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Falling for Vancouver, British Columbia

Vancouver was ablaze in fall’s vivid palette. Maple leaves -- pink, yellow, orange, red, and burgundy -- dangled from tree branches and blanketed the sidewalks putting a spring in my step as my cousin and I walked leisurely around downtown exploring the most populous city in the Canadian province of British Columbia, known to many as the most beautiful cosmopolitan city on the west coast with a skyline as dramatic as New York City’s.

Perfect weather that day called for an easy-breezy bicycle ride along the Seawall in Stanley Park, a National Historic Site of Canada and the “Jewel of Vancouver.” It’s not often we have the chance to cycle the circumference (six miles) of a 1,000-acre forested park (okay, we rode half of it) that looks like an island because it’s almost completely surrounded by water. Designed by Mother Nature and not man-made, it became the province’s first city park in 1888 and named after Governor General Lord Stanley.

Jutting out into Vancouver Harbor and English Bay from the edge of downtown, Stanley Park is a short walk from hotels, condominiums, glass towers and Robson Street, Vancouver’s famous shopping district. Recently ranked in a TripAdvisor survey as the best park in the world, a good chunk of a day can be spent hiking, cycling, visiting the historic totem poles, the aquarium, gorgeous gardens, and sandy beaches.

We cruised the bicycle lane while others enjoyed the walking path taking in the eclectic landscape of cruise ships, mountains, and skyscrapers.

Vancouver is a multicultural metropolis of 604,000 residents (Greater Vancouver is 2.4 million strong), and its compact layout is wonderfully walkable thanks to a great public transportation system. Most here don’t even own a car. Using buses, ferries, and the Sky Train (subway and above-ground elevated guideways with 47 stops), we explored more of Vancouver’s must-see highlights -- Lookout Tower, Gastown, Canada Place, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Granville Island. But not before making a sweet discovery of the culinary kind at “purebread” bakery recommended by locals where my taste buds jumped for joy at the sight of lemon-blueberry-basil, ginger cream, and buckwheat-sour cherry scones – delectable twists on the traditional British biscuit-like pastry.

We worked our way up to the Lookout Tower observation deck 553 feet above street level to take in fantastic 360-degree views of autumn’s panorama, downtown’s surrounding attractions, and the sprawl of the peninsula. With a back yard like this, it’s no wonder health-minded Vancouverites love their outdoors year-round – including mild winters when snow rarely sticks, thanks to the ocean atmosphere.

Off in the distance I spotted another city skyline wondering if it was Seattle. When I glanced down, a small plaque told the story.

“Occasionally mistaken for Victoria or Seattle, the city on the horizon is Burnaby, a suburb of Greater Vancouver.” Nicknamed Metrotown, it is home to the largest shopping center in British Columbia, a “destination in itself” with theaters, world-class restaurants, and just 20 minutes away on the Sky Train.

I could also see Gastown below, a block from the Lookout Tower. It was the area’s first settlement when it thrived as a logging town during the mid-1800s. Named after “Gassy Jack” who ran the local tavern, it was renamed Vancouver when the town became the railhead for the transcontinental railway in 1887 and played a major role linking the trade routes between Eastern Canada, Europe, and Asia. A National Historic Site, Gastown is bohemian, cultural, and a trendy spot with dining, shopping, nightclubs and art galleries exhibiting the finest examples of Inuit, Pacific Northwest Coast, Asian, and African art – and wonderfully charming at night when it’s all lit up.

And just minutes from Gastown on the waterfront, Canada Place with its iconic rooftop resembling boat sails is the terminal for Alaskan cruise ships. It’s also home to the convention center, the World Trade Center -- and Flyover Canada, a crazy exhilarating simulation flight ride.

While “airborne” I forgot I was inside a four-story theater as our feet dangled from suspended chairs and we magically “soared” coast to coast across Canada’s breathtaking wilderness.

My hair blew in the wind and with the other special effects of mist and scents, I thought I was on my way to heaven.

A visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery was saved for a lazy rainy day. Another National Historic Site, it’s one Sky Train stop from the Waterfront Station. Built in stately neoclassical style, it was originally Vancouver’s main courthouse designed by architect Francis Rattenbury who also designed B.C.’s Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

Inside, we treasured unrushed time perusing the museum’s outstanding exhibits of contemporary and historic works. The VAG’s world-class art collections include the Gund Collection’s rare First Nations totem poles, masks, sculptures and drawings; the Group of Seven, a Canadian band of 20th century painters who defined Canada through its majestic landscapes; and their contemporary, Emily Carr, who drew artistic inspiration during visits to indigenous villages, in turn becoming an important chronologist of British Columbia’s early history. Renowned as one of Canada’s most important artists (she was also an author), the Emily Carr University of Art and Design on Granville Island was named in her honor.

By the time we left the museum, Soho Road food truck parked outside was cooking up savory tandoori chicken, lamb seekh, and spicy veg sabji. It’s just one of over 100 different food cart vendors that make up Vancouver’s thriving street food scene that ranks among the best in North America – a program actively supported by the local city council that can’t be happier with the life it brings to downtown.

After our ambitious self-tour on foot, we took to the road with Alfred Esmeijer, proprietor of Vancouver Private Tours and a long-time resident of Vancouver (he’s originally from the Netherlands). This time we relaxed in a comfy Suburban as he zipped us around more corners of his proclaimed favorite city – Yaletown, Chinatown, the West End, the forested depths of Stanley Park, and the city’s charming neighborhoods.

We stopped to walk around the outdoor plaza of the 2010 Winter Olympic Village-turned upscale community in Southeast Falsecreek. Originally a shipyard, the area had become an industrial waste land pre-Olympic Games. Thanks to regeneration efforts, the Olympic Village project received the LEED Platinum distinction as “the greenest, most energy efficient, and sustainable neighborhood on Earth.”

A pair of gigantic sparrows standing 18 feet tall is the centerpiece of the plaza. The sculpture by Canadian artist Myfawny MacLeod is called “The Birds,” a thought-provoking tribute to biodiversity and film producer Alfred Hitchcock.

And there’s no better way to feel the pulse of a city than hanging out in the lively atmosphere of the local marketplace. We got lost in the bustle of Granville Island Public Market, and the smaller, less touristy Lonsdale Quay Market in North Vancouver 15 minutes by Seabus from Waterfront Station where locals and visitors converge to socialize, dine, and shop. Displays of sweet summer fruit, divine cheeses, and candy-style smoked sockeye salmon bites teased us to no end. Even impressive works of art, jewelry, and clothing by local designers made me wish we could linger just a few more hours.

We surrendered, though, to the irresistible Maple Swirl Buns -- sold one month only in the fall -- at Lonsdale Market. The warm pull-apart pastry dripping with glorious maple sugar just about brought me to tears.



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