Beautiful Vancouver, BC

December 6, 2010

To celebrate my boyfriend’s 27th birthday and his 13th marathon, I took him for a quick weekend trip to one of his favorite cities. It’s kind of crazy that he’s been to Vancouver so many more times than me, even though he grew up in the Midwest and I grew up less than 200 miles away.

That said, I had no idea where to book a hotel. With help from him we decided to stay on Robson Street where most of the shopping is. While we’re not at all big shoppers, this was a perfect central location for exploring most of downtown by foot. However, I still spent a long time pondering what hotel we would should stay at because I wanted it to be nice, but not crazy expensive. I found a great deal online for Listel Hotel, which is a small, 3-story, boutique hotel well known for its rotating art. I loved it, but just down the street I found a similar priced hotel called the Blue Horizon with view balcony rooms from the 15-30 floors and a pool/spa/sauna. It was a tough call, but I went for the view room. I figured if you’re going to be in the middle of downtown, you might as well be able to enjoy the view.

Downtown Vancouver, BC

When the first weekend of December came, we drove up from Seattle in some beautiful, cold, but clear weather and checked into our hotel around 1 pm. The elevator to our room on the 23rd floor was a little bit creaky and the hallways were sort of cramped and dated, but once we were in our room we didn’t care because we had an incredible view and nothing but clear skies. They put us on a south facing, corner room with almost floor to ceiling windows all along one side and gorgeous views of the city and water. The room wasn’t huge, but it was very clean and comfy.

We relaxed for a bit and then headed off to Hastings Street and its famous head shops. Obviously I knew that things are more lax up north, but I didn’t realize that Vancouver is also known as “Vansterdam,” which was evident in the red eyes of most of the patrons in this area. Visiting this section of town was nostalgic for my boyfriend because when he was a broke college student and ran his first few marathons here, he always stayed at the Cambie Hostel or the Ramada Inn in this part of the city. Let’s just say it’s a little shady. He says it’s nothing like it used to be though and the heroin addicts are mostly kept to a minimum. They must have done a lot to clean it up before the Olympics last year. We checked out a few of the shops and I looked at some cute, hemp t-shirts before my stomach got the better of me and we had to grab some food.

We crossed the street to the Cambie Cafe for some poutine and local beer. Now if you’ve never had poutine, you need a quick introduction. It is essentially really well-cooked french fries piled high and topped with cheese churds and brown gravy (i.e. delicious!). I really think every greasy spoon in my hometown should put it on the menu, but for some reason poutine remains one of those things that separates Canadians from Americans – like ketchup potato chips (but obviously less weird).

At the Cambie, the fries are piled especially high and wide and we were really hungry so we almost decimated two plates. The atmosphere there was laid back, but for the middle of the day there were quite a few people hanging out. One somewhat rowdy group from the sex shop across the street was having their holiday party and were pretty fun to watch since they were dressed up as naughty elves. We also caught some skiing on TV and of course some of that curious, Canadian curling.

The story about the Cambie is that a few years back if you went by the jukebox someone would offer you pot. I guess they put a stop to that. From what I hear, now you find ‘a guy’ and he’ll take you up the stairs at a nearby apartment. Either way we didn’t linger to find out.

Gastown Steam Clock

With our bellies uncomfortably full we decided to go for a walk and work our way over to Stanley Park. On the way we window shopped near Gastown, known for its Victorian styled, steam clock. When I first saw it I thought it was from way back in the day, but it was actually built in 1977, so I guess it’s more public art than artifact. We didn’t get to hear it whistle, but I hear that’s quite a thrill.

From there we walked along the water passed the yachts and house boats and took in the view. Like I said, it was cold, but really clear and the mountains were most definitely out. Like Seattle, Vancouver is surrounded by mountains. Theirs are somewhat smaller, but they are a lot closer to the city, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be a super clear day to see them. After about 40 minutes of walking, we reached Stanley Park. December is probably not the best month for visiting the beaches or rhododendron and rose gardens here, but you can still see the totem poles and take a stroll (a very long one if you want to) on the paths. It is a huge park with ‘au naturale’ northwest aesthetic. We walked for an hour or so and noted some hardy fungi, but still barely made a dent in the park.

With the sun starting to set, we headed back to the hotel for a dip in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. Again the pool area was sort of dated, but clean and the hot tub was super relaxing. After a long soak we rested and tried to figure out what to do that night. We were still kind of full from the poutine, but we decided to head out to a Malaysian restaurant called Banana Leaf that we’d heard good things about. It was over on Denman Street just passed Comox about a 15 minute walk from our hotel, which we probably needed.

When we got to the front door I was a little surprised because the front isn’t very showy and we almost walked past it. You can’t really even see inside. Once in the door it is all curtained and you turn a quick corner to a two-seat waiting area where you can finally see the place. It is small, but pretty with candle-lit ambiance, nice wooden details, and colorful South Asian art.

I’d never had Malaysian food before, but I would categorize it has a cross between tropical, Thai, and Indian food. We started with some drinks — I tried the lychee mojito, which was yummy — and some roti canai bread. The roti was sort of like naan, but moister and easier to tear apart and came with a delicious curry sauce for dipping. For the main course my boyfriend ordered the rendang beef, which sounded a little strange in the description due to the “coconut gravy,” but was not what you’d expect. It tasted more like a very spicy, Indian curry. I ordered the “abundance of seafood in assam curry sauce,” which had just about every type of seafood you can think of — fish, clams, mussels, squid, prawn, and scallops – and was served in a sweet, spicy sauce similar to a Thai curry. Needless to say we loved it and were too full for dessert.

View from the Balcony

After dinner, my ever present need to ‘check out the scene’ kicked in and we walked over to Granville Street where most of the bars and clubs are. Once we were there I felt almost immediately out of place. Since you only have to been 19 years old to get into the bars, everyone out seemed really young to me and over dressed. It was below freezing out and there were girls waiting in line at clubs wearing open-toed shoes and shiny, bright colored clubbing outfits. Maybe I’m just getting old, but we took a walk down and back and decided that this wasn’t really our ‘scene’ so we just pulled up a stool at a little sushi bar for one last fancy drink to cap off the night. I can’t remember the name, but it was one of those trendy, dimly lit sushi bars, but it had a good vibe, some interesting cocktails, really fresh looking sushi, and no cover.

Once back at our hotel, we enjoyed the city lights and some champagne from our balcony. It was a beautiful, full day and we fell asleep easily and slept late into the next morning. At 11 am we finally got up, packed, and grabbed a granola bar before driving back over to Stanley Park to visit the renowned Vancouver Aquarium. We got over there too late to see it the day before and my boyfriend has raved about it, so I had to see it for myself. And it wasn’t cheap. Entry is $23 for an adult, but compared to the $18 charged at Seattle’s joke of an aquarium, it was well worth it.

Blue Froggie

Fruiting Cocoa Tree

Caiman

In two hours we traveled through the flooded amazon, the tropics, and the arctic north. The flooded amazon exhibit featured not only piranha, but tropical birds, frogs, snakes, a slouth, a fruiting cocoa plant, and even a tiny marmaset the size of my fist. To cap it off there where caimans and enormous, prehistoric-looking, air-breathing fish that were literally 3 times the size of a person. We also visited Nemo, all his twin brothers, some giant sea turtles, sharks, and tons of other cute fish and coral in the tropical exhibit. One of the coolest things I saw there was a tiger sting ray. I never even knew they existed!

Sharks

Tiger Sting Ray

But of course you can’t beat the spinner dolphin show, which was really entertaining. They also had sea lions and beluga whales (my favorite as a kid) and a very social otter. He was so cute and so fun to watch, just floating around on his back using his belly as a plate to eat his fish. They even had an ice sculptor there. Eat that Seattle Aquarium!

One of the coolest things about the aquarium is that they breed marine animals in-house to sell to other aquariums and support the growth of their own coral reefs, thus reducing the impact on marine habitats in the wild.

By the time we left the aquarium it was 2:30 pm and I was starting to get hungry (a familiar theme) so I suggested we grab something to eat on Granville Island and wander around a bit on our way out of town. Then something horrible happened. The Christmas parade! All the main thoroughfares across downtown were closed and traffic was absolutely AWFUL. Seriously, it took us 15 minutes to move one block and every time it seemed we were getting somewhere another road was closed and we’ve have to go around. With our blood sugar extremely low and as slow as we were moving, I almost jumped out of the car to grab food from whatever random restaurant we were trapped next to.

By some miracle we kept our cool (particularly my partner in crime who was driving) and (although it took us 1 hour and 40 minutes to travel 8 miles) we made it over to the Granville Island Public Market. Obviously we were scouting out food right away and ended up getting a plate from the Chinese stand and the Indian stand. The Indian was good; the Chinese was not so good, but at that point we didn’t care. After sating our appetites we roamed around a bit. The market is somewhat similar to Pike Place in Seattle. There are fresh and unique produce, cheese, and meat vendors; craftspeople; nut mongers; and even a dried, foraged mushroom stand. The main differences between the two markets are that Granville Island is set apart from downtown, it also seemed a bit smaller, and was entirely indoors in a large warehouse type building. We had fun looking around and spending our last few loonie and toonie coins, especially on some cute mini-desserts: a tiny pecan pie and a rich, miniature turtle cheesecake.

After satisfying our sweet tooth we walked around and checked out some of the shops and art galleries before returning to the car. It was dark and I started to get in the Christmas spirit after seeing all of the decorations, lights, and carolers. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful weekend.

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