Vancouver - The Hippest City You’ve Never Visited

With more cool per square inch, Vancouver vaults onto the must-see list

By: Janice Mucalov

VANCOUVER, B.C. “Rocky, heel!” the Prada-clad, stiletto-heeled, 20-something scolds her miniature Maltese. Shoppers saunter by with Urban Fare grocery bags. Perhaps filled with $100, one-ounce tins of white truffle powder? Or the store’s square watermelons, ergonomically designed to fit in your fridge?

Down the block in the South Beach-inspired Opus Bar, a Saturday-afternoon jazz trio croons for trendy urbanites, who sip bellinis while lounging on low-to-the-ground, egg-shaped foam stools and orange leather couches. Later, they might drop by Brandi’s, the upscale strip club where heartthrob actor Ben Affleck reportedly dallied, provoking uber-diva Jennifer Lopez to break off the “Bennifer” engagement.

And you thought Vancouver was just a nice, wholesome, Canadian city.

Yes, there are the parks and beaches and forested walking trails for which Vancouver is famous. But in the past few years, a new wave of creative modernism has surged over the city. Vancouver now has a flirty side to compete with all those fresh outdoor spaces. It’s grown into a true, world-class, sophisticated metropolis rightly named the second “top city in the Americas” by Conde Nast Traveler in 2003.

After all, this is the place that beat out Salzburg to host the 2010 Olympics. That’s home to Drs. Jean and Alastair Carruthers who pioneered the cosmetic use of Botox to battle wrinkles, and host city for last month’s conference by the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, where doctors learned the new lunch-hour “featherlift” facelift that promises to be the next big thing in plastic surgery (plastic surgery junkets, anyone?). Vancouver is more than just a pre- or post-Alaska cruise stay. About 65 percent of Alaska cruise passengers spend at least one night in Vancouver, but their most common complaint is “Why didn’t my travel agent tell me about this place!” Most Alaska-bound cruisers lament that they wish they could have spent more time in the city.

If that weren’t enough, the strength of the U.S. currency against the Canadian dollar makes Vancouver the perfect place to holiday, shop and play.

Intrigued? Let’s take a peek at Vancouver today, which we feel rightfully earns the honor of being the hippest city you or your clients have probably never visited.

Trendy Neighborhoods

Perhaps no neighborhood epitomizes Vancouver’s modish renaissance better than the former warehouse district of Yaletown. At the eastern edge of downtown, renovated brick buildings house cutting-edge stores, high-rise condos, movie production studios, dot-com offices and happening restaurants.

For this year’s must-have accessory, a visit to the Yaletown Mini auto dealership tops the list of every hipster. Fashionistas head to Global Atomic Designs for the newest footwear and latest designer jeans. Foodies revel in Urban Fare, the unique “food destination” selling a wide array of specialty items Americans from Seattle drive up to Vancouver just to buy the $100 (that’s in Canadian; it’s about $73 U.S.) loaves of bread flown in from France.

After dark, Yaletown’s bar and bistro scene comes alive. On a recent Saturday night visit, the Glowball Grill & Satay Bar was packed with the young and the beautiful. Infused cocktails are poured in the sultry AfterGlow lounge at back, while the open kitchen sizzles with delicately sautéed tiger prawns, tequila rubbed lamb, robust veal chops and the like. By the time you read this, Coast, an imaginative new loft-style seafood restaurant by the same owners will be open expect the same buzz.

On the other side of the bridge from the downtown core lies South Granville. Chic boutiques, contemporary art galleries, gourmet grocery stores and top restaurants line this tony, 10-block enclave. If the woman in line in front of your client at Meinhardt Fine Foods looks like Goldie Hawn, it probably is Goldie lives around the corner in a Shaughnessy mansion with partner Kurt Russell.

Then there’s nearby Granville Island. Actually a mini-peninsula, the corrugated-metal sheds of this former industrial site have been recycled into a thriving public market surrounded by artists’ studios, shops, theaters and coffee bars. You can pick up everything from hand-carved stone sculptures from Zimbabwe to 24-karat gold, diamond-studded toe rings to local Salt Spring Island brie for snacking in your hotel room.

Sexy Spas

All that shopping, clubbing and sightseeing can get tiring. What’s a gal (or guy) to do? Visit a spa, of course.

Yaletown’s squeaky-clean Skoah Spa is almost anti-spa in its lemon-hued modernist design and lack of “whale” music (soft jazz is played instead). Catering to the under-40 crowd, it specializes in deep cleansing and exfoliating facials, with the added touch of mini-massages. With the “facialiscious” facial, you get a foot massage while enjoying the minty tingle of an exfoliating AHA mask.

Men are the focus at the new Absolute Spa at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Canada’s first-ever spa catering to men, it features pedicure chairs equipped with video games and computers for checking on sports scores, stock prices and e-mails. There’s also a barber chair for a “five o’clock buster hot towel shave.” Other testosterone-focused spa treatments include back waxes (ouch!), eyebrow grooming and deep-tissue sports massage.

Culture Rising

Vancouver has a vibrant arts community. More than 30 professional theater groups and 18 dance companies thrive in the city, and many productions lean to the left of mainstream. Take last month’s new version of “Carmina Burana” by Ballet British Columbia an erotic ballet-cantata with a 100-voice choir and 62-piece orchestra. Some of the most interesting performances take to the stage in renovated firehalls and churches, converted warehouses, the restored 1927 Orpheum Theatre and even outside. No one can resist “Bard on the Beach,” a series of Shakespearean plays wonderfully performed each summer in a huge tent in a waterfront park against a backdrop of mountains, sea and sky.

Then there’s the Vancouver International Jazz Festival each June. Rated “the hippest jazz festival in the world,” it showcases 1,700 international and local jazz greats over a 10-day period at concert halls, parks and stages throughout the city.

And let’s not forget April’s visit by the Dalai Lama. The exiled Tibetan leader, along with retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, wowed a crowd of 13,000 at the Pacific Coliseum, where they spoke on universal responsibility.

Saucy Places

Mick Jagger once praised Vancouver as the best strip-club city in the world. The classiest show takes place at Brandi’s. Everyone from Courtney Love to Shaquille O’Neal and the L.A. Lakers have hung out here. But the trendy nightclub really hit the news when Ben Affleck, engaged to J.Lo at the time, made the acquaintance of one of Brandi’s lovely ladies.

On weekends, downtown nightclubs and bars pulse with life well into the wee hours. Closing times were recently extended to 4 a.m.

To shake off your hangover, party animals can go skinny-dipping at Wreck Beach. Protected by cliffs and accessed by the “Thousand Steps” trail, the nude beach is ignored by authorities.

Ah, Vancouver. Party place, palate pleaser, shopping mecca, bun-sunning beach town. What city is hipper than that?

www.tourismvancouver. com

HIP HAUTE HOTELS

Opus Hotel

Perhaps Vancouver’s hottest hotel. The 97 minimalist-chic rooms come in five wild color schemes, from irreverent lime to cranberry red. A big hit is its “lifestyle concierge” program, where you can choose between five fictional guides to Vancouver “Susan,” a fashion analyst and pop-culture junkie, recommends Kits Beach for “the shirtless men playing volleyball.” Opus is also home to the delicious French brasserie Elixir. With a transparent glass wall separating the men’s and ladies’ washrooms, it’s the place to “see and be seen.” Rates from $165 until Oct. 31, then $115 Nov. 1 to April 30, 2005. 10 percent commission. 866-642-6787 www.opushotel.com

Pacific Palisades

It’s Miami’s South Beach meets Vancouver’s forested Stanley Park. Think ultra-groovy furnishings in apple green and persimmon, street-priced honor bars stocked with glow-in-the-dark yo-yos and foot-long Tootsie Rolls, and a complimentary glass of B.C. wine served at the end of the day. Rates from $250 until Oct. 15, then $210 Oct. 16 to April 30, 2005. 10 percent commission. 800-663-1815 www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com

Metropolitan Hotel

Built in Feng Shui style, the 197 contemporary guestrooms sport Italian bed linens and Frette bathrobes. Direct dial from your room connects you to Holt Renfrew’s personal shopping salon for a private store consultation. The Met’s Diva restaurant offers exquisite dining, and its Senses bakery has heavenly chocolates. Rates from $180 until Sept. 30, then $145 Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2004. 10 percent commission. 800-667-2300 www.metropolitan.com

The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver

The hotel may be traditional, but Mavis, the hotel dog, is pretty cool. Book your walk through Guest Services, and you’ll be given a “puppy pack” with water, scooper and bags, and healthy snacks for your canine outing. Canada’s first men’s spa, run by Absolute Spa, also just opened here. Rates vary but start at about $150. 10 percent commission. 800-257-7544 www.fairmont.com

The Wedgewood Hotel

This exclusive boutique hotel with 83 rooms was voted “Top Hotel for Value in the World” and “Best City Hotel in Canada” for 2004 by Travel & Leisure. The general manager, an ex-Tour de France cyclist, takes guests on guided bicycle tours of the city. Freshly baked cookies at turndown replenish the calories burned. Summer rates start at $244, then drop to $184 in winter. 10 percent commission. 800-663-0666 www.wedgewoodhotel.com All rates quoted are in U.S. dollars.

HOLLYWOOD NORTH

British Columbia’s booming film and television industry is worth more than $1 billion a year, and most is spent in the Vancouver area.

The city is so popular with U.S. filmmakers that it’s been nicknamed Hollywood North, and the celebrity glossies are filled with references to Vancouver these days. If you doubt that, consider that celebrity gossip mag The National Enquirer just opened a Vancouver bureau.

The upcoming movie “Catwoman,” starring Halle Berry and Sharon Stone, was just filmed here. A couple of years ago, “The Sixth Day” was shot in Vancouver starring Hollywood A-lister and now-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. And you might remember that the TV series “The X-Files” was also shot in Vancouver. Movies currently being filmed include “Chaos” (with Wesley Snipes) and “Edison” (with Justin Timberlake, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey).

For star gazing, CinCin’s restaurant on Robson Street is a great bet it’s a perennial fave of the celebrity crowd. Had your clients popped by last month, they might have spotted Timberlake and his sweetie Cameron Diaz, Elisha Cuthbert of “24,” Selma Blair and husband Ahmet Zappa or Diane Lane noshing in the Italian cucina.

The Blue Water Café is another busy haunt; Neve Campbell and Robin Tunney were there in April, to name just two.

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