Vancouver is a city with an exciting past that makes an awesome place to visit today
It could be a native Haida myth that Vancouver burst from a pine cone, so quickly did it sprout from a rowdy logger's village into the city that Condé Nast Traveler has ranked as the third most liveable on the planet. This socially progressive, gay-friendly, green-minded port city of 600,000 - known as 'Hollywood North' in the US film industry - zipped through its urban evolution at warp speed, morphing its lumber and shipping-based economy into one celebrating tourism, food, filmmaking, fashion, and quirky, trendy what-nots.
Amazingly, only eight weeks after Vancouver was incorporated on April 6 1886, it burned to the ground, then quickly shot up again, fueled by lumber, the growth of the Canadian Pacific Railway, post WWII immigrants from Britain, Hong Kong investors and Asian immigrants. Now this good-mood city feels more linked in spirit and enterprise to the Pacific Rim than to the rest of Canada.
Vancouver isn't exactly Venice, but Vancouverites, spoiled by a temperate climate that Montrealers would die for, thrive as much on water as in their log-jammed downtown. They are always swimming, kayaking, yachting, hopping water taxis to North Vancouver and over to lush and balmy Vancouver Island.
Vancouver's virile vertical skyline is mirrored in its waters, and I'm struck by its resonance with the towering Douglas firs and the Pacific Northwest totem poles. Vancouver's Modernist glass totems to commerce may loom higher than the spectacular trees whose lumber birthed Canada's third largest city. But you feel the awe that inspired the Salish, Haida and other Pacific Coast native peoples to think up, erecting their gorgeous and frightening totem poles. In Vancouver's jaw-dropping natural splendour of ocean, mountains and forest, it's impossible not to.
Emily Carr felt it. This eccentric British Columbian painter and writer (1871-1945) bushwacked through the wilderness to document the decaying northwest coast totem villages. Her raw post-impressionist paintings of totem poles (hanging in the Vancouver Art Gallery) have been haunting me for days. Thanks to her documentary work between 1908 and 1912, I don't have to brave stinging nettles, vampire mosquitoes, grizzly bears and ocean gales in tippy dugout canoes to see some of British Columbia's most awesome totem poles. I have only to roll out of my grand bed in the historic Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, stroll down Robson Street to the Coal Harbour Seawalk and then over to the Seawall Promenade ringing Stanley Park.
Lush Stanley Park, so close, yet so remote in spirit from Vancouver's hip caffeine parlors and hemporiums, sushi bars, creperies, movie studios, boutique hotels, beaches and marinas. This thousand-acre seacoast rain forest was home to Salish peoples when the Eagle reigned the Kingdom of the Air and the Whale was Lord of the Sea.
On these shores, bounded by English Bay, the Strait of Georgia and Burrard Inlet, Captain George Vancouver was greeted by Whoi-Whoi village natives in 1792. Near that spot are the fierce boldly-painted totems like those that impassioned Emily Carr. And I can tell you that even on a luminous May day, with azure views of Vancouver's vitreous skyline, the black wooden gaze of Dzunukwa the Giantess can rip right through you. Her cedar-carved eyes seem to transmit a life force.
Imagine then, with slight horror, Carr's rain-drenched primal encounter with D'onoqua, wild woman of the woods. Alone at dusk in a remote and desolate village, Carr unearthed D'Sonoqua's grotesque stare and eagle-beaked breasts. 'I could scarcely wrench my eyes away from the clutch of those empty sockets,' Carr wrote. 'The power that I felt was not in the thing itself, but in some tremendous force behind it, that the carver had believed in.'
All this spiritual intensity makes my leisurely shopping, dining, wine-bibbing and latté sipping dawdle around Granville Island Public Market, Kool Kitsilano and the old bricked streets of Gastown feel like a dream. Leaving the field force of Red Cedar Bark Man and and Chief Skedan's Mortuary Pole, I continue my freshening walk north along the Seawall Promenade with a happy brigade of cyclists and roller-bladers, all the way to Siwash Rock. Lashed by the waters of the Gulf of Georgia, this curious basalt stack topped with a hairy tuft of Douglas fir, does perhaps look like the young Squamish brave frozen in stone it's said to be. It's a famous Vancouver landmark.
As Vancouver gears up for hosting the Winter Olympics in 2010, this would be a dramatic spot to erect a totem to the diverse tribes of Vancouverites: Coast Salish, Squamish, Musqueum, Sechelts, Old Empire Brits, post WWII emigrés from Australia to Zimbabwe, the Asian influx and sub-tribal foodies and filmbuffs, hikers, bird-watchers and bear-watchers, New Age yogis, playwrights, nudists, et al.
The First Nations aboriginal peoples, here for 10,000 years, will crowd the bottom and crown the top. And as for Vancouver's endless attractions? At the Vancouver Aquarium, where the dreamy white Belugas float past you like phantoms, the killer whales revered by the Salish aren't carved in cedar - they're alive. The fragrant shock of the Botanical Garden and the Nitobe Japanese Garden at the UBC campus just can't be carved. But the native artifacts at the Museum of Anthropology are indeed totemic. Ah, but I'll have to stop. A totem pole erected in the traveler's mind, like the city of Vancouver and its awesome Douglas firs, keeps on growing.
Where to stay
I love hotels with a sense of local history and atmosphere, and in Vancouver that means the grand old Fairmont and the Sylvia. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, built in 1939 to attract Canadian Pacific Railway tourists, is newly restored, with a state-of-the art spa and the city's best wine bar, all right across from the Vancouver Art Gallery and Robson Square. A heritage landmark built in 1912, The Sylvia Hotel on English Bay, beside Stanley Park, exudes an Old World charm and boasts the city's first cocktail bar. As for extraordinary boutique hotels, it's The Listel Hotel, deemed 'Vancouver's most artful hotel' for its curated art in the guest rooms and its Northwest Coast art by Northwest Coast artists.
Where to eat
Anything you crave, you can find in Vancouver. For omelettes with attitude and other breakfast adventures, try The Elbow Room, frequented by film stars and starlets. A short walk from the beach in Kitsilano, the Northern Mexican cuisine at Las Margaritas is inspired by Baja and Southern California, and the vegetarian salads and wok dishes at Naam (open 24/7) are awesome. Tomato Fresh Food Café is a Bayswater Street health food mecca in a colorful old barbershop setting. Capone's in Yaletown is the place for elegant Mediterranean and lively jazz, and for seafood with a view, try the Dockside in the Grandille Island Hotel and, in Stanley Park, The Fish House. For delectable, innovative Indian cuisine, Vij's is the last word. Check out restaurant and entertainment listings in Georgia Straight, Vancouver's free weekly alternative newsweekly.