I was a boy when I first became familiar with salt codfish. Racks of salted fillets would line the docks of our ancestral Nova Scotia Bay of Fundy village where my parents maintained a home. I loved sautéed Acadian cod cakes made with potatoes and the salty fish served with pickled chow chow.
Salting cod is at least 500 years old and became a staple food product and cash crop for Canada’s Maritime Provinces, Northern Europe and the Caribbean Islands. I grew up on stories of the infamous triangular trade route before I knew its full implications. The stories were romance for my early wanderlust as generations of my family caught, salted and transported this easily preserved fish to hot Caribbean islands in return for the dark rum and molasses that would warm my relatives during cold, wet Maritime winters.
While living in Puerto Rico as a young adult I immediately recognized the wooden boxes of salt cod marked with Canadian port towns I was familiar. Nothing had changed for centuries, except being introduced to the breadth of recipes this simple fish had inspired. Light fritters of salt cod – bacalaítos – became a favored comfort food.
Some years later traveling in Basque Country I enjoyed Bacalao a la Vizcaina, their codfish stew including hard-boiled eggs, capers and raisins. In France I scarfed down copious amounts of rich, elegant Brandade de Morue, a whipped spread with olive oil, cream and potatoes on crusty baguette slices.
As a chef I’ve often played with salt cod. With the worldwide decline of cod stocks due to over fishing salted pollock is a suitable substitute available in North American stores. I feel my recipe for a salt cod stew appeals to most North American tastes.
Salt Cod Stew – 6 servings
1 pound salt cod prepared 2 days ahead of using
3 cups prepared or canned, drained & rinsed garbanzo beans
1 large sweet onion
4 ribs celery
1 green bell pepper
2 scallions – green & white part.
6 cloves garlic
½ cup chopped green olives
2 teaspoons dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¼ cup olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 – 28 ounce can diced stewed tomatoes with juice
2 cups cold water
2 baking potatoes
chopped parsley for garnish
(Two days before making the stew)
Place the salt cod in a stainless steel or glass dish large enough to completely cover with cold water. Refrigerate the cod changing the water 2 to 3 times a day for two days.
If using dried garbanzo beans start their preparation the same day as the cod. Cover ½ pound dried garbanzo beans with 2 quarts cold water. Cover and soak for at least 12 and up to 18 hours. Drain and rinse the beans. Place into a heavy 2-quart pot and cover with two quarts cold water. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 1 hour. The water should simmer not boil or else the beans may break up. Check after one hour. The beans should be tender but not mushy. Drain and rinse. Refrigerate until ready to use.
(Cooking the stew)
Drain the cod and pat dry with paper towel. Slice the cod fillets into chunks about 1 to 1-½ inch squares.
Dice the sweet onion, celery, green pepper, scallions and garlic.
Heat the olive oil in a heavy 4-quart pot. Add the onion and celery and sauté until the onions are translucent. Reduce the heat slightly and add the green pepper, scallions, basil and oregano. Continue cooking for 5 minutes stirring frequently.
Increase the heat and add the salt, black pepper, chopped garlic, cod chunks, chopped green olives, the entire can of diced tomatoes and the 2 cups of cold water.
Bring the stew to a simmer, cover and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes.
While the stew is simmering, peel and dice the potatoes. Place the diced potatoes in a bowl & cover with cold water to prevent browning until ready to use.
After 45 minutes of simmering the stew, drain and add the diced potatoes and the prepared or canned and drained garbanzo beans.
Return to a simmer. Taste test the stew to check for salt and add more if desired. Cover and simmer the stew for an additional 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.
Ladle into bowels and sprinkle with chopped parsley. You may spice it up with hot sauce to taste.
Like with so many stews, you can make this a day ahead of time. Allow the stew to cool for an hour and refrigerate. Gently reheat before serving.
This stew is excellent accompanied with a green salad and a good dry wine such as a Spanish rioja.
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at:
Perhaps poutine is an apt example of a half-century of culinary evolution in Quebec City. Invented in the 1950s, this fast-food combination of French fries topped with fresh cheese curds and smothered in beef gravy became virtually the Quebec national dish and for years the butt of jokes in other parts of Canada – that is until the 21st century. In recent years poutine has changed under the talented hands of imaginative chefs and has migrated to major North American food centers from Philadelphia to Vancouver. From cafes to fine dining restaurants, additions from smoked bison to wild mushrooms and even foie gras now grace hand cut fries, squeaky organic cheese curds and lighter herb flavored gravies.
That same evolution in cuisine under both the talents of seasoned chefs and a new generation brought up on the media’s internationalization of tastes are transforming Quebec City into a sought after dining destination. Yet traditions remain; they’re simply being tweaked. The same incomparable food products Quebec agriculture has always produced now take center of the plate as the following nine city restaurants so admirably prove.
“I’m not an artist; I’m not a wood carver!” Ralph was emphatic, “I don’t know how to take a piece of wood and make anything.” With strong calloused hands, Ralph Eyre held a gnarled silver gray piece of driftwood up to the light filtering through a sawdust caked window of the century old shed that was his workshop. “I just see the bird in the wood; I don’t carve it. It’s there.” His finger touched the smooth wood and traced the outline of the neck then the beak. “See, there’s its eye,” his finger pointed to a small dark knot then flowed down a graceful back to the end of its tail feathers. His blue eyes gleamed with a child’s reality of the obvious. This was not a metaphysical moment. The bird was in the driftwood, and I could clearly see its presence. After a dozen years visiting Ralph, purchasing many of his birds, watching him work and listening to his stories, I didn’t just believe him; I saw the bird before his finger touched the wood.
For forty years, with the assistance and fierce devotion of his wife, Winnie, Ralph Eyre found over 20,000 birds hiding in the driftwood roots of native Nova Scotia spruce, sumac, white cedar and barberry. I had the great fortune of interviewing Ralph and Winnie in 2002, their last year at the 100 acre farm outside Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Winnie passed away in 2006 and Ralph followed in 2007 at the age of 90, but their legacy lives on.
Like living birds, no two of Ralph’s driftwood creatures are alike. “It’s nature’s way of imitating art. I just release them from the wood,” he said without pretension. Mounted on exquisite pieces of driftwood, they have found homes throughout North America, Europe, Japan, and “I know there are a few in Vietnam.” With no advertising, Ralph was living proof that it it’s good enough they will come. And they came back to the Eyre’s farm summer after summer, bringing friends, relatives and the friends of relatives. I know; I was one of them. I also know I’m not the only one who gave more as gifts than I kept.
Each bird began its life as a weathered piece of driftwood, 90% of which were tree roots. Ralph became fascinated with the intrinsic beauty of tree root driftwood in the late 1940’s while stationed in the Yukon. He observed the techniques and styles of several First Nation craftsmen. In the late 1950’s, while on a camping trip to Nova Scotia’s Lake Rossignol, Ralph was stunned by the quality and quantity of its driftwood. “It must have been stacked 20 to 30 feet tall on the shore.” While others were looking for First Nation artifacts, “I loaded my canoe. It must have looked like a crazy driftwood freighter.”
As Ralph and Winnie explained the process, I watched their eyes sparkle from both the pleasure they found in their work and the obvious love for each other – when Winnie passed away in 2006 they had just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. Their tools and methods were simple. “I start with collecting tree roots that have been submerged in the lake maybe for 30 or 40 years. They’re dead but preserved. Many are riddled with worm holes. That gives them character and texture.” For at least a year hundreds of pieces lay on long wooden tables outside his workshop drying in the sun. He studied a seasoned piece of wood, discovered the bird and traced its outline using a black crayon. Depending on the size of the piece, he used a chain saw and/or hand axe to cut away the wood trapping the animal. A wood rasp and disk sander was applied to reveal its form. Winnie then joined the process by hand sanding, giving each piece a smoothness that rivals silk and highlighting the subtle shadings of color and grain unique to each piece of wood. After applying sanding sealer and roughing the surface slightly with steel wool, she used ordinary neutral Kiwi shoe polish that added a soft, rich glow. “No verithane,” Ralph said, “too glossy.”
Another piece of driftwood was carefully selected to provide the base. Nothing was altered on this piece, “I want a polished bird on a natural wood base. Maybe it’s a single bird resting, or ready to take off, or a family with the daddy bird off to the side protecting the mother as she looks at her eggs.” Eggs were beautifully painted nodules of sea kelp resting in a nest of hay in a natural hollow in the wood. “Selecting the right piece of wood for the base is important”, Ralph added, “It gives the bird a story.”
Stories were important to Ralph and Winnie. A back room of their barn/showroom was the “museum.” They discovered more than just birds in the wood. On one table was an exquisite driftwood shoe complete with the Old Women and all her children. Within a wire cage was a driftwood tree with dozens of swinging monkeys from its branches. A collection of mermaids and sea animals sun themselves on ocean worn rocks. An entire circus train with each wooden carriage containing animals is now part of the permanent folk art collection of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia – the premiere museum in Halifax. None of these were ever for sale, but I knew more than one child that was gifted with a dinosaur or lizard while their parents perused the hundreds of birds on display.
Ralph’s vision didn’t stop at animals. He discovered the perfect piece of driftwood, weighted with just enough embedded rocks to make a fascinating lamp base. Or the correct oval piece, with a slight indentation, for a free form fruit bowl.
Their playfulness and joy in living makes using the term “National Treasure” trite, and they would have been embarrassed if I had insisted on that title. Yet the prices that they placed on their creations were an embarrassment. After 40 years (late 1950s – early 2000s) and 500 works of art per year, the average prices ranged from $10 to $25. On many occasions Ralph would tell me that few people would want to pay more for his simple birds. When I ask again, “Why do you sell the birds for so little?” Winnie jumped right in without hesitation and with genuine enthusiasm, “Because of all the people who come and visit us! We love the people. We get cards at Christmas from all over, and they come back and bring their friends. It’s just wonderful! They might not come back if we charge more.”
Many a business person would question this economic wisdom, but for Ralph and Winnie Eyre, they saw a treasure hiding in the driftwood that few people will ever discover – the secret to a life fulfilled through the sheer pleasure of following their passion.
It’s a vast space and on a beautiful Sunday afternoon it was packed. Not only is the variety and quality overwhelming and the prices very fair, but every ethnic “fast food” is available from Italian to Samoan – this is the Pacific Rim remember. Take your prepared foods outside to the tables and benches and you’ll also be entertained by dozens of buskers/musicians. The picture collages are best viewed if you click to enlarge (want an item identified? E-mail me through a comment. I’ll be happy to reply).
Although Granville Market is the largest, Downtown Vancouver has a number of smaller produce markets that you’ll run across walking through the city. So… you’re a tourist staying in a hotel with, maybe, a microwave in your room – not good for oysters? Why not book an apartment, or easier still, an apartment hotel. For six nights I had a one bedroom apartment with a complete kitchen, half a block from False Creek at the (first class) Meridian 910 Beach Avenue Apartment Hotel for $140/night including tax. When I tell you what good restaurants cost in Vancouver, as well as the $250 – $600/night at all other first class hotels, you’ll realize this is a terrific deal.
I’m a seafood/fish freak – especially oysters (raw, fried, you name it). The northwest coast of the USA and Canada has survived the destructive pollution that has ravaged the eastern shore and Gulf coast beds. For $18.00 I purchased two pounds of the largest, plumpest stewing oysters I have ever experienced. They provided my wife and me with the main course for two dinners and one lunch. I’m not a big fan of deep fat frying, but pan frying is another story altogether. I created a recipe which I consider quite nice:
Pan Fried Oysters with Scotch-Green Pepper Mustard Sauce (if usingall two pounds it will serve four people)
2 pounds stewing oysters
4 eggs, well beaten
DRY bread crumbs or corn meal (I like corn meal)
¼ pound butter and 4 Tablespoons olive oil (more butter if necessary between batches)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup (8 oz. any Scotch whiskey)
2 to 3 Tablespoons green pepper corn mustard (if you cannot find this, use 2 Tablespoons Dijon mustard and 1 Tablespoons preserved – canned – green peppercorns).
Finely chopped parsley for garnish
(1) place oysters in a strainer over a bowl and drain for 30 minutes
(2) reserve oyster liquor and place oysters on paper towels to dry for 15 minutes.
(3) beat eggs in a bowl
(4) in a separate bowl measure out 1 ½ cups flour
(5) in a different bowl measure out an equal amount of cornmeal or flour
(6) Follow these directions for EACH oyster: using your hands (NOT A FORK OR TONGS – you will puncture the delicate oysters – hands are made for cooking) (A) dip each oyster into the first bowl of flour and shake off the excess. (B) dip the floured oyster into the beaten egg. (C) coat the egged oyster in the additional flour or cornmeal.
(7) place each oyster on a wire rack/cookie sheet. When all oysters have been prepared, place the cookie sheet with oysters into the refrigerator for 30 minutes so that the coating will “set” – adhere to the oyster (you want to do this for anything you “bread”).
(8) in a heavy sauté/frying pan, non-stick is great, cut the 4 oz. of butter into pieces and add the olive oil. Melt the butter into the oil over moderate heat. When gently bubbling, add only enough oysters for a single layer – do not crowd! Sauté until golden brown on each side – about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a paper towel lined platter that has been heated in a 225 degree oven and keep oysters warm until all are prepared.
(9) If the oysters have absorbed all the butter/oil, add 2 to 3 Tablespoons butter to pan and melt. Add the mustard/peppercorns and blend until smooth. Add the scotch and reserved oyster liquor and heat gently until smooth simmer for 2 minutes.
(10) Divide the sauce among the plates and top with four or five oysters. Sprinkle with some finely chopped parsley. Serve with roasted garlic whipped potatoes and steamed asparagus. (email for the roasted garlic potato recipe).
Vancouver, like most North American cities, has lost any distinctive cuisine having succumbed to the homogenized taste dictated by large food processors and TV advertising. The average restaurant serves the same burgers, fried fish, steaks and pasta dishes anyone will find in New York, Toronto or Dubuque – with the same variations on theme and price depending on whether table cloths are provided. “Fine Dining” establishments mean a couple will pay the same $150 with wine that they’ll pay anywhere for the same food and serve.
I did find one restaurant I thought was a cut above the norm in an unlikely venue since it’s in the middle of the uber-tourist/power lunch Downtown area of Canada Place/Harbor Center.
Aqua Riva, 200 Granville Street, is a sleek, ultra-modern, glass sheathed space with spectacular views of Vancouver harbor from all tables. Recommended by friends who had dined there a few weeks before, it was an excellent choice for a first-class lunch. The same friends had told us we must have Heidi as our server, and without remembering in advance, sure enough, we were seated at a table served by Heidi – she’s waving to our friends in the collage (and was a friendly, trained, well informed professional). Aqua Riva specializes in wood grilled meats and fish. As you enter the restaurant, the grilling area is open and blazing with the aroma of good food. Wild Salmon – in every form imaginable – is available at every good restaurant along the north Pacific coast and we had had our full after nearly two weeks of travel. My wife had Cream of Sweet Potato Soup and Curry Roasted Lamb Sirloin Wrap and I had a daily special, Grilled New Zealand Lamb topping a square of fried couscous and crisp steamed vegetables on a demi-glace green peppercorn sauce. All was flavorful and well-seasoned, although I had asked for my lamb to be medium rare and it came well done – minor fault. Lunch with wine and tip was $100 for two. I would highly recommend Aqua Riva based on the ambiance, service, food and view – a couple would spend much more at lesser venues, but you will spend more for dinner.
Perusing many menus at Downtown restaurants confirmed that Vancouver’s venues were equal to most North American cities – predictable, possibly well prepared and presented but are they worth spending $100 – $250 per couple for lunch and dinner every day? What was interesting were the proliferation of spotlessly clean street vendors and office complex food courts. The occasional burger joint was around, but the majority were Asian inspired venues offering everything from made to order sushi to Japadog – “hot dogs” made from shrimp, gourmet pork and topped with such items as seaweed! With this abundance of markets and fascinating “fast food,” why spend in excess of $100 for just another tender grilled steak?
Yet there is a neighborhood where modest ethnic restaurants exist, from Irish Pub to North African. This is in the working class gentrifying Commercial Drive District east of Downtown. At Carthage Café we had superb Tunisian Cuisine. We shared a soup rich with the deep flavor of cumin, vegetables and lamb in a flavorful chicken broth; a stew thick with chick peas, lamb, cinnamon and couscous and large, plump Prince Edward Island mussels in a saffron, ginger and red pepper sauce. Café Carthage, it turns out, is famous for its imaginative Tunisian twists on sauces for mussels. I would return to Commercial Drive to check the many Asian and some century old Italian restaurants. Lunch for two with wine and tip was $65.
There are a couple buildings in Downtown that stand out among the glass jungle that are worth visiting. Chief among them is the 1995 central branch of the Vancouver Public Library constructed at a cost of $100 million dollars. Moshe Safdie, a highly respected Canadian-Palestinian architect, was born in the city of Haifa in 1938 when it was the British Mandate of Palestine (he moved with his family to Montreal when he was 15). In the early 1990’s he won a rigorous competition with his radical design that mimics the Roman Coliseum. The beautiful building, full of light, plants, books and fountains is a much beloved landmark.
A pleasant short trip from the Canada Place ferry terminal in Downtown over to the city of North Vancouver, for the same $2.50/two-hour Trans Link ticket that gets you anywhere around the city, is a nice way to observe the very busy commercial port of Vancouver – fourth busiest in North America. The ferry is basically a commuter service because there isn’t really any reason to go to North Vancouver unless you are traveling to the ski resort of Whistler or other British Columbia mountain adventures. The Mall at the terminal does have a nice Market, and it is good for Americans to see how a modern, efficient ferry service actually functions. I’ve been saying repeatedly how expensive Vancouver is, but I must mention that North Vancouver is the “Beverly Hills” of the region with home prices averaging $4 million. North Vancouver has an Irish connection. In the early 20th century, the Guinness family owned nearly all the land. In the depth of the Great Depression, they constructed the suspension bridge connecting Stanley Park to North Vancouver and made an additional fortune developing the land into luxury housing and collecting the bridge tolls until the 1950’s.
From food to nature, at the far end of Downtown’s West End is the beautiful retreat of Stanley Park, named after its founder in the 1880’s Canada’s Governor GeneralFrederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Darby and Lord Stanley of Preston, accomplished politician and athlete. He is most famous for establishing the sport of hockey’s Stanley Cup. A multi thousand acre preserve of both exquisite landscaped gardens, the very good Tree House Restaurant (pictured above, bottom middle) and hiking forests, Stanley Park is within walking, biking and driving distance minutes from anywhere in Downtown Vancouver. The best way to explore the park is by hiking or renting a bike. During the summer months a free shuttle tours the perimeter.
There are three major museums in Vancouver of which only one is worth your time. If you’re on a cruise with only six hours in the city and enjoy local historical stuff, you might visit the Vancouver Museum. Many guide books praise the Vancouver Art Gallery because it owns 177 paintings by one of Canada’s most brilliant artists, Emily Carr (1871-1945), one of the famous post-impressionist “Group of 7,” but unfortunately you’ll see, if you’re lucky, maybe twelve – I have no idea where the remainder reside. Otherwise you’ll pay $19.50 to see what basically are sophomoric exhibits representing the University of British Columbia’s art school. But there is one gem that makes Vancouver a must visit. – the MOA.
MOA’s ancient art
If walking around Downtown and you come across a low-rise building that causes you to say “wow” – because it’s neither a boring glass structure or a wedding cake (re: The Fairmount Hotel Vancouver), it was most likely designed by Arthur Erickson, (June 14, 1924 – May 20, 2009), Vancouver native, graduate in Asian languages from the University of British Columbia, Canada’s prestigious McGill University and internationally celebrated architect. Even if you only saw the outside of the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology you would be thrilled. Yet to spend hours immersed in its collection, tens of thousands of First Nation North Pacific Coast art and all the cultures of the Pacific Rim, are priceless. Unlike most anthropology museums, the MOA does not consider these cultures dead. Not only did Canada’s First Nation cultures survive extinction – despite disease and cultural genocide for a hundred years – but the museum has a mission to revive and maintain these vibrant cultures with their outstanding art. The juxtaposition of ancient North Pacific Coast art with South Pacific cultures is illuminating. It’s obvious these cultures knew of each other’s existence – the Pacific was simply a big pond. The museum’s advocacy of the continuing revival in First Nation artistic traditions is inspiring.
Arthur Erickson’s 1971 design takes my breath away. Based on a North Pacific Coast Clan House, he managed to maintain his ideal of a simple concrete and glass structure that would be both distinctive and bring the outside environment inside. Set on a forested cliff, hundreds of feet above the Pacific, at the edge of the University’s South Vancouver campus, the building is more than an homage to the collection. In the 1940’s the Canadian government built two eight foot thick concrete gun emplacements as part of World War II defenses for Vancouver harbor. Rather than attempt their removal, Erikson incorporated them into the museum. One is part of an outdoor garden and the other is an inspired decision – it is incorporated into the museum as the Rotunda Gallery, dominated by, and dedicated to, First Nation artist Bill Reid’s (1920 -1998) monumental wooden sculpture “Raven and the First Man.” It’s a truly moving statement to the mythic reality that out of destruction there is rebirth.
Very few of us are ex-patriots from our birth countries – although maybe some of us wish we were. So when first generation ancestors moved from Europe, Asia, South America, and even Africa (after the post-slave era) it’s not odd that they would want to settle in areas with similar immigrants. That’s an age-old tradition – the psychological first step in the process of integrating into a new society. Look at your own area. What do you call “Little…”? In the tourism literature of any size population center in North America there is a “Little… something” – from Italian to Ethiopian. Unfortunately today, many ethnic neighborhoods are shadows of this past uniqueness having been absorbed into the melting pot or turned into a tourist attraction – or striving to be “upwardly mobile.”
Vancouver is not unique in that venue. Gastown, 1860’s, was the first “Vancouver” neighborhood twenty years before the official founding of the city in 1886. Named after “Gassy” Jack Deighton – a pioneer entrepreneur and saloon keeper – who brought natural gas lines into this area of docks, warehouses, whore houses and anything else one can think of in a frontier port. After its destruction in the Great Vancouver Fire of the same year the city was officially incorporated, it was rebuilt in late 19th century brick buildings lined with cobbled streets. Yet it remained a rough European immigrant port district until its further decline during the Great Depression, and through the 1960’s, into a slum. Fortunately well-meaning urban planners were thwarted in their attempt to demolish the 19th century brick neighborhood. Unfortunately, Gastown today is “quaint” in that sweet, teeth jarring tourist up-scale shadow of its original self. Set only a few blocks from the cruise piers/Canada Place of Downtown on Water Street off of Hastings Street, it’s a neighborhood of cheap souvenir shops, expensive designer showrooms, cafes and some exquisite art galleries – if you can afford the multi-thousand dollar price tags. Like most of central Vancouver, its residents are young, upwardly mobile professionals who can afford the multi-thousand dollar rents for condos.
Gastown’s most interesting attraction is the Steam Clock. Conceived over a hundred years ago but not built until the 1970’s, it’s “chimes” are steam operated- not unlike a river boat – by Vancouver’s distributed Downtown steam-heating system. Located on the corner of Cambie and Water Street, it sounds every 15 minutes and is definitely worth walking through the crowded, flower bedecked streets to observe.
Vancouver’s Chinatown – the third largest in North America – is no longer the ghetto that many Asian neighborhoods once were considering that the city’s population is 30% Chinese – many among the wealthiest residents of the city. It’s separated by a couple of blocks from Gastown by an odd stretch that is populated by drug dealers and prostitutes – perfectly safe in the daytime – traversed by all the tour buses ( note: no tour bus commentary – why?). Except for the Sun Yat-sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Chinese Cultural Center there is no reason to visit Chinatown unless you wish to buy inexpensive trinkets.
Downtown is actually the name of Vancouver’s central core, although it is in subdivisions which are discernable today only by architecture or color – not racial, rather the rainbow flag. The 1886 Great Fire not only rebuilt Gastown but expanded the city creating new neighborhoods for Vancouver’s growing wealthy. The mostly British merchant class built spacious landscaped Victorian mansions and, in the early 1900’s, many Arts and Crafts houses. The vast influx of wealthy Chinese British passport holders from Hong Kong in the 1980’s and 90’s, and Vancouver’s subsequent economic boom, rebuilt Downtown (re: tore down the original housing) with luxury glass high rise condos. Yet even if this very expensive “urban renewal” is architecturally soulless, this is Canada. Real estate developers have to comply with strict codes requiring public art installations, inspired landscaping, public access through the developments – bike paths, pedestrian walkways and public ownership of the extensive waterfront.
Robson Street, which runs the full east/west length of Downtown, is the fashionable shopping street but the Champs-Élysées it is not. Armani and Cartier are sandwiched between hundreds of small locally owned shops that make me wonder how they can afford the rent – obviously considering the crowds of shoppers they can. To its immense credit, the shops are mostly locally owned and not chain stores. It’s a carnival scene with Bentleys and Mercedes parked in front of non-descript storefronts. Granville Street was once Vancouver’s main shopping district but it fell on hard times after the Great Depression. Fortunately that means it still contains many original Art Deco buildings and is on an economic rebound. Yaletown, next to Granville Street, is a mix of residential lofts and hip stores in restored industrial buildings, as well as glass condos catering to the growing affluent population of under 35-year old professionals.
West End is the wealthiest area and, to some extent, what’s left of the original Downtown. Tree lined streets, especially Bute Street, is a low rise haven of excessively expensive Craftsmen houses, Art Deco apartment complexes, and young families enjoying exquisite pocket parks. The noise and traffic bustle of the shopping district, only a few blocks away, seem worlds apart.
The West End is also home to one of Downtown’s most unique neighborhoods, Davie Village – the heart of Vancouver’s gay district. Fuscia painted bus stops and trash cans decorate a vibrant shopping and café area – fully integrated with the non-gay community (remember, this is socially advancedCanadawhere gay marriage was legalized years ago). The Davie Village Community Garden, at the corner of Davie and Burrard Streets, is the most beautiful community garden I have ever seen. More non-edible plants than vegetables, it’s a fitting symbol of the commitment of Vancouver’s residents to preserving green space within the urban landscape. The incomparable Stanley Park (see next blog) borders the West End.
Granville Island, situated in False Creek between Downtown and South Vancouver, was once an industrial center. After years of decline and neglect, it was revitalized a couple decades ago into the cultural/shopping/tourist/entertainment district of the city – beloved and much frequented by locals. The stunning Public Market (see next blog) is the major draw for locals, as well as mediocre restaurants, the excellent Arts Club Theatre of Vancouver, the Emily Carr University of Art & Design, trendy shops, the best seafood stores ever (!!), an entire toy store mall and park devoted to children and terrific buskers (licensed street performers). Sandwiched between the Island and Downtown is an enormous yacht harbor, reminding you that water surrounds. Nearly every structure is a renovated industrial building and one old company, a cement plant, still operates on the island. A small, unique collection of multi-million dollar floating houses line False Creek east of the cement plant.
Just over the Burrard and Granville Bridges, and opposite Granville Island, is South Vancouver. At first it seems non-descript as one views the vast Molson brewery and a rather stark, treeless commercial district until you pass row upon row of car dealerships – Lamborghini, Lotus, Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, Bentley (not a Chevy or Ford in sight). Rising quickly up forested hills are modest houses and low-rise condos giving way to ever larger water front/view residences – everything with starting prices in excess of one million dollars. The reason for a tourist to visit South Vancouver is to walk around the spacious University of British Columbia campus and spend at least half a day at its stunning Museum of Anthropology (sorry, you’ll have to read my next blog). UBC’s MOA is a reason in itself why a traveler must visit Vancouver!!
Vancouver has an excellent and inexpensive public transportation system which, oddly enough, the official tourism department seems reluctant to advertise or supply any information on its workings. I believe the tourism officials want to promote the excessively expensive taxis in the city. (Do not take taxis unless you absolutely must!) The system, Trans Link, includes buses, subway and elevated (the Sky Train). They are integrated but, given the lack of support by tourism officials, they require a learning curve – in my case, three days. First I used the system’s web site trip planner until it proved as unreliable as just about any other one I’ve ever used (first bus trip using the site left me off two miles from my destination.) Then I realized, “I’m in Canada!” The bus drivers have to be genetically friendly!! And they were!!! All I had to do was ask, and I got more information than I needed. With that knowledge, I discovered the real neighborhoods of Vancouver – once more ignored by tourism officials.
The Commercial Drive and Main Street Districts, east and north-east of Downtown, were once, and somewhat still are, the non-British European “Little Italy, Little Portugal, etc.” working class neighborhoods of Vancouver. Not as pristinely scrubbed as Downtown or the South side with a mixture of dollar stores, small businesses and streets lined with Craftsmen houses that make a lover of this architecture well up with tears of joy, this is the Vancouver in which I felt most comfortable. It has not lost its ethnic roots only that most of the old European communities are now Vietnamese, Thai, Pilipino, North African, Middle Eastern and Latino. The mix of languages, store signs, grocery stores and restaurants is dizzying. Historic architectural codes are preserving the extensive streets of early 20th century housing encouraging an influx of professionals, academics, artists and entrepreneurs who can buy/rent the “affordable” housing in the districts – starting prices for single family houses in the $700K and studio apartments in the $700/month range. Community gardens proliferate and Commercial Street in particular is colorful, has a bounty of ethnic restaurants – including well established Italian and Greek – and beautiful views of the Downtown skyline. Main Street is less gentrified and the center for both Asian supermarkets and Vancouver’s antique district (an affordable antique district).
Despite some misgivings with the expensive glass jungle and overly tourist orientation of Downtown, Gastown and Chinatown, overall Vancouver is a highly livable city – if you can afford it – set on the edge of some of Earth’s most spectacular landscape. Pedestrians rule, with cars – even with fast drivers – dutifully stopping at the pedestrian crossings at nearly every intersection ( violations bring hefty fines). Trash on the streets is non-existent (and no, that’s not an exaggeration!) even though trash cans are not common – people simply do not litter (I know, it’s an unthinkable concept in the USA). Everyone picks up after their dog – if you forgot a bag, public boxes with bags line the extensive landscaped walkways throughout the city (and this is a city where I think it’s obligatory to own a dog). Public art, fountains, gardens and parks proliferate softening the urban reality, and everywhere there is the sea, the forested mountains and the mist shrouded islands.
Islands of mist shrouded forested mountains are set in the deep blue waters of English Bay. For 10,000 years, the one-thousand mile unsurpassed natural beauty from Seattle’s Puget Sound through Alaska’s Inside Passage has been home to the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakwakawa’wakw, Tlingit, and Haida among other First Nation cultures. These prosperous, sophisticated societies existed well before Captain James Cook and George Vancouver explored the islands in these waters during the late 18th century.
Much has changed in the region since that time. The Hudson’s Bay Company, incorporated by British royal charter in 1670, (the virtual government of much of British North America) founded the City of Victoria, 1843, and the City of Vancouver in 1886. The wealth generated by the lucrative fur trade was soon augmented by gold discoveries all along the west coast from California to the Yukon, quickly followed by steam ship trade with the Orient. Yet although Victoria became the capital of the English colony of British Columbia and Vancouver its most important port, both cities remained small Pacific coast outposts reached only by lengthy sea voyages or trans-continental train.
A province of Canada since 1871, British Columbia, and its two principal cities, have always been a bit different than the rest of the nation. Perhaps due to its name being personally chosen by Queen Victoria, its 3,000 mile distance from eastern Canada, its Pacific sea trade and proximity to the USA’s west coast cities, Vancouver, and Victoria, ferociously maintained a British colonial sensibility – High Tea, manicured gardens, half-timbered cottages with Chinese staff and an eye towards the Orient.
Vancouver’s historically diverse population was also different. Just as with its neighbor to the south, westward expansion brought the largest non-British European groups: Irish, German, Scandinavian and Italian. Post World War II brought Eastern Europeans, Greeks and Portuguese – the city has the third largest Portuguese population in Canada. Vancouver’s First Nations citizens number over 11,000 people – 2%.
By far, the most significant impact on the region’s diversity has always been its location as a major player on the Pacific Rim. By 1890 the small city of 12,000 included 1,000 Chinese residents. In 2010, Vancouver’s Chinatown was the third largest in North America with 30% of the city of Chinese descent, followed by an additional 17% from Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and the Philippines. That 47% (250,000 people) makes Vancouver the largest Asian city in North America, but at 4:00 PM the venerable Hotel Vancouver still serves a proper British High Tea.
Of great significance for both Vancouver’s Asian population and the city’s economy was the near panic that swept over wealthy Hong Kong citizens when Great Britain announced in the 1980’s its plan to hand over the colony to China – following through in 1997. Thousands of new Chinese immigrants flooded Vancouver bringing untold millions in investment capital. The reality, of course, is that the sky did not fall that fateful summer day in 1997, and Hong Kong has continued to be a major force in the booming Chinese economy resulting in ever closer business ties between Vancouver and Asia. For Vancouver’s compact downtown, the result has been its total transformation from low-rise Victorian and Craftsmen cottages to a high-rise, pristinly clean and manicured jungle of gleaming glass condos – all with stunning views of the water, mist-shrouded islands and snow-capped mountains.
By quantity of shipped tonnage, the Port of Vancouver is now the busiest and largest in Canada, and the fourth largest in North America. While forestry still ranks as British Columbia’s largest industry, Vancouver’s sophisticated urban culture, surrounded by nature, makes tourism its second largest industry. It’s also the third largest film production center in North America, earning it the nickname Hollywood North.
Vancouver is the only North American city ranked in the top ten most livable cities in the world – #4. Couple a healthy economy, natural beauty and a climate considered temperate by Canadian standards, and it’s no wonder Vancouver is a mecca for young professionals, artists, fisherman and retirees. Like Seattle, it does rain, or rather heavy mist, quite often yet the summer months are typically dry, often resulting in moderate drought conditions in July and August. Annual participation is less than 47 inches a year compared to Philadelphia’s 44. Temperatures average in the 70’s ° F in July and August, with winter temperatures usually in the 40’s-50’s ° F.
Like most cities, especially those created by immigrants, Vancouver is a city of neighborhoods, and today that is qualified as very expensive neighborhoods. Although much of the original downtown is the aforementioned glass jungle it is not an evening dead zone like Houston. Most of the glass towers are condos where the fortunate are within walking distance to work and play creating a vibrant nightlife. A one-bedroom, 800 square foot condo costs from $350,000 to well over $1 million, double that for a two bedroom. Single family houses start in the $700,000 range for a small bungalow – in some neighborhoods that starting price doubles. I saw more luxury cars in downtown Vancouver than in Manhattan.