Magazine article Sunset

City Sparkle: Cosmopolitan, Down-to-Earth, and Brilliant with Holiday Cheer, Vancouver Knows How to Brighten December Nights

Magazine article Sunset

City Sparkle: Cosmopolitan, Down-to-Earth, and Brilliant with Holiday Cheer, Vancouver Knows How to Brighten December Nights

Article excerpt

THE AFTERNOON LIGHT IS FADING by the time my husband, Jim, and I catch a cab at the Vancouver airport. The sky is a heavy gray, the air is chilly, and I question our plan to escape holiday stresses in California by jetting north for a Christmas getaway in British Columbia.

But as day darkens to night, the city begins to shimmer. Lights blink on along fences, rooflines, and trees as we cruise past stately homes on our way downtown.

Closer in, the streets are lined with twinkling boutique windows and the sidewalks are full of shoppers. We cross the Granville Bridge and see sailboats rocking at a dock below, their masts strung with white lights--a series of glittering triangles on the inky water. An illuminated Granville Island ferry bobs in the middle of False Creek. Even a giant construction crane, 20 stories tall, is wrapped in red lights, like some massive Tinkertoy awaiting a giant's child on Christmas morning.

"Today's the shortest day of the year," my husband points out as we check into our hotel on the edge of Burrard Inlet. "So we've got some long, dark nights ahead."

This, we soon discover, is a good thing. Because nighttime in winter is when Vancouver really gleams.

A nightlife to be savored

Surrounded by the sea, edged by glass towers, and anchored by a forested

park with snowcapped mountains in the distance, Vancouver is brochure-beautiful. It also has an ideal mix of sophisticated restaurants, fancy shops, and breathtakingly scenic spots for skiing, ice-skating, and snowshoeing. Vancouver is always a cool city, but in winter it's an urban wonderland.

And it's just the blend we've been looking for, as Jim and I have a history of holiday conflict: I like to sleep late (really late), shop till dusk, and witness the wee hours; Jim wakes with the sun (sometimes before it), finds shopping tedious, and uses cold days as an excuse to get more exercise. When the air gets crisp, he likes to run to the mountains; I prefer to hibernate until spring. In more than a dozen holiday seasons together, we've never found a Christmastime tradition with the right balance for us both. But Vancouver has me hopeful.

We head out immediately for the Winter Solstice Lantern Festival at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver's Chinatown, the largest and oldest Chinese neighborhood in Canada. At the east edge of downtown, the neighborhood mixes lovely old buildings with chinoiserie touches: herb shops with bins of teas and dried roots, several antiques stores, packed-to-the-ceiling housewares stores, and some empty storefronts where the in-transition district hasn't yet transitioned. At its heart is our destination, the traditional Ming-style garden.

We hear the party before we see it: The throb of bass drums fills the night air. Several threads of paraders are converging on the plaza as we arrive, each marcher clutching a glowing paper lantern, so it looks like giant luminescent caterpillars are floating into place.

Inside the gates, the garden is aglow, with hundreds of lanterns set along paths and hanging from trees. Even though the place is crowded (the whole neighborhood seems to have turned out for the event), the mood remains pensive. We walk silently past the sculptural Tai Hu rocks, over the bridges, and past the ginkgo trees lit with glowing paper orbs.

The festival is a beautiful, very seasonal introduction to this cosmopolitan city on the edge of the wild Pacific. And it confirms that we've come to the right place at the right time.

It's about 8 p.m., and I'm fully awake and hitting my stride when we arrive at the Parkside Restaurant, where the atmosphere is a bit more boisterous. Tucked into the basement of the Buchan Hotel, the longtime area favorite has a no-fuss neighborhood friendliness paired with a sophisticated menu that emphasizes seasonal and locally grown ingredients. We start at the bar and are happily surprised to sip the two tastiest cocktails we've ever tried: a whiskey sour with fresh lemon juice for Jim and a citrus sorbet Negroni for me. …

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