Cradled between the ocean and snow-capped mountains, Vancouver's dazzling downtown district fills a narrow peninsula bounded by Burrard Inlet to the north, English Bay to the west and False Creek to the south, with greater Vancouver sprawling south to the Fraser River. Edged around its idyllic waterfront are fine beaches, a dynamic port and a magnificent swath of parkland, not to mention the mirror-fronted ranks of skyscrapers that look across Burrard Inlet and its bustling harbour to the residential districts of North and West Vancouver. Beyond these comfortable suburbs, the Coast Mountains rise in steep, forested slopes to form a dramatic counterpoint to the downtown skyline and the most stunning of the city's many outdoor playgrounds. Small wonder, given Vancouver's surroundings, that Greenpeace was founded in the city.
Vancouver's 1.9 million residents exploit their spectacular natural setting to the hilt, and when they tire of the immediate region can travel a short distance to the unimaginably vast wilderness of the BC interior. Whether it's sailing, swimming, fishing, hiking, skiing, golf or tennis, locals barely have to move to indulge in a plethora of recreational whims. Summer and winter the city oozes hedonism and healthy living - it comes as no surprise to find that you can lounge on beaches downtown - typically West Coast obsessions that spill over into its sophisticated arts and culture . Vancouver claims a world-class museum and symphony orchestra, as well as opera, theatre and dance companies at the cutting edge of contemporary arts. Festivals proliferate throughout its mild, if occasionally rain-soaked, summer and numerous music venues provide a hotbed for up-and-coming rock bands and a burgeoning jazz scene.
Vancouver is not all pleasure, however. Business growth continues apace in Canada's third-largest city, much of its prosperity stemming from a port so laden with the raw materials of the Canadian interior - lumber, wheat and minerals - that it ranks as one of North America's largest ports, handling more dry tonnage than the West Coast ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco and San Diego put together. The port in turn owes its prominence to Vancouver's much-trumpeted position as a gateway to the Far East , and its increasingly pivotal role in the new global market of the Pacific Rim. This lucrative realignment is strengthened by a two-way flow in traffic: in the past decade Vancouver has been inundated with Hong Kong Chinese (the so-called "yacht people"), an influx which has pushed up property prices and slightly strained the city's reputation as an ethnically integrated metropolis.
Much of the city's earlier immigration focused on Vancouver's extraordinary Chinatown , just one of a number of ethnic enclaves - Italian, Greek, Indian and Japanese in particular - which lend the city a refreshingly gritty quality that belies its sleek, modern reputation. So too do the city's semi-derelict eastern districts, whose worldly lowlife characters, addicts and hustlers are shockingly at odds with the glitzy lifestyles pursued in the lush residential neighbourhoods. Low rents and Vancouver's cosmopolitan young have also nurtured an unexpected counterculture , at least for the time being, distinguished by varied restaurants, secondhand shops, avant-garde galleries, clubs and bars - spots where you'll probably have more fun than in many a Canadian city. And at the top of the scale there are restaurants as good - and as varied - as any in North America.
These days Vancouver is more dynamic than ever, its growth and energy almost palpable as you walk the streets. In just five years, between 1987 and 1992, the city's population increased by an extraordinary seventeen percent. The downtown population, currently just over half a million, is the fastest-growing on the continent. In response the downtown area is spreading - visibly - to the older and previously run-down districts to the southeast of the old city core. Development over the last decade is symbolized by a superb library and performing-arts complex which constitutes the most expensive capital project ever undertaken in the city. Real estate here is now more expensive than Toronto, and in the 1990s the city became North America's largest film and TV production centre after Los Angeles and New York; The X Files is just the most famous of the many movies and programmes that have been, or are being, made here . Yet, in the peculiar way that seems second nature to Canadians, the changes are being handled in a manner that's enhancing rather than compromising the city's beguiling combination of pleasure, culture, business and natural beauty.
Vancouver is not a city which offers or requires lots of relentless sightseeing. Its breathtaking physical beauty makes it a place where often it's enough just to wander and watch the world go by - "the sort of town", wrote Jan Morris,...
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