It's the smallest things that make you smile in Vancouver: strolling around the city's bustling CBD and catching a glimpse of a towering snow-capped mountain between the buildings; the locals' enthusiasm for fresh air, even when it's under 7°C and an icy chill cuts through to your bones; or the ducks taking over the harbourside 137-metre-long Kitsilano pool in winter – well, autumn, winter and often well into spring, too.
Travel is meant to take you from your comfort zone and challenge your perspective, but there's something about Vancouver that also deliciously reminds me of Sydney. Perhaps it's the picturesque setting, on the coast surrounded by water and harbour. Crossing the harbour on foot, or bike, feels like a trip from the Sydney CBD to Kirribilli might have about 30 years ago.
I encountered different responses when people knew I was going to Vancouver, and upon my return. One was "Oh terrific, I love Van" (what all the locals call it). There was also, "Oh god, it's so boring – what on earth did you do there?"
The latter was far less frequent, and having been there twice I am a Van-fan and have a ready answer. My best friend from high school lives there, and her partner is Canadian, so happily my experience has been influenced by locals.
They've taken me on the Grouse Grind, also known as the Peak of Vancouver, which is a steep 2.9-kilometre trail up the face of Grouse Mountain, just 15 minutes' drive from downtown Vancouver. It's been dubbed "Mother Nature's Stairmaster", though I'd simply call it torture. But despite my complaining and physical agony, I'm proud to say I did it (but did not buy the T-shirt). The view from the top was just about worth it and the cable car ride to the bottom was the only way I was getting there!
Far more pleasant was the following day's trip to Scandinave Spa in Whistler. This traditional Scandinavian spa experience is open year-round, with outdoor hot and cold spas, Nordic showers, saunas and hammocks, all beneath ancient cedar pines on the edge of Lost Lake Park. It certainly soothed the muscles from the previous day's exertion. You're also not allowed to speak, and there's no mobile phone coverage. Bliss!
Vancouver itself should be traversed on foot or bike. I don't know about other visitors, but the combination of having friends there and my need to disconnect from work always finds me being active and spontaneously curious: walking, running, bicycling – even dining. I don't know if Van restaurants rarely take bookings, but I've never made one.
Whether downtown, strolling towards trendy Yaletown or across the harbour at Granville Island and the "in" Kitsilano precinct, there is no shortage of options from classic burgers, salads, modern Italian, Mexican or high-end seafood and steak restaurants. The sushi is famous. My experience was of clean, simple, fit-friendly cuisine with plenty of fresh produce. Of course you can always get fries with that, or even a $95 steak – but relaxed is the way to approach life in Van.
Get your skates on
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, apparently. At 2.9 kilometres long, this is at least a 90-minute test of thigh strength and mental endurance. What lies ahead are 2830 stairs and a climb of 853 metres until you reach the summit, at a height of 1127 metres. More than 150,000 people hike the trail each year. My tip is to take the time to stop to smell the roses – and rest your thighs.
ON YOUR BIKE
You can hire a bike on most street corners in Vancouver and riding around the 8.8-kilometre sea wall of Stanley Park is a lovely way to spend a morning or afternoon. In summer, stop for a dip at the local beaches, beach pools, and a water park. Otherwise, ditch the bike for a couple of hours as you play a round of minigolf or a game of tennis, or exhaust the kids at any number of playgrounds. There are also 27 kilometres of walking trails too, if you prefer two legs to two wheels.
A 90-minute drive north of Vancouver is the town of Whistler, which of course is well known to snow-sports enthusiasts. During the warmer months, a major attraction is the Scandinave Spa experience. While the hot and cold spas are the drawcards, it's worth booking a massage and spending time chilling under the centuries-old trees that make up the nearby forest. I can only imagine the experience during winter as snowflakes fall while you soak in a hot spa.
When it comes to a dress code, anything goes, with a distinctly casual flavour. While I've never worked in Vancouver, I see more jeans and trainers around town than just about anywhere I've been. When I texted my friend to ask if it was okay that I was likely to be wearing activewear to dinner – albeit Lululemon, the global activewear juggernaut founded in Kitsilano, Vancouver, in 1998 – she replied: "Absolutely. Activewear is sooooo Kits, dahling!"
About halfway between Kitsilano and downtown Vancouver is a great restyled retro 1970s hotel, The Burrard, which is centrally located just blocks from the restaurants of Granville Street, Davie Street, Gastown, Yaletown and an easy walk to Stanley Park.
Don't let the ducks have all the fun. If you're planning a visit in summer, get in some exercise at the harbourside Kitsilano pool. At 137 metres long, you don't have to do as many laps!