Canada and I have had a romance for years, dating back to my time as a college co-ed in Montreal, Quebec. Although with each passing year, my life keeps getting better, there's no denying the fact that life becomes more complex as we age. Reflecting on my four years in Canada, I am filled with nostalgia for that carefree time, when my priorities were school, friends, and little else. Montreal was the place where I developed a palate for ethnic food, personal style, and an understanding of who I was and what I wanted to accomplish. I think back on those years of personal exploration with a lot of love. Bottle all of that up and you can see how Canada tops my list of weekend getaways, and the ideal destination for our three year wedding anniversary.
"Plus, it's closer than you think," I said to my husband who didn't need much convincing. In fact, 75% of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the US border, making it that much easier to visit. Leaving from Oregon, we had a short layover in Seattle before arriving in Vancouver, and were door-to-Airbnb in less than six hours.
First I should explain. We like to eat - my husband especially. He is a Chef/Owner of a restaurant in Bend, Oregon. So when choosing places to stay in Vancouver, my lodging search is all about proximity to restaurants. After doing extensive food-focused research via Eater.com, NY Times, and Instagram, I pinpointed the West End as our ideal base camp.
Although I am in the hotel business, I alternate between hotels and other accommodations (eco-lodges, vacation rentals, historic inns, etc.) based on the locale. I find that in big cities, it's hard to find a great hotel in a neighborhood, and when you do, it's overpriced with limited amenities. Airbnb on the other hand, especially in big cities, has short-term lodging in great neighborhoods and offer personalized service. In this case, we also decided to forgo a car rental in favor of walking, biking, and public transportation. Our studio was perfect - the size of a hotel suite for a fraction of the price - on the corner of Nelson and Cardero, a few blocks from Denman, which can accurately be described as brimming with ethnic food.
When we arrived after midnight, we were pleasantly surprised to find a fresh loaf of fig anise bread, local goat cheese in beautiful packaging, and local coffee along with a Chemex pour-over coffee maker (a gift my husband has already requested for Christmas). The TV was equipped with Netflix, allowing us to get unpacked, make toast, and watch Bridesmaids for a good laugh after an exhausting day. Some argue these personal touches set Airbnb apart and are the reason hotels are now competing with the once considered unfundable room sharing site. Airbnb has certainly earned its place with it's customers and is here to stay.
We started our day along Denman street, oohing and ahhing at all of the Asian food along the way to Ritual, an Instagram find via @VanCityHype. Local aromatic tea, coffee and savory rolls of onion, cheddar and other goodies energized us for the day ahead. Ritual offers a fairly limited "bake shop" breakfast during the week and full brunch on the weekends. Next stop, Spoke bicycle rentals. We chose city hybrid bikes knowing we'd spend most of our day on designated paths. The rental process was no fuss, the bikes were in great shape, and as we were leaving, we were handed two bright yellow rain ponchos in case it started to come down. Was that Canadian for "we like to let everyone know who the tourists are," we wondered? We figured better safe than sorry. The forecast called for rain the entire time we were visiting, but that wouldn't stop us.
The five and a half mile (roughly nine kilometer) route around Stanley Park provides breathtaking view around every turn. Although a popular tourist destination, most only go a mile or so in, so we enjoyed private vistas and photo ops along the way. The totem poles where the first stop. Towering overhead, we were amazed not just by their beauty and craftsmanship, but by the stories they weaved and what each symbol represented. We continued touring around the Skywall, stopping to admire Lions Gate Bridge at various vantage points, adding a cairn to a collection, admiring First and Second beaches, and a variety of sculptures and public art along the way. Inside of Stanley park, you'll also find a zoo, an aquarium, and many more miles of forested trails. Last time I visited, I ran into a family of raccoons along one such trail, so always be on the lookout for wildlife. There is also a beautiful rose garden in the summertime.
Amen to Ramen
Although the rain hadn't started coming down yet, the moody grey day and 14 chilly miles later (let's just say we took some wrong turns around the rest of the Island) ramen called and we listened. We chose Motomachi Shokudo, a small spot on Denman Street that Eater Seattle listed among "16 Prime Places to Eat in Vancouver". I opted for the spicy miso ramen with organic chicken and lots of veggies, and Steven the shoyu smoked pork shoulder ramen. Yes, the broth was like your mom's matzah ball soup times 100. And yes, the noodles were generous and chewy. I could have eaten this dish for every meal we had in Vancouver, but alas we had many more restaurants on our list. Our server even recommended a few izakaya restaurants and thus began our Asian food tour.
The Canucks Don't Suck...Anymore
We were nine rows from the ice at Rogers Arena to see the Canucks take on the Flames. Hockey is a lot of fun to watch live, between the rowdy fans, the speed and agility of the athletes, and the simplicity of the sport. There are three 20-minute periods instead of four. 60-minutes of play with two intermissions is the perfect amount of time to enjoy the game, drink a cold beverage, and cheer on the home team. After coming off 2016's losing streak, the Canucks played like they had something to prove. And three goals in, we were convinced. The Canucks won 4-0.
After a simple yet filling breakfast at Red Umbrella Cafe a short walk from our place, we continued down to Beach Drive and walked along English Bay to the False Creek Ferry at the Aquatic Center. A few loonies and toonies later ($1 and $2 Canadian coins respectively), we'd arrived at our destination: Granville Island.
We wandered into Granville Public Market and were immediately drawn in every direction. I admired artisan donuts while Steven invested his time in the soup counter aptly named "The Stock Market". Aisles of fresh fruits and veggies, foraged 'shrooms, catch-of-the-day seafood, and counters overflowing with fresh pastas, french pastries, fine meats and cheeses beckoned. We sipped on fresh squeezed juices and told ourselves we'd return again hungry. Just outside of the public market, artists, jewelers, woodworkers, sculptors and more, sell their wares. Theaters, watering holes, and souvenir shops abounded. We admired wood sculptures and paintings in the Railspur District, dug through original works of art and took home gifts at Wickaninnish Gallery in Netloft, and spent a good hour in Make, a whimsical gift shop for one-of-a-kind merchandise, much of which is locally-made.
VanDusen BOTANICAL Garden
Around noon we caught the 10 Bus and rode 14 stops to 37th street. We then proceeded another eight blocks or so, past a dozen gorgeous older homes in what must be the Beverly Hills of Vancouver. A Tesla SUV with its back doors outstretched Delorean-style caught my eye, distracted only by the lush gardens just behind a gate. We'd arrived at VanDusen Botanical Garden. This impeccably cared for, expanse of city space showcases climates from the Himalayas to the Redwoods across 54 acres. Some standouts included giant rhubarb, strawberry trees, and late season roses. The maze, located at the very end of the complex, has some great history for those willing to make the trek. What the owners of the garden probably didn't plan for were the large spiders spinning webs just above our heads, around every wrong turn.
We worked up an appetite and stopped along Granville Street for a late lunch on our way home. Having read all about Vij's, the Pacific Northwest-inspired Indian eatery, including the fact that you need to wait in line to be seated for dinner, we opted for Vij's Rangoli, the casual lunch and grab-n-go alternative from the same chef. To call this food authentic would give me too much credit - I've experienced mostly Indian buffets and they've been few and far between. The Rangoli menu was vast, with several vegetarian options. I chose the chickpea and eggplant dish in a fenugreek curry served with roti, and Steven the portobello and pepper curry with beet salad and naan. Although we aren't vegetarians, we love a good plant-based meal and this was easily the most memorable. The food was served piping hot, made fresh by a team of female chefs whose kitchen was visible behind a semi-translucent screen. The aromatics, spices, and flavors together made for the best Indian food we'd both ever had. We finished our plates (well, Steven finished mine), and we were off!
That evening, we met up with friends for dinner and drinks on Denman street back in our neighborhood and had a wonderful time. We noshed on Malaysian food and sipped gewurztraminer wine from the Okanagan region of BC. The conversation (and the wine) flowed. Afterwards, we walked a few doors down to Bayside, an older hotel bar lit up by neon lights, that looks out over English Bay. This was a great spot to end the night, nothing fancy. In its simplicity (and in being out after midnight) it reminded me of my college days.
We woke to rain. A whole lot of rain. It had rained all night with no sign of stopping. We made a Chemex of coffee and considered our options. Our plans for the day, after all, were mostly outdoor-based.
"We should just go," Steven said.
"We can always turn back if it's too wet," I agreed.
Equipped with one umbrella (we'd lost our other one somewhere between gin and tonic the night before,) we three-legged walked downtown. Already soaked, we stopped at Forage for brunch and to dry off. Service was excellent and the menu was based on sustainable ingredients from nearby farms. I enjoyed the wild mushroom goat cheese toast with a poached egg, and Steven the special smoked salmon bennie. The food needed a bit of seasoning and spoon-able fresh cracked pepper and coarse sea salt somehow appeared on our table. That's some good service. We also loved the decor - particularly the sound reducing felt wall - an idea we'd take back to our restaurant in Bend.
It was time to get back out into the rain. Our destination: Waterfront Station. Along the way we passed some great shopping and decided we'd reward ourselves with some dry clothes if we ever made it back. We took the Seabus from Waterfront Station to Lonsdale Quay Market in North Vancouver. From here, we had a bus to catch which would take us up to the park. Lonsdale Quay was a small public market with a second level of retail stores. We wandered through the aisles admiring freshly-spun candy canes, cornichons, and plenty of produce. A crowd had formed at one end of the market around Soup Meister, an outlet set up like a no-frills soup kitchen. Choose a soup, a roll, and pay up. It was a risky move, but we each decided on a bowl and a roll, and Steven would carry them around in his backpack until we got hungry. Time to catch a bus.
After a hiccup (we missed our stop and had to stand in the rain forever) for the bus coming in the opposite direction, we finally made it to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. What an incredible place! Woven through the tree tops and spread out across the Capilano Canyon, the park is part history, part adventure, part conservation. Upon arrival, we were offered yellow plastic tourist ponchos again, and this time we readily accepted. The rain just kept coming, and given we'd just paid admission into a temperate rainforest, we were all but guaranteed to get drenched. We suited up.
While the Suspension Bridge, originally built in 1889 and stretching 450 feet across and 230 feet above the Capilano River, is the main attraction and worthy of the trip alone, the Treetops Adventure and Cliff Walk were equally impressive.
The Treetops Adventure was a series of elevated bridges and platforms built around towering trees that took us 110 feet into the canopy. We learned about native trees along the way, and marveled at the views above and below. Along the nature trail, we met an owl and an eagle (and their guides). The Cliff Walk, the pied de resistance, was a mini-version of what you might experience at the Grand Canyon, but without all the crowds. It was another great adventure, and if it weren't beautiful enough, the backdrop of fall colors took it to another level. The last loop took us through the park's conservation efforts and provided things we could do to save trees (hint: it all starts with recycling).
We stopped outside of the gift shop under some cover to warm up with our soups! Still warm, my squash and cranberry soup hit the spot and Steven's clam chowder was gone so quick I barely had a chance to dip my spoon in it. At the gift shop, we loaded up on wool socks (priorities when your shoes are soaked through and your feet are like two cubes of ice), and made our way back.
Okay, okay, insert your favorite 90s song with a Clueless-style shopping spree montage of Steven and I tearing our way through Lululemon on Robson street on our way home. With great rain comes great rewards.
After long, hot showers, we ventured back into the night and were delighted to find the rain had finally stopped. We headed back to Denman Street for dinner at Kingyo Izakaya. We scored a sweet little table by the window and enjoyed the upscale, youthful vibe. The restaurant was celebrating its 10 year anniversary and had prepared a special menu loaded up with umami to commemorate the occasion. Easily one of our best meals, we noshed on tuna tataki, wasabi Caesar salad, miso black cod, sea urchin creamy udon with salmon roe, seafood bibimbap, and downed a couple of cocktails. Although we ate well, we ate fast - we had a show to catch.
We arrived via taxi and made a Kramer-like entrance into The Improv Centre on Granville Island. We were 10 minutes late but the staff graciously allowed us entrance. Not sure if you're aware but Canadians are really funny (think Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, and the 20-somethings performing at The Improv Centre that night - standing in the footsteps of "Who's Line Is It Anyway" cast members). This was a competition style show in which two teams were given a variety of prompts from the audience from which to build a scene. Each scene is judged based on the prompt and how well it was achieved. In the end, one team is crowned victorious. We laughed so much our bellies hurt. Even the host of the show was a standout for his hilarious ad lib. I can't recommend a visit to The Improv Centre highly enough.
So how does the story end? On Sunday morning, we pass through customs claiming little more than our full bellies, tired feet, and a pile of stretchy pants, and get back to the US just in time for the second presidential debate. Oh, Canada we miss you already.
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