As I mentioned a couple of days ago, my trip to Vancouver for the Every Day Fiction Two launch event wasn’t all business. My lovely wife took a couple of days off work to come with me, and her mom, who lives in California and doesn’t get to see us nearly enough, met us in Seattle. Since this was our first visit to Vancouver, we allowed an extra day to see some of the sights around town, and I’m glad we did.
We arrived in Seattle at about noon on Thursday, January 29. I would have preferred to fly directly into Vancouver, but it would have nearly doubled the airfare. We rented a car and drove the rest of the way, a little less than three hours north on Interstate 5, a very pleasant, scenic drive with some nice views of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle, and Puget Sound.
I’d read some reports of travelers getting delayed at the border, what with the new passport requirements and all, but we zipped through the Canadian checkpoint without incident after answering a few polite questions. I noted that the Canadian checkpoint was clean, attractive, and very welcoming. The U.S. side was badly in need of a fresh coat of paint and resembled the back gate of an Army post on the BRAC list. C’mon, Uncle Sam, these are our friends and allies. We can do better.
Entering the metro area, our first glimpses of downtown Vancouver were breathtaking. The city is surrounded by water, and the skyline is studded with tall, shining high-rises, with the snowy peaks of the Cascades in the background. Picture postcard stuff. We crossed the bridge into downtown and descended into the maze of skyscrapers, fortunately only taking one false turn before locating our hotel.
The folks at EDF had recommended a downtown hotel, the Kingston, and I was a little apprehensive about it–small downtown inns and their neighborhoods have often seen better days, and my lovely wife is very selective about where she lodges. My fears were unfounded. From the cheerful welcome at the front desk, to the well-tended interior, to the immaculate, cozy room, all our expectations were exceeded. We had dinner at the adjoining Kingston Tap House and Grille, which provided both great food and great service. I’d recommend the Kingston to anyone pondering a few days’ stay in Vancouver.
After dinner, we took a short stroll around the neighborhood, and it didn’t take long to find evidence of the ongoing preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The town was all dressed up with signs, banners, building-wide murals, and art displays. An entire street was cordoned off just a couple of blocks from the hotel, foot traffic only, to accommodate a sculpture garden with a variety of abstract art and a small “forest” hung with paper lanterns decorated by local school children. Some of the lanterns had an Olympic theme, some drew inspiration from local Native American culture, and a few…took their own path. One austere drawing in black crayon depicted a wall switch with the label, “Always turn the lights off.”
There were a lot of people out and about, even though the Olympics were still a couple of weeks away and most of the athletes and spectators hadn’t arrived yet. We were struck by how young everyone seemed to be. Most of the crowd was twenty-somethings, and it was a challenge to find anyone who looked older than forty. It felt a little like we’d stumbled onto the set of Logan’s Run. We were told later that downtown Vancouver was dominated by college students and young professionals–the older folks preferred living on the outskirts of town or in the country.
Downtown was in pretty good shape. There was a fair bit of ongoing construction in preparation for the Olympics–lots of cranes and lifts about, new signs and facades being put into place, some of the areas for concerts and other activities under assembly. On the down side, there were a lot of panhandlers on the street corners and around the transit stations, and our hotel clerk warned us against the unsecured parking garages, prime targets for car thieves.
After a good night’s sleep, we had a light breakfast at the hotel and set out for a day of touristing. We drove north to Stanley Park, a forested peninsula that juts out into the harbor. There was a display of replica totem poles there, but the real attraction was the view of Vancouver and the surrounding mountains. A couple of barges moored in the harbor carried Olympic rings and other decorations, perhaps part of an upcoming fireworks show or nighttime display.
Also in Stanley Park was the Vancouver Aquarium, which we didn’t tour, mostly because the admission price was so high ($22). Fortunately, the Aquarium’s big draw, several beluga whales, were visible from a public viewing area adjoining the Aquarium, so we didn’t feel like we’d missed out too badly.
After exploring Stanley Park, we made our way to Granville Island, an artsy-craftsy marketplace area on the south side of downtown. It took a little doing to find the single entrance, and parking, like parking everywhere in Vancouver, was a challenge. We finally got in and enjoyed a delicious lunch at the Public Market food court, which offered a broad selection of ethnic cuisine and fresh baked goods.
We strolled through a few of the shops, then set out for the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. We could easily have spent the entire day there and not seen half their collection of artifacts from cultures around the world, including a huge offering of art, clothing, and jewelry from the First Nations tribes of British Columbia. There was also a sizable collection of ceramics donated by one of the museum’s founders, and a small area devoted to modern art from local Native American artists. The totem poles and carved house posts inside and outside the museum dwarfed the ones we’d seen at Stanley Park.
One of the most impressive pieces on display was “Raven and the First Men,” a sculpture in yellow cedar by Haida artist Bill Reid that captured the weight of an ancient legend in a very fresh way, honoring the old and the new simultaneously.
Dinner that night took a little finding–there’s lots of street food and many tiny walk-up cafes in downtown Vancouver, but finding a moderately-priced sit-down restaurant was challenging. We ended up at a Red Robin, not exactly what we wanted, but it was good enough. My wife became convinced that Heinz ketchup had a different formulation in Canada, and she liked it…a lot. I now have to figure out how to order a bottle of Canadian ketchup via the internet, as nothing else will ever quite measure up. Perhaps on e-Bay.
That pretty much concluded our sightseeing in Vancouver, although my wife and I took a walk later and explored the underground malls adjoining the subway stations. Vancouver has an extensive network of subways, trains, and buses, and if I hadn’t already rented a car, I would have taken full advantage.
Vancouver is a “green” city that caters to pedestrians and cyclists, and driving a car around is subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) discouraged. Navigating and maneuvering downtown is difficult. Parking is a nightmare. When you can find parking, it’s very expensive, and there’s no such thing as free parking (or at least an open free slot) until you cross the bridges that separate the city center from the ‘burbs. Any major attraction features both a steep admission fee and metered/ticketed parking.
But that was a minor annoyance. Vancouver is beautiful, with lots of things to do and see, even in the winter. The people are friendly, helpful, and accommodating, and they’re very proud of their city. Not once did I get honked at or hassled by a local driver for hesitating, driving slower than the posted limit, or making a less-than-graceful lane change. We were blessed with unseasonably pleasant weather for sightseeing, with only a few brief periods of drizzly rain, nothing that stopped us from going outside.
We had a great time, and we’ll be back. Perhaps as we watch the Winter Olympics coverage, we’ll catch a glimpse of some landmark we saw during our visit. Thanks, Vancouver!