Every time I have walked out of the Vancouver airport, it hits me: that smell. The smell of cedar, and ocean.
I’ve been to Vancouver a half-dozen times over a couple decades, and that aroma — which you soon get used to and stop noticing — defines the city, for me.
This is Canada’s third-largest metropolitan area with a population north of 4 million people, a vital western seaport, and yet, no matter how tall the buildings get, the mountains and ocean dominate and dwarf.
There is much to enjoy in Vancouver: gardens galore, including the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden; Granville Island, with its market, arts vendors, theatre, restaurants, brew pubs, marinas, and restaurants; and, as I’ve written about in other posts, the remarkable Museum of Anthroplogy and the Colosseum-like central library. I have not been in the city since the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, which improved transit and sports facilities throughout the city, and beyond.
But however much Vancouver grows, it comes back to the dominance of the water and the land.
The 400-acre Stanley Park, with 27 kilometres (nearly 17 miles) of trails, covers a rounded peninsula that juts north from the main city: across the water, you can see North Vancouver to the east (confusing, I know) and West Vancouver to the west, linked to Vancouver via the Lion’s Gate Bridge and transit ferries. You can walk or cycle the perimeter of the park along its 10-kilometre (six-mile) seawall, walk amid the Douglas Firs of the temperate coastal rain forest, or visit the formal rose gardens. There are venues for sports from tennis to lawn bowling.
In addition to Stanley Park, there is the Pacific Spirit Regional Park, with 73 kilometres (45 miles) of trails over 2,160 acres on Point Grey, the western jut of the city, surrounding the verdant campus of the University of British Columbia. The park includes many waterfront beaches, including Wreck Beach, dubbed North America’s largest “naturist” (i.e., clothing-optional) beach.
Cross over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, and the mountains dominate West and North Vancouver. West Vancouver’s street grid is built with numbered streets running south-north uphill from the shore and named streets running in alphabetical order (Esquimalt, Fulton, Gordon) from east to west: the further along the alphabet, the higher up the street. The Capilano Suspension Bridge over the Capilano Canyon is one of those places you might dismiss because of the kitsch / tourism factor, but nature, again, dominates the view and the experience. Nearby is the Capilano Salmon Hatchery in the Capilano River Regional Park, where you can learn about the life cycle and journey of salmon who return from the ocean to the river where they were born to spawn.
You can also get to Grouse Mountain (skiing in the winter, activities from hiking to “Breakfast with the Bears” in summer) in less than 20 minutes from the sail-ship-inspired Canada Place, opened in downtown Vancouver in 1986 as the Canada Pavilion for Expo 86, now a convention centre and cruise ship terminal.
I can’t find a study showing fitness levels among Canadians, broken down by where they live, but all that nature seems to inspire or challenge Vancouverites to stay on the move. Going for a neighbourhood walk in West Vancouver is a tough workout with its steeply-sloped streets; people hike, walk, and cycle on all those trails and along the many beaches. And then, of course, there are the views, and sunsets over the Pacific Ocean.
Even the food is infused with forest and sea: when you get used to the cedar-scented ocean air, a Vancouver feast of cedar-planked salmon awakens in your taste buds what your nose has forgotten.
Main photo: Pamela Post