For the Canada part of our 2015 holiday I’ll hand over the writing again to my hubby Mark. For previous posts on our awesome holiday click here.
As it is our fifth year in Melbourne you could forgive us for bragging occasionally about just how special our adopted city really is. Melbourne consistently ranks in the top 5 for most liveable city in the world, and it is, well just great – in every way a city could be great (except for beaches). But if we ever had a nemesis, a challenger to that ‘liveable crown’, that nemesis would be Vancouver.
After breaking up from Portland (we promise we’ll call) we also split temporarily from our awesome foursome to see exactly what was driving Vancouver up the charts. And yes they have self driving trains, and green roofed cities, progressive health and social care, as well as a wealth of outdoor adventure hot spots just a short drive from the city. But what can Vancouver really threaten us with?
We kicked off our shoes in Yaltown, which makes up the south eastern corner of Vancouver’s ‘Downtown’ district. ‘Yal’ (likely not called that by the locals) is clean and modern in a landscaped carpark kind of way, but conveniently placed to explore the city in any direction you might choose.
Directly south of Yaltown is Granville Island, which is a bustling 7 days a week inner city market. The market is brimming with produce (and tourists) as well as a community of craftspeople and gourmet traders, which makes it an excellent early stop to stock your holiday larder.
As it is an island, the best way to get there is via the cute little Aquabus service. And the journey along Vancouver harbour is not a bad way to spend a lazy hour if you find yourself at the other end of Downtown with nothing for dinner.
North of Yal is Downtown, which if you have ever been to the CBD of any city in the world, is exactly what you would expect. For those feeling ill equipped for adventure there are plenty of outlets to help get you looking the part, but shopping is not something I personally would travel 13,000 kms across the ocean for. That’s what a mouse and a credit card is for.
Except, there are surprises in Downtown. For one, the Japanese food is excellent. Having done no research prior to our trip I had expected the local dish to be some sort of overcooked salmon, bear or moose steak dinner. To my surprise, the local delicacy is sushi, and it is pretty incredible. Unbeknownst to me, Vancouver has a rich history of Japanese migration and it is all the better for it, pairing the regions fresh seafood produce with a passion for delicate flavours and subtle presentation.
In much of Downtown you can’t go far without stumbling into a sushi bar or izakaya. One of our favourites was Guu Original, where unsurprisingly, something called Guu does come on tap, and the staff shout greetings enthusiastically in Japanese as guests shuffle in and out of the busy, cramped dining room.
Directly north east of Yal (what the locals call Downtown East) lies that suburbs nemesis: Gastown, whose namesake comes from a gas powered street clock which tourists line up to watch chime every 15 minutes. The clock is about as interesting as it sounds, and captures your attention for about as long as you would expect, but the area is a nice antidote to the sterility of Yal, with an excellent variety of edgy restaurants, coffee houses and cutesy gift shops.
Some of our favourites: Nelson the Seagull (for the picnic board), Tacofino (for tacos and Margaritas), Revolver (best coffee in Vancouver – so far), Birds & the Beets for a healthy snack, Old Faithful Shop for dreamy salted caramel and maple syrup (both of which we now own).
Gastown won’t be for everyone. The street’s are Victorian-esque, which is in total contrast to the rest of Vancouver city which is clean and optimistic, like it’s been baby wiped into submission. Some of Gastown’s best eating spots (such as Tacofino in ‘Blood Alley’ – no joke) sit alongside homeless shelters and junkie hangouts. It is a strange and often disorientating tourist district with all the hangups and hopefulness of a progressive social welfare system. Brilliant during the day, a little hairy during the late hours.
North West of Yal is Stanley Park, which is the jewel of Vancouver’s green ambition. It’s big and parky the way you imagine Central Park to be big and parky. People ride around it, walk through it, and it gives you quite nice views back over Vancouver harbour as well as over to North Vancouver. Bike hire is cheap and plentiful and its what you want to do when the weather is fine and sunny.
We rode around it in about 2 hours and then left to explore South West Vancouver along Main Street. Here we stumbled into the Mount Pleasant farmers markets while hunting down our general obsession of the trip; donuts.
Main Street is relaxed and full of interestingness; from the quaint The Regional Assembly of Text to the pretentious but still quite yummy 33 Acres Brewing, which just happens to serve its locally brewed craft beer with sugary donuts. Yum. Main Street is a definite must, and it is a quick bus ride out of the city.
North of Stanley Park by aqua and land bus is Grouse Mountain, which is about the closest place to Vancouver you are guaranteed to spot a bear. You take the gondola up the mountain and stroll around the peak, which gives you epic views of Vancouver from above, and also bears and cheesy nature shows and flying fox rides through the tree tops.
There are numerous walks that kick off from this point, and plenty of small paths where, if you’re lucky (we were), you might stumble onto the backlot of some Bambi sequel in the making (we did) where a mother deer and her fawn feed by the path (yes) as tiny squirrels natter at you from the brush (oh yes).
Grouse Mountain is picturesque and although a little expensive to get to, worth the effort on a clear day. The bears are behind an electric fence, but they seem happy enough. And if you haven’t ever been 10 feet from a bear, even in captivity it is an impressive sight.
Vancouver is ‘a’ city of the future. But if there is one thing Melbourne has taught me, it’s that a cities real soul begins at the edges, where rent is cheap and passion is the main currency of value. And in the case of Vancouver, that’s a real pity, because much of what tourists will see of the city is far too planned out to really surprise.
The people are friendly, the streets are clean, the public transport is plentiful. But much of Vancouver is so damn polite you might just find it, well, a little dull. Unless you look further afield.
For us, the heart of Canada lay elsewhere, in the mountains.
Written by Mark Welker. Photography by Mark and Monique Welker.