Ken Hegan meets holiday travellers while squatting at a chic Vancouver hotel

By Ken Hegan for MSN

Ken Hegan(Submitted photo)

Hegan and his Soviet-era mobile phone

Nothing gets an employer’s attention like a cover letter that doubles as a ransom note.

MSN was seeking a new blogger and when I saw their ad, I dove into action. Travel writing is my dream job – and I wasn’t alone. MSN received 250 resumés. But fortune favours the bold. So after I took hostages and stashed them in a remote storage locker, the job was suddenly mine.

Why not? If you want something bad enough, go for it, and hard. I learned that from my favourite travel writers, Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke. In the 80s and 90s, these men ruled the pages of Rolling Stone. Their jobs: fly to exotic, war-torn destinations, flirt with women/disasters, get thrown out of bars, and somehow find the energy to capture the essence of paradise under fire.

O’Rourke and Thompson wrote muscular travelogues that didn’t just make you want to be somewhere…they made you want to be there with them. That is travel writing at its finest: passionate characters in compelling situations. I hope I capture even one-tenth of their spirit.

Now, before I explain why I’m launching this column from a chic Vancouver hotel, here’s a little about me. I love travel writing so much, I quiver in excitement when airport security pats me down. I’m tall and boast the World’s Tiniest Bladder, so I always book the aisle seat. And if couples ask me to switch seats so they can sit together, I pretend I’m deaf, ESL, or both.

Maybe most importantly: exactly one year ago today, my marriage ended. Amicable separation but devastating nonetheless.

I instantly knew I had a big choice to make. I could either:

1) Waste years being bitter and trashed, then end up face down in a ditch; or
2) Vow to be as happy as possible, and treat my life as if it’s a Big Beautiful Question Mark.

So I chose the latter. I shed my possessions and started travelling. Jamaica. Boston. Vancouver/Whistler for the Olympics. In Kenya, I petted a rhino named Boutros-Boutros while a ranger poked its genitalia with a stick (never did find out why). I watched a donkey drink a beer in Cuba, sang Edith Piaf songs in a Czech Republic wine cellar, soared over Napa in a hot air balloon, and floated in an infinity hot tub on the jagged edge of a misty Big Sur cliff.

And now, as we’re all perched on the precipice of Christmas, I’m staying in the St. Regis in Vancouver. Yep, I live nearby but I’ve moved into a boutique hotel for the 12 days before Christmas.


A hotel is the perfect launch pad for a travel column. So many great writers did their best writing in hotels. Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Arthur C. Clarke, and Leonard Cohen all lived at the legendary Chelsea in Manhattan.

Plus hotel staff are great characters. The St. Regis’s maintenance man, Dave, is 84 years old and works round the clock. When I ask him what famous writers stayed here, he says “Yep.” After a long awkward pause, I ask “So, um, these famous writers. What were their names, Dave?”

He thinks again, then says, “The most famous writer who lived here was George somebody.”

St. Regis(Supplied photo, St. Regis)

Like the Chelsea, the St. Regis was a low-rent flophouse in the ’70s. But in 2009, after an $11 million makeover including a quarter-million dollars worth of original paintings, the St. Regis blossomed into a chic, four-star Manhattan-style gem.


It’s a chocolates-on-the-pillows kind of place. The bathroom’s marble. And is that leather wallpaper? Whatever it is, it’s dead sexy. It’s like the wall wants you to back someone up against it and share a scorching holiday kiss.

Unlike Jack Nicholson’s remote writing retreat in The Shining, the St. Regis is super central (just steps to the airport-bound Skytrain) and offers both elegance (Gotham steakhouse) and grit (the sketchy hostel across the street). Alas, the St. Regis’s once infamous seedy strip club is now a breakfast nook.

Gotta say: it’s special being the Writer in Residence at a hotel before Christmas. I’m finding that guests fall into 2 categories:

1) The hotel is their refuge from something terrible
2) They’re here to party while everyone else is stressing out in the malls.


Interior of Gotham restaurant at the St. Regis

My friend Lauren fits both categories. Before Christmas last year, Lauren and her husband were driving in a Pennsylvania blizzard when they narrowly missed being hit by a jack-knifing semi. Shaken up, they checked into a hotel to wait out the storm. Exactly nine months later she gave birth to their baby Margot.

At the front desk, I meet Bob from Victoria. He’s treating the St. Regis like a holiday before he travels to a tense Christmas in Williams Lake.

“My Mum was the spirit of Christmas in our family but after she died, Christmas went with her,” he says. “Now it’s all family drama. I’m having such a nice time, seeing friends, I’m thinking of proroguing Christmas and staying here. Is that so wrong?”


St. Regis Bar and Grill

At breakfast, I see a family who look like they’ve seen a ghost. They’re talking in whispers, so I figured they’re here for a funeral. But turns out they’re hungover Swedes who’d just celebrated an epic wedding. The mother of the bride sounds as hoarse as the devil but looks happy and still drunk.

In the lobby, I meet John and Kelly who hail from Norwich, England. They’re enjoying Christmas early with Kelly’s family in Canada. She says travelling before Christmas is relaxing. “Normally I’m working this week but this year I get to miss all that rushing mayhem.”

Each morning, as I shuffle through the halls in my flip-flops and fluffy bathrobe, greeting my housekeeping buddies with hugs and high-fives, I think, “We’re a lot alike, the St. Regis and I. We’re thin as a whip, charming as all hell, and we’ve both reinvented ourselves in grand style.”

And unlike some boring chichi hotels, they’re not greedy little punks here. Wireless, parking, and breakfasts are all free. They may also be the only hotel on Earth to offer free unlimited international phone calls. I can call anyone, anywhere, as often as I like. Amazing.


So let’s take advantage of my free calls, right now. If you’d like to tell me about an amazing place I should travel to, email me your phone number. I’ll give you a ring, and you can tell me all about it. I’m serious. Also: if you could travel anywhere next year, where would you go? Shoot me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

See, this travel column won’t be a monologue filled with fluffy adjectives about a turtle at dawn. No, I’m interested in dialogue. Because sharing experiences is what makes travel so exciting.

And I can’t wait to get started. Next month, I’m blogging in Israel, beach-tricycling in Oregon, surfing Laguna Beach, skiing in Canmore, and kite surfing in the Guadeloupe archipelago.

But before I go, I should probably pop by my storage locker and release those hostages. After all, it is the holiday season and who knows when I’ll be back again.

— Ken Hegan


Ken was graciously hosted by the St. Regis Hotel

Photos courtesy the hotel

Read all of Ken’s MSN travel stories here