Destination: Vancouver, BC
Whether you’re headed to Vancouver, British Columbia for business or pleasure, there’s not a Zagat, Michelin, or Fodor guidebook, TripAdvisor must-see list or Yelp-approved menu of dining fabulousness that will improve your stay one iota.
Why? Because Vancouver is one of the planet’s few geographically and culturally blessed destinations that truly speaks for itself. You want a challenge here? Just try to find even a tiny slice of it that fails to charm you in some way. I’ve tried and failed repeatedly.
I mean, what does it say about the place that you can’t even get out of the YVR terminal without pausing to press your nose against one of its two enormous saltwater aquariums, one containing local fish, eels and brightly-colored anemones, the other a hypnotic community of placid Pacific jellyfish?
Go ahead and plot and plan if you must, but know this: Vancouver comes at you fast.
Here are my 10 favorite Vancouver indulgences – some obvious, a couple you must promise to keep quiet, but all unforgettable.
Stanley Park: This thousand-acre forested wonderland, which forms the evergreen thumbs-up portion of handshake-shaped Vancouver as it reaches west toward the Strait of Georgia, is an urban dweller’s dream. Among its attractions: 17 miles of woodland trails, 14 miles of Pacific seawall, the Vancouver Aquarium, four restaurants, four playgrounds, a pitch-and-putt, a teahouse and a miniature train, all with sweeping views of the skyline, English Bay, Burrard Inlet and the iconic Lions Gate Bridge. Rent a bike to see it all or catch the hop-on/hop-off trolley or a horse-drawn carriage for a narrated tour.
Kitsilano Beach: Located just west of downtown on Burrard Inlet, Kits Beach is Vancouver’s version of LA’s Venice Beach, with volleyball, inline skating, tennis courts, boat rentals and its own huge, heated public saltwater pool. When the weather’s fair, you’ll find most of young Vancouver here.
Canada Place: How in the world did Vancouver’s Convention Center wind up on this prime piece of waterfront? It’s a long story that began with the city’s worldwide coming out party, the Expo ’86 World Fair, and wrapped just in time for its most recent house party, the 2010 Winter Olympics. The rooftop sails seem to challenge the Sydney Opera House to a Pacific yacht race. Stroll the pier for spectacular harbor views, especially at sunset.
Granville Island: Once a Canadian Pacific rail yard and industrial manufacturing hodge-podge build atop two sand bars in False Creek, Granville Island experienced a remarkable multi-year makeover to become the funky centerpiece of Expo ’86. Today, this island city-within-a-city features a popular public market, an eponymous craft beer brewery, an Adventure Zone and outdoor water park for the kids, and buskers galore. Though accessible by car, it’s far more fun to catch the colorful Aquabus ferry from seven sites along False Creek.
Gastown: Vancouver’s oldest community, the quaint, cobblestone Victorian Gastown neighborhood serves as harmonious counterpoint to the retail skirl of the nearby Robson Street upscale shopping district. Amid this eclectic mélange of artist studios, fashionista boutiques and thrift shops are some of the best traditional pubs on the West Coast. I’m partial to the Black Frog for its covered outdoor water views and extensive list of local ales on tap.
Rogers’ Chocolates: While I normally require a written vow of secrecy before I’ll mention Rogers’ Chocolates, one bite and you’ll understand why. Charles “Candy” Rogers produced his first batch in 1885 across the strait in Victoria; most of those original recipes live on in Rogers’ Classics line. Stop by their charming Gastown location at 389 Water Street – then never speak of this again.
The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver: Known locally as the Hotel Van, this landmark was officially opened on the eve of a visit from King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939. Shortly afterwards, its 17th floor became the West Coast broadcast headquarters for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which broadcast weekly big band performances from the rooftop Panorama Ballroom. While it now operates under the banner of Fairmont Hotels, and the CBC relocated in the mid-seventies, a stay at the Hotel Van remains a trip back in time to the golden era of luxury travel.
Chinatown: Just east of downtown, Vancouver’s Chinatown was not only one of the earliest in the Americas; it’s lost little of its exotic appeal since. Be sure to visit Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Ming Dynasty-era Classical Chinese Garden, the first ever built outside of China, and the Sam Kee Building, at just six feet wide the world’s narrowest office building.
Capilano Suspension Bridge: A short drive uphill from the Lions Gate Bridge in West Vancouver awaits this extraordinary challenge for height-ophobes. No matter how many times you’ve seen media images of this footbridge suspended and swinging amid the conifers, actually walking it is mind-blowing. Or so I’ve heard.
The Butchart Gardens: Located in Brentwood Bay on Vancouver Island north of Victoria, this former limestone quarry has become one of the world’s botanical must-sees, and for good reason: it’s absolutely breathtaking. Combine this with an overnight stay at the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria for a side trip you’ll never forget.
Photo credits: Shutterstock. Photos of Capilano Suspension Bridge by Lissandra Melo / Shutterstock.com