Visions of Vancouver
This Canadian destination just over the border has much in common with the city by the bay.
A CITY OF WEST Coast wonders, Vancouver has long been Canada’s gateway to the Far East. Perched on the edge of the Pacific Rim, it’s a place full of charm and style, great feng shui and delicious fish. And in many important ways, Vancouver is the northern answer to San Francisco — quirky, funky and cool, with plenty of green space and good eats reminiscent of its southern sister. Here we take that comparison to its logical conclusion, matching your favorite San Francisco treats with their lesser-known counterparts to the north. It’ll make you want to grab your passport and make a run — north — for the border.
FOR GOLDEN GATE PARK–STYLE BEAUTY, try Stanley Park. A massive urban oasis — more than 1,000 acres of forest and beaches and seaside trails, all within close walking (or jogging, or biking) distance of downtown — Stanley Park is the city’s favorite place to de-stress and breathe some fresh air. About eight million people visit the park every year, and it’s easy to notice some similarities with Golden Gate Park, including the fact that Stanley is associated with Vancouver’s most iconic span, the soaring Lions Gate Bridge, an almost 6,000-foot suspension bridge opened in 1938 and named for a pair of peaks that loom high over it.
Free to the public, much of Stanley Park remains wild, home to almost half a million trees, with some Douglas fir and western red cedars towering as high as 250 feet. But it’s not all wilderness. Bordered on three sides (and almost four) by Vancouver Harbour (just a thin strip of land connects the park to the main part of the city), a five-and-a-half-mile seawall rings Stanley, and the whole length of the wall is accompanied by a paved trail, which is split — half for walkers, half for bikers. Another 17 miles of forest trails crisscross the park, and you can also visit Stanley’s beaches, totempole park, swimming pool, tennis courts, an 18-hole pitch-and-putt course and an oval that hosts a summer concert series. The Vancouver Aquarium, Canada’s largest and home to beluga whales, dolphins and seals and the setting for a former television show called Danger Bay, is always worth a visit.
IF YOU LOVE TO SAMPLE THE FOOD AT the Ferry Building, be sure to check out the Granville Island Public Market. A place apart, Granville Island is where Vancouver comes to shop for its favorite Pacific Coast foods. Granville has gritty roots too. Originally called Industrial Island, it was home to 19th century factories and warehouses. Now, like S.F.’s Ferry Building, those old buildings host some 150 retailers, all of them selling handmade, homemade and locally sourced goods — everything from fresh seafood to high-end crafts at little hole-in-the-wall art galleries that double as studios, where you can watch the artists at work. There’s also a seasonal farmers’ market, plus a large marina and a number of theater companies. You can drive across the bridge from central Vancouver but, if you’re looking for a fun ride, take one of the tiny ferries across False Creek, which run all day, every day, from some of the city’s coolest neighborhoods — Yaletown, the West End and Kitsilano Beach.
TO BE PAMPERED LIKE YOU WOULD BE AT Remede Spa at the St. Regis, try the Shang. For years, Hong Kong–based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts have been impressing guests by fulfilling Eastern promises. A few years back, the North American flagship opened in Vancouver, complete with top-drawer service and the brand’s famous “essence,” an exotic scent that floats through the hallways and rooms of every Shang property in the world. And the spas are the stuff of dreams. Here in Vancouver, the Shang offers a spa-within-a-spa — the treatment rooms here come complete with a private dressing room, hot tub and shower, so you’ll never have to set foot inside a locker room. Head there for a signature treatment like the West Coast Path Journey, which includes a soothing sea kelp soak, an alaria sea wrap and a seaweed oil massage.
TO EXPERIENCE OFF THE GRID–TYPE FOOD truck variety, take a walk downtown. Food trucks can now be found in most North American cities, but Vancouver’s scene just may be the most diverse. Wander around downtown for Pan-Asian treats at Roaming Dragon, some South Asian treats (like a naan kebab) at Soho Road (a food truck with a built-in tandoori oven) or an unforgettable taco at Tacofino, which serves up seasonal specials that include everything from wild mushrooms to spot prawns.
IF YOU LOVE PULLING UP A STOOL AT Magnolia or Cellarmaker, you’ll want to tour some of Van’s best craft breweries. Just across the Georgia Strait, the provincial capital Victoria was also Canada’s craft brewery birthplace, and that enthusiasm has recently crossed the water, with an explosion of microbreweries popping up all over Vancouver in just the past couple of years. And they all seem to have a good story. For example, Bomber, an unpretentious spot, was started by three guys who all play on the same hockey team; one of them brewed his own beer for post-game celebrations, and the operation that developed has a true beer-hall atmosphere and one of the world’s first beer sommeliers (known as a cicerone). Two new microbreweries are also making a splash — Postmark, which also features wine on tap, and Brassneck, where you can order up some Passive Aggressive, the spot’s signature brew, which is a little less robust than a traditional IPA (thus the name) and features locally grown hops.
IF YOU LOVE THE ECLECTIC WEST COAST cuisine of Rich Table or AQ, head to some of the city’s freshest restaurants. Vancouver is a foodie’s paradise, home to the Canadian authors of the best-selling 100-Mile Diet as well as restaurants fusing the finest culinary elements— recipes from the Far East, fresh seafood, excellent local wine and a dash of the unexpected.
Opened just last summer, Boulevard Kitchen and Oyster Bar has quickly become a favorite hangout for celebrities in town shooting one of the many movies and television shows filmed here (Vancouver often stands in for many other West Coast cities, including S.F.). Appropriately enough, the place boasts a celeb chef, Alex Chen, formerly of the Beverly Hills Hotel. But the biggest star on the bill is, of course, the food. Here you’ll find super-fresh salmon (caught wild with sustainable methods in the Queen Charlotte Islands), herbs from a family-run farm, locally sourced wasabi, organic greens and berries, plus oysters, clams and mussels from Sawmill Bay on Read Island, just west of Vancouver. The bivalves are served up by a world-champion shucker who, by his own estimation, has opened some six million oysters in his three decades on the job.
Also try swanky Hawksworth — often locally voted best restaurant in town — for wild salmon tartare, hamachi sashimi and black-olive-crusted halibut. At Miku you’ll find mouthwatering charcoal-flame-seared sushi and a fabulous in-house sake, plus waterside views of Canada Place, the iconic symbol of Expo ’86. And go to Chambar, which recently reopened in a new, beautiful space — complete with an enlarged wine room, a 36-foot walnut bar and a breezy south-facing patio — for carbon-neutral, organic, super-fresh fine dining and biodynamic and natural wines, many sourced from the nearby Okanogan Valley.