Wandering Eye: Vancouver

September 18, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Downtown skyline from False Creek

Vancouver, British Columbia - Our neighbor to the North that save that one time we borrowed a cup of sugar we really haven't spoken to much (unless you work in the California film industry or live in Seattle).

To be honest, at the end of the day, you just want to treat yourself. At least I do since travel days are the longest. Juggling transport, lodging, and getting a handle on the my new temporary home requires an all pistons firing effort.  Go-see-do until I find myself lagging. Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant was my reward on my orientation day in Vancouver. One four bourbon cocktail, a signature burger, and an enlightening (or perhaps boozy - the drink was strong) chat with Marc the waiter capped off the night.  Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant   Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant at night

Boarding the Seabus earlier across Burrard Inlet to check out suburb-like North Vancouver felt very much on the honor system. For a major city, Vancouver has a more regional feel. Take the young and youthful populace who are friendly and ready to chat with strangers and neighbors alike. Add in readily accessible outdoor attractions like Grouse Mountain, Whistler, Stanley Park, and multiple beaches. And add to that the air, sea, and rail reminders of its labor-intensive beginnings. No immediately disorienting metropolis here. Topping it off: foolproof views of the downtown skyline along the stretch from Lonsdale Quay's market to the not-quite-finished Shipyards.  Shavasana at Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver, BC

What can be perplexing however is obtaining a day pass for the Canada Line and Translink while at the international airport (YVR). Driveless and efficient once inside, I made the mistake of thinking I could purchase a ticket from one of several kiosks next to it. Wandering back through the terminal however gave me the chance to glimpse multiple First Nations art installations including the male and female Welcome Figures by Musqueam artist Susan A. Point.  

Museum of Anthropology, Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC

"Funky Ferrets, Lounge Lizards"

The University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology sits on the outskirts of campus sharing a corner with the Nitobe Japanese Garden. Its unassuming front entry belies the better rear entrance view which defines its primary purpose - that of a lodge sheltering First Nations treasures and history. Paying homage to the native Canadians who communicated so much through their mastery of wood, tour volunteers lead small groups through the unassuming space where they point out the differences between the numerous Coast Salish tribes that were connected by trade if not by clan. Stout Haida totems known for their incorporation of story into cedar, share space with the flashier Kwakwaka'wakw tribe's penchant for flair and attached pieces. All is contemporary art of sorts considering that the average totem left exposed to the elements generally isn't expected to last more than a couple hundred years. But even more recently, the musee is highlighting First Nations teens' voices. Partly in an effort to bridge the gap between cultures but also generations. Native artists' and legend Bill Reed's donated pieces connect old and new.  Totem poles, Museum of Anthropology, UBC, Vancouver

Along with MOA, the Nitobe Memorial Garden, the University's Botanical Garden, and Beaty Biodiversity Museum entries are included as part of the UBC Museum and Gardens Pass (CAD$33) in addition to a discounted visit to Greenheart Forest Canopy Walkway - vaunted as a closer alternative to Capilano Suspension Bridge. Yours to explore provided that the flesh isn't weak and you have a full day and child-like stores of energy. Established on endowment lands and surrounded by Pacific Spirit Park, despite copious amounts of campus construction, the pocket parks and esplanade remind you you're in the heart of the Pacific Northwest. If Vancouver is rich in one thing, it is trees. Long houses, lodges, art, and textiles all get the lumber treatment. 

One more thought about the bus, or 'student special', if you will. Outside of the university and downtown, mass transit's pretty hit or miss - one highlight however is the drivers who will welcome you in turn generally eliciting 'thank yous' from most disembarking passengers. It's just shy of being an effortless city but the shortcomings are an accepted nuisance. Recently, a user experience contest was held to determine public transport 'pet peeves'. Signage soon popped up reminding riders not to be a "funky ferret" or "lounge lizard" amongst other faux pas while commuting. 

A few stops short of Downtown and below the Burrard Bridge, Granville Island acts as a cross between a seven-a-week farmers' market, community art center, and hip retail destination. Dipping into La Baguette et L'Échalote Bakery for a chévre and pear half sandwich, pre-gelato, while enjoying live music makes the most of the environment. Even the local industry recently dressed up for the tourists and art appreciative locals by inviting Brazilian brother artists Os Gemenos to paint six large cement silos as characters. For the $10 round trip around one half of False Creek, the payoff is more arresting skyline from Olympic Village all the way over to the World of Science Museum and BC Place Stadium.  Rounding out the experience - a shore stroll west around the marina at sunset ending at Creekside or Vanier Parks.  Granville Island Farmers Market, Vancouver, BC   Bakery, Granville Island, Vancouver, BC   Busker, Granville Island, Vancouver, BC

Rockford Grill on Broadway is easily the second most interesting restaurant in the Kitsilano area. A mix of sports bar vibe meets date night casual with a menu that reflects the mix that is Vancouver. Prawns, noodles, burgers and steaks, Thai, and Latin American influences along with the by now ubiquitous over-selection of alcohol. Dine late and you'll have the place practically to yourself

Central Branch - Vancouver Public Library, Vancouver, BC

"Yah yah yah"

There's something to exploring a new place when guided by a newly minted local. Wonderfully ignorant of the native's lore, you get a mix of their best of... and a few adopted quirks minus the eye-rolling satire. I set off for Chinatown buoyed by my friend Bong-gi's great breakfast company. When I found myself in the least alluring part of the district however I realized I should have downloaded the walking tour guide for this. Beyond the Millennium Gate tourist snap, there didn't seem much awake and alive other than the generic local mall in this historical seat of the huge Chinese immigrant and their descendants' community. But maybe that's what makes Vancouver Vancouver. Unlike other metropolitan cities where there's a tendency to huddle around the familiar and create homogeneous neighborhoods, there's a whole lotta mixing going on. Expect a local Persian family to do quick business with their panini palace and more.

Next stop, Moshe Safdie and company's 20 years young rebuilt VPL - Central Branch is reminiscent of the famed Colosseum with a retail arcade to boot and really can't be ignored. As the anchor point for the eponymous Library Square, it's visible from blocks away even within the Central Business District where all of downtown's skyscrapers are clustered.  Practically any time of day, finding the 'good light' isn't hard. Also, considering it is a fully stocked library, sitting and paging through the coffee table sized photography, art, and architecture books is a treat unto itself. Since I haven't found an effective way for keeping my smart phone charged all day when I'm on the go, picking up a free temporary library card affords internet access that otherwise wears down my battery. 

Approaching the statue dedicated to "Gassy" Jack Deighton from Downtown Eastside is a study in how we shape our myths to suit our needs.  "Gassy" has made for a great folk hero and his statue a tourist attraction that lends a quaint movie back lot feel to what is actually some prime real estate close to the waterfront.  But just streets away lives the highest concentration of poor, homeless, and addicted Vancouverites whose quality of life is closer to that of Gastown's original 19th century inhabitants. I'd been cautioned both to steer clear and to learn more about the area so I split the difference and walked through in broad daylight. Historic beautifully restored Pennsylvania Hotel provides an SRO home to about 50 of the local previously homeless and a place to get social services they were sorely lacking while out on the streets. Less recently updated buildings farther down house missions and high end artisanal eateries within the same block.  Jack "Gassy" Deighton statue, Vancouver, BC   Brioche Eatery - Gastown, Vancouver, BC

Deeper within Gastown, if you can wait 15 minutes or less, the whistling steam clock makes for an adorable interlude while people watching. Built in 1977, but designed to fit in with the district's charming globe street lamps, it also performs the familiar Westminster Chimes that I've come to associate with all tolling clocks (and wonder what exactly they played before then). At night, you're likely to meet a self-styled clock guide in a yellow reflective safety vest. Listen to him and he'll let you know when the clock's about to sound and steam. Much more interesting (and less discordant) than the nearby tipsy guitar playing busker, it's only right to show him some love of the CAD kind.  Gastown steam clock, Vancouver, BC

If you (and your disquieted stomach) can make it up to the Harbor Centre observation deck (a.k.a. Vancouver Lookout), be rewarded with the 360 degree view from the top. One ticket lasts all day so you can easily enjoy the daytime guided tour, grab a bite, and come back when the lights go down.

Totem poles - Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

Don't call it Hollywood North

Entering Vancouver's pride, it's Park of Parks, and probably the only true 'don't miss' in the visitors' guides, actually requires some pre-planning. Bike, blade or hoof it around the 22 km of seawall or criss-cross the less busy trails of the interior? What if you only have 4 hours vs. an entire day? Something's invariably got to be sacrificed. In my case, I arrived just hours shy of the beginning of the P.N.E., or Pacific National Exhibition, the city's annual two week end-of-summer lollapalooza as I was due back at the airport before it kicked off. Foolishly, I had imagined hopping on my rental bike, completing a circuit around the seawall, and then cruising back around to some of the more enticing sounding trails. But in the four years since I'd last rode anything outside of a gym, my biking skills, and seemingly coordination, had regressed. A word to the wise; the bike path is narrow, high-traffic, runs mostly one-way, and is separated from the pedestrian path by a thin yellow line. Once I got used to feeling like I'd joined a video game in progress, I was on my way. Girl in a Wet Suit statue, Stanley Park, Vancouver, BC

Past First Narrows Bridge (or Lions Gate Bridge ) crowds thin as the cliffs get taller and the paths narrower. Besides the Seabus, the bridge provides the main crossing point to North Vancouver; outdoor temptations like Grouse Mountain (home of the Grouse Grind, ski lifts, and Capilano Suspension Bridge); and is the gateway to the Sea-to-Sky Highway. Provided you haven't abandoned the trail or been taken out by another insecure visiting cyclist, you reach Siwash Rock about halfway between Prospect Point and Third Beach. According to the First Nations Squamish oral history, the outcropping Skalash (or Slhx̱i7lsh) was once a man who out of loyalty to his growing family and in defiance of local demi-gods was transformed into the stone sentinel as an example of responsible fatherhood.  The current name however stuck as a remnant of slang used by other tribes that carries for some a derogatory history.  Surfboards on English Beach, Vancouver, BC

I readily confess that I normally use my phone's calculator for metric to Imperial conversions. Pretty much the only thing I mentally figure is temperature. As luck would have it however, I never came across any park enforcement officers considering I never looked up the 30 kilometer/hour bike speed limit conversion. Save the occasional downhill grade, there's little chance I would have exceeded it. In fact, I found too many reasons to stop. A lighthouse here, a modern mermaid dressed in a wet suit there; the numerous plaques, vistas, and bits of beach all add up. For instance, at Third Beach an overwhelmed concession stand serves hot fare and novelties at no-other-option prices from the top of the hill. Down below, as a reward for stopping, you can treat yourself to 1) a free foot massage and buffing via a sandy stroll along the waterfront or 2) a complimentary tanning session on one of the conveniently placed over-sized log-benches.  Inukshuk - English Beach, Vancouver, BC

Venturing past Second Beach actually takes you out of Stanley Park proper but just past Denman St. sits the Inukshuk - stone landmarks created by First Nations (primarily Inuit) people to communicate good hunting and fishing places which figure heavily in their survival - featured in Vancouver's 2010 Winter Olympics branding. With good reason because as far as symbols go, it doesn't hurt to project your city as progressive because it retains and honors its building blocks. Unseasonably good weather (or so I was told) coincided with English Beach popularity creating a reading, sunning, boarding mosaic of people with a background of tankers in the distance.  

Hard-pressed for time and facing the prospect of a stiff re-booking fee, I reluctantly returned my new wheels and retraced my route back to the airport. Funny enough, I hadn't seen a single film crew working on location in a city that once held the number 3 spot behind Los Angeles and New York for busiest film locale. Perhaps they picked that week to head south of the border.


Vancouver Highlights
To do: To eat:
Architectural Institute of British Columbia self-guided and led walking tours (AIBC.ca) Heirloom Vegetarian Restaurant (heirloomrestaurant.ca/)
Vancouver Police Museum walking tour (http://vancouverpolicemuseum.ca/museum-tours/) Rockford Grill and Wok (rockfordgrill.com/menu-all)
Vancouver Aquarium (http://www.vanaqua.org/) La Baguette et L'Échalote Bakery (http://www.labaguette.ca/)
Grouse Mountain / Grouse Grind (https://www.grousemountain.com/grousegrind) Brioche Urban Eatery & Catering (http://www.brioche.ca/)











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