You don’t need that: A guide to minimalist packing

When I headed to Victoria this weekend with nothing but my 23L daypack (which, 15 years later, is both still going strong and available at MEC for just $29) I was feeling pretty pleased with my ability to pack light. Picking up my boyfriend — who had spent the past two weeks on Maui — at the airport the next morning, I was forced to, um, check, my minimalist packer superiority complex at the baggage counter.

The boy had managed travel two weeks with roughly the same amount of stuff that I had brought for two days. He knows how to impress me.

So instead of writing up another destination guide this week, I thought I’d venture into the wild and wonderful world of packing. It’ll save you money when you fly, and free up your hands and sanity when you’re on the ground. The prospect of not having both your espadrilles and your gladiator sandals on your next beach holiday might be scary at first, but trust me, just… trust me. 

It’s in the bag

The maximum carry-on size most airlines allow is 22″ x 14″ x 9″ —  which, even if you’re not flying, is a good size to aim for. It’s enough space for a two-day Gulf Island getaway or a six-month African safari (something I know from experience).

I’m going to veer from my budget travel focus here, but I think everyone should invest in one solid piece of carry-on luggage. While flight attendant suitcases on wheels are popular, there are better options for budget travellers who spend a lot of time pounding pavement and taking transit.

Longchamp makes an expandable duffel that is perfect for city escapes by plane, train and automobile. If your adventures are more rugged, the MEC Spirit 40 Backpack is probably a better choice.

Be efficient 

If you’re going to Cuba, you don’t need your peacoat. Oh, you have a 4-hour layover in Toronto? Yeah, the answer’s still no. Research the weather at your destination and pack accordingly.

Make a packing list of everything you think you’ll need and then cut it in half. Repeat if necessary.

Roll almost everything, and stuff your socks, undies and scarves into shoes.

Bring an extra cloth bag that collapses down to almost nothing for the things you’ll no doubt pick up along the way that could prove problematic when you’re trying to pack up your main bag and head home.

If you travel a lot, consider putting together a permanent toiletries kit with your mini shampoo and toothpaste. Depending on how upscale your accommodation is, you might be able to get by bringing nothing but a toothbrush.

Carry-on fashion

My two don’t-leave-home-withouts? Leggings and a pashmina. I know, I know, leggings are not pants, but when it comes to travel, they’re a girl’s best friend. Lightweight, compact and versatile, they do triple duty under dresses, as an extra layer and as pyjamas. So, so comfortable.

Ditto for pashminas and scarves. They dress up an outfit, can be used as a blanket on planes, and as a cover-up for going to the beach.

Pick a colour scheme and stick with it. Choose items that can be switched up to different effects. Unless I’m travelling for over a week, I don’t pack more than one pair of pants and one dress or skirt. Go neutral, then pair different t-shirts, tops and tunics with your bottoms.

Two pairs of shoes, no more. Ever. You choose: heels and flats, walking shoes and flip flops, boots and Tom’s. Shoes are heavy, shoes are bulky, shoes are something you can definitely have too much of. Pare down your pairs.

 

Portland calling (again)

By now we’ve all seen the clip: a hipster couple walks into a restaurant, interrogates their server about the chicken they’re about to be served, how local it is, what kind of upbringing it had, what it’s name was.

It’s funny.

But it’s not Portland.

And though Portland certainly won’t disappoint those expecting a bohemian paradise filled with bike-riding, mustachioed animal lovers, it has so much more on offer. (Full disclosure: I haven’t actually verified this. With the exception of a few drive-throughs on trips down the coast to ‘Frisco and Oregon’s amazing beach campgrounds — shout out to Honeyman Memorial! — I haven’t been. I know. I know. I have to go.)

Given this, the number of Portland itineraries I’ve put together is absurd. So while I can’t speak with the authority of a local, I still like to think I know what I’m talking about when it comes to the City of Roses (yes, really. Also, Oregon is the beaver state. Don’t let the unfortunate nicknames throw you off.)

Anyway. Without further ado, Portland … on a shoestring … and in (a little over) 48 hours.

What I’d do

Free-range chickens aside, Portland is renowned for its green city status. Just 10 minutes from downtown, Portland boasts the U.S.’s largest urban park, the creatively-named Forest Park. With more than 70 miles of hiking trails, it’s a great place to go for an early morning run or walk.

If the weather doesn’t inspire outdoor adventures, head for one of the city’s famed movie brewpubs to catch a flick and sip a cold one.

And since no trip to Portland is complete without a visit to a farmer’s market, make sure you set aside at least a few hours to meander one of the city’s seven markets for ultra-local produce and souvenirs.

What I’d eat

In the spirit of frugality, whittle down your meals to just two: brunch and dinner.

From the looks of it, Portland loves brunch, and for that, I love Portland. Here’s my top five fantasy brunches (all $10 and under), in no particular order.

The Norwegian potato crepe from Broder
The cast iron frittata with caramelized onions, butter-roasted cauliflower, feta and olives from Tasty n Sons
The praline bacon waffle (oh my god) from Screen Door 
The breakfast nachos (one of those life-list kind of things) from Mother’s Bistro
Kuaytiaw Reua (Thai “boat noodes” in a broth with veggies and homemade meatballs) from Pok Pok

Eating like that, you could actually probably get by on a single meal a day. However, I once hosted a couch surfer who subsisted on a single meal of fruit and crackers a day and it was frankly kind of off-putting. Budget-travelling need not be taken to those kind of extremes.

Where I’d shop

I’m under the impression that Portland is a veritable boutique and second-hand paradise. And even if I deliberately locked my credit card in the hotel safe for the weekend, there’s still a few places I’d want to peruse. Like…

Antoinette Antique and Estate Jewelry. Because at the rate I’m going, by the time I get to Portland, I’ll be the type of woman that shops for estate jewellery.
Beckel Canvas.
This reminds me of safari-tenting in Africa. Minus the really horrible bits.
Bernadette Breu. I have a small but growing antique collection. It currently consists of a very cool jewellery box, which will someday house my estate jewellery collection.
Canoe. It looks like something I’d find in Gastown. Nice as it is to explore the unknown, it’s also neat to find something familiar in an unknown place.
Cargo Imports. They sell rattlesnake eggs. ’nuff said.
Lark Press. Two little known fact about me: one of my favourite words in the English language is ‘lark’ and I can never have enough cute notebooks. Keep me away from here.
Powell’s Books. It’s a Portland institution.

Where I’d sleep

The Ace Hotel has been getting hyped a lot lately, and while I’m a fan of the army-issue wool blankets on the beds, $135/night seems a little steep for what you get (but I’m sure the shower products are very cool).

If you must splurge on a trendy room, try the Jupiter, which has rooms starting at $96/night and bigger TVs (I grew up without a TV, so the only time I got to watch Will and Grace was on holidays. But of course you didn’t go all the way to Portland to watch television, so for people with normal childhoods, this shouldn’t really be a consideration.)

If you’re sticking to a tight budget, the Bluebird Guesthouse is my pick if you just can’t bring yourself to sleep in a hostel bunk bed. Rooms named after writers (I think I’d take the Raymond Carver) go for $60-$105 depending on the season, AND you have free use of the kitchen (which, despite my numerous restaurant recommendations, will save you a lot of cash).

Beds at the local HI will set you back $26, or you can try for one of the city’s 2,026 couches up for grabs at Couchsurfing.org.

A ‘local’s’ guide to Victoria

I’ve spent close to 20 years of my life in Vancouver, but to me, Victoria is home.

I can’t quite put my finger on it, there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi in the saltwater air that calms me from the moment I step off the ferry to the moment I step back on. (This year has been a constant to-ing and fro-ing aboard Spirits and Queens and Celebrations, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing a little less of the terminal — and a lot more of my boyfriend and bicycle — come May.)

Given that this blog is about “getting away” from Vancouver, you may have deduced that I am not a city girl. You’re right. While there will always be a special place in my heart for the big lights of San Francisco and Cape Town and Paris, I am happiest someplace … quieter. More natural, more casual, more beachy, woodsy, breezy and bikeable. (Did I just describe Victoria to a tee? Fancy that.)

As excited as I am to move “home” in May, I sometimes wish that Victoria was somewhere I could visit on holiday, discovering its secret beaches and relaxing in its low-key cafes for the first time. Small, picturesque and personable, it’s the perfect weekend refuge.

And while indulging in high tea at the Empress, taking a tour of the peninsula wineries or donning a fashionable orange suit to go whale watching are all fabulous ways to spend your time on the Island, you don’t have to break the bank to have fun.

What to do

Things I miss most about living in Victoria: the runs, the walks, the bike rides. From the Galloping Goose to the 10-k path around Elk Lake to the Ogden Point breakwater, you can’t go wrong lacing up and heading out. And since the views and physical benefits are 100 per cent free, treating yourself to a latte or gelato en route is a-okay.

Beyond simply getting out and enjoying your surroundings, Victoria has no shortage of tourist attractions. Some are gimmicky (Miniature World, the Bug Zoo, Undersea Gardens) and some are legit (the Royal BC Museum, Butchart Gardens if you’ve never been and especially on fireworks nights). All, unfortunately, are overpriced, and unless the weather’s really dismal, I can’t recommend any of them over whiling away the afternoon with friends and a guitar at Gonzales Beach. (It’s nothing like Kits, I promise.)

Where to shop

There’s this great place called LoJo, have you heard of it? It’s really hip and happening and you can find all the latest styles of Nudie JeansNative shoes and hemp soap. Sarcasm and hipsterism aside, I actually love the stores along this stretch of prime Victoria real estate, including Still Life (my boyfriend designed that website!), Suasion (my boyfriend is in the process of designing that website!) and Paradise Boutique (he had absolutely nothing to do with that one!). Unfortunately, cute local fashions come at a cost and that cost is usually steep.

Instead, The Patch on Yates Street is a mecca for budget-minded fashionistas with a fondness for 1980s sequined apparel, grandpa sweaters and cowichan sweaters. They frequently have “buy two get one free” sales or “stuff as much as you can in this bag for 20 bucks” sales. You’ll pay more than you would at Value Village, but the change rooms are a whole lot roomier and the clothes have usually been rid of their moth ball stench.

Chinatown is also fun to explore (don’t miss the never-ending store of maracas, water guns, wicker furniture and fine china), as are the bohemian shops in Fan Tan Alley.

Where to eat

If you’re travelling on the skinniest of shoestring budgets, allow me to introduce to you Oxford Foods, which provided me with four years of undergrad sustenance including 89-cent canned beans and almost-expired Island Farms yogurt. It’s in Cook Street Village, and therefore perfectly located for picking up sandwich fixin’s before heading across the street to Beacon Hill Park for a picnic. If the bread’s mouldy, you can always feed the ducks.

If your budget has a bit more give, then, wow, you have so many options and I’m pretty sure I’ve tried them all. Urban Spoon rates Hernande’z Cocina as the number one place in Victoria for cheap eats, and I’d have to agree with their assessment. At their downtown taqueria, six dollars can buy you one bean and pulled pork burrito or  five (yes, five!) chicken, beef or bean tacos.

I also have a soft spot for nearby Hope Key Restaurant, which seves enormous portions of chow mein and is run by the most charming brother-sister duo you will ever meet. Even if you’re not in the mood for greasy Chinese food, I’d recommend stopping in to grab a bubble tea, marvel at their stuffed toy collection and experience the best customer service of your life.

Other good options if you’re more mobile or happen to find yourself out of the downtown area include La Belle Patate for traditional Quebecois fare (including spruce beer!), Fujiya for great take-out sushi, and Kuku’s, which is a block away from my apartment and sends the scent of delicious butter chicken wafting into our windows every night.

Where to sleep

The night before I moved into my university dorm, I stayed at Ocean Island Backpacker’s with my parents (what 18-year-old doesn’t dream of hanging out in the hostel bar with mom and dad?) Later, one of my friends lived there for four months, hanging her clothes off the bedpost and eating meals made on a hot plate. I ended up going to a lot of open mic nights with her and it’s the type of place I’d definitely recommend staying for a weekend, but not much more (there’s only so much ramen a person can eat, you know?)

For cheap accommodation, you can’t beat pitching a tent, and you don’t have to go far from the city to find great beaches and parks. McDonald Park by the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, Goldstream Provincial Park and Sombrio Beach all have amazing, cheap campsites. I’ve also spent a night in a sleeping bag in UVic’s Finnerty Gardens, but I would advise you to learn from my mistakes.

Opting out of Acapulco

Alright y’all. It’s reading break for college and university students in these parts and that means two things: getting caught up on dry textbook readings and BEER-FUELED OUT-OF-TOWN TRIPS — the latter of which excites me a lot more than the former, in case that wasn’t clear.

An obvious choice for Vancouver-based students who couldn’t quite justify the Contiki Mexico tour their roommates all went on is the nearby number one ski resort in North America, Whistler.

“But lift tickets cost $96!” says you. “Do you have any idea how much tasteless touristy kitsch that could buy?”

You’re right. Weekend trips to Whistler  typically involve racing to the lifts, racing down the hills and racing to the GLC  for a burger and beer before the Red Bull apres party starts (all to the tune of Liza Minelli’s Money, Money), but they don’t have to. You can do Whistler on the cheap, and it all starts with trading in your skis for snowshoes.

An all-ages snowshoe day pass in the Callaghan Valley costs just $8 and it is fun. Maybe not the same brand of fun as a black diamond run on Blackcomb, but fun nonetheless. If you’ve got a bit more money to throw around, head down the road to the Whistler Olympic Park and get a 2-hour biathlon lesson for $45 (ammo included).

After all that outdoor activity, you’ve no doubt worked up an appetite. While cooking for yourself might seem like the most economical option, filling your cart at the creatively named Whistler Grocery Store is not advised. Nesters Market is better value, but you’ll still pay more for a loaf of bread here than you would in town.

Instead, follow the locals to Pasta Lupino, tucked between the 7/11 and Domino’s Pizza at the edge of town. Generous servings of take-out al fredo are just $6.95. Samurai Sushi in the village is another good option, which offers up bento boxes for $8.25.

At the end of the day, you’ll need somewhere to warm your toes and rest your bones. Dating someone whose family owns a condo in Whistler is something I cannot recommend strongly enough, but if you’re not so lucky, there are (precious few) other options.

UBC’s Whistler Lodge has 40 dorm beds that cost $29/bed for UBC students and $35/bed for everybody else. I can’t vouch for its cleanliness or civility, but apart from one bed bugs complaint, Trip Advisor reviewers rate it pretty favourably. However, the HI-Whistler does even better and costs only a buck more for HI members.

If you’re coming up with a group, renting a condo for the weekend might not be as out of reach as you think. Intrawest-owned The Woods has 2-bedroom condos from $193.00/night. If there’s 4 or 5 of you, it can work out to around $40/person, and you’ll benefit from having your own kitchen, wood-burning fireplace, television and shared hot tub. Not bad.

When it’s all over, you can offer to pick your friends up from the airport and take solace in the fact that while they have a hangover and oversized sombrero, you have fresh air in your lungs, a new appreciation for Canadian winter sports and a wad of cash to put towards your next adventure.