As cities go, Vancouver is a beautiful one – lush, green, and as close to nature as urbanity can get – which is probably why it’s perennially ranked among the top three most livable cities (often duking it out with Melbourne for the top spot.) If you only have 24 hours to experience Vancouver, you can run yourself ragged trying to cover everything, or you can pull focus. In life, and in travel, you can’t do everything, so why not do a few things really well? Instead of manically criss-crossing the city’s compass points, ticking through a to-do list, I offer you three words worth savouring: trees, totem poles, ice-cream.
It’s iconic. It’s bigger than Central Park. It used to be a First Nations village. Just 150 years ago, the Squamish Nation and Musqueum Nation were living in what is now Stanley Park, having resided there from as far back as 3,000 years – a reminder that, in most places around the world, the most fertile, productive, beautiful places were the first human settlements.
Encompassing 405 hectares and surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, as big as Vancouver’s entire downtown, Stanley Park is home to half million trees, many of which are even older than the 100-year-old 8.8-kilometre Seawall that keeps the tide out.
The Seawall, a marine walkway built between 1931 and 1963 by a master mason as his life’s work, is the perfect place to run, wander, or bike, a human highway by the water’s edge that owns the claim of ‘World’s Longest Uninterrupted Waterfront Walkway’. It takes about two hours to walk the entire loop, and on a clear day you can see all the way to Vancouver Island.
Also contained within the park – beaches, an aquarium, a pitch and putt, a pool, a train, playgrounds, and 27 kilometres of forest trails. Explore those trails and discover cathedral stands of Douglas fir; monument trees, the oldest of the park dwellers, trees that survived the logging of the 1860s because they were too huge to be felled by an axe; or the Hollow Tree, a 700-year-old stump of a western red cedar.
If trees are the iconography of Vancouver’s natural story, then the totem poles tell its cultural tale. Stanley Park’s nine towering totems on display at Brockton Point
are one of the most-visited attractions in British Columbia – and a good place to start.
Totem poles became the signifier of BC’s West Coast, thanks to artist Emily Carr, a curmudgeonly, outlier artist whose style came to define the region, and whose reputation grew from of her singular obsession with West Coast totemic carvings. A feature artist at the downtown Vancouver Art Gallery, Carr’s work captured many totem poles from First Nations villages that were beginning to decay.
Over at the Museum of Anthropology, just 20 minutes from downtown at the University of British Columbia, the museum houses one of the world’s premier collections of Northwest Coast First Nations Art. They’re also starting to explore new ways of understanding the totem poles and other First Nations art, with a new exhibit of indigenous works, In a Different Light. In First Nations culture, totem poles enjoyed a life cycle that mirrored the cycle of a tree’s life, or even our own. Carved to represent a family’s totems, totem poles were allowed to fall and decay – not as a sign of neglect, but as a reminder to us that all things fit into an organic cycle. Things we might understand as “art” or “artefacts”, items that were often stolen from communities, are coming to be understood as so much more – lore-keepers, teachers, belongings, legal documents, or ways of teaching philosophy. The incorporation of contemporary First Nations artists into the Museum is an exciting way to bring those stories to life.
If you have more time, head north to Whistler to visit the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, where carving programs have helped introduce a new generation to the totem, mentoring young artists in an age-old artform. Here, guides from the Lil’wat Nation and the Squamish Nation share tales of a living culture, and help visitors outgrow our fixed ideas and stereotypes about indigenous people.
Artisanal ice-cream is the latest thing to have hit Vancouver. If you want to experience this like a boss, take a Gourmet Ice Cream tour. Bond with fellow creamery-fans, as you travel with Off the Eaten Track guides through the Railtown, Chinatown and Gastown neighbourhoods, to sample six different ice-creams. (The tour runs during summer until the end of September, Thursdays from 5-7pm and Sundays from 3-5pm.) Walk from joint to joint, for a total of about 35 minutes of light walking – just enough to counter the calorie guilt and cleanse your palate between tastings.
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