While taking a five-and-a-half-hour flight in order to enjoy a long weekend in Vancouver might seem like a bit of a hike, I can attest that, with the right amount of planning, it can be a perfect amount of time to get a good feel for the city. And it was!

The EXchange Hotel

The EXchange Hotel is located in a mixed-use real estate complex that formerly housed the Vancouver Stock Exchange on Howe Street 
 Photo: A.J. Twist

Certainly it helps if you choose a hotel that also features one of the city’s busiest and tastiest restaurants.

In our case, the hotel that caught my eye was The EXchange Hotel, which is a luxurious property right downtown (475 Howe Street) which at one time housed the infamous Vancouver Stock Exchange (VSE). I say “infamous” as, in Canadian business circles, the VSE was legendary for some of the looser applications of securities regulations which enabled some of the more unscrupulous stock promoters to ply their dubious investments (in many cases, junior resource companies) to unsuspecting investors. Fortunes were made but many more were lost.

However, one of enduring remnants of that era, was the actual building which has been converted into both a modern office tower as well as stylish hotel with its 1909 original Gothic exterior that the Michelin Guide has called “contemporary-luxe with a pronounced Art Deco accent”.

The EXchange Hotel

The EXchange Hotel is located in a mixed-use real estate complex that formerly housed the Vancouver Stock Exchange on Howe Street 
  Photo: A.J. Twist

Certainly the EXchange’s street level lobby is truly representative of the Art Deco era as are its original elevators. However, once one is whisked upstairs to the check-in lobby and then to the guest rooms, the “contemporary-luxe’ design features become more dominant. Regardless, the building’s heritage is never far away as evidenced by the solid brass statuette of a bull and bear balancing on opposite sides of a seesaw as a decorative note in our room.

Once settled in, the first order of business was to find dinner. Fortunately we did not have far to go as the highly rated Hydra Estiatorio Mediterranean was mere floors away and is an important part of this hospitality complex.

As its name suggest, this restaurant has a cuisine with a Mediterranean focus meaning that both perfectly grilled fish and meats are the go-to suggestions here. We found the food to be quite reminiscent of some of Montreal’s better Greek restaurants and the demand for tables certainly indicated that this was the place to be! We enjoyed superb service and excellent cuisine here. This included two dinners and a breakfast during our whirlwind stay as a way to optimize our limited hours in the city.

Bull and Bear brass sculpture

Bull and Bear brass sculptures in the EXchange Hotel guest rooms serve as reminders of the building’s history as the former Vancouver Stock Exchange 
  Photo: A.J. Twist

The next day began with a full breakfast at Hydra (with some impressive weekend brunch options) and an easy ten-minute walk down to Canada Place on the city’s waterfront. This area includes the city’s convention centre and two impressive hotels (including the Fairmount Waterfront) and many outdoor activities. En route we came face to face with gaggles of colourful locals dressed up in cosplay and anime gear who were all headed to the Fan Expo Vancouver which happens every year in late February.

Hydra Estiatorio Mediterranean

Hydra Estiatorio Mediterranean is one of the city’s busiest restaurants and conveniently shares the same hospitality complex as the Exchange Hotel 
Photo: A.J. Twist

We, on the other hand, were headed to Flyover Canada where I had spotted an immersive film experienced that allowed viewers to “see the world without leaving Vancouver”. I had my eye on their short film Windborne: Call of the Canadian Rockies which sounded as if it could be a convenient way to see The Rockies without the ropes and/or helicopter rides. And it was as advertised! With its flight-motion seats, wraparound screen and occasional blast of cool mists as we zoomed in and out of deep glacial valleys, the experience delivered a sensational ride of natural beauty over a section of our country’s pride and joy.

As fun as the film was we did not come this distance to stay couped up in a theatre so we grabbed an Uber and headed over to Granville Market located about ten minutes from downtown on Granville Island. The ride over to the island revealed a city dense with condominiums towers seemingly occupying every inch of available territory and much of the vertical space as well. In spite of the density, it is clear that the city’s planners have maintained high standards of construction and the real estate oozes with skyrocketing market values.

Granville Island with its public market, shops and restaurants

Granville Island with its public market, shops and restaurants is the place to be on any given weekend

As we approached Granville market, we certainly had the sense that this was the place to be on a Saturday afternoon. Originally an industrial park dating back to the early 1900’s that thrived due to its access to water transport; the Great Depression and transition to the movement of goods via rail, eventually lead to its demise. Following an initiative by the government of the time, Granville Island experienced a re-birth in 1978 into its present network of low-rise brick workshops and warehouses converted into shops anchored by the Granville Public Market, which is now a thriving food emporium. Diners can select from any number of food kiosks and enjoy views of the waterway activities whilst sitting at picnic tables on the sprawling exterior terraces (weather permitting!) Based on the impressive lineup snaking along the edge of the mail building outside of Lee’s Donuts, it was not hard to identify everyone’s favourite.

Even though the variety of food choices seemed enticing enough we opted for a sit-down lunch at the impressive Sandbar Seafood Restaurant. The Sandbar is a sprawling tribute to the construction attributes of BC fir, while also a worthy purveyor this city’s famous seafood cuisine. Lobster tanks and oyster bars are just the appetizers that await diners here by the waterfront. Here we enjoyed superbly grilled calamari and freshly shucked oysters while watching with amusement the cutest tugboat-inspired water taxis shuttling passengers throughout the surrounding waterways.

Breka Bakery and Café

Pastries and sandwiches as far as the eye can see at Breka Bakery and Café with seven locations throughout Vancouver
  Photo: A.J. Twist

Our next city explorations took place the next day as we headed to Gastown to the Twisted Fork for Sunday brunch. However, getting there involved a drive (thank goodness we were in a car and not walking!) along East Hastings which has become legendary for its war-zone of homelessness and hard-drug consumption. Here our car had to come to a sudden halt to avoid hitting one such user who seemed oblivious to the concept of automobiles’ usage of the street.

A few blocks away from Hastings, we found our restaurant in this charming neighbourhood of historic buildings and Victorian street lamps. Gastown was actually saved by its residents and storeowners from being razed in order to make way for a highway in the 1970’s. The Gastown steam clock (which whistles and blows steam as it tells time) was installed at the corner of Cambie and Water Streets to commemorate this successful rescue and to celebrate the district’s revival as a viable commercial destination. Today, it remains as a must for any visitor’s itinerary.

Delectable brunch offerings await visitors at The Twisted Fork in Gastown historic district

Delectable brunch offerings await visitors at The Twisted Fork in Gastown historic district
  Photo: A.J. Twist

Finally, one of this city’s most famous residents is chef and entrepreneur, Vikram Vij, whom has become an ubiquitous television presence through his appearances on Dragon’s Den, Recipe to Riches, Top Chef Canada, Chopped Canada as well featured in print for his cookbooks on Indian cuisine.

Having followed his career for decades I had pledged to myself if I ever were in Vancouver I would have to try his restaurant Vij’s. As luck would have it, the Sunday night of our visit, Vij himself was there and making the rounds as a gracious host, making certain to stop at every table to greet his guests and thanking them for dining. Such a rarity to see in our country’s hospitality industry, one could easily see why this man had become such an endearing national treasure!

On top of the brush of celebrity, a meal at Vij’s is indeed a culinary treat though the ambiance is a bit more casual than what I had expected. Nonetheless, we left satiated and thrilled to have had such an uplifting dining experience.

Condos along the road to Granville Island

Condos along the road to Granville Island
Photo: Tourism Vancouver

The following morning prior to departure we popped into Breka Bakery and Cafe which had caught my eye just around the corner (740 West Hastings St.) from the Exchange. Every time we had passed this spot during our brief stay there had been a lineup out the door so the odds seemed high that something had to be good baking within. Its long display counter offered almost any pastry you could imagine along with lunch and breakfast sandwiches so it is the perfect stop for a quick and delicious meal or snack.

Well-fed and happy with our whirlwind visit of Vancouver, we decided our reconnaissance trip was a success and vowed to return for a more in depth stay in the near future!

A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based travel writer and photographer. Ajtwist.net Email: [email protected]

Travel Planner:

The EXchange Hotel Vancouver
475 Howe St. Vancouver, B.C.

Hydra Estiatorio Mediterranean & Wine Bar
825 W. Pender St

Gastown Vancouver – www.gastown.org

Granville Island – www.granvilleisland.com

Vij’s Restaurant
3106 Cambie Street

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