Vancouver has just been voted the best City in the world to live, based on an extensive United Kingdom survey by the William M. Mercer Institute, a British based consulting firm that covered 39 factors. Vancouver shares that honor with Zurich. Vienna came in third, with Copenhagen, Geneva and Sydney close behind. Conde Naste also has the city often in the top ten in it's various exhaustive surveys, and a vibrant economy, outstanding natural beauty and more gourmet restaurants per capita population are just a few of the reasons making Vancouver a special place to live and visit. Naturally, some of the world's leading chefs such as Rob Feenie, pictured at right, are now resident here. The impression one gets first time is that of a city slightly similar to a North American City, but with a European flavor and a strong Oriental influence. It is one of the safest cities in North America, and although people are bustling around the downtown area day and night, nobody seems in the kind of frantic rush you will see in London or New York. There is a thriving Chinatown; the third largest in North America, and after English and Chinese, languages that are commonly spoken are Punjabi, German, Italian, French, Tagalog and Spanish.
The city itself is on the western-most part of a peninsula that is a major extension of the Fraser River's delta. The delta juts into a part of the Pacific Ocean, separating Vancouver Island from the mainland, called the Strait of Georgia. Across the Strait of Georgia and 60 miles to the southwest is British Columbia's capital city of Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Greater Vancouver is made up of several municipalities, with some of them nestled on the slopes of the majestic Coast Mountain range. The weather in Vancouver is the mildest in Canada, even though it rained the whole time we were there in August. Most of the rain consists of showers of drizzles, and although Vancouver is now snatching a lot of film and television production away from Hollywood, the visitors from sunnier climes mockingly call it "Brollywood".
Transportation costs are very reasonable, and for example a taxi from the airport will cost you about $25 Canadian to downtown, whereas a limousine will only be about $34. Taxi drivers all have to pass stringent tests and are geared into providing expert tourist knowledge and "enhanced customer service skills", making it a pleasant experience getting around the city. There are more than 22,000 hotel rooms in Greater Vancouver, which is the only Canadian city with three five-diamond hotels that are all situated in downtown-The Four Seasons, Sutton Place Hotel and the Pan Pacific Hotel. We stayed however at the Metropolitan Hotel, an excellent modern hotel based on the art of Feng Shui. Shopping in Vancouver is a serious business as well, and the designer shops are centered on Robson Street in downtown, which is known as the Rodeo Drive of Vancouver.
Even the rain is not enough to dampen the spirits in Vancouver with many different things to do such as jogging around the 1,000 acre Stanley Park, famous for many things including the aquarium with it's beluga whale tank, and a tour where many of the outdoor scenes in the X-Files were filmed. A horse drawn tour through the park is a must in the summer, where a one hour ride in a tram drawn by two strapping English shire horses will take you to all the various highlights of the park such as the Girl in a Wet Suit Statue, the S.S. Empress of Japan Figurehead and the Rose Gardens. Another must place to visit is the Bloedel Floral Conservatory and Queen Elizabeth Park which is not as big as Stanley Park, but still getting a massive six million visitors a year despite being only 130 acres. Naturalists flock to Vancouver all year round to view the thousands of birds that migrate there as part of their long journey between Mexico and Alaska.
However it is the food scene that was a complete revelation to me, and here are five restaurants that should be checked out, as they are all some of the best in Vancouver. Chartwell's is located in the Four Season's Hotel, so you almost know that the quality will be superb, and this place is no exception. Consistently ranked in the top three restaurants in the city, Chartwell's is dedicated to the memory of statesman Sir Winston Churchill, and paintings of Chartwell, his home, adorn the walls of the exquisite restaurant. A large fire warms up those chilly Vancouver nights, wood paneling, parquet floors and classic décor add to the classy atmosphere, and to top that, the restaurant has a brand new executive chef, Fabrice Rossman. The French native worked his apprenticeship in Michelin Star restaurants, and more recently worked in Vienna as well as the prestigious Four Season's Hotel in Berlin. Fabrice replaces Doug Anderson who has moved to Four Seasons in Washington D.C. Service is exceptional, and if you need to hold a "power lunch", then this is the place to do it in Vancouver. An extensive wine list complements the cooking that incorporates French Classic style with the many wonderful and unique ingredients, fruits and vegetables found in British Columbia. Two such examples are the Chilled avocado lobster soup with a touch of tequila and orange, or a Squash Risotto with seared scallops. There is also a five course tasting menu and a pre-theatre menu, and the restaurant has been hosting popular Winemaker dinners for 18 years, and has one every month.
Diva restaurant at the fashionable Metropolitan Hotel across the street from the Four Seasons has been open since 1996, and like Chartwell's is widely considered one of the top five restaurants in town. Executive chef Chris Mills and restaurant chef Andrew Springett have the luxury of an owner Henry Wu, who spared no expense to make sure that the restaurant got off to a strong start. Wine tastings with Jancis Robinson and recent visits from celebrities such as Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Janet Jackson have kept Diva in the spotlight.
The open kitchen gives the room a real happening feeling, and the eclectic menu derived from all the exciting local ingredients available keeps the buzz going. It has one of the best wine selections in the world, and they are not afraid to push the rapidly improving British Columbia wines such as the world class Pinot Noir from Blue Mountain Vineyards. The menu is fresh and exciting with adventurous combinations the norm rather than the exception. Just a few examples would be the smoked duck breast brushed with cinnamon and fresh thyme with a pear and asiago cheese risotto or the Queen Charlotte Island seared scallops with Moroccan preserve lemon sauce.
The Metropolitan Hotel has only 197 rooms and suites and the original opening in 1984 as the Mandarin Oriental Hotel made it North America's most expensive built hotel, per room size. The hotel was built in accordance with the ancient tradition of Feng Shui, making the atmosphere and feel of the hotel very smooth, relaxing and of course luxurious. There are business suites available as well as a health spa, and the downtown location is perfect for everything. Staff are incredibly helpful but blend way into the background, and we highly recommend the hotel as one of the places to stay in Vancouver.
Lumiere on the other hand is the brainchild of superstar chef Rob Feenie, and even the other chef's in town acknowledge that this is a place that is something special. He was the first chef to introduce the New York originated tasting menus to the city, and they are now all the rage and sure to catch on elsewhere. The menu is entirely driven by the chef's whim, and the well-heeled crowd that frequents the restaurant are treated to an endless stream of goodies to excite and amaze the palate. He is the best-known chef in Canada thanks to his upcoming book and television series, and is all business. He drives himself hard, and expects no less from his staff, who can be assured of working in a restaurant that gets packed every night. They are the only Canadian member of Relais Gourmands, an accolade reserved for only the best hotels and restaurants in the world. You will need to pull in a few favors to get a reservation, but it is well worth the effort, as the small miracles he and his loyal team perform in the tiny kitchen are a delight to behold. The small plate phenomenon is the key to the success of the restaurant, and the philosophy is to use only the finest & freshest ingredients available, and keep the preparation simple. He took risks the first year in business, lost money but still spared no expense to get it right. On top of that, you have a choice of multiple courses and smaller portions between eight and twelve courses.
The signature dishes are all outstanding and to tempt your appetites, here are just a few examples of the signature menu that costs $110 Canadian. Cold Cauliflower Veloute with lemon & curry oil and osetra caviar; Wild B.C. Citrus-Cured Sockeye Carpaccio; Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with diced papaya, mango, avocado and tobiko; Smoked Sablefish Salad with oven dried tomatoes, 25-year old balsamic vinegar and lemon verbena ice cream; Australian Rib Eye of Lamb with a parsnip puree, basil infused lamb jus and shaved parmesan; and Buttermilk Chocolate Cake with passionfruit curd and a passionfruit crème anglais.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, is one of the great Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels that has been around since 1908, and is a trip back to the past. Elegant antiques, paintings and furnishings are everywhere, and The Queen, the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret along with countless celebrities have all made countless visits. The hotel dominates the harbour area of Victoria. Three fine restaurants and the famous afternoon tea further add to the reputation, and a new spa is about to be added early next year.
The Entrée Gold service offers a private reception area, lounge, concierge and special rooms, and Travel & Leisure Magazine recently voted the hotel #13 in North America. The Empress Dining Room has changed little in décor since 1908, and offers elegant dining featuring sous chef Scott Baechler, along with one of the top wine lists in North America. His signature dish is the Roasted Rack of Lamb with Barley risotto and served with candied garlic cloves. Executive chef David Hammonds and renowned pastry chef Ken Harvey round out the team.
There are plenty of packages out of season as well such as the Lovers Escape package and the Secret Season package long after the tourists have gone home, and this grand old lady is likely to be around for at least another ninety years. A massive refurbishment has seen to that.
The Fairmont Vancouver Hotel is the first hotel in Canada actually located on an airport. Built in October 1999 at a cost of $65 million, the 392 room hotel is perfect for those who like being close to the terminal, and there are many options such as a spa, complimentary high speed Internet access, boardroom and private lounge, and a high quality restaurant to make this a viable alternative to staying downtown. After just four months in business, the hotel was awarded a Four-Diamond status by AAA, the world's largest travel organization.
The restaurant, Globe@YVR offers well prepared food featuring local produce with a distinct Pacific Rim flavor, calling it comfort food for the weary traveler. Executive chef Ian Rennie moved from the Fairmont Empress to take over, and the unique challenges of trying to please people from all over the world keep him and his team on their toes The wine list is extensive with all the top British Columbia wines such as Burrowing Owl, Quails Gate and the Hawthorn Mountain Pinot Noir are all available. Like most Vancouver restaurants, tastings and wine pairings are highly advised, and the Sunday Brunch is apparently not to be missed.
Tourism Vancouver: 604 683 2000
From North America: 1 800 HELLO BC (1 800 435 5622)
Vancouver Tourist Board
645 Howe Street, Vancouver
Four Seasons Hotel
791 West Georgia Street, Vancouver
2551 West Broadway,Vancouver
721 Government St, Victoria, BC
Fairmont Vancouver Hotel
P.O.Box 23798, Richmond, BC
From North America: 1 800 HELLO BC (1 800 435 5622)
Vancouver Tourist Board