Have you ever looked over the abyss and faced your certain death? Have you been thrust among people crying, shaking with fear, clinging onto their loved ones as they face their mortality? Have you had your breath taken clear away by both the unstoppable extermination and also the vulnerable, delicate, overwhelming beauty of life, at the same time?
If your answer is yes, you must have been to West Vancouver’s Capilano Suspension Bridge, too. It is not the place for those with vertigo, although several vertigo sufferers seem to have been foolishly talked into visiting the place.
So. We got a free shuttle bus from the city centre, north to Capilano. Having paid for tickets and filed into the attraction, we were stopped in our tracks when we came face to face with the suspension bridge. It was swarming with humans, pacing like ants in lines across the walkway.
It was also very high – 230ft above the Capilano River. “Woah,” I said. And possibly, “Holy shit.” Having little to no fear of heights, however, family and I joined the throng and tottered down the wobbling steps to stride across the void. Oh yeah, so the steps wobbled. It’s a suspension bridge. It’s literally hanging from the hillsides. Signs warned people not to jump or rock the bridge on purpose, but occasionally, when quite by chance the tourist masses stepped into some sort of marching rhythm, the bridge swung more violently.
We passed some clearly terrified folk on their way back – the fact they had done it once, then summoned the courage to return (there is no immediately obvious alternative way out, though a glimpse at a map shows a large housing estate just west of the forest, which I’m sure someone terrified of that bridge would have no problem in scrambling to. Either that or they could call emergency services and get helicoptered out) was both impressive and pitiful. They clung to the shoulders of the person in front, looking nauseated and breathless, grey with fear, some actually hiccupping down their sobs.
The problem with phobias is that they are very internal. They are all-consuming and utterly oblivious to the outside world. Which is a shame, because around and below us were forests of such beauty and dignity, a river rushing with joyful energy, that it was a therapy in itself just to be among it.
This is a rainforest, lush and darkly green with mostly evergreens but also deciduous trees such as the maple. Some of the trees in the forest are more than 1500 years old, and despite the necessary commercialisation of the site (which helps maintain it), it retains a sense of solidity and ancient supremacy.
Having made it across the suspension bridge, we gathered our breath and our thoughts in an educational area, with signs detailing the sort of wildlife we could encounter; and also the “Kia’Palano” section, with totem poles, canoes and other artefacts showing the connection between the First Nations and the natural world.
We then wandered through the forest and climbed up to the treetop walk, a series of pathways suspended in the trees. From here we were hoping to see the Douglas squirrel and a variety of birdlife, but the animals were obviously off on an expedition elsewhere, so we settled for the glory of the ancient trees, their wide, textured trunks reaching so far into the sky I almost fell over backwards looking up at them.
There was nothing looming and intimidating about this forest. I was overcome by a sense of nurture and the relentless, uncontrollable, beautiful circle of life and death. I learned about “nurse” logs, which, though dead and decaying on the forest floor, provide a fertile foundation from which seedlings and saplings grow. I was strangely touched by this. We walked through the woods, trying to decide which tree was the lungs for our family.
In one year, the Capilano Rainforest (7 acres) can absorb the same amount of carbon produced by a car driven across the continent 19 times. The trees in our forest clean our air and provide us with oxygen to breathe.
The park was very busy, and it was difficult to stop on the walkway at any point to truly take in one’s surroundings; but it was a calm and calming atmosphere, and very pleasant. Having made our way back over the suspension bridge, we then girded our loins for the cliffwalk, another walkway suspended halfway up the cliff edge, circling out and away from it so as to get a better view of the drop beneath. And also of the sediment layers of the cliff, of course, and the fantastic behaviour of the plants growing out of the steepness.
Oddly, as I stepped down onto this pathway, I did go dizzy and slightly cross-eyed – I don’t have a fear of heights but obviously some natural vertigo kicked in. I looked ahead of me and took some deep breaths and was fine after that.
Arriving back at the start, we discovered where the Douglas squirrels were – in the café seating area, making sorties onto the table to steal scraps of food. This squirrel is smaller than our grey or red varieties, but equally mischievous, and a quick little bugger. I was enchanted.
We caught the public bus down to Lonsdale Quay (and skipped paying the fare once again, thanks to the driver who refused to charge us because he thought that paying the bus fare and the ferry fare was too expensive* – although possibly the price we paid was the fact the driver drove like his arse was on fire and I thought we would die every time he took a corner) and then spent a pleasant hour or so hanging around the market, taking in the port atmosphere, buying mementoes and playing giant chess.
The ferry took us across the Harbour and into Vancouver’s Gastown, a trendy, buzzing area full of character. I had been wondering for a few days how the neighbourhood got its name, and we discovered quite by chance when we passed this statue, of “Gassy Jack”.
John “Gassy Jack” Deighton was said to be the founder of Gastown – originally hailing from Kingston-upon-Hull, he ended up a saloonkeeper, of the Deighton House Hotel in Vancouver. He was apparently renowned for his “gassy” monologues, hence the area’s name.
I mean, come on. How likely is this? The statue is there, and that information is inscribed on a plaque at its foot, but really? Surely that’s a joke?
Anyway, something else amusing is the Gastown Steam Clock, the world’s first steam-powered clock. Though it looks old, it was actually built in only 1977. It is a kooky, beautifully engineered piece of perfection, using steam to wind the weights of the mechanism and blow the whistles every 15 minutes. We hung around for 10 minutes just so we could hear them. It was lovely.
After dinner (at the Flying Pig, where the woman greeting us at the door was so unwelcoming and bitchy we, unusually for us, actually complained about her. When we left she was being shadowed by a boss. Ha. (But, apart from her cowness, the place is great – we had a lovely waitress, the manager was nice and the food is delish)), we wandered across the boundaries of Gastown into Downtown Eastside.
I did not know before, but Downtown Eastside, while one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, is also famous for its drug use, poverty, mental illness, sex work, homelessness and crime. Our experience of this was the sudden sight of groups of vagrants sitting with some tinnies in the sun, their backdrop a graffitied wall. Sorry, I’m sounding like a prude – I’m not shocked that there would be homeless or underprivileged people in a city (hell, we’d encountered way too much of that already in San Francisco and Seattle), it was just an arresting sight after the riches, colour, jollity and tourism of Gastown.
The next day, our final one in Vancouver, would see us flying out that night, so we had plenty of time to hire some bikes and head off on a ride around the plentiful bike lanes. First we stopped off at Scoozi’s, near the waterfront, for breakfast, and if you’re ever there do pop in. The proprietor is of that Mediterranean heritage that raises its arms in welcome when it sees you, doffs its hat and promises to find you the best table in the house.
The Eggs Florentine I ate was dressed in almost certainly the best hollandaise sauce I have ever tasted – “This is the best hollandaise sauce I have ever tasted,” I said to the proprietor’s other half. “Oh yes,” she said, “people say that all the time.” Way to deflate a compliment – and I defy anyone to be unable to find something to eat on this spectacular breakfast menu.
Vancouver has a fantastic network of cycle lanes, which led us along the harbour coast to Stanley Park, lying on a promontory that forms the harbour. The cycle lanes were very busy, and several times I was worried daughter would be intimidated into falling off the kerb into oncoming pedestrians, but for the most part this is a great place to cycle, with fantastic views across the harbour to Vancouver North and South.
We passed Brockton Point Lighthouse; the outdoor exercise area, where we had to stop for a while to watch the extremely fit young men engaging in street gymnastics and acrobatics, ahem; the Girl in a Wetsuit statue; made a foolish detour via the Aquarium – which is apparently incredibly good but which proved too expensive for what little time we had and which left daughter crying with disappointment; cycled under the Lions Gate Bridge; and stopped off for hotdogs and burgers at Third Beach.
I saw a game of cricket, which charmed the pants off me; some goslings with their mum, sunbathing with the tourists and daytrippers on the beach; several herons, standing still as statues along the shore, ignoring the Saturday hullabaloo behind them as they waited for the perfect moment to spear a passing fish; and I walked into the men’s public toilets by accident, and didn’t realise until after I had used the facilities and left the building and saw the logo on the door, which did explain the bemused expression on the face of the man who was leaving just as I walked in.
And then it was back to the hotel, to pick up our suitcases and fly home, via the very quiet and chilled out Vancouver Airport.
I like Vancouver.
[In a postscript to this tale, I must relate our return to Britain, if only because this country’s transport links are laughable, especially in comparison to them across the pond. We had been travelling for two weeks in North America, across and around three cities, using a variety of transport from cable cars, buses and taxis to ferries, planes and bikes (they count, don’t message me). Our transatlantic flight saw us leave Vancouver at about half nine in the evening their time, and land in London Heathrow the next day at about three in the afternoon our time. Our connecting flight from Heathrow to Edinburgh should have left at half four but didn’t, because the plane needed a spare part. We waited in the airport. We waited on the plane. The spare part was being sourced, and fixed onto the plane, and most of the time the air conditioning wasn’t working. Daughter had been sick twice already on the journey back, for some completely unfathomable reason. I was loath to keep her sitting in this oven for much longer – when we were told that the plane was not likely to take off for another three hours, I asked if we could get off.
To BA’s credit, they removed our luggage from the hold and allowed us off.
Husband booked a sleeper train to Edinburgh. We tootled into Paddington and clambered on the sleeper train, where husband was engaged in clarifying an issue about the cabin he had literally just booked half an hour before, since it was apparently on a carriage that did not exist.
I took the children to the lounge car to tuck into the sandwiches we had bought in the station. Tired and hot, we sat down and unpacked our food.
“You can’t eat your food in here,” said a train employee, lumbering into view**.
Reader, I erupted. There was language and a certain tone of voice it is best not to share here.
“You can see it from my point of view…” he wheedled.
“No,” I said childishly. “I can’t. I haven’t slept for 36 hours and I’m hungry.”
Fortunately husband arrived and bought a plate of food from the bar to appease him.
Anyway, the rest of the journey was uneventful and actually rather pleasant, inasmuch as it added to the holiday experience. Until we arrived in Edinburgh at six the next morning and, having had breakfast, discovered when we tried to get the next train home that the services were cancelled due to a fatality on the line. We dragged our luggage out of Waverley to catch the bus home.
Obviously I can’t and won’t pass any judgement on this situation, which was tragic. But by the time we got home we had been travelling for 36 hours and arrived 14 hours later than planned.***
The children didn’t go to school that day.
The moral of this postscript is, treat every journey on British public transport like an adventure, because that’s what it’ll sodding turn into.]
*Yeah, just have a wee think about that. Initiative is alive and well in North America. I’m sure there are jobsworths but we didn’t meet any.
** Well, quite.
*** Yeah, boo hoo, I know. But this is a middle class travel blog, remember?