The best city in the world?

Best city in the world? The surveys say Vancouver is number one.
Best city in the world? The surveys say Vancouver is number one. Photo: Donald C. & Priscilla Alexander

Numerous surveys rate Vancouver as the best place in the world to live. Mark Jones can see why.

I walk from my Vancouver hotel around the dock to Tom and Mairead's apartment at False Creek. On this blinding, blustery morning the walkway is busy; but I am the only one walking in the English Sunday-morning-strolling-amiably sense.

There are buttocky power-walkers, iron-pumpers in vests and aerobic dog-walkers exhaling louder than their pets. We pedestrians have one lane; the joggers, cyclists and rollerbladers have theirs. This is organised leisure at its most efficient.

This is my first close-up look at the super-citizens of this supercity. And what an impressive bunch they are. Wherever they and their families have come from - China, Russia, India, Germany, South Korea, Britain - they seem fitter, healthier and taller than the people back home.

If Vancouver were a tennis player it would be Roger Federer. It's always first or second in those surveys of the most liveable cities in the world. Like Federer, it's almost a new breed, evolved to the next level of healthiness, confidence and creativity.

And everyone wants a part of Vancouver: families from Shanghai, high-achievers from Mumbai, film-makers from LA, CGI designers from London - and anyone in Canada who is a bit fed up with the cold. No Ontario blizzards, no LA smog, no Hong Kong chaos. Just mountains, sea, big skies and wide streets.

My friends' flat is a chic, high-up place overlooking Granville Island. The two of them are not part of the new wave of emigration from the depressed and downtrodden Old World. They came to Vancouver five years ago, loved the city and found a place to live.

They love the city's European scale - you can walk everywhere and no one goes out of town to shop - its New World laid-back air, its Pacific Rim modernity, the food, the boats, the beaches, the creative community they hang out with.

So this is many places in one. In Douglas Coupland's brilliant Vancouver book, City of Glass, there's a helpful "Parallel Universe map", where the city and its surrounding region are divided into its global doppelgangers. So you get Denver and Dallas, Auckland and Vermont, Bavaria and Liverpool, and a couple of dozen more places, all within the confines of the greater Vancouver area.

Consulting Coupland's map, we set off from Singapore for lunch in San Francisco, then stroll over to Sydney; or, in the real world, take a two-minute boat trip from False Creek to Granville Island, then a short cab-ride over to Gastown.

Granville Island is a busy, cute place of converted light industry. The industries these days are boat charters, food markets, restaurants, busking, cheese-making, jewellery design and more.

What I most like about the island is eating red snapper on the deck of the Sandbar restaurant, next to the cormorants nesting in the bridge, looking back to the real Vancouver. Here is Coupland's City of Glass: a shimmering glade of aquamarine windows, curves and towers, grey steel and white tower blocks, coupled with sparkling water and swaying trees.

You don't come to a city of the future to find the past. There's no architectural heritage of the kind you'd see in Chicago or Melbourne, and very little neo-Gothic hiding within the shade of the skyscrapers. But what past there is, you'll find mostly in Gastown.

The name is straight out of Mrs Gaskell or Dickens; but the district actually got its name from a garrulous - "gassy" - Geordie saloon owner who settled there in 1867. But as is the way with scurrilous neighbourhoods saved from Sixties bulldozers then colonised by Bohemians, Gastown is now a hip place of boutiques, bars and escalating real estate. Even the Irish Heather pub makes a design statement. My Dubliner guides aprove. "This is the best Irish pub in town," Mairead says. "In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's the best of most Irish pubs in all cities."

Earlier this year, the city received a certain amount of criticism, especially from the British tabloids, thanks to the duff launch of the Winter Olympics. The criticism clearly still stings but the Olympics were a great success and further established the city, almost as a distinct entity, apart from Canada, a country from which Vancouver has "a psychic disconnection", according to Douglas Coupland. He reckons his home town will evolve into some kind of independent city state within a few decades.

As we tour the bay in our boat or share the walkways of Coal Harbour on the northern edge of downtown with the new pan-Pacific super-race, we can see what he means. There's a different kind of intactness and boldness -

not to say, affluence - about Vancouver. Maybe the Quebecois separatist argument is moving west.

Still, between all this futurism and swagger, Vancouver stays laconic and just a bit weird. Strolling in Stanley Park, we come across the remains of The Hollow Tree. This historic and huge red cedar, 40ft around, was saved at the cost of C$250,000 after the great storm of 2006. Coupland relates how, in the mid-Nineties, his mother phoned him in Europe to say the police had found his car parked in the same tree. It seemed that two men had stolen it, got sloshed, strapped some antlers to the bonnet and then passed out.

As Coupland says, "Vancouver is perhaps the only city in the world where criminals might strap moose antlers to the hood of a stolen car and abandon it inside a 1000-year-old hollow tree."

The Sunday Telegraph, London

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