Whether Embarking on an Alaska Cruise, or Coming for the Olympics

by Karen Rubin

Cruises to Alaska’s Inland Passage typically start in Vancouver, BC, giving you the rare and wonderful opportunity to add international flare to a visit to America’s “Last Frontier.”

Give yourself time to really appreciate the city and spend an extra night, as I did before embarking Royal Caribbean Line’s “Radiance of the Seas”.

Seeing the beluga whale and her baby, Nala, is a highlight of visiting the Vancouver Aquarium (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

At the time of my visit in August, Vancouver was already in high gear getting ready for the 2010 Olympics, this February, and were putting finishing touches on a monorail link from the airport right into downtown.

The city was already well set up to handle mass transit, so even though my hotel was closer to the airport than downtown and the cruise pier, I was able to use bus transportation very delightfully to get around (you just have to get the hang of which direction you are going).

When I arrived at the airport, I stopped at the visitor information desk to get some suggestions on how to best fill my afternoon, and evening before the cruise, the next day, especially in light of the rainy weather, and find out how to take the public transportation.

I quickly realize that I should have planned for a longer stay in Vancouver, because there is just way too much that I want to do. On my list for my return: a visit to the Suspended Bridge, on the north shore, which takes 30 minutes to travel to and a couple of hours to visit.

I make a plan to take the hotel’s shuttle bus from the airport to the Sheraton Four Points, which is very close to the airport, but still in a neighborhood, and from there, hop on the public bus (98B) downtown (switch to #19 to Stanley Park), to Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium,, then, for the evening, visit in Gastown, the historic district.

As soon as you arrive at the airport and you have to present your passport and change money, you know you are in a foreign country, and what makes the whole time you spend in Vancouver especially fun.

(You will really know you have been in a foreign country because you will need approved travel documents to enter the United States when returning from the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, says The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP); for more info,

Even though everyone speaks English (which is not the case in French Canada), you become aware of differences – in money, in the signage, in everyday conventions, and when reading the newspapers (the front page that day was the calamity that only one million salmon returned to their spawning grounds instead of the nearly10 million anticipated; and a fascinating article about a conclave of First Nations, Canada’s native people).

A "pas de deux" of the beluga whales (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

It takes about an hour, I think, by the time I get to Stanley Park from the hotel but I don’t even realize the time because I am enjoying the wonderful tour through Vancouver neighborhoods and riding the public bus is a terrific way to see local people.

But entering Stanley Park, I immediately realize that I would need way more time than I have allocated. Like New York City’s Central Park, Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park and Tokyo’s Ueno Onshi Park, Stanley Park is also a vast green complex of an array of important attractions.

From the city’s Parks website (,, I learn that Vancouver’s leading recreational space and the city’s giant green heart, Stanley Park offers 1,000 acres of dense West Coast forest. There are dozens of marked trails; you can roam through this “jungle” of giant trees and a 6.5-mile seawall pathway (fantastic by bike) that provides some of the best sea-to-sky mountain views anywhere in the world. Other highlights include a mini-forest of totem poles, some excellent, family-friendly beaches and a large outdoor swimming pool overlooking the waterfront. You can take a narrated one-hour Stanley Park Horse-Drawn Tour (

Vancouver Aquarium

Stanley Park is home to an array of visitor attractions: the Children’s Farmyard and Railway, the Nature House at Lost Lagoon (, the popular rose or rhododendron gardens, and the focus of our visit, the family-friendly Vancouver Aquarium ( The Aquarium, open 365 days a year, is just bustling with people when we arrive; in fact, there is a long line just to buy a ticket ($22/adult, $17/student, $14/child, infoline, 604-659-3474).

My first stop is the Beluga whale exhibit where a baby beluga has been born. You wait on line to be ushered into a below-level room where a video of the baby’s birth and her parentage is presented, then you go into two more areas under the water to see the Belugas interacting from that level. You come out at the surface and continue to watch, fascinated. Be sure to be there during feeding time.

There are many other exhibits and rooms, and various “shows” or demonstrations throughout the day. I found it hard to find a schedule, and we missed out on some of the things, including a “4-D” movie.

At Vancouver Aquarium, you get an underwater perspective on the magnificent beluga whales (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

What we did get to see, though, was a fascinating demonstration of “archerfish” – a four-eyed fish with two lenses who literally spit with such accuracy in their aim to catch their prey in such a way that it falls into their own mouth and not that of another (rival) fish. what makes it remarkable is that they have to accommodate to the refraction of the image because of the water line.

There is the most amazing exhibit of jelly fish, in tanks with lighting so that they look like lava lamp art.

The Tropics section is a habitat of birds, butterflies, sloth, red ibis and scores more.

An Englishman tells his daughter that a sea turtle that has been rescued and is now on display, “is an ambassador for her kind.”

The Crown Jewels of Planet Oceans are the coral reefs, and there is a whole display of British Columbia’s corals. Who knew? I had thought coral reefs were a tropical phenomena.

The exhibits focus on local marine life so is very different from what we have seen in the Northeast and Southeast. It is thrilling, in fact, to see marine creatures you have never seen before, like giant plumrose anemone (like mushrooms).

There is a wonderful children’s room.

I loved the Beluga whale exhibit so much, I returned and waited on line for a second visit.

A new site,, helps you plan your visit in advance (a good idea), and the Aquarium website also lets you see a webcam of the Beluga whale, which has just been named after a public contest, Nala, short for Nalautsaagaq which means �surprise gift’ in Inuktitut.

If you have more time, you can take advantage of the Aquarium’s many “encounter” opportunities, such as with the Belugia Whales which is organized so you visit the exclusive, behind-the-scenes marine mammal habitat; get a special presentation with an Aquarium interpreter complete with displays and props; participate in a full, interactive training session alongside the trainers; feed, touch or get splashy with the belugas; and get a take-home CD of digital photos taken during your beluga encounter (90-minutes, $135/adult, $185 for adult & child, and you have to pre-register).

Watching beluga whales at feeding time at the Vancouver Aquarium (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

There are similar encounters with the Aquarium’s dolphin, sea turtle, steller sea lion, and sea otter.

I stay until I am literally thrown out of the Aquarium because it is past closing time, and find my way back to the bus stop for the ride back on an electric-powered bus to downtown and the Gastown section.


This is a delightful historic section that has gone through a revival, with lovely cafes and shops.

The city’s most historic area and officially a National Historic Site of Canada – Gastown is the neighborhood where Vancouver began. Named after John Deighton, a talkative Yorkshire-born sailor, gold prospector and saloon owner who was nicknamed “Gassy Jack.” In 1867, Deighton showed up with a barrel of whisky on the south shore of Burrard Inlet and told the area’s mill workers they could drink as much as they wanted if they helped him build his saloon. The men built Gassy’s saloon in 24 hours.

Today, the historic district’s cobblestone streets, which clearly have been revitalized, are lined with Victorian buildings that today house everything from souvenir shops and First Nations galleries to stylish clothing boutiques. Its most charming and prominent features is its famous steam clock. Informational plaques placed strategically along the street to tell the history behind various buildings and landmarks make Gastown ideal for a walking tour (a free walking tour is offered in summer,

I oblige and do my own walking tour, stopping in at the lovely shops, and marvel at the steam clock as dusk turns to dark and the street lights come on, and then pop into one of the pubs.

Artful displays of jelly fish are transfixing (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Lamplighter Public House, a sports bar/pub, this evening is having a comedy show. I sit at the bar and order the three mini-burgers and because I am unsure of what beer to order, the bartender brings me a sampler of about eight of them.

Top 10 Rainy Day Activities

Tourism Vancouver offers various helpful lists, such as Top Ten Things to Do on a Rainy Day:

Take a three-hour culinary tour ( of Granville Island Public Market. Learn about B.C.’s local ingredients and what to do with them.

Recharge in the tropical heat of the glass-domed Bloedel Floral Conservatory at Queen Elizabeth Park ( Exotic plants, free flying tropical birds and colourful koi will make you forget all about the grey weather.

Warm your insides with a tongue-tingling jalapeno or chile pepper-and-chocolate gelato from La Casa Gelato (, the only retailer in the world with 508 gelato flavours.

Enjoy the tranquility of weekend afternoon tea by the fire at the Bacchus Lounge in the Wedgewood Hotel (

Embrace the rain with a guided rainforest tour and gourmet picnic lunch ( in Lighthouse Park. Discover lichens, mosses and some of the Lower Mainland’s oldest cedar trees.

A girl enjoys her encounter with a sea turtle at the Vancouver Aquarium (photo by Karen Rubin).

Take a trek to the remote east-end dockside location of The Cannery Restaurant ( Two fireplaces, one of the city’s best wine lists and a baker’s dozen of seafood choices make this a winner during inclement weather.

Select some reading material from the 1.2 million books at the coliseum-like Vancouver Public Library (

Roll out your sleeping bag and overnight next to the beluga whale tank at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (

Get lost in the incredible Museum of Anthropology ( Arthur Erickson’s spectacular glass and concrete space gives the collection of majestic totem poles freedom to tower.

Catch a matinee. Duck out of the rain and into one of Vancouver’s live theatres. Walk-ups are welcome at the Granville Island Stage and Waterfront Theatres on Granville Island, and the Playhouse and Firehall Theatres downtown. to see what’s on.

Olympic Vancouver

For those who are fortunate enough to visit Vancouver during the 2010 Winter Olympics, Tourism Vancouver offers helpful information about making your visit as pleasant as possible, including a list of Top Ten Olympic Experiences around the city:

Kids delight in their unusual perspective at the Vancouver Aquarium (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

If you don’t know a half-pipe from a water pipe or a hat trick from a magic trick, don’t despair. During the 2010 Olympic Winter Games there will be hundreds of opportunities to catch the Olympic spirit without a sport ticket or a sporting background. Here are ten options to get you started.

Attend a Cultural Olympiad performance: Culture is the second pillar of the Olympic movement and Vancouver will be celebrating it big-time during Cultural Olympiad 2010, running from January 22 to March 21. Over 600 ticketed and free performances of music, dance, theatre, visual arts and digital programming will be held in 60 venues that range from traditional theatres to unconventional locales, including a concrete plant (

Check out the LiveCity Vancouver sites: The City of Vancouver hosts two outdoor celebration sites: LiveCity Yaletown in David Lam Park (open during the Olympics) and LiveCity Downtown, across the street from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre at Georgia and Beatty Streets (open during both the Olympic and Paralymic Winter Games). Revellers can expect cultural programming, sporting highlights on giant screens, and, at the Yaletown location, a nightly laser light and water show (

Take a stroll in Vancouver's colorful historic district, Gastown (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Explore the Aboriginal Pavilion: Housed in a temporary Coast Salish longhouse on the plaza of Queen Elizabeth Theatre and topped by a 65-metre high, air-supported multi-media sphere, the unique Aboriginal Pavilion welcomes visitors from around the world to learn about the arts, crafts, food, stories and culture of Canada’s first people. Special theme days will showcase contemporary Aboriginal culture including Inuit throat signing, Métis jigging and First Nations hoop dancing and drumming (

Ski and board 24/7 on Grouse Mountain: If you’ve always wanted to hit the slopes at midnight or watch a live broadcast of NBC’s Today show, here’s your chance. Each Olympic morning, beginning at 4:00am local time, the Today show will broadcast from the top of Grouse Mountain, a popular four-season recreation destination located just 15 minutes from downtown Vancouver. During the Olympics the mountain and all its snow and dining facilities will remain open 24/7 (

Enjoy the Vancouver Art Gallery, for free: The Government of British Columbia will house its Olympic pavilion on the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Thanks to this arrangement, admission to the Gallery will be free during the Winter Olympics. Plan to immerse yourself in three special exhibits: “Visions of British Columbia: A Landscape Manual” explores the breadth and depth of B.C.’s visual art; “Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Man” presents some of the most important anatomic drawings in history; and “Visceral Bodies” in which 18 contemporary artists investigate the human form (

Write a message at the Bamboo Welcome Gates: Visit Zodiac Square in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown during the 2010 Winter Games and write a Welcome World Wish for an athlete or a country. Wishes will be placed in vibrant red, water-resistant envelopes in the Bamboo Welcome Gates and read every day to Olympic visitors.

Say “Bonjour” on Granville Island: Vancouver will boast its own French Quarter during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games when Granville Island becomes Place de la Francophonie. Join in the celebration of Francophone culture brought alive through street entertainment, theatre, music, comedy, and tourism theme exhibitions. Also amping up the fun on the island will be the House of Switzerland and Atlantic Canada House. Canadian aeronautical company Bombardier will provide a streetcar to shuttle passengers from the Canada Line’s Olympic Village station to Granville Island. And visiting foodies take note: Edible BC will continue to offer their popular chef-guided tours of Granville Island during the 2010 Winter Games (,

Hang in the O Zone: Slated to be over 66 football fields in size, the O Zone is sure to rank as one of the largest free festivals of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. The O Zone will be situated in an indoor/outdoor mall a few minutes walk from the Richmond Olympic Oval and include a huge beer garden (part of Holland Heineken House), outdoor skating rink, 42-metre LED screen showing Olympic highlights, and a nightclub that will feature bands such as Bedouin Soundclash, Tokyo Police Club and Wintersleep (

The view from Gastown of Vancouver's Lookout Tower, another prominent landmark and the place to go for 360-degree views of the city (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

Go shopping for Olympic souvenirs: The Olympic Superstore on the main floor of the Bay downtown at 674 Granville Street is filled with over 1,000 different pieces of official merchandise, from stuffed mascots and wool sweaters to Olympic t-shirts and toques (translation: close-fitting knitted caps). The anticipated “it” souvenir of the 2010 Winter Games? Adorable red knit mittens with a maple leaf in the palm (

Figure skate in downtown Vancouver: Bust out a few figure skating moves on the outdoor ice skating rink at Robson Square (below street level at the corner of Hornby and Howe Streets). Re-opening in time for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, GE Ice Plaza will feature free, fun athletic demonstrations, family events and BC-focused entertainment.

First Nations Venues

The Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games mark the first time in history that Indigenous peoples have been recognized as official partners in hosting the Olympic Games. The Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations are known collectively as the Four Host First Nations (FHFN). When visiting Vancouver, there are several ways to experience Aboriginal culture and heritage. The following are a few ideas. The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art opened in early 2008. The gallery houses a permanent collection of work by Reid as well as a collection of art being created by a new generation of Aboriginal artists along the Northwest Coast.

The BC Sports Hall of Fame recently opened their new Aboriginal Sports Gallery. The gallery celebrates the contribution Aboriginal peoples have made to the province’s sporting history and will showcase past sporting heroes.

The UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA) has undergone a recent $3.5 million renovation. The museum has now re-opened; however work will continue into 2010. The museum will increase in size by 50 per cent by 2010, rejuvenate the exhibition space, and expand the museum shop and café.

Gastown, Vancouver's historic district, has charming restaurants, shops and its marvelous steam clock (© 2009 Karen Rubin).

The Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games (VANOC) has launched a unique program, the Vancouver 2010 Venues’ Aboriginal Art Program The program will span all 15 Olympic and Paralympic venues, showcasing pieces including Four Host First Nations “welcome” works of art, women’s traditional art, works from established Canadian Aboriginal artists and art from Aboriginal youth programs (

Looking for an active outdoor experience with a First Nations focus? Takaya Tours in North Vancouver takes visitors out for a paddle through Indian Arm in 13-metre cedar canoes. Coast Salish guides sing traditional songs, tell stories and point out ancient village sites. Note that this is a seasonal activity (

Coastal Peoples Fine Arts Gallery has two locations in downtown Vancouver (Yaletown and Gastown) where visitors can peruse and purchase top-quality First Nations art works. Currently, the gallery in Yaletown features an exhibition entitled Unity: An exploration of Pacific Northwest Coast, Inuit and Maori art works (

Cruise passengers on Royal Caribbean's Radiance, bound for Alaska, get a parting view of Vancouver's skyline (photo by Karen Rubin).

Aboriginal Tourism BC has a great website that explains British Columbia’s First Nations, suggests various Aboriginal itineraries throughout the province, and lists restaurants, attractions and accommodations that provide visitors with an authentic Aboriginal experience. Tourism Vancouver site also has links for accommodations and travel packages for the Olympics (

To help you plan your 2010 Winter Games experience, the local tourism industry has created a new website – – that offers information on a range of available accommodation, including hotels, bed and breakfasts, private home rentals and rooms on cruise ships.

Aside from, visit tourism websites such as, or www.whistler.comregularly for updates on accommodation availability, or to book.

Further information is available from Tourism Vancouver, The Greater Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau, Suite 210 – 200 Burrard Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada V6C 3L6, Tel: 604.682.2222. The Visitor Center is on the Plaza Level, tel. 604-683-2000, or visit

Wednesday, 3 February, 2010

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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