Vancouver, Canada: Part 2
Vancouver, Canada: Part 3
I’m back in Vancouver, Canada after my last visit 13 years ago. A lot has changed since then, so much so that I hesitate to say that this is the same place where my sisters and I grew up spending our summer vacations. As the largest city in the province of British Columbia, Vancouver is surrounded by water on three sides — its exceptional quality and selection of seafood is testament to that. Equally blessed with breathtaking natural scenery and a metropolitan core, Vancouver is an easy city to love.
Down on the southwestern shore of Richmond sits the historic Steveston Village. My sisters and my more youthful days were spent at the Steveston playground but because we’re now “grown-ups,” we prefer to amble along sipping our rootbeer and cream soda Slurpees, a nod to our childhood days.
Named for its founder, William Herbert Steves, Steveston was the busiest fishing port in the world at the turn of the twentieth century. This once-rowdy frontier seaport was home to up to 15 salmon canneries, six hotels, saloons and gambling dens, and numerous vessels loading canned salmon for world markets. On a busy weekend night, up to 10,000 people thronged the boardwalks, including immigrants and sailors from the seven seas.
Today, over 100 years later, Steveston has progressed into an idyllic working fishing village, home to Canada’s largest commercial fishing fleet. It’s quiet now, so quiet that I can hear the wind whispering in my ears and cooling my cheeks. The view of the sea has such a calming effect on me that that I stop to gaze at the waters’ sparkling surface. It’s only my sister’s voice that shatters my reverie, telling me to hurry up. Farther down, we stop to watch a film crew packing up their gear after a day of shooting. Vancouver is so popular a shooting location that it’s sometimes called “Hollywood North.”
Going near the boardwalk, I see trawlers and windjammers anchored to the dock below, selling freshly-caught (sushi-grade!) salmon. I’m mesmerized by the sunlight glinting off of the fish’s silvery skin, their thick, plump bodies just begging to be treated with reverence in a fresh, simple dish.
Amidst the heritage sites and parks, colorful gift shops and markets, there’s fresh seafood, with almost every restaurant trumpeting their fish and chips. Every Vancouverite will have their favorite, saying that Pajo’s is better than Dave’s or vice versa but for me, a non-local, it’s a moot argument. I try them both and they’re equally flavorful: fillets of cod, salmon, and halibut lovingly bathed in batter lightened by egg whites, a crrrunch interrupted only by the succulence of the tender fish flesh rhapsodized by the haunting taste of the sea.
I’m introduced to poutine (poh-TEEN; POO-teen), a curious, French-Canadian food that is: French fries slathered in hot gravy made from the best beef stock and dribbled with white cheese curds. Some say that poutine is the Canadian counterpart to the US Gravy Cheese Fries; and purists claim that poutine tastes best only when made with hand-cut, fresh potatoes fried in lard, smothered in a dark gravy thick enough to stand a spoon up in, and eaten with cheddar cheese curds that actually squeak (!) in your teeth as you bite them etc., etc. Whatever it is, poutine, like Vancouver, is easy to love. For a French fry freak like me, poutine is going down on my list of Best Foods of All Time. Personally, I can see myself living on the stuff for a month, no joke.
Vancouverites are the outdoorsy types; and why shouldn’t they be considering that they have in their backyard a wealth of every terrain possibly needed for every kind of outdoor pursuit from hiking, biking, skating, downhill and cross-country skiing, kayaking, windsurfing, and the list just goes on and on. In fact, the international resort town of Whistler (just two hours north of downtown Vancouver) is the venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In the time I’m in Canada, I hardly get a hold of one of my cousins, who on one day is out dragon boat racing; on another day he’s going wakeboarding. Me, I’m a city girl on vacation with no time or inclination for sport. The only outdoorsy thing I’m going to do is pound the streets of downtown.
The most interesting avenues downtown for visitors like myself are Georgia, Robson, and Granville streets. Georgia Street is the prime address for class-A commercial property, and it’s home to the Coliseum-shaped Vancouver Public Library, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the Pacific Center mall.
They say that retail rental rates along Robson Street are some of the highest in North America. This is because of the insane amount of foot traffic from fashionistas and shopaholics alike who cram Robson Street’s designer boutiques, chi-chi restaurants, cafes, and chocolate stores. It’s the Rodeo Drive of Vancouver. Interspersed among all this exorbitance are cheap-eats falafel stores and burrito shacks. I’m taking it all in as I walk for hours, racking up kilometers in my trusty sneakers, alternately passing high-rises, patches of trees, and lush landscaping. It’s true that you can really get to know a city by exploring its neighborhoods. Once in a while, I think I’ve lost myself in Manhattan, but I turn a corner and stumble upon a view of the mountains in the distance and I remember where I am.
I’m enchanted with Granville Street, which until not too long ago had been the home of movie theatres, pinball arcades, and sex shops. Cleaned up and the focus of several gentrification projects, Granville Street now boasts its own kind of urban authenticity: art galleries, antique stores, used bookstores, some of Vancouver’s best restaurants, and specialty stores.
I stop by Meinhardt Fine Foods at 3002 Granville and marvel at the gourmet items. Much farther down, I pass by a temptingly named store, Death by Chocolate. I had heard about this place from my Canada cousins who apologize for the seeming dearth of bakeries or dessert places in Vancouver. “People here aren’t too fond of sweets,” they reason. Despite its catchy moniker, I’m not even moved to sit down in Death by Chocolate for dessert. The cakes look old and forgotten, their ganache frostings looking more like caked-on face masks. I snap a photo of the storefront and move on.
A little farther on, I encounter one of the few bakeries on this Vancouver trip of mine: McKinnon’s Bakery on Granville Street. It’s got such a small entrance that I would’ve walked right past it if I hadn’t been enticed by the apple strudels in the front display. (I’m telling you, desserts call out to me!) A small, nondescript place, with just a table or two, I make my choices carefully and then ask to have my selections boxed up: a brownie, a peanut butter truffle, an Eccles cake (sort of like a Danish dotted with raisins), and two cupcakes: vanilla and lemon curd.