Monday, December 5, 2011

Christmas in Vancouver

I had a pretty relaxing weekend. I even made a point of napping twice on a Sunday - because dammit, it's Sunday, and I won't be having too many relaxing days anytime soon. I'm trying my best to economize my rest.

In the last two weeks, my room mate and I have taken advantage of some of the holiday merriment that the city of Vancouver has to offer. I'm off to Calgary in just over a week, and I wanted to make sure that I sample what I can before leaving the west coast.

The first was the 2nd annual Vancouver Christmas Market - also known as the German Christmas Market, likely because it appears to be entirely peopled by Germans - except for Arturo, a Peruvian gentleman who was at one of the booths selling his fair trade coffee. I bought a bag of beans from Arturo and he was happy to point out that each biodegradable bag was adorned with a decoration hand-painted by his wife. I chose one with a lovely colored ornament for the tree and told Arturo that every time I looked at the ornament, I would think of his wife. Arturo and I thought that a completely fine comment to make, but my friends thought it was weird. Awkwardness ensued, but now I have a nice bag of fair trade beans for a gift exchange on Friday.

The market itself I would imagine is usually a lot more lively than it was on the day we went: Saturday before the Grey Cup, rainy, and with the market opting out of liquor service for the night for fear that German Grey Cup revelers would overtake the carousel and start another riot. The market was okay. It could have been better. I say this for two reasons:

1) It's expensive. There is a $5 cost to even get into the thing and what one can buy inside is mostly far too expensive for a "day at the craft sale" kind of feel. Granted, most of what's available is actually hand-made and imported from the German, Austrian, and Swiss artisans who are there to sell. There are plenty of food booths as well, and if you're up for it, on busy days there is reportedly a pig roasting on a spit. How Christmassy. Anyway, a family of 4 would be looking at $20 for entry, $12 for a carousel ride, $40 for food, and a significant amount of money for any of the wooden, metal, or blown-glass ornaments available for sale. There really doesn't appear to be a cheap way to experience the market.

2) Okay, there's only one reason. This place would actually be a pretty nice place for a unique Christmas date. The market is erected each year on an empty paved lot beside the Queen Elizabeth theatre downtown, and the theatre has December offerings of Sting, The Canadian Tenors, and the Nutcracker. Just bring lots of money.

That was last weekend. This weekend was the real treat: the "Bright Nights in Vancouver Stanley Park Christmas Train". Maria and I made an evening out of it with two friends. Dinner, coffee and Catan, and then a stroll over to Stanley Park for a walk through crazy lighted displays and a ride on the miniature railway.

Free entrance to the park (with a donation to the firefighter's burn unit) and $11.75 for the train ticket. Totally worth it. This runs from December 1st until the 2nd of January.

The lands surrounding the railway are completely decked-out with a ridiculous amount of lights and Christmas decor. It's fairly chaotic in terms of theme and style, and it looks as though Davie Hogan chowed-down on every Rankin-Bass Christmas special and vomited all over Stanley Park's Rose Garden. I really mean this in a good way. Pictures wouldn't do it justice, but just walking around there creates the illusion that one is in a Christmas special of one's own making.

Tickets for the train are sold half through ticket-master in advance, and half at the park after 12:00 noon on the day of. It's solidly packed - early evening kid-friendly train times going first. We managed to get tickets for the 9:30 departure. With three trains running on the track, the lines move pretty quickly, and you only need to line-up for your 30 minute window to get the train. Didn't see any issues here.

The ride itself was pretty fantastic. Honestly, in terms of Christmas glee, I'm pretty sure that, for my two young nephews, this would have blown away anything Disneyland would have to offer - certainly not in terms of imagineering quality, but in terms of holly-jolliness, this is pretty tough to beat. The miniature trains (20 gauge tracks with guests seated two across) runs through the tall tree forests of Stanley Park, past lit displays over water, through tunnels, and back around again for a new perspective on things. The ride took about 10-12 minutes from what I can recall. There is a great deal of thought put into the displays and the music (piped into the overhead speakers in each mini train car) really adds to the effect.

The ride begins with Mr. Crosby's "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and then switches gears into Mahalia Jackson's "Go Tell it On the Mountain" for those who prefer a more non-secular approach to Christmas as the trains leads through choir dioramas and nativity scenes in the trees. The train rounds a bend and we can see dry ice billowing from underneath a facade of the Polar Express while light shines from the open engine door and head light. The conductor (on stilts) marches out to dance and salute the train which slows down for the pass - the music from the film really added to this sequence.

I could go on, but it's enough to say that it was pretty dang festive. My nephews, and specifically my train-loving dad would have gone absolutely crazy on this - the most Christmassy train ride I've ever been on. The sequence when the train runs over a short trestle bridge and across a pond is just ridiculous - the lights reflected on the water are something to see.

I found myself wishing that my family and my rabbit could have been there with me, and I found myself somehow not surprised to notice that, as the lingering odors revealed, some people want to heighten the experience of the Stanley Park Christmas Train even further with the addition of some genuine B.C. bud. Roasted chestnuts and organic popcorn are on hand for anyone who develops the munchies.

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