As the Winter Olympics unfold, we take a trip to Vancouver and discover a city that oozes natural beauty. It also has a thriving design scene and is a real treat for food lover.
WORDS: CHARLENE ROOKE
PHOTOGRAPHY: CHRIS MASON STEARNS
You need to time it just right to enjoy the perfect Vancouver moment. Around 4.30 pm the coral-coloured sunset will start reflecting off the glass towers of downtown. The air smells wet and fresh, with just a whiff of the salt and seaweed of the ocean. To find the magic spot, turn left before you reach Granville Island, the busy market where crowds of visitors buy carvings made from arbutus wood, sip locally made sake or sample boar prosciutto. Across from the fishing boats selling fresh prawns and Pacific salmon, look for the take-out food stand Go Fish. Order halibut and chips and grab a seat at a rough wooden table to watch sailboats bob in the marina, joggers chug along waterside paths, and zippy water taxis crossing False Creek, the strip of Pacific Ocean that connects the downtown peninsula with the lower mainland.
As the winter dusk sets in, the sky turns violet behind the snow-capped North Shore mountains and lights start to sparkle on twin stairways to heaven in the distance, Grouse Mountain and Cypress Mountain, where skiing events of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games are taking place. In a few minutes, your food is ready. Take a bite of perfection.
Vancouver is regularly named one of the world’s best cities in which to live, and its natural beauty, nestled between ocean and mountains, has made it famous for outdoor pursuits, from kayaking to rock-climbing. The city where Greenpeace was founded in 1972 is green in every sense of the word, from the lush rainforest and giant cedars of Stanley Park, to its passion for local, seasonal and ethical food, like the sustainably fished halibut in your fish and chips. Modern Vancouver is a hot spot on the eco-conscious architecture and design scene, an aesthetic that’s on display throughout the city.
“For too long we focused on the idea of being a recreation and leisure capital,” says Steven Cox, director of Vancouver consulting and design firm Cause + Affect. The company produces the local Pecha Kuccha night, a monthly gathering of creative types that was founded in Tokyo and has caught fire here. Hundreds of hipsters in nerd-chic glasses and 1970s moustaches crowd into the city’s neon-signed vintage theatres to swig trendy microbrews and listen to ideas from a broad range of designers who are world leaders in their fields. Cox says of his city: “Our future is being influenced by nature but using that with technology in a very sophisticated way.”
For instance, the Cause + Affect designed Vancouver House, the city’s host pavilion for the Olympics, is just one of several pioneering and eco-friendly landmarks of the 2010 Games. A new rapid-transit line can whisk you out to Richmond, the city that houses the airy, art-rich Vancouver International Airport and looks like a mini-Hong Kong, with its Cantonese signs and Asian-style malls and restaurants. Strap on hockey or figure skates at the stunning new Richmond Olympic Oval and look up at the intricate wooden trusses that form the building’s organic skeleton; they’re made from British Columbia timber affected by an infestation of pine beetles, an inventive use of wood that would previously have gone to waste. Hop back on the SkyTrain to the pristine, glittering towers of downtown, where you can tour the soaring new waterfront Convention Centre, with its green roof and walls panelled in recycled wood off cuts. Two hours north in the Olympic alpine venue of Whistler, the new Peak 2 Peak gondola is an engineering marvel that forms the longest span of its kind in the world, making it possible to ski two of North America’s best peaks in the same day.
A luxury train to Whistler departs from Rocky Mountaineer Station in the east end, a building that also houses Portobello West, a monthly artisan market based on Camden and Spitalfields in London. From among the stalls of funky knitted hats and fragrant handmade soaps, pick up a coin purse in repurposed leather from Bronsino, or get your old jewellery redesigned at Ecosessories. “Vancouver designers lead the way in being environmentally conscious and fashionable,” says market founder Carlie Smith. She lists earthy colours, organic materials and First Nations tribal-influenced motifs (like the patterns silkscreened onto bamboo-jersey separates at the market’s Gwaii Urban Wear stall) among the hallmarks of local design.
If Portobello West is the young vanguard of design, there are also designers that represent Vancouver’s rich history. Dayton Boots has been selling sturdy, biker-chic footwear from the well-trodden boards of its storefront on gritty East Hastings Street since 1946. The Umbrella Shop, the last remaining atelier of its kind in Canada, has been making the city’s most essential accessory since 1935. Young entrepreneur Minoru Hirano produces authentic knitted West Coast Cowichan sweaters with clean, modern motifs under his Granted label. While local fashionistas love gold and silver pendants from Pyrrha, which makes jewellery from 19th-century wax seals using traditional methods. “Often, older finishing methods are more environmentally friendly than new methods that use chemicals,” points out Pyrrha designer Danielle Willmore. Along with partner Wade Papin, she relishes the heritage behind their work. “Although Vancouver is a very new city, you can’t escape the past. It’s all around us – just buried under a few layers of shiny glass and metal.”
Shiny glass and metal towers are other city hallmarks, they are part of a genre of architecture christened Vancouverism, also the name of an exhibition (vancouverism.ca) running in the atrium of the massive new Woodward’s complex near the historic Gastown quarter of downtown. The exhibition caused a sensation when it debuted at London’s Trafalgar House last year. Curator Trevor Boddy defines the influential architectural style: “Woodward’s is Vancouverism in a nutshell: high-density social housing, luxury condos, public amenities, spaces for arts and culture and even higher education. It’s a very utopian vision.”
Just a few years ago, even locals wouldn’t venture to the Gastown area after dark. Today, it’s one of the city’s hippest districts, thanks to modern speakeasies like the Diamond and Pourhouse, cool restaurants like Boneta and Salt and boutiques like designer denim purveyor Dutil. The latter’s proprietor Eric Dickstein was a pioneer in the neighbourhood who saw potential in the vintage buildings and winding streets. “I like the idea of lots of people and various social classes surrounding me,” says Dickstein, whose company just launched its own eponymous line of jeans that perfectly embody the laid-back West Coast lifestyle.
The east side of Vancouver has become another important corridor for the creative community. “Main Street has been an artistic hub of Vancouver for many years,” says Robert Edmonds, a partner in Evoke, a design firm that has put down roots in the area. “As designers, we find inspiration in these locations. We want to engage the neighbourhoods in which we live.” He and partner David Nicolay have designed hangouts that embody the style of modern Vancouver: funky eatery Habit, next-door gastro-pub The Cascade Room and the chic Latitude Wine Bar up the street. They are successful gathering places that “encourage people to meet and socialise,” Nicolay says, enriching both the neighbourhood and the creative community.
Art galleries cluster in the Main Street area, near the stomping grounds of young, home renovators and the artists themselves. Street performers busk for change in front of ethnic restaurants, second-hand stores and generations-old family businesses. In the mix are sleek new boutiques that curate a mix of internationally sourced fashion, design and decor items that blend perfectly with locally made wares. Sitting at the cosy pub The Whip on a rainy Sunday afternoon, drinking a pint from a cask of artisan ale crafted by some idealistic young brewmaster, you are part of a vibe that is modern and cool, but so authentic that it feels like it must have been here forever.
Like any visit to this food-crazed city, this story begins and ends with a meal. Gastro-travellers will reserve at haute cuisine temples like Daniel Boulud’s Lumière, West or Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Market in the glittering new Shangri-La Hotel. But you should also grab a table at one of the raucous Cactus Clubs, with locations downtown or on Broadway, where the staff are so young and gorgeous they could populate their own reality TV show. Vancouver even takes its casual dining seriously, though: former Relais & Chateaux chef Rob Feenie is behind a sophisticated menu that includes signature dishes like butternut squash ravioli topped with seared prawns in sage butter. His title says it all: Food Concept Architect. In Vancouver, anyone with passion and inspiration to spare can be the designer or architect of their own destiny.
The clean, green lung of Vancouver is the 1,000-acre Stanley Park. Built in 1888, it includes seawall paths for running, biking and rollerblading along the ocean front year-round, plus kilometres of interior park trails. There is also a pitch-and-putt golf course, restaurants (The Fish House and recently revamped Tea House), stunning vantage points like Prospect Point and the Vancouver Aquarium. A Vancouver touchstone, the park has inspired novels (like Timothy’s Taylor’s award-winning tome Stanley Park) and countless works of art.
It’s a must-see for first-time visitors to the city. vancouver.ca/PARKS/ parks/Stanley
Vancouver fact file
HOW TO GET THERE
KLM operates five direct flights per week toVancouver International Airport from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.
WHERE TO STAY
The Fairmont Pacific Rim
This hotel boasts a fabulous waterfront location.
1038 Canada Place www.fairmont.com/pacificrim
The Shangri-La Hotel
The tallest building in Vancouver (61 stories). 1128 West Georgia Street
WHERE TO EAT
The family behind the citywide chain Caffe Artigiano now also runs the cosy Kitsilano café.
2152 West 4th Avenue www.49thparallelroasters.com
Located off the Moda Hotel’s lobby, Cibo has a rustic Italian menu. The Moda also features the Uva wine bar.
900 Seymour Street
Rain City Grill
The so-called 100 Mile Diet was invented by two Vancouver food writers (100milediet.org) and this charming West End bistro is the ideal place to sample a menu of local foods sourced from within that radius. 1192 Denman Street www.raincitygrill.com.
An expansive oyster bar, wellprepared shellfish, fresh catches and a raucous crowd make this downtown spot the best place to sample seafood. 1054 Alberni Street www.coastrestaurant.com