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This is the first part in our series on southwestern Canada. Go here to read our second installment.

All About Vancouver

July 21, 2003 -- The city of Vancouver is basking in the glow of its recent acquisition of the 2010 Winter Olympics, but the city had plenty to crow about even before the IOC came calling. In just a couple of decades, Vancouver has changed from a small mill town to a thriving metropolis designated Hollywood North by the entertainment industry, and one of the top cruise ports in the world. Vancouver is hip and hot, but welcoming and serene at the same time. Few cities in the world can boast its scenic setting, nestled in the harbor and surrounded by mountains; its unspoiled beaches; exceptional parks; great shopping; and vibrant culture. And summer is a fabulous time to take it all in: the city's famous rainy weather usually takes a hiatus and its numerous botanical gardens are in full bloom, making the entire area seem alive with color.

Places to Stay

The Vancouver hotel scene is diverse to say the least. Whether you prefer small and intimate or large and luxurious, you'll find a place to lay your head for the night. The Canadian SARS scare, even though the disease is not a factor in Vancouver and has been contained elsewhere, means that the usually packed summer high season is a bit less crowded than normal. That fact has led many hotels to offer discount packages this summer, making the area a great last-minute destination. The Tourism Vancouver website (www.tourismvancouver.com) features a slew of discounted hotel packages that you can book online.

If hip and happening are your buzzwords, look no further than the Pacific Palisades Hotel (www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com), located on Robson Street in the West End. Bottle the cool hip of Miami's South Beach and couple it with an exceptionally friendly staff and you'll end up with the Pacific Palisades. A favorite of celebrities and other entertainment industry insiders, the hotel also caters to families and other value seekers, who appreciate the very spacious guest rooms and suites, all of which come with kitchenettes and balconies, and whose bold and bright color schemes-think bright yellow and granny apple green-are unquestionably memorable. For a cool night out, hang with Hollywood's hip in the hotel's Zin Bar + Restaurant (www.zin-restaurant.com)-a screenwriter and director were hashing out a script when I was there. One downside: the noise level can get pretty high in this area of town and the rooms aren't exceptionally soundproof, so if absolute peace and quiet are a must, this isn't the place for you.

If you prefer elegance and sophistication, then head straight for The Wedgewood (www.thewedgewood.com). This much-venerated hotel-another celebrity haven-right off Robson Square is one of the most romantic in town, with exceptional service and a location that's hard to be beat. Thirty of the hotel's plush guestrooms and suites have just been renovated (ask for one of these) and feature a host of top-class amenities, including TV-internet access, upscale bathroom toiletries, Egyptian cotton linens, balconies, and-in the suites-two marble bathrooms, one with a Jacuzzi, the other with a Roman shower. Rooms are surprisingly quiet despite its busy downtown location. The hotel just opened a brand new spa and fitness center, and its Bacchus restaurant and bar has been rated number one by several local and national magazines and is the perfect spot for a romantic meal (the Cr? Brulee dessert is divine!). And, as of April 2003, the entire hotel is completely non-smoking.

More to Eat than Canadian Bacon

On first glance, Vancouver may appear to be the land of sushi and Starbucks (one of the ubiquitous chain, seemingly appears on every corner), but there's far more to the culinary scene than those two fixtures. In fact, dollar for dollar, Vancouver dining offers some of the best dining value in North America.

One other good thing to report: Unlike many other major cities, hotel dining in Vancouver is usually above average, so you may not need to leave "home" to get good food. Aside from the already-mentioned Bacchus at the The Wedgewood and Zin Bar + Restaurant at the Pacific Palisades, there are a few noteworthy hotel dining spots.

  • Diva at the Met (www.metropolitan.com) has deservedly won a slew of awards for its fabulous and innovative international menu. And the attractive dining room only adds to the experience.
  • The Listel Vancouver's O'Doul's Restaurant & Bar (www.odoulsrestaurant.com) has gone through a number of transformations over the years, but the food is great, the award-winning wine list even better, and the live Jazz that plays during dinner makes it a definite keeper.
  • Most people head to the Landmark Hotel's Cloud 9 (www.asiastandard.com/hotel/vancouver.html) for the revolving restaurant's priceless 42nd-floor views of the city, but the West Coast cuisine is pretty darn good, too.

Finally, what's a meal without dessert? Death by Chocolate (www.deathbychocolate.ca) bills itself as the "Ultimate Dessert Destination," and though I'm still alive to tell the story, this chocoholic (but I can quite anytime I want!) was suitably impressed, though the portions seemed a little skimpy. Go for the Multitude of Sins sampler plate, which should inspire a suitably devilish sense of gluttony. There are several branches of the caf?cattered throughout town.

Ventures Around Vancouver

It's hard to miss the sight of Grouse Mountain (www.grousemountain.com) looming over Vancouver's harbor, and a stop here is an absolute must for any Vancouver visitor. The cost of the Skyride up to the peak is steep, but the views from up top are fabulous. And once you're up there, make sure to see the Lumberjack show, and the orphaned grizzly bear cubs at the mountain Refuge for Endangered Wildlife (the interactive ranger talks at the habitat offer both an entertaining and educational look at these incredible creatures). If you're truly adventurous (I wasn't, but some of the gasping, oxygen-deprived people I met up top were), you can climb the mountain on the famous vertical Grouse Grind trail and then take a gondola back down. Go ahead-beat the 28-minute record ascending time. I'm rooting for you.

Next up on the must-see list is the 1,000 acre Stanley Park, a pristine beauty that's one of North America's best public parks and features a variety of wildlife, several attractions, a petting zoo, a public swimming pool, and lots of piece and quiet. I spent hours strolling the numerous paths along with other tourists and plenty of locals. For a wonderful view of the harbor, stroll or bike down Park Drive past the park's famous Totem Poles and on to Brockton Point and its picturesque lighthouse.

Stanley Park's major attraction is the non-profit Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (www.vanaqua.org), one of the largest and best aquariums around. Its brand-new Tropic Zone (opened in June 2003), showcases a breathtaking array of colorful tropical fish from all over the world, including an ultra-rare collection of seahorses (there's nothing quite like watching a species where it's the dad who gives birth). The new gallery also features interactive touch screens that will fill you in on the displays you're seeing and the museum's conservation efforts.

One other highlight of note is the aquarium's 90-minute Beluga Encounter program, which allows participants to get in the water and interact with the Centre's resident Beluga whales; it isn't cheap at C$120 ($84) per person, but it's definitely an unforgettable experience. If C$120 is a little steep for your budget, a cheaper but no less satisfying option is the 45-minute Trainer Tour (C$20/$14 adults; C$15/$10.50 child), which takes you behind the scenes of the aquarium's operations, lets you prepare a meal for some of the animals, and then finally gives you the opportunity to interact with them (I had a blast feeding two of the aquarium's playful sea otters). Make reservations for either option well in advance.

Finally, it would be a shame to stop in Vancouver without seeing one of its renowned botanical gardens. The best of the bunch, in my mind, is actually the only one that's indoors (a plus, should it rain): The Bloedel Floral Conservatory (www.parks.Vancouver.bc.ca) in Queen Elizabeth Park. Housed in a stunning climate-controlled glass dome, the conservatory features numerous botanical landscapes-from a desert scene laden with cacti to an absolutely breathtaking tropical garden of orchids. Also present are more than 100 species of birds (visitors were banding together to help spot some of the more exotic species when I was there). Upon leaving the conservatory, take a worthwhile stroll of the surrounding gardens inside Queen Elizabeth Park, which is less well known than Stanley Park, but almost as beautiful and certainly more serene. Walk just a few hundred feet from the conservatory's entrance and you'll be treated to a fabulous view of Vancouver and the park's quarry gardens.

The Buck Starts Here as You Shop Til You Drop

Fewer cities in North America offer as varied or value-laden a shopping experience as Vancouver. The U.S. dollar's favorable exchange rate makes the city an American shopping mecca, and you'll find lots of places to fatten your credit card bills.

Robson Street and Water Streets are two of the major shopping streets and are great for browsing. Aside from the usual souvenir stores, you'll find First Nation art galleries, upscale clothing stores, and antiques shops. Mall rats will find no less than 6 major shopping centers-the Pacific Centre (www.pacificcentre.ca), Sinclair Center (www.sinclaircentre.com), Royal Centre (www.royalcentre.com), along with Vancouver Centre, Harbor Centre, and Waterfront Centre-within 15 minutes' walk of the Granville Skytrain station. The biggest news in malls (and the spot most locals recommended to me), however, is the Metrotown shopping area in nearby Burnaby, which encompasses the Metropolis (http://metropolis.shopping.ca), Metrotown, and Station Square shopping centers. It's a short SkyTrain ride away from downtown Vancover.

Lastly, for a truly unique Vancouver experience, head to Granville Island (www.granvilleisland.com), a rehabilitated industrial zone whose warehouses have been turned into art galleries, public markets, and crafts stores. It's a shopper's and browser's bonanza. The Native American crafts shops here are first-rate, the Public Market is the place in town to get fixings for a picnic, and the Kids Only Market, is a charming mini-mall aimed at kids and has great indoor and outdoor play areas where children can burn off some excess energy.

The Sun's out until 9, but the Nightlife is Fine

Vancouver is laden with nightlife options, from bars to clubs to theater. For the most up-to-date options when you visit, check out Vancouver Magazine's website at www.vanmag.comand Tickets Tonight at www.ticketstonight.ca. One truly great buy in Vancouver is a night at the theater. For seemingly microscopic prices, you'll be treated to world-class performances, often in spectacular or charmingly intimate venues.

One fabulous way to while away a Vancouver summer evening is to attend the city's famed Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival (www.bardonthebeach.org) in Vanier Park, where the works of William Shakespeare are performed against a spectacular mountain background. This summer's offerings include The Comedy of Errors and The Merchant of Venice. Tickets are a mere C$16 to C$27 ($11-$19).

The city's Arts Club Theatre Company (www.artsclub.com) is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2003-2004 and offers a full slate of professional productions (usually a few years removed from Broadway) for a fraction of the price you'd pay in New York or Los Angeles. I sat in the 8th row orchestra at a hilarious production of the critically acclaimed comedy Fully Committed, starring Kids in the Hall actor Mark McKinney, for a mere $25. In honor of its anniversary, the company is offering an incomparable bargain for summer 2003 theatergoers: 4 ticket vouchers to any of its' summer productions at the Granville Island Theatre for just C$99 ($70)-an absolute steal!

Finally, for an authentic Vancouver summer theater experience, pack a picnic dinner and attend the Theatre Under the Stars (www.tuts.bc.ca) at Stanley Park's Malkin Bowl. Summer 2003 productions include The King & I and the Canadian-favorite Anne of Green Gables. Tickets are a bargain at C$19 to C$27 ($13-$19).

Have you traveled to Vancouver, Victoria or Whistler recently? We'd love to hear your tips and tales. Just visit our British Columbia Message Boards to get started. Your posting could be featured in an upcoming Frommers.com Newsletter.