Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Y is for: YVR: Vancouver in 36 Hours + Cruising Aboard the Norwegian Joy

If you find yourself in Vancouver, B.C. for just 36 hours… chances are, you either decided to pop up for the weekend from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest or you are about to embark on an Alaskan Cruise.

I recently found myself there for the latter as part of a fun girls getaway with my friend Kate.

I’ve always wanted to visit Vancouver. Growing up in Montana and attending school in Washington state, it’s sort of ridiculous that I hadn’t made it there yet. And after a fast-paced 36 hours, I can tell you that a day and a half is not nearly enough time, and I already can’t wait to go back. 

The city itself reminds me of some of my other favorite coastal cities… sort of a mash-up between Portland, Seattle & San Francisco. With its vibrant downtown, a sprawling public park, and its residents’ love for the outdoors… Vancouver has plenty to see and do!

I also read somewhere that locals muse that “YVR” stands for “Yes, very rainy,” but we were lucky to get some mild, dry weather during our short stay.

Getting there & getting around: As the title of this blog suggests, Vancouver is served by YVR, the airport code for Vancouver’s international airport. Once on the ground, getting to Downtown Vancouver is a breeze, thanks to the city’s rail system. Once you’ve cleared customs at the airport, simply follow the signs for “Canada Line,” purchase a two-zone fare and take it to the city center. This trip cost me approximately $8 US, and took just over a half hour. 

Once downtown, you don’t really need a car, as most of the attractions are either walking and biking distance, accessible by ferry, or a short taxi ride. It’s worth pointing out that Vancouver does not yet have Uber or Lyft, which makes cabbing to places a little more challenging. We were able to hail taxis outside our hotel, but it often took 5-10 minutes, so allow yourself extra time if you plan to take a taxi to any of your destinations.

Where to stay: St. Regis Vancouver
If you are pressed for time as I was, it’s important to stay in the middle of all the action, so choose your hotel wisely. The good news is, there are plenty of luxury, boutique and budget hotels in downtown Vancouver to suit everyone’s tastes and needs. I chose the St. Regis because it’s conveniently located near two different rail lines and a quick walk from several restaurants and tourist attractions.

This hotel was built in 1913 but underwent a lavish, 12-million dollar refurbishment in 2009. It boasts all of the modern comforts you would expect in a property of this stature (like heated floors in the bathrooms!) with the charm of a historic building. Full breakfast is included in your room rate and features standard hot breakfast dishes such as omelettes or eggs, bacon and hash browns. The hotel thoughtfully provides free Fiji bottled water daily as part of your stay, as well as complimentary wifi and comfy robes. 

What to do: Rent bikes & Ride Around Stanley Park
When I posed the question on social media about what to see, do and eat in Vancouver, a flood of responses rushed into my timeline. Without a doubt, the number-one experience according to my Twitter and Instagram followers is renting a bike and riding around Stanley Park along the seawall. I was surprised to learn this public park is actually bigger than New York’s Central Park, with over a thousand acres and half a million trees. The loop around the outer edge of the park is 9 km, or about 5.5 miles, and will take about an hour as you ride along the coastline, taking in the impressive views along the way. (If biking isn’t your thing, there are also walking lanes.) 

It’s important to note, the bike path is one-way, starting at the north end of the park. For this reason, we chose a bike rental company near the northern entrance to make for efficient pick up and return. A one-hour rental at Spokes will run you about $8 US, with every quarter hour thereafter pro-rated. They include helmets and locks with your rental, so if you’d like to make a whole day of biking around the park & city, you certainly can! The bus to and from the park was a straight shot from our hotel, and costs about $2 US each way ($3 CAD.)

Visit Granville Island Public Market
If Stanley Park was #1, then Granville Island Public Market was definitely a close second in terms of Vancouver recommendations I received. It sort of reminded me of the Ferry Building in San Francisco with its specialty food shops and fast service restaurants. I couldn’t decide on just one, so I decided to curate a DIY picnic from a few of the delicious-looking food vendors. 

I started at Oyama Sausage, which is known for its patés, terrines and charcuterie. I was pretty hungry when I got there and unsure how many “grams” to order, so I accidentally ended up with about $20 worth of meat. I chose their wine soaked prosciutto, a duck and morel mushroom pate, and a pork and pistachio terrine. 

Next, I stopped at Benton Brothers for some soft cheese, and then swung by Terra Bread before enjoying my haul in one of the public seating areas looking out at the water. If cheese and meat aren’t your thing, there are plenty of fast-casual eateries to choose from, so just take a lap and pick the one that sounds best to you! 

We took a taxi to get there, but opted for the little Aquabus to get across the water on the way home, and then hopped on an actual bus back to the hotel from there.

Go shopping on Robson Street
If shopping is your thing, you have no shortage of options in downtown Vancouver. We spent a couple hours one morning checking out the several stores on and around Robson Street. (Remember… the exchange rate favors the US dollar by about 30%, so stock up on your favorite brands while visiting our neighbors to the north!)

Sample the Seafood!
Being a coastal city with a large Asian influence, Vancouver is known for its abundance of fresh seafood & sushi. Our first meal of the trip took us to Market by Jean Georges, located on the third floor of the Shangri La Hotel. The menu features Chef Ken Nakano’s take on Canadian and Japanese cuisines, effortlessly blending the two together as if they were always intertwined. 

I opted for the steelhead sashimi served on crispy rice for my appetizer. The freshness of the raw fish paired with the crunchy rice and accented with a hint of chipotle spice was the perfect way to start our meal. I also ordered the crispy local halibut, which was served with a medley of delicate mushrooms, a flavorful broth and topped with radish top salad. 

Of course, for the non-fish eaters like my travel companion, Kate, they have plenty of other options as well, including a Black Angus tenderloin served with smoked beef shank potatoes, as well as a gorgeous burrata salad with rhubarb and crispy prosciutto.

The cocktail program is one of the most creative and innovating ones I’ve ever experienced. The bar makes a variety of “hydrosols” in house, which are non-alcoholic infusions. For those who prefer not to drink, this provides a refreshing and fun way to enjoy beverages alongside the beautifully plated food. For those of us who do, it opens up an array of options for the mixologists to create cocktails with a lot of layers and depth. The spring menu is currently inspired by Cherry Blossom season, and I started off the evening with the Sakura in Bloom, which featured Sheringham Kazuki Gin, umeboshi & sour cherry syrup, freshlime juice, orange flower acid, egg white and soda. 

Check out Yaletown
It should come as no surprise that a city known for its seafood also excels in the sushi department. There are plenty of fine establishments where you can sample extremely fresh sushi preparations, but we chose Minami on our second and final night in Vancouver. Minami is located in an area of Vancouver called “Yaletown,” which is a young and hip neighborhood with an abundance of bars and restaurants. 

The menu isn’t your typical sushi menu, as they feature a lot of interesting options, including their signature “Aburi Oshi Sushi”, which are composed of little rectangles of rice with a seared piece of fish on top. I couldn’t decide, so I ordered the Minami Signature, which was basically a big sampler platter of all of their specialty items, including a few pieces of their signature rolls. I loved it because I was able to try a little bit of everything! My favorite bite was actually a simple preparation of ebi (or raw shrimp.) 

If you're not a fan of seafood, they did have a couple of non-fish options like steak or this wagyu with bacon, which was a fun twist on traditional sushi. Other sushi places that came highly recommended were Kirin, Miku & Tojo. However, sushi isn’t the only Asian cuisine that shines in Vancouver. The Chinese food there is said to rival some of the best Chinatowns on the continent. With our limited timeframe, we did not have the chance to experience this cuisine in Vancouver, but it’s definitely on my list for a return trip! 

Our Norwegian cruise ship was calling, so we were off to the next portion of our trip, but I can’t wait to return and spend more than 36 hours in this Canadian cutie!

Norwegian Joy:
Speaking of which... ALL ABOARD! I'd never been on a cruise before, so when I had the opportunity to check out Norwegian Cruise Lines newest U.S. based vessel, The Joy, I jumped at the chance! The only 2-year old ship recently underwent a massive refurbishment, making it even more luxurious and enjoyable for its passengers. Our three days barely scratched the surface of what this ship has to offer, so I will do my best to provide some of the highlights!

The State Rooms:
The accommodations range from interior rooms all the way up to gigantic and lavish suites on the Haven Deck. Our quarters fell somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, with a comfortably sized room, complete with a little balcony for enjoying the fresh ocean breezes. I was extremely impressed with the size of the bathroom... bigger than you'll find in most NYC hotel rooms (or apartments for that matter.) That said, you don't spend too much time in the rooms (unless you're on the Haven Deck with a private pool... at which point, you would have to drag me kicking and screaming out of my room.)

The food:
Being that this is a food blog first, I must address the restaurant situation on board the Joy, because it is truly impressive! I think part of my hesitation for going on a cruise previously was concern over the food quality or predetermined times for eating. Any of those trepidations were erased from the moment I had my first bite of food on board The Joy. The ship boasts 20 restaurants in all, including 10 that are considered specialty eateries. We had the chance to visit three of them for dinner, as well as a sampling of several of them at a specially curated lunch, so I'll do my best to give you the highlights! 

The specialty restaurants employ a la carte pricing (but at much lower prices than you would find at a regular restaurant), or you can book the "Free at Sea" promotion and select free specialty dining as one of your options. All of Norwegian's cruises are also considered "freestyle cruising," which means you can pretty much dine whenever and wherever you want (though reservations are recommended for the more popular restaurants... four of them highlighted below.)

Food Republic: Since we only had 36 hours in Vancouver, I was excited to learn our sushi adventure didn't end once we climbed aboard the ship. But Food Republic is not just a sushi restaurant. It is a mini trip around the world with a view of the water as you dine. The restaurant is a collaboration with the Pubbelly Restaurant Group out of Miami, which is helmed by 5-time James Beard Award nominee Jose Mendin, so it comes as no surprise this is one of the more popular NCL restaurants. 

The tapas offerings at Food Republic span cuisines from Japan, China, and even Peru. Food Republic employs a tablet ordering system, and our group selected a wide variety of sushi rolls, including one with tempura rock shrimp on top that I really enjoyed. We also ordered a few of the skewers for the non-fish eating crowd, and everyone left happy and excited for our next three days of stuffing our faces. You can find Food Republic on the Norwegian Joy, as well as the Bliss and Escape.

Cagney's Steakhouse
Cagney's is one of the Hallmarks of Norwegian Cruise Lines, and you will find a version of it on each ship of the company's fleet. You truly do feel as though you've stepped foot into a high-end oceanfront steakhouse with the white tablecloths and wood accents and an army of elegantly dressed waitstaff ready to cater to your every need. All of the meat is certified Black Angus beef, and the quality is noticeable. Each steak comes with your choice of sauce... I opted for the green peppercorn, which was a nice compliment to my perfectly cooked medium rare steak, though the chimmichuri looked fresh and delicious as well. Starters and sides are pretty much your standard steakhouse fare like oysters Rockefeller, shrimp cocktail, truffle mashed potatoes, loaded baked potatoes and mac 'n cheese.

Q Texas Smokehouse
I would classify myself as somewhat of a BBQ aficionado (I even judged a recent brisket competition back in NYC), so I was both excited and skeptical about a Texas Barbecue restaurant aboard a cruise ship. But again, I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food available at Q. The atmosphere is very Southern down-home rustic, with large wood tables, antique looking knick knacks adorning the booths and a wall of chopped wood. It's offered on both the Norwegian Joy and Bliss and is the company's first BBQ concept restaurant.

If you want a good sampling of all of the different smoked meats, go for the Pitmaster Platter, which comes with brisket, spare ribs, chicken and jalapeño cornbread (which was a huge hit at the table.) However, all of the meats are also available as single portions, which also come with the coveted corn bread. Make sure to save room for starters and sides, as this menu had several standouts in that department. We quickly devoured the deviled eggs topped with maple bacon, wavy cheese fries, charcuterie platter and fried okra. The restaurant also features live music and dancing available to all cruise goers each night until midnight. (And make sure you try the smoked peach margarita!)

Ocean Blue
We didn't actually have a chance to dine at Ocean Blue, but this is the ship's premiere seafood spot if you are more of a Pescaterian or just a seafood lover in general. We did, however, get to sample several of the Ocean Blue's offerings at a special tasting menu lunch, and the tuna tower as well as the lobster mac 'n cheese were favorites at the table.

Pulse Fitness Center & Spa
With all that food, it's a miracle I didn't gain 10 pounds on this trip, but I credit that in part to a couple of trips to the ship's ocean-facing gym, which is completely stocked with all of the state of the art equipment you could possibly need. And if classes are more your thing, they offer daily spin sessions, as well as mini-bootcamps. They also have personal trainers on hand to schedule private sessions or fitness assessments while you cruise. The fitness center is adjacent to the spa, which offers a full menu of services. We didn't have a chance to sample any of them, as the spa sessions booked up pretty much the first day, so definitely reserve this as soon as you are able if you plan to have a spa treatment on board.

The Activities:
Having never been aboard a cruise ship and not really knowing what to expect, I was sort of blown away by the sheer number of activities on board. Among some of the offerings: a laser tag course, two waterslides, a mini golf course and a VR game pavilion. There are also special wine tasting and cocktail events.

But, by far, the certainly the star here is the racetrack. The Joy, along with its sister ship, The Bliss, are the first cruise ships to offer go-kart racing while at sea. The best part is the speedway is located on the top deck, so you get a view of the ocean while you're zooming around the track, trying to outrace your friends and family. While the track pumps in racing sounds like revving engines and screeching tires, the cars are fully electric and can reach speeds of up to 30 mph!

Check out the little video I put together using my pocket gimble to capture some of the atmosphere from the track!

The Joy features a handful of nighttime entertainment options including a cirque de soleil/magic show as well as a live musical performance Footloose, and other nightly music and comedy entertainment. The quality was about what I would expect on a cruise... nothing compared to Broadway back home in NYC, but still a fun way to spend the evening and let your delicious dinner digest. (And the more I thought about it... I was actually very impressed with the dancers' ability to keep composure and time with the periodic rocking from the waves!)

The Norwegian Joy, along with its sister ship, Norwegian Bliss, are both available for seasonal trips to Alaska, the Mexican Riviera and the Panama Canal. What about you guys? Have you ever been on a cruise? If so, I want to hear where and what companies you recommend! 

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