By Everett Potter
When I arrived at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in Vancouver a couple of weeks ago, I heard that distinctive low thrum – the sound of a seaplane taking off — and it made me smile. So did the scent of the sea and cry of seagulls wheeling over the glass towers that overlook Coal Harbour.
It reminded me of why I love to visit Vancouver. What’s not to like? How can you not love a city where the cab of choice is a Prius, where some of the best skiing in the world is 90 minutes away, and where you can sea kayak from downtown?
It’s a city with an extraordinary setting amidst water and mountains. The first time I laid eyes upon Vancouver, I fell madly in love with a place that seems surrounded by the sea. Look at a map and you’ll quickly grasp what I mean: it’s enmeshed in bays, inlets, straits and rivers, wrapping around the thickly wooded shores of Stanley Park, a modern city encased in staggering beauty. It has extraordinary feng shui. Only Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong — two other favorites of mine — can rival it. The fact that I don’t notice the rain here, though I do in Seattle, a couple of hours south, is clearly a sign of great feng shui.
I first visited Vancouver almost a quarter century ago, when it was still sleepy, a little provincial, but already embracing adventure travel, proud of its Asian culture, and discovered by many like myself as a remarkably cool gateway city on the way to Whistler. Now it’s the city’s dynamic multi-flavored Asian culture that drives it. It is a major player among Pacific Rim cities, belonging as much to the world as it does to Canada.
Here are five things I love about it:
1. Granville Island
Walk or cab or take one of the diminutive False Creek Aquabus Ferries, stubby little boats seemingly lifted from the pages of a children’s book, to reach Granville Island. This 37 acre parcel of old industrial warehouses on False Creek was slowly and carefully transformed in the 1970’s into a thriving home for artists, small business and the now legendary Granville Island Public Market. The Market alone is worth the trip, but then there’s the waterfront restaurants, theatres, galleries, studios, shops, cafes and Ecomarine, a great kayak shop and outfitter that can take you out on the waters surrounding the city from the dock in front of their store
2. Stanley Park
I love the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, and Central Park, but the wooded paths and views of mountains and woods in Stanley Park make it a contender for one of the world’s greatest parks. I have walked, run and biked the 9 kilometers around the Seawall of Stanley Park over the years. I never get tired of seeing the totem poles, stopping at the Teahouse for lunch, and finding new paths under the Douglas firs and seeing wild otters if I’m lucky. All in a park that is walking distance from downtown.
I lined up in the rain at 5:15 at Vij’s, as I always do every time I am in town. There were already a gaggle of locals on this Tuesday night who were waiting to eat at a place that many think is the best Indian restaurant in North America. Not classical Indian but amazing Indian. The doors open promptly at 5:30 and in a casual place where reservations are not accepted, every seat is taken within five minutes. Then the magic and the ritual begin. The complimentary cups of chai, the discs of poori, the cassava fries, spicy and better than most French fries that I’ve eaten. All to stimulate your appetite. The staff is in continuous smile mode and they circulate breezily but effectively, in a place where everyone is your waiter. It’s the rare communal service that actually works. I settle on wine marinated lamb popicles in fenugreek cream curry on turmeric and spinach potatoes, a dish that tastes every bit as good as it sounds. With one side of basmati rice, another of nan, and a remarkably smooth Storm Brewing IPA. And yes, nirvana was reached. Visit Vij’s
4. McLeod Books
In a world where venerable used bookshops are disappearing at a fast rate, McLeod’s is a godsend. Located at the seedy edge of Gastown, it is a jumble of books piled high, crammed into shelves, placed in piles that threaten to teeter and sometimes actually collapse as someone tries to unearth a dog-eared Lawrence Durrell from a poorly built skyscraper of paperbacks. Where else can you find books on Antarctica next to a row devoted to the French and Indian and Wars? Or Mountaineering next to Humor? The remarkable thing is within each section, the books are duly alphabetized. The other remarkable thing is how busy this place is, filled with seekers of wisdom, truth or perhaps just a rare book by Roderick Haig-Brown, a beloved BC author. I found a well worn Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book from 1915 or thereabouts for my Downton Abbey-obsessed wife, the book no doubt a passenger on some trans Canada voyage long ago. Visit McLeod’s
5. Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel
Built for Vancouver’s 2010 Olympic Games, the Fairmont Pacific Rim has an amazing location overlooking the grass- roofed convention center and Coal Harbour. Inside, it raises the luxury bar for Fairmont with a hip vibe and remarkably clean high design, a bit like the best of a Four Seasons crossed with a W Hotel. There’s a vast multi-storied atrium lobby where the Lobby Bar is designed for scene makers to be seen, starting in competitive earnest around 4pm every afternoon. Oru, the signature restaurant, is undergoing a serious menu makeover under Executive Chef Darren Brown, a BC native who has done stints in Vegas, Whistler and on Merv Griffin’s private yacht on the way to the Fairmont’s kitchen. Upstairs, the Willow Stream Spa has a great outdoor Jacuzzi, perfect to watch the lights across the harbor, not to mention a outdoor rooftop pool that looked good even if the weather wasn’t inviting. Giovane’s, also in the lobby, is where you can grab an Italian inflected breakfast, from pastry to frittatas to remarkably good coffee, for a quick breakfast without the wait that traditional hotel dining rooms impose. But the best part is upstairs when you get to your room. These rooms are sleekly designed, with a wall of glass. The best have an eagle eye view of seaplanes landing and taking off against a backdrop of Stanley Park and the snow dappled mountains of the Coastal Range. If you can afford one of the Signature Ofuro Rooms, where the soaking tubs come with a drop dead view of the harbor and sea, you won’t be disappointed. If you can’t, your room, like mine, will likely transfix you anyway with one of the greatest views in North America. Doubles from $223 CAD per night. Visit Fairmont Pacific Rim