Green with envy of a White Christmas

I turn my back on Vancouver for one minute (well 3 months to be precise) and what happens??

All my life I have yearned for snow at Christmas, and for most of my Christmases, I've opened the curtains to look out at rain, brown bare trees, bilious grey clouds and the prospect of a day watching foul British tv in an overheated house with the family getting increasingly more cranky as the blood sugar and cholesterol levels rise. I remember  being 5 years old and being walked to a relative' s house - head raised to the heavens all the way searching in vain for snow and a star from the east. The scene was set for Christmas to be a time of sinking disappointment.  I gave up on the star when I gave up on God but I've always kept that hope for snow.

SO....after that long preamble, I CANNOT BELIEVE that I turn my back for a few weeks and Vancouver comes up with the whitest of Christmases. I know that most people hate the cold, I know it is inconvenient but I feel cheated and couldn't be more jealous if all my Vancouver friends had won that 6 4 9 lottery thing.  Envy works both ways: I have a friend in Vancouver who longs for what he imagines is my London life of Wigmore Hall concerts and evenings at the Royal Opera. I try to tell him that a couple of hours of great music have to be balanced against living in the crude, crowded, crass mayhem that is 21st century London.  He would tell me that winter wonderlands wear thin when you have to shovel the driveway and scrape the car. He is right. He is a grown-up where snow is concerned. I'm a  child. The love of snow is the one remaining vestige of my childhood. And so for the next few days, I intend to call on a child's strategy to deal with the annoying stream of emails from the Canadian west coast describing snowy walks in Stanley Park and attaching photos of 'Kits' Beach in the snow.' I'm going to cover my ears with my hands and sing loudly until my beloved white stuff has turned to standard-issue Vancouver rain. 'La, la, di, da'...

Requiem for Radio 2

Radio 2's long goodbye lasted all day yesterday. To be precise it lasted until 6pm. Everyone I know turns off that excruciating Katie Malloch and her insulting habit of telling me how I feel and what I'm doing: "You're driving home from work and you feel the need for...etc banal, mundane etc". At this point I have long since told the tedious creature to "STFU" and from 6pm onwards the radio was switched off. But Tom Allen felt like a friend and to listen to him mouthing the party line as he wound down "Music and Company" was sad and wrenching. No, many, many of us won't be coming with you Tom, not to listen to music that I can hear in the shopping mall or the supermarket. Tom, the former trombonist, taught me a lot of what I now know about classical music. Thanks to him, I can take that knowledge off to the internet and listen to BBC Radio 3. But it's not the same.

In his movie, "Radio Days" Woody Allen evoked the magic of a population linked by sound, by the voices coming out of the box in the corner. Of course those days are long gone but CBC's Radio 2 managed to continue the tradition. True it united people who love Beethoven, Bach, Brahms etc but what fascinated me when I first arrived in Canada seven years ago and discovered the then wonderful station, was just who these people were. The farmer on a Sasketchewan prairie who requested the Goldberg Variations,
the sculptor in a studio on a lake in Ontario who called, as so many of these cold country Canadians did for Sibelius, and the truck driver on the Trans-Canada who needed some roaring Beethoven to fill him with the energy to cross that vast, dark, transcontinental night.

Ah, but the apologists for the dog's breakfast that will be the new Radio 2, insist that they will provide the same service. Right - by giving us a mish-mash of music that can be found on commercial stations everywhere. Anyone who has ever been on a cruise knows that smorgasbords get very boring very fast. The sight of taramasalata, bean salad, smoked turkey, lasagne, chicken tandoori and ribs may look alluring on the buffet but once you've got that heaving mass on your plate it becomes strangely unappetizing.

And, throughout this whole miserable episode, nobody, with the noble exception of Russell Smith at The Globe and Mail, has dared to say that what we call Classical Music , for want of a better word, is superior to a lot of contemporary music. Something happened in the late 18th and 19th centuries that carried this art form to a summit. I'm not saying that there is only one mountain out there and another summit may well be reached at another time. But the vast mass of pop, rock etc has not got half way up the nursery slopes.

Yesterday, during one of the sad farewells ( was it Eric Friessen on Studio Sparks?) somebody played the Schubert String Quintet in C Major. I first heard this on BBC's Desert Island Discs when novelist Stan Barstow described it as music he would like to die to. It contains within it, a sense of the infinite and the eternal. And, unlike the four beat in a bar commercial pap that I am now being told I must love, never, EVER becomes an earworm - one of those infuriatingly banal tunes that get inside your head and make you want to rip it open and tear the thing out.

So CBC Radio 2 played the great Schubert piece and died before our very eyes. Goodbye Tom, goodbye Shelley (for we all know that Here's to You really died last year when the great Ms Solmes took her leave) goodbye to Jurgen and goodbye to the often too pious and smarmy Eric Friessen. (But Eric, you redeemed yourself in spades this week - the Brahms, William Styron reading was heartwrenchingly beautiful.)

Yesterday felt like a day-long requiem. I know I am not the only one who feels bereaved on this late-summer Saturday morning. Something noble and beautiful that linked this vast land is gone forever and the land is duller and darker without it.

The Last Summer of the Bed and Breakfast

On August 16th, Graeme's  House - at 22 years, one of the oldest inns in Kitsilano, closed - probably forever.

For the past 4 summers I have cleaned the place. Four summers before that I was at a dark and scary crossroads: mother dead, career flagging, love lost. I did the 21st century rounds of seers and sages. If one of them had predicted that in the very near future I would cross an ocean, land in one of the world’s loveliest settings for a city and be cleaning toilets every morning of every summer for four summers, I would have asked for my future back.

When Graeme (and yes she’s a woman - it’s a Scottish thing apparently)approached me with this proposition, she described it as ‘doing a Monica Dickens’. Graeme’s generation is probably the last to know what that is. Monica Dickens was a granddaughter of Charles; she took on humble jobs like cleaning to gather copy and write a lot of novels.

I did not want to write a novel about cleaning or cleaners. I did not want to write a novel about Bed and Breakfasts. I did need some quick extra money though, and one morning in early May found me following Graeme obediently through each of the four rooms learning how to make a bed with hospital corners - tuck in the bottom of the sheet, pull up a lower corner until it is the shape of a bishop’s mitre, tuck that in. The bed will look a lot like a neatly wrapped package. The guest, one must assume, will be overcome with an urge to become the contents.

The falling blossoms of an apple tree out on the deck signalled the beginning of my work each year. The proliferation of berries on the mountain ash in the back yard heralded the end. Sometime in September, I would look out of the window in the Rosedale Room and see that a scarlet breath of autumn had blown through the maple on 11th Avenue. By then there would be two or three guests in the house as opposed to the eight or nine that would squeeze around the kitchen table of an August weekend. 

The guests came from  all over the globe from Australia to  Finland, Switzerland to Taiwan. They would stumble in jet-lagged from a flight from Heathrow, alight from a taxi after an Alaskan cruise or drive up Waterloo Street straight from the Rockies in their camping car. They were physicists, orthopedic surgeons, psychics,  ecologists, neurologists, peripatetic grandparents, poets, lobbyists, toddlers, teenagers and new-born babies. They were very  rarely Republican. We did have two con men (not together) and one drunk but in a 22 year stint, they are barely worth a mention.

They were all invariably delighted with their stay. Other B&Bs may have been bigger, or have offered sherry at twilight or eggs Benedict for breakfast but very few had Graeme's gift for making people just plain happy to be in her home.

"We are all in this dance together," Graeme would say as she got up at 5am to serve breakfast to some early ferry passengers or allowed a trio of twenty something Finnish mountain bikers to take over the kitchen  and  fill the genteel Cornflower Room with a mountain of clothes and, what looked like armour, for their week long stay. 

"This is my life's work", remarked this former art teacher, English teacher, practicing therapist and interior designer one morning.  I paused, dustbuster in hand, ready to argue that she was far too clever, too qualified to be baking muffins and making beds. But I had failed to understand what Graeme had understood: that true hospitality - giving shelter, a room at an inn is one of the most  viscerally important and loving roles on the planet.

Graeme also gave shelter to the venerable Puhd - the black cat who wandered into her house during a blizzard and stayed to meet and greet and occasionally sleep with the guests for 21 years.  Puhd left us 3 years ago and can never be replaced  but in lush, verdant Vancouver where coyotes roam the lanes and bald eagles can sometimes be glimpsed in the sky over Graeme's house, the wild life endures.  Hummingbirds will continue to whirr round the petunias on the deck. Our neighbourhood raccoon will pursue his ambition to steal the back doormat.

But when the last of the guests wheeled their suitcase under the floral arch and down the garden path one Saturday morning last August something was lost forever in this lovely little Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano.

 In this perenially perky North American culture, there is not much room for sadness, there is little room for the sense of endings. If something ends, we must rush to see what is about to begin. If one door closes, then by golly, another one had better be opening before we've had time to catch our breath. We might nod in the direction of 'closure' but we don't really care for the bittersweet emotions of an end. Melancholy, that autumnal sense of the extraordinary sadness of our human condition - as soon as we live and love something, anything, it is already slipping away from us - rarely makes an appearance on Oprah.

Well, this summer, something quite lovely ended on Waterloo St. I never thought, when I was grumbling my way through the bathrooms, dustbuster and toilet brush in hand, that I would miss these mundane tasks but they proved, like the B&B and like Graeme herself, to be rather good for the soul. So, time to mark  a moment of sadness and say goodbye to the hospital corners, the colour co-ordinated towels, the cheese muffins and the blueberry scones, to the endless slivers of left-over soap and the bottomless pot of coffee; to Puhd and the racoon and to all those strangers who came up the steps to sleep and snore and dream for just a few short hours before going on their way. Now Graeme goes on her's - off to some other adventure I am sure.  But her lovely house will be much missed.  Farewell Graeme's House - it was a privilege and a joy to know you.

Rockwater Secret Cove Resort - My hour in the Jacuzzi

I'm in a tent with a Jacuzzi. This is not a kinky choice of camping partner or the tight squeeze that it might sound. The Rockwater Secret Cove Resort on British Columbia's Sunshine Coast has pitched a colony of tents, each the size of a small cottage, on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. The tents are reached by a wooden boardwalk that starts out at the Zen-like stone garden. You pass through a mini-Stonehenge- and head up the boardwalk until it becomes a treewalk and you find yourself slightly above the foilage, on a level with the branches of hemlock, cedar and arbutus that cover the cliffs. The Pacific is off to the right, the tents are scattered here and there, some up, some down among the trees.

A big bronze bell guards the entrance to each tent, the entrance is an elegant French double door, the floor is cool earth-toned stone, the bed vast and inviting. In case you forget that you are in a tent, there are numerous zip-up windows that open up with views of the ocean which, this being a tent, you can hear crashing against the rocks.

And there's the jacuzzi - a few feet from the bed with its own view out onto the forest at one end and onto the sea at the other. It comes with an instruction manual and a control panel, even a remote control. As I prepare to step into the tub, I am quite sure that I will need none of them. How difficult can it be to take a bath with a bit of whirling water thrown in? I'm probably one of the few occupants of this tent to come alone. Children are not allowed; the boardwalk would rule out the old and infirm so the target market is obvious. The tents are meant for romantic rendezvous. And so, of course, is the jacuzzi.

Oh well, as a travel writer, I'm used to being alone in romantic spots. I've lost count of the number of times I have dined alone by candlelight while couples gazed across the flames at each other and I begged the maitre d'hotel for half a dozen candles so that I could see to write my notes.

I decide to give the jacuzzi a try. It is not yet twilight and I fancy bathing and gazing at the ocean. The tent comes complete with a CD player. I put on a Dvorak string quartet to set the mood, run the water and step in.

Hmmm. That control panel is more complicated than I thought. I may need the manual after all. Also, there is a difference between the two ends of the tub. One, facing the forest has a little seat. Perhaps better positioned for the massaging jets. But I want the view of the ocean. I've worn my glasses to that purpose. Now I'm glad I've got the glasses because the instruction manual is substantial. But before I plough through it, I see a button saying "color" on the remote.

For one wild moment I imagine that coloured water will pour from the taps. But no, a string of red lights have lit up around the inside of the tub. What with Dvorak and the lapping of the waves, it's sort of a soggy "Son et Lumiere." The instruction manual says that I should press a second time to choose colour. I press and press but seem to be stuck with the vivid red colour. "If in doubt, press everything," has always seemed a good rule of thumb so I hit a few more buttons - the red stays but I have activated a very violent set of jets . The manual gets washed to the floor. My glasses disappear into the maelstrom. The remote control has slipped under the tub.

I need to head for the fixed control panel at the far end of the tub. I set out - it is like swimming up a waterfall. The noise of the jets has drowned out my Dvorak. When I finally reach the control panel, I realize that it will mean nothing without the manual. The manual is lying in a puddle on the floor at the other end. I head back. I seem to be travelling with the current this time so make it to the puddle in a matter of seconds. While I'm at it, I fish for the remote but that has slipped beyond my reach. Clutching the manual above my head, I set back out for the fixed control panel. But once I arrive, I realize that without my glasses, still whirling somewhere in the water below my feet, I can't read the manual. I rest my weary head against the controls and decide to try the color button again. After a few presses, I get blue, then green and soon the whole rainbow kicks in - purple, indigo, gold, pink, green.

Happy and encouraged by my light show, I fiddle with the massage buttons again. They too, seem to have calmed down, and seem to be pummelling politely - except that, after a while, I notice that my breasts seem to be being pushed up to the surface in alternating rhythms. First one - then the other.

This is disconcerting but not unpleasant. I put it down to inadequacy on my part. This wouldn't happen to Angelina Joli. There again, she'd have Brad at the other end manning mission control.

Sitting in my own private rainbow, I drift into a delicious stupor. The view is wonderful. I can see a bald eagle perching on a branch just outside the window. The sea is crashing against the rocks. I've never quite fancied Brad so wouldn't want him working my remote but perhaps the head of Nasa would be up for a weekend on the stunning BC coast. Or that French geezer who does the spectacular light shows? The one who was married to Charlotte Rampling? Jean-Michel something....How would he feel about a night in a giant tent...

Small ship cruising in Alaska

"It's so damned grand- I was over-impressed by it." So said painter, Karl E Fortress. He was, of course, speaking of Alaska- The Great Land- bought from those pesky Russians by the US in March,1867. Because the land is so damned grand and wildly over-impressive, I'm relieved to be on a small ship for my first cruise from Alaska to Vancouver, BC. Several summers spent in BC have accustomed me to the sight of the monster ships that sound their horn around Vancouver tea-time as they sail under the Lions Gate bridge and turn north towards Alaska. They look for all the world like a West Van condo that has suddenly taken a foolish notion to go to sea. I like to look at them but I wouldn't want to be on one.

So when the chance came to sail on Cruise West's Spirit of Oceanus out of Anchorage and down to Vancouver, I couldn't resist. I found that Fortress quote, by the way, in the excellent Anchorage Museum. Oh I know, locals always tell you that their museum is excellent but this time it's true. The Anchorage Museum is a perfect primer for what we'll see on the ship. After a few days, I come to think of it as the ship of stories. Each day another of Alaska's big stories is told to us - the story of Russia and Alaska, the story of gold and Alaska, of the native tribes and Alaska, the story of Alaska's earth, air, endless ice and water in the form of her icebergs and glaciers. The Anchorage Museum sets a lot of these themes out in straightforward easy-to-follow dioramas that even the most jet-lagged visitor can understand.

Cruise West ships hold under 200 passengers. There's no night club, no cabarets, no midnight buffets and certainly no bingo. So what is there? Well the excellent staterooms and fine dining aside, the ships come complete with a crew of young marine biologists who are passionate about what is all around the ship. And on some days, on our cruise, that included humpback whales 'bubble net' feeding and a bear swimming across a strait to a distant island of pine forests. Even the most jaded city dweller finds themselves 'oohing and aahing' when the whales surface. And on a small ship they surface very close.

There's even a professor of anthropology onboard who can tell you tales of the native tribes that have inhabited this great land for centuries. I'll be honest and say I yawned when I saw the words 'marine biologist' and 'anthropologist'. I wasn't sure quite what I wanted from Alaska but I was pretty sure that it wasn't anything either of those guys could provide. I was wrong. I usually am. More about the Great Land's stories tomorrow. In the meantime, can you believe the colour of that iceberg?

Douglas Coupland's Vancouver

Sailing past Canada House in Trafalgar Square, on the top of a double decker bus, I saw the banner draped across the building - Douglas Coupland. I knew that Coupland was a novelist but had no knowledge of his artistic activities. So I assumed that the Canadians had decided to fly Coupland in from his native Vancouver and just, well, have him hang out inside their splendid old colonial building. I debated going in and hanging out with him but the bus had sailed past, on its way to Piccadilly. And really, Coupland belongs in Vancouver.

Coupland belongs in West Vancouver to be precise. His seminal, "Generation X" may have taken place in the US but Coupland, who confesses these days to caring little for travel, is rooted in that bright, almost Californian, land of upmarket strip malls and luxury mansions on hills with stunning views that lies beyond the Lions Gate bridge - gazing sleepily across at downtown Vancouver.

Coupland's "jPod" had a recent outing as a series on Canadian tv. That story revolves around a group of video game programmers whose last names all begin with 'J'. They work in a 'pod' developing a game called 'BoardX'(and later 'Sprite Quest'). Coupland has been quoted as saying that the company they work for resembles but in no way is Electronic Arts - a video game company located in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

But my favourite Coupland novel is "Eleanor Rigby". This one is a bit of a departure from his admittedly brilliant observations on our Google run planet. No other writer has understood and described our strange new cyber world better than Coupland. And with such rapidity. The man does not need to stand back and ponder a development. It happens and Coupland has it processed and ready to go.

"Eleanor Rigby" is the story of a very lonely woman,Liz Dunn, living in a dull little condo in, where else, West Van. Her life turns around when her deeply disturbed and terminally ill, illegitimate son who she had given up for adoption, returns to her life. For all his irony and detachment, Coupland has an almost naive sweetness in dealing with his character's emotional lives. Without saying too much, he gives his heroine a happy ending but not before leading his reader through one of the finest studies of modern loneliness that I've come across in a long time.

Changes at CBC Radio 2 - a postscript

And before all the anti-elitists check in, reminding me of the value of popular music, here's an exchange between conductor Daniel Barenboim and composer James McMillan during Barenboim's BBC Reith lectures. These are similar to the Massey lectures; Barenboim's theme was "Hearing - the neglected sense." You will see that Barenboim was left "gobsmacked" as we say in England, by the power of the following quote.

JAMES McMILLAN: Hello my name is James McMillan, I'm another composer. Recently the English musicologist Julian Johnson produced a fascinating book called Who Needs Classical Music? He implies that serious music has suffered in the face of the apparent triumph of the visual and the verbal, but also of what he would see as the banal and even the populist. And therefore my question is this -

"What is it about serious music that baffles and indeed in some cases offends the advocates of an ever increasingly ubiquitous, narrow, some might say debased popular culture? Is it its very ability to rise from the mundane? Is it the suggestion that there may be such a thing as a secret inner life which cannot be reduced to a rigorously enforced commonality, that there may be no such thing indeed as a closed universe?"


CBC Radio - everywhere music takes you - except to a secret inner life

The Slow, Painful Death of CBC Radio 2

When Shelley Solmes bid a muted farewell to her listeners on CBC's Here's to You back last autumn, I had a sense that the Radio 2 that I have come to love during my time in Canada was entering into terminal decline. Shelley represented all that was warm, funny and knowledgeable about this station. Along with Tom Allen and Rick Philips, she helped to complete this British visitor's classical music education. I knew my opera inside and out but classical music is another world entirely and in Britain had, for too long, been dominated by the gooey saccharin of Classic FM or Radio 3 which was showing that pretentious tendency of favouring Early Music or fast-forwarding to Stockhausen with a shudder of contempt for all the gorgeous stuff in between.

But my beloved Canadians took me travelling through a world of classical music as vast and varied as their own country. I did notice that they often featured 'cold-country' composers. I learned to love Sibelius, Mahler, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovitch in Canada - men, not surprisingly, from lands of mountains, forest and snow.

I also learned that Canada for all the immense space that its land mass takes up, is a small, cosy country where a grocer in Mahone Bay could share an opinion on a Bruckner symphony with the whole country through the simple act of sending an email to Shelley on "Here's to You."

When Tom Allen gave a charming, poignant account of Brahms' journey to Clara Schumann's funeral, I was so intrigued that I wrote to his show "Music and Company" for more information. Tom Allen took it upon himself to reply. Coming as I do from tiny, teeming far-less-friendly England, I was astonished at such personal service.

And now somebody called Jennifer McGuire has decided to turn this unique institution into a shopping mall. How can this be? How can you let this happen Canada? You have a national treasure here and you're letting them exchange it for some cheap bling from the dollar store.

I have a suggestion: Get some of the big guns of Canadian music to speak up. When the Royal Opera House management in London was making a monumental cock-up of keeping the place open during its renovation, Sir Colin Davis rallied pretty much all the world's great conductors in a letter and petition to The Times. That got their attention. Call on Zuckerman, Kent Nagano, Ben Heppner, Andrew Davis, Marjan Mosetich, Bramwell Tovey, Richard Margison, Gerald Finley (the man is getting rave reviews right now in London)Isobel Bayrakdarian - get them to get their American and European colleagues to speak up too. Canada is one of the few countries that still has a national radio network devoted to classical music.(And I agree with Russell Smith in the Globe and Mail that the term 'classical' is troublesome but time is short and this IS a blog.)Other nations envy you. Don't throw it away

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe

Writers write in cafes. There are cafes and writers to prove this – Hemingway in La Coupole in Montparnasse, Paris; Sartre over at the Deux Magots in St Germain. A little closer to our own times, Francis Ford Coppola took his typewriter into the Vesuvio café in San Francisco’s Italian North Beach neighbourhood and knocked out the script of The Godfather.

Cafes are appealing because they provide a sense of companionship without the demands of conversation. To the chair-bound, office-bound writer even the excuse of a walk to the corner coffee shop and a look at all the strange old human faces encountered along the way is like a small holiday from black words on white paper.

But these days cafes are too noisy to write anything more challenging than a shopping list. In London, I’ve fought and abandoned the battle of blaring music in more Café Costas, Coffee Republics and charming little neighbourhood coffee shops than I care to count. So when I learned of a peaceful place here in Vancouver, I cycled over, laptop precariously perched in my bicycle basket.

The café in question had opened up on a tree-lined street alongside a map shop, a pet shop, a thrift shop, a very posh restaurant, a cheaper Greek restaurant, two florists and an arthouse cinema. And, most important of all, right across from the ubiquitous Starbucks.

A glance across the street tells me Starbucks is full and my new café is virtually empty. The same glance tells me that Starbucks looks the same as it does everywhere else and that the newcomer looks just as good, just as cosy and colourful and even has a fireplace with a log fire glowing in the back wall.

The café is owned by a Chinese couple in their thirties. The wife takes my complicated order - a non-fat, decaf cappuccino with just a little foam- with great care and tells me that I can bring it back if I’m not happy with the results. Two more customers wander in. The café provides newspapers and magazines and comfortable armchairs that look out of the window onto the crowd thronging into Starbucks across the road.

I take my coffee and settle in by the fire. There is just the faintest classical music playing behind the crackle of burning logs. I write peacefully for about ten minutes, then look up in the hope that this kind couple’s establishment will have filled, or even gained one new client. It hasn’t. There’s a queue at the counter across the street at the establishment that I will no longer name.

Only one of the two earlier customers remains. He ordered the cheapest of coffees and is lingering over it in a corner. The wife comes out from behind the counter and approaches me. “I’ve made some cheesecake. Would you like some – compliments of the house?”
I don’t usually eat cake in the morning but don’t want to hurt her feelings so I accept but as I dig my fork into the cake, I notice that the gelatine hasn’t quite dissolved. It has settled in chewy lumps all through the cream cheese mixture. I wonder if I should tell her but she is in the other corner now, offering cake to the man whom I have come to think of as the lone, cheap customer.

If I leave the cake that too will hurt her feelings so I wrap it in my napkin and slip it into my bag. Now, despite the perfect peace, I am distracted from writing by the small family business that is unraveling into failure before my eyes. The husband is making small talk with that lone man, working hard at appearing genial and finding topics that interest his customer. The wife is arranging her cakes, gazing from time to time at the door but nobody comes in.

I’ve forgotten all thoughts of writing and am now preoccupied with that sad little array of cakes in the display case. Did the gelatine fail to melt in all of them? The chocolate caramel shortbread looks hopeful. Should I abandon all rules about sugar in the morning and order a slice just to encourage this kind, hard working, worried woman?

That’s a step too far for me but I do make a point of complimenting her on the peaceful music as she passes. “We like it too,” she says, but her gaze drifts back to the empty doorway

Soon I can linger no longer. The emptiness is starting to gnaw away at me. That writer’s impossible need for convivial, quiet company can’t be fulfilled here. I leave the café and head home for lunch.

A week later I find the moldy cake at the bottom of my cycle bag. I resolve to ride by the café each day, trying to believe that I will find it busy and bustling. Each day I find it as empty as the next. I want to walk across the street to the other place and ask all those disloyal locals why they flock to this banal American chain instead of supporting a small business. But I lack the courage for confrontations.

Then I come up with another solution. I will contact the woman who writes the restaurant column in the local paper and suggest that she write a feature on peaceful cafes, giving prominence to this one. But life intervenes, I myself have a feature to write, a friend visits from out of town and I want to take her to busy, bustling, positive places and the sad café gets forgotten.

Soon, I feel so guilty about what I now perceive to be my own failure in helping these people survive, that I can no longer cycle along that charming street. These days I make a detour along a parallel residential street. Then I'm gone, back in Europe for the winter. When I return to BC i in the spring, I ride a bus in from the airport. One glance tells me that the cafe wilted and died. An Indian restaurant has taken its place. The owner sits at a table by the window, studying his accounts and staring out at Starbucks where a line has formed at the counter.

Don McKellar's "Last Night" - a Canadian movie masterpiece

"Tell me something to make me love you", Sandra Oh implores Don McKellar's lonely, withdrawn widower in the 1999 movie, Last Night. They are young, attractive and alone together in his apartment. They are not lovers and given the premise of the film, we know that there is no chance of their becoming lovers. At this point in the movie, everyone on earth has a matter of minutes left to live. The world is about to end and, this being a Canadian movie, there is no chance of Bruce Willis appearing to halt the apocalypse.

I first saw "Last Night" just after the century turned - in the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. I was alone. After I came out, I headed straight into the nearest bar and ordered a Margarita. I was deeply shaken but absurdly happy to be alive. "Life-enhancing" and "Life-affirming" have become New Age cliches. But this severely under-rated film deserves both epithets.

McKellar's film leads us through the last night on earth. We are in an un-named Toronto and enter the story in the early evening. McKellar will lead us through those last hours as his group of characters live out their final moments on a doomed planet. We are never told why the world is ending or just how it will end. There is a brief reference to social breakdown "When the government closed down," and a lurid sunlight shines relentlessy even as midnight approaches. Environmental catastrophe? War of the Worlds? We do not know and it doesn't matter.

But the ordinary people in this film do matter. McKellar plays Patrick, the repressed widower. At the opening of the film, he is headed to one of those obligatory family gatherings - a Christmas dinner with his family. But it is only Christmas for his mother who has chosen the traditional holiday as her ideal way of leaving the world. A pair of old aunts watch old home movies on the sofa, a turkey is roasted but Patrick insists on going home to be alone. He has recently lost a beloved wife; when your private world has come to an end, how much can you grieve for the end of everything and everybody?

As he makes his way through city streets, littered with trashed and abandoned cars, marauding looters and lost souls, he meets Sandra Oh. Where Patrick has lost love, Oh's character has recently found it- in a serenely happy second marriage. Whether he wants to or not, Patrick will be drawn, at this absolute last minute, back into life. Sandra is determined to die with her husband, out of cell phone reach across town. As an inane radio DJ counts down the world's final top one hundred, Sandra persuades Patrick to help her find her husband. Their quest brings them in contact with a handful of people - each with their own way of facing the end.

When I rented this film in Vancouver's Videomatica, a young staff member with tattoes and a stud in her tongue, told me that, for her, the last scene of this film is one of the most powerful in movies. She’s right. “Last Night” made me feel more urgent about and more in love with life than any other film of recent memory.

Hollywood North: Vancouver and Canada

At 2 o’clock in the morning I am lying awake in my London bed, jet-lagged after flying in from Vancouver. On the tv, Al Pacino is pursuing Robin Williams around a small Alaskan town in “Insomnia.” This sounds like an appropriate film for me so I settle in and, within seconds,find myself gazing at my friend Brian’s back yard, as Pacino scurries past it.Brian lives in Squamish, an hour north of Vancouver but I’m not surprised to be staring at his barbeque and deck. Canada has built an industry on pretending to be the USA. Two recent box-office hits, Capote and Brokeback Mountain made no secret of using Canada instead of the USA. Manitoba doubled for Kansas in “Capote” and Alberta for Wyoming in “Brokeback Mountain. In Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” Tom Hanks caught Leonardo di Caprio in a Quebec City that was masquerading as a French provincial town.

In his latest role as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making some hostile noises about “Hollywood North.” He has been trying to lure film production back to his state. Over the last decade about 1500 Hollywood film and television productions used Canada as their location. Only a little knowledge of Canadian geography is needed to see how easily Toronto can double for New York – just don’t shoot the skyline – or Chicago as it did for years in the mountie series “Due South. British Columbia’s spectacular mix of mountains, beaches, forests and a big cosmopolitan city have allowed it to double for numerous hot and cold weather locations. The most famous is probably Vancouver’s Stanley Park and its years of pretending to be mysterious woods, ravines and clearings in “The X Files.”

Ever since Errol Flynn sailed into Vancouver on his yacht only to die of a heart attack back in 1950, the links between sensible Canada and the exuberant California film business have been strong. The main reason is, of course, money. For years a weak Canadian dollar and exorbitantly high union costs and complex work rules back in the States have made Canada a cheaper proposition. Now that the Canadian dollar is stronger, the Canadian Federal Government is topping up subsidies on tax credits in an attempt to keep the Americans coming.

Canada does have its own vibrant film industry. Independent directors like Atom Egoyan (“Where The Truth Lies” “The Sweet Hereafter” and David Cronenberg (“Crash”, “A History of Violence”) are obvious examples whereas not many people think of a mainstream director like Norman Jewison(“The Statement” “Only You” “Moonstruck”) as Canadian. One of the most extraordinarily moving and powerful films of the past five years was Quebecois, Deny Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions.” It won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. One of my top ten favourite films is Don McKellar’s bleakly funny “Last Night” – an account of the last night on earth set in McKellar’s home town of Toronto – playing itself for once.

The list of Canadian actors with a career in Hollywood is long and stretches from Christopher Plummer to Pamela Anderson by way of, among others,William Shatner, Dan Ackroyd, Donald Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, Rick Moranis, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey,and Kim Cattrall.

Meanwhile back in Vancouver, the Americans keep coming. I glimpsed Robin Williams cycling through my neighbourhood just last month. Goldie Hawn still owns a house in town. Actors continue to gather inthe peaceful, oak-panelled Gerard’s Bar in the Sutton Place Hotel on Burrard Street. Despite the rising Canadian dollar, I suspect the Terminator will have his work cut out bringing an end to this thriving industry.

Vancouver - World's Most Liveable City

Vancouver has been voted the world’s most liveable city by the UK based Mercer Institute for three years in a row . Here are some reasons why:

The Stanley Park Seawall. Vancouver’s natural setting is stupendous and on this 6.5 mile hike around the seawall you get it all: the Pacific Ocean enfolds the ancient rain forest that is Stanley Park. Across the water snow-capped mountains and distant islands dream in the mist like a Northern Hemisphere Bali Hai.The Seawall hike can be crowded. Turbaned Sikhs on mountain bikes and Chinese families on rollerblades, stately Russian matrons out for their evening constitutional. The hike takes about two hours. Bikes and roller blades can be rented from Harbour Air Seaplanes Adventure Centre next to Canada Place: 604 233 3500.

Neighbourhoods - Kitsilano. Named after an Indian chief and formerly Vancouver’s hippie haven, Kits has heritage houses, hills with gorgeous views, funky shops, lush gardens and one of the best beaches in town. Catch a number 4 or 7 bus on Granville Street and get off at Capers' excellent organic grocery store on 4th Avenue. Wander down Vine Street to the Pacific. Swim at Kits enormous outdoor pool . Head back up very steep Yew Street, taking in some jazz at Rossini’s and reward yourself with a latte with the locals at Kits Coffee Shop.

Fine Dining: Fresh wild salmon from BC’s mountain streams, fruits and wines from BC’s Okanagan are just some of the fabulous produce that contribute to setting Vancouver’s restaurants among the finest in Canada. Lumiere on Broadway is considered by many to be one of the nation’s top restaurants. If you want to get a taste of the place without blowing your budget, go to the tasting bar adjoining the main room and order one or more of the 16CAD dishes selected from the main menu. The papardelle with short rib meat or the roasted sablefish are two big favourites.No reservations allowed – the very popular bar is first come first served. Closed on Mondays.
Lumiere 2551 W. Broadway. Tel: 604 739 8185. Take a number 10 UBC bus or a ten minute cab ride from downtown.
From the sublime….At the opposite end of the dining spectrum is Casa Gelato – home of 198 ice cream flavours. Next to the railroad tracks on an east-side industrial estate, homesick Italian Vincenzo Misceo sits in a pink-painted, neon-lit ice cream parlour surrounded by his flavour creations: pear gorgonzola, wild-berry jalapeno,vegemite. Misceo admits to the occasional failure – chocolate fudge and salmon?! Take the 22 Knight bus on Burrard to Glen. 1033 Venables St.

The Absolute Spa at The Century. At Vancouver’s most popular day spa, they sprinkle rose petals in the bath tubs and wrap you in chocolate -alas, non-edible. (For real chocolate see below.)Then they massage you while dozens of warm horizontal jets of water sweep across your body. In the opulent relaxation room, snack on strawberries dipped in chocolate then take a swim in the ozonated pool or a eucalyptus steam bath. 1015 Burrard St. Tel: 604 684 2772">

Hollywood North and the Chocoholic Bar. Vancouver is known as Hollywood
The Best Cappuccino in Western Canada.Caffe Artigiano, 763 Hornby Street opposite the Vancouver Art Gallery. Tired of anemic cups of foam from Starbucks? There are Italians in Vancouver ready with the antidote. Inspired by the original Venetian coffee houses, Artigiano serves a robust, creamy brew to gallery goers, office workers and media folk from the nearby CBC studios.

Bard on the Beach.>English actor/director Christopher Gaze has taken Shakespeare and set him down within yards of the ocean under an enormous tent. Throughout the summer three Shakespeare plays are set against a backdrop of ocean and mountains. The Bard, being the Bard fits right in with the seagulls, floatplanes, cruise ships - even the occasional passing Tel 604 739 0559

Vancouver has the cheapest CDs in North America. Downtown try A&B Sound at 556 Seymour for pop and rock. Sikora’s Classical Records at 432 W. Hastings for classical.

Canadian Wine Country in British Columbia's Okanagan

“The bears must think we are an obliging lot,” chuckles winemaker Marcus Ansems as he stands among the vines at his Therapy Vineyards in Naramata, British Columbia. “Lining up their food in neat rows and at arms’ length.”

Bears are not a problem in Burgundy and Bordeaux. And when Hollywood spotlighted the Californian wine country in last year’s Oscar nominated “Sideways,” the biggest danger came from the protagonists’ own libidos. But in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, bears occasionally lumber into the vineyard. This is Canada, after all. But it’s not the western Canada that most of us know – that macho man’s man of a landscape with its spiky summits and brooding forests that surrounds Vancouver, Whistler and Banff .When I drove the four hours from Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley one October weekend recently, I found the Venus to the rest of the region’s Mars - a gentle land of vine-covered hills running down to a deep blue lake. The most grandiose feature in the landscape was the quasi-Tuscan architecture of Mission Hills – probably the most famous of the Okanagan wineries and whose award-winning wines are sold in the UK.

Mission Hills is situated on Lake Okanagan just minutes from the city of Kelowna. The bell tower, loggia, formal rose gardens and Chagall tapestry all testify to the ambition and vision of owner Vancouver-born, European-raised, Anthony von Mandl.

Missionaries first planted vineyards in the Okanagan Valley in the 1860s. For years the region produced basic plonk. Cheap and sweet tended to be the criteria. Canadian wines had names like Fuddle Duck and Gimli Goose. All that changed with the 1988 Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the US when local wines lost their trade advantage and had to compete with the blossoming Californian wine industry. The inferior vines were ripped out and the Okanagan wine industry started from scratch. By 1994 a Mission Hills Chardonnay had been voted best Chardonnay in the world in a blind tasting at London’s International Wines and Spirits Competition. When the panel heard of the winner’s obscure origins, they demanded a re-tasting. The results were unchanged and many of the seventy vineyards throughout the region have gone on to win awards throughout the world.

I took three days to amble along the lake shores, following the burgundy and white “wine route” signs and dropping in to any winery that took my fancy. With so many of the wineries opening restaurants or even the occasional B&B on their properties, I could have wandered happily for at least a week. A mile down the slope from Mission Hill at the Quails’ Gate Estate Winery, I ate a lunch of caramelized onion tart and spinach and scallop salad at their Old Vines Patio restaurant looking out on the vines, the glorious autumn colours and the lake. For all the dulcet beauty of this landscape, there is a gnarly finger of suburban sprawl scratching its way up these hillsides – a reminder of the long strip mall that makes up most of the city of Kelowna. After lunch I drove away from the city along the lake through Peachland and Summerland towards Penticton.

Those names tell of Okanagan’s other claims to fame. This is orchard country – the source of the peaches, apples and cherries that fill the Vancouver markets. In spring, the blossoms fill the valleys and, as I drove south with the lake on one side and the orchards on the other, I saw that peach trees turn a stunning shade of flame-orange in October. Summerland may just be an arbitrary name but the Okanagan does have some of the warmest summers of the province and the lake that, on this October day, is so blue and empty and calm, fills up with waterskiers, ski-dooers and various other noisy pleasure craft. The Okanagan Valley is a place to be saved for the blossoms of spring or the autumn harvest when the air is heavy with the scent of thousands, probably millions, of apples.

Another of the Okanagan’s cities, Penticton, lies at the south end of the lake. It’s more attractive than Kelowna but you don’t come to the Okanagan for the cities so I drove on, looping up the east side of the lake to lovely little Naramata, a village nestling in the prettiest, most Mediterranean part of the Okanagan. Ten wineries perch in the hills and small valleys that line the winding country road between Naramata and Penticton. Therapy Vineyards and Guesthouse is the newest and offers bed and breakfast accommodation – its rooms have burgundy drapes and duvets and look out on walnut trees, vines, peach trees and the omnipresent lake. Other Naramata Bench wineries include Red Rooster – its new buildings unmissable just a few yards from the road, and Hillside with its big wooden barn of a bistro. Down in Naramata itself, the elegant and cosy Naramata Heritage Inn and Spa with its Rock Oven dining room looks out on the lake at the end of the elm-lined main street.

Driving down the long main street, I was sceptical. The restaurants looked as though they might serve you a hearty slice of meatloaf and a cup of Maxwell House. Then I came to the Wine Country Welcome Centre and its Toasted Oak Wine Bar and Grill a big, cosy pub-like establishment, housed in the old firehall and with a manager, Jay Drysdale who has a mission to demystify wine in general and share his passion for BC wines in particular. Jay pointed me in the direction of the “golden mile” of Okanagan wineries between Oliver and Osoyoos. My favourite stop was the Burrowing Owl Estate Winery – a southwestern mission-style structure with an elegant restaurant, The Sonora Room, that looks out over dramatic dark hills and miles of golden and red vines.

Ten minutes south of Burrowing Owl, I heard myself announcing “I’m in Santa Fe” to the empty car. The change in landscape from Naramata’s gentle green slopes to brown hills and sagebrush is startling. The Nk’Mip (pronounced Inkameep)Cellars belong to the native band of the same name and look out over Osoyoos in the heart of the pocket desert that stretches all the way from the Sonora desert in Mexico. Signs on the road here warn of rattlesnakes. It’s hard to believe that I’m just 80 miles down the road from Mission Hill’s bell tower. I could have driven the length of the Okanagan’s wine country in less than two hours. But why on earth would anyone want to? feature the Naramata Heritage Inn and for 10 nights, including Air Canada flights and intermediate car hire would cost from £1387
Quail's Gate Estate Winery: 1 250 769 4451
Therapy Vineyards & Guesthouse:
Burrowing Owl Estate Winery: 1 250 498
Nk’Mip Cellars: 1 250 495 2985

Bear Watching in British Columbia

When Michael Allen got married on Whistler Mountain four bears
appeared at the wedding.

"They always show up where I am," shrugs Allen, a 41 year old British
Columbia native whose wide face and stocky build are reminiscent of the
animal that has been his lifelong obsession. And no, those four bears didn't
come and stand on the groom's side for the wedding photo. "They just
grazed close by."

These days Michael is known as the bear man in Whistler which, in addition
to being the leading North American ski resort, is also in the heart of
black bear country. About 300 black bears live in the area. Between June and
October Michael runs bear-viewing tours in the early mornings and at dusk.
On this very hot summer evening in late July our group of five travellers
has joined him in a bumpy, dusty ride across the summer ski slopes to
mid-mountain where the bears like to graze at twilight.

A decade or so ago local policy was to shoot bears that ventured too close
to a village that was beginning to attract as many visitors to its summer
activities of mountain biking, rafting and hiking as to its ski slopes.

Bears are, of course, safely asleep in their dens in the winter. Unwary
skiers and snowboarders frequently skim a few feet from the head of a
sleeping bear. But in the summer everyone is out on the slopes. Two
mountain bikers once came careering around a bend and crashed into a grazing
black bear. Nobody was hurt but all parties were extremely surprised. Local
authorities needed to find a way for the bikers and the bears to co-exist.

"Cometh the hour, cometh the man." Fourteen years ago, Michael Allen, a
resident of Trail, BC, came to Whistler with a request to study the resort'
s bears. A self-described loner with little interest in a formal scientific
education , Allen has felt an affinity with bears since the age of 12.

"I couldn't figure out why everybody was so scared of them. At first I was
nervous but the fascination outweighed the fear. I would go out and my mom
would drag me back. Pretty soon she realized that I was probably safer out
with the bears than hanging out with the other kids at the local pool hall."

Up here on the mountain, we've yet to see a bear. Michael is unconcerned.
He passes the time by taking us to a bear den deep in the woods. It has been
hollowed out of a tree trunk which surprises everyone in the group. We'd all
imagined caves. "That's Yogi," says Michael. As we fight off the black
flies, gnats and mosquitoes that throng around us, (insect repellent and
long pants are essential) Michael, who seems to be of no interest to the
bugs, tells us a few more bear facts.

Bears burrow into their dens in November, eating one last meal of wood
chips, pebbles and bear hair that will plug them up and close down their
digestive system for the seven month hibernation. Their heart beat will slow
to about 8 beats a minute. Sometime in January during hibernation, a female
bear will give birth to one or more babies the size of a banana.

I'm wondering why humans couldn't come up with such a simple system when
suddenly as the evening cools, the bears start to appear. First we glimpse
a yearling - a year old bear - on the edge of the forest, then in a meadow
of purple lupin and scarlet Indian paint-brush, Michael recognizes the bear
he has named Daisy, a very shy and rarely seen mother with her lone cub.
Soon the skittish Daisy has disappeared into the undergrowth.

Back in the jeep, Michael negotiates some vertiginous descents as he tells
of seeing a yearling asleep on top of a ski station coke machine and of
another bear sprawled across a chair lift.

"Ah, there she is, there's Jeanie," he says suddenly as we stop near the top
of Olympic ski run and see, less than a hundred yards away, a brownish
black bear and her two cubs ambling across the slope. Michael has known
Jeanie since he came to Whistler. He named her after his Scottish
grandmother, has an obvious deep affection for her, describing her as being
one of the "smartest, most adaptable bears." Jeanie has recently been
fending off the attentions of Slim, a male bear who wants to mate with her.
But a female bear with cubs is physically incapable of mating so Slim has
twice attempted to kill her young. "He's a very handsome bear - kind of the
Brad Pitt of the males here - but very aggressive," says Michael. "He's not
real keen on me. He hit me on the back of the head with his paw recently so
I hit him on the head with a log."

Tonight Jeanie is grazing peacefully with her cubs. We climb out and follow
behind Michael in a nervous huddle . Mothers with cubs are notoriously
aggressive but not, it seems, if they know Michael. He murmurs softly to her
as we follow her up the mountain track. She lets us get within fifty yards
of her and her cubs then wanders off into the dark forest.

The next day I am tired. The combination of fear, excitement, and bumping
around in a jeep has left me happy to stay in down in Whistler Village. In
honour of my encounter the previous evening, I eat dinner at the Bearfoot
Bistro. This restaurant has the finest wine cellar in Whistler and a menu
that features contemporary Canadian dishes such as Roast of Wild Arctic
Caribou or Roasted Atlantic Lobster with a white chocolate sauce.

As the light fades, I gaze out at the deceptively still, silent mountains
and wonder if Michael is up there whispering to Jeanie and her cubs or are
he and his old adversary Slim going another round in the forest?


Flights from London to Vancouver during bear-viewing season of late May to
October start at £401 plus tax on United Airlines.
Whistler is a two hour drive north of Vancouver. Perimeter and Greyhound
provide bus service.
The Fairmont Chateau Whistler has a "Wild For Bears" package that includes
accommodation, breakfast and a black bear tour : $349 Cdn per person based
on double occupancy. All profits from the tours go towards
funding bear research.
The Bearfoot Bistro - 4121 Village Green, Whistler -

The Singing House by Janette Griffiths

The Singing House by Janette Griffiths

You can buy my novel from

The Courtyard in August

The Courtyard in August by Janette Griffiths

You can order my novel from Amazon

Spa, Aboriginal Travel and Holistic Resorts of British Columbia

Do you believe in signs? And if so, do you act on them? Last year I started to get strong pointers, what New Agers would call, “messages from the Universe”, sending me in the direction of Vancouver and British Columbia. A character in my novel, The Courtyard in August, wrote a country song called “My life is at a level crossing and God won’t lift the gate.” When I found myself at a similar intersection, I decided to lift the gate myself but I wasn’t quite sure where to go. I’d written a couple of novels that had sold well but not changed my life. I was currently without a partner and my mother had recently died. She was old, it was expected, I kept busy and hoped the grief might be brief.

The first pointer came from an astrologer who deals in relocational astrology - the study of which places on the globe hold strong planetary influence for an individual. She said that a Jupiter line ran through my chart in Vancouver and that this represented spiritual growth, prestige and expansion: In BC, I would embark on a spiritual journey, prosper, and probably grow fat.

As I cleaned out my mother’s flat, I found a compass from the Vancouver tourist board saying “Chart a course in our direction.” While sorting through old manuscripts one day, a five year old postcard from my best friend dropped at my feet. It showed a sleeping bear on a rock and said, “In Vancouver and dreaming of you.”

“Enough already,” said I and with the help of a tiny inheritance, boarded a plane. The Canadian West Coast is, like California on the American West Coast, a place at the far end of a continent that often attracts people who are seeking a nameless something new in their lives. But BC has Canadian understatement and common sense thrown in. The wilderness is at the back door - (black bears occasionally stroll across patios in North Vancouver) and the Indian or First Nation presence is beginning to exert an influence on the region’s spiritual and cultural life.

Things get off to a good start. On my first evening in Vancouver, I share a hot-tub with Terence Stamp at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. Our thighs actually brush as we each move around in search of the most powerful jet. But I don’t think Stamp notices; he’s perfected the “stare off at a distant mountain look” of the long-term famous. And in this case he has real mountains to contemplate - Vancouver sits on a spectacular harbour surrounded by snow-capped summits.

Hot-tubs and movie stars are not, however, what this trip is about. I am staying true to that Jupiter line and looking for the more spiritual elements. Even in this big hotel, I find a quieter more meditative world out in the magnificent herb garden on the hotel’s second floor. . The chef shares herbal remedies and recipes with regular guest, Terence Stamp and works with local First Nation leaders to incorporate their cuisine into the hotel’s menu.

Debra Fontaine cooks up fabulous vegetarian food at the Hollyhock holistic retreat, an hour’s floatplane flight north of Vancouver on Cortes Island. Hollyhock is to Canada what Skyros in Greece is to Europe: a resort cum retreat set on a white sand beach on a lagoon-like sea with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. Like Skyros, Hollyhock attracts the finest speakers on subjects as diverse as Shamanic journeys, Tibetan Buddhism, songwriting, yoga and didgeridoo playing.

On a sunny afternoon, I take the floatplane out of Vancouver harbour, out over all the yoga studios and coffee shops of this West Coast city, over the snow-capped mountains and the dense green forest of Stanley Park along the coastline of Vancouver Island to Cortes Island and Hollyhock

I have ambiguous feelings about places like Hollyhock. I know there will always be galumphing steely-haired women dressed in floaty purple dresses who will freedance around a bonfire or hottub while they liberate their spirit after the sauteed tofu supper. And I’m pretty sure that someone will find an excuse to be naked before my three day stay is out. So when Dina, the general manager of Hollyhock welcomes us all at dinner and says “Our purpose at Hollyhock is to provide a safe place that will hold you while you explore and grow,” I look at the strapping Seattle attorney on my left as he shovels down a second helping of the excellent Thai noodles and wonder just how much holding he needs.

The next day I have the best massage of my life in a cabin in a woodland clearing where, and I’m not making this up, fawns frolic and foxgloves blow in the breeze. Walking back through Hollyhock’s exuberant flower and vegetable garden, I encounter a hummingbird. In native Indian belief this little creature is a sign that healing and joy will come after a time of sorrow. Out in the pine forest, a class of didgeridoo students are looking for all the world like eccentric elephants as they curl up in tree trunks and blow that primordial sound out into the woods.

Hollyhock is not cheap but by the final night, I was almost convinced of everyone’s need to find the money to come up here and meditate and drum and blow and breath or whatever. Then we were all led to the beach for a Buddhist blessing of the ocean which was just fine until one of the didgeridooers broke off and flung himself naked into the freezing water. Several others followed and splashed and shrieked gamely while their more personal parts told the truth and withered. I retreated to the perfect peace of my cabin in the pine forest.

At sunset on the beach in Quadra Island just a ferry ride from Cortes, I’m scouring the rocks looking for the centuries -old petroglyphs that the native peoples once carved when I become aware that in the sky another creature has its head down and is scouring the beach and finding me. A bald eagle is swooping low over the water.

Next morning the eagle is perched in a tree above the balcony where I am drinking a cup of tea at the Tsa Kwa Luten lodge, an Indian-owned and operated luxury resort on Quadra Island. The lodge was designed to resemble a traditional west coast “Gukwdzi” or Big House. It’s a dramatic cathedral-ceilinged, cedar and glass structure looking out over treacherous Discovery Passage and the snowy mountains beyond. Captain George Vancouver first made landfall just along the coast at Cape Mudge and in nearby Cape Mudge Village, the Kwalgiuth Museum is known for its fine collection of First Nation ceremonial regalia.

To the native or First Nation people of this region, the eagle is a symbol of power; its down is a symbol of peace and friendship. There is even a Canadian law that forbids anyone other than a native owning an eagle feather. Just beyond my balcony the gardener looks up at the bird looking down at us and says,

“With his eyesight, he can see every pimple on our faces, every vein in the whites of our eyes.” And he points out the bird’s enormous nest in the tree and explains that nests are passed down from generation to generation and that this one is probably at least fifty years old.

I decide to walk the trail along the seashore that leads to the Indian Village at Cape Mudge. The village is a humble cluster of small, trailer style houses, a school , a playground and a church and cemetery where some of the graves are curious hybrids of Christian and Native belief: white crosses with a raven’s head. The museum is closed for renovation. A carved wooden welcome figure still stands its arms outstretched at the entrance but a notice says that important restoration work is being done. I’m sitting wishing for a cappuccino when an Indian woman passing in a Range Rover rolls down her window and says the place should reopen in 2002. She takes me into the Band House, the local native community centre, serves me coffee and tells me that most foreign visitors to the island come from Germany. “They know more than I do about our culture and are very big on reenactments.”

When I prepare to leave Tsa Kwa Luten the next morning, the eagle is still perched above my balcony. As I slide the window closed, he utters one cry: “Good to hang with you,” he just said, smiles the bellboy who takes my bags.

Killer whales or orcas are in fact dolphins. To the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific coast, all great chiefs who die are transformed into orcas. The orca is believed to be closely related to the human thus allowing transformation from man to killerwhale. The killerwhale symbolizes long life.

In Victoria, that all too English capital of BC on Vancouver Island, I’m staying at another symbol of long life, the grand old Empress Hotel. These days even the Empress is dabbling in the New Age with plans for a holistic spa to be opened in early 2002. But for all the English colonial gentility of the hotel’s ritual afternoon teas and curry buffets, wildness is, as always in British Columbia, just around the corner, this time in the form of the resident pods of killer whales that patrol the waters around Victoria harbour. On a sunny July morning I sign up for whale watching and make my way out of the hotel and walk along the harbour to the wharf . Victoria does still have a lot of the dowager in her and today, as every day on the jetty, a Filipino nurse pushes a huddled resident of one of the many nursing homes in a wheelchair to take the sea air.

Minutes later a dozen other tourists and I are skimming out of Victoria Harbour in a zodiac motorized raft. Soon we see whale spouts a few hundred yards from the boat. Brett, the young marine biologist who accompanies us, recognizes and can name each member of the various resident pods around Victoria Harbour. The arching black masses that move rhythmically towards us now are sleeping he says. In this state they have closed down one half of their brain and ensuring that each of them is touching another, they move as one in a trance like, semi-watchful state through the water. They suddenly disappear for what Brett calls a deep dive. We wait and watch on the still, quiet waters, each of us trying to calculate where the pod will reappear. But all is silent, the sea looks empty. My arms and eyes ache from peering through the binoculars. Then three orcas surge out of the water within feet of the raft.

They are emerging from sleep,” says Brett as one whale in particular leaps out of the water. “That’s the matriarch - the head of the whole pod. She’s 92 years old.” And as this grandmother arches and swoops, I look back towards Victoria Harbour and think of the old genderless person wrapped in their blanket in the wheelchair on the jetty and conclude that those Indian chiefs knew a thing or two when they chose to transform into whales.

The wolf is revered because of his hunting prowess. Wolf also symbolizes family and togetherness.

I’m standing on a jetty clutching the paddle of an Indian canoe. All around me is the royal blue water of Deep Cove, an exquisite fjord-like inlet a few miles east of Vancouver. The local Tsleil-Waututh tribe or “people of the inlet” run an eco-tourism venture here that introduces visitors to the ways of their people through such activities as canoe trips, drum-making workshops and tours of First Nation sites

When I arrived at Deep Cove on this hot August morning, I was carrying my note book and camera. Justin George the director of Takaya tours handed me this paddle. “Thought you were going to sit back like Cleopatra?”. His grandfather was Chief Dan George who was also an actor, nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Little Big Man His community of about 500 people share Vancouver with the Musqueam tribe. They have recently elected their first woman chief.

Out on the jetty, Justin’s cousin sings a greeting song that “will link the spirit of everyone who hears it here at the harbour. It will reach out to your loved ones - the people that you care about, here and in the world of spirit.”. And he starts to drum and chant. Indians do not perform. There is never a sense that their ego is involved in their actions. This young man moves seamlessly from a brief, gentle explanation of the song to the song itself. We are just a few miles away from the highrises of downtown Vancouver but here in this cove of deep blue water, surrounded by lush green mountains we seem to step briefly outside of frenetic Western time. And as he sings I find myself believing for a moment that this incomprehensible song by someone from so far away will reach my dead and desperately missed English mother.

And so for all my travels, I was brought back to where I began - a forty something woman who needed to grieve and to learn from the native culture of a gentler and, for me, more believable afterlife. And to share ebullience and irresistible energy with the leaping old lady whale and stillness with the watchful eagle. I had followed the signs to learn that we are all part of it all.

The Romance of Canadian Rail

When Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint up to the top bunk in the sleeping compartment of his train in North by North West, it’s the culmination of a romantic, sexy train encounter – particularly for the 50s. Since I first saw that film, I have longed to travel in a sleeping car crossing the vast North American continent.
And if Cary Grant and the movies provided the romance, it was “Canadian Sunset,” a happy, corny kind of a song from the same era, that provided the destination. “A weekend in Canada, a change of scene was the most I’d bargained for” sang Andy Williams of his ski train to romance in the Canadian mountains. For a child growing up in Twickenham, just southwest of London, this image of crimson skies reflecting on snowy mountains all viewed from a train of young, handsome skiers was a deliriously romantic if perplexing fantasy. Which train Andy ? What scene?
When I got a chance to make a winter crossing of the WHOLE of Canada from Halifax, Nova Scotia in the east to Vancouver in the west, well all those years of longing for the romance of great train travel seemed about to be satisfied.
“Canadian Pacific carry me 3000 miles,” sang the appropriately named Hank Snow ‘through the valleys and the forests….to the sunshine of her smile” Well Hank must have got on in Toronto because my journey will carry me over 4000 miles through gentle Nova Scotia woodlands, along the dull business traveller’s corridor between Montreal and Toronto, up into the tough, gnarly Canadian shield of lakes and forests, across a vast stretch of prairie to meet the grandeur of the Rockies and the lush and lovely Pacific Coast beyond..
But before the scenery even begins to unfold, the idea of sleeping on a train that is moving through all that landscape is high romance in itself. These days, many of the more luxurious Canadian train rides send their passengers to luxury hotels at nightfall.where they are guaranteed a stable night’s sleep in an unmoving bed. But it’s the rattle, the rhythm and the raising the blind in the morning not knowing quite where you are that I am seeking.
I am well served on the first part of my journey – The Ocean from Halifax to Montreal . This train has a newer rolling stock than its big brother, The Canadian, which covers the big trek from Toronto to Vancouver. The Ocean leaves Halifax in the early afternoon and arrives in Montreal the next morning at 8 am. The sleeping compartments actually provide showers in the individual bathrooms whereas The Canadian only has shared showers in the corridors.
I spend a couple of days of truly bittersweet tourism in and around Halifax. I defy anyone to visit the Titanic exhibit at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic and remain dry-eyed (Halifax seamen went out to bring back the dead bodies from the Titanic wreckage.) In the same museum, the audio-visual account of the Halifax Explosion tells another heart-rending, very dramatic tale of the 1917 explosion of a French munitions ship in the harbour ; this resulted in the biggest man-made explosion in history with the exception of the nuclear bomb.
The antidote to such drama is a ride down Nova Scotia’s lovely South Shore to Peggy’s Cove and Mahone Bay. And that same mellow feel - snow-covered woods, a glimpse of the Atlantic - continues as The Ocean travels to the Bay of Fundy and heads towards New Brunswick.
Next day, after a peaceful night in a wide comfortable bunk bed in my sleeping compartment, with no sign so far of Cary Grant, I make the connection through from Montreal to Toronto where I have to overnight before heading out on The Canadian from Union Station at 9 am.
This train is the Big Deal in Trans-Canada travel. It boasts a couple of glass-roofed dome cars, glamorous stainless steel rolling stock from the 50s and a champagne welcome for passengers travelling in the sleeper section.
Was it the champagne or did Ontario really go on forever? I enjoyed it – settled as I was in the two person sleeping room that I shared with a friend. During the day time, comfortable armchairs are set out and we could read and write and watch the white world outside whisk by. During dinner in the elegant pink and silver dining car, the chairs mysteriously disappeared and our bunk beds awaited complete with a chocolate on the pillow. Single travellers are disadvantaged on this journey: their compartment is very narrow with a bed that folds down over the toilet lid. .
Ontario was still there the next morning when I woke up to gaze out at the tight tangles of woods and lakes that make up the Canadian Shield. As the second day on the train progressed the world outside remained white with just an occasional glimpse of a lone dog-musher out on a lake or a snowmobiler roaring through a forest. The Shield turned to Manitoba prairie in the early afternoon. Via Rail tries to programme this journey to ensure that the most scenic parts of the route are visible during the day time and that we sleep through the vast, flat prairies of Saskatchewan. They also provide food that represents the region we are crossing – lake trout in Ontario, bison in Alberta, salmon when we headed into BC.
By day three, when I wake up to glimpse an Edmonton rush hour traffic jam outside my window, well I have completely bonded with the train and am a little sorry to disembark at Jasper where I have programmed a day of sightseeing in the Rockies. Then a local guide takes me for a moonlight walk through the woods complete with lamp on my head and cletes on my boots, to discover the ice cathedral that is the frozen, mysteriously beautiful Maligne Canyon..
Next day when I board in the afternoon, I head straight for the Dome Car in order not to miss the spectacular views of BC’s Mt Robson and Yellowhead and Moose Lakes. On this winter trip, night comes too soon, as does the morning and the end of this great journey for when we wake up at 7am the next day, we are already approaching the outskirts of Vancouver. A gentle rain replaces the snow, cherry trees are in blossom and I step out of my cosy home of the last 5 days into one of the most beautifully situated cities on the planet. .
The Vermonter
I discovered The Vermonter by accident one January day when snow had delayed flights out of New York and I opted instead for this leisurely, magical journey from Penn Station through a New England winter to Burlington, Vermont. The train travelled alongside the frozen Connecticut River, past Vermont’s Green Mountains and through Brattleboro where Kipling once lived and wrote The Jungle Book. We carried skiers to Sugarbush and Stowe and waved to ice fishermen out on frozen lakes The Vermonter delivered me into Burlington, an attractive bookish town on Lake Champlain, in the late evening.

The Cascades

This is a short but spectacular route that runs from Seattle, Washington along the coast to Vancouver, BC. Travellers heading northbound from Seattle into Canada take the train at breakfast time and settle in for a gentle amble (the 141 mile journey takes just under 4 hours)almost entirely along the Pacific coast to accompany their eggs and hash browns. Southbound out of Vancouver, the train leaves in the evening in time for a Canadian Sunset over the Pacific to accompany dinner in the dining car.

The Adirondack

The Adirondack has been described by National Geographic Traveller as “one of the 10 great train rides in America.” Most Amtrak trains run at a sedate pace and the Adirondack takes a leisurely ten hours, following the banks of Lake Champlain and the course of the Hudson River as it travels from Montreal to Manhattan. The train travels past battle fields of the American Revolution and the mansions of Hyde Park where Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had their home. This is a train to take in late September or early October in the company of the glorious reds and golds of a North American autumn.
The Malahat
The Malahat is a local train line that runs from Victoria on Vancouver Island to Courtenay. Locals advise travelling only as far as Qualicum Beach in order to experience the most scenic part of the ride, have a leisurely lunch (there is no food served on this train) and ride back to Victoria. The Malahat travels through forest, over two precarious trestles and across the lush Cowichan valley. It even occasionally stops for bungee jumpers on the bridge over the Nanaimo river.

Travel Notes

Air Canada flights to Halifax and back from Vancouver start at £479 including tax.
For more general information on holidaying in Canada please click on
VIA Rail Canada
Travel with The Independent Traveller, 01509 618800 The Independent Traveller can organize tailor-made cross Canada rail trips, priced according to itinerary.
Low season (1 Nov-31 May) Canrail passes start at £269 per person for 12 days train in a month. But this only includes a seat.
The Silver and Blue sleeper trains start at £600 per person in low season including all meals on board.
Janette Griffiths is a novelist, travel writer and broadcaster who currently divides her time between Vancouver and Paris. She would take a train across the Atlantic if it were possible. In addition to her great train journey across Canada, in the past year she has travelled by train across Norway and on a night train called ‘Don Giovanni’ from Venice to Prague.