by Lee Foster
Brawny Vancouver, with its huge container port, and sedate Victoria, with afternoon tea at the dowager Empress Hotel, suggest the contrasting appeals of British Columbia’s major cities.
Begin a visit to Vancouver with a walk out to Canada Place, the pier on the waterfront, where you get a good sense of the harbor.
From Canada Place you can see the container shipping, the ferries, the float-plane taxis, and the maritime prosperity of Vancouver. You can also look west toward the greenery of Stanley Park and south to the skyscrapers of downtown. All this is visible from the decks adjacent to the huge sail-like architecture of Canada Place, a legacy of Vancouver’s Expo of 1986.
That Expo is now a distant memory, but it was a significant event. To the credit of Canadian diplomacy, this was the first world fair where the Chinese, the Russians, and the Americans were all peaceably present.
Today, forestry products, fishing, and tourism are the three industries that fuel British Columbia commerce.
Vancouver has prospered since the beginning, when it was chosen as the terminus for the Canadian transcontinental railroad in 1887. The harbor accommodates 3,000 major vessels a year, from more than 90 trading nations, which do an exchange of goods estimated to be worth $43 billion. As Canada’s largest west-coast port, Vancouver also gets its chunk of the 878,000 pleasure travelers who cruised to Alaska last year.
From Canada Place, walk toward the tall circular skyscraper known as Harbour Centre Tower. Take the elevator to The Look Out at the top and get a bird’s-eye view of Vancouver. There is also a restaurant.
Then walk along the waterfront, specifically down Water Street, to Gastown, Vancouver’s restored brick shopping area of small galleries and restaurants. In Gastown, be sure to see the Steam Clock, an old-time working clock, and the bronze statue of Gassy Jack, one of the early town luminaries, known for his loquaciousness.
Gastown features galleries devoted to Canadian Indian arts and crafts, both traditional and modern. Several such stores are intriguing to visit.
Hill’s Indian Crafts (165 Water Street) has a huge general-store assortment of arts and crafts. One warm memento is a wool sweater from the Cowichan natives who live on Vancouver Island. Hill’s also has an upstairs gallery selling fine art and a large book section on Canadian native art. From masks to silver jewelry, Hill’s has a huge selection. As the manager of Hill’s puts it, “We have everything from $10 crafts to high-end art pieces.”
The Inuit (345 Water) is a store for collectors interested in art objects at the highest level. Inuit carries striking pieces of stone carving, wooden masks, and graphics. The owner confidently and succinctly sums up the store, saying, “We’re the strongest store in Canada for this kind of masterwork art.”
Canada’s indigenous people are among the main traveler attractions of Vancouver. At the Anthropology Museum on the grounds of the University of British Columbia, you can see a handsome display of totem poles from Canadian Pacific Indians. A cluster of these historic poles is housed in the museum structure, a striking glass building with high windows overlooking English Bay. In the Great Hall of the building the totem poles, with their stories of legendary creatures, can be perused. (Take a taxi or a tour to get to the rather distant University area.)
Although the figures, such as the raven and the bear, can be recognized, the detailed stories associated with them and the context of their stories is only imperfectly known. Since these Indians had no written language, but were relatively wealthy, thriving on plentiful salmon and berries, the totem pole stories were a repository of tribal lore. The prerogative to tell certain stories during the leisurely winter period was an important part of the tribal ritual.
The Anthropology Museum building was designed by architect Arthur Erickson, whose name comes up often in this city, most notably with the downtown Vancouver Art Gallery. Outside, you’ll find additional totem poles with a more contemporary design and several Haida Indian dwellings. The Anthropology Museum is a major cultural force in Vancouver. Visitors can easily compare basketry, ceremonial food dishes, dance masks, or fabrics from the six major native groups of British Columbia.
Be sure to see, in the museum theater, Haida artist Bill Reid’s famous sculpture, The Raven and the First Men. The sculpture depicts a Haida myth in which the raven, always a mischievous and powerful trickster, spots the first men, emerging from a clam shell. The raven cajoles them into coming out into the world.
Back in the downtown, walk into the high-rise district. The main experience offered here are the huge shopping complexes, all indoors, as retailers in these rainy, cold, northern cities require. Stop for a look, for example, at Eaton’s and at the Hudson Bay Company, a Canadian business with historic roots. Robson is among the most posh streets for specialty shops and fine restaurants.
Ethnicity, such a touchy issue in Canada in the east, with the French-English tension over Quebec, is one of the attractions for a traveler in Vancouver. The Chinese, Indian (meaning from India), and Italian sections are all worth exploring.
The Chinese district, not far from Gastown, is large and busy. Chinatown, which stretches along Pender Street from Carrall Street to Gore Avenue, provides a lively ambiance of cafes and bustling vegetable, meat, and fish sellers. The Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden and Park lies adjacent to the Chinese Cultural Centre at 50 E. Pender Street. Stop in at the center for a walking tour map of the area.
The Indian area around the Punjabi Market is a substantial taxi ride from downtown. Get out at 6500 Main to discover this area, extending for four blocks. There you’ll see food stores, such as All Indian Foods, selling bulk curries, every sort of lentil, plenty of varieties of eggplant and okra, and a wide array of cumin or coriander. Sweet shops feature Indian confections. Frontier Cloth House is the largest sari shop in Vancouver. There are gold jewelry creators and an all-Indian travel agency specializing in trips to London or the orient. For lunch, try Dawat (5076 Victoria Street). Ask for the chef’s assortment of curried meats and exotic vegetable concoctions. An estimated quarter-million Indians live in the Greater Vancouver area. In Canada, only Toronto has a larger Indian population.
The Italian enclave is on Commercial Street, starting at 1900 Commercial and running four blocks. See the Italian grocery stores, especially Santa Barbara, with its huge selections of pasta and cheese. The JN&Z Deli carries ample home-made sausage and smoked meats. Continental Coffee has been roasting beans at this location for three generations. Kalena’s features Italian-made shoes. The Dr. Vigari Gallery has arresting metal sculptures and much furniture art.
A new influx of well-to-do immigrants now transforms Vancouver. Along the sea-wall in Stanley Park, you might hear Iranian spoken or see a prosperous merchant prince from Hong Kong out for a stroll.
Note that it takes some time to explore the ethnic districts, except for Chinatown, which is near downtown.
A further downtown treat is the Vancouver Art Gallery. Know that the word gallery in Canada sometimes means museum rather than commercial art shop. The Vancouver Art Gallery is such a museum, featuring work by Emily Carr, a British Columbia artist who portrayed the declining Indian culture and the Western landscape.
Adjacent to the Vancouver Art Gallery is the major traditional hotel, the Hotel Vancouver, with its clubby lobby bar. This grande dame provides counterpoint with the major new hotels of the city, such as the Waterfront Centre, near Canada Place. Waterfront Centre offers all modern amenities and a view of the harbor.
If you have an urge to walk, consider the perimeter seawall walk in Stanley Park. This peninsular walk amounts to an eight-mile outing and can be taken in sections. From Stanley Park, you look back at the skyline of the city. In the park you’ll find an aquarium, with rare, white beluga whales.
As a final attraction in Vancouver, spend an afternoon strolling around Granville Island, an enlightened example of urban planning and restoration. This 37-acre site was an industrial slum before its transformation began in 1977. Granville Island now unites working, living, and playing in a suitable, integrated mix. Several maritime businesses, such as the historic Canada Chain and Forge, fabricators of maritime chains, are the main commercial activity on Granville Island. Tucked amidst these sea-oriented enterprises are outdoor restaurants (try Mulvaney’s), shops, theaters, and art galleries. There is an ingenious child’s playground, called Adventure Playground, where children turn on and off the water of fire hydrants. Another major draw for Granville Island is the Public Market, which attracts residents from all over the region to buy fresh produce, fruit, fish, meat, and flowers. The Public Market’s adjacent cafes and restaurants have become a favorite meeting place for Vancouverites.
Landscaped walks and plenty of benches invite a common citizen to enjoy the maritime scenery of Granville Island without feeling like a vagrant. Stop in at the Emily Carr College of Art to see student work.
Beyond Granville Island, the best view of Vancouver is from Queen Elizabeth Park, which is elevated. The Seasons in the Park Restaurant has a commanding panoramic look at the city as you savor a glass of wine or pause for lunch or dinner. One distinguished element on the skyline is the huge white dome known as Vancouver Place. This is one of the the world’s largest air-supported dome stadiums. Although the teflon skin of the dome is less that a thirtieth of an inch thick, it is said to be stronger than steel.
Vancouver supports a lively nightlife, especially comedy theater. See what’s on at the Arts Club Mainstage. Theater enthusiasts should also check out Vancouver Playhouse.
Victoria is one of the few cities in North America that accurately merits the description “charming.” Focused around an inner harbor of manageable size are an elegant hotel, the Empress; the provincial legislative building, a handsome grey stone structure; an extraordinary museum devoted to natural and human history; and a low-rise brick shopping district of Victorian storefronts.
Victoria has a reputation for civility, cleanliness, and safety. Located on Vancouver Island, west of Vancouver, it is the capital of the province, though accessible only by air or ferries.
“More British than the British” is a phrase one might hear in Victoria. Humorists call the city a place of “the nearly dead and the newly wed.” The city is a peaceful and scenic place for Canadians to retire. A steady government employment makes poverty unusual.
In only a few destinations does a lodging epitomize the place. The Empress Hotel in Victoria is one of those rare examples. The stately Empress, built in 1908 and located right at the bend of the inner harbor, exudes traditional charm. A traveler who can forsake blue jeans for a day should dress up a little and take afternoon tea in the hotel’s grand lobby. You get instruction on sequence–milk and sugar cubes in the cup before the tea is poured. This proper tea includes the traditional tea foods. The ceremony starts with a fruit cup, proceeds to honey-toasted crumpets, and reaches a finale with cucumber sandwiches and scones. To this repast the participants add polite conversation. The hotel’s Bengal Lounge, noted for its curry buffet, brings the flavors of The Empire to Victoria. In Victoria a traveler is reminded of Canada’s ties to the British commonwealth.
A Greyline City Tour is recommended here to get a sense of the beautiful homes and gardens along the fringes of the water. Victoria is “Canada’s Garden City” because of the mild maritime climate. In certain subdivisions, such as the Uplands, woe unto the household that does not garden with enough vigor to maintain the landscape up to community standards. If necessary, the gardening will be done for the homeowner, and they will be billed. The tour lets you off the bus to stroll the Oak Bay Marina. Oak trees are a lovely amenity of the city. On the tour you see some of the beautiful parks, such as Beacon Hill, for which the city is justly famous. Local humorists assert that when you pass from a merely comfortable neighborhood to a posh neighborhood, you have passed through The Tweed Curtain.
After a City Tour for orientation, begin exploring on foot with a look at the Royal British Columbia Museum, one of the country’s outstanding museums. The Natural History displays here depict the British Columbia ecosystems and remind a traveler that as recently as 10,000 years ago there were woolly mammoths wandering the terrain as the Ice Age retreated. The re-creation of natural environments is especially effective, such as elk in a forest habitat.
The Human History part of the museum presents the 12,000-year story of the First Nations, as Canadians like to call the native population. The museum presents their skill at catching fish, their artistry in weaving goat-wool or reed capes, and their rich spirituality, as seen in masks and stories. The museum’s collection of totem poles and masks is truly outstanding. You also see snatches of the 1914 film by Edward Curtis documenting Indian ceremonials.
Walk from the museum to the adjacent legislative building, the expression of Canadian political power in the west. In front of the legislature, chances are you’ll see, in port, the ferry that travels back and forth to Port Angeles, and the hydrofoil that makes high-speed runs to Seattle.
Then walk past the harbor to Government Street, where the compact shopping area begins. One interesting art shop is native painter Roy Vicker’s Eagle Aerie Gallery. Vicker’s distinctive graphics are as recognizable as Gormon’s paintings of Navajo women in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Roger’s Chocolate is the premier chocolate shop. Munro’s Books is good for browsing. Chandler’s Seafood Restaurant has a huge whale mural on its side. Handsome Victorian brick buildings on Yates Street invite admiration. There are many antique stores on Fort Street.
The Chinatown district of Victoria purports to be the oldest Chinatown in Canada. The area is small and easy to grasp. See the herbalist shop Fung Hing Hong, where herbal medicines are mixed in prescriptions. The medicines, such as many types of ginseng, are then ground up and steeped as a tea to be drunk, effecting a cure. View the massive gates of Chinatown and the gambling paraphernalia at the Chinatown Trading Company. For lunch, try dim sum at Kwong Tung.
A short ride from downtown, you can enjoy a pioneering brew-pub, the Spinnaker. It is said that when Paul Hadfield founded this brew-pub, back in 1984, it was the sixth brew-pub to start in North America. Try a selection of ales, followed by a dinner of the famous chowder and possibly filet of sole or snapper.
The grandest garden environment to explore in Victoria is Butchart Gardens, visited by close to a million people each year. The lavish 55-acre floral display is in the former limestone cement quarry of industrialist Robert Pim Butchart. As the quarry’s useful life declined, Butchart’s wife, Jennie, began the substantial gardens, now a showplace of the floral arts. See the view from the Sunken Garden and peruse such varied floriculture wonders as the Dahlia Walk, Rose Garden, Italian Garden and Japanese Garden.
Getting to Victoria can be part of the fun. Take the bus or your car from Vancouver, which means the bus or car will get on the ferry, transporting you through the Gulf Islands waterway. The bus can drop you right at your hotel. A car gives you added mobility for sightseeing. While on the ferry, you get off the bus or out of your car and parade about on the comfortable upper deck, enjoying the scenery. Smaller ferries are the lifeline of the communities on the islands. The B.C. ferries operate one of the largest ferry systems anywhere.
Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia: If You Go
For over-all British Columbia tourism information, contact Tourism British Columbia at www.hellobc.com.
For Vancouver information, contact the Tourism Vancouver, www.tourismvancouver.com.
For Victoria information, contact Tourism Victoria, www.tourismvictoria.com.