As I approached Stanley Park from my nearby hotel, I began to smell cedar and fir, enticing me further with the promise of something special. Abutting downtown Vancouver, the park occupies one thousand acres on a peninsula with extraordinary views all around. Named after Lord Stanley, Canada’s governor general (1888–93) who was responsible for preserving the land as a park, Stanley Park today is one of the world’s greatest urban parks as well as Vancouver’s largest and oldest. It honors its namesake with a statue of him, dedicating the park “to the use and enjoyment of people of all colours and creeds and customs for all time.”
I entered the smoke-free park and turned right, onto the 5½-mile Seawall Promenade, which runs around the perimeter of the entire park. Fully completed in 1980, it’s part of the longer 17-mile Seaside Greenway, the world’s longest uninterrupted waterfront path. Almost immediately I was rewarded with views of the downtown skyline and Coal Harbour, a seaplane on its way to Victoria, and the sailboats docked at the Vancouver Rowing Club.
I passed by the spit of land that leads out to Deadman’s Island, at various times in its history a Native American battleground, Native American burial site, quarantine station during the 1888–90 smallpox epidemic, logging camp, squatters village, and, presently, a naval reserve and home to a naval museum.
Not very far from there, at Brockton Point, I came upon the collection of nine First Nations totem poles, some colorfully painted, and eight of which are replicas. The ninth was added only in 2009. Carved from cedar, these totem poles tell stories of real or mythical events, with each carving bearing a particular meaning. The eagle, for instance, represents the kingdom of the air, while the whale signifies the lordship of the sea and the frog the transitional link between land and sea. My favorite was the shortest in the group, the Thunderbird House Post, with a thunderbird at the top, its colorful wings full extended, and, at the bottom, a grizzly bear holding a human.
From there, the pedestrian and bike promenade wends its way around a little peninsula. Here, the Nine O’clock Gun, an electronically fired cannon, sounds every night at said hour. I heard it once on a different day, from outside the nearby IMAX theater—a short boom followed by a big puff of smoke. Up at the tip of this peninsula, I took in views of North Vancouver (rather industrial, including two giant hills of sulfur from Alberta), with a wonderful mountain backdrop. Beside me, the square and squat Brockton Point Lighthouse, painted red and white, guided ships through Vancouver Harbor from 1914 to 2008.
Continuing along the promenade, I spied what I first assumed to be a replica of Copenhagen’s The Little Mermaid, sitting on a rock rising from the water, close to the shore. Closer inspection proved me wrong. This was Girl in a Wet Suit, created in 1972 when scuba diving was becoming popular in Vancouver. The life-size bronze female figure wears a mask and flippers. Opposite her, on land, the SS Empress of Japan Figurehead lunges above the promenade — a colorful fiberglass replica of the figurehead of the 456-foot ocean liner that sailed to and from Asia more than 300 times between 1891 and 1922. The green dragon head, with ferocious teeth, looks out at the harbor, with red flames flanking its sides over its tiny, Tyrannosaurus rex–arms.
A much simpler monument is just a short stroll away. Lumberman’s Arch, erected in 1952 to honor the lumber industry in British Columbia, comprises four logs: One massive tree trunk rests on a stout horizontal log at its base and on two higher, angled vertical logs at its top.
Once I passed under the arch, I was on my way to view the longest suspension bridge in the British Empire when it was built in 1938. Lions Gate Bridge ran above me, guarded by lion statues at its entrance ramp and giving birth to the namesake of the film company Lionsgate, formed in Vancouver and responsible for producing such films as Hotel Rwanda, American Psycho, Crash, and The Hunger Games, and television programs that include Mad Men, Nurse Jackie, and Grace and Frankie. On the opposite side, at Prospect Point, I took in the beguiling views of the bridge, North Shore Mountains, and Burrard Inlet.
The promenade turns and curves back southwards, and I soon came upon one of Stanley Park’s more interesting features, Siwash Rock. Located just off the path, this ancient sea stack (32 million years old) juts out from the water, and a little tree has found a home on its top. According to First Nation legend, the god Q’uas the Transformer turned a Squamish warrior named Sklash into this monolith in reward for being unselfish.
By now, I was ready for lunch, and the Teahouse Restaurant fortuitously presented itself, just past Third Beach, with its log benches on the sand offering respite and sweeping views. Originally built as a World War II garrison, the restaurant is backed by towering trees. I sat on the outdoor patio, dining on outstanding herb-crusted salmon with citrus beurre blanc, roasted fingerling potatoes, and broccolini while absorbing the view of the North Shore and huge cargo ships plying the waters of English Bay.
After lunch, I veered off the Promenade and delved deeper into the park along the 17 miles of hiking trails that snake their way through meadows and thousands of hemlock, red cedar, spruce, maple, and fir trees. These quiet trails offer a refuge from city life and the more developed parts of the park that I had been exploring all day. In this setting, six logging companies engaged in clearing the land between the 1860s and 1880s. Stumps from that time serve as a reminder of their activity, but so do massive trees (called “monument trees”) that survived their axes. Since being designated a reserve, the regrowth has been remarkable, and today this bosky, shady paradise fills your nostrils with wonderful woodsy aromas and your lungs with fresh air.
I followed the trails to Lost Lagoon, where a one-mile path wraps around this freshwater pond, with its Jubilee Fountain and where great blue herons, swans, geese, and ducks have established homes. I looked up, hoping to find the nest of one of the five pairs of breeding bald eagles in the treetops, but I was unsuccessful, and as I returned to the woods, I was compensated for this by visits from some of the three types of squirrels who live here.
I meandered to the Rose Garden, established way back in 1920. In full bloom, the garden features more than 3,500 rose bushes plus plenty of other annuals and perennials in all shades of blue and violet, yellow and orange, in scattered flower beds. Climbing roses and clematis wrapped themselves all around the West Coast–inspired arbor, and a floral aroma scents the air.
At last, I reached my final destination of the day. One of the top five aquariums in the world, Vancouver Aquarium is also Canada’s largest. Opened in 1956 as Canada’s first public aquarium, it was also the first in Canada where a beluga whale was both conceived and born. It was the first aquarium in the world to employ full-time educational naturalists to study and interpret animal behaviors, to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and to capture and display a killer whale (a practice it no longer follows — the aquarium relies solely on its own animals to breed to keep its exhibits populated). History and education aside, this aquarium is also simply fun, and I was thoroughly entertained by the jellyfish and urchins; dolphins twirling and soaring through the air; playful otters frolicking about, seemingly without a care in the world, and then floating on their backs with their forelegs resting idly on their chests; the beluga that does a bit of showing off by popping up from the water only to submerge again and then hoisting his tail and rear of his body straight up into the air; and seals and sea lions exhibiting almost human behavior.
As I finally emerged from Stanley Park, back in downtown Vancouver, I reviewed the park map, noting all the things I hadn’t allotted time for, such as the Shakespeare Garden, the Rhododendron Garden, Beaver Lake, the Hollow Tree, and monuments to Queen Victoria, Scottish poet Robert Burns, 190 Japanese soldiers from Vancouver who served in World War I, and Warren G. Harding, the first U.S. president to visit Canada and the park. Clearly, more time would have been necessary for exploring the park, so if you head to this urban oasis, make sure to allot two full days. You’ll be rewarded memorably.