There’s luxury in having a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver so close to Seattle. And luxury to be had there even for a fast overnight trip—in contrast to the multi-day, Chinese food feeding frenzies I normally enjoy and recommend north of the border. Here’s a sample itinerary that will fill you with culture, outdoor adventure, superb dining (both Asian and European), and unique experiences with tea, coffee, and beer.
Leave Seattle about lunchtime and if you don’t experience a back-up at the border, you can be in Vancouver by mid-afternoon. Your goal is to get to Gastown, where you’ll get a caffeine boost at Timbertrain Coffee Roasters. No dark, bitter roasts here. Instead, partake in a Kalita pour-over, or if your mood (and the weather) strikes you, enjoy a tap-pulled cold brew. The parallel to beer is striking, as the nitro tap system gives your coffee—served in a chilled pilsner glass—a little layer of foam.
With newfound alertness and energy, walk to the Vancouver Lookout to take in a 360-degree view of the city and its surroundings. There are guided tours available if you want in-depth information. I appreciate the “self-deprecating” diagram that compares the Lookout to the world’s tallest towers, perhaps serving as a distraction to finding out the actual height of the tower, which is apparently disputed. Regardless, it’s a really good view, warranting a same-day return before closing to see the city under the stars.
Stroll the streets of Gastown to see the shops and galleries and to appreciate the architecture, then make your way to Chambar. I ate dinner there the next-to-last night in the old location. The new Chambar (I got a sneak peek) is adjacent to the previous space and is full of fantastic features, including an expanded kitchen and elegant bathrooms, plus a fabulous terrace for private dining. Meanwhile, the Belgian-influenced menu remains the same. There are actually more beer than food options, and your server will be happy to make pairing recommendations. The classic moules frites are hard to resist, but be sure to explore the rest of the menu—or order a tasting menu experience that gives you a variety of smaller portions and the chance for more sampling.
After dinner and any additional sightseeing or sipping in Gastown, eventually make your way to your hotel: the Wall Centre Sheraton Vancouver. There are actually three buildings on this city block of property, though one is residential. A top floor room in the North Tower yields you another great view of the city and beyond. The beds are comfortable and the location is convenient, with a fitness room, 50-foot lap pool, and spa available if you have time for such amenities.
The hotel puts you in close proximity to morning coffee in an amusing place: Musette Caffe. The name refers to the bag that bicyclists use to carry food—basically, a racer’s feed bag. You’ll see some on display, as Musette is a coffee house that especially caters to the biking crowd. A television broadcasts live or recorded biking events, and the space is like a little museum packed with biking paraphernalia belonging to the famous and not-so-famous from around the world. There’s also gear for sale. The coffee comes from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, and there’s a nice array of pastries to accompany it, along with sandwiches and a few other food items.
If you’ve brought your bike or are motivated to rent one down on Denman in the West End, buy an energy bar at Musette and make your way to Stanley Park for an exhilarating, scenic ride along the Seawall. If that’s not for you, Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tours provide an easy introduction to part of the park. The tour covers just the east side (the west is more wild), and the narration is full of interesting information about the park’s history, activities, flora and fauna, and more.
Soon it’s back to downtown for tea at Urban Tea Merchant. Relax in the tea salon and choose from one of the many signature afternoon tea services (available all day). The menus combine savory and sweet offerings, with the on-site chef inspired by the challenge to use and infuse tea into all the items. Perhaps your bigger challenge will be choosing the tea itself. There’s an extensive menu of teas from around the world (about 250 loose-leaf varieties, soon to expand to more) grouped by country and category like black, green, white & yellow, oolong, rooibos, and blends. Your server will allow you to sniff some cannisters of tea, though this might only complicate your decision-making. Whatever you choose will be exquisite, as the TWG teas are high quality. Take your time to enjoy your tea service, and before leaving, browse the store if you want to replicate the experience (at least the tea-drinking) at home.
After tea, I highly recommend a visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery. I’m endlessly entranced by the thought-provoking exhibits that come to this gallery, and currently there’s an eclectic exhibit of works by Douglas Coupland entitled “everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything.” It examines issues like cultural identity, the impact of technology, and much more. (Sadly, the exhibit ends September 1.) Budget enough time at the gallery, as there’s more worth seeing, but while downtown you might want to take time for shopping, with much of the action just west on Robson.
You’ll want to be hungry for your final meal of the day: dinner on the way out of town at Tojo’s Restaurant. Hidekazu Tojo opened his namesake restaurant in Vancouver just over 25 years ago, relocating to his current location in 2007. You can order a la carte, but if you come just for sushi, I’d suggest that you’re missing out. Tojo’s kaiseki-style omakase meal will surprise even the most experienced diners with its creativity and quality course after course. Put yourself in the hands of Tojo, and be prepared for the freshest of products, ingenious use of flavor combinations, and interesting presentations. Throw attentive service into the mix (even at the sushi bar, where you’ll notice the calm and confidence of the entire kitchen), and you’ve got the ingredients for a memorable dining experience. The “lighter fare” will enable you to stay alert for the drive home, though you might just want to linger over your meal and Japanese beer (or sake), tempted to stay in Vancouver for another night. That would be a luxury indeed.