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It's not hard to understand why Vancouver is so appealing. This vibrant metropolis caters to all age groups and interests, and even the most navigationally challenged visitors can find their way around with ease.
But before Vancouver was Vancouver, Vancouver was Gastown, a town built out of a need for a bar to serve thirsty lumber mill workers. In the mid-1800's an enterprising man named Gassy Jack supplied a barrel of booze and poured drinks for the men that built him a saloon in a day. Up until that point, the landscape was little more than towering evergreens on a rocky foreshore and the residents were primarily aboriginal. Although Europeans first saw the region's potential, by the 20th century, immigrants were arriving from around the world in record numbers.
Today Vancouver is an ethnic melting pot of Canadian, Chinese, South Asian, and others, with 35 percent of the two million residents being foreign born. This multicultural city has also been consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit. And the 2010 Winter Olympic Games gave the city a chance to shine in the world spotlight.
Arriving in Vancouver by air or sea gives visitors a sampling of what to expect from this Canadian seaport. Ships seem to barely clear the underside of the Lions Gate Bridge as they make their way past the massive green space of Stanley Park towards Vancouver Harbor. The park dominates the west side of the downtown area, and visitors and residents alike can be found walking or cycling on its seawall perimeter or paddling a kayak in the waters surrounding it. Just 12 blocks east of the park, the Canada Place cruise ship terminal has its own distinct character. It was built to resemble a ship with its motif of five large sails on top of the pier, and a Pan Pacific hotel is conveniently located at the stern of the mock superstructure.
It's easy to explore Vancouver from Canada Place since the city's most popular attractions are located within a two square mile area referred to as the downtown peninsula. A unique selection of harbor ferries, hop-on-hop-off buses and light rail transit (the Sky Train) makes its easy to get around.
On the north side of the peninsula, Gastown lies just a 10-minute walk east of the terminal building, encouraging historians to discover Vancouver's roots. An additional few blocks east will put you in Chinatown, North America's second largest after San Francisco. The southwest portion of the peninsula borders False Creek, where the hip and fashionable can check out the ultra-trendy ambience of Yaletown. And across the creek, everyone from foodies to art lovers to maritime buffs can browse Granville Island's public market, artisan studios, and nautical shops. From Granville Island you can take a harbor ferry west to Vanier Park located in Kitsilano or to the east end of False Creek, where Science World sits.
With the coastal mountains as its backdrop, and just 24 miles north of the Washington State border, Vancouver serves as the leading gateway to Alaska, a reputation that has lasted for the past 30 years. Cruise passengers can take advantage of a city with world-class accommodations, international dining, varied attractions, easy accessibility, and the notoriously friendly Canadian attitude that is contagious.
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Take advantage of your duty-free exemption with a slender bottle of B.C. ice wine (be sure it's labeled VQA -- Vintner's Quality Alliance). The Granville Island Public Market is the place to find foodie souvenirs such as fine loose-leaf tea, gourmet flavored salts and locally sourced honey. For big spenders, Coastal Peoples Fine Art Gallery (with locations in Yaletown and Gastown) sells museum-quality First Nation and Inuit artwork such as hand-carved masks. Or, sports fans can buy a souvenir Canucks hockey puck.
English is spoken as either a first or second language, but you won't go too far before hearing Mandarin or Cantonese.
Also note: Although some see it as a foreign language, Canada measures in metric. For distance they use kilometers (km) rather than miles, and for temperature they use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Canadian money comes in the same denominations as U.S. money, with the same names: quarter, dime and so forth. However there is no paper Canadian one-dollar bill. Instead, there is a one-dollar coin, nicknamed the Loonie, and the two-dollar coin called the Toonie. The most convenient way to exchange money is to use your ATM card at a bank or kiosk. Other options include Money Mart, which has many locations around the city, some open seven days a week, or Vancouver Bullion and Currency Exchange (800 W. Pender), conveniently located near Canada Place but closed on weekends.
The U.S. dollar has been fluctuating at par with the Canadian dollar, but check www.xe.com for the latest rate.
Where You're Docked
There are two separate cruise terminals in Vancouver. The prime location for ships is Canada Place Terminal, which is smack downtown and within a few steps of hotels, restaurants, shopping, and attractions. The Ballantyne Pier is less convenient, a 10-minute drive east of the city center (in a seedy, industrial area of town where you will want to take the ship's shuttle or taxi into the downtown area).
If your cruise originates in Vancouver, getting to the Canada Place cruise terminal upon arrival is a cinch. The Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is located south of the city, in the neighborhood of Richmond, 14 km (nine miles) from the downtown peninsula. The Canada Line of the SkyTrain runs every 8 to 20 minutes (depending on day/time) from the airport to the Waterfront station right near the cruise terminal. The ride takes about 25 minutes.
If your cruise departs from the Ballantyne Pier, it's best to take a cab.
Pick up free maps and tips on what to do and see at a Tourism Vancouver Infocentre, located inside both cruise terminal buildings. An additional info center is located directly across from Canada Place terminal at 200 Burrard Street.
Shopoholics can walk five blocks south of Canada Place to Robson Street with all its chic boutiques and trendy restaurants, nicknamed the Rodeo Drive of the North. Closer to the terminal is the shopping mall, the Pacific Centre, a shopping mall spanning a couple of city blocks.
A short walk south east of Canada Place is the Harbour Centre Tower on West Hastings. Take the 50-second glass elevator 553 feet to the top and enjoy a 360-degree, unobstructed view of the city.
Alternatively, take a short walk to Gastown, where Vancouver began. Today it's a welcoming precinct of cobblestone streets, antique stores and a steam clock. At each quarter hour a whistle chimes and steam shoots through the vents at the top of the clock.
Big Bus: This narrated tour of downtown Vancouver lasts 90 minutes, but passengers can hop on or off at 22 different stops along the route at any time. You can choose a one- or two-day pass. An alternate hop-on-hop-off tour is the Vancouver Trolley Company, which offers tickets for one or two days.
Public Transit: Less daunting than it sounds, Vancouver is very easy to navigate on your own. Their public transit system encompasses local buses, the SkyTrain (light rail transit) and the Seabus. DayPasses and FareSaver Tickets (a book of 10 discounted tickets) could save you money over individual fares.
Harbor Ferries: The Aquabus and the False Creek Ferries stop at numerous locations including Vanier Park and the Maritime Museum in Kitsilano, Granville Island, Yaletown, and Science World.
Car Rental: To go outside of the downtown core, or to Vancouver's North shore and beyond, you may want to rent a car. Alamo has a rental location at the Pan Pacific Hotel, located right at Canada Place. Other rental outlets are also represented downtown, such as Avis (757 Hornby Street) and Budget (416 West Georgia Street, with free pick-up service).
Watch Out For
Rain. This is the Pacific Northwest, after all! Fortunately, the summer months tend to be the driest in Vancouver, but we still recommend packing an umbrella and a light rain jacket.
Vancouver's Chinatown is the second biggest in North America and on summer weekends it is also a bustling pedestrian-friendly night market. The best streets to stroll are Pender and Keefer featuring the classic Chinese gardens at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the ancient healing wonders of traditional Chinese medicine at Kiu Shun Trading Company, and many other specialty shops.
The 1,000-acre evergreen oasis of Stanley Park, surrounded by a 5.5-mile paved seawall, is Vancouver's main tourist attraction. Visitors can walk, bike, or just watch the ships go by. Take the free shuttle around the park stopping at numerous locations such as the Vancouver Aquarium. Other park attractions include the Variety Kids Water Park, a display of totem poles by First Nations artists, beaches, playgrounds and picnic areas.
A handsome former courthouse is home to the Vancouver Art Gallery. The permanent collection includes the works of Emily Carr, a celebrated eccentric who best expresses B.C.'s early landscape and aboriginal culture. (Note: These works are not always on display; the museum also hosts an array of visiting exhibitions.)
Although known for its public market packed full of local produce, homemade products, and unusual ingredients, Granville Island (more like a peninsula) is much more than just food. Watch artists hone their skills in glassblowing, pottery and jewelry making. Or shop at a separate Kids Market featuring 28 different shops selling everything from wooden toys to glitzy costumes. There's also an indoor play area called the Adventure Zone. Nautical buffs will enjoy the Maritime Market with shops selling books and merchandise related to boating.
Originally Vancouver's garment district, today the trendy Yaletown neighborhood is home to fashionable boutiques and local designers, high-end restaurants, microbreweries and galleries. With SoHo-style ambience, visitors can shop, have lunch, people watch, or admire the yachts at the marina at the end of Davie Street.
Vancouver's answer to San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, the Kitsilano neighborhood overlooks English Bay with a park, beach and spectacular outdoor swimming pool. The hippies have grown up but have left behind a bohemian atmosphere with restaurants featuring vegetarian selections and organic shopping. Eateries are located on Yew Street, opposite the park.
Located in North Vancouver, the Capilano Suspension Bridge spans 450 feet across a canyon at a height of 230 feet above the Capilano River. Visitors can test their fear of heights with the Treetops Adventure, which offers visitors the chance to venture from one tree to another on a series of elevated suspension bridges. In June 2011, the park also opened the Cliffwalk, which takes visitors on cantilevered walkways along the granite cliffs overlooking the river.
Less than one mile north of the Capilano Suspension Bridge is the Capilano Salmon Hatchery. It is a free interpretive center where visitors can see that salmon really do swim upstream.
Open 365 days; the Sky Ride at Grouse Mountain is a 100-passenger tram that whisks you to an elevation of 3,700 feet in eight minutes. Although the main attraction is the view, you can also visit the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife, a five-acre mountaintop habitat that is home to orphaned grizzly bears. It's also a great place to have lunch, with options including fine dining at the Observatory, casual fare and patio dining at Altitudes Bistro, and a few self-service venues as well.
Been There, Done That
For a good workout and some great sightseeing, rent a kayak or take a guided tour with Ecomarine Kayak from Granville Island or Kitsilano. Alternatively, rent a bike from Spokes Bicycle Rentals or Reckless Bike Stores. Ride the seawall that extends 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) around the downtown peninsula, including Stanley Park. Your rental shop will offer you a helmet, lock and map of the city's bike trails.
The Vancouver Maritime Museum, located by Vanier Park, has numerous exhibits for the young and young at heart. Gain a deeper understanding of Vancouver's maritime history through its nautical artifacts and collections. An exhibit called the Maritime Discover Centre allows children to dress up as fishermen, take the controls of a model tugboat or use a high-powered telescope.
The H.R. MacMillan Space Centre within Vanier Park is part observatory, part interactive edutainment. Kids and adults can use an interactive simulator that mimics the experience of flying and docking the space shuttle at the International Space Station.
Science World features interactive exhibits for adults and kids of all ages. The building itself looks like a giant golf ball, as it was the home of Expo 86.
UBC's Museum of Anthropology, with its collection of authentic totem poles from remote coastal settlements, should not be overlooked. Outdoor exhibits include two houses from the Haida people (a group indigenous to British Columbia and Alaska) and a beautiful reflecting pool.
The Bloedel Floral Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park is a huge bubble dome is filled with exotic plants, tropical flowers, colorful Koi fish, and more than 100 birds of various species that fly free.
Vancouver's rich mix of immigrants means that the city offers a wide variety of ethnic cuisine, and , as you'd expect from its coastal location, it also has some exceptional seafood restaurants. But there's much more to the restaurant scene -- see our recommendations below for a taste.
For an inexpensive breakfast in North Vancouver, the Eighties Restaurant serves up hearty portions of traditional favorites like bennies (eggs Benedict) and pan-fried potatoes, or the No.1, which includes two eggs cooked any style, four strips of bacon, potatoes and toast. The restaurant also serves lunch and dinner.
Stanley Park has numerous concessions selling the old standbys -- hot dogs, hamburgers, and fish and chips. But for a sit down meal, Fish House is your best bet, offering dishes like the salmon bake (locally sourced salmon on a bed of potatoes, spinach and cheddar cheese) and grilled Pacific swordfish. You can even pick up a bottle of lobster oil here to take home -- it makes a delicious dip for bread.
Granville Island runs the gamut in terms of where and what to eat. This culinary hotspot is popular with residents and tourists alike. Enjoy lunch on the waterfront at Dockside Restaurant and Brewing Company, featuring a seafood-based menu as well as pizzas, along with its own microbrewery. Try the the Alder Bay Honey Lager, made with real B.C. honey. The Granville Island Public Market is a great spot to pick up the makings of a picnic lunch to eat outside by the water.
For a high altitude experience, the Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant in the Harbour Centre Tower offers a tasty, yet pricey lunch while making a full revolution every 60 minutes.
For a picnic, head to the food emporium Urban Fare in Yaletown for supplies. Choose from more than 100 cheeses, an olive bar, fresh cavier, an extensive deli, and organic produce. Or sit in the licensed cafe and sip wine while you watch patrons squeeze tomatoes.
Joe Fortes Seafood and Chophouse has been around for 25 years. The owners claim to serve 50 kinds of fresh seafood and have their own oyster bar. The rotating blue plate lunch specials are a great deal, as is the fixed priced lunch. Visitors looking for a splurge at dinnertime can try the three-tier seafood tower on ice that includes a sampler of crab, shrimp, lobster, clams, scallops, mussels and -- of course -- local oysters (great for sharing).
For casual Chinese cuisine, including dim sum, Hon's Wun-Tun House is a large cafeteria-style restaurant with an open concept kitchen. It is popular with families and casual diners for its low prices and generous portions.
Closest to Port: The luxury Pan Pacific (999 Canada Place) is in the Canada Place terminal. Indulge in their onsite Spa Utopia, relax by the outdoor pool, or watch the ships from your guest room. Similarly luxurious, and directly across the street, is the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel (900 West Georgia Street).
Big Splurges: We love the AAA Five Diamond-rated Sutton Place Hotel (845 Burrard Street) for its lavishly appointed guest rooms, exceptional service and onsite spa facilities. Alternatively, the city's ultimate boutique hotel experience can be found at the Wedgewood Hotel & Spa (8445 Hornby Street), the first and only Relais & Chateaux hotel to be selected in Vancouver. Nightly turndown service includes homemade cookies.
Family-Friendly: The mid-priced and family-friendly Holiday Inn Vancouver Downtown (1110 Howe Street) offers baby-sitting services, a "Kids Eat Free" program in its restaurant and a 24-hour, heated indoor pool with an orca whale painted on the bottom. Book a suite with a kitchenette to save money on restaurant meals. For the splurge that will make your kids feel like V.I.P.s, stay at the Four Seasons Hotel (791 Georgia Street West). Complimentary Rice Krispies sushi, child-sized bathrobes, children's menus and an indoor heated pool will appeal to pint-sized guests.
For Art Lovers: The rooms at The Listel Hotel (1300 Robson Street) feature original art. Its Museum Floor rooms showcase the works and furnishings of noted First Nations artists, while each Gallery Floor room is dedicated to the work of an up-and-coming Canadian or international artist.
Budget-Friendly: Superbly located on Robson Street, the Empire Landmark Hotel (1400 Robson Street) is central for shopping and attractions. The Victorian Hotel (514 Homer Street) is a charming pension that was built in 1898 as one of the first guesthouses in Vancouver (then Gastown). The restored hotel has a few modern touches as well as exquisitely appointed bathrooms and down duvets, and 12 new rooms were recently added.
Staying in Touch
Just one block from the famous steam clock, the Wicked Gastown Internet Cafe (330 West Cordova Street) provides computers with Internet. Blenz Coffee offers free Wi-Fi at 58 locations across Vancouver, including 508 West Hastings (only a couple of blocks from Canada Place).
For a city-in-a-nutshell tour, most lines offer a motor coach option for disembarking passengers with later flights. You'll ride through some of Vancouver's most popular neighborhoods (including Gastown, Stanley park and Chinatown) and then transfer directly to the airport.
Cruisers who enjoy more independent sightseeing can try the Vancouver Lookout & Scenic Trolley tour, which includes a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off Vancouver Trolley as well as the price of admission to the Vancouver Lookout at the Harbor Centre Tower.
Most cruise lines offer some sort of Capilano Suspension Bridge tour, often combining it with city sightseeing. The main attraction is the high-flying bridge and its Treetops Adventure.
Combine two of Vancouver's loveliest outdoor spaces with a Stanley Park & Grouse Mountain tour. The excursion includes a visit to Stanley Park's famous totem poles as well as an aerial tram ride up the Peak of Vancouver for scenic views of the city and surrounding mountains.
For More Information
Tourism Vancouver: www.tourismvancouver.com; 877-826-1717
Tourism British Columbia: www.hellobc.com; 800-435-5622
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Pacific Northwest
IndependentTraveler.com: Canada Deals and Features
--updated by Renee Ruggero and Sarah Schlichter, Cruise Critic contributors
All images appear courtesy of Tourism Vancouver