Pros: Fine dining, good weather, excellent public trans...
Cons: ...covers an underbelly of seething anger, ready to burst at any moment.
Lady Vancouver is a curious gal. She is both saint and sinner, angel and devil, incredibly gorgeous urban chick with a natural but stunning face to go with her body like a shick brithouse and filthy crack whore. She is a Canadian utopia/dystopia, decorated by lush foliage and beautiful mountain views, while also littered with drug addicts and dangerously reckless homeless people. It's the kind of city where you can watch street kids roll joints on the sidewalk in plain view, mere blocks from a Chanel boutique. It's this insistence on being paradoxical, dichotomous, and oxymoronic which made me love and loathe Vancouver in equal proportions when I visited last week. It also kept me on my toes as I was enjoying my time there.
A quick anecdote, to illustrate what I mean. I found myself, one afternoon, on the steps of the art gallery, with a couple of hours to kill. I figured I'd enjoy the sunny day, the surroundings (I was near the Sutton Place hotel, and smack dab in the middle of the entertainment district), and spend some time reading a book amidst the throngs of people. It was one of those quiet afternoons that invites pedestrians out on to the sidewalks, and general feelings of good will. Or so I thought.
Slowly, a low rumbling could be heard from around the corner. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a crowd gathering. Teenagers yelled, "hit him" at someone I could not see. Then, all of the sudden, I could. A dirty homeless man and a Goth-looking punker came bounding around the corner, squaring each other up for a fight. "Let's do this in the back alley," yelled the first man, "where no one can see!" The second one took a pair of black leather gloves from his pocket, and proceeded to put them on. "I don't want to get the AIDS," he said by way of explanation, before tossing a couple of ghost punches his foe's way. This all happened not 10 feet from where I sat, on what was only moments before a peaceful public street corner. Now I was watching the aftermath of a drug deal gone bad, and scared out of my wits. Needless to say, I didn't stick around long enough to find out who drew first blood.
The anger I witnessed that afternoon nearly floods the city, whose shiny happy veneer is a sham. Like a tightly blown balloon, the slightest prick will cause the city's residents to blow. Near-traffic accidents, public dust-ups, and yelling matches were all par for the course in what is supposed to be another typically peaceful Canadian city. My friend, who has been living there for less than two months, hypothesized that since there is no real infrastructure to deal with the near-epidemic amounts of homelessness and drug use, and since the residents long for the insular days before massive unwanted immigration littered their streets with "furriners", their only recourse, even when bathed in the most beautiful views these eyes have ever seen, is to lash out at the perceived enemy. Or whoever else crosses their line of fire. I tend to agree with that theory, seeing what I saw last week.
That being said, if you have your wits about you, and you stay careful, Vancouver can be a charming city to visit.
Vancouver International Airport [http://www.vancouver-yvr.com/] is a lovely little entranceway to the city. Of course, loveliness doesn't come without a price, as I found upon leaving the airport. Be forewarned, that just before going through security, you'll be charged a $10 CDN ($7 US) "Airport Improvement Tax". If I could keep the AIF fee, and the only thing I would miss were the totem pole sculptures in the main foyer, I would have.
Despite not having a subway system, getting around Vancouver is a breeze with their cavalcade of electric buses [http://www.translink.bc.ca/]. For $2 (or more, if you want to go to, say, Richmond; But why on earth would you want to go to Richmond?), you get two hours of use, allowing you to get on and off at any stop. Even someone as directionally-challenged as I (and prone to getting lost) could traverse the city like an old pro, with this ingenious system. The problem is that Vancouver bus drivers are a notoriously prickly bunch. On more than one occasion I saw them slam their doors shut on a polite homeless person. And I was told one story where an innocent rider, a little lost and confused, asked which direction the bus was going in. The driver just pointed out the front window and, with enough contempt in his voice to start a war, simply said, "That way." Ralph Kramden they ain't.
If you're feeling real adventurous, or just don't want to walk yet again across one of the three bridges that span False Creek (the little stretch of water that separates uptown from downtown Vancouver), you can take a water taxi to the other side. My buddy and I pretended we were Gilligan and the Skipper, which didn't please the driver all too much. Those seafaring types are sure a superstitious lot.
I'm going to talk about restaurants for a while here. Restaurants, I think, are the best litmus test for deciding if a city is worthwhile. If you don't feel like reading about restaurants, or are too full to hear about food, feel free to skip down to the line "WELCOME BACK SATIATED SKIPPERS". Be forewarned, though, some hot babes will show up in the next couple of paragraphs. Do you really want to miss that?
If you live in an urban North American city, like I do, you're probably confronted by a Starbucks [http://www.starbucks.com/] every couple of blocks or so. Toronto certainly follows this pattern. Vancouver, on the other hand, is a Starbucks lover's nirvana. It's laid out in such a way that I think the city planners toured the downtown core, and whenever there was a space where a Starbucks was not in their peripheral vision, they had one built. The block of Broadway, between MacDonald and Bleinheim, actually features three Starbucks. Then there's the intersection of Robson and Burrard, which has two Starbucks kitty corner to each other. Not to fear; I'm told that every location, in every corner of the city, is packed the brim all day long. Vancouverites, who also have Blenz Coffees and Seattle's Best to show off, sure love their coffee.
East is East [3243 West Broadway] has a special place in my heart, for when it's name was first mentioned as a possible dining locale, I misheard and thought we were going to Yeast is Yeast. This little mondegreen confused me; Vancouver is not a very beer-heavy city after all, and I couldn't imagine any restaurant basing their entire menu on bread products. In the end, the actual restaurant featured a cafeteria-like kitchen and an authentically decorated back room (rugs on the walls, bamboo placemats) setting the table for its wide variety of lick-smacking Indian dishes. In a similar vein, the Afghan Horseman [445 West Broadway] (my first crack at Afghan cuisine), also featured a rugs-on-the-walls decor. And, to my delight, a take-your-shoes-off-and-sit-on-pillows table set up. Thankfully these gimmicks (yes, to a Westerner these little touches can by gimmicky) were backed up by an abundant and tasty menu, featuring some of the most delicious lamb shank I've had in a while (and Turkish coffee that'll put hair on your chest; much to the dismay of my female dining companions).
Sophie's Cosmic Cafe [http://www.sophiescosmiccafe.com/] highlights a fun little stretch of 4th Avenue, just west of Burrard. It's the kind of diner where every spare space on the walls is adorned with funky and kitschy artifacts. Most notably, the bathroom doors are marked by photos of Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn (I'll let you figure out which is which). The food, a slightly-left-of-centre assortment of brunch items, comes in hefty and tasty portions.
The Cactus Club Cafe [http://www.cactusclubcafe.com/] offered fine ambience, not to mention a heartbreaking banana-strawberry smoothie, the perfect tonic after a long, hot day in the sun. People watching, as we sat on its small outdoor patio overlooking Robson Street, proved entertaining on its own, as the street's eclectic mix of urban punks and business luncheoneers flittered by. They had to be entertaining, for the Club's wait staff, made up of about a half-dozen young women, was the hottest group of women I'd ever seen assembled in one place. I mean, good golly, are we really expected to eat with a whole-shell's worth of Venuses (Venai?) in the vicinity? It was like a Boticelli painting (or an assembly line of Boticelli paintings) come to life. The Cactus Club's held the record for hottest wait staff for only a few days, though, as Earls [http://www.earls.ca/], located just across the street, shattered its mark with room to spare. Despite a dubious grasp of proper punctuation (notice the lack of a possessive apostrophe in the restaurant's name; I'm just as confused as you are) the management at Earls does know how to pick beautiful women. Hugh Hefner should have such an eye for talent. I tell you, even though I ordered a chicken Caesar salad, they could have put a plate of cut hair from the barbershop down the street in front of me, and I wouldn't have known the difference. So enchanted was I by the bevy of beauties doing laps around my table.
Vancouver, in general, is blessed with an army of lovely ladies. But they're not the heavily made up, silliconized brand of beauties you'd find in, say, Los Angeles (Vancouver's American cousin). Pamela Anderson, born in Vancouver and discovered at a BC Lions [http://www.bclions.com/] football game, typifies the two cities' differences. She was fresh-faced and fancy free when she left home, only to turn into a walking, talking Barbie Doll (a rather slutty-looking top-heavy Barbie Doll, mind you) after a year or two in La-La Land. The prevalent look in Vancouver, generally, remains very natural, very confident, and very friendly (while still being damn hard to approach; of course, that last bit might just be my problem).
By far, my favourite Vancouver eatery was called, simply enough, The Eatery. Located in Kitsilano [3431 West Broadway], The Eatery markets itself (aggressively) as a hip and funky sushi/curry-fusion hangout. And, despite trying so hard, it easily comes off as so. The walls are covered in (faux?) Andy Warhol prints (see four Dick Tracy's, four Jackie O's, four Marilyns, etc.), and the menus decorated with assorted AstroBoy cartoons (mine had AB flying towards the viewer, hand outstretched, ordering: "Eat me!").
At the front entrance, their more adventurous female clientele can buy a quality pair of Eatery cotton panties for just $9. Or, if short on cash, the prospective panty-wearer can strip down to their birthday suit in order to model the panties for a picture, thus getting them for free. Hundreds of such pictures adorn the walls, a most pleasing sight before you are to sit down for a meal (except, of course, when you encounter the snapshot of some exhibitionist drunk dude, his bulge bulging out the side, just before your sushi platter arrives). Even more disturbing (but of great entrance to a certain segment of my core readership) are the two photos of the Oxygen Network's own (and Canada's septuagenarian answer to Dr. Ruth) Sue "Sex With Sue" Johanson. One pic shows Our Sue displaying a pair of panties with her fingers, smiling sheepishly for the camera. The second pic, taken later that same night after one too many martinis, features Sue with said panties on her head, like a frilly cotton toque. I am more scared of this woman than I've ever been.
(By the way, the food at The Eatery is delish, but the service, due to the huge crowds, sucks rocks.)
WELCOME BACK SATIATED SKIPPERS
Vancouver, like Toronto, is a mosaic of neighbourhoods, some sketchier than others, but all interesting in their own way. I've already mentioned Granville, which, near the downtown core, is a complex confusion of flagrant pot smoking and posh money. Gastown features a fine mix of art shops, featuring both Scottish and Aboriginal works, which line its old, cobbled streets. And an old fashioned Steam Clock! Hastings and Main is notorious for the collection of junkies who loiter in front of the library (I told the friends I was visiting that if I didn't see Hastings and Main, and didn't get a couple of days of Vancouver's notorious rain, I would leave unsatisfied). Though I didn't see any when we crossed through it one afternoon, I'm told that the intersection is so littered with old needles, those who wear sandals are taking their lives in their hands.
The city's Chinatown, I'm told, used to be as vibrant as the ones found in other North American cities (San Francisco, New York, as well as Toronto easily come to mind). But Vancouver being what it is (an insular little community that abhors the immigration it's been saddled with) has turned its Chinatown into something of a ghetto. The restaurants there are few and far between, and the neighbourhood is now riddled with homelessness and visible crime. Quite a shame, really. On the flipside, Commercial Drive (or, as in-the-know locals simply call it, "The Drive") is a bright and prosperous strip of eclectic shopping and fine eateries. I was reminded a lot of Toronto's boho-esque Queen Street West, although with a cleaner polished look, and fewer nightspot opportunities.
If you're willing to drive out of the centre of town, and itching to see some hideously rich people, a trip to Deep Cove is worth your time. The cove itself is a wonder to behold; enormous houses line the water, each equipped with a huge yacht. A rather sleepy little burg, Deep Cove is an excellent haven away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
One afternoon, my friend/tourguide suggested that the two of us head downtown to check out the "Vaj". "Ok," I said, and started affixing mirrors to the toes of my shoes. "No, no," she corrected, "The 'VAG' is the Vancouver Art Gallery". [http://www.vanartgallery.bc.ca/] Oh, I thought. That's good too. And, in the end, it was. We saw an excellent contemporary photography collection, and passed through a rather thorough Emily Carr Exhibit (complete with a photo of the shack where she apparently lived with monkeys). If you're in town after June 28th, be sure to check out the "From Masters to Hipsters" exhibit. It wasn't open yet when we were there, but the preview brochures looked intriguing.
Granville Island [http://www.gi.iondesign.ca/] is located just under the Granville bridge, which made me think that it would be run by a troll. Alas, just average ordinary humans worked there. We pacified ourselves by checking out its various of markets, shops, microbreweries, and children's parks and theatres.
The Capilano Suspension Bridge [http://www.capbridge.com/], probably the most well-known tourist attraction in the Greater Vancouver Area, is a rather pricey proposition for what you get. To cross the 450-foot bridge, 230 feet above the Capilano River, and then tour through the walking trails and educational exhibits on the other side, will cost you upwards of $16 CDN (curiously, less for locals). The whole site can be done in less than an hour. Sadly, bungee jumping, or loogie hocking, is frowned upon. Might have made it more worth it, to my mind.
Stanley Park [http://www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/parks&gardens/stanley1.htm], a 1000 acre oasis umbilically attached to downtown, can have you wandering around lost for hours. If you so desire (or even if you don't; wander too far into its interior, and you'll discover you've lost your sense of direction, and there's no one around to pull you out). Or, follow the 10.5 km seawall around the park's perimeter, for a gorgeous view of the water and the condos that litter Vancouver's skyline. Or, take a tour of the Vancouver Aquarium [http://www.vanaqua.org/], located just inside the park's gates. All worthwhile adventures, and proof that even an urban centre can take a break from cement and asphalt, to provide some natural surroundings.
Despite some suspect elements, I'd go back in a heartbeat (assuming, of course, that my buddy is willing to give up his apartment again; I'm not sure I could afford some of the posher hotels). If you know where to go, and, more importantly, where not to go, Vancouver is the safe haven I'd been promised. But it has its darker side too. Which, if that kind of thing floats your boat, might be an attraction itself. Either way, you're in for a good time.
[If any locals care to refute my claims, by all means have at 'em. Remember: I was only in town for one week, and might have been suffering from culture shock. I'd enjoy hearing your levelheaded refutations. Anyone?]