Vancouver - Canada Day or Cannabis Day?!

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July 20th 2014
Published: July 21st 2014
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We are up at 5am to catch the Amtrak Cascades Train to Vancouver, BC, Canada at 7.40 am. We have to be there an hour in advance and we aren’t sure how the immigration issues will be handled. The King Street Station is only a mile away and the cab gets us there in 10mins for $7 (+ tip of course). The building is quite impressive – definitely a relic of the past with a great ceiling. Checking in is a breeze, and then unannounced a long queue forms which apparently we have to join for our seat allocation, but no one tells you till it’s about ‘a mile long’.

We board by 7.15am. It’s quite a nice coach with the ‘Bistro’ car some 6 coaches away unfortunately. The seats are leather but as we are at the end we can’t make ours recline. The train starts bang on time and it’s pretty overcast so the journey isn’t as great for scenery as it would be if the sun was out. The tracks hug the coastline most of the way and when we get to the Canadian Border we can see the cars queuing up to go into the US not far away.

Our first town/village sighting in Canada is a little seaside town and looks nothing unusual (quite like an English seaside town) apart from the Canadian flags. The rest of the trip is sunny but there’s no noticeable difference coming into the new country. As we near Vancouver it’s largely industrial sites, urban decay and graffiti, etc.

We pull into Vancouver station on time. The bags are unloaded first then passengers have to get out only when told – we were lucky to be the first out. Passengers have to come into Immigration through a metal corridor – so no illegal immigrants here then?! Immigration is quick and short, then into the main hall. The lack of information for travellers is pretty disappointing. As a main hub it has hardly any amenities and looks tired and in need of TLC ASAP. The money exchange place is giving a ridiculously low rate and wants a $2 per transaction so we pass. The £ to C$ rate has moved a bit in our favour over the months which is good news. Thankfully the Sky Train (local Metro) station is only about 150 metres away. (Canada deals in metric and sells petrol by the litre, by the way).

We pay by credit card and take the Sky Train one stop to the Stadium – Chinatown stop near our hotel ($2.75 per person - ticket usable for 90mins), the YWCA Hotel on Beatty Street. It’s clean and functional with TV, shared bathroom (only 2 adjoining rooms share which is unique) and an in-room fridge. What is noticeable is that from getting off the train in Vancouver Pacific Railway station to near the Hotel all we see are largely Asian/Chinese immigrants or descendants of immigrants, including the Immigration staff. This is a pretty cosmopolitan city by any stretch of the imagination. The local TV has channels in Punjabi, Manadarin, Cantonese and French – wow.

As we can still use our ST tickets we head for the Waterfront area – downtown. We get some advice at a Booth selling SIMs from various communication companies for an ipad SIM for Data in Canada. Bell has a good flex plan which we like. We go to the Visitor’s Centre just by Canada Place for some local recommendations, which is really helpful – they are watching the Germany v Algeria game on a massive indoor screen while at work, cool or what! – Great work if you can get it! Then it’s off to the HSBC to change some money & the guy on the desk is refreshingly honest and tells us to go to the Vancouver Bullion Currency Exchange around the corner as they do the best rates and don’t charge any commission whilst they would charge $4. They were right when we did find it.

It’s odd to get foreign currency with the Queens head on it again! We go back there a few days later to change some of our money from various trips abroad (Euros, Indonesian, Hong Kong Dollars and Japanese Yen). This all yielded £150 + which was a nice surprise.

As we are starving and it’s getting late we go for a bite to a local Rogue bar & grill and have one of the chef’s new dishes they are trying out on customers – spicy waffle, char broiled cabbage with beer cured wild salmon and a sauce (Japanese flavours) and it worked a treat. C has herself a beer – her ‘buzz shot’ for the day.

We walk back to the hotel via Granville Street – the shopping district -passing many rough sleepers, and getting occasional wafts of spliffs being enjoyed (of which more later). We turn into Robson Street where there are loads of eateries – Indian, Vietnamese, 5 Guys, Japanese, Chinese, etc. We do some shopping at the local IGA supermarket (sort of Chiswick Waitrose), then go to an Asian supermarket by the Stadium-Chinatown ST station and find a huge place that’s packed – like a place in Wardour Street in London’s Chinatown. We get some basics and also some food to cook – Chinese for a change – at the hotel’s kitchen. The YWCA provide each guest that wants it a cooking and eating kit. Neat, though the pans are a bit small for 2 people’s food but when we ask for something larger they do come up with the goods.

In Canada you can’t buy alcohol at supermarkets – only at separate liquor stores. Fortunately, there’s one just round the corner from us - Jimmy’s Liquor Store so we stock up on some beers. What we notice is that prices in Canada are much higher for booze than the US. For beers twice the price!

After a lazy morning lying in, we meet up with Shelley at midday at the Hotel. She is someone we met and got on with on our GAP trip in the Far East – Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam/Singapore, 5 years ago. She was also enormously helpful giving us loads of tips for our trip to Japan last year. It was great to see her after so much time. She doesn’t appear to have changed a lot. She kindly bought us a bag of goodies as her ‘Welcome to Vancouver/Canada’ gift – which was sweet and very generous.

After some catching up we go to a local Ramen place a block away with good reviews as a thank you to her for her Japan advice. (Her family are from Japan & she visits regularly & is a walking Information Guide on the country.). The food is great – huge bowls and enough for the whole day. We have hot ones and S goes for a cold variety. It’s great fun catching up and learning more about Canada and the Canadian Psyche from someone born and brought up here. She also informs us that Vancouver is more expensive that other Canadian cities – so we look forward to things getting more reasonable as we head east.

What’s also is news to us and interesting to learn is that Vancouver feels somewhat cut off from the rest of Canada and always has done so. It only joined Independent Canada in 1896 after the railroad arrived. As such it appears to align itself and its politics (left of centre) more with Portland & Seattle in the US and consider themselves as part of the Cascadians – named after the mountain range, which is sort of spurious as that range is more Oregon & Washington than British Columbia but that’s the way it is? It’s only a 2 hour drive to Seattle from here.

As its Canada Day it’s a holiday and we decide to walk into Downtown around the water front and see what’s going on. We go past Robson Square and it’s hosting ‘Cannabis Day’ on the grounds of the City Art Gallery. People are openly selling hash, weed and various assortments of “edibles” which include weed inside. There are wall to wall tents doing a good trade and later in the afternoon we witness a decent Reggae band basting out some good tunes here. By this time people are pretty well smashed. Apparently the police and city council allow this annual event to go ahead with just passive surveillance, even though marijuana is not legal here!

Canada Place by the water front is full of folks in red and white - the colours of the Canadian flag. 95% of them are immigrants or of immigrant parents and seem extremely proud to be Canadian – really impressive. Then it dawns on us… why is there no Great Britain Day to celebrate being British? Given that the PM was recently ranting about people being somewhat diffident about their nationality perhaps something like this to positively reflect the country’s values, ethos, and cultures would be a good step forward? Dave (Cameron PM UK)… please note – you heard it here first!

What does surprise us though, when we see coverage of the event on TV later, is the fact that the British National Anthem is played at the main event in Ottawa before the Canadian anthem.

We go to Café Artigiano for some tea (we have reverted to this in Canada), though C has an iced coffee as does S while M flies the flag, then walk along Granville St looking for some clothes for C but no luck. Shelley leaves us at about 4pm, and we look around the Pacific Shopping Centre. Fancy, designer but not what we want.

After the huge lunch we have a light dinner in – cheese, bread and salad. Just what we need!

Next day we decide to go on the Hop on Hop off Bus tour of the city. It’s C$45 each for 2 days – the better deal. One day is $40. The bus takes us to some of the key areas of the city. Areas which impressed us included:- Chinatown near where we live; Gastown nearby which is also the area where we see many people living an alternative lifestyle (living & sleeping rough to you and me in the UK) just off Gastown starting at E Hastings Street; next is The Waterfront area with the Olympic centre and Torch (the winter Olympics were held here in 2010), West End, Stanley Park, Prospect Point (within the Park), the city’s four beaches, then down to Granville Island and back. All in all it took up most of the day but was great for orientation of the city.

We break our journey at Granville Island Public Market, which everyone talks positively about. It’s an old industrial area under the Granville Bridge. The Island is man made from earth excavated from other parts of the city. It was regenerated to provide a harbour port for yachts. There are many eateries, arts and crafts shops and some of the old waterside warehouses converted into a Brewery and The Emily Carr University of Art & Design. Great location!

There is a large ‘Public Market’ which is part food court and part wholesale fruit, meat, fish and vegetable market under the same roof – a sort of ‘English Market’ in Cork, Ireland type set up. It’s lovely as it’s by the sea and on a warm day what else could you ask for. There are also water taxis that do the rounds.

The view across the water to central Vancouver is pretty impressive. Also the Burrard Bridge looks picturesque on the west side; a mini Brooklyn Bridge they say but we aren’t too sure. There are street performers as well.

What does surprise us is the heavy vehicular traffic in this area. One thing to note re: cars and traffic in Vancouver is – people blow their horns here (unlike in the US where it’s pretty quiet), also we are surprised by the number of BMWs and Porches, whilst in the US - BMW were really insignificant - most of the cars were US or Japanese brands. We are not sure we can recall seeing a Porsche there outside Miami?

We go back to Chinatown and learn about the longstanding relationship with the Chinese community who have been in Canada since coming over from Canton to help build the railroad in the 1800’s. They were pretty badly treated, got paid less than their white counter parts, and did most of the dangerous stuff and many died. They had no rights re voting, education etc. and there were laws that debarred then from various professions e.g. Law, Medicine etc.

However, many of them fought alongside the Canadians in WWII who feared a Japanese invasion and as a thank you many were given citizenship. This was also the start of improving relationships. There was a further influx when Hong Kong transferred from the UK to China. There are apparently over 100,000 people of Chinese origin here and on the street it seems like we are in Asia and the visitors are ‘White Canadian’. There are also people from India, Korea, Taiwan, Japan and an area called Richmond where Shelley lives, which we visit later, is considered a Chinese district.

The entry to Chinatown is via a large Chinese Gate erected there at the Millennium. The area is about 4 to 6 blocks square and all the lampposts are painted red. The ones with 2 golden dragons on them (which is unique in our experience) indicates the Chinatown area. There is a small but lovely Chinese Garden recreated in the area – called Dr. Sun Yat Sen gardens. He was a famous revolutionary that fought for Chinese statehood & passed away in 1923. There seem to be 2 sections – one is free and the other you have to pay to see. The latter apparently has all its materials come from China.

We decide to walk along towards Gastown and into E Hastings Street and are amazed by the pavements full of people who clearly live rough or have an alternative lifestyle. We had been informed about this by our friend but were not prepared for the scale of this in a relatively affluent city like Vancouver.

The view is that despite what the city or Federal Govt does, many choose this life style because it’s warm here most of the year round so folks don’t mind sleeping rough. We hadn’t appreciated that the climate is more like California here. Sleeping rough and begging is pretty wide spread downtown – especially outside Waterfront Station and along Granville Street. Also what is surprising is how overt and in your face some of the begging is – or maybe we got more as we are obviously visitors with cameras. It seems like 99% of these folks are ‘white’ Canadians, which is in contrast to US cities where most are black or Mexican. It gets to be a pain after a while.

Gastown is a sort of trendy foodie and souvenir district made for tourists. The settlement of Vancouver started here and was called Granville Mills initially and burnt down in 1886 and was rebuilt very quickly. It was largely a timber town and fur trading post this side of the Yukon. A guy called Gassy Jack (because he was so talkative) started a saloon for the lumberjacks and the area now bears his name and there is a statue to him on the spot where the saloon once stood. It’s a sort of Covent Garden lookalike in Canada!

There’s an impressive Steam Clock in Gastown which starts whistling with steam pipes going up and down to a chime like Big Ben at the quarter hour. It has hordes of tourists crowding it waiting for the chimes. The steam comes from a plant used for steam heating apartments in the city, which is literally opposite where our hotel. That’s 2 miles away.

The following day is pretty cloudy despite the good weather forecast. We use the Hop on Hop off ticket to get to Canada Place which is the main port area. The Visitor’s centre is there and we pop in for more advice and end up buying the Discovery Pass for Canadian NPs entry; at $68 each, it’s much more expensive than the US for a year, but offers much better value as here they seem to charge on a daily basis, so we are informed that if you are to spend more than a week in a NP it’s better value to get this Pass. We have weeks to spend in the various NPs in BC and Nova Scotia.

We also buy Bicycle Rental vouchers to tour Stanley Park and Day Tickets for public transport - $9.75 per person & all zones, which is a really good deal if you want to see many sites in zone 1 and 2. Basic prices per journey are $2.75 zone 1, $4 zone 2.

As we wander around we notice plaques around the harbour front that acknowledge parts of Canada’s past that it is not proud of in terms of race relations, including a disgraceful episode in 1914 when they refused admission to a boat full of British Nationals who all happened to be of Indian origin. The excuse was that the boat they were in had come via Hong Kong rather than directly from the UK. The boat was kept out at sea for over 2 months and the passengers suffered living in deteriorating conditions. Eventually they were turned away and sent back. Not a proud moment in Canadian history.

Next we catch the bus to the beach (Sunset Beach) where we pick up a Water Taxi. It’s the smallest boat ever for such a task and only carries 15 people. We are surprised that the Canadian authorities allow the thing to operate even if it’s only a 5 min trip across the bay to Granville Island. They are really dinky toy like.

After a look around Granville, including the Thursday Farmer’s Market we make for ‘Go Fish’ which we hear is the place to try Fish and Chips. When we eventually find it, the place is packed and the waiting time 25mins for the food to arrive. The seating is all outside overlooking the harbour and Granville Island Public Market which looks cool even in the overcast weather. The food is well worth the wait when it arrives. The fried fish is the best we have tasted outside Australia, (though the chips were forgettable) and the Salmon mesquite burger - pretty damn good.

As its cool, we go back to base for a rest and later when the sun comes out we take a trip to Chinatown to see some of the sections we missed on our first visit. We learn that the Chinese have been here since the 1880s when the town first sprung up and at one time there were 1000 living in a small community in Shanghai & Canton Alley. Most of these were men who left their families behind in Canton district of China. They earned $1 a day compared to China where they would have got 7cents a day.

In one of the large building in the area is a memorial to Jimi Hendrix. He grew up on E Hastings Street and used to busk there as a young lad while living with his grandmother. Nice piece of trivia.

Later we walk past Beatty Street to explore Yaletown – another district near where we are based and quite trendy, with eateries, breweries and distilleries. It has 2 main streets with raised areas for the cafes and bars. Most of the places are packed out and clearly folks here enjoy the café lifestyle. In parts it reminds us of Islington in London.

Our impressions of Vancouver are that it’s a city that seems to have everything to offer – sand, sea, mountains, valleys and a glorious Island setting. However, somehow the vibrancy passes us by. Maybe it’s us? It comes across as being like Kowloon, Hong Kong, with plenty of high rise living all over, some of it smart, some of it dull concrete and soulless. Most of it pretty pricey though! Apparently anyone wanting a place to buy a place in the city needs to be earning at least $125K p.a. at least £65K back home.

Politically there is a Conservative government in power and there appears to be a clash with the unions. Our friends think that the government is out to destroy the unions so have reneged on existing contracts in the education sector. We suppose these are all part of changing circumstances globally which governments and unions have to address a bit more pragmatically. It’s the same in the UK, France etc.

Folks here seem to be more reserved, which has come as a great surprise as we have found Canadian people on all our travels around the world as one of the friendliest. In Vancouver they seem too preoccupied with rushing around. Maybe it’s the impact on the local culture of such a diverse community here, as in London.

Weather dictates our plans as it’s become unpredictable. We take the ST to the Waterfront, then the Seabus Ferry across the bay to North Vancouver City. We visit the Lonsdale Quay which is a Market under cover on the quay side. There are good views of the Vancouver skyline from here. We stop for a coffee and watch some of the Germany vs France quarter finals and later walk around taking pictures – these would have been better on a sunnier and clearer day. C’est la vie! So we head back to Canada Place and the area next door with the Olympic Cauldron, a large blue drop sculpture (??) and a Lego style Orca whale (???) and access to the sea planes for flights over the city. The impressive Convention Centre building nearby is totally covered in grasses and designed to the highest standards of energy and environmental design; a bold statement of the city’s green credentials and intent.

What is pretty impressive is that the city seems to take environmental issues seriously. There’s evidence of this all over. People are into organic food eating quite healthy stuff – there are many juice and fresh fruit bars. It’s noticeable that there aren’t that many obese people around. There are community food and flower gardens on various tracts of unused plots of land in various neighbourhoods. Many folk cycle to work and cycling seems to be a way of life even though the city isn’t totally level.

The local public transport system is also impressive. The city is very cycle and pedestrian friendly. The Sky Train was built in 1998 when the World expo was held in the city. They are very efficient and are driverless. Apparently when they were first introduced because of the concern of the public they put dummies up front in them for a month and then removed them with no backlash. London – please note. There is also the Canada Line which was built only in 2010 when they held the Winter Olympics here. We hate to think how people got around before this from the suburbs. Transport of goods is also encouraged by trains which can be up to 2 miles long – this helps keep the trucks off the roads & folks seem to approve. UK please note! To add to this there are Zip and Go2Cars rental cars which are well used as many folk don’t own their own cars in the city.

We are aware that there are a number of Food carts/trucks in the city so we hunt some down. There are Indian, Japadog (hot dogs with Japanese sauce toppings), and Caribbean, Middle Eastern, Feastro Bistro & ‘Momsgrilledcheese’. It’s not as big a scene as Portland but we try the last 2. Feasto is a bit disappointing but Moms Grilled Cheese Truck is awesome and the folk are really energetic and friendly. We go for the pulled pork (no BBQ sauce and tastes so good) with cheese and coleslaw – gives us lots of ideas for our future plans.

As the weather is still pants we decide to take the Bus to the University of British Columbia to see the Museum of Anthropology which has good reviews as it deals with The First Nations history. You can take the 14 or 4 from Downtown. It takes about 45 mins which is a surprise then a 10 min walk or await the shuttle (every half hour). The Campus is huge and a bit dull as it’s a concrete jungle – someone described it as a city within a city. Apparently there are about 100,000 students and 40,000 workers. Quite an operation!

The entrance fee is $16.75 each (a bit pricey for what you get for it we feel). We take the free tour at 2.15pm and learn a lot about some of the exhibits but mainly about the art of the First Nations people (or Ancient Ones) as they refer to the aboriginals of Indigenous people in Canada. The museum also covers the history of peoples from other parts of the world but it’s the First Nations that we are most interested in.

We learn how the different tribes that lived in various parts of BC lived, most lived off the land & salmon was key to their diet. Most of the costal ones had permanent bases but some were nomadic if they lived around the Rockies. They were/are quite spiritual and animals played a great part in their beliefs and way of life. Totem poles (and the carved images on them) and masks reflect this, and they were/are used at ceremonial times. Those with entry doors were/are used for defensive reasons. They held wildlife such as the raven, the bear, the frog etc. in high regard.

We also learn about the initial Canadian/Settlers approach to the First Nations people with discrimination in all areas of social & personal activity and later replacement into reservations and forced schooling of the children who were removed from their families & sent to boarding school & forbidden to speak their own language. This echoes’ the experience of the US Native Americans. A sad part of Canadian history – and acknowledged as such by the guide.

For dinner we decide to have an Indian meal (our first for 7 months) of Biryani, Aloo Paratha & Raita which is really nice for a change.

Next morning we have a lazy day in, as the weather forecast isn’t brilliant. It is meant to rain and it does eventually just before we decide to go out for some fresh air & shopping. Never mind, we arrive at Granville Street to discover to our surprise that the street is blocked off and there are stalls up and down it for about 6 blocks. There are Art, Crafts and Food stalls, two 5 a side football sections, a stage with Columbian & Peruvian dancers etc. It’s The Carnival del Sol we understand, which seems to have a Latin American theme to it. There’s lots of music and dancers from South America and Cuba. It’s fun and we try some Argentinian Sausage with chimmichuri sauce as well. Really nice! Unfortunately the weather is pants and it drizzles off and on for the rest of the day.

For lunch we go again to ‘Momsgrilledcheese’ Truck by Robson Square and try their best seller this time. Silvia the woman who manages the till is from Portugal and a Teacher who has decided that she would like to start her own food cart/truck in her home town. We suggest that she might try setting up something similar in London and she seems interested. She gives us a free ginger tea cool drink which is really nice. She’d like to keep in touch so we give her our email.

We go food shopping to the local Asian store (T & T) near the Sky Train station and accidently find a Ramen place called Taishoken Ramen just around the corner and we go there later for dinner and have the best meal we have had in Vancouver. It was simple but delicious.

The hotel is across the way from the football ground where the Vancouver Whitecaps vs Seattle Sounders (local rivals and a derby) soccer match is being played. Despite the fact that we are in another continent, the fans seem to behave the same as in the UK – scarves, team shirts, chanting etc. The local lads won the game, though no reports of any hooliganism.

We arrange to meet Shelley & her sister Nadine (who we’ve never met before) for a Dim Sum breakfast at Empire Seafood Restaurant in Richmond. It’s the area where she lives and it’s China Town in reality. Thankfully S has booked as the place is packed by the time we get there at 9.50am. It’s wall to wall Chinese families having a great time and eating for the week. S & N do the ordering. We share 8 dishes and the food is truly awesome which includes a variety of Dim Sum and a mango blancmange for desert. It’s pissing down with rain outside and this seems the perfect way to enjoy a miserable day.

Later we go back to the room as it’s wet to watch the last part of the Men’s Wimbledon Final. Great game and it’s a shame the Federer couldn’t make it 8 titles.

After a couple of hours the sunshine comes out so rather than waste this opportunity, it’s off to Stanley Park for a bike ride as we have paid for vouchers which will expire by the time we get back. They cost $14 each for 2 hours which is as much as one would need to do the 5 mile ride and take pictures etc. There are some nice views and it’s lovely to do it on a Sunday with the locals and see how they enjoy this space. The Park is 1001 acres and is hugged by the sea/bay. It has a well-marked cycle and roller skating path all around which is mainly one way to avoid accidents.

Afterwards we walk back via the water front, enjoying the sunshine and views. It’s definitely one of the most variously used ports/harbours that we’ve come across with cruise ships, commercial container ships, sea planes, dinghy sailing, canoeing, passenger ferries, and yachts all sharing the waterway.

We round of this section of our stay in the city with some dinner cooked in & time packing as we have a very early start next day for our train trip to Calgary through the Rocky Mountains. It’s what Canada is famous four… other than Maple syrup of course. We are looking forward to it…………….

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