Riding bikes in Vancouver's Stanley Park. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
What if you could travel to Asia without getting on an airplane?
Booking trans-Pacific flights for a family of four is prohibitively expensive, so my kids have never seen the country where I was born. The next best solution is packing stretchy pants (for all the tasty food!) and heading north to British Columbia.
We don’t have any cousins in Canada, but we did find connections to my homeland just across the border: tofu pudding and Taiwanese wheel cakes in Richmond’s Yaohan Centre. And many other delicious things! Customs restrict what you can bring back across the border so you’ll need the stretchy pants to eat all you can.
A family getaway to Vancouver, B.C., gets you a lot of bang for your buck. Literally, because the exchange rate is like getting a 30 percent discount. It’s just a tank of gas — yes, that tank is pretty expensive these days, but nothing compared to airfares — and a three-hour drive from Seattle to explore other cultures and languages. You can start with “ouvert” — that you’ll see right at the border crossing.
In my 20s, I loved to drive up to Vancouver for shopping and gallery hopping. My husband went for shows and Vancouver Canucks hockey games. Then we had kids, and somehow 10 years slipped by before we managed another visit.
Oh, Sun Sui Wah, I waited 10 years for that egg tart with the flaky crust! You know the food will be amazing and authentic when your husband is one of three white people in the restaurant.
At the chain restaurant White Spot, we tried another Canadian specialty, poutine. It turned out to be French fries slathered in cheese and gravy, which defeated all of our bellies.
As parents, we now see Vancouver through a very different lens. I pointed out the Buddhist temple off of Highway 99 and the ubiquitous Chinese characters to my kids. My younger son charmed obasans with his pint-size Mandarin. My older son was impressed by the flashing green traffic lights — something you don’t see in the U.S.
We noticed we’d entered another country when the street signage switched to kilometers, but turning off GPS and our phones was when the change really hit home. I had to navigate using paper maps — remember those? Take it from me, check your phone’s cross-border coverage or download maps in advance.
Just as Seattle has its famous Pike Place Market, Vancouver has Granville Island. We got turned around a few times trying to find the island’s entrance, and my husband, exasperated, asked, “Is this a real place you can go to?”
It’s there but it’s so pretty it doesn’t seem real. Tucked under the Granville Street Bridge sits an island with a public market, a maritime museum, an art institute and tons of shops. I’d never been to the Kids Market before, but now I had two good reasons to go. The boys roamed the two levels of shops and left giddy with their Vancouver souvenirs.
After a day in the car, the kids were happy to find a playground on Granville Island. I’d joked that we’d be getting takeout and going to playgrounds on our trans-national adventure, but that was 100-percent perfect for our family.
Free fun for kids
Every guidebook recommends the Vancouver Aquarium, Capilano Suspension Bridge and the gondola at Grouse Mountain for families. We skipped these pricier attractions because spending $62 per adult to walk on a bridge is budget-busting even with the exchange rate. (Tip: A Woodland Park Zoo membership gets you a 20-percent discount at the aquarium.)
Instead, we opted for the sights of glorious and free Stanley Park. We brought the boys’ bikes from home; rentals are also available. After an obligatory stop at the famous totem poles, the kids set out to explore (a very small section of) the 13.7-mile seawall.
The paths are paved and flat, with separate lanes for bikers and pedestrians. Along the trail are lots of “rest stops” where the kids can take a look around: A lighthouse, rock sculptures, a dragon figurehead. On a weekday winter morning, there were no tourist crowds, only sunshine and a jewel of a park to enjoy.
Another free highlight of the city is the historic steam clock in Gastown. It whistles every 15 minutes. I have dorky kids, one obsessed with telling time and the other with Roman numerals, so we could have stayed there all day watching the minutes tick by.
On the map, Chinatown looked like an easy stroll from Gastown. We made the mistake of walking down Hastings Street, which turned out to be pretty seedy. I was relieved to see the red-painted lamp posts when we reached Chinatown.
Maybe it was the after-effect of walking through Skid Row, but Chinatown didn’t seem nearly as vibrant as I’d remembered it. The rise of huge suburb of Richmond (54 percent Chinese, according to the 2016 Census) likely sucked away some of Chinatown’s oomph. We saw shops selling weird dried stuff and qi paos, but not many places selling actual groceries.
One must-see in Chinatown is the exquisite Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. From the street, the high white walls don’t look like much, but step inside and enter a Ming Dynasty scholar’s garden. Half of the park is free, half requires paying admission, so guess which side of the park we stayed on?
A few blocks south of Chinatown is the iconic globe built for Expo 86, which is now Science World. Your Pacific Science Center membership gets you free admission here! Various galleries involve physical fun, like playing with colored blocks, building in the tinkering space and dancing on drums. A visit to Science World alone makes your Pac Sci membership extra worthwhile.
I booked a room in a hotel on Robson Street, in the heart of downtown. It checked off the right boxes for our family: a galley kitchen in our room and an indoor pool. For a winter weekend, there are nice downtown hotels to be found for under $150 a night.
Best of all, we lucked out with a room on the 15th floor, where the kids parked themselves by the full-length windows, thrilled by the miniature traffic moving below. In the hotel lobby, there’s a framed aerial photograph of the neighborhood circa 1994, when the hotel’s lot was just a patch of dirt surrounded by parking lots. Hard to imagine now, with skyscrapers standing shoulder to shoulder.
I’m a city person, and I love that panorama of glistening high rises. I love that when you look down a Vancouver street, the view between the buildings reveals a vista of snowcapped mountains and water. For nostalgia’s sake, we drove through the retail core on Robson Street, past all the clothing shops I used to frequent. (Fashion? Huh?)
The kids had been too excited to sleep the night before so we were all pooped out by 4 p.m. No city nightlife for this crew. We vegged out to cartoons and take-out BBQ pork.
On our last morning in Vancouver, fat fluffy snow flakes drifted down from the sky, a magical end to our international getaway.
More family getaway ideas...
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2019 and updated for 2022.