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.

Layover Report: Where To Eat At Miami, Lima, And Bogota International Airports

cuban foodI just returned from three weeks in Bolivia and Paraguay. In that time, I had 12 flights, five of which were required to get me from my home in Colorado to La Paz. Now why, you may ask, in this age of expedited air travel, does it take so many connections to travel 4,512 miles (or nine hours by air)? Budget, baby.

I’m also horrifically flight phobic, so for me to fly various Third World carriers from Miami to Bogota to Lima to La Paz (and then La Paz to Lima to Asuncion, and Asuncion back to Lima en route to Miami, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth to Denver), is probably the best example I can provide of just how much I love to travel. I really, really, really love it. I also really love having Xanax on hand when I fly.

One of the reasons I didn’t mind my layovers too much is that I happen to adore most South American airports, especially Jorge Chavez International in Lima (so many cools shops, free snackies, great Peruvian food!). And since one of the things I most like to do in South America is eat, I used my downtime to see if there was anything worth writing about, foodwise. Indeed there was, and so I present to you my findings. Feel free to send me some Xanax in return (kidding! I’ll take empanadas instead).

Miami International Airport
It’s hardly a secret that the Concourse D location of Miami’s beloved La Carreta chain rocks, especially in a sea of Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. Best of all, it opens at 5 a.m., so when I was rushing to make my 5:30 a.m. flight to Bogota, I was able to grab a jamon y queso sandwich en route. If time isn’t an issue, sit down and feast upon Cuban-style roast pork, stuffed green plantains or fufu con masitas, or a medianoche sandwich.
empanadasJorge Chavez International Airport, Lima
It’s all about Manacaru, the token Peruvian eatery in this gorgeous, progressive airport (they even recycle and post about water conservation). Every time I layover in Lima, I make a beeline for this full-service restaurant in International Departures, and order some empanadas and suspiro limon. Also known as suspiro a la limena; this achingly sweet, meringue-and-condensed milk pudding is the official dessert of Lima.

It’s no Gastón Acurio restaurant, but it’s pretty damned good for airport food; even the ceviche is sparkling fresh in my experience. It’s also great for when you’re dashing between flights, as they’re centrally located between gates, and have an entire case of grab-and-go.

They are open pretty much around the clock, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and coffee.

El Dorado International Airport, Bogota
Never having been to Colombia, despite repeated attempts to plan trips, I was desperate for a taste of the national cuisine when I landed in Bogota. Thank god for the (wait for it) Juan Valdez Cafe. I happily resolved my caffeine jones, and ordered up some arepitas, mini-versions of arepas. These corn-and-cheese cakes are Colombia’s most iconic street food, and I was thrilled to be able to try them despite being unable to leave the airport. Gracias, Juan.

[Photo credits: Cuban sandwich, Flickr user star5112; empanadas, Flickr user jules:stonesoup]

Airlines offer in-flight menu items at food trucks, pop-ups

airline food trucksIn a marketing move best described as “ironic,” a handful of airlines are now offering land-bound folk a taste of the finest of what they serve in the air. The New York Times reports that Air France, Austrian Airlines, Southwest, and Delta are trying to lure potential passengers by tempting them with samples of in-flight meals “from” celebrity-chefs.

The modus operandi are primarily roving food trucks and pop-up restaurants in cities from New York to Denver (there are also some permanent vendor spots at various sports stadiums). In Washington, passerby were offered European coffee and guglhupf, a type of cake. In Manhattan, crowds lined up for a taste of buckwheat crepes with ham, mushrooms, and Mornay sauce, or duck confit.

I get it. Airline food sucks. Time for an image makeover. But isn’t the airline industry so financially strapped that we’re lucky to get a bag of stale pretzels during a cross-country flight? And just because reknown chefs like Joël Robuchon, Tom Colicchio and Michelle Bernstein act as consultants for airlines and design their menus, that doesn’t mean it’s their food you’re eating on the JFK-to-Paris red-eye.

Most ludicrous, however, is the notion that there’s any basis for comparison against fresh ingredients and made-to-order food versus even the best institutionally-prepared airline crap. I’ve had a couple of decent meals designed by well-regarded chefs when I’ve been lucky enough to fly business class, but in the grand scheme of things, they were still made from flash-frozen, sub-par ingredients whose origins I’d rather not ponder. And if food truck crews are merely nuking actual airline food, then how are they any different from the corner deli with a microwave?

I’m not trying to be a food snob. I just find it interesting that airlines are hopping on two of the hottest culinary trends of the new century–ones largely based upon local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. Yet by all accounts (to hear airline reps tell it), the plane campaign has been wildly successful. Of course. Who doesn’t love free food?airline food trucksRaymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, cites social media as the gateway to this type of “experiential marketing.” “As people are bombarded with marketing messages,” he explains, “real-life interaction with products and brands has become increasingly valuable for airlines to get their message across.”

Valid point, and there’s no doubt this is a clever scheme. But truth in advertising is what wins consumers. What a catering company can pull off on-site is a hell of a lot different from what you’ll be ingesting in the friendly skies. If airlines want to use food to entice new passengers, they need to start by sourcing ingredients in a more responsible, sustainable manner, rather than supporting ecologically detrimental produce, meat, and poultry (talk about carbon offsets). I realize that’s not financially feasible at this time, but supposedly, neither are in-flight meals. As for making it taste good? You got me.

[Photo credit: Flickr user OpalMirror]

AirportDining.net helps take the unknown out of airport food

Finding a decent meal at the airport is always a gamble. I suspect my ratio for good airport food is one good meal for every ten bad ones. For some reason, the airport environment seems unable to cook anything that doesn’t taste like baked shoe.

A new online resource is determined to help change that – AirportDining.net is a repository of airport dining reviews, and currently covers 409 different eateries.

Each entry provides a photo (when available), pricing, location, opening hours, whether they are kid friendly, and whether they sell alcohol. Users can add their own reviews to the location, and rate them on their taste, ambiance, cleanliness and service. Best of all, reviewers can add their own tips, recommending (for or against) certain dishes.

As of this morning, there are 104 reviews on the site, but over time that should grow nicely – especially if travelers take the time to add their own reviews. Click here to visit the site, and read some of the reviews – then, next time you fly and eat at the airport, add your review and help fellow passengers.

Plan your airport layover with T+L’s Airport Navigator

I hate airports. I hate sitting around and waiting, and I hate being unable to escape the thought that soon my plane will be the one zooming down the runway and lifting off into the sky. So rather than arrive early to the airport and allow myself time to get anxious about flying, I prefer to arrive at the last possible second, so that as I run through security and down the terminal, I don’t have time to think about my fears.

Unfortunately, sometimes I have an unavoidable mid-length layover at an airport – one that’s too short for me to go out and explore the city and too long for me to just sit at the gate and wait for my next flight. At those times, I need to find something to do to keep my mind occupied. Often, this means that I end up wandering the unfamiliar airport for about an hour in search of something good to eat, before giving up and buying the next thing I see – usually an uninspired sandwich or a bag of chips.

Next time, I’ll check Travel and Leisure’s Airport Navigator for tips on my airport before I go. For each of 20 airports, T+L has put together a list of places to eat and drink, shop, things to see and do, and places to relax. They’ve covered several major hubs in Europe – London, Madrid, Rome, Paris, and Amsterdam among them – plus major Asian airports like Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo. They’ll give you the scoop on Sydney, Cairo, Dubai, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Mexico City, along with info on Vancouver and Toronto in Canada, but coverage in the US is non-existent.

Along with listings of each airport attraction, the guide offers reviews, websites, hours and price ranges.