Many organizations publish regular lists of cities ranking them by liveability or, in other words, the quality of life. Some of the lists are more respectable than others but most of them put Vancouver very high or even on top. There must be something in it. This year I finally had a chance to visit this famous city and compare it to the nearby (by North American standards) favourites of mine, Seattle and Portland.
Before entering the city proper we drove to its satellite community of Horseshoe Bay which is one of the main terminals for the BC Ferries. They link mainland British Columbia with Vancouver Island and other smaller islands. Also here, the Trans-Canada Highway meets the Pacific Ocean. I always like visiting ferry terminals because they offer a great feel of anticipation, travel and adventure. Also, I really like big boats (in fact I like most big machines) so I couldn’t skip Horseshoe Bay. It was a small and pleasant community with a busy harbour. Apart from the giant and colourful BC Ferries there were numerous pleasure boats as well as water taxis taking commuters to their homes along the coast. Add a few fish & chips joints, a café or two and you end up with a nice place indeed.
But we didn’t linger as it was time to head to Vancouver itself. On the way from Horseshoe Bay we crossed the iconic Lion’s Gate Bridge which is Vancouver’s equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Yes, it is smaller and green rather than striking red but it is still a gracious and well proportioned suspension bridge. Also, like in San Fran, it connects the city with its very affluent suburbs to the north.
Immediately south of the bridge we stopped in Stanley Park which is a huge piece of a near wilderness on the doorsteps of Vancouver’s downtown. It covers 1001 acres and is almost completely surrounded by the waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay. There is a convenient parking lot right next to the bridge which allowed us to quickly get on it to admire a fantastic panorama of the city.
From the bridge we headed down to a path which circumnavigates the park along the coast. It is normally bustling with walkers, cyclist and rollerbladers but we were there on an early evening of a grey and cloudy day and found the path pleasantly deserted. We walked quite far west of the bridge, well past the spectacular outcrop of Siwash Rock. By that time it was getting seriously dark so we decided to head back to the car and drive to the motel we booked well south of downtown. We got a bit lost on our way (as I don’t use satnavs and it was a busy Friday evening traffic) but got there eventually. Our motel was located in a heavily Vietnamese neighbourhood so we could end our day with some great Asian food.
The next day started miserably. It was raining. No, it was actually pouring. Unfortunately the forecast predicted rain for most of the day so we couldn’t simply wait for an improvement. Luckily there is the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and that’s where we decided to spend some rainy time. It turned out to be an excellent decision as it is one of the best museums I have ever visited. It displays a great collection of totem poles and other art created by the First Nation of the Canadian Pacific Northwest. These were some of the most sophisticated societies in the pre-Columbian North America and it is clearly visible in their amazing wood carvings. I also liked the museum building itself. Designed in 1976 by Arthur Erickson it is inspired by the post-and-beam architecture of the northern Northwest Coast and made primarily of barren structural concrete which contrasts well with the mostly wooden artefacts displayed inside.
After lunch in the museum’s cafe there was no escaping the fact that we had no choice but to battle the rain. After a short drive to the downtown we left the underground car park and walked towards the nearby waterfront and the spectacular buildings of the Canada Place. After just a few blocks I was swearing profusely as we were wet, my camera was wet and there was no sign of any break in the rain.
After buying an umbrella (to protect my camera) and after rain eased off a bit we continued our walk through the historic Gastown district which was named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a Yorkshire seaman, steamboat captain and barkeeper who arrived in 1867 to open the area’s first saloon. It is somehow ironic that the district’s landmark, the world famous Gastown Steam Clock, was actually only build in 1977. Lots of people think that it is as historic as the whole neighbourhood but the clock is actually “only” my age.
By the time we got to Chinatown it was raining properly again. We quickly passed it and hid inside the grand-looking Pacific Central Station. This grey, imposing, stony building is the western terminus of the cross-country train to Toronto, aptly named The Canadian.
Then it stopped raining again so we decided to head back to downtown and try to see at least a bit of it before dusk. Initially we walked along the shore of False Creek which is a short inlet of English Bay that offers great panoramic views of Vancouver’s many skyscrapers. Even on a cloudy, misty and grey day they looked quite impressive. I can only imagine how great it might all look on a sunny day. Anyway, soon we entered the narrow canyons of the downtown streets and after some wandering ended up back on the waterfront by Canada Place. By now it was really getting dark but there were some final rays of the sunset, just visible in the narrow space between the horizon and the low clouds. It created some great lighting effects on the glass facades of all the condo towers which nowadays dominate the waterfront.
One of the waterfront buildings has a roof garden which offers a great view of the seaplanes taking off and landing at Vancouver Harbor Flight Centre, a water aerodrome located just a few feet from the waterfront. It is a great spectacle and immediately brings to mind all the iconic images of bush pilots and the Canadian wilderness, even here among all the modern towers of downtown Vancouver. After plane spotting for a while it was time to go. It was already dark and we still had to retrieve our car from the parking garage and drive to the motel we booked in a distant suburb of Vancouver, well on the way to the US border.
So, how was Vancouver? First, I have to say that weather definitely didn’t let us enjoy it as much as we wanted. But the city definitely seems to have a good vibe. Its downtown is dense and walkable, the location and scenery are simply fantastic, there are a lot of striking new buildings and the population is multicultural and open-minded. Is it better than Seattle or, especially, my beloved Portland? I don’t think so. At least that’s the judgement until I visit Vancouver during some spell of good weather.