Olympics only one of Vancouver’s lures
Hugging a spectacular bay by the Pacific Ocean and ringed by stunning, snow-capped peaks, Vancouver easily ranks as one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
With its sandy beaches, Pacific waters, lush rain forests and a glittering downtown full of skyscrapers, Vancouver considers itself a world-class destination on par with cities such as Sydney, Australia or San Francisco.
The region embodies the laid back West Coast lifestyle, a place where visitors can literally ski in the morning and sail in the afternoon. And, now, Vancouver is preparing to be the host of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
It’s the most populous destination ever to hold the Winter Olympics, with 2.1 million people in Greater Vancouver, according to Canada’s 2006 census. It’s also Canada’s third time welcoming the Olympics, preceded by the Montreal 1976 Summer Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. No Canadian ever has won a gold medal on home turf.
Europeans arrived in British Columbia in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of the fur trade and several gold rushes, which brought prospectors from around the world.
Now, the region has a multi-ethnic makeup and vast cultural diversity. Several influxes of Asian immigrants have made it home to one of the largest Chinese populations outside China.
Any exploration of the city would be incomplete without a stroll on the cobbled streets of Gastown, with its old-world charm, much-photographed steam clock, quaint pubs, restaurants and galleries.
This is the heart of old Vancouver, which grew up quickly around a makeshift tavern established in 1867 by gold prospector John "Gassy Jack" Deighton.
For the less well-heeled, the surrounding area has a number of hostels and cheap eateries.
Visitors should be careful not to stray too far south of Gastown lest they wind up in the notoriously squalid and poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside, where drugs and prostitution are rampant. But, that’s just one small part of Vancouver.
Galleries in other areas are worth a visit. The Vancouver Art Gallery holds international shows as well as a permanent exhibit of the work of Emily Carr, who documented West Coast American Indian life. The gallery steps are a focus of the city’s leisure crowd, lounging to take in the scene and watch street performers.
From there, it’s a short hop to casual Kitsilano, where Fourth Avenue was Vancouver’s 1960s hippie haven. It’s now an eclectic assortment of restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops.
Past Kitsilano is the University of British Columbia and the Museum of Anthropology, a temple of light perched atop cliffs over scenic Howe Sound.
At the bottom of the cliffs is Wreck Beach, in warm weather one of North America’s favorite nude hangouts.
The night buzz in Vancouver is on glittering Robson Street, lined with top-name boutiques, oyster bars and java joints. For the more adventurous, the award-winning restaurant atop Grouse Mountain, accessible by a gondola, offers unparalleled views. Keep in mind that Grouse Mountain can loom above the rainy mist that often blankets the city from October to March.
On the way to Grouse, take a walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, if you dare. It spans 450 feet, and is 230 feet above North Vancouver’s spectacular Capilano River.
If Grouse’s gondola piques the curiosity, the ski resort town of Whistler - site of the alpine events of the Olympics - has the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which has the longest unsupported span for a lift of its kind in the world, at 1.88 miles, and the highest lift of its kind above the valley floor, at 1,427 feet.
Reaching Whistler is an event in itself.
The Sea-to-Sky Highway connecting with Vancouver has been redeveloped for the Olympics with the blasting of whole cliffs and widening of the once-perilous road. The 90-mile drive offers awesome views of sea and mountains. The road is still subject to the whims of nature, though. In 2008, a rock slide closed the route for three days.
The tony community of Whistler is a year-round playground, but is best-known as a winter destination.
A short walk from the village is Granville Island. It’s a curious mix of restaurants and galleries, anchored by the aromatic Granville Island Market. Dinner there could also mean taking in a play or a comedy club.
After dinner, there is no better way to unwind than a stroll along the s serpentine waterfront.
Water taxis ply the waves from Granville Island across False Creek to Vanier Park, where there are planetarium shows and the Vancouver Yacht Club. While False Creek pathways pass Olympic hockey and opening ceremonies venues, the city’s crown jewel is Stanley Park.
Lord Stanley is best known to the rest of the world for the National Hockey League championship cup. In Vancouver, his legacy is 1,000 acres of primeval rainforest.
The park is crisscrossed with trails through towering firs and cedars, and ringed by the Seawall, which offers stunning vistas in every direction.
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IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Vancouver International Airport receives
flights from around the world. Several border crossings
serve Washington state. Ferries also arrive from the
state’s Olympic Peninsula.
GETTING AROUND: A ride on the Skytrain, with incredible
views, can be a great way for an initial exploration. Buses
are generally efficient, but the best way to explore the city
center is to bundle up and walk. Even in bad weather, the
city core has plenty of underground malls.
OLYMPICS VENUES: The figure skating arena is about 20
minutes by bus from the city center. Event tickets include
transit fares. Snowboarding and freestyle skiing on the
North Shore will be tougher to reach. Alpine events are in
Whistler, and a fleet of special buses go there.
WHAT TO EAT: Chinatown offers a taste of the Orient in
all price ranges. The Punjabi Market at 49th Avenue and
Main Street delivers the spicy tang of the Indian subcontinent.
Little Italy on Commercial Drive provides a Mediterranean
WHERE TO STAY: During the Olympics, even mountainlovers
may have to stay in Vancouver because of the
shortage of shelter in the hills. CoSport (www.cosport.
com) is handling much of the accommodations, event
tickets, airport meet and greet services, ground transportation
and host services.
SKIING: Local skiing lasts into April at Whistler-Blackcomb
(www.whistlerblackcomb.com), Grouse Mountain
(www.grousemountain.com), Mount Seymour (www.
mountseymour.com) and Cypress Mountain (www.
cypressmountain.com), holding Olympic snowboarding
and freestyle skiing events.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Vancouver at www.tourismvancouver.
com; British Columbia at www.hellobc.com