Having watched videos of Mt. St. Helens erupting when I was a kid, I fulfilled a dream of mine, by making a pilgrimage to its still-scarred and smouldering flanks three years ago. Where that was a trip planned in advance, and in detail, my next visit to the Pacific Northwest was thanks to an unexpected six-hour gap between flights at Vancouver International Airport en route back from Tokyo. As it turns out, Vancouver is pretty much perfect for a quick jaunt – and a wonderful place to just pass through.
Despite being thoroughly sleep deprived, I decided to take the opportunity to go and have a look at this city by the sea. Vancouver’s TransLink trains run straight from YVR (Vancouver International) to downtown; you can buy day passes for around US$10 at the Seven Eleven at the airport. From there it’s a half hour or so to Waterfront Station, right by the water’s edge. If you wander out and round the corner, there is a lovely little plaza next to the Canada Center – drenched in sunshine on the day I was there – with views of Vancouver Harbor and North Vancouver.
Alternatively, you could head straight out of the station about a block, on Seymour St. or Granville St., to W. Hastings Street; to the left, perched atop the Hastings Center like a badly parked flying saucer, is the Lookout Tower. Open from 8:30-22:30 in the summer and 9:00-21:00 in the winter, with adult tickets at about US$13, it’s a great place to get acquainted from on high with what is hands down one of Canada’s most picturesque cities. Squeezed in between highlands and the sea, on one hand you can see the positively SimCity-esque urban sprawl; on the other, the impossibly blue water of the harbor, with the occasional seaplane taking off over the hills and the ships.
The other great way to get to know Vancouver is to wander down the seafront towards the west. Astonishingly, one entire end of the Vancouver peninsula is a proper park – not even remotely like the agglomeration of weedy lawns and discarded PET bottles that passed for a park near where I grew up in Cambridge, UK. Stanley Park features beaches, miles of cycle paths, a staggering 230 species of birds, and coyotes. Yes, coyotes. The best way to get there and look around is by bike, and there are several places just by the entrance to the park where you can rent them for pretty cheap.
From Waterfront Station to Stanley Park takes about two hours by foot, and you will not be wanting for amazing sights along the way. It seems like much of the city comes here to play; I was there around lunch time on a weekday and the sheer number of white-shirted office workers chilling with their sandwiches and flasks by the seaside parks was a sight to behold. Across from them were the surprisingly clear waters of Vancouver Bay (despite Metro Port Vancouver being the busiest port in Canada). You fill find a charming mix of the quirky, the industrial, the ultramodern, and the traditional. Giant statues of pixelated orcas stand next to the the sail-like roofs of the Canada Center; farther along you’ll find little harbor teeming with houseboats with names like ‘School’s Out!’, and flotillas of Canada geese gliding past, as if to war. The city itself is a forest of glittering highrises, including one with the words the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street emblazoned in shiny letters on the side, over and over again. Why? Who cares?
Eating wise, there are hundreds of options; being broke, I was seduced by McDonald’s offer of ‘maple bacon poutine’ (which was precisely as heartstoppingly rich as you’d imagine), but that is a confession I make with a heavy heart. I’m told that Japadog, which serves Japanese-style hot dogs, is a particular gem.
Vancouver started as a tavern at the edge of a lumber mill. If you ever do go, remind yourself as you’re wandering down its shiny shores that two hundred years ago, there was absolutely nothing here but the trees and the First Nations and the water, and presumably it was even more gorgeous then than it is now. But it is still gorgeous and well worth the walk.