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Traveling In Style : PICTURE OF PERFECTION : Vancouver Is So Clean, Quiet, Beautiful and Pure of Heart That After a Days There, This Celebrated World Traveler Started Yearning for a Few Flaws

March 01, 1992|JAN MORRIS | Jan Morris is the author of numerous books, including "Hong Kong" and "Manhattan '45." This article is from "O Canada!" to be published by HarperCollinsPublishers in April.

IT NEVER RAINS IN VANCOUVER--I HAVE BEEN HERE SIX times now, so I know this for a fact. Also nobody has to work, nobody is sick, and you can leave your front door unlocked when you go away. Basking in perpetual sunshine, with no commitments, no financial worries, no pressure of competition and blissfully happy marriages for one and all, Vancouver is a city whose inhabitants are people of the Blessed Isles, spared all wars and natural calamities, spared even the miseries of urban decline, political corruption, rush-hour hassle or juvenile delinquency.

If you doubt all this, look about you now, upon the seashore walk around the lovely park, and observe those inhabitants. They move unreally through an almost unreal environment, where never a dog defecates or a garbage can spills, and where even the big black crows refresh themselves decorously at drinking fountains. How clean they look, how sensible, how content! Barefoot girls in long dresses build sandcastles on the glistening flats, the sailboats shifting blue and white behind them as in a Boudin painting. Preternaturally slim elderly ladies lie behind driftwood windbreaks, wearing bikinis with perfect propriety and reading romantic fiction. Joggers bound by in supple rhythm. Scrubbed, polite, law-abiding youths swoop athletically about on bicycles. And what have those young people written in such large letters in the sand? Why, "Have a nice day," of course--what else?

But one need not parody, or even exaggerate, the pleasantness of Vancouver. This is, one might say, the last resort of pleasantness, and especially, I think, pleasantness of a middle-class, middle-income, middle-aged Englishy kind. A metropolis of 1.4 million people of innumerable nationalities, it still has the public manners of an English country town half a century ago. It seldom raises its voice. It would not dream of jumping a light. During 10 days in Vancouver, I never heard a car horn tooted.

Physically it is just as considerate, too. The promontory that stands at the heart of it is everyone's downtown ideal: residential beside commercial, working port beside tourist attraction, the whole elegantly framed by a backdrop of sea and snow-topped mountain range. Its high-rise buildings (nothing so aggressive as a real skyscraper) are generally discreet, its shops and restaurants are fun. It enjoys a proper contemporary mix of Chinese, Japanese and miscellaneously ethnic neighborhoods and is modestly sprinkled, as by enlightened planners of the 1950s, with manifestations of harmless sleaze ("Female Bar Wrestling at Doc's" or "Miss Nude Orient '87, Direct From Hong Kong").

And all around this exquisitely balanced core, through the inevitable miles of suburbs, there is almost nothing ugly--ordinary of course, monotonous sometimes, but seldom offensive. Refreshing parks abound and glorious excursions beckon: along spectacular fiords in steam trains, among forested islands by boat, to waterside cafes for oysters and chips, up unfrequented creeks to watch the grebes bobbing in the tide water or spot the spectral blue herons motionless on the flats.

Except for its trees and mountains, the scene has little in common with the rest of Canada. Its light is the pale, moist Pacific light that illuminates San Francisco, too, and its colors are fresh, buoyant colors, yellows and pinks and easy grays, such as restaurateurs all down this coast use when they want to emphasize the abalonic or salmonian nature of their cuisine. Vancouver is not a bronzed city, for all the exposure of those women on the beach; its complexions are sensitive, like its tastes, and its gardens are very, very green.

Dear me, how well everything works. After the incompetent decay of the New York telephone system, Vancouver's seems a very paragon of courteous modernity. Quiet, frequent, meticulously driven are the buses. Sleek and smooth is the SkyTrain, sliding on its elevated tracks above the suburbs. Majestically accelerates the catamaran SeaBus across the Burrard Inlet. There are taxis especially humped to accommodate wheelchairs, and talking elevators for the blind, and the aerial tramway that runs up to the summit of Grouse Mountain every day is operated by brisk, well-exercised girls of unimaginable helpfulness.

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