With fewer than 400 days before hosting the 2010 winter Olympics, Vancouver is starting to reap the rewards of new hotels, restaurants and nightclubs.
The city's glassy skyline of residential towers and banking headquarters looks like a booming metropolis on one of the world's most picturesque bays. But on the ground, Vancouver maintains its small-town flavor of gas-lamp neighborhoods, indoor malls and coffeehouses where everyone is on a first-name basis.
Getting to Vancouver
Vancouver is a mix of Hong Kong and San Francisco, offering an Eastern-influenced city of high-rise architecture with the muted charm and renegade spirit of the Wild West. There is no bad time to visit Vancouver, although winters tend to be wet and gray with seasonal storms dumping on the local mountains leading to Whistler. Spring and summer are the busiest seasons as a gateway for Alaska-bound cruise ships and adventure recreations to the nearby harbor islands and mountains. U.S. travelers are required to present a valid passport upon entry.
Check-in downtown Vancouver
Vancouver's hotel market is sizzling. It wasn't long ago that we arrived to the glitzy skyline eager to check in to the city's Four Seasons Hotel during a winter ski break. We arrived to a dark concrete valet and escalator area attached to the city's main shopping mall. The high-rise building, enveloped in tinted bay windows, was accessed via a lobby decorated in hundreds of thematic Christmas trees for an annual charity event. Luckily, the lobby was recently updated with the all-new YEW restaurant and bar, but guest rooms are still quintessentially Victorian with cherry furnishings and floral-print curtains.
Those looking for Vancouver's urban beat should head toward Yaletown, the city's trendiest neighborhood, featuring renovated warehouses and mid-rise lofts. Opus Hotel has been part of a yuppie gentrification that's resulted in a coffeehouse, sports bar and be-seen brasserie on almost every corner. The hotel's reception is smack-dab next to the Opus Bar, which has one of the hippest hotel lounges in town, with a loft-style space of Alice in Wonderland-size gilded furnishings. Open-plan guest rooms feature peek-a-boo bathrooms and a modern-design palette of ultra-suede upholstered furnishings.
Closer to the waterfront, Shangri La Hotels is opening its first North American property on the first 15 floors of a new 61-story high-rise. The hotel features live-work condos and a sculpture collection by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Even closer to the waterfront is Kor Hotel Group's new Loden Hotel. The Loden lobby is a palette of natural-wood accents and autumn colors with a nod to green hospitality arranged around an elaborate gas fireplace. The hotel's restaurant, Voya, is a hotbed of Vancouver's popular set mingling amongst a supper-club style lounge with tufted banquette seating, Baker chairs and walls that are a throwback to the '60s.
Best bites of the Northwest
The closest thing Vancouver has to a foodie empire, West is part of an innovative dining group that also owns Whistler's Araxi and Yaletown's Blue Water Café. Often reviewed as Vancouver's best restaurant, West chef Warren Geraghty creates a regional menu of Northwest cuisine utilizing mostly organic and locally sourced ingredients. A street-front façade sleeps through the day under a row of shade trees awakening in early evening to a valet parade of Vancouver's staunchest food lovers. The interior space is divided between a long bar opposite a central dining room with Cassina leather chairs, leather-paneled walls and an elaborate sculpture from Werner Forster suspended from the ceiling like a culinary angel.
Along a lively strip of Yaletown full of it-restaurants and be-seen bars is Cioppino's, a traditional Italian eatery that consistently manages to lure foodies and visiting celebrities. An open-air kitchen sizzles and steams with the occasional outburst from chefs and assistants opposite a dining room of exposed ceilings, painted ductwork and pendant lighting serviced by professional waiters with lingering Italian accents. Traditional tile floors typical of eateries in Tuscany and Piedmont are adorned in simple four-top tables with wooden bistro chairs. Chef Giuseppe Posteraro uses health-conscious for long-time Italian recipes like four-hour braised beef cheeks and garganelli with wild boar sausage and preserved truffles.
The best of 12 a.m. Vancouver
If you listen to any of the chatter around the Granville coffeehouses, you'll quickly associate Ginger 62 with wild weekend parties and a notorious doorman who separates groups of friends like a prison officer. It helps to secure a slot on the guest list via the Web site before braving entrance, easing your way into a lounge-theme cocktail and tapas bar that's been one of the hottest clubs in Vancouver since opening in 2006. The space is divided between several intimate lounge rooms in a mix of Morocco meets the Marais, complete with oversize red sofas, upholstered poufs and ornate chairs in ruby-colored crushed velvet.
It's not your usual dance hall that vibrates till 3a.m.; this upscale cocktail lounge Au Bar lures dressed-up locals and the occasional celebrity for its popular lineup of weekend dance events. Native design elements like tumbled-stone walls and saloon-style barstool seating around the bar let you know that you're still in the Northwest, but with a stiletto-and-jeans clientele of revelers drinking cosmos and requesting their favorite "Umbrella" anthem for the umpteenth time. Don't miss Friday's Sensual offering, a mash-up of hip-hop and reggae hits to a mostly downtown clientele of salacious singles.
Just off the mass nightclub chaos of Granville, the owners of some of Vancouver's hippest locals like Republic and Bar None debut a VIP dance lounge called Pop Opera. It's currently the hottest club in town, a moody neon-lit experience of disco balls, white leather and endless pop remixes by Jay-Z and Rihanna. The main lounge is divided into three sections of circular settees with sunken seating on white-vinyl sofas and a separate boutique bar. Room 2, located off the main lounge, is surrounded in oversize subway tile with illuminated portholes offering a whole new perspective on hot Vancouver nightlife.