Vancouver & Victoria 2011: Gardens, Museums & Food

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Vancouver and Victoria



Of the six days I spent in the Pacific North-West of Canada, it rained for five.  More accurately, it drizzled on and off all day, a climate I associate with England.  Victoria is supposed to be in a climate pocket that gets much less rainfall and much more sunshine than Vancouver, but you could have fooled me.  The island is the seat of the province’s government, home to many retirees and a destination for 4 million tourists per year.  I took an early morning ferry from Seattle, where I was visiting Natasha, which reached Victoria before noon.   The semi-circular harbor was ringed by apartment and office buildings that were not of a height to completely obscure the view and the two dominating remarkable architectural structures: the provincial parliament built in 1898 in the Edwardian style and the Fairmont Empress Hotel built in Romanesque style in 1908, both designed by Rattenbury.  Yes, I consulted a guidebook for this information.
Luckily, the drizzle stopped for the two hours it took to do a city tour.  Although the downtown area is small enough to easily walk, the metropolitan area is spread out and has 360,000 inhabitants.  We drove through some plush neighborhoods with substantial Tudor and Edwardian houses lined with trees in fall colors and streets piled with fallen leaves.  There were also several beach communities with harbors that sheltered boats of various sizes although the yachts were parked in the main harbor downtown.  Other than the “English” neighborhood, as the guide called it, the suburbs could have been anywhere in North America.  We stopped at a high vista point to see snow-capped Mount Baker on one side and the Olympic range on the other with the famous San Juan Islands to its right.
The downtown area was replete with shops to attract tourists, fairly good restaurants to feed them and an obligatory Chinatown with a traditional gate that was just a block long.  Like many cities in North America, Victoria sported an “Occupy Victoria” settlement in the square outside city hall.  As in other cities, there was no theme to the cardboard signs, especially as the Canadian economy is doing well.
Victoria is known as the city of gardens.  Butchart is the most famous, but I did not get to it.  Beacon Hill Park, covering 185 acres, once owned by the Hudson Bay Company, was near where I lodged.  It was beautifully landscaped and manicured with bridges, lakes and ponds, and an alpine and rock garden.  It had a large variety of trees, some very colorful, and many species of ducks and birds, including a big family of peacocks that were roaming around leisurely.   I cannot think of a nicer city park anywhere.  After the walk, I visited the Royal BC Museum with First Nations, Modern History and Natural History exhibits.  All the exhibits were well arranged with great attention to detail.  I lingered longest at the First Nations section to learn a little of Canadian-Indian history and take a close look at some magnificent totem poles.   More of these carvings were in the main lobby, near the museum’s east entrance and in Thunderbird Park on the east side of the museum complex.  I liked the Haida carvings most, especially the argillite (black slate), somewhat reminiscent of Makonde carvings from East Africa.  The argillite pieces were really expensive in art galleries.  Instead, I bought a couple prints by an indigenous artist done in abstract form.
The next day I took the ferry to Vancouver.  More precisely, I had to ride an hour in a bus to get to the ferry that took about 1.5 hours to get to the harbor in Vancouver’s suburbs, and then it took another hour on a bus to get to the city center.   After passing a few forested fingers of land, there was not much to see from the ferry except the ocean, but the journey was smooth and comfortable in a huge vessel that carried passengers and vehicles.Despite the drizzly and gray day, Vancouver’s skyline was impressively dense with high-rise buildings as we approached the peninsula.  Many of these building were financed by immigrants from Hong Kong seeking an alternative home in case China’s repossession of the territory affected their freedom.  Well, they managed to recreate mainland Hong Kong’s (Kowloon) skyline of apartment buildings, but with taller structures of glass and steel in modern design.   People of Chinese origin now comprise about 30 percent of Vancouver’s ethnically diverse population.  Many shop signs were written in both English and Mandarin in the suburbs approaching the city.My hotel turned out to be a Heritage building by English Bay’s beach in the thriving West End of the city.  Walking along the beach to the west was Stanley Park, a huge city park with a circumference of 6 miles.   I walked around it one morning.  There were two other beaches along the way imaginatively called Second and Third Beach.  The vegetation was as lush as in Beacon Hill Park, but less manicured.  The views on the North side were spectacular with clouds lifting from peaks, that rose straight up from the water, to reveal fresh streaks of snow that had fallen in the blistery and wet morning.

The inner city was quite walkable, about four miles from English Bay to Gastown in the East end of town, but not comfortable because of the rain and drizzle.  I broke down every now and again and took buses and light rails, which were easy to use.  The city also has a sky train, which I did not get to use.  In the forest of new skyscrapers, some designed by renowned architects, were a few fine old buildings such the Vancouver Art Gallery housed in the former courthouse designed by the redoubtable Rattenbury and a collection of Edwardian and Art Deco buildings from the early 20th Century.  Standing out in the city’s landscape was Canada Place, a giant tent-frame pavilion built for the 1986 World Exposition, now used as a convention center, hotel and cruise ship terminal.  There was a Chinatown of course, much bigger than in Victoria, but not especially interesting.
VancouverThe Vancouver Art Gallery had a strong collection of landscapes by Emily Carr, the province’s most distinguished painter, historical and modern First Nations works and an exhibition of Mexican modern art that included works of Diego Rivera.  Unexpectedly, the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, in a suburb of the city, had a fascinating collection of Coastal People’s carvings including totem poles and Haida houses in the grounds outside.

Cafés, restaurants and bars were everywhere I walked serving food and wine from all over the world.  So much choice with so few meals!  Apparently, more than 50 percent of Vancouver’s population does not have English as their first language.  Most of the immigrants are from Asia, mainly China.  There is a strong contingent of people from India that migrated from Punjab in the early 20th Century to work in the lumber mills, joined by more recent immigrants as well.  In the panoply of restaurants, the Japanese stood out with lines outside Guu and Ramen offerings.  But modern Korean, Thai, Indian were not far behind.  All in all, there was no shortage of good food in Vancouver, but about 20 percent more expensive than in the SF Bay Area.  Some of the extra charge was because of the higher sales tax rate.  (Unlike Americans, Canadians don’t seem to mind paying taxes to fund their social services.)  The taxes on alcohol were even higher, making wine about twice as expensive in shops and restaurants.  As a result, the mediocre local wines from the North Okanagan Valley became unappealing.
Canadians are big beer drinkers.  I remember from my stay in Toronto in the late 1960s the lines at the state liquor stores on Friday evening when people loaded up with cases of beer for a weekend of drinking.  That practice has not changed apparently, but the beer has.  Lots of local micro-breweries have sprung up that make a variety of good beer catering to many tastes.  I was surprised to learn that American micro-brews were held in high esteem.  I gave up drinking American beer decades ago because it tasted like piss, partly because of the restrictions on alcohol content.  I learned that the law had changed and micro-brewers have since been producing beers as good as the best European.  I tasted a flight of American and Canadian beers and all of them were full of flavor.  Because the alcohol content has risen to 8-10 percent, close to that in wine, chugging pints of beer is no longer such a good idea.

For good reason, Vancouver is rated high in the world’s most livable cities.  Despite the “Occupy Vancouver” protests, the economy seemed to be thriving.  Exporting lumber and minerals to Asia plays a big role in that prosperity, but it is also a center for software development, biotechnology, aerospace and, to my surprise, the film industry–it is the third largest in North America after Los Angeles and New York.  Indeed, I had to walk around a shooting in Gastown, made to look like London with a double-decker bus parked in the street.
The city seemed well-managed and had substantial cultural amenities.  The pace of life was not as intense as in some American cities and the young and old were treated with great consideration in buses and sidewalks.  The  “eh” at the end of each sentence and the distinct “ou” pronunciation were the only signs that it was a different country.  Superficially, the ethnic melting pot was working well, although a person of Iranian origin said that while there was no problem in Vancouver, the situation was different in rural areas.

All in all, Vancouver is a very attractive city to live in, especially with Canada’s great healthcare system.  But the weather is discouraging, casting a pall over an otherwise great place.  The drizzle, rain, clouds and gray sky for months on end could be depressing.  I mentioned this to a fellow bus passenger with whom I had struck up a conversation partly because he was familiar with the SF Bay Area.  He retorted, “but the ground shakes where you live”.  True.  Anyway, I got one day without rain and with some sun to take photos.


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