With less than a year until the rest of the world discovers Vancouver, there are good reasons to get there first.
The scenic city and nearby ski resort of Whistler-Blackcomb will host the next Winter Olympics and Paralympics in February and March. With the venues ready, infrastructure improvements well along and hotel rooms at least theoretically available, southwestern British Columbia appears ready for the crush.
But if global spectacles, their attendant crowds and extravagant ticket prices are not your thing, Vancouver and environs offer activities throughout the year by land, sea or air."There's a lot of really cool things even if people aren't coming for the games themselves, that they can come to for the experiential enjoyment," said downtown resident Emily Armstrong. Working for Vancouver's tourism office, Armstrong is paid to say such things, but she has a point. For instance, in June, the public will be able to experience the Olympic skating oval first hand. The ice will be down and open to skaters.
Although it can be an expensive address for Canadians, Vancouver is a value destination for Americans, with accommodations in many price ranges. That's especially true at the moment, with the Canadian dollar trading at about 82 cents American.
Moreover, the city may seem comfortably familiar. If you watch movies or television, you know already Vancouver. Watchmen, Night at the Museum, Juno, Things We Lost in the Fire, Romeo Must Die, the X-Men movies are just a handful of the recent films shot here. MacGyver, 21 Jump Street, The X-Files, The L Word, Smallville, Supernatural are among the many TV series shot here over the years, along with virtually anything that turns up on Syfy (nee Sci-Fi).
One lure for production companies is the climate. With the occasional exception, Vancouver's weather is mild year-round. In February, the average temperature is about 5 degrees Celsius – that's 41 Fahrenheit. Of course, like elsewhere in the Northwest, that temperate climate tends to leak. Winters are especially rainy, and anytime, an umbrella is the most useful fashion accessory.
"I actually like the rain a lot, but it makes me less active," said local resident Jina Toppin.
Less is a relative term. From her vantage point in Lift, a coolly happening restaurant at the Coal Harbour marina, Toppin can look past the boats and seaplanes, across Burrard Inlet to North Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains beyond, which offer year-round activities. For fun, Toppin recommends Grouse Mountain and its "Grind," a hiking trail that rises 2,800 feet in 1.8 miles, and is not for the short of breath.
There's a great view from the top, but even better ones can be had back across the inlet, courtesy of the pontoon planes bouncing along the waves from their piers by Coal Harbour. They make commuter flights to Vancouver Island and other destinations, but also offer tours of the city's spectacular environs.
The sparkling glass towers that crowd the downtown, turning it into a mini-Manhattan, are in themselves striking. But the reasons for all that glass are self-evident. Geography is destiny, and Vancouver is a new city on the edge of a continent, where mountains and rivers meet the Pacific Ocean. Its peninsula sticks out like a mittened hand, with the downtown the upraised thumb.
For those reluctant to clamber into a seaplane, a quick trip via glass elevator to the top of the aptly named Lookout Harbour Centre Tower (adults $13 Canadian) provides a proper orientation. The busy port is the fourth largest in North America, with $75 billion in annual trade, and even with announced cutbacks in the cruise industry it remains a recreational hub.
Just east of the downtown, the old section of Gastown has been reborn as a sometimes overly touristy zone. But it includes a number of good restaurants and pubs, as well as notable art galleries featuring First Nations art and artifacts. Chinatown is one of the established on the continent, while Richmond and other suburbs have large Asian neighborhoods of varied ethnicities.
Below Gastown, Yaletown is a happening zone for clubs and restaurants, plus the white dome of BC Place Stadium, home of the local British Columbia Lions football team and a principal Olympic venue.
At ground level, feet or bikes are often the first choices in transportation. The 1,000-acre Stanley Park at the western tip of downtown is one of the world's great urban retreats. Residents and visitors alike use the park's 6.5-mile seawall as a path to better health.
But for families, the park is home to the top-notch Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, whose denizens reflect ocean habitats from around the world. For a more hands-on experience, there's a petting zoo nearby, plus a miniature railway with its own steam engine.
Circling the park via the seawall leads to English Bay on the downtown's south side, with its aptly named Sunset Beach Park. Across the water on the West Side – as opposed to downtown's West End – Vanier Park juts out as the gateway to the funky but friendly Kitsilano neighborhood.
The two parks are prime real estate for one of Vancouver's most notable annual events. Staggered across two Wednesdays and Saturdays beginning in late July, the Celebration of Light fireworks competition features aerial bombardment specialists from various countries vying to out-do, out-ooh and out-aah each other.
Vanier Park is home to more attractions for visitors of all ages, including the Vancouver Maritime Museum and the city's own connection to the stars, the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre. The planetarium and interactive exhibits are a good place to meet locals: the museum claims almost three-quarters of local residents have visited.
East of Vanier Point, English Bay has been extended by False Creek, a truth-in-advertising name for a man-made harbor. In the middle, Granville Island is a former warehouse zone now an arts and entertainment district connected to the downtown via a bridge and aquabuses. It's also a jumping off point to watch whales and other sea creatures, varying with the month, at ocean spray distance.
At the eastern end of False Creek, that big geodesic dome is Science World, where kids of all ages can learn a few facts while having fun with cyclones, magnetic liquids, plasma and other phenomena, usual or un.
On the interior harbor's south side, the Olympic Village is rising for athletes, although slower and more precariously than planned. last year, the city council secretly guaranteed $100 million in financing after the American hedge fund financing the construction threatened to pull out. This year, the provincial government allowed Vancouver to avoid a referendum and guarantee the whole $750 million loan.
"We're all kind of nervous and excited at the same time" about the effects of the games, said resident Amy Wheatley, offering advice to a traveler jammed cheek-by-jowl with birthday revelers, a detective inspector and one of those of TV stars in tiny Bin 941 Tapas on Davie Street.
The narrow and exuberant restaurant and its slightly more refined sister location in Kitsilano make the case for another reason to visit Vancouver anytime: to have great food at good prices. This is one of the world's great restaurant cities, with top meals available in the funky Main Street district east of downtown, or in and around Kitsilano's commercial district, where they vie with surf and T-shirt shops.
There's plenty of culture as well, with theaters, dance, the symphony and well-known folk, jazz and film festivals. It's a short drive from Kitsilano to the leafy precincts of the University of British Columbia, where the land rises before it ends. There, the recently reopened Museum of Anthropology showcases astounding totems and other woodcarvings, along with artifacts from tribal cultures around the world.
And in keeping with the Vancouver mix, there's a nude beach in the park below.
For more information, visit tourismvancouver.com