Canada and USA 2016: Seattle part 2

The rest of our time in Seattle as a combination of enjoying relaxing in beautiful ballard and exploring downtown. Here are the highlights:

Ballard farmers market

Held on Sunday morning and pleasantly untouristed. We walked around in the rain (very glad of our ski jackets!) then stopped for food. Ben was very happy with his hot dog and I enjoyed my tamale which came with lots of colourful vegetables.

Locks and botanic garden

We walked about 20 minutes from the farmers market to the locks and got lucky that there were boats going through. It was so interesting to evesdrop on a tour guide on one if the boats talking about how the locks worked. We also wondered round the botanic gardens next door. They were very pretty and would be lovely for a non-rainy day.

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Greenlake

I ran from our apartment to Greenlake on our first morning, and what a lovely run it was. The lake has a well maintained and well used path circling it and you can complete a nice flat 5k without too much trouble. It would also be nice for a walk.

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Beneath the streets

This was a great tour of Seattle’s underground tunnels with a lively history of the city thrown in for good measure. Neither of us are tour people, we’re too easily bored and want to go out own way, which means this must have been excellent as the hour flew by! At only $10 each (including fees) bought through groupon this was a steal. I would have been happy to pay full price for the quality of the tour.

The cheesecake factory

Had to be done. I’ve never experienced anything in the uk that compares to the breath and quality of food here combined with great service. I’d only been once before, a few years ago on Chicago and we got so full on the massive appetisers so I was keen to revisit it with Ben! I ordered the chicken lettuce wraps which were fresh and tasty, Ben ordered the mac and cheese burger which was probably awful healthwise but so tasty! The mac and cheese was deep fried and sandwiched in top of the burger patty. Yum! We also had a slice of cookie dough cheesecake. I’m glad I’ve finally tried it but never feel the need to try it again – so rich and sickly but addictive which led to slight nausea.

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University of Washington

We spent an afternoon wandering around here which was lovely. Its all gothic style buildings and cherry blossom. Definitely with a visit. We also visited a nearby cafe that only sold biscuits (I can’t remember the name but it will for sure come up if you Google it) which was tasty. Also a weird experience for Ben and I as we were really obviously surrounded by students and it’s been a long time since guys stage if our lives!

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And then we were finished in Seattle 😦

We took the bus then the light rail to the airport. Having not had much luck with Seattle public transport we left an hour and a half more than we needed to get to the airport. Happily it wasn’t needed and everything went smoothly. A mention here to Alaska air who flew us to our next destination of Las Vegas. The flight went really smoothly and the customer service was great. They even included a free soft drink. Very pleased!

Canada and USA 2016: soccer in Seattle

Although I don’t understand enough about football (meaning English football or soccer) I love the atmosphere of a live game so jumped at the chance to see the Seattle Sounders play. Tickets were a steal at $30 each!

The stadium is downtown near King Street station and purpose built with wide corridors for entry and plenty of parking right beside it, an immediate plus for being much easier to get to and enter than a London ground. If you feel like it you can meet the home fans an hour before the match in Pioneer Square and walk to the stadium with them. We took a look but there weren’t many people there so we felt a bit awkward and went on alone!

Finding our seats was a little tricky as they were right up top with their own entrance, but we loved the customer service from the stewards. Soccer here seems to have a much more family focus and in stark contrast to the scary security guard types you often find at London games, the stewards seemed to be a friendly bunch of retiree soccer fans who were happy to be there and keen for us to have a great time.

On finding our seats we still had an hour to kill until kick off so spent some time admiring the great views over Seattle from the top of the stadium.

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Another couple of things we noticed at this point:
1) it’s fine to take beer into the stands (all be it you can only buy two at a time per person before half time and one after). In the uk there is strictly no alcohol allowed in the stands and the blinds of the boxes where you can drink have to be closed so as not to inflame the crowd through their being able to see the booze. It was a good indication of a much better behaved crowd.
2) there were lots of signs warning against obscenities and we didn’t hear anyone swear. It was a pretty wholesome atmosphere and seemed suitable for young children.

The hype at the start of the game was long! I enjoyed it, Ben could have done without it. There were performance of both teams national anthems, fire works, pitch based chat and presumably assume other things I’ve forgotten as it lasted a good 20 minutes! When play kicked off we saw the next big difference to the atmosphere at an English game: the crowd was largely silent until prompted by the must energetic hype guy I could imagine. Basically one area of the crowd seemed to be designated for people who wanted to chant and rather than it happening organically the hype guy would tell then when to start and sing along with them from a mic. Watching it was seriously impressive and at some points almost like watching a Zumba class as he had crowd jumping and waving their arms. It looked exhausting! The pic below shows the flags in this area but doesn’t do justice to the full spectacle!

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The game itself was fun to watch although sadly seattle lost. It was also really easy to get out. None of the hour long queues along congested London pavements not designed to cope with the volume of the crowds. We were out and in our bus a few blocks away within half an hour of leaving out seats.

All in all a great fun way to spend an evening!

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Canada and USA 2016: Seattle part 1

Having arrived in Seattle on time at 11am with Amtrak our lovely Airbnb host picked us up at King Street station, drove our suitcases home for us and dropped us off at Pike Place market. The market is really cool with lots of places to eat and stalls selling unique art, jewellery and a lot of fresh fish in between. I saw so many things I wanted to buy but our already very full and heavy suitcases (perhaps fortunately given we want to buy a house) put a stop to that. We didn’t last long as it was Saturday and therefore so busy we could barely move but it was definitely worth a visit.

We stopped for lunch at the Crumpet shop where I had the egg with smoked salmon cream cheese and Ben got marmite and cheese. If you’re British this place probably won’t blow your mind unless you’ve been an expat for a while in which case it might – the crumpets are a perfect replica of the normal (not the basics or finest) ones in sainsbury or tesco. If you’ve never had a crumpet before then this is a perfect place to try one for that reason. They also do sweet options with almond butter, ricotta, marmalade and various other toppings which I would have liked to try but was too full!

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Having finished there we walked up to the Space Needle. At this point I’ll discuss transport options. We loved Seattle but the public transport was not great and struck me as expensive for what you get – a bus journey is minimum $2.50 and you have to pay again if you transfer to the metro or monorail. A day pass is $8. We paid $5 for the stored value Orca card thinking it would be better value. We quickly found out that it isn’t! The fares are the same as cash and the advantage of bit having to have exact change was quickly lost when we realised there is a $5 minimum top up, you have to go to a safeway or metro station (neither of which are easily find) to top up or you have to wait 24-48 hours for credit to be added if you buy online. Coverage isn’t great and services aren’t frequent. For that reason we walked most of the time in downtown. This might not work for you as it’s pretty spread out (the space needle is a mile or so from Pike Place) in which case Uber seems pretty easy and inexpensive option especially as there is free wifi or a starbucks you can lurk by almost everywhere block.

Anyway, back to the space needle. Being Saturday it was very busy so we decided not to go up but admired it from below.

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Right next to it is the Seattle centre which houses several museums, gardens and an epic fountain. Its a nice place to spend an afternoon and we enjoyed watching the fountain in action.

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That done we headed to the EPM museum which was highly recommended by a friend. It was great! The focus is pop culture and there are areas for fantasy, horror, indie games, the band nirvana and several others. We spent the afternoon there with a starbucks break in the middle and neither of us got bored which is a huge achievement as we both struggle to pay attention to this kind of thing. The entry price is a little steep at $25 or around £18 buy I get the impression this is about standard for museums out here. It also included a conveniently located coat check right by the cash desk which was awesome.

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After that it was time to head back into town to catch a live soccer match which I’ll talk about in a separate post as it was quite a different experience to one in the UK.

Canada and USA 2016: Amtrak from Vancouver to Seattle

We had a few options open to us including driving, flying and a bus ride  for this journey but rejected them all in favour of taking the train. I love the idea of train travel and with advance booking (we booked around 10 weeks ahead) our tickets for the four and a half hour journey were a steal at around $20US each.

We took train 513 which left Vancouver at 6.30am. We arrived at the station by taxi at 5.30am which our guesthouse owner felt was far too early but being totally risk adverse we were glad we did. Not least because our driver didn’t know where the amtrak station was and we didn’t know what it was called. Luckily I’d kept an emergency map on the screen of my phone! It doesn’t say the name on the eticket but it’s Pacific Central station. That should help avoid a similar situation.

Anyway, our taxi from waterfront took about 5 minutes at that time of day so we still arrived in good time. On arrival the first thing you’ll see right in front of the main entrance is a table with US customs forms. In an unexpectedly lovely gesture pens shaped like flowers are provided for travellers to fill in the forms.

Once you’re done with that you head on to the coach (or business class if you went for that) check in desk where the conductor allocates your seats. This was the start of what continued to be amazing customer service throughout the journey. The conductors went it off their way to be friendly and welcoming and just created a really nice vibe for the ride. We asked for and were given seats on the coastal side as we’d heard it was beautiful.

Next up we went through US immigration which was fine. The only blip was being charged $6 each for “I94”. We asked what this was but the border agent wasn’t forthcoming. We remain confused as we both had our ESTA. If anyone knows please feel free to comment!

Anyway, the process was quick and easy and we then found ourselves at baggage check. You’re allowed one carry on and one 50lb checked bag each. In keeping with the great customer service they weren’t fastidious about this. I checked a 51lb bag and travelled with two small carry ons rather than one large.

That done, it was on to the train. We found our coach seats very comfortable for the duration of the trip with plenty of legroom. I didn’t take pictures but they were leather upholstered, clean and seemed fairly new. They also had working power sockets and decent free wifi (capable of trip planning and minor instagram, not netflix). The driving cab of the train itself was a shock to our British eyes. It was massive! Maybe because we’re used to boarding from a platform but here we were alongside the rails? It was cool anyway!

We set off around 20 minutes late but this wasn’t a problem as the train made it back over the journey. After a brief nap while we left Vancouver it was time to enjoy the views which were, as reported, absolutely incredible the whole way.

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The conductor informed us well ahead of time that there would be a check when we crossed the US border about an hour in. The whole process was quick and easy. You wait in your seats from the time the border agents board to when they leave, they walk by, check your passports and collect the customs card you filled in earlier. If you ticked that you have food they asked what it was but we didn’t see anything get confiscated (it seems like the only thing that’s an issue is fresh fruit which you’re asked not to take on board).

That done, the train moved on and we checked out the bistro car. I’d bought snacks with me so didn’t eat but it was reasonably priced by European standards. My tea cost  $2 and Ben has a breakfast bagel for $5. He did say it wasn’t very nice but that it was an understandable consequence of train food. They also provide free water and I was impressed that the oatmeal is fresh rather than the instant pots you’d likely find at home.

We ate in the lounge car which was really spacious and a great place to go if you were unlucky with the view from your seat or the people sitting around you.

After that it was back to our seats to watch the world go by for the last couple of hours. I am really not good a doing this kind of thing for more than an hour but on this trip it was easy. The scenery as so unbroken and spectacular the whole way. The sense of space in the US and Canada compared to the UK is just unreal. Also, one if the conductors was a bit of a comedian which added to the experience.

In arrival in Seattle the checked baggage is unloaded airport style. You get off the train, go into the station and on your right you’ll see a baggage room with a carousel. After about 10 minutes the bags arrived and you’re done! As a bonus, Seattle King Street station is gorgeous.

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A great way to finish the journey. So in conclusion this was easily the most amazing, best value train trip I’ve ever taken. Not to mention clearing US customs was so much less stressful than at the airport. I can’t wait to plan another trip, maybe San Francisco to LA this time!

Canada and USA 2016: Vancouver

We had two days in Vancouver between skiing in Whistler and taking the train on to Seattle. We booked Urban Hideaway guesthouse through hostelbookers on a whim because hotels were pretty expensive and I fancied a couple if nights somewhere with a bit of personality. It was a great decision, Patrick (the owner) listened to what we’re into and gave us recommendations on what to do without being overly intrusive. He really helped us make the best of our time.

Day one: cycling Stanley park

On Patrick’s advice we walked down Robson to Denman street and picked up a couple of bikes. You’re spoiled for choice when you get there, it’s just a case of scoping out the best rates. Don’t do what we did and forget your credit card – most places want you to leave it as a guarantee so we were limited to the place that would take our driving licenses instead. The bikes seemed a similar standard in all the shops and we paid $5/hour per person capped at $20/day. The cheapest we saw was $3.75/day and $15 cap which we couldn’t take advantage of because of the credit card situation. The bikes…… weren’t great. 3 gears on mine, 8 on Ben’s and zero suspension. Fine for a couple if hours round the park, bone shaking on anything gravelly and a nightmare up hills. They’re fine for the park though so don’t let that put you off.

We spent the next couple of hours cycling. We started off riding the perimeter of Stanley park enjoying the scenery. Expect slow cyclists on the path but don’t worry, going fast would be a total waste of the scenery.

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On Patrick’s advice we took a left off the sea wall onto Tatlow walk which took us through the forest. Due to the aforementioned limitations of the bikes this involved pushing them up a steep gravelly hill at first, however we were rewarded with a nice downhill and complete tranquility among the trees. With noone else around we could fully appreciate the beauty of the forest and the quirks of individual trees.

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We finished our route by cycling all the way up round False Creek then back to the rental shop. It was a great way to get a feel for the city and the cycle lane was unbroken the whole way. Amazing coming from the traumas I’d cycling in London!

We ended by walking up to English bay to watch the sunset which was pretty spectacular.

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Day 2: hiking Lynn canyon

After filling up in the make your own breakfast at the guesthouse we again took Patrick’s advice and took the sea bus from waterfront station just a couple if blocks away to North Vancouver. The sea bus itself was a cool thing to do, giving a great view if the city. On the other side we took a quick look around the food market by the port and picked up baked goods to eat for lunch on our hike. We then hopped on the 229 bus which took us almost all the way to the canyon (we could have taken the 228 the whole way but got impatient) and walked the last 15 minutes to the visitor centre. The canyon itself is a huge network of trails that take you around rivers and lakes with spectacular views. As we were meeting my friend for coffee mid afternoon we only had time for the relatively short (about 4km) trail to Rice Lake. It was definitely worth while, we hardly saw anyone and the surface of the lake was totally still. A lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

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After that we headed to the Vancouver branch of Purebread for the aforementioned coffee then headed back to pack ahead of our early wake up for the train to Seattle the next morning.

Canada and USA 2016: Whistler skiing

Our trip started when we landed in Vancouver late Friday evening. Getting out of the airport was an up and down experience. Immigration was super fast but baggage took ages and we waited 45 minutes in the rain for our airport hotel shuttle and another 15 in line for hotel check inn. We stayed at the Days Inn and while our room was very comfortable and service friendly, the long wait made it pretty stressful after a 10 hour flight. Next time we would take the sky train which has a station right outside the airport and another a 5 minute walk from the hotel. It costs about $2 each, much cheaper than the $20 we were quoted for a taxi!

Next morning we had our first success of the trip. After a 30 minute journey into town we hopped on the Epic Rides shuttle to Whistler. At $35 per person for a return trip this is around a quarter of the price of the airport shuttle and from what I’ve read doesn’t take much longer as it goes directly to Whistler without the airport pick ups made by the bus that goes direct from the airport. Service was friendly and we were in Whistler on time in around 1 hour 30 mins. Definitely recommended!

In Whistler we stayed at the Alpenglow. This was pretty much the only thing left when I booked but we were really pleased with it. For around £70 a night (for 2) we had a decent sized studio with kitchenette and an awesome view of the mountains. Not to mention it’s a 10 minute walk from the main transit up the mountain, has a built in yoga studio and is right next to several of the top rated restaurants in Whistler!

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Our first afternoon was spent picking up vouchers for our prebooked skiing lessons and getting fitted for rental gear. If you go I would definitely recommend doing this the night before as you get served really fast and can check your skis and poles into the the storage room by the gondola free of charge if you rent from a resort store.

We went for the 3 for 2 max4 lesson deal which gave us 3 days of lessons, lift pass and rental for around £250 each. Never having skied before we initially shuddered at this but having looked at other resorts since and based on our experience I can confidently say this was great value. Our instructors were really friendly and we made so much progress over the 3 days, heading straight out onto the slopes in our fourth day. We found the food and drink available on the mountain surprisingly affordable with a hot meal (decent portion) coming in between $10-$15 Canadian. Water is provided for free so no need to buy expensive bottles.

We chose to ski solo on our fourth day. If you do decide to add on a day lay minute, you can buy a ski pass online by automatically topping up your rfid card (given to you at the start of your trip and worn in a left hand pocket to automatically open lift gates) for $109 compared to $129 at the window. You can also secure online discounted prices for rentals up to the night before by calling the reservation line. You’re probably in for a slightly painful time on hold but it’s worth it given you have to book online 3 days before the get the discount.

We also went for the $20 add on for the Fresh Tracks breakfast which let’s you board the gondola from 7.15 and includes a breakfast buffet. This was so worth it. For only £10 each we got a substantial breakfast and the chance to enjoy the hoards. A piece of advice – we arrived at 7 thinking we’d have plenty of time and there were already I’d say about 400 people in front. Enough anyway that we didn’t board a gondola until 7.45! The deal is limited to the first 650 so make sure not to leave it too late.

In terms of weather we’re told we were lucky to avoid rain but we had a lovely mix of snow and sunshine. We never got cold fingers and toes (helped by the little hand and toe warmers you can buy for a couple of dollars in many stores) and were often a little too warm with our multiple layers. We feel like we were truly spoiled for our first ski holiday!

We obviously aren’t experts on the runs but from what we saw the variety and scenery would make Whistler well worth the trip for any level of skier. We repeatedly skied Pony Trail then decided to venture up to the peak. We’re glad we did as even the lift itself is quite an experience. We didn’t expect to accidentally end up on not one but two blues while doing so which was a great adrenaline rush but kind of terrifying for our novice skills!

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One more thing to mention about skiing in whistler. … everyone was so friendly, from the rental guys to the lifties, the waiters and the great chats with had while riding chair lifts. It made it an extra special experience from beginning to end.