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Western Canada's Crossroads of Pacific Culture : Vancouver combines spectacular natural beauty with a rich and diverse heritage and fine cuisine.

September 05, 1993|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY

VANCOUVER, Canada — Take the best elements of San Francisco, Seattle, Sydney, Stockholm and a few other of the world's most beautiful and vibrant seaside cities, ladle them all into the same bowl and you come up with a blend of flavor, texture and color remarkably similar to that of this fascinating and altogether gorgeous city on Canada's Pacific Coast.

Radiant blue waters? You're practically surrounded. Majestic mountains? Their snow-shrouded peaks are all but hanging over your shoulders. Cultural diversity? Vancouver's roiling ethnic mix belies its erstwhile reputation as a bastion of staid Anglo Canada.

Compared to the 16th-Century efforts to establish a New France in Eastern Canada's Quebec, Vancouver is a latecomer to Canadian history. Salish Indians inhabited the region until the Spanish arrived in 1791, the British a year later.

But the area remained just a tiny logging operation until the arrival in 1867 of one John Deighton, a loquacious former seaman and saloon keeper who rightfully earned the nickname "Gassy Jack." Deighton's up-river saloon had gone bust along with a nearby gold rush, so he moved his watering hole down-river.

Gassy Jack stepped out of his small boat with his native Indian wife, six dollars and a dog. He used a barrel of booze to lure thirsty lumber-mill roustabouts into building his new hostel-cum-pub, the Globe Hotel. The Globe prospered and the shantytown of Granville, known for a while as Gastown in Gassy Jack's honor, grew up around it. Sensible souls later changed the name to Vancouver.

Still, it wasn't until Vancouver was chosen as the western terminus of the Trans-Canadian railway in 1885 that things really took off, and Canadians east of the Rockies began to recognize the importance of what was to become their major Pacific port and outlet to the Far East.

Today, this jewel of British Columbia is Canada's fastest-growing metropolis. Its ethnic diversity has helped create a cosmopolitan city known throughout the country for superb cuisine, marvelous Northwest Indian handicrafts, great recreation activities and an au courant lifestyle.

The exuberant spirit of Vancouver is right on the surface for all to see and enjoy. We passed three squares at lunchtime where small bands were playing jazz, reggae and show tunes. The cultural and night life scenes rank with any in Canada.

Getting settled in: One of Vancouver's best buys, if not in all of Canada, is the Sylvia Hotel, right on the beach of lovely English Bay and just two blocks from beautiful Stanley Park, one of the city's major attractions. Though far from luxurious, the ivy-covered old building has a distinct European flavor, and the bedrooms and public areas are simple and old-fashioned. The pleasant restaurant has a three-course, table d'hote dinner for $10, and there's also a sidewalk cafe. The suite-with-kitchen price is a tremendous bargain, but early booking is a must.

Downtown Vancouver's Days Inn delivers exactly what one expects from this chain: convenient location, smallish rooms, pleasant decor in soft colors, restaurant, bar and no frills anywhere.

Also at the heart of downtown is the Pacific Palisades Hotel, a member of the excellent Shangri-La International chain. Most rooms in this handsomely furnished high-rise have views of English Bay or the harbor, and there's a small kitchenette in all standard studios. There's live music in the dining room every evening and a business center for briefcase types.

Regional food and drink: Fresh seafood is obviously the strong suit here, with a decided accent on the many joys of salmon--grilled, barbecued, kippered, smoked and slivered dry into a kind of jerky. Try the "Indian candy" version, a huge local favorite consisting of small chunks of salmon roasted with a hint of brown sugar. It's often served as a first course with other forms of this king of fish.

Fresh lamb and chicken are raised in the area, and there are lots of herb farms nearby. "Fusion" cooking is strong here: melding the best of French-Chinese-Italian and other cuisines into imaginative dishes.

Wines are taken very seriously in Vancouver, with one restaurant offering 79 kinds of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia wines by the glass or bottle (see below). Molson is the big beer hereabouts.

Good local dining: The Raincity Grill (1193 Denman St.) is just across the street from English Bay. It has indoor and outdoor dining, and has gained a quick reputation as one of the town's best new restaurants. The very adventurous menu ranges from starters of smoked shark or hot-and-sour soup with a cilantro pesto, through such pastas as spinach fettuccine with blackened eggplant and garlic, and on to the house specialty of bluefin tuna grilled with mint and garlic. Other main courses include duck sausage grilled with mushroom risotto, and grilled red snapper with curried lentils.

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