Vancouver… a chic, cool, vibrant and pulsating city
BRITISH COLUMBIA’S biggest metropolis offers a rich mosaic of people, places, sights and sounds which leave the visitor with two thoughts – “Why did I leave it so long to come here?”, and “I have no desperate urge to leave”.
For Vancouver’s insouciant charm soon takes a hold, drawing you in through the seductive beauty of a highrise skyline framed by mountains, and great infrastructure, connecting neighbourhoods over bridges and through downtown’s separated bike lanes.
The compact city centre is surrounded on three sides by water, with Burrard Inlet to the north, False Creek to the south and English Bay to the west, with several pleasing neighbourhoods radiating from this downtown core.
Vancouver’s main thoroughfares generally follow a user-friendly grid pattern, with streets running north to south and avenues, east to west, so it is easy to navigate on foot or bike. With hundreds of year-round accessible options including kayaking, hiking, biking, skiing to boating, this is an outdoor paradise like no other I have visited.
Covering over a thousand acres, Stanley Park is Canada’s largest city-owned green space.
Hire a bike and pedal around the seawall, with plenty of points of interest, including the Totem Poles. Crafted from red cedar trees, these are the most visited tourist attraction in British Columbia.
At the head of the park is Prospect Point, which offers panoramic views of the North Shore Mountains. Relax at several beaches, including English Bay, the jewel of the West End. (Spokes Bicycle Rentals, 1798 West Georgia Street; spokesbicyclerentals.com)
Enjoy a refueling stop in the Public Market, which is teeming with deli counters, bakeries, fishmongers and pyramids of fruit and vegetables, and then amble among the stores which sell everything from pottery, jewellery and glassware to books, clothing and wine.
Soar from coast to coast with FlyOver Canada, Vancouver’s newest must-see attraction.
Located at Canada Place on the waterfront, the virtual flight journey guarantees an amazing sensory experience, complete with water splashing across your face. (flyovercanada.com).
Join a sea safari or rent your own boat with Sewell’s Marina, just 20 minutes from Downtown Vancouver (sewellsmarina.com), and see wildlife including eagles, dolphins and whales in Howe Sound fjord. Get up close and personal with the natural world at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, housed at the University of British Columbia. Listed as having the ‘best collection for weird things in drawers’, stand face-to-face with Canada’s largest blue whale skeleton at 26 metres, and explore over 500 exhibits. (2212 Main Mall; beatymuseum.ubc.ca). Situated atop wooden pilings over the Fraser River, The Gulf of Georgia Cannery National Historic Site is home to one of the few remaining 19th century salmon canneries in B.C. (gulfofgeorgiacannery.org).
Visitors to the Britannia Mine Museum can don hardhats, climb aboard an underground train and see life as it was for the hard rock miners of yesteryear. A multi-million dollar makeover transformed the historic copper mine into an award-winning museum and National Historic Site. (britanniaminemuseum.ca).
Catch one of the many rainbow-coloured Aquabus Ferries that plough across Vancouver’s scenic False Creek. Step off at Granville Island or visit downtown neighbourhoods, parks and attractions (theaquabus.com).
For the full lowdown, join a small-bus, fully narrated half-day excursion with Landsea Tours & Adventures, and visit Stanley Park, Chinatown, Gastown, Canada Place, Granville Island Public Market, and much more (vancouvertours.com).
At the top table of Canadian dining cities, Vancouver serves a rich and diverse menu for travelling foodies.
From arguably the best Chinese and Japanese dining outside Asia, to a taste-tripping dedication to local ingredients that encompasses everything from delectable seafood to carefully cultivated fruits and vegetables, visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to experiencing local flavours.
Enjoy classic food and drink with modern sensibility at The Abbey. Check out a handmade cocktail whilst tucking into locally and regionally sourced ingredients, carefully cooked and minimally handled. (117 West Pender Street; abbeyvan.com)
Owner Steve Da Cruz works the floor at The Parker, a stylish, sustainable, 18-seat restaurant boasting almost zero waste. The bar programme features some of the best wines and spirits from the Pacific Northwest, or get Steve to serve you a classic cocktail, while chef Felix Zhou (above) works his magic on an ever-evolving veggy menu. (237 Union Street; theparkervancouver.com)
If your fancy is for sushi or cooked seafood, head to Tojo’s Restaurant, sit at the bar, and let owner Hidekazu Tojo serve fill you full of stunningly presented food. Allegedly, the best Japanese restaurant in Canada. (1133 West Broadway; tojos.com)
The AAA, 4-diamond Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel overlooks the airport runway, and its award-winning restaurant is the perfect spot for lunch. (3111 Grant McConachie Way; Fairmont.com/vancouverairport)
Long table dining is a hugely popular trend, with locals sharing counters that encourage conviviality and bonhomie. If you fancy joining them, check out the Irish Heather (irishheather.com) and Salt Tasting Room (salttastingroom.com), as well as the market dinners offered by Edible Canada (ediblecanada.com).
Brunch is big business in Vancouver on Saturdays and Sundays between 10am and 3pm. Take a two-and-a-half hour tour of venues around the East Village neighbourhood with Off The Eaten Track (offthebeatentracktours.ca), when you can sample delicacies in one of the oldest neighbourhoods in the city.
Although this working-class area was re-branded from Hastings Sunrise, it has stayed true to its roots. Kick off the tour at the West Café with a dish of cherry tomatoes, cheese, herbs and potatoes, before moving on to Saltenas, a smart eatery run by Bolivian Carolina Ordonez and her mother Rocio.
Jackalope’s, a popular rock ‘n’ roll joint, serves up cornbread eggs benedict with homemade hollandaise, fresh herbs, roasted potatoes and yams. Next, pop into the Windsor Meat Co, where manager Dave Fairley will have you try a range of different meats, from elk to kangaroo, yak and ostrich, before finishing off with an assortment of teas at Vancouver’s smallest tea shop, wedged behind the door of Donald’s Market. Nolan Cockburn has been here four years, and has a superb range of speciality teas for the connoisseur.
Expect over 25,000 hotel rooms in over 210 hotel properties in Metro Vancouver, with more than half being downtown. Ranging from $70 to over $1,000 a night, expect an average rate of around $130.
For unique accommodation with a cultural twist, try Skwachays Lodge. The boutique hotel, which opened in autumn 2014, sits at the crossroads of Gastown and Chinatown. Part of a social housing structure, two floors of the Victorian-era building have been transformed into hotel accommodation, where six interior designers teamed up with six Aboriginal artists to create 18 distinctive rooms featuring original carvings, blankets and paintings. The building is crowned by a rooftop totem pole, reaching 40ft above Vancouver’s skyline. (31 West Pender Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 1R3; skwachays.com)
GREEN TO GO
Recognised as having the smallest carbon footprint of any major city in North America, Vancouver’s progressive mayor Gregor Robertson has pledged to make it ‘the world’s greenest city’ by 2020. The initiative covers issues of sustainability, liveability and urban planning for residents and businesses, and aims to implement programmes that will make Vancouver an eco-pioneer and green beacon for communities around the world. Robertson is no environmental slouch, having run an organic juice farm before becoming mayor, and is famed for riding his bike to City Hall. With 20 per cent of the budget being spent on parks and recreation, Vancouver’s commitment to green transportation is exemplified by the region’s growing mass transit system. The original SkyTrain line opened in 1985, with a new line added in 2002. In 2009 the Canada Line was opened, linking the airport to downtown in a 25-minute trip.
The next stage of this eco-minded transit network will be the Evergreen Line, scheduled to open in 2016. Vancouver also has one of the world’s largest hybrid vehicle taxi fleets, and has recently expanded its commitment to cyclists by creating popular new downtown bike lanes on city centre streets. Car drivers have not been left out of the loop either, as the city now requires electric vehicle charging stations for 20 per cent of all parking stalls in new condo buildings.
HIGHWAY TO A SECRET NATURE PARADISE
Head out of the city along the Sea to Sky Highway. A 45-minute drive will see you approaching Squamish at the head of Howe Sound fjord. Originally a First Nations town, the logging industry then moved in, which is why all of the forests hereabouts are second growth. The last decade has again seen dramatic change, with many Vancouverites being lured by the stunning scenery, and the fact that Squamish sits equidistant to the city and Whistler.
The peaks that surround Howe Sound are part of the much larger Coast Mountains range. The Fraser River and interior plateau surround the range’s southeastern boundaries, while the Kelsall and Katshenshini Rivers at the north end of the Alaska Panhandle determine its northwestern edge, covered in dense temperate rainforest on its western exposures. The Coast Mountain range rises to heavily glaciated peaks, and includes the largest temperate latitude icefields in the world. The range is also part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, volcanoes and associated mountains around the Pacific Ocean, which contain some of British Columbia’s highest mountains.
For a real eye-opener, head to Horseshoe Bay and take an exhilarating high-speed zodiac journey across Howe Sound fjord to Britannia Beach, courtesy of Sewell’s Marina, as part of the company’s Sea Safari Eco-Tour. Howe Sound runs 44kms between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish. According to Megan Sewell, who runs Sewell’s Marina with her brother Eric, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s there was plenty of industry here, which, unfortunately, caused a great deal of damage to the marine environment. “In the last 15 years the rebound seen here has been phenomenal, so we have herring that are eating off the sea grass. Returning salmon have brought in dolphins, which have in turn brought in orcas chasing the dolphins. In September we have humpbacks, which are here for the entire month. It is almost as if they are resting up for their big crossing.
“Black sponge reefs have also been discovered, two of them being the shallowest classed sponge reefs in the world. We are working with commercial pond fishermen and crab group fishermen to make sure they are not putting their traps and lines over those areas. In a nutshell, environmentalists are fighting to maintain what the area has gained back, so we can grow from there. In fact, many Vancouverites consider Howe Sound to be our marine park, and we should preserve it as such.”
To gain the full majesty of the area, take a ride on the new Sea to Sky Gondola, a sophisticated product opened in May 2014, which will take you 885 metres above sea level. Here, you are treated to sweeping views of Howe Sound, the coastal forest of Hemlock, Cedar and Douglas Fir, and surrounding snow-capped mountains. This adventure playground includes two interpretive trails with cantilevered viewing platforms, hiking trails, rock climbing and backcountry access. Walk across the 110-metre long Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge.
In the distance are the peaks of Sky Pilot and Co Pilot. Once back across the bridge, head to the Summit Lodge where you can enjoy a meal and floor-to-ceiling views. April through May is, by all accounts, the quiet period. Come September/October, and the hikers come out to play in this secret nature paradise, because that is exactly what this is.
Back at sea level, you can head into the nearby park and stroll up to Shannon Falls, the third highest waterfall in B.C., before making for the Britannia Mine Museum, which, a little under a century ago, was the largest copper mine in the British Empire. Today a National Historic Site, visitors can journey deep into the mine on a small train, and pan for gold once back in the open air. Do not miss the magnificent Mill 3. This landmark on the Sea-to-Sky Highway was once considered the heartbeat of the Britannia community. This is where ore was once processed, and visitors cannot fail but be impressed by the cathedral-like industrial interior.
A 20-minute drive south of Vancouver, Steveston sits at the mouth of the Fraser River and was once the largest fishing port and cannery centre on the West Coast. Although the canneries are no longer in operation, the town is still home to the largest salmon run in North America and to the largest fleet of commercial fishing vessels on the BC coast.
The heritage of fishing and the Japanese-Canadians who helped build the industry in Steveston are evident everywhere you look – the nearby martial Arts Centre is the first ‘dojo’ house ever built outside Japan.
- Make your visit to Canada doubly special by spending a few days in Vancouver and then heading north to the spectacular Yukon, and especially between September and April when you will have a great chance to see the Northern Lights. I have listed below some websites and operator details. There is also a link to a story on my visit to the Yukon earlier this year.
For a free Yukon guide and map email TravelYukon.firstname.lastname@example.org
Scott Dunn offer a ‘Vancouver and Yukon Winter Fun’ 9 day package from £2,735 per person based on two adults sharing, including snowmobiling, dog-sledding and ice-fishing excursions and economy flights from the UK (www.scottdunn.com/luxury-tours/vancouver-and-yukon-winter-fun)
1st Class Holidays offer a ‘Yukon Winter Adventure & Spa’ 5 day package from £741 per person (land only) based on two adults sharing, snowmobiling and dog-sledding excursions available for additional cost (www.1stclassholidays.com/yukon-winter-adventure-and-spa)