As the SS Burrard Otter pulls away from the dock in downtown Vancouver, those in the know scramble for the first row of seats near the picture windows at the back and the front...
VANCOUVER, B.C. — As the SS Burrard Otter pulls away from the dock in downtown Vancouver, those in the know scramble for the first row of seats near the picture windows at the back and the front of the boat.
The rest of us fill the white plastic molded chairs in the middle, craning our necks to catch the views of the Vancouver skyline, Stanley Park and the Lions Gate Bridge as the 400-passenger catamaran scoots across Burrard Inlet.
There are more luxurious ways to cruise through Vancouver’s harbor, but none is a better bargain than the SeaBus, the official name for the Otter and its sister ship, the Beaver, two foot-ferries that transport commuters between downtown’s Waterfront Station and the Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver.
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The 15-minute ride is reason enough to spring for a $3 (Canadian) ticket. But there’s a bonus. The SeaBus terminates at a lively waterfront esplanade developed 20 years ago for Expo ’86, the Vancouver World’s Fair. Think Granville Island Public Market — Central Vancouver’s ethnic food and art hub — only on a smaller, less crowded scale, with food stalls, bakeries, boutiques, local produce and fish, and outdoor summer concerts.
“When you come here, you get the feeling that you’ve traveled somewhere,” said Linda Shaw, a North Vancouver resident who was sharing lunch with her partner, Sam Narayan, at the Little Tokyo Sushi Bar, a six-seat restaurant decorated with paper lanterns and a sign advertising “free tea.”
A sandwich board on the sidewalk advertising a $3.75 (Canadian) sushi roll made with fresh bananas lured me inside. I had arrived from Seattle on foot via Amtrak and a connection to the SeaBus terminal on the SkyTrain, Vancouver’s elevated rapid transit system.
As the chef spread rice on a sheet of dried seaweed, added crab and sliced banana, Shaw explained that they come to Lonsdale once a week to eat, hear music or just relax on the pier and listen to the sounds of seagulls and fog horns.
“When we have friends come from out of town,” she said, “this is where we come.”
Java and jazz
Downtown Vancouver owns the shopping, museum and high-rise-hotel scene, but North Vancouver is the jumping-off point for exploring the outdoors. Across the Lions Gate Bridge linking downtown to the North Shore are the coastal mountains, the Grouse Mountain ski area, Capilano Suspension Bridge, and hiking trails in Mount Seymour Provincial Park.
Food-lovers gravitate indoors to the Lonsdale Quay Market & Shops, a multi-story development at the heart of Lonsdale Quay. With its striped awnings, cafes and flower shops, the mall has the feel of a European village or Asian market. Family-owned food shops, bakeries and takeout stalls are on the first floor; retail shops and sit-down restaurants on the second; and a hotel on the top.
Near the front entrance, aquarium tanks at Screaming Mimi’s are stocked with live lobsters and crabs that can be cooked to order. Owner Kosta Zorgaris specializes in seafood delicacies such as green-lip mussels in lemon-garlic sauce, marinated octopus, seaweed salad and steaming bowls of chowder.
Zorgaris also owns the Salmon Shop, a fresh-fish stall where he and his partner, Wes Louie, delight in coming up with eye-catching, sometimes shocking displays of exotic fish. Several bright-red whole thornyheads, a deep-water fish found in B.C. coastal waters, were on display when I walked by, their huge eyes wide open and bulging.
“We try to make our display case like a flower arrangement,” Louie said. “The idea is to make the fish look animated and as fresh and alive as possible.”
North Vancouver has a large immigrant population, and eating at the Quay is like taking your taste buds on a round-the-world tour of foods fresh from the family kitchen.
Artemis Kourtessis, owner of George’s Souvlaki, transports customers to Greece with his roasted meats and a glass case filled with platters of stuffed grape leaves, grilled artichokes and “secret potatoes” marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, herbs and a special sauce.
Kourtessis was born on the island of Corfu. His wife, Barbara, who prepares most of the dishes from her husband’s family recipes, is part Ukrainian, and her helpers are from Peru and Turkey. Tino’s Italian Bakery, another family business that’s been at the Quay from the beginning, makes the bread for sandwiches filled with Greek ingredients.
A few stalls away, Prima Italian Market sells 16 kinds of olives, fresh pasta stuffed with butternut squash or chicken, and dozens of specialty vinegars and oils.
Soley Moghimi, an Iranian art-restoration specialist who taught in Rome, makes the best espresso in the market.
His cozy nook with a polished wooden bar and wicker chairs is next door to a Japanese Shiatsu massage therapist. If you’re willing to set your inhibitions aside, and lay face down on a table in front of crowds of shoppers, Nao Hirai, a graduate of the Canadian College of Shiatsu Therapy, will give you an on-the-spot 10-minute shoulder and back rub for about 75 cents per minute.
Walking it off
Lonsdale Quay makes an easy day trip from downtown Vancouver. I spent the night, and although the view of downtown from my room at the Lonsdale Quay Hotel was stunning, the lights and horns from the tugboat dock next door kept me awake. Anyone who stays here should keep in mind that this area started out as a working waterfront, and it still is.
Cates Tugs, a company founded in 1886, works round-the-clock moving ships of all sizes in and out of the Vancouver harbor.
For a lesson in ship-spotting, I took an early-morning walk along Waterfront Park. Just west of the SeaBus terminal, this city park comes alive on summer weekends with music festivals, chowder cook-offs and boat-building contests, but it was a drizzly weekday morning, and I was alone on the paved walking path along the seawall.
This is a short stroll ending at a sundial at Sailor’s Point Plaza, dedicated to those who have died at sea. Markers along the way point out the different kinds of ships that call in the Vancouver harbor — bulk carriers, container ships, tankers, wood-chip carriers — all gently docked by the Cates fleet of red and white tugboats.
With time to spare before my last food foray — breakfast at the All Day Cafe run by Swiss native Regina Tschumi, famous among the locals for her steamed eggs — I decided to make a spur-of-the-moment visit to the Park & Tilford Gardens a few miles east of the Quay.
Lonsdale Quay is the terminus for North Vancouver’s public bus system, and within a few minutes I was aboard Bus No. 239 for the 10-minute ride to what is truly a secret garden.
Tucked behind a shopping center near a busy highway, the three-acre park is a quiet oasis of ivy-covered archways, fountains, wooden footbridges, walking paths and ponds. The gardens were originally built as a gift to the community by a private distillery in 1969. Now the center’s merchants association maintains them.
Interpretive signs mark plantings in eight themed areas filled with roses, azaleas, ferns and pines and maples, some trimmed in traditional Japanese bonsai style. Listening to the soft music piped in through speakers mounted in the trees, it was easy to imagine myself somewhere in the Pacific coast forest instead of a few hundred feet away from a Starbucks and Save-On-Foods grocery store.
My bus transfer was good for the return trip. Tschumi’s stall was open, and she was behind the counter steaming eggs, serving coffee and working the cash register as she has most mornings for the past 14 years.
I ordered the vegetarian version of her specialty — the $5.60 Eye Opener (and that’s the Canadian price) — a colorful work of food art composed of fluffy eggs and cream cheese, avocado slices and tomatoes between two halves of a toasted croissant.
Taking my plate to a window table, I watched as the SeaBus approached for its next run back downtown. Soon I’d be aboard, scrambling with everyone else for one of the front-row seats. But for now, the crowded sidewalks, high rises and traffic that make Vancouver the exciting city it is, seemed far away.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or email@example.com