I’m walking along a sidewalk on a clear morning with Tita Marie. It’s a bit early in the morning so except for a few early risers, the streets are still on the verge of coming to life. A tattoo-covered girl is about to open her inking parlor. “Welcome to Vancouver,” she greets us. “You know, you picked a nice day.” She’s referring to the clear skies overhead, which is kind of a rarity in this parts, as I learn from a few locals. The Pacific Northwest, which includes the northwestern-most U.S. states of Washington and Oregon, receives a lot of rain, so a fine day like this makes Vancouverites swarm outside.
Our stop in Vancouver involves a simple plan: explore the city for four days until we board a cruise ship to Southeast Alaska. There’s no definite itinerary so we’re going to soak up this city on a whim based on majority vote. The hard part is we’re 16 in all (group travel, Filipino-style). The good news is, it’s not like there’s a dearth of choices. Smack dab in the center of gently rolling waves of the Pacific and imposing mountain ranges, Vancouver offers almost everything for everyone. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, so to speak, and provided that you’re willing to brave the waters with temperatures that range around the teens (not to mention the chilly winds), yes, you can swim, too. But first, we must eat breakfast.
A handful of us go outside our Chinese-owned hotel on Denham Street in West End (a couple of blocks from the English Bay) to the nearest supermarket. I first get a glimpse of Vancouver in broad daylight. Chic couples walking dogs that must stand taller than them on two legs. Burly men in hard hats fixing street signs. Intellectual-looking loners at a café buried in a book while delicately sipping a cup of coffee. Teenagers on skateboards isolated from the outside noise with their iPods. And the tattoo lady. Despite her intimidating façade –she’s covered in dragon tattoos and she has a fairly large built – her cheerfulness and courtesy are disarming. In a way that says the same of Vancouver. It may be the largest city in Western Canada, but despite the urban trappings, the vibe, at least away from downtown, is reminiscent of a small town. Everyone, including the weather, it seems, is friendly.
In the afternoon, we head downtown, where we stop by a branch of the Hudson’s Bay Company – North America’s longest-running commercial corporation. Save for a toilet break and a little snack, we don’t linger much. Instead, we hop on a bus minutes later to Granville Island in False Creek. It’s a misnomer (it’s actually a peninsula) but kind of correct as well, since the unhurried pace is much more pronounced here, and it does feel like there’s a separation from the downtown area not only geographically (Granville Island is connected only by the Granville Street Bridge to downtown) but also in terms of character. There are no buses sucking in and spitting out rush hour crowds at regular intervals or fast food chains filled with hungry yuppies. Instead, yachts are bobbing on the blue waters like lilies and the sea breeze adds to the chilly afternoon, while a café on the dock is filled with customers lazing in the afternoon. Elsewhere, a psychic studio promises that your fortunes will be revealed by Vancouver’s top clairvoyants. The area’s largest draw, however, is the public market, where fresh seafood, produce, and dairy products – as well as a large food court serving cuisines from around the globe – compete for our attention. Outside, a busker is fixing his guitar in preparation for tonight’s performance. “Can I take your picture, sir?”
“Yeah, sure, man,” he says with a responsive voice, but with nary an effort to take his attention from his strings. “Whatever.”
The next day, after finishing our self-cooked breakfast at the hotel, we head to the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver, about a 15-minute bus ride from downtown. Sheila, a friend who’s been based in Vancouver for four years now, joins us with one of her two sons. Crossing the 450-foot-long bridge that hangs above the Capilano River by 230 feet is in itself a thrilling experience, but since it’s actually a part of a private rainforest park, there are other attractions as well. That includes Treetops Adventure – a network of cable bridges connecting seven large trees – and the relatively new Cliffwalk – a series of hanging walkways hugging the Capilano River canyon. You get a certificate when you visit all attractions and have your brochure stamped.
The park is rich in biodiversity and it takes a ranger – Julia – for us to even get a taste of what nature has blessed this area with. “This is a Douglas fir,” Julia says during the tour, gently sliding her hand up and down the tree’s bark. Her chirpy voice and joyous candor suddenly make botany interesting. “What’s actually interesting about this tree is that the young ones have rough barks. When they grow up, that’s when their wrinkles disappear and their banks become smooth.” She pauses and looks at the tree. “I bet if I can figure these trees’ secrets, I’ll be rich selling anti-aging creams.” We laugh.
Julia picks a pine cone from the ground and shows it to us. “Pine cones like this one only open when subjected to tremendous heat. When they do, that’s when the seeds inside are released and are sowed all over the ground. What’s interesting is that when a wildfire occurs in the forest, all other plants are burned except for the pine cones. So a wild fire actually kind of jumpstarts the life cycle of the evergreens, like this Douglas here.”
Thirty minutes later, Julia retreats to her base on top of a tree, where the Treetops Adventure starts. Some of the group cross the bridge back to the other side while the rest, who came late, join another tour with another ranger. Sheila, Ate Cel and I are sitting on a bench near the bridge, just stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. Sheila tells us how Canadian residents are better in terms of economic benefits than their neighbors down south. In fact, the IMF predicts that Canada is poised to turn its deficit into surplus in three years. But Sheila admits that working in a foreign land does have its drawbacks. “People back home say that they know it’s hard when you’re working abroad,” she says with a tinge of homesickness. “But the truth is, until you’re in this situation, you don’t know how hard it is.”
With that, we stand up and proceed to the Cliffwalk on the other side of the bridge.
We wake early. There’s a phone call from the hotel lobby. It’s a Chinese guy on the other end. He doesn’t sound like the guy at the reception and he speaks in heavily accented, otherwise passable English. Partly because my mind is still dazed from sleep, I can’t make it out. I beg your pardon, I tell him. “This is the driver of your tour,” he says. “I am here now at the lobby. Are you guys ready?”
“Uh, yeah. We’ll be down in two minutes.” It’s a lie. We’re supposed to be ready by 6:15am, but the driver is calling 15 minutes ahead of the agreed schedule. We’re joining a tour today going to Vancouver Island, where we’ll spend most of the day in the capital, Victoria. The driver perhaps senses in my tone the surprise for the early pick-up time. “I’m supposed to pick a few couple more people around Vancouver so we have to leave early, or they’ll be mad,” he says.
I relay the message to the rest of the group and minutes later, we’re all settled in the 30-seater coaster parked right outside the hotel. “Are we all in?” the driver asks rather impatiently. Yes, we answer in chorus, in a half-excited and half-mocking voice.
The driver settles in his seat, steps on the gas pedal and zooms around the city to pick a few more passengers in Chinatown, Richmond and Surrey before going on a few minutes of smooth drive to Tsawwasen, where we ride a ferry across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Island. There, we continue the drive for about another half-hour to Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia and the site of immaculately manicured lawns and gardens that try very hard to mirror an English countryside. The pubs and Union Jacks leave no doubt as to the objective.
Our driver drops us off at the dock opposite the Parliament buildings in downtown Victoria and gives us around two hours to explore the area. We make our way to the Fairmont Empress Hotel, where guests and walk-in visitors can have a pricey cup of afternoon tea. We simply stroll across the sprawling greens in front of the building before making our way to the Parliament grounds. A group of private school students are having their field trip and gives life to the otherwise quiet yet beautiful massive space of grass.
Shortly after one in the afternoon, we return to the coaster and the driver whisks us off to Mile 0, which marks the start of the Trans-Canada Highway that stretches all the way to the Atlantic coast in Newfoundland. Near the marker, a plaque stands commemorating Stephen Fonyo for running around 8,000 kilometers across the country from March 31, 1984, to May 21, 1985, to raise funds for cancer patients.
We don’t linger long and minutes later, we’re riding through the highway once more to the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay, about a half-hour drive from Victoria. Handsomely maintained gardens reminiscent of the Habsburg excesses are divided into themes – Japanese, Italian, and so on. My mom, a green thumb, can’t hide her pleasure when we descend a flight of stairs to the Sunken Garden. The display of flowers is staggering, especially this spring season, when cherry blossoms are regularly whiffed off the branches by the wind. It’s nature showing its romantic side.
“Just beautiful,” Lola Auring exclaims. Words don’t justify her excitement, but darn right she is.
The Vancouver I’m discovering mainly comes from strolls around the neighborhood – and is more obvious during a leisurely walk along the beach of English Bay. A group of teens sit by a log, acting out the romantic notion of looking out into the sunset. An endless stream of dog owners and an amusingly wide array of dog breeds constantly pass me by. A mother with her teenage daughter approaches me and asks me to take their picture in front of the Inukshuk, a stone sculpture that stands majestically by the bay. The city feels like a giant eco park, always ready to provide that connection to nature that’s increasingly harder to come by in many cities. Vancouver’s gorgeously gentle façade and the diversity of its residents are perhaps the reasons why it’s voted as one of the most livable cities by a number of polls.
But it’s when we stroll around Stanley Park, a huge piece of land jutting out of West End to the Burrard Inlet, on our final full day in the city that I really forge a connection with the city. Around 150,000 trees fill the park’s 400 or so hectares and provide postcard-pretty foreground to the mountainous backdrop. Bikers and roller skaters constantly roam the area, while more domestic canines find the wide space ideal to let their playful animal instincts go into overdrive. We meet Bella, a long-haired Chihuahua who loves to stand on her hind legs while waving her front paws in a playful display of begging. She loves the attention.
In the evening a couple of friends from way back who have been based here for almost a decade now visit us at our hotel. They were little when they moved here so their Tagalog is a little spotty now. Still, the joie-de-vivre remains. These reunions of sorts make the stay more memorable, giving the otherwise incidental stay in Vancouver a kind of fondness that elevates it to more than a mere prologue to what will be a long trip ahead. Back home, there might be nothing special to a familiar young lady bringing chocolate cupcakes to the kitchen table. But here in a foreign land, where comfort in familiarity is underscored, it provides that warmth to a trip that would otherwise lack a distinct character. I take a bite of a cupcake. “Good, right?” my nephew Chio asks.
Yes, I think to myself, I can get used to this.