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Vancouver Olympics add luster to a unique city

VANCOUVER, British Columbia

By mid morning, the winter sun dissolves the thin layer of clouds, casting warmth toward the blue water, iced peaks and glass towers that define this coastal city. Winter is typically wet here. So this glow makes the people walking the store-fronted streets gaze skyward, as if seeing something rare. A daylong, 7-mile excursion through a half-dozen of Vancouver's unique neighborhoods leaves us feeling the same. It's easy to see why this West Coast gem is an Olympic city.

We visited a year before the 2010 Winter Games, scheduled for Feb. 12-28. It is the most populous city, with 2.2 million in the metropolitan area, to host the event and the first Canadian locale since Calgary in 1988.

Officials completed major construction a year ahead of time and the preparations give the city a tangible energy not evident when we visited in 2006.

As the tourists flock to the official countdown clock — now nearing 100 days — at Hornby and Georgia streets, we start the day across the street at Caffe Artigiano.

Adjacent to the Vancouver Art Gallery, the cafe has baristas who believe in art in a cup.

Jack Straw moves his pouring hand precisely to produce the hallmark rosetta in my cafe mocha. He coached a colleague who ranked second in the World Barista Championships. "It's about the beans," he says coyly, when asked his secret.

With espresso curing the remnants of jet lag, we begin our wayfaring walk along the water near the green-built Vancouver Convention Centre and the white-tented cruise terminal. To get some perspective on the city, we ride a glass elevator in the Vancouver Lookout to the viewing deck 430 feet above.

Now with our route plotted, we wander through Gastown, the cobblestone-studded historic area where this young city originated in 1867. Its steam-powered clock, which whistles and puffs on the hour, draws many onlookers, though new art galleries and trendy restaurants, such as the intimate charcuterie named Salt, add life to a once-seedy area.

By lunch, about 2 miles into our walk, we are in Vancouver's Chinatown, the third-largest in North America behind San Francisco and New York. (About a third of the city's population claims Asian descent.)

The traditional herbal shops, classical Chinese garden and pungent open-air markets on Pender Street distract us momentarily. We've come to eat.

At the Floata Seafood Restaurant, we meet our match. What the banquet-hall-sized restaurant lacks in atmosphere (it seats 1,000 people and a security camera broadcasts video of the entrance on a projection screen, ostensibly to help the host) it compensates with a bountiful dim sum lunch.

Waiters with carts of steaming food speed through the room. Before we know it, more dumplings than we can eat sit in front of us, a by-product of the language barrier and overly big eyes. Still, the mystery dishes are tasty.

A walk to the Science World's hexagonal dome at the end of False Creek takes us to a paved seawall trail, but we give our legs a break and ride the False Creek Ferry, a mini-tugboat that rocks like a rubber ducky as we putter by seals and kayakers on the calm waters.

Along the shore, we have a view of BC Place, the home of the Olympic opening and closing games, and trendy Yaletown, a former warehouse district now filled with boutique shops, swanky clubs and glass-walled condominium buildings.

We stay on board until reaching Granville Island, where the public market is jammed with people eyeing colorful towers of fruit, tasting sweet morsels and listening to street musicians. We opt for a Nutella crepe.

A magician performs in the courtyard as we explore the artisan shops, taste a great local lager at Granville Island Brewing and watch the sailboats stream into the docks.

The westward trek continues to the can't-miss Kitsilano neighborhood and its main drag, Fourth Avenue. This modern hippie haven boasts an eclectic mix of independent coffee shops, yoga studios, beaches and fusion restaurants worth an entire day of exploration.

We walk past Arbutus Coffee inside a 100-year-old grocery store and down the way to Canterbury Tales, a used-book shop where volumes are stacked to the ceiling. Across the street at Chocolate Arts, we buy a handful of delicious chocolate truffles and salted caramels and marvel at the chocolate high-heel shoe.

At this point, more than half-way through our clockwise tour of the city, we reluctantly retreat downtown, walking across the Burrard Bridge, pausing long enough to enjoy the magnificent views of the city and inlet to the east and English Bay to the west, where freighters and sailboats in the distance shimmer in the fading light.

The city's international flair is most evident as we roam Robson Street, the main drag packed with stores and restaurants with cuisines from around the world. We hear a half-dozen languages by the time we approach our base, the Listel Hotel, a cultural destination in itself with live jazz seven nights a week at its restaurant, O'Doul's, on the first floor.

Our room was on what the hotel calls the "museum floor," where the rooms feature cedar headboards and First Nations tribal art. On other floors, the rooms host gallery art collections.

But before resting our legs, we want to see the sun set from Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre forested oasis at the tip of the peninsula. The walk among the huge trees along the water's edge and the beautiful view of the city's skyline make it a worthy venture to end the day.

At dinner in the West End neighborhood favorite, Raincity Grill, we enjoy Pacific Northwest cuisine of beer-battered halibut, ocean-fresh salmon and Okanagan Valley wines, and plot a strategy to become Canadian citizens — anything to spend more time in this distinctive, international city.

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly into Vancouver International Airport and take Canada Line, the new light-rail train, for the 25-minute trip to downtown Vancouver. The city is incredibly walkable, so there's no need to rent a car. It is also about 30 miles from the U.S. border.

Where to stay: Thanks to Olympics preparation, accommodations are plentiful. We opted for a boutique, cultural abode at the Listel Hotel (rates start at $139 Canadian; toll-free 1-800-663-5491 or thelistelhotel.com) in the heart of the Robson Street district, where museum-quality art hangs in the rooms and the adjoining restaurant hosts live jazz nightly.

Where to eat: The cuisine options reflect the diversity of the city. Indulge in the Pacific Northwest seafood but keep an appetite for the city's Chinatown, the third largest in North America.

• Salt Tasting Room: Located in Blood Alley in Gastown, this charcuterie is a great lunch or dinner spot. The menu is on the wall but don't bother. Ask the staff to pick you a trio of meats and cheeses and a wine to match. (604) 633-1912 or salttastingroom.com.

• Floata Seafood Restaurant: The Dim Sum is a can't miss. Waiters whirl by the tables with carts of steaming shrimp dumplings and deep fried spring rolls. 400 Keefer St. in Chinatown, upstairs in an indoor market complex. (604) 602-0368 or floata.com.

• Raincity Grill: Overlooking English Bay in the West End neighborhood, this top Pacific Northwest restaurant is all about fresh and local ingredients. Offerings change often but try the tasting menu to get the full effect. 1193 Denman Street, (604) 685-7337 or raincitygrill.com.

• What to do: Vancouver is a great city to tour by foot with distinctive neighborhoods worth days of urban immersion — bring a rain jacket in case. Get a good perspective on the place at the Vancouver Lookout and plot your course from hundreds of feet above the city. Options include historic Gastown with its steam clock, colorful Chinatown open-air markets, trendy Yaletown boutiques and clubs, laid-back atmosphere and shopping in Kitsilano and Robson Street's people watching downtown.

Also visit two places uniquely Vancouver by taking a ferry across False Creek to Granville Island, where you can walk through the Public Market and a cluster of local art galleries, and trekking to Stanley Park, where you can walk or bike around the seawall and enjoy this forested oasis so close to downtown.

Winter Olympics: Whether you visit before, during or after the 2010 Olympic Games, Feb. 12-28, experience the local energy by visiting the venues. For the best guide, check out the Seattle Times' interactive map at seattletimes.nwsource.com/flatpages/local/olympics2010interactive.html

• Olympics ticket packages: If you want to see the Olympics, act now. Most tickets and accommodations are taken but you can still find deals online. Official ticket and hospitality packages are offered by CoSport at cosport.com.

Vancouver Olympics add luster to a unique city 10/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 30, 2009 8:01pm]

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