We got off the WestJet flight from San Francisco to Vancouver in bright afternoon sunshine and were some of the first of the plane as we’d managed to get seats on the 5th row because we’d checked in so early. As we walked through the airport it felt like we’d wandered into a zombie movie.
The place was deserted! Sure, there were a few people spotted around, and nobody was screaming or running or getting attacked by the ravenous hordes of the undead, but for the size of the airport and the capacity to handle large crowds, the number of passengers looked comically out of proportion.
We positively whizzed through passport control, using automated kiosks and barely being looked at by the customs official. I almost caused a scene with my unintentional tone – when asked what the purpose of our visit I answered “Vancouver sightseeing”. The follow up question: “what are you going to see?” was answered unintentionally provocatively with “Capilano Bridge… Grouse Mountain… did you want an itinerary?”.
He waved us through, deciding not to take offence. I had to remind myself that not everyone would take my answers in the spirit (in this case of sharing information) that they were delivered.
At the baggage carousel we were greeted by a lovely lady who asked if we’d fill in a survey about the airport. It was then that the penny dropped for me. It looked like Vancouver Airport had put a lot of time and effort into increasing their operational efficiency. As soon as we’d got the survey, the baggage conveyor started up. Ange’s bag was #5 and mine not long after and so we headed out to the Skytrain station, bewildered by the speed in which we’d managed to get through.
Getting the ticket for the train confused me a little until I realised that my debit card might have to use the credit card network to work. And then when I got the ticket it was a flimsy paper one (not a hard reusable plastic one) and so I wasted a few minutes looking for a slot to insert it into instead of just touching it onto the scanner at the turnstiles. We got onto the train and whiled away our trip into the city with filling in the survey on Vancouver Airport.
We were staying at an Airbnb in Yaletown, which is a gentrified suburb filled with apartment buildings which seem to be filled with Airbnbs. The nearby 7-11 (which confusingly is open 24/7) has drop-boxes which allow owners of Airbnbs to have the keys to their apartments collected and dropped off by their guests, and the whole process is very pain free and seamless. We have a look around our apartment for the next few days, drop off our luggage, and head out for dinner.
We’d noticed a lot of homeless people in San Francisco – in fact there were whole neighbourhoods with tent villages along the sidewalks, but here the homeless people are better dressed and cleaner. Not only has the neighbourhood been gentrified, but so too have the homeless. The initial impression of our neighbourhood is that it’s full of high rise apartments and restaurants. We went past a lot of eateries, perusing the menus before ending up at a Japanese tapas chain restaurant.
We were up and out the door early, with a plan to hit Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge. We managed to get to Canada Square where the free shuttle buses run to both Capilano and to the Mountain (for future reference, though the address is given as 1 Canada Square, the meeting point is actually closer to outside the cruise ship terminal or near the ticket booth).
The original plan was to go to Grouse Mountain first and then do Capilano on the way back because the Grouse Mountain shuttle will drop you off to Capilano but not the other way around. But when we arrived at the shuttle bus stop, the Capilano one pulled up first and we found out that the Grouse Mountain one wouldn’t be there for another 15 minutes. Keen not to waste any time, we boarded the Capilano one.
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park
At Capilano we were given a map of the complex. This had eleven stations marked on it and places on the map where you could get the map stamped. If you managed to get all the stamps then they would give you a certificate back at the entrance/exit point. Challenge accepted! Collecting the stamps did make our trip more thorough – some of the stamping machines were a little hard to spot! But fundamentally you could split the complex into three parts: The Cliff Walk, the SwingBridge and the Tree Walk on the far side of the SwingBridge.
This was a narrow walkway bolted to the cliff face with frequent sections where the floor was either a metal grill or clear glass allowing views through the floor to the water, almost a hundred metres below. The hand rails made the risk of falling minimal and so it was very much just a matter of mind over matter walking across the sections where you could see the river below. Walking across reminded me of this video.
Suitably impressed with ourselves for completing the cliff walk, we headed back to where the daily tours started, back past the impressively large gift shop and food concessions.
There we waited a few minutes for the tour to start. There were two tour guides, and they split the waiting groups of people between them and headed off. We actually found it really hard to hear the tour guide we selected because they weren’t using any sort of amplification and had to keep turning to try and talk to everyone: imagine a rotating speaker where you can only hear it when its pointing straight at you and you get the idea.
It was interesting enough stuff, but we didn’t see it getting any better so we decided to try the Suspension Bridge instead.
This was the central attraction and what the complex was built around: the Tree Walk and Cliff Walk being later attractions. The bridge was built in 1889, and stretches 450 feet (137m) across and 230 feet (70m) above Capilano River. The centre sways a little depending on how people walk on it but the construction restricts just how far it will move. You couldn’t get it to go all the way around like a skipping rope for example! It’s fun watching the other people walking along it while it sways – like they’re drunk or on a ship on the high seas.
Ange and I are not the best with heights but we make it across without incident. The high rails certainly help. There’s also enough room to pass other people, which is a relief because everyone is taking selfies!
On the other side of the river, there were more walks through the wilderness. Periodically there’d be a sign saying that should you drop something, not to retrieve it, but to call for help. I could imagine why: there was a precipitous drop from the ground level walkways to the river bed hundreds of feet below and should you climb over to retrieve your dropped iPhone, and start to slide towards the cliff edge, it would only be tree roots that would save you.
Further along we find the entrance to the Tree Walk. This was a series of walkways suspended 30m (100 feet) above the forest floor, going from tree to tree. Effectively it was a series of shorter versions of the main suspension bridge, over land instead of the river, and with only room for one person at a time. The starting platform was like a museum exhibit with some steam punk paraphernalia aimed at kids with various ecological and meteorological messages.
We patiently waited while a family took selfies in the middle of each of the bridges, all with exactly the same poses and all with the same vaguely wooded background. I meanly wondered how they would differentiate the photos because they would all look the same. The family was a couple and their three daughters, all aged in their late teens/early twenties. The youngest could have been an Instagram Influencer with the exaggerated poses and playing up for the camera. They were aware that they’d held us up because they kindly offered to take some shots of me and Ange.
We weren’t fussed at their speed or lack thereof, as we were enjoying the views and the experience of being so far above the forest floor in woods that reminded us of the forests in New Zealand.
Before too long we were returned to the ground level and came across our tour guide from earlier. Her group had shrunk considerably and she was able to talk to them all much easier. They’d stopped at a “Slug Crossing” and were looking at a Yellow Slug on a rock as he went about his business. There were other spots along the path back to the main Suspension Bridge which identified the various animals and plants in the forest, there for the express purpose of answering questions like: “which trees are in the forest?”, “how old are they?”, “how big do they grow?”etc.
After the Tree Walk, we headed back to the main office and I cashed in my correctly stamped map for a certificate showing that I had done all there was to do at Capilano. We then went across the road to catch the bus up to Grouse Mountain. It cost something like $5.80 for the pair of us (exact change only please!) and the bus dropped us just outside the door of Grouse Mountain. Before I forget: standard adult prices for Capilano were $46.95.
For $56 per person, you get standard admission to Grouse Mountain. This includes return Skyride (gondola) tickets along with seasonal activities like ice skating and shoe shoe trails in the winter along with lumberjack demonstrations and birds of prey demonstration during the summer. We’d visited in May and so the summer schedule had just been started and we were told that the two grizzly bears, Grinder and Coola, up at the top of the mountain had just come out of hibernation, so we could go up to their enclosure and see them.
After a steep ascent on the gondola (for an extra $20- each way you can sit on the roof – no kidding!), we got off the gondola at the top and looked around. Big banks of snow were on every side of the paths leading away from the main complex of buildings and while the sun was out and hot, there was still a stiff wind blowing across the mountain keeping the temperature down. Ange and I were glad for our puffer jackets!
Which is why seeing a continual procession of people in various stages of undress was so flummoxing. They were very fit: abs everywhere! And they were red faced from an obvious physical effort. We eventually worked it out: instead of coming up to the top via the gondola, they had run up the incredibly steep track from the carpark to the top of the mountain, named the Grouse Grind, and were now cooling off before heading back on the gondola. Wow! That’s impressive!
We followed the bear paw prints painted on the concrete paths further up the mountain. Up past the big open square with a zamboni (ice surfacing machine about the size of an SUV) on it, obviously the ice rink in winter. Up past the skidoos and snow cat, still needed with the thick snow plastered all over the mountain. And even further up so that we cold see in the distance the actual peak of Grouse Mountain. The path finally ended at a hut with workmen coming and going – no bears in evidence.
We found out that this was where the bears hibernated, and that as they had finished their winter sleep, the workmen could do whatever maintenance was required. We moved a few hundred metres down the path and found the bears sitting outside, chewing on some roots.
They were separated from the small crowd of people by an electric fence and another chicken wire fence. Ange and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. The bears (we found out later) were 310kg (685lbs) and 360kg (800lbs). If they wanted to get to us, an electric fence and/or wire fence would certainly not stop them. We watched as they ate, and in particular took in the size of their paws and claws.
Having having seen the movie The Revenant we could see first hand how good the bears’ tools for climbing or hunting were – and how much damage would have been done to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character.
Suitably impressed, we headed back to the main complex of buildings and I introduced Ange to the Canadian’s contribution to world cuisine: poutine. This is basically french fries with cheese curds and gravy. The ones at the cafe at the top of Grouse Mountain seemed to have some seasoning on them as well which certainly was not unwelcome.
The view from the top as we ate was magnificent. We looked out over the water back to Vancouver itself and it was interesting seeing the large ships waiting outside the inner harbour – I assume for their turn to go under the Lions Gate Bridge to pickup whatever cargo they were there for.
After eating we headed to the theatre and watched some movies about extreme skiing, and then after they finished, we stayed on and watched an extremely informative movie about the bears we’d just seen. It was cool to see them in the movie when they first came to the mountain sixteen years ago, knowing that they’d obviously thrived on the mountain.
Finally it was time to say goodbye to Grouse Mountain and so we joined the large queue waiting to go down. We just missed the first trip, equal parts bundled up tourists of various nationalities and athletically clad locals, and waited ten minutes for the next one. On the way down we considered Grouse Mountain and whether it was worth the money.
The timing of our trip was equal parts fortuitous and unlucky. We were very lucky that we had got to see the bears up and about, but because it wasn’t the ski season, the mountain wasn’t the bustling tourism centre that it could be. We had also arrived too early in the day for the Birds of Prey display or the axe throwing, and we had already done ziplining on Waiheke Island in Auckland, so we really hadn’t done justice to the experience.
After the gondola arrived back (when I had suggested riding on the outside on the way down Ange had pointed out that the cold wind on the exposed exterior of the gondola would probably have given me frostbite if not hypothermia), we caught the free shuttle back into the city centre. The shuttle stopped off at Capilano on the way past, and even (because the traffic was conducive) dropped off some of the passengers near their hotel in North Vancouver.
Vancouver Trolley Company
Our AirBnb was only a block or two away from one of the stops on the local hop-on hop-off bus route. While the bus stop had a sign on a pole, the collection of obvious tourists holding maps and with cameras around their necks made it obvious that we were in the right place.
The Trolley Company recently merged with the Westcoast Sightseeing Company, and so buses of both companies operate: we ended up on a half covered and half exposed bus from Westcoast rather than one from the Trolley Company which look like one of the San Francisco cable cars.
For $49 you can get the Park Route of 21 stops, for $39 you can get the 14 stop City Route and for $54 you can get a ticket which gives you both. We meandered our way through the city with a reasonably informative audio guide couple providing the automated commentary. Some of the snippets bordered on twee, but on the whole it was enjoyable enough. We went through Gastown and Chinatown before hitting the city centre and main pickup spot outside the information centre where we had caught the shuttle bus the previous day.
OMG. There were two cruise ships in the harbour and suitcase laden tourists were scuttling along the pavements trying to catch cabs. Those, plus the standard tourists trying to catch free shuttle and our hop-on hop-off bus, and Vancouver tour buses of various types disgorging their passengers, made the whole area feel like someone had overturned a rotting log in the forest and thousands of insects all tried to get away at the same time. Chaos! A solid line of prospective passengers waited at our stop and their boarding was punctuated by the driver counting empty seats to avoid overcrowding.
I think we got everybody onboard with maybe one empty seat before we headed away towards Stanley Park. We’d seen that they had horse drawn carriages there and a nice romantic trot through the park was very appealing, especially after the hubbub of Canada Place.
Stanley Park Horse Drawn Tours
We arrived and bought tickets for the next available trip which turned out to be in twenty minutes time to give the horses a break between trips. It cost $45 per person for the one hour trip. We filled the time waiting by checking out the environs and buying some refreshments including a rather nice banana chocolate loaf. Yum!
Before too long we were boarding the carriage, tucking a rug over our legs (because the wind from the north had some malice in it) and heading off.
Our guide Caroline was from Germany and gave us in-depth insights into how the horses were cared for and treated while at work, good reassurance that they weren’t mistreated. We then headed around Stanley Park at a leisurely stroll, stopping every now and again for a photo opportunity or a rest for the horses.
There’s only so much historical information you can pack into the hour going around the park, although we do make a 10 minute stop at the totem poles.
The principle enjoyment of the Tour was the leisurely pace at which we were going through the park, and the tranquil surroundings. Before too long we were back at the starting point and hustling to catch our Harbour Cruise from just around the waterfront.
Harbour Cruises and Events
Harbour Cruises offers a one hour cruise around Burrard Inlet for $38.95 each and they leave at 11am, 12:15, 1:30 and 2:45. We’d booked online and made it to the jetty maybe 15 minutes before sailing instead of the recommended 30, but it didn’t matter, as it was May there weren’t too many people on board the Constitution, a paddle steamer.
After we boarded, Ange availed herself of the facilities and I got chatting to the staff downstairs as I waited for Ange and they waited for the rest of the passengers to head upstairs.
Steve and Andrea answered my questions knowledgeably – it’s always good to get an idea of what things you should see from a local and while we had ticked a lot of what they suggested, we hadn’t been able to get Vancouver Island onto our itinerary. Steve was from Victoria, which is what passed for a city on Vancouver Island.
Apparently you could do everything in Victoria on one very long day trip from Vancouver, but most of that would be on the train there and back. For us that wasn’t a really good use of our time, so we had elected to stay close to Vancouver the whole time. If we’d been able to find a reasonably priced sea plane from Vancouver to Victoria though, that might have worked!
Ange returned and joined in the conversation, but before too long the last of the passengers were aboard and we went up to the top deck to join them and start the cruise. It turned out that Steve was actually the tour guide and so entertained us with his insights as we cruised around across to North Vancouver. We’d sat directly behind the wheel house and for whatever reason, the Captain (Brian) decided that we needed a few of his stories in between Steve’s.
Chatty Cappy I called him in my mind and what he had to add was on the whole very interesting, it was just a little frustrating having to pause while Steve gave his disembodied commentary from downstairs or having to stop because Steve’s next piece overlapped Brian’s. It was nice that he bothered though, and it did feel good to have the Captain attend to us personally!
The trip across the inlet to North Vancouver showed us the extensive flotilla of sea planes and it was fascinating seeing so many of them taking off and landing – a continual procession of them heading skywards or landing gracefully one after another. I was surprised that there were so many – many more than I had seen in other harbour cities.
North Vancouver housed some extensive marine facilities, in particular a large number of dry docks. It was fascinating what Captain Brian told us about the keel blocks. Basically a dry dock works by putting special blocks on the floor of a submergible box. The blocks support the keel (hence “keel blocks”) but each pattern of keel blocks is different for each ship. Once the “box” is submerged, the ship is piloted in, stopping directly above the blocks. Then the water is pumped out and the ship is sitting there on the blocks, ready to be worked on.
Another of our chatty Cappy’s stories regarded the manner in which the tectonic plates behaved locally. He mentioned that the Japanese knew from a very early time that earthquakes and tsunamis were linked, and there are historical records of them matching the earthquake to the subsequent tsunami. All except one: the orphan tsunami in 1700. There were no earthquakes preceding that one and it was a mystery to all until the mid 1990s when scientists matched up the oral history of the Native Americans of the area with the geological evidence to establish that the earthquake that precipitated the tsunami had in fact came from the Americas. Forbes explored the story here.
After the cruise we headed back to Canada Place for our 3pm booking for the FlyOver Canada experience, stopping off on the way for a well deserved meal at a cafe opposite the cruise ship terminal. I was expecting just a sandwich but it came with a side of a bulgar wheat salad which almost made it healthy!
The Drop Cafe was named after the nearby artwork The Drop which is a 20m (65 foot) tall “homage to the power of nature” and represents “the relationship and outlook towards the water that surrounds us”.
I couldn’t find much in my research of fun thing to do in Vancouver about FlyOver Canada. They don’t allow photos, so most of the reviews I could find were generic “It was great” or “Awesome”, without any detailed insight so we could make an informed decision of whether it was worth the time and money.
The Notice To Guests didn’t shed much more light, saying it was ‘gently thrilling’ and risky for certain health conditions.
Booking online would get you in for $24.65, while rocking up in person costs you $29 – we had booked our time for 3pm and were there a little before the 15 minutes in advance that we were advised, so we got to go into the 2:45 session.
You’re shuffled into a room with angled walls and shown a video broadly telling a number of stories, I guess showing the broad range of lifestyles of Canadians – there’s a farmer, a love story between two parkour-ing millennials, that sort of thing. I was thinking to myself how dire this was – I mean it was ok, but dragged on a bit and wasn’t really compelling. Picture an art school director being given a professional studio to shoot their epic film – technically very stunning, but artistically wanting.
Then we were lead into another room where the cohort we were with were divided into sections and told to stand on a numbered dot on the floor. This was obviously going to be our seat for the FlyOver itself. The dots were in sections and they made sure that groups were all seated in the same section, which involved a little bit of tetris like slotting – I then understood why they wanted the big groups in first, so that they could fill the gaps with the singletons and couples.
When everyone had been assigned a spot, each section had a staff member lead them away, some upstairs, some down into what I will call the ‘theatre’. Our section was a line of seats with a safety bar like on a mountain ski lift. I could sense that above and below there were similar chairs, and across from us was a vacant gap and then a curved wall. We were all strapped in with seat belts and then the safety bars came down and locked into place. Our section staff member wished us a good flight and walked away and then the lights went out.
When the lights came back on, the screen opposite was lit up and the floor was fluffy as if with clouds. I never found out if that was with a smoke machine or just a projector, because the barrier came down and we moved forward so it seemed that our feet were dangling unsupported over a great height. We then spent a half hour going through what was effectively a giant VR experience without glasses. The screen showed a number of vignettes which involved us as the audience flying over the countryside to see the different areas of Canada up close and personal. The seats moved in response to the change in the camera point of view which assisted in immersion, but the pièce de résistance was the little vent just above our eye level which would send out a mist of water now and again when appropriate to match the action on the screen, like people white water rafting.
We followed heli-skiiers in the Rockies, we swooped down over fields of grain, we explored mountainous valleys and flew over cowboys rounding up horses. We zoomed over Niagara Falls, so close that it felt like your shoes would get wet and visited cityscapes along the way. The ride ended by zooming towards Vancouver City and then punching through the cloud cover to hover in denial of gravity while the Northern Lights played across the sky.
I’m not sure whether it was due to the amateurishness of the initial video on the wall while waiting, or because it was such an expertly executed experience, but the FlyOver had an enormous wow factor – like what you get when you experience VR for the first time, but this was shared with a room full of people. It was awesome and it was great and I’d definitely say it was worth the time and money.
After being unexpectedly wow-ed by the Flyover, we headed to the Vancouver Lookout which was located nearby. This costs $17.50 and as you may have guessed, it’s a viewing platform at the top of a tall building. They do try and make it relevant, by indicating what things to look for out each window, but there’s only so much you can do with a static view and not a lot of context on the things you’re seeing. Coming off the high of the FlyOver didn’t help, and a half hour after arriving we were hustling to the next stop. The views of the Cruise Ship Terminal were cool though.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus
We jumped back onto the hop-on hop-off bus and noticed it was the exact same bus that we’d got on earlier in the day! We weren’t really interested in the commentary as we’d heard it before and were just interested in using it as transportation to the Aquarium.
We arrived at the place we’d got on the horse drawn carriage and determinedly headed up the lane towards the signposted Aquarium. We were cutting it very fine and there was maybe a half hour left of opening time so we at least wanted to see some of the attractions.
The staff member at the ticket booth mentioned that we were just in time for the final feeding of the otters, and, our experience at the Aquarium in San Francisco fresh in our minds, we hustled over to see. They were just as cute, swimming around and eating fish, and despite the late hour the periphery of the enclosure was packed with spectators.
We decided that we needed to see some more animals than just the cute otters though, so dashed away for a brief glimpse of as many as we could.
Two sealions were doing laps of their pool, which was cool but impossible to get a decent photo. They’re very large mammals, but incredibly sleek and powerful swimmers through the water.
Then onto the spotted seal who just sat there, floating with their head and shoulders out of the water. I kind of hoped that it would start spinning around like this seal rotating.
The cheeky white dolphin continually poked its tongue at us, which I hoped was an affectionate interaction and not a sign of distress. Speaking of which, we found out a little after our visit that there was an annual protest against the keeping of whales and dolphins in the Aquarium, and that all the other whales and dolphins were no longer kept there. I’d heard about the furore brought about by the movie Blackfish discussing SeaWorld (their rebuttal here), so it was interesting to me that the same sentiment was expressed at other Aquariums.
We then tried to see the penguins, but were denied by some celebrity and their film crew shooting footage. They had quite a few staff members corralling the crowd so we couldn’t sneak past to say hello.
Fast running out of time, we headed inside to check out some of the exhibits. Over the stairs leading to one of the tunnels there was a scale model of a narwhal, its protruding horn actually a tooth apparently.
The jellyfish always look spectacular, but by then the instructions over the loud speakers were directing people out of the Aquarium, so we made our way reluctantly to the exit. Standard price is $39.
Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Home
Properly exhausted, we made our way back to the hop-on hop-off bus stop and waited for the next bus. The bus stop for our apartment was a long way from Stanley Park, but rather than Uber or take public transport, we figured we’d use the hop-on hop-off bus and see the bits of Vancouver we hadn’t see yet. While we were waiting we looked back over the harbour to the CBD. The sky had cleared and so we were treated to a stunning view of the skyscrapers reflected in the water.
The commentary for the rest of the trip was good, and the driver made sure to slow down near the photo worthy sights to make sure everybody got the shots they wanted. This was greatly appreciated, though at that time of the day there were only a few of us on the bus. It was definitely good being able to get a decent shot of the Lions Gate Bridge.
We eventually got off and headed back to the Airbnb, satisfied with how much we had seen and done.