I’m out strolling the streets of Vancouver, not even 15 minutes after checking into my hotel. After 11 hours of travelling on 2 hours’ sleep, I figure I can either collapse or just keep on going. Ever been in one of those "in for a penny, in for a pound" situations? Well, that basically describes my trek around Stanley Park’s sea wall – a fine circuit of some 5 to 6 miles under normal circumstances, but a bit quixotic undertaken by a jet-lagged tourist who’s barely gotten her bearings.
Still, once I’ve walked down Robson Street and then over on Denham Street to the waterfront, the undulating seawall path seems downright inviting. Stanley Park, which is at least as large as downtown Vancouver if not larger, combines aspects of a civic playground and a wilderness retreat. And it is full of entertaining diversions, both in the interior of the park as well as all along the seawall path running along the outer perimeter of the park.
First, there are splendid vistas of downtown Vancouver from across Coal Harbor, and then the Totem Pole collection punctuates the skyline. The Nine O’Clock Gun (a cannon fired each evening at, you guessed it, 9 o’clock) comes next, followed Brockton Point with its squat, red-and-white lighthouse, and then a life-like statue of a "Girl in a Wetsuit" perched on a rock offshore. As I approach Prospect Point, a cruise ship leaving its mooring at Canada Place emits a long, deep bass TOOOOOOOOT and heads towards Prospect Point, slowly approaching and then going under the impressive span of Lion’s Gate Bridge, which links Vancouver to the northern shore.
Pedestrian traffic thins considerably after Prospect Point, which is more or less the halfway point along the circuit, though I note more fishermen, mostly Asian men, carrying nets. They banter companionably as they head home with their catch, pulling their homemade carts loaded with buckets, rods, tackle boxes, and other paraphernalia behind them. Cyclists and roller bladers glide by on a separate path running adjacent to the path used by pedestrians and joggers. This separation of foot and wheeled traffic is one of the many well-thought-out aspects of the park.
There are numerous benches, too, throughout the park, as well as all over Vancouver. By the time I’ve rounded Prospect Point and am approaching distinctive Siwash Rock jutting high out of the water offshore, I’m in need of one of these benches, which I sink onto gratefully. At this point, I’m running on nothing more than fumes. Blankly watching sailboats and container ships crisscross the coastal waters, I deliberate how much further there is to go. I consider cutting across the wooded heart of the park but haven’t got a detailed map and darkness is approaching. On I plod, past Third Beach and Second Beach, finally coming all the way around to the other end of Denham Street, the circuit of Stanley Park complete.
Do I sleep well that night? You betcha.
The following day dawns overcast, soon giving way to showers that increase in intensity throughout the day. Luckily, I’ve planned a day indoors at the Anthropology Museum at the University of British Columbia, but getting there involves more walking than anticipated as the bus drops me off a good distance from the museum. The campus is filled with students hunched under umbrellas, sometimes in sociable pairs or trios, as they scurry to class.
Everyone, in fact, seems to have an umbrella but me. I have a more-or-less waterproof jacket and a baseball cap that keeps the rain off my glasses. After a certain point, I no longer care how wet my feet are. It isn’t cold or windy, so I take my time squish-squish-squishing across campus, wishing (as I often do) that I’d had the opportunity to properly enjoy college, my long-distant undergraduate days nothing more than a blurred recollection of long hours in minimum-wage jobs combined with as many classes as I could squeeze in on the side.
But here I am in the rain, much too old for anyone to mistake for an undergraduate, entertaining a fantasy. Yes, I’m on my way to my pottery class. Perhaps afterward I’ll to join some friends hanging out at the Student Union... As I splash along the sodden pavement, I think of what I’d do if I were young and could do it all over again.
I’d buy an umbrella, that’s what.
After visiting the Anthropology Museum, I deliberate heading back to the campus bus platform, but it seems a shame to come all the way out here and spend only a few hours. I notice a sign for Nitobe Memorial Garden and remember having read that this Japanese-style garden is well worth a visit. Following the sign, I pass through a wooded area alongside the Asian Studies building and find myself before a little kiosk in front of the entrance to the garden. Not unsurprisingly, I seem to be the only visitor, and my soggy apparition in front of the kiosk startles the woman absorbed in paperwork behind the glass. After collecting a modest fee, she hands me a laminated guide to the garden and I enter.
Here I find enchantment. In seconds, I become convinced that all Japanese gardens should be viewed in the rain. There is a more subtle palette on a rainy day, more variations on the infinite shades of green. The moss carpeting the forest floor glistens with beads of water, the delicate maple leaves tremble with rain, and shallow pools form in the crevices of stones. Thousands of raindrops fall onto the lake, echoed by the cascade of droplets falling from the tree branches, the soft patter of rain on the wooden bridge, and the trickle of rivulets running along the garden paths.
Wet feet or no wet feet, I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
On yet another day, I don my remaining dry pair of shoes and take a stroll downtown. All along Coal Harbor I admire the gleaming structures along the waterfront, modern hotels interspersed with apartment towers. There’s a sophisticated vibe in this urban setting, which feels more laid back than a U.S. city, more in tune with the needs of its residents. Everywhere there is water – in the harbor, in cascading fountains; and where there is not water, there are shiny glass surfaces. The tree-lined parks and streets are spotlessly clean, adding to the city’s livability. It’s a magical place that has risen here on the shores, dense with glass-and-steel buildings, yet still feeling wonderfully spacious.
Walking along the perimeter of Canada Place, with its soaring white "sails," I feel as though I’m on the deck of a ship, an illusion furthered by the great cruise ships docked alongside the complex. Throughout the downtown area, older buildings are intermingled with and reflected in the surface of new ones. The delightful Marine Building, with its art deco frieze of sea creatures, is just across from a glass complex with rounded edges that houses the tourist information office.
There’s a lively street scene, too, adding a human dimension to all the glass and steel. On a Friday night, fashionable Robson Street is thronged with animated twenty-somethings spilling out from cafés and restaurants onto the street. The old courthouse building that houses the Vancouver Art Gallery is a gathering point, with street artists performing on the steps of the building, street vendors peddling their wares, and chess players plotting their moves on benches nearby. And then there are the fringe elements found in any large city, the street people huddled in doorways or a group of crazed evangelicals hoisting signs proclaiming, "REPENT SINNERS! CHRIST DIED FOR YOUR SINS."
No, Vancouver isn’t utopia, but it comes just about as close to one as this inveterate stroller has ever seen.