It's not hard to understand why Vancouver is so appealing. This vibrant metropolis caters to all age groups and interests, and even the most navigationally challenged visitors can find their way around with ease.
But before Vancouver was Vancouver, Vancouver was Gastown, a town built out of a need for a bar to serve thirsty lumber mill workers. In the mid-1800's an enterprising man named Gassy Jack supplied a barrel of booze and poured drinks for the men that built him a saloon in a day. Up until that point, the landscape was little more than towering evergreens on a rocky foreshore and the residents were primarily aboriginal. Although Europeans first saw the region's potential, by the 20th century, immigrants were arriving from around the world in record numbers.
Today Vancouver is an ethnic melting pot of Canadian, Chinese, South Asian, and others, with 35 percent of the two million residents being foreign born. This multicultural city has also been consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. But the spotlight is shining on Vancouver for another reason, too, since the city has been chosen to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Arriving in Vancouver by air or sea gives visitors a sampling of what to expect from this Canadian seaport. Ships seem to barely clear the underside of the Lions Gate Bridge as they make their way past the massive green space of Stanley Park towards Vancouver Harbor. The park dominates the west side of the downtown area, and visitors and residents alike can be found walking or cycling on its seawall perimeter or paddling a kayak in the waters surrounding it. Just 12 blocks east of the park, the Canada Place cruise ship terminal has its own distinct character. It was built to resemble a ship with its five large sail motif on top of the pier, and a Pan Pacific hotel is conveniently located at the stern of the mock superstructure.
With the coastal mountains as its backdrop, and just 24 miles north of the Washington State border, Vancouver serves as the leading gateway to Alaska, a reputation that has lasted for the past 30 years. In fact, Vancouver's seasonal cruise terminals welcomed 275 ship visits between April and September 2007, compared to Seattle's 190 cruise ships for that same period.
It's easy to explore Vancouver from Canada Place since the city's most popular attractions are located within a two square mile area referred to as the downtown peninsula. Even though Vancouver is the only major city in North America without a single freeway within its boundaries, a unique selection of harbor ferries, hop-on-hop-off buses, and light rail transit (The Sky Train) makes its easy to get around.
On the north side of the peninsula, Gastown lies 10 minutes east of the terminal building, encouraging historians to discover Vancouver's roots. An additional few blocks east will put you in Chinatown, North America's second largest after San Francisco. The southwest portion of the peninsula borders False Creek, where the hip and fashionable can check out the ultra-trendy ambiance of Yaletown. And across the creek, everyone from foodies to art lovers to maritime buffs can browse Granville Island's public market, artisan studios, and nautical shops. From Granville Island you can take a harbor ferry west to Vanier Park located in Kitsilano or to the east end of False Creek, where Science World sits.
Cruise passengers can take advantage of a city that is more than ready to meet their Olympic challenge with world-class accommodations, international dining, varied attractions, easy accessibility, and the notoriously friendly Canadian attitude that is contagious.
Vancouver Quick Facts
Vancouver's Chinatown is the second biggest in North America and on summer weekends it is also a bustling pedestrian-friendly night market that runs from 6:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. The best streets to stroll are Pender and Keefer featuring the classic Chinese gardens at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the ancient healing wonders of traditional Chinese medicine at Kiu Shun Trading Company, and many other specialty shops.
Stanley Park, Vancouver's main tourist attraction, suffered a devastating blow in December 2006 when it was ravaged by a severe storm. But the 1,000-acre evergreen oasis surrounded by a 5.5-mile paved seawall is still as popular as ever. Visitors can walk, bike, or just watch the ships go by (although there are still some sections of broken asphalt and rough surfaces as restoration continues through 2008). Take the free shuttle around the park stopping at numerous locations such as the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. Other park attractions include the Kids Water Park, a miniature train, a children's farmyard, totem pole carving demonstrations, beaches, playgrounds, and picnic areas.
A handsome former courthouse is home to the Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby St.). The permanent collection includes the works of Emily Carr, a celebrated eccentric who best expresses B.C.'s early landscape and aboriginal culture.
Although known for its public market packed full of local produce, homemade products, and unusual ingredients, Granville Island (more like a peninsula) is much more than just food. Watch artists hone their skills in glassblowing, pottery and jewelry making. Or shop at a separate Kids Market featuring 25 different shops selling everything from wooden toys to glitzy costumes. There's also an indoor play area called the Adventure Zone. Nautical buffs will enjoy the Maritime Market with shops selling books and merchandise related to boating.
Fabulous Freebies: Ride the shuttle around Stanley Park; watch the totem pole carving demonstrations in Stanley Park; witness jumping salmon at the Capilano Salmon Hatchery; take the guided Gastown walking tour; enjoy the Adventure Zone indoor play area at the Kids Market on Granville Island.
Originally Vancouver's garment district, today the trendy Yaletown neighborhood is home to fashionable boutiques and local designers, high-end restaurants, microbreweries, galleries, and a BMW Mini Cooper showroom. With Soho-style ambiance, visitors can shop, have lunch, people watch, or admire the yachts at the marina at the end of Davie Street.
Vancouver's answer to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the Kitsilano neighborhood overlooks English Bay with a park, beach and spectacular outdoor swimming pool. The hippies have grown up but have left behind a bohemian atmosphere with restaurants featuring vegetarian selections and organic shopping. Eateries are located on Yew Street, opposite the park.
Located in North Vancouver, the Capilano Suspension Bridge spans 450 feet across a canyon at a height of 230 feet above the Capilano River. Visitors can test their fear of heights with the Treetops Adventure, the newest of Capilano Suspension Bridge's attractions, where you venture from one tree to another on a series of elevated suspension bridges.
Less than one mile north of the Capilano Suspension Bridge is the Capilano Salmon Hatchery. It is a free interpretive center where visitors can see that salmon really do swim upstream.
Open 365 days; the Sky Ride at Grouse Mountain is a 100-passenger tram that whisks you to an elevation of 3,700 feet in eight minutes. Although the main attraction is the view, you can also visit the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, a five-acre mountaintop habitat that is home to two orphaned grizzly bears. It's also a great place to have lunch, with options including fine dining at the Observatory, casual fare and patio dining at Altitudes Bistro, and a self-service venue as well.
English is spoken as either a first or second language, but you won't go too far before hearing Mandarin or Cantonese. After English and Chinese, the most common mother tongue languages spoken in the city are Punjabi, German, Italian, and French (French is Canada's second official language). In fact, more than half of Vancouver's school-aged children have been raised speaking a language other than English.
Also note: Although some see it as a foreign language, Canada measures in metric. For distance they use kilometers (km) rather than miles, and for temperature they use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.
Big Bus: This narrated tour of downtown Vancouver lasts 90 minutes, but passengers can hop on or off at 20 different stops along the route at any time. Tickets are valid for two days and cost $35 per adult and $17 per child (877-299-0701). An alternate hop-on-hop-off tour is the Vancouver Trolley (604-801-5515). But its ticket is only valid for one day -- and it also costs $35 per adult.
Public Transit: Less daunting than it sounds, Vancouver is very easy to navigate on your own. Their public transit system encompasses local buses, the Skytrain (light rail transit), and the Seabus. You can purchase an all zone day pass for $9 per adult.
Harbor Ferries: The Aquabus and the False Creek Ferries stop at numerous locations including Vanier Park and the Maritime Museum in Kitsilano, Granville Island, Yaletown, and the Science Center.
Seabus: These catamaran ferries depart every 15 to 30 minutes from Waterfront Centre (next to Canada Place) to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver.
Car Rental: To go outside of the downtown core, or to Vancouver's North shore and beyond, you may want to rent a car. Hertz (604-606-4711) is located at the Canada Place Terminal offering a full size car with unlimited mileage for about $50 for the day (including taxes). Other rental outlets are also represented downtown on West Georgia Street for a similar rate, such as Avis (604-606-2868), Budget (604-668-7144) and Discount Car (604-207-8180).
Where You're Docked
There are two separate cruise terminals in Vancouver. The prime location for ships is Canada Place Terminal, which is smack downtown and within a few steps of hotels, restaurants, shopping, and attractions. The Ballantyne Pier is less convenient, a 10-minute drive east of the city center (in a seedy, industrial area of town where you will want to take the ship's shuttle or taxi into the downtown area).
If your cruise originates in Vancouver, getting to the cruise terminal upon arrival is a cinch. The Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is located south of the city, in the neighborhood of Richmond, 14 km (nine miles) from the downtown peninsula. The airport bus leaves the airport every 30 minutes and stops at most major hotels in the downtown area as well as the cruise terminal. It takes approximately 45 minutes and costs $13.50 per adult (family rate is $27, which includes two adults and two kids), or you can take the 30-minute taxi for about $28.
Staying in Touch
Just one block from the famous steam clock, the Wicked Gastown Internet Cafe provides computers with Internet. Blenz Coffee offers free Wi-Fi at 27 locations across Vancouver, including 508 West Hastings (only a couple blocks from Canada Place).
For a city-in-a-nutshell tour, most lines offer a motor coach option for disembarking passengers with later flights. Princess Cruises offers a 2.5-hour tour that drives through Chinatown, Gastown, Robson Street and Stanley Park before transferring to the airport. The cost is $54 per adult ($29 per child).
Princess Cruises also offers their Vancouver Lookout & Scenic Trolley tour at the cost of $49 per adult ($25 per child). It includes a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off Vancouver Trolley as well as the price of admission to the Vancouver Lookout. Celebrity Cruises offers a similar tour for $41 per adult ($21 for kids), but it does not include the price of admission to the Vancouver Lookout.
Most cruise lines offer some sort of Capilano Suspension Bridge tour. Royal Caribbean includes stops in Stanley Park and Granville Island while also driving through Gastown, Chinatown and Robson Street. The main attraction is the Capilano Suspension Bridge and its Treetops Adventure, all for $84 per adult ($71 per child).
For an inexpensive breakfast in North Vancouver, the Eighties Restaurant (110 West 14th Street) serves up hearty portions of traditional favorites like bennies and pan-fried potatoes for $6.95 or the No. 1 which includes two eggs, four strips of bacon, potatoes, and toast, all for $6.75.
Stanley Park has numerous concessions selling the old standbys -- hot dogs, hamburgers, and fish and chips. But for a sit down meal, Prospect Point Cafe features favorites like halibut fish and chips ($17.95), grilled salmon ($21.95), or burgers (starting at $12.95). Kids have their own menu called the Rocky Raccoon Kids Club offering items like chicken strips, grilled cheese, or a hamburger for $4.95 including fries. On weekends breakfast is served until 3 p.m. in addition to the lunch menu.
Granville Island runs the gamut in terms of where and what to eat. This culinary hotspot is popular with residents and tourists alike. Enjoy lunch on the waterfront at Dockside Restaurant and Brewing Company, featuring a seafood-based menu as well as pizzas, along with their own microbrewery. Try the seafood cannelloni ($18) or pilsner-battered Queen Charlotte's halibut ($16) with an Alder Bay Honey Lager, made with real B.C. honey.
For a high altitude experience, the Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant in the Harbour Centre Tower (555 West Hastings) offers a tasty, yet pricey lunch while making a full revolution every 60 minutes.
For a picnic, head to the food emporium Urban Fare (corner of Davie and Pacific) in Yaletown for supplies. Choose from over 100 cheeses, an olive bar, fresh cavier, an extensive deli, and organic produce. Or sit in the licensed cafe and sip wine while you watch patrons squeeze tomatoes.
Joe Fortes Seafood and Chophouse (777 Thurlow at Robson) has been around for 20 years and the owners claim to serve 50 kinds of fresh seafood and have their own oyster bar. Local lunch favorites include the rotating blue plate lunch specials for $10 each, and the caramelized jumbo scallops or tempura tiger prawns -- both for $15. Visitors in town for dinner looking for a splurge can try the three-tier seafood tower on ice that includes marinated mussels and scallops, grilled & chilled calamari, tuna tataki, Alaskan king crab, Nova Scotia lobster, and -- of course -- local oysters, all for $145 (great for sharing).
The Water Street Cafe (300 Water Street) in Gastown is located opposite the crowd-drawing, steam-operated clock. This restaurant has excellent value and serves a creative selection of pastas, fresh seafood, and daily baked bread. They also have a sidewalk patio to people watch.
For casual Chinese cuisine, including dim sum, Hon's Wun-Tun House (1339 Robson Street) is a large cafeteria-style restaurant with an open concept kitchen. It is popular with families and casual diners because of low prices and generous portions.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Canadian money comes in the same denominations as U.S. money, with the same names: quarter, dime and so forth. However there is no paper Canadian one-dollar bill. Instead, there is a one-dollar coin, nicknamed the Loonie, and the two-dollar coin called the Toonie. The most convenient way to exchange money is to use your ATM card at a bank or kiosk. Other options include Money Mart (715 W. Pender Street), open seven days a week, or Vancouver Bullion and Currency Exchange (800 W. Pender), also nearby but closed on weekends.
The U.S. dollar has been fluctuating at par with the Canadian dollar, but check at www.xe.com for the latest rate.
Pick up free maps and tips of what to do and see at a Tourism Vancouver Infocentre, located inside both cruise terminal buildings. An additional info centre is located directly across from Canada Place terminal at 200 Burrard Street. Shopoholics can walk five blocks south of Canada Place to Robson Street with all its chic boutiques and trendy restaurants, nicknamed the Rodeo Drive of the North. Closer to the terminal is the shopping mall, the Pacific Centre camouflaged within a couple of city blocks.
A short walk south east of Canada Place is the Harbour Center Tower on West Hastings. At 581 feet it is the tallest structure in British Columbia. Take the 50-second glass elevator to the top and enjoy a 360-degree, unobstructed view of the city for $13 per adult ($6 per child).
Alternatively, take a short walk to Gastown, where Vancouver began. Today it's a welcoming precinct of cobblestone streets, antique stores and a steam clock. At each quarter hour a whistle chimes and steam shoots through the vents at the top of the clock. Free 90-minute guided tours of Gastown are offered every day at 2 p.m. during the summer.
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