UNDER THE RADAR
After landing at Vancouver International Airport, I hopped aboard the Canada Line, part of Vancouver’s rapid-transit system, connecting the airport to downtown in about 20 minutes. The city installed the system for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the posted maps and automated ticketing kiosks made the process just as easy as hailing a cab, even for this Vancouver neophyte.
Exiting the Yaletown-Roundhouse station, I immediately spied my hotel. The Forbes Four-Star Opus Vancouver is an apt reflection of the young and colorful Yaletown neighborhood that has sprung up around it. Almost all of the property’s 96 guest rooms come with iPads and smartphones for guests’ personal use, and every room is quirkily themed around one of five different interests — such as food critic and fashionista — that inspire everything from the wall color to the music playlists pre-loaded on the iPads. Although the boutique property is small, it is still group-friendly due to its two meeting rooms, the award-winning La Pentola della Quercia restaurant, and perks like complimentary car service and bikes.
Before leaving for dinner that evening, I took a short stroll through Yaletown, the southern side of downtown Vancouver, overlooking False Creek. An industrial area just a century ago, Yaletown now is one of Vancouver’s trendiest neighborhoods, filled with gleaming high-rise condos, juice bars, and regular bars whose patrons tend to spill out onto the street after the sun goes down. Over drinks at Opus Bar, one of the fixtures of this nightlife scene, we met Rick Antonson, president and CEO of Tourism Vancouver, and heard the story of how TED chose to move to Vancouver after 30 years of meeting in California.
Before settling down to a feast of British Columbia-grown wines, veal sweetbreads, BBQ octopus, and other French-influenced delicacies at L’Abattoir, we walked through Gastown, the cobblestoned birthplace of Vancouver. L’Abattoir is the perfect incarnation of this past, with its 19th-century-era shell that once served as the city’s first jail. To meet demand, the restaurant soon will open a new 2,400-square-foot dining space exclusively for private events and meetings.
Although our group wasn’t able to sneak into the highly secure TED conference at the Vancouver Convention Centre, trip sponsors Tourism Vancouver and CTC did manage to stream a live feed of the day’s talks at the nearby Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. After lunch, three past and present TED speakers took to the podium to share their talks in person and converse with our group. It was the first of many instances during the trip that our hosts went above and beyond just showcasing the destination’s more obvious offerings — impeccable dining, hip hotels, and engaging leisure activities — and brought Vancouver’s under-the-radar assets to light. For example, later that evening, employees from Vancouver-based HootSuite joined our group for dinner at Chambar to share how the company became one of the city’s, and the tech industry’s, most successful startups.
That inspiring momentum continued during the third and fourth days of our trip. After a glorious morning flight over the city on one of Harbor Air’s seaplanes, we walked next door to fly even farther on FlyOver Canada — a new flight-ride attraction (offering plenty of outdoor event space) next to the waterfront and the Vancouver Convention Centre. From there, we relocated to Gastown for a healthy-yet-still-somehow-indulgent lunch at Lost + Found Café, a popular gathering spot for young startups like WE LOVE VAN Water, a local label of bottled water that benefits Vancouver’s homeless population.
After chatting with WE LOVE VAN founder George Monem; Christina Lahde, a graduate student working with East Van Roasters — a coffee and chocolate bar that employs women in treatment for addiction; and our guide for the day, Jennifer Potter of Tours by Locals, about Vancouver’s robust social-enterprise community, we headed out into the city to experience it for ourselves. As Potter recounted the history of Vancouver’s diverse neighborhoods, we stopped in to meet the proprietors of nonprofits East Van Roasters and Potluck Café and Catering, which serves 30,000 free meals to area residents in need.
This big-picture mindfulness seems to have also bubbled over into Vancouver’s culinary scene — called one of the world’s best by Saveur magazine last year. This was never more obvious than later that evening at The Parker, a tiny slip of a restaurant on the edge of Chinatown. With cooking from “Top Chef Canada” contestant Curtis Luk, the vegan restaurant not only sources all of its ingredients and foodstuffs locally, it is zero-waste, meaning everything is composted, recycled, or reused. Owner Steve Da Cruz proved it when he held out a month’s worth of trash in the palm of his hand after mixing us a potent batch of Vancouver cocktails (gin, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a dash of Benedictine).
The beauty of Vancouver’s dining scene is that, despite a proliferation of restaurants concentrating on healthy eating, there is a cure for every craving. Earlier that evening, we enjoyed a luscious meat-and-cheese spread at Salt Tasting Room, a laid-back wine and charcuterie bar in Gastown that lets guests build their own dinner from a giant chalkboard menu of artisan cheeses, cured meats, creative condiments, and local wines. And the following evening, at Blue Water Café — whose doting staff and elegant private rooms are ideal for high-profile events — we pushed the boundaries of gluttony with a four-hour marathon of seafood towers and sushi, culminating with quite possibly the most succulent short rib I have ever encountered.
The next morning, the indulgences continued — but not without a little effort. After we strapped on helmets at Spokes Bike Rentals, Josh Bloomfield of Cycle City Tours led us through Stanley Park, Vancouver’s largest urban park. Eight million people visit the thousand-acre green space every year to bike along the famous Seawall, hike its fir- and cedar-tree-lined trails, and marvel at its many landscapes, including beaches, rainforests, lakes, and gardens. Although it was a damp, drizzly morning, the tour was the highlight of the trip. (The hot chocolate and gourmet doughnuts that Bloomfield brought from Cartems Donuterie may have helped.)
Stanley Park also has attractions and landmarks aplenty, including the Vancouver Aquarium. We arrived there just in time for lunch, a gorgeous spread of Ocean Wise (sustainably harvested) seafood, and spent the afternoon donning hard hats for a tour of the aquarium’s new expansion, set to open this summer. With enough capacity currently to accommodate events of up to 2,000 guests, the aquarium is already one of the largest event venues in the city, and its cloistered location within Stanley Park makes it a popular choice for high-profile movie-wrap parties. (As a filming location for everything from “Twilight” to “Mission: Impossible,” Vancouver is often called “Hollywood North.”) After a quick behind-the-scenes meet and greet with Hana, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, we were off yet again.
It’s befitting that our last tour of the trip ended at the Vancouver Convention Centre’s new West Building. As we walked through its airy, artful spaces, we snuck a peak at the highly guarded TED stage and theater as teams of workers broke it down. The convention center is the only two-time winner of AIPC – the International Association of Convention Centres’ award for best convention center, and the first convention center to earn LEED Platinum certification. It also has Canada’s largest waterfront ballroom and largest “living” roof, which we were lucky enough to walk on later that afternoon.
Perhaps the biggest draw of the facility is what surrounds it. Much of the West Building’s meeting space is bordered by a prefunction zone that is wrapped in floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the harbor and mountains — a view that rivaled my own from the seaplane, and one so popular that planners often request the prefunction area as their main function space. But TED chose Vancouver for more than just its views, and believe it or not, the center’s food-and-beverage program played a sizeable role.
Headed by executive chef Blair Rasmussen, who gave us a sampling of his artistry in his kitchen’s new private dining space, the culinary program prides itself on staying as close to home as possible. The center is one of only a few to have its own full pastry kitchen, and Rasmussen uses local ingredients and draws inspiration from Vancouver’s diverse cultural makeup as much as possible. “I can bring the Vancouver experience to attendees,” Rasmussen said, “so that even if they didn’t go out to eat, they still experienced our culinary scene.”