Vancouver: 'Hollywood North' – star of Canada's west
You'll probably want to visit Vancouver for its stunning waterside views and nearby mountains. But, says Anne Gorringe, there's every chance you'll bump into Tom Cruise and co in town, too
Wednesday 29 May 2013
Sitting by the restaurant window in my hotel at sunset, I glanced down on Vancouver's beautiful harbour front. Apparently I was having dinner on the very road where Tom Cruise was seen running through the streets of "India", leaping over cars in a chase scene from the last Mission Impossible film. It was difficult to believe, but the restaurant staff in the Fairmont Pacific Rim insisted that the palm trees, cars and Indian road signs brought in by the film crews had transformed the Canada Place area outside the convention centre into a Mumbai street.
In the distance, yachts bobbed serenely on the water. The trees of Stanley Park, a natural temperate rainforest wrapped around the end of the harbour, were framed with the stunning back-drop of the coastal mountains behind.
The largest city in British Columbia has long lured filmmakers, drawn by its dazzling Pacific location. Today, the state-of-the-art facilities at the Canadian Motion Picture Park studio in nearby Burnaby mean that the local movie industry is booming.
Most of the Twilight Saga was filmed here and Vancouver has also been the chosen location for dozens of TV films and series, including The X-Files, and movies from Juno to the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Wrapping up there this week? A remake of Robocop.
Summer has long lured tourists too: this month Air Transat and Virgin Atlantic began their warm-weather schedules from the UK to Vancouver. Now, instead of just one weekly flight from Gatwick, Air Transat is offering four, plus two weekly links from Manchester and one from Glasgow. Virgin's summer service from Heathrow has started. All these flights go non-stop to "Hollywood North", as Vancouver has been dubbed by Californian crews since 2000, when more than 200 films and TV shows were produced there in a single year.
Visitors can satisfy their cinematic urges at the annual Vancouver International Film Festival, which runs from 26 September to 11 October.
Star spotting is all very well, but I had a rather different hunger to satisfy as I travelled around the city on the "Eat Your Cart Out" lunch-time walking tour. As my guide, Leni Koen, explained, street food has taken off since the 2010 Winter Olympics, when local by-laws were relaxed: vans, or carts, now offer a variety of delicious dishes. We visited the Pan-Asian Roaming Dragon cart for its speciality: deep-fried rice balls made with a mix of stir-fried chicken, sesame oil and ginger. Then we were off to Japadog, where traditional hotdogs are served with teriyaki sauce, noodles and seaweed.
"Some restaurants have complained about the growing competition that the carts provide, but the carts are only allowed on the streets during the day so there's still plenty of scope for the evening trade," says Leni. Locals spend more dollars per head on eating out here than diners in any other Canadian city: an average of more than C$1,500 (£1,000) each annually.
But the real love around here remains the great outdoors. In North Vancouver, Grouse Mountain offers spectacular scenery and a few runs for skiers in winter, while summer attractions include the challenge of the "Grouse Grind". This sees locals pulling on their hiking boots to march up the steep route which rises through a challenging 850m altitude in just three kilometres. A free summer shuttle bus leaves from the harbour in the city at Canada Place and takes 25 minutes, dropping passengers in the car park at the entrance to the hike and the Skyride cable car – North America's largest aerial tramway system.
I took the easy way up and hopped on board. The eight-minute trip offers great views over Vancouver and south, across the US border as far as Mount Baker. Look west across the ocean to the mountain peaks on Vancouver Island, a two-hour ferry journey away.
Back on the shuttle bus, I was soon back at Canada Place, the stop across the road from the Fairmont Pacific Rim. The hotel provides free bikes for guests to explore more than 450km of cycle paths. I took the route to Stanley Park: flat and ideal for beginners who want to keep off the roads. There's plenty to see. First, there's the Totem Park area, a colourful display of poles carved by local Coast Salish First Nation people. Then as you travel along the busy sea wall you pass a couple of coffee stops before reaching English Bay Beach. This faces west and is the best place in the city for sunset views, and a popular local barbecue spot. Its name refers to the 1792 meeting of British naval Captain George Vancouver, who charted British Columbia's Pacific Coast with Spanish captains Valdés and Galiano.
The next day, I sped things up a notch. My guide from Sewell's Marina picked me up from the hotel for the 20-minute drive back to their base in West Vancouver. I was to take a two-hour high-speed ride across the bay in a 9m inflatable to spot some wildlife. I was handed a "flotation suite" which looked like a bright orange, zip-up padded boiler suit and served to keep off the chilly spray as guide Darryn crashed us through the waves.
Naturally, we slowed to a crawl as we approached rocks full of basking seals and birdlife which can include cormorants, oystercatchers, Harlequin ducks and Glaucous winged gulls. Spring and autumn are the best time to see whales and dolphins here.
I took to the water one final time on the Aquabus link across False Creek from the jetty in the centre of town for the four-minute trip to Granville Island. Despite its name, it's a peninsula, connected to the city by road. Once heavy industry belched noxious fumes here but now it's a bustling place with a laid-back vibe and a vibrant art and music scene. It's also known for its impressive indoor market, the best place to buy edible treats, from local maple syrup to cheeses and candied salmon.
I finished the day with a trip to Granville Island Brewery on Cartwright Street, the city's first microbrewery. Since opening in 1984, it has helped nurture an excellent craft beer scene. The main brewery is actually two blocks away, but you can tour the Tap Room adjacent to the bar where staff explain the magic of how the hops, hot water and barley are used to create the impressive brews.
Looking round is thirsty work, so the tour finishes with a choice of beer samples at the bar, from Maple Cream Ale to Honey lager. They're intoxicating concoctions, much like this dazzling city itself. For film stars or tourists, Vancouver delivers a picture-perfect setting.
The writer travelled with Air Transat (0843 255 9807; canadianaffair.com) which flies to Vancouver from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow.
Fairmont Pacific Rim (001 604 695 5350; fairmont.com). Doubles from C$418 (£279).
Sewell's sea safari (001 604 921 3474; sewellsmarina.com).
Grouse Mountain Skyride (001 604 980 9311; grousemountain.com).
Eat Your Cart Out tour (001 866 251 1888; tourguys.ca).
Granville Island Brewery Tour (001 604 687 2739; gib.ca).
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