When I returned to Vancouver in the late 1980s, cycling in the city was different than it is today. In my memory, the only people brave enough to ride downtown were bike couriers. On sunny afternoons, a dozen of them would lounge and smoke outside the HSBC bank building on West Georgia Street, waiting for their next lunge, looking bored and skeptical, everyone banned.
Common citizens like me discovered mountain bikes around this time because you could ride them on trails, that is, a safe distance from the sometimes murderous city traffic.
That has all changed. Bicycle couriers fell for technology. Vancouver wanted to become a ‘green city’ and as a result we now have a network of protected bike paths throughout the inner city. Commuting, or even just casual cycling, is now no longer a life and limb endeavor.
Meanwhile, in 2015, the city also completed the latest expansion of the seawall with separate bicycle and pedestrian lanes. You can now travel the entire length, with little elevation gain, from the Vancouver Convention Center on the north side of downtown, around Stanley Park, along the north and south banks of False Creek, and finally all the way west to the expanses of sandy beaches at Spanish banks. There, bald eagles can be seen in pairs in the updraft above the anchored freighters in late spring and early summer — especially on weekdays without crowds.
The short route
Canada Place to Denman Street
I like the sea wall. But then many of us do that here. We walk with it. We cycle on it. We crowd the communal squares along its entire length in any slightly fair weather. When asked how a visitor can really see this place on a short visit, I’d say rent some wheels and hit the sea wall. There’s no better way to see Vancouver from so many angles while accessing an array of local flavors and experiences. And with bike and e-bike rental shops in the downtown area, it couldn’t be easier.
From Canada Place, the cruise ship dock in downtown Vancouver, the most compact version of the seawall ride would be to drive all the way around Stanley Park, the 1,000-acre, densely wooded public park that stretches west from downtown and is arguably the crown jewel of the city. Wind your way through the buskers and convention goers near Canada Place and hit the bike path in the southwest corner of the Vancouver Convention Center. From the north side of the building, you’ll have a great view of the working harbor: orange cranes tower over their quilt-work stacks of containers; ferries crossing the inlet to North Vancouver; the low roar of seaplanes taking off and heading west through the uprights of the Lions Gate Bridge.
It’s only a few minutes’ drive from here to the park, which meanders around the Coal Harbor Marina with its huge yachts, and then the Westin Bayshore. Be aware of foot and bicycle traffic. But past the red and white lighthouse at Brockton Point it becomes less crowded. I like the serene glide along this stretch, the forest of Stanley Park towering on one side and those towering mountains there on the other side of the cove.
Once around the corner below the Lions Gate, where car traffic rages high overhead, stop to watch the seabirds, fishermen throwing lines off the rocks, sailboats tacking and making their way between the anchored freighters.
At a leisurely pace, which I encourage, it takes about 40 minutes to get to English Bay from where you started at Canada Place. I always jump off the seawall here to dive into the dense vibrancy of Vancouver’s West End. Like many others, I rented down here. And if you stop for a drink at the Sylvia Hotel bar, or turn down Denman Street for coffee at Delany’s, or for five pork dumplings in beef broth at Legendary Noodle, you might consider yourself an honorary West Ender too.
To complete this short drive, now exit the seawall and continue north on Denman Street. You could cycle this stretch as street life is its own amusement. When you reach the water on the north side of Denman, you will rejoin the seawall and can follow it back to Canada Place.
The moderate route
Canada Place to Granville Island
For a longer drive, approximately 90 minutes round trip, stay on the seawall and drive past English Bay, under the Art Deco Burrard Street Bridge and into False Creek. Here you will find a very different set of scenes and moments from Vancouver.
Home to sawmills and lumberyards since childhood, False Creek is now a residential neighborhood with waterfront condos, shops, restaurants, parks, and more large yachts in the marinas along the north side of the creek. I always stop to check out the smaller boats that anchor for free: liveaboards, which, combined with those bathtub ferries that take people back and forth to shop on Granville Island, give False Creek a pleasantly lived-in feel.
I make it a picnic when I’m down here with friends and family. There are excellent waterfront restaurants in Yaletown’s upscale converted warehouse district. But 15 minutes past English Bay to the bottom of Davie Street, you can pick up a more casual lunch of pancetta and onion pizza at the Sciué Italian Bakery or a bento box from upscale grocer Urban Fare. Eat on the benches along the water or in David Lam Park, where you can listen to children in the playgrounds and watch the bridal parties take pictures under the cherry blossoms.
Just 10 minutes up the seawall, around the end of False Creek, past Science World’s geodesic dome, you’ll find the public plaza in Olympic Village. You know you’re there when you see the sculpture “The Birds”: two house sparrows almost 6 meters high. If you’ve been waiting for lunch, this is the area’s best food trucks, but a peach and rosemary pie and a coffee from café Terra Breads are always a hit too. After lunch, meander down to the water, lean on the railing and watch the dragon boats, 20 rowers each, churning the water into a white wake.
If you follow the signs for the Sea Wall Cycle Route, you will soon enter Granville Island. It’s a big attraction, so expect crowds. But it is also a local place. When I lived closer, I used to do my shopping at the public market here almost daily. Even now I’ll stop to say hello to the folks at Tendland Meats, or watch the fishmongers break down salmon. You can also wander the island’s alleys to watch glassblowers at work. Popina at the tip of the pier is your go-to place for everything from falafels to Nashville hot chicken, lobster rolls to crispy cod sandwiches. To complete this 90-minute ride, take the bike-friendly Aquabus on the other side of the market and it’s less than 15 minutes back to Canada Place via protected cycle routes.
the long route
Canada Place to Spanish Banks
You have seen a lot of the city by now. But as a local, I would still find one stop excellent. This is the longest version of the seawall drive and would take a total of just over two hours from Canada Place to Spanish Banks and back. Continue west from Granville Island, around Vanier Park, past the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Pause to look at the heritage boats docked at Elsje Point. I love the red sailing Anja in particular† a Bristol Bay Cutter, the ancestor design of modern racing yachts. Continue past Kitsilano Beach park, along West Point Gray Road and around the corner at the Jericho Sailing Center, where kids learn the ropes on their 420s and lasers. It’s here that the Spanish Banks opens up beyond: a broad strip of grassy shore and sandy beach that winds its way west.
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On summer weekends, the area buzzes with family barbecues and volleyball matches on the sand. But to me the day of the week is much less important than the tides. I time my visit to Spanish Banks for its lowest trough, when the sea recedes dramatically, exposing hundreds of feet of sand along a two-mile stretch of beach.
You want beach shoes. There are tide pools. With your bike locked, you go up the sandbanks. The dogs chase Frisbees up and down. The seagulls will scream and dive. The eagles will circle and soar. And if you walk close to the edge of the sand, the freighters seem almost close enough to touch.
At this point I always turn around and look at the city. I will notice the dense green shoulder of Stanley Park, the towers of the West End soaring and spiky, the crystal glass constellation of downtown and the towers of False Creek, all seeming still and still from this distance, a seam of life fastened between the dome of the eggshell sky above, the steel-blue ocean below.
Here’s the best corner of town, I explain. Vancouver in a single macro glimpse. Well worth the trip for a newcomer. Also for this epicurean every time an eye-opener.
Timothy Taylor is a novelist and journalist. His latest work is a novel about the rise and fall of a famous chef. mr. Taylor lives and eats in Vancouver.