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+ By Pierre Home-Douglas
A World in Itself - With snow-capped peaks, a rain forest, and sea air, Vancouver is a cosmopolitan oasis at one with its surroundings. - Photo on Previous spread by © Dan Barnes/istock



With snow-capped peaks, a rain forest, and sea air, Vancouver is a cosmopolitan oasis at one with its surroundings.

When surveys from international organizations rank the world’s most livable cities, Vancouver, British Columbia, invariably appears in the top 10. The Economist magazine, for example, has placed it No. 1 for the past two years. And with good reason. Canada’s third-largest urban center offers a unique combination of a jewel-like setting; friendly, walkable neighborhoods; and a vibrant, cosmopolitan downtown core. Add to that an array of shopping options from fine art to Native Canadian creations, first-class dining, cozy corner cafes, and plenty of outdoor activities, and you have a convincing case for Vancouver as one of the world’s must-see cities. True, winter is often characterized by gray skies and rain, but that makes scant difference to visitors in late June, the time of ASEE’s 118th Annual Conference and Exposition. Then, weather tends to be sunny and mild. Read on to discover how to make the most of your visit to this city alone or with your family, and consider extending your stay to sample some of the nearby attractions of the province rightfully called “Beautiful British Columbia.”

© Karoline Cullen (iStock)

Ski, Golf, and Kayak

The first view many visitors to Vancouver catch is from the air as their plane swings out over the Strait of Georgia and lines up on the main east-west runway at the international airport a few miles south of the city. There, below the passengers, lies one of the most favorably situated cities on the continent, nestled between the Pacific and snow-capped mountains that serve as a visual reminder of why Vancouver was chosen to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Sure, there are the requisite glass towers in the downtown core and the hustle and bustle one expects from a 21st-century city, but Vancouver is very much a place where nature and outdoor activities are never far away. Locals like to boast that this is one city where you can ski nearby in the morning, play a round of golf in the afternoon, and maybe even sneak in a little time to do some sea kayaking and whale watching before sundown.

The mountains that cradle the city are just a hint of what lies beyond and why Vancouver has always felt a little isolated and apart from the rest of Canada. Several ranges, culminating in the Rockies on the British Columbia-Alberta border 400 miles to the east, long posed a formidable barrier to explorers venturing here. Most of the first European visitors in the late 18th century arrived by ship sailing up the west coast of North America. They included Capt. George Vancouver, who spent two years mapping the crenulated coastline of British Columbia in the 1790s and whose name was bestowed on the city in 1886. This was only two years after Vancouver was chosen as the western terminus of the soon-to-be-completed transcontinental railroad, connecting the West Coast with Montreal, 3,000 miles to the east. Population of Vancouver at the time: fewer than 500 people.

RIGHT: Alpine wildflowers on Whistler Mountain in summer on the High Note trail (© ginevre (iStock)); LEFT: Gastown; BELOW: Library Square with the Central Public Library, Vancouver. - © Arpad Benedek (iStock)
RIGHT: Alpine wildflowers on Whistler Mountain in summer on the High Note trail; LEFT: Gastown; BELOW: Library Square with the Central Public Library, Vancouver.

That relative newness is evident as you walk around the downtown-West End core of the city, where most of its major hotels are located. Finding a building more than a century old in this area is a real challenge. This is not to say there is no interesting architecture. Canada Place, which stands next to the convention center where the ASEE conference will take place, is dominated by sweeping 85-foot-high “sails” that artfully evoke the maritime heritage of the city. The nearby Marine Building on Burrard, with its intricate bas-reliefs, sea-related motifs, and elevators decked out in brass and 12 different types of local wood, is an art deco masterpiece. It’s also worth taking a stroll to the main branch of the Vancouver library on Georgia Street to check out the sensual curvilinear design that draws immediate comparisons with the Roman Colosseum.

Canada Place
Canada Place

The downtown area, bearing street names like Robson, Granville, and Georgia, is where you’ll find most of the major stores These include the Hudson’s Bay Co. (also known as the Bay), which still sells iconic blankets with four colorful stripes that were popular in its fur-trading heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Robson Street between Burrard and Jervis is known for its upscale shops. Not surprisingly, this is where Bill Clinton went looking for some souvenirs on a recent trip to the city. If your interest turns to art, the nearby Vancouver Art Gallery, housed in the former city courthouse, features works by beloved B.C.-native Emily Carr and other renowned northwestern artists.

Family Fun

Take the kids

Families visiting Vancouver can choose from plenty of indoor and outdoor activities. Kids and adults alike will enjoy the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, which features daily shows with its resident beluga whales, dolphins, and sea otters. Various “Animal Encounters” allow you to go behind the scenes and experience interactive, hands-on sessions with trainers and interpreters who deal with some of the aquarium’s prized residents. A cable-car ride up Grouse Mountain, a few miles north of downtown, provides a bird’s-eye view of the city. Nearby Capilano Suspension Bridge, the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, spans a canyon 230 feet above the Capilano River. Closer to downtown, Kitsilano Pool is a gargantuan, 137-meter-long heated saltwater pool with a great view over English Bay and Stanley Park beyond. Science World on Quebec Street is a treasure-trove of interactive displays, including a “Search Gallery,” where kids can crawl through a beaver lodge, and “Contraption Corner,” which shows how gears, circuits, wheels, and other parts form the basis of countless objects in everyday life. Don’t forget when you’re exploring Granville Island to check out Kids Market, which offers indoor and outdoor activities housed in an old factory, two annex buildings, and a train caboose.

Take the kids

Just east of the city center, you’ll find Gastown, named after 19th-century publican and sailor “Gassy” Jack Leighton, who opened the first bar here in 1867. This National Historic Site is worth exploring for its link with Vancouver’s past and its present status as an interesting place to shop and stroll. Don’t let the faux gas lamps and cobblestone streets deter you. This is more than an artfully re-created tourist trap. Breeze by the typical souvenir shops, and head to stores like Hill’s on Water Street, which has an extensive collection of First Nations arts and crafts, including masks, blanket boxes, and hand-knit sweaters, hats, and mittens made by the Cowichan First Nations people on Vancouver Island. Ultrachic clothing boutiques such as Planet Claire, Gentille Alouette, and Obakki draw well-heeled local shoppers and visiting Hollywood stars. For home furnishings, check out Inform Interiors. The Ribbon chair, designed by owner Niels Bendtsen, is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Totem Poles and Beluga Whales

Every great city deserves a great park, and Vancouver has it in a 1,000-acre temperate rain forest that juts into Burrard Inlet just west of downtown. Stanley Park is a city treasure. When a brutal winter storm rolled through the area in December 2006, damaging 3,000 trees, Vancouverites felt the pain almost as a personal wound. More than 100 miles of trails meander through the towering Douglas firs and Western red cedars and past a couple of freshwater ponds. There is also a garden with more than 4,000 rhododendron and azalea plants as well as the Rose Garden, which was established almost a century ago and boasts thousands of rose bushes and plants. Stanley Park is a place where people go not only to escape the hurly-burly of city life but also to stretch their legs and fill their lungs with fresh, sea air. The Seawall trail that rims the park and is easily accessible from the convention center offers a great place for joggers, bicyclists, and in-line skaters to get some exercise while gazing out at a vista of sea, mountains, and sky. You might also catch sight of lawn bowling matches and the occasional cricket game at the Brockton Oval. Nearby, a display of totem poles reminds visitors that the First Nations people have lived in this area for thousands of years. The park is home to a wide variety of bird and animal life, including bald eagles and coyotes, but its most famous residents are the beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (see Family Fun). The park, which opened in 1888, is named after Canada’s former governor general and the man who donated the money to create hockey’s most famous prize: the Stanley Cup.

Dining Out

Dining Out

Until relatively recently, Vancouver was very much an Anglo-Saxon outpost, but an influx of people from India, Thailand, China, and scores of other countries has not only changed the cultural makeup of the city but vastly expanded the variety of its restaurants. Name any cuisine, and you can find a top-notch example. For instance, there’s Phnom Penh, a hole-in-the-wall spot in Chinatown on East Georgia specializing in butter beef and fried squid. Julia Child gave it a thumbs up. Ashiana Tandoori, with its venerable tandoori oven, has been serving some of the best Indian meals at Kingsway and Knight for more than 20 years. For mouthwatering cuts of AAA Alberta beef, Gotham Steakhouse on Seymour is sure to please the carnivore in you. A city on the edge of the Pacific should offer some pretty good seafood, and no place tops Blue Water Cafe on Hamilton in trendy Yaletown. Harrison Ford ate there when he was filming in town and in 2010, Vancouver Magazine gave it a Best Chef rating and deemed it the best seafood restaurant in town. For a quick tuna or salmon taco or fish and chips on the fly, the tiny seafood shack Go Fish on First Avenue near Granville Island serves some of the tastiest takeout around, but be prepared for a line. Many seafood fans also swear by Bishop’s on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano. One restaurant reviewer compared eating here to “a well-executed sonata.” If your taste turns to sushi, Chef Hidekazu Tojo is the acknowledged Zen master of his trade at Tojo’s on West Broadway. For lovers of Italian cuisine, La Buca on Macdonald is known for top-quality meals served up in a cozy, laid-back atmosphere. True to its reputation as a city of health nuts, Vancouver doesn’t scrimp on vegetarian restaurants. Radha on Main Street relies on local and organic ingredients to dish up creative, tasty main courses and delectable desserts. The Naam on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano has been serving some of the best health food in the city at budget-friendly prices since the 1970s. It’s also open 24-7.

Ask locals where they like to spend a spare afternoon or even a full day, and they’re likely to mention Granville Island. Once home to sawmills and factories, and later a shantytown, this urban oasis went through a massive renewal in the 1970s and ’80s that turned it into an eclectic, laid-back mix of theaters, restaurants, shops, and cafes. One of the most visited sites is the public market, where stalls lined cheek by jowl sell everything from local smoked salmon to fresh sourdough bread. The island — more a peninsula, actually — is also home to lofts and studio space that feature artists and artisans ranging from potters and printmakers to silk weavers and even Canada’s only master sake maker. Wander the lanes through the 35-acre site and you’ll be treated to jugglers, magicians, and other street performers. Beer drinking aficionados should check out the Granville Island Brewery, which has tours that include samples of three of its handcrafted premium beers. The marina near the market has companies that offer fishing, whale watching, and dinner cruises.

Bordering Granville Island to the west lies one of the city’s hippest areas: Kitsilano — “Kits” to locals. In the 1950s, you could pick up one of the simple bungalows in this area for a few thousand dollars. Today, with its proximity to downtown Vancouver, this is one of the city’s most desirable areas in which to live, and lawyers and doctors have supplanted its previous working-class residents. The main artery is Fourth Avenue, which features a toothsome collection of restaurants (see Dining Out), bars, cafes, bookstores, and specialty stores like BC Dive, Kayak Adventure, and Lululemon Athletica, the $450 million-a-year yoga-inspired clothing company that opened its first store on Fourth Avenue in 1998. Nearby Kits Beach is the most popular of the 10 public beaches in and around the city, but the cool water might make the heated Kitsilano Pool (see Family Fun) a more appealing alternative if you want to take a swim outdoors while you’re in Vancouver. Still, you can pick up a sandwich in a nearby shop, plunk yourself down on the grass under a tree, gaze out at the sea, skyscrapers, and mountains in front of you, and remember why you’re glad you came to Vancouver.

Further Afield

Further AfieldIf you have some spare time before or after the convention, a world of outdoor beauty and activities awaits you in British Columbia. Probably the most popular nearby attraction, a 90-mile drive north, is Whistler, which served as the alpine skiing center for the 2010 Winter Olympics. June isn’t high season for skiing — although there is glacier skiing here typically until mid-July — but there’s a slew of summer activities to keep you and your family busy, like hiking mountain trails, playing golf on an Arnold Palmer-designed course, fishing in a nearby pristine lake, horseback riding, canoeing, biking, all-terrain vehicle riding, or visiting the resort’s water park. You can also rent a float plane and visit stunning Princess Louisa Inlet, John Wayne’s favorite destination when he used to summer in British Columbia aboard his yacht. Vancouver Island and the province’s quaint capital, Victoria, are accessible by ferries south and north of the city. The Gulf Islands, a verdant, unspoiled mountainous archipelago between the mainland and the Island, are home to great inns, fine dining, and vibrant arts and crafts communities. If you feel like exploring them by sailboat and sharpening your skills as a skipper for one to five days, you can hire a 36-foot Catalina sloop and a seasoned instructor at Gibsons Sailing School.

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Pierre Home-Douglas is a freelance writer based in Montreal.



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