Our Christmas adventure to Vancouver was more than conspicuous consumption of calories (something quite easy to do in this epicurean paradise).
There are infinite ways to enjoy this west coast holiday wonderland — here are just a few more ways to play.
Vancouver is an immensely walkable city — in fact, I recommend you ditch the car unless you are absolutely clear of rush hour (but don’t forget your umbrella!).
We set out early our first morning after breakfast at The Sylvia Hotel to explore, walking south along English Bay Beach on the Vancouver Seawall.
A 14 mile-long paved walking and cycling path that wraps around Stanley Park and runs south to Kitsilano Beach, the Seawall is the longest of its kind in the world, and gave us a great opportunity to view water, wildlife, and some of the city’s cool public art.
We ventured south to the Granville Street Bridge, then dog-legged our way up towards the city core. We slipped into the elegant Fairmont Vancouver Hotel, and admired the other beautiful and historic buildings nearby, including the Beaux-Arts Sun Tower, and the Cathedral Place office tower.
Cathedral Place, across from the Fairmont, was erected in 1991 to replace the unfortunately demolished 1929 Art Deco Georgia Medical Building. The new office building pays homage to its predecessor with its replicas of the Georgia Building’s original “Sisters of Mercy” figures and other symbolic ornamentation.
As we veered down Pender street towards Chinatown, we were lured by a Sasquatch painting into what might be one of the most unique hotels in the city, the Skwachays Lodge.
A “boutique Aboriginal hotel and gallery,” the Lodge’s “lobby” houses an exhibition of Fair Trade Urban Aboriginal art.
The hotel features themed suites designed by Aboriginal artists, and even has a rooftop sweat lodge. Smack in the middle of three groovy neighborhoods (Chinatown, Gastown, and Railtown), the Skwachays Lodge tops my “where to stay” list on my next trip north.
Vancouver’s Chinatown has been named North America’s “cleanest modern-day Chinatown” — which is not something I normally have on my travel checklist, unless we’re talking hotels or restaurants (maybe I should?). But it is a compact and fascinating neighborhood, with authentic restaurants, shops, and nearly a dozen heritage-designated historical buildings.
As we made our way down Gore Avenue towards Gastown, we discovered the oddly fascinating Vancouver Police Museum.
Housed in the 1932-built former Coroner’s building and crime lab, the museum houses exhibits of weapons (including one of the largest collections of Thompson sub-machine guns), uniforms, galleries of notorious crimes, and the original autopsy lab (in which, notably, Errol Flynn’s autopsy was performed).
While we didn’t have time to fully tour the museum, we had a lively discussion with the young, knowledgeable docent about the influence of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire on Vancouver’s sex trade. (!!)
Our mission in Gastown was to find food and shelter from a downpour, but that didn’t keep us from strolling down its brick streets to explore the Victorian buildings and modern shops and restaurants in the original heart of Vancouver.
We lucked out and happened to be passing the Gastown Steam Clock as it whistled the hour (of 2:00 — way past our lunch time). Built in 1977 in the Victorian style as a monument to Vancouver’s historical core, the steam clock’s whistles (though not its workings) are powered by the steam pipes which run below the city and which provide heat to most of the district’s buildings.
Naturally, the prettiest walks in Vancouver are in the 1000 acre Stanley Park, which abuts the West End neighborhood where we were staying.
Despite the mist (which was actually rather lovely), we spent our last morning strolling up Beach Avenue, past the puddled tennis courts and the (now, sadly closed) Fish House restaurant, built in 1930 as a clubhouse for the park’s golf and tennis clubs.
We danced in the playground’s puddles, chased some geese, then looped past Lost Lagoon before venturing to breakfast before our drive home.
In my case, shopping means shopping for food, so rather than hit the Vancouver Christmas Market, we opted to take the two-minute, $9 Aquabus ferry from Hornby Street to Granville Island.
There’s much to explore on the island, including galleries, theaters, the artisan-oriented Net Loft and Railspur District — as well as the aforementioned Liberty Distillery and Artisan Sake Maker (see last week’s post!). But my pleasure zone was the Granville Island Public Market.
Given the time of year, the market was jam-packed, but because it’s a manageable size, we were able to touch base at just about every vendor, from fishmonger to farmstand…
…to butcher, baker and pasta maker.
You can snack on soups or sausages, stock up teas, coffees and Asian spices, or splurge on fudge, chocolates and honey,
My sweetheart surprised me with a Rustic Blueberry Tart from Terra Breads — seriously the best pastry I have ever had. (I would share a picture but I ate it too fast.)
Granville Island is worth a full day of exploration, but be careful — you might find yourself unsatisfied with living anywhere but Vancouver. I’m exploring Temporary Resident Visa options as we speak.
Another discovery we made right around the corner from our hotel was Ayoub’s Dried Fruits & Nuts, which made me feel as though I was stepping into a Turkish confectionary.
With a staggering array of roasted nuts, dried fruits, sweets, pastries and mixes, Founder Chef Ayoub learned his craft of expertly roasting and seasoning the best ingredients in his native Tehran, bringing trademarked quality but building new traditions.
I resisted the Baklavas and Turkish Delight, but went home with a pound of the perfectly-roasted Lime & Saffron Cashews, a box of savory Chickpea Cookies, and a sweets tray that included cashew brittle, honey-sesame wafers, and almond nougats.
If you can’t make it to Vancouver, please take my word for it and order online — these were the best roasted nuts and sweets I’ve had outside of Istanbul.
Vancouver is a magical city to visit at any time, but it definitely does Christmas right. We ventured out both evenings (once braving the traumatizing rush-hour traffic) to marvel at those other northern lights — the ones you see but once a year.
Three million colorful lights, twinkly animated displays, music, Santa Claus, and a teeny train ride to the North Pole made for one of the most magical Christmas memories since childhood.
Entry donations benefit the Firefighter’s Burn Fund — so you are giving AND receiving. (But mostly receiving.)
The next night, we had a very different lights experience — the Canyon Lights at the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park.
What starts out as a thrilling eco-adventure park (by day) is transformed into a truly magical (yet still thrilling!) night-time faerie land.
Featuring the world’s tallest living Christmas Tree (at 153 feet), and a winter wonderland of misty forests and streams, twinkle-lit with white, blue and purple lights, the park beckons you to explore its depths. But first, you must conquer its HEIGHTS.
The park’s namesake bridge is a (wobbly!) 450 foot stroll suspended 230 feet above the Capilano river. There is a good chance I would have been paralyzed with fear had we crossed it during the day.
The darkness helped to obscure the reality of the sheer drop, and sparkling lights and transcendent music hypnotized away the fear of falling into the rushing river beneath (even as moody blue and purple spotlights highlighted the sheer cliff walls, trees and waterfalls below).
Sheeting rain and icy temps made things just a little shakier — holding onto an umbrella, two cold steel cables and, yes, an iPhone, were a challenge. But oh, once you get to the other side, you experience the wonder that is the Treetops Adventure.
Seven wooden walkways are suspended 100 feet in the air, between treehouses (made from reclaimed wood) that encircle the high canopies of 250 year-old Douglas Firs.
It’s the closest you can get to being in Rivendell without binge-reading “Lord of the Rings” while smoking, uh, pipe-weed.
There were glittering pathways, a magical lake, hidden hosts of glowing “snowy owls,” and a “Cliffwalk” that would have been terrifying, had I not already crossed the chasm — twice.
The 126 year-old park, once a one-stop novelty, has been shaped into a world-class eco-destination, and now shows off the sheer wonder of BC’s West Coast Rainforest.
While Capilano Bridge Park doesn’t need Christmas lights to show off its natural beauty, nothing suffers in being adorned by starlight. It’s an extraordinary place on the planet, day or night, any time of year.
The same can be said for its home city of Vancouver. If you can’t visit during the shiny, sheeny winter, when Christmas lights reflect in puddles and your breath mists over a cup of hot cocoa, take the time to visit during any of its seasons.
You’ll find infinite ways to play, and you’ll find something to fall in love with every day.