Vancouver grabs you as soon as you enter its airport, with displays of totem poles, boats and artwork of the indigenous people referred to in that part of the world as First Nations. The beautiful city on Canada’s west coast was the starting point for our 7-day cruise along Alaska’s Inside Passage and subsequent visit to Denali National park. You probably remember it was also the site of the 2010 winter Olympics in February. The Olympic torch is still on display near Canada Place (without the flame of course). Canada Place juts out into the harbor near cruise ship berths and is home to the city’s Convention Center and the Pan Pacific Hotel. Canada Place’s sails are an iconic landmark on the city’s skyline. When the lighting is right, the sails make a beautiful reflection in nearby windows. A spacious and lovely promenade sits right below Canada Place, stretching out for a long distance along the waterfront. The promenade is an outdoor living room for inhabitants of the city, with restaurants, parks, sculpture and seating all along the walkway. We were impressed by the active lifestyle of so many of the city’s residents who were biking or rollerblading in a separate lane created for them.
Among the restaurants in a section along the promenade called Coal Harbor, is Cardero’s, where we had our first night’s meal. I was determined to eat fish as often as I could and it wasn’t hard to find it on the menu. The hard part was deciding. I got the Cajun lingcod, while my husband ordered the grilled halibut. Both were perfect and just the right portions, unlike some places where a plate for one could easily serve two or more.
This is Vancouver’s public library – a very controversial building that some say resembles Rome’s Colosseum, but on a much smaller scale. Maybe that’s why I like it – anything that draws on Roman architecture for inspiration is ok in my book. Through this portal, we headed off to explore a little of Vancouver’s Chinatown. I love perusing food stores wherever I am, and those in any Chinatown always contain surprises I would never have imagined, including these dried geckos – yes, geckos. They’re not used for culinary purposes, but for brewing tea that helps with asthma, back pain and cough. Shall I start the water boiling? It was midday by now and the perfect time for some dim sum. We ordered a variety of dishes, including this fried squid and these pork dumplings, but we both agreed that we’d eaten better dim sum in other cities. Still, Vancouver’s Chinatown has a lovely Chinese garden at Sun Yat Sen park.
There’s an interesting supermarket not too far from Chinatown that has a lot of unusual items. You don’t see lotus root or live tilapia and barramundi in any supermarket in New Jersey like we did in Vancouver.
You can’t go to Vancouver and miss Gastown, a historic part of the city with cobblestone streets and plenty of shops. This section of the city was named for “Gassy Jack” Sleighton, who ran a saloon and could spin tale tales. Time for a little culture at Vancouver’s Art Gallery – that’s what they call their art museum. While we were there, we saw a traveling exhibit from Paris’ Musee D’Orsay.
I want to give a special shout-out to Phyllis from the blog Me Hungry for steering me to some really great ethnic restaurants in Vancouver. She knows the city like a native – which she should since she was raised there. She now lives not too far from me in New Jersey, but returns often to Vancouver to visit family. Naturally, we took her up on many of her suggestions including a place with the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten anywhere. The restaurant is called Vij’s – and a long wait is always to be expected. But it was sooo worth it. It was pretty dark at our table so my photos are rather lacking, but this is one of the dishes we shared – spot prawns in a sauce with beets. Believe me, it tasted infinitely better than it looks, as did all the other dishes we devoured.
This stone sculpture is called an Inukshuk, and it sits along Vancouver’s English Bay. Inukshuk are used by many of the First Nations people of the Arctic Circle and were believed to have been used for navigation, as a landmark or a marker for hunting grounds. The park along English Bay is a great place for watching spectacular sunsets, and the night we visited we got a extra special treat from a street performer:
You can walk along the bay to catch a ferry to Granville Island, a short 10 minute ride to a veritable cornucopia of markets, eateries and interesting shops. One of my favorite places there was Terra Bakery, where we bought some great foccaccia that we used as the base for sandwiches with fresh mozzarella and prosciutto also purchased there. Aside from the normal things you’d expect at farmer’s markets, like heirloom tomatoes, you can find almost anything else you’re looking for, including a plethora of pates and even sea asparagus, also called hijiki.
Pop into the Granville Island brewery for a sampling of beers – and don’t forget to stop at the seafood place (whose name escapes me) for a platter of oysters.
One serendipitous find was this coffee roasting place owned by a fellow named John Sanders. It’s not a retail establishment, rather a place where John roasts beans and sells them to coffee shops and restaurants. After talking to him for a while, we were impressed by his story and honored to have met him. He’s a man who worked in pest control for many years but found his true passion was coffee. He buys fair trade coffee from farmers all over the world, but what really sets him apart is the humanitarian work he does in those African nations where he buys the coffee. Not only has he sponsored schools in Africa, but each year he spends several months there, volunteering his time to teach people how to become self sufficient through the cultivation and selling of coffee beans. While we were there, he was giving lessons on making espresso to a young couple interested in opening a coffee shop. One of his baristas made these for us. Before we left Granville Island, we stopped in to visit the Maritime museum there. What a great place to learn about the seafaring history of this part of the world, including the search for Canada’s Northwest passage.
If you drive a few miles from Vancouver’s downtown, you’ll find the serene and beautiful Nitobe Japanese Gardens at the University of British Columbia: The Museum of Anthropology is also located on the university’s campus. It contains an extraordinary collection of work by First Nations peoples. Surprisingly, there’s a really well-displayed collection of mostly European ceramics and interesting contemporary art too.
Yaletown is another destination within Vancouver that every foodie needs to visit, since it’s loaded with bars, cafes and restaurants. It’s also the site of the most heralded Italian restaurant in the city – called Cioppino and owned by Pino Posteraro. When I spotted him adjusting something on the menu just outside the restaurant’s doors and started chatting with him, he was extremely gracious. He invited us in (complete strangers no less) and gave us a tour of the restaurant, including the kitchens and private dining rooms. His award-winning restaurant has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and he has cooked for many luminaries, including Bill Clinton and Frank Sinatra. Sadly, it was our last night in town and we were already booked for dinner elsewhere, but you can bet I’ll be making a reservation for Cioppino’s the next time I visit Vancouver.
The food we did eat that night was nothing like Italian cuisine but really delicious nonetheless. Phyllis of Me Hungry, clued us in to the Japanese pub food scene, known as izakaya. It’s recently exploded in Vancouver, and she steered us to a couple of places. The one we tried (and loved) is called Kingyo. Here are just a few of the delicious dishes we tried: fried squid, shrimp and braised ribs – all with a Japanese accent of course.
Five days in Vancouver was not enough. It’s a fantastic city with something for everyone – from foodies to art lovers to outdoor enthusiasts. On our last morning there, we rented bikes and rode around the perimeter of Stanley Park, a scenic ride along the sea where you’ll pass a display of beautifully-painted totem poles. At one point we stopped for a few moment’s rest to soak in the view, when we spied these two little creatures peeping over the sea wall, looking for help from their mama. Thankfully, mama came back to give them a boost and off they all went, traipsing down the path. And so did we, after pausing for a few minutes at this sculpture based on Copenhagen’s famous Little Mermaid. Thanks Vancouver, for a great visit to your beautiful city.