Wide Open Spaces

Vancouver draws international favor for artfully merging nature, economic growth and an eye for style
lifestyle, travel, history, culture
Written By Lesley Conn
Image By Nelson Mouëllic

A totem pole in Stanley Park honors a First Nations tribe.

The narrow footbridge hangs 230 feet in the air, yet the rush of water tumbling over boulders far below is still clearly heard.

The footboards sway left, then right and bounce slightly, the cumulative effect of dozens of pedestrians passing to and fro along the Capilano Suspension Bridge.

To successfully cross is to become immersed in a towering stillness of centuries-old cedars, Douglas firs and hemlock trees, to climb into their canopies and below, to see and smell how fallen stumps nourish ferns and feed the next generation of trees.

Only a few feet from the park’s exit gate, city life returns: sidewalks and crosswalks, traffic signals and the whooshing cadence of passing cars.

Therein lies the real beauty of Vancouver, British Columbia: Even as it thrives as an international city, Vancouver is still immediately connected to bays and forests and mountains that invigorate and restore the residents and guests who explore these surroundings.

Vancouver owes much of its earliest growth and success to two of man’s less noble pursuits—namely hard liquor and lust for gold. Discovery of the precious metal in the 1850s brought 25,000 prospectors in a single month. Soon after, a talkative bloke known as John “Gassy Jack” Deighton opened a saloon around which the first formal city grew, initially known as Gastown then Granville and finally, in 1886, Vancouver.

What began as a trading outpost has transformed into a sophisticated international city with luxury shopping, fine French restaurants and a growing reputation for architecture and public art. And while Vancouver still acknowledges and partakes in its hedonistic beginnings, these days, residents and visitors also pursue much more wholesome activities such as skiing, sailing, hiking and whale watching.

Super Natural

Image By Nelson Mouëllic

The famed Alberni Street offers retail recreation.

Vancouver’s geography makes it possible to ski and sail in the same day. The Pacific Ocean is the western boundary, while to the east, rugged foothills lead to the Canadian Rockies. The famed Whistler ski resort is about 75 miles north, but Grouse Mountain, overlooking Vancouver Harbor and downtown, is the closest.

The 1,000-acre Stanley Park sets the balance between urban and natural, with miles of jogging and bike paths, beaches and hiking trails all within minutes of downtown.

Seven of Canada’s national parks lie within British Columbia, Vancouver’s province, and the land is a showcase of the wilderness: glaciers and mountains, fjords and islands and temperate rainforests. It’s such a wealth of experiences that the region is advertised for its “super, natural” offerings.

Those can be explored any number of ways, including seaplane tours that fly north over isolated inlets and forests, by sky trams and zip-lines or by ferries and guided boat tours.

One of the more unusual outings is the Fraser Valley Bald Eagle Festival, held the third week in November. During the winter salmon season, as many as 10,000 bald eagles—one of the largest known gatherings in the world—drop into the Fraser River Valley to hunt.

A World Stage

Image By Nelson Mouëllic

The geometric beauty of Science World at Telus World of Science.

Vancouver presented itself on an international stage in 1986, the city’s centennial, when it hosted the World Exposition on Transportation and Communication.

The Expo turned out to be a dress rehearsal for an even grander event—the 2010 Winter Olympics. Those two economic drivers helped transform the downtown into a skyline of glass-sheathed skyscrapers.

Danish architect and design sensation Bjarke Ingels is about to put his imprint on the city. Working with Canadian developer Ian Gillespie, Ingels’ firm has designed Vancouver House, a 52-story shimmering, inverted wedge of a residential/commercial building that promises “an integrated holistic vision, the practical and the sublime.”

Even without an Ingels structure, Vancouver is a regular top pick on lists for best places to live or visit, and it continues to have a presence on an international stage. Since 2014, it has been the host city for the annual TED conference. An acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED has become a global platform where scientists, artists, activists and thought leaders share ideas and insights. The 2018 event, “The Age of Amazement,” will take place April 10-14. With a standard ticket set at US$10,000, TED will continue to draw some of the brightest and wealthiest to the city.

Wealth is part of another international transition centered around the city. Affluent Chinese entrepreneurs are flocking to Vancouver. More than 35,000 Chinese millionaires became permanent residents of British Columbia between 2005 and 2012, according to The New York Times.

Their investment in real estate has helped drive up housing costs, but their expendable income fuels the buying of luxury goods such as Lamborghini supercars and Hermès handbags and spurred the creation of an online reality show, “Ultra Rich Asian Girls,” which follows a group of Vancouver fuerdai, a Mandarin expression for rich, second-generation Chinese.

Along the Alberni Street area, the artery of high-end shopping that runs through the downtown area, groups of young Asian females laugh, chat and text on a recent afternoon as they move through Prada, Saint Laurent, Versace, Tory Burch, Hermès and Tiffany & Co. Many of the young, chic shoppers are laden with bags.

Even as it thrives as an international city, Vancouver is still immediately connected to bays and forests and mountains that invigorate and restore the residents and guests who explore these surroundings.

Around the Block

Illustration By Brittany Porter

Exploring Vancouver by its neighborhoods provides a better sense of the individual communities that comprise the larger city.

“There are pockets of quaintness,” is how tour guide Lois Tomlinson describes the city she enjoys introducing to visitors. “Every few miles, there are parks and little shops and restaurants and cafes that have a distinctiveness from each other.”

Image By Nelson Mouëllic

Gastown’s whistling clock lets off steam.

Gastown offers glimpses of the original bustling city with stately brick buildings and Victorian houses. Its storefronts now ply goods largely for tourists, but art galleries and fashion boutiques have their share of mercantile activity, too. As for dining, the Chill Winston, which bills itself as an organic, hormone-free gastrolounge, sets the tone.

Quaint is covered if you stop to watch the steam clock, a whistling grandfather on the corner of Water and Cambie streets. Every 15 minutes, the clock pipes a few bars of “Westminster Chimes” and is largely powered by the neighborhood’s underground heating system. Passersby will gather around the four-faced clock waiting for the next steamy performance.

Popping over to Chinatown showcases a community that has held on to traditions, including herbal medicines and shopping for seafood, poultry and produce in open-air markets.

Quirky is available, too. In Chinatown, the Sam Kee building runs the length of a city block but is only 6 feet deep, earning the distinction of being the shallowest commercial building in the world according to Guinness World Records. Chalk it up to a zoning disagreement and a stubborn property owner.

On Granville Island, the industrial and the artisan mingle in a pedestrian-friendly market atmosphere. The public market has a palate-pleasing array of seafood, pastries and other delights, and visitors are often entertained by outdoor music acts as they stroll among shops that range from craft beer to Japanese hand painted silk scarves.

Nearly a dozen other neighborhoods within Vancouver await. All that is required is the urge to explore, whether indoors or out.

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