With one eye on the heavens, David Whitley hires a bike and goes exploring ’s urban treasure – Stanley Park.
If you can’t beat them, join them. Aside from the addiction to wolfing down an enormous bucket of coffee every half hour, Vancouverites are generally an irritatingly healthy bunch. Despite the city getting the sort of weather that would keep the rest of us indoors, watching DVDs and wolfing down pizza after pizza, the good folk of Vancouver can normally be found out walking, kayaking, skiing or cycling. You can either seethe and want to punch them, or you can have a go yourself.
Stanley Park is the city’s great gift. Reserved as a public park from Vancouver’s earliest days, it juts out into the Burrard Inlet like a tree-lined toe in the water. On the nearby streets, every other shop seems to rent bikes, so I pick one up and use pedal power to explore.
The park is staggeringly well organised when it comes to the processions of people doing exercise. The seawall stretches around the coast for 8.8km, and ordinarily this would lead to all manner of violent collisions between people using different modes of transport. Mercifully, the cars are sent through the middle, whilst the cyclists, rollerbladers and walkers all have their own path to follow. At one point, there are even separate tracks for novice skaters and those who know what they’re doing. That’s almost German in terms of efficiency.
Cyclists are allowed to head round in one direction only, and there are noticeable changes en route. It starts off busy, with picturesque views of the city and tethered boats. A headcount climax is reached when you get to the totem poles.
These are something of a Stanley Park icon. Most visit to have a look at the funny images carved into the poles, but the display signs dip into the story of’s First Nations people. Before the Europeans arrived, there were numerous nations spreading up the British Columbian coast. Many of them seem specifically designed to be unpronounceable to the new settlers. But despite early good relationships with the likes of the Tsimshian, Nuu-chah-hulth and Kwakwaka’wakw, the desire for land soon set a collision course. In the late 19th century, traditional practices, languages and customs were either discouraged or outlawed by the Canadian government, and the First Nations people were encouraged to destroy ceremonial masks and other artefacts. Many items got sold to collectors and museums. Seven of the poles arrived in Stanley Park as a curiosity in 1936.
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But later there was a resurgence. A small band of dedicated First Nations artists started experimenting with new materials and styles and a movement grew to the point where just about every souvenir shop in Vancouver has some kind of native carving for sale. Not all of the poles in Stanley Park are the originals, but the annotations describing what each separate section of the new ones represent are fascinating.
You don’t have to go too far beyond the totem poles for the seawall for it all to get a bit wilder. The paths narrow, the rock to your left gets steeper and more rugged and the sea breeze becomes a bracing, spitting hurdle. Container ships sit out to sea waiting patiently to come in and unload, while the salt water snarls moodily.
In the final stretches of the circuit, a few log-strewn beaches come in to play. They’re hardly golden sand affairs and it’s difficult to see anyone wanting to go for a dip without a Michelin man-esque wetsuit, but they show another side to a park that should be regarded as a national treasure. And as I finally pull into English Bay, the whole Vancouver active thing starts to make sense. When you can get that rush of the ocean, backed up by mountains and rain-soaked greenery, it really doesn’t matter if you have to wear a waterproof jacket.
See the Grumpy Traveller free city guide to Vancouver for more things to do in the city.