48 hours in Vancouver

Great scenery, friendly locals and an air of tranquillity add to the charm of this laid-back city
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The Independent Travel

Why go now?

Why go now?

For a taste of laid-back West Coast living that's closer than LA, you could do worse than Vancouver. If the air feels particularly fresh it's because this groovy Canadian city is bordered by mountains, forests and ocean... and it has just banned smoking in public. If you're quick, you can get there in time to celebrate Canada Day on 1 July. If not, then just celebrate the fact that the pound's so strong.

Beam down

I travelled with British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com), which has a daily flight from Heathrow to Vancouver. Air Canada (0870 524 7226, www.aircanada.ca), which has swallowed up Canadian Airlines, has around three flights each day. Through discount agents, a non-stop scheduled flight this summer will cost around £ 500. Lower fares are available on charter flights from Gatwick, Manchester and Glasgow operated by Air TransAt and Canada 3000; most travel agents will have details. A third possibility is to get a cheap flight to Seattle, and take the bus ride across the border to Vancouver. For the 15-minute ride from the airport into town, hop on one of the cute green Airporter buses that leave every 15 minutes (around £ 5 one-way) or pay £ 16 and bag yourself a limo.

Check in

For old-fashioned luxury with all modern comforts, bang in the middle of town, the only sensible option is the grandiose, copper-roofed Hotel Vancouver (900 West Georgia Street, 001 604 684 3131, www.fairmont.com). Doubles here start at CN$289 (about £ 145) per night. If your budget doesn't stretch to that, try the Sylvia Hotel (1154 Gilford Street, 001 604 681 9321, www.sylviahotel.com). This slightly shabby creeper-covered building overlooking English Bay has some doubles from CN$65 (about £ 30). Still too much? Then contact Tourism Vancouver (see below) for advice on hostels and characterful B&Bs.

Get your bearings

Cities don't get much easier to navigate than this. In downtown Vancouver not only is there a gridiron street pattern to help you find your way, there are also several mountain tops, an ocean and some of the planet's friendliest citizens. For city maps and information on SeaBus, SkyTrain and all other forms of transport, call in at Tourism Vancouver (200 Burrard Street, 001 604 683 2000, www.tourismvancouver.com).

Take a hike

Gastown is apparently where Vancouver all began (and it's not what you're thinking, the name comes from John "Gassy Jack" Deighton, an English sailor who set up a pub here in the 1860s). The Victorian business district is now rather gimmicky, with luridly decorated pavement cafes, a clock that sings the time in steam and cobblestone-type streets. But in a city where most of the architecture is glass and steel, the old brick buildings are worth a wander - especially beyond the Hotel Europe, where the signs of seediness remain.

Lunch on the run

What is apparently one of the largest Chinese communities outside China gets on with catering for itself in Vancouver's Chinatown rather than pandering to the tourists. The food is good, cheap, fast and more wide- ranging than you'd expect. If you fancy a change, try Pho Hoang, a Vietnamese restaurant serving delicious soup for £ 2.50 at 238 East Georgia Street. If you can't decide what you want, take a bus from Granville Street out to Granville Island Public Market, where you'll find everything from smoothies to salmon burgers all under one roof.

Cultural afternoon

There are two ways to go in Vancouver. The first is to head way out west (this time on a bus from Powell Street) to the glass-walled Museum of Anthropology (6393 North-West Marine Drive; 001 604 822 5087; www.moa.ubc.ca; open daily in summer from 10am to 5pm; entrance around £ 3.50), primarily to admire some striking Native American artefacts. Or you can stay in town and visit Vancouver Art Gallery (750 Hornby Street; 001 604 662 4719; www.vanartgallery.bc.ca; open summer 10am to 5pm; entrance £ 5). Don't miss the excellent Emily Carr exhibition on the top floor, which helps puts the work of this revered Vancouver artist in context.

Window shopping

With such a strong pound and some wonderful shops and stores, there's no need to restrict yourself to window shopping. And if you really want to splurge, CDs are the things to buy since they're about half the price they are in the UK. Depending on your tastes, either ask around for a specialist store or head to mammoth musical neighbours Sam The Record Man and A&B Sound on Seymour Street.

An aperitif

Thanks to some excellent new Micro Breweries and Brew Pubs, Vancouver deserves its reputation as a beer town. If ale's your downfall then don't head into Yaletown, the yuppified area that's turned its run-down warehouses into fashionable clothes shops, furniture stores and, yes, drinking holes. Yaletown Brewery, in a 1910 warehouse at 1111 Mainland Street (001 604 681 2739), serves beers such as Frank's Nut Brown Ale with delicacies such as beer-battered onion rings.

Demure dinner

Its lavish interior (all dark wood, gothic ceilings and deep-red furnishings) must have gone at least some way to making Gotham (615 Seymour Street, 001 604 605 8282, www.gothamsteakhouse.com) the current favourite eaterie in town. Then again, steaks for around £ 15 and lamb chops for £ 12 have probably helped too. For something less meaty, head back out to Granville Island and spend a night by the waterfront at Bridges (1696 Duranleau Street, 001 604 687 4400) scoffing pasta, salads and fresh fish as the sun sets over the city.

The icing on the cake

If you look out at the ocean each morning, sighing about the fact that it's just too cold and filthy to dive into, all is not lost. Kitsilano swimming pool can provide the experience for you with much less pain. What is apparently the longest outdoor pool in North America (and definitely one of the most beautiful) sits right next to the ocean (so you get the view) but is filled with clean, gently heated saltwater - and it only costs £ 2 a plunge. It is open from 7am to 8.45pm from June to September, off Cornwall Avenue.

Take a ride

Make your way down to Waterfront Station and, as you look out across the meringue-like roofing of Canada Place, sit back on a SeaBus (about £ 1 each way) and be whisked across to North Vancouver. There, swap the SeaBus for a normal bus, number 236 (about 90p a go), and hop off at Grouse Mountain to catch the SkyRide gondola (£ 9 return) to a spectacular lookout point a mile above the city. Exhausted? Not as much as you would be if you'd taken the hiking option.

A walk in the park

Go early to Stanley Park and enjoy the tranquillity, smell the pine trees and listen to the waves lapping at the six-mile sea wall as you circumnavigate Vancouver's peaceful open space - either on foot, on a bike or by rollerskates. This is city greenery on a grand scale and, with another 22 miles of hiking trails available within the park, you're pretty likely to get away from it all here, except perhaps the early morning jogging brigade.

Bracing brunch

Tucked away in Kitsilano is a relic of a different kind. The Naam (2724 West Fourth Avenue, 001 604 738 7151) is a hippy, vegetarian, 24- hour cafe that serves healthy food (in enormous platefuls) to what looked like a large proportion of the city the day I was there. Stumble in hungover and order a "rainbow tea" to sooth your head while your stomach decides whether it can manage a vegan flapjack... or is really just craving another organic beer.

Sunday morning, go to...

Christ Church Cathedral. The city's oldest church building has been declared a heritage site but the 1889 dark-wood interior, even partly illuminated by some fancy stained-glass windows, is not as impressive as the exterior, a low-rise stone relic in a sea of mirrored skyscrapers.