You’d have to be of a particularly warped disposition – perhaps with a phobia of grass or a deep-rooted hatred of trees – to dislike Stanley Park. In many ways, it sums up everything that Vancouver is about; culture, wholesome outdoor enjoyment, room to breathe and a perhaps delusional determination to ignore the weather.
It is the great green lung on the edge of the peninsula that contains many of the city’s most popular areas. A short walk from Downtown Vancouver through the West End, Stanley Park is where Vancouverites go to walk, jog, cycle and skate. It’s so popular that there are separate lanes depending on mode of transport – so that the walkers don’t get mowed down by the cyclists.
The tracks circle the park, going along the seawall. The further along you go, the wilder it gets. Ocean spray crashes into the rocks as the path hugs the cliffs and the beaches have a weather-whacked, unpolished quality to them.
The park is also home to the totem poles that have become Vancouver icons. They represent a once small movement to keep native First Nations cultures and traditions alive. The originals arrived in the park when the area’s indigenous peoples were encouraged to abandon traditional ways, and artworks were being sold off to museums. Their presence, however, did spark moves to preserve artforms and techniques that have lasted for hundreds of years. Only a couple of the original poles still stand, but they’ve since been joined by new ones created by new generations of artists and carvers.
Walking (or cycling) along, you really start to get an idea of how blessed Vancouver is scenery-wise. The mountains rise up not far from the coast and the sea has battered out a craggy coastline.
In fact, the British Columbian coastline is really rather fjordy. You don’t tend to hear too much about the Canadian fjords, but the western half of the country is dotted with them. Indian Arm is an inlet of just one of them, and it’s where Viator’s Kayaking Adventure From Vancouver heads to for a paddling mission that feels far detached from the city. It’s only half an hour’s drive away, as a matter of fact, but a good chunk of that drive is down a narrow woodland road to a small village on the water’s edge.
As I waited for my guide to get the gear ready, I took a look out at the scene. It was beautiful. Jetties stretched high above the water – it was low tide – and mussels could be seen attaching themselves to the wooden pole. Douglas fir trees lined the mountainsides and snow could still be seen on top of the highest peaks. Geese and ducks flitted between landing, taking off and mooching about on the water, while you could see the glacial water trickling down the cliff edges as snowmelt.
The kayaking excursion was an exercise in simple happiness. It spit with rain every now and then, but we felt joyfully alone on the water. Sure, there are houses along the banks, but many of them can be accessed by water only. They’re holiday homes and not many were occupied as we took on Indian Arm.
As we alternated between grunt work and chat, the guide explained the complex eco-system at work here. Starfish went after the mussels while different organisms live in different parts of the intertidal zone. Somewhere that seems so peaceful has actually got a lot going on, and you can’t help but like that.
Vancouver is very much a walkable city – in fact, trying to navigate the central areas in a hire car would be madness – but there’s one key hop where the water gets in the way. From downtown to Granville Island, there is a big snarling overpass, but it’s not pedestrian friendly. That’s where the Aquabus comes in. These super-cute ferries serve the not-so-fierce waters of False Creek, painted like rainbows and looking like they’ve been designed as merchandising spin-offs from a toddler’s cartoon series about talking boats.
Granville Island lies at the other side of False Creek and, like Stanley Park, it is one of Vancouver’s treasures. It brims over with bars, cafés and restaurants, while the shopping has a crafty, gifty tinge to it. In the Net Loft you have the sort of shopping centre – it’s too small to qualify as a mall – that it’s OK to like. It jumps from artisan homewares to hats to First Nations woodwork and paintings.
It’s a similar story in the Granville Island Public Market, which is primarily about fruit, vegetables and gourmet goodies, but finds space for soap stalls and ceramics. It is not a place to enter hungry – do so and you’re liable to end up buying something from every stall, then realise that there’s no way you can physically eat it all.
Where to stay in Vancouver: If you’re looking for a candidate for Vancouver’s most instantly likeable hotel, then the Listel (www.thelistelhotel.com) would have to be pretty near the top of the list. It’s is full of art – some it borrowed from local museums – and has high service standards. The St Regis (www.stregishotel.com) is a winner too – smack bang in the middle of downtown, and a brilliant example of how to modernise a classic hotel without losing the charm. It also offers free phone calls to anywhere in the world – so there’s no excuse for not phoning home to tell the folks about your day out.