Vancouver works to keep every star shining
A sea lion at Vancouver Aquarium would seem to be a big fan of the ABC-TV drama "Lost" and one of its cast, Jorge Garcia, whose star status may have won him the personalized introduction.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- When it comes to celebrities on the road, it seems there's no request so outlandish it can't be met. From the obvious -- rare flowers, Frette linens, and having your cashmere socks rerolled and put away before your arrival -- to the overdone -- such as Van Halen's "no brown M&Ms" contract clause or chilled water in your pooch's doggie bowl -- hotels to the stars are in the business of providing accommodation in every sense of the word. Which is not to say that traveling under your own obscure name means you must settle for the vodka in the minibar, over ice from the machine down the hall.
At the Metropolitan Hotel, Vancouver's home away from home for the likes of Harrison Ford, Mark Wahlberg, Janet Jackson, and dozens of other celebs, staff members give even regular folks the A-list treatment. Want bagpipes playing in the lobby upon your arrival or a rare single-malt scotch in your room? Not a problem.
"You don't have to be a celebrity to get that level of service in our hotel," says Perry Schmunk, the Met's director of marketing. "If you're a star, you have your handlers. You have your makeup, your trainer, your personal assistant juggling your appointments for you. But you don't need to come here with 'your people' to experience that. Anything you want in the room can be put there, anything you want to do can be set up for you."
Oliver Ng, the hotel's chief concierge, draws on 24 years of handling special requests, such as flying in Sarah Michelle Gellar's favorite coffee beans and finding Halle Berry's cat when it got lost in her suite. When you ask Ng to cite some of the more outrageous demands, he struggles. "For me, a lot of these things are routine," he says. While he won't name names, he recently scrambled to book a helicopter on a moment's notice to take a star and his girlfriend to Vancouver Island after a storm rendered inoperable the seaplane they had booked. "This job has no framework," he says. "I'm learning every day."
Ng and his team serve regular guests 24-7, delivering the same attention to detail and ability to come through in a pinch. You just have to ask for whatever it is you want. "That's probably the one thing most people don't know," says Schmunk. "The average person has no idea what Oliver can do for them if they ask for it." What won't he do? "Tell guests where to buy drugs or find women," Ng says.
Among the perks available to Met guests: having the hotel's Jaguar and driver at your beck and call. This is ideal, considering that accommodations are only half of what traveling like a star is all about. There's also arriving at spots around town in style.
While Vancouver is considerably more low-key than many cities stars are known to frequent, it's the third-largest center for film and television production in North America, which means there's almost always someone big around. TV shows such as "Battlestar Galactica," "Men in Trees," and "The L Word" are produced in this scenic city north of Seattle, and Sir Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Dreyfuss, and Zooey Deschanel are just some of the talent working in the area recently.
After a long day of filming, Vancouver's acclaimed restaurants are the city's main attraction for hungry hipsters. Al Pacino dines at the Italian-style CinCin when he's in town. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sasha Baron Cohen and Isla Fisher, Renee Zellweger, and Pierce Brosnan are among stars who have dined on East-meets-West fare such as spot prawns and oysters at the Blue Water Cafe + Raw Bar, in the city's Yaletown neighborhood. Another celebrity spot with a unique flavor is West, where chef David Hawksworth uses seasonal seafood, game, and produce to create dishes such as tomato gazpacho with lobster and avocado salad and morels stuffed with prawns and basil. Singers Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan are among those on the repeat visitors list.
Celebrities take a back seat to Chef Tojo and tantalizing Japanese creations at Tojo's, another award-winning local eatery. Park yourself at the sushi bar and you might not notice A-listers like Steve Tyler and Sting tucked away in the restaurant's booths. That's because items like melt-in-your-mouth tuna sashimi, smoked sablefish cooked in parchment, and a tangy Dungeness crab, apple, and daikon salad are the real stars here. While Hollywood types flock to this Vancouver landmark, Tojo cooks with equal enthusiasm for all his customers and even refused to shut down the restaurant to cook a private dinner for Gwen Stefani and her entourage recently.
Whether you're famous or not, shopping here is a big draw -- from the edgy boutiques favored by pretty young things like Jessica Alba to downtown's swank Holt Renfrew department store, the opening of which was attended by Marcia Cross and Anne Heche. Don't want to be bothered by the paparazzi while you're prepping for your big night out? All rooms at the Met have a direct line to a personal shopper at Holt's, so just like the stars, you can have clothes brought to you.
Another glittery excursion is a private shopping experience at the city's new Tiffany & Co. With some advance notice from Ng, they'll even open the store after hours for your Madonna moment. "We love to have the million-dollar celebrities in but we also love to accommodate the fabulous nobodies," says Rob Ferguson, store director.
The Vancouver Aquarium also attracts its share of stars. While your average guest can't set up a one-on-one play date with the dolphins as Judi Dench has done, you can make like John Cusack, Hugh Jackman, and Uma Thurman, who are among the many celebrities who have done "beluga encounters," where you feed the beluga whales and get them to perform tricks.
After a weekend of soaking up the star treatment, it's tough to imagine going back to real life. You can make your transition a little easier with brunch at The Elbow Room, a greasy spoon that's truly a humbling experience. While the restaurant's walls are covered with photos of stars who have stopped in for a meal, the cafe's reputation is for great food and cheekily rude service, with prominently displayed "rules" of conduct.
Rule No. 1: "Want more coffee? Then get it yourself or hire a butler!"
You knew the star treatment had to end sometime.
Alyssa Schwartz, a freelance writer in Toronto, can be reached at email@example.com.