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Originally published August 24, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 24, 2007 at 2:02 AM

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Travel Wise

Experiencing 4-star Vancouver on a 2-star budget

You don't have to go to Europe to see how the plunging value of the U.S. dollar is pushing up prices for American travelers. Just spend a weekend...

Seattle Times staff columnist

You don't have to go to Europe to see how the plunging value of the U.S. dollar is pushing up prices for American travelers.

Just spend a weekend in Vancouver, B.C.

With the U.S. dollar near a 30-year low against the loonie — the name for the Canadian $1 coin with a loon on the back — say goodbye to bargains and brace for sticker shock.

A tall Starbucks latte that costs $2.55 in Seattle is $2.95 Canadian on Robson Street in downtown Vancouver, $2.80 at current exchange rates.

The new Harry Potter book: $45 Canadian ($42.95 U.S.) vs. $35 here.

A double room in a budget hotel? The downtown Day's Inn quoted nearly $200 a night for mid-August.

Five years ago, one U.S. dollar bought $1.60 Canadian. Today, it's $1.05. With many local merchants now taking U.S. dollars in payment and returning change in Canadian currency without any discount at all, spending loonies in search of luxury for less might sound like a crazy idea.

But you don't have to eat at McDonald's or sleep cheap to enjoy a weekend in one of Canada's priciest cities. With a little creative financing, you still can go in style.

Four-star Vancouver on a two-star budget was my mission. Here's your plan:

Leave the driving ... to someone else

How: Take Amtrak and enjoy one of the most scenic train rides in the Pacific Northwest instead of hassling with traffic, parking and waiting in line at the U.S.-Canada border. One-way fares start at $28 (Call 800-872-7245 or see www.amtrak.com).

What to expect: The Cascades train leaves Seattle's King Street Station daily at 7:40 a.m. and arrives in Vancouver at 11:30 a.m. It returns at 6 p.m., arriving in Seattle around 10 p.m.

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Going business class is out for now. Amtrak has taken its regular Talgo trains out of service for maintenance through December. There are only coach cars on the double-decker replacements, but the seats are roomy and the bar serves local microbrews and a special menu designed by Seattle chef Kathy Casey.

Stake out a window table in the bistro car. Order breakfast, sip your coffee (Caffè Appassionato), and think about how you'll spend the $25 a day you're saving on downtown hotel parking.

Tip: Ticket prices rise as trains fill up, so book early (the substitute cars seat fewer passengers). Passport and customs checks at the station in Vancouver take 15-20 minutes.

Sleeping in style

What's a luxury weekend without a classy hotel? Why settle for less when you sleep in a hotel like the Hyatt Regency for less than the cost of a night at the Days Inn?

How: Make a bid on Priceline.com. I snagged a double room at the Hyatt in mid-August for $167, including taxes and fees (Taxes add 16 percent to the price of hotel rooms in Vancouver, and booking sites such as Priceline add their own fees). The hotel's own best Internet rate was $358 Canadian ($340) for the same dates, including taxes. A search on Expedia turned up a rate of $368.

Priceline's rate was a deal, considering two budget hotels — the Sylvia near Stanley Park and the downtown Days Inn — quoted $191 Canadian ($181.45), taxes included, for the same dates.

What to expect: Decorated in cool silvers and grays and furnished with a king-sized bed and flat-screen TV, my room was on the 17th floor (non-smoking as requested). Although near the end of the hallway, it felt spacious and came with a partial water view. The Hyatt has an outdoor pool, hot tub and fitness center, but the best part was the location on Burrard Street, across the street from a SkyTrain light-rail station and two blocks from the shops and restaurants along Robson Street.

Tip: Narrow your bid to a four-star downtown hotel. Priceline lets you choose the area and class of hotel you want, but doesn't reveal the name until after your bid is accepted and your credit card is charged.

Consult www.biddingfortravel.com for advice from other travelers on how much to bid and what hotels to expect. At the time I bid, most people were getting rooms in the Hyatt, Westin Bayshore and Pacific Palisades hotels for $130-$140 (excluding taxes).

Getting around

Buy an $8 Canadian ($7.60) day pass for unlimited travel on Trans Link (www.translink.bc.ca) Vancouver's bus, SkyTrain and SeaBus transit system, and go anywhere for less than the cost of a taxi from the train station to downtown.

How: Buy tickets at machines inside any SkyTrain station (There's one across the street from the train station).

What to expect: My daily combo ticket got me everywhere — from downtown to Stanley Park, Granville Island, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden in Chinatown, even out of town via the SeaBus across Burrard Inlet and then a bus to the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver.

Tip: Pick up a transit map at Vancouver's Tourist Information Centre, 200 Burrard St., or print a copy from the Web. The map lists routes and connections for major tourist attractions, neighborhoods, beaches and parks.

Drinks and hors d'oeuvres

"When most Americans come up here and look at a wine list, they can't believe it," says Kasey Wilson, food editor of Canada's Wine Access Magazine.

Liquor laws restrict happy hours, and high taxes can push the price of a beer to more than $6 and a glass of wine to $8-$10, but doesn't mean you can't sip in style — or even for free.

How: The shops selling Gucci bags and Louis Vuitton luggage inside the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver on Georgia Street (www.fairmont.com/hotelvancouver) aren't in the budget. Head instead to the hotel's 900 West Lounge where the appetizers and piano jazz are free Monday-Friday from 5-6:30 p.m.

Time things right and also catch the free Thursday and Sunday wine tastings at Taylorwood Wines (www.taylorwoodwines.com) in the hip warehouse district of Yaletown.

What to expect: You'll pay $12 Canadian ($11.40) to sip a pomegranate-and-cucumber mojito among the mirrors and marble at the Fairmont, but the snacks are free. New executive sous chef Karen Gin tempts the cocktail crowd with creations such as crab cannoli and mushroom-tofu won tons.

Taylorwood sells only B.C. wines, and the twice-weekly tastings (Thursdays, 4:30-6:30 p.m. and Sundays, 3-5 p.m.) are generous and informative. I sipped my way through several varieties of chilled Sauvignon Blanc, then browsed the shop, surprised to find many bottles in the $15-$20 Canadian range.

Tip: Some restaurants offer 3-ounce pours of wine instead of the regular 5 ounces. Just ask.

Dinner for two

British Columbians spend big on eating out — an average $1,400 in restaurants last year, according to Vancouver Magazine.

Two words for dining in style on a budget: Prix fixe.

How: Many top restaurants, including a few on the magazine's 2007 list of the city's best, offer a fixed price three-course menu ($30-$49 Canadian) between 5 or 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m.

What to expect: At West, a 74-seat South Granville haunt named Vancouver Magazine's 2007 Restaurant of the Year, Chef David Hawksworth turns out a $49 Canadian ($46.55) three-course menu for about half what it costs to dine normally. The catch: The restaurant opens at 5:30 p.m. and you have to be seated by 6 p.m. Not a problem really, especially if you have theater plans. Just across the street is the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, a 1920s vaudeville theater converted into a playhouse used by the Vancouver Arts Club Theatre.

Among the choices on West's prix fixe menu: wild salmon with 12 vegetables, a pork chop with apricot purée and gnocchi and a sweet corn panna cotta with poached cherries. With tax, tip, and a glass of wine (nothing under $10), my bill came to $70 Canadian ($66.50); reasonable, considering entrees alone are in the $32-$44 Canadian range. See www.westrestaurant.com.

Critics also give good marks to the fixed-price specials at the Raincity Grill near Stanley Park ($30 Canadian 5-6 p.m., www.raincitygrill.com) and Cru on West Broadway ($38 Canadian during regular business hours, www.cru.ca).

Tip: Find a friend and take advantage of two-for-one dinner entrees at other top-end restaurants with coupons from the Vancouver Entertainment book (www.entertainment.com).

School groups sell the books for fundraisers, but they're also available online. The 2008 Vancouver book sells for $43, but I found the 2007 edition on sale in June for $9.99 plus $5 shipping. Top tables include the Water St. Cafe across from the steam clock in Gastown; the Hermitage on Robson; and the Fish House in Stanley Park

High culture, low cost

Take in a play, a recital or late-night improv for half price.

How: Visit Tickets Tonight (www.ticketstonight.ca), the half-price ticket outlet inside the Vancouver Tourist Info Centre, 200 Burrard St. The outlet sells tickets in-person only for the day of the show. To get an idea of what might be available, sign up for e-mail alerts ahead of your trip.

What to expect: Tickets aren't quite half price when service fees are included, but the savings are substantial. My ticket to "Cookin' at the Cookery," a musical about the life of American jazz singer Alberta Hunter, was $28.50 Canadian vs. $52 at full price.

Tip: The Entertainment book is filled with coupons for theater, museums, symphony and opera. Take a friend, and go two-for-one to the Capilano Suspension Bridge ($26.95 Canadian per person), the Vancouver Art Gallery ($19 Canadian) or the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden ($8.75 Canadian).

Shock-free shopping

The federal government abolished refunds on its 6 percent Goods and Service Tax (GST) in April, pushing prices even higher for American visitors.

Gucci and Louis Vuitton might be out of reach, but Vancouver is one of the best cities outside of Asia to find cheap knock-offs.

How: Roam the weekend night markets in Chinatown (www.vancouverchinatown.ca) or Richmond (www.richmondnightmarket.com).

What to expect: Wallets, bags, sunglasses and other luxury goods. Beware of poor quality, and ignore anything with a hefty price tag or a merchant who claims to offer the real thing.

Tip: Forget the fakes and discover the one-of-a-kind shops in an out-of-the-way neighborhood.

Comb kitschy Commercial Drive in East Vancouver with its Italian bakeries and stores such as Wonderbucks, where I found old-fashioned aluminum espresso makers for $12 Canadian.

Wander through the Punjabi East Indian market at Main Street and 49th Avenue, or head to Granville Island Public Market for takeout food and gourmet picnic supplies.

Take lunch outside to where a busker named Pandora Pink teeters atop a tower of purple boxes while juggling spiked wands with the help of an assistant in an Elvis wig and sunglasses.

Vancouver is about more than shopping and fancy restaurants, after all. It's about experiences, and this one's four-star.

Carol Pucci's Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month in Travel. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Travel Wise
Travel Wise is aimed at helping people travel smart, especially independent travelers seeking good value. Drawing on my own experiences and readers', I'll cover everything from the best resources to how to tap into the local culture. My column runs the last Sunday of each month.
cpucci@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3701

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