Mexico has its playas, the Caribbean its beat, but Americans are prone to overlook the charms of the neighbor to the north. I’ve already had a healthy dose of the remedy to that affliction with visits to two of Canada’s largest cities; Calgary and Vancouver.
Soon, I’m off on a four day journey back across this great big land on VIA Rail, Canada’s version of the Orient Express. A full report on the train trip will follow my arrival in Toronto, but I already know it will be a far different experience from the ones I’ve had so far.
While a tour by train gives an expansive and ever-moving view of the country, it is largely a sedentary one. The closest I got to sitting while in the cities of Western Canada was on a bike.
Calgary and Vancouver both enjoy natural beauty and proximity to water and those assets have been incorporated into the life of the city. Folks who love activity can get out and enjoy both in whatever way they find appealing.
Downtown Calgary is located in the curves of the Bow and the Elbow rivers. (Yep, you read that right.) Along the banks, greenways run from one end to the other. These are used for commuter and leisure traffic of the non motorized kind. Luscious views of the winding rivers – adorned with cultivated and wild flowers frame Calgary’s modern skyline.
On a sunny day in August with temperatures in the low 70s, many Calgarians preferred to be in the water rather than just near it. I watched kayakers and – believe it or not – white water rafters headed downstream in the foreground of the city center. How great would it be to work in one of those downtown offices and spend a lunch hour out on the river?
Thanks to my airbnb hosts Peter and Teslin, I had a bike for my stay, a souped-up, rainbow colored cruiser with an aah-ooh-gah horn that several children asked to honk as I made my way around town.
At the Olympic Plaza I joined a crowd watching a free music concert. I pedaled Uptown, around vibrant Seventeenth Avenue southwest, the sidewalks packed with people window shopping at the funky stores or on their way to the many cafes and bars. I stopped for Moose Tracks ice cream at Pop’s Dairy Bar in an area of historic homes called Inglewood and wound up at the gianormous, Stampede fair grounds. Unlucky me the 10-day ranch/rodeo-themed extravaganza for which Calgary is internationally famed had ended a few weeks prior to my arrival.
This I washed down with a teeny-tiny shot of Kentucky Buck Bourbon. You’ve already figured out this is not actually Canadian, but with the bucking bronco on the label, Buck’s riding high on the enthusiasm of Calgarians for all things cowboy.
By the time I checked in to the oh-so-convenient Delta Airport Hotel (Come ‘on, you knew I’d stay there, didn’t you?) and watched the planes arriving as the sun set on Calgary, I was exhausted. I had only enough energy left to pencil a return visit, timed so that I don’t miss Stampede next time.
The Western rancher culture is almost entirely dissolved in Vancouver; the some places-glittery/some places-gritty home to two million people – but the water can be seen from practically anywhere.
Bays, straits, inlets, creeks and even “false” creeks make their presence felt in all directions. The best overview is from the air on a Harbour Air sea plane. (Details here.) It’s also great – no surprise – by bike using the five and a half mile path along the seawall surrounding the 125 year old Stanley Park.
There is an abundance of shops offering bike and roller blade rentals near the park entrance. Louis Kwan of Bayshore Bike Rentals set up my friend Barry McCaig with a bike with cushy seat, helmet and lock and in minutes we were out the shop’s back door and at the start of the path.
We didn’t get too far before stopping at the display of native British Columbian totem poles. I’d already read Susan Vreeland’s excellent book, The Forest Lover which made me appreciate them all the more.
We got back in the flow of traffic which is one way for most of the seawall path and soon we saw Vancouver’s version of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, which for some reason they call “Girl in a Wetsuit”. There followed the swimming pool, several beaches and the stone balancing sculptures that – even after watching one constructed – still leave me mystified.
There is an overwhelming variety of people-moving equipment in Vancouver. I counted cruise ships, historic wooden boats, storybook-sized ferries, public transit trains, tourist and commuter buses, a Vespa with sidecar, antique cars, high performance cars, ordinary cars, sea planes, helicopters, kayaks and paddleboards.
The Holland and Celebrity cruise ships docked at the ship terminal at Canada Place on the north shore of downtown, remained in view even from the top of Grouse Mountain where I traveled that afternoon with my friends, Ingrid Nystrom and Art Richards to visit Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. You move around here on your own power fueled with guts because the bridge runs across a 260 foot deep river canyon.
Vancouver claims to be Canada’s greenest city – Greenpeace was founded here in 1971. In that spirit, Capilano is an effective evangelist for the environment with its intensive tutorials on the region’s forest life which are offered tree-by-tree on elevated canopy and cliff walks.
After climbing around all afternoon with my heart in my mouth, Ingrid and Art took me to dinner at the Observatory Restaurant at the top of the mountain. Heading upward yet again, this time on the Super Skyride cable car, it was apparent that this would be dining in the clouds, as the “Peak of Vancouver” as it is known, was fogged in.
In the cottony grey world separating our high altitude haven from the rest of Vancouver, a young man seated at a table nearby proposed to his dinner companion and she said “yes”.
As the entire restaurant burst into applause, the sky cleared, revealing a spectacular twinkly-lights view of the city surrounded by its watery wonderland. One did not need to be newly engaged to see that moment as the perfect time to reflect on the adventures in our past and appreciate the adventures that lie ahead.
Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.