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With the Alaska season officially underway, tens of thousands of cruise passengers will soon be making their way through Vancouver, British Columbia, which along with Seattle functions as the southern terminus for the vast majority of Alaska cruises. Some folks will simply fly in and board their ship without looking around, but those who give Vancouver a day or three will find a remarkable international city occupying one of nature's truly great locations.

A City Under Construction

You've never seen so many construction cranes as litter Vancouver's skyline this year. For this, credit the city's ongoing popularity as one of the world's most livable places, but also blame the 2010 Winter Olympics, of which the city is host. It seems hardly a block of Downtown is without at least one major construction project, so be prepared to walk under scaffolding and around some fancy detours this summer.

In the city's central business district, the 61-story Living Shangri-La residential building at Alberni and Thurlow (www.livingshangri-la.com) is not quite complete but it's already transformed the Vancouver skyline, towering above everything else. Meanwhile, construction of the Canada Line underground rail link from Downtown/Gastown's Waterfront Station south to Yaletown and the West Side (and eventually to the airport) has created a virtual Grand Canyon along parts of Yaletown's Davie Street and other areas. Across False Creek east of the Cambie Bridge, construction is underway to transform a former industrial and commercial site into Vancouver's Olympic Village (vancouver.ca/olympicvillage). Covering 80 acres, the site is being built on a sustainable development model, and after the Olympics will become a mixed-use community for 16,000 residents.

Getting Oriented

Vancouver is defined by water -- the Strait of Georgia to the west, rivers to the south and east, and the deepwater port of Burrard Inlet to the north. The smallish Downtown Vancouver peninsula is the main focus for short-term visitors, with its historic core, its wealth of gleaming skyscrapers, and its two prime residential areas: wealthy Coal Harbour on the north shore and the charming West End and English Bay to the south. At Downtown's western edge, Stanley Park is one of the largest urban parks in North America, offering 988 acres of forests and fields, a wonderfully walkable/rideable seawall, a fantastic aquarium, and a collection of First Nations totem poles. Just east of Downtown, Gastown is where Vancouver got its start in the 1860s. Today it's primarily a tourist zone but is worth a quick walk for its century-old architecture and some good shopping. Just south of Gastown, Vancouver's Chinatown is a vibrant, gritty neighborhood where only a small part of Vancouver's Chinese population (estimated at about 425,000) actually lives, but many return to shop for traditional foods and herbal remedies. South of Chinatown, along the inlet known as False Creek, Yaletown is Vancouver's trendiest neighborhood, mixing high-rise residential towers with old warehouse buildings that have been converted into restaurants, offices, and many interesting shops and boutiques.

Just across False Creek at the southern edge of Downtown, Granville Island is one of the world's most successful planned entertainment and shopping districts, offering handmade goods, imports, artists' studios, craftsman's shops, and an incredible food market, plus restaurants, bars, comedy clubs, theaters, and street performers.

Downtown is eminently walkable, though a good bus service can get you where you're going if your feet give out. The fare to any downtown destination is $2.50 (exact change only). Granville Island and Kitsilano are a quick taxi ride away, but a more fun alternative is the small ferries that run every few minutes from various locations along False Creek. The fare for these varies, but is primarily in the $2.50 to $3.50 range. (Note: At press time, the US and Canadian dollars were at roughly equal value.)

Downtown

Cruise ships dock at Canada Place (www.canadaplace.ca), a mixed-use facility that juts out into Burrard Inlet, looking much like a ship itself with its sail-shaped roof and pointed "prow" at the north end. Walk to the very end for an encompassing view of the northern part of the city: Coal Harbour and Stanley Park to your immediate left (past the massive construction project that's building the new Convention Centre extension), North Vancouver in the distance, and the industrial and low-rent residential areas of East Vancouver to your right.

From Canada Place, cross Cordova Street into the small plaza/park between Howe and Burrard Streets. When you reach the far side of the park (at the foot of Hornby), look right. That beautiful Art Deco building you see facing you one block away is the Marine Building (www.emporis.com), Vancouver's first modern skyscraper. Built in 1930, it's decorated inside and out with the kind of exuberance typical of the period, its facade and cathedral-like entranceway adorned with stylized sea horses, crabs, and other sea creatures. Be sure to duck into the vaulted lobby, an ornate masterpiece full of stained glass, gorgeous tilework, and lighting sconces shaped like the prows of ships.

From here, walk south (away from the water) on Burrard to see some of the Downtown business district's most notable modern architecture. From the corner of Burrard and West Pender, look behind you to see the Marine Building's reflection in the brassy Axa Place building, and the beautiful Commerce Place building (400 Burrard) looking like a stack of mirrored boxes. Ahead on your left, the tall metal-and-glass building with the curving east and west facades is the Benthell 5 Building (550 Burrard), which recently grew from 22 to 33 stories -- a seamless transformation. Beyond that, at West Georgia Street, the classic edifice facing you is the Fairmont Hotel, 900 W. Georgia St. (www.fairmont.com/hotelvancouver), the grand dame of Vancouver accommodations. Turn left when you get to West Georgia for a better look at its facade, then turn right on Hornby Street to reach the entrance of the Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby St. (tel. 604/662-4719; www.vanartgallery.bc.ca), housed in a grand neoclassical building originally used as a courthouse. Its collection is heavy on regional work (including a large collection by B.C. modernist Emily Carr) while temporary exhibitions are more international in nature. Admission is $15. On its front lawn, a digital clock counts down the days until the start of the 2010 Olympics.

If you exit past the gift shop, you'll find yourself at the head of the mostly underground Robson Plaza, which at this writing was -- like much of the city --- undergoing massive reconstruction. Turn right onto Robson Street to see one of the busiest shopping streets in Canada, full of big-name, big-label stores interspersed with boutiques, restaurants, and coffeehouses. Look for high-end fashions, with a focus on clothes for the younger set.

Gastown & Chinatown

Starting just a few blocks east of the cruise pier, Gastown -- situated between the waterfront and Hastings Street, from Cambie to Main -- is Vancouver's oldest neighborhood, and retains its Victorian flavor of low, shoulder-to-shoulder buildings, ornate streetlights, and cobbled squares, now leavened with expensive condos, high-end boutiques, restaurants, and a lot of souvenir shops along Water Street, plus some shops selling high-design housewares for the condo crowd. The area was named for "Gassy" Jack Deighton, who in 1867 built a saloon in Maple Tree Square (at the intersection of Water, Powell, and Carrall Streets) to serve the area's loggers and trappers. A statue in his honor now adorns the square. At the northwest corner of Water and Cambie streets, a steam-powered clock draws its power from an underground steam system that heats many of downtown's buildings. It hoots a version of the Westminster chimes every 15 minutes as steam vents from its top.

Almost adjoining Gastown, Vancouver's historic Chinatown -- bordered by East Pender and Keefer streets between Carrall Street and Gore Avenue -- is one of the largest in North America. Even though most of Vancouver's huge Asian population has moved out, many return here to shop, keeping the area vital and lively, its low-rise buildings and open-air shops selling Chinese food and wares. A photogenic Chinese gate on West Pender between Taylor and Carrall provides a symbolic entryway to the neighborhood, but Chinatown's biggest draw is the classical Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, 578 Carrall St., just off Pender (tel. 604/689-7133; www.vancouverchinesegarden.com). One of only a few classical Chinese gardens in North America, it was created by master artisans from Suzhou, China, based on the yin-yang principle, in which harmony is achieved by placing contrasting elements in juxtaposition: soft moving water against solid stone, smooth swaying bamboo around gnarled immovable rocks, dark pebbles against light pebbles, and so on. Admission is $10 adults, free for kids under 5. Immediately next door, separated from the garden by only a classical footbridge and koi pond, the public Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is less meditative but beautiful in its own right, with walking paths winding among Chinese trees and foliage. Admission to the park is free.

Take a quick tour of Chinatown, browsing the food and gift shops that line Pender all the way to Gore. There, take a right onto Gore and then another onto Keefer for more shops running all the way back to Carrall Street, where you'll run into Dr. Sun Yat Sen Park again near the Monument of Canadian Chinese, commemorating the achievements of the Canadian Chinese through the years. Some highlights along the way include Bamboo Village, 135 E. Pender (tel. 604/662-3300), selling Chinese lanterns, furniture, antiques, Mao kitsch, china, drums and gongs, and thousands of other Chinese items; the New Town Bakery, 158 E. Pender, selling delicious steamed buns and baked goods; and the Kiu Shun Trading Co., 269 E. Pender, selling traditional herbal cures.

(Tip: Hastings Street, which lies between Gastown and Chinatown, gets seedier and seedier after it leaves the tony Downtown core. By the time it gets to Cambie, it's grim and awful and full of crackheads and other characters of questionable intent. Busy enough so it's more-or-less safe in daylight hours, the street is still just soul-suckingly unpleasant, so cross it as fast as you can and try not to focus on the details.)

Coal Harbour

Along the northern coast of the Downtown peninsula, running west from Burrard Street, is Coal Harbour, a string of modern, high-end, high-rise condo buildings. The attraction here is the Coal Harbour Seawall, a gorgeous seaside walk that connects the central Downtown area to Stanley Park.

To walk the seawall path from the Canada Place cruise docks, you'll have to skirt the massive Convention Centre expansion project, which is building a 1.1 million square foot addition to existing space at Canada Place. From a visitor perspective, that wouldn't be very interesting were the building itself not pretty amazing -- built over both land and water, supported by some 1,000 piles, and topped by a six-acre living roof planted with northwest native plants. When completed in spring 2009 it will offer a promenade on its water side that connects Canada Place to the Coal Harbour seawall, but for now you'll have to walk around on the land side, entering via Bute Street into Coal Harbour Green, a waterside park dotted with some striking public art, including Dennis Oppenheim's "Device to Root out Evil," an aluminum-and-glass chapel balanced on the point of its steeple. From here, follow the seawall path west toward Stanley Park, which is what all that green is that you see in the distance. Note the twin Callisto and Carina condo buildings, their curving sides looking like the sails of a racing sloop, and the marina with its hundreds of yachts, sailboats, and the occasional funky houseboat. If you get hungry or thirsty along the way, stop in at Cardero's, 1583 Coal Harbour Quay (tel. 604/669-7666; www.vancouverdine.com), a friendly restaurant and pub built over pilings above the harbour.

Stanley Park

At the west end of the Coal Harbour seawall, only about a mile west of the cruise ship terminal, you'll find the entrance to Stanley Park, a 988-acre urban oasis containing rose gardens, totem poles, miles of wooded hiking trails, a yacht club, two great beaches, a water park for kids, and great water views from its six-mile seawall path, which completely encircles the park. You can rent bikes to explore the park at Spokes, 1798 W. Georgia St. (tel. 604/688-5141; www.vancouverbikerental.com), located one block inland from the Coal Harbour seawall at Denman Street.

An easy walk from the park entrance, the outstanding Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center (tel. 604/659-FISH; www.vanaqua.org) is one of North America's largest and best, with a focus on Northwest species including sea otters, beluga whales, sea lions, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. There's also a jellyfish exhibit that's much more mesmerizing than you'd expect. Admission is $20 for adults, $12 for kids.

English Bay

If you picture Downtown Vancouver like a clock face, the cruise pier is at 12, Coal Harbour is at 10, Stanley Park at 9, and English Bay winds its way from 8 to 7. This is where Vancouverites come to watch the sunset and commune with their city's ridiculously beautiful location. Off in the distance, Vancouver island's mountains jut up toward space, while sailboats ply the waters just offshore. Logs are laid in the sand along the beach's length, providing ideal spots to sit and dangle your feet, breathing in the ambience and checking out the couples strolling hand-in-hand.

Denman Street (which runs north-south to Coal Harbour) is a good central reference point, with the beach's best stretches running both east and west of here. From its foot, look right to see The Eugenia, 1919 Beach Ave., a modern condo building notable for the 35-foot Oregon Pin Oak tree growing from its roof. Next door is the Sylvia Hotel, 1154 Gilford St. (tel. 604/681-9321; www.sylviahotel.com), a cozy landmark that offers great bay views from its charming little Sylvia Bar. Denman Street itself is alive with dining and snacking options. The Raincity Grill, 1193 Denman St. (tel. 604/685-7337; www.raincitygrill.com), sources its foods locally, offering a "100-mile tasting menu" whose ingredients all come from the surrounding area. Seating is available either in the comfortable dining room or on a deck overlooking English Bay. For more of a nosh, Nat's New York Pizzeria, 1080 Denman St. (tel. 604/642-0777; www.natspizza.com), serves some of the best pizza west of the Hudson, while Delany's Coffee House, 1105 Denman St. (tel. 604/662-3344), is a local institution for coffee and muffins. If you walk north on Denman, you're in the heart of the West End, a wonderful residential district that mixes modern condos with Victorian houses and century-old apartment buildings.

Granville Island

About a mile and a half south of the cruise docks, Granville Island (www.granvilleisland.com) is a former industrial site whose warehouses and factories now house galleries, museums, restaurants, theaters, shops, a small brewery, and a few remaining industrial businesses to keep things real. You could easily spend a full day here, strolling its streets and alleys, browsing the artist-run galleries, grabbing meals or picnic fixings from the incredible Public Market (one of the best gourmet food markets I've ever seen, anywhere), shopping at its many small stores, and watching the street performers. If you have a few thousand bucks to drop (or are willing to pretend you do), stop in to Eagle Spirit Gallery, 1803 Maritime Mews (tel. 604/801-5205; www.eaglespiritgallery.com), which specializes in museum-quality Northwest Coast Native and Inuit art, including hand-carved masks, stone carvings, and paintings.

The most fun way to get to Granville Island is to take one of the ferries across False Creek from Downtown. From the cruise dock and the central Downtown area, walk or take a taxi south on Burrard street. At some point, make a left one block to Hornby Street and then continue south all the way to the end. There you'll find a dock for the Aquabus (tel. 604/689-5858; www.theaquabus.com), a cute little ferry that will deposit you right by the Public Market. From English Bay, False Creek Ferries (tel. 604/684-7781; www.granvilleislandferries.bc.ca) picks up from a dock by the Vancouver Aquatic Center, right at the eastern end of English Bay beach at the foot of Thurlow Street. The one-way fare on either ferry is $2.50 adults, $1.25 kids.

Yaletown

If you're leaving Granville Island and have time to spare, both ferry companies offer a boat (fare $3.50) to Yaletown, a former warehouse district that's now Vancouver's trendiest neighborhood, full of excellent restaurants, shopping, galleries, and attractive young couples pushing baby carriages. It's centered on Hamilton, Mainline, and Davie Streets.

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