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Natural high

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With the Pacific on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other, Vancouver combines the most wholesome of lifestyles with fine food and a thriving arts scene. By Amy Watkins


Vancouver's good looks are legendary.

 

Mountains, beaches and forested parks grace the postcards in the tourist shops of Gastown but it's the little things that make visitors fall hopelessly in love with this West Coast Canadian metropolis. Pyramids of multi-coloured heirloom tomatoes at the farmers' markets; a chilled glass of local wine on a restaurant patio; or an encounter with a sea otter in Stanley Park are smaller delights that can be discovered in British Columbia's most visited city.

 

The snow-sprinkled North Shore Mountains, vast Stanley Park and log-strewn urban beaches give the city a feeling of space that belie the fact it's fairly compact. Vancouver is walkable; there's no need for a car, as a reliable transit system makes getting around a (Pacific) breeze. Sit on the beach at English Bay come sunset and watch rollerbladers whizz past, or head up Grouse Mountain on the gondola to get a bird's – and bear's-eye view of the city.

 

Weather is a popular topic amongst Vancouverites. The temperate rainforest doesn't get its name by accident. You'll also constantly hear: "Where are you eating dinner?" Vancouver's food scene is eclectic and ever-evolving, from tasty food trucks like TacoFino (parked near Vancouver Art Gallery) to upscale award-winning restaurants serving contemporary Canadian cuisine such as Hawksworth Restaurant in the historic Rosewood Hotel Georgia. Vancouver's hippy hangover has seen a boom in vegetarian restaurants such as The Acorn, Parker and Heirloom in recent months, and the 'locavore' movement (for eating fresh, locally-produced food) has taken hold through seasonal restaurants, including Fable and Forage.

 

Gastown, the birthplace of the city, is a touristy area that's nonetheless worth a visit. Visitors stand transfixed by the steam clock, but skip that to explore the heritage buildings and cobbled streets instead. The neighbourhood is bordered by the edgy Downtown Eastside, where you'll find trendy restaurants such as nose-to-tail Wildebeest and Asian-influenced Pidgin. Back in Gastown, cocktail bars like Clough Club and The Diamond rub well- dressed shoulders with boutiques selling local designer clothing and homegrown talent, such as quirky Canadian shoe designer John Fluevog.

 

Another tourist attraction worthy of the hype is Granville Island. An old industrial area on a peninsula under Granville Bridge, the 'Island' is home to a fantastic food market, First Nations galleries and artisans producing everything from sake to silk scarves. Head here for theatre shows, festivals and whale-watching; boats take you out into the Strait of Georgia to spot orcas. Hunt down some smaller fry at Go Fish, a tiny shack on the quayside by the fishing boats that sells excellent fresh fish and chips.

 

From Granville Island, it's a short walk to the art galleries of South Granville, the homeware boutiques in the Armoury District and the yummy mummy shops along West 4th Avenue in Kitsilano, a few blocks from the popular Kits Beach.

 

This is a city fuelled by caffeine. Coffee lovers get their fix at Gastown's Revolver, Matchstick on Fraser and Prado on Commercial Drive, which is also the area to head to (take the Skytain) for Italian food. Main Street is a strip of vintage stores that also has around 100 coffee shops: try Kafka's, local roasters 49th Parallel or Vancouver-born chain JJ Beans.

 

Burn off the buzz by renting a bike to cycle around the seawall that hugs the downtown peninsula and stretches to Granville Island and Kits. Stop and watch float planes take off over Lion's Gate Bridge, which was built by the Guinness family in the 1930s, or head across to the North Shore to the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Take a bus to Lynn Canyon with quiet walks through cedar forest, past sun-dappled plunge pools to another rickety suspension bridge across the valley and fast flowing river below. Don't worry – the only falling head over heels you'll do is in love with this wilderness city.

 

Into the wilderness

 

Vancouver is the gateway to British Columbia's winding coastline of secret islands and fjords that hide luxury wilderness lodges where the phrase 'getting away from it all' really means something. Bear-spotting – brown, grizzly and the rare white 'spirit' kind – draws most visitors into the rainforest, as does world-class fishing and the opportunity to explore the remote wilderness with a touch of luxury.

 

Nothing beats the sound of helicopter rotors chopping through the air as you leave Vancouver's peninsula behind as a tiny dot and fly over the twisting islets and sounds up into the north of BC. Landing in Sonora Resort (www.sonoraresort.com), on Sonora Island in the Discovery Islands chain, it's clear that BC lodges don't mean roughing it in a log cabin. Part of the Relais & Chateaux collection, Sonora is more about gourmet food and relaxing in the oceanside mineral pools or enjoying a luxury spa experiences at the Island Currents Spa. Eco-adventure tours take guests out into the rainforest wilderness to try salmon fishing or grizzly bear-spotting on the land of the Homalco First Nation band.

 

Elsewhere, there are opportunities to combine culture and nature. Spirit Bear Lodge (www.spiritbear.com) in BC's Great Bear Rainforest offers accommodation run by the Kitasoo/Xai'xais First Nation on their traditional territory and the opportunity to spot the rare white 'spirit' (Kermode) bears in their only natural habitat.

 

Floating lodges are the ultimate fly-in luxury retreats. Great Bear Lodge (www.greatbeartours.com), a private float plane ride away from Port Hardy, is situated in the Great Bear Rainforest and offers an intimate, five-bedroom lodge experience with a focus on gourmet local food, eaten out on the deck, and the chance to spot grizzlies as they feast on salmon during the autumn months. There's also a chance of seeing humpback whales, sea lions and seals among the inlets and, of course, the spirit bears lurking in the second largest temperate rainforest in the world.

 

World-class fishing can be found up in northern BC in the Haida Gwaii Islands, near Alaska, where halibut and salmon fishing experiences can be combined with fine dining at the West Coast Fishing Club (http://westcoastfishingclub.com). Their flagship five-star Langara Island lodge in Haida Gwaii is accompanied by two more remote fishing lodges at the Outhouse and North Island Lodge for serious anglers.

 

Inland mountain lodges further south in BC, such as the wonderful Bella Coola (www.bcmountainlodge.com) and the luxurious Tweedsmuir Park Lodge (www.tweedsmuirparklodge.com) offer grizzly bear watching among the ancient cedar forests. In Canada's cowboy country of Cariboo you'll find luxury horse-riding options at Echo Valley Ranch (www.evranch.com) and Siwash Dude Ranch (www.siwashlakeranch.com), or a wilderness spa experience at Tyax Wilderness Spa (www.tyax.com) in the South Chilcotin mountains.

 

Closer to Vancouver are the luxury eco-adventures lodges on Vancouver Island – fly in or take a boat to upscale tented accommodation at Clayoquot Wilderness Lodge (www.wildretreat.com). Drive to Wickannish Inn (www.wickinn.com) near Tofino, a luxury waterfront hotel in the Pacific Rim National Park, for storm-watching in winter when the Pacific winds roll in.

 

If you want to cut ties with the land completely, Bluewater Adventures (bluewateradventures.ca) has small ship cruises around BC, while Pacific Yellow Fin (www.pacificyellowfin.com) offers private yacht charters on a converted fishing boat. Keep your feet on terra firma with a train ride on VIA Rail (www.viarail.ca) or treat yourself to a panoramic Gold Leaf carriage ride on the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer train (www.rockymountaineer.com) from Vancouver to Whistler, or ride up into the Rockies to visit Jasper or Banff National Park in Alberta.

 

Sandra Potter, owner of Canada specialist Frontier Travel, shares her fondest memories of living in Vancouver.

 

"My favourite memory is walking through the streets after returning from an excellent dinner at Blue Café & Raw Bar in Yaletown. It was during the 2010 Olympics and there were so many people out and about. The atmosphere was amazing. I also loved sailing in the harbour, going out under the bridges and up Howe Sound.

 

"My ideal day in the city would include a walk in Stanley Park, probably along the sea wall, then lunch in waterfront Cardero's or the Tea House in the park, followed by a wander through Granville Island. Dinner in Chinatown would top off a pretty good city day.

 

"I love to head out to West Vancouver and walk through Lighthouse Park – there are great views back to the city. I love wandering around Van Dusen Gardens, strolling past the 'sails' of Canada Place or heading across to Spanish Banks to look north across the water to the city and mountains beyond. My favourite neighbourhoods are Kitsilano, because of the ocean, Yaletown for the boutiques and restaurants, and Granville Island for the variety of fresh food and the art galleries."

WAY TO GO

Windows on the Wild offers unique and exciting adventure holidays from The Rockies to the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, Vancouver Island and the remote north of BC. Tel. 0208 742 1556 / www.windowsonthewild.com

 

Frontier Canada is a specialist in tailor-made holidays to Canada, with a focus on bear-watching wilderness lodge adventures and horse-riding ranch holidays. Tel. 020 877 68709 / www.frontier-canada.co.uk

 

Powder Byrne offers luxury, family-focused adventure holidays in the Canadian Rockies, including lakeside lodges in BC, fishing adventures and trips to Vancouver Island. Tel. 020 8246 5300 / www.powderbyrne.com

 

Discover the World features an extensive range of escorted and independent tailor-made holiday options in Canada, including Signature Experience holidays and wildlife themed trips. Tel. 01737 214 250 / www.discover-the-world.co.uk/en

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