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Vancouver, B.C.: Blessed with scenery and rich culture

By STEVE FRENZL
NorthwestTravelAdvisor.com

Really now...have you ever met anyone who just returned from a trip to Vancouver who wasn't absolutely giddy about the place? And all you heard for days afterward was their repeated gushing, "Vancouver is the most beautiful, exciting city I've ever seen. I love it, I love it! I love it!"?

I didn't think so.

There was probably a good reason. Maybe the fact that Vancouver was honored in 2005 as the best city in which to live...in the world...had something to do with it. Two critical factors were considered: culture and environment, and you're certain to appreciate those whether you are a resident or visitor. Indeed, the seemingly incongruous blending of an international cosmopolitan center replete with world-class hotels, restaurants and shopping---all right next door to nature's best - would make virtually everyone fall in love with this marvelous city.

Greater Vancouver really does have it all. Pure azure waters, pristine beaches, verdant forests, soaring mountains, temperate climate, a dazzling skyline, arts and culture galore, and attractions that rival any city in the world. You can hike a towering mountain in the morning, then lunch in splendor downtown. You can hit the beach in the afternoon, then enjoy dinner in splendor downtown. You can bask in shimmering starlight on the waterfront, then toast your marvelous day at a classy Yaletown pub to end the evening.

We drove up from Seattle via I-5 which becomes Highway 99 at the Canadian border. It's a quick, easy and picturesque route that ends in spectacular downtown Vancouver, British Columbia's economic and cultural hub. (A word of caution for first-time drivers to Vancouver: as you approach the inner city: be aware of the lack of left-turn lanes along the way. Getting stuck in the left lane behind a vehicle waiting to turning across a busy thoroughfare at rush hour can be, to say the least, annoying.)

Where to play

Wet and windy weather chased us into the city and many of the attractions we hoped to visit were not available during our getaway. However, if you're just visiting for a couple days anyway and want a great whirlwind tour, we highly recommend that you take the Vancouver Trolley Company tour of the city. Using colorful turn-of-the-century bus-style vehicles (not to worry - they're equipped with dependable modern engines) in a couple hours accompanied by the drivers' entertaining narratives, you'll get a colorful and comprehensive overview of the city and environs, landmarks, history and more. You can literally spend all day stepping on and off to see the sights close up and personal. Definitely worth the fare.

Some highlights: Gastown is a beautifully renovated old-town section of the city now filled with shops and eateries ranging from funky to elegant. Listen to the steam-powered clock that toots the time every hour, and then sprays a proud cloud of white vapor above the sidewalk to remind you that not every dependable timepiece is a new Rolex.

Stanley Park is a magnificent forested preserve that just doesn't seem possible here since it's literally a couple blocks from ultra-modern concrete and glass buildings that soar 40 stories above the treetops. The park is famous for its beautiful bike/hike seawall, as well as home to one of the finest aquariums in North America which showcases 70,000 marine animals through thick glass walls or outdoor pools.

Granville Island is a marvelous mix of marinas, maritime museums and shops, a wonderful Public Market that rivals Seattle's Pike Place, a zillion zany stores and more. Its collection of renovated warehouses has been transformed into theaters, artist studios, bakeries (yum!), micro-brewery, boutique hotel, and a wide variety of excellent restaurants. You absolutely have to visit Granville Island (OK, it's really a peninsula) or you'll be missing a key ingredient of the Vancouver experience.

In short, there are simply too many exciting attractions in Vancouver to describe them all here (or visit them all in one getaway), so check these out as you plan your trip: IMAX Theatre & Science World, Capilano Suspension Bridge, Grouse Mountain Skyride, Chinatown (Canada's largest), Yaletown, Nelson Beach, Harbour Cruises, and Vancouver Lookout at Harbour Centre. Not to mention countless fine restaurants, galleries, museums, boutique shops and entertainment venues around the town.

And where to stay

In a city filled with world-class hotels, there's no limit to the choices available to you - including affordable accommodations on the edge of town. We chose to stay at two downtown hotels just a mile apart and although both are Westins, each has a remarkably distinct personality. No cookie-cutter floor plans here!

The Westin Bayshore Resort & Marina is located on the water on the northwest edge of downtown Vancouver, a few short blocks from Stanley Park. It is the only hotel in Vancouver that offers a true resort-like setting - indeed, the marina, harbor and mountain views are stupendous - plus it is famous for having been the home base for one of the world's richest and most eccentric personalities in the early '70s. Despite his idiosyncrasies, Howard Hughes certainly had an eye for elegance. He leased the top two floors of the hotel's 20-story tower and for two years sequestered himself and a retinue of assistants while he spiraled into psychic oblivion. Based on my own observations of the hotel's spectacular setting and how it can affect one's perspective, here's my take on Howard's condition: his dizzy spells were probably more a result of the mind-blowing views of the city, water and mountains over which he gazed every day, rather than the pile of pills he was popping. Visit the Bayshore and you'll see what I mean.

The hotel offers over 500 well appointed guestrooms and suites, two-thirds of them with floor-to-ceiling windows and unparalleled views. All rooms feature Westin's famous Heavenly Beds and Baths plus special bath accessories. You will also enjoy indoor and outdoor pools, well equipped fitness center, whirlpool spa, sauna, steam room and more. Then after you've worked off yesterday's calories (and I might add, hours of exposure to awe-inspiring views increases the metabolism), you will need to replenish your depleted body with an excellent repast at one of the Bayshore's fine restaurants and grills. You won't want to check out, I promise.

Down the boulevard a mile or so is The Westin Grand, an ultra-modern 30-story glass baby grand piano. Yep - you read that right...piano. Designed originally as a condominium (apparently for Vancouver's most passionate and posh music lovers) with the topside silhouette of a baby grand (that's if you can afford the helicopter required to admire it from overhead) the building was sold to Westin before completion and is today a most classy and cozy all-suite hotel perfect for resting one's weary head at night. Of course, it comes complete with all the expected accoutrements including Westin's wonderful "Heavenly Beds" (guaranteed to put you into deep sleep as you sink softly into the 10" thick pillow top mattress) and "Heavenly Baths" complete with deep soaker tub and specially formulated bath products. Plus a fitness center with spa, sauna, outdoor pool and whirlpool, sun terrace, an elegant restaurant and lounge and more.

There is relaxed elegance in its contemporary styling, and the staff makes you feel like you're the most important people in the world when you walk through the entrance. After a day of sightseeing, it's a "grand" place for a respite. And after you've rejuvenated yourself, the hotel is just a couple blocks from the fascinating people-watching and super-shopping on Robson Street, Vancouver's ritzy rendition of Hollywood's Rodeo Drive.

If you're looking for an excellent family-affordable hotel, then we suggest the Accent Inn located near the Vancouver airport just off Highway 99. The hotel offers over 200 rooms in a variety of sizes and configurations to meet your needs. Bringing all the relatives and want a kitchen or extra bedrooms? They've got them - and at reasonable rates. The Accent Inn (and all other locations throughout British Columbia) are Canada Select 3-1/2 Star hotels, your assurance of spotlessly clean, very comfortable accommodations.

Vancouver's scenic setting, photos courtesy of Vancouver, Coast & Mountains Tourism/Graham Osborne

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