Saturday, February 28, 2009

Many forms of worship in Richmond, B.C.

I'm sure most of you who have been to Europe have done some part of the "famous old churches" circuit. Westminster Abbey? Been there. Notre-Dame? Seen it. Lovely as they are, once you've seen 10 of them, they all start to blur together a bit.

Another problem with some of Europe's historic churches is that they seem more like museums than places of worship. You get the sense that much of the life bled out of them centuries ago.

Not so in the temples, mosques and gurdwaras of Richmond, British Columbia, a booming Vancouver suburb. Since 60 per cent of the city's residents come from Asia, Richmond is awash in places of worship of every description. Many of these buildings--some quite grandiose--are far from museums. And, best of all, many are open to the public. On a recent trip to Richmond, I visited four of them with a group of other writers.

The most sedate of the four structures was the first stop, the Richmond Jamia Mosque. Signs all over the very plain building urge worshippers to turn off their cell phones, control their children and whisper. Quiet is clearly a high priority--not a bad idea at all in these noisy times.

There are also many signs urging mosque members not to bring old clothes and Korans and leave them at the mosque. I'm still trying to figure out the reason behind those notices. Is donating articles to mosques a Muslim custom? If anyone knows, please leave a comment below.

The next building on the agenda was the exuberant Nanaksar Gurdwara Gursikh Temple, a giant wedding cake of a place complete with an elephant statue out front.

Inside the richly adorned main hall, at least one worshipper reads from Sikhism's most holy book around the clock.

This stop included a tasty vegetarian lunch in the gurdwara's cavernous cafeteria, which serves food to any and all who come by (I met a dreadlocked man who stops by a couple of times a week just for the warm meal and the company).

The third and fourth stops were both enormous Buddhist temples. The highlights of our visit to the International Buddhist Temple--at least for me--were the chance to meditate quietly in the main Worship Hall and to stroll quietly through the magnificent courtyard.

And at the Lingyen Mountain Temple, stunning gardens were a restful way to end a whirlwind tour--a tour that gave me the most superficial of tastes, I know, of three rich traditions.

If you'd like to follow in my footsteps, a guide to Richmond's places of worship--Faith Communities, by Jon Henderson--is available from the Richmond Archives for C$18.

And if you're headed to Asia, check out this interesting guide to the temples of Macau.

Disclosure: My trip was partially subsidized by Tourism Richmond.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I've picked a contest winner

My book draw is now closed, and ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner! I did the random draw this morning, and Colengal will be receiving a copy of my book, Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel. Colengal, I will be e-mailing you privately to get your snail mail address.

Thanks so much to everyone who entered--all 75 of you! This was my first contest, and it was a lot of fun.

New York beyond Manhattan: Video

So you've been to the Empire State Building, seen the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gone to Carnegie Hall. But you've just scratched the surface of everything New York has to offer--Manhattan is just one borough, after all! This video by Peter Greenberg offers good tips on some offbeat things to see and do, the next time you're in New York City:

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Five tips for blending in with the locals

It's not easy being green, and it's not easy blending in with the locals when you're travelling, either--particularly if you're surrounded by a very different culture. But camouflaging yourself can have all sorts of benefits. You'll feel less conspicuous, so it will be easier to relax. You won't stand out as a target for pickpockets and scam artists. And you may have the chance to try out a different style--more conservative, more stylish or more casual--than you sport at home. Here are five tips for fading into the crowd.
  1. Cover up (unless you're in Sydney or South Beach). Like several of these tips, this one applies particularly to women (hey, I don't make up the rules; I just report them). In many locales--particularly the Middle East and parts of Asia--bare arms, bare heads, tank tops, short skirts and open-toed shoes are frowned on, if not banned completely. It never hurts to pack a scarf, no matter where you're travelling. (I regretted not having one in my purse during a recent trip to Richmond, B.C., when I visited a Sikh gurdwara where all visitors--male and female--were required to cover their heads.) And no matter where you go, bathing suits are rarely appropriate further than 20 metres from a body of water, unless you're still in nursery school.
  2. Speaking of scarves, make sure you bring one to France. It may be a cliché, but it's a true one: a beautiful scarf is most French women's most important fashion accessory. In Paris, at least, every female over the age of 14--from university students on bikes to elegant grandmothers walking equally elegant dogs--seems to sport one. But don't ask me how to tie one. Despite my best efforts, I always look like an oversized Girl Guide.
  3. Ditch the white running shoes. Sure, they're comfortable. But unless you're running the Boston Marathon, they're like a flashing sign saying "out of towner."
  4. Stow the camera. OK, you'll need to take it out to snap the photo, but try not to leave it hanging around your neck when you're not using it. In many cities, it's an open invitation to muggers.
  5. Leave the flags at home. You rarely see a Canadian flying a flag at home. But put a Canadian on an airplane, and he or she suddenly becomes more patriotic than Johnny Canuck (a genuine Great White North superhero, in case you're wondering). Suddenly, red-and-white maple leaves bloom on every lapel and backpack. It's OK to leave the flags at home, my fellow Canadians. Honestly. They'll know who we are as soon as we open our mouths and say "eh."
photo © Rob Partington for CC:Attribution-ShareAlike

Thursday, February 19, 2009

World's top 10 ferry rides

I've long been a fan of B.C. Ferries' scenic routes, ever since I took my first trip from Vancouver to Victoria (well, from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, if you want to get technical) over two decades ago. And my enthusiasm was rekindled earlier this month when I had the chance to hop aboard several ferries on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast. The scenery rivalled almost anything you'd see from the deck of a pricey cruise ship. Just check out this view along the route from Earl's Cove to Saltery Bay.

It turns out my fellow members of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) agree with me. The B.C. Ferries made SATW's new list of the world's top 10 ferry rides. Here's the whole list, in order of popularity.

1. Star Ferry in Hong Kong
2. Ferries from Sausalito to San Francisco, California
3. Staten Island Ferry, New York Harbour
4. Washington State Ferries, Puget Sound to the San Juan Islands
5. British Columbia Ferry System, including Vancouver to Victoria
6. Ferry from Sydney Harbour to Manly, Australia
This is the only other ferry on the list I've had the chance to try, and SATW was spot on with this choice. Here's a shot I snapped en route to Manly in late 2007.

And here's the gorgeous beach I found in Manly.

7. The Ferry System of the Greek Isles
8. The “Blue Canoes” of the Alaska State Ferry System
9. “Norway in a Nutshell” tour and ferry ride
10. Ferry from Mallaig to Isle of Skye, Scotland

I love ferries because they let you see much of the same scenery you'd pass on a tourist boat cruise, at a fraction of the cost and without the stupefyingly dull taped commentary. ("And on your right you'll see the [words lost due to static on ancient P.A. system], where local magnate Horace P. Bogardus once raised prize guinea fowl.") You also get the chance to rub shoulders with locals, backpackers and all sorts of other fun people. On some ferries, you might even find yourself camping on deck overnight. You can't travel much more like a local than that.

Disclosure: I travelled to Sydney courtesy of Tourism Australia and to British Columbia's Sunshine Coast courtesy of the Vancouver Coast & Mountains Tourism Region.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Canadian films take Manhattan

It's one of many weird things about the Great White North: we produce quite a few movies, but it can be devilishly hard to find them on Canadian movie screens. Mainly that's because every jumbo-plex has multiple screens devoted to the latest Hollywood action flick or slasher movie; partly it's because a disturbingly high percentage of Canuck flicks seem to involve dysfunctional families stuck in snowbound farmhouses.

As you know, I'm a big fan of absorbing lots of local culture when travelling. But for travellers hoping to steep themselves in Canadian film, one of the best places to do so in March will be, ironically, in New York City.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is giving a shout-out to Canadian filmmakers with the week-long film fest Canadian Front (March 18-23, 2009). I haven't heard of most of the new films being featured during the main festival (I tell you, our homegrown industry is almost invisible here). But in conjunction with the event, MoMA will also be showing the 2005 film C.R.A.Z.Y. It's one of my favourite Canuck flicks ever, and well worth your time. So, OK, it does feature a dysfunctional family. But at least they're not always shovelling snow.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Couchsurfing, Malta-style

The couchsurfing craze continues to spread, as this recent article from the Times of Malta shows: Want to become a couch-surfer?

The Maltese traveller profiled in the piece fits the usual couchsurfing stereotype--20-something, single and footloose--but he claims even families are jumping on the bandwagon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Booking a Japanese ryokan

Sadly, I haven't had the chance to stay in a Japanese ryokan (guesthouse) yet. With luck, I will in the future. In the meantime, I did stumble across an English-language website that handles bookings for ryokan across the country, It gets praise for good service in two reviews on Trip Advisor (even if the reviewers were less than complimentary about the actual accommodation).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Book giveaway: Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel

It all started when I began wondering where passports came from. I pitched every magazine editor I knew on a story about the history of passports, but no one--and I mean no one--was interested.

Fine, I thought. I'll broaden the concept and make it into a book.

The history of passports eventually became a chapter in my book Wanderlust: A Social History of Travel. The book also answers such burning questions as "Why did 1930s stewardesses carry wrenches?" (Answer: Because the planes' violent vibrations often shook loose the passenger seats, which were bolted to the floor.)

Back in the early days, just about all travellers "travelled like locals"--from the bureaucrat in ancient China who took 13 years to return from a government mission (partly because he married a local woman and started a family en route) to the medieval pilgrims who sought shelter in monasteries along the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Intrigued? Want to know more? Well, enter my contest and you can win a copy of Wanderlust. If you like, I'll even autograph it for you (although I should warn you that my handwriting is atrocious).

So how do you enter? Just leave a comment on this post--even just "count me in!" will do--before midnight Eastern Time on Saturday, February 21. If you like, include a question about the history of travel; I'll answer it if I can. I'll pick a winner randomly from among the respondents, then e-mail the winner privately to get your mailing address.

That's all there is to it! So start typing and send those comments my way.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Curry udon soup perfect welcome to Richmond, B.C.

I arrived in Richmond, B.C., this morning for a conference jet lagged and hungry. So after checking into the conference hotel, the River Rock Casino Resort, I asked the concierge in the casino where I could find some good Asian food within a short walk.

Even though the hotel lies on the edge of Richmond's "Golden Village"--the modern Chinatown that's a focal point for the 60 percent of Richmond's residents who trace their roots back to Asia--the concierge pointed me to one of the casino's restaurants. The last thing I wanted after five hours on an airplane was to sit in a windowless casino. I needed air, preferably with a side helping of local flavour.

No matter. As usual, Mapquest was a godsend. I found out that the Aberdeen Centre, a big Asian mall I'd glimpsed from my airplane window earlier that day, was just 1.6 kilometres away. I put on my walking shoes and headed out.

My route wasn't particularly scenic--much of it led under the newly constructed Canada Line (an elevated train), past car rental agencies and a huge Canadian Tire outlet. But within 20 minutes I reached the Aberdeen Centre, a bright, airy outpost of Asia in the shadow of Vancouver International Airport.

It looked like any other upscale Canadian mall, with its splashing fountains and three-storey atria, but few of the stores were familiar. There was Daiso, a popular Japanese discount store stuffed with Hello Kitty thermoses, plastic laundry baskets and colourful finger puppets. There was a huge selection of exotic-looking rice steamers at Pacific Houseware. There were two dried food stores selling ingredients I couldn't begin to identify.

But I was on a quest: to find a warm bowl of udon, the comforting Japanese soup filled with fat noodles. I'd had udon on the brain ever since I'd read a lovely article in The Globe and Mail last week about writer Laura Madokoro's search, on a recent visit to Japan, to find udon like her father used to make.

I followed my nose to the third-floor food court and there, amid joints selling congee and lemongrass chicken submarines and bubble tea, I found the object of my affection at Ajijiman: a huge, fragrant bowl of curry udon, rich with carrots, potatoes and onions, for the princely sum of $4. I even managed to eat most of it with chopsticks--not a bad feat for someone who has barely slept in the last few days. Too bad the one thing I forgot was my camera.

Disclosure: My trip was partially subsidized by Tourism Richmond.

Monday, February 2, 2009

25% off Paris apartments, which specializes in luxury apartment rentals in Paris, has just announced last-minute discounts of up to 25% on some of its properties. Most of the deals are valid February 1-15 and March 1-15, but there are a few available in late March. Many owners require a minimum stay of five days or a week. See the special offers section of the website for details.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Guess we’re coming to dinner in Amsterdam

My husband and I stood uncertainly on the front step of a tall, 17th-century canal house in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. We’d never done anything like this before, and we weren’t at all sure how it was going to turn out. We’d even come up with a signal we could use if one of us was ready to go home.

We took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

I know what you’re thinking. Get your minds out of the gutter, people. We might have been in the Red Light District, but we’d simply invited ourselves over to dinner with strangers. Given where we were, that seemed like a rather tame adventure.

Even so, we were nervous. Would we find anything to talk about? What would the food be like? Would it all be awkward?

A bit of explanation is probably in order. We’d arranged the dinner through Amsterdam-based Like-a-Local, which I’ve blogged about before. (See “Check out NYC indie bands with a local” and “New insider’s tour of Madrid.”) Among other things, the company helps travellers book dinners in private homes in a number of European cities.

Before leaving Canada, I’d scrolled through the firm's website and been drawn to the description of dinner with Paul and Lucie, a couple in their 60s. It mentioned that they had lovely African art that Paul had collected on his travels, and that he loved to cook traditional Dutch dishes. The clincher? He was quoted in his listing as saying, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”

I sent our payment to Like-a-Local (42 euros per person, which included a four- to five-course meal and all drinks), and off we went to Amsterdam. It all seemed good until we realized we knew nothing at all about these folks. Then the vision of a five-course meal talking about the weather reared its ugly head.

We needn’t have worried.

The moment we rang the doorbell, two heads popped out of a fourth-storey window. “We’re coming down to get you,” Paul cried.

(I'm in the middle, flanked by our gracious hosts, Paul and Lucie.)

The apartment ran the length of the fourth floor. A compact, well-organized kitchen—where we stopped briefly as Paul poured us each a glass of wine—opened onto an airy living room with red velvet couches and big windows overlooking the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal. The size of the room surprised us, as the 330-year-old house looked so narrow from the street.

Nibbling on tiny pieces of toast topped with chopped boiled egg mixed with anchovies, we fell into a relaxed and easy conversation that strayed quickly from the weather. I was momentarily startled to learn that the house’s legal papers give Paul the right to rent out one of the neighbourhood’s brothel windows, but he quickly assured me he hasn’t exercised the privilege.

Over a rich pheasant soup, we talked about everything from Paul’s 24 years working in West Africa to the intricacies of Dutch politics. We learned about our hosts’ history together—they had dated in their 30s, split up, then reconnected a few years ago. By the time we dug into an amazing dinner of stuffed quail and another bottle of wine, we felt like old friends.

(Great food, great conversation--what more could you want?)

Of course, it helped that Paul and Lucie were old hands at being gracious hosts. At that point, they’d been involved with Like-a-Local for three years, hosting 12 to 15 people a year. “We don’t do it for the money,” Paul said. “I like to exchange ideas with people from other countries.”

When Paul suggested eggnog ice cream for dessert, we were stuffed but couldn’t resist. Once we'd had coffee, we wondered if we should go, but we were all having too much fun.

Our hosts told us about the evolution of their neighbourhood, and urged us to see beyond the windows, the dope-smoky coffeeshops and tourist joints like the “Erotic Museum.” Lucie mentioned Project 1012 (named after the postal code for the neighbourhood), which aims to restrict prostitution to a few small areas and to encourage fashion designers and other upscale businesses to set up shop. Both Lucie and Paul hope the project will deter “hooligans”—the squads of young men, mainly British, who descend on the area each weekend to drink, yell and generally carouse.

(One of the district's many churches.)

But even without Project 1012, the neighbourhood is already much more than its image. Many families live here, surprisingly, and there are several nearby hotels. An organization called Redlight Design is currently running an exhibition by leading Dutch jewellery designers. And the area, Amsterdam’s oldest, is home to seven lovingly preserved medieval churches.

Later in the trip, I visited the fascinating Our Lord in the Attic, just across the canal from Paul’s apartment. A Catholic merchant built this tiny church on the top floors of his house in the 17th century, when Roman Catholics were forbidden to worship publicly in Amsterdam.

From clandestine churches to apartments full of African art and warm hospitality, there’s much more to Amsterdam’s sedate-looking canal houses—and to the Red Light district—than meets the eye.

One final note: Amsterdam isn’t the cheapest city in the world to visit, but there are lots of ways to save euros while you’re there. One of my favourites is to use the city’s extensive, efficient public transit system—another great way to meet locals. Head to this article on budget travel in Amsterdam for tips on trams and more.

Do you have tips for meeting locals and travelling frugally in Amsterdam? Please post a comment here and share!

And if you like reading about foodie adventures on the road, please check out the "WanderFood Wednesday" blog links every--you guessed it--Wednesday at

Disclosure: I travelled to Amsterdam courtesy of the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.