Vancouver – Cosmopolitan, Trendy, and Oh-So Tragically Hip
I live in Seattle. It’s a one-hour flight to Vancouver, British Columbia. Two hours driving time. Four hours by train. You get the idea – the cities are close in proximity. Yet during my three years in Seattle, I’ve made trips to nearby islands in the Puget Sound, drives to Oregon and the Washington coast, and somehow Vancouver failed to make it on the radar.
Upon realizing that two of our favorite bands – Metallica and The Tragically Hip – were playing Vancouver on back-to-back nights, we finally ventured north during one long weekend in August. It was then that I discovered that Vancouver may have a Pacific Northwest monopoly on cool. Forget proximity. A trip to this cosmopolitan city is worth any amount of travel time.
Following a two-hour drive and a short wait at the Canadian border, we arrived in Vancouver and headed straight to the OPUS, a boutique hotel located in the city’s trendy Yaletown neighborhood. Upon checking in, the receptionist handed us glasses of champagne, which we sipped as the bellman ushered us to one of 96 rooms in the hotel. Amenities included a gas fireplace, heated bathroom floor, and an iPad for guests’ use in or outside of the hotel during their stay. Glass doors opened to an outdoor courtyard shared with one other room on the floor, perfect for enjoying Vancouver’s summer weather.
After settling in, we took off for a late dinner at Salt Tasting Room in Vancouver’s historic Gastown neighborhood. Salt is located in Blood Alley (Blood Alley? Apparently there are two theories for the name. The first, and more likely, theory is that around the turn of the 20th Century, the alley was lined with butcher shops. When the butchers hosed down their floors each day, blood would spill into the alley. The second theory surrounds the fact that Blood Alley is located one block from the site of Vancouver’s first prison). Regardless, Blood Alley’s evocative name left me curious about the restaurant. Located dead (bad pun intended) center in Blood Alley, Salt didn’t disappoint.
Upon entering Salt’s brick-walled space, we were seated across the room from a communal table, perfect for big groups or making new friends of strangers. Our focus was immediately drawn to a large chalkboard upon which was written three main categories: cheese, meat, and condiments. As we studied the board, Kyle introduced himself to us and promptly became our tour guide (read: server) to British Columbia – or at least, many of its wines, cheese and charcuterie. We put ourselves in Kyle’s capable hands, beginning our meal with wine flights and moving on to tasting plates based on Salt’s ever-changing selection of 10 cheeses, 10 meats, and 10 condiments.
Our tasting plates consisted of three cheeses, three meats and six condiments and were served with a variety of bread and crackers. Calabrese with house-made quince paste. Chevre with Picker Shack cherries. Smoked beef with cipollini onions. With every new bite and flavor combination, we were hard-pressed to pick a favorite. In the end, the Le Rustique French brie combined with Basque olives was the winner, tasting like a bite of the perfect gourmet pizza.
After polishing off our plates, we considered desserts like chocolate mousse with cherry compote or braised duck and cherry terrine, but all I could think was more cheese. I opted for a blue – Colston Bassett Stilton – and a British Columbia honey, perfectly paired with a tawny port.
Thoroughly satiated yet with room for a cocktail, we asked Kyle for a nearby bar recommendation. Following his advice, we walked the short distance down Gastown’s cobblestone streets to L’Abattoir. The two-story space is located in the site of Vancouver’s first jail, and houses an upstairs restaurant and downstairs bar where we settled in, perching on stools in the front window. We ordered the Donald Draper, which sounded interesting – bourbon and absinthe! – but was a must-try for its name alone.
Full of cheese, charcuterie and Don Draper, it was time to call it a night. Back at the OPUS, the hotel lobby had seemingly transformed into a club-like lounge complete with a red (or more appropriately shaded pink) carpet doorman entrance, a DJ and a fashion-conscious crowd sipping cocktails. The atmosphere nearly lured us in for one more drink, but visions of Laffy Taffy danced in my head. (Forget chocolates on your pillow – OPUS’ nightly turn-down service is all about the old-school candy.)
Friday morning began with a short walk to a French patisserie, Boulangerie la Parisienne, where breakfast consisted of croissants and espresso. After breakfast, I set out for the Fairmont Pacific Rim, where I had booked a massage at the hotel’s Willow Stream Spa.
I purposefully arrived at the spa one hour before my treatment in order to take full advantage of the facilities. The spa hostess gave me a brief tour, pointing out the women’s, men’s, and couples’ lounges; steam room; Infrared sauna; and the outdoor terrace complete with private Jacuzzis. I changed into a robe in the women’s locker room, selected a glass of citrus-flavored water and a magazine, and made a beeline for the terrace, settling in to a private meditation pod.
At the appointed time, masseuse Shannon guided me to a large treatment room, which included a massage table and a Jacuzzi tub. For the next hour I underwent a stress-relief massage, which focuses on the body’s main tension points – the head, neck, shoulders, back and feet. After the treatment ended, I returned to the outdoor terrace for a few more minutes of relaxation before showering in a private room with a rainfall showerhead.
The massage left me not only stress-free but hungry. I returned to the OPUS and we walked half a block to Simply Thai restaurant for lunch. It was a sunny and warm day, so we sat on the outdoor patio, ordering Tom Kha Gai soup and Penang curry with prawns. After lunch, we spent the afternoon walking along the False Creek waterfront, an inlet in the heart of the city, and selecting French macarons from Yaletown’s Ganache Patisserie.
On tap for the evening was the first of our two concerts: Metallica. The OPUS provides its guests with a complimentary car service within the downtown Vancouver area, but Rogers Arena was located nearby, so we chose to enjoy the weather and walked to the concert. As we headed back to the hotel later that night, we observed trendy crowds of 20- and 30-somethings pouring in and out of restaurants and bars in Yaletown. Though tempted to make a late night of it, we had another concert to look forward to the next day, so the evening ended with room service, promptly delivered within 15 minutes of ordering.
Saturday morning. Another day, another croissant. We walked to Cadeaux Bakery in Gastown and selected an almond croissant and a cheddar, spring onion, and herb scone, which made for the perfect dichotomy of sweet and savory. Splitting the croissant and scone so that we each had a taste, we sat at a bistro table inside the cafe’s front window and watched the pastry chefs working behind the counter.
After breakfast, we windowshopped Gastown’s boutiques, stopping at Roden Gray to browse their selection of Givenchy and Thom Browne men’s clothes. We then walked to Gastown’s steam clock, one of only a few functioning clocks around the world that are powered by steam engines. The clock was surrounded by waiting tourists and we came upon it at just the right time – the top of the hour when the four auxiliary whistles chime the Westminster Quarters.
We decided to spend the afternoon exploring Granville Island, a peninsula-turned-shopping and restaurant district. Though Granville Island can be reached by car, we took the Aquabus water taxi from the Yaletown “bus stop” along False Creek. A 10-minute ride to Granville Island, the Aquabus provided us with a different perspective on Vancouver, as we watched boats and stand-up paddle boarders pass beside us in the water.
Once we arrived on Granville Island, lunch was first on the agenda. We chose Edible Canada Bistro, located across from the Public Market. Courtney seated us on the patio, allowing us to take advantage of another sunny Vancouver day. We began our meal by selecting a sparkling wine flight. Courtney also encouraged us to try the Maple Bacon Caesar, the Bistro’s take on a Bloody Mary. I don’t really love Bloody Marys (another way to put it is I don’t like Bloody Marys at all). So I was a little hesitant to try the Caesar. But with Courtney’s solid recommendation and the promise of a candied bacon skewer, I bit the bullet.
Courtney served our Caesars first, tall glasses filled with a Bloody Mary’s telltale tomato juice and large celery stalk. Unlike the typical Blood Mary, however, a slice of bacon rested across the glass and the rim was coated with bacon salt. I took a sip. Then I took another. And another. The comment from the peanut gallery was “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink a cocktail so fast.” I then took a candied bacon bite. I was sold.
A few minutes later our sparkling wine flights arrived, and I reluctantly pushed back the Caesar to delve in to the bubbles. Any disappointment I had at abandoning the Caesar was forgotten as I sipped a light-bodied Moscato from the British Columbia winery Orofino. When we raved to Courtney about the Moscato, she pointed across the street to Liberty Wine Merchants, which sells nearly all of the wines featured on the Bistro’s menu. We made a mental note to stop by before leaving Granville Island.
Vodka and wine before 2 pm demanded food. Courtney noted some of the Bistro’s more popular dishes, including the French Canadian dish poutine, which is traditionally made with french fries, brown gravy and curd cheese. I’d never eaten poutine, and the Bistro’s duck rillette breakfast poutine made it sound like a great time to start. The poutine consisted of soft-poached free-range eggs, roasted diced potatoes, cheese curds, asparagus and demi glaze. I also ordered the irresistible-sounding duck-fat frites. The frites were seasoned with bacon salt and served with two dipping sauces – bacon aioli and the Bistro’s house-made ketchup.
After finishing our meal, we opted to sample the Bistro’s takeout “bacon window” instead of dessert. Every menu item from the bacon window contains an element of, yes, bacon. Crispy fish and bacon tacos. Bacon banana bread with whipped maple butter. Bacon chocolate gelato. Considering myself a bit of a bacon connoisseur, I wanted to sample the Bistro’s bacon in its purest form: the Box O’Bacon. This bacon box turned out to be not a box at all but a paper cone that contained several strips of bacon, served with a chocolate ganache dipping sauce. The bacon was perfectly crispy. It was also a conversation starter. I was stopped three times as I walked around Granville Island, everyone asking the same question – “Is that bacon?”
Before leaving Granville Island, we walked through its star attraction: the Granville Island Public Market. The market building houses booths selling everything from handmade soaps to jewelry to maple syrup to fresh flowers. If we hadn’t already eaten, the market would have been the ideal place to cobble together a meal – fresh baked bread, cheese, plump strawberries, fruit tarts.
The Caesar, the sparkling wine, and the bacon called for a short nap, which I indulged in upon returning to the OPUS. In the early evening, we drove to Squamish, BC where the Tragically Hip was headlining the Squamish Music Festival. Squamish is located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler, BC on the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which presented outstanding views of Howe Sounds’ fjords. The Hip, a Canadian band, took the stage at 9 pm, playing a lively show to their “hometown” fans.
After the show, we drove back to Vancouver, briefly returning to the OPUS where the lobby bar was yet again packed with a 1 am crowd. Craving more food than drink, we walked up the street to find a restaurant that was open. Vancouver is known for its authentic Chinese cuisine, so we stopped at the dive-y yet delicious New Peace Chinese Restaurant for late-night General Tso’s and spring rolls.
Sunday morning. And…. another croissant. Or two croissants, rather – one plain, one ham and cheese. (Is there a theme developing here? Or just a weighty, ahem, problem?) We ate at the bar in the window of Cho Pain bakery in the West End neighborhood, overhearing patrons’ conversations in both English and French as we planned our day.
We had time for one more excursion in the city before heading home. The verdict – the Matisse exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The fifth-largest art museum in Canada, the gallery is situated in a neoclassical structure in downtown Vancouver’s Robson Square. Though we only had a limited amount of time, we could have spent the entire day at the Vancouver Art Gallery, studying its approximately 10,000 works of art.
After viewing the Matisse exhibition, we reluctantly walked back to the OPUS, gathered our luggage and checked out of the hotel. As we sat waiting at the border to cross back into the United States, we reflected on the weekend and wondered why we hadn’t thought to make good use of our proximity to Vancouver before. We began planning our next trip.
OPUS Hotel Vancouver
322 Davie Street, Yaletown
Boulangerie la Parisienne
1076 Mainland Street, Yaletown
172 Powell Street, Gastown
1165 Davie Street, West End
Edible Canada Bistro
1596 Johnston Street, Granville Island
New Peace Chinese Restaurant
630 Davie Street, Yaletown
Salt Tasting Room
45 Blood Alley, Gastown
1211 Hamilton Street, Yaletown
217 Carrall Street, Gastown
1262 Homer Street, Yaletown
Liberty Wine Merchants
1660 Johnston Street, Granville Island
8 Water Street, Gastown
Willow Stream Spa
Fairmont Pacific Rim
1038 Canada Place