I have a confession to make. I love Vancouver. Living there for two years studying art and design, I suppose, qualifies me to write an honest article on the pleasures and perils of visiting Vancouver. But if one has fallen unabashedly in love with a city, the reader has to bear with all the mushy musings of a person in love. New York has a buzz that pushes you to your limits. Frankfurt tricks you into feeling organised even if you’re far from it. Paris gets you all romantic. Rome — with its history and monuments and macho policemen on speeding bikes — makes every Indian feel at home.
And Vancouver? Hmmm.
To begin with, Vancouver does not feel like a city. No fog or fumes or crowds or heavy traffic. It does not push you aggressively to run hither and thither to gaze numbly at its many monuments and tick them off your list of ‘been there, saw that’. Vancouver is gentle and unhurried, allowing you to savour and assimilate a cosmopolitan urbanity lying snuggled in the lap of Mother Nature. Where in the world can the downtown of a city boast of being surrounded by incredibly beautiful snowcapped mountains at just an arm’s length, while snugly encircling the placid backwaters of the Pacific Ocean?
Vancouver coaxes you to feel and explore. To linger along its scenic views of the harbour and mountains . To walk, bike or rollerblade along its seawall, one of the most spectacular promenades in the world. A twenty-two kilometre-long walking, jogging, cycling and inline skating path, it lines Vancouver’s waterfront from the convention centre on Burrard Inlet (Coal Harbour), around Stanley Park and False Creek, past Granville Island and ends at Kitsilano Beach Park.
If the weather’s right, you can take short hikes for the day into the surrounding mountains or spend a day exploring Stanley Park, one thousand hectares of forested paradise right in downtown Vancouver. Stanley Park, with its immense and very old trees, bordering the waters surrounding downtown, is unmatched in its uniqueness anywhere in the world. The following excerpt sums it up: “A city that has been carved out of the forest should maintain somewhere within its boundaries evidence of what it once was, and so long as Stanley Park remains unspoiled that testimony to the giant trees which occupied the site of Vancouver in former days will remain” — The News Herald, October 30, 1939.
Vancouver’s citizens are a sporty lot. You won’t find too many overweight wobbly people on the streets. They run and bike, ski and sail, passionately support and enjoy ice hockey. (They have a relationship with the blue-robed Vancouver Canucks similar to ours with the Indian cricket team.) And all this considering the weather. It rains. A lot. But a good look at the enormous number of sports goods, camping gear and outdoorsy merchandise shops in Vancouver, and all is clear. You realise how seriously and fiercely proud the residents are of this abundance of nature. The exceptionally green landscape of Vancouver offers immense possibilities for the outdoorsy life.
To begin exploring Vancouver, and to relish the diversity it has to offer in its cuisine, culture, art and shopping, nightlife and nature walks, you have to travel no further than the core of its downtown. The gentle, inclusive and open nature of the average Canadian is reflected in the comfort displayed by the numerous ethnicities from across the globe that have made Vancouver their home.
You could experience history and heritage staying in one of the quaint downtown bed and breakfast hotels located in the many beautifully tree-lined streets of downtown’s West End. Or you may decide to stay at one of the high-end luxury hotels, housed in heritage buildings. Whatever your mood or budget, you are never far from where the action lies or what Vancouver has to offer.
Shop till you drop on Robson Street with its brand name boutiques or on Main Street between 8th to 12th Ave and 16th and 33rd. In these areas, you’ll find boutiques, vintage clothing stores, bookstores and home design retailers, along with fantastic coffee shops and restaurants. Hunt for vintage treasures in the hugely popular Vancouver Flea Market housed inside a brightly painted barn on Terminal Avenue. Make a trip to Commercial Drive to experience a truly bohemian neighbourhood. Commercial Drive began life as an Italian enclave, but over the years has evolved into a hugely diverse and creative locality. Popularly called the SoHo of Vancouver, it’s now home to a very mixed population, and boasts delis and coffee shops and yoga studios. There is always something happening. A walk down the drive will take you past a wide variety of businesses, mostly single-location and owner-run — a fast-disappearing breed in the West.
Take a half-hour ride to Grouse Mountain to ski or snowboard if you are the sporty type or take a skyride if you want it nice and lazy. I remember my roommate’s glowing face and rejuvenated spirit after just a day spent there. She left late one morning, grumpy and exhausted from several sleep-deprived nights, to return in the evening, mellow and radiant after a day spent communing with nature. All this accomplished within an hour’s ride from downtown.
That is what is unique about Vancouver. It is the only city in the world where, in an hour’s drive in the appropriate direction, you could be in snowcapped mountains or disappear into the wilderness and come back to a bustling cityscape of art galleries, theatres, international shopping and nightlife and exotic dining.
A young Greek friend and I took a two-hour ferry ride through the mountains over a weekend break once. The ferry ride transports you into another dimension, winding its way through waters edged by mountains and the scenery alone makes getting to Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands and where we were headed, fun. One and a half days was all it took for my friend D to feel he was back somewhere in the Greek islands and for me to get my fix of a laidback island lifestyle. Among other things, we took in lavender fields, a winery and a hidden lake popular for skinny dipping. We dropped into one of the several studios of watercolour painters and rode a hired bike through fields of daisies and bright orange poppies.
Being home to a large foreign population, Vancouver features an endless range of culinary delights. From Oriental (Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Japanese, Singaporean) and Mediterranean to Middle-Eastern and Italian. Not to mention Indian and fusion. Indian-Chinese too. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Around Gastown and Yale Town, the restored and gentrified historic areas of Vancouver, are the upscale restaurants, along Davie and Denman are the local joints.
And Chinatown. Where do I begin? It is a foodie’s paradise. Vancouver’s Chinese community has a long history with the city and is one of the largest such communities in North America. Vancouver’s Millennium Gate at Taylor and Pender Street, an impressive, dragon-covered affair, welcomes you to an array of Cantonese shops dotted with scarlet red awnings, with merchandise of every hue and cry flowing out on to the sidewalks, from clothes to homeware to exotic herbs and condiments to dried fish and medicinal herbs.
Along the Canada Place waterfront are the lounge bars and seafood places overlooking shimmering waters and twinkling city lights. Granville Island makes for a leisurely afternoon, hopping in and out of edgy art galleries and charming craft boutiques. Step into one of the several well-stocked bars to refresh yourself before heading out to explore the covered food market selling every imaginable foodstuff, ingredient and baked goodie in the world.
And then there are the beaches. Vancouver is a beach city. Admittedly it is not beach weather most of the year and the water can get quite cold. That’s when you bundle up nice and warm and go for long walks along the beach walkways, liberally dotted with comfy benches. And when hunger pangs begin to nudge, you can pop into one of the cosy restaurants along the waterfront and tuck into a warm meal and sip wine and watch the sunsets from the comfort of candlelit tables.
When the shopping and the eating and the walking have exhausted you, the Vancouver Art Gallery offers a day of quiet, contemplative browsing. Or you could walk down to the Vancouver Public Library housed in a remarkable building, the exterior of which resembles the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome (better known as the Colosseum). A generous, glass-roofed concourse serves as an entry foyer to the library and houses cosy coffee shops and eateries.
There was a time, a long time ago, when one travelled to expand one’s mind, to experience another way of life, to assimilate and celebrate the diversity of the many cultures that make up this amazing world we live in. If you still want to experience this old world charm, Vancouver certainly fits the bill.