Jordan Bond visits the modern, poutine-loving, puck-hurling, excessively apologetic multicultural haven in the frigid North.
Vancouver's a dangerously easy city to fall for. It's sensuous and serene, while looking like it's not even trying.
You know those sort of people. You still remember them years on. "There's just something about them," you think, not even realising you're smiling until your partner asks why. So effortlessly attractive it's infuriating.
I'm sorry, Auckland, for even thinking about another city like this. I know you make the most desirable city lists too, and you're wonderful, you really are.
Maybe it's my rose-tinted glasses, but …
Vancouver is surrounded by rich forests and hiking trails and the Pacific Ocean seemingly everywhere you turn. Mountains appear in front of you as you walk through the central city — snow-capped in the winter and lush green in the spring.
The residents are laid back and live a patient lifestyle. Vancouverites get outside, care about the environment, and are politically progressive.
The food scene is vast and competes for a discerning, social public. British Columbia's wine is the province's best-kept secret, barely exported because of red tape.
Vancouverites love living there. It's green and healthy, economically stable and safe. It's North America's most liveable city, a consensus top five internationally, and shows no sign of falling.
Nature is fought for, not against. Local politicians, whether through voter compulsion or a moral obligation, have a raft of environmental goals. The culmination of these: it wants to be the world's greenest city by 2020. It's the kind of place where people know not only the existence of but details about a 600-year-old Douglas fir tree in the city's park.
It sounds a lot like Auckland; they're often compared. Maybe I'm looking back with a lover's gaze, but Vancouver's still with me.
Both of my "hosts" who were there to show me around, Brianna and Amber, are born-and-bred Vancouverites. "A rare breed," they say in unison.
The city is fantastically diverse, though immigration policies are not without contention.
More than half of Vancouver's population has a first language other than English, and almost 30 per cent of the city's residents are of Chinese heritage.
I visited and ate in Chinatown, the centre of the diaspora in Vancouver, and one of many tangibly culturally different neighbourhoods in the city.
After a welcome dinner and cocktails at one of our hotel's many watering holes, on our first morning we took a short drive from downtown to the renowned Granville Island Market. It's a colourful, bustling artisan farmers market that sells locally-made fresh food, bread, and products.
Surprisingly, it's the second most visited tourist attraction in Canada, after Niagara Falls.
But the reason becomes clear: the place does quality. Vancouver Foodie Tours gave us an expert guided path, sampling a fantasy-like assortment of the offerings: wine, spirits, cheese, meats, bread and apples. It's frequented by the city's chefs and foodies. Stalls are prized, near-impossible to get, and restricted to local companies. One of the "newer" stalls had been there 10 years.
We finished the morning off with a good few drops at Granville Island Brewing, one of the many craft breweries in the metro area.
Although some other advanced countries are still debating the importance of government-led environmental policies, Vancouver just did it. The city recognised the need to drive change and lead from the front.
Buildings, transport, waste, food, water, air, the economy — the city has a green plan for all of them, and stated goals it wants to reach by 2020.
Largely it's reaching those; some it has already, others it hasn't and may not, but is making progress nonetheless.
The environmental policies are visible enough — and its people proud enough — that it often came up in conversation. "It's common sense," was the the response. Anything less would be ignoring reality and responsibility. People are proud of their city.
Renewable energy already provides 98 per cent of the city's energy needs. It's encouraging people to look for alternatives to private car use and now 50 per cent of trips residents make are now walking, cycling or on public transport.
A whopping 93 per cent of the population is within a five-minute walk of a park or green space. The city's growing, but there's a quarter less waste going to landfill than in 2007.
It's trying to double the number of local farmers' markets, to sustain local jobs, reduce environmental impacts of food transport, and create social connections between consumers and those who grow the food that ends up in their mouths.
It shares this collective identity with two neighbouring US states, Washington and Oregon, home to Seattle and Portland respectively. Despite a country boundary being in the way, the three are historically intertwined and known as the Pacific Northwest. They share a lot of attributes: the geographical, the social, the political, and — it can't go unmentioned — a long-standing acceptance for marijuana consumption.
Recently Vancouver was struggling under the weight of its own success. It's not only a desirable city to live in, but to visit too. Tourism numbers have consistently risen for years; last year was its fourth consecutive annual record.
I stayed in a near-new hotel, The Douglas, one of two in the Parq Vancouver complex.
The NZ$715 million build is less than a year old and is a significant development for the city's downtown area. It has eight public restaurants, a bunch of bars and a massive casino, as well as a 2800sq m rooftop park.
Hotels had been at near-capacity year-round, and couldn't cope in the summer. The glitzy Parq complex has eased that pressure, and brought its own stamp to the city.
"It brings a touch of Vegas to Vancouver," host Brianna said.
On a crisp March morning we drove 30 minutes north to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, the city's oldest tourist attraction sitting at the foot of the mountains. Built in 1889, the 70m high, 137m long swinging bridge traverses a canyon and river, surrounded by vast Douglas fir, red cedar and western hemlock trees. Humbling and spacious, it was a peek into the thick forests throughout BC.
No truly Canadian experience would be complete without watching a game of hockey, the national sport, the marrow in their bones. Canadian kids skate before they can walk.
During a game at Rogers Arena, I made a Vancouver faux pas by bringing up the Stanley Cup Riots in 2011. Their local team, the Canucks, were an inch away from winning the finals of the NHL, the largest and most competitive hockey competition in the world. They lost the final game in Vancouver, sparking a night of riots. This humble, polite, friendly city was unrestrained for a night: police cars were set on fire, shop windows smashed and businesses looted.
"That was embarrassing," Brianna told me, weary at the number of times she must have spoken about this.
While international news stations were replaying footage of the riot the next morning, what was also happening, Brianna said, was that some 15,000 volunteers turned out — some from 5am — to clean up the damage, remove graffiti, sweep the streets, and scrub away the marks of the night before. It was a Thursday; many of them took the morning off work. By 10am, it was all done. Locals pooled money together to help businesses that were affected. This is what wasn't shown on the news: the true spirit of the city shining after a dark night.
(The city said most people rioting were drunk. You have to wonder, if these people chose the region's more traditional herb as their inebriant, how the night might have panned out.)
Outside summer, you have to be prepared to get a little damp in Vancouver. It has a similar but colder climate to Auckland and Wellington, but a healthy amount of rain: 160-odd days a year. People half-jokingly call it Raincouver, or the Wet Coast. It doesn't seem to stop people; you just have a rain jacket tethered to your body.
Thankfully, the five days I was there, it rained only once. It was the first consistently sunny and mild week after winter, and everyone was making the most of the opportunity to get outside. A lot of activewear and toned calves were spotted running alongside the central-city inlet, False Creek, and biking along the 28km Stanley Park Seawall, the world's longest, uninterrupted waterfront path.
A lot of costumes were around too. It was the weekend of the Vancouver stop for the World Rugby Sevens. Knowing it's a growing but minority sport in Canada, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of support — tens of thousands of enthusiastic, loud locals turned up — the vast majority inventively dressed up. I have never heard a stadium as loud as when Canada played the US. I didn't see one overly drunk or aggressive person. Instead, a jovial, passionate, fun atmosphere.
Vancouver' is built to be friendly for humans who aren't in cars, rather than just fitting them in on the space left over from the roads. There are separated or demarcated cycle lanes on many roads, and footpaths are wide. The flat grid layout is easily navigated and walkable, with sensible bus routes and trains.
It was explained as we drove over the Lions Gate Bridge to North Vancouver, that the locals still love their cars because of the freedom they provide on the weekends to get to nearby natural attractions — the mountains, the forest, the ocean.
But it seems they're slowly getting out of their cars, with encouragement of better alternatives. People drive 32 per cent less than they did a decade ago.
Like many desirable cities, Vancouver suffers some of the same issues Kiwi cities do: house prices are becoming more out of reach; already he stunning, dark blue False Creek is too polluted to swim in, and there are more homeless people than ever.
It's a devastating by-product of the city's success, but certainly not unique. Auckland, too. In order to have "higher net wealth", what part of ourselves have we sold when we allow people to go hungry and freeze each night sleeping on the concrete?
People on the outside of the housing market feel the city has been becoming, and is now, a haven for the rich.
The negativity is more prevalent in young people … and they're leaving. Those who make up the lifeblood of any city, people aged from 20 to 40, are slowly finding other places where they can afford to live.
There are fewer young families; half a dozen elementary schools in Vancouver are closing because of a lack of enrolment.
Vancouver's mayor recently said housing and homelessness were the city's biggest problems. And there's certainly some anger about both. But it seems far more often than not, it gets stuff right.
Vancouver feels like what Auckland could be in a few years, if we play our cards right.
It's sensible, successful, progressive and takes care of our earth. In many ways it's what a city of the future should do and be.
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