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January 20th 2016
Published: February 11th 2016
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One night, just before we left Australia, we had a panic; to enter New Zealand we had to have an onward ticket. An hour slipped by frantically searching for a good ticket. At the time we had quite complex plans for South East Asia but just couldn't make them work. Another frustrating hour slipped by. I started thinking outside the box and looking for connections to anywhere in the world. Suddenly a really cheap flight to Vancouver popped out of my screen. It was so cheap relative to everything else we'd seen that we couldn't say no.

I have to whisper this, so as not to offend Cape Town (where Lindsey was born), but Vancouver may be my favourite city on earth. It has everything: the ocean, mountains, parkland, skyline, friendly people, a vibrant cultural scene, amazing food. To me it's only drawback seems to be a constant fixation on ice hockey which, even in restaurants, can't be turned off. I first visited almost six years ago and I've been desperate to get back and to show Lindsey around. Imagine my joy then when I saw the airlines conspiring to get us there.


We arrived in Vancouver after a twelve hour flight crossing five time zones to get to Shanghai; our hurried layover in this amazing city; a ten hour flight across eight time zones in the opposite direction; and crossing the international dateline. For at least a week our bodies would have no idea what time it was, especially as the January nights arrive early in Canada. Despite these trials we resisted the temptation to sleep and dived straight into the city.

Our first afternoon consisted essentially of three things: checking in to the hotel, trying to orientate ourselves in the city and finding food. The first two of these were accomplished with little difficulty - we took a short walk from the central train station and found the hotel easily enough. We discovered it was about equidistant to the Waterfront on one side and English Bay on the other, and conveniently located for Stanley Park. These are all places we would explore over the next few days. Finding food was strangely difficult. We just wanted to pick up something light at a supermarket. After spending a couple of hours searching for one we were ravenous and decided just to head to a food court. We would eventually find a supermarket on the other side of the hotel but for now we just wondered how Canadians got their groceries. We spent the early evening admiring the Waterfront and then went back to the hotel for an early night.

Day 2 - Stanley Park and Granville Island

I hardly ever sleep well but that night I got thirteen hours of unbroken sleep and awoke completely disorientated. We headed out for a late breakfast at White Spot, a chain restaurant I had grown fond of last time I was here. All of the time I have known Lindsey I have been telling her about their pancakes so I was hoping they were still as good. We were soon tucking into four huge pancakes each with three large slices of bacon and a lake of maple syrup. Canadians must starve when they come to the UK because we'd never be served such volume of food in England. It was both an impressive and delicious plate of food and just the fortification we'd need for our afternoon.

To me, one of Vancouver's best features is its sea wall path. Many of Vancouver's residents cycle on this path around Downtown; some skateboard; some still rollerblade, in nostalgic homage to the '90's; and last time I was here I even saw a lone unicyclist. I, however, enjoy a more leisurely stroll. Stanley Park forms the Northern half of Vancouver's Downtown and the sea wall path clings to the edge of the park for around nine kilometres. Our afternoon would be spent enjoying the scenery this path offers.

As you walk from the Waterfront you enter the luxury residential district of Coal Harbour with its grand steel and glass high-rise condo blocks. From here the view across the harbour to the shore of North Vancouver is stunning. On a clear day the Rocky Mountains form an outstanding backdrop to this part of the city. Closer, there is the pretty southern edge of Stanley Park, and just in front of this a charming building which houses Vancouver's Rowing Club. As you walk towards the clubhouse the path takes a wide sweep around the harbour gradually opening up an impressive skyline of modern skyscrapers. Around here many yachts are moored, highlighting, as if it was necessary, the city's links with the sea.

At the furthest point of the arc formed by the path, a short detour into the park brings you to a small island. Here stands an array of brightly coloured totem poles, originally carved to mark the entrance to aboriginal dwellings and to reveal something of the people dwelling there. These cultural icons can be found in various places but the collection in Stanley Park is noteworthy and beautiful.

Beyond the totem poles, if you follow the path round, you come to a small light-house. I don't think it is now used but it adds a splash of bright red to the path. At this point the majestic curve of the Lions Gate Bridge first comes into view. This immense yet graceful structure draws the eye as you walk down the Northern part of the sea wall. When you pass under it you get a dizzying view up to the carriageway above. To me bridges are a symbol of connection and the powerful human desire to cross impassible gulfs in our quest to discover. I think the Lions Gate is a particularly beautiful piece of architecture and I find in it an inspiring reminder to keep exploring.

Further along the path, we rounded the headland and came to the Western Shore of Stanley Park. Here the Pacific Ocean certainly deserves its name - the surface was calm and below we could see the crushed mussel shells which give it a tint of dark blue. In the distance we could see huge oil tankers waiting to come into port. At this distance, even these behemoths looked graceful and an integral part of the scene. We continued walking along the flat, calm sea until we reached English Bay, which marks the end of Stanley Park. Here is a pretty beach with the mountains in the distance. Sadly, cloud reached down to the lower slopes rendering them invisible to us.

English Bay is not far from the jetty for the ferry to Granville Island. My one regret on my last trip to Vancouver was not getting to visit the Granville Island Market and I was very keen to correct this. We just missed a ferry but the next one was only five minutes away. We were soon aboard the cute little twelve-seater boat. Another five minutes and we were docking at the island.

It was getting dark and the already chilly day was turning very cold so it was a relief to head into the market. Here we found a wonderful array of fresh food from all over the world. We went mad on raspberries and blackberries in large punnets, the biggest apples I have ever seen and a packet of small yellow jack-fruits. We passed stalls full of amazing looking cakes and breads, pastries and sweets but somehow managed to resist. The hot meals being prepared looked and smelled amazing and there must have been food from every continent. We wanted something warming and authentically North American and found a stall selling pot-pies. The rich meaty stew and hot buttery pastry was just what we needed on a winter's night and we felt so much better for eating it.

Sadly, we were too late for all of the shops on the island which had already closed. We could see through the windows that this was a hub of arts and crafts and we very much hoped we'd find time to return.

We left the island and walked up the bustling Robson street, through the heart of the city. This is an experience in itself, with the bright lights and rushing people. Shops and restaurants open late and it is interesting just to wander between them. We were too tired for that though and just headed back to our hotel, extremely satisfied after our first full day of exploring the city.

Day 3 - Bookshops and Gastown

We woke late again to find that it was pouring with rain. We didn't let this deter us and we headed out into the extremely grey city hoping the weather would improve. It didn't.

When I was in Vancouver previously I had found an amazing bookshop that completely filled a city-block and had every book I could desire. As my country has, in a misguided fit of modernisation, made good bookshops virtually extinct, this discovery was as momentous to me as discovering a thriving colony of dodos. I couldn't wait to return. We spent a couple of hours fruitlessly searching. Later we would discover that it had been forced out of business by increased rent when an American department store made its neighbourhood more attractive. I could rant about this all day - but I won't.

We were soggy but our spirits had been marginally lifted by discovering the amazing Vancouver Public Library which is managing to embrace the digital world, for example by offering courses in digital media, managing a creative digital project and crowd funding, but still retaining its core purpose as a repository of, and evangelist for, books. Also at the library we found a wonderful stationary shop where we spent a good half hour to avoid going back into the rain. As well as the library we found a couple of second-hand bookshops which helped to redeem the city.

The other highlight of my previous trip had been a café called Trees Organic. Their speciality is cheesecake and I can still almost taste their almond marzipan cheesecake which was one if the most amazing things I ever ate. We limped in dripping wet and ordered some food. The place hadn't changed a bit, nor had their cheesecake recipes. By the time we'd finished we were feeling quite cheerful and ready to go back out into the rain.

Our next destination was Gastown. This is one of the oldest parts of the town and currently is quite a trendy area of coffee shops, art galleries and dozens of souvenir shops. This was perfect for us as we could duck in and out of the shops. Most of the souvenir shops sell the same tacky merchandise, much of it made in China or Mexico. The art galleries are quite special though as they sell Native American artworks. Here, the paintings, carvings, masks, weapons and clothing of the various First Nations people of Canada are displayed and available for sale. The prices can be high but they welcome visitors and are happy to answer questions. The experience can provide a good insight into these fascinating indigenous cultures. By the time we reached Gastown's famous steam clock it was completely dark, though at least the rain had stopped. We were tired so we headed back to our hotel.

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