When the demands of our jobs and personal lives (her married life and my search for one) parted like the Red Sea, our first thought was to pack our bags and high-tail it to a place that had the sophistication of a big city, the laid-back vibe of a resort community and only required a very easy intracontinental plane ride.
A tall order, for sure. What we wanted was a lot of everything … a vacation that would leave us feeling rested and uplifted, and yet feeling like we experienced something fresh and cultural.
Vancouver ended up being an easy and seductive solution. Like a fine multi-ply cashmere sweater, it is the perfect one-size fits-all-city — a warm, welcoming thing that easily conforms to everybody's sense of style. While this was my friend Leyla's first time in Vancouver, it was my fourth.
Leyla simply wanted the newness to wash over her. I was chomping at the bit to find an undiscovered gem or two — perhaps, this city's Punjab Market or Commercial Drive — one of the newer "it" neighborhoods loaded with eclectic one-off boutiques.
The hotel is make-or-break for the ideal weekend, and there is much to be said about spa services and other amenities, such as those little bath accessories we love, cool decor and concierge staffers that give you information you need without coming off like a radio spot.
In our research for Girl's Weekend packages, we found the Westin Grand Hotel (www. Westin.com; Grand Vancouver, flanking uber-trendy Yaletown) and the Kimpton Pacific Palisades Hotel (www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com; along main shopping drag Robson Street) both ideal choices, but for very different reasons.
The Westin Grand Hotel unites reliable, upscale chain quality with the intimate charm of a good boutique hotel, minus boutique attitude. The staff proved consistently that they knew what they're doing, especially with the in-house spa (with Eminence products and relaxation-inducing facials), shopping guidance and awesome views of Yaletown (even during our murky-weather stay).
And then there is the near-perfection that is Aria, their hotel restaurant that actually boasts more local clientele than visitors thanks to its emphasis on local produce and a stellar British Columbia wine list.
Though the sunny, lounge-y Pacific Palisades is a high-concept boutique hotel, it offers an irresistible brand of trendy, right down to the staff, public areas and fully loaded suites (such as the "South Beach," with stunning mountain views). Throw in manicures, an on-premises art gallery, stylish snacks (gourmet ice-cream, truffle-oil popcorn, taro chips) sent up to our room and British Columbia Icewine (from Liberty, the great wine retailer downstairs), and we're good to go — or stay, truth be told.
A staff that knew the bus system inside-out also scored serious points with us. Zin, adjacent to the gallery, was our favorite restaurant of the trip, thanks to dishes and cocktails made with all-local ingredients and flavors that were even better than the presentations … and the presentations were spectacular!
The ambiance, meanwhile, was utterly "Sex and the City"-fabulous across the board, down to the sexy red decor and electronic music mixed by one of our waiters, a lovely personal touch. Because executive chef Chris Whittaker wanted to show off what he could do, we were offered a tasting menu tailored to our palate quirks — kosher, and mostly vegetarian, with salmon and sea bass.
The other essential element of a weekend escape is the day spa. While Vancouver is dotted with everything from old-school pampering (like the Westin Grand) to edgy relaxation spots, our favorite, hands-down, was the Absolute Spa at the Century Hotel (www.absolutespa.com). Though we both found our Coconut-Mango Mist body treatments absolute bliss, we were able to stretch their retreat to maximum effect with a complimentary spa lunch and a nicely appointed lounge and steam room.
And then, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia with its nature trails, totem poles and richly moving history of Canada's "First Nations" people offered us an intellectual sort of massage. As Jewish visitors, we could relate to its beautifully executed displays focused on First Nations people, especially as the exhibits drew parallels to ways Jews and other minority groups have been treated through the centuries.
We also explored Vancouver's relatively small but thriving Jewish community, thanks to tips offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (www. jewishvancouver.com). More inspiration could be found via a collection of Emily Carr's work (Canada's equivalent to Georgia O'Keefe) at the Vancouver Art Gallery, much of it capturing British Columbia native cultures and natural beauty.
One of Vancouver's most famous cultural institutions, however, remains Chinatown, which has recently undergone an extensive makeover, with fresh coats of paint making tea shops, herbalist parlors and take-out restaurants all the more alluring.
And while we're on the subject of food, we were delighted to discover that most of the restaurants recommended to us by locals — both upscale and casual — continued the "local products" and "cultural-fusion" themes without the overall effect of being too pretentious. Better still, most places readily adapted their signature dishes to suit Leyla's vegetarian and kosher requirements. By the time the meals were over, we felt like we had known many of the waiters since childhood.
Everywhere we went, random people on the street who overheard bits and pieces of our conversation were quick to interject and put in their two cents on all the must-try's and must see's.
A restaurant called Lift offered several exceptional fish dishes and an amazing Cornish-hen dish, as well as gorgeous views outlining Stanley Park.
Because there is life before dinner, however, there was always an excuse to refuel. And while Vancouver now seems to have a Starbucks on every block, many other great alternatives exist, such as the made-in-Canada chain Blenz Coffee (www. blenz.com), as well as Yaletown hangouts Café Artigiano and Death by Chocolate.
When it was just chocolate we were craving (which is actually a lot of the time), we ventured into Chocolatl to feast our senses with their global selection of decadence.
Though we loved the random snacks we worked through during our strolls around town, Connie's Cook House (which broke up our shopping day in Kitsilano) offered budget-priced lunch specials with food as yummy as the prices.
Vancouver, as it turned out, was not just a great escape, but provided a cleansing for the senses.
To learn more, visit the Vancouver Tourism Office at: www. tourismvancouver.com.