Something happens to the traveler in Vancouver, British Columbia, that is both delightful and paradoxical. This the most remote of the northwest’s coastal cities should inspire, with its dry, cool summers and air seemingly brushed clean by Pacific breezes, the sort of hard work and cultural reserve associated with north European settlers. Instead, Vancouver surrounds the newcomer with an almost Mediterranean light and sensuality, a farrago of languages other than English, a dedication to physical exertion, and Anglo-Saxon efficiency.
In this new world Amsterdam backed by gorgeous mountains and surrounded by water, do not miss Stanley Park, the extensive – 1,000 acres - maritime landscape protruding like a vernal thumb into English Bay in the city’s west end that astounds newcomers with its beauty, size, and remove, as well as its practical, unfussy preservation. What’s left of the extensive temperate rainforest that once blanketed the continent’s entire northwest coast here acts as the urban foil, a remarkable triumph of nature over development and the myriad pressures of big city life.
My introduction to Stanley Park was serendipitous: I had booked a room at the nearby, historic (1912) Sylvia Hotel, despite a warning in an otherwise reliable American guidebook that the Sylvia was “old fashioned.” So what? Worn gentility merely added to the charm of old-timey, ivy-covered but stylishly efficient digs long favored by artists, writers and professors. A Vancouver Heritage Site, the practically-priced Sylvia had big windows that actually opened and a greensward spread out front like an enormous, living doormat.
The first thing I noticed about Stanley Park and its immediate surroundings was absence - of noise, billboards, contention. The park drew natives and visitors, walkers and bench sitters, granola-ites and gourmands when they might otherwise have been working, drinking, eating, looking at art, or riding one of the cameo passenger ferries bobbing on inland waterways. In Stanley Park people walked, jogged, rode bicycles, and skated in-line on designated paths as if they simply enjoyed it, without elaborate regalia or self-righteous determination.
An introductory stroll took me along the edge of salty, kelp- filled water remarkable for its clarity in the presence of shipping and industry, with thick undergrowth on my other side, presided over by towering cedars, hemlocks, and firs that have grown up in the 120 years since the peninsula was logged. The entire loop is more than five miles, and I determined to walk it early the next morning, and to learn about the park’s provenance and what diversions its resurgent forest offered.
Stanley Park was established in 1886, after the land was leased by the Canadian government for Vancouver’s benefit. This was the city’s first preserved green space, and although Vancouver today has almost 200 parks, Stanley is by far the largest. Once part of the Musqueam and Squamish Indian nations, it was named for Governor General of Canada, to be managed by a board independent of successive politicians.
The seawall, built primarily to prevent erosion but also as the foundation of a continuous walkway, had been started in 1920 and worked on for 60 years. The elevated promenade, along with the park’s other distractions, accommodates 8 million visitors a year and sets an example of a preserved natural landscape for cities everywhere. It’s lovingly used by joggers and aging, apparently pleased, arm-swinging heart rate enthusiasts. I passed the famous statue of the girl in a diving mask, perched on a rock. Big container ships hung far out in the morning mist, but the overall feeling was bucolic. The five and a half mile wake-me-up offers a 240-degree view of the sprawling bay, passes beneath the towering modern span linking downtown with the city’s North Shore, and passes by Coal Harbor and Lost Lagoon.
I discovered two good restaurants, both requiring the navigation of narrow, one-way roads cosseted by giant trees. The straight-forwardly named Fish House was built in 1930 as a sports pavilion and later remade into a restaurant that today has both quality seafood and a wine list with plenty of Canadian wines. But it was the Sequoia Grill that for me held the most promise, touted by more than one native as the second best restaurant in Vancouver after Rain City Café around the corner from the Sylvia Hotel.
Formerly this historic wooden structure on Ferguson Point was been used by the Canadian military during World War II and transformed into a tea House 1978. Then, with fanfare – marching band, cannon firing, flag ceremony, Reveille – transformed again, this time into a restaurant overlooking English Bay and the North Shore, with a glass conservancy and lots of fireplaces. I sat down I sat under a glass ceiling and sipped good British Columbia sparkling wine. The maitre’d came with a long metal rod and closed the overhead windows against the growing chill of evening on the continent’s northwest edge.
I was hungry from wandering, and the safe menu reassured: Digby scallops, baby spinach and pear salad, Queen Charlotte crab cakes, bouillabaisse. It didn’t seem to matter what I ordered, since the medley of food spread around me on white tablecloths, discreetly attacked by a multi-national clientele, served as visual smorgasbord. The highlight proved not to be caloric, however, but scenic: a brilliantly orange sun dipping into blue-gray water that led to collective sighs.
The next day I took a little ferry to famous, from a dock within walking distance of Stanley Park. These quaint little craft hold a dozen people and on the half-hour ply the entrance to False Creek, charge only two Canadian dollars, and offer a lovely civic panorama. Granville Island’s a refuge for artisans and artists, a bazaar for foodies, a boating mecca, cultural potpourri, and parking place for reefs of bicycles.
The Wooden Boat Society of Canada had brought together gorgeous, hand-crafted kayaks, rowboats, sailboats, and bridge-deck schooners for everyone to gawk at; the galleries offered, in addition to original painting and sculpture, African carvings, Indian weaving, handmade jewelry, and so on. It seemed that most (innocent) human appetites could be satisfied here, but it was the fresh produce and meat market that really held sway.
Arrayed in vast, connected sheds were scores of stalls that sold, among everything else, dried horse meat and whole king salmon, ducks’ necks, smoked buffalo, pig’s ears, boneless Irish hams, a universe of salamis, huge, glossy blackberries, Canadian figs, local cheeses, gorgeous fresh vegetables, cut flowers in bundles, fuscia in pots that in a climate like Vancouver’s grow up to be bushes, and an infinity of variations on these themes. There were no announcements, radios, or piped-in music, just rivers of sedate, wide-eyed people, local and otherwise, moving in something close to awe through this daily cornucopia best dipped into before noon.
I gathered some Genoa salami, ripe camembert, olives, a crusty French roll, and figs, and happily ate at a table outside, with a view of the harbor. It was, of course, time to do what is required of all dutiful tourists, heritage and otherwise – re-cross the water, hail a cab, and stroll through Gastown, with its famous steam-powered clock, or the Vancouver Art Gallery; take a turn through the third largest Chinatown in North America; troll boutique-y Robson Street; find my way to one of Vancouver’s many lush, rain-swaddled gardens.