Sift online and mind the crack
AWALK down East Hastings Street in Vancouver is a walk down Damnation Alley. You start off in the thriving tourist district among the bustling cruise-ship crowds and gradually experience the drug-fuelled downfall of civilisation as you head towards Main Street. It has become the domain of humanity’s flotsam, zombies ravaged by alcohol, crack and crystal meth.
It may be an ideal backdrop for George Romero’s NightoftheLivingDead but it is absolutely not a place where you want your hotel to be. Yet it is where a certain rotund, bearded traveller could well have ended up were it not for a fortuitous trip on a public bus.
My internet booking was made through the official Vancouver site and it was possibly this, and a desperate need to economise, that lulled me into a false sense of security. The hotel seemed cheap and there was nothing to indicate in the bland online description that it was at the edge of what locals call Crack Central. It is only when I ask a bus driver on the way into town from the airport how to get to East Hastings Street that I learn of the area’s seedy reputation.
The bus erupts with a flurry of exclamations and dire warnings from passengers, enough to send me scuttling down to the tourist bureau to book safer accommodation. Yes, the clerk agrees, it is a bad area, and yes, it would be a good idea to book into another hotel. Oh and by the way, the experience will cost me $98 — the equivalent of one night’s stay — for failing to cancel more than 24 hours in advance. The walk along East Hastings Street a few days later proves it was the right decision. It quickly becomes apparent where the legions of homeless people in Vancouver reside when they’re not begging on street corners.
Questions still remain about how an official tourist site could host a hotel in such an area, but the experience underscores the need for research when booking online in a strange city.
Of the hotels and backpacker hostels found via the internet over several years, in areas as diverse as South Africa, Asia and the US, this has been the first to pose a serious problem.
Also on this trip, accommodation in Hawaii was booked in Australia through Zuji after several hours of sifting through useful user ratings which, as it turns out, also contain warnings about the Vancouver hotel.
The Hawaii assessments turn out to be pretty much spot-on, and my mid-size Waikiki hotel provides a comfortable and friendly budget stay. Those few hours of research meant I was ready for, and unperturbed by, the pitfalls and happy to see favourable comments confirmed.
Likewise, a backpacker hostel on Vancouver Island comes well recommended and is one of the highlights of this trip. By the time I book that room, however, I am sufficiently nervous to ring first and ask a few questions. After all, it never hurts to be wary when you’re a stranger in a strange land. Steve Creedy is TheAustralian ’ s aviation editor.