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Vancouver Rising

Martin Morrell Looking toward Sunset Beach and downtown from Vanier Park, in Kitsilano.

Photo: Martin Morrell

As we meander along a newly established promenade on the Coal Harbour waterfront, it's clear that menus aren't the only thing growing. Vancouver's construction boom began in the several-year-long panic before Hong Kong was handed back to China, when wealthy Asian investors were looking to diversify their interests. It has continued unabated. At night, enormous cranes stand motionless in the otherworldly glow of building sites, like sentinels awaiting the arrival of the Olympians. It's eerie and inspiring, and although Saddy, like many residents, bemoans the population density (Vancouver's census cracked the half-million mark in 2001), on this cool summer evening the city feels serenely uncongested. The inky sky is dotted with pinpoints of light; to the west, flickering boats head out to the Pacific through the Burrard Inlet. To the east lie luxury towers and a cruise-ship terminal reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Dead ahead, somewhat surreally, an illuminated floating gas station bobs in the dark water. Vancouver may, as Coupland contends, look like many places, but from this vantage point, there is no place quite like Vancouver.

In a city populated by immigrants, the visual language of the area's first inhabitants is considered its true heritage. The art of the Haida, a still-existent tribe from British Columbia's Queen Charlotte Islands, is characterized by stark pictographic renderings of animals and mythological symbols, which are often used as decorative motifs in public places. The ancient Inuit inukshuk, a human figure made of stacked stones that led caribou hunters to their quarry and pointed travelers along their way, resonates so strongly with Vancouverites that it has been selected as the symbol for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

The city is equally a bastion of a different old-world culture: that of the British Commonwealth. At the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa, an 83-room boutique property in central Robson Square, the ambience is pure Masterpiece Theatre. My suite, part of a renovation completed in June, has a fireplace, English antiques from the owner's collection, an Italian marble bath, and a bedroom swathed in damask. At Bacchus, the hotel's restaurant, waiters in starched white aprons hand-polish wineglasses before lunch is served, and each night the doting staff delivers freshly baked cookies to the rooms at turndown. These are personal touches that Vancouver's larger downtown hotels—the Fairmont, Four Seasons, and Sutton Place (which has a great bar that attracts visiting film-industry types)—are hard-pressed to match.

Central Vancouver is laid out on an easily navigable grid, with the intersection of Robson and Burrard as its center. Like 57th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, or Yonge and Bloor Streets in Toronto, Robson and Burrard is a commercial nexus for luxury-goods retailers and chain stores, including Canada's own Club Monaco and Roots. Lined with boutiques, cafés, and crêperies, Robson stretches for blocks up a gentle hill topped with high-rise apartments and small hotels, including the art-themed boutique Listel Hotel, where the lobby and rooms feature works by contemporary artists such as Carmelo Sortino and Bernard Cathelin, as well as furniture and Northwest Coast crafts made from local materials.

Granville, three blocks east of Burrard, is a more historic street, with gilded old theaters and an uncharacteristic, but hardly threatening, seen-better-days seediness. It connects to the Granville Bridge, which rises over Granville Island, a reclaimed piece of land in the middle of a body of water confusingly called False Creek that hosts a wildly popular public market. After a half-hour crawl through this pedestrian- and stroller-clogged tourist enclave, I hop into a cab and head off the island back to the other side of the bridge, to explore the art-and-antiques walk between Granville and Burrard from First Avenue to Broadway. Inconspicuously housed in low-lying, office park-style buildings, the handful of galleries and curiosity shops are a peaceful counterpoint to Granville's weekend crowds. At Douglas Reynolds, a gallery dedicated to Northwest Coast arts, there's a vast array of historical and contemporary pieces: jewelry, tapestries, painted masks, and wood carvings. Here, I discover the work of Bill Reid, the half-European, half-Haida sculptor and jewelry designer, who pushed this legacy of design into prominence as fine art.

Below Broadway, South Granville is lined with clothing stores and small jewel-box boutiques like Peridot, which sells loungewear and furnishings that have a Jean Harlow-goes-to-Paris appeal. Caban, part of the Club Monaco chain, mixes contemporary furnishings, linens, and tableware with spare, sleek designs. This stretch is also home to the restaurant Vij's, namesake of Vikram Vij, one of the city's most revered chefs. Over the past decade, Vij's has become an institution, not just for its unconventional Indian dishes (wild boar in cream curry, lamb "Popsicles"), but also for its louche atmosphere and groovy raga-disco sound track. It's open only for dinner and does not take reservations, so there's almost always a wait—one that on many occasions I have happily passed in a beautiful lounge where masala chai, house-made ginger-lemon juice, and wine are served with complimentary snacks like cassava fries and papri (puff pastry) topped with mango chutney and dates. Vij recently opened a café next door, Rangoli, that is every bit as modern and efficient as its sister property is languorously sexy.

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