My friend Ed Salvato – the ultimate gay travel guru – has teamed up with Billy Kolber (also no slouch in the gay travel department, as founder of Out & About) to create ManAboutWorld magazine, a new travel publication for the iPad. I’m thrilled to be contributing to it occasionally; here’s a piece on Vancouver I wrote for the November edition. For the full effect be sure to download the App and see the magazine for yourself!
The beauty of Vancouver can drive a grown man to cry. With its forest of glass towers nestled where the mountains of the Canadian West rise and fall into the Pacific, Vancouver is one of the world’s most beautiful spots – but somehow still off the radar of most travelers.
An influx of money and Asian immigrants has changed the look of Vancouver over the past three decades from self-described backwater to cosmopolitan global city. At its heart, though, it remains a genuinely down-to-earth place (the recent debut of “Real Housewives of Vancouver” notwithstanding) rife for exploring.
Befitting the region’s progressive reputation, Vancouver is also home to a sizable gay population, which hoists its rainbow flag in the Davie Village section of the West End (not to be confused with West Vancouver, to the north, or the West Side, to the south).
Get your bearings at ground zero, near the corner of Thurlow and Davie Streets, but don’t be alarmed if the crowds happen to be thin: locals in this outdoorsy place are as likely to be found at the neighborhood’s many lively watering holes as they are doing what Vancouverites do best – being out and active in their slice of paradise.
Exercise is religion here, but so is good food. A pair of upcoming events is perfect excuse (as if you needed one) to plan a winter visit. January brings the two-week Dine Out Vancouver Festival, touted as the largest food festival in the country, with more than 200 restaurants offering up their diverse menus on the cheap. The huge Vancouver International Wine Festival follows in February and is a tippler’s time to try the surprising fruits of the Okanagan, the wine-producing area in the province’s interior, and a variety of other vintners from around the globe.
Vancouver has a democratic, energizing feel shaped as much by its landscape as its young age (barely 100 years), and its relative isolation from the rest of Canada (it is, after all, 2,000 miles from Toronto, the city that locals love to hate).
As a “left-coast” city, Vancouverites take ‘left’ to heart; even its right-wing politics would be left of center in most of America. The birthplace of Greenpeace and other environmental movements like The 100 Mile Diet, Vancouver is ultimately a place where locals love to protest everything, coming rightly by their stereotype of being a bunch of bike-riding, vegetarian, hippies.
With its mild year-round climate, Vancouver is simply a city obsessed with the outdoors; regardless of when you visit, though, be sure to pack your Polar fleece to look like a local.
Packed with dozens of shiny residential towers oriented west for the best sunset views or north to the overreaching mountains, Vancouver’s thumb-shaped downtown peninsula has become a model of successful urban planning the world over. A good place to gaze at the growth is from the observatory atop the Harbour Centre Tower, 50 storeys above the bustling streetscape. It’s also the perfect vantage point to begin to understand the scale of the city, which was once known as a mere “village at the edge of a rainforest,” but is now home to more than two million people.
Vancouver is a city fueled by good coffee. Delany’s Coffee House on Denman Street is one of the city’s best people-watching spots, particularly on weekend mornings as the lululemon-clad masses spill out of nearby Stanley Park. Fuel up here, and while you’re at it, check out your horoscope (posted daily by the dairy) and your email (with the free Wi-Fi). Amusingly, Vancouver also has numerous intersections where there’s a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks.
So far-reaching is the Asian influence in Vancouver that one in two residents can trace their heritage to the Far East. The connection provides unbelievable selection and quality in the city’s dining scene; you’d be hard pressed to find better Indian, Chinese or Korean cuisine this side of the Pacific. Hapa Izakaya, with four local locations, is among the city’s best joints, turning out inventive sushi, sashimi, and tapas. Still, you’d be remiss if you didn’t check out Vancouver’s latest craze, the ubiquitous food truck. Dozens have sprouted up as part of a new city initiative (there’s even an app for that – Street Food Vancouver) so the selection can be dizzying, but one standout is La Brasserie, an offering from the folks that created the French-German restaurant of the same name on Davie Street. In the West End, the chefs at laid-back Lolita’s dish up wild British Columbia salmon tacos and other delights, appropriately paired with wines from the province’s wine country. No late night in Vancouver should end without a stop at Fritz, the tiny French fry-shack that’s consistently jammed with revelers into the wee hours.
You could be forgiven for thinking you’re in New York or L.A. when you set foot in 1181, the chic bar-lounge that consistently packs a young, attractive crowd. Next door, the neighborhood PumpJack Pub fills to the gills on weekends (or any time the hometown Canucks are on TV) with an older mix. Don’t be put off by the peanut shells on the floor – this truly is a no-fuss spot. Down the block, the main draw of easy-going Oasis is its “Social Sundays” rooftop patio party where the bartenders sling $8 pitchers of local beer. The street-side terrace at the otherwise unremarkable-looking Fountainhead can feel a bit like the town square of the Davie Village. It’s a prime place to people watch and meet locals (even on a cold day, thanks to its gas fire pit).
STANLEY PARK STRUT
Meet locals and burn off your Friday night calories by getting sweaty with Frontrunners, the local LGBT running club, which welcomes visitors during their free group runs each Saturday morning in Stanley Park. With its famous seven mile Seawall—a paved path that courses around the perimeter and overlooks the mountains and the sea—the massive park is an excellent spot to while away a few hours or even a full day. If you’re lucky, you might even glimpse a whale in the bay. The final leg of the park loop cruises by English Bay Beach, one of the city’s most popular stretches of sand (especially at sunset).
HIT THE SLOPES
Vancouver has always been a draw for ski bunnies, with a season that can start in late fall and run well into spring (though occasionally the snow doesn’t fall when it’s supposed to, as the world witnessed during the balmy 2010 Winter Olympics). Whistler is two hours away, and its annual WinterPRIDE Gay Ski Week, which runs every February, is among the largest such events in the world. Closer to town, Grouse Mountain looms high over Vancouver and provides skiers with breathtaking views of the city – especially at night – and the surrounding waters of the Pacific.
Poke around the studios and shops of Granville Island, the once-derelict warehouse area, where today local artisans sell their wares and provide demonstrations of their craft. Locavores will like the island’s popular farmer’s market, which runs into autumn. Getting there is half the fun: the island is accessed by a 5-minute mini-ferry ride (the Aquabus) across False Creek from downtown. Fans of microbrews won’t want to miss a tour of the Granville Island Brewing Company, which includes tastings of their signature lagers and pilsners. Enjoy a pint as you pan your eyes northward to the towers of Yaletown, the converted industrial district downtown that is often lauded as a prime example of urban rebirth.
Smack dab in the middle of downtown is the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), one of Canada’s largest art museums, which features a trove of works by Marc Chagall as well as the world’s largest collection of landscapes by Emily Carr, Canada’s preeminent female artist. The museum is small enough that a tour of it can easily fit into even the shortest of itineraries, but any visit should include a peek at the one-time courthouse’s interesting architectural details. In usual Vancouver fashion, there’s often a protest happening outside on the museum grounds.
RICH MEETS POOR
Vancouver is a city of contrasts. The flip side to its impressive show of wealth is its reputation as Canada’s poverty capital. Nowhere is that divide more evident than in the notorious Downtown Eastside, where mere blocks from names like Tiffany and Hermès the plight of the most vulnerable are exposed in plain sight. With its mild weather, the city has attracted the underprivileged in droves, and today the Downtown Eastside is plagued by homelessness and open-air drug use. It’s long been called a neighborhood the city’s progress forgot, and for now it offers little to the average tourist, but it is still a place to be aware of.
For the city’s most luxurious hotel experience, nothing surpasses the pampering of the Shangri-La Vancouver, the first North American outpost of the Hong Kong-based chain. Housed in Vancouver’s tallest tower, the hotel boasts sumptuous rooms with understated Asian hospitality.
The Opus Hotel is one of the city’s original boutique hotels and still among its best bets, with stylish, generously sized rooms. The location in gentrified Yaletown, steps from the Seawall and the Davie Village, and just across the street from SkyTrain to the airport, is hard to beat.
For an affordable, no-frills option (with a bonus of free Wi-Fi), check out the Sandman Suites Vancouver in the heart of the Davie Village and at the doorstep of numerous nightlife options. Its balconies offer unobstructed ocean views perfect for taking in the superb Vancouver sunset.
The moderately priced Metropolitan Hotel Vancouver was originally built in the 1980s as the first Mandarin Oriental in the Americas and retains remnants of the chain’s famous elegance.
Canada’s own Fairmont Hotels chain claims no fewer than four local locations, including the castle-like Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, which dominated the city skyline when it was built in 1939, and the attractive new Fairmont Pacific Rim, on the Coal Harbour waterfront, with a rooftop pool and cabanas.
The gorgeous Vancouver International Airport is filled with British Columbia art, much of it created or inspired by the province’s First Nations communities, and is well-served by most global airlines. For an uncommon experience from the United States, travel aficionados know to take Cathay Pacific’s under-the-radar New York-Vancouver nonstop flight, which operates daily and offers all the class you’d expect from the acclaimed Hong Kong airline. No matter how you arrive, skip the taxi stand and head straight to the zippy SkyTrain for the convenient 20-minute train ride downtown (daily, 5 a.m. – 1 a.m.).