As the patchwork of small islands that form the coast surrounding Vancouver slowly dissolve behind the clouds, my heart grows a little heavy with sadness. Just four days ago, Vancouver was all but a mystery to me, just another city, somewhere in the world, that I had heard a few interesting things about, but that was all. Today, as I head South for Los Angeles, I couldn’t help but to plot my return as soon as possible.
Vancouver did the dirty and caught me completely and utterly by surprise. I know Canada has a great reputation of openmindedness and amazing people, but having spent time in Vancouver, it really takes the cake. It is a laid back, easy-going city filled with life-affirming people who consider the act of living just as important as their careers. To a person, everyone I met was astonishingly friendly and polite. There was just one exception, a particularly severe roller blading-whilst-weightlifting woman in Stanley Park – yes they really do take their exercise seriously here – but she was a little nuts.People are willing to actually have conversations with complete strangers in Vancouver, something that comes as a bit of a shock to a Londoner. Strangers will readily offer you help if you look lost, or take you by the hand and guide you to their favourite restaurants, stores and yoga classes – or invite you along to beach BBQs – well, at least they did to me.
When it comes to cities in areas of outstanding natural beauty, Vancouver must surely be amongst the best. This closeness to nature, and the desire to interact with it, is a fundamental key to understanding its people. Ask any Vancouverite what you should do with your time here and most will recommend something that involves getting outside. That could be anything from hiking up ‘The Grind’ – a steep 3k incline to the north of the city, to cycling through the magnificent Stanley park, or paddleboarding on the glassy waters of the harbour. But their love for the environment goes beyond the great outdoors, this is a city that truly takes nature and green-living to its heart. Its mayor has committed to becoming a completely ‘sustainable city’ by 2020, and it’s not just a top down commitment. Local business, from coffee shops to fashion labels, and restaurants in particular are all striving, in material ways, to achieve their own sustainability.
Of course, all this fresh air and exercise makes for a healthy appetite, and second on their list will be getting you to try one of the seemingly endless amazing eateries that pepper the streets. Everyone has a favourite, or five, and will go into overdrive extolling the virtues of their latest discovery. Combine their love for the environment with their love of food and you’ve got something quite uniquely special.A perfect example of this is The Parker on Main Street – the best eating experience on my trip – a completely sustainable, vegetarian restaurant. Impressively, their chefs use only locally sourced, organic produce to create a simply incredible, delicious menu, all whilst employing a zero waste policy. It’s not just the vegetarians who are serious about sourcing local ingredients – and why wouldn’t you, considering the natural bounty available? With a temperate climate similar to the UK, the deep, clean waters of the Strait of Georgia and the vast fertile landscape offering a wide range of bio-diverse environments, there is just so much on offer. This, combined with the ethnic make-up of the city – 51% of the population belong to a visible minority group – and steady stream of both short and long-term visitors from all over the world, means the food is as fresh and varied as it is delicious.
Muki by Canada Place is a perfect example of how good the food in this city can be, a sushi restaurant to rival any that I have experienced. They specialise in Aburi sushi – a process that involves searing over charcoal, infusing the food with a delicious smoky taste. Wasabi and soya sauce are banned here, as they mask the subtle flavour it produces. Equally serious about the provenience of their food are Cibo. They’ve taken the concept of knowing what they put on your plate to a whole new level, establishing their own farm to rear livestock and grow their own vegetables. These guys are seriously passionate about their menu and everything is presented with such enthusiasm and fun by the whole team, from chef Faizal Kassam and GM Robert Stelmachuk, to the dynamic and talented mixologist Lauren Mote at the adjoining UVA cocktail bar. The whole experience is about as far from attending some kind of stuffy ‘foodie church’ as possible.
Not being particularly materialistic, but at the same time a bit of a design snob, it’s rare for me to find a store that has more than a few items that I covet. But LITCHFIELD – the brain child of the handsome and typically laid back Jonathan Litchfield – is the exception. I wanted absolutely everything in this place, even the bespoke light fittings. Filled with long-lasting, beautifully designed objects that make everyday, necessary chores a pleasure, Jonathan has worked hard to curate and stock the shop perfectly so that each exquisite item becomes ‘an extension of who you are.’ It certainly was for me.There is an infectiousness to Vancouverites’ enthusiasm for what they do that somehow sidesteps what in other cities (New York and London, for example) can come across as ‘hipster’ elitism. Here your passion is something to share with others, not a badge to prove that you are somehow more informed, educated, or ‘on the zeitgeist’ than anyone else. This, for me, is the missing part of the puzzle. I love finding new things and experiencing the labours of others more talented and specialised than myself, I love creativity and people with a can-do attitude. It’s perhaps that which I find most endearing about Canadians in general, and Vancouverites in particular.
Maybe I was just lucky, but I came away from the experience with a renewed enjoyment of life, and a desire to pursue those things that I have been meaning to do, but have somehow always managed to put off – like developing my own cooking skills and growing my own vegetables and herbs. I want to get out and enjoy life more with my friends, to stop worrying if I have put enough hours in this week or hit a deadline. I want to live my life, and not just work my way though it. In that respect this experience has, in a very real way, changed how I see the world. I can’t think of a bigger accolade for a city, and this is only after a fleeting visit.
I’m not saying that Vancouver is some kind of Utopia filled with only nice, enthusiastic unpretentious people; I’m sure it must have it’s share of obnoxious self-centered idiots too, it’s just that I didn’t find any of them. Considering you can’t even order a coffee in my local East London coffee shop without getting a look from the perpetually bored, ‘resting-bitch-faced’ barista, as if you’ve just told him to empty the contents of his life savings into your account, whilst simultaneously slitting the throat of his French bulldog – it’s a very refreshing change to be in a place like Vancouver. Here, people are just as likely to randomly smile and ask you how your day is going – not because they have to, but out of a genuine interest in a fellow human being – and they expect more than a one word answer.
Perhaps it’s the wealth of opportunities to blow off steam whilst connecting with nature that Vancouver has to offer; or the abundance of fresh air. Perhaps it’s their unique mix of European, Asian and American values? The influence of both Japan and Scandinavia are unmistakeable here, an appreciation for well-made, considered design and wholesome, fresh sustainable food are prevalent, without being austere. Whatever the reason, I like the results – a lot.
As for plans to relocate there – it seems I may need to start saving my pennies. According to a recent report in The New Yorker, Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities to buy property in, with the gap between the income of the local population and the cost of housing prohibitively high. This is down to the fact that foreign investors are being sold the city as a safe and stable spot to park their assets. That said, it’s still a great place to visit, and has moved firmly up my list of destinations to return at the earliest opportunity.