Vancouver is on the same latitude as Ireland and suffers nominally the same marine temperate climate. It rains, man, it pours. The city is set on a peninsula against a dramatic backdrop of snow capped peaks. Not that we can see them on the first day as it lives up to its sodden image with a welcoming downpour. By the next day however the clouds have lifted to reveal the highrise city and the Coastal Range across the bay.
Vancouver’s population density is said to be second only to Hong Kong and has all the rich and varied hum of city life which that implies. It is very modern and preserves only isolated scraps of its heritage. Even the landmark monoliths of the early twentieth century are dwarfed amongst the skyscrapers, they’re still impressive though. The Fairmont Hotel is in the signature Canadian style with a steep bronze roof like a French chateau. The Marine Building is an exuberant art deco building from 1929, designed to appear like a ‘great crag rising from the sea.’
Something of a coherent urban heritage survives in Gastown. The area takes its name from English adventurer Jack Deighton who established the first saloon here in 1867. Deighton earned the nickname Gassy Jack for his voluble espousal of any worthy cause in the growing city. He died in 1875 and his body lies in an unmarked grave but there’s a statue to him on Water Street standing atop a beer barrel.
Gastown remains a picturesque enclave of late nineteenth century buildings with a good concentration of bars, restaurants and clubs.
Chinatown is nearby. The second largest Chinatown in North America after San Francisco, Vancouver’s is more downbeat and edgy. Tens of thousands of Chinese arrived in the eighteen eighties to build the Trans-Canada railway and formed a shantytown here. The Chinese community was ghettoised for decades but, as builders of Vancouver, they cleverly constructed a network of tunnels allowing them quick access to the city from which they were forbidden. An ornamental, traditional gate now marks the entrance to Chinatown but it is the streets between here and Downtown that have developed into a modern ghetto. The area is reminiscent of Dawn of the Dead, with crowds of those who have fallen through the bottom of society congregating, zombie-like, in the streets and squares.
While much of Downtown gleams new, Granville Street remains a shabby but seductive slice of fifties Americana. Glorious old film theatres jut into the street which is low-end shopping by day and thronged with rough edged nightlife after dark. Where the street crosses False Creek Granville Island is an oasis off the city grid, a maze of markets, restaurants and cafes. There are art galleries and buskers and along by the Creek is a great place to admire the city skyline.
Modern Vancouver is more than highrise Condo heaven. The library at Robson Street resembles Rome’s Coliseum, but its nine floors are devoted to more intellectual pursuits. Entrance through an outer spiral arm leads into an impressive concourse with several cafes. Light pours in through an atrium six stories overhead. The library itself is airy and spacious, creating an overall effect of calm within a busy maelstrom of human traffic.
After feeding your head you won’t need to go far in Vancouver to feed the body. The rich ethnic mix means there’s no shortage of variety and, not surprisingly given that it is the Pacific out there, there’s plenty of Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Davie Street is Vancouver’s Castro and lined with restaurants and clubs. It is friendly and unapologetic, self-contained to an almost parochial degree.
Granville Street at night is more hetro and there’s an even more butch option at GM place which is home to the Canucks ice hockey team. Canada’s national sport is incredibly fast and skillful, but there’s more than that, you’re guaranteed a night of beer, loud music and regular punch ups. What more could you ask for? Well, the Stanley Cup, hockey’s premier prize, would be nice, but as yet it has eluded the grasp of the boys in blue.
More natural and timeless pleasures can be found in Stanley Park on the northern tip of the city. The thousand acre expanse of parkland is in sharp contrast to the metropolis looming over it. Vancouverites and visitors flock here for sport and recreation and its many attractions include a vivid reminder of the areas origins. The Totem Park is a startling collection of totem poles by local ‘Indian’ tribes. The Canadian term is First Nation, after all, they were here first. They’re still here, and the timeless visual narratives of the totem poles is a fascinating counterpoint to the exclamation mark of modern humanity, the two facing each other across a short stretch of grass and water.