The Friday-night crowd jockeying for cocktails and microbrews at the illuminated marble bar of Lift, a swank Vancouver waterfront grill, looks like any well-heeled cosmopolitan set. But Guy Saddy, columnist for the Globe and Mail and my ad hoc host on many a visit to this vibrant Pacific Coast city, sees it differently.
"This is a cougar bar," he says gravely.
The part of my mind that correlates sports teams with hometowns comes up with no matches based on these search parameters. I suspect the Cougars might be a local hockey team; perhaps its members will represent Canada in the winter Olympics to be held here in 2010?"What," I venture slowly, certain of forthcoming sports-deficiency humiliation, "is a cougar?"
A cougar, Saddy explains with a smile, is a Canadian Mrs. Robinson. In Vancouver, these women of a certain age who prefer the company of men of a younger age are viewed affectionately, as just another segment of a broad-minded, dizzyingly diverse society. Mixed couples are the norm; Saddy himself is a Lebanese-Scottish man married to an Indian woman raised in South Africa. Acceptance is an unspoken part of the city's social contract—it's what makes one what he calls a "Vangroover" instead of merely a Vancouverite.
"We are ethnic-embracing, gay-loving, godless commies," Saddy adds, laughing now. It may have started out as a lumber town, but with tourism, yoga gear, and new construction of glass condominium towers as its other major industries, it's clear that the city where both Greenpeace and the radical culture magazine Adbusters were founded has a default liberal streak. Despite the abundance of natural beauty, wide-open-minded views on hemp cultivation that have earned the city the nickname Vansterdam, and a seal of fashion approval from hordes of visiting style-obsessed Tokyo twentysomethings, locals view their hometown as a cultural also-ran, forever comparing it unfavorably with Toronto, Montreal, or nearby Seattle. Much like the rain that falls intermittently on the city, it's a charming bit of bluster that eventually passes—an inferiority complex as transparent as the glass-and-steel skyline.
One-hundred-twenty-year-old Vancouver is a model of urban utopianism, unblemished by freeways and unfettered by architectural precedents. The Modernist buildings of the city's West End and downtown rise and swell like formations of aquamarine crystals, spreading out to the peninsula's visible borders, defined by green parks, beige beaches, blue waters, and white-capped mountains. In his genre-bending guidebook-memoir City of Glass, pop-culture savant Douglas Coupland calls Vancouver the Everycity, a collection of villages that can morph into any U.S. metropolis "save for those in the American Southwest and possibly Miami." Innumerable feature films, TV movies, and X-Files episodes have rendered Coupland's statement irrefutable.
In the decade since I first began coming to North America's third-busiest film and television production center, Vancouver has exercised a pull over me. Though the exchange rate for Canadian dollars has taken a tumble, the city remains a relatively inexpensive urban getaway. Even Vancouver International Airport, a galleria of waterfalls and striking displays of native art, has more the feeling of a cultural immersion center than of a dreaded transit point. It's always tempting to explore the mountains and islands that surround the city, but in six visits, I have managed to leave only for day trips to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, on Vancouver Island, and the foothills of Whistler. Perhaps that's because, although these destinations have the enduring allure of the past, the city's pull is greater because it's constantly in a state of flux.
Like other great North American ports, Vancouver contains a colorful array of districts, with personalities that range from posh to punk. Some neighborhoods are firmly entrenched cultural communities—Chinatown boasts a weekend-night market not dissimilar to those found in Hong Kong. Other districts, like Kitsilano and Commercial Drive, offer somewhat generic takes on upscale San Francisco crunchiness. There's the manufactured appeal of Yaletown, a SoHo-ish chunk of converted warehouses now filled with trendy shops and restaurants; and the authenticity of Gastown—a historic district, traditionally a tourist destination, that's experiencing its own influx of international furniture and fashion emporiums. Almost anywhere you go in Vancouver, however, one unifying quality emerges: it is an uncommonly functional and versatile place, just large enough to satisfy the curiosity of even the most jaded travelers. It's a big city that nonetheless feels friendly and intimate. That friendliness comes from its sociable, socially progressive populace, many of whom came to stake a claim in the global lifestyle of this 21st-century town. "It's the terminus of the nation," Saddy explains. "People come here to remake or reinvent themselves."
Tonight at Lift, the chefs had taken it upon themselves to reinvent appetizers as "whet plates"—Dungeness crab cakes with peppered strawberries, cardamom-roasted lobster claws with pickled beets, and fig-braised beef short ribs. These dishes are perfect examples of what Saddy calls West Coast cuisine: local ingredients filtered through the preparation techniques of Southeast Asia and continental Europe. In Vancouver, he notes, "novellas have replaced menus."
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.
Tonight, however, Guy Saddy, his wife, Indishne, and their friend Marybeth Jenner want to introduce me to izakaya, a form of Japanese street food that's currently in vogue in Vancouver. We gather in the lobby of the Opus Hotel, the central meeting point in Yaletown for locals and visiting hipsters. A short cab ride (or healthy hike) from downtown and the harbor, the Opus is patronized predominantly by sleek-suited members of the advertising, fashion, and film worlds. Many guest rooms feature glass walls in the bathrooms, which are equipped with floor-to-ceiling window shades, while the sleeping areas are comfortably outfitted in what is best described as late-20th-century-loft minimalism. Unfortunately, the service I experienced on a previous overnight visit was equally minimal (there's a difference between chilled-out and chilly), but for drinks and people-watching, the Opus puts on quite a show. It's easy to be lulled into a second round, lounging on the lobby's baroque benches and listening to a generic Euro-house sound track, but we have dinner reservations.
Chopstick Café Shiru-Bay is housed in a dark concrete-and-black steel space with exposed heating ducts, industrial pendant lights, and hard benches. Happily, izakaya is not street food of the meat-on-a-stick variety, but a more refined mix of sushi, a winter squash called kabocha, noodle dishes, and fish charred tableside by a gas torch—each dish priced under $10. After dinner, we stroll toward the water, where yet more apartment towers have sprung up on the former site of the World's Fair (known as Expo 86). These glittering new residences would have been built sooner, my friends inform me, except for some pesky pollution and toxic materials issues that had to be addressed.
On Saturday morning the city sparkles; but instead of embracing its sunny futurism, I feel like exploring part of its more primitive past. I want to find an inukshuk, the stone symbol that will be ubiquitous by the time the Winter Games roll into town. First, however, comes brunch. In Vancouver, that can mean anything from raw-bar seafood to dim sum to diner grub at venerable Sophie's Cosmic Café, but I want to see what Rob Feenie is cooking. Feenie, who hosts a show on the Canadian Food Network, did his nation proud by taking down Iron Chef Morimoto in the "battle of crab." Having worked for both Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the native Vancouverite puts a French spin on the Anglo-Americanisms of Canadian cuisine at Lumière, the nation's first freestanding Relais Gourmand restaurant.
Plush and pale green, Lumière is a dinner-only establishment, but, like Vij, Feenie has opened a more casual spot next door; Feenie's is a riot of lipstick-inspired design. On the advice of today's companions, Chris and Gillian Parry, I order the breakfast poutine. A fast-food standard that takes its name from its Québéçois origins, poutine is an artery-endangering mixture of potatoes, gravy, and cheese curds. At Feenie's, however, these gravy-cheesy fries also come with lardons and soft-poached eggs. Since the French colloquial term for "death on a plate" fails to materialize on my tongue, I dig in. Chris and Gillian assure me that this gourmet version is much lighter fare than the traditional poutine, but for much of the rest of the afternoon, I feel fairly inukshuk-like myself.
We meander through Kitsilano, a neighborhood Saddy has warned me about thus: "Be careful you don't get trampled by Beautiful People carrying yoga mats." Kits, as it is known, lies to the southwest of downtown, spilling down a hill to an impressive vista of the city. Its base is a pristine beach filled with bronzed athletes playing volleyball and herds of golden retrievers. Kits is also home to a staggering number of yoga and athletic-gear superstores, including Lululemon Athletica, a brand so stylish that I leave its flagship store several hundred dollars lighter.
Located far from Paris, London, Montreal, and Toronto, and heavily influenced by an influx of Asian design, Vancouver has developed its own vibrant fashion scenes. South Main Street (christened SoMa by real estate developers) is home to some of the city's most eccentric shopkeepers. Lawrence Sampson, the owner of Motherland, offers his house brand of sophisticated punk graphics-splashed sportswear and T-shirts; Pleasant Girl, his girl-next-door shop, sells what he calls "cutting-edge frilly" clothing and accessories by Canadian designers. At Eugene Choo, co-owners Fiona and Kildare Curtis rally around young Vancouver labels Dust, Picnic, and Sunja Link, which specialize in beautifully tailored Agnès B.-meets-Miu Miu looks. Up the street, Alexander Lamb Antiques has odd and intriguing furnishings and nautical pieces along with a backroom collection of vintage tribal photographs in a mini-museum called Exotic World.
I head across the Cambie Bridge, which connects the south side of Vancouver to the downtown districts. Next stop: Gastown. One of the oldest areas of the city, it sits adjacent to the harbor and has brick-lined streets, Irish pubs, music clubs, and port-of-call souvenir shops. Water Street, its commercial center, has been reclaimed by upscale contemporary furniture stores such as Inform Interiors and Small Medium Large, and by Richard Kidd, a fashion atelier built as a glass row house in a former parking lot between two brick buildings. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the owner's handsome Bernese mountain dogs, greet customers who sweep through the gallery setting, admiring Stella McCartney and Balenciaga frocks and testing Comme des Garçons colognes.
There are other Gastown diversions, I am told; hemporiums, like the New Amsterdam Café, have sprung up in response to hazy marijuana laws. With a mixture of pride and pain, Vancouverites will tell you that the city's liberal drug policies are not blissfully naïve. The intersection of Main and Hastings at the edge of Gastown is known locally as Pain and Wastings. In this area, heroin addicts have a safe site where they can inject themselves using clean hypodermics from a needle exchange. It's a controversial program, but typical of Vancouver's socially forward-thinking tendencies. Even so, this is the one part of the city that people avoid—not so much because it scares them but because it is so heart-wrenchingly sad.
On Sunday, I decide to put the previous day's purchases to use on a bike tour. I walk north through the city, past the outdoor cafés and through charming neighborhoods with Victorian houses, Craftsman cottages, and stark modern apartment buildings. On Denman Street, I rent a funny little bicycle, a cross between an old-school Sting-Ray and a three-speed roadster. Map in hand, I pedal past cyclists, Rollerbladers, and pedestrians. There are shortcuts and diversions all along the way: a cluster of totem poles, the Brockton Point lighthouse, water lily-covered Beaver Lake, and the magnificent 1938 Lions Gate Bridge, which connects the city to North and West Vancouver. Along a bumpy leaf-covered side trail, I skid to an abrupt stop as my bicycle chain jumps its gears. I'm stalled, but it's hard to muster frustration in the middle of a forest of cedars and Douglas firs. Instead, I breathe and take it all in: the fragrance of salty air through evergreen needles, the magnificence of groves of old trees forming their own small cities in counterpoint with the glass towers of Vancouver. Before long, a passing middle-aged cyclist stops, hops off his bike, and easily slips the chain back on while I hold my inverted bike in place. Nothing to it.
I head back to the road more traveled, following a path that winds around the edge of the park. The Pacific Ocean spreads out before me off Third Beach and Second Beach. (Vancouverites laughingly say that after the early settlers gave names to Sunset Beach and English Bay Beach, they got lazy and just numbered the rest.)
Not that they are generic by any means. Indeed, there's something on these beaches I have never seen before: great piles formed from rocks and the occasional piece of driftwood, huge demi-boulders improbably stacked on golf ball-sized pebbles. Built by patient souls with extremely steady hands, they tower majestically above the sand and water. Some recall abstract statues by Jean Arp, some have a Stonehenge stoicism, others are primitive glyphs—rock-and-stick figures. The locals who assemble them refer to these impromptu, impermanent sculptures as "balanced stones," but to me, they're a modern version of the inukshuk. Their existence may owe more to whimsy than to ritual, but their artful arrangement and baffling equilibrium are a perfectly apt metaphor for the delicacy and depth of Vancouver. Tomorrow morning they'll probably be gone, toppled by the incoming tide, but before long they'll be rebuilt in new configurations, mirroring the ever-changing skyline of the city.
WHEN TO GO
Vancouver is one of the most temperate cities in Canada, with warm summer days, cooler nights, and occasional rain and fog. Winters are mild, and spring comes early, with a profusion of cherry and plum blossoms.
Along with Air Canada, carriers including United and Continental offer economical flights. Official identification—a passport or an original birth certificate and a driver's license—is required.
WHERE TO STAY
1300 Robson St.; 800/663-5491 or 604/684-8461; www.thelistelhotel.com; doubles from $315.
322 Davie St.; 866/642-6787 or 604/642-6787; www.opushotel.com; doubles from $375.
Wedgewood Hotel & Spa
845 Hornby St.; 800/663-0666 or 604/689-7777; www.wedgewoodhotel.com; doubles from $360.
WHERE TO EAT
Chopstick Café Shiru-Bay
1193 Hamilton St.; 604/408-9315; dinner for two $55.
2563 W. Broadway; 604/739-7115; brunch for two $45.
Lift Bar Grill View
333 Menchion Mews; 604/689-5438; dinner for two $100.
2551 W. Broadway; 604/739-8185; eight-course tasting menu from $115 per person. Closed Mondays.
1488 W. 11th Ave.; 604/736-5711; dinner for two $55.
Sophie's Cosmic Café
Classic retro diner with belly-bomb omelettes and soda fountain. 2095 W. Fourth Ave.; 604/732-6810; brunch for two $23.
1480 W. 11th Ave.; 604/736-6664; dinner for two $90.
WHERE TO SHOP
Alexander Lamb Antiques and Exotic World Museum
3271 Main St.; 604/876-8713.
2912 Granville St.; 604/742-1522.
Douglas Reynolds Gallery
2335 Granville St.; 604/731-9292.
3683 Main St.; 604/873-8874.
97 Water St.; 604/682-3868.
2113 W. Fourth Ave.; 877/263-9300 or 604/732-6111; www.lululemon.com.
2539 Main St.; 604/876-3426.
Clothing from local designers. 205332 Water St.; 604/669-9727.
1512 W. 14th Ave.; 604/736-4499.
2541 Main St.; 604/677-4024.
65 Water St.; 604/677-1880.
"Wearable art" from B.C. designers and Norway's Oleana. 207 Abbott St.; 604/801-6262.
WHAT TO DO
By air See the city, coast, and mountains from the Grouse Mountain Skyride, the largest aerial tram in North America. www.grousemountain.com; $27.
By sea Ride the Aquabus, a short-haul ferry service on False Creek that stops at the Granville Island market and Yaletown, among other popular spots. 604/689-5858; www.theaquabus.com; one stop $2.25, 25-minute tour $5.40.
By land Rent a bicycle on Denman Street to cruise nearby Stanley Park and English Bay. Bayshore Bike Rentals; 745 Denman St.; 604/688-2453; www.bayshorebikerentals.ca.
WHAT TO READ
City of Glass by Douglas Coupland. Anecdotal and autobiographical introduction to the city by the novelist who coined the term Generation X.
Georgia Straight The city's weekly alternative publication, available free at kiosks citywide.