Fringed by water and mountains, Hannah Stephenson discovers the great outdoors on a city break to Vancouver.
Soaking up the sun on the quayside of False Creek, savouring some freshly made doughnut ‘holes’ bought from nearby Granville Market, I drift off to a far away place. Only the skyline of skyscrapers on the other side of the bay reminds me we’re in a bustling city.
Chilled-out urbanites with take-out lattes, bagels and mouth-watering pastries spread out on the wooden benches in a wide, decked area, to take in the relaxed atmosphere and listen to a sweet-sounding busker before heading back to work. But tourists like me have the luxury of not having a deadline to meet, so I stay a while longer to spend time browsing the many artisan stores, kids’ market and foodies’ Mecca at the indoor market.
While some cities are inevitably concrete and glass environments housing a plethora of shops, impressive museums and other indoor attractions, Vancouver in British Columbia is much more; in fact it’s an open air playground where, despite the sometimes inclement weather, there are opportunities for outdoor recreation everywhere.
Indeed, this is a city to do on foot. I walk everywhere, exploring the downtown hub of the dim sum cafes and noodle bars of Chinatown (the second largest in north America after San Francisco), window-gazing at designer stores on Burrard Street (home of Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Tiffany), and buying souvenirs in Robson, Vancouver’s downtown shopping district.
I’m enamoured by Water Street in Gastown, an historical area which has undergone a facelift and restored many of its late 19th century buildings to house curio and vintage shops, imaginative restaurants and First Nations indigenous art.
But today the weather’s too sunny for shopping, my teenage boys nag. Taking the brightly coloured Aquabus across the water from Granville Island to the heart of the city, catching great views of Burrard Bridge and Granville Bridge on the way, I head for the cycle hire shop to go for a bike ride around Stanley Park, a must for any active tourist who wants a great view of the water.
I’ve never encountered a park that actually juts out into the sea, but the 5.5-mile paved flat route along the sea wall, originally built to stave off erosion and which took 60 years to complete, takes me right around it.
Over the years, the park has become so popular that they have built separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists around the sea wall because the human traffic has become so dense, I’m told by Alvin, our quirky, amiable unicyclist guide.
You can stop at various beaches en route, but as the sky by now looks grey and ominous, we plough on with Alvin, catching the amazing views of the Lions Gate Bridge over Burrard Inlet, which connects the city to the north and west districts, and the imposing North Shore mountains.
My boys are fascinated by some totem poles, replicas of 1880s First Nations artistry, near the famous Nine O’Clock Gun, built in 1894 to help ships set their chronometers and still fired nightly.
On another sunny day, we venture 20 minutes by car to the north of the city to open air hilly playground Grouse Mountain. In winter, people come here for the weekend to ski, zipwire and snowshoe. In warmer months, it’s possible to take grizzly bear trails with eco-friendly tour guides.
A five-minute drive from Grouse, I opt for a chance to balance my outdoor yin and yang at the cooling forest which houses the spectacular Capilano Suspension Bridge, a 450ft length of wobbling planks connecting sky-scraping Douglas firs and hovering far above the canyon floor.
The swaying bridge offers amazing views of the canyon below, while visitors who don’t suffer from vertigo can take the cliff walk on purpose-built steel platforms which jut out of the rock and over the sheer drop which falls to the Capilano River.
It was built in 1889 by Vancouver park commissioner George Grant Mackay, and was also known as the laughing bridge because of the sound it made when the wind blew through the canyon.
Kids love it. Even my teenagers are impressed, and when we cross to the other side there’s a fascinating rainforest to explore, equipped with timber frame boardwalks and cable bridges suspended between high tree platforms.
It’s an eco-friendly perfect place for youngsters to let off steam among the trees, while I sit by a pond and contemplate life, nature and the great outdoors that is Vancouver.
Where to stay?
:: Fairmont Waterfront, 900 Canada Place Way. Visit www.fairmont.com/waterfront-vancouver
Looking out on to Coal Harbour and the North Shore mountains, this hotel is a haven of luxury but it’s not remotely pretentious. The newly-refurbished harbour-front rooms are beautifully equipped, spacious and offer spectacular views of the harbour and the many seaplanes which land on it. And the Herons restaurant is something else - chowder to die for, seafood on tap, hand-picked herbs from its terrace garden and honey from its rooftop apiary.
Where to eat
:: Bistro 101 at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, 1505 West 2nd Ave. Visit www.bistro101.com
Anyone who wants fine dining at a fraction of the cost should head for this fabulous restaurant at the entrance to Granville Market, where trainee chefs from PICA cook and serve the food with enthusiasm and flair. Pay 26 Canadian dollars for dinner and splash out on a bottle of wine from the Okanagan Valley, the wine region of British Columbia.
:: Chambar, 562 Beatty Street, Crosstown. Visit www.chambar.com
This cavernous Belgian restaurant with exposed brick walls, red leather seats, rustic pine and plenty of atmosphere has earned itself the reputation of the place to be, and rightly so. Everyone knows it, raves over it and evidently people return. Signature mussels, served in deep pans, can be washed down with a variety of imaginative beers.
:: Rainier Provisions, 2 West Cordova, Gastown. Visit www.rainierprovisions.com
In the heart of Gastown, this new, airy eaterie serves up freshly roasted coffee and is a great place for a cheap lunch, whether it’s a platter of smoked local salmon, piping hot fish pie or a mouth-watering pulled pork sandwich. Mains average 8-10 dollars. The hotel also runs a successful project to feed homeless people.
What to do
:: Lost Souls of Gastown Tour. Visit www.forbiddenvancouver.ca
Take a trip down Gastown’s memory lane with British guide Will Woods, who dresses in authentic costume and acts out his own sorry historical tale to set the scene of what it must have been like to live in Victorian Vancouver. Tour costs 22 dollars .
:: Vancouver Police Museum, 240 E Cordova Street. Visit www.vancouverpolicemuseum.ca
Located in the old coroner’s court, this slightly hokey museum offers an insight into Vancouver’s crimes and crime-solving techniques over the years. There’s a chance to see the old city morgue where the autopsies were carried out, most famously on swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, who died in Vancouver in 1959 from a heart attack, aged 50.
Hannah Stephenson travelled to Vancouver as a guest of Destination British Columbia (www.BritishColumbia.travel), staying at the 5-star Fairmont Waterfront Hotel (www.fairmont.com/waterfront-vancouver). A standard room starts at 279 dollars.
Return flights in economy from London Heathrow to Vancouver start from £694.35, including taxes. Find out more at www.aircanada.com or call 0871 220 1111.