Destination Focus: Vancouver

Our exploration of the great Pacific North-West continues with a city highlight. And it is no wonder this one constantly tops the quality-of-life polls, says Anthony Lambert

George Vancouver must have thought he had found paradise in 1792 when he sailed into what he named Burrard Inlet. The city given his name was built around the bay, to become one of the world’s most spectacularly situated metropolises, with the mountains of the north shore and surviving forest of Stanley Park providing an unrivalled backdrop.

In the year Vancouver and Whistler hosted the Winter Olympics, the city is also enjoying the benefits of the associated investment in new hotels and transport links. The Canada Line opened last August to become the third SkyTrain line, linking Richmond and the airport with the city centre and terminating at the major interchange of Waterfront, a five-minute stroll from the cruise terminal.

At the end of the pier is one of the new hotels to open for the Olympics and the city’s third Fairmont property. The Fairmont Pacific Rim has topped its 400 guest rooms with a swimming pool and adjoining hot tubs, fire pits, cabanas and even “meditation pods.” If you’ve won the lottery, you can even take the Chairman’s Suite – with its private elevator, exercise area and outdoor patio in which to entertain 60 friends!

Arguably Vancouver’s most prestigious collection is the 35,000 ethnological and 500,000 archaeological objects housed in the stunning Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The building was designed by Vancouver’s most famous architect, Arthur Erickson (who also designed the Law Courts and Simon Fraser University), using a motif of concrete arches to echo the wooden gateways and post-and-beam style of many Pacific cultures.

It also has two of Vancouver’s many celebrated gardens, which alone could keep the horticulturist happy for a week. Opposite the Museum of Anthropology is the Japanese Nitobe Memorial Garden, complete with ceremonial teahouse, while the UBC Botanical Garden has more than 8,000 plants and a re-creation of a 16th-century monastic herb garden in its 44 hectares.

Closer to the city centre, the ornamental flower gardens of Queen Elizabeth Park are often a riot of colour in summer, attracting many weddings for the superb photographic backdrop it affords. In Chinatown is the Dr Sun Yat-sen Park and Classical Chinese Garden, built in 1985-86 by artisans from China and based on elements from 14th-century Ming dynasty gardens.

But perhaps the fascinating of all is the Van Dusen Botanical Garden, ranked in the top 10 of North American gardens. It has in excess of 7,500 different plants, but the garden appeals on multiple different levels. Modern sculptures are deftly positioned around the 22 hectares, within which are 40 specialised gardens, an Elizabethan hedge maze, a heritage garden of commercial crops in a convincingly rural setting, and some spectacular views over the city towards the north shore mountains.

Whether you can build only a few days or something longer into a cruise itinerary, at the end you’re almost sure to agree with King George VI, who said on taking leave of the city in 1939: “I think Vancouver is the place to live.”

The pier for cruise ships is as impressive as the city’s setting. Built as the Vancouver Convention & Exhibition Centre, its roof resembles sails or the gables of Sumatran longhouses. It couldn’t be in a better location, right in the heart of the downtown area, with its mix of historic and ultra-modern high-rise buildings.

There’s no edgy port area or need to find a taxi; unlike most North American cities, Vancouver is easily (and best) explored on foot or by bike. And, because there are so many pedestrians and cyclists, it’s also much safer. First-time visitors are immediately struck by the soft landscaping. It’s partly a result of the requirement to spend some of any new building budget on greening the surroundings, but mainly thanks to the outstanding Parks Board, which looks after more than 130,000 street trees.

The central shopping area is around the intersection of West Georgia and Granville streets, with the nearby Pacific Centre mall and the two department stores of Hudson’s Bay and Sears. Robson Street has many smaller fashion and designer shops.

For those who want to see something of old Vancouver, head north-west along Barclay Street, parallel with Robson, to reach the Barclay Heritage Square. The surrounding streets are full of tree-shaded, two-storey heritage houses, and, within the square, is Vancouver’s only house museum, Roedde House. It is well worth taking a guided tour of the 1893 Queen Anne Revival house, which was built for Vancouver’s first bookbinder, an immigrant from Leipzig. The guides entertain visitors with anecdotes and stories about the Roedde family, which give a good insight into early Vancouver.

The city has always been cosmopolitan. Some districts of Vancouver are still identified with a particular national group: Punjabi Market with the 60,000 Indians, mostly from the Punjab; Commercial Drive with Italians and Portuguese; and, of course, Chinatown, the third largest community in North America.

Vancouver’s multiculturalism has helped it become one of the most exciting places for food. The cuisines of dozens of countries can be sampled, but it is not the variety that impresses visitors as much as the sheer quality of so many restaurants. Vancouverites eat out a lot, and you won’t survive long as a restaurateur unless you deliver food to a high standard. Word about the good and the bad gets round fast.

You have only to visit the brilliant example of urban regeneration at Granville Market to see how seriously the quality of ingredients is taken. This area of warehousing and maritime activity has been transformed into one of the city’s must-see places, best reached by one of the delightful small AquaBus ferries that link various piers around False Creek and points west.

The market is filled with shops and stalls selling all manner of arts and crafts, but it is the food section that makes those who love to cook wish they were self-catering. Thankfully, many of Vancouver’s chefs are just as concerned about the origin of their ingredients; some go as far as naming their suppliers, while others boast that everything they serve comes from within 100 miles, much of it organic.

Many restaurants have open-air decks in deference to the way so much of life in Vancouver revolves around the outdoors, fostered by abundant green spaces and cycle routes – perfect for some post-prandial exercise.

No visit to Vancouver would be complete without a tour of Stanley Park, the promontory at the northern end of Burrard Inlet. Originally set aside as a military reserve, the Park was designated a recreational reserve in 1887, a year after city status was conferred by Lord Stanley, the first Governor-General of Canada.

Today, the 404 hectares provide a green lung for the city, but most people either walk or cycle round the Seawall Promenade that rings it rather than take one of the many paths through the forest that once covered all the land on which Vancouver stands. The Promenade is so popular with cyclists you can peddle around only in an anti-clockwise direction!

While you enjoy the fantastic views over the Inlet and English Bay, spare a thought for the man largely responsible for building the seawall: the Scottish master stonemason James Cunningham, who devoted 32 years of his life to the task.

For more solitary walks, take the SeaBus across Burrard Inlet from Waterfront to Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, a 12-minute journey which provides a splendid view back over the city. Adjacent to the pier is the bus terminal from which there are numerous options.

The most popular is the frequent 236 bus to the gently swaying pedestrian Capilano Suspension Bridge across a 70-metre drop into the river canyon. Across the bridge is a high-level tree walk among immense Douglas firs, with information boards about the value of temperate rainforest.

Far fewer people visit Lynn Headwaters Regional Park (bus 229 from Lonsdale Quay), which has 75km of hiking trails through forests of Douglas firs and Western red cedar. An information centre provides details of the various trails that take from an hour to all day. Whichever you choose, the city will seem a long way away.

Bus 236 also takes visitors to the cable-car up Grouse Mountain for the finest views over Vancouver. At the summit, the large enclosure of a refuge looking after orphaned grizzly bear cubs and grey wolves allows visitors to see these magnificent creatures in a semi-wild setting. For a really romantic dinner, wait until sunset and watch the lights of Vancouver strengthen while you enjoy outstanding dishes at the Observatory (www.grousemountain.com).

These forests and the lives of the First Nations people who lived among them inspired the paintings of one of Canada’s most revered artists, Emily Carr. Her work can be seen in the Vancouver Art Gallery, along with 170 paintings by the Canadian Group of Seven, who emulated the Impressionists in preferring to paint in the open air. The Gallery also has impressive temporary exhibitions, often in collaboration with European galleries.