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Saturday, September 29, 2007
European Cheep Flights

When my friend from Hamburg, Germany, learned that I am going to be in London, he said that I have to come over and visit them in Hamburg. 
“Well, my trip is already booked,” I noted. 
“That’s not a problem; just go to ‘German Wings’ website and you can get a cheep flight from London to Hamburg,” he insisted.
“I don’t fly with cheep airlines,” I said. “They, cannot afford proper maintenance of their aircrafts.”
“But they obviously can.  In fact they are flying for years, and never had any accident.  They are actually expanding their fleet by a few new airplanes.” –  My Hamburger friend is an engineer at Airbus and he knows what he is saying.  So I agreed to check it out. I went to German Wings website (http://www.germanwings.com) and it turned out that they offered flights from London Gatwick (LGW) to Hamburg (HAM) for… £1 each way.  The total cost with all additional expenses (taxes, airport fees, etc.) was, I think, about £42 for a round trip from London, England to Hamburg, Germany, and back.

Out of curiosity I checked the cost of the flight with another European cheap airline that I heard about, the RyanAir  from Ireland.  It turned out that they offer a similar flight from London Stansted (STN) to Hamburg Lübeck (LBC), for only £0.10 each way and with lower additional fees. So their offer was, I think, thirty-something British Pounds for a round trip.  I did not know where the airport London Stansted is, but I had been to Lübeck in the past, and I knew that it is at least one hour drive away from the outskirts of Hamburg.  So, since German Wings were actually landing at the Hamburg Airport (HAM) the choice was simple.  I made the decision to spend a week in Germany, flying from London to Hamburg with German Wings.

“It’s about time to figure out, what the cheep flights are all about,” I said to myself.  “There is no problem with cheep flights,” said my London friend, when I broke the news to him, “except that you just have to take your own wrench with you in case you need to secure your seat to the floor,” he added jokingly…

Well, I decided to try it even without the wrench. And it worked pretty well!  To tell the truth, I did not see much difference between this flight and most other flights.  The most significant difference was that the seats were not assigned and I noticed some passengers trying to elbow their ways to get to the best seats.  I guess I was lucky as both times I got a seat in the first raw, just steps from the exit door…  The other difference was that there was only one flight attendant and there was, I believe, only one free drink offered during the flight.  However, since the flight doesn’t even take two hours, I might have as well done without any attendant at all…

To summarize, my first cheep flight was not a bad experience at all.  I got the chance to visit my friends in Germany and saved a bunch of money while doing that.

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Monday, September 17, 2007
Vancouver Rediscovered

The most recent time that Vancouver was in the focus of world’s attention was in 1986 when the city hosted the World Expo.  In the following years Vancouver transformed itself from a sleeping community to the world metropolis.  Year after year new 30 to 40 floor condominium towers are mushrooming not only on the previous Expo grounds (presently known as False Creek North) but in all other remaining corners of the city.  The previous warehouse district north of Expo grounds was converted into a trendy Yaletown community.  After renovations some of previous warehouses were turned into fancy loft buildings, the rest giving way to modern thirty-something storey towers.

Vancouver real estate prices shot through the roof making it the most expensive Canadian real estate market.  Mansions with waterfront access that were valued at around five millions in the nineties, are now priced over 30 millions.

But this seems to be only the beginning of Vancouver’s recognition in the world.  With the countdown to Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Winter Olympics more and more big money turns its interest towards the Pacific metropolis.  The constriction of Living Shangri-La building is presently underway in the downtown core.  After its completion it will be 61-storey skyscraper with first 15 floors occupied by the luxury five stars Shangri-La Hotel. The chain of deluxe Shangri-La hotels is well established in premier city addresses across Asia and the Middle East.  Vancouver will be the first hotel of this kind in North America. The construction is scheduled for completion in the late 2008.  The floors over the hotel will be occupied by 293 luxury condominiums with a price tag of at least one million dollars.

The construction of Ritz-Carlton Vancouver, a block away from Vancouver Shangri-La, is scheduled to begin soon.  It won’t be ready for the Olympics as it is not going to be completed until 2011.  This 58 floor tower, designed by Arthur Erickson, will be triangular in shape, twisting gradually with height up to 45 degrees from bottom to top. Like in case of Shangri-La tower, only first 20 floors will be occupies by Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the remaining floors designed for private apartments valued between 1.4 to 13 million dollars.

What comes next?  Ninety percent of the hotel rooms have supposedly been already booked for the Olympics.  It seems that the demand for more accommodation will have to be filled by Vancouver Vacation Rentals, Whistler Vacation Rentals, Bed & Breakfasts, and Hostels.  You might also try your luck by the way of Vancouver Home Exchange, especially if you live in another attractive tourist destination.

With this exceptional growth, the Vancouver city planners are doing their utmost to avoid traffic congestion and to keep the city green by establishing many gardens of various sizes. To add to the newly opened additional line of Vancouver SkyTrain (a fast, over-the-street train system) an underground line is presently being constructed that is due for opening in November 2009, just in time for the winter Olympics.  It will connect Vancouver downtown with downtown Richmond and the neighboring Vancouver Airport.

Vancouver Olympics Village is being developed by the City of Vancouver in the Southeast False Creek area, across from BC Place Stadium -- the site of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.  The Olympics Village will be set in a large park and provide accommodation for 2 500 athletes, coaches and officials.  After the Winter Games the Olympic Village will be converted into mixed-use, model sustainable community.

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Friday, September 14, 2007
London Tour

While having my first breakfast in London I asked the waitress where the nearest Tourist Information was.  She directed me to a place around the corner, near the entrance to Marble Arch underground station.  It turned out that this wasn’t tourist information at all, just an outlet selling tickets for London bus tours.   I did not plan taking a bus tour, but after talking to the agent and looking at the bus tour map I surmised that this could be not a bad idea at all.  So I paid £22 for the ticket and hopped onto the bus. 

I noticed later that there are a few companies providing similar bus tour services.  The one I was on was called The Big Bus Company www.bigbustours.com. It provides live commentary on the Red Route (English language only), and 8 different digitally recorded languages on the Blue Route. Both routs are almost identical (follow the same streets and stop at the same stops), and if you understand English than it does not make much difference which rout you happen to be on.  Red Route has the advantage of being more personal, as you can ask questions and interact with the live tour guide.  On the other hand Blue Route gives you the option of listening to the commentary in 8 different languages.  In addition Blue Route is a little longer as it goes around Hide Park and up to Regent’s Park, which Red Route does not. 

It does not really matter on which route (blue or red) you happened to start your tour, as you can hop off the bus at any stop and change for the other one.  The ticket is valid for 24 hours from the time you first enter the bus, so you may make as many stops as you wish.  Actually it is a good idea to hop off the bus and explore an area that you find interesting, have a snack, or a drink, and then hop on the bus again and continue your tour.  The buses come every 15 to 30 minutes so there is never a long period of waiting for the next bus.  In the summer the service starts at 8:30 and continues to about 6pm (depending on the location).  The ticket of The Big Bus Company also includes a free river Thames cruise from the Tower of London to Westminster Pier (near the House of Parliament and Westminster Abbey), or in the opposite direction.

I think taking a bus tour is a good idea for anyone coming to London for the first time.  It will give you a general idea of the city and its main attractions.  After that you can decide which places to visit again for a more thorough exploration.

Tourist Traps.  This is probably rather subjective as something that might seem to be a worthless tourist trap for one person, could be perceived as a major attraction to others.  In any case, my well-traveled friend Carolyn from North Vancouver, warned me about the Tower of London.  At that time it was for me just another meaningless name of a place in London so naturally I forgot about it.  And indeed the Tower of London is nothing else but a tourist trap.  All there is to see can be seen from the outside.  I do like the exterior of the castle so naturally I put one day aside for the visit to the Tower.  The cost is £16 plus extra £3.50 if you chose to rent headphones with recorded guided tour of the castle.  Big mistake!   If you decide to rent the guided tour, you will hear a few bloody stories of people being imprisoned and/or beheaded there throughout the ages but that’s where the whole attraction ends as there is practically nothing to see inside.  The interiors are nonexistent – just bare walls!  The display of Crown Jewels being kept in the castle seems to be the main attraction there.  Sure, since I was there, I lined up with the others to see the jewels but I was not amused, to say the least …

However, a friend of mine pointed out that, the Chapel Inside the Tower of London is a magnificent piece of architecture and that the Tower has great historical significance for the British.

Another thing that I found rather unfortunate is the fact that it is practically impossible to get into to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Westminster Abbey, and to possibly other significant houses of worship without paying an entry fee of about £10.  In Westminster Abbey I inquired about an option to come for a simple prayer.  It turns out that indeed one can get a free entry but only to attend specific services at very specific times…

It is true that places like Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's have only started charging for admission in recent years.  The problem was that they receive no funding from the State for maintenance and  have few other sources of income.  On the other hand, those older buildings are very expensive to maintain.  The other thing is that they were being visited by many groups led by professional guides, who charged their groups quite heavily - and none of that money was going to the church!  In addition, it hardly seemed like a church, as it was so packed with guided groups.


Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Thursday, September 13, 2007
London, Jetlag, and the Queen

I don’t know how others cope with a jetlag but my way of dealing with it is to simply accept the local time and ignore my body’s biological clock.  I figured that if I keep myself sleepless long enough I am able to get a good few hours of sleep in the new time zone even though it is still the day time in the old time zone.  However to fight the sleepiness off I need to be active. 

As I flew against the sun, the night of my flight from Vancouver to London became extremely short and I was only able to catch two hours of sleep.  I arrived at my friend’s place in London at about 1pm which was only 5am in Vancouver.  In effect I slept for only two hours during the last 21 hours and I was committed to fight my tiredness for at least another ten hours.

The most effective way to do that is to hit the streets.  I was staying near the Marble Arch and the Speaker’s Corner of the Hide Park.  I think it is a perfect location for exploring London. According to my friend this was also one of the safest parts of the city with extra police presence due to the very close proximity to Connaught Square and the residence of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. 

The only plan that I had for this afternoon was to not fall asleep.  So I just walked around, breathing the London air, and getting the first impression of the city.  I went along the edge of Hide Park following Park Lane from Marble Arch to Wellington Arch.  I resemble a royalist as much as a night resembles a day.  I think that kings and queens are simply a relict of the Middle Ages (for a good reason also called Dark Ages) and I have as much respect for them as for last year’s snow, but being in London and not seeing the Buckingham Palace could be perceived as ignorance, so from the Wellington Arch I headed towards the home of her majesty…

After giving whole 15 minutes of my undivided attention to the BP I turned my steps towards the Green Park. (Why would anyone pay, I think about 30 Pounds, to see the living quarters of her majesty, is beyond my comprehension). In the Green Park I noticed several beach chairs at the north end of the park.  “Well”, I thought, setting my butt in one of the chairs, “it is really generous of the Queen to make them available for us poor folks” my respect for her slightly rising...
‘Two Pounds please!”
“Excuse me?!” – I opened my tired eyes.
“Two Pounds for the use of the chair” – the attendant demanded the pay not more than two or three minutes after I sat down.
”No way!” I answered getting up.  So much for the Queen’s generosity… 

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Save on Your Trip to London, England

Due to British Pound being the strongest currency in the world any trip to England becomes very expensive.  At the time I was in London (August, 2007), one British Pound was worth about 2.25 Canadian Dollars.  As a result I had to pay double the Canadian price for most of the things in London.  As an example, for a pint of beer that at a pub in Vancouver, Canada would cost me $3.50, I had to pay £2.90 which was about $6.50 (Canadian Dollars).  The relation in absolute figures in case of other products is not always the same as in case of beer, but nonetheless London is an expensive proposition for any foreigner.

I was lucky to have at least prearranged my accommodation and did not have to add to my budget the high cost of staying in a hotel.  Having friends in other parts of the world does definitely have some measurable advantages…   If you don’t have friends in London, try Bed and Breakfast, a Hostel, or a Home Exchange.  If you travel in a group a good idea would be to rent a furnished apartment or a house.

What struck me just upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport was the fact that on top of everything one has to add the cost of information (or the lack of it).  You can catch a train from Heathrow to the city of London.  There is a well marked passageway to the Heathrow Express which will get you to the city center for mere £15.  If you are better informed you may opt for using so called Heathrow Connect which will do similar job for only £6.90.   However, if you do a really good job asking around you will find out that you can also use the subway service (the Tube), which is a totally separate entity from the other train services, and it will cost you only £4.  The only problem is that you may have to change trains and that it will take longer to get to your destination.  Now, if you are REALLY smart, you may get one of the so called Travelcards that are valid for a certain period of time (Day Travelcard, 3 Day Travelcard, 7 Day, Monthly, etc). Travelcards can be used on the Tube, DLR, Tram, and National Rail within the zones covered by your ticket and on all London Buses displaying London Transport sign.  Since I arrived early in the day I had a lot of time to ask around and to do a good investigation at the airport concerning the cost of getting to the city.  As a result of it I got ONE WEEK Travelcard for only £23.20. Since this Travelcard was only valid for Zones 1 and 2 (London Center) and Heathrow is in Zone 6, I only had to pay additional fee of about £2.  In effect I paid only about £25 to get from Heathrow to the city center and for all additional travel for the whole week.  If I wasn’t paying attention, and just followed the signs to the Heathrow Express it would cost me £15 just to get to Paddington Station which was in the area of my accommodation.

In fact I got something called Oyster Card.  It is a magnetic or electronic card, which supposedly gives even more advantage than simple paper Travelcard.  However, I never figured out the difference, and in my opinion it only adds to the whole confusion about London transportation system.

The other odd thing that I noticed in the London Railway system is that there is no central railway station.  Instead there are a few independent stations in London such as Paddington, Euston,  Victoria, Waterloo, etc. with trains going to various directions.  As a result you cannot go to a main railway station to figure out what train to catch to a destination outside of London.  You need to know first to which station to go, before you do that as various stations serve only certain directions of travel.  As an example I had to know that I needed to go to Victoria Station to catch a train to Gatwick Airport before flying to Hamburg.  Once there, I also had to be careful not to pay £15 for the express train to Gatwick, as the normal train takes only 10 minutes longer at the cost of only £8.90.

One more saving tip.  If you want to save on train travel in England, book your trip and buy your ticket well in advance.   If you just go to a station and buy your ticket the day you travel (just before boarding the train), you will be throwing a lot of money away…

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Elfin Lakes

There are few better things than early September hike to Garibaldi Provincial Park. Last Saturday I joined a group of Vancouver hikers for a hike to Elfin Lakes in Garibaldi Provincial Park. What a perfect hike it was! The weather was nice, the views to die for…

We met at 8am in West Vancouver.  As there were only eight of us, it was easy to divide into two groups of four people each to continue our journey in two cars only.

To get to the Garibaldi Park from Vancouver you need to take the Sea To Sky Highway (Hwy 99) past the intersection for downtown Squamish. There is a BC Parks sign for Garibaldi Park/Diamond Head. You need to turn east here off the highway onto Mamquam Road. The paved road changes to gravel one, and about 8 km from highway the road forks. Stay left for about another 8 km to the parking lot.

The hike from the parking lot to Elfin Lakes is relatively easy. It stretches through 11 kilometers with about 600 meters elevation gain. Most of the time the trail follows something that looks like old logging road. The trail seems to be also popular among mountain bikers.

First part of the hikes leads through the forest where I spotted a huge mushroom. I am not an expert mushroom picker but I had a fair share of this activity in my native Poland and I know a few most popular mushroom varieties. The specimen I found at the edge of the road looked very much like “boletus edulis”  also known by the popular name of “Porcini”. The only trouble I had with it was the size. It looked like at least three times larger than any such mushroom I have ever seen in my teenage years in Poland. Although this kind of mushroom is very much sought after I decided to leave it there untouched as it seemed to me simply too large to be true… However on my return home I searched the net and I found out that indeed a fully mature specimens can weigh about 2 pounds or 1 kg. So I realized once again that everything is indeed much bigger in Canada. I regret having left this mushroom untouched as it would probably provide me with two delicious dinners. Well, next time I will know better…

After about 5 kilometers we arrived at Red Heather. It is a day use shelter with two picnic tables, cooking facilities, toilet and even a wood stove for winter use.

From now on the trail meanders through red heather fields with fewer and fewer trees, to eventually give way to sub-alpine area. That’s where the views are really breath-taking. The air is clean and crisp. The nature astounding: snow-capped mountain peaks, glaciers, lakes, and… serenity.

There is another shelter at Elfin Lakes. I was surprised to learn that this actually is a night shelter with several bunks to spread your bones on. There are also the usual cooking facilities, toilet, etc. I think it is a good idea to stay overnight in this shelter and continue the next day for other destinations in the area. If you do not stay there, you will have to go back 11 km to the parking lot at the bottom of the trail. Give yourself 5 to 6 hours of leisurely hike from the parking lot to Elfin Lakes and back.

Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Stawamus Chief
If you ever drove from Whistler, BC to Vancouver, you couldn’t possibly have missed the gigantic rocky wall facing you as you pass the town of Squamish.  I was always captivated by this mountain.   Its name is The Chief.  Stawamus Chief to be exact.  One day I learned that this vertical cliff is actually one of the favorite locations for rock climbers...   How crazy is that?!  Later a friend of mine told me that there is also a hiking trail to the top of the mountain for all those average souls that have no need for adrenaline-pumping climbing of the vertical cliff.   So I decided to try the easy route on my own. 
According to Russ Sawdon, the owner of Vancouver Hiking website, the hike to the top of Stawamus Chief is "a wonderful work-out for legs & lungs". Actually there are three peaks at the top of the Chief, peak one being the lowest, peak three the highest of them.  I decided to try my luck on one sunny April Sunday.  Since the mountain isn't actually that high -- from a little over 500m for the first peak, to about 700m in case of the third peak -- I decided to climb all three peaks.  Unfortunately I missed a turn to the left that lead to the first peak and I landed at the second peak, missing the first one.  Only then I realized that I would have to go back to reach the first peak, so I decided to leave it for the next time, took a beautiful photograph (see below) and proceeded to the third peak.  I took an alternate, direct route down from the top of the third peak. 

The climb to the top of the Chief is rather steep and reminds me in its nature very much of Grouse Mountain Grind in North Vancouver, except that it is about 30% shorter than Grouse. But still, it's like constant climbing stairs over 500 meters high…  Similar like Grouse Mountain the Stawamus Chief trail is very well maintained and marked.  It is also very popular and well attended especially in the weekends.

On the way from second to the third peak the trail leads very close to the edge of the cliff.  I laid myself down on my belly to have a peek down…  It must have been at the place of some kind of an overhang as there was nothing for several hundred meters below…  My imagination started running and I backed off without even taking a picture of it…

On my way down to the parking lot I looked again at the cliff.  There were indeed two rock climbers teams climbing the vertical wall.  I felt like shouting out to them that they don't need to take the shortcut as there is a longer but much faster and easier way around…  I talked to a few rock climbers at the bottom of the wall.  According to them it takes most of the day for an average team to climb to the top.  Supposedly the record is set at about three hours…  Well, I decided for the longer route but it took me only a little over one hour... :-)


Posted by Jan Koncewicz
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