Visiting Vivacious Vancouver

As we pulled next to the immigration booth, I turned up the volume of O’ Canada on the car stereo. The officer tried to hide her smile. Canadians are very patriotic as a rule and it’s doubtful anyone had ever played the Canadian National Anthem in quite that way or that loud before. We were just an hour from Vancouver and the drive from Seattle had been very nice but we were ready to have some fun in the city that had been listed as one of the top five places in the world to live. In spite of my impudence, I got my stamp and we were on our way.

Vancouver  was originally a small settlement called Gastown. It’s name didn’t come from petroleum, but from a saloon built between the timber mills by “Gassy” Jack. Jack got his nickname from his talkative nature and storytelling rather than what you might think. So Gastown became Granville, then changed to Vancouver (after Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy) and is arguably one of the prettiest cities anywhere in the world. There is a big emphasis on nature, parks, beaches and there are plenty of places to get away from the city.

Gastown is a good place to start your exploration of Vancouver. It’s steampunk clock is probably one of it’s most famous landmarks. Although it looks like it might have been a fixture from the 19th century, it was actually built in 1977 and uses a combination of electric motors and steam to keep time and whistle a small tune every quarter hour. Gastown is full of little eateries and shopping and is easily the most touristy area of Vancouver. Besides the little cafes and bakeries, there’s lots of places to buy maple syrup, Canadian flags, moose magnets and other kitsch from the Great White North.

Stanley Park is Vancouver’s piece de resistance: a  peninsula that is home to it’s world famous aquarium and a huge park with jogging and bicycle trails.The seawall skirts the marina and is a great place to walk or take a horse drawn carriage and see the tall city buildings gleaming across the water. The most visited place in the park, as well as all the most popular in all of British Columbia are the Totem Poles. These giant wooden carved works of art represent tribal identities, stories, legends and are on display at Brockton Point. The poles here are reproductions of the originals that were sent to museums to preserve them from the elements or new art from the native people. Regardless of their origin, they are extremely photogenic and tour groups line up all day long to catch a glimpse of them.

Vancouver is called Hollywood North and for good reason. Over a third of all North American films are produced there. Deadpool, X-Men, Tomorrowland, Godzilla, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and countless other films and shows use the interesting and sometimes futuristic architecture of the city as a setting. Attractive tax incentives and a slightly better exchange rate can add up to big savings for movie studios. You could easily spend an entire week visiting locations of your favorite films and TV shows. If you prefer a little more intimate film location experience, head south to the suburb of Richmond. Once Upon a Time is filmed in this small suburb and if you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were actually in Storyville, the show’s setting. You’ll have no trouble spotting Granny’s diner, Mr. Gold’s house and pawn shop, the clock tower, and the town hall. They’re all there… within a few blocks of each other. If you’re more into YouTube viral videos, visit the dock where the little Canadian girl was pulled into the water by an aggressive sea lion. Better yet, enjoy some of the great seafood served at the restaurants that line the marina. The water isn’t beautifully clear, but the town is charming and it’s seaside might easily be mistaken for someplace in Maine. Coincidentally enough, that’s where Storyville is supposed to be.

Capilano Suspension Bridge’s origins go back to 1888 when George Grant Mackay created it as a footbridge to cross the deep canyon. Almost 140 years and countless upgrades later, the bridge has become one of Vancouver’s top tourist destinations. The bridge is fun to cross with mobs of other like-minded tourists but the property is able to still maintain it’s connection with nature and history in spite of the crowds. There is a nice collection of First Nations totem poles, some historical displays, a birds of prey exhibit with live creatures and a treetops walk which seems like a movie set from Swiss Family Robinson. There’s also a new attraction called The Cliffwalk which allows guests to walk above the narrow gorge and feel the adrenaline rush as they clamber through the labyrinth of steps and bridges. The price is a little steep at $42, but at least it’s Canadian dollars and not US dollars. If you’re nervous about maneuvering across the hanging catwalk, you can always cross that bridge when you come to it.

In 1985, when the Sino-British agreement was signed, many Hong Kong residents got nervous about upcoming Communist changes and fled their Chinese home for  Vancouver. The Asian population was already considerable, but the influx of immigrants changed the demographics of Vancouver to over a third of the population being Chinese or south-east Asian. In some suburbs, it’s more than half. It should come as no surprise that there’s a big Chinatown as well as Chinese tea gardens and a zillion Asian restaurants. Some of Hong Kong’s best chefs left their island and started new restaurants that many say rival or surpass their Chineses counterparts. There’s so many Asians living there, it’s often called “Hongcouver”. If you always wanted to visit China without going to China, Vancouver could be your best option. Who doesn’t love a good Chinese buffet? Chinese buffets were invented in Vancouver as well as possibly, ironically enough, the California roll. Who knew?

The best way to see Vancouver is from above. Cloud 9 atop the Empire Landmark Hotel has a rotating restaurant that makes for phenomenal views, particularly at sunset. If you’d like to get a little further from the skyscrapers, you can head to Grouse Mountain, which touts itself as a four season resort. It’s a ski destination in the winter but the rest of the year you can visit grizzly bears, watch a lumberjack show and ride the picturesque Super Skyride. There’s a giant wind turbine called The Eye of the Wind that allows visitors to take an elevator to the glass pod below the giant blades and see unobstructed views of Vancouver.

The most economical way to get to Vancouver is to fly to Seattle and drive three hours north. You won’t be disappointed with the drive or the city. Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in Canada and has lots of fun things to do. It is still possible to drive across the border without a passport if you have a Nexus card, an enhanced driver’s license or a passport card. Maybe blasting your radio to O’ Canada is a bad idea, but Canadian artists like Neil Young, Bryan Adams or Gordon Lightfoot are fair game. Canadians know their own, I promise you. Just don’t say “eh” a lot. They know we’re making fun of them when we do that.