Vancouver: Pearl of the Pacific Coast
First impressions count. When I visited Vancouver, BC twenty years ago I was quite taken with this modern North American city ringed by steep forested hillsides that dove into the bay that almost completely surrounds it. In my memory it took its place alongside a short, but impressive list: New York, Paris, London, San Francisco, and Sydney. That's pretty fast company for this international metropolis and well-remembered Olympic host.
Sometimes a return visit falls short without the propulsive romance of first discovery. Fortunately that was not the case. Bigger and more beautiful than ever, Vancouver almost seems to shimmer with the energy of bright June days. It bustles with an international vibe, genuine friendliness, and a west coast casualness, that it shares with its metropolitan cousins to the south in the Lower 48.
If there's a challenge for the RV traveler it's that, typical of many large cities, there's a dearth of close-in camping spots or RV parks. Our research (we use Allstays) showed just a few RV parks close to town and, for a multi-night stay we preferred a full hookup. The Burnaby Cariboo RV Park and Campground was our top choice. Though the price per night was on the high side, the park itself is exceptionally well maintained with private hedges between each site. While our Navion slid into a smaller space without too much jockeying, a lot more effort and wheel spinning were required of our friends in their 43' foot rig. The park was built in 1984 before coaches got super-sized. A park staffer said there are plans to reconfigure some spaces to make them more big rig friendly later in 2014. The only other tip about the Burnaby RV Park is that having it programmed as a destination in the GPS will help you navigate the confusing twists and turns off the interstate to their front drive.
If you don't have a tow vehicle, it's a very easy 15 minute walk from the RV park to the Skytrain station at Lougheed Town Center and the train will deliver you right into the heart of downtown. If you choose to drive, there are plenty of parking garages that will run between $7-$13 for all day parking. Just like any big city, Vancouver's rush hour traffic can inch along, so plan your day accordingly and pack a little extra patience.
Downtown is surrounded on three sides by water and there are walkways and bike paths that almost completely encircle the heart of the city. On the north side at Coal Harbor (where the Olympic torch sculpture still stands) we walked along the harbor into Stanley Park where the lakes, lawns, and plantings offer a stunning botanical counterpoint to the white and glass high rises nearby.
Arcing from Stanley Park south to Sunset Beach we continued to follow the harbor shoreline until we got close to Granville Island. It's here you have two choices. One is to take the False Creek Ferry ($5.50 for a return trip/$1.75 for seniors) from the Aquatic Center to Granville Island. Another option, for the hearty, is to walk back several blocks to the Granville Street Bridge and then ascend over the bridge on sidewalks on either side. Beyond the bonus of picking up a mile+ of exercise, you'll be treated to a view of the city that few tourists ever see.
Plan on bringing both an appetite and credit card for a ramble through the large Granville Market. The seafood and produce are alluringly fresh, and the collection of food vendors are all small businesses (read: not chains) that will certainly test your decision making skills.
Within the city there are many other attractions to fill out another couple of days. These include the Vancouver Art Gallery, Van Dusen Botanical Garden, Dr. Sun Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden, and Capilano Suspension Bridge.
We opted for a day trip out of town and drove up the Sea to Sky Highway, 2 hours north, to the Whistler ski area where the alpine events for the 2010 Olympics were held. The drive from sea level to 2,200 feet runs along Horseshoe Bay where coastal mountains steeply rise with forested hillsides and give way to glacier encrusted sharp pinnacles of granite. It's a spectacular drive with scenic eye candy every bit the equal of Alaskan or Norwegian cruise views.
Lunch outside at a cafe at the base of the ski mountain on a warm summer day is hard to beat. And during the summer, the maze of skiers queuing to the lift is replaced by twenty-something mountain bikers who head up with their bikes racked on a chair ahead of them.
Getting to Vancouver is easy. It's a pleasant three-hour drive up I-5 from Seattle. Plan on a 20-60 minute wait to clear the border, make sure to check on what you need to leave behind (guns, alcohol, certain kinds of produce), and take your passport.
All the locals will tell you that June through August are the sunniest months, but there's no doubt in my mind that Vancouver will charm its guests anytime of the year.