December in Europe is beautiful and the traditional Christmas markets are a way to experience the best of the holiday season. Of course, it’s not always possible to hop on a plane and cross an ocean. I couldn’t fit it in this year so I started thinking about a way to come as close to a European experience as possible without crushing my calendar or busting the budget.
As it happens. Vancouver, British Columbia, launched a Christmas Market in 2010 and I’ve been hoping to get up to check it out. So, why not this year? I had some business in Portland and some research to do in Vancouver. With a little flexibility, I figured I could combine business and pleasure.
Sleeping in Seattle
Instead of flying straight home from Portland, I booked a flight to Seattle and a room at the Red Lion Hotel 5th Avenue. It’s one of my favorite hotels, comfortable, upscale, right in the center of my favorite shopping district and a short Light Rail ride from the airport.
I checked in, dropped off my bags and walked down to Nordstrom Rack for some Christmas shopping before the store closed. After a good night’s sleep (the Red Lion motto is “Stay Comfortable” and I did) I was up early the next morning and although I could have walked, the short taxi ride (it was just a $5 fare) to the King Street Amtrak station was well worth the extra minutes it gave me.
Riding the Rails
I’m a train lover and I’ve taken the Amtrak Empire Builder from Spokane to Seattle and Portland, and over to Montana, but I’ve never been on the Amtrak Cascades. It’s a fantastic three-hour trip and December is the perfect time to enjoy the stark winter scenery along one of the most beautiful coastlines in North America.
Rolling out of Seattle just before 8 a.m., the train followed Puget Sound and stopped in a number of cities and small towns before crossing into British Columbia. I got a cup of coffee and a piece of locally-baked banana bread in the train’s Bistro Car and had breakfast in my seat, my eyes on the view out the window. At one point a bald eagle who’d been sitting on the broken trunk of a dead tree, looked straight into my window before flying out over the Sound. I pulled out my iPhone and it was almost as if he was posing for me as he circled overhead. We arrived in Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station at around 11:30 a.m.
I checked in at the Loden Hotel and it is a gem. My room was elegant and understated and I was happy with an upgrade to one of the 2nd-floor terrace rooms. The Loden is conveniently located and I could walk to all the downtown attractions. (Winter rates are particularly attractive.)
The Vancouver Christmas Market
I’ve been to Christmas markets across Germany, from Munich’s large elegant market to the smaller, more provincial markets in villages along the Rhine. The Vancouver Christmas Market is incredibly authentic. The 45 charming wood huts were filled with all kinds of goodies. And the tasty potato pancakes, cheese and ham spaetzle, bratwurst, spiced sweet baked apples and, of course, souvenir mugs of Glühwein made me feel like I was at a true German market.
School children sang carols around the big tree in the center of the square and a Kathe Wolfhart pop-up shop was filled with handmade ornaments and crafts. I’ve always wanted one of the handmade candle carousels and I finally bought one while I was in Vancouver. (I knew I could carry it on the short flights and get it home safely, something that’s always hard to guarantee on long flights home from Germany.)
My instinct was spot on. Vancouver is a great place to get an authentic European Christmas market experience, as well as a little “Christmas in the Big City” fun, without leaving my favorite corner of North America.
I spent three days and nights soaking up the vibrant multicultural offerings of the city. Vancouver’s reputation as city of foodies is growing and I can testify to the variety of world-class cuisine. There are more must-visit restaurants than I can list here, but Tableau Bar Bistro at the Loden (mushrooms on toast!) Homer Street Cafe (outstanding rotisserie chicken), Burdock and Co., Hawksworth Restaurant, Pidgin (book the Chef’s table!) and Rangoli were standouts. And the pastries at Boucoup Bakery are worth a trip any time.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ (available at Auntie's Bookstore in Spokane) and can be reached at email@example.com