I wondered if I had actually crossed the border from the U.S. into Canada as I looked out the window of the Bolt Bus that transported me from Portland, Ore. to Vancouver, B.C. Was the check point, where they didn’t even stamp my passport, a figment of my imagination?
I very well could have been back home in San Francisco, just a bit greener and smaller. I was often told by Vancouverites visiting San Francisco that our cities closely resembled each other, but when I arrived at the bus station I found a city that was indeed similar on a miniature scale.
Vancouver is a city the size of my neighborhood, at least the Western part. Even the shape of it on the map resembled my neighborhood and had a similar laid back feel with a comfortable bay breeze.
I had a couple of hours to kill after arriving in the Vancouver, so I dropped my bags at our hotel and began wandering around downtown Van, as locals call this gem of a city on the water.
Super G was on her way to Vancouver via plane, since we both decided to spend the weekend with our respective friends. I took off to Portland, to see one of my close friends for a little girlfriend getaway while Super G partied it up with her friends in San Francisco.
We agreed to meet at the end of the weekend in Vancouver.
I walked down to the water where cruise ships were preparing to anchor up for their journey to Alaska and saw the Olympic torch next to the convention center. After walking along the water a bit, I wandered up a Bute Street, a tree lined street toward Robson Street, Van’s bustling high-end shopping center.
I window shopped along Robson Street along the way I gathered restaurant business cards collecting ideas for dinner options once Super G arrived.
For myself, I gathered art gallery cards and made note of the Vancouver Artgallery, which is exhibiting the Grand Hotel: Redesigning Modern Life until Sept. 15, as I walked back toward our hotel own Hornby Street.
I found it appropriate given that the Artgallery is located directly across the street from one of the grandest hotels, the Fairmont.
Many of the luxury and well known brand name hotels and resorts are located on top of the hill along Burrard Street. Closer to the water there are a number of boutique hotels, two of which we stayed at during our weeklong visit.
A Bit of History
Vancouver is Canada’s third largest city with a population of 603,502 as of 2011, the most recent census available. Located on the West Coast the city opens up to the English Bay and is surrounded by Vancouver Harbor and False Creek.
Towering above the port city are the Coast Mountains that stretch toward Alaska. Whistler, the famous ski resort that hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, is only about an hour drive from Vancouver.
Vancouver was formally established 30 years after rumors of gold along the Fraser in 1858 attracted an estimated 25,000 prospectors to what was then known as Granville. The small sawmill town discovered by fur traders that was originally inhabited by the Coast Salish people rapidly grew as many of those explorers and prospectors stayed on the West Coast giving birth to Vancouver.
Europeans weren’t the only ones that relished Vancouver’s beauty and prospect of gold.
Chinese immigrated to the shores of the West Coast as early as 1788 when 50 Chinese artisans made the journey with Capt. John Meares to build a trading post on Vancouver Island, according to Canada in the Making. Wider immigration of Chinese and Japanese to Canada didn’t take hold until the expansion of the railroad when they came seeking work. Many of them didn’t leave and today, much like San Francisco, Vancouver has a thriving Asian community along with many other ethnic communities.
Van’s diversity only reminded me more of home as many of the city’s the neighborhoods echoed sister neighborhoods in San Francisco, but cleaner, much cleaner.
It’s not that Van doesn’t have its dirty spots, but for the most part, the city is sparkling clean and the air is fresh. Another difference we immediately noted, was how friendly and nice Canadians are. There wasn’t an unfriendly face in the whole town and if anything went wrong, there wasn’t the type of resistance that we generally receive and make note of among locals and servers in some parts of the states.
One example was that when I had a problem with my food at Falconetti’s East Side Grill (1812 Commercial Drive, 604-251-7287, Falconettis.com), a sausage restaurant, my plate was immediately removed and it wasn’t only replaced, but I got a different meal with no questions asked and many apologies.
That was one extreme, much of the time servers at bars and restaurants were chatty and even gave us suggestions of where to go. Even a gentleman monitoring the slot machine floor at the new Edgewater Casino (750 Pacific Boulevard South, #311, 604-687-3343, EdgewaterCasino.ca) chatted us up and gave us a great restaurant recommendation.
Where to Eat
Needless to say, Van is a foodies’ delight as Vancouverites are into food much of it locally sourced not more than 100 miles from the city. Great restaurants line the streets, but generally Gastown – no that is really what the restaurant filled neighborhood is called – is culinary delight central. The neighborhood’s gastronomical name isn’t due to the plethora of phenomenal restaurants and pubs in the area, but from “Gassy Jack” Deighton, the neighborhood derives its name from, who had the gift of blarney and whisky for the millworkers who built him his tavern in 1867.
While Gastown is Vancouver’s gastronomic hub, it isn’t the city’s only place to experience its culinary offerings. Food trucks have hit Van’s streets, but there are many longtime favorites and newbies vying for attention from budget to fine dining to dazzle your taste buds and satiate your hunger.
We started our weeklong eating adventure at Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House (777 Thurlow Street, 604-669-1940, JoeFortes.ca) on Thurlow Street right off of Robson Street. I figured that my meat and potatoes girl would want a good steak and my penchant for seafood would both be satisfied after our respective travels. It hit the right spot in so many ways. It was the perfect welcome to Vancouver.
The popular restaurant was bustling, but the servers never lost their composure or their plates as they glided around the tightly placed tables filling wine glasses and delivering plates of perfectly cooked food. It was so, good that Super G and I almost ended our stay in Vancouver for one last taste of Joe Fortes and their syrupy balsamic and lobster oil dip with the fresh baked bread. Unfortunately, we didn’t.
Instead, we took another steak house recommendation from a local and dined at Gotham Steakhouse (615 Seymour Street, 604-605-8282, GothamSteakhouse.com). We weren’t as dazzled. We’ve experienced many steak houses and in our opinion it was average. The menu offerings were to be expected, the food portions and even the décor spoke classic upscale steak house: Nothing unusual right down to the flavors.
On other days we sampled foods ranging from low-cost, average and back to fine dining to a variety of ethnic foods. Some of our favorites were grabbing lunch at the House of Empanadas (976 Denman St., 604-669-8977) where we both ate for under $10, the Breka Bakery and Café (818 Bute Street, 604-325-6612, , Breka.ca) on Bute Street where I grabbed a gourmet mini mushroom and goat cheese quiche for a $6.95 lunch.
Super G got her Guy Fieri challenge on at Meat and Bread (370 Cambie Street, 604-566-9003, MeatandBread.ca). Whenever we land at a destination she likes to check out the Food Network star’s haunts since our bad experience. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. The food was “fantastic,” she says.
We checked out local favorite Stepho’s Place Restaurant (1124 Davie Street, 604-683-2555) where the average wait is 25 minutes, but the locals who we shared our table with told us that they’ve waited an hour and a half in line on top of a 45-minute drive to eat at this Greek restaurant almost weekly. The food was good, not spectacular. Super G’s lamb chops weren’t the best meat, but weren’t bad either. They were flavorful and tender. My chicken skewers were good. The meat was juicy and tasty. It was a great deal for the price as we spent a little more than $50 for appetizers and entrees for two, oh and beer and wine. The plates were huge (even if the menu said “small serving”).
We couldn’t hit all of Van’s restaurants, but we tried our best when we restaurant hopped around the city sampling appetizers and small plates.
For desert, I was tempted by Cassia Cupcakery (1706 Commercial Drive, 604-568-6188, CassiaCupcakery.com).
Super G’s last stop before leaving Van was to check out a food truck. She downloaded the free Street Food App, and found Mom’s Grilled Cheese truck. I was supper happy with my gooey cheesy yummieness, she says.
When we weren’t checking out restaurants I tagged along with Super G as she drank her way through Van. We hit up quite a few breweries and wine bars, as Van is getting into its microbrewing and wine. Just to be cheeky, Super G couldn’t resist seeing the beer and whisky list at The Irish Heather Gastropub (212 Carrall Street, 604-688-9779, IrishHeather.com). Chatting up the bartender, she tasted a couple of whiskeys that warmed her belly, while I sipped on another local beer.
We have to say we found good wine at Merchants and many restaurants. We were also quite happy with many of the local brews we sampled at Burrard Bridge Bar and Grill (#1-1012 Beach Avenue, 604-676-2337 , BurrardBridge.com)
and its sister pub The Original Tap & Barrel (1 Athletes Way, 604-685-2223,TapandBarrel.com), but I liked Grandville Island beer the best. Super G, who is getting into Bourbon and whisky continued her search and found quite a number of good whiskeys.
Where to Shop
Van offers a variety of shopping experiences. Depending on your tastes you can find any luxury name brand on Robson Street and a mixture of boutiques and brands in Yaletown, but for unique purchases I preferred the boutiques along Commercial Drive.
If high-end designer fashion is your thing, Robson Street is where you will want to be. It is the most fashionable street in Vancouver, hands down with Yaletown and Commercial Drive, locally simply known as “The Drive,” closely following suite in its unique ways. Yaletown is almost as chic as Robson Street quaintly located near the harbor along False Creek, but with a mixture of young yuppies and families with strollers enjoying the park and pathway along the water.
Robson Street is in the heart of the city near the convention center and upscale hotels.
I personally preferred the boutiques, many of which are owned by local women, along The Drive. The clothing and accessories are unique and stylish in that casual beauty or funky boho way.
Super G patiently waited for me while I scoped out the shops looking at art, blouses, dresses, jewelry, shoes and even house wares. Some of my favorite shops included Barefoot Contessa (1928 Commercial Drive, 604-255-9035, TheBarefootContessa.com), which features a lot of local designers; Exposure (1304 Commercial Drive, 604.879.5808, ExposureClothing.ca); and Catherine Southerland Art and Design (, CatherineSutherlandArtandDesign.Weebly.com) which offers up unique bracelets, earrings, necklaces and rings to add an extra touch to your outfit.
La La’s (1748 Commercial Drive, 604-877-7708, , LaLas.ca) and Banshee (1566 Commercial Drive, 604-254-7240, KathleenAThomasDesigns.com) offered remarkable gifts and handmade house wares, respectively. On Robson Street, I found amazing paintings at Stewart Stephenson Modern Art Gallery (1300 Robson Street, 604-358-6910, StewartStephenson.com).
Before leaving Van, I stocked up on snacks for the bus ride to Seattle at Ayouba’s Dried Fruits and Nuts (986 Denman St., 604-732-6887, Ayoubs.ca). During my layover in Seattle, I satisfied my sweet tooth stopping in at the Yellow Leaf Cupcake Co. (2209 4th Ave., 206-441-4240, TheYellowleafCupcake.com) and brought a couple of cupcakes home with me for my roommate.
It never ceases to amaze me the further north you go the more outdoorsy the cities become. Outside of being surrounded by mountains and water to play in at the tip of Vancouver is Stanley Park, that offers a variety of sporting entertainment from biking and walking along the seawall to golf.
While I enjoyed the museums and checking out art galleries, Super G enjoyed a game pitch and putt at Stanley Park. It wasn’t your average pitch and putt. It was a fantastic slightly challenging game for a deal, says Super G. The game cost $20 to play 18 holes, not including the balls and tees, which were for $2 each. She was pleased by how clean and uncrowded the grounds were.
We worked off our week of eating our way through Van by enjoying a casual day of biking around the seawall through Stanly Park and around Vancouver courtesy of the Loden Hotel, which lent us its complementary bikes. I particularly liked the separation of the walkway for pedestrians and people on wheels as we glided through the park with other cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders and the views.
Night Time Play
Van offers a variety of nightlife experiences, but if live music and clubs is what you are looking for Granville Street is where you want to be. As Super G and I strolled down the street it was a buzz with life and music as well as a young crowd hanging out in front of the bars and clubs. Until we found Granville Street, we wondered if Van was a town for early to bed and early risers, even Davie Street’s bars and clubs were a bit of a yawn. Granville Street got our blood pumping with its music flowing out onto the street, laughter from girls and boys drinking and having a good time, and the lights advertising shows.
Where to Sleep
If elegance is what you are looking for, Vancouver delivers with a variety of women- and family-owned chic hotels, bed and breakfasts, and resorts, such as the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa (845 Hornby Street, 800-663-0666, , WedgewoodHotel.com).
We stayed at the modern classic The Loden Hotel (1177 Melville St., 604-669-5060, TheLoden.com), courtesy of the family-owned hoteliers, and at Le Soleil Hotel (567 Hornby St., 604-632-3000, HotelLeSoleil.com). Both boutique hotels are located in the heart of downtown Vancouver with delightful restaurants associated with them.
Le Soleil Hotel hosts modernized Indian cuisine at Copper Chimney and The Loden is the home of Tableau, a contemporary French bistro. Hands down the food and beverage selections were exquisite. Super G was particularly surprised by Copper Chimney. Being Indian she’s generally skeptical of Indian restaurants, but the dishes they served up were flavorful and plentiful.
We also checked into the Century Plaza Hotel and Spa (1015 Burrard St., 866-539-0036, Century-Plaza.com) a mid-priced hotel with a swanky lounge that was closer to Davie Street, Vancouver’s well denoted gayborhood.
Vancouver is an amazing walkable city, particularly in West Vancouver, the heart of the city. It took us a half hour to walk from Vancouver Harbor to English Bay and an hour to walk from close to Stanly Park to False Creek at the tip of Yaletown.
It was a great way to get to know the city and all of its neighborhoods.
Vancouver likes clear delineation of who goes where and when they go. I learned the hard way, after being nearly hit and yelled at by a grumpy driver, to watch the pedestrian street crossing lights rather than the regular street lights when it came to crossing the street. Unlike at home in the U.S., a green light doesn’t always mean that the walk sign is telling you to cross the street too. In Vancouver, it’s the opposite often times the light for cars is only for cars while the cross walk light is only for pedestrians.
Super G learned when I grabbed her and yanked her back onto the curb before she got hit by a car after teasing me about my “Walking while in Vancouver” lesson.
When we weren’t walking Super G and I were taking the light rail, bus and biking around the city and park.
The light rail was incredibly easy to use from Burrard Street to get out to East Vancouver and getting to the airport and bus station. The trains came often and moved relatively quickly and smoothly to many of the neighborhoods that we wanted to go to and to the outer parts of the city.
When it came to biking around the city, Super G and I were amazed and quite pleased by the plethora of bike boulevards or lanes running along some of the streets that were separated from traffic by islands and clearly demarked by painted bike symbols. The bike lanes were also clearly marked and easy to use. We were also pleased by the separation of walking paths from the paths for cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders when we biked around Stanley Park and the city. It made peddling around Vancouver on bikes provided courtesy of the Loden Hotel very easy and safe.
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