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Vancouver and Whistler team up for an Olympic effort

From the slopes to the streets, Vancouver and Whistler have a lot to offer Winter Olympic visitors by day and by night.

December 13, 2009|By Hugo Martín | Reporting from Vancouver and Whistler, Canada

For a bit of an education about the region's native people, check out the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia on the western tip of Vancouver. The accordion-shaped building is undergoing a $55.5-million upgrade that is expected to be completed in time for the Olympics. Step into the 122,000-square-foot building to examine towering totem poles, First Nation statues, colorful paintings and hand-woven rugs.

Where to eat, party, shop

On a soggy fall morning, I sat down to breakfast with Amber Sessions, a Tourism Vancouver representative, at a cozy eatery called Medina Café. I took out my city map and asked her to recommend places to eat, party and shop. She marked so many places I could barely read the map.

"Good luck seeing it all in three days," she said.

If I had to recommend a neighborhood for dining, it would be Yaletown, a former warehouse district that has been remade as a haven for loft-dwelling yuppies and upscale eateries, like Blue Water Café, Bacchus at the Wedgewood Hotel and Goldfish Pacific Kitchen. But if you want to save money and dine with the locals, check out Hon's Wun-Tun House on Robson Street, a noisy, crowded eatery where you can munch on a plate of pot stickers for about $4.

For night life, Granville Street from Nelson Street to Robson Street throbs every weekend night with young, rowdy partygoers, bouncing from nightclub to nightclub. One of the longest lines on the street snaked out of the Tonic Nightclub, a three-story riot of pulsating music, strobe lights, disco balls and booze.

The shopping hub of downtown Vancouver is along Robson Street, between Jervis and Burrard streets. Besides a few local shops, sushi restaurants and pubs, the street is dominated by the usual chain stores. Welcome to the United States of Canada.

For outdoor enthusiasts

After stuffing my face with pot stickers at Hon's Wun-Tun House, I tried to work off the calories on a bicycle ride along what locals call the sea wall, a smooth, flat bike and jogging path that encircles most of downtown Vancouver and Stanley Park. My ride was frequently interrupted by great photo opportunities: the towering Lion's Gate Bridge, the statue of "Girl in a Wetsuit" along the shore of Vancouver Harbour and the inukshuk at English Bay Beach, the massive stone landmark that has been adopted as the symbol of the Olympics.

If you make the two-hour trek between Vancouver and Whistler, be sure to check out two of nature's most spectacular attractions. About 35 miles north of Vancouver, along Highway 99, stop to check out the 1,100-foot white-water cascade of Shannon Falls, the fifth-highest waterfall in the world. The view is well worth the short hike along a dirt trail from a small parking lot to the base of the falls.

A few miles north of the falls, make another stop at Brackendale, a tiny community known as one of the largest gathering spots of eagles in North America. In 1994, the town set the world record for most eagles in one spot: 3,769. America's national symbols gather along the Squamish River to feast on spawning salmon between mid-November and mid-February. I was here in early November, but it was too early in the season, the driver of my shuttle bus said. I still caught sight of a lone eagle that soared over the river, its outstretched wings cutting a majestic silhouette against the cloudy skies.

Skier high point

In 1960, a group of Vancouver entrepreneurs created the Garibaldi Olympic Development Assn. to pitch Whistler as a venue for the 1968 Winter Olympics.

But the 7,156-foot peak was still undeveloped, with few visitor accommodations. The only access to the mountain was a treacherous dirt and gravel road. Olympic bids for the 1976 Games and for the 1980 Games were rejected for many of the same reasons.

Those early fans had reason to love Whistler. Conde Nast Traveler, Outside and Skiing magazines have ranked it among the best in North America for its humongous vertical drop (second in the world only to Revelstoke Mountain in British Columbia) and one of the longest ski seasons in North America.

From early November to late May, the mountain gets an average of 33 feet of snow.

More than 100 trails and 4,757 acres of skiable terrain cover Whistler alone. The recently added Peak2Peak gondola, the world's longest, now connects Whistler to the adjacent Blackcomb peak, adding to your ski menu 100 or so more trails plus 3,414 acres of skiable area -- more than you can get at Vail, Colo., and Sun Valley, Idaho, combined.

That may sound intimidating to novice skiers. But even an intermediate skier with a strong sense of self-preservation can get down the mountain from almost any lift by a moderately safe route.

Locals say the altitude and the proximity to the sea make the snow here extra fluffy -- although it felt cold and hard to me when I performed my usual face plants on one of my many runs.

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