Jewel of the Northwest

Nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains, Vancouver, British Columbia, lures visitors with its mix of friendly people, clean air, and a thriving downtown. Long in the shadow of Montreal and Toronto, Vancouver is now poised to take its place as Canada’s most inviting city. The locals are known for being unpretentious and helpful, a reputation they will showcase when the city hosts the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics.

Discovered by British sailor George Vancouver in 1792, the city soon saw an influx of European settlers and fur traders, with foreign laborers following closely behind. Today, Vancouver is a confluence of East and West, with Chinese and Indian restaurants situated next to British pubs, and 600,000 people living in relative harmony. Voted the top North American city in which to live by Mercer, a human resources think tank, the population keeps growing. And Hollywood keeps calling, with an increasing number of films and television shows being shot in the area.

Getting around the city is easy, whether by foot, public transit, Helijet, Aquabus, or car. Each of the city’s distinctive neighborhoods offers something for visitors, from artisan studios to high-end shopping to museums to parks. To get the full Vancouver experience, start in Gastown, the city’s old quarter. Founded in 1867 and named after gold-rusher John “Gassy Jack” Deighton, this quaint neighborhood is home to art galleries, funky boutiques, and cozy restaurants. Cobblestone streets weave through narrow avenues and one appreciates that the area’s distinctive character has remained intact. After a long day of shopping, stop for a nosh at Salt Tasting Room, an intimate wine bar with a selection of great local vintages, artisanal cheeses, and cured meats.

Picturesque Granville Island, a 37-acre oasis located just minutes from downtown, has seen a revival in recent years. Once an industrial wasteland, the area is now home to a thriving art community with many studios visible from the streets. Area chefs visit the Granville Island Public Market to choose from a mouthwatering array of fresh fish, meat, herbs, and produce. Try salmon candy, a local delicacy that isn’t candy per se but a cube of sweet fish jerky that can curb any snack craving. The market also houses a number of ethnic and American takeaway restaurants. Grab a basket of fish and chips and take in local musicians while dining in the sun at an outdoor table.

Downtown Vancouver is a bustling metropolis of clean streets, large office towers and glass-enclosed apartment buildings. Fashion-conscious locals saunter to Robson Street, the city’s answer to Madison Avenue. Here, fashionistas will spy Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo, among other marques. Not seeing your favorite designer? Stop at Holt Renfrew, the world-renowned luxury department store on Dunsmuir Street. With hundreds of designers to choose from, including Tom Ford and Ermenegildo Zegna, one will be sure to find something sartorially appropriate.

Gallivanting around town can make you weary, so rest your head at the recently opened Shangri-La Vancouver. It’s the high-end Asian-chain’s first foray into the North American market, and the hotel has already become an institution. Rooms and suites are airy and inviting, with high ceilings, bamboo headboards, enveloping beds, and expansive marble baths with separate showers and heated floors. If you are in town on business or just require meeting space, the Shangri-La boasts large conference rooms and a library, as well as the Blue Moon movie theater. Chi, the spa at the Shangri-La, utilizes locally grown organic seaweed in many of its therapeutic treatments, and you’ll feel well rested and glowing after a wrap or massage using the Sea-Flora products.

After a relaxing treatment, dine at Market by Jean-Georges at the Shangri-La. Much of the menu is similar to Vongerichten’s other Market restaurants, but the Vancouver menu is infused with locally grown herbs, meat, and fish. Start with the creamy tomato soup with aged cheddar and basil; the concoction is mixed tableside and is the perfect treat on a cool day. Follow that with the slow-cooked indigenous Arctic char, which melts in your mouth. If a light meal is more your fancy, Belgian eatery Chambar in Crosstown offers small plates like spicy lamb loin and spot prawns alongside a plethora of delicious Belgian brews.

The Winter Games begin in February, and the city is ready for the influx of tourists and athletes. Speed skating, hockey, and figure skating will take place in the city proper, while West Vancouver will showcase snowboarding, aerial skiing, and the new ski cross events. A lot of the action will take place in Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia. A three-hour drive from downtown Vancouver, Whistler is a skier’s paradise, with an abundance of black diamond courses. It may seem daunting to travel so far to view the events, but travelers will be able to witness some of the most beautiful scenery on the continent, as red cedar trees give way to massive peaks. To get on the slopes as quickly as possible, tell your private jet pilot to touch down at nearby Pemberton Airport. Unlike downtown Vancouver, rooms are still available for the Winter Games in Whistler, and the chicest hotel in the area is the 273-room Four Seasons Whistler, situated at the base of the Blackcomb Mountains. The rustic quarters work with the local landscape, making guests feel as if they are in a private lodge, and thanks to the spectacular views of the mountains and countryside, travelers would be hard-pressed to find a more picturesque luxury resort in the area.

Cathay Pacific recently launched non-stop service from New York, and the five-hour flight in business class will be over before you know it. Numerous airlines make the flight from all points along the West Coast. See you on the slopes.