The Gastown Steam Clock is one of those attractions that visitors to Vancouver love to seek out. Tourists all want their photos taken in front of the whistling clock ― it’s hard to think of Gastown without it.
So imagine my surprise last month when I was wandering around Gastown and discovered the steam clock has gone walkabout. Turns out it’s in the shop for repairs and maintenance. In its place stands a cardboard replica ― which, sadly, doesn’t do it justice.
Why the love affair with the iconic steam clock?
Although designed to blend in with the Victorian architecture that surrounds it (it’s modelled after an 1875 English clock design), Gastown’s Steam Clock was built much more recently ― in 1977. The largest of its five steam whistles comes from the retired CPR steam tug SS Naramata.
The clock serves a more utilitarian purpose than merely decorative, though. It was built to cover a steam vent on the northwest corner of Cambie and Water. (An aside: did you know that a large section of downtown Vancouver, including BC Place, Rogers Arena, the Pacific Centre Mall, and the Vancouver Central Library, is heated by steam? I did not. The things I learn doing research for this blog.)
Gastown’s Steam Clock sounds the Westminster Chimes on the quarter-hour, so I guess you could say it is Vancouver’s Big Ben. That’s probably stretching it a tad, but the clock is beloved by tourists and locals alike.
Repairs are due to be completed sometime this month. When the steam clock is once again back in its place, all will be right in Gastown’s world.
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.
Many years ago (too many to share with you), I was backpacking around Europe with a friend. One hot, sunny afternoon in late September, we climbed 509 stairs to the top of Cologne’s beautiful cathedral. Once back on terra firma, we headed straight to McDonald’s for some lunch. (I know, I know … but what can I say? We were students on a tight budget.)
When I saw beer on the menu, I ordered one, despite the fact that I didn’t actually like beer and had never managed to swallow more than a sip or two. But hey ― it was a really hot day and I had just climbed up and down the equivalent of a 30-storey building. And yeah, I did think it was pretty cool that I could buy a beer at McDonald’s.
You know what? It was the best beer I had ever tasted. I became an instant and committed convert to the beverage. My theory is that, until that point in my (then) young life, I had simply not been introduced to the right kind of beer. It took a German beer ― in McDonald’s no less, but German nonetheless ― to get me hooked on the stuff. I’ve enjoyed many a cold one since.
Why do I have beer on the brain, you ask? It’s because this past weekend was the first of the year that we Vancouverites enjoyed summer-like temperatures. And so, I thought, what better time to introduce my readers to one of the best craft beer taprooms in the city.
Bitter Tasting Room is located near the corner of Hastings and Carroll in what is actually more Downtown Eastside than Gastown. I’ve been here a couple of times ― the first time, ironically, at the suggestion of a friend who doesn’t herself drink much beer (so I knew it must be good if she was willing to go), and the last time with my sister just last night.
Bitter offers a selection of more than 60 bottled beers from North America or Europe, with a particularly strong selection of Belgium beers. You can also order a pint of draught from a choice of about eight local craft beers. Or you can order a flight of beers, and sample three at once.
The food is typical German and English pub fare — sausages, Scotch eggs, and a killer kale Caesar salad are a few examples. In wintertime, I enjoyed a tasty dish of cassoulet, a slow-cooked stew made with duck confit, pork belly, sausage, and braised beans that comes from the Languedoc region of France.
Bitter is part of the Heather Hospitality Group and I have yet to be disappointed by an evening spent in one of their establishments.
Dine Out Vancouver, which just finished its tenth year, is an annual culinary celebration when Vancouverites get to, well, dine out. The deal is: you order from a three-course set menu for a set price. It’s incredibly good value and lets you try out higher-priced restaurants you might not get to otherwise. And the restaurants that participate benefit as well: they are booked solid for 17 days in the dead of winter.
L’Abattoir’s French name means “slaughterhouse.” The name is not in reference to its menu, however, but to Vancouver’s original meat-packing district. The restaurant is located in Gastown, just around the corner from Blood Alley, and the building itself stands on the site of Vancouver’s first jail.
The setting is more bistro than fine dining, but don’t let the decor fool you ― there is nothing casual about the food at L’Abattoir. Chef Lee Cooper’s menu is French-influenced West Coast ― a description heard frequently about Vancouver’s best restaurants.
I ordered a starter of poached egg over potato gnocchi with a leek, mushroom, and pecorino sabayan. The combination of egg and gnocchi was unique and a nice surprise upon first bite, although I would have preferred it if the yolk had been slightly softer. The sabayan was light and airy and not too cheesy. I really enjoyed the dish. To be honest, the country-style pork patê on toast ordered by my friend looked a bit dull in comparison.
Next was a spicy chorizo–crusted Pacific cod over white beans cooked in red wine. The cod was perfectly moist and the texture and flavor of the chorizo crust added a nice kick to the fish. My friend enjoyed her roast tenderloin with ravioli stuffed with braised lamb shoulder; the combination of red meats worked really well.
Each course was paired with an Okanagan wine ― a crisp cold Tantalus Riesling for the starter and the 2008 “Adieu,” a pinot noir from Le Vieux Pin, with the entrées. We both ordered the chocolate caramel bar with banana ice cream and chocolate yogurt ― the most popular dessert on the menu, according to our server.
Innovative décor + good wine + excellent food + impeccable service = a delightful evening. I’ll be back.