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The green jewel of Vancouver, Stanley Park is a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) rainforest jutting out into the ocean from the edge of the busy West End. Exploring the second-largest urban forest in Canada is one of Vancouver’s quintessential experiences.

The park, created in 1888, is filled with towering western red cedar and Douglas fir, manicured lawns, flower gardens, placid lagoons, and countless shaded walking trails that meander through it all. The famed Seawall runs along the waterside edge of the park, allowing cyclists and pedestrians to experience the magical interface of forest, sea, and sky. One of the most popular free attractions in the park is the collection of totem poles at Brockton Point, most of them carved in the 1980s to replace the original ones that were placed in the park in the 1920s and 1930s. The area around the totem poles features open-air displays on the Coast Salish First Nations and a small gift shop/visitor information center.

The park is home to lots of wildlife, including beavers, coyotes, bald eagles, blue herons, cormorants, trumpeter swans, Brant geese, ducks, raccoons, skunks, and gray squirrels. (But no bears.) For directions and maps, brochures, and exhibits on the nature and ecology of Stanley Park, visit the Lost Lagoon Nature House ([tel] 604/257-8544; www.stanleyparkecology.ca). Most Sundays at 9am or 1:30pm, rain or shine, they offer themed Discovery Walks of the park (preregistration recommended). Equally nature-focused but with way more wow is the Vancouver Aquarium. The Stanley Park Miniature Railway ([tel] 604/257-8531) is a diminutive steam locomotive that pulls passenger cars on a circuit through the woods. In December, the surrounding woods are lit up with thousands of Christmas lights, and at Halloween, it becomes the Ghost Train, haunted by vampires and ghouls.

On the cultural side, the Malkin Bowl outdoor amphitheater holds summer concerts and musical theater productions in a series called Theatre Under the Stars ([tel] 604/696-4295; www.tuts.ca). Sitting on the grassy slope watching, say, “Shrek: The Musical” is a quintessential Vancouver experience for the whole family.

Swimmers head to Third Beach and Second Beach, and for kids, there’s a free Spray Park near Lumberman’s Arch, where they can run and splash through various water-spewing fountains.

Perhaps the best way to explore the park is to rent a bike or in-line skates, and set off along the Seawall. The horse-drawn carriage ride operated by AAA Horse & Carriage Ltd. ([tel] 604/681-5115; www.stanleypark.com) is one of the most enjoyable ways to tour the park. Carriage tours depart every 20 to 45 minutes mid-March through October from the Coal Harbour parking lot, near the Georgia Street park entrance and the park information booth. The ride lasts an hour and covers portions of the park that many locals have never seen. Also, the Vancouver Trolley Company ([tel] 604/801-5515; www.vancouvertrolley.com) operates an around-the-park shuttle bus mid-June to early September.

The Park's Dark Side

Stanley Park is Vancouver’s favorite place to spend a sunny afternoon. But it’s still a pretty big wilderness space, and those deep, hushed forests have experienced some dark moments over the years. The plan to create the park was the first order of business for the newly formed Vancouver City Council back in 1886; only 2 years later, shortly before the park was formally dedicated, they decided to use the park’s Deadman’s Island to quarantine victims of a smallpox epidemic. Their ghosts still, reportedly, haunt the island, which is now the property of the Department of National Defence. Over the years, squatters and the homeless have found refuge in the park’s woods—this underlined the plot of Timothy Taylor’s novel “Stanley Park”—and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was the site of a number of gang fights and assaults targeting gay men. But the most famous Stanley Park crime is that of the Babes in the Woods murders. In January 1953, the remains of two bodies were found in the Stanley Park woods, along with a hatchet and a woman’s fur coat. They were found to be two boys, aged 7 and 10, who had likely been killed in 1947. Aside from that, nothing is known—not who they were, how they died, or who killed them. It’s still considered one of the city’s most baffling unsolved crimes. All that said, the park is a surprisingly safe and serene space. Just be careful if you venture into its shadowy places after dark.