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An Evening with Anthony Bourdain

31 Oct

Anthony Bourdain is my culinary hero.  He rose to fame in 2000 after writing Kitchen Confidential, which became an international best seller and gave him celebrity status overnight.

In my mind he’s the cool guy of the culinary world, the Lou Reed of cooking.  He worked his way through the New York culinary underbelly in the 80’s and 90’s, battling drug addictions and experiencing firsthand the perils of working in the restaurant scene.  After the success of his book, he left the kitchen and since 2005 has been hosting his own TV series, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, on the US Travel Channel, arguably one of the best shows on TV.  He now travels the globe eating weird and wonderful cuisine.  He’s even been to Edinburgh where he sampled a deep fried king rib at a local chip shop!

Last year he published his sequel to Kitchen Confidential:  Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.  And this past weekend Mr. Bourdain was in Vancouver, promoting the book and speaking about his adventures.  We of course bought tickets and spent the evening with Mr. Cool at the Vancouver Centre for Performing Arts.  I haven’t laughed so much in ages.

Dressed in black and looking sophisticated, Anthony took the audience on a behind the scenes tour of No Reservations, explaining how they manage to get away with showing footage that some might view as inappropriate or even illegal.  Such as eating hallucinogenic plants in South East Asia and munching on a raw seal eyeball during a traditional Inuit hunt.

He ranted about his dislike of vegetarians and the Food Network (albeit admitting their parent company has recently bought the Travel Network).  He expressed utter frustration about US chain restaurants that regularly ruin good food.  In particular the Olive Garden, which he stated he can’t help but fantasize about blowing up!  He described hilarious ideas about teaching kids to form negative associations with McDonald’s, by for example convincing them that good old Ronald McDonald is an evil kidnapper.

He was extremely candid and open with a wonderful ironic and sarcastic sense of humor.  He talks about things as he sees them, a quality I respect and enjoy very much.

For the last 30 minutes of the evening he invited the audience to ask questions.  When asked his opinion about Gordon Ramsey’s hit TV show, Hell’s Kitchen, he called it “an exercise in humiliation that has nothing to do with cooking”!  Raising the point I have asked myself many times, where do they get these pathetic people who can’t cook to save themselves.  So funny, I am still laughing.

When asked about his favourite place to eat in Vancouver, he diplomatically stated that he doesn’t know the city well enough to say, although he did mention that a good friend had recommended L’Abattoir, in Gastown.

Our evening with Anthony Bourdain was a great experience.  If you love food and travel I recommend you read his books and watch his TV show.

Castle Terrace Restaurant

3 Aug

Castle Terrace Restaurant in Edinburgh opened July 2010 and has already received a prestigious Rising Michelin Star.  Not a small accomplishment.

Castle Terrace is the latest venture by Tom Kitchin, an internationally renowned Scottish chef who runs The Kitchin (also in Edinburgh). The restaurant is headed by Chef Patron Dominic Jack. He has an impressive culinary background, training in a variety of top Michelin restaurants throughout Europe.

While back in Edinburgh last month we stopped in for lunch & discovered Castle Terrace’s fabulous three course set lunch menu for 20 pounds per head (with today’s favourable exchange rate this is approx. $30 Canadian). In fact we were so impressed by the quality & high standards of the food we returned the following week. In a city where top-notch cuisine tends to hurt the wallet, I can’t stress enough that this is a really good value lunch. If I still lived in Edinburgh I think I’d frequent this restaurant at least once a month…!

Located at 33/35 Castle Terrace, in the heart of scenic Edinburgh, Castle Terrace is an elegant space with contemporary décor. Although the place was bustling, it’s clearly a favourite spot for business lunches, the restaurant still has a relaxed atmosphere. While the staff is attentive, they are not in your face & over the top (which is often the case at fine dining establishments). Their mission is “from nature to plate” and they strive to serve seasonal Scottish ingredients. Definitely something I look for in a restaurant and a great selling feature.

As we visited twice I must say that I am very impressed with their level of consistency. The set lunch menu was similar to the previous week & the quality of the food was extremely consistent. There really is nothing worse than an inconsistent restaurant.

The set lunch has 3 options for all 3 courses. Here is a photographic tour of our lunch (the photos are just taken with my iphone, not a fancy camera):

Tartare of line caught mackerel served with gooseberries

This dish was absolutely delicious. Raw mackerel served with croutons & gooseberry sorbet. The delicate texture of the mackerel went really well with the crunchy croutons. And the gooseberry sorbet complimented it perfectly.

Braised & seared Ayrshire pork belly, with black pudding & apple

Sam enjoyed this as his first course & did I on our second visit. The pork belly was bursting with flavour, it was tender & scrumptious.

Curry of free range, corn fed chicken from Burnside Farm

This dish was so good I ordered it on both occasions. A korma based creamy curry, with rice, sultanas, homemade pita & a confit chicken leg.

Braised rabbit from Roxburghshire served with peas & carrots

This was a rabbit pie, with smoked ham. Sam loved it. Rabbit is not something I typically order, but after trying it I realized how tasty it is, especially when cooked really well. The presentation of this dish was magnificent.

I unfortunately didn’t get photos of the desserts. On both trips I had the vanilla creme brulee. It was cooked to order & was perfectly crunchy on top & warm in the middle. Sam enjoyed his British & French cheese that is served from a cart that you personally select.

I should also mention that for 17.50 pounds each you can opt to have a set wine pairing with the lunch. Great idea & good value for 3 glasses of decent wine.

Whether you live in Edinburgh or are just visiting I would highly recommend Castle Terrace. I reckon they are offering one of the best value lunches in the city. Furthermore the food is superb, not fussy, just seasonal & delicious. In my mind they are showcasing some of the best contemporary Scottish cuisine available at an affordable price.

Castle Terrace Restaurant on Urbanspoon

The Lobster Shack

27 Jul

On a recent, but unexpected trip back home to Scotland this month, I sampled some tasty street eats at the Lobster Shack (thanks for the recommendation Leil’Appetit).  Located in the scenic coastal village of North Berwick, about a 30 minute drive from Edinburgh, the Lobster Shack is serving up fresh & local seafood next to the North Sea.  A perfect setting to enjoy a grilled lobster.

As a child I have fond memories of eating fish & chips from the North Berwick Fry (fish & chips always seem to taste better by the sea), but the Lobster Shack is taking the coastal food experience to the next level.  Having just opened this past April on the North Berwick harbour, the Lobster Shack is offering a whole grilled lobster for 16.50 pounds or a half for 8.50 pounds.  The food is cooked to order for extra freshness.  They also have langoustines (also known as Dublin Bay prawns) grilled with garlic & herb butter, crab bisque, fish & chips, mussels & fish cakes.  I was extremely impressed with the extensive gourmet menu.  The food is all homemade, including their own sweet chili sauce & garlic mayo for the chips.

The lobster Shack purchases their seafood directly from the fishing boats that come into the harbour daily.  You can’t get fresher than that.  They have a few seats set up next to the shack so you can enjoy your meal while watching the boats.  You can even purchase a bottle of Champagne or wine to accompany your fruits of the ocean.  I was particularity impressed by this (I can’t imagine a food stall in Vancouver being allowed to sell alcohol due to BC’s archaic liquor laws).

North Berwick is also accessible from Edinburgh by train, so you can avoid driving & enjoy a grilled lobster & a bottle of Champagne!

The Lobster Shack is open from April until the first week in October everyday from 11am – 6pm.  If you like seafood I would highly recommend it.  I hope to return next summer.

A taste of Maui

12 May

We just got back from 10 days on the Hawaiian island of Maui.  What a fabulous place.  There is so much to explore on this tropical paradise and so many different eco-systems to experience.  From beaches to jungle and ancient lava fields, Maui is the perfect vacation destination.  While sunshine, swimming and snorkeling was our major focus, food was (of course) a key aspect of our trip.  We tried as much as possible to seek out local and authentic cuisine that differed from ordinary N. American fare.

Having never been to Hawaii I wasn’t sure what to expect food wise and after reading that Hawaii is the world’s number one consumer of Spam, I was a little wary!

We figured out right away that the food in the large hotels and resorts is overpriced and sub-standard.  You’ll easily pay $30 – $40 for a main course at a hotel and honestly you get a better meal at a chain like Earls, Cactus Club or Milestones in Vancouver for half the price.   I would also strongly recommend avoiding Jimmy Buffett’s themed restaurant, ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’.  Really what were we thinking? Yes the décor inside is funky and kitschy, but the hamburgers are awful.  Frozen patty, no flavor, Sam had a better burger at the airport on our way home!

If you are prepared to venture out of the hotels and away from the mega tourist zones there are some excellent places to eat (I recommend renting a car if you really want to explore Maui).

Hawaiian cuisine is an interesting fusion of foods, from China, Korea and Japan as well as American influences (their love affair with Spam is a legacy of the US Military).  Some quintessential Hawaiian dishes include shoyu chicken, kalua pork, kalbi ribs & laulauTaro (a root vegetable) has also been a historical and traditional staple of Hawaii; it remains popular and is widely eaten today.

Being the 50th US State, Hawaii is obviously part of the USA.  I must admit that I found it a bit odd travelling to an exotic destination that has Safeway, Starbucks, Costco and large strip malls.  So we made it our mission to find all things Hawaiian as much as possible.  We bought local Maui rib eye steaks and wonderful fresh Ahi tuna from ‘Foodland Farms’ in Lahaina, it just seemed wrong to go all that way to eat imported (and crappy) Safeway meat.

Rather than ramble on about the all food we ate, I’ve selected some of our most memorable culinary experiences, these are places I would recommend and would certainly go back to:

Aloha Mixed Grill

Located behind the Lahaina Cannery Mall at 1285 Front Street overlooking the harbor is the Aloha Mixed Grill.  We ate here 3 times, once for lunch and twice for dinner.  This inexpensive, outdoor restaurant is serving up authentic and extremely tasty Hawaiian dishes.  Here we had ‘mixed plate’, which has become a Hawaiian tradition, it’s a result of the fusion of different cultures that have amalgamated to this part of the world.  Mixed plate is typically a combination of 3 meats or fish with 2 scopes of rice and 1 scoop of macaroni salad.  Popular choices include:  shoyu chicken, kalbi ribs, mahi mahi, teriyaki beef or kalua pork.

We also sampled their crunchy coconut prawns, coated in tempura batter and coconut flakes, as well as handmade noodles with beef and black bean sauce.  We found the quality of the food consistently good, everything was cooked to order and tasted really fresh.  Check out their website, they have a page of recipes to try.

Aloha Mixed Plate on Urbanspoon

Paia Fish Market

If you love fresh seafood then you’ll love the Paia Fish Market.  Historically Paia was a major plantation town during the booming days of Maui’s sugar cane industry , these days it’s a charming beachfront community with many shops, restaurants and art galleries.  The Paia Fish Market restaurant, located right in the center of town (you can’t miss it), specializes in fresh fish and seafood at very reasonable prices.  I had the most delicious deep-fried calamari with fries.  The calamari was juicy and not at all overcooked and rubbery which is quite an achievement.  Sam enjoyed his succulent mahi mahi fish and chips.  The restaurant was bustling and really busy which is always a reassuring sign.  This is not a proper sit down type of affair, you order your own food and sit down at long bench tables.  If you go be prepared to wait, I can assure you it’s worth it.

Paia Fish Market on Urbanspoon

Pineapple Grill

I’d read in Frommer’s Maui 2011 guide-book that if you only had one night on Maui this would be the place to dine.  The chef here is a local Lahaina guy, who has won many accolades for his use of fresh, sustainable ingredients and innovative food.  Located at the prestigious Kapalua Resort, overlooking the golf course and Pacific Ocean, the Pineapple Grill is a lovely venue and we enjoyed an excellent lunch here.  We shared the kalbi flatiron steak skewers with peanut sauce; the meat was really tender and juicy and the peanut sauce the kind you need a spoon just to mop up all the sauce!  For mains I had the Cajun spiced mahi mahi burger and Sam had (once again) panko crusted fish and chips.  The quality of the food did not disappoint.  Next time I’d go back for dinner, it’s more expensive but the menu looks very enticing.

Pineapple Grill on Urbanspoon

Makena BBQ

There’s nothing I love better than buying fresh homemade food from vendors on the side of the road.  The Makena BBQ stand, situated on Makena road, right before the turn off to Makena beach is my idea of heaven.  When I saw the sign that read ‘kalua pork sliders’ I was already sold.  We pulled over and shared an order of fabulous kalua pork sliders (slow cooked pork, on small buns).  For $9.95 you get 2 pork sandwiches with pineapple BBQ sauce, mmm.  They tasted absolutely amazing; I fell in love with Maui that day.  We also sampled their fish tacos, again totally fresh and delish.  One strange thing was the bread, it was dyed purple.  It is common in Hawaii for taro be used to make bread, which gives it a purple colour, but this was just regular bread dyed purple!

The Fish Market Maui

Where we stayed, at the north end of Ka’anapali beach, had cooking facilities so rather than eating out every night Sam cooked here and there.  Keen to avoid supermarkets we asked around for a fresh fish market and were directed to the Fish Market Maui, conveniently located minutes drive from our hotel in Honokowai.  The market sells locally sourced fresh seafood.  We bought big juicy scallops and mahi mahi fillets and cooked up a feast at the hotel.  The fish market is also a café that specializes in fish burgers and tacos (which were very tasty and not expensive).  We were so happy to find this place, I can’t stand buying fish from the supermarket.

Mamma’s Fish House

A friend recommended Mama’s Fish House (thanks Liz) and I kept reading really good reviews about it.  This is one of the most renowned seafood restaurants on Maui.  While I grumbled about the over-priced crappy resort food, this place was well worth it.  The main courses range from $30 – $60, we decided this would be our one big treat.  It’s classical French cooking with a Polynesian twist.  Located just past the town of Paia on a scenic coconut grove and white sand beach,  Mamma’s Fish House is in a converted beach house.  An idyllic setting for a restaurant.  I had the most wonderful seared Ahi tuna with a pineapple tamarind sauce, followed by bouillabaisse with scallops, lobster, prawns and angel hair pasta.  Sam loved his grilled octopus to start and for mains he enjoyed pan seared uku (a local white fish) with white wine and capers.  While it was pricey, the fish had been caught fresh that morning (they even list the name of the specific fisherman on the menu) and the food was top notch, definitely a place I’d go back to.

Mama's Fish House on Urbanspoon

Go Haggis goes home: A taste of Scotland

8 Jan

When I was a kid I used to love traveling on planes, it all seemed really exciting, the longer the flight the more excited I got.  Now that I have lived overseas for over ten years and travel back to the UK on a regular basis I am no longer a big fan of flying.  This year’s flying experience was especially bad, not because of volcanoes or terrorists, but due to adverse weather.

The UK does not usually experience below freezing temperatures and they do not have the infrastructure to deal with lots of snow, hence why we spent 4 hours sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow waiting for our domestic plane to Edinburgh to be de-iced! In the end we lucked out big time.  We basically got the last BA flight that left Heathrow to Edinburgh for the next 4 days. Thank goodness we didn’t get stranded in terminal five with all those other unlucky travelers.

 

While going home is primarily about catching up with friends and family, another major aspect is the food.

Internationally speaking Scotland does not have a reputation for gourmet foods like France or Italy.  Most people associate Scotland with lots of deep-fried goodies and of course haggis!  While this is true, Scotland also has an abundance of wonderful fresh foods on offer and some fantastic restaurants.

Scottish seafood is absolutely delicious, king scallops from the North Sea are huge and bursting with flavor and Scottish smoked salmon, a staple of Scotland, is internationally renowned.  Game meats like venison, grouse and pheasant are also readily available and considered very Scottish. Traditional Scottish cuisine is actually very similar to BC (salmon and venison are very popular/traditional BC dishes).

Going home inevitably means I must eat all those old favorite foods that I pine for whilst living on the other side of the planet (I think most expats can sympathize with this).  It’s quite amazing how certain foods remind you of home, for me this means Jaffa Cakes, Heinz spaghetti, roast beef Monster Munch, pork sausages and dry cured bacon (to name just a few).

Edinburgh, Scotland’s picturesque capital city and my hometown, boasts a wide selection of varying restaurants.  While I was back home I managed to sample some great food.  Eating out in Scotland is typically not as affordable as it is in Vancouver, so you want to make sure you’re going somewhere with decent food (especially if it’s gonna cost a lot)!

Here are some restaurant highlights and recommendations:

The Dogs

Located in the center of town, at 110 Hanover Street, the dogs is serving up good quality comfort food at really affordable prices.

We went for lunch with some good friends and really enjoyed it.  None of the items on the lunch menu cost over 6 pounds, which is very cheap for Edinburgh.

The menu specializes in British ‘gastropub’ staples such as fish and chips, meat pies and devilled sausages.

Sam loved his fish and chips with proper crunchy batter, chips and mushy peas.  Myself and my dining companions sampled the pies, I went for the seafood one, Leila had the turkey and ham and Sarah tried the steak and kidney.  We scoffed them back no problem.

For a more detailed description of our meal check out Leila’s blog post about our lunch (she writes the Edinburgh based blog Leil’Appetit).  Our lunch for 5 people, including 2.5 bottles of wine and coffee cost 90 pounds, this is incredibly good value.  The day before we had lunch at a restaurant called Browns, our lunch for 3 cost the same and the food was not nearly as good (in fact if your ever in Edinburgh avoid eating at Browns, the food is not worth the price).

Chop Chop

I first heard about the Northern Chinese restaurant Chop Chop after it was featured on Gordon Ramsey’s F Word, after being voted one of the UK’s best local restaurants.

Chop Chop has two locations in Edinburgh, we went to the one in Haymarket at 248 Morrison Street.

I must admit coming from Vancouver, where we have an abundance of really good Chinese restaurants, I wasn’t sure how Chop Chop would compare.  I was pleasantly surprised.

Chop Chop specializes in dumplings.  The pan-fried dumplings (which are traditionally called pot stickers) tasted authentic and flavorful.  I especially enjoyed the beef and chilli ones.  The highlight of the meal for me was definitely the sweet and sour ribs, the sauce was really tasty and they were those mini style ribs.  Yummy!

Some of the menu items are a little strange for Chinese cuisine, the fried chicken and potatoes with black bean sauce was a bit odd and the lamb with cumin seemed a bit out of place for a Chinese restaurant.  Perhaps they are trying to add some Scottish/Indian fusion to their food?

Overall it was a fun experience, we opted for the unlimited Xmas banquet.  It cost 20 pounds per head, we got 16 different dishes including pork and coriander dumplings, aubergines with garlic, crispy northern beef, chicken wings and fish balls and as long as you finish the first round you can order a second round and so on (we of course managed two rounds no bother)!

Most Chinese restaurants in Scotland serve the same staples, like lemon chicken, BBQ ribs and sweet and sour pork.  Chop Chop can be considered more authentic than your typical Scottish Chinese fare, I’d definitely go back.

Hotel Missoni

The fabulous Italian designer, Rosita Missoni, has collaborated with the Rezidor Hotel Group to create the Hotel Missoni.  This designer hotel opened in 2009 in the center of Edinburgh on George IV Bridge.  This place is seriously funky.  We ate dinner at the Cucina restaurant, inside the hotel, this was our one ‘blow out’ meal and although the prices are high, the food was superb.

We started off by having cocktails at the Missoni bar, the decor is amazing.  Beautiful textiles hanging on the walls and extremely vibrant colors.  The cocktails were exceptionally good. Heading up the stairs to the restaurant, I must say the space is absolutely fantastic.  Tactile wall coverings, with fine colored textiles, lots of black and white, check out the design on the plates. This place is extremely unique and a very nice environment to hang out in.

As you may have guessed the food is Italian.  I started off with homemade pasta with pork ragu and finished with a whole lemon sole, which came in a fennel cream sauce, with olives and new potatoes.  Sam started with a selection of cured meats, then had grilled venison in a red wine demi glaze.  We both really enjoyed our food, it was definitely ‘gourmet’!

The Clamshell

After watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘No Reservations‘, where Bourdain goes to an Edinburgh chip shop and samples a ‘king rib’, Sam has been dying to try one.  Chip shops are very popular in Scotland, they are primarily the reason why Scotland has a reputation for deep-fried goodies and perhaps why Scotland has some of the worst cases of heart disease in Europe..!

The Clamshell on the Royal Mile is a standard ‘chippie’, serving up fish and chips, deep-fried sausage, deep-fried pizza, meat pies and the king rib (to name a few classic dishes)!  In case you are unaware a king rib is basically a deep-fried pork patty with BBQ sauce (it comes with chips).  I must say that is was disgustingly good, check it out…!  Although this is not something one should eat on a regular basis.

Rocpool

We spent a couple of days up north in the town of Inverness.  Inverness is the largest town in the Scottish Highlands and is surrounded by some stunningly beautiful countryside.  Check out Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle.

We ate dinner at the Rocpool restaurant at 1 Ness Walk, Inverness, with a great friend who’s also a local.  This is her favorite restaurant in town.  Situated right opposite the river, this contemporary style  neighborhood bistro is serving up really good Scottish nosh   It’s always a good sign when you go on a Monday night and the place is bustling with activity.  The food was extremely fresh and tasty and all the ingredients are locally sourced and in season.

I had the most wonderful hand dived king scallops with chorizo sausages, garlic butter & spring onion creme fresh, it was tres delicious!  Followed by linguine with mussels, crab, scallops, prawns in a white wine tomato sauce.  Sam had chicken liver parfait and finished with roasted loin of venison with parma ham and black pudding.

If you’re ever in Inverness and what some really good Scottish cuisine, Rocpool is the place.  For more information check out their website: www.rocpoolrestaurant.com

The Tomahawk BBQ

19 Nov

Vancouver was incorporated into a city in 1886, so in the grand scale of things this is a relatively new place.  I believe that for such a new city Vancouver is often really bad at preserving its history.  Old buildings are constantly being knocked down (when I think they should be given heritage status) and replaced with ugly glass condos that lack character and space.  As local author and artist Douglas Coupland aptly coined, “Vancouver city of glass”.

However, in amongst this land of new, there is a kitschy diner in North Vancouver called the Tomahawk BBQ that has been in operation since 1926.  In my mind this place is an authentic part of Vancouver’s past that remains alive and well today.

Walking into the Tomahawk is like walking back in history.  Two large totem poles tower outside the exterior of the building and the interior of the restaurant is like a museum.  The walls are lined with multiple First Nations artifacts, like masks, carvings, canoes and snow shoes, just to name a few!  (This restaurant should be given heritage status before some developer wants to knock it down and replace it with yet another unsightly condo)!  The owner started collecting these artifacts from the local Indians over 80 years ago. The Tomahawk BBQ can be considered a real slice of ‘Canadiana’!

As their website states, the Tomahawk was opened in 1926 by Chick Chamberlain.  Its original location was on Marine Drive and it was Vancouver’s first drive through.   Inside the restaurant Chick had 14 stools (all of which remain at the counter in the current location), customers would sit at the stools and watch him cook on the grill.  This was when a BBQ beef sandwich cost a mere 10 cents!

The Tomahawk is best described as a classic North American diner, serving diner staples like turkey sandwiches and grilled cheese sandwiches. The many hamburgers on the menu are named after local Native Chiefs like Skookum Chief and Chief Capilano.  All of the food is made from scratch and all the pies and desserts are baked daily on the premises.  My favorite part of the menu is breakfast; we often drive quite a distance from our place to enjoy their scrumptious breakfast.  The absolute highlight is the Yukon-style bacon!

The Yukon-style bacon is not the typical streaky-style bacon; it is more like European back bacon.  As a bacon lover I tell you that this bacon is well worth the drive, it’s delicious.  I always order the Yukon-style bacon, with hash browns and toast.  The portions are massive, it comes with 5 slices of bacon (I hate it when restaurants cheap out on the bacon), tons of homemade golden hash browns and thick-sliced toast!  Truly delicious!  The ‘Chuck Wagon’ breakfast is also really good; three griddled buttermilk pancakes, with eggs, bacon and maple syrup, yummy!

The Tomahawk is a great place to bring friends from out of town, its fun, authentic and tasty.  It’s a great tourist destination.

They are located at 1550 Philip Avenue, North Vancouver, BC (just look for the totem poles)!

Tomahawk Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Travel & Technology

15 Oct

The emergence of the internet over the past decade has greatly transformed the way we travel.  Having the ability to research, plan, evaluate and book a vacation completely on our own has largely eliminated the need for travel agents.

These days’ travelers can take virtual tours, read reviews on trip advisor, use Google Street View and book an entire vacation from the comfort of the couch!   Technology has enabled us to really take control in the planning stages of a trip.  It has also forced travel companies to become more accountable.  Gone are the days of false advertising, if you mislead a customer there’s a good chance they’ll slam you with a scathing review.

As technology keeps advancing, information networking sites like Twitter, up-to-the minute websites and customized apps continue to enhance the travel experience.  I recently came across a really interesting article discussing how technology is eliminating the need for traditional travel tools such as the guidebook or map.

Traditionally when you went on holiday having a guide book was the most efficient way to discover your destination, find a restaurant, etc, but if you think about it a guide book is more or less out of date as soon as it’s gone to print.  Using technology (often from our own phone) we can now access user-generated content.   I can find out what hundreds of people are saying about a destination (not just one guidebook).

People are using Twitter to guide them around cities.  Say you are in New York, you can tweet questions to fellow New York tweeters who guide you around, providing suggestions about where to eat, etc.  I think this is brilliant.  What is better than having a local guide you?  This technology is helping bring the tourist closer to the local.

The recent introductions of location-based apps, which use GPS technology to determine location, are further enhancing our travel experiences.  Applications like Tourism BC’s ‘Near me BC’ and ‘Urban Spoon’ are amazing (they kinda blow my mind).  These applications determine where you are and give you a list of all the restaurants, hotels, attractions, etc in your area.  They also provide you with reviews so you can see what others think.  Just a few years ago this type of technology was in only found in a science fiction movie!

Rather than lugging a heavy and out-of-date guide book around in your suitcase, all we need to do it hold our phone up and let it guide us!  I’m sure some would argue that these technologies promote a certain extent of laziness, in terms of having technology do the research, but I believe this type of technology is the future of travel.

If you’re interested check out the article at http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/oct/03/guide-books-web-travel

Here is a list of some useful travel apps:

Foursquare: A location-based game with thousands of tips added by users

Yelp: A popular listing service, with excellent restaurant and bar listings

Kayak: Flight-comparison app, with fare tracking

Time Out: (coming soon) the best city guides in print are about to roll out a series of excellent apps

Layar: Augmented reality app with various layers – music, architecture, food – overlaid on a camera interface

Offsetting Air Travel

8 Sep

As a frequent air passenger I often feel guilty about the high levels of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere from my long-haul flights to and from Canada and the UK.

The UNWTO has estimated, with 800 million tourists annually, air travel alone is accountable for 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions.  While this number seems small, 5% is actually quite significant.

There is no doubt in my mind that,  over the past century, human behavior has greatly contributed towards a changing climate.  At the 3rd annual UN Climate Change Conference in Bali (2007) it was stated that, “if the tourism industry was a country, it would compare to India given its high emission intensities and significant annual growth rates”.  When you consider the high levels of carbon emissions that are being pumped into the atmosphere as a direct result of the leisure- traveling public it is alarming and rather guilt provoking.  Our desire to travel to new places, relax and eat delicious food is helping to slowly destroy our planet and potentially eradicating the ability to enjoy such luxuries in the future.  Rather a dismal thought, I know…!

For the past few years some airlines have been introducing carbon offsetting schemes in an attempt to become carbon neutral (paying for pollution by supporting projects that do not contribute toxins to the atmosphere, like planting a tree).  For example Delta Airlines has a carbon offset program.  When booking a flight, customers are given the option to offset the emissions of their flight, such as paying $50 towards a more renewable-energy project like solar or wind power or simply paying $2 to plant a tree.  According to Delta, in one year, their customers raised enough funds to plant over 102,000 trees, which is apparently enough to offset the carbon footprint of more than 2,900 Americans.

There is much debate about the real effectiveness of carbon offsetting.  In many ways these schemes are essentially encouraging people to continue to pollute and are not addressing the issue that we actually need to reduce pollution (rather than adopting the mindset that it’s ok to pollute, as long as you offset).

A recent article in the Guardian newspaper highlighted a study showing that only 7% of fliers are currently opting to offset their flights.  The study also found that 56% of those surveyed know what carbon offsetting means, demonstrating that ignorance cannot be blamed.  Perhaps there is just a lack of awareness (rather than ignorance) about the availability of carbon offsetting schemes among the traveling public, or people simply don’t think it’s an effective solution.  Last time I booked a flight I don’t recall being given the option to offset (although it is possible I didn’t even notice as it wasn’t on my radar).

While I understand that offsetting is not the answer to climate change; I figure every little bit helps.  As I am not about to stop flying (yes ‘staycations’ are fun, but it’s hard to beat the experience of international travel, not to mention the fact that my family live overseas), investing in a carbon offsetting scheme is something I am seriously starting to consider.  The approximate offset cost for a return flight from Vancouver to Edinburgh is $24 (or 15 pounds).  This is offsetting the 1.99 tones of CO2 that is emitted during my flight.  For $24 you can minimize your carbon footprint guilt and at the end of the day what’s wrong with planting a few more trees, it’s better than doing nothing.  What the heck, it doesn’t harm anything!

Obviously before selecting a specific carbon offsetting program it is crucial to conduct research to ensure the company is legitimate and that your money is being well spent.  I have done some research and can recommend the following companies: (based on a report by ‘Clean Air, Cool Planet’ called “A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers”).

Climate Care

Atmosfair

Sustainable Travel International

Final ‘staycation’ of summer: Port Renfrew

31 Aug

Good friends of ours (Captain Adam and First Mate Erin) have been circumnavigating Vancouver Island for the past month on their 40 ft catamaran, ‘the Carefree Isle’.  What an adventure.  This is such a beautiful corner of the world and being able to witness the stunning scenery while cruising along on a boat is an experience not easily forgotten or replicated (here is a link to the blog they’ve been keeping throughout the voyage).

This past weekend we headed over to the South West Coast of Vancouver Island to camp and meet the boat at Port Renfrew.  Port Renfrew is about a 90 minute drive from Victoria, at the very end of Highway 14, past the town of Sooke.  It’s here that the famous ‘West Coast Trail’, ends or starts (depending what direction you go).  We actually came via the town of Lake Cowichan.  In recent years the old logging road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew has been paved, making it a really easy drive.  It only takes about an hour and it’s really pretty.  This is part of the Pacific Marine Circle Route.

Port Renfrew is a lower-cost, less crowed alternative to the popular resort town of Tofino, located further North on the West Coast.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Tofino, especially Long Beach, but it tends to be expensive, busy and it’s further away (although if you want to Surf, Tofino is the place to be).  The town of Port Renfrew is tiny; it’s far less developed than Tofino (for the moment) and has real small town feel about it.

During the summer months Port Renfrew comes alive with hikers and fishing charters.  There’s one general store (with a liquor store attached), the Port Renfrew Hotel, which is right on the dock and has a nice patio looking over ‘Snuggery Cove’ and a great café called the ‘Coastal Kitchen Café’.  I was pleasantly surprised at how good the food was at the Coastal Kitchen.  The menu is huge, with an extensive selection of fresh seafood.  Options include: a bucket of clams for $10, pan seared pacific scallops, with white wine and shallots ($9), breaded prawns and thin crust pizza with smoked salmon.  It all looked very tempting.  We stopped there for a well-deserved hot breakfast after camping for a couple nights; the breakfast sausage was very tasty!  I’d definitely go back.

We camped at the Pacheedaht First Nations campground and got a great site right on the beach.  The majority of the sites are all ‘beach front’, with unobstructed views of the Pacific Ocean.  It costs $15, per tent, per night and $20, per night, for a camper.

We stayed at the less busy, south end, of the campsite which I would recommend as the sites are bigger than the north end.  Although this means being further away from the showers,  which are located at the north end (who needs to shower while camping anyway)!  It’s important to note that this campground does not have a website and I now realize that enough folk seem to know about it that they don’t need one.  While I did attempt to make a reservation in advance by phone, I got a recorded message saying they don’t take reservations for small groups; it really didn’t matter since there were lots of spaces available.

Overall our trip was a great success; I’d absolutely go back to this spot again, especially since this is an easy weekend trip from Vancouver.  We bought crabs from a local fisherman, had a fire right on the beach by the ocean and enjoyed the stunning scenery of the Pacific West Coast.  If you like camping on the beach with fewer crowds, Port Renfrew is the place to go.

Allegiant Air

25 Aug

I recently flew (return) to Oakland, California, from Bellingham, Washington, on Allegiant Air for just less than $200 (taxes in).

One of the things I miss about living in the UK is the access to relatively cheap flights around Europe.  In Canada this concept does not exist.  The cost of a domestic flight from Vancouver to Calgary is not cheap and flying from Vancouver to New York is about the same cost as flying to London (UK)!  This is understandable since Canada is a huge country with a very small population in comparison to its geographical size (it blows me away that the population of the UK is double that of Canada).  So it is not surprising that it costs a lot to fly domestically, especially when you consider the sheer distances that have to be traveled.  Furthermore, Canadian airports are subject to extremely high taxes, much higher than their US counterparts;  so many Canadians opt to save money by flying from the USA.

Bellingham is just across the US border from Vancouver and the airport is literally a ten minute drive from the border crossing.  I once flew to Costa Rica from Seattle as it was half the price than flying from Vancouver.  However, Seattle airport is almost a three hour drive away.  While I saved money it was a hassle, when you come back you just want to get home and a three hour drive is the last thing you want to deal with.  Once you have crossed the border from Bellingham it is less than an hour drive to Vancouver.  I am very excited about this new discovery; it means that destinations that seemed expensive are now an affordable option.

Bellingham International Airport (BIA) advertises heavily to the BC market.  On their website the location for flights in and out of BIA is actually listed as ‘Bellingham (WA)/Vancouver (BC)’.  The airport is literally just off the highway and is really easy to find.  It’s a tiny airport consisting of two buildings.  The car park is right in front of the terminal (most of the cars parked were all from BC) and the daily rate is an attractive $9!  Having traveled frequently back and forth to Europe I am not a fan of huge airports, with long lines to get through security, etc, airports can be extremely exhausting.  Not Bellingham.  The experience is best described as stress free.  It took less than 10 minutes to clear security, once through you sit in a small waiting area, there’s no need for departure screens as there are only two gates! You simply walk out onto the tarmac to board the plane.

The one downside is there is no bar or café to have a drink at while you wait, just a very minimal coffee stand.   We arrived two hours before the flight, which was not necessary; being there an hour prior would have been fine (although if you arrive later than 45 minutes before your flight, with luggage to check on, Allegiant Air will not let you board the plane, they are extremely strict about this, so get there at least one hour prior if you have luggage to check).

Allegiant Air opened a base at BIA in January 2008, driven by its proximity to Vancouver and offers flights to Las Vegas, Palm Springs, San Diego, Oakland (San Francisco) and Phoenix.  I couldn’t believe the price from BIA to Oakland.  I compared this with a direct flight from Vancouver on West Jet and the price was double ($400).  We only went for two days, so we just brought hand luggage.  Allegiant charges extra for checked bags as well as seat assignments.  If you want snacks or drinks onboard you have to purchase them.  They are making up for the low cost of the ticket by making you pay for secondary products/services.  I find as long as you educate yourself about these ‘hidden’ costs before you travel, you can plan accordingly (i.e. pack light and bring a snack, after all these are not long-haul flights).

I was very impressed with Allegiant.  Both the flights left on time.  Even though the planes are older, the seats are comfortable and the leg room is decent  (I had more room than I did on my long-haul flight to Glasgow in June with Air Transat)!  The flight was less than two hours and arriving into Oakland’s small airport was a breeze.  Similarly on the return back to BIA, we were literally off the plane and into the car park within 6 minutes of landing.  It was so easy.

I would definitely recommend flying out of BIA if you’re heading to US destinations on the west coast.  I am already planning another trip….!

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