Take the most pristine alpine setting you can conjure up — mountains, blue sky, water on all sides. Add city. Stir.
The first time you see Vancouver, you may think your eyes are deceiving you. They’re not. This place rreally is as beautiful as it looks. A picture postcard on steroids.
Water is the element that dominates and defines Vancouver. Rivers, inlets and bays paint some part of the horizon a liquid blue in nearly every direction. Even the airport sits on an island.
Even if you’ve never set foot in Vancouver, you’ve already seen a lot of it. The city’s nickname is “Hollywood North.” One of the more prolific film producers and special effects houses, Lions Gate Entertainment, got their start here.
Film and video crews spend so much time “on location” in Vancouver, shooting everything from feature films and documentaries to TV series and commercials, that some hotels and restaurants use their popularity with the film-making caste as a selling point.
The one blight on the landscape is all the skyscrapers. Towering office and apartment high–rises fill the city center, as if all of Vancouver insisted on having a scenic view — and got it.
But honestly, can you blame them? I mean, really, when was the last time you could peer over a balcony — and look down on seagulls in flight?
And yeah, I’ve done that.
IF YOU GO
You can reach Vancouver by road, rail, air or cruise ship. The drive from Seattle is about two hours and change, a shade longer than it takes to drive between Los Angeles and San Diego. But that doesn’t count the wait time to cross the border, which can add an hour or more.
Vancouver is served by major U.S. airlines. The airport code for Vancouver is YVR. You can also take the Amtrak Cascades train. Several cruise lines sail into Vancouver, which also is a major starting point for cruises to Alaska.
To cross to/from Canada by land or sea, you’ll need either a U.S. passport or the newer PASScard. If you’re arriving by air , it’s passport only. The PASScard won’t work.
The currency is the Canadian dollar, but many Canadian business accept U.S. dollars.
My home base in Vancouver is a neighborhood known as the West End, which sits at the base of a small peninsula. The tip of that peninsula is taken up by the gorgeously green Stanley Park, whose perimeter you can walk around at water level.
Here, youth can be your calendar age or your outlook on life. Gay can be an alternate lifestyle or a joyful attitude a la the word’s original meaning. Turn down Denman Street or off Davie Street to English Bay and the smell of the sea engulfs you.
Even mundane sights take on a fascination, like the seaplanes that take off from and land on English Bay. I’ve yet to take one of those floating/flying tours around Vancouver, but you know it’s on my to-do list!
The West End, like most Vancouver neighborhoods, is rendered to a human scale. There are plenty of stores within an easy walk. Whole counties have been fatally “malled” in the States, but the corner grocery store is alive and doing business here.
Just on the other side of the West End is Granville Island. rundown industrial area on False Creek has been turned into something reminiscent of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with shops, restaurants and entertainment.
Actually, the music and nightlife scene is vibrant citywide.
But maybe the most beautiful thing about Vancouver is her people. The city has always had a large Asian population, which swelled even more in the years leading up to Britain’s return of Hong Kong to China. But the population here is diverse enough to make any visitor feel comfortable.
And if the human rainbow here doesn’t put you at ease, the residents themselves probably will.
This is the anti–New York. Folks here don’t rush, don’t push. There’s a mellowness among people here that seems to have nothing to do with the production and smoking of “BC Bud.”
Drivers are actually…polite. Perfect strangers may actually speak to you on the street — without an ulterior motive. Shopkeepers strike up conversations with you just for the hell of it. Cyclists and drivers actually seem to respect each other here.
Taken altogether, it’s mind-blowing, without the chemical enhancement.
Rudeness instantly marks you as an out–of–towner.
Driving here may take a different mindset from what you’re used to. Vancouver takes pride in its lack of freeways. This is not the place to try to get somewhere at the last minute, unless it’s within walking distance.
If you bring the Los Angeles mentality with you to British Columbia, you’re in for some serious culture shock.
Speaking of driving, the ferry run between the City of Vancouver and the island of the same name has got to be one of the world’s most beautiful commutes.
Up here, bald eagles aren’t on coins or patriotic advertisements. They’re perched in trees or soaring overhead, almost as common as sparrows.
It all makes for an atmosphere that’s more serene, more contemplative, than you usually find in North American cities.
At the outdoor cafe tables and on the giant logs that serve as beach benches on English Bay, the conversations run to art and music, philosophy and religion. You can go a whole week without hearing gangsta rap or the names Britney Spears, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan.
That alone is reason enough to adore Vancouver. And I do.