I would like to receive the following free email newsletters:

Newsletter Signup
  1. Bridal Party
  2. Dining Out
  3. Kliman Online
  4. Photo Ops
  5. Shop Around
  6. Where & When
  7. Well+Being
  8. Learn more
The Real Olympic Winners? Tourists
The Case for Visiting Vancouver After the Winter Games. By Sherri Dalphonse
Comments () | Published January 28, 2010
In 2005, as my husband and I planned a trip to Greece, one well-traveled friend warned: “You’re spending two days in Athens before the islands? That’s too much. Get out of Athens as quickly as you can.”

According to this friend, Athens was dirty, crowded, and unpleasant. But our plans were set. Besides, we decided that any city that was home to the Acropolis—where we would be spending one day sightseeing—couldn’t be that bad.

We were right—and we had a terrific time. My husband and I found the city to be clean and the people friendly. (Maybe it helped that we learned basic Greek phrases such as “thank you” and “please.”) We landed in a new airport, and a new train whisked us from the airport to the city center.

Why was our experience so different from our friend’s? My theory: the Olympics.

Our friend had visited years before Athens won the right to host the 2004 summer games. We visited the summer after the Olympics—after infrastructure had been built or revamped and after—so we were told—trash had been swept away. That’s not to say that everyone who visited Athens pre-2004 had a bad time, but the city seemed eager and ready for tourists when we arrived.

Coincidentally, the following year, in the fall of 2006, my husband and I traveled to Vancouver and British Columbia, which was preparing to host the 2010 winter games. As we came across construction and road crews, we wondered what it would all eventually look like—although it was very exciting and presentable even then. We got to thinking, after our experience in Athens: It’s not a bad idea to visit a host city after an Olympics.

Even if Vancouver wasn’t hosting the Olympics, I’d recommend a trip there. It is one of the nicest, most livable cities I’ve visited and I’m not alone in my impression—four times in the past decade, including in 2009, an annual readers’ poll by Condé Nast Traveler has chosen it the best city in the Americas. My husband and I briefly toyed with the idea of moving there, we loved it that much.
What’s to like? It’s a city where people live and work and play, giving it great energy. Its well-planned urban core has a fairly even ratio of high-rise residential and commercial space—meaning the city isn’t deserted come nightfall. Many restaurants have patios or decks with heat lamps—so you can eat outside a good portion of the year.

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains, Vancouver rarely gets really cold—winters may be gray, but not frigid—making it an outdoorsy person’s dream. It’s also a laid-back, progressive city—Greenpeace and the yoga-wear shop Lululemon Athletica, among others, were founded here.

Our first afternoon, we sat on a bench along the seawall promenade, watching cyclists, rollerbladers, and joggers going by and yachts bobbing in the marina. “Beautiful day, eh?” one man said as he strolled past with his daughter on his shoulders. Indeed it was.

In preparation for the Olympics, Vancouver, like Athens, has spiffed up its airport: Visitors arriving on international flights are greeted in the terminal by “birdsong” and trickling water, and there’s even more public art than before. A new rail line, the Canada line, whisks visitors from the airport to downtown in a half hour, for about $67 US.

What to Do

• Take an Aquabus ferry across False Creek to Granville Island Public Market. Think DC’s Eastern Market but larger. The city’s top chefs buy ingredients at the food stalls—the amazing fresh salmon and halibut we saw made us long for a kitchen in our hotel room. Other shops and stalls sell everything from woodworking to original art (there’s an art institute on the peninsula) to interesting gifts. You can buy lunch and watch street performers—on the day we visited, an escape artist entertained the crowd.

• Visit Stanley Park. At 1,000 acres, it’s one of the largest urban parks in North America. A seawall path is popular with cyclists, in-line skaters, and strollers—it’s 5½ miles long inside the park, but the path continues outside the park, for a total of almost 14 miles. A good place to rent bikes is Spokes Bicycle Rentals, at the park entrance. Don’t miss the nine totem poles within the park, and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. The National Aquarium in Baltimore may be a bit splashier, but Vancouver has something Charm City doesn’t—beluga whales.
• Take in the city views from the top of Grouse Mountain. If you’re visiting in winter, this mountain, around 15 minutes from downtown, is even open for night skiing—and you’ll get views of Vancouver’s skyline all lit up. In summer, you can take the Skyride to the top or opt for the infamous Grouse Grind, a steep, hourlong, 1.8-mile hike with an elevation change of 2,800 feet. It didn’t earn its nickname, Mother Nature’s StairMaster, for nothing. At the top, don’t miss two orphaned grizzly bears, Grinder and Coola, at the Refuge for Endangered Wildlife.

• Vancouver isn’t just all outdoor fun; there are cultural attractions, too. Two worth seeing are the Vancouver Art Gallery and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology, which has an impressive collection of totem poles and Northwest artifacts.

• If time allows—if you’re planning to spend, say, a week or more in this region—consider venturing out to Vancouver Island. Many visitors head to Victoria, where you can stroll along the inner harbor, get a terrific overview of local history at the Royal British Columbia Museum, and drive a half hour outside the city to see the remarkable Butchart Gardens. (A tip: Get there when the gardens open to beat the tour buses.) We personally found Victoria a bit touristy; we preferred the dramatic natural beauty of Tofino, where we stayed at the isolated Wickaninnish Inn, perched on the Pacific coast—from our room, I could watch the waves. The town is a fascinating mix of fisherman and hippies, and you can go whale-watching and fishing. Both Victoria and Tofino are a healthy drive from Vancouver—it would take all day to reach Tofino. Or you can hop on a float plane, the transport of choice in these parts—the trip to Victoria on Orca Airways is less than an hour, while Tofino is about an hour. If your time is limited and Tofino is too far, consider a stay at Sooke Harbour House in Sooke, where you can enjoy the Pacific experience—whale-watching, fishing, and great seafood—closer to civilization.


Subscribe to Washingtonian
Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 01/28/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Articles