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Japan Travel Tip: Skip Rush Hour in Downtown Tokyo or You May Experience This…
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A month before I was to head home after attending a year of high school as an exchange student in Japan, I asked a local what “Japanesey” things she recommeded I must do before leaving. Without skipping a beat she replied, “Go to Shinjuku station (which, at the time, was the busiest train station in the world) in Tokyo during the morning rush hour and see the train ‘pushers’.”

Although I was on the train daily and visited my sister and brother who worked in Tokyo, I’d never seen the ‘pushers’ I’d heard so much about. Who are they? These are men with crisp uniforms and white-as-snow gloves employed by the railway company (not police as the video below suggests) who spend a few hours each morning and evening cramming people into trains. Yes, cramming people into trains.

So, early one morning, off I went from Yokohama, where I lived, to Shinjuku station and met up with two other foreign exchange students from Australia and Canada. Wearing our school uniforms with cameras primed, we watched the ‘pusher’ spectacle unfold. We were speechless. And then we burst out laughing because we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Here’s a taste of what we saw:

Then the fun happens all over again five minutes later when another train arrives. Insane.

Alaska’s Spectacular White Pass & Yukon Route Railway

Alaska is an amazing place – one I recommend  you visit some time in your life. Although I’d worked in “The Last Frontier” one summer a few years ago, when I was there for a couple of weeks last month, I was still absolutely mesmerized by its natural beauty.

If you’re ever in the Alaskan town of Skagway, be sure to take a journey in the old-fashioned parlour cars of the famous White Pass & Yukon Route (WP & YR) train. Built in only 26 months, after blasting through coastal mountains, the 110 mile “railway built of gold” cost $10 million and took to the tracks at the turn of the 20th century during the Klondike Gold Rush. The railway connects the pint-sized port of Skagway to Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada and beyond to northwest Canada and the Alaskan interior.

In 1982, the WP & YR ceased operations when the Yukon’s mining industry collapsed as a result of  low mineral prices. Six years later, the railway reopened for tourists and today, the WP & YR carries over 450,000 passengers annually during the busy May to September tourist season. There are several train excursions to choose but the 3-3.5 hour narrated “White Pass Summit Excursion” is one a WP & YR employee recommended as the best choice, especially if you’re on a budget since the ride will set you back at least $110.  

Within just a 20 mile stretch, the train, pulled by vintage diesel locomotives, climbs almost 3000 feet. Spectacular scenery abounds as you’ll see glaciers, gorges, waterfalls and mountains. You’ll ride on cliff-hanging turns, through two spooky tunnels and a variety of bridges and trestles. The WP & YR is considered an International Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, a designation shared with the likes of the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal, and the Statue of Liberty.

Tips:

- Sit on the left side of the train. The train turns around in the middle of the journey and passengers switch sides so you’re able to get a view from both sides of the train but on the way back, people tend to get a wee bit sleepy.
- Get outside on the platforms that connect the cars, and enjoy the fresh air and exhilaration of being in the midst of unbelievable natural beauty.
- If you plan to head out on the platform, dress warmly, even if it’s a hot day in Skagway. As the train creeps north, it sure gets chilly!

Travel Agents’ Choice Awards 2010

Check out a few of the winners of the recently released Agents’ Choice Awards 2010 presented by the Canadian travel industry publications of Travel Press and Travel Courier. Votes came in from 3,867 travel agents across Canada.  Those who remain undefeated include: Gap Adventures, Walt Disney World and Trafalgar Tours.

Adventure Tour Operator

1)      Gap Adventures
2)      Goway
3)      Contiki

All-Inclusive Resort

1)      Sandals/Beaches
2)      RIU Hotels
3)      Bahia Principe

Canadian Tourist Attraction

1)      Banff, Alberta
2)      Niagara Falls, Ontario
3)      Whistler, BC

International Tourist Attraction

1)      Walt Disney World
2)      Eiffel Tower
3)      Great Wall of China

Car Rental Agency

1)      Avis
2)      Budget
3)      Hertz

Cruise Line

1)      Royal Caribbean
2)      Princess
3)      Celebrity

River Cruise Line

1)      Avalon Waterways
2)      Uniworld
3)      Viking River Cruises

Honeymoon Destination

1)      Jamaica
2)      Mexico
3)      Cruising

Motor Coach Operators

1)      Trafalgar
2)      Insight
3)      Globus/Cosmos

Winnipeg, Manitoba – Top 6 Downtown Hotels

Just back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. Having visited there over a dozen times, I’ve found that most travellers journey to Winnipeg more for business than sightseeing. Because of its central location in Canada, it’s a popular city for conferences and meetings so book your lodging early. If you’re heading to “The Peg” for business downtown, here are my top six hotel picks:

1) Place Louis Riel Suite Hotel
An “Insiders’ Select 2010 Winner” on Expedia and one of two hotels Frommer’s guidebooks chose as the best in town,  this hotel is where we had a very enjoyable stay. All rooms come equipped with a full-size fridge and stove AND, you get free internet and local phone calls. Other features include spacious rooms, great bath products, and contemporary décor with a Manitoba twist. On the premises are a restaurant (which served so-so breakfasts), small grocery store and fitness room. Be prepared to run into some interesting characters when walking around the neighborhood. But, I’m told by locals that this is one of the safer areas in the downtown core. Be sure to ask for a renovated room.

2) Humphry Inn & Suites
While the rooms here are your standard blah neutral ones, I’ve listed this as my second choice because of the great selection of amenities it offers. The Humphry’s perks include: complimentary parking, phone calls, hot/cold breakfast and internet access in the 24-hour business center. Rooms have microwaves, mini-fridges and you have access to their pool, hot tub, steam room and workout facility. It’s located on one of Winnipeg’s busiest and most famous streets so do ask for a quiet room that doesn’t face Main Street.

3) Inn at the Forks
This stylish, eco-conscious boutique hotel has received excellent reviews from several websites and guidebooks I consulted. It’s located at “The Forks” (see photo at right) which is one of the city’s best tourist attractions but the hotel is not as convenient to downtown as the others on this list. On offer are a spa, restaurant, workout facility and complimentary in-room internet. If you want a mini-fridge, you’ll need to request that one be delivered to your room. 

4) Fairmont Winnipeg
While I didn’t have an opportunity to do a site inspection of this property, it was either recommended or ranked high on the list of the websites and guidebooks I used during my research. Fairmont is an excellent brand of hotels but from reviews I read, this one is not quite on par with others in the chain which I’ve stayed at or rated when I was a hotel inspector. Guest services include two restaurants, a business centre, spa and health club. Sign up for the complimentary Fairmont President’s Club loyalty program (http://www.fairmont.com/fpc/) and you’ll get such privileges as complimentary in-room internet, free local calls, free health club access, complimentary use of TaylorMade golf clubs and more. 

5) Delta Winnipeg
This is another lodging option with uninspiring room décor but a great selection of amenities and is connected by an indoor skywalk to the Winnipeg Convention Centre. Their health club is the largest in Manitoba and includes indoor and outdoor pools as well as a whirlpool, sauna and workout area. They have a small gift shop, Elephant and Castle pub and a restaurant which combines “prairie fare with a global flair”. Rooms have free internet and local calls. Having grown up on the Canadian Prairies, I was captivated by the Manitoba landscapes (see photo at left) in the lobby and restaurant created by Romanian artist Gabriela Diaconu, who is based in Canada. Check out her work at http://artshock.com/category/image-galleries/prairie-landscapes.

6) Mariaggi’s Theme Suite Hotels
Although this property is geared towards couples rather than businesspeople, it’s such a unique hotel that I wanted to include it on the list. Ranked #1 on Trip Advisor‘s list of Winnipeg 53 hotels, Mariaggi’s is so popular because of its eight globally themed rooms – i.e. India, Rome, China, Indonesia, etc. Each room has a hot tub, steam unit, microwave and fridge. And, many have fireplaces while some even have pool tables and waterfall hot tubs. There are none of the amenities offered up by the above hotels (including telephones!) but with rates starting at $200+/night, there is obviously a demand!

Fun, Free Things to Do In Vegas

Not into gambling or nightclubs? There are plenty of fun, free things to do in Vegas. Here are my top picks:

View from the Mandarin Oriental – Drop by the 23rd floor of the luxe Mandarin Oriental for their magnificent view of the Strip.

Fountains of Bellagio – This dazzling show of water, music and light is destined to “romance your senses”. For show times, visit here.

Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens – The best time to take a quiet stroll through this floral masterpiece and snap some photos is early – before 9 am! Open 24/7.

The Mirage Volcano – Check out this audio/visual spectacle outside the Mirage Hotel erupting every hour on the hour from dusk to 11 p.m daily.

Lion Habitat – Stop by the MGM Grand Hotel for an up close and personal view of their fantastic felines. Viewing is from 11 am – 7 pm daily.

Fremont Street Experience – Step back in time and see a slice of vintage Vegas. You may even bump into Elvis…

Window Shopping – And don’t forget about the world-class shopping Vegas has to offer! Check out these hotel shopping arcades: Forum Shops (Caesar`s Palace), Grand Canal Shoppes (Venetian), Shoppes at Palazzo (Palazzo) and Miracle Mile Shops (Planet Hollywood).

Hotel Hopping – If you’re an interior décor aficionado, you’ll love exploring these chic hotels on the Strip: Bellagio, Caesar`s Palace, Encore at Wynn, Venetian, Thehotel at Mandalay Bay and Wynn.

Enjoy your stay!!

Where should you eat after all that sightseeing? Check out my post, Best Bets for Dining in Vegas.

Victoria, Canada – Top Hotel Picks

Just back from Victoria…British Columbia’s scenic capital. I highly recommend a visit to this coastal gem. Having visited Victoria over a dozen times for business and pleasure, I’ve stayed in a wide variety of accommodation. For maximum convenience and enjoyment, I recommend that you overnight it in the Inner Harbour area. As there is such a diverse lodging selection to choose from, let me save you time by providing you with my top hotel picks. Check kayak.com and hotelscombined.com for deals.

1)  Oswego Hotel
Tucked away in a residential neighbourhood, this cozy, contemporary boutique hotel has lovely West Coast-inspired décor, rooms with large windows and kitchens that include stainless steel appliances, slate floors and granite countertops. Be sure to drop by their O Bistro for beautifully presented dishes.

2)  Abigail’s Hotel
Housed in a 1930′s Heritage Tudor Mansion, this elegant small hotel has been recognized over the years for its outstanding service and gourmet breakfasts. Aside from its Old World charm, you’ll enjoy complimentary evening hors d’oeuvres, spa services and free parking.

3)  Empress Hotel  
This majestic Victorian style property showcases its turn-of-the-century grandeur. Condé Nast magazine’s 2010 Reader Choice Awards ranked it number one for hotels on Vancouver Island. Tea at the Empress has been a long-standing tradition (although many will say it’s overpriced) and their relaxing Willow Stream Spa was chosen by Condé Nast as one of the top five spas in Canada.

4)  Magnolia Hotel & Spa
Infused with European elegance, the Magnolia is blossoming into a popular boutique hotel. Frommer’s rated it the best choice for business travellers and noted its reasonable rates. Aveda products, in-room fruit and a complimentary continental breakfast are just a few of the extras on offer.

5)  Hotel Grand Pacific
The modern Hotel Grand Pacific offers rooms with panoramic vistas of the Inner Harbour. Its wide range of services and amenities including a fitness centre with yoga and Pilates classes, pool, steam room, sauna, spa and several dining options.

6)  Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour Hotel
Yet another strong showing in the Marriott chain, this highrise has tastefully decorated rooms, free high speed internet, a pool, whirlpool, fitness room and restaurant, among other amenities. And, it’s developed a solid reputation for friendly service and clean rooms.

7)  Inn at Laurel Point
Although not as conveniently located as the above properties, it has picturesque views of the harbor and elegant Japanese-inspired décor. Its restaurant, Aura, was recommended in 2009 by the restaurant reviewers of two of Victoria’s top newspapers as one of their favorite spots.

8)  Royal Scot Suite Hotel  
What this place lacks in design sense, it makes up for in many other ways. Situated on a quiet street, rooms are clean, spacious and have well-stocked kitchenettes. There is also a laundry room, games room, restaurant, pool, whirlpool, sauna, fitness room and courtesy shuttle. It won a Trip Advisor 2010 Travelers’ Choice Award and Frommer’s chose it as a best bet for families.

9)  Best Western Inner Harbour
Currently ranked #1 on Trip Advisor out of 74 Victoria hotels, this is a basic but decent place. Ya gotta love that they offer free parking, complimentary full breakfasts, a superb location on a quiet street, a fridge, microwave, balcony and outdoor pool…all for a reasonable rate.

Top Buffets & Restaurants in Vegas

With such an array of world-class restaurants dotting the Strip, it’s no wonder Vegas is a foodie’s paradise. Here are the best places to chow down during your desert stay:

Best Buffets

The Buffet (Bellagio) – Complete with a fine selection of Italian, Japanese, Chinese, seafood and American cuisine, this buffet is one I can definitely recommend.

The Buffet (Wynn) – Advertising itself as, “Tastefully conquering your every hunger pang…,” you’ll be treated to 16 live action cooking stations.

Carnival World Buffet (Rio) – With more than 300 dishes and 70 varieties of homemade pies, cakes and pastries, take a trip over to this tasty buffet.

Le Village Buffet (Paris) – Dine in a village-like setting and savor the tastes of five provinces of France as each station is themed for a particular province.

Spice Market Buffet (Planet Hollywood) – Mexican, Italian, Asian, Middle Eastern and American dishes are the stars at this popular buffet.

Best Restaurants

Alex (Wynn) – This French gem has won such prestigous awards as the Forbes Five Star Award, AAA Five Diamond Award of Excellence and two stars from Michelin.

Joel Robuchon  (MGM Grand) – A French phenomenon, it being the only three star Michelin rated restaurant in town probably says a thing or two.

L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (MGM Grand) – With its open kitchen, clients are offered a unique view of chefs creating tapas-style portions.

Michael Mina (Bellagio) – Crowned as “Chef of the Year” by Bon Appetit and San Francisco Magazine, Mina`s innovative dishes have garnered him a long list of accolades.

Nobu (Hard Rock) – Chef Nobu Matsuhisa is a rock star the world over when it comes to Japanese cuisine.

Vegas Hotel Recommendations

When you think of an “over the top” destination, Vegas likely makes it the top of the list due, in no small part, to its spectacular hotels. If you’re heading to LV, you have a dizzying array of lodging choices so here are my top picks for hotels.   

Stay Central
When I visited this desert oasis two years ago, I opted for the mammoth MGM Grand Hotel, one of the world’s largest. It was fine and the price was right  as I found a great flight + hotel package through  Expedia.ca. But, because it’s on the south end of the Strip, it meant logging more miles walking than if we’d been more centrally located. Unless you prefer to stay in Old Vegas, stick to the Strip hotels and lay your head on a bed between the Encore at Wynn (north end of the Strip) and the Bellagio (south end).       

Bello Bellagio
After visiting oyster.com (an exceptional hotel reviews site with “undoctored photography”), tripadvisor.com, Conde Naste Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards Travel, Leisure’s World’s Best Hotels and Lonely Planet’s Las Vegas City Guide, I decided on the chic Bellagio. I highly recommend it not only for its central location but also for its dreamy beds, excellent customer service, beautifully decorated rooms, spacious bathrooms, lovely pool area, classy ambience…You’ll love this resort! And the free fountain show taking place several times daily/nightly in the man-made lake bordering the Strip is not to be missed. For the best view, get a central spot on the Las Vegas Boulevard side. Ask for a room overlooking the lake! 

Bellagio Hotel

Other Luxe Picks
Other top luxury picks are the Italian-inspired Venetian and its newer sister property, the Palazzo. Wander the Grand Canal Shoppes at the Venetian – gondolas included!There are also two masterpieces by Steve Wynn, who put Vegas on the map. His Wynn and the recently opened Encore at Wynn hotels receive top marks. The only disadvantage to these “Wynners” is that they’re located at the north end of the Strip but you’re closer to Fremont Street in vintage Vegas and about a 15 minute walk to the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Venetian Hotel

Marvellous Mid-Range Megaresorts
If you’re working with a smaller budget, you’ll still get a lot of bang for your buck at two other behemoths. Choose the Mirage, one of Wynn’s earlier creations, and don’t miss their free volcano show “erupting nightly” out front. Caesar’s Palace has been a long-time hit as well and its Forum Shops is something else. Go see it!       

Caesar's Palace

         Hope you have an “over the top” experience during your visit to Vegas!       

Vegas Travel Pointers

Just back from a travel goods trade show in Vegas.  I’m a nut for interior decor and can (and did!) spend hours scoping out chic hotels along Las Vegas Boulevard (AKA The Strip). In a future post, I’m going to share my best bets for hotels but today, I`m going to provide some pointers to help you make the most of your stay in this desert oasis.

Time It Right - Keep money in your wallet and avoid the masses by going during the slower season which is  December and January (except during Christmas and New Year`s holidays). But steer clear of the city in early January when the annual Consumer Electronics Show draws over 100,000 attendees. Also, plan not to go during holidays and when big sporting or other mega conventions are in town because hotels jack up their prices. Contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority to find out when major events will be taking place. If you don`t whither easily in 40 degree weather, July and August are good bets too.

Think:  Package Deal - The last two times I’ve been to Vegas, I’d scoured the net for deals and both times it was a flight + hotel package through Expedia that won out. Expedia isn’t always the lowest for other destinations but it’s a good place to begin your Vegas search. If you’re Canadian and live near the US border, flying out of an American airport could save you some greenbacks. Here are budget airlines to consider: Allegiant Airlines, Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and AirTran. And take a look at hotelscombined.com.

Getting to the Strip - Since McCarran International Airport is situated a 10-15 min. drive from the south end of the Strip, if you`re travelling with others, it may be more cost-effective to take a taxi. If not, the going rate  for a shuttle is $6.50 one way or $12 return per person. I used Bell Transportation which was good and there`s Gray Line as well as several other companies. Both shuttle drivers I had were great sources of info so be sure to ask them for any insider tips.

Cruising the Strip - Car rentals aren`t necessary, especially when you factor in the cost for parking, gas and the rental itself. The Deuce double decker bus operates 24/7 and stops at “virtually every hotel and casino along the Strip”. On the bus, you must pay in cash and drivers don`t provide change. For more info about fares, please visit this link. Both times I visited, I often saw line-ups of tourists vying for room on crowded buses as often the drivers needed to leave people behind. There`s also the monorail but at $14 for a one-day pass ($5 per ride), it`s pricey, not as extensive as the bus route and, as author Sara Benson wrote in the Lonely Planet`s Las Vegas City Guide (which I recommend as it`s thorough, lightweight, reader-friendly and witty), some stations can be challenging to find.

In future posts, I`m going to share with you fun (and free) things to see and do and where the best buffets are. You`ll also find out a Vegas secret…where one of the best (free!) views of the Strip is.

Best Time to Visit Japan

Cherry blossoms are much like time machines for me. Seeing those exquisite pink petals peeking out around every corner here in Vancouver transports me back to when I studied and worked in Japan. The beloved national flower of this island nation, the cherry blossom rightfully takes centre stage each spring.

Planning a trip to Japan? If so, be sure to visit this fascinating country in late March or early April (depending on which area you’ll be visiting) when it’s “o-hanami” (cherry blossom viewing). Check out the Japan National Tourism Organization’s cherry blooming forecast map to time your trip right.

But, if you can’t make it in spring, it’s also picturesque in late October and early November with autumn foliage putting on its own spectacle. Visit this link for best places to visit to take in fall’s colourful delights.

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavillion) in Kyoto

No matter what time of year you visit, an absolute must-see city is Kyoto. The former cultural and political centre for 1100 years and once a national capital, spared of air raids during World War II, this national treasure is bejewelled with hundreds of temples and shrines. Fly into Osaka and make a bee-line to Kyoto. Other top picks for cities to visit would be Nara, Hiroshima, Nikko and Tokyo.

For a truly Japanese experience, stay in a ryokan, a traditional inn.

Their public transportation system is outstanding. Look into the Japan Rail Pass as it could save you a lot of yen.

Recommended guidebooks are the Lonely Planet, Frommer’s and Rough Guide. And, drop into a forum such as the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree for budget tips and advice from travellers who’ve been there recently. To enrich your experience, learn about Japan’s history, customs, art, music, food, sports, etc.

After a spring trip to Japan, you’ll never look at a cherry blossom tree again without thinking back in time to your voyage to the Land of the Rising Sun.