Avoid crowds, snare bargains off-season
Vancouver, B.C. is a great destination for an off-season getaway with the family. Although it's only about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle, its cosmopolitan neighborhoods packed with pedestrians and forest of slender, high-rise condos downtown make it seem far away. And opportunities for kid-friendly fun in the city are everywhere, with options for all budgets and interests.
My husband and I recently took a two-day trip to Vancouver on the off-season with our 7-year-old, Maddie, and visited some of the city's major attractions. If your group contains young children, take it easy by concentrating on one attraction per day, or add one or two of the alternative suggestions to pump up the action level for older kids. (Note: All prices are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated.)
We like to stay at the Sylvia Hotel in the West End, a residential neighborhood near Stanley Park. The hotel is a designated heritage building and has a European feel to it. The rooms are clean but not fancy, the staff is friendly and rates drop significantly from October through April ($70-$235). This time we opted for a bed/sitting room with a queen-sized bed, fold-out sofa bed, small kitchen and water views for $130 per night. The hotel has a restaurant and room service, and kids are permitted in one side of the bar for drinks or casual snacks and meals.
The best part about the Sylvia is its location: The beach at English Bay and the water taxis that go to Granville Island and the Maritime Museum are all close by. The hotel is also one block from hip, funky Denman Street and just a few blocks from vibrant, busy Robson Street. Intrepid families could walk downtown from the hotel as well. (www.sylviahotel.com)
Alternative: We have also stayed at the Sandman Suites on Davie Street, which is in the heart of the the city's gay neighborhood. There are plenty of restaurants just steps away from the lobby, and the hotel is closer to downtown, Robson Street and the water taxis than the Sylvia, but further away from Stanley Park. The hotel has one-bedroom suites with kitchens (and washer/dryers!), expansive views and a restaurant. Book online and you can get a rate as low as $95/night. (www.sandmansuites.com/davie.asp)
Yes, everyone visits Stanley Park, but it is truly an amazing place. Located about five minutes by car (or a one-mile walk) from downtown, it features beautiful beaches, a 5.5-mile seawall loop for walking or biking, playgrounds and a fantastic aquarium. (www.city.vancouver.bc.ca/parks/parks/stanley)
The Vancouver Aquarium and Marine Science Center is located about a mile on foot through Stanley Park from the Sylvia (or a $7 taxi ride). The Aquarium is pretty pricey, but well worth the splurge ($9.95-$17.50; 3 and under, free). Wonderful shows featuring dolphins, beluga whales and divers in the huge indoor tanks happen daily, and Clownfish Cove, the well-appointed area for infants through age 6, offers daily storytelling and other activities. A warning: the Aquarium gets extremely crowded during the summer, although it was blissfully empty during our visit. (www.vanaqua.org)
If something about the Aquarium makes you want fish for lunch, walk about three-quarters of a mile through Stanley Park to the Fish House Restaurant, housed in a converted clubhouse located next to tennis courts and surrounded by huge cedar trees, gardens and lawn-bowling greens. Despite the white-tablecloth atmosphere, the staff is welcoming to kids and crayons were brought right away when we visited. Prices are reasonable for lunch (and the restaurant offers 2-for-1 dinner specials between 5-6 p.m.). Kids' fare includes fish and chips or chicken strips ($7.45) and pasta ($6.45), and includes a drink and ice cream. For adults and older kids, chowder and salads are under $10 and entrees are $13 and up. (www.fishhousestanleypark.com)
After lunch, stop and watch the lawn bowlers, then walk to the nearby playground at Second Beach before heading back to the hotel.
Alternatives: See Stanley Park in style -- by horse-drawn carriage! ($13.50-$23.36, 2 and under free, www.stanleyparktours.com)
Skip the Aquarium, pack a picnic and take Stanley Park Drive from the park's Georgia Street entrance to the totem poles at Brockton Point on the Stanley Park Seawall. The Brockton Point Visitors Centre offers information about the totem poles and the First Nation people who carved them.
Sunday field trip
Walk a mile or so from the Sylvia to Sunset Beach and catch the water taxi (adults $2.50, children $1.25) at the False Creek Ferry dock next to the Vancouver Aquatic Centre (1050 Beach Ave.). Take the water taxi to Granville Island, a former industrial park that now hosts a public market, art school, restaurants, theaters, galleries, a hotel and myriad shops. You can also drive there and park for free for three hours, but it's very congested and parking spots are hard to find, especially in the summer. (www.granvilleisland.com/en)
Not to be missed is the Kids Market, which has a giant indoor playground ($5.35, under 3 free), shops just for kids and a crafts area where children can paint their own ceramic figurines. The public market is a great place for lunch. Booths offer fresh produce, meats, seafood and cheeses, as well as crepes, pizza, bagels and practically anything else you can think of.
Alternatives: You can also take the ferry from Granville Island to Science World, which offers interactive displays, a huge OMNIMAX theater, live science shows daily and special events which in March include papermaking and toy design workshops. (www.scienceworld.bc.ca) The ferry also goes to the Maritime Museum, which houses exhibits on pirates, lighthouses, shipwrecks, trade and shipbuilding, and hands-on activities for children. (www.vancouvermaritimemuseum.com)
Or drive out to the scenic University of British Columbia campus and visit the Museum of Anthropology ($7-$9; ages 6 and under free). The exhibits on Northwest Coast Native Tribes include lots of big totem poles, elaborate masks and research collections with dolls, animal carvings, miniature kayaks, bows and harpoons. Outside, there are more totem poles and two reconstructed Haida houses from Queen Charlotte Island. (www.moa.ubc.ca)
The restaurant at the Sylvia Hotel is great for breakfast -- convenient, with friendly waitstaff and lots of choices for kids, from cinnamon toast ($2.50) to fresh blueberry pancakes ($7.25). The Sylvia's restaurant has a kids' menu starting at lunchtime with hamburgers, chicken fingers, fish and chips, or grilled cheese for $5.
When staying at the Sylvia, walk one block to Denman Street and head in either direction to find a dense selection of restaurants, serving virtually everything you can think of, almost all of which is small and reasonably priced. Reservations are not necessary, especially if you eat early (most of the locals seem to come out around 8 p.m.). There are long lines at some restaurants, which we usually opt not to wait in, but you can get a table right away at most of them.
Our favorites: Try the guava juice from the juice bar at the tiny, inexpensive Falafel King (1110 Denman St., 604-669-7278). Chinese restaurant Won More (1184 Denman St., 604-688-8856) has staff that's very accommodating to special requests, and kids like the fried rice ($7.50). At Yoshi Japanese Restaurant, with views from upstairs of Stanley Park and the action on Denman, the sushi is fresh, the service is attentive and kids are welcome. Maddie loves just one kind of sushi, ebi (cooked shrimp on rice, hold the wasabi), which at Yoshi is $7.40 for four pieces. She also likes the Kake Soba, thin noodles in a miso-like broth with nothing "green" in it ($6.95). (689 Denman St., 604-738-8226)
We like to eat a light dinner to save room for dessert at Mondo Gelato, which features the best gelato we've had. The staff is generous with tastings and offers half-scoops, so you can get up to six scoops if you order a triple ($5.45) and share it. (Singles are $2.95, doubles $4.45.) We especially recommend the Nutella and biscotti flavors. (www.mondogelato.com)
Alternatives: Walk to the Bread Garden (1040 Denman St., 604-685-2996) for breakfast. It sells espresso, plus a case full of English muffins (with or without ham and eggs), breakfast burritos and quiches, all for under $5. Sandwiches, soups and desserts are also available for lunch, dinner or a snack.
For less exotic fare than falafel or sushi, visit the Macaroni Grill (1523 Davie S., 604-689-4334). Yes, it's a chain restaurant, but it's notable here because of its location in a gorgeous old mansion. The food is reliably child-friendly: pasta, pizza and chicken (kids' menu items under $10), and kids stay entertained by drawing with crayons on the paper tablecloths.
Maura Deering is a Seattle-based writer, editor and lawyer.
If you go
We usually drive to Vancouver, park at the hotel and leave the car in the garage until Sunday, when we might drive to another part of the city before leaving town. We stay downtown or in the West End and walk, ride the bus and take the water taxis.
If you don't want to drive, Amtrak Cascades trains run daily from Seattle to Vancouver. (www.amtrak.com)
The "Kids Fly Free to Vancouver, B.C." deal, offered by Alaska Airlines, includes round-trip airfare for one adult and one child and hotel accommodations. (www.alaskaair.com/as/vacations/Canada/Vancouver_KFF.asp)
According to Tourism Vancouver, U.S. citizens and permanent residents must present a birth certificate, a resident alien card or a green card along with a picture I.D., or a passport, to enter Canada. A driver's license is not sufficient. Make sure to bring your children's birth certificates as well.
If you have questions about re-entering the United States or need border wait times, visit the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol site. (www.cbp.gov)
Don't forget your refund:
Adding to the enjoyment of a weekend in Vancouver, tourists are entitled to a refund of GST taxes on goods and hotels. Receipts must be kept as proof of purchase. Find application forms in the booklet Tax Refund for Visitors, available at Tourism Information Centres, hotels and other locations. If you have questions, phone the Visitor Rebate Program at 1-800-668-4748 (within Canada) or 902-432-5608 (outside Canada).
For information about Vancouver with an insider's feel, visit the idea-packed BCPassport. (www.bcpassport.com)
Tourism Vancouver offers many options for family fun, as well as travel tips, customs information, useful links and more. (www.tourismvancouver.com)