cost of the Orbitz shore excursions before booking.
If you decide that all is kosher with this promotion, act quickly. Bookings must be made before the end of this month to get the freebie. The freebie applies to cruises to the Bahamas, Bermuda, Caribbean and Mexico on NCL, RCL, Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America and Princess. Click here for more information.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Hotel Room of the Future

Someday in the not too distant future guests checking into hotels will sleep a lot better. The sheets, shot through with electronic sensors, will read the sleep cycle of the client, and adjust the temperature accordingly to ensure the traveler gets a deeper nights' sleep. The pillow will massage his neck and shoulders as he drifts off. And the ambient noises in the room will be those he hears at home, another soothing touch.

These are just a few of the ways that futurist Ian Pearson thinks hotels will differ in the year 2030. Hired by European hotel chain Travelodge, Pearson spent the last six months working on a report about hotels of the future. Some of his guesses, like those concerning virtual sex, have been making headlines in the UK. Others seem less fantastic, like the idea that guests will be able to post photos of their loved ones around the room with the click of a button, switching on the virtual reality capabilities of the walls and furnishings.

I recently spoke with Pearson for our radio show, and he told me that his full paper was available on his website Alas, I can't find it there, but has a good chart with his predictions. It's a fun, and intriguing read.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Packing Light Becoming a Habit for Many

For years, we travel writers have been talking ourselves blue in the face trying to convince travelers to pack lighter. "You won't be a slave of your suitcase," we've shouted. "Meaning you can take public transportation from the airport, saving big bucks on taxis. And if you're unhappy with your hotel, you can more easily move if you've packed light".

Good advice, right?

Very few listened.

Until recently that is.

And we pundits can't take any credit for changing the bad habits of travelers. The airlines are responsible. Just last week, we heard that Delta and United Continental would be upping their baggage fees once again. Delta was getting rid of its $2-$3 discount for checking in bags online and upping the fee for a second bag to Europe to $60 (up to $75 if you don't check it in online) and to $30 for Mexico and Central America (it used to be free on those routes). United/Continental will now be charging $70 for a second checked bag to Europe (previously $50).

These moves are having an effect. According to a recent poll by vacation rental service Home Away, 56% of respondents are so angered by airline fees for checked baggage that they've changed the way they pack. Nearly half of this group (45%) pack lighter and simply resign themselves to doing some laundry along the way. A spendthrift 15% of the group packs less, but then buys what they need as they travel. Relying on the carry on, and cramming as much into it as possible, seems to be the strategy of 36% of the respondents. And the remaining 3% of travelers ship their belongings on ahead.

Interesting how the power of the pocketbook can build healthier travel habits. Now, if we can just figure out a way to get travelers to learn a few phrases in the local language before they hit the road....

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Hub Is Born: Budapest

Photo by Tyler Conk
Surprisingly, there were no direct flights from the US to the brilliant, beautiful and quite popular city of Budapest until several weeks ago. American Airlines has now stepped in to fill the gap, and according to airline executives the route is already carrying more passengers per flight (called the "load factor") than any of its other ten routes to Europe.

That may well be because Budapest is an ideal hub for Europe. With a newly redone airport and a placement that puts it just a two hour flight (or less) from more than a dozen major cities, the new routing should prove quite valuable to Yankee travelers, even those that don't live in the Big Apple. American partners with the national airline Malev in Hungary to transfer passengers to airports across the region.

Its worth it to go just for the goulash. As a Twitter pal of mine recently noted, no two bowls ever taste alike. And that's a great thing.

Head to the American Airlines site for full information and pricing. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

Free SeaWorld Passes for Teachers

Photo by The Jacobin
No offense Pollyanna, but this deal is waaaay better than a bright, shiny apple! For the rest of 2011, teachers who teach grades K-12 in Texas, California and Florida will be given free passes to their own state's SeaWorld.

Only working teacher can apply. How one proves employment varies state to state. In some, teachers must bring in a pay stub, in others a teaching certificate will do. And they have to get their free pass soon (by June 15 in the case of Texas), so click on the links below ASAP.

I must say, I can't think of a more deserving group of people to get this freebie. These underpaid, overworked men and women are among America's greatest heroes. I'm grateful every day for the work that smart, compassionate, imaginative teachers are doing with my daughters. I'm glad to see that the folks at SeaWorld gifting teachers in this fashion.

For full information, click here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Freebie Friday: Free Trip to British Columbia

A silly picture of me ziplining in Whistler
To finish up my "extended coverage" of British Columbia vacations, I wanted to let you all know about a great contest recently launched by the BC tourist board. They're giving away a $20,000 personalized vacation in Vancouver at the website

You'll also find useful info there on Whistler, Victoria, Vancouver, golfing in the region, food and wine vacations, and outdoor vacations.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Free Tours of Vancouver

Public sculptures were a highlight of the tour
I've now tested out free tours in Washington, DC, Barcelona and Vancouver and have yet to find a loser in the bunch.

That's likely due to the format: when the guide has to rely on tips to make a living, you can be darn sure he's going to hone his patter to a high gloss. So these tours are consistently entertaining.

But I've also found them to offer a more pointed and enlightening commentary on modern life in the destination than you're likely to find with less informal tours, perhaps because corporate bus and walking tours have more of a stake in keeping the local tourist boards happy. So they censor tour content (this is a guess, I'll grant you), keeping it peppy and upbeat. The free guides, I've found, are more likely to tell it the way it is.

That was certainly the case with the Tour Guys jaunt I recently took in Vancouver. Led by a towhead named Max, who'd graduated from college just the week before, the tour covered everything from local history to gossip on the city's crazy housing market to speculations on what would happen should the Vancouver be hit with an earthquake (it sits on a fault and seismologists worry that it's overdue for a trembler).

Frankly, the tour was far more fun that it should have been, as we did it in a steady downpour, made worse by chill winds. But Max didn't lose a single one of his ten participants, and kept us chuckling throughout, no small feat. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Delights of Granville Market, Vancouver

It doesn't matter the city, and it doesn't matter whether or not I have a kitchen. When I'm in a new place, I inevitably end up wandering over to where they sell food, whether it be a glass-and-steel supermarket or an open market, and checking out the goods. Seeing the different brands of food, the local produce, the ways meats and fish are displayed, is not only enjoyable, but offers intriguing insights into local culture.

Take Granville Market in Vancouver. A formerly industrial area under the bridge, its been transformed into a foodie mecca, offering visitors the chance not only to taste the wonderful local goods, but to see some of it prepared and/or slaughtered (in the case of the seafood).

Last week, I was lucky enough to take a tour of the market with the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, led by the ebullient Julian Bond. A master chef, Bond taught us all about the history of the market, the provenance of the foods, and some useful cooking techniques. In the photo, he's explaining how to properly cook a crab (you quarter it before putting it in the boiling water so you can get rid of the internal organs that will give the crab a funny taste; its also a kinder way for the crab to die).

Bond talked extensively about the importance of sustainability, introducing us to a fisherman who was taking concerted steps not to overfish the area. He takes orders from local restaurants, calculates how much he'll sell in his shop, and then stops fishing once he's reached the prescribed number of fish. Other fishermen catch as much as they can, with the consequence being much wasted fish.

He also took us by the shop of an artisinal sausage maker (see left) who felt that the way the pig died would affect its flavor. His pigs were given long, free-roaming lives and then slaughtered in a swift and humane way. We tasted the prosciutto that came from these animals, and I have to say, it did taste extraordinarily good.

Many novelties struck my eye. The chefs at the market packaged soups in attractive plastic bags. The butcher shop was selling a much wider range of cuts (neck, innards) important, according to Bond in supporting local growers. When you only sell filets and other popular cuts, you must source your meat from far away, adding to carbon emissions with the transportation costs.

The market area wasn't all food. In one shed, First Nation totem poles were being carved. Near that was a shop creating models for architects and not far from there were weavers and pottery shops. Clothing stores, flower stands, a theater and several restaurants add their lively presence to the island.

Though I only spent about two and a half hours on Granville Island it was one of the highlights of my trip. Next time I return, I hope to take another tour, followed by a cooking class at PICA (you cook what you buy and then eat it with wine in their lovely dining room overlooking the water).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Vancouver Eats

I wrote a little bit about the extraordinary eats in Richmond last week, but not to mention Vancouver itself would be a foodie lit crime. With the riches of the Pacific Ocean, and trout streams galore, this is a top seafood city (apparently there are more sushi bars here than in Tokyo). But more than that Vancouver's awesome demographic diversity--with immigrants from China, India, and many other parts of Asia--has created a fusion cuisine one sees nowhere else. Creativity is at the top of most menus here, and its enhanced by the extraordinary freshness of the local produce, meats and fish.

Here's a short photo essay on some of the meals I enjoyed:

In the spring of 2010, Vancouver changed its food cart regulations (previous to 2010 it had been verboten to sell anything beyond hot dogs from roaming carts). This repeal has led to a culinary flowering, with the debut of a good dozen new carts in the past year.

Kaboom Box was one of my favorites. Every item on the menu but one was locally sourced. In fact, the friendly fellow behind the counter gave me the name of the fisherman who'd caught the inside of my wonderful hot smoked salmon sandwich and the bakery that provided the bread. Cheese curds, used on the poutine, were the only item that traveled, but as they came from Quebec and were absolutely scrumptious, who was I to complain. (The vendor jokingly insinuated that no-one would eat poutine made with non-French Canadian curds).

Roaming Dragon, a rival cart that was named best in the city by a local magazine in 2011, was even more innovative. The cuisine was Pan Asian, but really "roamed" even more widely than that, offering up Asian classics with Canadian and Mexican ingredients and cooking techniques.
 My favorite was the Korean short ribs taco served in a solid corn tortilla and topped with sesame-infused mushrooms, nori, ultra-tender beef and pickled carrots.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Walt Bites Goofy: Kids Sail Free On Disney This Fall

Methinks business may not be as stellar as reported in the world of the Mouse. Last February, Disney offered free kids sailings on early season jaunts to Alaska. Just three days ago, the company announced another giveaway, this time on kids sailings to the Mexican Riviera.

The offer covers most sailings between October 30 and December 18; to get the savings you must use the code "KTO" when booking your trip on the Disney Wonder. Unfortunately, you can't purchase a cheap cabin and get the freebie; this is for verandah cabins only. And single parents won't be pleased: a minimum of two adults must be sharing the room with someone aged 17 or under for the freebie to kick in. Taxes and additional fees will also be extra.

For complete information, click here.

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Trip to Asia (part 3)

I finally dragged myself out of the mall, and in the company of my new friend Carolyn Ali, an editor here in Vancouver, we went out to Dinesty, a Taiwanese restaurant. The picture on the right is of the chefs making dumplings in the open kitchen. I wish I had photos of the food.

Carolyn, who's been to Taiwan, ordered, explaining that the cuisine in Taiwan was usually a bit sweeter than on the mainland. Meals often consist of a lot of small dishes (a la dim sum); and chili oil is used quite heavily. Because so many people from different parts of China moved to Taiwan once Mao took over, the cuisine encompasses many regional specialties, so we had soup dumplings (as one does in Shanghai), a bowl of fish stew with a slick of homemade chili oil on the top, cucumbers in a chilied garlic sauce (my favorite) and shredded pork with pancakes and green onions. Overall, quite delish and for the amount of food we got (really enough to feed 5 people; Carolyn took the leftovers home) very reasonable at just $35.

Its not difficult to get to Richmond. Simply take the Canada line, paying for two zones ($3.50). There are many stations in downtown Vancouver that connect with this line. I think you'll enjoy the field trip!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Trip to Asia (Continued)

Above: a wonderfully overstuffed tea shop at the Aberdeen Center Mall, just across the street from the supermarket.
Here's a wide-shot of the mall itself, a place at once elegant and delightfully ticky tacky.

Best items on sale at the mall? These awesomely bling bling I-Phone cases (aren't they fab?). Dolling up your I-Phone seems to be an extremely popular past-time in Richmond. There were options for beautifying your phone in every fourth shop.

Second best items on sale: these nifty collars, helpful for dressing up any t-shirt (as the photos in the case show).

The I-Phone cases  and collars were for sale at this store called Qube, where different entrepreneurs rent small cubby spaces, filling them with a wonderfully oddball array of articles for sale.

Along with the objects shown were western doctor's offices right next to acupuncture/herbal medicine outlets (one stop shopping; if the pills don't work, try the needles and teas, I suppose); Japanese homeware stores with dozens of useful items...that no-one's every heard of outside Japan; restaurants from a number of regions of China; clothing stores; toy stores right next to mini-amuseument parks; pharmacies; and much more. You could live for years in this mall and never get cold, hungry, bored or out of fashion. It really is a wonder.

A Trip to Asia...Well, Really Richmond, BC

The story of Chinese immigration to the western coast of Canada is such a tangled, complex tale... even James Michener might have balked at tackling it. Suffice it to say that a high point in the story occurred in 1997 when the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to mainland China precipitated the departure of thousands of Hong Kong residents. A good number of them ended up in British Columbia and  and today, Vancouver is over 30% Chinese. 

That figure is much higher in Vancouver's suburb of Richmond, so, eager for a cross-cultural field trip, I headed there this evening for a look-see and dinner. What I found was an area that is more like modern Asia than any I've encountered in North America (and that includes the Flushing, Queens area in my hometown of New York City). Here are some pictures from my little adventure:

Richmond is a long expanse of malls and strip malls. My first stop was a large grocery store in a medium-sized mall with the most impressive seafood section I've ever seen in a supermarket.
Tank after tank was filled with live seafood. In this tank, the king crabs were bigger than my head. Each must have cost at least $50, if the sign giving the price per weight is correct

A tank of shellfish (above) was the size of two coffins laid end to end.

Black chickens were the delicacy in the nearby meat area (no live birds or least that I saw).

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

On a "Bear Safari" in Whistler, BC

At the hotel where I'm typing this, my password for the internet is "black bear". And the greeting I got when I got into a taxi last night after dinner was "Seen any black bears around?". It was a friendly greeting, not a warning, as the bears here are about as docile as bears get. And well loved. On many of the lower ski slopes, now denuded of snow, signs are posted asking in that always-so-polite Canadian fashion to leave the grass to the bears, who have need of it after the long hibernations season.

I learned all about the bears on a bear watching expedition with local expert/tour guide, Michael Allen a man who's devoted much of the last 20-odd years to studying bears and educating the public about them. Every day, from mid-May through mid-October he takes up to 7 tourists at a time around in his large 4X4 van on spotting safaris. (Tours are at 6am, noon and 6pm, though Michael himself will tell you that the 6pm expedition is usually the most fruitful, followed by the 6am one).

In the course of the 3-hour tour I took last night, we spotted 11 bears in different parts of the Whistler-Blackcomb area, from large males shedding their winter coats and foraging for food, to mothers guarding their cubs, to an adorable yearling asleep in the branches of a hemlock tree. We learned about the times when bears and humans tangle (the biggest problem in the area is not bear maulings, which almost never happen, but bear burglaries. Apparently, bears often break into folks houses foraging for food.) Another big topic was hibernation, as many of the bears we viewed were still visibly woozy after the long months without food (Allen calls May their "narcoleptic" period, as many go back into the hibernating state if they stay still for too long. Just yesterday a bear was found asleep in the middle of a local golf course!). Most affecting were Michael's tales of bear child rearing, which I won't give away by repeating here, as they really make the tour.

The safari isn't cheap at $189 per adult, $179 for seniors and those under 18. But since the money goes to support the vital work Allen is doing, I recommend it without hesitation. For full information, click here.

One suggestion: wear sneakers or other comfortable shoes as you'll be getting in and out of the van and walking to get better views of the bears at many points during the tour.

A final note: Apologies on the quality of some of these photos. I need a better telephoto lens!