About Vancouver and surrounding areas

notes from Mom

Welcome to our city of natural wonders.  Vancouver is celebrated as one of the prettiest and fun places to visit in the world.  Every year over seven million tourists visit our city.  In fact, sometimes you wish it wasn't so nice, because you get every Tom, Dick, and Harry visiting you. We have friends, who literally spend their entire summer entertaining out-of-town guests.  My cousin from Holland couldn't stop talking about the Stawamus Chief after we took him up it.  After living in a flat country for so long he was spellbound by the mountains.  My friend's relatives from Germany love the water because in Germany there is very little shoreline.  And my husband's sister comes here every year to go skiing, because in California snow is hard to come by.

Vancouver especially appeals to outdoor enthusiasts.  Where else can you hike woodland and mountain trails, bike or roller blade along a paved causeway flanking the shoreline of a magnificent park, take your pick from three local mountains to ski on, kayak down river rapids, sail amongst tiny desolate islands, or swim in both fresh and salt water--all within half an hour from the city centre?

The climate too is perfect  ;>) .  We have four seasons, each lasting about the same length of time.  Consequently, you seldom hear someone say, "I'm getting tired of this hot or cold weather," because it never lasts for very long.  Temperatures usually don't dip far below 0 degrees C in the winter or go over 30 degrees C in the summer.

The main city of Vancouver has several peripheral cities which combine to make Greater Vancouver.  All put together these equal more than 705,000 acres in size, making it the third largest city in Canada.  The population of Greater Vancouver in 2016 was 2.463 million.  Vancouver has one of the most colourful ethnic populations in Canada.  Our son Nathan has Chinese, German, British, Iranian and Indian friends in his classroom.  Vancouver has the second largest Chinatown in North America, plus the Italian, Greek, Iranian, and Punjabi communities all have their own distinct shopping areas.

For families, it's the ideal vacation spot, and for those lucky enough to live here it has so many things to do, you're problem is not in finding something to do but in deciding what to do.

City of Vancouver, population 631,486 (2016)

It's no big surprise that the heart of Greater Vancouver is the city of Vancouver.  About one quarter of the Greater Vancouver population live in the core.  The West End, where majority of the downtown residents live, has one of the densest populations on the North American continent.  The city has a number of up-beat shopping areas like Robson Street, Pacific Centre, South Granville and Fourth Avenue.  Like any city, Vancouver also has undesirable pockets I would stay clear of, such as the back alleys in Chinatown, Victory Square, and the outskirts of Gastown

If you're into arts and culture, you can while away your hours at the Vancouver Art Gallery (try the Art Gallery Cafe for lunch, their lasagna and pizza are delicious); go to the Vancouver Public Library, it's an architectural masterpiece; or visit Chinatown, one of the most authentic ethnic communities in North America.  If you've got food on your mind, try Granville Island.  It has one of the best Public Markets I've ever seen, plus an interesting array of artisan shops.  If you're looking for a way to enjoy the great outdoors, go to Stanley Park.  You can walk, roller blade, or cycle around the park.  If it's hot, try the Second Beach Pool in English Bay, or take a five-minute drive across the bridge and go to our favourite swimming spot Kitsilano Pool.

The real show-stopper in Vancouver however is the view.  With snow-capped mountains as a back-drop and water surrounding it, Vancouver is a beautiful city to look at.  Even at night, you can't help but admire the skyline etched out by the bright city lights. 

Areas north of Vancouver: The North Shore

The District of West Vancouver, along with the City of North Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver combine to make a geographic area known as The North Shore.  After crossing the Lions Gate Bridge you can go either right or left.  Right takes you to North Vancouver and left leads you to West Vancouver.

West Vancouver, population 42,473 (2016)

West Vancouver is one of the nicest places to live in the Greater Vancouver area (if you can afford it).  With water on two sides, a mountain on the third and a river valley on the fourth, the views are spectacular.  Since the early 1900's West Vancouver has kept its rich profile.  Several movie and sports stars own homes in West Vancouver, and houses costing millions of dollars are not uncommon.  It also has several beautiful parks: Whytecliffe and Lighthouse are two, but our favourite for hiking is Cypress Falls ParkAmbleside Beach is great for swimming, or you can stroll along the walkway, and even go fishing if you want to.  Horseshoe Bay is a quaint community which also has the ferries going to Nanaimo, Bowen Island, and the Sechelt peninsula.  If you have some money burning a hole in your pocket, I suggest you go either to Park Royal (the big shopping mall you pass right after the Lion's Gate Bridge) or stop off at the small shopping areas dotted along Marine Drive.

P.S. If you're looking for a good cup of coffee, I can recommend the coffee at Delaney's in Dundarave Village or Torrefazione Italia, which is close to the library.  By the way West Vancouver has a wonderful public library with a reading room that has big, soft chairs and a fireplace.

North Vancouver, population 138,833 (2016 city and district)

To get to North Vancouver you have to cross Burrard Inlet.  You can do this either by taking the SeaBus from Canada Place, or driving across The Second Narrows Bridge, or as I mentioned before The Lion's Gate Bridge.

We've lived in North Vancouver for four years and I'm still not sure what distinguishes the City from the District.  The way I look at it is this:  the City is the core and the District is the apple.  The core has the greater concentration of business, restaurants and commerce.  These are mostly found along Lonsdale Avenue and Marine Drive.  The District includes outer residential and parkland areas such as Deep Cove, Lynn Canyon, and Edgemont Village.  About 20% of the District is Parkland.

I can safely say, no matter where you live in North Vancouver, there's a hiking trail or park within five minutes.  Over the time we've lived here our family has gone from spending 0% of our recreational time hiking to at least 50%.  With places like The Lynn Valley Suspension Bridge, Capilano Salmon Hatchery and The Baden Powell Trail you can't help but get bitten by the outdoors bug.  If you're looking for a challenge, you can try The Grouse Grind.  It's straight uphill.  My husband's friend, Brant, likes to cap it off with a beer at the Grouse Nest Restaurant.

Grouse Mountain is also the spot for paragliders and skiers in the winter months.  Another place to ski is Mt. Seymour.  You may find this hard to believe, but we hiked to Goldie Lake on Mt. Seymour in mid September and found drifts of snow from last year.  The spot that has everything is The Seymour Demonstration Forest.  It's the only place I know of where you can cycle, roller-blade, hike and fish.  We tried fishing in early September in Rice Lake, and our daughter Jen caught a small trout.  This bugged Nathan to no end, because he considers himself the better fisherman, and if anyone was going to catch a fish, it should have been him.

For smaller children, there's Maplewood Farm, a petting zoo.  Every September they have a big hoe-down.  Deep Cove is worth visiting also.  It's a small community at the eastern end of North Vancouver.  We took kayaking lessons one summer at Panorama Park and paddled next to a gigantic red poisonous jellyfish.  Thank goodness I didn't fall in.  The only downside about Panorama Park is often their coliform count is too high, so you can't swim in the water.  If you go there try the Honey doughnuts at the cafe (the name escapes me) on the main road; you'll want at least one more to take home.

Squamish Area, population 19,512 (2016)

About 50 kilometres north of West Vancouver is an area called Squamish.  At the turn of the century it was booming with logging and mining, but now it's mostly a sleep town--except for a handful of show-stopper sites.  Shannon Falls is the third highest waterfall in B.C.  It's only a ten minute hike to get there, or you can eat at the Roadhouse Diner across the street and gaze at it from your table.  By the way the food is pretty good--especially their noodles and sandwiches.  Another site to see is the Stawamus Chief.  Years ago my husband and I climbed it (when we didn't have children), and the view of Howe Sound from the top is magnificent.  Whenever we drive by now we always look for the rock climbers making their way up the face of the mountain.  You have to look hard, because they're the size of tiny dots.

One of our all-time favourite activities is the tour of the old Britannia Copper Mine.  You actually go inside a mine shaft on a rickety cart and see things like the explosives box, drills, and the "honey cart"--a portable toilet.  My last recommendation is the eagles at Brackendale.  Every year in December and January about 3,000 eagles nest in the trees along the Squamish river.  They choose this spot because of the abundance of spawning salmon.

Areas south of Vancouver

Richmond, population 198,309 (2016)

I never knew this but Richmond is actually made of seventeen small islands in the mouth of the Fraser River.  The two largest are called Lulu Island and Sea Island.  It's the river that gives Richmond its economy:  fishing and agriculture.  You can go to the docks in Steveston and buy fish straight off the boat, or stop off at a farm and buy fresh fruit and vegetables.  We always make a trip in October to join the hay ride and pick out our own pumpkin from the giant pumpkin patch.

Being a river delta, Richmond is unbelievably flat.  It's the perfect spot for bike riding.  Our kids love going to Richmond because in North Vancouver you can't go a mile without having a hill to climb.  Two of the best places for flat riding are Iona Island (close to the airport) and the dykes which border along the Fraser River. There's a nice ride which stretches out north from Steveston.  We like to combine it with fish & chips at Dave's and flying the kite at Garry Point Park.  Oh, and I better not forget to mention the park.  It has a gigantic wooden boat where your kids can play hide-and-seek inside.  It's one of the few parks where our eight year old son is still happy to go.

Another big draw for families is the one-stop recreational complex called Riverport.  It has a swimming pool, skating rink, big-screen movie theatres, bowling alley, and several restaurants all clumped together.  Our niece had a birthday party at the bowling alley.  The kids were quite excited when the lights went off and their bowling balls lit up.  Jen wasn't thrilled when the smoke started billowing from the alleys.  I think she thought the place was going up in flames.  We also tried the big-screen theatres.  To be honest with you, we didn't notice any difference in size.

The last point I want to make is that Richmond has a sizeable Chinese population.  In fact, some people refer to it as Vancouver's second Chinatown.  It does have a number of Chinese businesses and restaurants, but these are more modern and fancier than the ones in downtown Chinatown. 

Delta, population 102,238 (2016)

Delta is made up of three communities:  North Delta, Ladner, and Tsawwassen.  North Delta is where half of the population lives, Ladner is an older smaller town, and Tsawwassen is where you catch the ferry to Victoria and the Gulf Islands.  Delta has great farming conditions:  flat land, rich soil, and 30% less rainfall  than North Vancouver.  The acres of dairy farms and crops of cranberries, blueberries, corn and potatoes give it a rural charm.  Our kids like to count horses when we go to Ladner, because there are lots of horses and a racetrack as well. 

Three worthwhile places to visit are the 10,000+ acre Burns Bog, George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary, and the Deas Island Regional park.  Our kids liked the bog because it was good for bike riding:  flat and wide.  Plus some parts looked like the set of a horror film:  as Jen put it, "these trees have long hairy armpits."  Last year we missed the snow goose arrival at the George C. Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.  Usually this happens in November and it's supposed to be quite spectacular to see. 

Areas east of Vancouver and north of the Fraser River

Burnaby, population 232,755 (2016)

My husband always has a soft touch for Burnaby because he grew up there. In fact, he and Nathan sat in exactly the same kindergarten classroom.  Kelvin tells me that when he was a kid, 30 or so years ago, Burnaby was just a sleepy suburb of Vancouver.  Not anymore, today it's more like an extension of Vancouver, with lots of shopping malls, cars, and the SkyTrain running through it.  Metrotown is the second largest retail complex in Western Canada.  Usually I don't recommend places with video games, but I'm going to mention The Playdium at Metrotown.  It has over 200 games ranging from fly fishing, to paragliding, skiing, horse racing--everything you can imagine.  Nathan loved it, but Jen found some of the games too difficult.  We paid a special summertime rate of $12 for one hour of unlimited playing time.  The kids must have tried at least 20 games each, so I felt we got our money's worth.

Burnaby is home to a number of beautiful parks.  If you're looking for a nice spot to have a picnic try Burnaby Mountain.  It has a panorama view of Vancouver, the mountains, and the body of water called Indian Arm.  In August, when the grass is good and dry, Jen and Nathe bring their sheets of cardboard and go sliding down the hills.  I've noticed some people bringing huge blocks of ice, which seem to work well too (but you need to cover the ice or your bum will get soaking wet).  Watch out for the coyotes when you're up there.  Don't worry, they're not as vicious as you might think.  The ones we've seen were basking in the sun on the grassy slopes.

Two other parks I can recommend are Deer Lake and Central Park.  Central Park has a number of activities:  pitch & putt golf, horse-shoes, swimming pool, athletic stadium and walking trails.  What our kids like doing the most are trying to catch turtles in the two ponds (every time we go we see at least a couple of dozen) and playing in the playground.  Central Park has some swings and a slide specifically designed for children with physical handicaps.  Deer Lake is right next door to the Burnaby Heritage Village Museum and Shadbolt Art Centre.  Apparently the museum has a wonderful carousel and vintage town you can walk through, which are both worth seeing if you're in the area.

New Westminster, population 70,996 (2016)

In the old days, New Westminster was a hoppin' place.  It was the first capital city of British Columbia until Vancouver overtook it in trade and commerce.  Now it's more of a residential area.  Some of the houses and buildings are historic sites and quite beautiful to look at.  The downtown section of New Westminster with its sloping streets down to the Fraser River remind my husband of the car chase scene in San Francisco in the movie Bullitt.

Two places which stand out in my mind are Queens Park and  Westminster Quay.  We used to live on the border of New Westminster and Burnaby, so I took Nathan often to both of these places.  Queens Park is wonderful in the summer.  It has a spray pool and petting zoo, in addition to a big red fire engine and adventure playground kids can play on.  Nathan could never get enough of the pulley ride.  I'd either have to drag him away or bribe him with candy at the concession stand.

The Westminster Quay is a scaled-down version of Granville Island.  It has a public market downstairs and a food fair, plus some retail shops upstairs.  When Nathan was small he'd like to ride his bike along the Fraser River walkway.  Our destination was the playground with the submarine and spacenet.  In the spring and summer the flower beds are bursting with beautiful blossoms, many of which I didn't even know the names--and my father grew flowers for a living.  The river itself is a bee-hive of activity.  I've seen tug-boats pulling huge log booms, barges full of sawdust and even some stacked full of flattened down cars, fishing boats and lots of speed boats.  In May you even see hundreds of sea lions searching for oolichans.  Now I think they've turned the Paddlewheeler into a floating casino so you can enjoy the river scenery and gamble at the same time.

The Tri-Cities (Port Moody, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam), population 231,447 (2016)

If you think of Greater Vancouver as an onion cut in half with the city as the centre, the tri-cities are the next layer after Burnaby.  The need for more residential housing and industrial growth has changed these sleepy suburbs to rapidly expanding towns.

Port Moody was the original west coast terminus for the trans continental railway.  Every June/July they have a Golden Spike Days Festival to celebrate the city's rail heritage.  Although I have to admit, there aren't too many other visible signs of railwayism in Port Moody.  It does, however, have a beautiful lake for swimming called Sasamat Lake.  It's nestled in amongst the evergreens and has a lovely sandy beach (but watch out for the geese poop).

Last year we visited Hoy Creek in Coquitlam.  Every November the salmon make their way up the creek to spawn.  I was amazed to see big salmon struggling in about six inches of water.  At times they literally had to skim along the top of the water.  Along the creek banks lay the dead carcasses of those that already laid their eggs or given up.  That reminds me, the smell is pretty bad.

Maple Ridge, population 82,256 (2016)

I have to admit, when my husband suggested we go out to Maple Ridge one Sunday, I responded with about four options.  I'd never been there, but pictured it as a small hick town with no good places to eat.  I was pleasantly surprised.  It is a small town, but with a quaint atmosphere.  Westgate Mall looks new, and has a Bread Garden, Swiss Chalet, a bagel place, plus Starbucks for those who will drink nothing less.

The best attractions in Maple Ridge though are Golden Ears Park and Alouette Lake.  Golden Ears Park apparently stretches all the way up to Squamish.  We were bound for the lake, so we only had time to walk in the Spirea Nature Trail and Interpretive Forest.  Jen and Nathe enjoyed pushing the buttons to find out about the wildlife and vegetation.  Alouette Lake is a beautiful spot, but the beach is kind of rocky.  The water is a little on the cold side, but that didn't stop us.  It's a popular spot for picnickers.  I remember looking at the picnic site and seeing clouds of smoke from all the barbecues and hibachis.

On the way to Alouette Lake we also saw a beautiful playground with a water park, which we had to drive by.  Nathan had a hard time forgiving us because he didn't get to see the big lighthouse.

Mission District, population 38,833 (2016)

If you want to go somewhere for a picturesque drive, try Mission.  Rolling hills, farms, and the Fraser River are what you see.  We visited the monastery called Westminster Abbey up on the hill.  Nathan was disappointed because the monks were wearing golf shirts and long pants.  He was expecting long robes with a rope around the waist.  Actually we had to sneak a peak at the monks singing their hymns, because visitors are not allowed to wear shorts in the church.

Areas east of Vancouver and south of the Fraser River

Surrey, population 517,887 (2016)

Surrey is the largest city in British Columbia.  Its size equals Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby put together.  In another 20 years they predict Surrey's population will also beat Vancouver's.

For it's size, I wouldn't say Surrey has a star-studded recreational line-up.  We've gone to Tynehead Park, which has some easy hiking trails for kids.  And Kelvin's favourite place, the Rainforest Reptile Refuge in South Surrey, cannot be missed.  I've never seen so many crocodiles, lizards and snakes.  Apparently, people take their reptilian friends to the refuge when they can no longer care for them.  When we were there, the owner was expecting a boa constrictor any minute.  She already had about five, but just couldn't say, "No" to a homeless snake.

White Rock, population 19,952 (2016)

White Rock is a small beach town right by the Canada/U.S. border.  As you might expect, most of the family fun activities happen at the beach.  They do have a huge sandy beach perfect for playing and swimming.  Every summer they host a sandcastle building competition.  One year we went and I was amazed at what people could make out of sand!  The beach also has a dock, where I often see people fishing from.  We've never tried, so I can't tell you if the fishing is any good.  There's also a playground at the south end of the beach and a train track that runs right beside the beach.  Our kids get quite excited when the train comes, because it's so close you could touch it.

If White Rock looks too hectic the day you're there, try Crescent Beach, it's only a ten minute drive north.  It has a raft, but it's quite close to shore, so I don't think you can dive off it.

The other neat thing about White Rock is that it has a strip of restaurants and shops across the street from the beach.  If you feel like eating something other than concession food, you don't have far to go.  Most of the shops are touristy, but you may be able to find some treasures you can't live without. 

Langley and Aldergrove, population 143,1730 (2016)

If you ever want to take a drive out in the country, Langley is a perfect destination.  You'll see lots of animals, roadside farm produce stands, nurseries, and maybe even a hot air balloon.  We were passing through Langley one early autumn night and spotted three hot air balloons.  Two were so close we could see the flame used to keep the balloon up in the air.  That same night we drove through one of the original A & W drive-ins.  It reminded me of the movie, "Diner."  I've never seen so many vintage cars in one place.  I guess collectors go there to show off their cars and relive old memories.  I noticed the menu even had on it the original Papa, Mama, and Baby burgers.

Two worthwhile places for you to visit are Fort Langley, the "Birthplace of British Columbia," and the Greater Vancouver Zoo in the community of Aldergrove.  The zoo has about 126 different species of wildlife from around the world.  My favourites are the giraffes and the elephants.  They used to have a small petting zoo, where my niece lost her hat to a  goat, but they've since then done away with it.  The zoo was recently bought by a group of entrepreneurs who plan on making some Big changes.  We'll see what actually comes of it.

Fort Langley is one of our children's favourites.  Why?--because you can pan for gold nuggets there.  Nathan and Jen could spend hours doing it.  The first nuggets they found were so precious to them, but now that they each have a dozen or so, I think they've figured out they're not real.  The Fort also has a trading post, demonstration of hearth baking, blacksmith, and several other exhibits.  The little town is very quaint and only a ten minute walk from the Fort.  If you go in October, you may catch The Cranberry Festival.

Abbotsford, population 141,397 (2016)

A little further out from Langley is Abbotsford.  Like Langley, Abbotsford is more of a rural community.  Their slogan is "A City in the Country." Abbotsford is best known for its Air Show, which comes around every August.  We go there in the summer to pick raspberries.  (My husband likes the fact he doesn't have to bend over).  Abbotsford is the raspberry capital of Canada.  We also visit my husband's Uncle Herbie who has a loonie store in Abbotsford.

Chilliwack Area, population 83,788 (2016)

Chilliwack is about as far east as it gets for The Greater Vancouver region.  It is the least residential and most agricultural city.  Their banner crop is corn.  Chilliwack is  famous for its sweet and delicious corn.  Other than that, I don't know what else to say.

Our Neighbour to the south

Sometimes we want a change of pace and go south to Washington State.  It's only about a 45 minute drive.  You can be in the Dutch style town of Lynden within an hour.  Other fun activities are cruising down Chuckanut Drive in Bellingham, and window shopping in La Conner.  I emphasize the word window, because every time you buy something in the States you have to add on at least 40 cents.  This may explain why there's typically more cars going south than north on a Sunday night.