Vancouver's aquabuses ferry commuters and tourists across False Creek.
For the last five years, Vancouver artist Kent Avery has spent his weekends stacking stones on the English Bay waterfront. The beach in that part of Stanley Park is nothing but stones, smaller than tennis balls or as large as sedans, a quarry’s worth of rough, tumbled granite. Avery hops down off the seawall and begins to tug and lug, setting one rock atop another until he has engineered a Dr. Seuss skyline of improbable teetering obelisks, sometimes more than a hundred of them, precarious sky castles three, five, 12 rocks tall. Eventually, the incoming tide knocks them all down and Avery starts over. He leaves a tip jar on the wall beside a notebook of facts and photos. “There’s no glue!” the book boasts. “It’s all about balance!”
In the modern city of Vancouver, everything is about balance. The city is balancing the new atop the old, the edgy atop the comfortable, the avant-garde atop the industrial, the futuristic atop the traditional. It's doing all of this at breakneck speed and somehow, so far, making it work. If you’re searching for a dose of famous Canadian moderation, don’t look here. Moderation doesn’t require balance. You need balance when you're attempting something adventurous and extravagant, and Vancouver is engaged in as extravagant an adventure as any metropolis in North America.
Vancouver is British Columbia's biggest city and the largest city in Canada west of Toronto. It's less than 20 miles over the U.S.-Canadian border and about 2 1/2 hours from Seattle by car. But the city is far enough north and distant enough from the urban centers of eastern Canada that sometimes—and especially when the lowering sun throws the glinting glass facades of downtown into relief against the craggy escarpment of the surrounding Coast Mountains—it feels like an exotic glittering island afloat at the end of the earth. The glitter has increased exponentially in recent years. An influx of new money (much of it from Asia, particularly Hong Kong) and a hectic building boom have transformed the town. For residents, this means a constant struggle to engineer a brave new city without losing the old one's natural charm. For travelers, it means there's no need to wait for the Winter Olympics in 2010 to plan a trip.
Your visit to Vancouver should start downtown, on the small peninsula bordered by False Creek to the south and Coal Harbour and Burrard Inlet to the north. Here reside the institutional pillars of old Vancouver. The Fairmont Hotel, with its green copper roof (which served for decades as the unofficial emblem of the city), its marble-columned lobby, and its capacious old-world bar, still welcomes the well-heeled traveler. Across Hornby Street from the Fairmont, in the grand former premises of the Provincial Law Courts, the Vancouver Art Gallery exhibits British Columbian art that includes a definitive collection of works by famous Canadian modern landscapist Emily Carr. Nearby, Robson Street is the city’s rue de Rivoli, lined with the usual suspects in glamorous global merchandising. The culture of consumption gets fervent there, especially for Americans. Thanks to the favorable rate of exchange on the Canadian dollar, goods are relatively affordable by U.S. standards.
When the kinetic crowd on Robson Street begins feeling a bit too, well, kinetic, the antidote is only steps away. A two-block detour down Bute Street brings you to Barclay Street and provides a quaint entrance into Vancouver’s quieter side. In this residential section of West End, genteel Victorian houses rub shoulders with new condos in gracious neighborhoods laced with little parks. The Roedde House Museum on Barclay Heritage Square provides a charming reminder of Vancouver's yesteryear. Tours of the lovingly restored Queen Anne revival home reveal an interior authentically furnished with the accoutrements of middle-class life in the 1890s.
To West End’s north, in fact occupying roughly half of the peninsula's acreage, lies the greatest of Vancouver's traditional lures—Stanley Park. Park hardly describes such an amalgam of ecologies and amusements. One mark of a great city is the degree to which the locals are inclined to be tourists in their own town and to revel in its glories. In Vancouver, the locals will lead you to Stanley Park. On weekends they ramble along its 5.6-mile seawall the way Parisians explore Père Lachaise or Oslo residents stroll through Vigeland Sculpture Park. They hike its inland trails under massive cedars and firs to visit Beaver Lake, choked with water lilies; or the Lost Lagoon; or the collection of eight totem poles on Brockton Point. Or they gather on the grass to play cricket or to enjoy lawn bowling. If you need a quick reminder that you entered
another culture when you crossed the 49th parallel, the sight of proper Canadian burghers in pressed whites rolling a slow ball across an emerald lawn with English Bay sparkling in the background should do the job nicely.
Raise your eyes to look back from Stanley Park and you will be reminded that all this tradition coexists with daring modernity. The totem poles and Kent Avery's obelisks aren't the only things in town going vertical. The city is a garden of glass, the most architecturally adventurous of its skyscrapers so tall and (by code restriction) so narrow that they seem like crystal splinters, a bristling convocation of space-age stalagmites. Residential towers are proliferating in Yaletown, the city’s most delicately "balanced" neighborhood (think warehouses being converted into hip restaurants and shops). The newer skyscrapers are still going up—building cranes perch above them like storks atop Dutch chimneys.
“This is why we’re called “the Instant City,’ ” says David Beers, an American transplant who has become a prominent local journalist and is currently vice-chair of the Vancouver City Planning Commission. Yaletown was a fading industrial district until the government commandeered it for the Expo 86 fairground and then sold it on the cheap to developers, who brought in the cranes. The neighborhood they fashioned still shows its roots—coexisting with the glass towers are old brick sawmills and warehouses refitted as cafés and boutiques. Restaurant patios sprawl across former loading docks. The resulting neighborhood is obviously thriving, but can anything so new and glistening retain any integrity?
“Vancouver has crossed the line from an organic city to a planned one,” Beers says. “The city got what it wanted with Yaletown. It’s good urban design. It works. The question is, will it ultimately be sterile?”
To gauge the success of the Yaletown experiment in commercial and design terms, one only need enter the Opus Hotel on Davie Street. The rooms are high-concept—bold colors, glass-walled bathrooms, furniture clad in jazzy weaves and even faux fur—without being low on comfort. Design aside, the Opus Hotel is popular for two bedrock reasons: its attentive and professional staff and its location. Within blocks are a number of popular new restaurants, as ethnic as Simply Thai, as open-face friendly as Rodney's Oyster House, or as ambitiously refined as Glowbal Grill and Satay Bar.
Vancouver’s face-lift has added stars to its food rankings. The city is suddenly being thought of as an exciting place to eat. Vancouver's distinctive and exceptional cuisine, labeled “West Coast,” combines British Columbia's fresh produce and seafood, the undercelebrated wines of the Okanagan Valley, and the many ethnic influences—Chinese, Thai, Japanese—that color the area. Menus offer five different types of salmon. A hearty cioppino might be tangy and sweet, combining Asian and European flavors. Huckleberries and raspberries commonly form the basis of desserts, often accompanied by ice wine, the unique dessert wine from the Okanagan Valley.
C Restaurant, whose inventive seafood dishes are of the rare caliber that can define a visitor’s experience, is the polestar in Vancouver's gustatory galaxy. The power of C lies partly in the restaurant's signature dishes—baked Kagan Bay scallops with vermouth-and-leek cream, smoked sockeye salmon terrine, seared Queen Charlotte halibut with whitefish caviar cream—and partly in the impressive list of British Columbian wines that sommelier Tom Doughty (himself a trained chef and natural host) has assembled. But the eatery’s extraordinary meals also derive their power from the philosophy underlying this bounty, which equates the best-tasting ingredients with those harvested in the most environmentally responsible way. In many restaurants you may learn the name of the person who prepares the food, in this case executive chef Robert Clark. At C you will also learn (if you ask) the names of Fred and Linda Hawkshaw, who catch the restaurant's salmon and halibut and deliver it live into Clark's hands.
From its quayside location, C looks out over False Creek at Granville Island, the city’s thriving commercial zocalo. Here are galleries, preeminently the Charles H. Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design; restaurants from cheap to chic; and the Granville Island Public Market, a Roman spectacle of anything and everything comestible. The island was the first industrial area targeted by the government for planned redemption, back in the 1970s. Even the concrete factory that still operates in the midst of all this shopping and sightseeing owes its existence to a bit of tactical artifice. The planners decided to leave a little industrial grit, so the factory sits like a beauty mark on Granville Island's newly glamorous cheek.
The revivals of Granville Island, West End, and Yaletown have transformed more than the waterfront; they have transformed the water as well. False Creek, it is said, has become Vancouver's living room. The best way to get around that central room is by water taxi, the system of little boats called Aquabuses. Some of the craft are old reconditioned motor cruisers, but the default is a hilarious little bathtub with a raised glass forecastle—too cute not to jump onto. It's a combination Venetian gondola and New York City Yellow Checker Cab. The Aquabus leaves from docks all along False Creek at intervals as short as five minutes and will take you just about anywhere on the creek: to the Yaletown docks, to Science World, and to Granville Island. The views of city, mountains, and water from the deck of the Aquabus are stunning, but the real draw is the conversation within the cabin.
“Do tell me,” one septuagenarian dowager in from London inquires of a Vancouverite, as their Aquabus motors past a residential condominium tower, “are those flats, or just one terribly swanky residence?” Judging from the accumulated carats on her ring finger, her question is in earnest. It opens a spirited back-and-forth involving everyone on board and ranging from the federal tax structure to the quality of produce in the Granville Island Public Market, which the dowager finds expressive of an extraordinary city. “It is the most beautiful food I've seen anywhere in the world, truly,” she intones. “And, dearie, I have been everywhere.”
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Visit AAA.com for Vancouver hotels and packages. AAA also
offers a Vancouver & Victoria map and a Western Canada & Alaska TourBook. The Toursim Vancouver Visitor Centre also provides visitor information; call (604) 683-2000 or visit tourismvancouver.com. All phone numbers below are 604 area code unless noted otherwise.
The hotel rates listed below are in U.S. dollars; at press time, $1 U.S. equaled $1.35 Canadian.
Fairmont Hotel Vancouver This traditional crown jewel of downtown has been popular with the British royal family since it first opened in 1939. $148-$333. 900 W. Georgia St.,684-3131, fairmont.com.
Granville Island Hotel Artistic corrugated-tin exterior, establishment mahogany and marble within. $73-$111. 1253 Johnston St., 683-7373 or (800) 663-1840, granvilleislandhotel.com.
Listel Vancouver The lobby and rooms are decorated with local artwork, which is for sale. $90-$280. Downtown, 1300 Robson St., 684-8461 or (800) 663-5491, listel-vancouver.com.
Opus Hotel Among the hippest of the city's hostelries. $117-$192. Yaletown, 322 Davie St., 642-6787, opushotel.com.
Sylvia Hotel Budget rates, lovely views overlooking English Bay, and a location close to Stanley Park make this place popular. Reserve ahead. $48-$100. 1154 Gilford St., 681-9321, sylviahotel.com.
Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar A late-night fondue menu, tapas, and inventive dinner entrées—all in a 100-year-old building with exposed brick walls and colorful modern art. Yaletown, 1138 Homer St., 915-9463,brixvancouver.com.
C Restaurant Innovative seafood dishes, such as scallops wrapped in octopus bacon, are out of this world. False Creek waterfront, 1600 Howe St., 681-1164, crestaurant.com.
Glowbal Grill and Satay Bar In a sleek dining room, titillate your taste buds with skewers of grilled tequila-rubbed lamb and venison dusted with Valrhona chocolate. Yaletown, 1079 Mainland St., 602-0835, glowbalvillage.com.
Lumière Celebrated for its modern French tasting menus. Kitsilano, 2551 W. Broadway, 739-8185, lumiere.ca.
Monsoon East West Brasserie The menu at this fun, tiny, hip spot features an amalgam of Asian themes. Mount Pleasant, 2526 Main St., 879-4001.
Rodney's Oyster House Great shellfish without pretension. Yaletown, 1228 Hamilton St., 609-0080.
Simply Thai Owner and chef Siriwan Rerksuttisiridach ("Just call me Grace," she says) cooks with fresh local produce as well as spices and herbs, such as Kaffir lime leaves and pandanus leaves, flown in from Thailand. Yaletown, 1211 Hamilton St., 642-0123, simplythairestaurant.com.
Vij's World-renowned, innovative Indian cuisine: Order the buffalo curry or the wine-marinated lamb "Popsicles." South Granville, 1480 W. 11th Ave., 736-6664, vijs.ca.
West Restaurant & Bar Voted 2003 Restaurant of the Year by Vancouver magazine. South Granville, 2881 Granville St., 738-8938, westrestaurant.com.
Charles H. Scott Gallery Visiting exhibits of modern art, on the Granville Island campus of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. 1399 Johnston St., 844-3811, chscott.eciad.bc.ca.
Granville Island For information about the public market, shopping, restaurants, and other attractions, visit granvilleisland.com/en.
Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia Best known for its collection of towering totem poles, this museum is housed in a hall
overlooking Burrard Inlet. 6393 NW Marine Dr., 822-5087, moa.ubc.ca.
Orpheum Theatre The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs here (except during July and August). Downtown, corner of Smithe and Seymour Sts., 665-3050.
Roedde House Museum Restored Queen Anne revival home of Vancouver's first bookbinder. Tours and tea. West End, 1415 Barclay St., 684-7040, roeddehouse.org.
Stanley Park Visit city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks for information about Stanley and other public parks and gardens.
Vancouver Aquarium It's worth going to this Stanley Park attraction just to see the beluga whales. 845 Avison Way, 659-3474, vanaqua.org.
Vancouver Art Gallery Definitive regional collection in a landmark building. Don't miss the Emily Carr Gallery, displaying paintings and drawings of the coastal rain forest by British Columbia's best-known modernist landscape artist. Downtown, 750 Hornby St., 662-4719, vanartgallery.bc.ca.
Vancouver Maritime Museum History and boats; reachable, appropriately, by ferry from downtown. Vanier Park, 1905 Ogden Ave., 257-8300, vmm.bc.ca.