Several years ago (during the second Bush administration, in fact), I planned a long weekend in Vancouver with one of the tax rebates. Setting aside the possible politics of spending that money in Canada, I coupled that cash with some frequent flyer tickets; it was a nice chunk of money for a long weekend trip. I planned the 4 day long weekend: had hotel reservations, car rental, and was on to deciding where to go to dinner when I discovered Frontier airlines entirely cancelled its route to Vancouver without bothering to let me know. Thankfully I was able to get all my money back for all the other reservations, but I had already soured on the idea so I gave up on it entirely. If I couldn’t get us there entirely with the windfall, we weren’t going to go. Plus plane tickets to Vancouver are pricey, hanging around $450 per person. And there were plenty of other places to visit, for less money.
All of this is to say that we never got there. So when we started talking about the idea of a road trip portion of this year, and where we wanted to go/see/do, Vancouver came up first for me. When you look at the road trip map it appears to be an enormous detour on our eastbound vector. But in fact it was Destination #1, and it was natural to head toward #2, Glacier, afterwards, and then we just kept planning our way east from there.
So I guess the question is whether or not it lived up to our expectations. Again, the “worth it?” question. It was an interesting city. It feels very young. Very vibrant and youthful and yet, at the same time, very British. Vancouver Island was even more so, but I’ll save that for another post. So there was this juxtaposition of everything proper and polite, and everything get out of my way I have things to do. The traffic probably wasn’t helped by the fact that we were there over a holiday weekend, but we were cut off or otherwise nearly rear-ended by someone at least six times in three days, and one day we got around entirely by ferry---so you do the math.
On our first day, after we crossed the border without any kind of drama (not even a passport stamp!) we headed to our hotel and checked in, and then headed up to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, which was a fun way to spend a couple of hours wandering up in the trees. It’s probably considered a touristy thing to do, but it was fun, and being up in the trees, and walking around the cliffside on glass platforms was amazing.
The price tag was a little steep, especially when you add in parking, etc., but it was a good outing.
They have a raptor program there, which is where we got some up close and personal stares from the eagle and barn owl in the photos. The owl’s name was Smaug.
But go early in the day, because by about noon or so, things began to get a little pushy-shovey on the suspension bridge, and when something is already swaying, no one needs to get grabby. Also the parking situation gets ugly. Earlier is better.
We loved Granville Island—the hustle and bustle of the food stalls, the chaos of the flower market, buskers signing their hearts out, lots of places to buy interesting souvenirs, and even a whole kids’ market (a nightmare of about 24 different toy/kids stores under one roof).
We saw a workshop where totem poles were being carved, and paddle boarders were gliding by. It was fun to people watch.
We ended up driving over to Kitsilano, then taking the False Creek Ferry from the Maritime Museum over to Granville Island, and then hopping aboard another one to go up to Yaletown and some of the other points along the False Creek.
We got off at Yaletown and walked up to Robson Street to see all of the shops, enjoy the Taiwanese street fair, and hit the flagship Lululemon sore. You can get one-way ferry ride tickets for around $2.50 per person per stop, or $15 for an all-day pass. We ended up finding all day free parking in Kitsilano, so it felt ok to use the ferry as our means of transportation. It’s beautiful to be out on the water and see the boats and paddle boarders and kayakers go by. If you drive over to Kits you can also hit the Museum of Vancouver (which was closed for the week by the time we thought about it), and the Maritime Museum, which has some lovely vessels harbored at the landing for the ferry.
There is also a nice dog beach and even a human beach not much further along. Our ferry day ended up being a long one, but you can pick and choose how much of that you want to do. It was a lovely day.
We loved Stanley Park—we ran along the seawall, hiked along the trails that criss-cross the park, saw the totem poles and the rose garden and the Pavilion and very nearly had tea in the park as well, but missed tea-time by about 15 minutes.
You can pay for parking anywhere in the park, via kiosk, and then travel from spot to spot. Say you want to see the Totem Poles, but you’re planning on having lunch at the Teahouse (which actually doesn’t serve tea anymore--fyi). You can pay for 2 hours of parking, spend 20 minutes with the totes, and then zip over to The Teahouse and park for your 90 minute lunch, and still have time to spare for a stroll down to the beach. Just make sure you know your license plate number and keep your ticket on display. We saw meter readers standing and waiting for cars without a ticket or for tickets to run out. But it’s a nice system: pay once, play all over the park. If you’re a runner, I highly recommend the seawall trail. Heck, if you like a good 5 1/2 mile walk, or bike ride or roller blade, this is the place for you. One of my favorite memories is this one:
We also enjoyed walking around Chinatown and visiting the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park. The garden is much smaller, but beautiful, but there is an admission fee. It comes with a guided tour to the garden, but if you’re not into that sort of thing you can just visit the park, which is free, and has nearly the same view as the Garden. David was glad we spent the money on the garden—I wish we’d known we could just do the park. So there’s your tip—you don’t have to pay to see the Garden from the Park. But the money goes straight in to the community, so it isn’t a bad thing, and it was interesting. You certainly can’t see all of the garden from the park, either.
We’re usually culinary fiends when we travel to new cities, but we’re trying to keep costs down and our waistlines a little trimmer, so we didn’t do a ton of fancy eating in Vancouver. We did have dinner at Raincity Grill, which was lovely, and we had a great view for sunset.
There is another tip—find someplace to see the sunset, whether it’s a park bench, or a ferry ride, or a lovely restaurant eating dinner made from local ingredients. The dinner was excellent, the service attentive (they even gave us one of their super secret parking spots!), and the view divine.
Things we thought were worth a pass: Canada Place, Yaletown, Gastown (all three were ok for a meal and a couple of minutes of walking around, but otherwise just tourist shops). There is an excellent gelato place near Canada Place, however, which is worth seeking out. Bella Gelateria apparently beat the Italians at their own game this year in the gelato making festival. We drove by it and I saw there was a line out the door. You don’t need a further invitation to seek out gelato than a line. The line was right; it was very, very good!
Given the fact that we’re on a limited budget and we have limited storage capacity, we didn’t spend a lot of time in areas of town where all there is to do is buy things, and all three of those areas, as well as Robson Street, fit that bill. Think about it next time you go somewhere—what is there to see or do here that doesn’t involve buying stuff? We have our weaknesses, yes *cough*Lululemon*cough* but we’re becoming a lot more aware of how much of tourism is about getting your money as the trip goes on. Which is ok as long as you give me something in return that is unique and valuable to me—like a memory. Not like a t-shirt or a stuffed moose or some maple candy.
You can take my advice for what it’s worth—we’re not tour guides or travel experts—but the things we'd recommend are in bold in this post. We probably didn’t do everything we should have done, and we definitely didn’t do everything we wanted to do, but we really enjoyed Vancouver. I feel like we got the highlights. Next time we’ll go with friends to show off some of the things we enjoyed, and get to see some new things as well. You should come with us next time.