Sunday, May 31, 2009

Summer has arrived!

I have completely neglected my blog (and dishes, and laundry) for the past few weeks as the weather's been so gorgeous, warm, and sunny, I haven't been motivated to spend more than 20 minutes at a time on the computer. And who wants to hang around in their stuffy apartment when the summer beckons outside?

Temperatures in Vancouver have been in the mid-20's Celsius (70's-80's Fahrenheit) for over two weeks now so out come all the summer dresses, the shorts & t-shirts, and the beaches are packed. In addition, the sun hasn't been setting until after 9pm with twilight carrying it until 10pm - the joys of life on the 49th parallel. All in all, the long-anticipated Vancouver summer has arrived, and honestly? It's about time!

So far we've started our summer with a bang! Last week we took a 3 day getaway to the nearby Sunshine Coast to stay at our friend's cabin north of Sechelt.

View Larger Map

We took a canoe ride along the Sechelt Inlet fjord, discovering hidden coved beaches in Mount Richardson Provincial Park - beaches only accessable by boat. We visited the quaint fishing village of Gibsons which most know as the film location of the old Canadian TV series, the Beachcombers. We even ate lunch at Molly's Reach!

Back at the cabin we spent hours on the deck eating cheese, sausage and bread while drinking Okanagan wine, admiring the hummingbirds, mason bees, and neighbourhood dogs that visited the garden. This cute retreat gave us a little taste of a perfect slice of coastal BC paradise - it was hard to come back home to downtown!

But city life in Vancouver certainly has its perks. This past week we've been having weekday evening bike rides around the seawall.

We'll pick up dinner from a little Lebanese shwarma shop on Denman and then we'll sit on a log at English Bay watching the sunset as harbour seals frolic in the water. Everyone seems to be out at English Bay in the evening these days - many large groups of friends with hidden stashes of beer; young ESL students - Brazilians, Saudi Arabians, Koreans, Japanese, Swiss, Taiwanese, Mexicans, Germans - adjusting to independence in a foreign country like an unofficial frosh party with many a flirtacious laugh. And then there's couples like us, happily chilled out, watching the sunset over Bowen Island, momentarily forgetting about the city behind us.

Weekends have also been adjusting to the summertime spirit. There have been Friday night drinks with friends and colleagues on the Section 3 patio where we somehow racked up a $1100 bill. This was followed by quick dash into the Railway Club to catch upcoming local bands. Hungry, we vanished into a nearby 24hr Tim Horton's for a bagel & creamcheese only to discover a parked limo outside. 10 minutes later we were in that limo going a spontaneous ride around Stanley Park to admire the stars. And that was just Friday.

Saturday we took it easy and enjoyed a walk around downtown's Robson Street to pick up some much-needed summer clothing. Lunch was at my favourite - the Vancouver Art Gallery's Cafe's patio - a hidden oasis terrace of flowers, birds, and classical music on Robson and Howe. Appropriately, out evening took us to the Orpheum Theatre to see Benjamin Hochman's performance of Mozart's Jeunehomme concerto followed by the VSO's performance of Prokofiev Fifth Symphony. Craving dinner nearby, we strolled down to our regular haunt, Subeez, to chow down on basa linguine, cobb salad, and wine. Life is rough.

Sunday we took the Aquabus across False Creek to Granville Island to pick up some ingredients later for dinner. We called up our friend Adam who suggested drinks on the patio of the Arts Club Backstage Lounge - a Granville Island institution. We were there drinking caesars and wine until 6pm before picking up some fresh salmon, halibut and, gai-lan and went back to our friend's apartment in the West End where he cooked us the most amazing dinner. We all ate on the balcony overlooking the English Bay sunset while listening to Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Willie Nelson.

When I think I'll have some down time to write a little entry, I always get whisked away elsewhere and the blog neglect continues. So I do apologize, but I haven't forgotten.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Strange cloud formations

Last Sunday around 7:30pm, I noticed a low-lying cloud formation swirling around, morphing over the downtown sky.

Clouds over downtown Vancouver - May 10, 2009

It almost resembled an inverse bubble bath, with big air bubbles trapped in foam. The texture was pretty darn cool and I couldn't resist snapping a few photos from my 22nd floor window.

Clouds over downtown Vancouver
After an hour, the cloud formation mellowed out and reverted back to an anonymous grey of an overcast sky.

Monday, May 11, 2009

VanDusen Botanical Garden: a local's secret

Laburnum blooming in VanDusen in early May 2005
Laburnum in VanDusen, alive with the sound of bees - May 2005

Vancouver's wet climate and mild temperatures produce some of the most lush, botanically diverse gardens in North America. Because of these conditions, Vancouver's gardens are vibrant and green year round. This is unlike elsewhere in Canada where you'd normally only seek gardens in the spring and summer months. Vancouver's mild temperatures mean that you can visit the local gardens even in the middle of winter and you'll still have plenty of things to see.

Yellow irises - May 2005

You can guarantee that almost every tourist coming to Vancouver knows about Stanley Park. And you'd be surprised at how many tourists come to Vancouver, only to spend their entire time travelling the six hour round trip to see Victoria's Butchart Gardens. But for those garden loving individuals, there is actually another garden here in Vancouver which is equally worthwhile but it often flies under the tourist radar. That garden, dear reader, is VanDusen Botanical Garden.

VanDusen Botanical Garden main entrance - May 2005

VanDusen Botanical Garden (called "VanDusen Gardens" or "VanDusen" by locals) is my favourite garden in Vancouver, and it has to be the one of the city's most impressive as far as botanical gardens go. Formerly a golf course up until 1960, it opened its doors as a botanical garden in 1975.

Floating bridge - May 2005

Though not as famous as Butchart Gardens, it's about the same size but is cheaper and has a fraction of the crowds. It's also convenient to get to as it's located a 12 minute (5 km) drive south of downtown Vancouver - nestled on a massive 55 acre city block in the gorgeous, the prestigious, and the disgustingly pricey residential neighbourhood of Shaughnessy.

The satellite view of VanDusen from Google Maps

If you enjoy horticulture, botany and meandering through tranquil gardens, you'll want to seriously consider a visit to VanDusen. Organized into 55 unique themes, it's more than just pretty flowers. In a way, the garden is set up to be a living museum - every plant, flower, tree, fern is meticulously labeled by its genus and species. It's not just beautiful - it's educational! You'll want at least 2 hours here to give it justice. And don't forget the hedge maze!

Entering the hedge maze - May 2005

In terms of dining, VanDusen has a reputable gourmet restaurant aptly called Shaughnessy for those looking at making a special event out of the visit. They also have a beautiful gift shop. But VanDusen almost acts as a surrogate community centre for the Vancouver community, hosting plant sales, plant shows, car shows, cultural displays, botany/horticulture classes, flower-arranging classes, lectures - you name it.

The lushness of spring flowers - May 2005

This is even more true in December when they host the annual Festival of Lights Christmas light display - the busiest time you'll ever experience at VanDusen! But outside of Christmas time, VanDusen offers a surprisingly quiet environment.

A quiet moment under the canopy of a Japanese maple - May 2005

Although the garden changes with the seasons and is beautiful year round, there's something really special about visiting VanDusen in the month of May. It's at this time of the year when VanDusen becomes magical with intensely coloured rhododendrons and bright yellow laburnum alive with the buzz of bees. The new green foliage appears so vibrant, as if somebody tweaked the saturation in Photoshop. VanDusen in May can feel like you're walking through an impressionist painting - and you feel as though you have the whole garden to yourself.

Korean pavilion in the Sino-Himalayan garden at VanDusen - May 2005

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The tail end of cherry blossom season

The last of the cherry blossoms - Davie Street, Yaletown

Last night around 9pm (almost serendipitously timed to the Canucks loss), there was a sudden and intense storm with hurricane-like winds blowing sheets of rain down the city streets. The surface of the roads turned to rivers in an instant.

We stood in the solarium and watched waterfalls spill down our windows. Those out on the town, unfortunate enough to be caught outside, could be heard shrieking as they ran for cover.

Now this kind of weather is not out of place if it were November, but you typically don't get that kind of intensity here in the spring. You get that in Texas or Montreal or Alberta, not coastal BC. Climate change strikes again.

After brunch this afternoon we ran into our friend Patrick who also commented on the strangeness of last night's event. He said he was watching the storm from his balcony, and moments before the rain fell, he was admiring the blossoms swirl up and through the streets, like the plastic bag dancing through the air in American Beauty.

While most of Vancouver's cherry trees lost their blossoms weeks ago, there's still one late blooming species with puff-ball like blossoms which still cling to their branches. I decided to see how they fared after last night's storm, and surprisingly, it was a lot better than I had anticipated. But as these final cherry blossoms fall, it signifies the tail end of cherry blossom season as we approach that ambiguous boundary between spring and summer in Vancouver.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Whale Watching out of Vancouver

Ruffles, the patriarch orca of J Pod, during a whale watch tour.

Whale watching is a popular activity to do while in Vancouver. The local whale watching season lasts from May until October as it's then when the weather, daylight hours, and temperatures are ideal. The Strait of Georgia - the nearby body of water that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland - is home to 3 residential pods of orcas: J Pod, K Pod, and L Pod. Orcas (also known as killer whales) are actually the largest member of the dolphin family! It's these creatures (and not humpback or grey whales) that you'd be seeing while on a Vancouver-based whale watch tour. Of course, you're equally likely see other wildlife such as harbour seals, porpoises, and bald eagles!

Differences between whale watching companies

Vancouver is currently home to 3 whale watching companies: Wild Whales Vancouver, Steveston Seabreeze Adventures, and Vancouver Whale Watch. Here is a map that I created to illustrate the locations of the Vancouver-based whale watching companies and how their locations relate to the range they'll cover to find orcas on any given day.

Vancouver Whale Watching Map
Click to zoom in

All companies guarantee sightings and will provide professionally narrated commentary by naturalists on board. They will all travel down through the Strait of Georgia to the Gulf Islands and to the San Juan Islands, sometimes as far as Victoria at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. All companies have hydrophones (so you can listen to the orcas underwater) and yes, they do have washrooms on board each boat. They also follow strict guidelines in terms of how close they get to the whales before they must cut their engines. While experiences aren't dramatically different from one company to another, there are certainly variations which will help you determine which company to go with.

Wild Whales Vancouver is the only Vancouver-based company that's actually located in the city of Vancouver. They're a relatively new company based out of Granville Island, so it's extremely close to downtown Vancouver. However, being the closest company to downtown means they're the furthest away from the whales, so they typically have to travel even further to get to the whales than other Vancouver-based companies. Since they only have one departure per vessel, they don't have to rush back, so they are able to spend more time out on the water looking for whales and other marine life. As a result, their tours can last anywhere from 3-7 hours in length. They have a choice of open or closed vessels.

Steveston Seabreeze Adventures is a company based out in the city of Richmond in Steveston - a historic fishing village at the mouth of the Fraser River - about a 45 minute drive from downtown Vancouver. They offer whale watching tours in reconverted fishing boats that have a closed seating area in addition to an outdoor viewing deck upstairs and in the back. Although they are located further from downtown, they are actually closer to the whales. As a result, their tours last from 3-5 hours in length. In the summer months they offer morning and afternoon departures. In addition to whale watching, Steveston Seabreeze offers a variety of other activities such as bicycle rentals, fishing, sea lion tours, and bird-watching tours. For $15 extra, they will provide door-to-door shuttle service.

Vancouver Whale Watch is the longest established whale watching company in the Vancouver area and are the only company with open and closed zodiac vessels. With zodiacs, they can often travel in conditions when other companies have to cancel. Like Steveston Seabreeze, Vancouver Whale Watch is also located in Steveston and also provides round trip shuttle service from downtown hotels for $15. Their tours generally last anywhere from 3-5 hours in length and offer morning and afternoon departures in the summer months. In addition to whale watching, they offer sea lion tours from March until mid May. They also offer a 45 minute narrated tour of the Fraser River estuary and Steveston's fishing history aboard the River Queen. The River Queen is a reconverted BC Ferries lifeboat and it sails up and down the Steveston harbour to provide a completely unique perspective of the historic fishing village.

Open vs. Closed boats

It's common to wonder whether an open boat or a closed boat is better, and it really depends on your preferences.

I find open boats more adventurous, especially zodiacs. Life suits (those big padded orange suits) are mandatory on open boats, not only because they keep you afloat (if you decided to go for a swim!) but they also keep you warm and protected from the wind and water. Now a lot of people think a zodiac is the same as an inflatable raft (they are not!) or that they're not secure (they're very secure), but zodiacs are actually some of the safest and most maneuverable vessels available for whale watching tours. Unlike other boats, zodiacs are built to carve through the waves, so the ride is not only faster, but it's less bumpy compared to other vessels. And no, surprisingly, you don't get wet on a zodiac unless a) it's raining, or b) your captain wants to play a prank on his willing passengers. ;)

The benefit of closed boats is, although they tend to be slower, you have the choice of being able to sit comfortable inside or walk to the viewing deck outside. By contrast, you are typically seated the entire time on open vessels due to the nature of the seating arrangements. But on a closed boat there tends to be more flexibility. You also don't have to worry about wearing the big orange life suit, which means you also don't have to worry about wind in your hair or rain or mischievous splashes from your captain! So over all, it's just a matter of preference.

Motion sickness

A lot of people worry about motion sickness on whale watching tours. Whale watching in this region is done through protected waterways like the Georgia Strait and through the narrow channels between the Gulf and San Juan Islands. This is not the open ocean - there are no large sea swells or big waves. If it happens to be stormy or particularly windy (even on a sunny day), they will cancel the tour if they think it'll be too rough. Otherwise, If you are prone to motion sickness, by all means, I'd recommend taking Gravol ahead of time, but motion sickness is otherwise quite rare. The worst case scenario is that some companies, like Vancouver Whale Watch, carry candied ginger on board which is supposed to help in those situations.

Guarantee of seeing whales

All Vancouver-based companies will offer guaranteed sightings. The likelihood of seeing whales is anywhere from 90-95%. The pods of orcas travel large distances over the span of one day. In the morning they might be closer to the mouth of the Fraser River and in the afternoon they might be closer to Victoria. This is why the tour length can dramatically vary. The only time that whales are not seen is if they have travelled to the open Pacific Ocean for the day. In that case, the captains of the tour will travel around in hopes of finding whales and other marine life. If you don't see orcas (even if you see the elusive Minke whale!), you'll be treated to a certificate to come back any time in the future to go whale watching again for free. Because you're dealing with wild animals, there is never a 100% guarantee for sightings.


Because seating is limited, it's always best to make reservations at least one week in advance, if not earlier. While you may be able to reserve a spot a day or two before, the tours typically sell out by the day of departure. Remember that when you reserve a whale watching tour that the length of the tour is uncertain - you could be out on the water for 3 hours or up to 5-7 hours! It's best to set aside a good portion of your day to the tour and try not to cram anything else afterward.

Whale Watching in Vancouver vs. Victoria

Frequently the question comes up as to whether or not one should pick a company based out of Vancouver or Victoria, and honestly? The experience doesn't differ - one is not better than the other. The only thing that really differs is the point of departure. The orcas are always going to be in some location between Victoria and Vancouver so it really doesn't matter whether you leave from Vancouver or from Victoria, you're going to end up at the exact same location when viewing the whales.

There tend to be more Victoria-based companies, so if you're particular about what kind of boat you want to go out on - a zodiac, a reconverted fishing vessel, a luxurious yacht, etc. - you have more choice in Victoria. Victoria-based companies also have to travel shorter distances. As a result, you spend less time on the water and most tours will stay out for a maximum of 3 hours. This often makes the tours less expensive as well. Of course, this is only a benefit if you're already planning to visit Victoria. If you were only planning to visit Victoria to go whale watching, it really makes more sense to whale watch out of Vancouver as you'd be saving yourself a lot of time and money.

But if you're still interested in visiting Victoria and want to kill two birds with one stone, Victoria-based Prince of Whales has recently started to offer a unique series of tours that depart from downtown Vancouver, go whale watching along the way, and then drop you off in Victoria! That has got to be one of the best ways of getting from downtown Victoria to downtown Vancouver!

Friday, May 1, 2009

Canuck Fever

Vancouver's infected with the fever.

No, not the swine flu - a fever. Canuck fever!

The Vancouver Canucks (the local professional NHL hockey team) are in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs and they haven't lost a game yet. They're the only Canadian team left now in the playoffs.

This is a big deal here. A big big deal. I don't recall seeing this city so Canuck crazy since 1994.

And perhaps it's rather telling of Vancouver's famed No Fun City moniker, but I can't honestly remember any other time where the vast majority of locals - regardless of race, age, religion, class, sex, neighbourhood, whatnot - come together with such fervent community spirit that the city just exudes a certain infectious joie-de-vivre!

It's like Mardi Gras!

It's like being on Commercial Drive when Italy wins the World Cup...

... except it's everywhere - from the stylish Yaletown bars to the crack houses out in New West. Everyone in this city has Canuck fever, and boy do they ever have it bad.

Back in 1994, the Canucks made it all the way to the game 7 of the final round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I was in high school then - grade 8. We had organized "Canuck spirit" days where everyone in the school would paint their faces with orange and red and plastered every surface with the team logo. At home my Mom would bring home the Province newspaper's daily Canuck's poster which I'd promptly hang in my bedroom. From our games room window I proudly displayed my handmade GO! CANUCKS GO! posters for our neighbour's enjoyment. For my 14th birthday my girlfriends and I sat around the TV watching the Canucks in the playoffs while I wore my prized Canucks t-shirt. For Halloween of that year I meticulously carved a Canucks logo into jack-o-lantern to the delight of little boys. For Christmas? My parents treated my sister and I to a framed limited edition Canuck's photo where the entire team dressed up in costumes and posed on some wild western set.

Upon the Canucks winning the 3rd round of the finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs, we thought it would be a great idea to go to the airport to greet the Canucks as they arrived home. Dad drove us at some ungodly hour to the airport that night where we waited at the arrivals terminal for hours, camera in hand, for a glimpse of our beloved heroes. The crowds were so massive, the Canucks had to secretly flee through the back door and nobody saw them at all. We drove home, disappointed, as the sun rose over the mountains.

Unfortunately for Vancouver, the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup in Game 7 in 1994 to the New York Rangers. In one moment, Canuck Fever became the Stanley Cup Riot - one of the stupidest displays of group mentality since a Guns N' Roses concert.

For a long time after, police were so paranoid at even the thought of another group gathering turning into a drunken riot, public festivities were under abnormally high police control. No Fun City was alive and well.

The only other time that such a public display of affection for a sports team was seen in Vancouver was when Canada's men's hockey team won gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was the last time that I can remember when the entire city came together and celebrated in unity in the city streets... where you could hear people cheering and cars honking for hours whether you were in some vacant lot on the wrong side of town or in the heart of downtown like on Robson & Thurlow. Oddly enough, Robson & Thurlow was ground zero for the 1994 Stanley Cup riot, but in 2002 it was a completely different scene. The streets were closed to traffic so that spontaneous parties could fester. Everyone was wearing red and white and parties lasted until the night.

Canada's Olympic Men's Hockey Team winning the gold medal, 2002 Winter OlympicsRobson & Thurlow an hour after the 2002 Olympic gold medal win

The biggest irony of this whole story is that I don't even follow hockey anymore. But it's hard not to these days. You just have to open your windows on game days and you'll hear people cheering when the Canucks score. You see, when the Canucks are playing in the playoffs, the city becomes uncharacteristically quiet as everyone is inside watching the game. The bars and restaurants - anywhere with a TV really - are packed to capacity with Canuck crazy patrons and that atmosphere spills out into the streets afterward. You don't even have to be a hockey fan to notice the excitement in Vancouver these days. Canuck fever, it appears, is more contagious than I initially thought!