When it comes to making the most of an impromptu weekend trip, Vancouver provides — with diverse communities, a hotel perfect for hiding out from the rain, and no Ubers in sight.
As a newcomer to the Northwest, I didn’t know much about Vancouver, B.C. A last-minute trip, I had little in the way of plans. But Vancouver provides. After a rushed 24 hours, I returned home having enjoyed a small glimpse of an Uber-less city singing with diversity and welcome, a song that, at times, seemed to try desperately to drown out the more somber notes of its sometimes-troubling past and living legacies.
Entering the city through the East Side, I was immediately embraced by the humming bustle of Commercial Drive. A stretch of businesses where a Vietnamese restaurant shares a wall with a shop selling Central American art, Commercial Drive casually announces itself as the cultural heart of the city. I was drawn there by Google Maps’ promise of Jamaican beef patties, which I’ve been quietly craving since I abandoned the East Coast for the West half a decade ago.
When he saw my face pressed desperately to the glass, the owner of Jamaican Pizza Jerk came out to dash my dreams of hot beef-filled pastries — the shop wouldn’t be opening until 1:30 p.m. Happily, just a few blocks down, Riddim & Spice was also serving up beef patties, along with curry lamb and jerk chicken. Eager to satisfy the patty craving, I ordered one of each — chicken, beef and veggie. They arrived almost instantly from the food warmer on the counter, and they were lackluster — dry, barely filled, a strange combination of hard-chewy on the corners.
I ate the soft parts anyway and watched enviously as plates piled high with steaming, juicy lamb curry passed by my table to customers who knew the real stars of the Riddim & Spice menu. Unsatisfied, I left and drifted casually down Commercial Drive in light rainfall like cold static in the air.
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The rich reds and marigolds of the Tierra Latina store were a beautiful shock against the gray afternoon, and I felt compelled to follow the colors into the brightly lit store, armed with the weak excuse of finding calavera molds for the Día de Los Muertos shrine my husband, Steve, and I will decorate at the end of October. Store owner Rosario Hidalgo Gambroudes smiled a kind hello but became truly animated when I mentioned my husband’s Mayan/Yucateco heritage and our quest for Day of the Dead decorations.
Gambroudes’ shop is carefully curated, with Mayan calendars, lively skeleton figurines, musical instruments, Mexican trajes and tiny boxes containing worry dolls. You could take laps around the small space and find something new at every turn.
After a few tours of our own, we selected a small clay Mayan calendar that reminded my husband of the pocket calendar his Yucatan-born grandfather used to carry in his wallet, and a couple of plastic calavera molds. Before we left, Gambroudes all but insisted that we check out downtown Vancouver’s Mexican Independence Day celebration, giving us detailed directions and even offering us the parking spot behind her store so we could take public transit and avoid downtown traffic.
It turned out that our hotel was only a block from the celebration, so we drove, gushing the whole way about how Gambroudes reminded Steve of his grandmother, and making plans to return to Commercial Drive as soon as possible.
A rainy-day hotel
The Wedgewood Hotel & Spa is the kind of hotel you choose when you’re vacationing in gray, rainy weather. You may plan on filling every waking hour of your weekend with sights and activities, but an endless drizzle that basically feels like a really long sneeze from the heavens can frustrate even the most energetic of travelers. So it’s best to stay at a hotel where you wouldn’t mind spending the whole day, ideally with entertainment and food — or at the very least a decent minibar.
The Wedgewood Hotel & Spa, as the name suggests, has a spa that might keep you indoors even on a sunny day. But if you blew most of your budget on the “Last Minute Escape” rate (ours was $228 for a double room, but rates vary) and still hope to afford food, you should probably know that the $100 “Pumpkin Apple Spice Facial” doesn’t mean you get to munch on pumpkin pie and drink apple cider while moisturizing your crow’s feet into submission.
If you’d rather put food in your face than on it, try Bacchus Restaurant & Lounge just off the lobby. Our room wasn’t ready when we arrived, so we opted for the restaurant’s daily “Traditional Afternoon Tea” service ($34 per person). The stately chairs, cozy fire and three-tiered presentation of tiny sandwiches and pastries could have easily made us feel out of place with our jeans and T-shirts and my drizzle-frazzled hair, but the staff were unpretentious and no one seemed to mind the small mountain of damp raincoats and bags piled next to our table.
With little in the way of a view (an alley), our Wedgewood room might not have been enticing enough on its own, but then we found the minibar. Combine patio chairs on the balcony with two heavy-bottomed scotch glasses and the two tiny bottles of Glenfiddich 12 year, and the rain becomes a great excuse to throw on your sweatpants and take a front-row seat to alley-view street theater.
But the city beckoned, and we’d promised Gambroudes that we’d go to the Mexican Independence Day celebration, which was just around the corner. At Robson Square, as Gambroudes had promised, a diverse crowd was celebrating with Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s famous battle cry (known as “El Grito de Dolores”) delivered on Sept. 16, 1810 — “Viva México! Viva la Independencia! Vivan los héroes!”
At street level, it seemed like a pretty pathetic showing. But past an inconspicuous sign for “Market Mexico” and down a flight of stairs, a colorful and impressively crowded market exploded into view, with tamales, tacos and aguas frescas, and long lines for every stand blending into one another. On tiptoe I could see a stage at street level, with mics and speakers promising a performance.
By 6 p.m., the crowd had grown nearly beyond capacity as Berenice Diaz Ceballos, consul general of Mexico, re-created “The Cry of Dolores” and an all-female mariachi band Mariachi Las Estrellas de Vancouver belted out crowd favorites. Teens wrapped in Mexican flags sang along and little girls danced, reveling in the ruffles of their traditional dresses. When Las Estrellas announced their last song, the crowd flooded the stage to send them off dancing.
Even after the music had ended and the crowd had thinned, the lines at the food stands still wound around the market, with Vancouverites lingering over elote carcasses and cups of beer.
Back at street level, downtown Vancouver was as quiet as a city can be on a Saturday evening. Passers-by passed through barely aware of the lively market beneath the street.
“I would rather live in Vancouver than anywhere in the world”
When Pravjit Takhar picked us up from the Market Mexico celebration, he affirmed our first impression of Vancouver as an incredibly diverse city and proudly added that it is also a very welcoming city.
“I would rather live in Vancouver than anywhere in the world,” he said, saying that being able to meet people of different ethnicities, sexual orientations and backgrounds is why “driving cabs is an addiction for me.”
At a red light, he showed us a photo of himself on his cellphone. In the picture, he was clean-shaven and wasn’t wearing the orange turban he was now. Looking back at us in the rearview mirror, his smile partly obscured by his long white beard and mustache, he said, “I have seen no difference between how people treated me then and how they treat me now.”
As we drove out of downtown, he pointed out the “shadier” section where sex workers and people who are homeless tend to congregate. “But no one will bother you if you walk through there,” he said.
Based on the few hours we’d spent wandering visibly diverse Commercial Drive, and dancing and singing along to an all-female mariachi band at a well-attended Mexican Independence Day celebration, it was easy to want to believe in Takhar’s view of Vancouver as a sociocultural mecca.
But the reality was more complicated. The destination of our ride with Takhar that night was at the stables at Hastings Park, where we would be watching a site-responsive play about the Japanese Canadians who were incarcerated there during World War II.
A complicated legacy
When Yoshie Bancroft learned about the incarceration of Japanese Canadians at Hastings Park, she saw an opportunity: to tell the stories of the 8,000 men, women and children who endured the cold livestock stalls. The result, “The Japanese Problem,” takes small audiences of 30 to 35 through the stables as the true stories of internment survivors unfold before them, blurring the lines between theater and reality.
Nicole Yukiko, who portrays a nurse who lived in the stalls, introduced herself as a descendant of Japanese Canadians who were incarcerated in Vancouver. For Yukiko and others like her, the scars of this displacement, forced separation and incarceration are still tender. “The Japanese Problem” examines the modern impacts of this painful chapter — intergenerational trauma, lost heritage and history, hateful comments they’ve received in response to the play.
When I spoke with Bancroft and co-creator/director Joanna Garfinkel later over the phone, they challenged the notion that Vancouver is a haven of racial harmony. “The piece is important because as a person of color in Canada I see that racism is still with us today and challenges that Canadian narrative that we are perfect,” said Bancroft.
Garfinkel pointed out several controversial examples in Canada’s present. “[The struggles in the play] are a good example of other Canadian struggles, like residential schools, how refugees are treated to this day, how they’re kept not just in physical situations, but how they’re kept in judicial limbo indefinitely,” she said.
Most of the audience left the play in silence. As we walked through the park in the dark, cold drizzle, my husband spoke wistfully about how he had connected with performer Brent Hirose’s lament over losing the history and heritage of his own multiethnic family.
Back on busy Renfrew Street, we tried to hail a cab (Vancouver does not have Lyft or Uber), and when that didn’t work, we called Takhar again. He drove back to us across town.
Still feeling quiet after the play, we headed back to the hotel, where the sound of a piano lured us to Bacchus lounge. Finding a cozy seat next to the fireplace, we indulged in local wine and cheese and made kitschy piano requests. Lounge player Sean Bell laughed and complied.
In Bell’s hands, the rest of the night was a medley of everything from jazz standards to Radiohead. There was no real theme to the night, just as there was no real theme to the trip. Over 24 hours in Vancouver, we’d grasped a piece of history here, a sliver of culture there and a riveting first impression of a complicated city.
If you go
Getting around: Uber and Lyft do not operate in Vancouver, but there are cabs and a good public-transit system. More information at vancouver.ca/streets-transportation/visitors-guide-to-public-transit.aspx.
Eating, drinking and shopping: Put in your brunch and dinner reservations early — even if you steer clear of touristy spots, you might face long wait times and lines. For beef patties, head to the well-reviewed Patty Shop (4019 Macdonald St., Vancouver; closed Sundays). Skip the touristy spots and head to Commercial Drive for a diverse cross section of Vancouver, with great food and shopping options.