Vancouver – Canada’s Pacific Gem

There are a handful of cities in the world that combine an exceptionally beautiful setting with a dynamic urban landscape. Among such cities are Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Cape Town, Hong Kong and Vancouver. For those who love to cruise, Alaska is one destination that offers incredible mountains, fjords, wildlife and a raw frontier spirit. Yet the majority of Alaska cruises either begin or end in Vancouver, a city of Old World charm and 21st century sophistication. It is set in a landscape not unlike that of Alaska, and herein lies a paradox.

For friends planning Alaska cruises, I recommend that they allow at least a minimum of three days in Vancouver either before or after their cruises. I have seen many passengers almost in tears who arrive at the ship having come straight from the airport or who sail into the Vancouver Harbour with plans to go directly to the airport because they had no idea that this Pacific gateway was such a beautiful and dynamic city. So please take my word for it and plan to visit so that you will not be among those with great regrets in not lingering for a while.

The dynamic downtown Vancouver skyline from Stanley Park

Vancouver is Canada’s third largest city with a population of just over two million. It is the largest city in the country’s immense western provinces. But the city belies its numbers in that it is such a powerhouse of banking, commerce, technology, education and medicine. And in true Canadian fashion, there is a pension for high-rise construction. The skyline of the city center, the northern shore and the outer suburbs is one in which there are nodes of high-rise apartments, condominiums and office towers far in excess of what the visitor expects in a city of two million. In fact, the downtown core and its surrounding residential districts has a residential density that is equal to Manhattan Island in New York City. The major difference is that almost all of the buildings are late 20th and early 21st century modern towers of glass and steel, gleaming in the sunlight as examples of urban elegance. In many ways, the skyline is starting to resemble Hong Kong more each year. But what Hong Kong and all of the other beautiful cities noted at the start of this article lack is a wall of heavily forested, snow-capped mountains rising immediately behind the city.

The setting for Vancouver includes a dynamic urban landscape where the love for high-rise has reached quite a crescendo, giving the city more tall buildings than any other city on the West Coast, including Los Angeles or San Francisco. It sounds hard to believe, but it is a fact. But the city also has many magnificent parks, including Stanley Park, several thousand acres of natural temperate rainforest. And to the north of the mountains rapidly rise to top out at over 1,500 meters above sea level, their lower slopes thickly forested while their peaks remain dappled with snow even into the summer. The city has a deepwater harbor that is actually a glacial fjord, separating it from the mountains. And to the west is the Georgia Strait, a 56 kilometer wide channel separating the mainland from magnificent Vancouver Island with its thousands of square miles of forested wilderness. But the island is also home to the city of Victoria with over 500,000 residents. It is actually the capital of the Province of British Columbia, but it can only be reached by ferryboat or air.

A good view over central Vancouver from the Queen Elizabeth Gardens

There is much to see within the city of Vancouver, and that is why several days are needed. Below are listed just the major sights, and I chose alphabetical order since it is so hard to give them any ranking since they are all very special. The must see sights are:

  • Capilano Canyon and Suspension Bridge – A foot bridge suspended above a small rushing river in the foothills of Grouse Mountain across the harbor
  • Gas Town – With its quaint gas street lights, this old Victorian waterfront district is where Vancouver began
  • Chinatown – Vancouver has a very large Chinatown that is actually a true Chinese neighborhood that feels more like being overseas than being in Canada
Pender Street is in the heart of Vancouver’s large Chinatown
  • Granville Island – Located in False Creek, this is the city’s great public market and gourmet dining spot
  • Granville Street – This pedestrian friendly street contains the city’s downtown shopping, including Nordstrom, Hudson’s Bay Company, Holt Renfrew and the shops of the Pacific Centre Mall
The main Hudson’s Bay Company store in downtown Vancouver
  • Grouse Mountain – You can ride a gondola to the top of the mountain 1,231 meters above the city where you can dine with a breathtaking view
  • Kitsilano Beach – A waterfront suburb on English Bay with dramatic views of the West End skyline, and containing some of the remaining Victorian homes of the 19th century
  • Point Grey – Along English Bay and leading to the University of British Columbia, this is one of the most favored residential communities
  • Richmond – The island suburb that is more like Hong Kong than it is like Canada, replete with great Chinese restaurants
  • Robson Street – The most chic street in the West End filled with clubs, bistros, bakeries, cafes and boutiques
Robson Street is one of the city’s “hot” places for upscale dining and shopping
A typical selection of pastries that are so typical of urban bakeries in Canada
  • Simon Fraser University – High atop Burnaby Mountain the campus has been used as a setting for many science fiction movies
  • Stanley Park – A semi wild park beyond the West End consisting of 405 hectares of forest, gardens and public attractions
  • University of British Columbia – Situated at the end of Point Grey, the campus is quite dynamic with a mix of architectural styles
  • West End – The second most densely settled neighborhood of high-rise apartments and condominiums after that of Manhattan in New York City

There are several fascinating locales outside of the city that can be visited if you hire a car or take a tour, spending an entire day away from Vancouver. These include:

  • Butchart Gardens – Located just south of the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal on Vancouver Island, this is an absolutely spectacular botanical garden
  • Victoria – About three hours from the city utilizing the Tsawwassen Ferry from south of the city, a visit to Victoria is quite special, as it is heralded as being the most English city outside of England
  • Whistler Ski Resort – Located in the high mountains north of the city, this is Canada’s greatest ski resort, a beautiful chalet like village set at the base of 2,677 meter high Mt. Garibaldi

By the time you have reached this part of the article, it should be clear that if you are going on an Alaska cruise for which Vancouver is your starting or ending port, it is imperative that you plan to stay for a few days. It is the gem in Canada’s crown.


Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch

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