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Category Archives: Canada and USA 2016

Original Oregon

There are few places where I’ve managed to encounter a city’s mayor, live band karaoke, really bad stand up comedy and a post midnight doughnut all in one evening.

It started off quietly enough in the Davis Street bar, one of the huge, converted old buildings which is now embracing one of Oregon’s biggest industries – micro brewing.

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John, who’s sitting next to me, points out that the guy sitting by the window is Portland’s mayor. John’s a lawyer for the construction industry so knows a lot of people. He also has strong political views, having lost a nephew in the first Gulf War. His sister has fought for years for justice for the families of soldiers killed or wounded in action.

It’s a sobering tale to start off the evening but that doesn’t last long. The Fourth Street Saloon is like a cross between the wild west, a trashy roadhouse and a grungy club. “It could be worse,” one customer tells me, “you could be doing live karaoke at Dante’s.”

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This place has been everything in its time, from a brothel to a gambling den. But on Mondays the relatively small song book is distributed and you bribe the host to move you up the list. For $4 I manage a rather successful rendition of Handle With Care by the Traveling Wilburys.

I’m less confident about standing up at the Boiler Room, where it’s amateur comedy night. Almost every one of the dozen or so young performers dies; their peers offering little by way of support.

After a late night, a brief chance to explore Portland’s city centre. The place is functional, not as threatening as bigger cities and with a few notable historic building like the Court House in Pioneer Square.

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Another booming business here is street food. Carts have sprung up on the corner of many car parks offering a huge variety of cheap eats.

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Though I’m not entirely convinced by all of the branding.

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It’s almost the end of my trip, and it’s one that’s certainly opened my eyes to the West Coast. It’s not all about San Fran or LA. There’s history, good food and great beer to be sampled. And despite the region’s reputation for bad weather, it hasn’t rained once.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

Lift off

It’s certainly the most touristy thing I’ve done so far in this trip, but you can’t visit Seattle and not go up the Space Needle. Built in the early Sixties, the landmark dominates the skyline, and greets you as you arrive by that other notable sixties development, the Monorail.

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The guidebook tells me I can avoid the $20 admission fee so long as I spend $25 in the restaurant – but it’s a fixed menu brunch, with a fixed price of $50. It’s not just the 520 foot observation deck that’s sky high. It’s Saturday afternoon and packed with visitors. But most don’t hog any one section for too long, allowing some pretty spectacular views.

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The Needle is just one of several attractions at the Seattle Centre complex. Of more interest to me is the Experience Music Project, or EMP. Among its many exhibitions are those dedicated to Seattle’s famous exports, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. The Hendrix room contains scraps of papers and diaries from the man himself. Here, questions for a chat show.

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Rock or grunge, this place is all about the guitars. 700 of them.

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The evening takes me to Capitol Hill, a neighbourhood of diverse bars and my first encounter of American bureaucracy – the ID check. At the age of 45 it’s often flattering to be asked to show my driver’s licence. But the guy on the door tells me that this isn’t enough. Only US and Canadian ID is acceptable under Washington State Law, and I’ll need a passport to get in. Really?

Fortunately, Comet isn’t the only place in town and I end up watching the Seattle Seahawks soccer team beating Montreal in the final few minutes of the game. Behind me in the bar is Gary, a Scottish man working as an engineer. He moved to Seattle nine years ago, but next to him is David, who’s only just got here from his family home in rural Ohio.

He’s a salesman for Tesla, the electric car company. It’s made big news this week launching its latest model. At $35k it’s half the price of the previous one. David insists that America is ready to embrace the electric car revolution. Maybe the eco-conscious Pacific Northwest might just be the place to do it.

Sunday morning and another leisurely stroll around Pike Place. And there are plenty of food options here, including a dairy churning its own cheese.

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It’s extremely tempting but I’m not sure a slab will keep that well in my case for another four days. The best and worst thing about the market are the swarms of visitors with no sense of direction or personal space. Still, they’re fun to watch – even when they’re touching a pig.

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Posted by on April 3, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

Bed and border

If hardly anyone in the United States travels by train, even fewer take the Thruway buses which connect the network when the trains aren’t running. This 1130 from Vancouver to Seattle has fewer than a dozen passengers, though annoyingly one is a small child, frequently screaming loudly. The journey begins at Vancouver’s Pacific Central station, another grand yet seemingly underused transport terminal

   
 
I’d actually wanted to take the train on the short hop over the border, but the only option by rail was a 5.30am departure, or a second in the evening which would have got me in way after 10pm. So it’s the bus, though it’s a nicer option than having to do the driving yourself. 

Within 90 minutes we’re at the US Border, a far less intensive and lengthy process than arriving into the States by air. There are still fingerprints and questions about the purpose of the visit – but on a much more casual scale. The bus driver tells me that it’s often worse traveling the other way. “The border guards tend to be younger, a bit more cocky” – which surprises me, since I’ve found Canadians to be nothing but helpful and friendly.

Arrival in Seattle is somewhat confusing. Sweeping views of the skykine and famous Space Needle merge into Friday afternoon traffic. The King Street Amtrak station is close to some big landmarks, but there’s not a single waiting cab. When I do get one, the city reminds me a bit of San Francisco – minus the streetcars. My first view of the waterfront doesn’t immediately lift the spirits.

  
Separating the port from the Main Street is the huge overpass known as the Alaskan highway. Apparently it’s due to be demolished, which can’t come soon enough. But also hugging the waterside is one of Seattle’s big attractions – Pike Place Market.

  
By mid evening most of the outlets are closed, though a collection of bars and restaurants are dotted along the small alleys within the market complex. Among them, the Kells Irish Pub. Ok, I’m getting a reputation here, I admit it. But I promise to try something more authentic tomorrow.

  

 
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Posted by on April 2, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

At the hop

The Steamworks is Gastown’s showpiece brew pub, and at 7.30pm the atmosphere is a happy mix of after work drinkers and visitors. Steamworks itself does an impressive list of in house beers and it’s a good starting point for a bar hop around Vancover’s oldest neighbourhood.

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There are dozens of places to choose from here, but perhaps none as unique as Guilt and Company, a basement bar with nightly live music.

“Are you one of the dancers?” asks the guy on the door. I’m not entirely sure if he’s winding me up or hitting on me. When I say no he refuses to tell me what he’s talking about.

It transpires that tonight is jazz night, and the band are joined by members of a local traditional dancing group. The theme is very much 1930s with a stunning floor show of lindy hop and  Charleston.

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The party continues late into the night, and the only thing that tempts me out of bed before noon is another warm and sunny day. After lunch at Granville Island Market, a brisk walk takes me into the Kitsalano district, offering yet another view of the city skyline.

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Vanier Park is home to three museums, and the Maritime Museum has a patriotic exhibition looking at the race to successfully chart the North West passage of the Arctic. Conditions were notoriously harsh, and often fatal for those who tried.

In the early twentieth century the Royal Canadian Mounted Police established bases in the region, combining law and order with a kind of social services department for the Inuits.

The journey to and from the area was taken by the ship RCMP Roch, which now sits within the museum.

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Posted by on April 1, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

A walk in the woods

Shopping in downtown Vancouver is just like any other Western city, with grand chain stores and big brands. Yet I’ve also noticed a thriving independent trade. If Robson Street is like London’s West End, Main Street takes you back in time – literally.

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John’s Jukes is a wondrous collection of bar entertainment from a different era. Wutlitzers jostle for position with vintage pinball machines and arcade games. But John himself remains realistic : “It’s a passion, yes, but it’s also a business.”

I’m not sure my baggage allowance will stretch to these.

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The rest of Main Street is great for quirky souvenir shopping. But today I’m not buying, I’m looking.

The Compass Card is Vancouver’s new travel pass. And for $9.75 a day (about  £5) you can use the buses, trains and the ferry to the North Shore.

Many coming here arrive by a free shuttle bus, taking them either up to Grouse Mountain or the Calapino Suspension Bridge. Both attractions will set you back £40 each. But you can get a similar experience for free at Lynn Valley.

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The gorge here is only 50 feet deep, but it provides a great introduction to Vancouver’s outdoor scene. Woodland trails wind around the valley, all with good surfaces for weary feet.

It’s also remarkably accessories for the local classy neighbourhood.

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Back at the North Shore, the Lonsdale Quay public market provides a great place for an early dinner. It’s much smaller than its Granville Island counterpart but great value for money. Fish and chips for £5 – with cod that was possibly caught this morning. If this were downtown you could triple that price.

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Posted by on March 31, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

Off my trolley 

I dislike being labelled a tourist. I’ve always preferred the term “traveller” or – if I’m feeling especially smug – “explorer”. I enjoy drifting off the main guide book pages and wandering down a backstreet to finding out where the locals go.

So it’s somewhat disturbing to find myself buying a ticket for the Vancouver Trolleybus, a fleet of faux streetcars which allow visitors to hop on and off at a series of notable points around town. However, it’s possibly one of the best ways of seeing a lot in a little time, and saving on the time spent negotiating local bus maps. 

First stop is Vancouver’s biggest green space, Stanley Park. Sitting to the north of the downtown area it boasts hundreds of acres of forest surrounded by a picturesque shoreline. And in a nod to more traditional times, a bunch of totem poles.

  

A walk along the sea wall is a great way to understand Vancouver’s stunning position. In the background of that picture is Grouse Mountain, one of numerous resorts within easy reach of downtown. Just a few miles away is Whistler, the home of the Winter Olympics. And with dozens of waterfront parks and walks, it’s easy to see why Vancouver has been regularly named as one of the most liveable cities in the world.

  
The good weather certainly helps to add to the bonhomie. Included in my bus ticket is a ferry ride to Granville Island. In many other cities, this would be a no go industrial district. Steel bridges and corrugated warehouses mix with narrow streets. It could look daunting and univiting. But independent traders and artists have made this place their own, with the centre of attraction being the Public Market. It’s a foodie’s paradise, with fresh produce and tastes from all over the world – be they sour or sweet.

  
The Trolley drivers are all enthusiastic characters – to a point. But they’re essentially reeling off the same script day in, day out. “This is Science World, so if you want to check out some science, this is is the stop for you.” However, they do also have a list of more impressive statistics as we roll through Chinatown (“the biggest in North America outside San Francisco”) and onto Gastown.

This is Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton. He essentially founded what became this city in 1867. Realising there was no local refreshment for the shipping workers, he built the first pub and the rest is history. Along with a statue of the man himself, the main monument here is the Steam Clock, powered mainly by electricity. But don’t tell the tourists that. 

  

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff

 

Taking the biscuit

There was a time when a First Class ticket meant absolute luxury, personal service, gourmet dining and immense comfort. Unfortunately that time is not at weekends or Bank Holidays on East Midlands Trains. Take the 0805 from Nottingham to London on a regular weekday and your ticket buys you a cooked breakfast, at seat service and a general feeling of starting the day well. 

On Easter Monday, this is the best they could manage.

  
I was offered a sausage roll, but for £2.20 extra. It’s not very much, but it’s the principle that matters here. How can it not be possible to give that to me free when, on any regular day, I’d get that, warm, along with bacon, eggs and a croissant?

The train companies, or specifically East Midlands, argue that weekends are less busy and many First Class tickets are discounted, therefore the premium ticket does not attract a premium service. Yet through advance booking, I’ve sometimes travelled First Class during the week for cheaper than I have today. It makes no sense. Could the real answer be that East Midlands Trains calculate that more plebs upgrading to Weekend First would be likely to gobble up a Full English than the Season Ticket holders who do the commute on a daily basis?

The levels of “Downgraded Upgrade” or “First Class Lite” vary depending on which operator you use. Virgin East Coast, for instance, offers a choice of sandwiches, cakes and crisps and weekends – though not alcohol, which is available in seemingly unlimited quantities from 1030 on weekdays. And they manage to open up their First Class lounges at weekends.

All of this said, I’m pleased to be travelling anywhere at all today, as Easter 2016 has brought with it Storm Katie. There is chaos on rail services to many points north and west of Nottingham, with the promise of hurricane force winds to the east later. Thankfully I’m heading south to London and west to Canada via Heathrow.

Economy class, since you ask.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2016 in Canada and USA 2016, Travel Stuff