By Paula Conway
Having never seen a Fazioli piano before, I was stunned when I nearly walked into one inside the new Fairmont Pacific Rim. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised, because Vancouver is full of one incredible gem after another. Still, a close encounter with a handmade Fazioli — arguably, the greatest grand piano in the world, with only 100 made every year — in this Canadian hotel lobby was quite the shocker.
And as nobody was playing her when we met, I furtively strolled over to tickle the ivories — not so much to produce music as so I could proudly say I had touched such a treasure.
Then it was off to attend class in this unforgettable waterside hotel, finished just in time for the Winter Olympics with its amazing Coal Harbour views, waterfalls, rooftop pool, outdoor fireplace, and meditation pods. My aim: to make a treasure of my own.
As an aspiring baker, I had enrolled in a private desserts class, where four hours of instruction with the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s pastry chef resulted in an impressive chocolate concoction (intermingling three kinds of chocolate) — true icing on the cake of a great afternoon.
In fact, all four afternoons I spent in Vancouver were memorably enjoyable, especially this one with a sweet slant and the chance to flaunt my new, Fairmont Pacific Rim personalized chef’s jacket once I returned home. But that would come later; for now, I was bound for an evening out.
The pickings are plenty in Vancouver, known these days as Canada’s favorite foodie destination, with Asian cuisine a specialty. In fact, many gourmands say this Pacific Rim metropolis boasts some of North America’s finest. I certainly know that my experience, at the legendary Tojo‘s, was nothing short of top notch.
Choosing Tojo’s in the first place proved quite the process. Because Vancouver has more sushi restaurants per capita than Japan, I arrived armed with a list of the best thanks to an Asian-food-savvy friend back home. Among them were Miku, Toshi, and Kibune — with Tojo’s her first pick. When I ran all the names past an equally discerning friend in Vancouver, this expat local was quick to send me there directly. Decision made.
Perhaps the secret to this restaurant’s success is that raw fish combinations and preparations are all in Hidekazu Tojo’s head. Wielding the proper blade of a seasoned sushi chef, the Osaka-born Tojo came into town in 1971, trained some more, then opened his namesake eatery in 1988. From that day forward, this Canadian jewel has been dubbed the city’s best Japanese restaurant by Vancouver magazine.
Tojo’s is also cited in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die — an accolade so well-deserved that I happily made Tojo’s my dinner destination for my second night on the town. My selection of what to eat was left to Tojo, because I ordered the omakase, a tasting menu of all the fresh and fabulous fare the famed chef chose to conjure that evening. My favorite? His appropriately named Golden Roll, a mixture of crab, scallop, salmon, and shrimp all woven inside a crepe thin wrap.
Dinner done (and delectably digested), I returned to my hotel of choice, The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, one of four Fairmont hotels in the city. This accommodation was a natural for me, situated at the heart of the vibrant metropolis and sporting the unmistakable architecture of a 16th-century French chateau. I felt like a princess by just looking at the facade.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect for this visitor is the traveler’s theme at the hotel’s main entrance. Above the Georgia Street doors at the top of a large window is an oversized carving of the great messenger Hermes, the Greek god of travelers. Above Hermes, the traveler’s theme continues with intricate stone carvings of a ship and of a train. I was home.
This sense of comfort became more evident inside, where the Art Moderne styling suited my fancy, up to and including the nickel trim, painted elevator doors, curved doorways, and marble chip terrazzo flooring. Original geometric designs and bright colors stay true to this gracious hotel’s Deco beginnings.
Then there are the Griffins, the Fairmont Vancouver mascot. Part lion, part eagle, this mythological creature was said to hold the job of guarding treasure — which, in this case, are the hotel’s guests. Griffins are everywhere for that purpose, on the lobby carpet, in the elevators, even embroidered onto staff uniforms. I felt safe.
Next morning, refreshed, I woke up early, ready for a long day tromping around Vancouver. A good friend who lives there told me to meet her in front of the Lord Stanley statue at noon, so when I dressed to embark on a day of exploration I put on my sneakers. Even though Vancouver is a fashionable town, I wanted to be comfortable.
We started at Lord Stanley’s statue, the landmark entrance to Vancouver’s biggest patch of nature. This urban forest, named after the Governor General of Canada whose reign began in 1867, is a vast network of trails among cedar, fir, and hemlock.
Then it was on to the Seawall, a stonewall hugging Stanley Park’s shoreline, for a chance to take in an array of Vancouver landmarks, including Lion’s Gate Bridge, the Stanley Park Totem Poles, and Brockton Point and Lighthouse.
I love the Girl in a Wetsuit sculpture, depicting a life-sized woman gracefully posed on a big boulder. When the tide is high, it looks as if she is floating on top of the water. Those who spot her think she resembles the mermaid in Copenhagen’s harbor, but if you peek down at this one’s feet, you’ll see she’s wearing flippers, while on her head there’s a diving mask.
Hungry and in need of a brief rest, we grabbed a log on the beach at English Bay, part of the lively West End area, and enjoyed an impromptu snack from a friendly hot-dog vendor. Had we more time, we could have tasted nearby fare from India, Brazil, Italy, France, Mexico, Asia, and Africa. For another visit.
Our next stop, the Vancouver Aquarium, became a learning center for me as we watched and soaked up information about everything from beluga whales to sea anemones. We took the Salmon Stream Tour, and yes, in the process, we did swim upstream — only I was still wearing my sneakers.
Changing to heels, I had dinner back at my original post, the lovely Fairmont, starting with a superior martini that the in-house 900 West Lounge calls “After the Frost” — a combination splash of BC Ice Wine, shaken and poured over frozen grapes. Dinner at Griffins was divine, with a la carte favorites focused on fresh ingredients from the West Coast.
Another afternoon in Vancouver meant a refreshing 10-minute water taxi ride to Granville Island. At the famous market there, I checked out the work of local artisans. I also sampled local cheeses and literally smelled the hundreds of dozens of freshly cut flowers. It was a leisurely, lovely time away from the fray.
Back in the city proper, I made a point of making the shopping rounds on Robson Street, as well as taking in the designer stores near my hotel: Tiffany, Hermes, and Coach, among them. In the hotel, the Louis Vuitton’s flagship store showed off the latest collection, a bright bunch of luxury items I coveted.
My credit card burning (OK, I made some small purchases at Coach), I designated my last shopping stop at Holt Renfrew, this time just to see what’s in style in Vancouver. What I found beyond all the jewelry, shoes, accessories, and cosmetics was a fabulous three-story department store I would need to revisit for some serious buying. (Americans consider Holt Renfrew the Neiman Marcus of Canada.)
Shopping under my belt and beyond my budget (no regrets!), it was finally time to relax. That I did at the Fairmont Hotel’s Absolute Spa while indulging in a decadent pedicure. The surroundings for such pampering include unique chairs equipped with large, flat-screen TVs that also act as computer screens, complete with Internet access.
Strange thing was, despite my usual 24/7 addiction to the ether, I didn’t want Internet access just then. Instead, I wanted to soak up memories of my brilliant trip to Vancouver while I soaked in the warm water, my toes thanking me after so much walking.
No, I’m not complaining, just remembering. In fact, I plan to go back again next year to do another round in this wonderful Pacific Rim city — where I intend to wear out at least one pair of sneakers alone on a repeat visit to Vancouver’s incomparable Stanley Park.