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Early morning sun glints off a Rocky Mountaineer coach as we board in Vancouver. Photo by David Lansing.

I don’t mind getting up early but I prefer it if there’s at least a suggestion of light in the sky when I roll out of bed, which there was not when my alarm went off shortly before five. I don’t know why I got up so early; the itinerary said we were meeting in the hotel lobby around 6:30. I could have gotten up at 5:30 and still had time to shower and make it down there an hour later. Could have gotten up at six if I skipped the shower (always a bad idea).

Anyway, there I was in the hotel lobby at 6:20. And do you think anyone else was down there besides the night clerk? Negative. So I checked out and asked if there was someplace within walking distance where I could get coffee. I was told a Starbucks was only a couple of blocks down Beatty Street. It was still dark enough out that the streetlights were still on. I passed by a few homeless people sleeping in doorways, young women hurrying to the bus stop, vendors unloading this and that from the backs of small trucks.

By the time I got back to the hotel with my grande extra-hot latte, most of the others were down in the lobby in various stages of early-morning malaise, some looking like they’d only gotten a few hours of sleep last night, others like they hadn’t slept at all.

Michael Collin, looking like a preppy lumberjack in a red and black buffalo check Woolrich shirt-jacket (this trip is being partially hosted by Woolrich), was handing out tickets for the Rocky Mountaineer, the scenic train that runs from Vancouver to Banff and Calgary. We were headed for Banff.

Michael rounded up a couple of taxis for us and we headed for the train station. Getting checked in was easy (it reminded me of the way airline travel used to be before we all went crazy with security) and the porters took our bags and disappeared with them, and shortly after seven we were invited to step aboard our Goldleaf dome coach where a young attendant in a crisp white blouse and navy blue vest offered me a glass of champagne which, to me, is always the proper way to start any journey—particularly if it’s at seven in the morning.

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New travels

I’m in travel mode for the next few days. Beginning on Monday, I’m going to write about a train trip I took through the Canadian Rockies last fall. I didn’t write about it then because, well, I was on the last Rocky Mountaineer trip to Banff for the season and what’s the point of writing about a trip that people can’t go on? Anyway, that trip was in the middle of October so if some of the photography looks rather fall-ish, that’s the reason why.

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Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden.

Vancouver's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden.

I decided to spend my last day in Vancouver wandering aimlessly around Chinatown, beginning at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen garden were I sat on a damp bench beside a milky jade-colored pond where languid turtles—a Chinese symbol of long life—caught a bit of sun on pitted soapstone rocks. There’s something truly wonderful about the serenity of this garden and its metaphorical nature: the purity of the water lily, courage of the chrysanthemum, gracefulness of the weeping willows drooping over the water. And the many, many blue iris, symbols of fertility, lining the banks of the pond.

From here I just wandered down the street, dropping in at a tea shop where I bought a box of jasmine tea before ending up in a general goods shop where I picked up several bars of fragrant soap, made in China. I bought them as much—or perhaps more—for their beautiful Chinese wrapping paper as anything else.

Rambutan hanging in a Chinatown market.

Rambutan hanging in a Chinatown market.

The fun of Chinatown—any Chinatown—is just being overwhelmed by the exotic smells, the peculiar sounds. Like the old women bickering with the produce man over the freshness of the hairy crimson rambutans hanging from the roof of his stall, or the surprising taste of the sweet and crunchy raw sea asparagus offered to me by a tiny little old lady whose smile lit up the store.

Further down Pender Street I took refuge from a sudden downpour in an apothecary store and wandered up and down the aisle fingering the dried sharkfin and sniffing kencur, an aromatic ginger that smelled, to me, of camphor.

At a fish monger’s on Keefer I watched with fascination as a young boy in a bloody apron lined a row of ling cod, propped up on a bed of ice, that still reflexively flapped their gills as if they were prize fighters just trying to catch their breath. And at the N&S Trading Co., a wonderfully tacky tourist shop with an impressive collection of cheap tin wind-up toys from China, I bought a blue cardboard box that, when you took off the lid, revealed a solar-powered chirping cricket.

Back on the street, the cricket refused to quiet down—even with the lid on. I tucked the box into the pocket of my leather jacket and hailed a cab. The cricket chirped happily all the way back to the hotel as my Asian driver repeatedly glanced at me in his rear view mirror. Can you imagine what people are going to think about my little cricket when I get on the plane tomorrow?

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To the C for dinner

Last night I had dinner at a restaurant homonymously called C, just a block from where the little Aquabus docks at the bottom of Hornby Street. It’s one of my favorite spots in Vancouver, a restaurant dedicated to the fruits of the ocean, a sparkling white eatery on the edge of the water where the only meat on the menu is called the Catch of the Day.

I sat at one of the small linen-covered tables on the south-facing patio, looking across False Creek towards Granville Island. The marina was busy. There were slow cruising yachts and motoring sailboats and pods of sleek kayakers all taking advantage of the cold but gorgeous weather. I ordered a half-dozen royal miyagi oysters, with their crisp cucumber taste, from Cortez Island and a citrusy pinot blanc from BC’s Okanagan Valley and sat there and watched the sky slowly lose its color.

If you are at a beautiful restaurant, like C, and you have some of the best oysters you’ve ever had along with a really great wine and air is brisk and the waterfront bustling, it can make you happy in a way that you will remember for the rest of your life—if you are with someone special. But if you are there by yourself, you can enjoy the clean, briny flavor of the oysters and the crispness of the wine and soak yourself in the beauty of the water and the night, but it will leave you melancholy. Because there is no one to share it with and so you have just had something extraordinary but what is the point if you cannot look at someone else and, even without speaking, know that this is what has taken place.

After I finished the oysters, I ordered a heady fennel-tasting bouillabaisse full of crayfish and king crab and blocks of chunky white fish. It was as good as anything I’ve ever had in Marseilles. No, I am lying; it was better. It was dark now so I took my time both eating and drinking the wine, not wanting to hurry but just enjoying the meal and the setting. It was such a stunning evening.

I looked out across the water to the lights on Granville Island. A party boat—full of revelers in suits and long dresses—was going by. There was a three-piece band, in tuxes, playing jazz music on the stern which was lit by Japanese lanterns swaying back and forth like fireflies. A few couples were dancing. Others were leaning against the railing, staring across the darkness to the restaurant. A woman in a long black dress caught my gaze and waved at me as the boat went by. I waved back. And then the boat disappeared into the darkness.

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So I take the rainbow-colored toy ferry, the Aquabus, to the Granville Island Public Market on Saturday and it is like I’ve been transported to a scene from the days of King Arthur. There are jugglers in jester hats and a large bear of a man noodling Celtic tunes on a fife and everywhere are scrambling children wearing forest-green corduroy pants and knit hats that look like strawberries or bumblebees.

Inside the market, the aisles are crowded, the steamy air redolent of fresh seafood and ripe fruit and fragrant flowers. At Long Liner Seafood, I get half-a-pound of Indian candy—long strips of double-smoked sockeye salmon brined in brown sugar and salt, eating it in little nips and bites as I stroll about admiring the stands selling mounds of hothouse tomatoes and juicy rambutans and crunchy sea asparagus.

You know how it is when you walk around looking at food: You get hungry. So even though I’ve just had breakfast not more than two hours ago, I stand in line to buy a cup of thick oyster chowder at Stock Market, the soup place, and then take it outside on the steps of the landing, watching the buskers and the children rolling around on the grass and the silly little toy ferry, which looks like it should be piloted by Steamboat Willie, as it shuttles back and forth across False Creek.

As I’m finishing my chowder, a young woman comes by handing out flyers advertising a fortuneteller’s studio here on Granville Island. “Let me tell you your fortune,” she says. So I follow her to a green corrugated building beneath the old bridge. A yellow sign in the window says TAROT CARDS & PALM READINGS. I don’t believe in this stuff but I’m fascinated by it. One time in Sedona a wild-eyed hippie who looked disturbingly like Charles Manson read my cards and what he told me was so spot on that it made me nauseous.

Anyway, Chanel (that’s her name; pretty funny, huh) shuffles the cards and rearranges them and then I pick one.

“This is the Queen of Cups,” Chanel says. “She is a visionary and has extrasensory powers.” And then she flips over more cards and starts telling me how I have been here before at a time when I was at a crossroads in my life, that it had to do with two women, both of whom came to Vancouver to sway me, and how a decision I made then has had devastating consequences for one of the women.

“You destroyed a heart,” Chanel says, giving me the stink-eye.

Well, like I said. I just don’t believe in any of this. There’s no way a complete stranger can flip over a bunch of cards and know who you are and what you have done. Which makes it even more disconcerting that Chanel was right about everything she said.

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