Vibrant Vancouver, Canada - September, 2018

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September 13th 2018
Published: September 11th 2018
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Been quite a few years since I last visited our neighbors to the north, and with my upcoming transpacific cruise departing from this west coast city, its an ideal opportunity to become reacquainted with Vancouver. The area is surrounded by some of the most stunning natural beauty in the world: mountains, ocean, rainforest, parks and beaches. This is a city like no other, with endless options for activities, sights and attractions. Vancouver is a city that begs to be explored, either by coach or minibus, horse-drawn carriage or helicopter, bicycle or on foot. There are numerous anecdotes regarding this city and how street/neighbor names evolved and stuck, thru to the present day:

A little bit of history:

Between 1592 to 1774 AD, Spaniards cruised by as part of their exploration of Canada's west coast. Spain claimed the west coast of North America via the Treaty of Tordesillas, which occurred in 1494, and now the City of Vancouver has several streets named after Spaniards: Cordova, Cardero, Valdez and Narvaez.

In 1792 Captain George Vancouver arrived and after spending one day here, he discovered the Spanish had already claimed the place and headed off again. During that day, British Captain Vancouver met with Spanish captains Valdez and Galiano and one of Vancouver's best beaches, Spanish Banks is named for that meeting place. That's also the same reason English Bay got its name.

Simon Fraser, an explorer and fur trader, arrived here in 1808 following an overland route from Eastern Canada by a river he thought was the Columbia. Even though he was wrong about his travel plan, the river was still named for him. In 1827 Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post on the Fraser River. It was the first permanent non-native settlement in the Vancouver area. Since 1893, the company has occupied a prime location at the corner of Georgia and Granville streets in Vancouver's downtown core and they're still trading here today.

And finally in 1867, a talkative chap nicknamed "Gassy Jack" opened a saloon for forestry workers on the shore of Burrard Inlet. It became so popular that a community built up around the place and called itself Gastown. Jack was a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain and barkeep, who’s statute stands as a proud reminder of this interesting character.

It was light rain, cool temps (around 55f) and overcast when I landed – immigration and customs a total breeze thru, and I had luggage in hand and was on my way in less than 20 minutes after vacating my first-class Delta seat. Arriving at the Hilton Metrotown an hour later, I couldn’t have asked for a better location. It’s attached to the Crystal Mall and is across the street from the Metrotown Mall (the largest in British Columbia), just two blocks and a 4-minute walk away from the Skytrain station. More restaurants and eateries within a two-block radius than I could shake a stick at – did I luck out or what? It’s an 18-story building which is beginning to show its age – I think its been here for about 20 years – and like many of us, probably past her prime. But that being said, the outstanding customer service from front desk staff couldn’t be faulted and they had upgraded me to a one-bedroom suite just two doors down from the Executive Lounge on the 18th floor, with views of the distant mountains to die for. Floor to ceilings windows in both the living room and bedroom guaranteed vistas every morning and evening….now where did I pack my camera? The lounge was still open, so I stopped in for a cocktail and some Tahini Chicken on skewers served with raisin chutney – yummy – not bad for a freebie dinner, huh? But I was tired by this time and that king size comfy bed was definitely calling my name.

The next morning, I had the choice for breakfast in either the lounge or in the hotel’s onsite restaurant down on the 3rd floor – Reflect. I opted for the restaurant to check it out. A pretty good buffet selection was available, and they even cooked to order (I went with Eggs Benedict). Grabbing the local newspaper (Vancouver Globe and Mail), I selected a corner table by the window and with the help of one of the wait staff, a lovely lady from Prague, I got a detailed map of the city and surroundings, with plenty of suggestions for sightseeing in the coming days. The rain has eased up overnight, but heavy mists still hung in the air, blotting out the mountains completely. Still cool and damp overall and this is what I have to look forward to, for the rest of my time here. Thunderstorms with heavy rain is forecast every day for the coming week, but it sure beats the triple digit heat back in Las Vegas.

As always, I start my sightseeing routine with the local HOHO bus. As I’m staying a fair distance out from the central city, first I ride the Skytrain for 20 minutes to the main terminal Waterfront Station, where all the sightseeing tour buses are located. A total of 29 bus stops are available with the dual-route ticket ($41 CDN, $31.18 US) – this covers the entire downtown city area, Stanley Park, Canada Place and many of the surrounding neighborhoods, such as Granville, Gastown and Chinatown. Its such a large area, it takes over 90 minutes to make one complete lap of them all. Over the years I’ve found it works best when I ride all available routes, taking notes and photographs, then returning and getting off to explore the stops which caught my eye previously.

Vancouver has an excellent city transportation system – the jewel of which has to be the Skytrain. The entire system is known as Translink, with bus routes, three Skytrain rapid transit lines and Seabus passenger ferries all interconnected. A reloadable Compass Card is available for purchase just about anywhere, giving the freedom to ride them all, without always scrambling for the correct change. Given that the nearest Skytrain station is only a block away from the Hilton, that’s going to be my major source to get around Vancouver. The three lines: Canada, Expo and Millennium with separate stations on each, all begin at the Waterfront and spread out across the city and suburban towns, like spider legs. Various options are available: pay as you go per trip with cash, a Day Pass for $8 CDN, a monthly unlimited use pass (price dependent on the number of zones purchased 1-3) or prepay and load an amount to the card, the balance which then decreases at a discount, with each ride taken. Not knowing how often or how much I would use Skytrain, I opted for the Daily Pass – I could easily have spent a lot more, had I gone with paying cash for each ride. It’s really a fabulous deal for a full day’s use.

Granville Island, the peninsula under the Granville Street Bridge, may not be a true island but it sure feels like it, especially when reached via mini ferry from downtown. Located due south of downtown Vancouver, it’s separated from the city by False Creek. Why false you ask? George Henry Richards named it during his survey of the coast in the mid-19th century. He thought he was going up a creek while traveling the south side of the Burrard Inlet, but soon discovered his mistake, hence the name ‘False’. The Granville Island Public Market is the jewel in the Island’s crown. An indoor market featuring a fascinating assortment of colorful food and produce stores, showcasing handcrafted products and the very finest in unique gifts. All fresh from the ocean, the oven or the field.A farmer’s market is also held here every Thursday 10am to 3pm, from early June thru late September and is a cook’s dream come true!

Gastown takes the prize as my favorite locale in Vancouver, where heritage meets hip in this oldest section of the city. Designated a National Historic Site in 2009, the storied neighborhood offers a saw-tooth skyline that dates to the 1800s, showcasing some of the city’s best Victorian Italianate, Edwardian Commercial and Romanesque architecture. Here cobbled streets beg to be walked, explore grand, late Victorian buildings, filled with designer fashions, Native art, Canadian souvenirs, and enough restaurants/bars to satisfy any appetite. Don’t miss the Gastown Steam Clock in action, and of course tip your hat to the statute of the founding father “Gassy Jack” Deighton, at Maple Tree Square.

The Millennium Gate marks the entrance to Canada’s largest Chinatown. Here Canadian-Chinese memorials, traditional herbalists and souvenir shops mingle with trendy food joints and edgy nightlife. It’s also home to the world’s narrowest commercial building (Sam Kee Building), just 6’ wide at its base. An oasis of tranquilly in the heart of bustling Chinatown, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is the first full-scale one to be built outside of Asia and remains the only one in Canada. Constructed without a single nail or screw or even glue, it’s like stepping back in time – you feel as though the city is a million miles away, instead of just a few streets. Designed in the style of a Ming dynasty scholar’s garden, with a peaceful pond, rugged rock landscaping and high walls keeping city sounds at bay – it’s the perfect place to film scenes of China. This garden has appeared in Highlander, MacGyver, The Flash and Continuum. A couple of blocks north of the garden is Hastings Street, an area well known to law enforcement agencies as THE place for addicts, drugs, prostitutes and high crime – not an area most tourists feel comfortable visiting, so consider this when strolling Dr. Yat-Sen’s garden! Funnily enough, the Vancouver Police Museum is just a block away from Hastings.

And who can visit Vancouver and not visit Stanley Park? Ideally situated on a peninsula at the northwestern edge of downtown, it’s one of the city's main tourist destinations, attracting approximately 8 million visitors each year. Featuring lovely beaches, miles of well-maintained paved and dirt trails and Canada's largest aquarium, this 1,000-acre haven is recognized as one of the greatest urban parks in the world. As Vancouver's first public park, with its ever-blooming gardens, pristine coastal areas and roughly 500,000 cedar, fir and hemlock trees, Stanley Park has continued to live up to its "greenspace" designation since its creation in 1888. The city is located on the traditional unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Peoples, and the totem poles at Brockton Point in Stanley Park are a “must” to visit. These poles are used to document ancestry, kinship and history, and to honor an important person or event. This park really has it all, from outdoor teahouses to totem poles, summer theatre under the stars to rollerblading along the seawall, riding the miniature train thru the forest on winding tracks to discovering the lost lagoon… can there be a more famous landmark in Vancouver than this? I think not.

Just 15 minutes north of downtown is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which crosses the Capilano River. This simple suspension bridge is 450’ across, hangs 230’ above the water and has thrilled visitors since 1889. Here you can appreciate nature from three breathtaking perspectives – the actual bridge, Treetops Adventure and the exciting new Cliffwalk. While the wobbly bridge and stunning location is a Vancouver landmark, it also offers an all-encompassing experience. History, culture and nature are presented in unique and thrilling ways with knowledgeable staff and interpretive signage providing as much, or as little, information as you could want. The new Cliffwalk follows a granite precipice along Capilano River on a labyrinth-like series of narrow cantilevered bridges, stairs and platforms through rainforest vegetation. With 16 anchor points in the cliff supporting the structure and two glass platforms, Cliffwalk is not for the faint hearted! Treetops Adventure takes guests 100 feet into the mid-story of a coastal rainforest on seven suspension bridges attached to old-growth trees. It is accessible to visitors of all ages. Nature guides provide hourly tours, explaining the importance of a West Coast temperate rainforest to the ecosystem.1890's costumed staff provides entertainment, conducts guided tours through the Story Centre and eco-tours in the rainforest. Guests interact with First nations staff either at the Big House or in the rainforest. From Canada Place there are free shuttle buses out to the site which run approximately every 10 minutes during the summer season (May thru September), and every 15 minutes in the Fall (October thru November). These are only available to customers who purchase tickets for the Calipano Bridge National Park starting at $47 adults, $43 seniors and reduced prices for children and students.

Morning #4 and I awoke to what I would term an “autumn morning” ….cool temperatures, overcast and light rain. Mists still hide the mountains along the horizon – it’s the type of day to curl up in a comfy armchair in the lounge with a good book and a latte – which is exactly what I did. Rain showers came and went along with fast-moving dark clouds most of the day, but the views from the lounge and the lattes kept me quite content to stay put. More sightseeing can wait for a another 24 hours.

My 5th daybreak in Vancouver delivered the expected but unwanted wet and misty vistas…it’s constant soaking showers which, without the dry safety of an umbrella, has you damp down to your undies and beyond. I’m convinced there is a large, hairy gremlin upstairs turning the water valve on and off whenever he feels like pissing off the population. Guess it’s another book and latte day in the lounge, said lattes laced with bourbon by lunchtime! With this climate, there’s a strong possibly of my becoming an alcoholic – geez that sounds serious – think I’ll just stick with being a little drunk. I do like Vancouver but I sure as hell couldn’t live here – webbed feet are a bitch to squeeze into high heels! It has to stop raining at some point, right?

Finally, a break in the constant downpours – sunshine and a little blue sky - I make a mad dash to the door to return to roaming Vancouver. The cosmopolitan and commercial center of the city is definitely downtown, with countless shops offering everything from soup to nuts. Consider spending an afternoon at the colossal Vancouver Public Library (rivals the ones in NYC), get awestruck at the historic Orpheum Theater (home of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra), or simply relax with 360-degree views of the city lights at the Vancouver Lookout. Once the sun goes down, head over to Granville Street where the selection of lively bars and nightclubs is extensive. The two major neighborhoods of downtown are the West End and Robson, easily accessible by both the Expo and Canada Skytrain lines. These are the kind of neighborhoods you can simply enjoy by strolling the eclectic streets, poking around in small boutique stores and grabbing a coffee at one of the many open-air sidewalk cafes.

Returning to the Hilton that evening, its baby back ribs, salad and sushi in the lounge for dinner – doesn’t get much better than this. Sipping my bourbon and looking out over the city again, watching the rain clouds return to drench the landscape, doesn’t bother me a bit. It’s probably the most rain I will see for months to come, so might as well enjoy it while I can! And I have to admit, the low temperatures are a very pleasant change from blistering desert heat.

And finally, there’s Canada Place located in the heart of downtown Vancouver's waterfront. This is a multi-use, world-class facility owned and operated by the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, but so much more than a simple cruise ship terminal and docks. It provides visitors with inspirational Canadian experiences, from interactive and educational elements, to world-class national celebrations. Canada Place opened in 1986 as the Canada Pavilion for Expo 86 and has since become an icon and a hub of activity at the waterfront. It welcomes more than 900,000 passengers each year as the home port for many Alaskan cruises, and it’s three-berth terminal can service up to four luxury cruise ships at one time. In 2009, a shore-power initiative was completed enabling cruise ships to connect to the shore-based electrical grid while docked. This significant environmental initiative is the first installation of its type in Canada, and only the third in the world. It’s an easy walk from the main Waterfront Skytrain Station for those passengers boarding a cruise ship, of which I am one. It’s from here I bid adieu to Canada as I begin my Transpacific cruise over to Yokohama. Adios Vancouver, it’s been wet, it’s been wild, but it’s also been a wonderful visit!

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