Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Looking for loos in all the right places (including Vancouver BC)

Starbucks in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Sue Frause.

Vancouver, British Columbia - As a frequent visitor to this West Coast Canadian city, I've pretty much figured out where the loos are located. After all, being a professional looky-loo is a major part of my travel game.

My favorite accessible loo in downtown Vancouver is located at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. It's clean, spacious and you can pop in there without making a big scene. And since the Fairmont is more or less Vancouver's castle, why not use the royal throne? Located just off the main lobby and down from 900 West Lounge with its great people watching (I saw actor/comedian Martin Short there one evening), it has become my restroom of record when I'm in this classy Canadian berg. But what happens when you're away from the familiar haunts and 'hoods?

That was my dilemma when visiting Vancouver last month. I was spending the afternoon on the South Granville Rise, a refreshing alternative to the box-chain stores of Robson. Known as a primo shopping area since the early 1920s, this "elegant uptown" has more than ten blocks of shops, including furniture, lifestyle and apparel stores.

With 30+ galleries, it's often referred to as Gallery Row. In addition to the art and antiques, you'll also find a variety of restaurants, from the casual Cafe Barney where locals hang out for breakfast to the exquisite West for contemporary regional cuisine served in one of Vancouver's most chic dining rooms.

Getting to The Rise is easy: via car, taxi, bus or on foot from Granville Island. I often opt for the latter, taking the Aquabus passenger ferry from Yaletown to Granville Island (you can also ride aboard the False Creek Ferries). From there, it's a quick uphill walk to the South Granville Rise. And on a nice day, walk across the Granville Street Bridge from your downtown hotel.

But back to the loo. I enjoyed a lovely lunch at West and then took to the streets. About half an hour later, I realized finding a loo was in order, and considered returning to West. That seemed a bit tacky, even though restaurant director and sommelier Brian Hopkins is one of the most delightful resto people in the city. I knew he would make me feel most welcome, but I decided to search for a loo elsewhere. What an ordeal.

I considered going into Picnic, a white-tiled deli/cafe where you can relax at the long common table over a paninni, yummy pastry or a sensuous cup of hot chocolate. But I had just finished lunch, and my hunger level was quite low. And in a spot like this (it's located right next door to Meinhardt Fine Foods, worth checking out), I generally feel obligated to purchase something before using the facilities.

That's when it hit me. Starbucks has become the international restroom of choice. With more than 12,000 stores worldwide, chances are if you're in a metropolitan city, you'll spot the ubiquitous Starbucks logo and be assured of a decent restroom experience.

So do I pay to pee? Definitely not. Case in point: the Starbucks photo above, taken in Edinburgh, Scotland. I simply went into the promised latte land and used the restroom (I don't recall having to ask for a key). My rationale for non-payment is that I've spent a good chunk of change on single-tall non-fat lattes over the years. I'm a big part of their success story!

But the experience did get me to thinking that we North Americans need an online guide to public restrooms. Our neighbors Down Under in the Land of OZ have such a website; and there's a Minnesota-based website of restroom ratings that makes for some fun on or off the pot reading. In the meantime, I'll continue to look for loos as I leisurely make my way 'round the world.

One toilet at a time.

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