Look down on Vancouver from the Olympian heights of Cypress Mountain, some 4,000 feet above the Strait of Georgia, and the city is a sparkly pin-cushion of concrete and glass spires. North by north-west, the firs and pine of densely wooded Stanley Park present an early-morning shadow to the downtown peninsula. At 1,000 acres, the park is fully two-thirds the size of the downtown core, larger than Manhattan’s Central Park, and maybe the best reason Vancouverites feel so good about their vaunted ‘most liveable’ city.
Now cut to the reverse angle, looking up at the Coastal Mountains from the southern beaches of Kitsilano and Point Grey, sundered from the downtown by the calm waters of English Bay. Yachts, kayaks, canoes and windsurfers share the inlet with passenger ferries, motorboats and tankers. Cruise ships and float planes dock on the far side of the city, near the photogenic (and Sydney-esque) white sails of Canada Place.
Whichever way you look at it, Vancouver is as pretty as a picture, just as long as your gaze doesn’t stray to the shameful squalor of the ‘downtown eastside’, several blocks bordering the tourist districts of Chinatown and Gastown that are notorious for their homeless population, drug problems and high rate of HIV infection.
Such big-city blight seems out of proportion with Vancouver’s residual small-town feel – you can easily traverse the downtown area on foot, or cycle the full extent of the sea wall that traces the perimeter of the downtown peninsula in a couple of hours. While it’s cosmopolitan in its ethnic mix and fusion cuisine, and basks in its fresh reputation as a ‘world-class destination’ and 2010 Winter Olympic host, the city hasn’t shaken its provincial roots just yet.
We’re a long way – more than 2,000 miles, in fact – from the government in Ottawa and the financial powerbrokers of Bay Street. Immigrants from the Asian Pacific may see Vancouver as a gateway to better things, but ambitious young British Columbians head elsewhere in search of fame and fortune. There are pockets of creativity and enterprise, to be sure; but in terms of major cultural institutions, civic infrastructure and architectural accomplishment, Vancouver isn’t really there yet.
And yet… ‘excitement’ is too strong a word, but there is palpable promise and potential here. For all its rapid growth, unlike so many bigger, greater, older towns, it isn’t choking on the fumes of over-population and its arteries haven’t hardened into permanent gridlock (a 1960s plan to run a highway through the oldest part of town was mercifully quashed by resident protests).
There are less mercenary ambitions that Vancouver is able to accommodate very well: the ideal of an urban existence that’s still in touch with nature is the reality here. The ocean and the mountains aren’t just
a backdrop or a playground, they’re a situation, a climate and an atmosphere, and they permeate Vancouverites’ attitudes toward body, mind and spirit. Yoga and physical exercise are de rigueur. Greenpeace was born here.
It’s a peculiarly West Coast phenomenon, perhaps, but as we well know, this eco-consciousness will be central to 21st-century development across the globe.
British Airways flies to Vancouver five times a week, with return flights from around Dhs5,600 (including tax)
Where to stay
Holiday Inn Vancouver Airport, Richmond (+1 604 8211818, www.ichotelsgroup.com)
Moderate oceanic. Sheltered by Vancouver Island and the mountains, and warmed by the Japan Current, the climate is notoriously rainy.
Where is it?
Vancouver is in the south-west corner of Canada, on the Strait of Georgia, surrounded by the ocean and bordered by mountains. It is Canada’s gateway to the Pacific Rim.
Don’t miss Stanley Park, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Grouse Mountain, Granville Island, Vancouver Island and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Try hot chocolate infusions at Yaletown’s Chocoatl, Havana restaurant-cum-gallery-cum-independent theatre, cycling everywhere, and skipping the expensive Capilano Suspension Bridge to visit the Lynn Canyon Park bridge for nothing.
Where’s the buzz?
Gastown – while Robson Street is all about the brands, the oldest neighbourhood in the city attracts upmarket designer stores.
The city is host to the British Columbia Lions (American football), Vancouver Canadians (baseball), Vancouver Canucks (ice hockey) and Vancouver Whitecaps (football).
Actor Seth Rogen, indie band New Pornographers, psychedelic rock band Black Mountain, teen heart throb Hayden Christensen, jazz singer Diana Krall and Greenpeace all hail from the city.
Douglas Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma and City of Glass, William Gibson’s Spook Country, Wayson Choy’s Jade Peony, Nancy Lee’s Dead Girls and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park.
Distance from Toronto
Distance from Tokyo
The International Film Festival takes place every autumn.
Number of ice rinks
Types of indigenous wild salmon
Coho, spring (also known as king, chinook or tyee); chum (silver bright); sockeye (red, kokanee) and pink.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life