Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (20th Apr 2008)
Our mini adventure into our eleventh and final country (probably) began with a mile long walk with all our gear on to our pick up point, The Best Western Hotel on the other side of town, and luckily for us (it was freezing) almost as soon as we got there the coach pulled up and we were on our way to Canada. We had opted to catch the bus because it was cheaper, probably just as quick as and easier than flying. The bus was pretty good and had much bigger than usual seats, Wi-Fi so we could go on the internet, and there were only about 10 people on it so we all had plenty of room.
We were a little unsure about what we needed to do in regards to leaving America and getting into Canada, so were relieved when the driver gave us customs cards to fill out which explained most of what we had been unsure about. The trip to the border only took a couple of hours and we got a really nice view across Seattle as we left and saw loads of sea planes taking off and landing. It had been raining really quite hard for most of the ride to the border and the driver had been making some jokes about the weather and telling us facts about the area but that all changed when we got to border control and he became really serious when he pulled up and turned off the engine. We were told to stay on the bus while the driver unloaded all of our bags (good job there were only ten of us on the coach or we would have been waiting a while!) onto a carousel that would take then inside. We were pretty much in and out in ten minutes and most important of all we got another stamp in our passports but the security guards inside seemed to get off on their little power trip asking stupid questions and pulling threatening faces, it was all quite pathetic.
We both must have fallen asleep pretty much as soon as we left the border as the next thing we knew we were pulling up outside our drop off point and we had arrived in Vancouver! It was only a short walk to the hostel and it was lucky we were both paying attention as it would have been very easy to miss it, they had no sign that was obvious and had we not read a review telling us so we might have walked right on by. We had booked into Hostelling International Vancouver which is part of one of the most reputable chains but this meant we were paying more than we would have liked too, nevertheless the room only slept four and was clean and tidy and the hostel was in a good location so we didn't really have anything to complain about.
As soon as we dumped our bags we were off out again, wanting to make the most of the time we had here. Not really knowing what there was to do in the area we grabbed a few recommendations from the hostel reception and made our way to Robson Street, the main shopping street in downtown Vancouver. As soon as the smell of all the hot dog stands hit our nostrils we were instantly hungry and made for the first eatery we could find, The Cactus Club. Again, not really sure what to expect , we were greeted by a friendly English sounding door host who told us it would be a twenty minute wait so we sat ourselves down at the bar and waited while everyone else in the place seemed to be eating. Mark was instantly impressed with the place as it had quite a classy interior yet still had numerous flat screen televisions showing a variety of sporting events. We managed to sup our way through several drinks at the bar before being seated at our table. We knew what we wanted to eat immediately, burgers all round and for some reason we both opted for yam fries not really knowing what they were! The burgers arrived and they were delicious although we both agreed that the yam fries were something of an acquired taste. Another aspect of The Cactus Club that was rather memorable was the toilets, it's not often you go into a toilet and there is some kind of automatic plastic bag toilet seat cover changer there! Ok so that didn't really make much sense but it's true, the toilet seat was covered in a thin plastic bag type material and before you sat down you pressed a button and a fresh section of plastic was churned, strange but true!
After lunch we felt that we should do something healthy and productive so we made our way to Stanley Park, Vancouver's largest urban park sprawling out over 1000 acres. One of the main attractions in the park is its 7 kilometre Seawall (a walkway that takes you around the parks perimeters) and after seeing this we thought what better way to spend an afternoon. The first point of interest we reached was Lost Lagoon where we saw our first ever racoon, it stopped perfectly still right in the middle of the path in front of us. We were both surprised by the size of it; we didn't know they were so big. The path soon lead us out onto the famous Seawall where walkers, joggers, bikers and rollerblader's all enjoy the fresh sea air and brilliant views. We passed quite a few beaches on our way round although it was hard to imagine anyone basking in the sun on them as we were freezing cold. Prospect Point is a highlight of the walk as it gives spectacular views in every direction, whether it be of the city, the sea or the beautiful snow capped mountains. After a few kilometres on the Seawall we decided to head inland for a little while and see what else the park had to offer. Instantly we felt like we were in a different place, walking on a dirt track surrounded by greenery. The path soon led us to Beaver Lake and postcard standard views. We had experienced 'Mirror Lakes' before but the tranquillity and stillness of this lake made it the best example we have seen so far. As we walked alongside the lake we were joined by two squirrels chasing each other, manically dashing in and out of the nearby hedges. Pretty soon we came to a Rose Garden and although it wasn't in bloom yet the beautiful blossom trees surrounding it made a really lovely sight.
By this point we were practically back at the city's edge so we decided to have a quiet walk back to the hostel. What we thought would be an eventful twenty minutes or so soon turned a little more interesting when we saw Police barriers shutting off a road so of course we had to go and see what was going on. Not too far into our investigations we began to smell something, something really strong like marijuana and the strength of the scent only increased the further we walked. We thought this was strange as there was quite a high police presence in the area and then upon turning a corner we saw a sign reading 'Legalise Cannabis', we had walked straight into a stoners protest. One thing we couldn't believe is that the green party where there too who are pro cannabis and were handing out flyers stickers and cakes. It was quite a sight really, the protest was taking place outside the art gallery and into the fountain outside they must have poured some bubbles as it was now overflowing with foam. Add to this loud live music, stalls selling "magic cakes" and stoned faces everywhere and you can imagine what it was like; god help us if the stuff ever does get legalised!! We were pretty exhausted when we got back to the hostel so after having something to eat we went straight to bed.
Our second and last day in Vancouver was more leisurely, starting off with another much needed lie in. Mark had spoken to his Grandma the night before and she recommended we go and see the famous Steam Powered Clock in Gastown, a small district in Vancouver. As it was only a moderate walk away and wouldn't cost anything we decided to give it a go. As we were making our way there we noticed there was a fair bit of construction work going on, mostly below pavement level and on looking a bit closer we realised it was the construction of a new underground train line. It really was quite interesting to see as you never really realise how complex a process it is to complete a project like that. Back on track, we soon made our way to Gastown and one thing we immediately noticed were the abundance of souvenir shops selling everything from Canadian flags to merchandise for the 2010 winter Olympics being held in Vancouver and Whistler, this area is obviously a big tourist trap. It wasn't long before we literally stumbled upon the clock and the tens of people surrounding it. It was quite understated to look at but then every fifteen minutes the clock whistles a tune and steam is pumped out of its top, making it quite a spectacle. The famous Gastown Steam Clock was built by horologist Raymond Saunders, owner of The Gastown Steam Clock Company which is just opposite the clock. It is the world's only steam clock and is powered by steam from an underground system of pipes that supply steam to heat many downtown buildings. We managed to be there to catch it going off at 12 midday and it was pretty fun to hear its song and see the steam billowing out the top.
As we weren't interested in Canadian themed shopping we started walking again and this time found ourselves going in the direction of Granville Island Market. To get there we had to cross Granville Bridge and this enabled us to get some more great views of the surrounding area. Granville Island was once a large industrial plot of land but has now been turned into a thriving market place housing galleries, theatres, boat rentals, restaurants and of course market stalls. Unfortunately the cold got too much for us half way across the bridge so we slowly but surely made our way back to the hostel for a bit of warmth. For tea Kara finally got the Veggie Dog from one of the street vendors she had been craving since we got to Vancouver and Mark stuck to the trusty McDonald's where is seemed every tramp in the city had made outside their home. Interestingly the tramps were begging for food but somehow they had managed between to get something to put in a needle and pump in their arms, something we saw twice; it was scary really and meant we avoided them as much as possible because we couldn't think of anything worse than getting pricked with a hypodermic needle some tramps have been sharing.
Again, like most nights now, we were in bed pretty early ready for our trip back to Seattle in the morning. Visiting Vancouver has definitely made us want to see more of Canada as it is such a huge country and we only got to see such a small part of it for an incredibly short period of time, but better to have visited for a couple of days than to have not visited at all right?