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!

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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.

Toronto day 2: Tim Hortons and the Eaton Centre

Toronto has spectacular shopping. After months of not buying anything I walked into the Eaton Centre and wanted to buy everything! Its huge and super modern.

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I managed to restrain myself to a pair of $10 Jeans from Forever 21 (I can’t believe how cheap they were!), a pair of weather appropriate shoes and the vinyasa scarf from Lululemon. Lulu is still expensive here but the prices in Canadian dollars are the same as pounds so I paid $54 here for a scarf that back home is about £54. Bargain! I also love the thing, it’s a snood but the ends button together so you can use it as a towel, blanket or shawl as well. I’m so happy with it. Also, the shop assistants here are much friendlier than at home. The girl in hmv (they still have it here, it’s amazing!) chatted about her favourite record shops and recommended a good coffee shop, and the guy in lululemon chatted for ages even though I decided not to buy their yoga mat.

I intended to go to the cinema, which is a bit cheaper here than home, but spent so long shopping I missed it! Instead I decided to try Tim Hortons, a chain of coffee shops started by a famous Canadian hockey player. They sold me a fancy tea (orange pekoe) with the perfect amount of milk plus a cream cheese bagel for $3.50. I’ve decided to ditch my love of Starbucks and make Tim Hortons my faceless chain of choice!

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Afterwards I headed to a yoga class. It was ok but although billed as advanced was the equivalent of a strong level 1 class at home so I left disappointed.

Back at the hostel I checked the election really progress and chatted for a bit. There’s a nice mixture of people here. Some are living here while looking for a job and some are Canadians using the hostel instead of a hotel on short breaks. I wasn’t looking forward to going to bed as my dorm has a snorer. I was hoping to fall asleep before he got back but he’d decided to take an early night argh! I eventually managed to sleep with the help of some new earplugs and comforted myself with the duvet provided by the hostel. Its so long since I’ve had/needed anything other than a thin sheet to sleep under I’d forgotten how great duvets are!

Toronto day 1: I love it here!

My hostel is Planet Traveller which is in the Kensington Market area of Toronto. I chose it based purely on its good reviews and inclusive breakfast, fully expecting it to be in a mangy area. Happily, it must definitely is not! To give a feeling for the area, it’s like they picked up all the most beautiful shops and the coolest restaurants in London, placed them next to each other in a roughly 30 minute walk maximum radius circle around the hostel, and cut about 40% off the price. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many things I wanted to eat and buy in such a small area. Here’s a taste of where I’ve been today.

Kensington market

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$10 (about £5.50) for a huge salad including a drink, taxes and tip. $10!!!!!! I can’t believe it!

China town

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General foodie awesomeness

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An all bacon burger! How has this not happened in England yet?!?

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Queen Street West

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So yes, my hostel is 3 times the price I paid in Nicaragua but I can walk everywhere, there’s plenty to do for free, the temperature is barable and the hostel not only includes breakfast until 1pm, the staff are super nice and they have new macs for guests to use!

So now I’m going back to actually enjoying sitting outside for the first time in 2 months and contemplating getting frozen yoghurt. Hasta luego!