It's a good question, because I could have ended up anywhere. I was born in Venezuela to travelling parents. But after Guayaquil and San Tome, after New York City and Jackson, Michigan, they came here. Terminal City, people used to call Vancouver. The end of the line. Right out there poised on the edge of the sea the British Columbian wilderness. We moved again, as it happens, to the prairies. But I came back to Vancouver at my first chance, because somehow this place had got into my bones. The briny ocean air, the mild climate, the smell of cedar and leaves and rain. The everyday views of a heaving sea and towering forested mountains often capped in snow. These elements suit me. I've learnt by now that my body likes it here.
But my heart likes it here too. Vancouver has changed from a terminal to a gateway. People flow through Vancouver. The 2010 Winter Olympics (February 12 to 28) are a high-profile emblem, but every day Vancouver's streets are animated with dozens of cultures, the cafes and restaurants and market streets ring with different languages. It's not a big city, but it packs in the world. It's not a particularly fast-paced city either. It's not Tokyo or New York. It's not even Toronto, for speed of life. We're a bit laid back here. We like the outdoors. We're known to leave early on Fridays. But as a group, Vancouverites also seem grateful to be where they are. Glad to have arrived from wherever they came. So it's a peaceful place too. Beautiful, laid-back, peaceful. And still poised on the edge of the sea and the wilderness, just as it has been since the beginning.
The Sylvia Hotel (www.sylviahotel.com) on English Bay in Vancouver's dense West End is an ivy covered old-timer, affordable and simple. But it's also a loved local icon with a lobby bar that's been a literary hangout for decades. Sylvia guests find themselves in the local grooves of a residential area, just steps from the beach at English Bay, shops on Denman and Davie streets, and Stanley Park. A double room costs from US$129 (Dh474) including taxes.
For luxury with a boutique vibe, stay at the Loden Hotel (www.theloden.com) on Coal Harbour, one of Vancouver's most expensive neighbourhoods, with its spectacular inner harbour and mountain views. A double room costs from $217 (Dh797) including taxes. Over in fashionable Yaletown, meanwhile, the Opus Hotel (www.opushotel.com) offers a similar designer feel and is also home to the excellent French restaurant Elixir. At the top end, you could stay at the famous Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (www.fairmont.com), which was the first luxury hotel in the city. A double room at either cost from $236 (Dh866) including taxes.
Walk or bike (or rollerblade or skateboard) the seawall. This excursion - or part of it, the whole thing is over 20km long - is the best way to get a sense of city's peninsular layout and its unique beauty. The seawall starts at Canada Place on the north shore of downtown. From there it heads west and circles the forests of Stanley Park. Past the park the seawall takes you around English Bay, past the dense towers of the residential West End. You're now in False Creek with its many yacht basins and waterfront restaurants. And on the south shore of False Creek you'll come to Granville Island, Vancouver's favourite place to shop for all things food and foodie related. Continuing West, the seawall bends around Vanier Park, where Vancouver's planetarium is found, then carries on into busy fun-loving Kitsilano, with its many bars and restaurants. If you're still not tired, you could carry on further west and paved walkways will take you all the way out to Jericho Beach in Point Grey, where you can gaze back at the city on its peninsula, glowing in the late-day sun.
Stanley Park is the city's back yard, particularly on sunny weekends. Rent a bike from one of the shops along Denman and ride the trails. Get a map, because the park really is big enough to get lost in. After taking in the forest, ride back to the Fish House and treat yourself to freshly shucked oysters from the oyster bar, $2 (Dh9) each (www.fishhousestanleypark.com).
Two other great places to watch Vancouver being itself would be West Broadway and West Fourth Avenue. Running parallel from Burrard Street 18 blocks west to Alma Street these two arteries are the shopping, eating and cafe-hanging heart of Vancouver's West Side (as distinct from Downtown's West End, see above). On either Broadway or Fourth, you'll see Vancouverites out doing their thing. Look for funky boutiques and cookery shops, chocolatiers, butchers, bakers, wine shops. And of course restaurants.
Vancouverites are proud of the city's food. Almost any local will have a restaurant recommendation, or three. So it would be easy to eat well in Vancouver with no planning at all. But if you're here for the first time, make sure not to miss these three distinct food scenes. The first of these is Vancouver's legendary sushi. Tojo's (www.tojos.com) is the most famous. It's expensive and inventive. Try the tasting menu for $56 (Dh206).
But here's a secret: Vancouver's fast service sushi lunch counters catering to the student trade offer superb quality and value. Try Sushi Zero One (www.sushizeroone.com) or Spinroll Sushi, doors apart on West Pender Street. Izakaya have also become a big deal in Vancouver. These casual Japanese bistros are loud and friendly, and serve a range of small dishes, often inventive and surprising. Try Guu (www.guu-izakaya.com, Gyoza King or Hapa Izakaya (www.hapaizakaya.com). Another scene not to miss is Vancouver's Korean restaurant row. Down Robson Street towards Stanley Park you'll find a cluster of places serving gam-ja-tang and pajang pancakes, hot pots and barbecue. Jang Mo Jib and Norboo are two really good ones.
For international brands, Robson street is the famous shopping destination. But for a more local scene, try Fourth or Broadway. The best stretch in town for buying winter sports equipment is on Fourth just east and west of Burrard street. For antique browsing, Main street is your best bet. And for art galleries, the Woodwards District is good. There are a dozen galleries all within a block of Cordova and Carrall streets.
Tourists flock to Gastown, particularly along Water Street. They often pose beside the steam clock there, which is perplexing to locals. And while Gastown is the historic city centre, I would hope that visitors don't choose to remember Vancouver with a souvenir from one of the souvenir shops on Water. Those totem poles and Mountie statuettes are probably not even made in Canada.
Take one of the sea buses that criss-cross both False Creek, south of downtown, and the Burrard Inlet, north of downtown. Both take you to places where lunch can easily be found. The False Creek ferries go to Granville Island public market. The Burrard ferries will deliver you to Lonsdale Quay, another great public market for foodies. Timothy Taylor is the author of the bestselling novel Stanley Park www.timothytaylor.ca