I was chatting at work this past week with my boss (who, like me, used to live in Toronto) about the differences between visiting Toronto and hosting friends from Toronto. Neither of us feel like tourists when we go to Toronto because we know the city; nobody needs to show us around or, for that matter, show us how to get around. But when our friends from Toronto come to Vancouver, we end up playing tour guide because it’s often their first time in Vancouver (or their first visit in many years) and they want to see and do everything.
Which is all good. I had a friend from Toronto visit me this month and we had a fabulous ten days together playing tourist in my home city. My conclusion? Staycations are highly underrated.
Which brings me to today’s post. Until now, I’ve always taken visitors on walking tours of my own design. For something different, I decided to take this particular friend on a “professional” walking tour. We went with the Tour Guys because they advertise free tours ― and they really are free. They ask only that you tip them if you like them (we did), and give them a favourable review on Trip Advisor.
The Tour Guys describe themselves as “history geeks.” As a history geek myself, I was pleasantly surprised by the value they offered in a 90-minute tour. I do a lot of research about Vancouver for this blog, but on both tours (we did one of Gastown and another of Chinatown) I learned something new. Did you know that the term “skid row” originated in the Pacific Northwest? (Both Seattle and Vancouver claim to have used it first.) The phrase originates from “skid road” ― the road used to skid logs through what is now the Downtown Eastside (often referred to as Canada’s poorest postal code) to the Hastings Mill on the shores of Burrard Inlet.
Most importantly, the Tour Guys do not gloss over some of the more shameful aspects of Vancouver’s history. Both guides talked about the riots that have taken place throughout the past century, from the race riots of 1907 all the way to the Stanley Cup riots of 1994 and 2011. Our guide on the Chinatown tour explained the federal government’s policies that deliberately targeted Asian immigration (namely, the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and also talked about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
Affable with both children and adults alike, our Tour Guys were entertaining and kept our interest the entire time. There were a few careless mistakes with some facts ― the Millennium Gate in Chinatown went up in 1986 (Vancouver’s Centennial), not 1967 (Canada’s Centennial), and BC joined confederation in 1871, not 1886 ― my guess is those errors were simply slips of the tongue. But an egregious error was this one: environmentalist David Suzuki lives in Vancouver, not Toronto.
Having said that, here’s my recommendation: take a walk with the Tour Guys if (1) you have out-of-towners you want to impress (I’ve already recommended them to my boss) or (2) you want to learn more about your own city.
And if you’re a visitor to Vancouver, you most of all need to meet the Tour Guys. You won’t regret it. Promise.
After I wrote my post about Cathedral Grove, I started thinking about the forest I live next door to. I’m talking about the one in Stanley Park. (You know, the wee park Tripadvisor thinks is # 1 in the world.)
What makes Stanley Park so special is it is as much forest as it is park. I can’t think of another city with a forest in its centre that equals the area of its downtown business core. (If you know of one, please tell me. I would love to visit.)
The peninsula that is Stanley Park has been logged several times, but today it is as dense with trees as it was 150 years ago. There are about half a million of them, ranging in height up to 75 metres.
Truth is, windstorms have done more damage to the trees in Stanley Park than logging. There have been three notable storms: one in 1934, another in 1962, and the one I remember ― the windstorm of December 15, 2006. Winds of 115 kilometres per hour downed over 10,000 trees (total tree area lost was 41 hectares), with most of the damage to the western side of the peninsula, particularly around Prospect Point. I took a long walk through the park on Christmas Day 2006 with my sister and my heart sank when I saw the damage. All of the trails through the park were impassable; fallen trees lay across them like pick-up sticks. Imagine if Stanley Park had been picked up by its four corners, given a good shake, and then set down again. That is what it looked like from the ground.
From the air or the water, it looked like someone had come through the park with a scythe. Many of the trees still lie where they fell. I took this photo sometime during the winter of 2011, more than five years later.
But a few good things came out of that storm. Like a new and much safer parking lot at Prospect Point. There would have been a public outcry had the Park Board decided to cut down trees to make way for a much-needed parking lot, but once the trees were down ― well, there came an opportunity.
I benefitted from that storm, too. Because the seawall was closed for 18 months (so that it could be repaired and the cliffs above the seawall on the western edge of the park stabilized), I spent the summer of 2007 exploring the interior of the park ― something I had never bothered to do until then. Stanley Park’s seawall is so accessible ― and so beautiful ― that visitors to Vancouver (and one local blogger) rarely take the time to explore the interior trails. There are some 27 kilometres of them criss-crossing the park, most of which have their origins as skid roads used to skid out the cut logs. They all have names; one of them is called Cathedral Trail. (Which is why I started thinking of the forest in the city after writing my post about Cathedral Grove.)
A couple of years ago, Vancouver City Council enacted a smoking ban in the city’s parks. For good reason. It has been said that if a fire were to ever get out on control in Stanley Park during one of our hot, dry summers, the forest would be gone in less than an hour.
What a shame that would be.
Here’s one last photo before we leave Vancouver Island. This is what you see from the ferry as it leaves Departure Bay on the Island for Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.
I never get tired of this view.
On the way to Tofino is a unique little park known as Cathedral Grove. It straddles Highway 4 ― the road that meanders from the east coast of Vancouver Island to its west coast ― and is the perfect place to stretch your legs on the long drive cross Island.
They say it first came to be called Cathedral Grove back in the 1920s, but it wasn’t made a provincial park until the 1940s after H.R. MacMillan, one of British Columbia’s lumber barons, donated the parcel of land to the province.
Short walking trails form loops on both sides of the highway. The north side of the highway is populated with Western red cedar. On the south side, you get up close and personal with the Douglas fir trees: some of them have a circumference of nine metres and are as old as 800 years.
As for the wow factor, this is as good as it gets in BC. I’ve been visiting this park since forever, and it never fails to impress.
While my family and I were checking out the surf conditions at Long Beach the other weekend, we came across dozens of these.
They’re velella velella ― a small animal about the length of my index finger. Related to the jelly fish, they are normally found hundreds of miles off shore. For some reason, they are sometimes washed ashore, which is what happened the other weekend on the beaches near Tofino. According to Tofino’s mayor, a marine biologist, it is a rare, but completely natural, event.
How cool that it happened the weekend we went to Tofino. (And how cool is it that Tofino’s mayor is a marine biologist?)
I unexpectedly found myself in Tofino for a few hours on the long weekend ― and was so very pleased to be there.
The first Monday of August ― celebrated as BC Day in British Columbia ― is a statutory holiday in most of Canada, making the first weekend of August a blessed three days long just when you want it most: at the height of summer.
I say I “unexpectedly” found myself in Tofino because I was fully expecting to spend the entire weekend in and around the provincial park in mid-Vancouver Island where I was camping with almost half of my family. But when someone in your group rolls out of his tent and says, “Hey, let’s go to Tofino!” before you’ve even had a chance to finish that all-important first cup of coffee, you say, “OK?!”
I mean, what’s a few hours’ drive when you’re this close to the surfing capital of Canada?
Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island (about a six-hour trip from Vancouver, including a 90-minute ferry ride), Tofino is one of the most spectacular places in Canada. The ocean temperature can vary from a low of 7°C in the winter to a high of 17°C in the summer, making it a popular year-round surfing destination.
If those temperatures are a bit too brisk for you (they are for me!), there’s always beachcombing, kayaking, whale watching, and, in the winter, storm watching to keep you occupied.
Whatever your interests, the drive to Tofino is worth the effort for the scenery alone. (And if you are short on time, you can always take the plane!)