The last time I visited Vancouver, British Columbia was about six years ago. I am from northeastern Ontario, so it was exciting getting to travel out the western part of Canada. While I will not be in Vancouver during the Olympics, I have fond memories of visiting a lot of locations that cater to tourists. I also was fortunate enough to have time to visit smaller communities around Vancouver. Of course, I visited during a much quieter time than what the situation will be during the Olympic games. I have never been to an Olympic event, but I would imagine it is an overwhelming experience for many people, especially those who are not from the area.
After enduring the inevitable lineups at customs, sporting events and various party zones, even the most flag-waving, cheer-shouting, mascot-hugging Winter Olympics fan might succumb to Games fatigue.
So, if the vortex of anthems, medals and ubiquitous sponsorship ads leaves you seeing nothing but Olympic rings, step outside and take a deep refreshing breath of Vancouver air.
“The hype will overcome that at first, but if you’re going to be doing that everyday from the 12th to the 28th, I can definitely imagine people getting tired,” says Larissa Sampson, with Vancouver’s Big Bus hop-on, hop-off tours.
“Going into smaller communities is a good way to escape that hectic feeling.”
Canada’s third largest city is indeed a cross-hatch of motley enclaves, all quite accessible if tourists need a change of pace. Opportunities abound for those yearning to rub shoulders with laid-back locals, eat rave-inducing cuisine (multi-ethnic and high in organic content) and tap some West Coast natural-world zen.
Visitors should divide their explorations into two parts, suggests John Atkin, a civic historian who’s been hosting walking tours in the city for more than 20 years.
Head downtown to the meandering seawall first, to trace its perimeter by foot, bike or blades.
“That’s to get a sense of the city, for the big ‘Oomph’ of ‘Wow, this is what everyone is talking about,”‘ Atkin says.
Next, jump aboard the SkyTrain, Vancouver’s clean, monorail-like public transit system, to discover a slew of eclectic neighbourhoods.
“A lot of people come to Vancouver and stick to the downtown core and then they go home,” Atkin says. “They’re missing out.”
Bask in the upper crust feel of tree-lined Kitsilano or go people watching in rainbow-swathed Davie Village, home to the city’s LGBTQ community. Take the stage at a Monday night poetry slam on Commercial Drive or snap photos of the landmark Steam Clock blowing its whistle – albeit, powered by electricity – while strolling the faux-cobblestone of historic Gastown.
Steamy-windowed won ton restaurants and vendors selling jade and Hello Kitty kitsch await guests in Chinatown, the third largest in North America. Some area residents will argue an Asian experience to top that can actually be found in Richmond, the city to the south. Aberdeen Mall boasts a two-floor Japanese dollar store.
The international media in town for the Games are expected to highlight the mainstay attractions but a network of underground sensations offer worthy alternatives.
“I would hope visitors would like to get a sense of what it’s like to live here, not just how it looks and feels during the Olympics,” says Crystal Henrickson, spokeswoman for the Vancouver portal of yelp.ca, a website stacked with local reviews of wine, dine and cool stuff to check out.
“Doing things that us locals would do all the time would definitely give them a better sense of that.”
Tried and true will offer you Stanley Park – a magnificent urban park replete with looming totem poles – but Ambleside Park on the city’s north shore is another welcoming gathering spot for joggers and their dogs. And some of the best kite flying wind in the Lower Mainland is gusting through Garry Point in Steveston, a pint-sized fishing village with a big reputation for fresh seafood.
In fact, that’s where many vendors in the popular Granville Island public market, a jaunty Aquabus ride from downtown, source their catch of the day.
If demonstrators end up gathering on the designated protest lawn outside downtown’s Vancouver Art Gallery and sway you from its exhibitions, enjoy an artwalk through the city’s east end with studios featuring works by hundreds of independent artists. Or swing by the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia campus to indulge in its world-renowned collections.
While dolphins and belugas always make a splash at the Vancouver Aquarium, the Vancouver Maritime Museum tells the story of Canada’s Pacific port through artifacts, models and photographs.
Good old-fashioned fun can be had at Robson Square, which recently re-opened its 27-year-old outdoor ice rink. Then go futuristic by rocketing above it on a zipline hosted by Ziptrek Ecotours, free during the Games.
Shopping galore is available nearby on trendy Robson Street, with a bevy of major labels. Up-and-coming Main Street in the Broadway area is happening with hip boutiques and antiques.
Nearby can also be found a shrine to legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix. He often spent time with his grandmother, Nora, who lived in a rickety house that still stands. Further south on Main presents the Punjabi Market district with sari shops and Bagra music stores.
Satiate Olympic-sized hunger by noshing on a Japa Dog from a Burrard street vendor who puts a twist on the traditional wiener by loading it up with shredded seaweed and wasabi mayo.
If visitors take the time to even sample a few extras while in town, it’ll be that much more rewarding a trip, says B.J. Trundel, a Big Bus tour guide.
“You might as well, while you’re here, throw a couple extra dollars and get to experience some Vancouver,” he says. “Because an important part of going to (the Olympics) is to find out a little more about where it’s happening.”
Article credit: Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press