Vancouver: a British Columbia Jewel

Vancouver is Canada’s third largest city (metro population of 2,250,000), after Toronto and Montreal. Comparable in beauty and international sophistication to San Francisco, Vancouver has the additional benefit of high mountains just north of the city. The area has been populated for thousands of years by Native Americans. Like those who arrived later, the native people benefited from the mild climate, good fishing, and abundance of trees. Western red cedar trees were perfect for making boats. Hollow them out with stone tools, shape them so they were sea-worthy, carve paddles for the men, and away they went. The first non-native to visit the region was a Spanish boat captain—Jose Maria Narvaez—in 1791. Captain George Vancouver arrived in 1792, representing England. Although some of the coastline was mapped and prominent geographic places named, no real settling by Europeans happened until after Simon Fraser crossed the northern part of the continent in 1808. Coming down the Fraser River (named after him, of course), he met the Pacific Ocean at what was to become the city of Vancouver. Even after that, however, there were few settlements until the gold discoveries along tributaries to the Fraser River starting in the 1860s. At that time, the importance of Vancouver as a shipping port quickly became apparent. Crossing the continent by land was still a lengthy journey; sailing around the Horn of South America was much better—although it also was a long and dangerous undertaking. As the west coast of British Canada became settled, there was an obvious need for a transcontinental railroad linking British Columbia to the rest of Canada. But it was an expensive and lengthy undertaking, and the federal government was loath to begin. That is, they were until British Columbia basically said, “Build us a railroad or we’ll ask the United States to annex us.” Construction of the rail line began not long afterward. Vancouver was the logical western terminus for the tracks, so the Canadian Pacific Railroad was built in 1887—from the Canadian prairies across the Rockies near Banff, and following the Thompson and Fraser rivers to the sea. This led to much greater and faster growth. The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 and 98 had considerable impact also. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco were the ports from which tens of thousands of Argonauts set sail up the Inside Passage. Starting in the latter years of the 20th century, Vancouver has become a real melting pot of newcomers from all over the world. Some of the greatest impact has been from the Hong Kong Chinese. Fleeing the erstwhile “British Crown Colony” before China laid legal claim to Hong Kong in 1997 (Britain’s lease was up), these Chinese businessmen grabbed their British passports, families and considerable bank accounts and crossed the ocean. Thousands poured into Vancouver. Their impact has been profound both culturally and economically. Vancouver is Canada’s only large port city edging the Pacific Ocean. Among its important commerce is the shipping of grain and raw materials to the world, and receiving goods from Asia and the Pacific nations to be transshipped by rail and highway throughout Canada. Vancouver has a mild climate and wonderful livability (it’s among the top three cities in the world). It’s also a great place to visit. Just before my last trip to British Columbia I was in a Seattle travel agency. A large and beautiful poster hung on the wall. The caption: “WASHINGTON STATE IS CLOSE TO PERFECTION.” Below it in slightly smaller print it said: “So visit Beautiful B.C. soon.” Within a few hours I had crossed the border and arrived in Vancouver. Downtown throbs with activity. After you set up for a three or four-day stay, find a parking place in the middle of town and take a close look at the Vancouver Hotel. It’s one of the grand old-style hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad when it connected western Canada with the east. Walk along Robson Street to window shop. Seek out art galleries and museums. Visit Chinatown; it’s the largest in Canada—smaller than San Francisco’s, however. Eat dim sum. Find an acupuncturist (you’re on your own about going inside). Walk around Gastown—where Vancouver got its beginning. Curiously, Gastown was named after a tavern owner, “Gassy” Jack Deighton (go on, look it up). Gassy was Vancouver’s first resident. Oh, by the way, back then the term “gassy” meant “talks a lot.” Visit the Public Market on Granville Island for fresh food to eat on the spot or take home. While on the island, check out a few galleries. There are also performing arts on Granville, and this is where many of the city’s artists conduct workshops. Walk along English Bay and Kitsilano Beach. This isn’t Waikiki or even Southern California weather, but the beaches are nice for strolling barefoot on the sand. Drive to Queen Elizabeth Park and spend a couple of hours marveling at the magnificent flowers in the Quarry Gardens, or take in its Bloedel Floral Conservatory. Visit the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia. Stanley Park came into being in 1888, and has provided a wilderness sanctuary within the city ever since. At 1,000 acres, it’s larger than New York City’s Central Park. The concept was different, though. Central Park was man-made from the beginning, whereas Stanley Park relied upon its existing natural beauty. Both parks succeed, but in different ways. Stanley Park is a peninsula with many of the characteristics of an island. It’s mostly a small wilderness area that has hiking trails and some man-made things scattered about to give it variety. Of main interest to visitors is the road that follows the shoreline, affording lovely views of the harbor, with the city skyline in view to the south and the mountains to the north. Because Burrard Inlet and its port facilities are of great commercial importance, ocean-going ships regularly pass by on their way to the sheltered water of the sound and thence out to the open sea. A running/walking/bicycling/skate-boarding path skirts the water’s edge of Stanley Park. Bicycles and skateboards go one direction, walkers the other (separated by a painted line down the middle of the path). I guess if you’re going to be run over by a cyclist as you are walking, the city planners thought you might as well get a good look at him or her before impact. Stanley Park has a wonderful Aquarium, with the all-white beluga whale, sea otters, harbor seals, Steller’s sea lions and other Pacific Northwest marine animals. There is Lost Lagoon, plus ponds with quack-quackers galore, and Prospect Point, and Siwash Rock. The name Siwash is taken from the Indian people who lived here for thousands of years before the coming of the Europeans. They didn’t use totem poles as monuments to family history, but what the heck; the Haida (northern coastal Indians) did, so totems have been stuck in the park grounds for your enjoyment. It’s called (get this) Totem Pole Park. Stanley Park also has Lion’s Gate Bridge. If you’re one of the million passengers a year who take cruise ships from Vancouver up the Inside Passage to Alaska, Lion’s Gate is the magnificent bridge under which you sailed on your departure. It connects vehicular traffic with the city of North Vancouver. Find Capilano Swinging Bridge on the north side of Lion’s Gate. Walk out to the middle. You’re surrounded by a temperate rainforest, looking down 230 feet to the creek below. Built back in 1889, the swinging bridge is 450 feet long. If the sky is clear, take the cable car to the top of Grouse Mountain for splendid views of Vancouver and all the bays and inlets. That big snow-capped volcanic mountain to the south is Washington State’s Mt. Baker. The highway west and north from Lion’s Gate follows the glacially-shaped coastline along channels and fjords to the Sunshine Coast, including Whistler and Blackcomb skiing areas. Drive as far as you want, the sightseeing is dazzling. If you’re going by ferry to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, you’ll find the boats in Horseshoe Bay, which is also to the north of Lion’s Gate. The other main ferry to Vancouver Island leaves from Tsawassen (south of Vancouver) and sails to Sidney Harbor on the island. Regarding the highway border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. Since the attack on America of 9/11, everything relating to security is tightened up, especially getting back into the United States. A passport is the best document to have. But check on that before you leave for a visit to our northern neighbors (by now, passports may be required). Check on other matters as well. Guns, for example. Get it crystal clear in your head—no hand guns. Period! Rifles and shotguns? Find out before you leave home. RVers: Campgrounds and RV parks in the Vancouver area are scattered, and it’s recommended that you utilize your Woodall’s Campground Directory to make advanced reservations. The metro area is spread out, so disconnecting and exploring in your get-about vehicle is absolutely the thing to do. You’ll be doing a fair amount of daily driving going from one place to another, but those destinations you select are delicious enough that you won’t regret a mile of it. Or as our Canadian friends would say, “You won’t regret a kilometer of it.”