I was mesmerized by the beauty and tranquility of the Ming Dynasty Chinese garden through which I was strolling. Images of intricately sculpted roofs and covered walkways were reflected in jade-green pools. Growths of willow, bamboo and other delicate plant life were set against a backdrop of graceful pavilions and gazebos.
That magnificent setting could well be in China — but it isn’t. It’s half-way around the world in Vancouver, Canada, which has the second largest Chinatown in our neighbor to the north.
The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden is among reasons why Vancouver has earned a Conde Nast Traveler magazine’s “Best city in the Americas” award. Another is its location, nestled between towering mountains and the sea.
The diversity of the city’s multicultural population adds a kaleidoscopic touch. Many residents trace their ancestry back to Chinese immigrants brought in for construction of the Canadian-Pacific Railroad and during the country’s Gold Rush, both at the end of the 19th century. Many more recent arrivals came from the Philippines, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries.
Earlier travelers from that area of the world also left their influence on the local culture. Forebears of present-day Indians began to arrive from Asia around 16,000 B.C. Finding abundant seafood in the bays and wildlife roaming the forests, they settled in to stay.
The influence of people of the First Nations, as those original dwellers are known, is everywhere. Elaborately carved, brightly painted totem poles stand as proud reminders of this native heritage. Members of the Squamish tribe practice centuries-old customs like spear fishing for salmon.
A good way to encounter reminders of First Nations culture, along with other major sights, is during a sightseeing trolley ride. Passengers may remain on board for the entire two-hour tour or get off at stops along the route, then reboard to continue the journey.
Stanley Park, a major trolley destination, is a Vancouver “must see.” Sprawling over 1,000 acres, this popular urban retreat is a green oasis surrounded by the city’s urban landscape. Miles of gentle hiking paths lead past lovely beaches and cultural and historic landmarks. My hour-long stroll passed through dense woods, around marshy ponds and near fields where some of the 230 species of both resident and migrant birds joined together in a symphony of song.
More noisy in a different way is Granville Island, a former industrial park that was built during the 1920s. Today, brightly painted warehouses and corrugated iron buildings house craft shops, artists’ studios, clothing stores and other retail and entertainment establishments.
Much of the action is centered around the public market, a vast covered space with row after row of produce tables and poultry stalls, seafood vendors and specialty shops. Take-out food counters often are jammed with an eclectic crowd of laborers wearing work clothes, business people sporting the latest fashions and women out for a day of shopping.
Here, too, the First Nations culture holds court. Several shops sell blankets, jewelry and small stones adorned with hand-painted crabs, lizards and other animals. I spotted simple human figures carved out of caribou antler and a foot-long soapstone seal priced at more than $3,000.
After the hustle and bustle of Granville Island, the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden provides “refreshment for the heart.” Modeled after gardens created during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Vancouver version was built of components shipped from China. Every architectural structure was perfectly fitted in the traditional manner, without use of screws, nails or glue.
The setting is very different in Yaletown, once a somewhat rundown industrial neighborhood that has been given a second life. An old railway repair shed has been transformed into a community theater, and warehouses have been restored as artists’ lofts, trendy restaurants and nightclubs.
Another district, which bears the unfortunate name Gastown, is inviting for several reasons, including the fact that it was Vancouver’s birthplace. In 1867, a riverboat captain named John Deighton showed up with a keg of whiskey, threw a plank across two barrels and began selling to workers in nearby timber mills. Deighton’s reputation as a talkative chap who on occasion stretched the truth earned him the nickname “Gassy Jack.”
The little community that rose around his place of business became known as Gassy’s Town, and from that modest beginning a city grew. The area retains its brick sidewalks, cobbled streets and Victorian buildings. Restaurants, bars and boutiques now attract both visitors and locals – yet another reason that makes a visit to Vancouver worthwhile.
If you go
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