Vancouver: Revisiting an Old Love

When I visited Vancouver twenty years ago, I walked the city’s wet and foggy streets, sat in cheap Chinatown restaurants, ate shrimp and crabs in small market stalls on Granville Island, and I attended my first hockey game with a girl I met on the Sea Bus to North Vancouver.

photo courtesy of Vancouver Tourism

I was not sure who I loved more, the city or the girl: I felt like I was living inside a poem. Snow-capped mountains hovered above downtown buildings and the cold mist that blew in off the harbor smelled clean, a hint of brine in the air.

Twenty years later, the eyes of the entire world have turned toward this sparkling city on the Pacific. The 2010 Winter Olympics have arrived.

On a recent visit, I wondered: what’s changed?

Only 24 miles from the U.S. border, the city is now filled with British-looking suburbs, complete with brick homes and green hedges out front. Towering apartment buildings, many built during the huge emigration of Hong Kong Chinese residents, post-1997 (after that city was returned to mainland China) stand like stalks of blue/green glass.

Vancouver now has a “vertical” look, and many of the Victorian homes I had seen during my first visit have been replaced by these sleek, residential skyscrapers. The hotel I stayed in this time around — rushed to open in time for the Olympics — occupies the first 15 floors of a 62-story condo building, the tallest structure in the city.

The promise of the Olympics have changed — and helped — the city’s infrastructure, too: providing the impetus for Vancouver Metro’s new Canada line, a Sky Train route that zips from the airport to downtown in a little over 20 minutes, using mostly elevated track.

The Games also spurred the province into improving the Sea to Sky Highway, a twisting mountain road that links Vancouver to the Whistler ski resort, about two hours north. Once considered one of the most dangerous roads in Canada, the road has been widened and fully paved.

What’s still here, and better than ever: dozens of lively Asian food markets and neighborhoods are scattered throughout Vancouver, and fishing trawlers bring fresh catches into Fisherman’s Wharf each morning. The ubiquitous BC ferries still ply the waters between Vancouver and the small villages in the Gulf Islands and up the Sunshine Coast. Cargo ships, personal sailboats, fishing trawlers, cruise ships and oil tankers still keep the city’s waterways as busy as an 18th-century ocean port.

Since many streets within Vancouver will be closed to auto traffic during the winter games, the best way to explore the city will be, as always, by bicycle. As the press has delighted in reporting, Vancouver is usually snow-free around now, and temperatures can be in the 50’s and 60’s.

photo by Ron Bernthal

I recently rented a bike at Spokes, a bike shop near Stanley Park, and used it to navigate the city, riding along the sea wall trail, then over the Burrard Bridge to the funky neighborhood of Kitsilano, back through the eclectic neighborhood of Yaletown, and to historic Gastown.

I even found my old Chinatown haunt, the 1940’s-era Ovaltine Café on East Hastings Street, where during a  dawn breakfast 20 years ago, I remember telling the girl from North Vancouver that I loved her.

Straddling Burrard Inlet, with one foot in the mountains and the other in the sea, Vancouver can be rough and edgy, with gritty pockets of neglect (some of them actually pretty close to the Olympic Village), and a pewter sky that shows no mercy. But she is also beautiful and sassy, with coastal curves and an ethnic diversity that gives new meaning to the term multicultural.

I loved her two decades ago, and I fell in love with her again, bicycling through the winter night, smelling the salty air, feeling the wetness of her skin against my face.

One good book: The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver, 1938-1963