Friday, June 19, 2009

My first really bad hotel experience

For the last five years, I've spent about 50 nights per year in hotel rooms. Up to this point, I haven't had any truly bad experiences. That changed tonight.

After returning to the hotel from dinner, I was going to relax on the bed to watch some TV and work on the computer. As I pulled back the covers, I noticed a large yellow-brown stain on the sheet - probably some spilled coffee.

I was taken aback for a second, but thought it could be an old stain - still not a pleasant thought, but better than a fresh stain. Then I looked closer and saw dozens of tiny hairs on the sheets. They looked like dog hairs. Now, I was really grossed out.

I called the front desk - of course they don't have any housekeepers on duty in the early evening. The front desk lady eventually came up herself with a new set of sheets and pillow cases - no extra comforters though.

I feel a bit better, but still not completely at home. I hope I don't have this happen again.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Silversea Cruises

I had the opportunity to attend a Silversea Cruises presentation this evening given by the regional manager. It's a luxury line that offers great value. Their five ships carry only 300-500 passengers, and they have a crew to guest ratio of 2 to 3.

Silversea is an all-inclusive experience. That means while their fares may look higher, a lot more is included - specifically all beverages, including wine and mixed drinks, as well as gratuities. Those two items alone typically add at least a couple hundred dollars to the bill at the end of a cruise.

All the rooms on the ships are oceanview and are larger than rooms on other cruise lines

For a short time, Silversea is running some fantastic specials - free coach airfare and $1,000 per room onboard credit.

Please let me know if you'd like more information.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (Vancouver)

Our final stop on our vacation was the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. I’m not sure when it opened, but the architecture makes it look a bit dated. Regardless of the looks, it’s very interesting.

We started our visit with a 40-minute program in the planetarium, “visiting” each of the planets as well as the moon. We also learned about several constellations.

Next up was a mission to Mars on a space ship simulator. It’s a short five-minute ride, but it is fun. The “Cosmic Courtyard” is the interactive area with a number of displays. There’s a moon rock and meteorite that you can touch and several computer games that you can play. There’s also a small rocket ship that you can launch.

The final room in the museum is a stage where six different presentations are made throughout the day. We participated in the 20-minute “A Day in Space” show, learning how astronauts handle daily functions such as eating, drinking and going to the bathroom.

The space centre isn’t a large museum, but we learned a lot in our three hours there. Admission for a family (as many as 5) is $45.00.

The space center is located next to the Vancouver Museum and the Maritime Museum. There is also an observatory on the grounds.

Lynn Canyon Park and English Bay Beach

We spent a leisurely Sunday morning and early afternoon in Abbotsford with family before departing for our first visit to Vancouver. We wanted some more outdoor adventure, so we headed to Lynn Canyon Park. It took just over an hour to get there. The park features a 50-meter suspension bridge swaying over Lynn Creek. I thought my kids might be a little hesitant to go across, but they practically bolted onto the bridge. Stopping in the middle of the bridge offers some nice views of the creek below in both directions.

After crossing the bridge, we continued on the Baden-Powell trail down to Twin Falls and beyond. We actually got all the way down to the creek before hiking back up. Overall, we ended up taking about a two-hour hike before getting back to the bridge and our car.

Lynn Creek Park is free and offers a nice substitute for the better-known Capilano suspension bridge, which isn’t too far away. That bridge is 20 meters higher (70 m high) and 90 meters longer. In fact, it’s the world’s highest and longest suspension bridge, but it costs more than $20 per adult to cross it. I didn’t feel like doling out $50-$60 for the family to walk across a bridge.

We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a Dairy Queen – mainly so the boys could have some ice cream and then headed into the West End part of Vancouver to English Bay Beach.
The beach and the grassy hillside just beyond the beach were filled with people enjoying a beautiful late spring evening. Some played volleyball or horseshoes, while others strummed guitars. The boys took off their shoes, rolled up their pant legs and splashed in the water while we watched the sun get lower and lower in the western sky.

Vancouver Aquarium and Stanley Park

We got off to a decent start Monday from our Abbotsford base, leaving at 9:00 for the drive into Vancouver. Since we missed rush hour, it took barely more than an hour to reach the Lion’s Gate Bridge, a towering bridge that spans the Burrard Inlet and connects directly into Stanley Park.

Stanley Park – named after the same Lord Stanley as hockey’s famous Stanley Cup – is a 1,000-acre park full of cedar, hemlock and firs complete with meadows, lakes and beaches. It was established in 1886.

Our first stop inside the park – where you can buy an all-day parking pass that allows you to drive from parking lot to parking lot for $8 – was the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center. The Aquarium has about half of its exhibits indoors and half outdoors. The first few indoor exhibits included an area of tropical fish and giant fish followed by an Amazon Rain Forest room. In that room, we were treated to a two-toed sloth munching on a snack in the tree above us, some ibises, macaws and other birds.

We ventured outside to see otters and seals. We were quite lucky in the fact that the aquarium’s beluga whale had given birth to a baby the day prior to our visit. While the immediate area was cordoned off, we could see mother and baby just fine from a little further back.

Next we stopped at the dolphin pool, home to three Pacific White-Sided dolphins. They range from Mexico all the way to Alaska and across the Pacific to Japan. We saw a 15-minute show in the early afternoon.

Also outdoors, there was a Birds of Prey show several times a day. Two Harris hawks came out first, flying from platform to platform and catching food in the air. Of course the showstopper was a bald eagle – one of 30,000 that now live in British Columbia after being on the verge of extinction not too many years ago.

We ventured back indoors to an exhibit of marine life along the B.C. coast and into a room full of jellyfish. My personal favorite was the banded archerfish. We stopped by as one of the employees was placing a tube full of crickets into an aquarium of the archerfish. As the crickets crawled down the tube and onto a log six inches above the water, the archerfish would shoot a spray of water and knock the cricket off the log and into the water where the fish would gobble it up. Adult fish can shoot those streams of water as high as 5-6 feet.

We spent a good four hours in the aquarium, including a quick lunch at the café. Admission was $20 for adults and $12 for kids.

A short walk from the aquarium on one of the numerous trails in the park is a Children’s Farmyard and Miniature Railway. Both require separate admission. We took a ride on the train for $3 per person. The 15-minute ride goes through a tunnel and over a couple of small bridges as it passes some old buildings.

While making a brief stop at a playground near the railway, we were greeted by a raccoon, who was out for an early stroll and who didn’t seem to be phased by people at all. We watched as he sat on a limb before climbing down and wandering away – stopping to pose for pictures as he went.

We also took a 1-km loop trail around Beaver Lake. It’s an interpretative trail with informational signs posted at several places. On some of our previous hikes earlier in the week, we had seen both white and yellow water lilies on a pond. This lake featured red flowers on the water lilies. As we hiked, we encountered some black squirrels, several gold finches and a red-headed woodpecker.

We also picked a few salmon berries. They offer a sweet initial taste, but leave a bit of an aftertaste. They reminded me a lot of pomegranate.

We took a drive through some of the rest of the park, stopping at Prospect Point, which offers some nice views from the Lions Gate Bridge area and then further on to the area where about 8-10 totem poles share some of the history of BC’s native population.

As it was approaching 6:00 already, we drove around to The Fish House restaurant located in Stanley Park. How could we come to Vancouver and not get some seafood? Entrees are in the $20-$30 range. We opted for some crab cakes and a blackened Halibut with a lobster tail and pineapple salsa. We left quite pleased.

Our short walk from the parking lot to the restaurant offered a pleasant surprise. As we were walking, we heard the same “clucking” noise that we had heard Saturday at the Great Blue Heron Reserve. Sure enough, with a glance high in the trees above us, we saw dozens of herons tending to their nests.
On our drive back to Abbotsford, the orange glow of the sunset was bouncing off the mountain ranges ahead of us, including snow-covered Mount Baker. It was stunning.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Othello Tunnels, Bridal Falls and Blue Heron Reserve

Today we set out east of Abbotsford on the Trans-Canada Highway. About an hour drive is the city of Hope, and just past that is the Coquihalla Canyon Park. We were fortunate enough to see several more bald eagles soaring in the sky during our drive.

For a nominal parking fee of $2, you can get out and walk along the former Kettle Valley Railway line along the rushing Coquihalla River and through five train tunnels that were blasted through the mountain. It was a nice walk accompanied by the roar of the river. My sister, an experienced whitewater rafter, guessed these would be Class 6 rapids - practically unnavigable. It was an amazing sight (and sound).

After a two-hour hike, we drove into the city of Hope and had lunch at a nice Greek eatery called Papandreas. We were able to sit outside on their patio in the sunshine and stare up the side of a mountain that was still capped with snow. The food was delicious.

We began our return trip to Abbotsford with a stop at Bridal Falls Provincial Park. A 10-minute hike from the parking lot leads to a wide veil-like, 250-foot waterfall.

Our final stop was near Greendale and the Great Blue Heron Nature Reserve. Four trails lead around the 325-acre site that is home to a colony of great blue herons. We walked along the dyke to an area where there were lots of nests high up in the trees. The air was filled with the "clucking" sound of baby herons. We watched a half dozen or so herons come and go, along with a pesky red-tailed hawk that drew their attention.

It was a great day experiencing "Beautiful British Columbia."

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Mill Lake Park - Abbotsford, BC

Most of our Friday was spent with family preparing for a 75th birthday party, but we took all of the kids to a local park - Mill Lake Park.

The park features 3-4 separate playground areas and a paved trail around the lake. It takes a good 30-40 minutes to walk a lap.

The highlight for me was spotting a nesting pair of bald eagles near the top of one of the trees. One of the eagles was sitting in the tree near the nest, and as we stopped and watched it for a few minutes, its mate flew in, as well.

Since it's spring, the lake also was filled with lots of ducklings and goslings.

Hampton Inn Langley-Surrey (British Columbia)

I've written about Hampton Inns before, so I won't bore you with too many details. This one fits the bill in all the right ways - comfy beds, free breakfast and free wireless internet.

This one is great for families, though, featuring a pool with a waterslide. The pool isn't that big and is shallow for the entire length - never deeper than 3'9". The waterslide at the far end is a two-story, covered tube that does 1 1/2 twists. Wow, it is fast.

We spent a good hour in the pool getting our Friday morning started.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Survived a 22-hour travel day to British Columbia

Our family vacation has gotten off to a good start. Namely, we arrived safely in British Columbia and survived a 22-hour day with our two boys, who are under 7.

We woke up at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time and left our house by 4:30 to head for the airport for a 7:15 flight. It's not exactly how we originally planned it, but we were casualties of the airlines' cutbacks in service.

When I originally bought our tickets, Northwest offered a nonstop flight between Indianapolis and Seattle that didn't leave Indy until 9:30 a.m. and arrived around noon. That would have been perfect. Unfortunately, a few weeks after getting our tickets, Northwest dropped the nonstop flight and changed us to a connecting flight in Minneapolis - leaving Indy at 7:15.

I used the new Park Ride & Fly for the first time since the new terminal opened. I'll have to think long and hard about using it in the future. Coming from the east side of the town, it adds another 15-20 minutes of time to arriving at the airport. The daily rate is slightly less than the airport's economy lot, but there were $6 in access fees, etc., so it would only prove to be less expensive over a long stay.

Our flights were both uneventful. Northwest offers peanuts again, not just pretzels, so that was nice for me. Near the end of our second flight, we started seeing mountains out the window. It's always exciting to see something different from the flat Indiana landscape.

Upon our arrival in Seattle, our bags were available very quickly at baggage claim. We got on a shuttle bus to Enterprise. Although there was a pretty good line when we got there, it moved pretty quickly. We were leaving the Enterprise lot in our Kia Sedona just an hour after getting off the plane. I was pretty pleased with that.

First, we drove about an hour north on I-5 to Everett and made a stop for lunch with some friends in the area. They took us for a quick trip over to Boeing's Future of Flight building. We didn't have the time for the hour-plus guided tour, but we did go up to their lookout platform which offered a view of some their planes and hangars in the distance, as well as their runway. A couple of small planes came in for landings. Word is that two small regional carriers are going to begin offering service to that airport.

Before heading up to Canada, we made a quick stop at Mukilteo, a small town on Puget Sound with ferry service to Clinton. A nice beach gave us the chance to breathe in some fresh air, dip our hands and feet into the cool water and enjoy the unseasonably warm temperatures - almost 90 degrees.

From there, it was back in the car for another two hours to Abbotsford, British Columbia, a city in the Fraser Valley about an hour east of Vancouver. We had a nice dinner with relatives we hadn't seen in 10 years.

Of course, the kids caught a second wind, and we were all up until about 10:00 Pacific (1 a.m. Eastern) when we got to the Hampton Inn Langley-Surrey. I'm not sure a bed has ever felt more comfortable.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Weissgerber's Gasthaus - Waukesha, Wisconsin

Just outside Milwaukee in the town of Waukesha is a 25-year-old German restaurant called Weissgerber’s Gasthaus.

A small beer garden full of diners enjoying a spring evening greeted us as we arrived. Inside, the restaurant is large, decorated in German style.

The dinner menu features several appetizers, numerous entrees, soups and salads, and a wide selection of beers (I opted for a Paulaner Hefe Weiss beer).

I opted for the Gasthaus Platter as an opportunity to sample several items, and I was not disappointed. My platter offered Rouladen – a stuffed beef roll, a long, thin smoked sausage with spicy mustard, Wiener schnitzel, spatzle – a German noodle, sauerkraut and red cabbage. It was all quite delicious. My dining companion chose filet mignon on a bed of asparagus.

The dessert menu featured apple strudel, black forest torte, and cheesecake. I was surprised to see Bienenstich, a sweet custard filled pastry topped with almonds and honey, on the dessert menu. It’s always been one of my favorite pastries since my first visit to Germany in 1989. I loved picking one up at a pastry shop in the middle of the afternoon. The Weissgerber version was a little different than I remembered, but quite tasty nonetheless.

Overall, it was a nice reminder of the time I've spent in Germany.