From free parks (and free parking) to discounted tickets and spots off the beaten path, Vancouverite Annabel Middleton gives you the insider scoop.
Call it the best of both worlds – from sea to sky, literally. Easily one of the most livable cities in the world, the proof is in the pudding – or rather, the high cost of real estate in this highly-sought-after landscape called Vancouver.
Flanked by mountains and surrounded by ocean, yet only a mere hop, skip and jump away from the urban indulgences of a contemporary city, what makes Vancouver so loved by the locals is its proximity to a wide plethora of activities – be it the “urban-scape” or the “mountain-scape”. Everything is within reach – in mere minutes – from ski resorts to spas, from forests to feasts, and from golfing and biking to clubs and pubs.
Having lived in Vancouver for the past five years, I have been surprised – and delighted – to discover the wonders of this great Canadian city, and now understand why license plates here proudly declare this awesome truth: “Beautiful BC/The best place on earth”.
If you are planning to visit Vancouver, here are a few secrets to get past the tourist traps and experience the city in a whole new way:
1. Pick a park
You could go to… STANLEY PARK
One of North America’s largest parks (comparable to New York’s Central Park), its sprawling 1, 000 acres features huge cedar and hemlock trees, numerous beaches around the Stanley Park seawall (including a large outdoor swimming pool), paved and dirt trails for hiking or biking, and houses Canada’s largest aquarium.
But why not go to… WEST VANCOUVER SEAWALL
Get away from the crowds and tourist jams at this much quieter gem of a seawall, which lies across the Lion’s Gate Bridge on the other side of the water.
Presenting equally beautiful views of the bridge, ocean and mountains, the West Vancouver seawall offers 1.5km of peaceful quiet and serenity. Here, no bikes, rollerbladers or skateboarders are allowed, and fewer tourists descend upon this urban oasis.
Bring a portable BBQ or pack a picnic basket, and enjoy alfresco dining at Ambleside Park or John Lawson Park, while you enjoy the scenery.
Besides the traffic at Stanley Park, parking there costs CAD$3.25 per hour, but here in West Vancouver, there is free parking for three hours.
2. Crossing bridges
You could go to… CAPILANO SUSPENSION BRIDGE
For a fee of CAD$37.95 per adult, you could take a walk across the longest/largest combined suspension bridge in the world, stretching across 137m across and 70m above the Capilano River below.
In this 27 acre park, the Cliffwalk is its newest attraction, a high cantilevered walkway hugging the granite cliffs above the canyon. There are also treetop adventures featuring seven suspension bridges designed for the kids. Tickets for kids 6-12 cost $12, while youth aged 13-16 pay $24.95.
But why not go to… LYNN CANYON SUSPENSION BRIDGE
Just 15 minutes away is a smaller suspension bridge in Lynn Canyon Regional Park, but nonetheless equally enjoyable – and best of all, it is free. Sure, it is not as massive as the Capilano attraction, but in this more natural environment, you still get the same experience of height and suspension over a deep chasm between cliffs – minus the hefty fee, of course.
Within Lynn Canyon, you can also hike to a gorgeous 30-foot swimming hole with the clearest (but cold!) waters where swimmers can enjoy a quick dip in nature’s fresh waters, and the more adventurous might even take on a cliff-jump or two if you dare.
Nearby, breathtaking waterfalls called Twin Falls make for a scenic excursion. You can pack a picnic and enjoy waterside dining, literally, by the riverbanks.
Did we mention it is free?
3. The big hike
You could go to… GROUSE MOUNTAIN
In the summer, this ski resort turns into a summer tourist zone. Famed for its gondola ride to the top where you can get a panoramic view of Vancouver city, the $43.95 ticket also lets you visit with two Grizzly bears in the Grizzly Bear Habitat, and watch a bird show as well as Lumberjack show, among other attractions.
What makes Grouse renowned is its challenging Grouse Grind, a 2.9km trail up 853m, in about 2, 830 steps. Commonly referred to as “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”, it takes about two hours for the average hiker. However, to get down, you will need to take the gondola back to the parking lot for $10 per ride.
But why not go to… QUARRY ROCK IN DEEP COVE
For an equally good workout with a great view at the end, the Quarry Rock Hike in Deep Cove is up to the task. It is less demanding than the Grind (phew!), although it still takes you up a mountain over good terrain and you will get an hour and a half of cardio.
At the top of Quarry Rock, there is a breathtaking view of the cove, Indian Arm and the mountains around Belcarra. Bring a lunch or snack, and soak in the views before making the return journey.
Unlike the Grind, there is no gondola (nor $10 fee) to take you down and you will have to hike back the way you came. However, that said, nothing is more appealing than the word “Free”.
4. Beach bumming
You could go to… one of Vancouver’s many beautiful beaches
Pack a picnic, your favourite book and a hat or umbrella, and park yourself on the sand for a great beach day. Or if you prefer a bout of beach volleyball, there are nets around each beach for some fun with your pals.
Take your pick of beaches from all around the city – from English Bay near Stanley Park to Kitsilano Beach on the west end, or Jericho Beach, Locarno Beach and Spanish Banks near the University of British Columbia.
But why not go to… Wreck Beach
It is no secret that there is a nudist beach in Vancouver. Located near the University of British Columbia, this 7.8km internationally acclaimed naturist beach is North America’s largest.
According to The Wreck Beach Preservation Society, their motto promotes naturism: “Body acceptance is the idea – nude recreation is the way.”
So if you are feeling a little, um, open-minded, you might discover your self-acceptance here. However, if you plan to visit without participating, be respectful and do not mock, gawk, stare or make rude comments. Please ask permission before taking photographs or videos.
5. World-class skiing
You could go to… CYPRESS
Be it summer or winter, what is awesome about Vancouver is its vicinity to all manner of outdoor sports, including three ski hills – all within half an hour’s reach. For a quick run on the slopes, Seymour, Cypress and Grouse are where you can get a quick outdoor shuss on the snow and be back in time for dinner.
But why not go to… WHISTLER/BLACKCOMB
It is about two hours’ drive from Vancouver, but with over 8, 100 acres of ski slopes, 16 alpine bowls, three glaciers and world-class trails, the journey (which takes you via the scenic Sea to Sky highway, a worthy experience in itself) is worth it. Did you know that with the ever-cool alpine temperatures, you can ski into the summer at Whistler (that’s seven months of the year!) – until the end of June!
There is a reason why Whistler Blackcomb was voted No. 1 Overall Ski Resort for 2014/2015 in North America by readers of SKI Magazine – you just have to see (or ski) it for yourself.
Ski tickets do cost a lot, however, at $114.24 per adult (or $102 before taxes) – but remember, you are getting access to two mountains (Whistler AND Blackcomb) on each day ticket.
Here’s an insider tip: To avoid paying full price at the ticket window, get your ski tickets from the 7-11 stores in Vancouver and Squamish EXCEPT at the store in Whistler before you go. Day tickets go for just $96.26 (or $85.95 before taxes). Reminder: These discounted tickets are only available in Vancouver and Squamish.
6. Yes, leave the city!
Speaking of the Sea to Sky highway, don’t just stay in the city – Vancouver is much more than just the downtown core of high-rise skyscrapers, residential apartments and yuppie restaurants.
To really get a true taste of this part of Canada, make time to visit the North Shore (across the Lion’s Gate Bridge), including both West Vancouver and North Vancouver – AND explore the natural wonders along the Sea to Sky, from lakes and waterfalls to rugged mountains.
For instance, halfway between Vancouver and Whistler lies the town of Squamish, also named the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada. Here, rock-climbers descend upon The Stawamus Chief by the droves to scale its massive 700m face.
There are also hiking trails and lakes to explore – Alice Lake, Cat Lake, Murrin Lake, Brohm Lake – as well as Shannon Falls in Squamish. Further afield, more waterfalls abound nearer Whistler — Brandywine Falls, Alexander Falls and Nairn Falls – which make for great photo opportunities.
The important thing is, please do not leave Canada thinking that Vancouver is all about buildings and Asian food, and miss out on all that natural beauty. That would just be a real travesty.
7. Take it under the stars
You could go to… THE SHERATON WALL CENTRE
Sure, the luxurious digs in fancy hotels such as the Sheraton Wall Centre downtown makes for a great vacation without leaving the facility, but then again, surely you can get a hotel experience in any country, right?
But why not go… CAR CAMPING
Break out of the hotel scene and make it a memorable trip by sleeping under the stars. Roast marshmallows or make s’mores (so good that you want “some more”, hence the name “s’mores”) over the campfire while basking in the beautiful oceanic views of the Howe Sound and mountains in the background.
The best thing about car camping is, you don’t have to go hardcore and lug everything manually. Just load up your car with all the material comforts, including pillows, air mattress and well-stocked food cooler. Book a campsite at Porteau Cove or Alice Lake campground (there are many others), and call it a night or two or three. Pick your campground and pre-book with discovercamping.ca
8. Don’t just eat Asian food!
Why visit a country only to eat what you can get at home? Many Asians come to Vancouver and just make a beeline for the nearest Asian restaurant. Get out of your comfort zone and shake it up with a new culinary experience in a city where cultural flavour spans far and wide.
Tuck into a fusion hotdog with a twist at this famous food truck, with various locations around the city. Get your sausage on a roll topped with everything from noodles and rice to cabbage, kimchi, cheese and avocado, to name a few. The creative variety is endless!
If you love a bit of heat, we highly recommend the Shichimi and Garlic fries, tossed with Nanami Togarashi hot pepper spice.
1795 Pendrell Street, Vancouver, BC V6G 1T2
Tel: (604) 899 0700
This is Persian/Iranian food at its best. Delicious sticks of meat kebabs with barberry rice are sure to satisfy your taste buds. From juicy lamb shanks to hearty ghormeh stew to flavourful soltani (top sirloin steak skewer) and koobideh (ground beef skewer), the portions are large enough to share or doggie-bag home. We can’t get enough of this.
Bon’s Off Broadway
2451 Nanaimo St, Vancouver, BC V5N 5E5
Tel: (604) 253 7242
Ditch the fancy hotel buffet and enjoy down-to-earth neighbourhood fare at this breakfast-ish joint, dishing up hearty breakfast platters, an array of comfort food and bottomless coffee. Besides, what can beat a $2.95 breakfast?
You can always count on a queue at peak hours, but the low prices and good food are worth the effort. People-watching here is also interesting, as you will get a cross-section of Vancouverites – from the well-heeled to the funky hippie – frequenting this popular joint.
9. Ice cream heaven
For dessert, make it a fun outing when you go in search of your favourite gelato at the “palace of ice cream” at La Casa Gelato. In this ice-cream wonderland, you will feel like a kid walking into a candy store.
Satisfy that sweet craving as you scour 218 flavours from this Italian gelataria. With so many flavours to try (yes, they let you sample as many as you like), there is something for everyone – from the usual favourites to truly unique combinations, including seaweed and kimchi-flavoured ice cream! Or try the scoops with garlic, basil or balsamic vinegar. You will be astounded by the plethora of flavours they have invented!
La Casa Gelato
1033 Venables Street
Vancouver, BC V6A 3R9
Tel: (604) 251 3211
10. Make a truck stop
You could go to… some fancy restaurant
Eating out is part of the fun when travelling, and no doubt there are many great dining delights to be scoured and devoured in Vancouver.
But why not go to… The Shipyards Night Market in North Vancouver
In the summer, there are weekend markets to bring out the culinary flavours of the city. Instead of dining indoors, visit the Shipyards Night Market at the Shipyard Plaza near Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver on Friday nights (from 5pm to 10pm).
Explore the variety of goods on sale, displays of art and craft, fresh produce and artisan baked goods from local bakers and farmers while enjoying live entertainment showcasing BC’s talented residents – oh, and delectable bites from the array of food trucks, of course. Take your pick from Thai, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Eurpoean, Carribbean… you name it, they’ve got it.
We especially recommend the woodfired pizza from Urban Woodfired Pizza food truck, made on the spot for just $10 a personal pie. Or try the “Kick-Ass Rice”, beet fries and yummy fried chicken from Le Tigre food truck, known for their Asian fusion.
Finish off with a gigantic bag of caramel popcorn, an Eastern European slavic roll filled with Bavarian cream and nutella, or a delicious waffle cone from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory food truck.
That should be enough to tantalise you to drop by, shouldn’t it?
A freelance copy editor, writer and designer who loves working on magazines, books and other publications, Annabel Middleton was formerly a sub-editor with The Singapore Women’s Weekly and enjoys helping authors publish their books on both print and e-book platforms. She and her husband Wilf live in North Vancouver, BC, Canada, near the mountains, where they love skiing, hiking and biking. Email her at: email@example.com.