It’s a place for an urban getaway made perfect, a mini-island in the heart of Vancouver, B.C., where you can play and stay.
The place is Granville Island, a roughly six-block-long by three-block-wide island that’s packed with restaurants, galleries, artisans’ workshops, a wildly popular public market, brew-pubs, theaters and even an arts-oriented small university. And it’s not just fun for adults. There’s a free water-play park for kids, a complex of kids’ shops, and small parks. And all the family can paddle around in rented kayaks, zip around in rented motorboats or even take a whale-watching tour.
On two weekend visits, I barely went off the island, which sits under the Granville Bridge on the south edge of downtown Vancouver (and is connected on one side by a short causeway).
Once a booming industrial heartland of sawmills, wharves and factories, by the 1960s Granville Island was a declining, derelict mess as businesses moved out of the city.
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In a textbook gem of urban renewal, the Canadian government (and city officials) stepped in during the 1970s, spearheading the renovation/rebuilding of the corrugated-metal buildings that once held factories and jump-starting the Granville Island Public Market, a farmers market. The island now is home to about 300 small local businesses (no chain stores here) from an artisan sake-maker and aboriginal art gallery to a boatyard and concrete plant (one of the original island businesses).
So pack your walking shoes and enjoy a Granville Island getaway. Some of my favorites:
Stay anywhere in downtown Vancouver and you can easily get to Granville Island by car (although weekend parking is tough) or via the passenger mini-ferries (way more fun) that shuttle across False Creek.
But go for an all-island weekend and stay at the Granville Island Hotel on the east tip of the island.
Staying in the comfortable 82-room hotel means you can park your car and forget about it. Or take the Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver; it’s a very pleasant (if you’re traveling light) 25-minute walk along the south shore of False Creek to the hotel. Or take your bike on the train and pedal to the hotel even more quickly. Or, of course, take a taxi.
Room sizes differ widely in the hotel. I had one of cheapest standard rooms, which was cramped and had a tiny window. The superior rooms are a better choice, some with small balconies and lovely False Creek views. Room rates in mid-August begin around $260 a night. That can drop to about $150 a night in the offseason, such as November, and Granville Island is enjoyable year-round. granvilleislandhotel.com
It would be easy to eat all day at the Granville Island Public Market, where stalls offer sushi, fish and chips, Indian food and more. Or put together a picnic from the dozens of fresh-produce, cheese and bakery stalls. Eat outside on the market’s big waterfront deck where buskers entertain, seagulls swoop and boats putter past. I feasted on smoked salmon from Longliner Seafood; delectable Greek salad from Fraser Valley Juice and Salad; and bagels from Siegel’s Bagels (its Montreal-style bagels are denser than most). Info at granvilleisland.com/public-market
Restaurants and drinks
Make a beeline for The Sandbar (vancouverdine.com/sandbar) tucked under the soaring girders of Granville Island bridge. It’s a two-story, trendy restaurant — with a small fishboat suspended over its bar — that’s almost always busy. Try to nab a table on the top deck (blankets thoughtfully provided at each chair for chilly evenings) with a lovely view along False Creek. It’s also a great spot for people-watching and even a bit of bird-watching — dark-winged cormorants perch in the bridge’s girders.
I’m still yearning for Sandbar’s oysters and cedar-plank salmon; carnivores will be happy with its steaks and burgers. Like mussels? Go Monday-Friday, 3 to 6 p.m., for “mussel mania” — steamed mussels, fries and a pint of Granville Island Brewing beer for $12 (the brewery, gib.ca, is just around the corner and you can sit and drink in the microbrewery or take a tour).
For a peaceful, upscale meal or cocktail, head to the Dockside Restaurant (docksidevancouver.com) at the Granville Island Hotel. Sink into one of the comfy couches on its waterfront outdoor patio that looks east along False Creek or eat inside the sleek dining room. Seafood is a specialty; I’m still dreaming of the seared halibut. But it’s a splurge, with dinner seafood entrees costing from $30.
At the other end of the island, catch the sunset at the big and bustling outdoor waterfront patio at Bridges that overlooks a marina and out to English Bay. Like many Granville Island buildings, it’s made with corrugated-metal siding — and you can’t miss it since it’s painted bright yellow. Bridges is great for casual food, burgers and salads, but also has a more extensive menu and two stories of indoor dining.
For something completely different, get a sake-tasting and snacks at A
rtisan SakeMaker (artisansakemaker.dreamhosters.com) on the island’s Railspur Alley. A half-dozen varieties of sake, the Japanese rice wine, are made in the back of the shop/cafe in big glistening metal vats, including a new variety made from organic rice grown nearby in B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Sit and sip at a half-dozen small tables, $5 for a tasting of three sakes.
Need coffee? Almost next door is Agro Cafe
(agrocafe.org). Like many of Granville Island’s businesses it stresses the sustainable and local (although that’s hard with coffee since it’s not exactly a B.C. crop). The coffee is excellent, as are sandwiches and salads; sit inside or out and watch the world stroll by.
Walk the alley
The Artisan SakeMaker and Agro Cafe are on Railspur Alley, a quiet enclave about two blocks from the busy public market. Don’t miss it. Virtually all the rest of the small businesses along the block-long pedestrian alley are true workshops where artisans create in the back and sell in the front.
If I’m feeling rich and generous at Christmas, Railspur Alley is where I’ll shop. I love the delicate silks scarves, vibrantly painted, at Alarte Silks. At Dalbergia Wood + Fine Objects, the whine of a saw and scent of freshly-cut wood show where the abstract wood sculptures and finely crafted furniture originate. I’d snap up soft leather bags and wallets at Hartman Leather, where hides hang in the back.
You can take your own artisan/gallery walking tour of Granville Island that includes the Railspur Alley shops and many others; pick up a map at some shops or in the foyer of the Festival House building on Granville Island (at 1398 Cartwright Street).
Along the way, you can catch blasts from Granville Island’s industrial past. Across Railspur Alley from the high-end artisan workshops is a dark and cavernous factory where fiery forges glow; mining and stone-carving tools are made here by Micon Products. It’s not open to visitors but you can peek in a window.
Lumbering around the island are trucks from Ocean Construction Supplies, a concrete producer that still thrives on the Granville Island waterfront. Barges pull in with raw materials; big trucks, with their drums rotating, head out to deliver to construction sites around Vancouver. A whimsical kinetic sculpture in front of the plant shows how concrete is made. oceanconcrete.com/
Granville Island is loaded with artists’ workshops and also is home to the Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ecuad.ca), a warren of studios and classrooms plus two small galleries of cutting-edge exhibits that are open to the public. The university is outgrowing its home, however, and will go off-island in a few years.
Find works by First Nations artists, from Canada’s Northwest Coast tribes, and Inuit artists at Eagle Spirit Gallery (eaglespiritgallery.com). Carved wooden ceremonial masks, argillite sculptures and paintings are dramatically displayed in a museum-like setting.
Lots of ceramic artists show their stuff in Granville Island galleries. The gallery I liked best is the Gallery of BC Ceramics (
galleryofbcceramics.com), an artists-owned gallery showcasing the whimsical (an exhibit of gaily-glazed ceramic shoes) and practical (plates and bowls).
Got young kids? Make a beeline for the free waterpark on the south edge of Granville Island at Sutcliffe Park. It has spouting fountains, fire hydrants with hoses and a small waterslide — and shriekingly happy kids. There’s also a small playground and free tennis courts nearby. For more kid-oriented stuff, wander through Kids’ Market, with more than two-dozen shops (kidsmarket.ca) and an indoor multilevel jungle gym (theadventurezone.ca
, pay to play).
Walking around the island, you can stroll through the middle of the Granville Island Boatyard. Kids like seeing the sailboats hauled out of the water and the boat owners diligently sanding and painting the hulls.
Get out on the water with a rental kayak or kayak tour from Ecomarine, a pioneering ocean-kayak business (ecomarine.com)
Want to go faster? Rent a speedboat from Granville Island Boat Rentals (boatrentalsvancouver.com) and explore the roughly two-mile long False Creek or head out into the wide English Bay among the sailboats and anchored freighters.
Go way out on the water with Wild Whales Vancouver (whalesvancouver.com) which offers whale-watching day trips from its Granville Island dock, zipping across to B.C.’s Gulf Islands and Washington’s San Juan Islands.
See classic boats at the V
ancouver Wooden Boat Festival on Aug. 22-25 at Granville Island docks (vancouverwoodenboat.com)
Take a ride on the False Creek Ferries or Aquabus. It takes two minutes to scoot across False Creek (and some boats will carry bikes) to the downtown side. Or take a longer scenic ride with stops along False Creek or to museums on English Bay (granvilleislandferries.bc.ca and theaquabus.com)
Get some culture
Still have energy for nighttime fun? Two theatres are based on Granville Island, the Arts Club (offering plays and musicals, artsclub.com) and Performance Works (housed in what was a 1920s factory and offering an eclectic mix of shows/events, performanceworks.ca)
The annual Vancouver Fringe Festival runs Sept. 5-15 this year with shows, music, performance art and all sorts of fun on Granville Island (and around Vancouver), vancouverfringe.com
Focus on the written word at the annual Vancouver Writers Fest, Oct. 22-27 this year, with authors’ readings, panels, poetry jams and more, writersfest.bc.ca
Take a walk
Last, but certainly not least, take a walk or bike ride on the False Creek waterfront path that edges Granville Island (on the south side).
Walk eastward for a few blocks or for miles: The paved waterfront path rims all of False Creek and eventually leads along English Bay beaches to Stanley Park (you can hop on one of the mini-ferries on the downtown side to get back to Granville Island). Or go west toward Vanier Park and Kitsilano Beach Park, a lovely stretch of sand where you can watch the sun set over Vancouver’s tapestry of high-rises, ocean and mountains.
Kristin Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org. Blog: blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler/