It’s been called Hollywood North because of its burgeoning film industry, even the new Hong Kong with its similar population and geography. Whatever the likeness, Vancouver, especially viewed when arriving by air or water, is very different from Canada’s other cities. With its backdrop of mountains and endless bays and beaches, the city has a unique physical beauty. The glass and chrome high-rises downtown glitter in the intermittent sunlight reflecting the glassy water of the Burrard Inlet separating the city core from the towering red cedars of Stanley Park.
No wonder Vancouver has been named best North American city by Condé Nast Traveler. Residents of British Columbia seem to agree: nearly half of them live in and around Vancouver.
Yes, it does get a lot of rain, lots more than other Canadian cities, but only 10 per cent of the annual precipitation falls in summer. And the city claims no more than a few flakes of snow in winter. Ski resorts overlooking North and West Vancouver, on the other hand, receive about 200 inches of annual snowfall. Few cities can offer the same option of snow skiing, sailboarding, scuba diving, paragliding, kayaking and hikinin a wilderness all in the same day.
While Vancouver was originally a frontier town for the goldfields and rich timber forests of the interior north, it’s turned out to be a vibrant cosmopolitan centre with a rich cultural mosaic of more than 70 ethnic groups. Still, it does retain some of that frontier spirit with its laissez-faire attitude and respect for individuality. Whether it’s the weather or their laid-back attitude, Vancouverites suffer from fewer stress-related illnesses and are statistically happier than Canadians in other cities. Maybe their happiness can also be attributed to the fact that they spend more on running shoes and fitness classes. It’s a city with an outdoor lifestyle – and that’s enough to make anyone happier.
While daytime activities focus on the outdoors and range from cycling or skateboarding in Stanley Park, shopping on Robson Street and exploring Granville Island, False Creek or Chinatown, the nightlife of this coastal city is opulent with crowded streets, cafés, dance clubs, jazz bands, theatre, opera, lounges and bars.
It would simply be wrong to visit Vancouver and not dine out. With more than 2,000 restaurants serving an array of international cuisine, especially influenced by Asia, Europe and California, there’s a taste for every palate. Besides an emphasis on fresh meat and produce, the West Coast offers an incredible variety of fresh-from-the-dock fish and seafood, such as Dungeness crab, halibut, spotted prawns and, of course, an incomparable selection of salmon. For a first-hand experience, charter a fishing boat and captain for an early morning expedition into the sea and catch your own fresh salmon, rainbow trout or even sturgeon.
While Vancouver is spectacular seen by floatplane, ferry, helicopter or kayak, it’s best enjoyed more intimately on foot. Or for a more exhilarating tour, rent a bike or a pair of inline skates. There are marked separate cycle and jogging lanes, so you won’t have to worry about running down a jogger – or vice versa.
Depending on the number of days available, pick an area of interest and grab an umbrella, just in case. Each neighbourhood is unique, but if you have to limit yourself, make sure you take in Downtown, Gastown, Chinatown and Stanley Park.
Robson Street is Vancouver’s hottest downtown shopping and dining area where people-watching or listening to street performers is delightful. To see the best of downtown, start at Canada Place Pier early in the morning and be sure to visit Christ Church Cathedral, the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Canadian Craft Museum before resting your feet as you enjoy a latte on Robson Street.
Not 10 years ago, the cobbled downtown neighbourhood of Gastown was almost abandoned to waifs and addicts as fickle developers and trendy restaurateurs built in other parts of Vancouver. But today, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, named after a flamboyant riverboat captain named Gassy Jack, has been rediscovered as the trendy place to live, work and shop. The Landing, a gold-rush warehouse, is now an exclusive shopping and office complex, and the buildings on Blood Alley Square, named for the butcher shops that lined the street but also for the dubious drug dealings and crimes that once took place there, are now being restored. Seedy cabarets are being converted into luxury condos, and upscale shops such as Richard Kidd, selling $3,600 cashmere sweaters, and Modern Child, a high-end kids’ store are catering to the new residents. JD’s Barber Shop offers hot shaves and buzz cuts in a balmy turquoise salon with stark white tiles. Still, Gastown proclaims to be a true urban village, with underground recovery houses and safe injection sites for the street residents.
Chinatown, a few blocks from Gastown, is North America’s third largest after New York and San Francisco. The first Chinese immigrants arrived in 1858 and participated in the gold rush and helped build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Even though most of Vancouver’s Chinese Canadians now live in Richmond, Chinatown is where new immigrants often make their first stop and where everyone comes to hunt for bargains and nibble on dim sum.
Stanley Park is North America’s largest urban park, 20 per cent larger than Central Park in New York – and a lot safer. This 1,000-acre rainforest is surrounded by water except for a small isthmus where it connects to the west end. It boasts abundant wildlife, the Vancouver Aquarium, the romantic Teahouse Restaurant and a chance to mingle with Vancouverites jogging, cycling, blading or strolling the Stanley Park Seawall.
Don’t leave without at least one or two vantage points of spectacular views. For a skyline view, try the space needle observation deck at the Lookout! at Harbour Centre Tower on Hastings Street or for an evening view, from Cloud 9, a revolving restaurant at the Landmark on Robson Street. Sunsets over English Bay, where sailboats and freighters share the bay with swooping great blue herons, are breathtaking from a window table at one of the small cafés. Another favourite restaurant for sunsets is Monk McQueen’s on False Creek, a perfect stop after strolling the markets and galleries on Granville Island.
September and October are prime months for visiting Vancouver – good weather and fewer crowds.