Back in May, a few days after slogging through my last exam of the semester, I took a trip to Vancouver, Canada. Despite having flown a total of 15 hours, in some ways I felt like had never left Scotland: the sky was grey and drizzly, locals wore shorts in 13°C weather and salmon featured prominently in markets and restaurants.
But in other, more significant ways this Pacific Northwest city did feel an entire ocean plus continent away. Vancouver is unique as the intersection of an urban centre and barely-touched nature, as well as one between European, Asian and Native American cultures. Here is a 36-hour snippet of my time exploring this eclectic city.
Right after picking up my luggage, my family and I headed straight to the Richmond Night Market. Both the airport and the night market – which is only open on weekends and holidays in the summer – are located in Richmond, a suburb where 65 per cent of the residents are of Asian descent.
This was evident in the market’s famous food stands. The rows of stalls were congested with hungry visitors, waiting impatiently for favourites like grilled octopus, skewered meat, dumplings and takoyaki, Japanese fried dough-balls filled with octopus and topped with a special sweet, sticky sauce. Oddly enough, however, the biggest crowd formed at the stand selling ‘Rotato’, a deep-fried, spiral-cut potato on a stick.
Though the food stalls were pretty pricey (on top of the $2.75 Canadian dollar entrance fee), the food was decent in both size and flavour. My family shared the food we bought, so that each of us could taste some of everything without getting overly full. We wandered along the other half of the night market as we digested, browsing the carnival games and the stalls selling assorted items, including socks, phone cases and makeup imported from Asia. We then called it a night and drove to our hotel, located in downtown Vancouver.
The next morning, we took advantage of our prime location in the city centre and went for a short walk around the shops. The buildings in this area were silver and sleek, and many were over 30 stories high. There were plenty of people milling about, both locals and tourists, but only enough to make the city feel lively, not crowded.
We then headed to brunch at one of Vancouver’s many dim sum restaurants. The shu mai (pork dumplings), ha gow (shrimp dumplings), roast pork buns and egg custard buns, served in bamboo baskets, were delicious. But we should have been more wary of over-ordering: each piece of dim sum was gigantic, and we ended up leaving with several takeout boxes of leftover food.
After dropping off our leftovers, we drove out of Vancouver along the Sea to Sky Highway. Named the fifth best road trip in the world by The Guardian, this highway hugs the sheer coastal mountainside. This makes for breath-taking views of the hilly islands in Howe Sound, covered in evergreens right up to the water’s edge. It was foggy on the day that I drove by, but the mist merely completed the image of the Pacific Northwest often seen on nature programmes.
We reached the Sea to Sky Gondola, located in Squamish, after an hour’s drive and took the gondola lift halfway up the mountainside. A round-trip ticket costs $35.95 ($33.95 online), and it is well worth it. Not only does the gondola save you hours of strenuous hiking, but it also offers aerial views of Howe Sound. Even though the weather obscured the sights on the day I went, it was still an experience to be that high in the air and almost completely surrounded by fog. It muffled all sounds coming from outside the gondola, creating a feeling of tranquil isolation from the world.
Once we got off the gondola, we walked across the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge. This pedestrian bridge hangs high over a valley, with views of the surrounding mountains and the sound. The scenery was beautiful, but as someone with a fear of heights, all I could do was take a few pictures at the start before quickly walking across, the bridge swaying beneath my feet.
After crossing the bridge, we chose to walk along one of the trails. The trails range from ones that require ropes and rock climbing to ones that are an easy, level walk through the woods. We chose one of the latter, the Panoramic Trail. It took us on a 1.6-kilometre loop through the forest, with ponds, benches, and viewing platforms along the way. Evergreen trees stood tall around us, stretching into the fog, and ferns and flowering plants dotted the ground. I almost expected a deer to peek out and complete my overwhelming impression of being in a scene from Twilight. But the only wildlife we saw was a red-headed woodpecker, whose persistent knocking carried through the fog.
When planning a trip to the Sea to Sky Gondola, it is important to take the season into consideration: walking, hiking and rock climbing are the only activities available on the mountain during the summer, but the winter months allow for ski touring, snowshoeing and tubing.
After taking the gondola down the mountain, we continued along the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler. This village is known for hosting the bulk of the 2010 Winter Olympics. It is primarily a ski resort town, but in the summer the snowless slopes are open to mountain bikers.
For those who tend to avoid extreme sports (like me), Whistler is still worth a visit, with its Olympic memorabilia and the quaint shops housed in grey wood buildings. There are also many restaurants there, making it a great place for dinner after a long day of walking.
To start the day, I picked up a coffee from JJ Bean, along with one of their famous muffins and a butter tart, a sweet, filled pastry particular to Canada. I then drove with my family to Stanley Park, a 1001-acre remnant of the forest that used to cover the city’s land. Amongst the trees are trails, beaches and other attractions, including the Vancouver Aquarium and a collection of colourful totem poles.
The park is surrounded by water on three sides. The century-old Seawall runs along the water’s edge and features a two-lane path, the inner for cyclists and the outer for pedestrians. Stretching for 22 kilometres, it is the longest continuous waterside walkway in the world. My family and I strolled along the southern edge of the park, where the skyline of Vancouver sprawled on the other side of the harbour. With the skyscrapers before me and the forest at my back, this moment encapsulated the meshing of city and nature that is quintessentially Vancouver.
A note on transportation
Getting around the city of Vancouver is easy with the well-established public transport system, which includes buses and metro lines. To get from Vancouver to the Sea to Sky Gondola, there is a shuttle bus that runs once a day during the summer. A round-trip costs $69 per person and includes the gondola ticket. Another shuttle bus runs between Vancouver and Whistler and costs $55 per person.