It’s about two and a half hours by car from our house in Seattle to Vancouver, Canada, and three hours to come back again. The difference is due to the border crossing — the lines into the US at Peace Arch are unpredictable and inefficient. There is little to do but sit in your idling vehicle, fussing with the radio and pondering why the line you’re not in is moving so much faster. It’s the border crossing that keeps us from heading north to our neighbor city more often.
I have lived in Seattle long enough to remember when you could roll in to Canada with nothing but your driver’s license as ID. “Any bear spray or firearms? Have a nice trip!” The return was always slower and now, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is Homeland Security, and that’s just, well, if you can’t say anything nice… More reinforced concrete barriers appeared, the guards got surlier and less inclined to get a laugh out of the fact that no, the windows on my old Tercel really did not roll down any further, I’m sorry, can you not see the battered tin can I’m driving? Still, Vancouver’s proximity remains a big draw — there’s a whole ‘nother country just up the road and we can be there, spending currency not our own and pondering the difference between Canadians and Americans in just a few hours.
Note: Our hotel room was comped. Everything else, including parking, we paid for ourselves.
Staying in Downtown Vancouver
Right after Christmas, I decided it was time to clean off my desk. A few strata down I found a gift certificate from BC Tourism for two nights at the Cascadia Hotel in downtown Vancouver. Expiration date? December 30, 2010. Oops. I called the reservations number to find that yes, indeed, they had space and they’d book a room for us, but “the hotel is under renovation. There’s construction from eight to five. It’s wrapped in scaffolding and it is noisy. We can extend your gift certificate a few months, but the renovation isn’t done until springtime.” As much as I’d been hoping for a quiet stay — I always prize quiet in a hotel — a typical visit to Vancouver involves hurling ourselves into the hotel bed after six, eight, ten hours of walking all over the city. Eight to five? A little early, but what the hell. I booked the room.
I liked the Cascadia, rather a lot. We had an 18th floor room — above the scaffolding — with a gorgeous view of the mountains and downtown. The hotel is an all suite property, with a full kitchen, free wifi, a generous buffet breakfast.The location is super convenient — it was a 20 minute walk to Granville Island, maybe 15 minutes to anywhere else we wanted to go — Davie, Robson, Yaletown… The bed was comfortable, the nights were quiet, and while yes, the construction work started on time at eight, we’d been warned. When the work is complete, this will be a great hotel, comfortable and easy to feel at home in. Heads up, parking is an additional 25 CDN a night.
Walking in the City at Night
Our first night in town we left the car and took a big circular walk down Granville, along Robson Street, and then into the West End. Granville has big clubs and theaters, there’s an enormous music store, tiny kebab shops, the youth hostel… Granville is losing some of its seedy character — while you can still get a 3.99 breakfast, swanky places with “bistro'” in their names are starting to fill in where divier businesses have folded. Robson is all about the shopping, shopping, shopping, and I love to watch the Japanese kids spending money like it’s a sport. We ended our stroll at a mediocre Greek place (lovely vibe, great service, huge portions, but just not that tasty) — Taki’s Taverna — on Davie in Vancouver’s gay neighborhood, after stopping at the very friendly Delaney’s on Denman to get coffee.
The following evening, we crossed the bridge to Granville Island and watched the sun reflect off downtown’s shiny glass high rises. It was bitter cold, but clear, and all around the city we could see peaks capped with snow from the recent storm. We walked through the market, still crowded, late in the day, and watched people shopping for pasta, smoked salmon, many kinds of sausage, pie, coffee,crafty little souvenirs, exotic cheeses, earrings, fine art… and in the evening light everything, even the out of season strawberries, looked like something you wanted to take home.
Kitsilano and the Museum of Anthropology
Our goal for this trip was to visit the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver’s West Side (not to be mistaken with the West End or West Van) on the campus of the University of British Columbia. I wanted to take my husband to see the stunning grand hallway that houses monumental scale First Nations carvings — huge totem poles, potlatch vessels, free standing sculpture … We headed out early and were rewarded by having the hall to ourselves for about an hour. We spent three and a half hours (with a short coffee break at the museum cafe) exploring the museum, watching a video about native artist Charles Edenshaw, pulling out drawer after drawer of beautifully displayed cultural artifacts from around the world, wandering past the long houses on the bluff, until we gave in to hunger.
In Kitsilano, we took a short walk down a few busy blocks on Broadway before opting to eat at East is East, one of those hippie places with a lot of vegan items on the menu and populated by white girls with dreadlocks. You know the places — imported textiles on the wall, bench seats with piles of pillows, too dark by half. It smelled so good from the street and it was delicious, really, really delicious. Rice with currants, flatbreads wrapped around green onions and paneer (cheese) and then pan fried, curries with chickpeas or meat and lots of aromatic spices, complicated grainy salads, and many, many types of chai.
We also made a stop — the following morning — at Thomas Haas, a euro-style patisserie and chocolate shop for treats and coffee. Haas is generation four of a family of German pastry chefs, and we are exactly that impossible that guessed, from his pastry, that he was German, not Swiss or Austrian, perhaps because the hazelnut danish had a stretchy yeast dough rather than a flaky more croissant like dough. The desserts are spectacularly beautiful, the coffee excellent, and the girls behind the counter serious and helpful. There isn’t a lot of seating, so you may want to take your treats to go.
Back at the Border
A friendly reminder: It’s only one bottle of booze per person. We learned this from the oh so chatty US border guard. It was uncanny, our man had eaten a good breakfast or, um, something, as he was clearly straying off the script and, oddly, a ray of sunshine in his little reinforced box. The aggravation of our 30 minute wait dissolved in our five minute friendly welcome home chat in extended screening line 1A. (There was no extended screening, the extra stations were in use to accommodate the heavy traffic.) The drive south was uneventful, the clear skies remained, and we could see the Cascade range, sharply outlined against the sky, reaching south towards Seattle on one end and on the other, back north, to our neighbors in Vancouver.
Going to Vancouver? Check out Uptake’s Vancouver Guide.