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June 08, 2009

Vancouver: A City on the Move

Granville Island in Vancouver (Al Harvey/courtesy, Tourism Vancouver)

Okay, a show of hands: Is there anyone out there who hasn't witnessed how beautiful Vancouver is? If you’ve never been there, go. Take the kids. Show them an extraordinary place.

This way-cool city on Canada’s raw West Coast is pretty much Ground Zero for X-Gamers. Every way-out-there-sport has a venue in this city—from kayaking alongside whales to scare-your-mother mountain biking on the infamous North Shore. Next February, Vancouver hosts the Winter Olympic Games. But the time to visit Vancouver is summer.

From seemingly endless sandy beaches to salmon-spawning streams flowing from tree-lined Olympic ski slopes, Vancouver is a foaming double-espresso of wild nature sprinkled with vibrant city. This is the poster child for the Pacific Northwest. Make that the YouTube clip of the Pacific Northwest, because this is a city on the move. Everyone is cycling, sailing, running, kayaking, swimming, cliff-jumping, golfing, or just plain old paragliding. Life doesn’t get much richer for vacationing families who can't wait to Just Do It.

Sea kayaking the coves of Bowen Island (Gerry Wingenbach)

Consider this. Vancouverites nitpick about their personal best for the Grouse Grind the way the rest of us fret over our cholesterol. The Grind is a roughly one-hour, hardcore hike to the top of the Grouse Mountain tram, which overlooks the city. (The grinders ride the tram back down—wimps!)

Here’s the six-word story my friend Shawna tells about Vancouver: “I never saw any fat people.”

On a recent four-day trip, Shawna and I rowed, ran, cycled, hiked, and planned to paraglide around Vancouver’s raw edges. Conditions weren’t right for flying, but we had an unbelievable day skiing Blackcomb Mountain at Whistler, which remains open for way-worth-it summer skiing and riding.

We landed in evening rain under a 3,000-foot ceiling and toured the new downtown waterfront Convention Centre. The environmentally responsible low-rise has a grass roof (really) that doesn’t compete for attention in the busy harbor. The action is all outside and the glass walls looking out to the harbor make you feel like you're in the middle of the action. Seaplanes are buzzing overhead, an Alaska-bound cruise ship docks next door, and a lone rower sleeks across the narrows. We end the evening with a harbor-front walk under an umbrella, with nothing but blue skies on the horizon.

Families love this city. Any parent will tell you the key to a good vacation is to just keep busy. In wonderfully natural British Columbia, you can do almost every activity you, or the family, can dream. But here’s one thing everyone should do in Vancouver: Take the quintessential bike ride along the seawall in Stanley Park, the crown jewel of the waterfront, an incomparable, downtown city park of giant trees, city and mountain views, and sunset beaches. The seawall ride hairpins for six miles on the outer edges of the heart-shaped, 1,000-acre park, which morphs into the undeniable heart of Vancouver. Bicycle rentals are plentiful and the ride takes only an hour. Plan on another hour or two for hiking the park’s inner trails where the rainforest cools warm afternoons. Snag the afternoon sun at Third Beach.

You can, of course, elect to spend the entire day on a bicycle exploring the inner-waterway bike paths around False Creek, Point Grey, and even across to the North Shore. A good central place for lunch is Granville Island, a one-of-a-kind, fresh-food market under Granville Street Bridge.

Here’s a solid rainy day option: The Museum of Anthropology showcases a rich human heritage going back thousands of years with the First Nations people who thrived up and down the West Coast from Alaska to California. Located on the gorgeous campus of the University of British Columbia, where views look out across Georgia Strait to distant Vancouver Island, the museum’s treasures include a replica outdoor village and genuine totem poles and other carvings gathered from ancient times.

Geography is everything in Vancouver. You’re on the brink of the continent. You can go a little out of bounds on short ferry hops to dreamy North Pacific hideaways like Bowen Island, just 20 minutes by ferry but about four centuries behind Vancouver.  We went to Bowen to kayak along the ocean shore, ogle the marine life, and ride the BC Ferry. The island also boasts a terrific nine-hole golf course. Kayaking the coves of the island was the highlight of our island visit, but we also liked petting farm animals, dining on homemade sausage and cakes, and making friends. (Darcie Buzzelle, you rock!)  Just go there. Let the day take you. Bowen Island is a rarity on our continent.

To get to the island, take Marine Drive through West Vancouver by crossing Lion’s Gate Bridge. For all the years I lived in Vancouver, this was my favorite route—Lion’s Gate Bridge to Horseshoe Bay, where you catch the ferry. You can dally halfway along the 30-minute drive with a stop at Lighthouse Park. There you can hike alongside giant Douglas firs, wildly colored rhododendrons, and soaring bald eagles, all sharing this seaside rock-and-cliff outcrop with the high-end real estate. In the park’s parking lot we actually saw a sign warning patrons about black bears. You’ve got to love Vancouver.

The next day at Whistler, with a sky of fluffy white clouds on china-blue skies and ideal spring skiing conditions, we actually saw a black bear beneath our chairlift. Wasn't it just 12 hours earlier that we were ocean kayaking off Bowen Island to the astonishment of a few seals?  You couldn't spend an uneventful few days in British Columbia if you tried.

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