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Canada's Cosmopolitan Cruise Gateway to the Last Frontier

Quite simply, Vancouver is one of North America’s most cosmopolitan cities--and it just happens to have a busy cruise ship port as well! “Discovered” in the 1990s as a convenient gateway to Alaska cruises, Vancouver has grown into a perfect port of embarkation and disembarkation, as well as a delightful pre- and post-cruise destination.

Located in the southwest corner of British Columbia (the westernmost of Canada’s ten provinces), the city of Vancouver is on the western end of a peninsula that is a major extension of the Fraser River’s delta, which juts into the Pacific Ocean and allows easy cruise ship access (the U.S. border is just 24 miles south of the city's center). Vancouver’s weather is among the mildest in Canada. From spring to fall, the days are typically warm and sunny, coinciding with cruise ship season at Canada Place, Vancouver’s bustling port.

Each year, around a million revenue passengers pass through the Port of Vancouver’s Canada Place (or nearby Ballantyne Pier when things get really busy), sailing on some 30 cruise ships representing about 10 lines. The cruise ships are typically heading to Alaska along the easterly shores of a long string of islands up the British Columbia coast, through a waterway known as the Inside Passage.

Canada Place is quite convenient, in that it’s located in Vancouver’s downtown core near the foot of busy Burrard Street (Ballantyne Pier is just a half mile to the east). It was built to look like a ship with five stylized masts and sails; then the addition of a third cruise ship birth in 2003 effectively extending the facility’s “prow” by about 30 percent.

Originally built in 1986 and with a design often copied worldwide, sprawling Canada Place now includes a cruise terminal, a convention center, and the CN IMAX Theatre. The Pan Pacific Hotel at it’s “stern” rises like the superstructures of the cruise ships that dock alongside it.

From Canada Place, it’s easy to explore downtown Vancouver’s many attractions by foot. Farther afield, varied public transportation makes it simple to take in many other must-sees. The Tourism Vancouver “Touristinfo Centre” located just across from Canada Place at the Plaza Level of 200 Burrard Street is a great place to stop for lots of printed information--as well as getting any questions answered. Their “100 Days of Summer” calendar and brochure is a good way to get an overview of Vancouver’s sightseeing (and find a list of special events from spring to fall).

Staff members at Touristinfo will likely recommend getting a great 360-degree aerial overview from nearby Vancouver Lookout! Harbour Centre Tower 581 feet above downtown (it’s the tallest structure in the province). Back down on ground level (thanks to a quick 50-second elevator ride each way), it’s just a short stroll to historic Gastown, the birthplace of Vancouver.

Named after a talkative Yorkshire-born saloon owner, John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, Gastown is best known for it’s Steam Clock, which provides a whistle and steam show every 15 minutes (it used to play the national anthem, “Oh Canada,” but no longer does). Gastown also features galleries of native art, photography, and local artisans; Storyeum (“The Theatre Under the Cars” highlights Canada’s west coast history with live theatrical presentations on unique underground stages); and several excellent restaurants--plus lots of gas lanterns to lead the way past information plaques placed strategically along the street to explain the history behind various buildings and landmarks.

Next, it’s another short walk to Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is the third largest in North America (behind San Francisco and New York City). Visitors and residents alike head to Chinatown to peer in the steamy windows of won-ton houses or the meat stores hung with displays of crimson Chinese barbecued ducks, as well as exploring the small stalls selling exotic roots, jade, silk, and novelties. The street signs and much of the neon are bilingual, making exploration relatively easy (Pender and Keefer are two of the best streets to stroll, smell, and stare). Also be sure to find the Sam Kee Building (said to be the world’s narrowest commercial building).

For a break from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, head for the peaceful Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden at 578 Carrall Street. Built at a cost of more than $5.3 million back in 1986, the garden was the first full-scale classical Chinese garden built outside China. More than 50 skilled artisans came from China with materials and traditional tools to build this retreat in 13 months. Architectural details, plants, rocks, and winding jade-green waterways are among the many highlights.

A visit to Chinatown wouldn’t be complete without a traditional lunch or dinner at one of the numerous restaurants. The 1,000-seat Floata Restaurant (the largest in the country), Hon’s Wun-Tun House (casual), and wild rice (contemporary Chinese) are three tasty choices.

Science World British Columbia is nearby, with hands-in exhibits, cyclone chambers, shadow walls, and the Alcan OMNIMAX Theatre among many highlights at the province’s premier science center. From here, it’s easy to board the water taxi for a short ride over to must-see Granville Island (the more active can actually walk the boardwalk that connects the Science Center to the popular False Creek waterfront neighborhood of Yaletown and continue across a short bridge to Granville Island).

Famed for the Granville Island Public Market featuring seafood, fresh produce, and much more, Granville Island also offers lots of artist’s studios, craft galleries, other varied shopping, and many interesting restaurants. Those with certain special interests might want to check out the Granville Island Model Ships Museum or the Granville Island Model Trains Museum (both in one location)--or, Canada’s first microbrewery, Granville Island Brewing. There are also frequent street performers (called buskers by locals).

Heading back across Granville Bridge and along Granville Street to Robson Street--called "Rodeo Drive North", it's the "in" place for some serious shopping, dining, and people-watching. Robson Street in turn leads to sprawling Stanley Park, loved by both locals and visitors. Highlights of this 1,000-acre forested park include: horse-drawn tours; the 6.5-mile Seawall, perfect for strolling or biking; the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (Canada’s largest aquarium); the views from Prospect Point; the beaches of English Bay; and the Totem Poles (originally part of a proposed “Indian Village”). Much of Stanley Park’s design was based on the planning principles of Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City’s Central Park.

Returning to downtown proper, several other museums await wondering eyes. The possibilities include: the huge Vancouver Art Gallery (one of the world’s largest Emily Carr collections and much more historical and contemporary art); the BC Sports Hall of Fame & Museum (the country’s largest sports showcase); and the Roedde House Museum (historic 1893 restored house). Visitors in search of more area history should hop on public transportation and head to the Vancouver Museum in Vanier Park, where the H.R. MacMillon Space Centre and the province’s first full-motion space simulator also await futurists. Nearby, the Vancouver Maritime Museum features lots of local seafaring historical exhibits.

Those spending more time in Vancouver will want to head for the mountains, which is incredibly easy. The famed winter resorts of British Columbia are also quite popular outdoors spots from spring to fall. One of the easiest ways to check out Vancouver’s close mountains is to take the Grouse Mountain Skyride from sea level to 3,000 feet in less than ten minutes. Those with more time will certainly want to head north to world-renowned Whistler Mountain, which is reached in 90 minutes along the stunning Sea to Sky Highway.

Back in Vancouver, the city’s cultural scene doesn’t stop when the sun sets. The performing arts at numerous theaters make for a great way to end a Vancouver day (check out last-minute discount offerings from “Tickets Tonight”).

Know Before You Go

*Ships That Call: Many major cruise lines cruise out of Vancouver, including: Carnival, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Silversea, and others. A great update and overview of cruises out of Vancouver, as well as those lines calling on the port, can be found by logging on to www.portvancouver.com.

*Weather: Most days from spring to fall are warm. Average annual highs are in the low-70s (higher in mid-summer), with the lows averaging around 50 (again, higher in mid-summer).

*Money Matters: The Canadian dollar is the official currency, but about three-fourths of Vancouver establishments also accept U.S. dollars. ATMs are available, and credit cards are widely accepted.

*For More Information: Contact your travel agent or Tourism Vancouver (Cruise Travel Magazine), 200 Burrard Street, Suite 210, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6C 3L6; log on to www.tourismvancouver.com; or call 604-683-2000.