Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Nice Place to Live, But I Wouldn't Want to Visit There

After a day off from touristic pursuits (to do laundry, shop and watch a soccer match on TV), we took a day trip up to Vancouver, British Columbia. We drove inland to the border crossing north of Lynden, Washington (where there was no delay to get across) and went by the set of the current television show "Bates Motel," which airs on some cable channel. (We had thought it was the set of the movie Psycho when we planned the excursion, not having carefully read the place description on line.) Then we headed into the city.

Let me pause here for a brief product review. Our anemic rented Nissan Rogue comes with a GPS Navigation system proprietary to Hertz Car Rental. I would not have thought it possible that I could be persuaded that the ancient first-gen navigator on my own convertible was anything but the most annoying and tedious piece of vintage technology. Now I know better. Hertz's "NeverLost" machine, like my ancient navigator, seems not to know about many roads built in the last 15 years. My machine has the excuse that its information comes to it on old DVDs; but Hertz's is constantly updated. (We know this because every now and then it would announce that it has been updated.) 

Hertz's NeverLost device is slow to respond to input on its touchscreen. You put in a letter (having to spell everything) and it registers, but you don't know that it registers so you put it in again, and then it responds. Twice. So you have to back up. That usually involves starting over. Sometimes you touch one character and it registers a different one; and you have to back up. Or start over. And even more irritating is that the device will not allow you to orient the map with north at the top (unless you zoom out so far as to make the map pointless); it insists on having the direction of travel at the top, so the map is always rotating and you can't tell at a glance if you're going the way you want (and many times, you aren't). Most irritating of all is that the machine won't simply show you a map of where you are; it will only show programmed routes. Given the slowness of the machine, and its failure to deal well with missed turns and changed plans, it is all but useless in tight city driving; of which there is plenty in a place like Vancouver. 

(I also get irked at the crass commerciality of the system. It takes a long time to come on every time you start the car, at least in part so that it can give you options of finding "Popular Chains" -- outlets for companies that have paid Hertz for advertising; and its "Explore" option lists only the few half-assed tourist destinations that, similarly, have paid for the privilege of being represented. If Hertz had its customers' interests anywhere in the forward part of its collective corporate mind, it would at least show the destinations clients might actually want to explore ... like Stanley Park or the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. But there's no direct money in customer satifaction, is there?)

Vancouver skyline
After a long (and unnecessary) wander through city streets (thanks to the NeverLost Navigator's inexplicable routings), we finally gave up on technology and just went to the freeway into Vancouver. Our first stop was Queen Elizabeth Gardens, which occupy the highest point in Vancouver and have both beautiful landscaping and excellent views over the city. We spent the better part of an hour up there, then drove into the heart of the city. (Using printed maps for navigation, we got where we wanted to go with only the normal traffic troubles.) By this time we all wanted lunch, so we parked on a sidestreet near a corner where we were offered the choices of Greek, Thai, Vietnamese and Irish-Pub cuisines. We did not choose wisely. The first three were all storefronts, mom-and-pop places; the Irish Pub, Cieli's, was large and a little upscale, just to the point of being flashy. We chose the Irish Pub, part (it turns out) of a chain of such places.

The bartender greeted us cheerfully, and then was never seen again. It being another gorgeous day, we wanted to sit outside, but they only had two-tops there, so we pulled up to a high table just inside the wide open doors. Naturally there were televisions all over the place, so we couldn't entirely avoid watching; but at least they were showing British sports, such as you might have to see in an Irish prison: darts on one screen, golf on the other. (Darts, it seems, is as abstruse as cricket. Scores seem to go up and down at random, and we couldn't tell just by watching whether a throw was good, or otherwise.) Our waitress brought menus and drinks quickly. So far, so good.

The menu includes such overpriced traditional Irish fare as sliders, flatbreads and nachos. These are the things we ordered. (As Hispanics have moved farther and farther north, I have more or less rescinded my rule against eating Mexican food north of Round Rock, but then, this wasn't really Mexican food. Let's call it cucina-inspired.) Church Lady and the Perfesser both went for the pulled-pork sliders. They report that the little burgers had good flavour but not a particularly good texture, neither moist nor dry, just vaguely unsatisfying: too little meat, too little slaw, too much bread.  "Disappointing" was the word used twice.

Buttermilk's flatbread was better. It had a topping of pulled pork with pineapple salsa and jalapeños on a crispy layer of bread. The topping was adequate in quantity, though more meat would have been unobjectionable, and the crust maintained its integrity throughout the meal.

My nachos were interesting. They were made from a number of small tortillas, cut in half and fried, then stacked in a jumble on a plate. Toppings of meat (pulled pork again), corn, onions, peppers and jalapeños were scattered across it, then dosed with a drizzle of sour cream. The menu referred to "lots of cheese" on the dish. There was, arguably, the promised amount of cheese, but it was mostly in one part of the plate, as though the arm doing the scattering of ingredients had tired towards the end and just abandoned the effort. Because of the interlacing of the nacho chips, the dish was a little hard to eat, but that produced the rare yet desireable result of allowing me to finish lunch after the Perfesser, who is reknowned for his deliberate approach to meals.

What does that mean?
We almost didn't learn any of this about the food at Cielli's, because the service was so very bad. (I was reminded of a rude comment of a friend, years ago in Mexico, who told a waiter that we had received lo mas pinche servicio. It would have applied here, but we were all too polite to express ourselves except through the gratuity. We did not get our food before we had reached the point of calculating how much we should leave for the drinks if we walked out. It was easily a half hour between ordering and serving, during which time we learned nothing about darts scoring either. It would have helped our mood, to say nothing of the tip, if our waitress had come by to check on us during that long wait, or to let us know there would be a delay. Instead, she studiously avoided so much as looking in our direction; she devoted herself to the farther sides of the room, the exterior tables, and the areas behind the kitchen door. She was not a good waitress.
Ceili's Modern Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

pretty building, not much inside
After lunch came another disappointment: we went to the MacMillan Space Center. At ten bucks a head (the senior rate) for the admission, plus $5.75 a head for the planetarium show, we were expecting significantly more. But then, we're all grown-ups, and this place is clearly aimed at ten-year-olds with a reasonable vocabulary; a fact we think should have been mentioned in the descriptions on line and in our guidebooks. The exhibit halls, which are not extensive, contain some photographs and video recordings relating to space flight, along with a number of hands-on exhibits that have suffered much from having too many hands on. 

The planetarium show was just okay. The people behind it seem to be too enthralled with their new equipment to consider in any depth what people, especially grown people such as their audience, might like to see; and the gradeschool questions thrown out for the audience ("What do you know about Mars?") were tired and uninteresting, as well as being largely ignored by the sparse crowd. (I finally started responding just to get the show moving.) 

We went from there out to Stanley Park. Let me tell you, Vancouver is not a city with a happy relationship with cars. At 3:00 on a weekday, you expect a certain amount of traffic in the center of any large city, but Vancouver has given itself over entirely to pedestrians and bicycles, to the point where lines of cars waiting to turn right -- right, mind you -- stretch back for blocks, because only one car can get through the throng of the crosswalks on each signal's cycle. They seem also to randomly select streets to serve as pedestrian malls. In the end it took us about 45 minutes to go the 4 1/2 kilometers (2 1/2 miles) from the space place to Stanley Park. 

Stanley Park is huge, and popular with locals. For tourists, it's not so great. It's so big that you can't walk from one part to another without repeatedly paying the typical exorbitant parking rates. It's so poorly marked that we didn't find the many sites we had wanted to see there, settling in the end for the wildlife of the Lost Lagoon (which we found right off; I guess it's only lost because nobody's looking for it, and I understand why), consisting of lots of racoons and ducks, a few other birds, a squirrel and -- surprisingly -- a coyote; all of whom seemed to want to be fed (except, thankfully, the coyote, which was happy to just chew on himself); and the waterfront view of the Lions Gate Bridge, mainly of interest for the forest of kelp floating along the shore. On our way out of the park, we passed Sunset Beach, which we had intended to visit later on because our guidebook called it "a less populated beach." That must mean it is less crowded than Times Square on New Year's Eve, because it was packed four hours before sunset. We quietly dropped that plan and headed on to Canada Place, which was mildly interesting and slightly informative with its postings on Canadian history; and we drove by the Gastown Steam Clock --- it was too congested to stop, but we got a good long look and a decent picture out the car window while waiting for crosstraffic; we had a stop sign, they didn't.

From there we headed up to Lynn Canyon, a public park on the far side of the Burrard Inlet, in North Vancouver. We spent a happy couple of hours traipsing up and down the trails and across the suspension bridge rigged over the creek.

By then it was time for dinner. I had located -- on, a trip-planning website that I heartily recommend -- a strip of local shops, clubs and restaurants on Commercial Drive, and we headed down there, parked, and explored the area on foot. It is, as described, a collection of funky bars and clubs, many with live music; ethnic restaurants; and shops featuring all manner of oddities. As the neighbourhood evolved from Italian to ethno-mix, big chains have made some unwelcome inroads; there's a Starbucks and a Tim Horton's, and more necessary installations like banks and pharmacies. But it still maintains a unique localist vibe that we enjoyed experiencing, even so briefly. We chose an Italian restaurant called Arriva, which had a sort of faded-glory feel overall. The service was on the Little-Italy-New-Yawk model: cadre-style, professional and just a little sassy. It was good for the most part, but one of the three servers seemed to have acquired the knack of appearing to give good service while not actually doing anything. When we asked for another basket of bread his response was, "Absolutely, but it'll be just a moment." It never came, until we asked another server for the same thing. (His response was, "Absolutely. Immediately." And he brought it.) The food came quickly enough to please us (especially after the godawful service we'd had at lunch; see above) and we tucked into spinach tortellini, sole florentine, and ravioli. 

What does that mean?
I didn't try the ravioli, so I can only say that it reportedly was very good. I did try the tortellini alla panna and can confirm that it was excellently made, robust and excellently seasoned with a rich cream sauce. I had the sole florentine, one of the day's specials: a filet of sole cooked in white wine until just the slightest crispiness began to form along the edge, then topped with spinach wilted with sautéed garlic in a white wine reduction. It was nicely presented with roasted potato quarters and crunchy-crisp sautéed vegetables. A glass of house white wine was an excellent accompaniment. Really, the only thing about the food that was the least bit below standard was that bread, a reasonably fresh focaccia with a lightly oiled texture on top but just the slightest dryness overall. Hardly worth mentioning, but I can't resist grousing about something. Not entirely.
Arriva Ristorante Italiano on Urbanspoon

What's that mean?
We followed this up with a stop for gelati at Caffe Calabria, which calls itself the oldest Italian cafe in Vancouver. Who knows? Who cares. What I know is it has a tremendous display of Italian deli items, gelati, and baked goods. Oh, the baked goods! How hard was it to resist those! But I did, and settled for a double-scoop of the gelato tornado, which the counter clerk thought of as being like cotton candy. Other than being very sweet, it was nothing like cotton candy. It was indescribable. It was fabulous. It was rich, and luscious; it was the Jennifer Lawrence of gelato. (The Tiger Tiger, an orange and licorice flavour, was also very good, and that from someone who doesn't like licorice.) The gelati at Caffe Calabria have the additional distinction of being just about the only thing we found in all of Vancouver that we didn't consider overpriced.
Caffe Calabria on Urbanspoon

In the end, our day in Vancouver was nice, putting aside the delay getting back across the border at Blaine. But the high prices, the heavy traffic congestion, the difficulty in getting around in the central part of town make me confident that I'm unlikely to ever return. The border-crossing issues all but ensures that.

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