Travel Edition 2018: Trans-Canadian gateway
This British Columbia metropolis is a hub for Alaskan cruises and trans-Canadian rail travel. For a culture-minded Colorado adventurer, it also became an engaging, walkable, bike-friendly destination for a long weekend getaway.
Vancouver’s outdoorsy soul, shaped by its proximity to water, mountains, and forests, always attracted me, but I didn’t think of the city itself as a destination. It was a gateway to adventure elsewhere, such as Banff National Park. That’s where I was headed last summer, until I decided to spend three days in Vancouver and discovered that it had the welcoming feel of a smaller San Francisco or Seattle. The visit opened my eyes to its unique evidence of First Nations people, and some of its cosmopolitan flair—a captivating blend of its past, present, and future.
On the advice of my AAA Travel Agent, I started off my long weekend with a walk around historic Gastown, reminiscent of LoDo or Larimer Square in Denver, filled with galleries, upscale boutiques, and restaurants for all palates. One difference: The Steam Clock, which announces the quarter hour with a steam whistle. The neighborhood bustles with young professionals. The crowds navigate the sidewalks in a fluid dance as fashionable Millennials and Gen Xers mix with tourists all trying to find a spot for lunch. After watching the swirling crowds entering the various upscale dining options, I’m drawn to the high energy and craft-beer selections at the Steamworks Brewing Co.
After lunch, I walk through North America’s third-largest Chinatown. Even though I just finished lunch, I can’t resist a steamed BBQ pork bao bun. Afterward, I tour Classic Chinese Garden, an oasis for tranquil meditation, quiet conversation, or photographs.
Later, I head out to Coal Harbour, home to the Olympic Cauldron built for the 2010 Winter Games. After the obligatory photo there, I wander along the sea wall and watch float planes take off and land on the harbor. I see a few seals playing in the water.
Cyclists of all ages ride rented bikes along the Stanley Park seawall with views across the water to downtown Vancouver. © Charlotte Hedman
After a quick breakfast and coffee, it’s time for some exercise in nearby Stanley Park—1,000 acres of forest, trails, and roadways. You can drive there, but it’s not recommended; traffic congestion and limited parking can ruin the experience. The best scenery is along the seawall path—5.6 miles around the outside edge of the park—and the best way to experience the path is on a rental bike. That is my choice of transportation for the day, with plenty of bike rental shops in the area.
I choose Spokes Bicycle Rentals, which is bustling and yet matches me with the perfect bike and helmet. In a few minutes, I’m on the trail. After the first loop, I start over again, but this time I take a different route, to see nine locally carved totem poles depicting various animals sacred to the local First Nations people. Creating this pristine oasis, prime real estate in the middle of a bustling city, took foresight.
Next, I follow a trail to Beaver Lake and aimlessly wander the trails until I end up back at the seawall and finish the loop back into town. After about two hours of biking, it was time to return the bike and head off in search of lunch.
For an afternoon excursion, I chose Granville Island and the Public Market. Of two options for reaching the island—taxi or ferry—I prefer the ferry that launches from the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. The ship is small and looks more like a floating bathtub or mini-tugboat than a traditional ferry. It’s only a hundred-yard ride to Granville Island, barely long enough to collect payment from the passengers, as the boat dodges stand-up paddleboarders, kayakers, and seals.
Once off the ferry, I walk around shops and boutique stores until I reach Granville Island Public Market, a large warehouse divided up for vendors of fresh fruits, custom arts, and crafts, and a variety of gourmet food. I skip the tempting morsels and head instead to the Granville Island Brewery for an hour-long tour. Despite all my years in Denver, I had never gone through a full brewery tour—not even the famous one in Golden—and so I enjoy the experience of learning how Granville Island makes beer.
After beer class, I walk along Robson Street, a shopping district with European flare, and pop into one of the many noodle houses for dinner and then window shop before heading back to the hotel for the night.
On my last full day in the city, I start early at Canada Place, the large convention center on Vancouver Harbor. From there I catch the free shuttle bus to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, about 20 minutes outside the city. The park was established in the late 1800s when a Scottish civil engineer strung the first footbridge over the Capilano river canyon. The bridge has been replaced and upgraded several times since then, but the vision of a park where people can immerse themselves in nature is undimmed. The current owners added treetop walkways suspended between 250-year-old Douglas-firs, giving visitors a path from one tree to the next. After a couple of hours exploring the rainforest, I take the bus back to town for lunch and the next activity.
In the afternoon, I visit two of the city’s best museums. The first, the Museum of Vancouver, focuses on First Nations culture, which produced the totems and other artifacts seen in Stanley Park. The history of the First Nations people is much like the history of the native population in the United States. Conflict with European settlers obliterated their way of life.
Next door, the Vancouver Maritime Museum features exhibits what took the place of First Nations culture—the fur trade, fishing, and industry.
As the museum visits reminds me, Vancouver has a long history that pre-dates its status as a gateway to adventure, and as I head to Banff National Park the following day, I leave town thankful for taking the time to explore one of Canada’s great cities.
While three days is a comfortable amount of time to visit Vancouver, here are some additional sights you might want to check out if you have more time in the area:
- Head northwest out of town to Horseshoe Bay, start of the scenic Sea to Sky Highway.
- Continue north along Highway 99 to the Sea to Sky Gondola, a 10-minute ride with incredible views of the surrounding area.
- After taking in the views and lots of photos, continue to Whistler. Regardless of the time of year, Whistler offers year-round activities for the entire family.
Be like the author and ask a knowledgeable, resourceful AAA Travel Agent for help in planning your Vancouver experience as the start or finish of your Alaskan cruise or Rocky Mountaineer rail journey. Visit with travel agents at any one of 11 AAA Colorado retail stores, or visit AAA.com/travel.