Vancouver, BC: Slow Food and Fast Sightseeing
By Tim Leffel
In the city of Vancouver and the island with the same name across the channel, any visit involves a tinge of regret. It’s the places with little to do that are easy.
I’ve been in cities where you could tour everything of interest before lunchtime. In this city and on Vancouver Island, however, the choices tug at you like a pack of attention-starved toddlers. Ignoring them and just reading a book for an afternoon just doesn’t seem right.
You can feel the energy of progress in Vancouver as the city gears up to host the Winter Olympics in 2010. They’ve already got the cutesy mascots on sweatshirts filling up the shopping bags of Asian tourists.
The already good city transportation system is in expansion mode and I counted eight construction cranes hovering over the central city.
I visited with my wife and 7-year-old daughter, so that did narrow down our options to things that would interest the whole family.
A Leisurely Ride
Our first stop was Stanley Park, a peninsula walking distance from our downtown hotel. Circled by a seawall and dual paths for biking and walking/running, it’s a great place to get some exercise.
There are bike rental shops near the entrance, but if you visit the city Tourist InfoCentre beforehand you can get a voucher for $18 that covers a bike and helmet for four hours from Bayshore Bikes.
With my wife on one bike and us other two on a tandem, we took a leisurely ride, stopping by the totem pole exhibit, taking in the skyline views, and visiting the heated outdoor pool with a view for a dip.
We were lucky enough to hit Chinatown when the night market was going on, so we put together an impromptu dim sum meal of street food while catching some local entertainment.
The entertainment took a different turn though when we decided to walk back to our hotel via the most direct route.
That turned out to be through the worst stretch of East Hastings Street, where in the space of two minutes I saw three drug deals, two pimps, three hookers, and enough junkies to fill 12 levels of Grand Theft Auto.
Our 7-year-old barely noticed anything was up, but it presented a good opportunity to talk about the correlation between those needles we had just stepped over, and sleeping in a box on the street.
Fun With Pizza
Things only look edgy instead of being edgy in the Kitsilano area, a neighborhood of quirky stores and coffee shops where we had a leisurely lunch at Rocky Mountain Flatbread Company. This pizza restaurant goes out of its way to make the whole family happy.
There are fresh local ingredients and good microbrews for the parents. Then the kids get to watch the bakers work with a wood-fired clay oven in an open area before hanging out in a cool play kitchen, where they can dress up like chefs and make play pizzas.
We had Translink day passes to get around on the excellent public transportation system and this even included the sea bus and regular bus required to go north to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Strung across a gorge in the mountains, this impressive bridge is 230 above the river below.
It’s just part of the attraction though. There’s a nature study program for the kids and a series of stairs and bridges that take you from tree to tree through the canopy. It’s not a good choice for those with advanced vertigo, but it was a hit with the three of us.
Across the Water to Nanaimo
There are two ways to get from Vancouver to the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. You can ride a ferry for an hour and a half to get there, at around $14.50 adults, $8 kids, but that involves first getting a bus to the departure point of Horshoe Bay.
We opted for the novelty of a Harbour Air seaplane, which departs from Richmond near the airport or from right downtown by where the cruise ships dock. It’s $79 for adults, $39 for kids and takes 20 minutes.
The view from the air is great, but the fun part is zooming down and landing on the water, then stepping out of the plane right onto a dock in Nanaimo’s harbor.
We went out to see more of the water and Newcastle Island by riding around on one of the harbour “pickle boats.” You can take a sightseeing tour on these or just use them as water taxis to get from place to place — including “Canada’s only floating pub,” the Dingy Dock.
Nanaimo offers plenty of reasons to stick around, including lots of adventure activity options. Our daughter was more excited about the big playground in the park, however.
We strolled the Harbourfront Walkway and stopped in The Hudson Bay Bastion, once an outpost and fort for the far-flung fishing and shipping company.
Over a decadent Nanaimo Bar (sugar, cream, butter, chocolate, egg, almonds, coconut, and more sugar) at a Perkins Coffee Shop, we made plans for the drive south the next day.
Cranberries, Totem Poles, and Logging Trains
Vancouver Island is the largest North American island in the Pacific. Ideally you would spend at least a week here meandering around in a car and finding your own private spaces.
We only had time to cover the small southern section, but we still rented a car for the trip to Victoria to allow some leisurely stops along the way.
Even in this popular part of the island, it seems half the population still works the land, whether for a living or just to add more fresh produce and good wine to the mix.
At the Yellow Point Cranberry Farm we dropped in on a festival with live music, hayrides, and yummy samples of cranberry products and local honey from area beekeepers.
Next up was a stop at the BC Forest Discovery Center for a ride on a historic steam train. The train doesn’t really go anywhere, just looping around the 100-acre park, but it’s a fun step back in time, with some exhibits on the logging life and the old rail lines that kept the lumber industry humming.
There is still one active train line open to passengers on the island though: you can ride the E & N Railiner between Victoria and Courtenay, north of Nanaimo.
In the town of Duncan we wandered the walking tour of 26 totem poles scattered around the downtown area, including “the world’s largest diameter totem pole.”
I would have liked to spend a whole day popping into wineries and sampling all the great food produced between there and Victoria. But with an impatient 7-year-old in the back seat, we compromised with a stop in the town of Cowichan Bay.
The parents scored some artisan cheese and fresh-baked bread; the little one got some ice cream a few doors down, made of course with fresh milk from local cows.
On Victoria Harbour
As soon as we dropped our bags off in Victoria, we ditched the rental car. Here you get around without one very easily. Most of the attractions are located in one central area around the harbor and this is a city where over 10 percent of the population walks to work.
When it’s time to play tourist though, by ponying up $30 adults/$15 kids you can ride the Big Bus for two days. It hits all the attractions in and around the city and you can linger as long as you want at the stops and get back on later.
Or you can get around on the water with the Victoria Harbour Ferry Company.
We got into whirlwind tourist mode to take in all the attractions, then into slow food mode when it was time to eat. We watched buskers by the water, learned about wooly mammoths and First Nations cultures at the Royal British Columbia Museum, toured the impressive Craigdarroch Castle, caught an IMAX film, and toured the whole harbour by boat.
We also did something that manages to feel very special even though some 800 people a day do the same thing: take high tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.
Our child has played tea party at home as much as any girly-girl her age, so it was fun to watch her reaction to this amped-up version of the real thing. Save up your cash and make reservations well ahead if you want to do the same: it gets booked out well in advance.
Sustainable Food, Local Beer and Wine
Victoria is one of the most progressive cities around when it comes to using local organic ingredients and following green business practices in restaurants. This is especially on display at Red Fish Blue Fish, a takeout seafood joint with outdoor seating housed in an “upcycled” steel fishing container.
The “good seafood only” food is delicious, but what really stands out is how it’s handled. All the leftovers are recycled or reused and the utensils are made of wood.
We had a higher form of slow food at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, the oldest brewpub in Canada and one perched over the water. This popular restaurant takes sustainability as far as it can go, making beer and malt vinegar on site, serving only British Columbia wines, sourcing nearly all its ingredients from a 100-mile radius, and growing most of its herbs in its own garden.
None of this feels like a sacrifice while dining, since nearly everything that comes out of the kitchen is a delight, from local oysters and salmon down to the homemade truffles for dessert.
You can let them do their magic with a beer tasting menu or a wine tasting menu, with everything matched up just right. (Or let the sommelier go nuts and he’ll show you it’s possible to do both!)
If you wish you could just stagger back to your room after this, no problem. There’s a B&B attached with nicely furnished rooms, most of them equipped with a Jacuzzi tub.
On our last day, we headed out to find some Orcas on a trip with the Prince of Whales Tour Company. We rode by an island with lots of sea lions, but then after a few hours of fruitlessly scanning the horizon, the captain located some whales.
Two ended up swimming under the boat and coming up on the other side while we were sitting still.
The company also offers trips that take in Butchart Gardens, a 55-acre site of flowers and ornamental shrubs that has been tended since 1904.
Depending on how you set it up, you can tour the gardens and then get back on the boat to ride across the channel to Vancouver.
After our day of whale watching, we hopped back on another seaplane to Vancouver. We were heading home the next day and it was a bittersweet ending to a too-short circuit of the Vancouver city and island.
As we flew over small islands I tried to locate on a map, I could imagine us dropping down there and spending a week doing nothing, ignoring the calls of all the attractions nearby.
We ended the journey with a flourish though, the plane swooping down between the skyscrapers of downtown and North Vancouver, the buildings whizzing by us and the plane landed on the water and taxied to the dock.
For more information on this region, visit:
All prices quoted here are in Canadian dollars, which at the time of publication were trading about 30 percent below U.S. dollars.
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Tim Leffel is the author of five travel books, editor of the narrative webzine Perceptive Travel, and has been blogging on the Cheapest Destinations Blog since 2003. He lives in Tampa Florida with his wife and daughter.