Vancouver Day 1: Yaletown, False Creek, South Granville, and Fireworks Competition

I took a five day vacation to Vancouver from Wednesday, August 2nd 2006 to Sunday, August 6th 2006. Why? Partially I went to generally get away and explore somewhere new. Why those dates in particular? Vancouver runs an international fireworks competition called the HSBC Celebration of Light in late July and early August. The fireworks are synchronized with music broadcast simultaneously on the radio during the show. Each year four countries compete, one each Wednesday and Saturday evening. I figured if I was going to make a trip, I might as well squeeze in two shows. Hence, I arrived on a Wednesday.

Let me take a moment now to record my general impressions of Vancouver. It's a clean city, very diverse (including both ethnicities and cuisines), very safe, very walkable, and with a tremendous park. It's a very new city with countless skyscrapers, for both apartments and offices. It felt like everywhere I went I found myself by a body of water with a fantastic panoramic view of the city and water. And the transportation grid is awesome. I never thought I could like a public transportation network without subways. I was wrong. Unlike many systems, the network is designed with a few primary lines that run extremely often (every three minutes at times); once these deliver you to the vicinity of where you want to be, you transfer to a more local secondary line. The bus system and the quantity of vertical housing lead to a nice city design with dense retail along main arteries and very quiet leafy side-streets everywhere else. A few steps away from the arteries and suddenly you forget you're in the middle of a busy city.

The remainder of this and the next few blog posts will describe in detail in a daily fashion what I saw, what I ate, what I did, what I thought, and what gave me the impressions I have about the city.

Flying to Vancouver (direct) was pretty uneventful. (This was before the British terrorist scare.) Lunch was a bagel bought from Noah's that was handed to me in a Izzy's bag. The bagel was very good, so I think it's likely that it was Izzy's. How odd.

I spent most of the train ride to the airport and the flight reading my guidebook (previously bought after a long time at the bookstore examining books and deciding which was the best) to decide what to do when I arrived. I'd arrive in mid-afternoon and wanted something I could comfortably fit in within the few hours before the fireworks competition.

When I arrived, I had my camera charged and ready and began taking pictures. These photographs accompany my narrative for the day. In fact, I'm trying to use the pictures and the captions to elaborate on my experiences in Vancouver and thereby make this blog entry less verbose. I've also uploaded my rough walking route. It starts from my hotel.

With that in mind, all I have to say is Vancouver airport is cool. See my pictures for more. Some signs were in French, a fact that somewhat surprised me given the largest non-English language spoken in Vancouver is certainly some form of Chinese. (At the time I hadn't yet thought about Quebec.) Customs was amazingly smooth and efficient.

I took a private airport bus from the airport to my hotel. Riding it went through suburbia and then a nice downtown that wasn't even in Vancouver proper. I didn't realize at the time that I'd actually be walking that part of Vancouver (South Granville) later in the day. While going over the bridge into Vancouver proper I saw nice mountains in the distance but wasn't quick enough with my camera to capture them.

Once at my hotel, I checked in. I stayed at the Kingston Hotel for the whole trip. It was a great choice: conveniently located downtown, clean, and surprisingly cheap for the peak of the holiday season (~US$50/night). The hotel probably had less demand for rooms because the bathroom/shower was down the hall, not within most rooms. The bathrooms were private and were available every time I needed them, so this wasn't a problem. My room itself was small, reminding me of my college dorm rooms. The only serious point of disappointment was the only form of internet connectivity was one computer, which was seemingly always in use. Over the course of the trip I figured out how to do things and plan without the internet. I think it was good for me and after two days I barely missed it.

After settling into the hotel, I headed out to explore Yaletown. Yaletown isn't near the top of any list of things to do in Vancouver (nor should it be), but I knew I wanted to walk through it at some point and it was a convenient start for a route given the amount of time I had and where I wanted to be around dinnertime.

Although Yaletown was supposed to be a hip, fashionable neighborhood, I found it thoroughly disappointing. Aside from a few blocks of a main commercial street which frankly didn't look cool (see pic), everything was residential. Happily, every other downtown-ish place I found throughout the trip was cool and certainly better than Yaletown.

From Yaletown and as I circled False Creek (see route), I saw many fairly tall high rise residential buildings, more than I've seen elsewhere. (New York has many also, but there are many office buildings to go with them. Vancouver has its office buildings mostly in a part of town I couldn't see from my walk today.)

I very much enjoyed the route circling False Creek, and not simply because it was a stunningly perfect day as my pictures clearly show. It's also that the path is well designed for cycling and pedestrians. In addition, the path passes many parks and residential buildings of widely varying architectural styles, ranging from apartment towers to cottages to mediterranean villas.

After False Creek, I headed south down Granville Street. It's a nice street, filled with many hip clothing stores, boutiques, chocolate stores (yes, stores that only sell chocolate), art galleries, and, of course, it being Vancouver, countless coffee shops.

At 6:30pm -an early time for dinner- I found myself as planned (but reservation-less) at a fancy Vancouver restaurant called West. I got seating and spent the next couple hours eating; here's my review.

It was still light outside when I left West Restaurant around 9:15pm. I love being in northern latitudes during the summer! As I headed to the beach for the fireworks show, I walked down 4th Avenue, a street densely packed with a diverse selection of restaurants and shops. Since it was still twilight and such a pleasant day, some restaurant patios were overflowing. And as I turned onto a side street, I was pleasantly surprised how quickly the atmosphere became a clean, green, and comfortable residential neighborhood.

The beaches were packed with people ready to watch the Czech Republic's entry to the fireworks competition. I found a grassy spot and settled down, ready to watch, to photograph, and to record videos (available from the photos link). The show itself was decent though certainly not particularly special. Personally, I enjoyed the music selection, including pieces like the Pink Panther theme, Rhapsody in Blue, and other jazz selections, much more than the fireworks. But if this show were the only reason I'd visited Vancouver, I'd certainly be disappointed.

After the show, watching the lights of hundreds (maybe thousands) of boats head back to their moorings in False Creek was pretty amazing.

The walk home, past dark beaches, over the bridge to Vancouver proper, and down Granville Street (not the section I'd previously walked which was outside Vancouver proper), was quite pleasant. This part of Granville has many clubs and theaters and was clearly the place to go for that kind of nightlife. Although the walk home took me a bit over an hour, the city still felt small and walkable as I was constantly passing through clean, safe, active, and interesting retail districts and parks.

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