My First Visit to Vancouver, B.C. (2018)

✍️ 🕑 Late April, 2018 • Tags: border crossingsCanadaferriesVancouverBritish ColumbiaAmtraktrain travel • Places: Vancouver, B.C. Richmond, B.C. Coquitlam Bowen Island

Hello, readers!

Have you ever noticed that I feel a weird compulsion to "start from the beginning" when I start writing about a place? So, uh, I have held off on writing about my *checks notes* recent visits to Vancouver, B.C., because I hadn't yet written about *checks notes* that time I took the train there, and then sorta ambled around downtown, and then took a boat someplace and thought it was the prettiest thing in the world?

Well, this is my post.

The story begins in April 2018.

Or, maybe it begins much earlier than that.

April in the Pacific Northwest, or, a beachfront park in Vancouver
April in the Pacific Northwest, or, a beachfront park in Vancouver open_in_full   info


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The Inkling of an Idea

Somewhere in the back of my mind, Vancouver took root. The image in my mind only partially aligned with reality.

You see, I remember my dad telling me that he had a friend who lived in Vancouver. Many years back, he had visited this friend, who was growing some nice varieties of exotic plants or what-have-you.

My dad asked something about whether they needed to be brought in for the winter time due to the cold, northern winters. His friend explained that the winters were so mild that there was no need for that. And, at whatever impressionable age that this was recounted to me, I decided to reinterpret "mild winter" as "tropical."

And, no, Vancouver is not tropical. Not at the 49th parallel. And, though I didn't harbor that illusion by the time I got around to visiting, I must say I was not disappointed with what I saw and experienced when I got there...



It seemed as though I was to be sent to Seattle for work for a large, company-internal meeting on an annual basis. 2018 was my second trip. The first time, I had wanted to schedule some work-adjacent personal travel, but didn't really have a great sense of what I was doing. I stayed an extra night in the Holiday Inn, and I visited Bainbridge Island with a few of my Pittsburgh-based colleagues.

The sirens of Amtrak called my name, because I knew that their Pacific Northwest routes were supposed to be beautiful. I figured I'd either make my way to Portland, Oregon or to Vancouver, B.C.

Well, I think you can tell which one I picked.





Booking & Boarding Amtrak from Seattle-Vancouver

You have to be careful when you book an Amtrak ticket from Seattle to Vancouver. There are very few trains that actually run this route, and if you do not pay attention, Amtrak will gladly sell you a bus ticket. You will be a sucker. It has happened to a couple of friends of mine, so believe me the risk is real.

In my case, getting an Amtrak ticket required me to get out of bed at absolutely ungodly hours. My train departing Seattle left at 7:35 AM on Saturday, and my return trip of Vancouver would leave even earlier at 6:35 AM on Monday. Ouch!

I dutifully made my way to Seattle's King Street Station ahead of time, so I could show all my proper identification and yadda yadda yadda. While I was there, it felt like the waiting room was just showing loops of the most psychotic videos.

I'm talking hours of different spots focusing on how important and great the Amtrak police are (and how you should join the force!) Or, a bajillion PSA's on how only you can stop human trafficking. See that attractive white lady next to a domineering man? Did you notice that she's quiet? Call the (Amtrak?) police.

I'm not saying that there are not genuine problems here, but I'd have preferred an environment where I wasn't shown these spots on loop at six in the morning.

Eventually, they lined us up into two lines -- Northbound and Southbound, and checked our identification. One had to be sure to specify which Vancouver they were going to, since Vancouver is also the name of a city in Washington, to the South of Seattle.



A Beautiful Journey Marred By A Chatterbox Conducter

And then, we were off. It was a cloudy, April day in the Pacific Northwest. Unsurprisingly, it was cloudy and gray. And I was in love with it. I was enraptured by the landscapes that I could see outside my train window.


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In fact, I was so enraptured that I already posted this picture on the blog to celebrate my eventual move to Seattle.

The train had a really lovely viewing car with a glass roof, and it was otherwise the level of comfort I'd come to expect from Amtrak. As I always have, I skipped their food, opting for (presumably) nothing, as I imagine I had likely failed to pack myself anything to munch on.

The only annoying part of the train trip was the lead conducter, who made a lot of long and superfluous announcements. I think I would best typify him as a windbag. I think he was in love with the sound of his own voice.



The one that I remember most clearly was his announcement that we'd soon be arriving at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver. Part of it went something like this:

"And, when you reach Pacific Central Station, that will be the end of your journey with us, but of course, you might wish to continue your journey using other means. I mean, you probably don't just want to hang out in the train station!
Outside the station, you'll be able to hail taxi cabs, or rent a car. You could even get on one of Vancouver's big shiny busses with the nice chrome wheels. There's also access to the Skytrain, so you can explore downtown. Or, if you prefer to use your own two feet, well, you could walk out of the station, or you could instead choose to use a bicycle.
Once you reach the station you'll have so many options to choose from!"

All of his announcements were like that, and I desperately wanted him to shut the hell up.



Aimlessly Ambling 'Round Downtown Vancouver

And so, I made my way around Downtown Vancouver. Coffee. Some breakfast that wasn't as filling as I wanted. The Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Chinese garden. In the rain.


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On and off the train. Those are some big shops.


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Gastown. Steam powered clock. Beautiful, but touristy.

A Park. A beautiful waterfront.

I also spent some time photographing ugly, modern condo buildings. I had started doing this in some cities, but especially Seattle and Vancouver (and later Calgary) for a project that I never actually finished. It would have been titled 'Structural Optimism.'


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I stopped by Vancouver's art museum, maybe close to closing time. At that point in time, their main exhibition was on the work of Takashi Murakami. Something about the work seemed ready made for commercialism.


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The real artsy highlight for me was a contemporary classical concert I went to on my second night from a group called Standing Wave. Contemporary classical music can contain some of the coolest sounding stuff that there is, and whatever they played wowed me.

I'm sure there are a lot of other things I saw & did, but those are what stuck in my mind.



Metro Vancouver by Bus and Skytrain

My colleague Ann had lived in Vancouver, and would have recommended me Vancouver Night Market if it was running. But, it wasn't. Nevertheless, I had heard that Metro Vancouver had one of the best Chinatowns possible in an area called Richmond.


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I ventured there, got some food, and enjoyed it, and meandered around some different shops and such. I would have enjoyed it more, likely, if I had a car, because I ended up waiting for a bus for a long while.


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The reason, of course, was that I had booked myself the cheapest accomodation I could find. I could get a hostel bed in downtown Vancouver, for the same price as a private Airbnb in Coquitlam. So, I opted for Coquitlam -- a long public transit ride into the city. It meant I certainly wouldn't head back there during the day!

It's especially ironic to me now, looking back, because Coquitlam would be so easy to drive to, but such a pain to take public transit to.

Nevertheless, it was about a fifteen minute walk from the Skytrain station, past a highway onramp, and up to a subdivision. I was in the house of a very kind and polite older woman, who brewed me some tea, and I fell into a nice, deep sleep.

My Airbnb feedback noted that I was 'tidy' and 'quiet' -- the latter something I was at absolute pains to be on my last morning, when I needed to leave Coquitlam early enough that I could catch my 6:35 AM international train.



Magic

For my second full day in Vancouver, I decided I was going to try to get somewhere beautiful and fun. So, I took the skytrain to a bus to a boat to Bowen Island.

Initially, I really, really, really wanted to sea kayak, but if you can believe it, sea kayaking by myself was not something that was going to happen.


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So I went for a walk by myself, around the island. Around the more rural-feeling areas. Into the trees.

Between, the fog, and the mist, between the forest, and the clouds, and the water, and the boats, I was out of time. I was at peace.




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I do not think the pictures I snapped can convey the peace and beauty I felt, but I was enraptured.




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Return

I would love to conclude this post on Bowen Island, but I simply must make one note of the return train trip.

Going from Seattle to Canada, the train continue past the border, and passport checks and so forth happen once the train reaches the station.

Coming back to the United States, the train stops as soon as it crosses the border, and a group of TSA agents board the train, running around like uniformed cowboys, singling out random (non-white) passengers and asking them questions and so forth.

It's ridiculous.

Otherwise, my voyage home was smooth: no chatterbox conducter, but no glass-roofed train car either.

Vancouver isn't that far to go from Seattle for a weekend trip, and its urban core did impress me, enough that I claimed ever since this visit that I'd much rather move to Vancouver than Seattle.

I moved to Seattle, of course, and I wouldn't pass through Vancouver (other than its airport) again until I was on my way back from Haida Gwaii.

My entrypoint & exitpoint from Vancouver, B.C.
My entrypoint & exitpoint from Vancouver, B.C. open_in_full   info

When the light cascades through the fog, and the Salish Sea rises up to meet the mossy trees, or when you look out the window of a moving train and struggle to perceive any kind of color in the landscape, there's a particular kind of beauty that cannot be measured.

It's not for everyone, and I don't know that I enjoy for it as much over long, sustained periods, but there's something about this region that can make your heart ache.

Thanks for reading!

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