Getting Around

Capilano Canyon Watershed

When business lands me in the same city over and over again, I always wonder: where do the locals go? Surely not the same tired venues promoted over and over again in the tourist brochures. There must be other places, better places, places where the locals go. How do I find them?

As a Vancouverite of lifelong standing I know where the local treasures are and I’m sharing. There are many more, of course, and my choices are naturally filtered by my own interests and inclinations. But here you go. For all my colleagues who find themselves, once again, sitting in a Vancouver hotel room wondering if they can bear one more turn ‘round Stanley Park, some pointers towards a more interesting visit.

Vancouver for Walkers

Of course you’ve walked the sea wall. Where to after that?

Vancouver has a regional parks system that offers everything from rugged rainforest to saltwater-marshes. A full description of the parks system, complete with maps, directions, and facilities can be accessed through their website or by calling 604-432-6350.

Each is unique and worth visiting. Some are renowned because of their hiking, others because they host teeming streams of spawning salmon, others for their diving or birding or scenic vistas. Some offer canoe/kayak rentals, others feature horseback riding trails, many are bike, dog or rollerblade friendly.

A few personal favourites:

Pacific Spirit Park is Stanley Park plus. The “plus” is the fact that while the trails are maintained and there are washrooms and water, this 800 Pacific Spirit Park ha park within the University Endowment Lands is distinctly local habitat. Over 90 km of walking/riding trails meander through peaceful, secluded rainforest, as well as providing access to Vancouver's infamous Wreck Beach. Actually, there is lots more to this park's oceanfront real estate than its reputation would suggest. When you reach the bottom of the beach trail, turn right if your inclination is towards clothing optional terrain, or turn left for a great beach walk. Visit the park's information center at 16th and Blanca for maps and information.

Lynn CanyonLynn Canyon Regional Park features both a heart-stopping suspension bridge over a perilous, don’t-look-down canyon and 4,600 ha with 41 km of walking/hiking trails. Some of the trails are easy and make short loops that anyone can manage (children love Lynn Canyon), others require advance planning and good boots. This park is a gem and unlike the commercial canyon in the brochures, does not charge admission or subject you to dressed-up theme characters .

Crippen Park on Bowen Island is the idyllic summer afternoon walking excursion. As a foot passenger, take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay across to Snug Cove on Bowen Island. Ignore all those quaint little shops and galleries for now, as you head into Crippen Park to earn your lunch with a little exercise. There are 11 km of trails to wander through before heading back to the Cove for some lunch and a look ‘round the shops. Ferries leave every hour with the last leaving Bowen at 10:05 pm.

Reifel Island Migratory Bird Sanctuary is world renowned for its annual snow goose migration which delivers thousands of these magnificent birds to fatten up on the adjacent farmers’ fields each autumn. But there are at least 199 other species of birds who either stop in for some R ‘n R or make the sanctuary their full-time home. Not part of the regional parks system per se, the sanctuary is self-supporting and depends on modest admission fees and birdseed sales. Reifel Island is in Delta, just a short drive south of the city on Highway 99. It offers several kilometers of easy trails through salt and fresh water marshes and waterways with nesting islands, blinds and an observation tower with an eagles-eye view of the landscape.

Vancouver for Bikers

Vancouver’s North Shore and Whistler-Squamish corridor are now world-renowned with the extreme crowd. The following suggestions, however, are for casual bikers who would like a nice easy ride over relatively flat terrain in a pleasant, scenic setting. Bikes are easy to rent from many locations in the city. Just ask the concierge at your hotel or go to www.mybc.com and do a search under “Directories” for bicycle rentals.

Barnston Island in the Langley area is an intriguing little island in the middle of the Fraser River. Getting there is half the fun. Coming out of the city, head east on Hwy #1 and take exit #53. After 1.6 km, turn east on 104th Ave, cross the railway tracks and park in the ferry parking lot. The ferry is free for foot/bike passengers. The island is small (11 km circumference) but so pleasant in an agricultural valley kind of way that we sometimes do it twice. Take your own food for an idyllic picnic at the river-side park just a few kilometres north of the ferry landing..

Richmond DikeRichmond Dike System
The Fraser River has a nasty history of flooding so since the last “big one” in the late 1940s an extensive diking system has been built in virtually every community that borders the Fraser. Fortunately these dikes also offer opportunities for walking, biking, rollerblading and jogging.

The dike system in Richmond is particularly well developed, with a dike trail running almost without interruption around the whole island. It is particularly accessible to Vancouver visitors, with easy access from the foot of Cambie Road in Richmond. There is plenty of free parking, so just park and go. If you start at the Cambie Road end, about 15 km of easy level riding will bring you to Steveston, a historical fishing village. This is where you’ll amuse yourself watching the antics of locals bargaining for fresh salmon off the boats while you munch on the best fish and chips you’ve ever had. Steveston also offers bicycle rentals so you could choose to start and end there.

Vancouver for Sun and Sand Lovers

Yes, English Bay and Kitsilano feature wall-to-wall beautiful bodies. For something a little more interesting, however, head out of town to White Rock. The sandy beaches of this resort town stretch as far as the eye can see, the pier offers lively people watching, the rocks hide itty bitty crabs and the tidal pools are as warm as your bathtub. White Rock has some beautiful bodies too, but it has a different atmosphere. This is where families come with their coolers full of watermelon and new immigrants fish for oolichans off the docks. The fish and chips here outrank those in Steveston, while the seagulls are engaging clowns. They perform for the price of a few chips from the bottom of your cardboard tray. From Vancouver, head south down Highway 99 and watch for the signs that White Rock Sunset say “White Rock”. But before you go, check the local papers for the tides. If you like sand, you'll want to hit low tide.

Vancouver for Water Lovers

Opportunities to get out on the water abound in the Lower Mainland. Many regional and provincial lakes offer onsite canoe and/or kayak rentals. However if I were to offer my two favourite made-in-BC experiences they would have to be:

Sewells Marina in Horseshoe Bay
Sewells is a Vancouver tradition for many of us west coasters because while plenty of us do own boats, most of us don’t. That doesn’t mean we don’t have salt water running through our veins though. We do, and every so often the urge to get out there and drop a line in overcomes us. When it does we head for Sewells where we can rent a runabout holding 4-6 people for as little as $29 per hour.

Seals in Howe SoundSewells is situated in Horseshoe Bay, on Howe Sound. The Sound offers a protected opportunity for novices to play in the water, explore islands and remote shores, visit the bird sanctuary and compete with the seals for salmon. Sewells will teach you what you need to know, then include a cell phone so you can call for help when you forget it all. They also rent fishing gear, live bait, and everything else you need to get out there and get that west coast feeling happening! Visit their website or call 604-921-3474.

BC Ferries
Yes, people get old sitting in ferry lineups, but that’s only if they are taking a car on. If you just want to ride around in the big boat gawking at some of the world’s most picturesque scenery, walk on. Get settled out on deck, slap on your SPF and enjoy. The return trips between between Vancouver and Victoria or Vancouver and Nanaimo are glorious, but beyond that, there are dozens of big and little islands to explore via ferry service. Go to their website or call 1-888-724-5223 to put together your own Horeshoe Bay little island-hopping getaway. And if you insist on taking the car you can. Reservations are extra, but they can be worth it if you need to make inter-island connections on time.

Vancouver for Shoppers

If you are a high-end fashion consumer you already know about Robson Strasse and Pacific Centre and South Granville. But if you’re an out-of-town bargain hunter let me inform you.

Every suburb in the Lower Mainland has its own mall and it's own fans. However, for easy access to visitors and a plethora of outlets, I would have to recommend Metrotown Mall with its 500 shops, services and entertainment outlets. Just hop on SkyTrain, sit tight for about 20 minutes and get off at Metrotown. The station actually adjoins the mall so you cannot go wrong.

The Lower Mainland also has two multi-acre flea markets and a thriving garage sale culture. I know that in other towns people have garage sales when they move or die, but in Vancouver it's a lifestyle. On any given weekend every neighbourhood will have at least a half-dozen and they are getting more competitive by the week. My own neighbourhood has banded together in mid-June for the Mother of all Garage Sales including estate (a hot-button marketing term), fine art, and divorce debris. We’ll be offering a continental breakfast to early birds and hotdogs for the amateurs at noon.

So, how to get in on this? On Saturday or Sunday morning pick up either of the two local dailies, The Vancouver Sun or the The Province. You’ll find “Garage Sales” in the classified ads just after “furniture”. Then grab your map and set out a route. How early you go is decided by how serious you are. All ads will say “no early birds” but that is meaningless. If you are a seller and someone is shoving money in your face for your old, useless junk, you take it.

Everyone used to flock to “estate” sales because they guaranteed good stuff but now everyone just includes a teapot from dead Aunt Maude and calls it an estate sale. The term is just marketing hype. What to avoid? Sales that advertise “baby and children’s items”. Unless you want an old car seat, don’t bother with these addresses. They are just clearing out the baby stuff and they don’t have enough disposable income or dead relatives yet to have any good stuff.

The two big, big, big Lower Mainland flea markets are both held on Sundays and both feature too many flea market professionals. These are people who make a living buying and re-selling old junk (they go to garage sales really early) and they want way too much for the stuff. However, if you are a collector of something like old records or silver teaspoons, this can be a great place to find treasures, hang the price.

True bargains will be found on the fringes of these events where people spread out stuff on old blankets. They are generally eager to bargain. Sometimes it is because they are hawking stolen goods, so buyer beware. The Vancouver Flea Market is located on Terminal Avenue, just east of Main Street. The Cloverdale Shop ‘n Swap is located on the Cloverdale Fair Grounds on 176th Avenue in Cloverdale (about 1 hour outside of downtown Vancouver).

Vancouver for Festival Fans

A recent compilation of summer festivals in the province netted in excess of 200 events dedicated to the celebration of everything from blackberries to belt-sander drag racing. Squamish, a smallish town of some 15,000 souls just an hour outside of Vancouver actually has five distinctly different festivals this summer celebrating: war canoes, white water, mountain biking, logger sports and lanterns. Obviously there is a theme, that of hearty adventuring. Perhaps the lantern festival was created to ensure sufficient lighting so the real Canadians can find their way to the beer garden?

Other towns celebrate garlic or sheep shearing or country dancing. Richmond even celebrates its slugs. And yes, this is where the locals go, but usually to celebrate jazz, Highland dance, dragon boating, films, comedy, Shakespeare, or the granddaddy of them all, the Vancouver Folk Festival.

For twenty-five years now, thousands of Vancouverites have flocked to Jericho Beach for three days of music from the far corners of the globe and from right next door. Ancient VW vans full of hippies from the Gulf Islands show up with their beads, tie dyed shirts and ahem, incense. Vegetarians of all persuasions set up their cook stoves, wafting such heavenly aromas over the site that even visiting cowpokes are seduced into sampling exotic Middle Eastern falafels.

Set on the beach, below the mountains, and under customarily blue and sunny skies, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is as close to international peace, harmony and good vibes as we’re ever likely to get.

But no matter when you come, you’ll find a festival to participate in. Look to their website for an events list.

Vancouver for Everyone

We have a rule in our house: never go to the fair until the second week. That’s when the grill fat achieves the required rancidity needed to fry onions just so. It may be an acquired taste, but the Pacific National Exhibition, known as the PNE or simply “the fair” is a Vancouver tradition that hooks us as children and never lets go.

It’s a funky kind of fair, existing somewhere between a turn of the century agricultural exposition and a high tech 21st century exhibition. Expect to see massive Clydesdales thumping past bungee jumpers, new age Cirque Pop style performers taking their cotton candy break at the Super Dogs show and a few prize chickens on the loose in the midway. Kids from the country bunk in the barns with their 4F prize heifers and every salesman from Anchorage to Kalamazoo shows up to hawk his vegetable slicer. Admission is only $8 and includes more fun than you’ve had in a year - guaranteed. If you are in Vancouver during the last two weeks of August, go.

If you miss those dates you are not totally out of luck. The midway, known as Playland, opens from April to September. So if you’re a ride junkie who longs for the opportunity to scarf down three hot dogs and sing Beulah while hanging upside over some poor sucker’s head, there you go. See www.pne.bc.ca. for details.

Funky Vancouver

Meeting locals and sharing meaningful conversation has never been easier. From one end of the Lower Mainland to the other, Vancouver hosts a thriving community of “Philosopher’s Cafes”. Located in restaurants, shops, community centers, art galleries and clubs, Vancouverites gather for moderated discussion of intriguing topics: Has Hollywood ruined love? Why is pacifism unrealistic? Corporate spending in schools – boon or not? Mental illness – breakdown or breakthrough? Consumerism and cyborgs: is resistance futile?

For times, locations and topics see the local paper. Everyone is welcome; the participants are a diverse lot so there is no chance you won’t fit in and every reason to believe that you’ll have a lot more fun than sitting in your hotel room feeling sorry for yourself because you are far away from home and don’t know anyone.


You will see directions to places referring to the terms “Lower Mainland” or “Greater Vancouver” or “Fraser Valley” or sometimes even “Upper Fraser Valley”. Unfortunately, you are unlikely to see these same designations on a map, so let me explain.

Vancouver: The core of Vancouver is basically surrounded by water on three sides. Once you go over any of these bridges you have left Vancouver proper: Lions Gate, Second Narrows, Oak, Knight, Arthur Laing. Vancouver also segues into Burnaby on its eastern edge. Toney Vancouverites will beg to differ but frankly, you won’t know you’ve left the big city because it’s so subtle. Don’t worry about it. When you hit the mountains you’ll know to turn around.

Lower Mainland and Greater Vancouver: I may get an argument from nitpickers here, but I will take a leap and say that these are synonymous terms for the suburbs that are adjacent to Vancouver, for example: North and West Vancouver, Richmond, Delta, Surrey, Coquitlam, New Westminster and so on.

Fraser Valley: Towns like Langley, Fort Langley, Maple Ridge, and Pitt Meadows lie along the Fraser River Valley. While jurisdictionally they are part of a governing body known as the Greater Vancouver Regional District, locals would consider them “Fraser Valley”. Pastoral and undeniably scenic in their rural reaches, they each have bustling town centers that offer all the conveniences of big city shopping, usually without big city prices.

Upper Fraser Valley: Another hour up the Trans Canada we call #1, you’ll find Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Harrison and Hope, with Mission across the bridge. This is a stunningly beautiful area, an easy drive but a world away from Vancouver. When the road starts winding in and out of mountain passes you are heading towards the Fraser Canyon. If you’ve packed your toothbrush, great, but if it was only a day trip you had in mind, turn around here and head back to the big city.

Public Transit
Visit their website for public transit routes and schedules in B.C. The site has interactive features that will print out the best route and schedules if you punch in your start and destination points. Transit service is very good, even to the farther reaches of the Fraser Valley so if you’re determined to use it, you’ll find public transit will get you there.

By Vehicle
Relative to Paris or Nairobi, Vancouver is a very easy city to navigate or park a vehicle in. Get a good map (concierge, convenience store, auto club) and simply use it. There are a few one-way streets in the downtown core but not many. Parking is pricey but it’s plentiful. Once you hit the suburbs parking is usually free. A map of the Lower Mainland will give you the big picture, but if you don’t care about that and are only interested in directions, visit this website. You can plug in your local address and your destination for a local route guide. It will even customize your route according to your choice of “shortest” or “fastest”. Take a tip from a local: choose fastest. When the software program is in shortest mode it makes no differentiation between goat trails and super highways.

Carolyn Usher


Information and contacts were updated as of 2005.




Beyond the Brochures: An Insiders Guide to Vancouver
was first published in the Ottawa Citizen newspaper.