Colorful Aquabus ferries nestle at a Granville Island dock.
Story and Photos by Alison Gardner
There was something omen-like about my introduction to Granville Island, driven there in Bill’s randomly-selected taxi from the bus depot. As we crossed the narrow, congested bridge that provides the only entry to the Island and meandered slowly along equally narrow one-way streets to my hotel, Bill let out a noisy, nostalgic sigh, “When I was 16, there’s where I landed my first industrial job,” he volunteered, pointing out a turquoise sheet metal-covered building that today serves as home to several artisans’ workshops. “Of course, that was 53 years ago, before tourism was even a thought!”
Indeed, what were the odds of being driven to my home for the next three days by a personal witness to the very history I had come to explore and experience?
Located on the bustling, picturesque waterfront of False Creek, Granville Island’s gritty, industrial past has morphed into a people-friendly, artistic, and magnetic destination for Vancouverites and visitors. It currently attracting more than 10-million people a year and they don’t come to see the cement trucks that still discreetly rumble through the entry gate of the only remaining
Over the past 28 years, creative reclamation and preservation of heritage industrial structures and streetscapes has given birth to a quirky waterfront zone with an inscrutable signature all its own. Against all odds, the island as a destination not only works, it thrives!
What was once a clanging, smoking center of sawmilling, ironwork, slaughterhouses and other industrial and manufacturing activity, was largely deserted by the 1960s.
Streets on the island are most visitor-friendly on foot.
By the 1970s, visions of transforming this derelict sandbar island under the landmark Granville Street Bridge moved from the drawing board to the construction stage. Born was the radical concept of retaining remnants of its rusty industrial roots with corrugated tin and stucco siding, industrial doorways, cranes, a maze of alleyways, cul-de-sacs and rail tracks. This year Granville Island celebrates 36 years of urban planning success.
With a birds’eye view from many rooms and suites of the Granville Island Hotel, watch kayaks, sailboats, dragon boats, luxury cruisers, canoes and mini-ferries ply the waters of False Creek from dawn to dusk.
It’s not easy to translate a very collaborative vision and energy into reality, but that is what has happened. Today, managed by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, on behalf of the Government of Canada, Granville Island provides a rare example of government as standard setter, creative marketer and manager all in one package. The challenges of this admirable vision have also stretched entrepreneurial initiative in some very unique directions.
Oyama Sausage Company, above, and Duso’s Italia, below, are two of the Public Market’s 50 permanent specialty businesses that offer taste temptations and colourful displays in the Public Market’s 90,000 square foot space. An equal number of carefully-screened and regulated “day” tables and stalls add to the diversity.
A sprawling public market reflects Vancouver’s own global ethnic mix featuring everything that could possibly be considered edible this side of the Moon. Among the island’s diverse tenants are a prestigious West Coast art school, dozens of specialty shops and restaurants, theatres, art and craft galleries, and friendly pubs, divided by creative green spaces, contemplative corners, and waterfront when retreat beckons.
Internationally recognized museums specialize in model trains , model ships, and sport fishing. A myriad of theme festivals, public workshops and special events tumble from one week into the next. Being bored on Granville Island is simply not an option.
With years of model shipbuilding and a Fine Dragonwork Studio’s Murray Barber has a passion for working with wood.
The Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts is located just over the narrow bridge that links Granville Island to the nearest city street. It’s worth the hundred foot walk from the island to experience the fine dining lunch or dinner multi-course menu of the only private cuisine school in Canada where chefs-in-training operate a full service restaurant and a mouth-watering bakeshop on the school’s oceanfront premises.
Enrollment is worldwide with every student rotating through all aspects of restaurant operation, not only preparing dishes from scratch and arranging picturesque platters, but hosting, serving, clearing, and cleaning before they graduate. It adds a splendid dimension to the meal to engage these serious, career-oriented future professionals in conversation while their sharp-eyed “professors” discreetly offers hints and corrections that in no way interrupt the smooth delivery of each course to the table. This is a popular dining choice for both locals and visitors, so book in advance.
Sandbar Restaurant specializes in fresh seafood and fabulous vistas.
The Sandbar seafood restaurant is a mandatory stop to recharge the bodily batteries whether strolling or attending a performance or festival. Its menu is built around freshly-caught local seafood: wild sockeye salmon, Dungeness crab, prawns, clams and mussels, all prepared and presented in imaginative fashion. As delicious as the food is, on a sunny day, this popular eatery, directly under the Granville Street Bridge, has to be topped by the setting in a funky restored multi-story building overlooking Vancouver’s downtown skyline and ski mountains beyond.
Seated on the waterfront deck or at a window seat of the cosy restaurant interior, get a birds’ eye view of rowers and canoers, yachts, water taxis and fishing boats all bustling about. The Granville Island Hotel offers the only visitor accommodation on the island, 85 rooms, suites, a popular restaurant and pub, wrapped around a point of land with fine views of cityscape, mountains and the protected waters of False Creek. It provides the perfect retreat from the action for those who are disinclined to break the embedded magic spell by taking leave too soon for the hustle and bustle of Vancouver’s city center.
After all, why drive when you can walk in a matter of minutes to all the creature comforts imaginable, and besides there is something truly magical about thousands of city lights reflected on mirror-smooth, black-as-midnight water.
Granville Island Hotel’s low-rise, historically appropriate architecture compliments the island’s restoration vision. Photo credit: Granville Island Hotel
There is no such thing as a typical guest room at the Granville Island Hotel, a boutique accommodation feature that is truly appreciated by alternative travelers. With many rooms renovated and furnished in elegant historic character, repeat visitors often request a favorite number, either because the room itself or the view has proved irresistible. Book well ahead if you have such a strategy in mind. Others have the same idea, particularly during festival high season between May and September!
When Granville Island visitors are cultured, museumed and shopped out, the protected coastal location means there has to be a terrific menu of ocean sports and activities to satisfy every adventurous whim. Sailboats and motorboats of many sizes, canoes and kayaks are all for rent. Spectator-oriented visitors will find interest in the competitive rowing teams and the awe-inspiring Dragon Boat racers that practice around the False Creek area.
For a serious dose of educational content on vacation, scuba courses from wreck diving to underwater photography and sailing lessons at all levels are booked at Granville Island. Land-lubbers will enjoy other half-day or full-day classes offered at various times throughout the year: comedy workshops, cooking demonstrations,
It is no exaggeration to say that Granville Island is a destination in itself within the city of Vancouver. And once Bill has delivered any expectant visitor to this most intriguing of sandbars, it may arguably become the focus of a modest-sized vacation with neither the need nor desire to step off the island until it’s time to go home. Bill and I will tell you that three days are certainly not long enough!
With Vancouver’s densely-populated West End in the background, a small harbor ferry heading for Granville Island is dwarfed by the Burrard Bridge.
Follow Up Facts
Granville Island Visitor Information: www.granvilleisland.com offers guidance via its website or at the walk-in Information Centre.
International Festivals: Here is a taste of the world-class festivals hosted annually by Granville Island: New Play Festival (early May), Vancouver International Children’s Festival (late May), International Jazz Festival (late June), Vancouver Folk Music Festival (mid-July), Vancouver International Comedy Festival (July/August), Vancouver International Wooden Boat Festival (late August), Vancouver International Fringe Festival (early September)Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival (late October).
Granville Island’s diverse and colourful Public Market is the only one in Canada to win North America’s Great Markets Great Cities award, recognized for adding significantly to the social, economic and environmental health and well-being of its city.
Spotlight on Hot Island Arts Venues: The Arts Club Theatre Company Granville Island stage, now in its 4th decade of professional live theatre delivers productions that range from musicals and contemporary comedies to new works and classics. Visual arts are well represented by numerous galleries and by the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, with its large open studios, soaring ceilings and art-making equipment. There visitors may watch student artists at work as they hone their craft or visit the school’s art gallery.
Various False Creek ferry fares start at CAD$3.25 a ride, with day passes also available allowing visitors to step on and off at any dock around the intricate harbor shoreline, including Granville Island. Enquire about designated ferries that welcome wheelchairs and bicycles.
Do you need even more reasons to plan a Vancouver, British Columbia holiday?
Don’t miss Travel with a Challenge‘s “personal picks” of unusual accommodations and restaurants, tours, museums and colorful native culture throughout the Greater Vancouver area. Whether a regular Vancouver visitor or a first-timer, you will find a few surprises in this article updated with new entries in 2015.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.