Vancouver is bursting into spring. Outside my breakfast window at the city's landmark Fairmont Hotel, trees are blossoming in front of the 1911 courthouse building that houses the fabulous Vancouver Art Gallery.

Inside the gallery, an exhibition by the German-born photographer Fred Herzog captures the city's urban life from the 1950s; the neon signs, crowds of people and vacant lots.

So much has changed. Greater Vancouver has grown from 1.3 million to 2.2 million in two decades, making it the largest city in British Columbia and the second biggest in Canada.

It has attracted many immigrants, particularly from Asia, making it highly diverse and cosmopolitan.


From the breakfast table it's easy to see why Vancouver consistently ranks as one of the best cities in the world for "quality of life'. There's a serenity and beauty to what's framed by the window. A relaxed, laid-back feel greets you when you step outside. Motorists slow down to let you cross, there are pristine pavements, and cherry trees flaunt their pink plumage.

Spring is everywhere: manicured gardens at the bottom of glass towers; a carpet of woodlands at Stanley Park, the largest urban temperate rainforest in North America; the firs and spruces on Grouse Mountain.

As the city's international importance has soared, so have the number of towers overlooking the sea and mountains. The city is gearing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics with a budget of C$1.5 billion ($1.8 billion).

These are boom times, but it doesn't whack you over the head. To enjoy the atmosphere, take a walk into any one of the city's neighbourhoods and find a hotdog stand with a huge choice of condiments, or visit any number of attractions. The aquarium has beluga whales, otters and seals. The Orpheum is one of North America's finest heritage theatres.

Vancouver has two Chinatowns. A new one at Richmond near the airport and the old Chinatown behind the dragon-emblazoned Millennium Gate in the east end.

For a flavour of inner-city urban life, the west end back from sandy English Bay, is well worth exploring for its sidewalk cafes, heritage homes and gardens bursting with tulips and cherry trees.

My biggest regret was not making it to Yaletown, the city's hippest neighbourhood with its own Mini Cooper dealership and the famed Urban Fare, a temple to food that sells baguettes from Paris.

That brings me onto cigar shops. With Vancouver sharing a border with the United States, and Uncle Sam banning Cuban cigars, cigar shops are everywhere. Amazing.


Here are 10 good reasons to go to Vancouver. Enjoy.

1) Ice Wine

Most of us associate Canada with snow and ice, but thanks to a micro climate not dissimilar to Central Otago's, with mountains on the sides of valleys to store the day's heat long after sunset, Canada offers a selection of excellent wines.

Ice wine is to Canada what sauvignon blanc is to New Zealand.

It is made by allowing super ripe grapes to hang on the vines until they freeze. When harvested, each grape yields a tiny drop of nectar-like fluid that is incredibly rich and sweet.

The delightfully named Okanagan Valley in British Columbia produces bottles of ice wine from about $C40 ($48.50) a half bottle. Restaurants have it available by the glass.

Don't sidestep other varietals. They are restrained, less fruity than New Zealand and not as big as the Californian wines on offer. My pick was a Poplar Grove Estate merlot at the casual but elegant Italian restaurant, Cin Cin, in downtown Vancouver.

2) Vancouver Lookout

I like to get my bearings in any new city. An open-topped double-decker bus tour of London. A glass-roofed bus tour of Manhattan. In Auckland it would be the Sky Tower. In Vancouver, the place to start is the Vancouver Lookout, a 50-second ride in a glass elevator to a viewing platform at 169m, offering breathtaking panoramas across towers of glass to the snow-capped North Shore mountains and douglas firs on Grouse Mountain.

Immediately below is kidney-shaped downtown Vancouver with all the main attractions, and the lungs of the city, Stanley Park, a sea of green.

3) Capilano Suspension Bridge

Last November a storm brought a 300-year-old douglas fir crashing down on the Capilano suspension bridge, which sways 137m across and 70m above the Capilano River.

It was the first closure since the bridge opened in 1889 and took five weeks to lift the 42,000kg tree off.

After traipsing across the bridge - do stop in the middle for views up and down a deep-canyoned river valley - remnants of that giant douglas fir give an inkling into the forest that covers this vast nation.

On the other side is a treetops adventure where you can walk through a series of suspended bridges from tree to tree to get an appreciation of the size and beauty of Canadian flora and fauna.

4) Fairmont Hotel

Even if you cannot afford the $C300-plus a night, do stop by this classically styled hotel built in the 1930s by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Its green oxidised copper roof is a glorious landmark in the heart of Vancouver.

The hotel lobby and bar feature crystal chandeliers and all the grandeur associated with the world's top hotels. And just so it doesn't feel too stuffy, the hotel has two resident dogs strolling around as part of its ``guest services team'. The dogs are Mavis, a Golden Labrador-Retriever cross and Beau, a yellow lab.

Still in downtown Vancouver is the Pacific Pallisades Hotel, famed for its big and sunny rooms. The hotel is decorated in what could only be described as psychedelic 1980s with art to match in an adjoining art gallery.

The hotel has a 'fun' attitude. That explains the chocolate massage bar and lubricant jelly in the mini-bar selection.

5) La Casa Gelato

Next door to an auto shop in an industrial part of Vancouver, Vince Misceo and his family use only natural ingredients and as little sugar as possible to whip up 400 or more icecream flavours. Not even the infamous American food magazine magnate Martha Stewart was allowed out the back to see the icecream being made.

When I visited there were 138 flavours to taste. How about curry, basil pernod and diabetic chocolate? Or lobster and balsamic vinegar?

Vince is a stickler for quality and freshness. He gets alfonso mangos from India and lemons from the Mediterranean. The limoncello was a perfect balance of tart-sweet, creamy-ice texture. Delicious.

Vince says he once tried chocolate fudge with smoked salmon but it didn't work. I'm sure those odd flavours are a gimmick for what he does best.

6) Gastown

Vancouver was born in 1867 in Gastown, an area that fell into disrepair and was rehabilitated in the 1970s. It takes its name from a colourful English settler, "Gassy' Jack Deighton, who built a pub that launched a city.

These days, the area is a mix of old and new; cast iron gaslights, cobbled streets, Victorian buildings with boutique shops, galleries and cafes.

A big attraction is the world's first steam clock that lets off steam and sounds chimes every 15 minutes. These days it is powered by electricity.

Don't be surprised to be hassled by beggars and drug addicts. The warmer, west coast cities of Vancouver and San Francisco are a magnet for the homeless, and city leaders have been buying up small hotels in the downtown east side and refurbishing them to address the issue.

7) Vancouver Art Gallery

Housed in the old, neo-classical courthouse building, this art gallery is determinedly contemporary. The traditional architecture has been dynamically contrasted with modernist design. Look Auckland, it can be done.

It holds the largest collection of paintings by Emily Carr - the Canadian equivalent of Colin McCahon - and places strong emphasis on photography.

The day I visited, the gallery had four fabulous shows. Vancouver was a new canvas for me, so Fred Herzog's colour images of urban life from the 1950s resonated strongly.

8) Stanley Park

You can't help but be jealous of Vancouver for having a 405ha park.

It features walking and cycling trails, gardens, the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club where mementos hang from All Black matches on a nearby rugby ground, Canada's largest aquarium and an interesting collection of Totem poles telling the stories of the First Nation indigenous people.

Near the city entrance in Denman St are shops with bikes for hire.

9) Walking

Vancouver is an easy city to walk around. I don't know what it is about the drivers but they never appear to be in a rush and are courteous to one another and pedestrians alike.

This laid-back attitude has seen Vancouver consistently rated as one of the best cities in the world to live. Tens of thousands of people live in the inner city and walk to work, to restaurants and stroll around Stanley Park.

Go exploring a block or two into the west end for sidewalk cafes and gardens bursting with tulips and cherry blossoms. Or take in the wafting smells of dried fish and spices in the vast Chinatown.

10) Eating out

I don't know what was more enjoyable: seabass stuffed with cherry tomatoes, olives, fennel, tuscan bread and salsa verde at Cin Cin, or an Italian sausage with ketchup and other condiments from a hotdog stand outside the art gallery. At C$4.50 an excellent hotdog is hard to beat.

Also hard to beat is the view looking across Coal Harbour with its sea planes to the North Shore Mountains from Cardero's, a microbrew pub offering excellent food and large television screens so fans can cheer the local Canucks ice hockey team.

The tuna, seared rare, and native salmon baked on a cedar plank in a wood oven - deeper in flavour than New Zealand salmon - were a great introduction to local seafood.

For splashing out - at dollar for dollar prices with top Auckland restaurants - the Tuscan-inspired restaurant Cin Cin on busy Robson St, has great ambience and decor.

Finding good coffee is another matter. Vancouver has 250 Starbucks. Much rarer is the barista-winning Cafe Artigiano, but you will find one on Hornby St, next to the Fairmont Hotel. The coffee is excellent.

Bernard Orsman travelled to Vancouver with Air New Zealand.