Traveling Canada: Stanley Park in Vancouver

We landed in Vancouver early in the morning. Our hotel was right in downtown inside the bustle of sky rises and adjusting back to the energy of the city was going to take time. My mind was still wandering through the swirling mountains and hills of Banff. Too early to check in, we set off to peruse Granville Island which runs a large food market. We spent the day eating our way through portions of tangy Thai crispy pork belly and Indian Roti and washing it down with beer flights at the brewery. The temperature was milder in Vancouver and it felt like stepping into a new season.

That night we wandered the Gastown District, an ornate stretch of downtown decorated with old streetlamps and one particularly historic site (the Gastown Street Clock), an antique clock that shoots off steam every 15 minutes. It gathers a crowd and scares the crap out of you if you walk by it without paying attention. We plopped onto bar stools at Pourhouse and sipped on perfectly crafted martinis and plates of scotch eggs. A dark and polished wooden bar stretched across the low-lit room and made us feel like we were sinking into a secret speakeasy.

The next day was one I had been mildly dreading. Katie was making me ride a bicycle. Not an inherently cruel activity but the last time I attempted to ride a bike was on a “bike and wine tour” in Italy. We had imagined that the tour would include pink bicycles with baskets that we’d daintily ride through vineyards while waving around bottles of Sauvignon Blanc. We came to find that the tour included mountain bikes and a steep cement road full of whizzing cars. At the very start of the tour, they warned us that we should “not to ride into the ditch” because “people sometimes ride into the ditch”. Guess where I rode rather epically the minute my foot hit pedal?

I broke the bike and bruised my knees along with my ego and had to ride in the van for the rest of the day with a 65-year-old woman who also had bad knees (due to arthritis, and not the inability to follow directions). That was 8 years ago. In reality, I have not successfully ridden a bike since I was 13. Today we rented bikes by the hour at Spokes near Stanley Park with the promise that we could “return them immediately if I freaked out”. I asked them for the easiest bike they had in the shop, and I got a mint green 1-speed with an optional basket. It was completely adorable and yet I felt like I was pushing a monster truck down the sidewalk to the park entrance. Determined to not fail twice, I practiced wobbling back and forth along a quiet stretch of pavement while a random girl cheered me on from the sidewalk.

Slowly but surely, I stayed vertical. We began our ride around the Stanley Park bike path, a 5.5-mile loop that skirts the waters edge. I found myself nervous-braking every 3 minutes like a student driver on the road, which caused me to form heinous-looking bruises on my calves where the pedals smacked them. But I didn’t fall. Before I knew it, we were past the point of no return and bound to finish the entire loop. I inhaled the freshest sea air as I rode along, eventually feeling confident enough to turn my head and take in the blue ocean view to my right. By the end of our ride, I could even dismount without stumbling awkwardly and I felt pretty jazzed about it. We celebrated with beers and snacks at Stanley Park Brewery, nestled right inside the park. I was actually a little sad to return my perfectly girly green bike.

That night we got dinner at Barbara Restaurant; a hole-in-the-wall tucked into a quiet residential street serving 3-course dinners. The walk to Barbara’s was a bit touch and go. Vancouver has a busy and dense downtown, but a lot of homelessness. The juxtaposition of streets is especially apparent between Gastown and Chinatown – public drug use covering long stretches of sidewalk is enough to shock even a lifelong (decently hardened) New Yorker like me. No surprise – the pandemic has made everything more desperate and there are fewer resources for all. Walking into the privilege of a beautiful dinner just a few streets away was a sobering experience.

Barbara only had a handful of seatings per night and all the dinner plates were complex and colorful. We sipped on crafty cocktails until we were thoroughly stuffed with seared scallops, tender rare duck breast, and tangy salads with dehydrated fruit on top. We had one last nightcap at Alibi Room down the street. I watched the sun go down from a back window, where a few stray bicyclists reminded me that I could in fact conquer one tiny fear at a time.

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