VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Every time Vancouver throws a big party, its Yaletown neighborhood gets a little better.
This was a gritty industrial district when the city prepared to host a world's fair two decades ago, and the cleanup for Expo 86 sparked a redevelopment frenzy. Now cafes, bars, boutique shops and other businesses have taken root in the old brick warehouses, while residents and office workers occupy high-rent towers nearby.
The next bash is the Winter Olympic Games, to be held in Vancouver (and up the coast at the Whistler ski resort) in 2010. Yaletown is a construction zone once more, this time to make it easier to get here. A massive pit bisects the area, as work proceeds on a Canada Line extension. The
When visitors alight here, they will find -- as today's tourists do -- a two-block stretch of two parallel streets, Hamilton and Mainland, where the old warehouses cluster together. Heritage status spared them the wrecking ball when the construction flurry occurred in the mid-1980s, and now they huddle in a thicket of modern, glass-and-steel buildings, some of which resemble stacked ice-cube trays. The warehouse loading docks have been converted into leafy terraces, where shoppers stroll and restaurant and bar patrons congregate when the weather
But there is nothing particularly novel about that. Former industrial districts have been similarly transformed in cities all across the continent.
What sets Yaletown apart is its personality. The neighborhood -- directly south of the downtown core, spilling down to the banks of False Creek -- is often described as eclectic. It certainly is that. But a more fitting adjective might be eccentric.
``There's a real independent spirit in Yaletown,'' said Daniel Craig, general manager of the Opus Hotel, a stylish and playful boutique property (and the only hotel here). ``A lot of chain stores have opened here and not done well.''
There is no particular theme or thread running through the businesses that have succeeded. On a stroll down the sidewalk you'll find, in order, a shop selling bath products, a shoe store, a French bakery, a florist, a home furnishings store and a yoga studio. One door might open on Coastal Peoples, a fine-arts gallery with museum-quality indigenous crafts. A few steps on you might find something entirely whimsical, such as Inhabit, with its mid-century home items and retro children's toys.
It's clear that Yaletown's businesses exist primarily for the people living nearby, rather than for tourists, but its diverse offerings present a browsing bonanza for leisure travelers. Also, to its credit, this area hasn't gotten too cute. Trash dumpsters are still stored at the edge of the loading docks, and heavy-duty trucks often rumble past, because the docks are still the best place to deliver merchandise.
As for culinary offerings, Yaletown is a place where fine-dining restaurants coexist easily with casual oyster bars and pubs.
At the top end is the Blue Water Cafe, arguably one of the finest restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. It has a sushi bar on one side of the room, a bustling open kitchen and raw bar on the other. The fusion can be found at the tables in between.
Dinner here was fantastic. Local sablefish (black cod to the rest of us) was prepared in an Asian fashion, carmelized with soy and sake and served with pea shoots. Lingcod was accompanied by pureed cauliflower, red beets and some divine potato gnocchi. Arctic char was dressed up with chanterelle mushrooms and creamed pearl onions. And all of these fish filets were perfectly cooked, the chefs getting them off the fire before the slightest hint of dryness could set in.
Elixir, at the Opus Hotel, was another commendable restaurant, with impeccable service and such Far North-themed entrees as spice-crusted venison, served with a cranberry and parsnip dressing. Here, as at Blue Water, we opted for wines from British Columbia's Okanagan Valley and were not disappointed.
The casual side of Yaletown dining, meanwhile, is exemplified by Rodney's Oyster House, which feels as if it were lifted from a ramshackle waterfront and deposited here in the midst of this hip neighborhood.
It is white clapboard, with block-letter advertisement signs out front, a porthole in the door, fishing net draped on the walls and Sinatra on the stereo. We deferred to the judgment of the swaggering young shucker behind the bar and soon exulted in a platter of four different British Columbia oyster varieties, including Euro Flats -- French oyster seed grown off Thetis Island.
Yaletown itself has a kind of European flavor to it. Within a one-square-block loop from the front door of the Opus are seven gourmet coffee establishments -- including our favorite, Boulangerie La Parisienne.
As for slaking a different kind of thirst, Yaletown has Taylorwood Wines, a shop with an extensive selection of British Columbia bottlings. A complimentary tasting was being conducted during our visit -- value-priced reds and whites that might be suitable for a wedding reception. The proprietor was also helpful in suggesting something we could take back to our hotel room, a crisp Jackson-Triggs sauvignon blanc from the Okanagan Valley.
Local libations of another sort are a hit at Yaletown Brewing Co. We found seven microbrews on its chalkboard menu, including Yippee IPA and Red Truck Ale -- the latter named for the 1946 Dodge delivery truck that was parked outside.
The Opus Hotel has tapped deeply into the sensibilities of Yaletown. It is a tasteful, stylish place popular with the Hollywood crowd -- a stay here was included in the Oscar presenters' goodie bag three years running -- yet is the rare boutique hotel that doesn't have a trace of attitude. Staffers are unfailingly friendly and helpful.
Like the neighborhood, the Opus breaks a few bounds of convention. In some rooms, the bathroom sink is positioned along an exterior picture window (don't worry, there is a translucent privacy blind, and having the sunlight in there is a nice touch). In another, the head of a bed might be situated in a corner, with walls of glass on both sides, providing city views in the deep of the night.
But the real fun of Opus is in the way the rooms are designed and appointed, said to be like the apartment of a cool friend who tossed you the keys before he went out of town. The walls in one room might be a startling red; in another, pea green. You might find a book of Shakespeare's sonnets on the nightstand (as we did), or a contemporary jazz CD in the stereo.
The wall between our bed and the bathroom had a big window in it, screened with mini-blinds. This allows natural light in, if so desired. Other nice touches were a deep soaking tub and bath products by L'Occitane en Provence. But the best feature of the room was a window that looked onto the rooftop garden of the building across the street, and also framed Yaletown's skyline of residential high-rises.
When it's sunny out, especially on weekends, the residents of those towers spill onto the streets and inevitably down to the edge of the water.
False Creek, which demarks the southern edge of downtown Vancouver, was once the grimy domain of factories and sawmills. Now it's a playground.
The Seawall Promenade runs along the water's edge all the way out to Stanley Park on the west side of the city, and the daily parade might include people out for an unhurried stroll, dog-walkers, moms pushing baby carriages, bicyclists and in-line skaters (fortunately there is a separate path for the speed demons on wheels).
David Lam Park, at the foot of Yaletown and along the creek's shore, might teem simultaneously with two or three soccer games, a couple of tennis matches, an invasion force of toddlers on the playground equipment and several Frisbees in flight.
A short distance away, at the end of Davie Street, is an Aquabus pier. No visit to Vancouver would be complete without a ride on one of these tiny water taxis, which are painted in a rainbow of colors and distinctly resemble bathtub toys.
The ferries are a convenient way to hop from Yaletown to Granville Island, another Vancouver treasure. Its central feature is a vast public market in a high-ceilinged barn, and it's open every day.
On the way over, our Aquabus glided past some colorfully painted houseboats moored along the shore of the island (which is really a peninsula). This stirred a fantasy of what it might be like to live in such digs on the water. But one thing is certain: If you resided here, the components of dinner would often be procured at that market.
The various stands displayed beautiful produce (including plump strawberries stacked into little pyramids), loaves of pesto green-olive bread, Digby scallops, duck breasts, Canadian maple cheddar cheese and freshly made butternut squash ravioli.
None of that really works for a traveler staying in a hotel, but other stands sell local jams and jellies, and of course plenty of smoked salmon. There is also prepared food for sale, much of it reflecting the influences of Vancouver's vibrant Asian populations.
Like Yaletown, Granville Island doesn't have a just-for-tourists feel to it. There is an art school here, a shop in which wooden boats are built, and a cobbler -- yes, custom-made shoes, if you're a tricky one to fit.
The art presence is strong, too. Galleries exhibit ceramics, art glass and woodwork, and several small theaters present stage productions (we were disappointed that TheatreSports, with its acclaimed improv, was dark on the nights of our visit).
The retail offerings are first-rate, too: Pacific Northwest cookbooks at Barbara-Jo Books to Cooks; unique wrapping paper, office products and journals at Paper-Ya; handmade furniture at Northwest Bungalow (just the thing for the houseboat!).
Back on the Yaletown shore, we found ourselves repeatedly drawn to the seawall and its walkway. It bends this way and that, following the contours of the creek, through parks, past boat moorages, under the Burrard Bridge with its two stately towers, and along the driftwood-strewn sands of Sunset Beach.
The route is punctuated with several public art installations, including one wind-activated sculpture of great sea birds.
It could be a symbol for Yaletown itself, a neighborhood that has strongly, confidently taken flight -- well before the guests arrive for Vancouver's next big party.SMALL TASTES OF ANOTHER VANCOUVER NEIGHBORHOOD: GASTOWN
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Small plates are all the rage in the restaurant world these days. In Vancouver's Gastown neighborhood, Sean Heather has broken the concept down even further, to small bites.
Charcuterie is the featured player in his Salt Tasting Room, which occupies a spare but comfortable space on Blood Alley. The menu is a varied list of cheeses, deli meats and condiments such as olives and nuts, much of it produced by regional artisans. The wine list, meanwhile, is extensive and also dominated by British Columbia wines.
Say the word and staffers will prepare a plate of disparate nibbles, then match them up with tasting pours of three wines. Just the thing in the late afternoon, after a sightseeing ramble. Or late in the evening after a visit to the theater.
``The thing with Salt, we wanted to see if we could create a restaurant minus some of the bigger expenses,'' said Heather, who also operates an Irish pub -- and a good one -- in the neighborhood, Irish Heather. ``We thought, `What if we didn't have a chef? How would that work?' We kind of bandied this around. ... This kind of breaks the mold a little bit.''
Many of the food producers are small scale, so supply ebbs and flows a bit. That's why there is no printed charcuterie menu. Instead, it's written in chalk on a giant blackboard, and is ever changing. But there are always 10 meats, 10 cheeses and 10 condiments. The cured meats come from local butchers such as J, N & Z Deli and Oyama Sausage, while the cheeses hail from Moonstruck Organic of Salt Spring Island and other producers near and far.
Tasting plates are served for about $13.50 U.S. For accompaniment, there are nearly three dozen wines available by the glass, as well as beer and whiskeys. Seating is at small tables or a long counter that overlooks the carving station.
If the decision-making is daunting, let the staff choose. That's what we did, opting for the ``Best of BC Plate'' with wine pairings (three two-ounce pours, for an additional $13.50). What an unusual treat it proved to be: hot capicollo and Spanish pressed-fig bread with a taste of Jackson-Triggs Sauvignon Blanc; Farmhouse cheddar and local Agassiz hazelnuts with Pentage Gamay; Mike Vittow's corned beef with Guinness grainy mustard and a Stag's Hollow Merlot.
If your appetite is a bit heartier, there are also soups, salads and sandwiches.
But where's the adventure in that?
--- Salt Tasting Room, 45 Blood Alley (the alley runs south of Water Street between Carrall and Abbott streets). Open daily from noon until midnight. www.salttastingroom.com; (604) 633-1912.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: You're guaranteed an aggravating experience soon after getting off your flight to Vancouver: The line at Canadian customs is legendarily long and slow-moving, switching back and forth like the queue for Disneyland's Space Mountain on Memorial Day. We waited a solid hour in this line -- and wished we'd grabbed a sandwich beforehand. There is no freeway from the airport to Yaletown or other points in downtown Vancouver, so you'll have to make the 30-plus-minute haul on surface streets. Cab fare will run from about $25 to $30 U.S. with tip, depending on the traffic. Completion of the Canada Line light rail (targeted for November 2009) will be a welcome alternative for airport-downtown transit.
AQUABUS: From the Yaletown pier at Davie Street, the Aquabus ferries run to Granville Island every 15 minutes between 8:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. The fare is $3.50 Canadian each way (about $3.10 U.S.). The return Aquabus serves Granville Island on a similar schedule.
BLUE WATER CAFE: 1095 Hamilton St. Open nightly for dinner from 5 p.m. to midnight. www.bluewatercafe.net; (604) 688-8078.
COASTAL PEOPLES: 1024 Mainland St. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. www.coastalpeoples.com; (604) 685-9298.
GRANVILLE ISLAND: The public market is open daily from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Information on retail, dining and cultural offerings on the island: www.granvilleisland.com; (604) 666-5784.
INHABIT: 1188 Hamilton St. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. www.inhabitshop.com; (604) 662-7408.
OPUS HOTEL: 322 Davie St. Room rates from about $293 U.S. in high season (May through October), from about $231 in winter low season. The hotel restaurant, Elixir, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and is about the only place in Yaletown where you can find a full breakfast (and artfully prepared, at that). www.opushotel.com; (866) 642-6787, (604) 642-6787.
RODNEY'S OYSTER HOUSE: 1228 Hamilton St. Open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from noon to 11 p.m., Sunday from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. (604) 609-0080.
TAYLORWOOD WINES: 1185 Mainland St. Open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from noon to 7 p.m. Complimentary tastings are offered Thursday and Sunday afternoons. See Web site for times and details. www.taylorwoodwines.com; (604) 408-9463.
YALETOWN BREWING CO.: 1111 Mainland St. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until at least midnight (later on weekends). Lunch and dinner served. www.markjamesgroup.com/yaletown.html; (604) 681-2739.
INFORMATION:The Yaletown Business Improvement Association has a downloadable map and visitor guide on its Web site, www.yaletowninfo.com, or can mail one: (604) 683-7473. General visitor information on the city is available from the Greater Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.tourismvancouver.com; (604) 683-2000.