I spent several weeks in Vancouver this January. Average rainfall at YVR in January is 168 millimetres. This year, there were 249 millimetres, making it the fourth wettest January since records were first kept in 1937.
I can handle the light rain, what my mother called “the Scottish mist,” intermittent showers, and the fog. I can even deal with the occasional tropical deluge or pineapple express which blows the rain horizontally. In these circumstances, locals generally don a Gore-Tex, grab a handy umbrella and carry on doing whatever they planned anyway. I can do that, too. We all know the local secret. So long as it rains for any period of time at any time of the day, the news will report “rain in Vancouver,” and easterners who hear the weather reports will chortle and stay away.
But when the rainfall becomes relentless, so that it goes on for forty days and forty nights of soaking rain, even locals become depressed. So I learned in January. I never thought I would ever say that, but I found it to be true.
The challenge was that we had a visitor from Toronto coming for several days. Originally from Colombia, he came west to help a friend move to Victoria. Since he was coming anyway, we encouraged him to come to Vancouver and stay in our Vancouver cottage. Why not? He had never been to the west coast before and nothing gives me greater pleasure than to show the sights of Vancouver to a newcomer. But what sights do you show a newcomer when you can’t see the sea or the mountains, and walking outside leaves you drenched and miserable?
The first day, he came from Victoria by ferry through the Gulf Islands, and by public transit on the bus and Canada Line to our apartment. That’s an adventure in itself. On his arrival, he joined a small dinner party which my husband had prepared for a few guests. That’s easy, and fun, and a warm welcome to the local scene. The next day, two mutual friends en route to New Zealand had a long stopover in Vancouver. They had rented a car and, as the sun actually came out for a few hours, we toured the North Shore to see the beaches at Whytecliff Park, the fresh snow on the mountains above Horseshoe Bay, and the view of the city and beyond from the lookout up the Cypress Mountain Parkway. But the clouds were coming in, the winds were blowing, and the view was so unsharp that I failed to identify the new Port Mann bridge on the horizon.
The next day, the dreaded deluge returned. That’s okay. We drove through the west end, around Kitsilano and along the shoreline out to the Museum of Anthropology at UBC. There, in addition to the usual treasures, we saw a special exhibit of indigenous woven carpets from the 19th Century. Our tour around UBC by car was a washout, but we headed to Granville Island for lunch. Parking was easy and we had no problem finding a comfortable table beside the windows in the Farmers Market food court. Protected from the rain, we could watch the birds and the boats on False Creek and enjoy the buskers while we ate. The ambiance gave the illusion of a bright day and we loved it. We then drove back over the Burrard Street Bridge, along English Bay and home. A good first day.
The second day, we took the bus very early and got off at the first stop after Lost Lagoon on Georgia Street. In a light rain, we set out to walk the Vancouver harbour to the Convention Centre and Canada Place. Before we even reached Jack Poole Plaza, the rain was pelting down, and we took to looking for any kind of shelter along the way; an occasional glass overhang, an inset doorway, a glassed-in staircase, an outdoor café (closed of course) beneath a building above, anything to protect us. Ultimately, near the Convention Centre, we spied a waterfall leading down into a food court in an underground plaza. Over a hot cocoa, we considered our course of action. What to do?
We learned that underground tunnels connected the food court to the SkyTrain at the downtown Waterfront Station. The reconstructed historical concourse of that station is worth a visit. I then decided that I wanted to see the new Evergreen extension of the Vancouver’s SkyTrain system which goes all the way out to Lafarge Lake in Coquitlam. If I can ride the new extension of the Toronto subway, I can ride the Vancouver addition as well. And I thought that our friend could get a view of my old stomping grounds in Burnaby, New Westminster, and along the Fraser River. So we got on the original Expo Line and did the circuit, transferred to the extension that passes through a long tunnel to the new stations in Port Moody and Coquitlam, and then took the newly configured Millennium Line back downtown. The views were disappointing, but I was impressed by the potential of the new extension. It took us one hour to travel the entire route and cost me only $2.80.
The highlight of our trip was meeting the falcon. As we transferred onto the Expo Line at Commercial Drive and found a seat in a crowded car (thank goodness we are seniors), we noticed that we were surrounded by a crew of young people carrying fancy cameras and a big box which they carefully put down on the floor beside me. When I asked what was in the box, they said that it was a falcon. A falcon? Yes, they had a six-week contract with the city to document how the mere presence of their falcon on the SkyTrain platforms would scare away the pesky pigeons. They told us that in the six station span of their project, it worked every time, except for one station where the pigeons roosted too far away to pick up on the falcon’s presence. We were amused and wished them well.
By the time we returned to Waterfront, the rain had abated enough to allow us to visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and to walk the streets of Gastown. We then took the SeaBus to the Lonsdale Quay and a bus back to West Vancouver. Altogether, not a bad day.
Day three was a challenge. I decided that, depending on the state of the weather once we got outside, we would take the Skyride up Grouse Mountain, or drive the Sea to Sky Highway to Squamish. Since the local mountain was invisible, we took to Highway 99 up the east side of Howe Sound, past Lions Bay, Porteau Cove Provincial Park, Britannia with its Mine Museum, Shannon Falls, and the world-famous mountain face known as the Stawamus Chief. The new Sea to Sky Gondola nearby was open, but who wants to hike trails at the top of a mountain in the rain? At Squamish, there was no rain. We proceeded up the highway to Brackendale where the signs advertise “bald-headed eagles.” Oh yes. That’s right. I suddenly recalled that, every January, volunteer naturalists come to Brackendale to count the eagles feeding at local rivers. I’d heard of that before but never been there.
So, we turned west and drove the streets of tiny Brackendale until we came upon Eagle Run Park on Government Road. There we found numerous interpretive displays, an Eagle Watch Interpreter Program, and a well-maintained dyke viewing area which is accessible via a ramp at the south end. We learned that the spawning of chum salmon runs in the Squamish, Cheakamus and Mamquam rivers provides an ideal habitat for feeding bald eagles. In 1994, the Brackendale-Squamish area set the world record count with 3,769 eagles counted in a single day. We saw our share of eagles: big adult birds, black with white heads, and the motley brown youngsters, sitting on the logs and rocks at the river’s edge, roosting in the trees, and sweeping across the skies. We were ecstatic. It was the totally serendipitous highlight of our week.
If any readers have suggestions for rainy day activities in Vancouver, please use the Comment section below to enlighten the rest of us. My cousin suggested we could have hiked in Lighthouse Park where we would have experienced an old growth forest as it really is. Or we could have hiked in Pacific Spirit Regional Park on the UBC campus as I described in an earlier post. Good suggestions. Are there any more?
Riding the streetcars is a great way to learn about a city. In Toronto, the 501 Queen car from Long Branch in the west to Neville Park in the east is one of the longest lines in the world. It may take forever, but the trip across town is fascinating. It passes by the Lakeshore, High Park, upbeat Queen Street West, historic Osgoode Hall, the Four Seasons opera house, new City Hall, old City Hall, the Eaton Centre, Metropolitan United Church, Old Cabbagetown, trendy new Leslieville, along the Beach to the R.C. Harris Water Treatment Plant built in the 1930s and widely acclaimed as an Art Deco treasure and a well-used movie site. In Vancouver, the original SkyTrain is a raised light rapid transit line running from the Waterfront at the harbour, through underground tunnels built beneath the city decades ago to False Creek, past the Science Centre, through quirky Commercial Drive, past Central Park into Burnaby and along the crest of the ridge into New Westminster and over the river into Surrey. It provides a wonderful vista of the city, the mountains and the Fraser River. When the ticketing system allows getting on and off at will, either time limited as is the normal ticket in Vancouver, or on a day pass as is generally used for touring in Toronto, you can follow your fancy, linger to sight see or to shop, get off for a drink or a treat.
In Vienna, I spent much of yesterday using my Vienna Card to reorient myself to the city. A deal for visitors, Vienna Cards are available for unlimited transit for 48 hours or for 72 hours, and offer a host of discounts. The heart of Vienna is a complex of grand buildings (e.g.: the Hofburg, the Karlskirche, the Musikverein, the Staatsoper, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Universität, the Votivkirche), which show off the imperial might of the historic Hapsburg empire and are surrounded with parks and plazas. They are conveniently arranged on a series of wide, tree-lined boulevards which ring the inner city. The tram passes by many of these historical treasures, winds its way through the narrow streets of the inner city, and ultimately leads to the shady expanse of the vast Prater Park near the Danube. On and off privileges make for easy sight-seeing. When the spirit moves me, I get off and walk local areas. And the wine “village” of Grinzing, with its inexpensive Austrian food and drink served in lovely gardens with a nice breeze, large shade trees and a little music, is only a 20-minute tram ride to the end of the line. A nice respite on a hot evening.
The trams are totally integrated with the subway and bus lines. Many are newly designed with lowered entries and audio and visual indicators telling the location of the particular vehicle, and the times for the next cars (not generally very long). Our local stop is a complex interchange which also serves as a stacked turn-around point for suburban rapid transit. It is intriguing to watch the suburban trams spiral into the station, one on top of the other on different levels.
When we were last in London, we rode the traditional double-decker red buses and the new above-ground light rapid transit lines, using the automated Oyster transit pass. And in Istanbul, we used the Akbil, another automated ticketing system which has now given way to the Istanbulkart. It includes use of their subways, light rapid transit, municipal ferries across the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, the historic and modern funiculars strategically located in interesting places, and even the cable car from Eyup over the Moslem graveyard on the hillside at the head of the Golden Horn.
Riding these systems abroad makes me realize how antiquated our Toronto public transit has become. Those who say light rapid transit is problematic or should be abandoned obviously don’t travel much. If it works so well elsewhere, why not in Toronto?