Story by Jacqueline Detwiler | Photography by Grant Harder | Hemispheres, November 2014
There are many reasons to love Vancouver: cleansing salt breezes, landscapes that could sell a high-definition TV, the fact that everyone stands at crosswalks and waits for the little green man to appear before moving. Then there's the city's signature seafood, which is everywhere: smoked and salted and candied and glistening pinkly next to oysters on appetizer trays.
Here's a thing about salmon: They're anadromous, meaning they swim from ocean to river to spawn—they're equally comfortable in open swaths of the Pacific and frigid mountain streams. In this sense, salmon are like the people here. Spend five minutes in Vancouver and you'll pass dozens of folks perfectly at home in anything the environment can throw at them. They're on skis, on bikes, on boats. They're running, swimming, hiking, camping.
While the pioneering spirit endures here, there is plenty to keep the more cerebral (or sedentary) visitor occupied. You can, for instance, get an absorbing primer on the city's history at the Museum of Vancouver, or beef up on its seedier side at the Vancouver Police Museum. You can watch movies under the stars in Stanley Park or hear live music at the Railway Club. Or you can simply munch elk sausage while sipping a local craft beer at a top-notch eatery, secure in the knowledge that somebody went to great lengths to bring these things to you.
DAYONE | The first few seconds after you awake in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia are a little disorienting. You're lying in a kingsize bed the color of Champagne. There are white flowers everywhere. Everything seems to be made of marble or burnished wood. Did you wake up a 19th-century railroad baron? You catch your reflection in the mirror above your stand-alone soaker tub. Nope. Still you.
Outside your window, a few pink-cheeked locals are huffing along the sidewalk in long-sleeved shirts and running shorts. You look disapprovingly at your gut and pull out a pair of sneakers. A half hour later, you're jogging along the Seawall, a path that circumscribes the peninsula of 1,001-acre Stanley Park. To your right are clutches of red-and-white sailboats bobbing in the choppy bay. Mossy rocks lie about like lazy dogs. Vancouver Island makes occasional appearances from the fog beyond. You think: Gosh, this is pretty. And: Hey, is that a lighthouse? It is a lighthouse.
The Vancouver skyline seen from the Lions Gate Bridge
After a few miles, you reach Girl in a Wetsuit, a statue of, um, a girl in a wetsuit sitting on a rock in the harbor (a wry update on Copenhagen's Little Mermaid). She looks kind of forlorn, out there on her own. You snap a picture with the intention of Photoshopping a few friends in for her later. Speaking of being alone, you can barely see downtown Vancouver in the distance. It's time to head back.
After a quick shower at the hotel, you're off on a short walk to Wildebeest. All brickwork and communal tables, this carnivore-friendly eatery has light fixtures made out of theater pulleys and a slushy machine that's been repurposed to make frozen cocktails. Your run has earned you an indulgent brunch, you feel, so you order the Pig Face Eggs Benedict with tangy tarragon mayo on a steaming biscuit and the thickest bacon you've ever had (pictured below), followed by sugar-dusted mini donuts with gooey caramel centers. You attack this spread as if you've been deprived of food for several days.
When you finish, you emerge into the city's oldest neighborhood, Gastown, which grew up around a single saloon in the 1860s and '70s before being incorporated as Vancouver in 1886. Gastown is now a bustling shopping and entertainment district dominated (fittingly) by bars. You wander into the trendy boutique LYNNsteven, intrigued by the cylindrical dressing room made out of stacked books, and leave with a plaid smoking jacket. Down the street, you find a selection of improbably small bonsai cactuses at Parliament Interiors, a quirky home goods store. They're cute, but not easily packed, so you opt instead for a Ryan Gosling–themed journal covered in tiny hearts. Your teenage niece will love it.
You continue this way for hours, poking around the shops and taking breaks to admire the moody bay behind them. Eventually, realizing that you haven't eaten anything since your pig-out brunch, you head for Pidgin. While the decor here is simple—like a café in a Japanese modern art museum—the menu is not. Your first course is a fresh oyster in a zingy foam of apple and horseradish. There are delicate raw scallops topped with apple and daikon and curry oil. Potatoes come matchstick-thin with spicy cod roe and earthy seaweed butter. For dessert, you order a Midnight Grogg: a glass of rum, lime cordial and verjus stuffed to the brim with frozen grapes. What a great idea.
The chic LYNNsteven boutique in historic Gastown
It's still early—plenty of time for a nightcap. You walk down the street to a cozy spot called Notturno. Behind the bar stands a charismatic local celebrity with a tongue ring and a lot of opinions. Known only as “H" (“The nickname's a holdover from private school," he says), he won Vancouver magazine's bartender of the year award last year. H has been aging a few of his cocktails in barrels lately; he insists that you try the Boulevardier. A bourbon version of a negroni with a little extra wood flavor, it tastes like an evening in front of a log fire.
After a few more of H's homespun cocktails, the idea of cozying up for the night is increasingly appealing. You weave your way back to the hotel through iridescent streets, peering up at lights that look like neon through vaseline, then step into the Rosewood's mahogany lobby, where you find a fire roaring in a century-old hearth. The railroad tycoon is home at last.
DAY TWO | You wake to a rare sight: It is snowing in Vancouver. Down here, where Pacific currents temper the weather, snowfall is generally confined to a few flurries, so it's safe to say that, up in the mountains two hours north of town, the powder must be gangbusters. You've got to get up there. And you will. But first: supplies.
You take a cab to the edge of False Creek, the inlet that separates downtown from the foodie shopping destination of Granville Island, and climb into a rainbow-colored Aquabus ferry, which looks like a large bath toy. Still, you figure it can handle the five-minute trip to Granville. Heck, you can see it from here. This tiny peninsula is known for its covetable produce, and a quick snoop around the Public Market and the food stores that surround it reveals why. You stuff your bag with flawless fruit, reindeer sausage, tangy smoked salmon candy (basically sweet salmon jerky) and salted caramel peanut butter. You also make a concession to your immediate hunger and buy a creamy clam chowder pot pie to eat on the spot. It's fantastic.
A view of Howe Sound from the Sea-to-Sky Highway
Larder stocked, you're on your way north to the mountains—specifically, to Whistler. The drive takes you on one of the most scenic roads in the Pacific Northwest. Maybe one of the most scenic roads anywhere. You navigate northward on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, a ribbon of road that marks the extreme western edge of North America. To your left is the water, as thick and clear as vodka straight from the freezer. To your right are soft smudges of pine. Eagles hang in the sky. Even the mist is cinematic. You could be hurtling through a still from a nature documentary.
Eventually, the water gives way to snowy mountains. Nearly every car on the road is a four-wheel-drive stacked with equipment. The skiers are coming. Before joining them on the slopes, you make a turn for Whistler Olympic Park, where you'll be trying your hand at biathlon: cross-country skiing followed by shooting at targets followed by more cross-country skiing. In the Olympics, the event doesn't look particularly hard; in real life, it's impossible. After a half hour of trying to find your snow legs in a set of parallel tracks, you move to a shooting range, where you race around a track, occasionally flopping down to shoot an air rifle at a target the size of a plum. With your heart rattling around like a shoe in a dryer, you hit exactly none of them.
Sweaty and spent, you finish the drive to the Four Seasons Whistler and stroll into a hunting lodge of a reception layered with Native American rugs. You're ready for a pre-dinner nap, but your body is in knots. The concierge has a solution. A short drive from your hotel is an outdoor thermal bath called Scandinave Spa, where visitors perform repeated cycles of hot, cold and rest. Do this three or four times, he says, and you'll be as relaxed as if you'd been on vacation for a month. You're in.
You find the spa in a glittering pine glade that could be home to a wood nymph in a Disney movie. The most obvious place to start is the hot tub, so you hop in. Then it's a cold plunge pool and 15 minutes in a hammock. That was pleasant, but you think you can beat it. By your final round, you have found the perfect cycle: 20 minutes in a Finnish wood-burning sauna followed by a quick Nordic shower and a solid half hour curled up in a ball next to an outdoor fireplace. Someone with a nightstick might have to force you to leave this place.
Outdoor après-ski at Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub in Whistler
It's then that you remember the meat. You've got a reservation at Sidecut, the Four Seasons' sleek steakhouse. With a pang of regret (mitigated by a pang of hunger), you leave the spa and make your way to the restaurant, where you order a sushi roll made out of rare steak, avocado and dried tomato (the restaurant logo is etched into the wasabi); a 12-ounce ribeye served with house-made steak sauce; and roasted mushrooms and mashed potatoes. Sated, and with your eyes at half mast, you retire to your room to find another fireplace. Your porch overlooks a teal puddle of swimming pool. The lights illuminate a row of icicles thick as your forearm. You flop face down on your bed. Now, if this were an Olympic event…
DAY THREE | There's a knock on your door at 7a.m. Blearily, you open it to find a beaming room service attendant, who wheels in a tray of Bircher muesli and a creamy avocado, apple, spinach and strawberry smoothie. Healthy is as healthy does, and you've got miles of mountain to scream down over the course of the day.
You flick on the fire and lay out your gear to warm while you ponder your dilemma: Blackcomb or Whistler? Whistler or Blackcomb? At 8,171 acres, the Whistler Blackcomb complex is larger than Vail, Aspen, Big White or Mammoth. Your pass will allow you to ski either of the mountains, which are connected at the base and by the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. But with only a single day to ski, it's too big to take on all at once. You flip a loonie. Blackcomb it is.
You can handle almost any blue run with grace, but black runs leave you looking like a drunk in a log-rolling competition. With this in mind, you sign up for Max4 Group Ski Lessons at the Whistler Blackcomb Snow School, where you meet your instructor, Aniello Campagnuolo. After a quick diagnostic ski-off, he selects you and three similarly abled skiers, and leads you up the Wizard lift. On the next, the Solar Coaster, he points down at a few teenagers swooping in and out of trees on a black diamond below. “You ladies will be doing that later," he says. You and your new friends make doubtful faces.
Enjoying the spa at Four Seasons Whistler
As the day goes on, the powder starts looking a little carved up—time to hit the moguls. But first, lunch. This is no time for gourmet aspirations: You grab a bowl of chili and a hot chocolate at Roundhouse Lodge on the mountain. Then you're back on your skis, crisscrossing Blackcomb's face, hitting progressively steeper pistes until, finally, you huck off a small hill onto a black diamond and make it down without a single anxiety attack. Campagnuolo points at a lift above your head, the one you were on earlier, back when you were afraid.
This calls for a drink. You stow your skis and meander over to the Whistler basecamp, where you can see a crowd already gathering outside the Garibaldi Lift Co. Inside, it's a virtual nightclub—a roiling warehouse crammed with rosy-cheeked ski bums in ear warmers and fashion baselayers. You locate a spot at the bar and eavesdrop on two dudes in beanies who are swapping snowboarding war stories. Most of them end with a phrase like “...and that's how I broke my other leg." When the bartender comes by, you order the après specialty, the Great Canadian Caesar, a Canadian Bloody Mary with Clamato. Yours comes with a pickle, green olive, spicy green bean and a strip of bacon.
You find yourself focusing a little too intently on the garnishes, so after the drink you take a quick shower and head for dinner in Whistler Village, which is the size of a small town and looks like a hobbyist's railroad set. Every corner you turn you find another Swiss-looking square and more young, smiling folks in sweatpants lounging on balconies. You pause on a little covered bridge over a bit of half-frozen stream. You wouldn't be too surprised to hear jingling bells and a “Ho! Ho! Ho!"
Oyster shucking at Araxi
Finally, you arrive at Araxi, an oyster bar and high-end seafood restaurant that glows like a seaside pub in a storm. You have a seat at a corner table and submit to a succession of plates each more beautiful and local and healthy than the last. There are deep-cup Kusshi oysters and sockeye salmon sashimi and several glasses of excellent British Columbia pinot noir, but the star is a plate of rare venison loin with ruby-colored baby beets and a cheese ravioli. It's as tasty as it is artfully composed.
Fully recovered from your exploits on the slopes, you slink out into the clear night, boots crunching on the snow. It's chilly, but you are warmed by the amber glow of the windows, and the occasional burst of laughter echoing through the streets. Outside the Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub you see a circle of people sitting around a low stone fireplace. Will they let you join them? Of course they will. This is Canada. You buy a round of stouts and sit mesmerized by the licking flames, the way people have since this place was wild. Conversation drifts upward like the sparks from the hearth, but you catch only snippets: “...magic double black diamond..." “...smells like cedar..." “...isn't this nice?"
Popular Mechanics senior editor Jacqueline Detwiler also dances like a drunk in a log-rolling competition.