Coordinates 49°15′N 123°06′W
Many come to this city in British Columbia to board an Alaskan cruise. I was not going on a cruise, but used as an excuse, meeting a very good friend who was! That way I had the opportunity to visit a city that intrigued me, as it has been among the first ones around the world with the best quality of life. After exploring it for a week, I believe it is a well deserved distinction. In this city, nestled between mountains and the ocean, you can breathe a joy for life, more so in the outdoors. Vancouver offers multiple options for the active and nature loving traveler; the perfect match for me traveling with my Swiss husband (where the national pastimes are hiking and admiring nature) and an energetic six-year-old son.
Totems at the Park
We spent our first days at Stanley Park, their biggest at four hundred acres and a designated national historic site. With trails, restaurants, beaches, children playgrounds and even an aquarium, the park is so extensive that it is good to have the time to fully explore it. We started by the Seawall, its scenic promenade that borders English Bay and extends for thirteen miles. This distance is equivalent to a half marathon, so my boys were in rented bikes while I jogged.
We stopped frequently to snack and appreciate the surprises we found along the way, like the colorful totems at the Brockton Point Visitors Center. This cedar painted posts, carved with animals or figures, are typical of the Pacific Northwest Coast aborigines, like those grouped under First Nations that populated Vancouver. This aboriginal background inspires as well the stone figures known as inuksuit we found decorating sections of the park. We read these figures traditionally represent “someone was here” or “you are on the right path.” They serve various purposes like: to mark a sacred place or the memory of a loved one, as well as to signal migration routes or places for good fishing. Like visitors before us, we created our own figures to conmemorate our passing thru such a special place.
Whales and Victoria
Whistler Mountain and whale watching are among the required excursions. We chose the whales, as many told us Whistler would not be very impressive to a person from the Swiss Alps (like my husband). Besides, after trying twice to see them in Puerto Rico without success, this was a priority on our list! It might be time to confess marine life is not as interesting to me, as to my husband and son. Thus, we picked a democratic alternative: whales followed by a visit to Victoria Island. We navigated the protected waters of the Haro and Juan de Fuca Straits early in the morning, where there is a 95% chance of whale watching; if not, some tour operators offer the opportunity to repeat the tour the next day! We were lucky this time and besides their tails and the vigorous jets of water they launch when coming up for air, we sighted birds, marine lions and other marine species.
After the marine show, we disembarked in Victoria. The island combines Old World charm, visible in its architecture and gardens, with modern experiences like a plaza full of food trucks, where we had lunch before touring. A tour that took us to Butchart Gardens, an abandoned limestone quarry that in 1904 was transformed through the inspiration of Jennie Butchart. A place that follows the old English tradition of showcasing exorbitant flower arrangements according to the season. We stopped by the Fairmont Empress Hotel at tea time (4pm). This hotel captures the elegance and grandeur of times past with gardens and lavishly decorated halls. Hope I did not offend them by thinking of ordering coffee!
Multiple cultural influences on display
Walking through the city we stumbled at different times upon some Chinese warrior sculptures. At first we thought they were part of a traveling art exhibition (as others we have seen with cows and pianos) but later confirmed them as another sample of its cultural mix. Besides the most evident aboriginal culture, the Chinese, Japanese, Italian and Hindu cultures have left a palpable influence.
It is easy to learn about these cultures while visiting the neighborhoods where they concentrate as they are quite close to each other: Chinatown, Little Italy, Little India, Klahowya Village and Powell street. Their gastronomic delights can be sampled at restaurants around the city or at the colorful food stalls in the Granville Island Public Market.
Quality of Life
Granville Island, reachable by Aquabus, is a successful example of urban redevelopment. The abandoned industrial lot was transformed into a dynamic public oasis. Besides the Market, you find galleries, theaters, art studios, restaurants, stores selling hand made crafts and clearly, a dedicated area for children that includes a water park. Another example of a city where quality of life is not taken for granted.
Conscious Travel Practices:
1. Learn about the history and culture of the place.
2. Acknowledge the quality of life of other cities.
3. Understand new ways to recycle spaces.
4. Promote activities in nature.