I've had a crush on western Canada since college.
Friends waxed poetic about the scenery, the culture, the sheer space. Photos and film of the pacific-side provinces always looked too beautiful to be real. And everyone told me Vancouver, in particular, was the "Austin of Canada" — trendy, artsy, outdoorsy, liberal, you know. All those things that would make me feel like I was right back in my home city. Just less hot and in the midst of pacific northwest nature.
While I figured it was a little too good to be true, I still always wanted the chance to decide for myself. Because my closest Canadian friends are all from eastern provinces, I've only ever gone right when I head north; but I've always kept a longing eye on the opposite side of the country.
About a month ago, I was doing this super fun thing I do a lot where I search random destinations on Travelocity and see what ticket prices are. (It's much like my perpetual habit of searching hypothetical road trip destinations on Google Maps, but even less realistic. Largely unproductive. But I justify the time wasted by reasoning that I don't watch nearly as much TV as other people.)
Normally, this is a 100 percent unrealistic thing; but this time, with a week of vacation time to use and a reasonable amount of money stashed, I realized that I could search with some actual purpose.
I immediately commenced an internal struggle — did I want mountains, or did I want to surf? — when, suddenly, it dawned on me: THIS WAS WESTERN CANADA'S MOMENT.
I searched ticket prices to Vancouver. They were good. I searched airbnb prices. They were great. I checked with my boss, got the thumbs up, and booked everything within 24 hours. You can't overthink these things, am I right?*
While I was at it, I messaged a friend from college.
Extremely random question for you, I started out.
Want to go surfing in Tofino the first weekend in September?
I was half-amazed when she replied a couple hours later and said she was looking up flights. Not long after, she followed up with more questions, we went over itineraries, and she'd booked a ticket to meet me in Vancouver and figured out our bus and ferry route to its Island, too.
I was actually British Columbia bound, and I'd actually convinced a friend to up and come with me. Life is great.
22 days, two flights, one train and a bus ride later, I was standing in the middle of Chinatown in Vancouver, staring up at a soaring apartment building that included my airbnb, if only I could get in.
I glanced at a screenshot of my host's most recent message, informing me that while she would be in North Vancouver the day of my arrival, she could let me in remotely if I called her via the building's intercom system. The only problem was that the code she'd given me to call didn't seem to be doing anything at all.
I studied the numbers carefully and tried entering them a few more times.
I double-checked the address and compared the photos I had.
Definitely the right place.
Finally, I gave up. The coffee shop next door was supposedly one of the best in the city, and I wandered in, lightly sticky and with a duffel bag slung over one shoulder, to set up shop until I heard back from my host.
The good news is that I can say with confidence that Matchstick has the best iced latte I've ever consumed in my life. The bad news is that a few hours later, both I (I'm homeless in Vancouver!) and the coffee shop staff (This homeless girl won't leave!) were starting to get truly concerned. About the time I was considering panic as an option, my host, Inge (who is not to blame for the check-in situation — the intercom system, it turns out, was broken), saw my nervous messages and graciously sent a neighbor after me.
Once inside the apartment (which was beautiful, by the way, and I can't recommend it enough), I dropped my bag and settled in. One whole side of the room was floor-to-ceiling windows that framed city buildings huddled beneath the peaks of the North Shore mountains, and I punctuated unpacking and teeth-brushing with frequent stops to just gape at the view.
After I felt sufficiently Not Gross and refueled, I headed down and started wandering the streets at random, looking for a snack and my bearings.
Here's the thing about Canadian cities: they're kind of just better.
They're generally cleaner, prettier and safer (or at least safer feeling) than major cities in America. Like, freedom and bald eagles and all that good stuff, but facts is facts, man. Even meandering through Chinatown's fruit and vegetable stands, criss-crossing busy streets and stopping in random stores, I felt more like I was walking around a neighborhood than a central portion of a metropolis.
Vancouver's public transit is also fantastic, and it wasn't long before I started the skytrain- and bus-hopping, wielding my Compass card like a seasoned pro and feeling extremely proud of myself for it. I successfully navigated to a grocery store, got a general lay of the land, and called it a successful day.
Usually, I'm a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of traveler. I know this is very surprising to you. However! This time around, I did myself a favor and got plenty of recommendations from friends and the internet alike, making a giant list of everything I wanted to see, do, and eat and dividing it by area. I knew there was no way I'd knock it all out in the few days I was there, but it gave me a good guide.
I consulted said list the next morning and decided to head to North Vancouver. Because as much as I love exploring a new city, I'm just always going to be most captivated by mountains, and that's where the mountains were.
I rolled out of bed and into running shoes, boarded the first of several buses I needed to navigate, and promptly ran out of money on my transit card.
The driver kindly let me ride anyway, and told me where the closest SkyTrain station was to my connecting stop so I could reload. I thanked him profusely and headed that way, finding it a few blocks away and buying a day's worth of transit funds.
I was warned that it might take the card a bit to register its re-load, so I stopped in a coffee shop near my bus station and gave it some time. Half an hour later, I boarded the next bus — and it still didn't work. I briefly explained my situation to the driver and offered to get off.
"No, you're so kind, I can tell," he said quietly. He gestured for me to take a seat, assuring me that by the time I caught my next bus, it was sure to work.
I waited another half hour between connections just in case, but the card still maddeningly flashed "INSUFFICIENT FUNDS" when I boarded my next connection. At that point, I was thoroughly embarrassed, but this particular driver was also clearly in a hurry and had already pulled away from the stop before I had a chance to disembark.
"Um, I just put money on this card, I swear, but it's not working—" I started.
"That's because it doesn't work right away," he barked.
"Well, I didn't just put it on, I put it on like two hours ago—"
"Then you'll have to pay coins."
"I don't HAVE any coins," I said, clinging to the railing while he whipped around corners at what felt like a truly unsafe speed.
"Okay, well, your options are to pay with coins, or you're riding without fare," he said.
"Without fare meaning...?" I questioned hesitantly.
"Meaning you're subject to a 200 dollar fine."
"200 dollar fine!"
"You're riding without a fare!"
"You didn't give me a chance to get off your bus!" I yelped.
He stared at me via the mirror.
"You don't have ANY coins?" he questioned, clearly doubtful.
"I'm not from here," I answered, exasperated.
"Yes you are," he rolled his eyes.
"Oh my—" I couldn't believe I was even having this argument. "NO I'M NOT, I cannot believe... I clearly can't operate the bus system and you're arguing with me about—"
"Where are you from, then?" he sneered.
"I'M FROM TEXAS," I hissed, still clinging for dear life.
He grunted, eyebrows raised, and thought for a bit. He must have decided I couldn't have made up with Texas, of all places, that quickly on the fly. He finally sighed.
"Where are you riding to?" he asked.
I read the street name off Google Maps.
"That's literally the end of the line," he whined. Then, immediately, "Fine, take a seat."
I turned and sheepishly found a place among the legal riders, burying myself in a book until we reached the last stop. As I got off, I thanked the driver and apologized for the mix-up one last time.
"Don't worry about it, kid," he said, waving dismissively. "I like you."
"Are you kidding me," I whispered as he pulled away.
So anyway, that's the really long and pointless story of the time I freerode across Vancouver thanks to compassionate transit drivers, except for one I got into a fight with about whether or not I was Canadian. Needless to say, I took the time to get some change before catching my last bus and finally arriving at Grouse Mountain and its infamous Grind.
The Grouse Grind is both a tourist and local staple; a 2.9K trail that is essentially a staircase straight up the mountain. It's a beautiful source of misery and bragging rights, and I decided the latter was worth the former.
While it's kind of a local fitness proving ground, I committed pre-hike to take my sweet time and simply enjoy the view. Which is good, because A) even though I run/work out pretty much every day, this trail kicked my butt, and B) there was SO MUCH VIEW TO ENJOY.
I've never been anywhere in the Pacific Northwest region before this trip, but I think of all the natures I have seen, it's the naturiest. The landscape was all heavy stone and thick foliage and towering trees with trunks so wide I couldn't get my arms around them.
The greens and blues all seemed deeper, and it's as if the mountains rose straight from the ocean beneath, carrying its salty scent with them. Everything just seemed richer. There was an overwhelming strength and vibrance to it all, and every so often I would stop somewhere along the trail to just sit and soak it in.
Even so, by the time I finally reached the top, the muscles in my legs were positively screaming. Strangers high-fived each other as we headed towards the Skyride booth at the top to purchase our tickets down. (Going down the Grouse Grind trail isn't allowed as it's considered a major liability. The trail might be steep if...)
It was too crowded and glassed-in to get a great photo of the view, but as soon as our car swung off its platform and into the air, the laughter and complaints about everyone's hiking experience were simultaneously silenced. The mountain swept down beneath us, fanning out into sea and city, and everyone pressed into the surrounding glass to try and take it in. Definitely worth it.
The long bus rides back to Chinatown were a welcome rest, and I curled up in corner seats and read between stops. And even though I looked and smelled way too grungy for its very hipster vibe, I took a currywurst detour at Bestie on the way and I regret nothing.
Nikki, my aforementioned college friend, was arriving late that night, so I crashed hard when I got back to the apartment, knowing I'd need to stay awake to let her in.
I napped to the point where you feel sort of like you've been hit by a truck, then walked across the street to Phnom Penh in a daze and put my name on the seating list. With a 45-minute wait to kill, I struck up conversation with the two girls behind me. We eventually decided to just eat all together.
The popular local restaurant was a weekly "best friend date" for them, and they eagerly pointed out their favorites from the menu, tipped me off to "secret" items, and ordered a few dishes to share, too. It turned out to be my favorite meal of the trip — not because the food was so good (though it was), but because it was a great reminder that while I prefer to blend in while I'm traveling, it usually pays off to just be uncool and ask people for suggestions. They might even split some luc lac and butter beef with you.
I saved the most iconic Vancouver touristing for Nikki's arrival, and the next morning we kicked it off with breakfast at Chambar. It's the sister restaurant of the city's famous Café Medina — with the same waffles but without the crowd, plus a very charming French waiter whose shift ended halfway through our meal and we were very brokenhearted when he left. 10/10 would recommend.
By midmorning, we'd made it over to West Vancouver, where we rented bikes and rode all over Stanley Park. The weather was perfect, and we stopped every two minutes for pictures or just to generally shriek over how pretty it was and how much we loved this place. Couldn't get over the fact that this haven was situated right on the edge of such a massive city — like Central Park to New York City, but a little wilder. It was the happiest.
Our seawall loop complete and stomachs empty, we returned our bikes, ate sushi, and made our way to the Granville Island/Kitsilano area for more moseying around. We ended up at Earnest Ice Cream by late afternoon, parked on a bench outside licking towering cones like very happy grade schoolers, and decided we'd had our literal and figurative fill.
With an early morning ahead of us for a full day of travel to Tofino, we headed back to the apartment to prep. I repacked bags, Nikki double-checked our bus schedule, and we mapped out the quickest route to the station by foot.
Satisfied that everything was ready to go, we spent our last evening in Vancouver toasting it goodbye at Alibi Room, which we both immediately dubbed "the Rivermont Pizza of Vancouver." We were the only non-locals in the place, for sure, and its dark, wood-heavy interior, enormous, sturdy booths and everyone-knows-everyone atmosphere made us nostalgic for our college town. We swapped stories and went down a thousand whatever happened to so-and-so rabbit trails and laughed until we cried at shared memories and similar experiences.
I'll be honest — Nikki isn't someone I was close enough to in college to invite to go on a trip with me. Not even close. We were just starting to hang out around the time I moved from Lynchburg, and I wistfully regretted not having gotten to know her sooner, assuming our paths were unlikely to cross again.
So I have no idea what made me message her and ask her to go to Tofino, and I have no idea what made her say yes.
But that night at Alibi Room, I was suddenly, enormously grateful that we both did.
Nikki is a person of depth and soul, approaching life and people with wisdom, gentleness and kindness that I admire so much. I expected to enjoy the travel-y parts of the trip, for sure; but with Nikki, the spaces between sights seen and things done were filled with genuine, honest, and spiritually encouraging conversation and fellowship that completely took me by surprise. We chalked it up to God, thanked him profusely, and begged his surfing favor as we headed to Tofino the next day.
*Not actually sure I'm right. Worked out great this time, though!