A born-and-raised Seattleite takes Amtrak north to finally discover our big Canadian neighbor.
VANCOUVER, B.C. — Sometimes I wish I could experience Seattle with the same curiosity and verve I enjoy when I travel somewhere new.
It’ll never happen — I was born and raised in the Emerald City. But somehow I’d never gotten to Vancouver, and a recent first-time visit to my hometown’s northern neighbor was the next best thing.
The snowy peaks and windswept bay were familiar, as were the gray skies and damp sidewalks. The hipster cafes and craft-beer bars, too.
But other sights and activities made the weekend an adventure. One highlight was riding Amtrak across the border. There’s something about train travel that melts stress away.
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Walking the beach in Stanley Park, I snapped photos of Siwash Rock. Jutting out of the water proud and alone, it was a piece of art shaped by the wind and waves.
Another highlight was slurping noodles. There were little ramen shops everywhere, and restaurants of every other variety. There were apartment towers everywhere, too, many built with green glass.
From my hotel balcony, I thought the city looked more like an urban forest than a concrete jungle. The view made me think about how much more dense Seattle may become.
That’s the special thing about Vancouver. It’s an international getaway, but your thoughts never drift too far from home.
Going by rail
Amtrak’s Cascades route runs twice per day between Seattle and Vancouver, with one train in the early morning and another in the evening.
I made the trip with a friend, taking a Friday-morning train. The tracks hug the coast between Ballard and Everett, so we saw the light of sunrise on Puget Sound.
Getting from the end of the line to the heart of the city via transit is easy. When you leave Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station, you cross the street to the Main Street-Science World SkyTrain station. Then you hop a ride to Burrard Station.
SkyTrain launched with one line in 1985 and has since added three more. I like taking transit as a tourist because you see how local people talk, dress and interact.
We stayed our first night in a hotel on Robson Street. It was in the West End, a dense urban neighborhood next to downtown that’s a little like Capitol Hill.
Robson Street is the city’s busiest for pedestrians. That’s because it boasts wall-to-wall shopping and dining, said Yeliz Durman, our waitress at Fez Cafe Bistro, a North African restaurant at 1331 Robson St., where we had lunch.
Near downtown are clothing stores for mainstream brands such as Club Monaco, Lululemon and Roots, which is Canadian. Farther away are Korean, Ukrainian and waffle eateries.
Robson Street “is supposed to be the posh part of Vancouver” but is also a hangout for partygoers and foodies, Durman said.
The Fez salad ($11.99 Cdn.), with tomatoes, olives, pecans, feta cheese, hard-boiled eggs, dates and a lemony dressing, was large and tasty. If you order a bouraka (stuffed pastry) plate, don’t expect to finish it alone.
A nap would’ve been nice, but we wanted to get out and about right away, so we used our phones to sign up for the Mobi bike-share system ($7.50 for a day pass). Five minutes later, we were pedaling down quiet back streets to Sunset Beach Park.
You can catch a quick water taxi ($5.50 round-trip; granvilleislandferries.bc.ca) from the beach to Granville Island, a onetime industrial area redeveloped in recent decades as a shopping district, including a buzzy Public Market (granvilleisland.com).
Housed in renovated industrial buildings, the market is jammed with homemade cookies, sausages, chocolate and cheeses. Think Pike Place Market, only less hectic and historic.
Fran Kong, who sells honey from the Chilliwack River valley, pointed to the market’s wooden rafters.
“You can see the great big winches where they pulled up large parts of ships,” she said.
Kong let me taste several varieties before I settled on a small jar of buckwheat honey. “People say it tastes like a barnyard,” she laughed.
Then she explained why she loves her job. “You get all the Vancouver people and then you get the visitors from all over the world,” Kong said. “I’ve learned to say honey in a lot of languages, even Portuguese.”
Another stop on the island is the Kids Market, where toys reign supreme. It’s the kind of place where kids run and hide when their parents tell them it’s time to go.
Richmond is a neighboring city that many tourists ignore. But we made it a dinner destination.
Why? An incredible 60 percent of Richmonders are immigrants and 50 percent identify as Chinese, so the city is a great bet for Chinese cuisine.
For an authentic adventure, take the SkyTrain to the Aberdeen station. Next to the station is Aberdeen Centre, a shopping mall that caters to Chinese Canadians (aberdeencentre.com).
You may not be accustomed to eating out at a mall. But Richmonders know what they’re doing. We stuffed ourselves at Dinesty Dumpling House, ordering spicy tofu and smashed cucumber in vinegar and garlic to complement our soup dumplings.
I spent a semester in China during college, lived there for a year after graduating, and am always on the lookout for restaurants that remind me of my time abroad. Though our dishes didn’t blow us away, Dinesty did the trick.
Aberdeen Centre was particularly busy during our visit because people were celebrating the Lunar New Year. There were red lanterns and red paper envelopes with money inside. On a stage, singers were performing pop ballads in Mandarin.
The only downside: The trip to Richmond via SkyTrain is a half-hour each way. By the time we sidled up to a West End bar, our eyelids were drooping. We downed a nightcap each, then hit the hay.
Must do: Stanley Park
The next day we dedicated to Stanley Park, the one sight you just can’t skip. It’s huge (twice the size of Seattle’s Discovery Park), lush (shaded by hemlock, cedar and firs) and stunning (with sweeping views of English Bay).
We spent hours strolling along the water and hiking up through the woods, where we watched small birds dart out of the trees to eat seeds out of another visitor’s hand.
Siwash Rock looms into view when you turn a bend between Third Beach and Prospect Point.
A Squamish legend says the rock was once a young chief. After bravely swimming in the bay to purify himself for the birth of his child, he was turned to stone by the gods.
For a change of pace, I had reserved an apartment through Airbnb near Davie Street — a section of the West End long considered Vancouver’s gaybourhood.
The place wasn’t far from our hotel, but it would have been a long walk with our bags. So we rode Mobi bikes again, stuffing our small travel bags into the baskets on the front.
We hailed a taxi to get to Gastown, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, art galleries and live music. Imagine Pioneer Square with fewer sports bars.
The next neighborhood over is the Downtown Eastside, where homelessness and drug addiction are more visible. Seattle leaders recently visited a safe-injection site there to learn how Vancouver is trying to keep users alive and get them help.
I was hungry and getting grouchy when we reached Gastown, so we quickly ducked into The Sardine Can, a tapas joint at 26 Powell St. Two glasses of wine later, my mood had improved.
A somewhat kitschy Gastown attraction is its famous steam clock. It looks like an antique but was actually built in 1977.
Salmagundi West, 321 W. Cordova St., is a popular store specializing in creepy antiques, such as limbless dolls and human skulls. But I preferred MacLeod’s Books, 455 W. Pender St., a topsy-turvy used bookstore with an unconventional layout.
There’s a section devoted to Proust and another to slavery. There’s even a hobo-literature section.
“We keep our westerns in a box,” said shopkeeper Steffanie Ling. “We have the most esoteric selection. For instance, we had a woman come in and she was looking for a book of poetry by the Duke of Orleans, and we had that.”
It was almost time to leave Vancouver, but we couldn’t resist trying one of the city’s many ramen shops. The noodles were chewy, the broth was creamy and the steam warmed us up.
Lounging on our train ride home, I Googled “Best ramen in Seattle,” reinspired to do some exploring in my own rainy town.
If you go
Reserve seats on Amtrak’s Cascades route at amtrakcascades.com or 800-872-7245. When I visited in late January tickets from Seattle were $54 each way, but fares vary by date. The trip takes about four hours, with delays.
For American citizens crossing the border to Canada and returning, a passport is most readily accepted, or an enhanced driver’s license or Trusted Traveler Program card such as NEXUS. (A birth certificate and driver’s license will no longer get you back into the U.S.) On the train, expect a border agent to walk down the aisle checking documents. You’ll be asked to provide some information when you reserve seats.
Where to stay
We liked Blue Horizon Hotel, 1225 Robson St., a trendy high-rise with amazing views and reasonable rates. bluehorizonhotel.com.
What to see
Don’t miss Stanley Park’s beauty (free), Granville Island’s browsing (the water taxi from the West End is $3.50 each way) and Gastown’s food and drink scene (dine out in style or settle for a stroll). Richmond’s Chinese cuisine is further afield ($2.75 each way via SkyTrain).
- Show up early at King Street Station to claim window seats on the train.
- Use the Mobi bike-share system to zip around the West End (sign up at mobibikes.ca).
- On your way back to Pacific Central Station, treat yourself to a pastry from Zhao Mah Bakery, 280 E. Pender St., in Chinatown.
Tourism Vancouver: tourismvancouver.com
This story was corrected April 3. An original version published March 30 incorrectly stated that a birth certificate and photo ID were sufficient documentation for American citizens making the trip to Canada.