An introduction to Vancouver

To be honest, I didn’t have time to form preconceptions of Vancouver. We booked the trip at the beginning of the year, then proceeded to move to our dream house in Kent, which had to be fully kitted out, and I pursued a new role client-side (good-bye agency life!). Whirlwind doesn’t begin to describe it. I’d seen a few images of British Columbia, but my knowledge of things to do in Vancouver barely filled a hastily opened Google doc.

And so, we – inveterate planners who ran out of time – committed ourselves to spontaneity and word-of-mouth recommendations for things to do and places to eat and boarded our British Airways direct flight to Vancouver. A mere 8.5 hours later, aligned with the setting sun, we touched down in a city shrouded by twilight and clouds.

And what we found surprised us. 

A summation of our eight days is incredibly simple: we ate fresh and flavourful food – the fish tacos!, the mac and cheese! – and sampled the seemingly endless array of local beer and wine; we walked constantly along the sea wall and through the forests edging the city; and faced our fear of heights with elevated bridges and ziplines across canyons and the tips of towering trees.

First impressions

Vancouver is very…vertical. Sky-rise buildings mounted in quick succession as we crossed the bridge from the airport into downtown, the darkened towers and the gloomy sky casting a Gotham-esque atmosphere over the scene. Bryan Adams has been quoted as saying, “I’m amazed every time I come back to Vancouver at how much it’s changed. You go away for a month and there’s three more skyscrapers.” And there’s something in that.

We learned from the locals – who are more than willing to discuss the subject – that foreign investment has driven property prices beyond the reach of the locals. Young professionals especially, but the middle class as well, are opting for the cheaper suburbs, while the primarily Chinese-funded apartment blocks that fly up sit empty, waiting for the inevitable appreciation, but not contributing to the maintenance and welfare of the city through taxes. As a result there is a huge disparity between the rich and poor, the foreigners and the locals, the functioning members of the community and the growing number of homeless.

Things to do

I’m not sure what you’re typical first jet-lagged excursion in a new city is, but we decided to drink wine in the Fraser Valley. Leaving the city behind us, our guide and driver with Canadian Craft Tours took us to Chaberton Estate Winery, Township 7 and Backyard Vineyards with private tastings and a lunch spread at the third location. We picked up a bottle at each stop to sip though the week and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and easy conversation with the other guests.

In every city we visit, we book onto the free walking tours and they’re always amazing. Emma, our guide with Tour Guys, talked us through downtown, and we fell in love with the old cathedral from the 1880s that has withstood the aggressive march of progress as well as the over-the-top art deco marine building – the lobby and bling-ed out lifts are a must-see.

Proximity to the outdoors is why you visit Vancouver and we spent days among the trees. The overwhelming sense of smallness I feel when I’m in the mountains provides me with much-needed perspective and always restores balance to my mind.

Highlights include:

  • The Capilano Suspension Bridge, stretching 450 feet across and 230 feet above the Capilano River, is hugely popular with tourists, and if it’s your first visit to Vancouver, it’s worth seeing. Once across the other side, there is a very accessible walkway through the forest, but venture up a little higher to walk on the suspended footbridges between the treetops. Stunning!
  • Grouse Mountain is famous for the Grouse Grind – 2,830 steps with an elevation gain of 2,800 feet! Not sure my knees were up for the gruelling climb, we opted for the Skyride instead. The adventure started once we reached the summit, where we strapped on our harnesses and rode the five-line zipline circuit between Grouse and Dam Mountains. Fear of heights kicked in half-way through the second line – whose stop felt like a car crash – but I’m so glad I persisted and saw the views from the fourth and fifth lines.
  • My favourite part of the Vancouver outdoors, and the spot I returned to time and time again, is Stanley Park. Ten percent bigger than New York City’s Central Park and criss-crossed with trails, the Park also holds the Vancouver Aquarium and a couple of sandy beaches. I could have stayed and explored forever.

Where to eat and drink:

I never would have thought of Vancouver as a foodie city, but it is. We found the ingredients to be fresh, local and treated with huge amounts of respect. The chefs are turning classic dishes on their head with new flavour combinations and techniques. It was revelatory.

Here are the places we found ourselves going back to again and again:

  • Tacofino (Gastown): What started as a food truck quickly turned into a trendy casual-dining restaurant in Gastown. The specialty is the fish tacos, and I’ve never had them better. Pacific cod in a light, crispy batter is dressed with shredded cabbage, fresh salsa and a creamy chipotle mayonnaise. Order, eat, repeat. But if you can look past those, you’ll also find buttermilk chicken with pickled vegetables and shredded lamb with chilli and preserved lemon zest among others, but there is nothing wrong sticking to the classic. Even two or three days in a row…
  • The Parlour (Yaletown): Slightly on the pretentious side and prone to get loud and crowded at the weekends, The Parlour serves up some of the best pizzas we’ve ever had. A super thin base with a pillowy crust, these pizzas are a true sensory experience. We savoured ahi tuna with onion, avocado and coriander as well as the roast chicken, roast garlic and sun-dried tomato. Beautiful and delicious? Tick and tick.
  • Granville Island Food Market and Brewery (Granville Island): A quick boat ride across False Creek to the south of town is Granville Island. This was a strange place, home to loads of shops selling knick-knacks that serve no discernable purpose, but the gem was in the centre of the island. There sits a huge food market stuffed with meat, cheese, coffee, bread and baked goods, food stalls and ripe produce. I could imagine shopping there every week. After wandering through the many aisles, we set up camp at Granville Island Brewery for a flight of beer brewed on the premises.
  • Tap and Barrel (Waterfront): Many might be tempted to give this place a miss as this location is right on the waterfront near the convention centre with a steady stream of tourists. While it would be easy for a restaurant to rely on one-off footfall to turn a profit, Tap and Barrel are serving incredible dishes that elevate it from a bog-standard chain. The fish and chips were excellent (it’s saying something when my Yorkshire husband gives them a thumbs-up!), the mac and cheese with shredded pork was comfort food at its best and the grilled cheese sandwich (aged white cheddar on an artisan baguette) with a small jar of creamy tomato bisque was yet another dish we ate on more than one occasion.
  • Wildtail Coastal Grill (Yaletown): We knew the seafood in Vancouver would be good with all that water nearby, and dinner at Wildtail didn’t disappoint. The ambiance was cosy – soft lighting, tables a comfortable distance from your dining companions, friendly staff – and the flavours they packed into their dishes was phenomenal. My scallop fettuccini featured perfectly cooked scallops that melted in the mouth and a spicy tomato rose sauce. I will be scouring the internet for a recipe.
  • Homer Street Cafe (Yaletown): This trendy bistro caught our eye as we wandered around Yaletown and we’re so pleased we went in for dinner. The hero in this cafe is the rotisserie  chicken, and no matter how you order it, you can be sure it’ll be fantastic. I went with the special, a chicken fettuccini of sorts, and we almost licked the bowl clean.

Final thoughts

Without knowing it, we stumbled upon a city that (almost) has it all. The sea and the mountains are at your doorstep, the shopping is good and the food mind-blowing. The pace is laid-back and everyone is friendly. Vancouver is the type of place we could see ourselves living in someday. As we settle back into the routine of work and friends, and as autumn closes in, we find ourselves looking west a little wistfully and dreaming of a return journey.

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