Port of Vancouver
It's not hard to understand why Vancouver is so appealing. This vibrant metropolis caters to all age groups and interests; it's particularly friendly to pedestrians and bikers, and even the most navigationally challenged visitors can find their way around with ease.
The area has been occupied by the Coast Salish people, claimed by the Spanish, and was visited for exactly one day by British Captain George Vancouver. In 1827, Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post on the Fraser River, and the company is still around today -- though now as a department store. After that, the fur traders, gold miners and lumber workers arrived and, eventually, the railroad.
Before Vancouver was Vancouver, it was known as Gastown, built out of the need for a bar to serve thirsty lumber mill workers. In 1867, an enterprising man called Gassy Jack supplied a barrel of booze and poured drinks for the men who built him a saloon in a day. A community built up around the bar and, a few years later, incorporated as the town of Granville. In 1886, the town had a population of 1,000 and was renamed Vancouver -- then burned to the ground. The legacy of post-fire reconstruction is the lovely old brick buildings of the original Gastown neighborhood.
Today, Vancouver is an ethnic melting pot, with 35 percent of the 2.3 million metro-region residents being foreign born. It's been consistently rated as one of the most livable cities in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit, with a large population inhabiting high-rises in the city center. The 2010 Winter Olympic Games gave the city a chance to shine in the world spotlight; the Olympic cauldron still stands near the port, at Coal Harbour.
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 on the way to Vancouver Harbor (and in fact, the bridge's height restricts the largest cruise ships from entering). 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 surrounding waters. 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.
It's easy to explore Vancouver from Canada Place because 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 SkyTrain) makes its easy to get around. Farther-flung attractions even offer free shuttles parked alongside the plaza.
On the north side of the peninsula, Gastown lies just a 10-minute walk east of the terminal building, encouraging history-minded travelers to discover Vancouver's roots. An additional few blocks east will put you in Chinatown, North America's second-largest after San Francisco's. 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. Wherever you roam, there are interesting restaurants -- from fresh seafood or dim sum to trendy eateries.
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 and contagious Canadian attitude.
Dock is connected to a hotel, great for pre-cruise stays; city is destination in own right
Terminal is always busy; check-in, crowds and queues for taxis can be a nightmare
There's lots to see and do, and much of it is pedestrian-friendly or within a short cab ride
Find a Cruise to Alaska
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There are two separate cruise terminals in Vancouver. Your ship will most likely be at the Canada Place terminal, which is smack downtown and within a few steps of hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions. The rarely used Ballantyne Pier is less convenient, a 10-minute drive east of the city center (in a seedy, industrial area of town from where you will want to take the ship's shuttle or taxi into the downtown area).
Pick up free maps and tips on what to do and see at a Tourism Vancouver information desk, located on the street level of the Canada Place cruise terminal/convention center building. A larger visitor center is located across from Canada Place, at 200 Burrard Street.
You'll find baggage storage services at the Canada Place terminal, provided by CDS Baggage (604-683-3696; cruise passengers only; airport baggage transfers also available), plus wheelchair and mobility scooter rentals from Scootaround (888-441-7575; pre-booking recommended) in the main lobby.
The underground Waterfront station of the light rail SkyTrain's Canada Line is also connected to the Canada Place terminal, and it's about a half-hour ride to Vancouver International Airport.
Two luxury hotels, the Fairmont Waterfront and the Pan Pacific, are located at the Canada Place complex -- so if you're embarking, you can watch your ship sail in from a harbor-view room. Both hotels will also pick up your luggage from your room and expedite it to the ship; it will magically reappear in your stateroom (11 a.m. cutoff time for pickup).
You'll find a food court with more than a dozen options in the Waterfront Center complex, and more casual restaurants across the plaza at the new convention center. There's also a walkway along the water with fascinating history placards and a float-plane port where you can see the little pontoon planes buzzing in and out.
Within just a few blocks are shops, attractions and even more restaurant choices.
Good to Know
Be prepared 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.
If you're exploring on foot, be aware that there's a fairly unsavory neighborhood between Gastown and Chinatown, known as the Downtown Eastside.
Surprise -- there are three Fairmont hotels downtown and one at the airport -- so be sure to know which one you're headed to if you're staying there.
By Tour Bus: The Big Bus 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. Choose a one- or two-day pass. An alternative hop-on, hop-off tour is offered by the Vancouver Trolley Company, which sells tickets that are good for one or two days. Both services stop at Canada Place.
By Public Transit: Less daunting than it sounds, Vancouver is very easy to navigate on your own. The public transit system, known as TransLink, encompasses local buses, the SkyTrain (light-rail transit, including service to Vancouver International Airport) and the SeaBus (a ferry connecting Vancouver with the North Shore). Vancouver public transit now runs on a reusable Compass card system, which allows users to register their card and protect its balance in case it is lost or stolen. The card can be used across all transit systems with an easy tap, and is available for purchase at vending machines, convenience stores and even online. Single-ride tickets are also available, if you're not going to be using the system multiple times. Tip: SkyTrain fares are calculated on a zone system; from the airport to downtown is two zones.
By Ferry: False Creek Ferries serve nine different docks with four routes that ply both sides of False Creek, including Granville Island, the Maritime Museum in Kitsilano and other attractions. You can buy single, zone-based fares or a day pass. The Aquabus also operates along False Creek, with eight stops, including Granville Island. It's also priced according to your destination, with day passes available. Both are also fun for simply for joy-riding, to get a different perspective on the city.
By Rental Car: To go outside of the downtown core or to Vancouver's North Shore and beyond, you might want to rent a car. Enterprise and National have rental locations at the Pan Pacific Hotel, located right at Canada Place. Other rental outlets are also represented downtown and include Avis (757 Hornby Street) and Hertz (1270 Granville Street).
By Bicycle: Sign up for the Vancouver bike-share system, Mobi, and pay a small daily subscription fee, then pick up and drop off bikes at one of more than 100 stations around Vancouver. You can ride for 30 minutes at a time without additional charges. Alternatively, rent a bike for the day from Spokes Bicycle Rentals (1798 Georgia Street West; 604-688-5141) or Reckless Bike Store (110 Davie Street; 604-648-2600). Your rental shop will offer you a helmet, lock and map of the city's bike trails.
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 (because a loon is depicted on one side), and a two-dollar coin called the Toonie. The U.S. dollar fluctuates against the Canadian dollar; for current currency conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.
You'll find an ATM inside the port building, just before security; there's also one in the Waterfront Center, beneath the Fairmont Waterfront, across from the cruise terminal. There are also numerous ATMs within a few blocks at downtown banks.
English is spoken as either a first or second language, but you won't go too far before hearing Mandarin or Cantonese.
Also note: Some might consider it a foreign language that Canada measures in metric. For distances, you'll see kilometers (km) rather than miles, and for temperatures, Celsius rather than Fahrenheit.
Food and Drink
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. Lovers of Asian food will want to seek out one of the city's izakayas (Japanese taverns), dim sum palaces or sample the world-famous Japadog, which serves hot dogs with a decidedly Tokyo twist, from several street carts around town.
The city has a distinctly "green" attitude, so you'll find farm-to-table restaurants and chefs focusing on seasonal ingredients. Vegans or vegetarians have good options here, too. There's also a cutting-edge fine-dining scene, led by chefs like David Hawksworth, Hector Laguna and Alex Chen.
Vancouver Foodie Tours: For a great introduction to all things foodie in Vancouver, take one of four tours this company offers, including tours focused on Gastown, food trucks, Granville Market and a downtown gourmet tour. Enough food is included to easily replace a meal. (604-295-8844; reservations required)
Granville Island: Graze your way through the Public Market, which offers prepared foods that run the gamut from exotic sausages to fresh-made doughnuts, in addition to a world of produce, fish and meats. There's also Artisan Sake and Liberty Distillery, if booze is your bent. Sample local goodies at the Edible Canada Bistro (1596 Johnston Street; 604-682-6681, open all day), which also has an attached retail shop. Or, settle in at one of nine nearby restaurants.
Urban Fare: For a picnic, head to the amazing, upscale Urban Fare food emporiums. Choose from more than 100 cheeses, an olive bar, fresh caviar, an extensive deli, a huge assortment of prepared foods and organic produce. Or, sit in the cafe and sip wine while you watch patrons squeeze tomatoes. The closest location to Canada Place is the one in Coal Harbor. (305 Bute Street; 604-669-5831; open daily, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Stanley Park Teahouse: If you find yourself hungry in Stanley Park, this cheery, light-filled restaurant is a nice alternative to hotdog and burger stands. Lunch choices include sharable boards with charcuterie, smoked salmon, cheese and antipasti; and noshes like salt-and-pepper squid, baked feta and mussels. They also serve a heftier prix fixe lunch Monday through Friday. (7501 Stanley Park Drive; 604-669-3281; open daily, 11:30 to 10 p.m., weekends from 10:30 a.m.)
Coast: A haven for seafood, this buzzing, modern restaurant has a huge, circular raw bar at its center, which includes a boggling oyster list (give the Fat Bastards a try!). You can also order sushi, as well as fresh local fish, Alaskan King crab legs and Canadian prime beef. Signature dishes range from miso-maple sablefish to beer-battered fish and chips. Whatever you do, don't miss the spectacular coconut-banana butter cake for desert; it's served warm, with a molten center, surrounded by bruleed bananas -- one of the best desserts we've ever eaten (and we've eaten a lot of desserts!). (1054 Alberni Street; 604-685-5010; 11a.m. to 11p.m.)
Botanist: This restaurant in the Fairmont Pacific Rim hotel generated buzz immediately upon opening -- thanks to its quirky modernist decor, featuring 50 different plant species, as well as its outstanding food. Worthy of a splurge, each course is a work of art, featuring local ingredients and twists on classic dishes. Beef tartare comes with a smoked egg yolk; a wagyu burger is served on a pretzel bun; and a sablefish dish is garnished with puffed tapioca. Even the bread is unique -- a wholegrain fougasse studded with sunflower seeds. If you go for dinner, choose the "We'll take it from here" option, for a truly memorable parade of dishes. It's the kind of meal that would cost twice as much in U.S. cities. (604-695-5500; open Monday through Friday for lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner daily, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.; weekend brunch 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.)
Joe Fortes Seafood and Chophouse: This institution has been around for 25 years, and the owners claim to serve 50 kinds of fresh seafood. The rotating blue plate lunch specials are a great deal. Visitors looking for a splurge at dinnertime can try the three-tiered seafood tower on ice that includes a sampler of crab, shrimp, lobster, clams, scallops, mussels and -- of course -- local oysters (great for sharing). The restaurant is also known for its happy hour and rooftop terrace. (777 Thurlow Street; 604-669-1940; open daily, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.)
Kirin: Despite having the same name as a Japanese beer, this is a Chinese restaurant serving consistently award-winning dim sum. Rather than the usual carts, here the food is all made to order. Try the prawn and port sui mai; sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf with salted duck egg yolk, mushroom, pork and dried scallop; or xao long bao, soup dumplings. Be sure to ask for XO sauce for dipping. (1172 Alberni Street; 604-682-8833; open daily, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; weekends from 10 a.m.; reservations essential; arrive before 2 p.m. for dim sum)
Guu: Despite the less-than-appetizing name, this izakaya got so popular that the owners opened more locations. For lunch, it offers bargain-priced rice bowls, curries and grilled dishes. Dinner brings a more typical izakaya menu of grilled and deep-fried items that's served until late -- making this a favorite hangout for chefs. (838 Thurlow Street; 604-685-8817; open Monday through Saturday, 11:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.; Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to midnight)
Bella Gelateria: Consider yourself very lucky if you don't encounter a line at this award-winning spot serving authentic Italian gelato. Try the salted caramel, chocolate sorbet or any of the fruit flavors. (1001 West Cordova Street; 604-569-1010; open daily, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Thierry Chocolaterie: If your sweet tooth has a French accent, this is your place. You'll find macarons, including seasonal flavors; chocolates of all sorts; heavenly pastries and cookies; plus items you can take home as gifts, assuming you don't eat them along the way. The cafe also serves sandwiches, quiches, soups -- and liquor. (1059 Alberni Street; 604-608-6870; open daily, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to midnight; Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to midnight)
You'll find everything from huge, underground malls to local design boutiques to international luxury labels in Vancouver. The U.S. dollar will often get you more here than back home -- another enticement to shop.
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. Or, take advantage of your duty-free exemption with a slender bottle of British Columbia ice wine.
For big spenders, Coastal Peoples Fine Art Gallery (332 Water Street, Unit 200) sells museum-quality First Nations and Inuit artwork that includes hand-carved masks. You'll also find a gift shop at the Bill Reid Gallery (639 Hornby Street) selling fine First Nations crafts.
If you're after high-end, designer fashions, head five blocks southwest of Canada Place to Robson Street. With all its chic boutiques and trendy restaurants, it's nicknamed the Rodeo Drive of the North. Closer to the terminal is the Pacific Centre (701 est. Georgia Street), a shopping mall stretching underground for several city blocks. Hudson's Bay (674 Granville Street) is Vancouver's iconic department store, while the Gastown area is home to clothing boutiques and trendy home design shops.