This city always tops the list as a great place to call home, but do eco credentials and a community focus have an impact on the temporary visitor? Yes, says Wayne Hemingway

Google "the world's most liveable city" and Vancouver comes up. The city is also classed as one of the world's most sustainable. With four of the Hemingways either working in or studying urban design – and with yours truly being half-Canadian and only ever having visited there once before for a two-day stopover in Quebec – I thought it was about time we visited Vancouver.



The moment you start the descent in the plane, you see that Vancouver is blessed with snow-capped mountains, a massive river delta and huge coastal inlets. The airport is crisp and modern but not "up itself" like some of the architectural airport statements. You can travel to downtown within 20 minutes, passing through "liveable" suburbs of streets with trees, coffee shops, local retailers, green spaces ... nothing iconic, nothing that tries too hard, just good, old-fashioned homely places.

Sometimes a destination just feels right, and in so many ways Vancouver felt right to us. The Hemingways like shopping: we like our vintage clothes, and our 1970s and 1980s vinyl soul music, and our furniture and interior products. We like the serendipity that enthusiastic and knowledgeable independent store owners bring to the shopping experience. Most British cities seem to think that if they can attract some international designer labels or a branch of Harvey Nichols they have achieved urban regeneration. But isn't that just another step towards wearing the badge of "clone town" – unless it's mixed with serendipity?

London, New York and Paris are great places to shop because they have various retail areas that all have a different feel. There have always been "up-and-coming" areas in London, where entrepreneurs can get cheap rents and have a go. That's how Gerardine and I were able to start Red or Dead back in the 1980s, by finding affordable spots in Soho, Covent Garden, Camden and Kensington. But gentrification and the buying up of streets by the pension funds have just about put paid to this and London is worse for it.

Vancouver is much smaller than London and has a population not much bigger than Leeds. But it still manages to provide variety and a whole series of areas to visit. And it's easy to get around; the city is compact, with a fantastic public transport system, from old-fashioned trolley buses to the retro-futuristic "sky train". But we walked. I love walkable cities. We walked from downtown, through Gastown, along Main Street and Commercial Road, finding vintage store after thrift store after vinyl record store. This is a wealthy city that enjoys thrift.

But Vancouver is not afraid to celebrate high-quality architecture and public spaces. Our first day was spent doing this in incessant rain, but it's a sign of a great city when the rain doesn't get you down (just as well because it rains a lot in Vancouver). Walking around the wonderfully landscaped waterfronts, zig-zagging across the harbour on the cute Aquabuses, marvelling at the magnificent residential glass towers with their verdant roof gardens, terraces and green roofs, and hopping off to visit the wonderful food markets of Granville Island and what must be the most mouth-watering supermarket in the world, Urban Fare, in the regenerated textile district of Yaletown. (It's worth a trip to Vancouver just to see how our big retailers should be treating us, giving us produce that looks as if it has been selected from the choicest producers from the best farmers' markets.)

Vancouver also has its gritty side. Scrape the laid-back San Francisco-style surface of its bohemian suburbs and there are potheads everywhere. On one bus ride along Hastings Street, we seemed to pass through an Escape from New York film set of thousands of drug addicts and prostitutes. Gerardine was glad we didn't stumble across this area again on one of our suburb-seeking city rambles.

But Vancouver never seems threatening; I haven't come across a friendlier city. Get your map out and you can be sure that almost immediately someone will ask if you need help. If you take a taxi, the driver is invariably friendly and turns into a tour guide. (Grumpy London cabbies take heed.) This friendly, modern, hippie vibe is a very attractive element of Vancouver.

A highlight of our time in the city was riding bikes. (There are cycle hire outlets across Vancouver.) We cycled around Stanley Park and its city beaches, picnic, recreation and play areas and on to the beautiful and wild Wreck Beach by the lovely University of British Columbia. You can put your bikes on bike racks on the front of buses – and the bus drivers help you to put them on. That's an integrated sustainable transport system.

Gerardine and I are crap skiers. But part of being parents who are awful skiers is to make sure the kids don't follow suit. (They won't have as many belly laughs as crap skiers have though!) Vancouver has the skiing facility of Grouse Mountain on its doorstep, but we chose to take the two-hour ski bus to North America's premier ski resort, Whistler.

The journey up was great and Whistler is a nice town. Great skiing – so my kids tell me – by day, and an amazing selection of outdoor gear shops to browse in the late afternoon, and good-quality restaurants – and even a club with 1980s old school hip-hop icon Afrika Bambaataa performing while we were there – for the evening.

Vancouver is certainly sustainable. It has a climate change action plan with an aim to reduce carbon emissions by 20 per cent between 2004 and 2010. The newspapers are full of stories about plans to turn all the city's waste into power, and discussion about how to grow the city sustainably. On the streets, it seems as if every other car and taxi is a hybrid-fuel Toyota Prius.

But to me Vancouver's sustainable strengths are the ability to walk it, cycle it, access great public transport, and that it understands and enjoys thrift. Its council and architects pride themselves on building sustainability into the buildings (their green building strategy is to be applauded) and are building at high density. City living at high density is the most sustainable way we can live.

Unlike in many English cities, the high-density apartment blocks add to the city. They have a quality about them that is making a new history for the city rather than just building buy to let, small-investor apartments that will probably get pulled down in 30 years, as is happening in much of the UK (London generally excluded). This is a city where I could bring up a family and live within spitting distance of a downtown office.

And Vancouver is also blessed with a great location. Hiking, beach walks, stimulating cycling, skiing, access to wilderness, watersports, fly fishing for salmon and trout – they are all on the doorstep. Sustainability is intrinsically linked to liveability and happiness. Even as a visitor, I could see why Vancouver comes top of that pile.

WAYNE'S TOP 10 ATTRACTIONS

1. Otis Music, 1176 Davie Street: This is the city's best vinyl record shop. It has a wonderful selection of vintage soul and dance music – the owner knows his "Green Onions".



2. Urban Fare, 305 Bute Street: If there is a better food shop on the plane, point me in the right direction. It's worth visiting Vancouver just for the pleasure of shopping here.



3. True Value Vintage, 710 Robson Street: Any city that has a large number of vintage stores right in the city centre, cheek by jowl with the global brands, is cool. Try out True Value Vintage.



4. Main Street and Commercial Drive: Take a walk to get the true indie spirit of this city. Clone streets haven't invaded Vancouver. Let's hope they manage to keep them out.



5. Value Village, 1820 East Hastings St: Yes! A bloomin' mega secondhand store. Kit yourself out, buy some music and take a chair home for less than £20.



6. East Is East, 4413 Main Street: Small indie, understated and great value restaurants are all over this city with dishes from across the globe. We stumbled on a cool, tiny Afghan/Indian fusion place called East Is East. It's busy, the service is chaotic, but the food is delicious and cheap.



7. Stanley Park: Take a bus to Stanley Park and walk right the way round the coast. The views change every few minutes – mountains, beaches, harbours, boats, seaplanes, walkers ...



8. False Creek: Cycle round False Creek and look at the brilliant landscaping and street furniture around the new Winter Olympics accommodation. Then head for Granville Island.



9. Granville Island Markets: There's something for everyone here: a fantastic fresh food market, a children's market, street entertainers, boat trips in the harbour, views of the glistening glass towers, museums... It's just on the tasteful side of commercial.



10. Wreck Beach: Take the bus to the University of British Columbia, walk through this very liveable campus, make your way to the Botanic Gardens and then ask how to get down to Wreck Beach. How can a city this size have such a wild beach?

COMPACT FACTS

How to get there

Canadian Affair (020-7616 9933; www.canadianaffair.com) offers a seven-night package to Vancouver from £675 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, room-only accommodation at the four-star The Rosedale on Robson Hotel.

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