North to Vancouver

Posted on 04 Aug 2017 at 6:30am

There are sane, serious reasons for queer Texans to consider Canada for more than a vacation

Vancouver

A footbridge at the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish north of Vancouver, offers breathtaking views.

TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Within days of last fall’s presidential election, Canada’s main governmental website was shut down from an inundation of Americans curious about how they could relocate from the U.S. in favor of our English- speaking neighbor to the north. Irrespective of your politics, it’s difficult to argue with those efforts. From its dreamy, welcoming prime minister (Justin Trudeau) to its progressive stance on gay rights, the country overall has much to offer. But stop No. 1 on the expatriate’s itinerary should certainly be Vancouver.

One of Canada’s three largest population centers (its 2.3 million residents — about the size of metropolitan Philadelphia in the U.S. — puts it behind only the greater Toronto and Montreal areas), Vancouver is the center of commerce and culture in Western Canada. (British Columbia is the westernmost province that touches on the contiguous U.S.) It looks like a big city: Skyscrapers dominate the landscape, though there is a surprising sameness to much of the major architecture — pale, aqua-glass cantilevered towers that look like they were all erected within a 10-year period in the 1960s dominate the landscape.

But despite all appearances, it feels more like a resort town that only happens to be a diverse hub and business center as well. The streets rarely seem crowded, except at certain choke points where tourists congregate. The streets are wide, with lots of greenspaces. Traffic rarely congests enough for anyone to consider road rage. In fact, rumors of Canadian politeness aren’t rumors. There’s a gentleness to the city that goes beyond being tourism-friendly. Canadians aren’t just Americans with good healthcare; they are … nicer.

At least, that’s how it seems. They appreciate Southern hospitality, but they more than outdo us with Canadian calm. I felt decompressed in Vancouver in a way that I don’t when I visit cities like New York or Seattle or San Francisco, not to mention Houston. It’s a rejuvenating city for recharging your batteries.

Which was exactly the plan on a recent visit, where healthy eating, exercise and relaxation combined with pampering for a trip that was reenergizing.

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Vancouver’s beautiful downtown as seen from the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel.

Where to stay

Downtown Vancouver is where any base of operations for a visit should be centered. Unlike many city centers, it’s an easy walking city with plenty of resources in case you want to take day-trips or just enjoy what the city itself has to offer.

The central part of Vancouver encompasses a variety of discrete neighborhoods, from the marina to the Central Business District, from Gastown to Granville Island to Yaletown and Stanley Park. It’s also primed for rides out of the city (to the mountains, perhaps) or over it (float planes!). From Canada Place, the heart of the waterfront area and a multi-use facility for events and meetups, you can stroll along the seawall of Coal Harbour — by far the photo-op nexus of the city. Lined with a marina, cruise ship dock, seaplane platform (book a 20-minute floatplane ride with Harbour Air to see one-of-a-kind views of the region), as well as cafes and pedestrian paths, it affords amazing views of snowcapped mountains to the north as well as the bay itself. From here it’s a lovely 20-minute walk (you’ll encounter families of geese by the roadside!) to Stanley Park, a vast greenway that encompasses much of the northwestern finger of the Burrard Peninsula.

Countless lodging options are available for your rejuvenation weekend, but among the highest quality is the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel (at least four Fairmont properties are located across the region). Located on the edge of Canada Place, its amenities include peerlessly appointed rooms (some with deep whirlpool tubs and breathtaking views of the city, the mountains and harbour. It boasts the Willow Stream Spa and Fitness Center, where you can get a refreshing massage or just partake in the outdoor hot tubs, the cucumber water and healthy snacks or a shvitz in the sauna.

For a boutiquier experience, the quaint Loden Hotel projects a more European flair. The hallways are narrower and more intimate. The rooms are comfy with clever layouts (a moveable wall that can open up the bath to the sleeping area, or close it off for privacy). If you want to go full-out funky, though, don’t miss The Burrard Hotel. A renovated Mid-Century Modern motorlodge, it’s low on amenities but flush with campy excesses: Goofy decor, a retro courtyard for playing table tennis or just relaxing create a hip vibe. There’s no room service, but the hotel provides a printed sheet recommending nearby food options as well some attractions — a kind of DIY concierge service. (The Burrard is also a quick walk to Davie Street, the main thoroughfare running through Vancouver’s established gayborhood. Need to know —  just ask anyone; Canadians seem fully comfortable with knowing where the gay area is. More on that later.)

What to do

With easy access to skiing (Whistler resort is less than two hours away), water sports and parks, fitness is ingrained culturally into the city and has only expanded in recent years. Most if not all of the hotels offer yoga mats as in-room amenities and provide concierge services to book hiking excursions. Barriers restrict automobile access in many areas. (Take that as a blessing — car rentals can run as high as $60/day!) Many also supply complimentary or low-cost bike rentals to explore the area and get exercise.

It’s only been about a decade that the biking lanes have become ubiquitous, when Mayor Gregor Robertson followed through on his commitment to sustainable transportation options as one prong on his mission to make Vancouver “the greenest city in the world.” The city has the smallest carbon footprint in North America for a major market, and Greenpeace was founded here in 1971. Even if you’re not a health nut, biking, walking and public transportation are your best options for moving about Vancouver. Lyft and Uber have been shut out, at least for now, and the two cab companies lack reliability and can be downright useless (which is why a service like Uber came about in the first place).

The culturally aggressive pursuit of health-conscious and alternative-lifestyle options extends equally to the cuisine and other pastimes. For instance, hike yourself to the historic Gastown neighborhood (some of the streets are still cobblestone), and park yourself for 90 minutes at the Float House, one of several sensory-deprivation facilities in the city. “Have a good float!” the chill staff will say, while prepping you for a womb-like experience in lukewarm, highly salinated water in an enclosed tube. It’s New Age-y and slightly spiritual, and a total refresher.

Another option is to explore Granville Island. It isn’t a true island; you can drive onto it and not even know you’ve left the “mainland.” Really, it’s just a gussied-up sandbar in the middle of False Creek, an inlet fed by English Bay.  But don’t think that diminishes its appeal; Granville Island, one local told us, was the second-most visited tourist attraction in Canada, behind only Niagara Falls. Even if that’s an exaggeration, you can see why people love to come here, especially during warm weather. You can rent a kayak and go on an invigorating tour of False Creek, taking in the sights from the site of the Olympic Village to the buildings of Yaletown to the dome of Science World. 

Learn to cook and plate like a chef at the Dirty Apron Cooking School.

What to eat

When you’re back on Granville Island, you’ll probably be peckish, which is an excellent time to explore the Public Market, a marketplace of unique food and drink purveyors (among my favorites: The Granville Island Tea Co., The Nut Merchant, Lee’s Donuts and #1 Orchard), knickknack sellers, restaurants, boutiques and services. You can even take a walking Foodie Tour that serves you selected bites from several vendors. Or you might want to explore Vancouver’s foodie scene in more detail.

You can learn first-hand how to make some fine-dining dishes by taking a class at The Dirty Apron, a high-tech cooking school where chef Takashi walks you through preparing everything from spot prawns and seared halibut cheek to roasted beef tenderloin, served with mimosas and a selection of wines.

If you prefer for a professional to do all the work, some of the most inventive cuisine in the city is right inside the Fairmont Pacific Rim, where the newly-opened restaurant The Botanist delights the senses. Executive chef Hector Laguna and masterful beverage director Grant Sceney each ply their skills with enviable deftness, whether it’s creating unique cocktails built around elaborate themes of the earth and its elements (one even served in a kind of terrarium), or conjuring elegant root vegetables with pepper or a nest of hand-cut tagliatelle pasta. (Even the breakfast menu is a treat.)

Tell locals you have a table at Miku, one of the preeminent sushi restaurants in the city, and you’ll surely be met by squeals of envy for its preparation of sablefish and aburi salmon sashimi. The towering restaurant Coast serves an extensive menu of fish items, including a massive sushi sampler tray and rich bowl of cioppino.

Seafood and sushi are clearly plentiful and diverse, but I also found it effortless to discover vegetarian options. Falafel shops are in relative abundance; local breweries and distilleries supply regionally-specific beers and liquors (explore some of them at the Steamworks Brewing Co. or The Flying Pug, both in Gastown); area coffee roasters; and you can splurge on your diet after walking so much with a trip to Lucky’s Doughnuts.

Lucky’s is a short stroll from Burdock & Co. along the bohemian Main Street, a smallish farm-to-table style eatery opened in 2013, where the craft of the food is a point of pride. The wine list is filled with organic and unfiltered options, and even “orange” wines (similar to roses), plus delicate salads, an amazing ribeye steak and some of the best breads I’ve ever eaten. And Burgoo, next to the Burrard Hotel, offers more than burgers (“burgoo” actually refers to a traditional stew, not a sandwich), including gastropub items like an herbaceous shepherd’s pie.

French culture is more widespread in Eastern Canada, especially Quebec, but you’ll encounter plenty of French-speakers and Gallic influences across the nation. (Canada is a cosmopolitan nation; without trying, I easily overheard not just French, but German, Portuguese, Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish spoken commonly on the street.) If you are a francophile, though, Medina is where it’s at, though it adds healthy doses of Mediterranean dishes as well. Feast on a tomato-y cassoulet with sausages and bacon and flavored sodas with such phantasmagorical combinations like tumeric/lime/chili. But the specialty at Medina are the liege-style waffles — smaller, rounder, shallower, and fluffier than their Belgian counterparts, as if some mythical Eggo had achieved eternal bliss. You can add maple syrup, of course (boring), but why not white chantilly lavender, or as I did, a passionfruit cream? You won’t be sorry. Wash it all down with an espresso drink, and imagine you’re in Paris for just an instant.

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A crosswalk along Davie Street marks the primary gayborhood.

 

Gaying it up

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, one of the most diverse neighborhoods to sample a variety of foods is the gayborhood. Walk down just a half-dozen blocks of Davie Street, and you’ll encounter Japanese, Thai, Indian, Persian, Himalayan, Greek, Transylvanian, Malaysian and Chinese food options, as well as seafood, pho, ramen, pizza, poutine, burgers … and that’s not counting the fast food chains.  That much culinary diversity is merely emblematic of thriving gay population here, which includes one of the oldest continually-operating gay bars with the same owner in the world, dive bars, show clubs and more. Among them: Celebrities, a long-standing nightclub in a building that’s more than a century old; Numbers, a popular cabaret; The Junction, which has a huge patio and friendly atmosphere; and the large, neighborhoody sports bar Pumpjack.

Continue down Davie Street’s steep incline toward English Bay, and you’ll be rewarded by a lovely beach of warm sand, parks and views of snow-capped mountains, even in summer. You can sun on the beach (or just people-watch), or stroll the coast and visit the AIDS memorial, which when erected included the names of every local who had succumbed to the disease. For refreshment, stop into Beach Bay Cafe for refreshing lite fare, including a Canadian specialty called the Caesar — a bloody mary made with Clamato. (It’s much better than it sounds.)

The annual Pride celebration arrives in late summer, and the gayborhood hops; smaller celebrations start as early as July 30 and continue until the parade, this year on Aug. 6. But this being Canada, Pride isn’t confined to a few blocks of the gay ghetto; extends across the city, with a parade route that traverses miles of city streets.

If you decide you do want to get outside the city, the nearby mountains provide several options. During winter, famed Whistler ski resort is a huge draw (its annual Elevation gay ski week is popular), but during warmer weather, the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish offers a wonderful opportunity to commune with nature. Opened in 2014, the gondola whisks you up a mountainside where nature trails (you can take guided tours or strike out on your own) expose you to how some of the First Nations people paid homage to the land. Look out on the tribe’s most sacred mountain, the Squamish Chief, from a rarefied perch. Even the coach ride from Canada Place is a hoot, with informative facts about the culture, landscape and history.

All of which, if you’re paying attention, will only reinforce the idea that, as proud as Americans (and especially Texans) can be, we are not the only game in town, even insofar as English-speaking North America goes. (Though don’t be fooled by the language into thinking they are us! See sidebar, Page 22.)  Vancouver is merely one of the most bewitching reminders of Canada’s progressivity, beauty and diversity. It’s a delightful place to visit … and you might wanna live there.

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Canadians are not Americans! A primer

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The Vancouver of this story is in British Columbia; there is a Vancouver in Washington State, as well. Don’t be fooled! They are different! In fact, Canadians share a lot in common with us, but it’s in the details where you can see the distinctions. If you do decide to relocate there, here are some quirks you’ll need to get used to.

Their money is prettier than ours. Of course a country with pink banknotes on which a queen appears would be at the forefront of gay rights.

They confuse you with the metric system … but not consistently. Like most of the civilized world except the U.S., Canada long ago embraced kilos, liters, meters, centigrade … but not always. One bus driver told me how tall a mountain was in feet, but how far away it was in kilometers. Most temps are in Celsius, so when you tell them it gets up to 100 degrees in Texas, many will pass out from shock.

They have our sports … but not really. Most everywhere else in the world, “football” (or “futbol”) is what we call “soccer.” But if a Canadian refers to “football,” he means the gridiron game a la the Super Bowl. Except Canadian football is played on a field with different dimensions and different rules.

So don’t ask them if they punt on a fourth down — they won’t know what a fourth down is. Baseball is the same, thank goodness.

They eat more fish. And not just catfish! Sablefish is a big deal here, pictured.

They are nicer. In America, if someone cuts you off on the highway, it is customary to chase him down, threaten his family and spew a series of curse words while brandishing a firearm; in Canada, if a man is convicted of multiple murder, the coffee shop conversation probably won’t get any more heated than “I’ll tell ya, he’s a piece o’ garbage!”

Their head of government isn’t a serial liar, admitted sex offender or traitor to their values. He’s also hot.

— A.W.J.

……………………………

LITTLE BLACK BOOK

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Accommodations
Burrard Hotel, TheBurrard.com.
Fairmont Pacific Rim, Fairmont.com/PacificRim.
Loden Hotel, TheLoden.com.

Food & Drink
Beach Bay Cafe, BeachBayCafe.com.
The Botanist Restaurant inside Fairmont Pacific Rim, BotanistRestaurant.com.
Burdock & Co., BurdockandCo.com.
Burgoo, Burgoo.ca.
Coast, Glowbalgroup.com/Coast.
The Flying Pig, TheFlyingPigVan.com.
Lucky’s Doughnuts, LuckysDoughnuts.com.
Medina, MedinaCafe.com.
Miku, MikuRestaurant.com.
Steamworks Brewing Co., Steamworks.com.

Clubs & Bars
Celebrities, CelebritiesNightclub.com.
The Junction, JunctionPub.com.
Numbers, Numbers.ca.
Pumpjack, PumpjackPub.com.

Attractions & Activities
The Dirty Apron Cooking School, DirtyApron.com.
Ecomarine Paddlesport Centres, EcoMarine.com.
Float House Gastown, FloatHouse.ca.
Granville Island and Public Market, GranvilleIsland.com.
Granville Island Foodie Tours, FoodieTours.ca.
Harbour Air Seaplanes, HarbourAir.ca.
Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, SeatoSkyGondola.com, pictured.

Resources
Tourism Vancouver, TourismVancouver.com.

For more photos of Vancouver, click here

 

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 04, 2017.

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