The thriving harbour city of Vancouver has much to recommend it, writes Chris Marriner.
On a holiday halfway across the world, sitting beside the harbour of a city that regularly tops the various "most liveable" polls, it's striking that thoughts of home are to the fore.
A Pacific port city with a diverse population (52 per cent of residents claim a first language other than English), Vancouver provides a tantalising look at what Auckland might have been and in what direction it might head. It's also a welcoming destination for travellers, with world-class snow sports and wilderness within a short drive of a thriving multicultural city.
I'd been struck by the various similarities and differences as I cycled around one of the city's dedicated cycle paths, but there's more to Vancouver than being Auckland's grown-up cousin. Everything that makes it one of the world's most liveable cities demands it be taken seriously as a must-visit destination.
I was in Vancouver for a few days after riding the rails across Alberta and British Columbia with the Rocky Mountaineer train. First in the diary was a trip over the Lions Gate bridge to West Vancouver and the marina at Horseshoe Bay.
After strapping myself into a survival suit and posing heroically beneath a flapping Canadian flag, we took off on a tour of Howe Sound by Zodiac inflatable. It's easy to forget as you zip around the sound's pristine waters, taking in the striking views of the mountains and gently motoring past colonies of lolling seals, that our drive to the marina was just 15 minutes from downtown.
It's the easy access to the ocean and the mountains that really sets Vancouver apart.
Although the city sprawls into suburbia along its south and west side, a trip north allows you to be at a skifield in half an hour or only two hours to the famous resort of Whistler.
After being tossed about on the boat we find ourselves at the aptly-named Snug Cove on Bowen Island where we're fed and watered among boats chattering at their moorings and Canada geese waddling with intent. Lulled into a false sense of security, I'm snapped back into reality by the arrival of the seaplane. I'm not big on planes and, in particular, not big on little planes but I'm promised the views will be worth the discomfort. The flight delivers and provides views across The Lions, two peaks visible from across the city but particularly impressive from the window of a banking seaplane.
Landing back in the city I head to my Airbnb in the trendy Mt Pleasant neighbourhood, hoping to see more of the city from a much lower altitude. The area is packed with restaurants and cafes and only a short bus ride from the CBD, so makes the perfect base.
Aside from the shops selling cannabis, you might be in Auckland's Kingsland or Wellington's Aro Valley. I feel decidedly uncool, but console myself with a burger and craft beer and ride it out. Heading into the city from here on the bus is straightforward, as it is from most points of the compass. This is fortunate given that Vancouver has still not given the green light to Uber or other ride-sharing services. It's almost enough to stir some parochial chest-puffing, before you remember that Vancouver does transport better in almost every other aspect. They also haven't allowed e-scooters yet but every new scraped knee and near-miss back home lends more weight to the wisdom of that decision.
However, as the bus makes its way down Main St toward the city, a different side of Vancouver shuffles into view. The high cost of living and close proximity to the American border means that Vancouver is awash with hard drugs that find a market in a growing homeless population. They concentrate in a few blocks downtown just a short stroll from the tourist neighbourhood of Gastown and it's not unusual to find lost tourists nervously clutching their phones as they scan the map for a way out.
It's a rare reminder that some are more equal than others in this liberal bubble but it's easy to miss if your travels don't take you to this corner of the city.
Those lost tourists could do worse than heading to the verdant and expansive Stanley Park, which sits next to the CBD and boasts peaceful parkland, tourist attractions and half a million trees to get lost among. Bigger than New York's Central Park, Vancouver's 405ha Stanley Park regularly finds a place on lists of the word's best urban parks. Jutting out into the bay, it is surrounded by the Seawall, a walking and cycle path that's well patronised by locals and visitors.
Renting a bike is the best way to get around and the cycleway follows a civilised one-way system, which seems to be adhered to by all. When I did try doubling back to find the toilets I had zoomed past, other riders were far too polite to even shoot me a glance. The park is where Vancouver really comes into its own, an example of smart urban planning dating back to the 1800s that the city hasn't allowed to be carved up for development.
Although similarities between Vancouver and Auckland abound, it goes without saying that there's a lot more to it as a destination. Although it does occasionally feel as if you've travelled halfway across the world for a slice of home, the scale of the outdoor offerings on Vancouver's doorstep and the sophistication of its urban life set it apart.
flies direct from Auckland to Vancouver, with one-way Economy Class fares from $879.