By Michele Grgas Thomas
In recent years, I've often traveled for business or to visit friends and family, but I can't remember the last time I've gone somewhere just for the sake of going.
The vacation we took last week was like that. Rick and I decided we wanted to take a train ride and we needed to use the Fairmont Hotel gift certificate a friend gave us a couple of years ago. That was it.
Once we agreed on a week when we both could go, I made reservations aboard Amtrak to Vancouver, British Columbia. There are three Fairmont Hotels there. I chose the historic Hotel Vancouver, built in 1939 and located in the heart of downtown.
We drove from Crescent City to Eugene, Ore., to catch a train to Seattle. There were no lines, no hassles at the station. We checked our bags and boarded the business class car a nice upgrade that costs just a few dollars more and earns you a $3 coupon to use in the dining car.
We arrived in Seattle at noon. The Amtrak station is just a few blocks from the Best Western Pioneer Square, a quaint four-story hotel located within walking distance of all the landmarks of Pioneer Square including The Elliot Bay Book Company. Between lunch and dinner at different Italian restaurants within a block of the hotel, we stocked up on reading material for the next day's train ride to Vancouver.
From Seattle, the tracks run along the edge of Puget Sound. During the four-hour ride the views were stunning. We saw fall colors reflected in the water where herons, geese and ducks congregated. We rode through towns, past moorages and waterfront parks. The train slowly climbed a bridge and crossed over the Fraser River into Vancouver before it pulled into the station where we quickly cleared immigration and customs.
We took a cab downtown and were amazed at the construction in progress. "The Olympics," the driver explained. Vancouver is ramping up to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and sparing no expense to ensure efficient public transportation from the airport and sufficient infrastructure to support the millions of guests they expect.
Anticipation of the Olympics was everywhere. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is across the street from the Vancouver Art Gallery. In the plaza adjacent to the gallery there's a giant "official" clock counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the games begin.
Rich in history and classic in stature, the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver certainly has the pedigree to be a snooty establishment if it wanted to be. I was prepared for a sophisticated reception. But the first thing I noticed as we walked through the lobby was a dog bed on the floor next to the concierge. Two yellow Labs in brown uniforms sauntered out from behind the counter to greet us. We discovered that the Fairmont's friendly and loveable pets are official members of the hospitality staff, available even to accompany guests on walks! Mavis and Beau were well behaved and welcoming. It felt just like home having a couple of dogs to pet.
We never strayed very far from the hotel. A block away, on Robson Street, we discovered a French caf that became our favorite breakfast spot. A large hot crepe filled with homemade jam (and served with peanut butter on the side) was delicious and just $3.95. After breakfast, we walked. We window-shopped and occasionally went into a store, but we had no destination. Eventually we retreated back to the comfort of our hotel room.
We watched the Obama-McCain debate in our room, and found it very interesting that the next morning's newspaper buried the story on page 12. It was obvious from the headlines that Canadians were far more interested in the state of their economy and their own federal elections than our presidential election. It was a breath of fresh air.
Our train didn't leave Vancouver until 5:45 p.m. Our last day in Vancouver was as sunny as the rest. We strolled down Robson Street, ate our crepes, visited the Art Gallery and bought Olympic T-shirts for the kids at the Hudson Bay Company, a department store with roots going back to 1670. The sales clerk offered us a 15 percent discount for being foreigners and another 15 percent for being seniors!
When we boarded the evening train in Vancouver, we reversed our journey. We would spend that night in Seattle at the same Pioneer Square hotel and have enough time the next day to shop for more books. Along the way we bought deli sandwiches and hot chocolate chip cookies for a picnic on our final train ride to Eugene.
Since we've been home, people have asked if I went here or went there. Stanley Park? No. Granville Island? No. Gastown? No. Not this trip. This trip we just went. I must have seen something, though, because I took over 150 pictures!
Curious about cost? Our round-trip fare, Eugene to Vancouver, with business class upgrades and senior and AAA discounts, was under $250 apiece. The exchange rate while we were there was even an American dollar equalled a Canadian dollar. There certainly are many hotels more modestly priced than the Fairmont, but I can't guarantee they'll come with hospitable hounds.