EXPANDING HORIZONS
VANCOUVER, CANADA

Photography by Martin Perry

I don’t jog. It reminds me of the punishing cross country runs that I was forced to do at school. Cold air stinging your windpipe, frozen bare legs, and grazed knees. The threat of being ambushed by the class bully taking full advantage of being out of sight of the equally thuggish Physical Education teacher. Yet I find myself pounding along the seawall of Stanley Park – just for fun!

I don’t do yoga. The whole thing winds me up. It’s probably the most pretentious of sports, I mean is it even a sport, or is it a religion? I’m allergic to both, just the mention of an organised belief system and a set of rules and I’ll turn on my heels. It’s a Western appropriation of Eastern Culture, however, to practice it is to somehow be imbued with a higher moral compass. Not to mention the fact that I’m as flexible as an ironing board. Yet I’m on a rock halfway up Stawamus Chief mountain, straining to hold a Cobra pose with three magnificent bald eagles circling in the clear blue sky above me and I’m feeling very lucky to be alive.

I don’t do ‘outdoorsy’. If there is a choice between an encounter with a grizzly bear on a mountain path and a beer in a beach bar – mine’s a cold one, thanks. But I’m hiking a trail through the wilderness in Golden Ears Provincial Park, stopping every few minutes to pinch myself at the sheer, glorious beauty of my surroundings.

Maybe it’s the abundance of oxygen pumped out by the millions of fir trees going to my head, but I find myself doing all kinds of things that I would never normally even consider, and somehow, despite myself, I am loving every second of my time in British Columbia. It’s possible I may even have something of a crush on the place and just can’t stay away. It’s my fourth visit in three years and each time, I like it more and more. Every visit opens up new possibilities for adventure; I make new friends, try new things. I enjoy the smaller scale and accessibility of its cities and love the vastness and boundless grandeur of its magnificent landscape.

There is an excitement in visiting somewhere for the first time; everything is new, buried treasures await to be unearthed, but you need to find your feet and your knowledge is second hand, so once you orientate yourself you spend the rest of your time checking the top level must-dos off your list. The second time things feel more familiar, you may revisit one or two of the things that you enjoyed the first time, or get to try others that you had heard about and didn’t get around to. If you are lucky, you get beyond the surface and begin to feel its pulse before it’s time to leave again. The third time you hit the ground running; you’re an old hand at this, adept at avoiding the crowds and tourist traps, you catch up with some of the people you’ve met on the previous two occasions and start to get invited into their world and experience the place more like a local. By the fourth time you are somewhere between a familiar face and a novelty; invitations to private events and day trips come your way, and depending on the people you fall in with, you may be lucky enough to be given the opportunity to experience things that you may never have tried on your own. And on my fourth visit to Vancouver in three years, this is exactly where I’m at.

I’ve developed my own way of being in the city and have a social network who quickly bring me up to speed, filling my days with activities and invitations to get-togethers. I have started to develop my Vancouver, and it in turn, has created its own version of me. Where in cities like L.A. or New York I may get swept away with the party crowd, mixing business with pleasure, having random crazy
nights with creative buzzy people, in Vancouver I get to go outdoors, get active and decompress.

Vancouver is probably one of the most pleasant and liveable cities in North America. Despite Canada’s reputation for severe winters its West coast location means it benefits from a relatively temperate climate – and in late summer, the days are not only long but usually dry, contrasting with the wet winter months. Although greater Vancouver with its suburban districts is as large and sprawling as many a metropolis, the heart of the city is contained on a peninsula which makes it very walkable. Yet despite its modest size, it is surprisingly varied, with distinct zones of only a few blocks in size, each with their own vibe. It always amuses me how Vancouverites identify so strongly with these tiny areas. But it has its benefits. Done with the bars and shops of Gastown? It’s only a short walk to Chinatown with its mix of traditional Chinese businesses and uber cool eateries. Want a workout? Then slip on a pair of lululemon yoga pants and head west to English Bay with its sandy beach, waterside cycle and pedestrian pathways, often referred to as ‘the seawall’. There you can either join the endless stream of joggers, rollerbladers, skateboarders, and cyclists or take part in one of the outdoor exercise classes that pepper the grassy areas that flank them. Fancy treating yourself after your virtuous workout? Just head over to Zabu Chicken on Robson for some Korean spicy wings and follow it up with a drag show at XYYVR a few blocks over on Davie. It’s that kind of convenience that I miss out on as a Londoner. At home, everything always seems to be an hour’s journey away, so although there is a huge variety of things to do one can easily be put off by the thought of schlepping it across town. Whereas in Vancouver, nowhere is really more than twenty minutes away. So a last-minute invitation is much more likely to be acted upon.

Another big plus for me is the diverse cultural mix. 40 percent of people living in metropolitan Vancouver speak English as their second language – the result of Canada’s immigration policy and willingness to accept refugees. For someone like me who grew up in a diverse community, that’s a big draw. And it has the added benefit of a wealth of amazing restaurants with cuisine from all over the world. Be that high-end Japanese food from Miku or authentic, flavourful Peruvian cuisine from Silvestre Gusto Latino. Vancouver also has a thriving foodtruck culture, offering a wide variety of tasty treats to hungry Downtown workers and shoppers. Great food isn’t confined to the city centre; there are culinary gems to be found across the city, like the excellent Vij’s, a modern Indian restaurant on Cambie Street in Mount Pleasant, or Sun Sui Wah Seafood Restaurant on Main, East Vancouver, where the dim sum draws locals and visitors in their droves, despite the famously curt service.

With a staggering 4,000 eateries in Metropolitan, Vancouver, competition is fierce, so it is hard to find a bad meal. A population of foodies also drive the city’s restauranteurs to push the boundaries in quality
and offering. Restaurants open with some frequency and some are world class like Market by Jean-Georges (Vongerichten). The three-star Michelin chef presents the ‘best of the best,’ a collection of his most popular dishes, customised to highlight the richness of British Columbia’s local products, especially the seafood of the clean Pacific waters. Vancouver is also at the vanguard of Canada’s independent restaurant culture, with innovation as a key ingredient. Ingenious chefs who have been exposed to Vancouver’s myriad of cultures and flavours pull together unlikely influences in wonderful ways. An exceptional example, and a personal favourite of mine, is Kissa Tanto, a Japanese/Italian fusion restaurant with a designer speakeasy vibe. Situated above shops in Chinatown, from the outside you may miss it (in fact, I did at first) but once inside the door you are transported to another world somewhere between an Edward Hopper painting and a Wong Kar-wai film set. The interior was the creation of Ste. Marie, Vancouver’s hottest restaurant designer. But this is far from a case of style over substance, as the food and cocktails were perfection, and the service a masterclass in making one feel both welcome yet pampered. It’s no wonder they were named the country’s Best New Restaurant 2017 by Canada’s Best 100, meaning that you will need to book well in advance to even stand a chance of getting a table. This is the case for many of the city’s best eateries – if they allow bookings at all – so it’s worth checking local food blogs and websites before you visit. Alternatively do what I did, and get your hotel concierge to pull a few strings.

As much as I enjoy spending time in the city, it’s the proximity to areas of remarkable natural beauty that really make this such a special place. You don’t even have to leave the city to immerse yourself in nature, Stanley Park, a 405-hectare, heavily forested public park, is just a short walk from the bustling Downtown streets. Almost entirely surrounded by the waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay, it’s a peaceful and beautiful taste of the awe-inspiring British Columbian countryside which lies just across the Lions Gate bridge. Within twenty minutes of leaving my chic urban Downtown hotel, I was driving along the ‘Sea to Sky corridor’ a breathtaking, dramatic coastline, passing majestic bays edged with thousands of elegant tall fir trees which cover the mountainous landscape, creating its characteristic skyline. Even industry here is cinematically epic. Vast rafts of floating tree trunks are still a common sight, a hangover from the logging industry who use the water to transport and store timber. Oversized locomotives power along open railway lines and supersized container ships, and even bigger cruise liners cut across the vast waterways.

Forty minutes later, I’m riding a cable car, taking in the awe-inspiring views from Stawamus Chief mountain, Squamish, a short walk from the impressive Shannon Waterfalls. Another hour drive north of Squamish lies Whistler, an Olympic-class winter sports mecca which in the summer months hosts all manner of adventurous activities from canoeing to heart-stopping downhill mountain biking. For those on a tight schedule, Whistler is still a very achievable day trip from Vancouver. Due to an abundance of water throughout the province, in the form of both coastal bays and inland lakes, seaplanes are a very common sight in the skies above British Columbia, making Whistler just a short, but very exhilarating and Instagrammable flight from Vancouver Harbour.

Over my two weeks here, I’ve spent more time engaging with nature than I have in the entire past year. It’s been thrilling – chartering a speedboat from Vancouver Harbour to Indian Arm; contemplative – camping on the beautiful shores of Harrison Lake; and freeing – dancing at sunset with drunk, naked hippies to the throbbing beat of African drums on Wreck Beach.

But most of all, it has been fun. It is safe to say that my love affair with Vancouver and British Columbia is set to continue. As I write this on the plane home, I feel much fitter and healthier than I have in a long time and I am already making notes on what I will do on my return. Paddle board yoga anyone?