Vancouver is a city of unparalleled beauty. On a recent trip there I marvelled at the snow-capped mountains standing sentinel, the indigo blue ocean lapping the shore and the verdant lushness of Stanley Park. It’s a healthy, sporty place where inhabitants can be seen jogging, cycling, or playing beach volleyball. I decided to join in and rented a bicycle to cruise through Stanley Park’s 400-hectares of natural West Coast rainforest.
The sun was shining, a light breeze cooled the summer air and the hustle-bustle of city life slowly melted away. Coasting along, I lifted my eyes and was stunned to see an array of magnificent First Nations totem poles. The Vancouver Parks Board started collecting them in the 1920s and by the 1980s, when some began to deteriorate with age, new replicas were carved. A plaque noted that totem poles are unique to the indigenous peoples along the north west coast of British Columbia and in lower Alaska. Carved from western red cedar, each pole featured representations of animals and birds and many were painted in bright colours. At the foot of each was a description and I learned that totem poles are often carved to honour a significant person, such as a chief, and as a sign of respect for nature.
After working up an appetite, I found there was no shortage of excellent dining options and Café Medina got my vote that day. Owner Robbie Kane seated me and I asked him about the rustic-meets-chic décor. “My brother is an Emmy Award-winning set designer. He took three months off and did the restaurant,” Robbie explained. The menu was Mediterranean, along with a number of pure and simple comfort foods. I tucked into the fricassee, followed by waffles with caramel, passion fruit, chocolate and honey dipping sauces. Very satisfying.
Vancouver has a thriving Chinatown I wanted to explore, so I took a tour with local guide Bob Sung. We started in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens, a quiet, meditative place with koi ponds, gazebos and rock displays. Opened in 1986, the garden employs the principles of Feng shui and Taoism. Bob pointed out how opposites were paired together to create balance. Rough, craggy rocks were backed by soft, delicate plants, and the pond shimmered, gently reflecting the garden buildings’ curved roofs. “You’ll see a lot of red used here. Red symbolizes health, wealth and happiness,” Bob explained. Back out on the street we passed numerous historic photos, blown up and lining storefronts. We peeked at bags of herbs, tanks of live fish, and butcher shops filled with barbequed pork. At Lucky Bakery, delicious apple tarts were fresh out of the oven, ready for sampling. What goes better with a tart than tea? At the Chinese Tea Shop I watched owner Daniel Lui demonstrate how tiny, unglazed clay yixing teapots are used to steep the precious beverage. He explained that some tea is truly a treasure and can cost up to $100,000 a kilo.
Some of the nation’s best seafood can be found in Vancouver and Yew Seafood + Bar at the Four Season’s Hotel upholds that sentiment. A soaring ceiling, magnificent wall hangings and toasty wood paneling gave the room an airy yet warm feel. Sharing with some friends, I had oysters on the half shell to start, followed by a light, crispy halibut and seared scallops. Divine.
The next day, I wanted to get up close to some of Vancouver’s surrounding beauty and I drove to Squamish, an hour north of the city. My destination was the Sea-to-Sky Gondola that climbs 885 meters above Howe Sound. Hopping in the slightly swaying unit, the door closed and I was whisked far above a blanket of evergreens.
Ten minutes later I found myself at the top, looking down at the water from the Summit Lodge viewing deck. After wobbling across the thrilling Sky Pilot bridge, Candace Campo met me for a one-a-half-hour Talking Trees tour to learn about the area’s indigenous culture. A member of the Sechelt Nation, Candace showed me how her people used the forest’s bounty as we followed a trail behind the lodge. “From the Shore Pine we gather the pitch and use it, diluted, as a cleaner. The scent is amazing,” she said rubbing the sticky substance between her fingers and letting me have a sniff. The powerful, sharp scent was very similar to Pine-Sol, a heavy duty cleanser my mother used to clean the floor. As we walked, Candace explained that there were 150 plants in the forest that were used as food. She also told me how in her family, her grandmother was the boss when it came to important decisions. After a few stops at scenic viewing stations we returned to the Summit Lodge for coffee by the big picture windows.
On my last night in Vancouver I ventured out to the Kitsilano neighbourhood to try Cacao, a tiny Latin American restaurant with a huge reputation. In 2017 it was nominated as one of Air Canada enRoute magazine’s Best New Restaurants. When I got there, chef Jefferson Alvarez was whipping up a storm in the open kitchen – smoked elk tartare, wild mushrooms, pan seared branzino, and duck with sour chocolate sauce. Full of energy and good cheer, Jefferson worked his magic on my taste buds. I could now understand the accolades.
Go to Vancouver and you will get your fill – mountains, ocean, indigenous history and very good food.
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