Vancouver lures the traveler with an explorer's heart with its bays, inlets and islands

March 29, 1992|By Mary L. Sherk | Mary L. Sherk,Contributing Writer

Bolt upright amid blooming shrubs, the big-eyed totem pole clutches mute secrets to its red cedar heart. Two centuries ago, when Capt. James Cook sailed to present-day western Canada searching for the elusive Northwest Passage, carved histories of the Tlingit, Haida and Salish Indians guarded all village long houses. In the late 1870s, the Canadian Pacific Railway drove the final spike that linked Vancouver to the future, and the local economy went from fishing and hunting to coal and lumber.

Today British Columbia's forested Coast Mountains cradle sparkling weather-favored Vancouver like the palm of a giant hand. A thousand bays, inlets, islands and peninsulas beckon seductively to the explorer heart of every traveler. Diverse ethnic cultures mix tradition and avant-garde into what may well be the best of all possible worlds. Accents are Britishly clipped; the endearing "eh" that punctuates every eastern Canadian sentence is seldom heard.

Vancouver's downtown is pedestrian-friendly; the reach-out-and-touch forests, waterways and mountains enhance the beauty of Canada's third largest city. A colony of hotels, including the landmark green, copper-roofed Hotel Vancouver, cluster near the polished waterfront, where the impressive convention center Canada Place is located. It's also where thousands of cruise ship passengers shove off annually for the Far North.

Pontooned planes constantly land and take off here too, bound for far-flung adventures.

Left of the waterfront, the statue of early settler Gassy Jack wears a broad grin, as if mocking the chic boutiques that have sprung up in his old neighborhood, Gastown. Several streets away, the local Chinatown rivals San Francisco's.

On Howe Street a doorway modestly marked Hudson Bay Company is irresistible. It's nothing like the primitive trading post of the past, though -- a well-lighted corridor leads to sophisticated Pacific Centre Mall, a shopping smorgasbord that wanders underground for blocks, all the way to the designer shops of Robson Street. Should disorientation set in, ample signs conveniently track the world above.

A surprising number of art deco structures stand shoulder to shoulder with Old World and thoroughly modern buildings. Classic Burrard Street Bridge captures mountains and skyline and, as seen from nearby Granville Island, frames them nicely within its sleek span.

Anchoring graceful Lion's Gate suspension bridge is Stanley Park, a thousand-acre peninsula dedicated a hundred years ago to preserving nature. Still primarily forest, recreational facilities include a zoo and a water arena, where whales dive and spout. Indoors, large aquarium tanks are home to sea mammals, which glide toward viewers and calmly establish eye contact as if to say, "Who's on display?"

Crossing Burrard Inlet via soaring Lion's Gate leads to North Vancouver, where homes set in flower banks cluster at the foot of Grouse Mountain. A gondola glides passengers up the mountain to ski runs in winter; to dining, theater and panoramic views in all seasons.

The sturdy swinging footbridge over yawning Capilano Canyon swings and sways as tourists stagger across, peering fearfully at the dwarfed, rock-strewn river 230 feet below. Near the well-stocked souvenir shop, a black-haired man gouges a cedar log, shaping a new totem pole. He grins as he tells of the Louisiana tourist who ordered one with alligators.

Shadowed by its namesake bridge, Granville Island's terra firma was dredged from the bottom of False Creek's channel many years ago for an industrial area. Resurrected from blighted warehouses, the new incarnation incorporates shops, markets and an entertainment-artisan center. Here, too, are benches to occupy while negotiating lunch bites with persistent sea gulls.

The University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology houses an impressive collection of West Coast Indian art. The award-winning building itself borrows from ancient long-house construction. Enormous totems, animal-shaped dishes and burial boxes indicate fascinating pre-European Coastal culture. Slavery is clearly depicted. Chunky contemporary sculptures by Haida artist Bill Reid and 'Ksan master carvers proudly preserve traditional skills.

Grimacing, exaggerated beasts stare from sculptures, creating impressions that somewhere in the past animals ruled humans. Certainly lives of men and beasts were intertwined. Visitors can imagine a potlatch, the rite in which hosts gave away all their wealth -- to possibly be regained at future feasts.

Not far away at the Maritime Museum, Vancouver's more recent sea history is chronicled. Heritage Harbour is the permanent anchorage of restored sailing ships, including the St. Roch, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police vessel that first traversed the Arctic Northwest Passage.

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