Explore the Canadian city's natural beauty before or after your Alaska sailing
Most cruises to Alaska start and end in Vancouver, British Columbia, a city of stunning natural beauty, world-class cultural attractions, and refreshingly low prices (especially given the Canadian dollar's weak exchange rate). And yet most cruise passengers rush straight to and from their ships, pausing only to nod at the futuristic (as well as quaint) urban landscape of what is consistently acclaimed to be one of the world's most livable places. As a native of Vancouver, I think that's a mistake, and urge a two-night stay either before or after your Alaska sailing.
A snapshot of the city
The city's top attraction is the frenetic Granville Island Public Market (under the south end of the Granville Bridge off 4th Ave., 604/666-5784), brimming with mouth-watering foods, art, and free entertainment from talented buskers. From Yaletown at the foot of Davie Street, catch a tiny little Aquabus ferry (604/689-5858) to Granville Island for a mere $3 Canadian (US$2).
Explore Vancouver's rich shipping heritage at The Vancouver Maritime Museum (1905 Ogden Ave., 604/257-8300, vmm.bc.ca; CA$7/US$4.50) in Vanier Park, just a short stroll from Granville Island. One of the world's best collections of Pacific Northwest Native American art is found at the Museum of Anthropology on the scenic University of British Columbia campus (6393 N.W. Marine Dr., 604/822-3825; CA$7/US$4.50, free Tuesdays after 5 p.m.), which includes exquisite totem poles, canoes, and dishes for potlatch ceremonies.
For modern Vancouver life, stroll the main boulevards, like the West End's elegant, trendy Robson and Denman Streets with designer labels on display and many outdoor cafés. Visit the cobblestone streets of Gastown, then the city's vibrant Chinatown (stopping in at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden at 578 Carrall Street). Take a stroll along Commercial Drive, the Italian enclave with an eclectic mix of Old World delis and stylish stores next to thrift shops.
After that urban smorgasbord, squeeze in a trip to Vancouver's North Shore and experience mountain hiking trails. Here, at the scenic Capilano Salmon Hatchery (4500 Capilano Park Rd., North Vancouver, 604/666-1790) from late summer to early fall, watch the dramatic migration of salmon leaping their way upstream to return home to spawn.
Theater is big in Vancouver. The city's top venue is the Queen Elizabeth Theatre (Georgia and Hamilton Sts., 604/665-3050), where both Ballet British Columbia and the Vancouver Opera make their homes. Alternately, from mid-June to the end of September, view Shakespearean classics performed against a backdrop of mountains and ocean in Vanier Park (Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, 604/739-0559; tickets CA$25/US$16). Catch changing cabaret performances at the Vogue Theatre (918 Granville St., 604/ 331-7900) or the Theatre Under the Stars (Stanley Park's Malkin Bowl) with shows mid-July to mid-August (604/687-0174, tickets CA$23/US$15).
And then as a complete change of pace, check out the four or five storefronts that make up Vancouver's "Vansterdam" (on West Hastings Street), appealing to wide-eyed visitors who ask if it's somehow legal to smoke soft drugs here. It's not legal-but police often turn a blind eye to minor infractions, allowing Blunt Brothers (317 W. Hastings St., 604/682-5868) to operate freely. Blunt Brothers is a comfortable café where you might get a fragrant whiff of the herb being smoked. (Don't worry--the rich chocolate brownies are perfectly normal!) Read up on the controversial politics of marijuana at the BC Marijuana Party Bookstore and Headquarters (307 W. Hastings St., 604/682-1172) two doors down.
Though the summer cruise season is also high season for Vancouver hotels, bargains can be reserved far enough in advance. Boutique hotels are the real deal here, especially European-style rooms with a bath down the hall. My top pick is the Victorian Hotel (514 Homer St., 877/681-6369, victorian-hotel.com), where elegant rooms with shared bath are CA$89/US$58, with private bath CA$109/US$69, with continental breakfast included. With a prime location right across from English Bay, the much-loved Sylvia Hotel (1154 Gilford St., 604/681-9321, fax 604/682-3551, sylviahotel.com) is an ivy-covered 1912 building facing the beach. Small doubles go for CA$75/US$48.
The big YWCA Hotel/Residence (733 Beatty St., 800/663-1424, fax 604/681-2550, ywcahotel.com) opened in 1995 to both men and women, and is well located downtown, with free access to the Y's gorgeous health club a 15-minute walk away. Doubles with private bath are CA$111/US$70, with semiprivate bath, CA$85/US$54. The homey, three-story Buchan Hotel (1906 Haro St., 800/668-6654, fax 604/685-5367, buchanhotel.com) has nice if small rooms (shared bath CA$75/US$48, private bath CA$95/US$60), but with a spacious and comfy communal area.
The city is surprisingly cosmopolitan and racially mixed, and hosts one of the world's largest expatriate Chinese communities. A personal favorite, Hon's Wun Tun House (1339 Robson St., 604/685-0871 or 108-268 Keefer St. in Chinatown, 604/688-0871) is famous for its potsticker dumplings-six for CA$3/US$2. A runner-up: the Greek eatery Stepho's (1124 Davie St., 604/683-2555), recognized by the line-up outside its door. Its unusually large, budget meals include roast lamb for CA$8.95/US$5.50 with five side dishes. Finally, with locations in both Gastown (162 Water St., 604/408-1300) and trendy Kits Beach (1525 Yew St., 604/737-8080), Rossini's Restaurants specialize in pasta dishes like veneziana with mussels, CA$10.95/US$7 with free live local jazz nightly.