LIKE all of us, I’ve indulged in those ‘What’s your favourite city/holiday destination?’ conversations. I used to know the answers.
Now, having been to Vancouver, I’m less sure. Before I went, this Canadian West Coast city didn’t figure on my radar; having been there, it’s shot straight to the top of my favourite cities. So now I’m keeping my options open in case another city I’ve never thought of wins me over.
But back to Vancouver. What is its appeal? Location, location, location, for a start. Nestled against the mighty Canadian Rockies, on the Pacific coast of northernmost America, this is a city where you can surf in the morning and ski in the afternoon.
After dark, you can sample the best Japanese food outside Japan, as well as many other Asian and world cuisines, thanks to the city’s massive influx of immigrants. The mix of nations, and the city’s deep historical roots, brings a rich cultural life. And its mixture of old and new architecture and the closeness to nature (it can pass from anywhere from the Yukon to New York, though it’s most famous for the X-Files) has made it the film capital of Canada, with more than $1billion dollars a year going into the local economy.
Dominating the city is Grouse Mountain, as good a place as any to get your bearings. Fifteen minutes from the city centre via the Skyride, an aerial gondola that climbs 3,700ft (1,100m) in eight minutes, you’re on the edge of some real wilderness. Hike, bike or ski (depending on the season) into the woods. Experience Native American culture, take in a lumberjack show or watch black bears being reintroduced to the wild in their enclosure. Or just sit in the restaurant and enjoy the view of the city laid out below you.
The heart of Vancouver is Stanley Park, where families stroll and couples jog or rollerblade along the shoreline with views back to the city skyline. It’s a remarkable urban space, the size of New York’s Central Park, with a 10km seawall walk and an aquarium that houses Beluga whales. A thousand acres are filled with forest paths, clear lakes and grassy meadows. You’d be tempted to call it the lungs of the city, but that would mean decrying one of Vancouver’s most remarkable features: its lack of pollution.
At the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel, chef Daryl Ryo Nagata (above) serves up a remarkable menu: Pacific fusion with musk ox from an Inuit community and organic herbs from the hotel’s own rooftop garden. Next to the herbs, sunbathers lounge by the pool, the traffic passing sedately three floors below them.
In how many other city centre hotels could you imagine that? The concern for pollution starts on an individual level: I saw no litter on the streets and smoking is banned in any public area, which includes bars, restaurants and shopping malls. With the great outdoors an ever-present sight (at the end of almost every street, you can see mountains or sea), environmental awareness goes deep.
No surprise to discover that activists from Vancouver were the driving force behind the foundation of Greenpeace as an International organisation. It’s also worth remarking on the fact that Vancouver was recently voted the most accessible city in the world for people with disabilities. There are more than 14,000 sidewalk wheelchair ramps and the extensive public transit (bus, Skytrain, SeaBus) network is all wheelchair friendly.
None of this would be possible without the people and this is probably Vancouver’s real secret. Take West Coast America’s quirkiness and hippie charm, add in some proper good manners from Canada’s European roots and more recent Japanese influence. Now stir in those wide open, relaxing vistas and a high standard of living and you have the recipe for a population that is genuinely welcoming.
Go in to a shop or a bar and a brief chat is an essential prerequisite to any transaction. That irritating (to us frigid Brits) American ‘Have a nice day’ is replaced by a whole range of farewells and thank-yous that sound absolutely heartfelt. It sounds like a charming city – and it is. Look back from Stanley Park and you see a skyline full of construction cranes and sparkling new skyscrapers. The energy is palpable and immigrants are flocking to the city from the rest of Canada and the rest of the world. Can it sustain its growth, while keeping its small-town manners and charm? My visit left me with no indication it can’t. A civilised city.