Vancouver Vacation

The streets of Gastown are a hodgepodge of cafe and dining options, while tourist shops selling maple syrup, key rings and salmon candy stay open late.

The ends of my hair have turned to ice, I’ve lost the feeling in my toes, and now the crows are circling. I’m in Stanley Park, an innocuous 30-minute walk from downtown Vancouver, and I’ve managed to find some respite from the icy rain under a giant fir tree. But if the bus doesn’t come soon, I’m afraid I’ll be returning home with a little less luggage than when I arrived, namely all of my extremities. As the cold minutes drag on, I take stock of the situation. Just how likely is it that I’ll make it out, intact, if the bus never turns up? I glance towards cloud-shrouded downtown Vancouver and wonder if they’ll hear my cries for help above the rumbling traffic. 

Vancouver is a sparkling, modern city that has carved itself a cosy niche among the towering mountains and endless waterways that surround it. in the beginning people flocked here to take advantage of the natural surroundings. The aboriginal people recognised the wealth of resources on offer, as did the loggers, fur traders and gold prospectors who came next. These early pioneers lived off the land, and modern Vancouverites still can’t resist the lure of the great outdoors – but you have to be prepared. 

As I make my sodden way on foot – the bus never did show up – back to the relative shelter of the skyscrapers, the burn of my embarrassment at having a life-or-death moment in a city that’s home to more than two million people keeps me warm. That’s the thing about this city – it’s rather thin veil od civilisation falls away just moments from the safety of its neat grid of streets. As you walk these wide, straight streets, the vistas beyond the skyscrapers reveal towering snow-capped mountains and dense fir and hemlock forests – a reminder that Mother Nature hasn’t so much been tamed as tied back with a piece of fraying string.

Vancouverites understand the shaky situation here: gumboot-, raincoat- and umbrella-clad locals file past me in their smug dryness, oblivious to the rain, cold and encroaching wilderness. It’s that attitude of preparedness that soaks through the city and its people, so the upcoming Winter Olympics certainly won’t catch them unawares.

The bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics marked the first time that Vancouver put its hand up to host the Games – a joint bid with nearby Whistler. The ever-prepared Canadians had most of the infrastructure done and dusted within months, even years, from the start of the Games. Nothing as trivial as a few hundred thousand extra tourists and athletes is going to catch them napping.

To make the most of this ultimately walkable city (once the thermals have been purchased), I set up base in downtown Vancouver, the Olympic ‘hood’. On the doorstep of this bustling core of the city is BC Place, where the opening and closing ceremonies will be held, and Canada Ice Hockey Place, home to the beloved Canucks ice hockey team and where the men’s and women’s tournaments will be held. 

Aside from appreciating its proximity to the major sports stadiums, I have an ulterior motive for setting up camp downtown: it’s a shopper’s paradise, and with the exchange rate more in our favour than it has been for a long time, that’s a benefit that simply can’t be taken lightly.

Pacific Centre Mall offers undercover shopping in stores such as Sears, H&M, Sephora and Holt Renfrew, while the store-lined pathways of Robson Street house big names such as Zara, Gap and Banana Republic, along with cafes for escaping the cold and refuelling. I stock up on scarfs, umbrellas and gumboots and, now clad appropriately, walk smugly among the city’s residents.

To really chase the chill away, I need something stronger than coffee, so I head to Gastown, a 10-minute walk from Robson Street and home to numerous pubs. This historical cobblestoned quarter was established in 1867 when ‘Gassy Jack’ opened a saloon for local forestry workers. Like any sensible population, the community grew up around the pub. The streets are a hodgepodge of cafe and dining options, while shops selling maple syrup, key rings and salmon candy (wood-smoked salmon fillets brushed with maple syrup) stay open late to capitalise on the too-happy tourists leaving the bars.

From Gastown it’s a short stroll to Yaletown, another inner-city neighbourhood not to miss. The creative types of the town flock to this suburb of eclectic dining options.

While Vancouver certainly offers enough entertaining distractions for tourists attending the Winter Olympics, it’s only half the story. The little town that could Whistler was purpose-built to host the Winter Olympics – but not the 2010 ones. In fact, the bid for this year was Whistler’s fifth. In the 1960s a group of businessmen formed the Garibaldi Olympic Development Association to bring the 1968 Winter Olympics to town. Though their bid was unsuccessful (as were the next three), they continued to build one of the largest ski resorts in North America, which opened in February 1966.

Whistler is a 120-kilometre drive north of Vancouver and, with the new highway completed, it takes around two hours (though some local leadfoots boast they can do it in an hour). The village is a small but perfectly formed centre that was planned from the beginning. The upshot of this is the wide pedestrian walkway, coined the Village Stroll, that winds its way through the centre.

While many Olympic events will take place on the slopes surrounding Whistler Village, Creekside, a 10-minute drive south, will also see some action. Creekside is smaller than Whistler Village but holds its own appeal for that fact. You’ll find all the amenities of the main town, but the pace is slower. Nita Lake Lodge is the most recent hotel to be completed in Creekside and offers a unique position, far from the madding crowd, on the edge of Nita Lake. The lodge has an almost Japanese aesthetic to it, with Zen-like, uncluttered space that is still welcoming and cosy.

If you’re visiting during the Olympics, remember your snow gear, as many runs will remain open to the public. Inspired by the prowess of the medal contenders, you’ll want to put on your gear and head up the mountain to practise your own moves.

Here too, despite having spent a small fortune on winter clothes, it seems I’m still not quite grasping that ‘be prepared’ motto. Bill Rheaume, general manager of Nita Lake Lodge, scoffs when I present the jacket I’m planning to wear, kindly lending me what can best be described as a waterproof doona before I set out for a day of ziptrekking.

It’s only ever a short stroll from your hotel before you’re knee-deep in the wilderness and the snow. The Ziptrek Ecotour takes place in the ancient rainforests and involves five ziplines to tear down and a lot of snow. As my toes retreat into numbness I thank God that someone around here had remembered their Boy Scout motto.   

Words by Kirsten Rowlingson - Published in Voyeur January 2010
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 2.3 million
Time Zone GMT -8 hours
Languages English, French
Currency Canadian dollar ($CAD)
Electricity 120v - 60Hz
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