Vancouver: Nice-with an edge

Vancouvites thought Expo ’86 had put their city on the world map of sophisticated, hip places to live. Then, Jan Morris, writing in Saturday Night, described the town as being “the last resort of pleasantness… pleasantness of a middle-class, middle-income, middle-aged Englishy kind.”

Well, niceness can have an edge and these days, Vancouver’s got it.

The new Vancouverite, a far cry from “middle-aged Englishy,” shops at some of Canada’s most exciting stores. Places such as Urban Fare — so upscale that bread, imported daily from France, sells for $100 a loaf. Many of them live in pricey New York-style lofts, and dine at one of the hundreds of gourmet restaurants.

Good eats, recreation
Vancouver boasts more eateries per capita than San Francisco. A Vancouverite’s recreational choices can be extreme — mountain biking, rock climbing, snowboarding, spelunking (caving), or whatever else may be trendy at the time.

Happily for me, an English immigrant who adopted Vancouver as home in 1965, residents and visitors can embrace or ignore any or all of the above.

The essential Vancouver-a gleaming jewel of a city set in the blue Pacific,ith a backdrop of rugged, tree-covered mountains-has kept its West Coast soul intact. Locals still boast of skiing, golfing and sailing all in the same day, and delight in a mostly mild climate that allows gardeners to indulge their passion year-round. Yes, Vancouver is pleasant! And fun.

Asian flavours
In Chinatown, tiny stores are packed with bric-a-brac, intriguing food, herbs and potions. It was, until recently the place to eat dim sum-delicious steamed savouries.

But Richmond, Vancouver’s Asian-flavoured neighbour, is fast gaining on that exclusivity with its Singapore-style food courts, and dim sum to die for at The President’s Restaurant in the Radisson President Hotel (phone 604-279-1997).

This hostelry even has a Buddhist temple where visitors (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) are offered a free vegetarian lunch after Sunday worship. And while in Chinatown, don’t skip the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden, a Ming-dynasty oasis of tranquility.

Next page: Historic old town

Historic old town
A short walk north lies Gastown, where Vancouver was born more than 130 years ago when “Gassy” John Deighton arrived (with wife, yellow dog, and six dollars) at a lumber mill on Burrard Inlet, now Vancouver harbour. He and the mill workers had to hike 24 kilometres through bear-infested forests just to buy a beer, and that inspired Gassy to build a saloon.

The rest is history. Today, the old brick warehouses are home to restaurants, nightclubs and jazz bars, as well as some great stores. Cobbled roads and names like Blood Alley and Gaoler’s Mews add to the atmosphere.

Water Street boasts the world’s only steam-powered clock, which pipes its off-key rendition of the Westminster Chimes every 15 minutes.

See cruise ships
If you visit during the summer months, you’ll see sleek cruise ships departing to, and returning from, Alaska at Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal. Walk its ‘decks’ for a really close-up view of the ships, or stroll along the 10.5-kilometre-long seawall surrounding Stanley Park and watch the graceful vessels sail beneath Lions Gate Bridge, a small-scale Golden Gate.

Speaking of cruises, you might try a mini-voyage with Paddlewheeler River Adventures  (phone 604-525-4465) from New Westminster – a 25-minute SkyTrain ride from Vancouver – along the Fraser River to Fort Langley. Here you can visit the Hudson’s Bay trading fort complete with costumed guides, art galleries and antique stores.

Vancouver has no lack of lovely scenery, and one of the best views is from Grouse Mountain. Take the Skytram (rising 1,128 metres) to meander the alpine trails, enjoy a meal in the Grouse Nest, and view the stunning cityscape (weather permitting) below.

Garden displays
True, it rains a lot, but the annual 144-centimetre average does keep the city lush.

This West Coast sobriquet is particularly apt at VanDusen Botanical Gardens, where magnificent displays are as spectacular at Christmas as they are in spring and summer.

Nearby, the triodetic dome of the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park is home to exotic flowers, trees, and birds. On the University of B.C.’s ocean-side campus, the botanical garden shows a unique collection of temperate plants from around the world.

While you’re there, don’t miss the Museum of Anthropology’s display of First Nations artifacts. And if you’re in a mischievous mood, hike down the steep path on the south bank to skinny dip on nudist Wreck Beach.

European style markets
For a taste of Europe, visit Granville Island’s fresh food market, pick up a Greek salad or a wrap, and take it outside to watch the action on False Creek: grand yachts, tiny rowboats, and dragon boat teams practising for the next festival. Later, catch a comedy, drama or revue at one of the island’s three theatres.

I’ve always enjoyed playing tourist in my own town, but everyone will find there’s more than you can possibly see in one visit. That’s why so many visitors return time and time again.                                                             
Chris Potter is a Vancouver-based travel writer.