Great Layover: Vancouver International Airport

US arrivals hall
Courtesy of YVR

Ugh. Layovers. We’ve all had to while away the hours at airports, but regular travelers know that every so often, a layover can be more respite than penance. Such is the case with Vancouver International Airport, a modern marvel with art and architecture to die for.

In addition to high-tech design that includes soaring ceilings, lots of skylights, and sculpture from the region’s indigenous tribes, there’s a leafy, indoor aquarium/park area ideal for destressing, and loads of boutiques and food outlets that are a notch above the standard airport fare.

What makes YVR (the airport code) equally distinctive, however, is the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel. Sure, other hotels have airports, but have you ever stayed in them? What you usually get is a musty, generic, not terribly hygenic, overpriced room, and a complete lack of serenity or style. The Fairmont, by contrast, is an oasis not only for guests, but travelers just passing through on layover. Read on for the best ways to spend your layover at YVR (for once, you can hope it’s a long one).

vancouver airport parkCourtesy of YVR

Some people like to get their layover exercise by strolling the airport shops, and YVR doesn’t disappoint. Be sure to pick up some pure maple syrup, maple cream cookies (delish) and smoked salmon in Duty Free or at one of the specialty shops. But if you’re looking for a serious work-out, consider dropping $15 to use the Fairmont’s health club, pool, and jacuzzi.

Afterward, soothe sore or travel-fatigued muscles at the luxe Absolute Spa. In addition to massage, there are the usual pampering facials, body treatments, and mani-pedi’s. Or perhaps you’d prefer to unwind over a drink (Canadian whiskey, anyone?). Hit up the swanky Jetside Bar or GlobeYVR restaurant, which has floor-to-ceiling, sound-proof views of the runway. Jets literally take off from just yards away. And yes, there is great airport food: think creative, seasonal PNW fare, with some ingredients (notably, honey, herbs, and greens) sourced from the Fairmont’s own hives and gardens (most of the chain urban farms on their rooftops; this being an airport, a separate farm is located nearby).

exterior fairmont vancouver airportCourtesy of Fairmont Vancouver Hotel
Should your layover require an overnight, business meeting, or other function, the Fairmont YVR is definitely the place to be. It’s also convenient to downtown, because the clean, speedy Canada Line public transit system connects to the airport. Be sure to take advantage of the transit by visiting the outstanding public market on Granville Island (which will require a short cab ride or walk from the rail system, FYI), or hopping off in buzzing Yaletown, home to Vancouver’s trendiest shopping and dining. Outdoorsy types will want to connect to a bus that will take them to sprawling Stanley Park, with its miles of hiking trails.

The 300+ rooms at the Fairmont YVR all overlook the runways, either for arrivals or departures (again, soundproof glass makes for stunning, yet quiet, visuals). Some rooms are equipped with telescopes; one floor is reserved for hypoallergenic bedding and skin products. Other rooms are pet-friendly. The natural light is plentiful, the bedding plush, the bathrooms cushy (suites come with hand-hewn jade from a British Columbian quarry). With accommodations like this, layovers are…fun.

room at fairmont vancouver airport
Courtesy of Fairmont Vancouver Airport

Vancouver itself is a progressive, outdoorsy city that takes full advantage of its stunning location nestled in the Coast & Mountains region. But even if you never make it past the airport, it’s sure to leave you with a positive impression that leaves you longing to return.

Bottle With Travel-Loving Tennessee Man’s Ashes Bobbing Along Florida Keys

Smith holding husband's ashes
Courtesy of 13WMAZ.com

We all have our own ideas of what happens after we die. For the late Gordon Scott Smith of Tennessee, his goal was to ensure that his lifelong love of travel carried on into the afterlife. Or, you know, at least ensured his cremated remains saw some scenic places. Scott’s widow, Beverly Smith, carried out her husband of 27 years wishes by putting his ashes, two dollars, and a note in a bottle, and setting it afloat off of Big Pine Key, Florida, in March, 2012, reports WCVB. The money was so recipients could make phone calls to Smith with updates on Scott’s whereabouts.The bottle washed ashore further south in the Florida Keys, in Islamorada. It was discovered by a man named Ross, who called a delighted Smith to give her an update. He also left a note of his own.

Ross then took Smith’s ashes six miles out to sea, and set the bottle afloat. Over the weekend, Judi Glunz Sidney, co-owner of a resort in Key Colony Beach, 28 miles south, found it onshore. She also called Smith, and transferred Scott’s ashes to a rum bottle (“You know, added a little fun to his trip.”). The bottle was then launched off of Seven Mile Bridge in Marathon, so Scott can resume his travels. Here’s to going out in style.

5 Tips For Traveling With Pets

puppy in back pocket
Beverly, Flickr

For those of us who consider pets members of the family, leaving them behind when we travel often isn’t an option, especially if they’re a certified companion or therapy animal. Sometimes, however, we just want to bring our furry friends along. Fortunately, the travel industry has cottoned on to this fact (we hate to give Paris Hilton credit for anything, but she probably did help to facilitate this one), and an increasing number of hotels, airlines, bars, and even restaurants are cool with guests bringing along an animal.

If you’re thinking of hitting the road (or skies) with your dog, cat, or even rabbit (don’t laugh; the Fairmont Vancouver Airport hotel has a lot of guests from Asia who travel with their bunny buddies), here’s some tips on making the journey easier for everyone involved:

Do your research
Don’t waste your precious holiday time trying to find a hotel last-minute that accepts pets. Book rooms beforehand, and be sure to ask about pet deposits. CNN posted an article today on the 12 of the world’s dog-friendliest hotels. Many properties go to great lengths to ensure your loved one (no, we’re not talking about your spouse or partner) is comfortable, well-fed, and walked regularly, even if you’re busy enjoying other activities. The same book-ahead/ask questions before, not after, approach should apply with regard to airlines and other forms of public transportation.

cat looking out porthole
Eugenio, Flickr

Assess your pet’s attitude
The cardinal sin of traveling with a pet is toting along an animal with behavioral issues. This is especially true if you’re flying or taking another form of public transit. No one is going to sympathize with you if your cat is yowling or your dog isn’t housebroken. Hotels also don’t appreciate pet damage. We get it, it’s your baby. But be honest with yourself (better yet, ask someone unbiased, like your vet) about your pet’s behavior, and whether or not they’ll make a good travel companion.

Get to the vet
You should always take your pet to the vet for a physical before a big trip, or if you know they’re an anxious traveler. Sedatives can reduce their stress, (and in the process, that of seatmates and guests in neighboring rooms), and you also want to rule out any health issues. Try to avoid traveling with baby animals, especially those that haven’t had all of their immunizations.

If you’re traveling overseas or even out-of-state, certain documents such as rabies certificates will likely be required. A pet passport will also be required for certain countries, and will make traveling with your animal easier. Quarantine is also required for certain species traveling to and from specific destinations, including Hawaii (which doesn’t have rabies, and they’d like to keep it that way, thanks). A clean bill of health from your veterinarian is also commonly required.

hiking with dog
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Flying the furry skies
Airline policies vary, so be prepared to make a lot of calls. Pet Airlines is a handy aggregate site that directs you to the pet policies of various airlines and hotels. If at all possible, have your pet travel with you in coach. Airline travel is stressful for pets regardless, but in cargo, the temperature can reach dangerous levels (be it heat or cold), and once in a blue moon, mistakes do occur with regard to transfers or baggage handling. It’s worth the extra dollars to keep an eye on your pet; you may also want to consider pet insurance.

Try to stick to a schedule
As previously mentioned, travel can be stressful for pets. It’s important that you stick to regular feeding times (if there’s a major time change, you’ll have to slowly adjust it) and your usual pet food; changing an animal’s diet suddenly can result in gastrointestinal upsets. Exercise and playtime are also critical. While you’re at it, suss out the nearest 24-hour emergency vet clinic.

Kids’ Bedroom Replicates 737 Cockpit, Doubles As Flight Simulator

When I was a kid, beds modeled after race cars were all the rage. Apparently, what’s cool these days is having a bedroom that so closely resembles a 737 cockpit, it doubles as a simulator. Oh, and bonus points if your dad builds it.

According to Gizmodo, Laurent Aigon has spent the last five years constructing aforementioned bedroom/cockpit. Aigon, who is from Lacanau, France, isn’t a pilot nor an engineer, by the way. He’s a waiter who once aspired to be a pilot. After much study, he put together a control panel and screen, and added “five networked monitors… he’s made it possible to simulate journeys to destinations as far-flung as Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. His copilots, presumably, sleep in the bunkbeds to his right.”

When not playing in his kids’ room, Aigon has been asked to lecture at the Institute of Aircraft Maintenance at Bordeaux-Merignac, which has used his creation to train students. Watch the video and take a quick trip, yourself.

Visiting A Working Silver Mine In Potosi, Bolivia

Potosi silver mine
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Bolivia has a turbulent, often tragic history. Rich in natural resources, the country was plundered by the Spaniards for silver and gold in the 15th century, exploiting the indigenous Quechua and Aymara peoples in the process. Yet, Bolivia has managed to retain a strong indigenous cultural presence; something that can be seen and felt throughout the country.

Despite its abundance of precious metals and other minerals, however, Bolivia remains the poorest country in South America. The remote, southwestern department of Potosi is among Bolivia’s most poverty-stricken. The high-altitude city of the same name (elevation 13,420 feet) was founded by the Spanish in 1545, and ironically remains a rich source of silver, lead, copper and zinc. Recently, large reserves of lithium have also been discovered in the region.

Although poor, Potosi has remained a stunning colonial jewel, and intrepid tourists come to admire its lovely buildings and narrow, cobbled streets.The ornate colonial buildings are painted in faded pastels. There’s a bustling mercado, and a handful of restaurants and shops showcasing local handicrafts (silver jewelry, mostly) form the basis of the centro. It’s an exceedingly pleasant place to while away a day or two.

Potosi is also a magnet for adventure travelers, who come to tour the working silver mines of Cerro Rico (“rich hill”). A massive, barren red hump of a mountain looming over the town, Cerro Rico is the main mining center, containing roughly 650 entrances to the various cooperative mines. The co-ops provide little benefit to the miners, even in the case of accidental death or work-related disease. The average lifespan for a miner is 10-15 years; most die from silicosis pneumonia. Cerro Rico is also in a slow state of collapse, due to overmining. Despite the risks, it’s believed that half of Potosi’s population of over 2,600 (mostly Quechua) work in the mining industry. The miners may not be getting rich, but let’s just say I saw a lot of spanking new Hummers rolling around those cobbled streets.

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candelaria mine exterior
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Working mine tours are one of the most controversial forms of tourism. Some might consider them exploitative. Others might be tempted to call them educational. While conducting research prior to my trip, I remained conflicted as to how I felt about them. Is descending two miles below the earth in order to see firsthand the abysmal conditions workers – many of them as young as 13 – must endure for up to 10 hours a day voyeurism of the worst kind? I believe so.

Yet, I also see the value in showing visitors (who, let’s face it, are usually from industrialized nations) the dirt behind their pretty silver baubles. We all use products containing the precious metals mined from places like Cerro Rico, but I find that irrelevant. Rather, I feel it’s important for travelers to see how others live, even if that exposure makes us uncomfortable, guilty or depressed.

The deciding factor for me came when I read about the better tour companies in town. It wasn’t just about finding one with a good safety record. I also wanted it to employ former miners, ban the use of explosives for show (some companies let tourists detonate dynamite, which is potentially deadly for visitors and miners alike), and to donate part of their proceeds to mining families. The latter is used for fresh food, which, I later learned, is the most critical need, above even medical care.

If you look in guidebooks or online forums, you’ll see that mine tours are no joke. They’re inherently dangerous, and among the risks are cave-ins, toxic gases, explosions, falling rocks and runaway carts. If you suffer from claustrophobia, asthma, or other respiratory problems, you’ll likely want to give them a miss.

view of potosi from cerro rico
Laurel Miller, Gadling

A reputable company will require you to more or less sign your life away on a waiver. They should also provide good-quality protective gear, including rubber boots, coveralls, a helmet, and a headlamp. Mine tours are not, to quote Koala’s website, “FOR WIMPS OR WOOSIES.” You should also bring a bandanna or surgical mask to protect your lungs from silica, arsenic and asbestos dust. Don’t worry about carbon monoxide poisoning– acetylene lamps are now used to detect deadly pockets of the gas. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.

I ended up choosing Koala Tours, a small company based in Potosi. They also run an excellent hostel, the Koala Den, which is where the tours depart. I arrived at 5 a.m., not-so-fresh off an overnight bus ride from La Paz. The hostel allowed me to check my backpack for free during the tour, and afterward, I paid roughly $1.25 for a shower. They also booked, free of charge, my afternoon bus to Tupiza (due to time constraints, I literally had to do the tour and hit the road).

woman weaving palm fronds
Laurel Miller, Gadling

Our group of four met with our guide, a sweet, 30-year-old ex-miner named Melvin, who took us to Koala’s warehouse, where we were outfitted with gear. Then we headed by van up the road to a neighborhood mercado, where we bought coca leaf for the miners (all of whom are men; it’s considered bad luck for women to work inside the mines, although some do work in the industry).

We then stopped at a miner’s supply to pick up alcohol (more on that in a moment), water, cigarettes and dynamite. Although supplying miners with cancer sticks, deadly explosives, and 96% ethyl alcohol seems contrary to the idea of supporting them, the reality is that they rely on these items. Their wages don’t allow for much in the way of incidentals, so bringing them work supplies and “refreshments” to help them through their shifts in stifling heat isn’t just thoughtful, but more or less mandatory. No one will force you to purchase these items, but put it this way: it’s the right thing to do.

the author in mining gear
Laurel Miller, Gadling

The alcohol (brand name: Ceibo) is used as part of a daily ritual performed by the miners before they begin each shift. Every mine has a shrine, with effigies of the Virgin Mary and a “Tio,” or uncle. Tio is actually a representation of the devil (one with a very oversized phallus, I might add). The belief is that because the steaming bowels of the earth offer such riches, it must be he who owns them, rather than Pachamama (“Mother Earth”), or a Christian god from the heavens.

Every day, the miners perform a cha’lla, or offering, to the effigies. Tio is blessed by a capful of alcohol poured at his feet, and then a capful is consumed by the miner (since I like to think I’m a team player, I let Melvin convince me to try a shot, which unsurprisingly, damn near ate a hole in my esophagus). Tio is also proffered coca leaves and cigarettes, and then it’s time for work.

Before heading to the mine, we stopped at an ingenio, or smelter, so we could have a better understanding of how the rocks hacked from the mines are turned into semi-precious metals. We watched Melvin work his way through the machinery, and departed with glittering stripes of liquid silver on the backs of our hands.

Arriving at the 500-year-old Candelaria mine was almost anti-climatic. It was hard to believe that this splintered wooden-framed entrance hidden behind a few desolate, decrepit buildings, is one of Bolivia’s most prolific and historic silver mines.

coca leaves
Laurel Miller, Gadling

After a safety talk, we walked into the mine. Within minutes, the air turned humid and stuffy, and we were wading through puddles of water, and mud. Not far from the entrance was a small, makeshift shrine beneath a propped-up beam – the site of a fatal cave-in. Soon after, we ran into Carlos, one of many multi-generational miners working in Candelaria. He was awaiting the arrival of his father and brother so they could start excavating. Carlos had a wad of coca leaves the size of a tennis ball stuffed in his cheek, but managed to mumble answers to our questions via Melvin. Now in his early 20s, he’d been working in the mines since he was little more than a boy.

As we ascended deeper into the mine, the temperature soared, and the water grew deeper in places, sometimes reaching our knees. Our coveralls acted as private saunas; sweat dripped into my bandana. Periodically, Melvin would stop to point out some feature – a vein of silver running along a damp wall; 700-pound trolleys filled with rocks that would be pushed out of the mine; bulging shoulder bags full of raw metal and weighing up to 80 pounds, worn by the miners as they got off shift. Discarded plastic water and alcohol bottles littered the floors of the tunnels we explored; Melvin picked them up and tucked them into his shoulder bag for disposal, and we followed suit.

There were many disturbing images I saw in the depths of Candelaria – one of the most memorable was watching three 16-year olds taking a cigarette break in temperatures so hot it seared our lungs. But it was seeing Melvin’s face as he talked about what it’s like to work in the mines that will forever stay with me.

At times, his eyes would almost brim with tears while he explained something. I asked him why he stopped mining, curious about his response. He told me it was because he knew he would have a very short life if he didn’t. He began leading tours because he believes it’s important for visitors to know the working conditions miners labor in. He also wants to give back to the mining community (via the financial proceeds donated by Koala Tours).

Laurel Miller, Gadling

purchasing dynamite in the miner's storeThis led me to my most burning question: “Do the miners resent us for being here, especially while they’re working?” I’ll never know if Melvin’s response was sincere, but I’d like to take him at his word. “No, they are grateful, because the tourists bring them supplies. It helps them, and they understand that we are trying to educate people.”

Regardless of whether or not Melvin was speaking the truth, all of the miners we encountered were cordial. And I came away with more questions. Should I stop wearing silver? Or was boycotting it only hurting the livelihood of the miners? As a journalist, was it wrong of me to write about the tour, or was I performing a valuable service to the men and boys laboring beneath Cerro Rico’s barren soil?

As with many things related to tourism, there are no good answers. I’m grateful I made the trek to Potosi to tour Candelaria. It allowed me to see that behind the danger and desolation, there’s also a strange sort of pride in being part of Potosi’s mining heritage. It may not make up for the working conditions and other injustices faced by the miners and their families, but it made me understand that for many indigenous Bolivians, this is part of their story.