VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA - Three young ladies in minimal dresses with maximum cleavage were not happy with their back corner table in the Elixir bistro in Vancouver's fashionable Yaletown area.
"They wanted to sit at the same table Pamela Anderson sat at," said maitre d' Mikel Kanter, who complied with their wishes and led the entourage to the center table. "Looked like Yaletown-a-go-go," he said a bit later.
Over cocktails and an appetizer of french-fried olives stuffed with anchovies, Pamela Groberman, who represents the sleek restaurant on the ground floor of the equally chic Opus Hotel, confirmed that the other Pam did, indeed, visit the restaurant during her frequent trips back to her hometown.
"She's from Ladysmith on Vancouver Island," Groberman said of the TV starlet and gossip-show fixture who recently filed for divorce from Kid Rock, her very new husband. "I used to play volleyball with her on the beach. She was cute and sweet. Still is. She just likes bad boys."
Outside the restaurant's windows, the streets of Yaletown, a former warehouse district, were coming to life as the young and restless prowled the several blocks of bars, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops on every corner.
This town is cranked on coffee.
The Province, a local newspaper, had a column of "You know you're from Vancouver when …" quips. No. 1 on the list was: "You know more than 10 ways to order coffee."
Perched near the Pacific on the southwest corner of Canada, Vancouver brings to mind the San Francisco of 30 or so years ago with a young, cosmopolitan population and renovated neighborhoods such as Yaletown springing up throughout the city. There's Gastown, Coal Harbour, West End, South Granville, False Creek, South Main, Kitsilano and more. One guide to the city described the former hippie enclave of Kitsilano as "a comfortable, liberal paradise of well-heeled vegetarians."
"There are 68 restaurants in Yaletown," said maitre d' Kanter, ticking off the names of the ones that served "serious" food. He also offered that the term "Skid Row" was coined just outside the window for the logging skids that led to the water in earlier times. Skid Row, of course, became a term for the down and out, and there's nothing down and out about Vancouver these days.
This town is cool, and not just because it claims the best weather in Canada.
The city is named for a British sea captain, George Vancouver, who spent one day here in 1792. The Hudson Bay Co. set up the first permanent non-native settlement in 1827, and is still busy trading from a location in the downtown core. In another bit of local lore, the Gastown area of cobblestoned streets and a famous hissing steam clock is named for a talkative fellow nicknamed "Gassy Jack," who opened a saloon for forestry workers in 1867.
Despite its scenic setting on the Coast Mountain range, on the doorstep to adventure in the wilds of Alaska and British Columbia, Vancouver wasn't really discovered by the rest of the planet until Expo '86, the last world's fair in North America. Twenty-two million people attended during its six-month run, including Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Bob Hope, Bill Cosby, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jacques Cousteau.
I got an impromptu local history lesson from a lesser luminary, a cab driver named Malkiat, who came to Vancouver from India in 1981.
"It used to be people came here to go to the jungles and cut the trees," he said. "Then, in '86, with the Expo, a lot of people saw that Vancouver has it all - mountain, oceans, best weather. Foreigners from all over the world starting coming. Rich, rich people. Poor people can't afford to live in Vancouver anymore.
"I bought my taxi license in 1984 for $45,000. Now, it's $600,000 for a taxi license."
What Vancouver doesn't have is freeways, which means its city streets are crowded, and getting more so each year. Visitors are best advised to let Malkiat and the taxi corps do the driving.
This area of British Columbia's West Coast is known as Lotusland, both for its temperate climate and Asian connections, which began with an influx of people from South China more than a century ago and now includes every Asian nationality. Asian restaurants almost outnumber the Starbucks outlets. You can walk the streets and find Vietnamese pho, Northern Chinese dim sum, Japanese yakitori and Singaporean curries. Oh yeah, endless sushi, too.
Vancouver now is the most expensive city to live in throughout Canada, with the average sale price of a home at $520,686, up 18.3 percent from a year ago. And some 35 percent of its 582,045 residents are in the home-buying years of 25 to 45, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.
"You know you're in Vancouver when … You make over $250,000 a year and still can't afford a home."
And things may be getting even more expensive.
In 2010, Vancouver and the neighboring ski community of Whistler will host the Winter Olympics. Venues are under construction throughout the city. Outside my room at the Opus Hotel, crews were working on an underground rapid transit train that will link the downtown to the airport on the outskirts. Vancouver is polishing things up for another round of world publicity.
Besides its unending scenery, world viewers will find a tolerant town that knows how to play. On my stay there, the newspaper reported on the trial of a woman charged with openly selling more than coffee at her Vancouver cafe. Her attorney was quoted as telling the judge: The belief that marijuana consumption is OK in Vancouver is "as plain as the proposition that the Earth is round."
As the newspaper quips said: "You know you're in Vancouver when … You can't remember: Is pot still illegal?"
A wealth of native art
From the time they arrive at the Vancouver International Airport, visitors are immersed in First Nations art. "The Jade Canoe," Haida artist Bill Reid's monumental sculpture of mythical figures in an emerald green canoe, decorates the international terminal at the airport.
Equally impressive sculptures are found in the Great Hall of the concrete-and-glass Museum of Anthropology on the campus of the University of British Columbia. The museum has one of the world's finest collections of Northwest Coast Indian art, and displays huge totem poles in the Great Hall, which opens onto an outdoor complex with more poles and tribal houses against an expanse of sea and mountains.
The museum has a collection of some 535,000 ethnological and archaeological pieces from around the world, and some 14,000 of them are on view in its dimly lit "visible storage" research area. You can spend hours combing through the masks, baskets, weapons and other objects shelved in glass cases.
The Vancouver Art Gallery, in the former Courthouse in the downtown area, also displays First Nations art, including pieces by Robert Davidson and other contemporary artists.
And if admiring this wealth of art sets off your acquisitive impulses, Vancouver has several quality galleries where you can start your own collection. Hills Native Art Gallery in Gastown has been in business for 55 years, selling Northwest Coast and Inuit items. Eagle Spirit Gallery is on Granville Island and features works by Davidson and other acclaimed artists. Lattimer Gallery is just one block west of the island in the False Creek neighborhood and offers fine jewelry and original drawings.
Inside glass houses
With the city surrounded by sea and mountains, there's plenty of outdoor playgrounds. You can sea kayak, scuba dive, windsurf, fish, sail, ski or mountain bike - many on the same day. Or you can float with the eagles. The highest concentration of bald eagles in the world is found an hour north of Vancouver along the Squamish River from November to January. At last count, there were some 3,700 eagles hanging around.
One of the more popular tourist attractions is the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. Some 800,000 visitors a year walk the bridge, which hangs 230 feet above the Capilano River and is said to be strong enough to support a loaded 747, although you'll have your doubts. Past walkers include Marilyn Monroe, Walter Cronkite, the Rolling Stones and Margaret Thatcher, who hiked it twice.
Another top tourist attraction, literally, is the mile-long ride on North America's largest aerial tramway system to the top of Grouse Mountain, some 3,700 feet above the sea. The mountaintop has restaurants and a Theatre in the Sky where you can tour British Columbia from an eagle's-eye view. There is also a Wildlife Refuge with orphaned grizzly bear cubs and gray wolves.
I chose a more leisurely pursuit on my first day, and headed off on foot on the Seawall Promenade, a walkway that follows the water around much of the downtown, including Stanley Park, where evergreen forests and open green spaces fill the tip of the peninsula that holds the city. The park is home to the Vancouver Aquarium, which, in turn, is home to beluga whales, sea lions and dolphins.
The nearly nine miles of walkway around the park is a favorite with joggers, dog walkers and in-line skaters, and offers the occasional sculpture, totem pole, flock of seabirds and view of the 70-year-old Lions Gate Bridge. The arcing bridge was built by the Guinness Brewing Co. and is billed as the most beautiful in Canada.
From the promenade, I hopped aboard an Aquabus, one of the colorful little water taxis that take you from point to point, and puttered across False Creek to Granville Island. The island is home to plenty of shops and galleries, but the big draw is the public market, which is chock full of vendors with all sorts of goodies.
I roamed the aisles amid a land of plenty. There were meats, seafood, cheeses, produce, bakery goods, cut flowers, pure maple syrup and other gourmet delights. The Blue Parrot restaurant offered organic coffee, but I went for the steamed natural apple cider, with lemon and a cinnamon stick. A cider sipper surrounded by caffeine hounds.
A short water taxi ride took me back, and I continued to stroll the promenade around the downtown, which is dominated by glass-walled, high-rise towers with townhouses. In the twilight of evening, the lights came on inside the condos, giving walkers a view into the interiors.
People who live in glass houses should watch what they do with the lights on.
you go: Vancouver, B.C. …
Opus Hotel: The hotel has 96 rooms, the bistro Elixir and the Opus Bar. It was voted one of the world's top 100 hotels by readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine. 1-866-642-6787, www.opushotel.com.
Museum of Anthropology: At 6393 Northwest Marine Drive, 1-604-822-5087 and www.moa.ubc.ca. Admission is $9 for adults, $7 for students, 6 and under free.
Capilano Suspension Bridge: At 3735 Capilano Road, 1-604-985-7474 and www.capbridge.com.
Vancouver Art Gallery: At 750 Hornby Street, 1-604-662-4719 and www.vanartgallery.com.
More info: The Greater Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 1-604-682-2222 and www.tourismvancouver.com.