Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Christmas & New Year on the train - part three

In Vancouver I stay at a quirky old hotel on English Bay. Built in 1912 and covered in Virginia Creeper, the Sylvia was the tallest building in the West End until the 1950s.

Its main claim to fame is as the home of Vancouver’s first cocktail bar serving the likes of writer Malcolm Lowry and actor Errol Flynn. I suspect my parents were also among its early patrons.

My rooms face out onto the bay and its beach with a view of ships waiting to enter Vancouver harbour.

With only thirty hours, lots to do. My first stop is not the normal tourist destination. As a child, a favorite place was a Vancouver institution, the old White Spot restaurant on Granville. If I was lucky, my parents would submit to eating in the car rather than the dining room. Car hops brought orders on metal trays that fitted across the seats. I always ordered ‘chicken in straw’. Here’s part of the menu from the time.

The original White Spot – along with its ‘treasure chest’ for well-behaved children – burned down in the 80s, so I head to one downtown. Not as atmospheric and no ‘Chicken in straw’, but I have a reasonably good ‘Wild Pacific Salmon Burger’.

It may say something for my age and state-of-mind, but my one souvenir from Vancouver is a history of the White Spot that I managed to find in a secondhand bookstore.

Speaking of souvenirs, I wander into the Winter Olympics merchandising section of the (Hudson’s) Bay, a major Canadian retail chain. Vast. It takes up most of the department store’s considerable main floor and customers waving credit cards and cash are being steered into special queues to increase the Bay’s profit margins.

Visiting Vancouver a little over two months before the Olympics is proximity enough for me. I have a reduced rate for the hotel, easily get tables in restaurants and empty taxis are a dime a dozen. I guarantee you it'll be different in February.

Here’s the Olympics countdown clock and – unusual for a modest nation – one of the biggest Canadian flags I’ve ever seen.

In Vancouver, I wander in a state of mild melancholy (or perhaps it's the west coast damp). No relatives or friends now live here, but, like many, I am drawn to the place of my birth and formative years.

Of course, Stanley Park is always on the agenda. This shot is taken near the park entrance looking across to the sails of Canada Place.

Nearby, at Lost Lagoon, I find this park bench decorated for Christmas, just sitting there unvandalized.

We didn’t live in this part of the city, but I love Vancouver’s West End with its eclectic mixture of architecture. Many of the apartment buildings are only three or four floors, some with – by conservative Toronto standards – wildly adventurous colour combinations.

I also make a pilgrimage to the elegant Marine Building, an art deco masterwork inspired by New York's Chrysler Building. As you can see below, in my day, at twenty-one floors high, it was one of the city’s landmarks.

Now, from some angles, it’s almost lost.

Another old favorite is the wonderful Vancouver Sun building, once the tallest in the British Empire. It's redolent of linotype presses, Remington typewriters and grizzled reporters filling the newsroom with smoke.

And finally, some Vancouver neon. Even the staid Sylvia has it. Why doesn’t Toronto have decent neon?