A few caveats from a Vancouver native, with tips for how to have fun anyway.
Is that low Canadian dollar tempting you to make your first-ever journey north of the border? Are you lured by the idea of 30-percent-off-everything bargains? Allow me — who grew up in Vancouver, and currently crosses the border at least once a month — to offer just a bit of perspective. Go, yes, and have a wonderful time. But don’t get too excited about the savings.
Prices in Canada are generally higher than in the U.S. — often so much higher that the savings through currency conversion is wiped out. (For example, last month I bought a $22 bottle of New Zealand wine in Vancouver that retails for about $12 here). And taxes are higher too, with 12 percent sales tax on most purchases. Be forewarned.
But that’s not to say that you can’t have a perfectly delightful time in B.C. these days for a modest price. If you can’t stay at my parents’ house (sorry, space there is limited), my favorite recommendation is the Sylvia Hotel in Vancouver’s West End — rooms are simple but comfortable, the building’s a historic charmer, and the location, right on English Bay near Stanley Park, is the best in town. On a February weekend, you can get a king room for $186 Cdn. per night including tax (about $132 U.S.), and a great base for a visit to Vancouver (sylviahotel.com, 604-681-9321).
A few tips, for that first Vancouver (or Victoria, or anywhere in B.C.) trip:
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• Ah, the border. I have a NEXUS pass, which means the drive is generally about 2½ hours door to door, but those without passes may find an additional hour or two of waiting time. Or it might be 10 minutes; you never know. (Travel midweek for shorter lines.) Take a look at border traffic at th.gov.bc.ca/ATIS/index.htm. Bring proof of citizenship, don’t bring marijuana (it isn’t — yet — legal in Canada), and be aware that those with DUI convictions may be denied entry.
• Canada does not, as of 2013, have pennies in circulation. Very sensible, no? Prices will be rounded up or down to the nearest 5 cents. The weight this saves in your purse or pocket, however, is offset by the volume of loonies ($1 coins) and toonies ($2 coins — 2-nies, get it?) you’ll acquire. Canadian paper money — actually, in a recent development, it’s plastic — is awfully slippery; spend with care.
• If traveling in the offseason (i.e. before spring), check ahead to be sure that what you want to see will be open. The miniature train at Stanley Park, for example — one of the joys of any Vancouver kid’s childhood — is closed until March. Information on a number of attractions can be found at hellobc.com.
• You don’t need to learn the metric system, but it’s helpful to know that 100 km/hr is just over 60 mph, 15 degrees C. is just under 60 degrees F., and a centimeter of rain in a day is a lot. You can still order a pint of beer, but it’s probably an imperial pint, which is about 20 percent more than a U.S. pint. Bottoms up!
• The weather? Same as here, more or less. Bring that umbrella.
• Shopping? Focus on non-American stores. (The Vancouver Nordstrom, to my highly unscientific eye, seems excessively pricey.) At bookstores, you might find paperback editions of books (probably British) still in hardcover here.
• Starbucks is everywhere, but for coffee many prefer the homegrown chain Tim Horton’s. Diet Coke, some of you will be delighted to hear, tastes the same wherever you go.