Monday, June 2, 2014

Food Trek: Vancouver's Natural Wonders, From Sunrise to Sunset

Seattle has a great affection for its Canadian neighbour, Vancouver, and it's not just because we're close enough to knock on their door and borrow a cup of sugar. The moment you see the distinctive skyline, populated with beautifully modern glass towers, you're also welcomed by Vancouver's natural beauty. The lush greenery and expanse of Stanley Park, the picturesque harbor community of False Creek, the forested views of North Vancouver just across the Burrard Inlet, all set against the glorious surrounding mountain views that the Pacific Northwest region is lucky to have. It's an ideal balance of urban and rural, having the cultural benefits of a metropolitan city, but never being so far removed from the abundance of natural resources that built and continue to allow Vancouver to flourish. I fell in love with Vancouver when I first moved to Washington over a dozen years ago when I took the trek up north to play tourist -- I was hooked. Every time I go, I fall in love with this beautiful city that feels like a breath of fresh air. And awwww yeah, they've got poutine. 

The natural wonders of Vancouver... in a skillet. Edible Canada's outstanding duck poutine - Photo by Wasabi Prime

GETTING THERE - Skip the Car, Catch a Bolt
First off -- BRING YOUR PASSPORT. Yes, you need it. For smartphones, check the pricing on data roaming with your provider; if you're a heavy social media nerd/Instagram-a-holic like me, you don't want to get dinged with a fat bill for foreign data charges. If you plan on doing a bit of shopping, do a quick scan of the US Customs page for what you can/can't bring back -- mostly helpful if you want to bring wine/liquor or edible goods. As for transportation, you can certainly drive -- it's a little over 3 hours to drive from Seattle, traffic/customs lines permitting. But if you're like me and don't want to fuss with parking and getting irrevocably lost in unfamiliar streets, I recommend using the Bolt Bus.

Bolt Bus - comfy mass transit, so that I can follow Canada's directions to keep exploring - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Bolt Bus does twice-daily Seattle to Vancouver trips, as well as from-Seattle routes to Oregon's Portland, Eugene, and Albany, plus a Seattle > Bellingham route. You reserve your seat, there's outlet plug-ins on most seats, there's wi-fi, a single bathroom is on board, and the seats are soft and comfortable, totally built for long rides. The seats are large, but don't recline, so consider bringing a neck pillow for comfortable upright napping. A Seattle Bolt Bus fare to Vancouver can be as low as $11 if you book early, up to $25+, if it's a weekend or holiday. Bottom line: it's a bargain, considering all the on-board amenities. They advertise the $1 fare, but instead of trying to chase that, risking a sold-out bus, book your seat earlier for the cheaper fare and bring a good book/e-book to read on the comfortable journey ahead.
Vancouver waterfront - home of ALL THE GREEN GLASS - Photo by Wasabi Prime
KICKSTART THE DAY - Urban-Fresh Breakfast and a Waterfront Tour
I had the I-feel-very-fancy pleasure of staying at the Fairmont Waterfront, which is right next to Vancouver's historic Gastown neighborhood, full of great little restaurants and bars. A beautiful luxury hotel located along the central harbor, it's conveniently next to the Canada Place Cruise Ship Terminal, and the Vancouver Convention Centre. I had a perfect sunrise morning view of the convention center's "living" green-grassed roof, acting as both efficient insulation and a bird sanctuary, which speaks to the city's initiative, promising that Vancouver will be the greenest city in the world by the year 2020 -- the gauntlet is dropped, Mother Earth! I'm hoping this bold promise only pushes more cities to set similar goals.

Hotel restaurant and bar, ARC is quite literally the Bee's Knees - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I had a delicious buffet breakfast at ARC, the in-house restaurant for the Fairmont Waterfront - eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit, pastries, lox and bagels, the works. Helmed by Executive Chef Dana Hauser, its menu focuses on seasonal, fresh ingredients reflecting the region's abundance of resources. Breakfast is a good way to sample ARC's unique access to the hotel's own honey source, an apiary of a half-dozen hives on the hotel's third-floor terrace. The honey is collected and served at the restaurant, as well as incorporated into Chef Hauser's menu, but the best way to enjoy this delectably rich treat is the simplest -- drizzled atop one of their breakfast pastries. The hives share space with the hotel's garden, which supplies ARC with fresh herbs, produce, and edible flowers. Something to keep in mind -- bees are temperature sensitive, and therefore not year-round residents; they live in the Fairmont's apiary from May through September, and spend winters at the Honeybee Centre in Cloverdale. If you visit now, you'll have a chance to see the newly-settled bees summering along the waterfront, like proper, civilized bees.

Touring Vancouver through its vibrant and busy waters - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The post-breakfast food coma was invigorated by Sea Vancouver's zodiac tour of the Vancouver harbor, the surrounding Burrard Inlet, and part of English Bay. They're part of the Prince of Whales zodiac tours, also available around the waters of Seattle and BC's Victoria. Sea Vancouver's tour uses a medium-sized zodiac that fits a little over a dozen people, cruising around the harbors, giving you clear views of the beautiful green-glass towers, waterfront sculptures, quaint houseboats in False Creek, and going right under the Lion's Gate and Cambie Bridges -- something you've probably only driven over. You zip around Stanley Park, getting a sense of how huge it is, and you can often catch sea planes landing and taking off. You also get an up-close view of the booming industry of Vancouver's waters, with its shipping barges and waterfront factories -- I saw a mineral processing plant, piling enormous mountains of bright yellow sulfur, getting ready to make its way into agriculture products. Seeing the active industry and transport neighboring luxury condos and idyllic houseboats was a reminder that every inch of the city is alive and buzzing. Plus, it's just rockstar fun to be careening around at high nautical speeds on a boat.

Seasonal note: we had a pleasantly warm day on calm waters -- not very bumpy, and I felt comfortable using my good/DSLR camera, even when we were going at full speed. There was minimal to no spray on our trip, and sitting towards the middle of the boat will keep you more protected and less jostled, if that's a concern. They do provide dry suits on colder days, so just dress comfortably for an active day.

The towering berries of Granville Island's  Public Market - Photos by Wasabi Prime
EAT/SHOP LOCAL - Tasting Canada and Market-Gawking
You can't wander Vancouver's waterfront without spending time on Granville Island, and most notably, their Public Market. Open daily from 9am-7pm, the market is as popular for locals as it is for visitors. Mountains of fresh produce and seafood available for purchase, there are also vendors with specialty foods, like local cheese and cured meats -- very similar to Seattle's Pike Place Market, and much like our own market, I never tire of wandering these places. While I only had a short time to browse on this trip, I've spent afternoons here in the past, creating my own lunch, like getting a bit of fresh cheese, some bread, and a small container of figs. Find a spot outside, overlooking the harbor, and it's a wonderful al fresco meal.

Eat Canada -- it's totally OK, they're cool with it. And it's tasty - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I had the pleasure of having lunch at Edible Canada, a charming locavore bistro, right by the Granville Public Market. Their food and drink menu is touted as being locally sourced as possible. Even the naughty stuff -- I happily indulged in their signature Fraser Valley Duck Poutine (first photo at the top of the post, which I'm sure you're still drooling over). It's the Canadian comfort food gone  luxe, with shredded duck confit, a gravy that takes a day or two to reduce and concentrate, cheese curds that get melty and crisped against the super-hot cast iron skillet it's served in, all sitting on a pile of fries made extra-crispy by being fried in -- you guessed it -- duck fat. The eggs are a unique topping, whose yolks add extra richness to an already decadent dish. It's a total indulgence meal, but like other dishes on their menu (the carrot/coconut soup is a must-try) the focus is always on the ingredients; the flavors work together, not trying to compete or smother one another.

Edible Canada offers a surprisingly full experience, organizing excursions like gourmet kayaking, local food tours, and a retail store stocked with gourmet Canadian-made edibles like sea salts, smoked salmon, chocolates -- basically anything that would be an ideal souvenir to charm the pants off anyone who's lucky enough to be on your gift list. They have an event space with a full kitchen, designed for chef demos and special dinners. They're often featured with Tourism Vancouver's annual Dine Out Vancouver Festival, which runs from the beginning of the year (next year's is Jan 16-Feb 1, 2015), where hundreds of Vancouver restaurants offer prix fixe dinners with set prices of $18, $28 or $38. Very similar to our own Dine Around Seattle and Restaurant Week, but Vancouver's got the edge, because they include discounted hotel packages during the festival month, so keep that in mind when January rolls around.

Capilano Suspension Bridge. Totally safe. Just don't watch Temple of Doom right before - Photo by Wasabi Prime
THE AIR UP THERE: Exploring the Heights of North Vancouver, aka, Conquer Fear = Receive Beer
Being in downtown Vancouver, you wouldn't think there's rainforests, river canyons and a ski resort just a short ride from the city. Along with the theme of leaving your car at home, there are multiple transit options to get you to the serene forest views of North Vancouver, including the Vancouver Trolley Company, which is exactly that -- a bus that's made up to look like a vintage trolley car. They offer a variety of tours, including hop on/hop off routes throughout the city, and tours that take you to two incredible natural sightseeing locations: Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, and Grouse Mountain.

Trolley tour to a natural treasure... and frosty beverages - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I hate heights. And yet... you can't deny the siren-song draw of Capilano Suspension Bridge Park's incredible view, vertigo be damned. But I definitely made sure there would be beer at the end of this adventure -- being on a narrow, swinging suspension bridge 230 feet high above a forested canyon needs a relaxing, post-adrenaline refreshment. Although I found their Cliffwalk, a cliff-hugging set of narrow stairs and walkways winding their way over the canyon, the most exhilarating (read: wigging my shiz out). There's a U-shaped walkway, literally hanging off the side of the granite wall, suspended with many blessed cables -- it's the craziest balcony you'll ever experience. And there's glass-floored sections, which is a total mind-trip that makes your legs feel like they've turned to jelly. Or at least mine did. Is it beer-thirty yet...?

Steady-on, Wasabi, and only look down for the cool, see-through glass floor views - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The suspension bridge's history can be traced back to the late 1800s, during Vancouver's pioneer days, when an adventurous soul like George Grant Mackay, a civil engineer and land developer from Scotland purchased the forest area on both sides of the Capilano River's canyon. He built the first suspended footbridge from hemp ropes and cedar planks, thanks to a team of horses who swam the ropes across the river, the ropes were pulled up from the opposite site of the canyon, and then anchored. This of course is not the bridge now; the sturdy yet nightmarish-sounding hemp/cedar construction was replaced with a wire cable suspension bridge in the 1900s, went through ongoing durability improvements, and I can assure you with my own nervous, but steady pace across that swinging bridge, the cables could probably swing three elephants. It's plenty-sturdy, just give in to the natural sway of the bridge, and you'll be treated to a gorgeous, peaceful forest view.

Capilano's suspension bridge and Cliffwalk views are worth every single, nervous step - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I continued my North Vancouver rise above the treetops to Grouse Mountain via their Skyride, an aerial tramway -- the largest in North America -- that takes you 3,700 feet to the peak. You'll get the best view of the city from here, especially as dusk sets in, if you want to save this for the last event of the day. A ski/snowboarding mountain with snowshoeing, and skating ponds in the winter, Grouse Mountain turns into a totally different experience in the warmer months with eco walks/hikes, climbing events, races, and helicopter tours. You can zipline year-round, as well as tour their wind turbine from its elevated observation pod, and there's even a wildlife sanctuary for some orphaned grizzlies.

Admiring the city from afar, atop Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver - Photos by Wasabi Prime
All these dangling-up-in-the-air adventures -- when can we get our feet firmly on the ground? I took the winding walk through still-melting snow, past many wood carvings, to try and get some photos of the bears, but much like the rule of trying to photograph babies and animals, you can't predict anything, and they were snoozing soundly when I got to the sanctuary. I can't say I was disappointed because I was treated to a stunning sunset after a truly perfect day -- don't let the snowy surroundings fool you, it felt like summer up there. I probably took my most favorite photo of the day at that moment of Bear Viewing Fail, and it was with my phone camera, of all things.

I had the opportunity to sample the menu at The Observatory, Grouse Mountain's fine dining restaurant, overlooking a spanning view that lets you watch the city of Vancouver light up as the sun's light fades. If you're not planning a full day of exploring the whole alpine experience, it's worth just booking a dinner reservation at The Observatory, which includes the Grouse Mountain admission fee. They are an Ocean Wise and Green Table-Certified restaurant, as are all the Grouse Mountain restaurants, which feature sustainable dining options that reduce environmental impact. The spring menu was in full swing, so I enjoyed bites like fresh beet salad and delicious wild mushroom ravioli, along with sips of local BC wine -- I'm becoming a new fan of Gamay. I had a little bit of chocolate dessert, but the real treat at the end of the night is taking the Skyride down the mountain, seeing Vancouver fully aglow. A sunset cocktail hour atop Grouse Mountain and dinner at The Observatory would be the best date night ever -- I look forward to sharing this with the Mister when he can join me on my next visit.

Picture-perfect evening and dinner, atop Grouse Mountain - Photos by Wasabi Prime
VANCOUVER IN 24: An Exciting Day/Night, But Take Your Time When You  Go
You're not Jack Bauer, you don't have to cram all this amazing stuff in a single day. Let this very long blog post be a cheat-sheet for exploring Vancouver, whether you've got a week or just a weekend. The reason I love Seattle is the same reason Vancouver romances me -- it's a city that embraces its natural and urban sides equally, making efforts to ensure one cultivates the other. The sense of love and pride for the city is apparent. It's rich in culture, natural resources, and culinary talent, and it's always changing, so even if you visited before, you'll find something new to enjoy.

Vancouver is a delicious, beautiful adventure you'll take again and again - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Stay tuned, Friendos - I've got another post coming up, with the theme of Vancouver Noir.
Sure, it's often said that Canadians are the nicest people (and they really are), but they've got a naughty side, full of private clubs during prohibition days, cops n' robbers, and speakeasy-style bars discovered during midnight walks.

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