Sunday, February 22, 2009

First rainfall in a long time

Clouds over the Granville Street Bridge, January 2003
Clouds over the Granville Street Bridge, January 2003

Apparently talking about the weather is a very Canadian trait. We're obsessed with it, and why not? Part of the Canadian lifestyle is the inherent ability to adapt our lives around the ever-changing weather. As a result, casual banter with strangers almost always involves the topic. It's why my posts on this blog to you dear reader, tend to focus a little too much on the weather.

But you see, when we get to February on the west coast, you never quite know when spring is going to start, but you do know that it could happen any day. So while February may well be the coldest month in Montreal or Chicago, it's actually the end of our winter here on the Pacific coast. We begin to realize that we can put away our winter coats, our gloves and our scarves. We start to wear our lighter jackets. The daylight regime helps too - it stays light out until at least 6pm these days and the sun now rises at 7am.

So where was I going with this? Well, it rained late last night for the first time in weeks. That's right - it actually rained in Vancouver! It kept raining from around midnight until this morning, falling gently until... oh... 11am? Noon? That's when it stopped.

But it's now 3:30pm, and the sun is shining. It's 9 degree Celsius (48 Fahrenheit). This is a typical February day in Vancouver. The nay-sayers like to talk about the endless winter rains, but honestly? Vancouver's rain is overrated.

People like to over exaggerate Vancouver's rain, to make it sound more dramatic than it really is. People like to say it rains non-stop for months or that it's a rainy place 12 months a year. And then you have people who actually believe them.

The reality is that the rain is seasonal - it starts in late autumn, typically by November, and it lasts until spring. But by spring, people mean March/April. As you get away from the rainiest months of the year (November, December, and January), the amount of rainfall actually drops off significantly until you get until July, August and September which are so dry, we experience drought (and the city enforces strict water regulations).

And with the winter rain, it's so sporadic. You might get a low front with expansive grey clouds hovering over the city, similar to the photo I took above. And those clouds might hover over the city for a week at a time... but it might only truly rain for a few hours total for that week.

While we do get the occasional day-long rainfall, they're never thundershowers or monsoons. More often than not, it's a very gentle rain - the kind where you're not sure if using an umbrella is even worthwhile.

But enough on the rain right now! I'll make a future post with actual climate statistics, although this Wikipedia article paints an accurate picture.

Edit: It's 6:30pm, the Academy Awards are on TV, and the rain has started again.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

English Bay and the West End in February

Instead of celebrating Valentine's Day on the 14th, my significant other and I made the following day - Sunday, February 15th - our special day. The weather cooperated. Sunday was glorious, sunny, and warm. It was 8 degrees Celsius (or 46 degrees for the Fahrenheit fans). There was no doubt about it - it truly felt like spring.

In the early afternoon we took a taxi 10 minutes down Pacific Blvd from Yaletown to the West End's English Bay. We had brunch reservations for 2pm at the Raincity Grill - a local favourite, famous for its local 100-mile radius cuisine. We arrived a little early so we took 15 minutes to go for a quick walk.

We first walked north along Denman Street - a relatively short street connecting English Bay to Coal Harbour - famous for its tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries and cafes. The sidewalks were packed with people as if awakening from the winter blahs for the first time this season.

Denman Street tends to portray the more human side to the downtown Vancouver peninsula.

You have green grocers selling fruit, flowers, and vegetables...

The cutest teddybear ever giving away free cupcakes!

Local neighbourhood haunts like Central (formerly the Brass Monkey), Legendary Noodle, and Nat's New York Pizzeria.

Local city buses (electric trolleys, really) make the rounds... a large percentage of people in the West End rely exclusively on walking/public transit.

There are cheap greasy diners and casual ethnic restaurants. You just stroll a few blocks and take your pick of cuisines: Greek, Malaysian, Ukrainian, Korean, Mexican, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, North African, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, etc.

At its southern end, Denman intersects with Davie Street - the West End's major commercial strip also home to Davie Village - the core of Vancouver's gay community.

And because the area's the heart of a residential community, you have many out simply walking the dog.

We made our way back to the southern end of Denman Street, crossed Beach Avenue, and walked down to English Bay. English Bay is a favourite downtown waterfront of mine for a variety of reasons. Primarily, English Bay doesn't feel like downtown - it really doesn't feel like you're in a high density city at all despite being steps away from giant apartment towers. English Bay is where you have the city intersecting with the beach, the seawall, and the entrance to Stanley Park. With the restaurants, cafes, and general local community vibe happening just seconds away, it's hard not to like the area. And I haven't even talked about the sunsets or the view!

As always, when the sun shines, people are out at English Bay. They're found jogging, walking their dogs, rollerblading, longboarding, cycling around the seawall, and just enjoying the rare sunshine. Saying that, the sunshine hasn't really been so rare for us this February. I can only imagine what the world will think of next year when they arrive in Vancouver next February for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. I'm sure the great majority from elsewhere, possibly expecting the stereotypical cold arctic Canada winter, will instead stumble upon ... this?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

9 Valentine's Day Activities for 2009

So it's Valentine's Day and I'm sure a large majority of lovey-dovey couples are scrambling around last minute trying to plan what to do. (Hint: check the Georgia Straight).

While there's always Purdy's, red roses, and candlelight dinners, this year Valentine's Day falls on a Saturday!

That got me thinking... why wait until evening to celebrate? Why not turn your Valentine's Day into a full day's outing instead? Or better yet - make it a Valentine's Weekend!

Here are 9 Valentine's Day activities that I think could be fun, memorable, and atypically romantic... all in and around Greater Vancouver!

#1 - George C. Riefel Bird Sanctuary
Westham Island, Ladner (Delta), BC

What's more romantic than a tranquil stroll along the river through wooded parkland while seeking out the local wildlife? Thousands of migratory birds call this large piece of Fraser River estuary home, especially right now in the winter months. For $0.50 a bag of seed, you can feed the birds by hand, whether it be the tiny chickadees or the frenzy of mallard ducks and Canada geese. Keep your eyes peeled for eagles, owls, and the elusive sandhill crane. You may even witness the flight of the snow geese. Walk the outer perimeter of the park where the Fraser River empties into Georgia Strait and you'll be rewarded with panoramic vistas from Mount Baker to the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island, and even the mountains along the Sunshine Coast.

Daily Hours: 9am-4pm (although once inside, you can stay later than 4pm)
Admission: $4 adults, $2 children

#2 - Snowshoeing on Mount Seymour
North Vancouver, BC

Forget about skiing & snowboarding with the hoards at Cypress, Grouse, or Whistler. Forget about all the equipment and expenses that go along with it. Take it easy (on the wallet and your body) with a romantic winter walk on Mount Seymour through the snow-covered forest. While the other mountains are more famous for their skiing, I really liked Mount Seymour for snowshoeing when I went last February. Snowshoe rentals are cheap and you don't need any special equipment. Tromp through the forested trails on your own, or register in advance for their guided Valentine's Day snowshoe & fondue tour. Where else do you tread up the mountain to a panoramic vista overlooking the city lights where your personal tour guide creates a candlelight "fire" and prepares chocolate and fruit fondue? And the best part? When you're descending, you can use the steep snow-covered hillsides as slides!

Saturday Hours: 8:30am-4pm (daytime) 7-9pm (fondue tour)
Admission: Full-day trail pass w/rental $27 (adults) $22 (kids) or $9 for trail pass only. $130 per couple for the Valentine's Day chocolate fondue tour.

#3 - Vancouver Museum’s "Unnatural History of Stanley Park" Exhibit
Vancouver, BC

For the curiosity seekers, the history lovers, or visiting Vancouverphiles, the Vancouver Museum's latest feature exhibit - the Unnatural History of Stanley Park - is in its last weekend. This is your last chance to see a really interesting exhibit on the secrets of Vancouver's most beloved urban park. If you think you know Stanley Park now, think again. Much of what we take for granted as "natural" is in reality a legacy of careful planning and management - some of it totally socially unacceptable by today's standards. When you're done with the Stanley Park exhibit, you can tour the Vancouver History Galleries featuring Vancouver through the decades, from the 1900's until the present. Most fascinating are the exhibits on the 60's and 70's, especially the social movements which helped save neighbourhoods we take for granted today, like Chinatown and Commercial Drive.

Weekend Winter Hours: 10am-5pm
Admission: $11 (adult), $9 (senior), $7 (youth: 5-17), free (5 and under)

#4 - Lynn Canyon Regional Park
North Vancouver, BC

If you're seeking a memorable outdoor activity, several hours at Lynn Canyon Regional Park is a favourite of mine. Unlike the overhyped and overpriced Capilano Suspension Bridge, Lynn Canyon has a very similar suspension bridge, except that it's free (and lacks the busloads of tour groups) and the surrounding park is massive. The easy walking trails scale both sides of Lynn Canyon where you can wander under the canopy of the temperate rainforest, across turquoise pools and waterfalls, and down to the riverbed of meltwater streams. Last year when I visited Lynn Canyon, it was around the same time, and despite there being no snow in the city, there was actually snow on the ground in the park. The entire scene was enchanting and mystical. Honestly? If you can't get out to Tofino's rainforests this weekend, consider Lynn Canyon to channel that primal atmosphere instead.

Daily Hours: 7am until dusk
Admission: free!

#5 - Domaine de Chaberton Winery Tour
Langley, BC

Most people don't realize that they don't have to drive 5 hours to the Okanagan in order to visit a winery - with a climate that mirrors northern France, there are actually quite a few wineries in and around the Fraser Valley. Owned by a French expat couple, Domaine de Chaberton is one of the longest established local wineries, located out in southern Langley. If you have access to a car, a winery tour makes for a great excuse to take those slow and scenic backroads through the pastoral countryside. Take a winery tour, taste the wine, and when you're done, buy some bottles to bring back for a romantic dinner later on! Or, if you feel like treating yourselves, have a meal at the winery's very own Bacchus Bistro.

Daily Hours: 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday, 11am-6pm Sunday - winery tours at 2pm & 4pm
Admission: free!

#6 - Aberdeen Centre
Richmond, BC

So this isn't traditionally romantic as far as Valentine's Day is concerned, but that's the point. If you've never visited Richmond's Asia West (aka: the Asian shopping district) before, now is the time to do so! Culturally, it's more similar to flashy, image-conscious, contemporary Hong Kong than to anywhere else in North America, including Vancouver's old relic of a Chinatown. Well, Asia West dwarfs Chinatown. Richmond's No. 3 Road (between Bridgeport and Granville Avenue) is home to dozens - and I do mean dozens - of shopping plazas (often as big as city blocks) full of businesses, restaurants, and services that cater to the predominantly affluent Hong Kong immigrant clientele - a significant portion of Richmond's demographic. Particularly noteworthy, however, is Aberdeen Centre - a large feng shui behemoth of a shopping centre. Inside the mall you'll find a variety of Hong Kong-style Chinese restaurants, food courts (with street food favourites and bubble tea), clothing boutiques, and my favourite: the Daiso - a Japanese department store where every item is $2. When you're done with Aberdeen, you can stroll across the street to Yaohan or nextdoor to Parker Place - tripling your Hong Kong shopping mall experience... and that's only scraping the surface!

Daily Hours: 11am-9pm Thursday to Saturday, 11am-7pm Sunday to Wednesday & holidays
Admission: free!

#7 - VanDusen Botanical Garden
Vancouver, BC

I know. You wouldn’t typically think of visiting a botanical garden in February, but you'd be surprised at just how enjoyable it is. After all, this is coastal BC - the plants don't die and the trees are still green. You'd be surprised at what actually persists through the winter. And at this time of year it can feel as if you have the entire 55 acre gardens to yourselves! So that's 2-3 hours of meandering through beautifully maintained gardens arm in arm with that special someone. This is truly one of my favourite retreats from the hustle and bustle, and hey - they have a hedge maze! A hedge maze!

February Hours: 10am-4pm
Admission: $6.50 (adult), $4.70 (senior), $4.70 (youth)

#8 - Vancouver Police Museum
Vancouver, BC

If you're a fan of CSI, Law & Order, or any of the various forensic shows, then this museum is for you. Seriously, this must be one of the most underrated museums in Vancouver - most people have no idea that it even exists... but those that do, love it! Located in the city's old morgue, if you're looking for a strange, out-of-the-ordinary Valentine's experience, this pretty much takes the cake. I mean, where else do you get to play around in Vancouver's former coroner's forensic lab, or gawk at a collection of rare and handmade weapons which were confiscated off the streets of Vancouver? Exactly.

Hours: 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday
Admission: $7 adults, $6 seniors/youth, children under 6 free

#9- Richmond Winterfest at the Richmond Olympic Oval
Richmond, BC

While Whistler is partying and Vancouver is protesting, the city of Richmond is celebrating the one year countdown to the 2010 Winter Oympics. One year from now to the day, Richmond will be hosting the speed skating events from inside the newly-constructed Richmond Olympic Oval. Although I initially thought that it would be sweet (in an old fashioned kind of way) to go ice-skating at the new oval, it turns out that the venue is hosting the Richmond Winter Festival of the Arts this Valentine's weekend. So there goes that idea. But in a way, it's a nice surprise. The party is free and features live entertainment, music, art, and sports demonstrations. While perhaps more family-fun than anyone's idea of romance, it's certainly a unique way to spend a Valentine's Day. Then next year, as you're watching the 2010 Olympics and speed skating is on TV, you can fondly look back and claim to your friends, "Hey! I've been there! That's where we went last year for Valentine's Day!"

Weekend hours: 12-9pm on Feb 14, 12-7pm on Feb 15
Admission: free!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Vancouver this past winter

It's the end of the first week of February, and we've been having excellent mild temperatures of around 5 to 7 degrees Celsius (or the low 40's for those of you who read in Fahrenheit). It hasn't been rainy during the day, but instead there has been a nice mix of sun and clouds... and not low-lying grey clouds, but cirrus clouds - the natural light has a welcoming brightness. It's actually fairly spring-like, and if you take notice, you can see a few inches of daffodil greenery emerging from the ground. It's a nice contrast compared to the crazy cold weather we experienced back in December followed by the weeks of fog in January. Because the weather was so unsual for us, it was well-documented by local residents.

Here is one of my favourite photo documentaries of Vancouver from December 2008 until January 2009. It was taken by a local named Jeremy whose photos I stumbled upon on the Skyscraperpage. Writes Jeremy,

"To say Vancouver's winter so far has been crazy is an understatement. We've had record snowfalls, record cold temps and most recently, fog for like 20 days straight.

Here are some pictures that not only show some snow but just some general photos I have taken of Van since the day the snow first started flying. Sure, other parts of Canada have had it much worse, but for Vancouver, this winter is a rarity and spring will be welcomed with wide open arms by all."

He gave me permission to showcase his photo documentary on my blog which you can see in its entirety here. Here's just a taste...

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Vancouver's summer fireworks cancelled for 2009

Update: March 11, 2009 - Good news! The fireworks have been rescheduled! See this recent blog entry for more details.

Yesterday evening there was gossip circulating around the Vancouver travel forums, and sadly, this morning's newspapers confirmed the fact: after 18 years, Vancouver will no longer be hosting its major summer fireworks event, the Celebration of Light.

It turns out that the annual international fireworks competition was $400,000 short of the $1,500,000 needed in sponsorship funding. As a result, the city's without its most popular event of the year for both 2009 and possibly 2010.

Formerly the Benson & Hedges Symphony of Fire, when tobacco advertisements went out of fashion - "a cigarette company funding a family event? *gasp* how could they?!" - the popular festival had to find a new ethically-responsible corporate sponsor to appease the Vancouver public. Time was running out to find new sponsorship, but HSBC came along and took over where Benson & Hedges left off. A name change also occurred and the Symphony of Fire became the HSBC Celebration of Light. With an international bank in place of a tobacco corporation, the public was at ease and so continued the summer tradition.

On the last Wednesday and Saturday of July and the first Wednesday and Saturday of August, three participating countries would compete for the best fireworks display. The fireworks started at 10pm and would last for about half an hour. What made the displays unique was that they were synchronized to music. Each night would be a different country's display and on the fourth and final night of the festival, it would be the grand finale and the announcement of the winning team.

The fireworks would be set up on a barge floating out in English Bay. The accompanying music would be broadcast on local radio and blasted out to the beach. Hundreds of thousands of people - tourists and locals alike - would gather along English Bay, Kits Beach, the various stretches of seawall, and would wait for hours until 10pm when fireworks display would begin. Nearby apartment dwellers hosted fireworks parties for their friends - their balconies filled to capacity in anticipation of the spectacle. The bay would be loaded with hundreds of pleasure boats and cruise ships - all there to witness the special event. As you can imagine, the atmosphere was something else.

So when I first heard about the news of the cancellation, my reaction was initially that of disappointment. I personally think it's unfortunate that Vancouver's losing its largest public event. The fireworks were truly a special event situated at one of the most scenic locations in the city during the most beautiful time of the year. It brought immense business to the city, particularly to the hotels, restaurants, and local businesses. It also brought great pleasure to the thousands of people in Greater Vancouver who looked forward to it every year.

But while many are grieving the loss of the event, there are equally many locals celebrating the festival's demise. It's easy to write off the complaints as NIMBYism at its finest, but perhaps the event was getting too big (and out of control) for its own good.

Many who live in the West End or around Kitsilano would come to loathe the annual gathering that would trash their neighbourhoods and turn the beaches into public dumping grounds. For those who required to drive downtown, the inconvenience of street closures was frustrating, especially the event's aftermath: traffic congestion of epically nightmarish proportions. The mass exodus of 100,000 people made for insanity for the city's transit infrastructure. Even on the water, with the greater amount of nautical novices operating in the dark, boating accidents became a reality.

Many would blame teenagers and youth coming in from the local suburbs for using the event as an excuse to get obnoxiously drunk in public, often resulting in mischief, vandalism and public violence. Families with young children would feel uncomfortable with the swearing, public urinating, and total debauchery of the drunken idiots. One year, several stabbings took place.

And on the night of the fireworks, the Vancouver Police Department would make their announcements in the media about their zero tolerance for those found with alcohol in public. One year in an attempt to prevent public drunkenness, they went a step too far and confiscated anyone carrying alcohol on the Vancouver-bound Skytrains regardless of whether they were actually on their way to the fireworks or not. And let's not forget the true ending of the night with the police helicopters shining spotlights down on the crowds as they disperse through the downtown streets.

Vancouver is known locally as the "No Fun City" for reasons such as these. So while it's a shame, it's also good riddance.

And on that note, here are some photos I took at the Celebration of Light in the summer of 2005. I highly encourage you to click on each photo as its full size really gives you a sense of the atmosphere.

At Davie and Denman, the West End is already closed to traffic.

Crowds gathering at English Bay hours before the fireworks.

The sun is setting, the fireworks will be starting soon.