We all know that the true meaning of Christmas, and the general spirit of the holiday season, is totally unrelated to gift-giving and receiving.
But it is a time of the year where we are given permission — even encouraged — to vacate our everyday lives.
So this Christmas, in lieu of filling our small house with more “things,” my sweetheart and I decided to fill our souls with some Canadian Christmas cheer by way of a road trip to Vancouver, British Columbia.
Vancouver’s West End and English Bay Beach
In just a few hours (including a 20 minute border crossing), we found ourselves in one of the greatest cities in the west. Historic, cosmopolitan and close to the best that nature has to offer, Vancouver is like Seattle with more rain, San Francisco with less hills, New York City with notoriously friendly natives (apologies to my NYC friends — the Canadians win this one).
We had no planned itinerary other than to enjoy an urban Christmas experience, which we managed to do in a mere 48 hours.
The strong American dollar enhanced our enjoyment, even if it did encourage a bit of overindulgence on my part.
We snagged a cozy room at the historic Sylvia Hotel on English Bay on Vancouver’s West End, facing one of Vancouver’s prettiest beaches. Pet-friendly and people-friendly, with reasonable rates, the Sylvia also borders Stanley Park and is a short walk from Denman Street’s dining and shopping scene.
Whether you go at Christmas or any other time of year, here are just a few ways to eat and drink your way through BC’s modern, coastal city.
Vancouver is one of the best dining cities on the Pacific Rim, and we managed to squeeze six meals (and several snacks) into our 48 hour vacation.
We arrived mid-afternoon, hankering for a happy hour, so we did what any savvy traveler does when they don’t know where to eat — asked the bellboy.
He recommended the nearby Cactus Club Cafe, a short (albeit rainy) stroll down the beach. The Cactus Club is a (25 year-old) chain with several BC locations, but its Executive Chef happens to be Canada’s Iron-Chef-winning Rob Feenie.
Serving “Global Cuisine with Local Fresh Ingredients,” the English Bay location is a winner not just for its superior food and scrummy cocktails, but for its location right on the beach. We chose to sit on the heated lower patio, with a view of nearly a dozen moored cargo ships and some of my very favorite BC citizens — Canadian Geese.
We ordered some light appetizers — the Tuna Stack (with “micro” cilantro — my new favorite thing), and the recommended Ravioli with Prawns — butternut squash and mascarpone ravioli topped with grilled prawns, pine nuts, crispy sage and drizzled with heavenly truffle butter.
This is the dish that won Feenie the Iron Chef, and all I can say about that is we came back the next night and had it as an entree. We also got an order of the crispy calamari, which was fine as far as crispy calamari goes, but the ravioli won this round.
The next morning was breakfast at the Sylvia, whose restaurant serves a pretty perfect Eggs “Bennie” breakfast (with four options to choose from). In fact, many Vancouver restaurants offer Eggs Bennie variations — perhaps Canadians are proprietary about the American-originated dish because it traditionally features Canadian bacon (or as it’s called in Canada, HAM).
The breakfast was a great start to the day, but the winner at the Sylvia is one of the best beach views in the city.
I really didn’t think I could eat six times in one day, but we walked about six miles, so i guess we averaged a meal per mile.
While we considered lunching in Chinatown, most real Chinese food scares me unless I’m with someone who can warn me what I’m about to eat.
You tell me.
So we opted for lunch in the lovely, historic Gastown, which has an embarrassment of dining options.
We narrowed down our choices by getting rained on, ducking into the aptly named Pourhouse. Located in a hundred year-old historic building, the menu tempted us with elevated pub food offerings like Scotch Eggs, Octopus and Smoked Potato, and Crispy Fried Cheese with curry ketchup.
Then the waiter told us about their lunch special: a choice of one sandwich, one side and one beer for $15 — a solid deal. I got the Pulled Pork with coleslaw and a sweet/tangy barbecue sauce, kale salad and a “33 Acres of Sunshine” Blanche Ale. Dan went for the Grilled Tuna and a Pilsner.
We’ll have to come back for their “aperitif hour” — their spin on happy hour (2-5!) featuring classic aperitifs like Campari and soda and Fernet Branca.
Later that night (after a second visit to the Cactus Club for dinner), we had the ten o’clock hangries, and took a tip from the Sylvia’s cocktail waitress to try Espana, a late-night tapas bar a few blocks from the hotel on the main drag, Denman Street.
We soaked up our evening’s cocktails with crunchy, melting ham and cheese croquettes, hearty toasts with white beans, rosemary and jamon iberico, and the “Gilda” — a skewer of olive, white anchovy and pickled chili — a tart, meaty bite that ended everything just right.
Next time, we’ll return with a more generous appetite and also sample from their wine, sherry and cocktail list.
We closed out our vacation with breakfast the next morning at the nearby Joe’s Grill on Denman Street.
I had a super corned beef hash that was enough for lunch the next day as well. The service was spotty, but they comped our coffee because of it. It’s a great choice if you’re looking for a diner, but I’m sorry I missed a last meal overlooking English Bay.
Canadians have no fear of a good cocktail (or beer, wine or spirits) — and between combining happy hours with the strong American dollar, well, neither did we.
Our intro to Canadian cocktails started where the Canadian cocktail really DID start — at the Sylvia Hotel.
Home to the first cocktail bar in Vancouver, which opened in 1954, the restaurant now features their “1954” cocktail — a delicious muddle of vodka, Chambord, raspberries and blueberries with a splash of soda and a lemon twist.
While you don’t get the view of English Bay after dark, there are still plenty of sights to see….
Two of the greatest hits of 1954.
We had several hours of happiness at Cactus Club, where we returned two nights in a row — once on the heated beachfront patio, the next night a more romantic dinner in the restaurant. Both times we ordered their crisply refreshing Sunset Soda — a perfect beach drink, even if the beach is in the northern latitudes.
Sunset Soda and the Canadian spin on a Bellini
Smirnoff orange, peach schnapps, a splash of soda and a dollop of peach puree — light and not too sweet, unless you factor in its $3.50 happy hour price tag. Dessert was their Bellini cocktail — a peachy, boozy slushee with rum, peach schnapps and Prosecco.
Vancouver’s not just about cocktails. We discovered some craft distillers on Granville Island that gave us shelter on a very wet afternoon, and warmed us from the inside out with good spirits and spirited company.
The Liberty Distillery boasts Vancouver’s “first hand-crafted premium spirits made from 100% BC grain.” With Truth Vodka, Endeavour Gin and Railspur Whiskey, the founders are motivated by passion and purpose, and they serve superior spirits in their cocktail lounge.
While we could have treated ourselves to a crisp martini or seasonal signature cocktail, I opted for two test flights — gin and whiskey.
Gin is my spirit of choice and I love trying new varieties, so I enjoyed three gulps (SHARED) of Endeavour Gin, Endeavour Origins, and the almost whiskey-like Endeavour Old Tom, which is aged in French Oak barrels. All are made with 100% organic, local wheat.
The Railspur whiskies are still a couple years away from classifying as Canadian whiskey (which must be aged in barrels a minimum of three years), and pack a strong punch. I especially enjoyed the Railspur No. 2, a white whiskey touched with wildflower honey.
Across the way from Liberty, we discovered another BC first — Osake Artisan Sake Maker, which is Canada’s first sake maker AND who have succeeded in growing rice in the most northerly region in the world, ensuring a sustainable supply for their small batch craft sakes.
We indulged in a trio of chilled sakes — a Junmai, Nigori and surprising SPARKLING sake. We warmed ourselves before heading back out into the rain with a cup of warm Junmai Nama sake and a snack of octopus dumplings with Sake Kasu sauce.
I left with a bottle of the sparkling and a tub of Sake Kasu, which is the paste left over after sake is pressed out. Chances are it will sit in my fridge until it turns purple — but just maybe I’ll use it to make subtly interesting chocolate truffles or an indescribably delicious marinade.
Spirited service at Osake Artisan Sake Maker.
Still, after all this delicious sampling, perhaps my favorite drink of the trip was the peppermint hot chocolate with whipped cream shared under an umbrella as we watched Christmas lights twinkling in the rain.
Holiday lights at Stanley Park
Next week I’ll wrap up my tiny travelogue with 3 more ways to play on English Bay. I hope you’ve had a memorable holiday season — I know mine will sing with me sweetly for all my years to come.