Those in the know sit on the right hand side of the bus Whistler to Vancouver.
Our little school bus rocked steadily, its winter tyres handing the corners of the Sea to Sky highway southwards. The road slowly descends through the Black Tusk national park, ocean to the right side, coastal mountains to the left. Drifting into a sleep, I awoke already in the thick of skyscrapers, downtown Vancouver.
The buildings stand tall, but separate allowing rays of light to filter inbetween, the block system making for a very North American feel, a uniform march to your destination. My hostel was in gastown, only a few streets over, but in a different era architecturally. The buildings stood low, old warehouses now hippie bars, a grungy, untrying feel to the place. The gastown clock is he souvenir draw card to the area. A clock powered by steam stands on the corner of Cambie and Water street, spouting vapour and demanding attention from passers by. Gastown was the original settlement in the town of Granville, now Vancouver, and was so named after the owner of the first saloon, Gassy Jack (because he wouldn’t stop talking!). The area was full of warehouses making use of the Burrard Inlet for logging and industry, and still has an old industrial feel despite being repurposed by hipster hangouts.
I had now been in Canada nearly a month without frequenting a Tim Hortons. I had being anticipating this chain being forced upon me before I left the airport, so in my dazed, new to the city state, I made straight for the welcoming looking sign. Inside it was more like a fast food joint than I had been imagining. The coffee was not worth risking, but the vast selection of donuts was not to be turned down, balanced with a bagel for contrast, an ‘all round’ lunch, if only in the most literal sense of the term.
The heart of the city, at first glance, appeared to be Canada place, a port on the Burrard Inlet, looking across to North Vancouver. The dock is shaped like a ship and is currently displaying lots of celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. The walk along the dock takes you virtually, state to state, signs signifying the uniquely Canadian names of the towns such as Medicine Hat, Moose Tracks and Bear Jaw. Despite celebrating its 150th year, the worlds second largest country was merely four provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, joined in Union on July 1st 1967. (Actually the most recent province, Nunavut wasn’t added until 1999!). British Colombia was a heavily forested area, mostly inhabited by loggers and then gold rush opportunists. Prompted by the unification of ‘Canada’ BC had to decide who to become. Its proximity to the USA made it a tempting choice, but the promise of a coast to coast railway, joining east to west coast and bringing prosperity, sealed the deal for BC to become Canadian. A large area was now logged clear, construction of the railway and the first hotel gave birth to Vancouver and in 1871.
I ducked into the conference centre to spend the afternoon being inspired by crafts, listening to Christmas music and sampling as many samples as inconspicuously as possible. Emerging hours later, the weather was unforgivingly wet, a very Vancouver welcome.
I was staying above the Cambie bar, a notorious spot in the middle of Gastown, unbeknownst to me, for every night parties. As the bed shook with the music reverberations, I tried hard to enjoy my first night in the city, away from the Whistler bubble.
In the morning, fuelled on liquid caffeine, I made to join a walking tour of the Downtown area. Among skyscrapers and wide boulevards of a well though out city, come quirky irregularities. The court, originally designed as a 55 storey skyscraper, was voted against by citizens who decided to cap the height at 45 stories. It was then laid on its side and is now a sideways skyscraper. Vancouver’s Cathedral, maybe the smallest in the world, once an embarrassment to the city, features a dog in the stain glass window. Not subtly added to the bible story, but just immortalised in the corner as an ode to the artists beloved pet. The structure outside the Environmental Canada building is an art installation from the seventies. The artist was tasked with ‘representing Environment Canada’s inner workings’ and took it literally, building a replica of the lift system which shows when the employees are moving around inside the building.
The city is also built largely on the economics of big business. Now widely recognised as the Silicon Valley and Hollywood of the north, it houses TED, Netflix and Hootsuite. Starting this trend was the Guinness family, to who most of the grander structures, including the Lions Gate bridge, belong. The spectacular Marina building, now Guinness head office, is a storytelling depiction of the cities naval discoveries. From the first Spanish ship to enter now Canadian waters, to the ships of Francis Drake, each surrounds the entrance to the beautiful building (featured as the offices of The Daily Planet in Smallville.) Vancouver was named after George Vancouver, the British naval captain who followed James Cook in his discoveries and chartered large areas of the west coast all the way up to Alaska.
It invited new attention in 2010 when it welcomed the Winter Olympics. Reminders of the cities international debut still stand, such as the Olympic cauldron which opened the games, and not least, the cities new found status which brings with it unaffordable housing. With pricey rents, a lot of tasty eateries operate out of roadside food trucks, and with eyes larger than my stomach I was more than willing to try the tasty grab and go specialities of the many international cuisines on offer.
The city has a large park, at least as big as the downtown area. It’s forest once protected to preserve the views of the elites housing, is now loved by locals, the primary recommendations for exploring the city. Following instructions, I rented a bike and cycled the sea wall perimeter from the calm waters of the Burrard Strait, under the lions gate bridge and around to the beaches of English Bay. In the late afternoon sun, colourful leaves disregarded on the floor, the water twinkled in low light and Vancouver appeared to be a very livable city.
On my extremely perpendicular walk across town, I still can’t get over the straight roads thing, I picked up some groceries, a haircut I regretted and made for home. Still not wanting to face the vibrations of my questionable hostel, I appreciated the late coffee shop selling a selection of cheesecakes, for an evening hideout.
My final day in Vancouver I was to spend with Jackie, a Canadian, adopted by Vancouver, who I had met in Spain a few weeks before. Suddenly battling rain rather than the beating Spanish sun, we caught up over perusing the markets of Granville Island. We had to cross over to the once industrial island by the most adorable little shuttle boat, the aqua bus. The island has silos, now artfully covered and adopted into the skyline of this touristic island where independent artists, creatives and brewers combine. An easy place to part with your pennies, this brings us on to another Canadian quirk, the money! So the coins are all nicknamed, making it oh so easy. The five cents is bigger than the ten, there is a 25 cents (quarter) but no 50cents piece. But wait for it.. In unison, Canadians have decided that a one dollar coin is called a loonie, and a two dollar coin a toonie. Neither Jackie or Dineke, a friend I worked with in New Zealand who later joined us, had considered that this was quite peculiar. The loonie has a Loon on the back, a bird, and the toonie, well it’s a two dollar!? It’s true uniformity was confirmed when I asked for change in a coffee shop and the server replied, ‘do you want it all in loonies?’ Has there ever been a better reply?!
A mismatched worldly trio, there was only one place to head, East Van’s Commerical drive, a worldly place. Boasting excellent Sushi, Ramen, bagels and beer, it’s immigrant community adds to the rich diversity of this area. High end fashion meets up cycling stores, an interesting place to duck in from the rain. At the end of a fun afternoon, we caught the B line bus back to town, so named because it makes a beeline for the centre. The #20 was full of the colourful types which are spread across every bus route, concentrated into one interesting journey.
With a taste for this eclectic city, it was time to head for the hills, back to Whistler.