The snow fell steadily, quickly covering the streets and sidewalks in a blanket of white. Snow storms are uncommon in Vancouver, the locals told us, but the weather had been unusually harsh for the past few months-high winds, heavy rains, and the white stuff-thanks to global warming. Or so Vancouverites deduced.
However, as my boyfriend, Garvin, and I walked over the bridge from Granville Island to downtown Vancouver, we were delighted by the cold climate. One day prior, we had been sunning ourselves in Santa Barbara where the early January temperature was 70 degrees. Winter weather was why we had come to Canada. Well, that and for some much-needed urban adventure, which is non-existent in our seaside hamlet.
As recently as the early 1990s, the same might have been said for Vancouver. Although the city boasted a population of slightly more than 470,000, it was somewhat provincial and dominated by Northern European ethnic groups including British, German, Ukrainian, and Scandinavian. That all changed, however, by the time Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, as many of its Asian British subjects fled to Canada, landing primarily in Vancouver. The city now boasts one of the largest Asian populations in North America, behind only San Francisco and New York.
The influx of foreigners along with a continually growing movie industry-which began migrating from Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s due to lower costs and the variety of terrain-has transformed a once quiet city into an exciting, bustling metropolis known for its fabulous cuisine, great selection of locally produced wines, shopping districts, and unsurpassed blending of city happenings and outdoor activities.
Welcome to Vancouver
Our plane bounced around in the rough air as we made our descent into Vancouver. The flight thus far had been smooth and uneventful as we flew through blue skies over the snow-capped mountains of Oregon and Washington. No longer, the pilot informed us-a big storm encircled Vancouver with winds upward of 40 mph. I reviewed the emergency landing instructions and tried to find my happy place as the plane teetered onto the tarmac. Once safely on the ground, we collected our luggage and caught a cab to our hotel. On the drive into the city, we saw rows of fallen trees ripped up by the roots. The cabby told us the storm was fierce enough to close bridges and bring uncommonly high snowfall.
When we arrived at our hotel, the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa (wedgewoodhotel.com) on Hornby Street, we were instantly impressed with its spot-on service; the porters whisked our bags into the lobby before we exited the cab. Since its opening in 1984, the Wedgewood has become an award-winning boutique hotel, thanks to owner Eleni Skalbania’s dedication to top-notch service, luxury, and comfort, and to the amazing staff. The 14-story hotel has 83 rooms-including two penthouses-a day spa, gym, conference rooms, cozy lounge, and Bacchus, one of Vancouver’s best restaurants. We were planning our return before we even checked in.
Our room was delightful, offering everything a guest could want, and then some, like the soaker tub with jets. Despite being on a busy street, our room was exceptionally quiet (thanks to double-paned windows and concrete walls, I found out).
After settling in, we headed downstairs to Bacchus for a drink. The place was warm and comfortable, and hopping for a Tuesday night. A piano player entertained as we sat on a luscious red settee in front of a roaring fire sipping our drinks, mine a tasty combo of vodka, Chambord, and pineapple juice called a Valentino, Garvin’s a Canadian beer.
After warming our insides, we ventured out into the crisp 29-degree Canadian night to find dinner. On a local’s recommendation, we headed to glowbal grill & satay bar (glowbalgrill.com), located in Yaletown, the formerly rough warehouse district now home to hip stores, cool lofts, and marvelous restaurants. Simultaneously urban and mellow, glowbal’s long, illuminated bar, open kitchen, high tables and chairs, and frosted glass walls managed to provide a modern industrial decor without being sterile and unfriendly.
Upon the advice of our waiter, Mike Gurr, we ordered strip steak with avocado risotto and a satay platter. The satay samplings were delightful-Kobe beef meatball with spicy tomato fondue, candied British Columbia salmon with coriander and peppercorn crust, mushroom tempura flavored with sea salt, ginger-brushed chicken with black sesame seeds, and braised beef short ribs with truffle aioli, to name a few. I’m not terribly keen on the taste of beef and so rarely eat it, but in the spirit of adventure, I sampled the strip steak, Kobe meatball, and braised beef short ribs. I gobbled them up like I’d been a fan all my life. For dessert we ordered the pastry chef’s selection, which consisted of crme br»lee, warm chocolate coffee cake, and white chocolate mousse. Yummy! (Need I even say it?)
Tooling Around Town
We awoke the next morning to falling snow, which overnight had covered the city with a light dusting that remained on building rooftops and the leaf-bare trees. After a lovely continental breakfast at Bacchus, we explored the nearby Vancouver Art Gallery, Chapters Bookstore, and Starbucks before heading to lunch at Lift restaurant (liftbarandgrill.com) to meet Tourism British Columbia (HelloBC.com) rep Cindy Burr and Tourism Vancouver (TourismVancouver.com) rep Amber Sessions, who had arranged for us to visit Vancouver.
Lift is perched on the edge of Coal Harbor facing Stanley Park and offers a view of the Coast Mountains that border Vancouver on the north. Over a meal of salmon pesto and sushi, Burr and Sessions gamely answered our litany of questions about their city. We talked about the building boom taking place-residential condo towers are popping up all over downtown to accommodate the rapidly burgeoning population-British Columbia’s formidable wine industry, President Bush, the stunning natural beauty of the Vancouver area, and how their city has changed during the past 20 years. And we learned how the rapid increase in population and tourism, the changing ethnic landscape, the massive building spree (there is more work than workers and so recruitment of people from other cities in Canada and the U.S is occurring), and the ongoing renovation to host the 2010 Winter Olympics are giving Vancouverites growing pains. But they mostly seem pleased that their once quiet town is now a bustling cosmopolitan city.
After lunch, Garvin and I walked to English Bay via Denman Street and caught the Aquabus (granvilleislandferries.bc.ca) across False Creek to Granville Island, home to a large Public Market full of seasonal fresh fruit and other delightful things to eat, as well as homemade wares by local artisans.
Night was falling-and so was the snow-as we walked over Granville Bridge back to downtown Vancouver, where we were to meet PR rep Cate Simpson for dinner at La Terrazza (laterrazza.ca), an Italian restaurant known for its fine cuisine and large wine selection. During the course of three hours, we were treated to delicious vinos as we sampled appetizers of buffalo mozzarella, baked eggplant, and braised beef short ribs on a potato galette. For the main course I had smoked chicken fettuccine in an alfredo sauce while Garvin chose bison in a cherry reduction sauce. We capped off our Roman feasting with coffee and dessert: chocolate souffle and limoncello sponge cake. Bellisimo!
Parks, Bridges & Mountains, Oh My!
Vancouver’s urban offerings are endless. There are shopping districts, coffee shops, hip stores, international eateries, historic neighborhoods, museums, clubs, and bars. But what makes Vancouver particularly unique is its access to all manner of outdoor entertainment. In the city proper, there are biking paths, nature walks through a red cedar forest, and a rose garden within the 1,000 acres of Stanley Park (which is also a great place to see bald eagles-we witnessed two hanging out atop a tree). Tourists and locals alike kayak, sail, and wind surf on the numerous inlets, bays, and rivers. And then there’s the famous New Year’s Polar Bear swim, in which as many as 2,000 brave souls take a dip in the icy January waters of English Bay.
A hop, skip, and jump from downtown is Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park, where visitors can explore the Douglas fir tree forest on a series of elevated suspension bridges as high as 80 feet from the forest floor. There are also three nearby mountains-Cypress Bowl, Mount Seymour, and Grouse-for skiing.
Due to the storms, Capilano was closed during our visit, but we did spend an afternoon and evening taking in spectacular views of Vancouver while skiing Grouse Mountain (grousemountain.com). Just a quick walk, boat ride, and bus ride took us to the bottom of the mountain where we caught a gondola that rose 4,100 feet to the summit. Although winter activities also include ice skating and sleigh rides, we spent our time on the slopes and hanging out at the quaint lodge. We stayed until the park closed at 10 p.m., and still made it back to our hotel around 11 p.m., tired, cold, and happy.
While on our trip we also managed to take a Vancouver Trolley Company tour, which was a great way to see and learn about the city; walk through the historic Gastown district and Chinatown; check out the Bodyworlds 3 (www.bodyworlds.com) exhibit (which has since closed; it showed real dead people infused with plastic and stripped of their skin to reveal how muscles work-it was both fascinating and a little nauseating) at Science World (Telusworldofscience.com/Vancouver); and spend plenty of time relaxing at our hotel lounge.
We ate more delicious food, with the pinnacle being dinner at Bacchus. Our meal consisted of cauliflower curry soup, pan-seared spring salmon with herb gnocchi, and Queen Charlotte halibut with fricassee of globe artichokes and roasted scallops. Dessert was espresso crme br»lee and an apple and blackberry crisp with vanilla bean ice cream. It doesn’t get better than a fabulous meal in a fabulous restaurant oozing with European charm and warmth, and then taking the elevator back to your plush room where the maids have turned down your bed and left you two homemade cookies.
Finally, the time had come to return home. We were reluctant to leave the Wedgewood and Vancouver-our new favorite hotel and city. Boarding the plane for Santa Barbara, we vowed we would return to this fantastic Canadian city soon-in the spring, perhaps, when white snow and cold storm give way to green grass and warm northwestern sunshine.