Craig Platt heads to Vancouver to see if the city lives up to its reputation.
Sitting in the sun at the Granville Island market, enjoying a hot chocolate and watching boats and the occasional kayak make their way up False Creek, it's easy to believe that, yes, Vancouver is indeed the world's most liveable city.
It's a title that gets bandied about every few months when a new survey announces that such and such a country is the best in the world if you're looking for somewhere to call home.
However, only a handful of these surveys are generally respected and one of them, The Economist's, has been topped by the same city for the past seven years running. No, not Melbourne (despite what some would have you believe). It's Vancouver.
Melbourne's up there (number three this year, behind Vienna) and so is Perth (No. 5), but in the eyes of The Economist's Intelligence Unit (using data from the Mercer consulting group, who also put out their own list) Vancouver remains number one.
While it's difficult for a tourist to put some things to the test (such as the education system or employment conditions), it is possible, in a few days, to get the feel and flavour of a Vancouver lifestyle. And so I endeavoured to find out what made the city so damn liveable.
Firstly there's the weather. Sitting, as it does, on Canada's south-west coast, Vancouver offers the most temperate climate of any Canadian city, which means that it doesn't get too cold in winter, at least, not by Canadian standards (temperatures average between 0 and 5 degrees, which locals consider 'mild'). In summer, the temperature sits comfortably in the mid-20s, though for the majority of my stay the skies are overcast and the temperature languishes in the high teens.
Vancouver is a multicultural city - more so than many other North American cities – and a stroll down shopping strip Robson Street in the centre of town confirms it. All colours and creeds can be seen on the streets, and you are unlikely to walk a block without hearing at least one non-English language being spoken (35 per cent of the population is foreign-born).
As far as cultural entertainment goes, it is a city of contrasts. One night, I wander passed several rowdy bars heaving with sports fans. Is it football that has them so excited? Basketball? Or that Canadian favourite, ice hockey? No, it's the Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view, direct from Las Vegas, and probably the most violent legal sport in the world (“mixed martial arts” is how it's described, but essentially it's an almost-no-holds-barred fighting competition). Like WWE wrestling, but real. A Canadian is going for the world title and the sports bars are heaving with his supporters. But, not particularly in the mood to join a bunch of beer-swilling ultra-violent-sport fans for the evening, I decide to give it a miss.
The next evening, the contrast could not be more stark as the locals pack into a marquee by the bay for the annual 'Bard by the Beach' Shakespeare production. I take in a quirky, fun adaptation of The Comedy of Errors with a crowd that's just as enthusiastic, if less rowdy, than the Ultimate Fighting fans.
But if any further evidence of the multicultural nature of Vancouver is needed, look no further than Stanley Park on the weekend, where you'll see Canadians in their whites, playing cricket. Yes, cricket! While by no means one of the city's most popular sports, it seems that there's room for all interests in this town.
A restaurant is recommended to me in the newly gentrified Gastown district, an area once considered one of Vancouver's roughest neighbourhoods, but now home to some of its hottest restaurants and bars. The restaurant, Salt Tasting Room, is located in the dubiously titled Blood Alley.
Never fear, I think, we Melburnians are quite used to wandering down dark alleyways to find the best restaurants and bars. I'm sure that, despite the name, Blood Alley will be overrun with dining spots and hip young things.
Not quite. Vancouver is yet to reclaim its alleys and laneways in the way Melbourne has (and Sydney has attempted to). Salt, I'm told, is one of the only restaurants to be found in a Vancouver laneway. And one certainly gets that feeling walking down a slightly intimidating narrow lane, populated by several dubious-looking characters, to find the restaurant. Once there, however, it's almost like being back in Melbourne as one is immediately surrounded by cool-looking young Vancouverites on the bench seating. Salt specialises in cheese, wine and preserves, making it a prime spot for a light meal or entree before moving on to the main event.
This could be somewhere like L'Altro Buca, a fine restaurant sitting underneath an a apartment block in the strangely suburban-like Haro Street (in reality, it is just one block back from bustling Robson Street), or Chambar - a Belgian restaurant that's one of the hottest joints in town, both for food and cocktails.
Vancouver may boast that it is home to the world's largest automated rail network, but that doesn't mean it has transport sorted out. The rail network, while reliable, is far from extensive, leaving most Vancouverites reliant on their cars or buses for transport. With a population of 2.1 million, this results in peak-hour traffic congestion.
However, cycling is a popular option for inner-city workers and the mayor is encouraging this – during my visit, the front page of the Vancouver Sun was dominated by the mayor's decision to make one lane of traffic on Burrard Bridge, one of the main bridges into the CBD, a bicycle-only affair.
The real geniuses of the Vancouver commute, however, are the islanders (see Island Life below) who live on small patches of land in the waterways surrounding the city. Some, such as those living on the Bowen Island, can live in beautiful, heavily forested surrounds while only 30 minutes from the CBD by water taxi.
The residents seem to love cycling, whether to work or just for fun. Stanley Park, an island just on the edge of the downtown area, features a 8.8-kilometre (one-way) bike path around its circumference and is popular with locals and tourists alike (bike rental stores can be found near the entrance to the park). It's the perfect way to see one of North America's largest urban parks. While most of the visitors stick to the water's edge, it's worth walking or cycling into the island's interior to enjoy the peace and quiet and marvel at the enormous fir and cedar trees.
Given the amount of water surrounding the city, it's not surprising to see that water sports are popular (though, given the temperature of the water, many of them involve the participants not actually getting wet). Kayakers can be seen gliding through the water along False Creek, adjacent to the CBD, while others sail boats out into deeper water.
In winter, locals can flock to Whistler Blackcomb for snow sports, just 115 kilometres away. The famed ski resort is hosting alpine skiing events for the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February next year.
Well, I didn't get mugged or beaten up (not even in Blood Alley), and crime levels are a key factor in the Economist's rankings, so Vancouver seems to be doing OK in that department. That said, no tourist from Australia could fail to be struck by the obvious problems Vancouver faces with homelessness.
Walking down a single block on Robson Street on a Saturday afternoon, you are likely to be asked for change three or four times before reaching the next cross street. It's all the more striking considering the Winter Olympics are approaching rapidly and the Games are usually an impetus for governments to take strong action to deal with homelessness. Recently, the provincial government proposed a bill to force the homeless into shelters during extreme weather, which some critics labelled an underhand way of sweeping the homeless under the carpet during the Games.
What's interesting about the islands surrounding Vancouver is how rural they seem, despite often being only half an hour from the city by water taxi.
Early one morning I take a trip out to Bowen Island, a 30-minute boat ride from Grenville Island. In the time it takes many inner dwellers to reach the city, I'm in a tiny island community, surrounded by thick forest and locals living an idyllic, rustic lifestyle.
While the island has its tourist attractions (a golf course, kayaking, nice cafes and a fantastic chocolate shop), it retains a village-like feel. Indeed, many Vancouverites seem to be unaware of its existence, or at least have never made the trip out to visit.
This seems to suit the locals just fine, who comfortably live out a Nothern Exposure-style existence on the edge of a bustling metropolis.
My plans to kayak around the island look dubious as clouds roll in and the wind picks up. As it turns out, however, one side of Bowen remains sheltered so I am able to take to the water, with a guide, and explore the beaches and outcrops of the island – occasionally spotting seals relaxing on the shore.
Back in town, I chat to some of the Bowen Island locals. It's the sort of place where everyone knows everyone else and the only drawback, according to some of the younger residents, is the lack of nightlife (the last water taxi leaves Granville Island at 9.30pm on Friday and Saturday nights, meaning an overnight stay for those wanting to enjoy the city nightlife).
Still, the island looks like one of the most liveable parts of the world's most liveable city.
Yes, Vancouver seems like a good place to live. But would I emigrate? Not in the foreseeable future. Yes, it might have more consistent weather than our southern capitals – but it's consistently worse. And I'll take Melbourne's ACDC lane over Blood Alley any time.
So, no, I wouldn't want to live there – but it's a nice place to visit.
Craig Platt travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism British Columbia.
The recently renovated St Regis is a centrally located, modern boutique hotel with double rooms from CAD$141.50 a night.