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Seventy-Two Hours in Vancouver
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More columns
written by Josh:
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Josh Lee
The Second Installment of Josh's Seventy-Two Hours Series

There really arenít words to describe Vancouver. Itís only forty-five minutes by plane from Seattle (or about two hours by car or bus) and yet it really is a different world. The city itself is world-class. Itís a sprawling metropolis thatís so similar and yet so different from what we know here in the United States.

Here in the United States we have this idea that getting out into nature means turning our television and turning on the nature channel. Itís a gross stereotype, but a lot of cities in the US donít provide the opportunity. Drive fifteen to twenty minutes in any direction and youíll still be in a concrete jungle.

In Vancouver, on the other hand, drive twenty minutes and youíll end up on the water, at the foot of Grouse Mountain, or at Stanley Park. The city is in an absolutely ideal location for the outdoorsman. Stanley Park is the model for what parks should be. Weíll visit it in detail later but doesnít the idea that the park is nearly the same size of the city seem so cool? Hereís another interesting fact about the area: it can actually be ninety degrees in the city and be snowing at the top of the peaks of Grouse Mountain. Vancouver proved its worth in 2010 when it played host to the Winter Olympics. Now, can it prove its worth to me?

The Arrival

You can take a car or bus ride from Seattle to Vancouver easily but the views from the plane really shouldnít be missed. Small Bombardiers and Dehavilland propjets carry out most of the flights that operate between Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver International. Although they fly much more slowly than a 777, it gives you time to look out the window. Youíre also at a much lower cruising altitude than you would be in a 777. If youíve got your camera in your carry on, break it out and snap a few shots. I did.

I always tell people to pull the airline magazine out of the seat pocket and just flip through. I canít tell you how many times thereís been an interesting article or a picture that I wanted to take with me. And yes, you can take it with you Ė you paid for the seat, it comes with a magazine. Some airline magazines also provide some of the best tourist information for things like shuttle services, hotel directories, restaurant recommendations, and the like.

The minute you step into the international arrivals hall, you know youíve arrived in Canada. Replica totem poles and twenty-foot tall statues with their arms outstretched welcome you. Vancouver, of course, has quite a few aboriginal tribes that reside in and around the city (did you watch the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics?) and their culture and its art are prevalent wherever you go.

If youíre like me and live in the United States, youíre probably used to jumping onto the interstate to get to where you need to go. San Francisco has the 280, Los Angeles has the 405, and Manhattan has the 495. Vancouver, on the other hand, has Granville Street. When I boarded the shuttle at the airport, I figured it would be a straight shot on the highway from the airport into downtown and to my hotel. Turns out, the Vancouver metropolitan area doesnít really have freeways or major thoroughfares. Instead youíre stuck fighting that yellow light at intersections.

Vancouver International (YVR) is located on Sea Island, a small land mass separated from the city by waterways all around. That means to leave the airport you have to cross over a bridge and cross over water. If youíre heading for downtown Vancouver on Granville, youíll likely have to cross over water again once youíve left the residential and industrial areas just outside of the airport.

As you cross over the final bridge and into downtown, as soon as you break through the trees thereís this amazing panoramic view of downtown Vancouver. The glass skyscrapers of Vancouver are reflected in the water below and for those few seconds youíre on the bridge, itís a view you wonít soon forget. Itís also a preview of the beautiful city youíre about to arrive in.

A Few Tips and Tricks

Book your hotel downtown. I stayed at the Sheraton Wall Center and let's just say that walking outside after dark may not be the most pleasant experience. The Fairmont is out of my price range, but an interesting fact: it's where Her Majesty the Queen stays. It received a four-diamond rating from AAA and their Canadian affiliate CAA. Not to worry, though. There are many other choices farther down the main stretch of Burrard Street. Burrard Street

Also, if it was up to me, I'd make it mandatory for all hotels to offer a currency exchange service. Here's the thing -- if I was in London of Paris it would be different -- but in Canada it was very easy for me to forget that I'd left the United States. So for a while I was without cash and for someone too young to have a credit card, that was a bit of a problem. And to make matters worse since my hotel wasn't right downtown I wasn't close to a bank. There was a place on the corner that advertised currency exchange but  the flashing neon signs and ads for beer and cigarettes were a slight turn off.

If you're interested in driving yourself around, remember that you'll be making the switch over to the metric system here. Gas is measured in liters, speed in kilometers. You may also pull up to an intersection and find that the light is blinking green. No, it's not broken.  It's what the Canadians call a pedestrian controlled intersection. At such an intersection the light will stay blinking green if there's no traffic or pedestrians waiting to cross. The minute a car comes to rest on a pressure sensor or a pedestrian hits the button, the light will go yellow and they'll get their turn. It's a common traffic flow device executed in a rather uncommon way. The United States has similar systems in place; the only difference is that our green lights don't blink.

One of the more interesting facts that my tour guide shared about the city is that itís a relatively young city. In the United States itís not unusual for a building on the National Register of Historic Places to date two or three hundred years back. Here in Vancouver, itís pretty rare to find a building that dates one hundred years back. Yep, Vancouver is a mere child in the family of cities around the world.

Downtown

Downtown Vancouver really is a destination in itself. If youíre staying in the city, chances are your hotel will be either on Burrard Street or no more than a block away. Burrard Street is the main artery of downtown Vancouver. If you have good walking shoes and feel like some exercise, you can walk all the way down Burrard until you hit Vancouver Harbor which, by the way, is an excellent spot to grab lunch and eat it right on the water. If youíre in town for a trade show, chances are youíll be visiting the Vancouver Convention Center, which is right there as well.


Downtown Vancouver is also very culturally diverse. You can walk through Chinatown (though watch your valuables, stick your wallet in a front pocket or hang it around your neck) and check out the many medicinal stores with signs in the window that claim to have an herb to cure cancer (with that Iíll light the flame under the debate on western medicine versus the ancient unproven yet sometimes successful cultural medicines), grab lunch at any of the local eateries. I love chow-fun. Itís a fried Chinese noodle dish usually fried up, lightly seasoned, with vegetables and usually some kind of beef.

Or if youíre in the mood for a nice cocktail or a fine wine, make your way on into Vancouverís historic Gastown. Gastown is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern-day Vancouver. The first city survey back in 1892 was, in fact, not of ďVancouverĒ as we know it today, but of Gastown. The center of that survey was the corner post of Carrall and Cordova Streets, at The Boulder (more commonly known as the Boulder Hotel).

You might be wondering how Gastown got its name, being that it serves up more alcohol than petroleum. Well, one of Vancouverís founding fathers was Mr. Jack Deighton (1830-1875) Ė more commonly known during his time as ďGassy JackĒ. And no, thatís not due to flatulence. Rather, it was his talkative nature and knack for storytelling. His statue still stands in Gastown today. Visit it, if you have a chance.

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

Itís the hotel to stay at if youíre a traveler with a thick wallet in Vancouver. Its buildings stand out against the skyline of modern tinted steel and glass. Many hotels will like to hint around that theyíre fit for royalty. This one, however, truly is. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is the hotel of choice for the Queen of England when she visits the city. Thatís not really a surprise Ė can you really see the Queen slumming it with us normal people at the Sheraton? I canít.

Stanley Park

I mentioned earlier that Vancouver is the place for the outdoorsman. The city, although a sprawling, modern metropolis, is within reach of the whole spectrum of nature. Snowcapped peaks ideal for skiing and snowboarding are just north of the city (not to mention the resort of neighboring Whistler) while sailors can enjoy Vancouver Harbor and bikers and runners can enjoy Stanley Park.

Its proximity to the city makes it easily accessible not only to the tourists staying in downtown Vancouver, but to the Vancouverite locals as well. The park is just over one-thousand acres, surrounded by the ďsea-wallĒ which is a five and a half mile path run by runners, biked by bikers, and walked by walkers.

As the bus lets us off on the southern end of the park, the views are just phenomenal. Iím standing on the seawall looking out over the water at the city skyline. We were on the bus not more than fifteen minutes and yet weíve left the city and entered the park.

Back home in Honolulu exercise and getting outdoors can really be a chore. Our humidity and temperatures are often in the high eighties, which is really not the most comfortable weather to be running around in.

As I stand out on the sea wall overlooking the water, thereís a nice breeze complimenting the already comfortable mid-sixties temperature and low humidity. Iím telling you, if I lived here Iíd have a bike and Iíd be out here whenever time permitted. Iíd probably also be a lot skinner. You know, Iíve noticed, walking around Vancouver, that the only overweight people seem to be the tourists. The locals here really know how to keep in shape.

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Iíve left Stanley Park and crossed over the Lions Gate Bridge, which has taken me across Vancouver Harbor and up north into the appropriately named North Vancouver area towards our next destination, the Capilano Suspension Bridge.

Hereís a tip: donít do this one if youíve got acrophobia.

The Capilano Suspension Bridge, summed in one word, is fun. The bridge itself is 436 feet in length and 230 feet above the Capilano River. Itís what architects will call a ďsimple suspension bridgeĒ and is of a wire and cable form.

The first time you step out onto the bridge you feel as if your legs have suddenly turned to rubber. The bridge, being that it is a suspension bridge supported only by cables, moves. Unlike the suspension bridges around the world used to transport vehicles across water, pillars do not support this one. That means that as people walk on it, it shakes and sways.

You know those scenes in the movies where you have the main character rushing across a bridge of falling planks supported by two strings on either side? Itís kind of like that, though a lot safer. Imagine walking across a rubber band stretched out in the air.

It takes a bit of acclimation, but before you know it, youíll be laughing, smiling and probably leaning over the edge to take a few pictures of the water and the miles of forest that stretch out on either side. Oh, another tip: 230 feet is a long way for a camera to fall. If thatís not enough, thereís a river down below. Secure any lose items you may be carrying. If your camera has a strap, use it.

Thereís not much more to do than have fun on the bridge and observe nature here, but if thatís your thing, youíll like it. I did.

BC Ferries, Butchart Gardens, and Victoria

I actually debated separating this into a completely different entry in my travelogue series. There is so much to do and so much to see in Victoria that it could very well be a completely separate destination.

Itís a trip youíll want to reserve a whole day for, as the easiest way for the unfamiliar tourist to get on up to Victoria is a bus tour. There are various bus tours that shuttle tourists up to Victoria in the morning and back in the afternoon.

I took a day tour, which left my hotel at around seven in the morning (early, I know but it takes you a good while to get on out to Victoria). The bus will take you from your hotel downtown to the ferry docks. Without skipping a beat, you and the bus will roll onto the ferry, and from there youíll be able to climb on up to the passenger decks. Deck five offers hot food and soft drinks while deck six and seven offer indoor and outdoor seating areas which will provide you with views of the surrounding islands as you make your way across the water.

While in line for a cup of hot chocolate, another passenger was asking the cashier about which side would give him the best views. The answer to that question is that one side isnít better than the other. And unlike a car or an airplane, you can freely move about on deck throughout the whole trip (which is about an hour).

Butchart Gardens

On the way to Victoria, my tour stopped at the Butchart Gardens which is a must see for any nature enthusiast or nature photographer. Located on Vancouver Island in the Brentwood Bay area, it's one of those places where you could probably get lost and wander for days through the serene beauty but the more time I spent there the less I would have in Victoria so I kept it down to two hours. I am only here for three days, ya know.

When you step into Butchart Gardens itís like stepping into a young girlís fairy tale book. Flowers, flowers everywhere. The grass is perfectly mowed in the checkerboard pattern and you almost expect to see a princess come waltzing around in her gown.

Too much?

Okay, itís like when Dorothy and Toto arrive in Oz and all of a sudden the world is doused in Technicolor. Paths carve through perfectly manicured lawns. There are probably enough flowers at Butchart gardens for everyone on earth to have a funeral.

Victoria


Itís the highlight of my trip to Vancouver Ė the beautiful city of Victoria. And weíre finally here. As the bus made the final turn into Victoriaís city center, pulling to a stop on the harbor, I donít think was a pair of eyes that werenít glued to the windows. As we step off the bus, the beauty of the harbor-scape is almost too much for the mind to comprehend. You just stand there for a few seconds in awe of the beauty of it.

Iíve said it before and Iíll say it again Ė there really arenít words to describe the beautiful waterfront Victoria. So let's just say this -- if you want to skip across the pond back to the mother country but like quite a few of us, can't afford to do so, trek on up to Victoria instead. It's well worth your time it and a city you won't want to miss.

Save yourself the time and hassle (not to mention money); don't rent a car.Victoria is not the place for a car. Personally I think you miss a whole lot when you see a city through a glass window. I got here by a ferry and a bus and have been utilizing my built in movers since I got here earlier this afternoon.

Victoria is a stark contrast to Vancouver. As I said earlier, the Vancouver skyline is dominated by modern architecture. Buildings are modern in their design with steel and glass stretching from the ground up to the sky. Victoria, in contrast, is very elegant and pays homage to the architecture and detail of the old world. The architecture is (no pun intended) Victorian throughout the city. Classic globe lights that look like they belong in a train station in Paris or London line the streets while red brick and neutral beiges cover the buildings.


Itís really a shame that I only have an afternoon here. It might not have as much to do in terms of attractions, but when you step out onto the streets of Victoria, you really just want to wander around and take in every arched doorway and ever steeple. Youíll want to sit out with a cup of coffee on the harbor and watch the boats and seaplanes come in and out. I spent a good half hour just sitting and watching the people of Victoria go about their business. Let me tell you, sitting there on the harbor overlooking the water with the Empress Hotel to my left and the buildings of the British Columbian parliament to my right, I felt for the first time in a long time, as if there was a way to turn back the clock and live in a simpler time, in a simpler place. Itís peaceful. At the risk of overcrowdingVictoria, it would be my wish that everyone in the world get to stand here with me and let all the cares of the world slip away as we just take in the beauty of this city.

Front and center on the harbor is the Empress Hotel (the fancy schmancy Fairmont logo should give you a hint at what kind of prices youíll be paying to stay there). Many tourists to Victoria attend afternoon tea at the Empress. Others stand out on the great lawn and absorb the world around them. Iím doing the latter with my camera in my hand. If youíre here with family, Iíd highly suggest snapping a few pictures for that Christmas card. If you shoot it from the right angle without any of those Canadian flags in the background, you might be able to pass it off as London or Paris! Wouldnít that impress your friends and relatives?

Return to Vancouver

I'm standing on Deck 6 of the ferry on my way back to Vancouver. The sun is setting off in the distance. The deck is lined with people, their cameras all outstretched. I've shot a few pictures but I'm no stranger to sunsets. I'm from Hawaii. Even so, this one is different. In Hawaii when the sun sets the whole sky turns amber. The water turns to a deep gold. But this one is different. The sky is almost a light, powdered indigo. The clouds are like fluffy jets of cotton candy. It's different -- and it's nice.

The cold air on my face is so invigorating and yet my fingers are numb. I'm praying that I don't drop my iPhone overboard as I type this. Below me the sudsy wake of the boat playfully rides the waves alongside us. Step back. It's kind of saddening. Very saddening, actually. I've still got San Francisco ahead of me but still yet, this being my last night in Vancouver means that I only have a few days left on the mainland. This is without a doubt the highlight of my summer. It's like the last hours you have with a special friend before they have to move away forever.

The sun has dropped a few inches since I started typing.

I'll be honest. When I got to Vancouver I was mildly disappointed. Seattle really sets the standard for the ideal city just because everything is so perfect. So when I arrived at my hotel in Vancouver in the middle of a neighborhood where the views from my window were of the lower section of town with a graffiti wall just below, you could say I was less than thrilled. But two days and a few hours later I have to say that I am going to miss Vancouver. There really isnít a state, city, or province anywhere else in the world that can compare to British Columbia. Thereís no other destination in the world that offers everything that ďBCĒ does. Although I suppose thatís why millions of people flock to its cities, its mountains, its parks, and its water every year.

Tomorrow will be all about packing up and heading to the airport, so with that, Iíll be concluding this entry. I hope you enjoyed our seventy-two hours together in Vancouver and if youíve been here, you know what I mean. If you havenít, I highly suggest you look into it. And if youíve got a trip planned Ė do you want to pack me in your suitcase?

Last week we visited the city of Seattle. This week, it was Vancouver. I hope youíll join me next week as we spend seventy-two hours in the great city of San Francisco!

Join me as I take you on a trip to beautiful British Columbia, Canada. With only Seventy-Two hours on the clock, weíll have to make a mad dash, but fear not, weíll hit all of the major sites that youíll want to see.

 

Seventy Two Hours in Seattle
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