Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter Solstice Lantern Festival

When I went shopping at Urban Fare this afternoon, I picked up a little flyer for an upcoming free community event, and it sounds quite interesting. It's called the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival and it's happening throughout 6 local neighbourhoods: the West End, Yaletown, Chinatown, Granville Island, Strathcona, and Commercial Drive. I would love to check it out, but since I'm heading to Montreal tomorrow, I figure I can share it for those who are seeking something to do this Sunday evening that's fun and different. For those of you who are planning to go, it would be great to hear some feedback!

You can find all the details on their website:

Vancouver featured in "2008 in Photographs"

A great photo of Vancouver has been featured in The Boston Globe's 2008 in Photographs (image #27). The photo shows the view of downtown Vancouver, Stanley Park, and the Lion's Gate Bridge from Cypress Mountain on a foggy day. It was taken a month ago today - November 18, 2008 by Andy Clark.

Click photo to zoom in

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Does Vancouver have outlet shopping?

In one of my first posts, I advised against Vancouver if outlet shopping's a high priority. I say this, not because I'm an outlet shopper, but because it's a surprisingly common question. I've read numerous forum postings where international tourists are hoping to take advantage of the outlet shopping when they come to Vancouver, but of course, there isn't any. I feel people should know this ahead of time.

Unlike the USA - a country known for its massive discount factory outlet malls - we don't have anything like that anywhere near Vancouver, and to be honest, it's not really a Canadian phenomenon.* We do have big box stores out in the suburbs (especially in places like along Richmond's Bridgeport Road or along Hwy 10 in Langley's Willowbrook), but they're not factory outlets, they're just regular-priced shops in oversized spaces.

Saying that, while we don't have factory outlet malls, there are some individual outlet stores scattered around, but they tend to be local brands and generally not international designers. There are a few exceptions, like Roots, which has an outlet store on Grandview and Boundary. A Google search for "Vancouver outlet stores" will give you a better picture of what else is out there, but you'll ultimately discover that outlet shopping is just not Vancouver's strength. Not only that, but they're not generally in convenient locations. Unless you were specifically seeking that one particular store, I wouldn't waste your time.

If you did want to go bargain hunting for designer clothing, again, Vancouver fails at that too. The only store that I can think of in Vancouver that comes close is Winners. Winners at first feels like a second hand store, until you realize that the merchandise is designer and new. The fact that it's often a fraction of its original price is also a nice bonus! But you do really have to pick through the clothing, hence my comparison to a thrift shop.

Otherwise, the closest outlet shopping malls are located in the USA along I-5 in Washington state. The best one that's close to Vancouver is arguably Seattle Premium Outlets in Tulalip. If you don't mind border line-ups and a two hour drive one way, that place can definitely satisfy an outlet shopper.

* Edit (Jan 8, 2009): After recently spending time in Québec, I noticed a sprawling outlet mall just west of Montréal. I should have known better than to generalize about Canada as often what one observes in one's region doesn't necessarily mirror what's happening in other regions. In this case, while outlet shopping isn't a Vancouver phenomenon, it certainly exists elsewhere in Canada.

What's cooler than being cool? Ice cold!

Fresh snow on the local mountains

As you've probably gathered from the last few posts, we've been having a bit of a cold spell in Vancouver. While it's true that we get a few slushy snowfalls every winter, what we aren't used to are these extreme cold spells. By extreme, I mean days of icy -4 Celsius with a potential to plunge further. That's right. For those of you who use Fahrenheit, -4 C is the high 20's F.

Welcome to Vancouver.

This is as cold as it ever gets.

This is our extreme coldspell.

While it may not be a brutal -23 Celsius cold (which is what they're currently experiencing in Winnipeg), it's pretty darn cold for Vancouver! The cold has been the focus story in the news for the past few days now. What can I say? We're not used to this thing called "Canadian winter".

Despite Vancouver's relatively northern latitude ("relatively" since Vancouver shares a similar latitude with Paris, France), its winters typically remain above the freezing point. That's because Vancouver's on the west coast and experiences a maritime climate. The climate is influenced by the Pacific Ocean's warm Japan current. As the westerly winds blow across the warm ocean currents, the air itself becomes warm, and all that warm air eventually arrives to the coast and then warms up the land. This is what makes our winters mild, but it's also what cools off our summers. It's also what brings Vancouver's rain. But it's this particular phenomenon which prevents us from experiencing the intense cold that you'd expect further east in the rest of Canada or even in the USA's northern states.

So latitude isn't everything when it comes to climate. While Vancouver is further north than Toronto, Montreal, Minneapolis, Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, or even New York, spending a winter in any of those cities would likely shock a Vancouverite. Typically a Vancouver winter means endless grey skies and perpetual drizzle. A winter in Vancouver is more like a winter in Seattle, Dublin, or London.

But the fact that they're quoting temperatures down to -16 C is what's particularly startling, seeing as that would be a record breaking low. We're just not used to days on end of temperatures below freezing! So far the city has been averaging around -2 to -3 Celsius, ever since Saturday.

Pete McMartin's article in today's Vancouver Sun is pretty funny and accurately describes this past Saturday's introduction to winter:

According to Jones' record, the forecast at 5 a.m. Saturday was cloudy with sunny periods, and cloudy that night.

At 4 p.m., the forecast was amended to cloudy with "a 30 per cent chance of flurries tonight" and "no significant accumulations."

But then, at 9:24 p.m., after people in Vancouver were already reporting snow falling, the forecast was local flurries with amounts to two centimetres.

(Jones said that YVR recorded the first snow at 9:40 p.m. In Tsawwassen, where I was, it was snowing heavily by 7 p.m.)

Finally, at 11:14 p.m., Jones said, Environment Canada issued a snowfall warning, with amounts between five and 10 centimetres.

By that time, of course, it was the usual circus on ice. Vancouver police reported 44 traffic accidents, well above the daily average of three. Many buses stopped running, even along major routes. (My own son was stranded in the storm, and finally got home at 2 a.m. after a long hike.)

In an e-mail, colleague Chris Parry described his own white hell. After waiting at Waterfront Station "for 40 minutes without spotting a single bus, despite TransLink's website and phone service telling me that the situation was normal," he finally found a cab by waving a $20 bill, "then paid a premium to get home."

On the way home, he saw: a multi-car pileup on Granville, downed trolley wires stopping traffic along Marine, a series of accidents that gridlocked bridge traffic, a bus in a ditch, more accidents on Cambie and a car overturned at Bridgeport.

"If this happens during the Winter Olympics," Parry wrote, "can you imagine the embarrassment? We invite the world to come ski with us, and as soon as it snows, the entire city goes to a standstill."

The City, however, was not unprepared for this, and had been salting major routes since Wednesday. It had 10 trucks out on Saturday before the snow started falling, and 14 trucks out at 7 p.m. By 1 a.m. Sunday, city crews had started plowing.

Even so, warning or not, salt or not, the snow discombobulated us. And if you were discombobulated this last Saturday, you better get ready for the one coming.

It appears that this arctic front has taken over the majority of North America and we are certainly not the only ones experiencing this colder-than-normal cold spell. But what this means is that for the next few days, Vancouver gets to take advantage of some crisp, sunny days. The air may be cold and dry, but the scenery is spectacular.

Cypress Mountain as seen from downtown

Sunday afternoon

The sun setting on Monday evening

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Saturday night in the snow

It's just after 11pm on a Saturday night and just as predicted, it has started to snow... but this time the snow is sticking! It's amazing to see in how just one hour the city can change itself into a winter wonderland!

I just phoned my significant other who is, believe it or not, working at this late hour, but away from windows. I told him to go outside. His reaction over the phone was priceless.

There is something so exciting about walking into a building without windows - a restaurant, a theatre, a nightclub, anywhere really - and upon leaving, discovering everything has been covered in snow since you've been inside.

I remember back in 2002, friends and I went to the Blinding Light!! Cinema (when it still existed) in Gastown to see The Matrix synchronized to the entire discography of Radiohead. When we walked into the theatre, it was clear outside. After the film, Gastown was covered in snow and everyone was in complete awe. It was just magical!

Then two years ago, friends of mine threw a birthday party at the Anza Club. The main floor feels a bit like a church hall with its stage, tables and chairs. But they have this secret lounge downstairs that's not only out of a 70's time warp, but the only way to access it is to go through the bathroom! The lounge has a fireplace, comfy couches, pool tables, and darts. What it doesn't have are windows. So that night after spending hours drinking, playing darts, and enjoying one another's company, we all shuffled outside to find the entire ground covered in snow. Everyone immediately ran around in delight.

Tonight when I noticed that it was snowing, I opened the window to take some photos. Usually on Saturday nights I'll hear drunken people spilling out of the nearby nightclubs. Well, as the snow fell tonight, the atmosphere completely changed. I could hear people shrieking and laughing in pure joy of the snow, probably stumbling outside for the first time in hours, discovering a fairytale world. So sure, nobody's prepared for the snow in this city, but it makes everybody see the world as if they were 6 years old, and I like it for that.

Let it snow

Well, we experienced our first snow fall yesterday morning! It fell over the city in large, fluffy flakes, but it wasn't sticking - at least not downtown. It maybe fell for about an hour before it turned into rain - the typical Vancouver snow experience.

Whenever it snows in Vancouver, the city gets caught in a panic. Unlike yesterday, usually the snow does stick for at least a day or two before the rains wash it away. The snow is almost always wet and slushy making it very treacherous. Because it maybe snows two or three times a winter and then promptly melts, nobody bothers preparing for snow. Almost nobody installs snow tires on their cars. Snowblowers? Snowploughs? What are those? Transplanted Ontarians, Albertans, and pretty much any other Canadian from anywhere but the BC coast love to laugh at us whenever it snows.

The typical remark?

"Vancouverites just don't know how to drive in the snow!"

It's true.

Without much of a municipal budget for snow removal, we just don't have the infrastructure to adequately deal with snow. Unlike most Canadian cities, Vancouver has little snow removal equipment. Main roads will eventually be cleared, but it's never done immediately. The side streets are almost never cleared. Combine that with the lack of snow tires, the lack of people's experience driving in snow, the slush, and the hilly terrain, then you begin to understand Vancouver in the snow. And you can understand why public transit and taxis are in such high demand on snow days, or why many people just stay home.

When there are really heavy snow falls, schools and universities will close. I remember a few times when I was at UBC, classes were cancelled due to the snow. Yesterday at SFU, exams were cancelled because people were having difficulty driving up Burnaby Mountain, where SFU is located.

This morning when I woke up, the clouds lifted high enough to see the fresh snow on the mountains.

I know that on Cypress, Seymour, and Grouse, they're thanking the snow gods. I'm sure they're also celebrating up in Whistler too as they've had such little snowfall since the start of the season. With this unusual cold spell (tomorrow's high -5 Celsius?!), I'm sure there will be more where that came from.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Robson Street

Robson Street is often promoted in tourism literature as Vancouver's Rodeo Drive, a tired cliché if there ever was one. This ain't Beverly Hills, but it's consumerism at its finest. Robson Street is Vancouver's outdoor shopping mall... with traffic.

Robson Street by night

Robson Street is located in the heart of downtown Vancouver and is arguably its most famous shopping district. With this kind of reputation, Robson has a lot to live up to. However, context is key.

While Robson is glamorous compared to suburban shopping malls, it can be generic and underwhelming to those that already live in large cities. While Robson's peppered with Canadian retail chains like RW&CO. and Aritzia, and even fewer independent shops like El Kartel and Plen+y, the majority of Robson consists of global retail chains like Bebe, Club Monaco, The Gap, Armani Exchange, Zara, HMV, Lush, Tommy Hilfigger, H20, Levis, FCUK, BCBG, Banana Republic, Esprit, Aldo, La Senza, The Body Shop, American Eagle Outfitters, Guess, Nike, etc. Only along the side streets around Burrard and Alberni does shopping go haute couture and you begin to find boutiques for Lacoste, Coach, Louis Vuitton, Betsey Johnson, Gucci, L'Occitaine, Tiffany & Co., and Hermès.

Robson Street is certainly not the be all end all to shopping districts in Vancouver. If you're looking for a unique only in Vancouver experience, Robson won't give you that. As far as local character is concerned, it is probably the shopping district with the least. Of course, it wasn't always this way. Robson Street once used to be a residential street flecked with German delis and shops. Prior to the 1990's, the area was called Robsonstrasse - a name you can sometimes still find on outdated maps. However, the German characteristics have disappeared entirely and have been replaced by what I described above.

There is a bit of a "see and be seen" element to Robson Street, especially on evenings and weekends. And it is not unusual to spot suburban kids driving their souped-up Hondas along Robson on Friday nights. The demographic is definitely a mixture of tourists and locals window shopping and seeking a night on the town. After all, many of Vancouver's popular restaurants such as Cin Cin and Joe Fortes are located on Robson. Even the trendy Canadian restaurant chains like Earls, Cactus Club, Moxie's, and Milestones have prime Robson locations.

Savvy locals wanting to get from point A to point B typically avoid walking down Robson. It's nearly impossible to walk down its sidewalks without tripping over the ankles of lollygagging window shoppers. Driving down Robson is no better.

For others, Robson Street represents soulless gentrification and mainstream commercialism devoid of community spirit. There are even blogs devoted to showing people that there is life to Vancouver beyond Robson.

But Robson's not necessarily all about shopping.

You can almost break Robson Street down into 4 distinct areas. I've created a map which should help illustrate my points. You can see that I've highlighted Robson Street its entirety in red.

Click to zoom in

So far I've only really talked about Robson's shopping district which exists between Seymour and Bute. I've highlighted this part in a darker red on my map. As you head west of Bute Street, you notice that the big name retail chains disappear and are replaced by hotels, small restaurants, and cafes. In fact, it almost feels like a local neighbourhood! There are grocery stores, tiny Asian specialty shops, and ethnic eateries. Even some of Vancouver's famed izakaya restaurants like Hapa Izakaya, Gyoza King, and Guu with Garlic are located down this way.

Robson's restaurants and cafes are in abundance all the way until Denman Street. While Denman Street continues this trend, if you head west down Robson for the remaining blocks, you realize that it's essentially 100% residential with older apartment towers and beautiful mature trees - a far cry from the shopping frenzy many blocks up. At the very western end of Robson is Stanley Park.

Now if you were to walk east of Robson's shopping district, you'd notice that the feeling changes. While there are still stores, the vibe is less in-your-face shopping but instead more businessy. Robson east of Seymour is home to a mixture of office towers, residential condos, and hotels. Some may argue that it's the north end of Yaletown. You can find grocery stores like IGA Marketplace and the Korean H-Mart along this part of Robson. The east end of Robson's also home to a few of Vancouver's landmarks such as the Moshe Safdie designed Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, and at the very end of Robson Street at Beatty, BC Place.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

New Year's Eve in Vancouver

Vancouver must be one of the world's most underwhelming places to be on New Year's Eve. For a city of its size, it's pretty sad.

There are no free public celebrations and no fireworks. There is nowhere where people come and gather at midnight.

Yes, that's right.




Typically there are 3 choices you can make on New Year's.

1. You can buy tickets to a New Year's Eve event held at a local nightclub, hotel, restaurant, yacht, casino, or a special venue. For example, the nightclubs all along Granville Street would have their own special events, but those tickets are generally overpriced and they tend to sell out well in advance. Likewise, you'd want to make reservations as soon as possible if you were hoping to dine out at a restaurant. Then, every year there tends to be a massive party at a larger venue like BC Place, Science World, or even the Vancouver Aquarium. But again, you'd want to buy your tickets earlier rather than later.

Special events will always be advertised in the local arts & entertainment newspaper, The Georgia Straight, or you could check the club listings online at ClubZone or Clubvibes.

2. You can befriend some locals and get invited to their New Year's Eve house party. I find that local house parties tend to be more fun than going to a special event on New Year's. They can often reach epic proportions! I'd argue that the majority of locals go to house parties as opposed to special events.

3. You can scrap Vancouver and head up to Whistler instead. Though accommodation is astronomical in Whistler at New Year's, it definitely has more of a vibrant atmosphere because they actually have a public gathering. Not only that, but Whistler's full of Aussies on work visas, and they know how to party!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Kitsilano: a neighbourhood overview

Kitsilano (aka "Kits") is a popular Vancouver neighbourhood. It's located south-west of downtown Vancouver and is bordered by Alma Street to the west, Burrard Street to the east, W 16th Avenue to the south, and Burrard Inlet to the north.

Kitsilano's neighbourhood boundary (in red)

Kits is often thought of as a trendy beachfront community which is home to many environmental and health conscious folk, yoga and fitness buffs, yuppies, university students, and middle class families. These are huge generalizations for sure, but you get the idea. And hey, David Suzuki lives there!

David Suzuki
David Suzuki

Kits used to be the heart of Vancouver's hippy counter-culture in the late 1960's. While some places, like The Naam - a 24 hour vegetarian restaurant - are still around from that era, Kits has undergone a lot of gentrification since then. But if you're interested in Vancouver's hippy era, this video is slightly amusing:

Hippy culture in Vancouver, 1967

People like Kits because it's close to downtown but you don't have to deal with the noise or the hustle and bustle outside your bedroom window. While it has many small apartments, the residential side streets are mostly lined with beautiful houses with lush, mature gardens. In April the trees along the streets are in bloom with delightful pink cherry blossoms. The average Kits house sells for about $1,200,000 these days, but if that's too much, you can always rent a small basement suite for around $1000 a month.

I think Kitsilano really gives people a sense of what living in Vancouver is all about. Here are the places I think would be the most interesting to a visitor:

Kits Beach

Located along Cornwall Avenue, this is one of Vancouver's most popular beaches. In addition to the sandy beach, it has an outdoor swimming pool, beach volleyball nets, outdoor tennis courts, outdoor basketball courts, and lots of green space. It tends to be one of the busiest beaches in the summer months and can be a bit of a meat market as far as Vancouver's beach culture goes. It's an excellent people-watching location as it's a popular hangout for locals, especially on summer evenings - the sunsets are spectacular. And when you're feeling peckish, there are pubs, cafes, and restaurants across the street along Cornwall and Yew.

Kits Beach on an April afternoon

Kits Beach, Vancouver
...and a sunset later that day

Cornwall & Yew in Kitsilano
The pubs, cafes, and restaurants across the street

West 4th Avenue

This is the commercial heart of Kitsilano. It has a good selection of restaurants and boutiques, including some local institutions such as Zulu Records, Skull Skates, Duthie Books, and Bishop's. There are also some notable grocery options along W 4th including the locally-founded organic and natural foods specialty store, Capers Community Market. W 4th is also known for its cluster of snowboard and skateboard shops which are located just east of Burrard.

Vanier Park

This is a large and relatively nondescript grassy park immediately north-east of Kits Beach at the mouth of False Creek (the body of water that separates the downtown peninsula from Kitsilano). Vanier Park's home to three small museums which are worth visiting on a rainy day: the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the Vancouver Museum, and the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (otherwise known as the Planetarium).

In the summer months Vanier Park hosts the annual Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival. There's also a "dog beach" along the west side of Vanier Park where people can take their dogs off-leash (which is typically not permitted on city beaches otherwise). And for those venturing across False Creek, you can catch a water taxi from the dock at Vanier Park.

Vanier Park
Vanier Park

Vanier Park's dog beach
Vanier Park's dog-friendly beach

West Broadway

This is the second commercial heart of Kits located along Broadway west of Macdonald. This particular stretch of Kitsilano feels more like a village in atmosphere, and since it's about 10 blocks away from the water, it lacks the beachy vibe. Because it's closer to UBC (and along a major bus route), it has a large student population. W Broadway is not as self-consciously trendy as W 4th, but that's precisely its charm.

What I like about this area is its slower pace and its mix of smaller, independently-owned boutiques and services. While there are some fantastic shops like the über high end men's boutique Mark James Clothing, and some great restaurants like the cozy and exotic East is East, I quite enjoy the neighbourhood's locally-owned bakeries, delis, and cafes. My favourites is Notte's Bon Ton Pastry & Confectionary which is possibly Vancouver's longest-running pastry shop. And finally, Kitsilano is the traditional home of Vancouver's Greek community, so you'll find a few Greek restaurants and speciality shops, like Parthenon Importers. In the summer, they close down entire blocks of Broadway so that the neighbourhood can hosts its annual Greek Day festival.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Geographical confusion

There are a lot of similar-sounding geographical names around Greater Vancouver.

There's Downtown, the Downtown Eastside, the West Side, the West End, New West, West Van, East Van, North Van, and so on.


You're probably not alone.

Locals take for granted what places these names refer to, but I'm sure it causes some initial confusion for others as it's not necessarily logical nor are these places always represented on maps.

To make sure everyone's on the same page, I wanted to write an intro Vancouver geography lesson. These are my personal definitions and not necessarily the official definitions, but close enough for these purposes.

Note that I am not going over every Vancouver neighbourhood, but only those which may cause confusion.

To begin, the City of Vancouver, simply called Vancouver, is shaped a bit like an oven mitt.


Vancouver's city centre, often just called Downtown, is located on a tiny peninsula on the "thumb" of that oven mitt.

the Downtown peninsula

Often when I talk about Downtown, I am usually talking about that entire peninsula. On that peninsula are a variety of distinct neighbourhoods such as Gastown, Coal Harbour, the Downtown core, Yaletown, and the West End. When I talk about the Downtown peninsula, I am lumping all these areas together. This is not an official name by the way, but it tends to make sense.

Other times you'll hear people talking about Downtown, but they might be referring to the Downtown core.

the Downtown Core

The Downtown core is a much tinier area of the Downtown peninsula. It typically refers to the office towers and businesses along Granville, Seymour, Richards, Howe, Hornby, and Burrard. This is not an official definition by any means, and in all reality, these boundaries are very fluid. So you never know when people are talking about "Downtown" - are they referring to the Downtown peninsula or its business core? It helps to clarify.

Just west of the Downtown core is the West End.

the West End

This is the south-western corner of the Downtown peninsula, west of Burrard Street and south of Robson Street. It's a high density residential neighbourhood with a diverse demographic and loads of character. It's next to Stanley Park and is bordered by beaches and the seawall. The two main commercial strips in the West End are located along Davie Street and Denman Street. The West End is also home to Davie Village, the heart of Vancouver's gay community.

Then there's the Downtown Eastside.

the Downtown Eastside

The Downtown Eastside is located in the extreme north-east of the Downtown peninsula, sort of a geographical no man's land between Chinatown and Gastown. It's a neighbourhood that most well-meaning individuals like to warn tourists about.

The Downtown Eastside is in all reality a very small small part of the city located along Hastings, east of Cambie and west of Clark. Technically Gastown and Chinatown are a part of the Downtown Eastside, although when most people refer to the neighbourhood, they're often only thinking about the seedy areas. Although it's the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver, the drug addicts, prostitutes, homeless, and filthy alleys around Main & Hastings are what people imagine when they think of the Downtown Eastside. Contrary to popular belief, it's not really a dangerous area, although looks would suggest otherwise.

Then there's East Vancouver, often just called East Van.

East Van

East Van is the entire eastern half of the City of Vancouver and is home to a variety of distinct and vibrant neighbourhoods such as Commercial Drive, Mount Pleasant, Strathcona, Punjabi Market, and Hastings-Sunrise. East Van has traditionally been the more affordable half of Vancouver with a demographic to match. It's the underdog with strong community spirit and it's home to Vancouver's artsy, bohemian edge.

Ontario Street is technically where the city divides itself between and east and west, but since Ontario's a minor street, most people will tell you that Main Street (2 blocks over) is the dividing point. The easiest way to tell if you're in East Van is to look at the street signs as they'll have East in their names: E 8th Ave, E Hastings, E Georgia, etc.

So if the eastern half of Vancouver is East Van, you'd logically assume that the western half would be called West Van... but this is not the case. The western half of Vancouver is called the West Side.

the West Side

It's called the West Side, and not West Vancouver, because there is a satellite city across the bridge from Vancouver and its name is West Vancouver. And we can't call the West Side "the West End" because of the West End neighbourhood on the Downtown peninsula.

Confused yet?

The West Side refers to anywhere in Vancouver that's west of Ontario Street. The West Side usually doesn't include the Downtown peninsula. The street signs will have "West" in their names: W 4th Ave, W 49th Ave, W Broadway, etc. The West Side is definitely the more affluent half of the city, again with a demographic to match. The feeling is more gentrified, yuppified, and less grassroots than East Van, but it's also where you'll find the scenic vistas that Vancouver's so famous for.

The West Side isn't a term you'll hear locals using often. You might read the term in a real estate listing, or you might hear it being used in general comparison to East Van. Most people, if they're referring to the West Side, will be more specific and will use the name of the neighbourhoods within the West Side, such as Kitsilano, Marpole, Point Grey, Southlands, Dunbar, Kerrisdale, Shaughnessy, South Granville, etc. You'll rarely hear, "I live in the West Side", but rather, "I live in Kitsilano".

* * *

I now want to focus outside of Vancouver to the satellite cities that make up "Greater Vancouver" or "Metro Vancouver". Although these satellite cities are more than just bedroom communities and often have their own distinct histories and identities, locals refer to them as "the suburbs" even if some of them are older than Vancouver itself!

Some of Vancouver's most popular tourist attractions, like the Capilano Suspension Bridge, Grouse Mountain, and Lynn Canyon, are actually located in North Vancouver. North Vancouver, often shortened to North Van, is a separate city from Vancouver. It has its own mayor, its own school board, its own municipal services, library system, etc. which are distinct from Vancouver.

North Van

North Van is located to the north-east of Vancouver on the other side of Burrard Inlet at the base of two mountains: Grouse and Seymour. The Lion's Gate Bridge and the Iron Worker's Memorial Bridge (previously the Second Narrow's Bridge) connect Vancouver to North Van. Statistically, North Van is the rainiest city in Greater Vancouver.

To the west of North Vancouver is a city called West Vancouver, or West Van.

West Van

West Van is possibly the most affluent city in the province, full of multi-million dollar mountainside mansions with swimming pools, tennis courts, and panoramic views. It's also home to Cypress Mountain and the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. Most people pass through West Van on their way from Vancouver to Whistler.

Together North Vancouver and West Vancouver form the "North Shore" - the north shore of the Burrard Inlet.

the North Shore

From the map you can see that Burrard Inlet is the body of water that separates the North Shore from Vancouver.

The only other city that may cause initial confusion is New West. New West is short for the City of New Westminster. Note that there is only one letter i in New Westminster.

New West

New West is located south-east of Vancouver. It takes about 30 minutes by Skytrain to travel to New West from Downtown.

While locals think of New West as a suburb, it was one time the capital city of British Columbia, between 1860-1868, back when Vancouver Island and British Columbia were two separate British colonies. Since New Westminster was founded in 1859, that makes it one of those "suburbs" with a longer history than Vancouver. Of course, it's all relative. Vancouver was founded in the 1870's and only became a city in 1886.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The inukshuk

When I was 6 years old, Vancouver hosted Expo 86. A great deal of monumental structures were built that year which includes Canada Place, Science World, and the Skytrain system. However, one lesser-recognized addition was the inukshuk statue which currently stands at the southern end of English Bay Beach. The inukshuk was a gift from the Inuit of Canada's arctic territories to Vancouver.

The inukshuk at English Bay

People always come up with different interpretations for what inukshuks are. When I was in grade 4 studying the Inuit, I was taught two things about inukshuks: that they were traditionally built as place markers on the vast and barren tundra, and that they were somehow used to herd caribou. Despite their traditional uses, these human-like stone statues are widely recognized as symbols of Canada's Inuit culture.

In 2003 when Vancouver won the bid to host the 2010 winter Olympics, a contest was held to design the official logo. The winner's design was a colourful interpretation of an inukshuk, inspired by the one at English Bay.

The winning entry initially caused a huge controversy because people thought that the inukshuk design looked too amateurish. Others complained that it had absolutely nothing to do with Vancouver's identity, but instead, its link to the Arctic continued to persist the cold and snowy Canadian stereotype. I think there was a 90% disapproval rating for the inukshuk design, but it was chosen anyway and was first shown at the 2006 Torino Olympics during the closing ceremonies. Despite the initial public disapproval, I think Canadians have warmed up it (no pun intended). I know I have!

This past summer when I visited Whistler, I took the gondola up to the top of the mountain. As we neared the top, I noticed that a new inukshuk had been built, obviously a replica of the logo. Although inukshuks aren't from this part of Canada, that inukshuk at the peak of Whistler seemed appropriately monumental, greeting visitors in anticipation of the upcoming 2010 Olympics. All I know is that one day in the not-too-distant future, I'll be watching that very inukshuk and the mountainous panorama behind it on TV.

2010 Olympics
The inukshuk on top of Whistler

Can I use US dollars in Vancouver?

A lot of tourist-friendly businesses choose to accept American currency as a courtesy to American tourists, but US dollars are legally a foreign currency in Canada. What this means is that businesses that choose to accept US dollars choose their own exchange rate, and they will only give back change in Canadian currency, as it's what they're legally able to do.

Infrastructure in Canada - vending machines, laundry machines, pay phones, public transit ticket machines, parking meters - basically anything where you insert coins or bills will only accept Canadian dollars and coins.

Since ATM's are everywhere in Vancouver, it's easy to use your bank card to withdraw some Canadian dollars when you arrive.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

To visit Vancouver or to not visit Vancouver

... that is the question.

I've written the following lists so that people don't get false expectations about Vancouver. Vancouver's a fantastic city, and yes it does get voted highly for its livability, but know its limitations.

If you're looking for Las Vegas style nightlife, then no, don't come to Vancouver. If you're seeking London style history, museums, and art galleries, then no, perhaps Vancouver's not the city for you.

But if understand what you're getting yourself into, where to spend your time, and where not to waste your time, only then can you truly appreciate what Vancouver has to offer.

Reasons for visiting Vancouver:

A "modern and cosmopolitan" urban environment
the scenery
the sandy beaches
the public waterfront walkways
the gardens and green space
the temperate rainforests
the Coast Mountains
the nearby islands
rich aboriginal history
the diverse topography
the mild climate
the social tolerance and multiculturalism
the outdoor activities (skiing, sailing, kayaking, snowboarding, mountain biking, rock climbing, scuba diving, fishing, whale watching, golfing, hiking, white water rafting, windsurfing, skateboarding, beach volleyball, etc. - all within a short distance of downtown!)
the ability to explore on foot
good public transit
small scale boutique shopping
the Asian cuisine scene
fresh local seafood
the burgeoning "foodie" scene

Reasons for not visiting Vancouver:

A "quaint and charming" urban environment
to admire architecture
for a long-established colonial history
large museums and large art galleries
autumn colours
the Rocky Mountains (they're 800km away!)
snowy winters
a white Christmas
a vibrant New Year's party
guaranteed sunshine
big city nightlife
legal marijuana
cheap booze
Mexican/Latin American restaurants
Texas BBQ or American "southern" style cooking
endless fast food chains
outlet shopping malls
cheap real estate
cheap rent
cheap hotel rooms
cheap parking
a city riddled with freeways


Thanks for visiting my blog!

After ten years of offering travel tips and suggestions on variety of travel forums, I figure it would make sense to start my own Vancouver page so to speak.

I'd like to think I can offer a unique perspective on Vancouver - a life long local's perspective. Not only of the city itself, but the atmosphere and attitudes you'll encounter. Sick and tired of typical touristy brochure shpeels of Vancouver as the place where you can ski and sail in one day? Do you want to know the real secrets, both pros and cons?

I will be adapting my blog to reflect life in Vancouver, not necessarily from the tourist's point of view, but definitely for the benefit of any visitor, whether they plan to vacation, study or work here. Since many generations of my family have called Greater Vancouver home, I feel a very strong bond with the city and the surrounding region, and this passion for my home inspires my writing. You'll notice that a lot of my writing will revolve around family traditions, anecdotes and experiences while growing up and living here.

Please feel free to ask questions and I'll try my best to respond to them as soon as possible.

Thanks again and welcome! :)