A Travellerspoint blog

Canada

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Vancouver


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Vancouver is a fairly large city, not much smaller than Seattle, but since we only had one full day we limited ourselves to the small peninsula on the north side of the city that most people call Downtown Vancouver. The peninsula actually contains three separate areas: Downtown, the West End, and Stanley Park. Vancouver's better known attractions are heavily concentrated around Downtown. No doubt there are interesting neighborhoods in the rest of the city but we chose to go on foot only during our stay which limited us to the local area.
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Driving into Vancouver was a remarkable experience because of the amazing skyline of tall glass office buildings and condos that reflect green light from the cloudy sky and the water that surrounds the peninsula. Driving over the Cambie Bridge into Downtown felt like we were entering the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Our Airbnb was in a high-rise condo and our host met us on the street to guide us to the parking garage. She got in the passenger seat and Mei Ling went to the back with the kids. As we turned the first corner the host made a horrified gasp. I looked around but couldn't see anything amiss outside and asked her what was wrong. "There was someone in the crosswalk!" she said. It was true, although I had barely registered it. A woman had just stepped off the curb on the opposite side of the street from where I was turning, and she was probably thirty feet away from the minivan. It never would have occurred to me in a million years to have stopped at the crosswalk until she passed. "Drivers here would stop at a crosswalk even if someone was still on the other side of the street?" I asked. "Of course!" She seemed shocked that I would even question it. Fortunately we didn't have to drive much further to the garage so there wasn't time for me to commit any more antisocial infractions. Inside I was laughing though. If she ever found her way to New York City or even worse China she was going to get the shock of her life. If she expected turning cars to stop for her in a crosswalk there, she was going to have to be prepared for a ride on someone's hood.

The Airbnb was a spacious and clean two bedroom on an upper floor with nice views of the surrounding forest of glass high-rises. The kids quickly launched on an exploration of the new territory.

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The main thing we did during our stay in Vancouver was walk around the different areas of the Downtown peninsula. We were fortunate that while it was almost always overcast in never rained while we were there. Vancouver has a very clean and pretty downtown, in no small part due to the upbeat design of the high rises. The peninsula is surrounded by water of course which means there are promenades on every side to enjoy the views over Burrard Inlet and Vancouver Harbor. Downtown is subdivided into lots of miniature neighborhoods. Yaletown on the south side is a hipster neighborhood with converted warehouse lofts, boutiques, and seafood bistros. To the north by the harbor is Gastown, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, vintage street lamps, and a famous steam-powered clock on a street corner. Unlike San Diego's Gaslamp District, Gastown doesn't get its name from the street lamps (which are electric) but from a 19th century saloon owner who was nicknamed Gassy for his renowned loquaciousness.
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Next to Gastown is Vancouver's small Chinatown which is most notable for the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The compact and tranquil garden was reminiscent of the Lan Su garden in Portland. In my opinion these beautiful and culturally rich gardens add a great deal to the cities they inhabit.
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On the opposite side of the peninsula the Granville Bridge connects Downtown to Granville Island, an artificial island that was created by dredging in the early 20th century. It's more like a polyp than an actual island, being connected to the mainland by a wide isthmus. Granville Island contains a lot of mid-market shops and restaurants that are popular with tourists and locals as well as the Granville Public Market, a farmers market and food hall where we were able to self cater an excellent brunch.
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The middle part of the peninsula is occupied by the West End. This neighborhood is largely residential but is traversed by the intersecting commercial thoroughfares of Robson Street and Denman Street, which are lined with boutiques and Asian restaurants. We ate at a Korean restaurant our first night that made us feel like we were in Seoul. The West End is also the center of gay culture in Vancouver and has a concentration of bars and nightclubs.
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The jewel of the downtown peninsula is Stanley Park, an enormous and wild green space that occupies the entire northern half of the peninsula. The park contains gardens, beaches, and recreation areas but most of it is a natural wilderness. We felt like we were seeing Vancouver exactly as it had been before humans had ever come across it. We came across a beautiful barred owl as well as a flock of inquisitive ducks at Beaver Lake in the middle of the park. It's probably the closest to nature I've ever felt inside a major city.
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We walked out of the wilderness onto the paved promenade that encircles the park. At the farthest point of the peninsula the majestic Lion's Gate suspension bridge connects Downtown to North Vancouver. We saw a few people gathered on the promenade by the bridge and realized they were watching a group of otters that had congregated on a small sandbar by the seawall. It was the first time we had ever seen otters outside of a zoo. They had no fear of their human observers and spent quite some time playing around near the seawall, at one point even climbing onto a staircase that rose from the water to the promenade.
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I was really glad we had made time to explore Stanley Park because its probably the most unique feature of Vancouver. It's a very pleasant, livable city in a great location on the Pacific coast but I didn't get the same sense of a true international destination the way I did in Toronto and Montréal. We may stop by again some time in the future as a stopover on the way to Asia and that time we'll stay longer to explore the rest of the city and Vancouver Island.

Our stop in Vancouver was pretty much the end of the road trip. All that was left was the drive back to Seattle, a quick dinner, and then an early flight back to Miami. This was our first real road trip in the USA as a family and it awakened a desire to explore all the diverse regions and major cities of our fascinating country. Since then we've done trips of similar length in the Deep South, the northern Midwest, New England, Texas, and southern California and we hope to do many more. I have to say the star of this particular trip was Portland and it remains one of my favorite cities in the United States.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

North from NYC: Montréal


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Just as with China, we seemed to be making a habit of having a new kid every time we visited Canada. First was Toronto, when Cleo was just three months old. Then we took Cleo and Ian to Vancouver, and now we were on our way to Montréal with all three of them. My research had made me super excited about this part of our trip, mainly because it seemed like there was a great mix of ethnic cultures, diverse neighborhoods, and an abundance of European-style produce markets. The last time I'd been in Montréal was twenty years earlier on a work trip, long before I developed a genuine interest in travel, so this was essentially a first visit for all of us.

Our arrival was undistinguished, thanks to a steady rain that contributed to one of the worst traffic experiences we've had in our travels. I don't know what the traffic's like on a regular basis, but if that was a typical weekday afternoon I feel sorry for anyone who has to drive to work there. It took us an hour to get to our Airbnb even after we'd reached the outskirts of the city. Mercifully the kids slept through the entire process. I don't know what we'd have done if one of them had woken up and clamored for the bathroom while we were in gridlock. It was still raining hard when we arrived and the only spot available was illegal, so it took some maneuvering to get everyone indoors without getting soaked or getting a parking ticket. Once I found a legal spot and walked back to the apartment, I found it was one of the nicest Airbnb's we'd ever stayed at. Aside from being freshly renovated and immaculately clean, the place was full of character with brick walls and hardwood floors. The kids bedrooms and family rooms had a nice lived-in feel with plenty of toys to play with. I'd chosen the Mile End neighborhood carefully for its central location and heavy concentration of restaurants. Our block had a very cozy, residential feel with dense trees nearly concealing the rows of brick townhouses from the street. On our corner was an enormous church with a very distinctive style including a very Byzantine-appearing cupola and minaret, that I concluded must be Eastern Orthodox. When I had time to look it up I found that it was actually the Roman Catholic Church of St. Michael and St. Anthony, whose architect was inspired by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
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Given the difficulty of finding parking in the area, using the car again that evening was out of the question. Of course, there were plenty of restaurants within walking distance and we settled on a Japanese ramen restaurant a few blocks away. There was a long bar and only a couple of tables in the narrow restaurant but fortunately one at the back was just coming open and they shoehorned us all in. The ramen was delicious and we all ate ravenously.
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The plan for our first morning was to explore the largest daily produce market in Montréal, Marché Jean-Talon, in the Little Italy neighborhood. We probably could have walked from our Airbnb, but the spring rain had started up again and it's tough to keep three wandering kids dry with two umbrellas. The first order of business was breakfast, and we quickly found the food court at the back of the market where we assuaged our hunger with noodle soups and spring rolls at a Vietnamese restaurant.
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We hung around for another hour in the market, admiring the colorful displays of fruits, vegetables, meats, and fresh seafood. One of my biggest disappointments living in the United States is that this covered market culture doesn't seem to exist anywhere. People don't seem to realize that there's any other option besides supermarkets. At least the quality and variety of what we get here is good, but the atmosphere of a real market can't be imitated.
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I'd hoped the sun would have come up by the time we finished with the market, but it was still rainy and chilly by the time we got downtown to the Vieux Montréal area. Naturally, we weren't going to let that stop us so we grabbed our umbrellas and raincoats and explored Montréal's most touristy neighborhood. The streets around Place Jacques-Cartier were very atmospheric despite the preponderance of tacky restaurants and souvenir shops. Just a couple of blocks from the center and perhaps thanks to the rain, we had the beautifully-landscaped blocks of stately stone buildings to ourselves.
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For lunch we drove all the way to the northern Maissoneuve area for its namesake market, which we found to be much smaller than Jean Talon and almost empty. The seedy nature of the surrounding area probably contributed to the lack of patronage. The market had moved from its grand Beaux Arts home to a smaller, modern building in 1995 but we made sure to get a picture of the original location which is now a community center. We put together a light meal that was anchored by a plate of succulent oysters.
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We drove back south along Rue Sherbrooke, the "Broadway of Montréal", until we reached McGill University. We parked and strolled a little way down the busy street and took a peek inside the university campus.
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We drove around the beautiful streets that surrounded the university, admiring the classical architecture of the mansions and academic buildings. The streets were starting to get choked with rush hour traffic but we didn't mind the slow pace of the drive. We decided to head all the way back downtown to look for a place to eat in Chinatown. It was still early, but we hadn't eaten much at Maissoneuve and were looking forward to a good Chinese meal. Montréal's Chinatown was OK, but not anywhere near the level of the ones in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Boston, or San Francisco. We had trouble finding a restaurant whose menu we liked, but eventually Mei Ling found an outpost of a mainland Chinese hotpot chain she knew and we had a decent if unremarkable dinner.
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We weren't expecting the relatively small Atwater Market to blow away Jean Talon, but it turned out to be the best market we'd ever visited in the US and Canada combined. The market is adjacent to the Lachine Canal which traverses the southwestern part of the Island of Montréal. The first thing we encountered was the outdoor food court, so we had a solid breakfast of satay and other freshly-cooked delicacies before even venturing into the market. The produce displays in the outdoor section were even prettier than at Jean Talon, and we bought as much fruit as we could eat.
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Once we entered the indoor section of the market, we regretted not having left ourselves any room for more food. The butcher stalls were phenomenal, and there was plenty of mouth-watering prepared food at the many delis. There was also an enormous bakery and coffee shop from which the warm smell of freshly-baked baguettes wafted temptingly. We resolved to return the next day before leaving Montréal and reluctantly took our departure.
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Most visitors' initial impression of Mont Royal Park is the George-Étienne Cartier Monument, which celebrates the respected statesman's contributions to the formation of the nation of Canada as an Anglo-French confederation. The prominent position of the "angel statue" on the major thoroughfare of Park Avenue has led to it becoming emblematic of the city. We entered the park close to the statue and drove up to the overlook, where we enjoyed panoramic views of the city and took the short hike to the summit.
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The Oratoire Saint-Joseph was on the bubble of my list of sights, as we usually don't make special efforts to visit churches and cathedrals, but we were making decent time so we decided to make the short drive from Mont Royal Park. As it turned out, it was a spectacular building and it would have been a shame to have missed it. Despite the unassuming appellation of "oratory", which usually describes a small chapel, Oratoire Saint-Joseph has been enlarged multiple times since its original construction and now boasts one of the largest church domes in the world. Coupled with its hilltop location, the church has an incredibly imposing and majestic appearance. There are several levels of terraces and balconies from which one can look out onto the well-manicured grounds and the attractive residential neighborhood of Côte-des-Neiges.
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Côte-des-Neiges is well-known for all kinds of Asian and Caribbean restaurants so we drove from the Oratory down Rue Côte-des-Neiges and eventually selected Poisssonerie, a Middle Eastern fish market and restaurant where we chose our own fish from the market to be grilled for lunch.
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I have a soft spot for botanical gardens when we travel, so we schlepped back up to the northern part of the city to visit Jardin Botanique de Montréal. The long walk from the street to the botanical garden features the Montreal Tower in the background, which is the tallest inclined structure in the world.
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The botanical garden was divided into special areas with Chinese, Japanese, Alpine, aquatic and other themes, each with its own individual kind of beauty. There were also some interesting trunk-like play structures that the kids loved.
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We got out of the Botanical Garden just as it was closing and drove to the last place on my list of Montréal sights, Square Saint-Louis. The square is famous for the brightly-painted Victorian row houses, of which photos will be found in any Montréal guidebook. Here's our obligatory version of the ubiquitous photograph.
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We let the kids stretch their legs in the park that occupied the square and enjoyed lemonade and games in one of the many cafes on nearby Rue St. Denis.
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Walking south from the square, we found ourselves on a pedestrianized street with busy outdoor cafes. We followed the sound of music to what turned out to be an enormous street party on Boulevard Saint-Laurent. There were numerous food stalls, which rendered any search for a restaurant for the evening unnecessary. The kids had tons of fun dancing and participating in sports contests they had absolutely no chance of success in. There was also a breakdancing crew featuring a dancer with just one leg, which was a first for me.
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It was amazing what we had accomplished in just two days in Montréal. We had been just as busy as we had been in great European cities like Rome and Barcelona, and we felt that we had experienced a truly world-class city. We decided that Montréal was our new favorite city in Canada, and resolved to return for a longer stay. We still had one last reward for ourselves for our hard work touring the city, which was a decadent feast at the indoor gourmet food hall at Atwater Market on our final morning in Montréal. We carefully selected a warm, fragrant baguette, a sizable hunk of foie gras, a wheel of chèvre, and some green olives and stuffed ourselves to groggy oblivion. We stocked up with fresh fruit and Lego candy for the long drive ahead of us and headed back towards the border.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:04 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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