As Cobb falls into his deepest and final dream in the film Inception (Leonardo DiCaprio) he enters a haunting, post-apocalyptic city lost in time and place, its facade inexorably crumbling away into the sea to be lost forever. I know it sounds dramatic but this is what sprung to mind as we crossed the Burrard Street Bridge into downtown Vancouver. The whole scene was a little unnerving as all the buildings facing outwards to the water looked exactly alike – a grey and green patchwork of glass and concrete, their windows looking like they had been blown out by an enormous explosion; a city abandoned long ago. I was daydreaming, of course. The light was playing tricks against a wall of glass and my imagination had sprung to life at the sight of it. If a city could have such an effect at a distance there must be plenty to look forward to within it. It became clear very quickly that Vancouver had been given the name “The City of Glass” for good reason.
We had crossed the border into Canada some 30 to 40 minutes earlier, stopping at the border-crossing visitor centre, where a lovely lady called Rita gave us a comprehensive account of the city and the things we could do there. After a rather tedious journey north from Seattle her enthusiasm had revived us and we pressed on. Now we were talking kilometres rather than miles and the road signs were subtly different: at last, we were in British Columbia, Canada.
It was all going swimmingly well until we got to our hotel room, which was on the 19th floor overlooking Burrard Street. Entering the room we were hit by the clatter of an air conditioning unit standing at the end of the bed with a large plastic pipe snaking up to the window, sellotaped to a corrugated plastic sheet lodged into a gap in the window. It was all held together with copious amounts of sticky tape; the sound of the traffic below and the cool breeze entered the room unimpeded. I turned and saw that Rachel was already on the phone to reception and I knew we would not be staying in this room. We were to be moved to another room on the 14th floor and Jesse would meet us there. Half an hour later Jesse was nowhere to be seen so I went to reception to investigate only to find that the move to the new room on the 14th floor had been a mistake – the new room was no longer available and Jesse had gone absent without leave. They finally tracked him down somewhere in the bowels of the hotel and we were told he would now meet us on the 30th floor. By the time I had picked Rachel up on the 14th floor and we had got up to the 30th floor our mood had turned a little grim and, for his sake, Jesse had better be there. Looking a little sheepish, Jesse greeted us with a face that it was hard to be angry with and showed us into what we now realised was a corner penthouse suite; a complimentary upgrade for the inconvenience. So what had started out as a bog-standard room with makeshift air conditioning, was now a dual-level suite with kitchen, living room (with a TV the size of a football pitch), jacuzzi, shower and steam room, an office and balcony overlooking the city. Maybe I was dreaming after all. The view from the penthouse is great.
All we had time for was a walk down to the waterfront where we took in Canada Place and the Burrard inlet with a view over to North and West Vancouver; the most expensive place for real estate in or around the city. We ate out in a restaurant called Joey on Burrard Street and, having been told that their ice cream had liquid nitrogen in it, we settled for a curry, which to our relief, didn’t. Here’s Rachel, happy she is not consuming liquid nitrogen.
In the morning the sky was overcast and the forecast was for potential showers so we decided to stay in the city and explore, taking a long bus tour around the whole city to get our bearings.
We learned that the city is split up into sections. There’s Stanley Park in the north-west, which is a large area of forest and public green space with lovely views of the coastline. There’s West End and Robson, and the harbour area where gigantic cruise ships dock. Yaletown is the place to shop in expensive boutiques and eat out in a great variety of restaurants. Gastown is the more historic area with an interesting past, which I’ll come to later and, of course, there’s the obligatory Chinatown, which speaks for itself. After the two and a half hour tour we had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go next.
So we headed to Gastown, walking across the city in its general direction and passing some interesting sites along the way. There’s an interesting fast food outlet called Japadog; a Japanese-style hot dog sold either in cafes or from mobile carts a little like traditional hot dog stands in the UK, only bigger and a lot more elaborate.
The buses here are electrified but do not run on rails:
The central library is a very interesting building and looks a lot like the Colosseum in Rome:
The closer we got to Gastown the more people we saw sleeping rough in the streets. We saw this last night too. We are used to seeing the homeless in the cities we have travelled to in the past but these people were in seriously poor condition; some with limbs missing, others with very serious mental health problems. After a while the sight of this begins to weigh heavily on you and you feel the need to intervene but powerless to do so in any meaningful sense; you could spend all day and all your money in gifts but it would merely scratch the surface of what is obviously a gigantic problem in this city. Even the sight of those passing by giving food and money did not lighten my plummeting mood. This man is sleeping in front of a very large and affluent church building and the religious message on the poster in the church window is contradicted by the appalling reality on the ground.
The cost of this single poster alone (and there were many) may have kept him in food for days. I have a feeling that drugs may play a large part in this problem as there is certainly a culture of drugs here and the now familiar smell of weed is everywhere.
On a more positive note, it’s interesting to see the many trees that grow on the top of apartment blocks; little forests in the sky. There are many small allotments where once stood a building; shared green spaces tended by the locals where they grow vegetables for their own consumption.
You can’t help notice the odd sex shop or sexy lingerie boutique in secluded parts of the city. In this shop you can buy a very particular bedroom outfit for your loved one consisting of fluffy pink leg warmers, thong, bra and a very fetching horse head mask for those special, romantic occasions – perfect for the equestrian.
On entering Gastown we found somewhere to eat lunch; a traditional-looking pub with outside seating. Gastown is like nowhere else we’ve been on this trip. The buildings are relatively old and the streets are very leafy with all sorts of interesting little shops, pubs and clubs along the way. Everyone who visits Gastown will stand in front of the statue of Gassy Jack for photos. He is said to have built the first saloon in these parts and it was good to hear that he was born in Hull in England. There’s a steam-powered clock here too, standing about 10 feet high on the corner of the street. It resembles the Westminster Palace clock in London but instead of the chimes of Big Ben you hear the low hoot of a steam whistle sounding out the first four notes of “O Canada”.
Taking a clockwise route around the city we left Gastown and headed for Chinatown. What happened next resulted in our worst afternoon of the whole trip so far. Be warned, if visiting Vancouver, that the area that lies between Gastown and Chinatown is a wasteland of human misery. I can describe it in no other way. It was as if we had stumbled into a scene from 28 Days Later and zombies had taken over the world. I’m not trying to be unkind here but merely saying it as it is. For the next half an hour it felt like we were walking through a sea of human beings stripped of any dignity or sense of belonging. Some sat in the street either asleep or, I’m sure,unconscious from drink or drugs. Some were so disturbed that they stumbled about with vacant expressions on their faces and if they spoke, what they said was unintelligible. There was a young man whose limbs were distorted; withered away, and he literally staggered about the street unable to form words and he clutched a tin begging bowl and seemed to be asking for money from those passing by. Every city we have ever seen has the homeless and the needy but this was on a whole different level.
I have to say that Chinatown was not much better and we rushed through it to the other side and, on the way, some relief came in the Dr-Sun Yat-Sen Park; a little Chinese garden and an oasis of green solitude.
But it was difficult to forget what lay beyond the high white walls just a few blocks away. We didn’t stay long and it was a relief to get back to our hotel. We both felt a little down and would have remained that way only for the rainbow coloured and lively gay and lesbian district, which we passed through on the way back, with it’s many interesting bars and restaurants. Even the pedestrian crossings are gay! It cheered us up a bit.
Our next trip would be Vancouver Island and I would be glad to get out of the city, at least for a while.
The next day we had to make a really early start in order to reach the ferry to Vancouver Island and the relief, for me at least, was palpable – like shrugging off a heavy load and leaving it behind me as we exited the city high above Granville Island and on through the morning mist and there was a freshening and very welcome chill in the air. Passing through the suburbs of the city we were struck again by how British some of the roads felt, some with brick-built houses which looked distinctly familiar. But then we would encounter a flashing green traffic light and it was like being marooned on a different planet. We’ve still not figured it out and so we do what the locals do and just drive on through. We got caught in the morning rush and it took longer than expected to reach the ferry port where we were sorted into different lanes and parked up to await boarding. The crossing to Vancouver Island takes about an hour and a half and passes between numerous islands along the way and we could see many small lighthouses dotted about. Upon reaching Swartz Bay we had another half hour journey down Highway 17 to reach our destination for the day – Victoria.
The main focal point of Victoria is the harbour with its airport and expensive yachts.
Float planes come and go all day and we watched them taking off from the water while little sea taxis zipped in and out of the harbour like busy bees taking tourists to destinations around the island or simply providing a sightseeing tour.
There is, of course, a heavy British influence here and the beautiful architecture tells the story; a tall statue of Queen Victoria stands proud in the gardens of the British Columbia Parliament Building on Government Street.
We walked and walked around for hours and here is just a flavour of the place in photos:
When it was time to leave we drove out to the eastern tip of the island and headed up the coast amongst the very expensive looking beach houses along the way.
Once back on Highway 17 we were in a Vancouver Island wine region and took a chance on the De Vine winery still being open for tastings. Thankfully it was and we were treated to a very educational tasting by an enthusiastic and funny guy and sat amongst the vines drinking wine and overlooking Washington State’s Mount Baker on the horizon – a perfect end to a lovely day.
Our final full day in Vancouver was spent cycling around the city. We hired bikes on Denman Street and took the cycle path around Stanley Park with great views of North (and West) Vancouver. Here are a few images of our tour.
The beaches here are all covered in tree trunks for people to sit on or recline against. I don’t know whether these are just driftwood or the remains of a major storm years ago which decimated Stanley Park.
We stopped for drinks overlooking English Bay and enjoyed watching the world go by under the sun while drinking a frozen Bellini or two.
We cycled on and crossed the Burrard Street Bridge and onto Granville Island, which has its own very distinct character – a small place filled with little shops and a few cafes. The main attraction here is the market selling some really wonderful and unusual food.
When we got back to Denman Street we had been cycling for 6 hours and still had the walk back to the hotel. It would have been easy to stay in and crash out but we were off out again to enjoy an evening snack and some live Blues until late.
We have seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly of Vancouver during our stay. Today we saw the best of the city. Tomorrow we leave the penthouse and head east towards the mountains once more.