Vancouver: Land of the lotus-eaters
Vancouver cityscape taken from Jericho beach. (Deborah Stringfellow)
It is early August in Vancouver and across a pristine city beach, driftwood-strewn, tide pool dotted, hemmed by forest and twinkling in the sun, dashes a runner dressed only in white laced running shoes. A second follows, wearing just a bright red baseball cap. Another appears, then another and another. One is an elderly man; the two following him are young women. One is pierced, one tattooed; others behind them are painted with pictures and slogans. All are energetic and grinning, and all are naked.
This is the city's Wreck Beach, one of many beaches at the heart of Vancouver (though the only dedicated nudist one), and home to the annual summertime Bare Buns Run. It is here, and to the nearby beaches of Spanish Banks, Jericho and Stanley Park, that Vancouverites flock after a day at the office. Some come on bikes or rollerblades; others walk or hop on board a bobbing water taxi. Unlike some of the world's faster-paced cities - New York, London, or even Toronto - few office workers remain in their suits or shirt sleeves long after the clock hits five. Instead many sail or swim or kayak, eat barbequed suppers on the beach, hit the nearby north shore hiking trails, listen to buskers on waterfront terraces, or simply lounge with a beer or two - fully clothed or otherwise - and watch the sun slip quietly into the sea.
It is likely because of this emphasis on the simpler, slower pleasures of life that Vancouver is known to the rest of Canada as the "land of the lotus-eaters". It might not, of course, be meant as a compliment, but Vancouverites stoutly intend to take it as one. Sure, there are flashy car showrooms and expensive bars and downtown malls stocked with Prada, Chanel and Gucci. But the city's camping equipment selection is more predominant than its couture, four-wheel-drives outnumber Ferraris, and Vancouver revels for the most part in simple, outdoorsy fun. Its central and perennially popular Stanley Park is one of North America's largest urban parks, graced with colonies of curious racoons and stunning views out to the snow-capped North Shore mountains. Its Mount Seymour Provincial Park - just moments from the city centre - provides more than a dozen popular hiking trails and the possibility of sighting (preferably from a good distance) a bear or cougar. Every third person seems to own a boat, or at least a kayak; those who do not yet are planning to, someday.
The city centre's bars and restaurants, continuing the laid-back summer vein, are for the most part low key and dress code and doorman free, many offering up British Columbia's bounty of local wines and microbrews. Throughout summer wild sockeye salmon, chanterelle mushrooms and salmonberries appear on menus. Local artisans produce goats' cheeses, honeys and cloth-wrapped cheddars; organic vegetables abound. Raincity Grill (1193 Denman St), a slick city favourite, serves "biodynamic greens", apple jellies, sunchokes and "rhubarb clouds", all sourced from local suppliers. "I'll have an Attila the Honey, a Back Hand of God, and two Pompous Pompadour Porters", might be your beer order at the cool little Six Acres bar (203 Carrall St) in the city's historic Gastown district. Wines made in the Okanagan - British Columbia's wine region - include those produced by Blasted Church, Dirty Laundry, Forbidden Fruit and, appropriately, Lotus Land wineries.
Aside from spending summer days reclining on its beaches or sampling its micro-brews, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy this city better known in 2010 for its wintery Olympic pursuits (albeit with a certain dearth of snow) than its sunshine. The city's annual summer festivals are not limited solely to the Bare Buns Run, and include Pride Week (early August), western Canada's largest gay pride parade, MusicFest Vancouver (two weeks early August), an international music festival that hosts a free city-centre outdoor stage, and the Bard on the Beach festival (June-September), which sees the work of Shakespeare performed beside the water in a cheerful series of red-and-white circus tents. And in case your festival proclivities are of a fierier nature, the annual Celebration of Light (late July-early August) illuminates the city skies for its 20th year in 2010, with four countries vying for the best display of fireworks set to music. Do as Vancouverites do: pack a locally-produced picnic (do not forget the lotuses and Dirty Laundry), negotiate space on a boat, and claim a prime viewing spot on the glassy waters of English Bay to ensure your Vancouver city summer - however languid - goes off with a bang.