Whether you're traveling to Canada for the upcoming 2010 Olympics or going to soak up the post-Games vibe, Vancouver remains one of my favorite cities. It's a vibrant, eclectic community that really does have something for everyone—laid-back fish shacks, high-end sushi, designer fashion, funky thrift shops, a world-class art museum and offbeat downtown galleries. What's particularly attractive is that Vancouver is an incredibly navigable city. It's walkable in its busy downtown area and is well connected by three rapid transit lines both above and underground.
Now, while I'm a fan of Vancouver as a destination, I do have one big warning for anyone traveling to Canada in the next several weeks. Following the attempted bombing of a Northwest flight on Christmas Day, Canadian authorities have enacted a ridiculous and draconian security rule for those flying home from Canada: no carry-on bags allowed. That means no briefcases or backpacks. Just a small laptop bag that can carry just…a laptop. Or a small purse. That's it. *
Not a single security authority has been able to logically explain this new rule to me. But they're out there, earnestly enforcing it. Recently, when I flew home from Vancouver, the security lines meant about a two-hour wait, not counting the additional time it took for folks to start repacking all their stuff into check-in bags at the terminals.
And I was no exception. I was denied boarding (along with hundreds of other passengers) because they said my briefcase was too big. This is the same briefcase that has logged more than 1.5 million air miles carrying my laptop, wallet, airline tickets and notebook. Note to Canada: If you want me to come to the Olympics, please employ common sense and remove the ridiculous one carry-on bag rule.
* Editor's note: After the original publication this article, the Canadian government lifted its restrictive ban on carry-on items on all flights entering the U.S. Read more about Transport Canada's travel rule change in The Vancouver Sun .
Celebrating the Olympics
Even if you don't have tickets in hand to the 2010 Winter Olympics, you can still head to Vancouver to join the party. Downtown Vancouver and surrounding neighborhoods and suburbs are playing host to not just the Games, but also a myriad of celebrations that are open to the public.
From February 11 to 28, LiveCity Yaletown will feature celebrations in and around David Lam Park, along the shores of False Creek. Located just minutes from BC Place Stadium, public events will include live performances, Olympic sponsor pavilions and giant screens showing event highlights. Once a gritty industrial area, Yaletown is now considered Vancouver's yuppie-yet-trendy neighborhood—easy to walk around with ample pubs, restaurants, boutique shops and galleries. LiveCity Downtown, adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex at Georgia and Cambie, will be another gathering space with public programming. Open from February 13 to 28, the space will feature live Olympic coverage, pavilions, food and drinks and is positioned so close to BC Place and General Motors Place that you'll think you're at the Games. Both spaces will open again in March as the city celebrates the Paralympic Winter Games.
The nearby town of Richmond, located south of Vancouver near the airport, is home to the $175 million Olympic Oval, which will host speed skating and award ceremonies. And where there's an event, there's a party. The O Zone entertainment area will be located just off the Richmond-Brighouse station and a few minutes walk from the Oval itself. The O Zone site is bigger than 66 football fields, featuring an enormous Holland Heineken House beer garden, massive screens, Olympic mascots, live ice carving and fireworks. Richmond is easily accessible from downtown by Canada Line, the city's new rapid transit system.
No Tickets? No Problem
Recently opened to great fanfare, Robson Square's outdoor ice rink is located in the heart of downtown. The newly renovated space is a permanent Vancouver fixture that's temporarily been renamed GE Plaza Ice Rink and is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It's entirely free (skate rentals are $3).
And while there are no Olympic events in nearby Surrey—located about 45 minutes east of downtown—this city is having its own 13-day party. Located at the end of Canada's light-rail SkyTrain line, Surrey's Holland Park, a 24-acre city park, will host musical performances, winter sports and four giant screens that will broadcast the Games. The can't-miss highlight event will be the RCMP Musical Ride, a military precision drill team comprised of Canadian Mounties on horseback.
Not to be overlooked, Whistler Olympic Park will be home to alpine and cross-country skiing, luge, skeleton and bobsled events. Here, spectators can wander through six Whistler Live! sites, including Whistler Medals Plaza, Village Square and Skiers Plaza, for live broadcasts and celebrations.
Smart travelers know, and history has shown, that the best time to visit an Olympic host city is often after the Games. Why? Because host cities tend to overbuild in anticipation for a flood of tourism—but once the Games are over, they become virtual ghost towns. And that's when savvy travelers can find great deals and have the city to themselves.
Spending a day in Granville Island is a must for tourists and locals alike. Part of downtown Vancouver, this lively "island"—it's really more of a peninsula—boasts a public market, a renowned farmers' market, nightclubs, art galleries and studios and the notable Granville Island Brewing Company. Definitely stop by Muffin Granny, a bakery stand that serves outstanding crepes and scones. Then just sit back, relax and enjoy the people-watching.
Commercial Drive is Vancouver's Italian neighborhood, which is packed with ethnic restaurants, independent theaters and even an Italian motorcycle club, with one-of-a-kind bikes often parked in front of Calabria Cafe.
Kitsalano, aka "Kits," is another popular neighborhood on Vancouver's west side, about a 15-minute bus ride from downtown. Try skimboarding in the natural tide pools of Spanish Banks and check out the Vancouver Maritime Museum , which covers Canada's rich maritime history.
The Vancouver area boasts a rich Asian-Canadian population, best experienced in Richmond's Aberdeen Centre shopping mall, where you can find everything from a fantastic and affordable Asian food court to tea and herb shops to cutting-edge fashion.
The Vancouver Art Gallery features world-class exhibits and is definitely worth a visit. Along with traditional photography, prints and paintings, the gallery also has a public art space in downtown Vancouver and is showcasing an open-air video exhibition on the facade facing Robson Street.
More offbeat art galleries abound, so carve out some time to wander through the many art spaces scattered downtown, along Granville Street and in East Vancouver. One favorite is Equinox Gallery , which features modern and contemporary art and offers a good balance of international and local artists.
What to Eat
For a high-end dining experience, West Vancouver's The Beach House Restaurant and Lounge is among the best in the city. Grab a seat on the heated patio and enjoy the water and clear views of nearby Vancouver Island.
Vancouver is renowned for its unbelievable sushi, but the best of the best has to be at Tojo's Restaurant . Master sushi chef Tojo is an artist in his own right and will prepare you a meal that you'll never forget.
On previous trips, I've had amazing experiences at the Only Seafood Cafe in Chinatown, a hole-in-the-wall fish-and-chip shop that seats just about eight diners at one time. However, the quality here has gone somewhat downhill, so the new local favorite is Go Fish Seafood Emporium, a fish shack close to Granville Island near the fisherman docks. Open year-round, this is the place to dine on local delicacies like oyster po'boys and fresh salmon—just get there before 4 p.m. or the good stuff will be gone.
Where to Sleep
Not surprisingly, and with the Olympics just around the corner, room inventory is filling up fast, but there are nontraditional accommodations still available. And these alternatives to hotels are also great to keep in mind even after the Games are long over.
Check with Vancouver's Hostelling International properties, both located downtown on Burnaby Street and on Granville Street, for information on booking rooms between February 5 and March 2.
Vacation homes are still hot commodities in Vancouver. Check out resources like EMRVacationRentals.com, Rent2010.com, and HomefortheGames.com, which is matching vacation renters with homeowners and actually donating proceeds to charity.
And if you're really eager to get to Vancouver during the Games, consider staying in…Washington State! Amtrak has added a second departure from the nearby town of Bellingham and has daily service from Seattle. So you can easily stay in Washington, take the train into Vancouver in the morning, and return in the evening.