A Whale of a Tale: Gypsy Takes to Vancouver

I’ve always been a Med and Carib girl. My husband and I bought La Fiorentina in St-Jean Cap Ferrat, France, when there wasn’t a Russian in sight in 1970 and my children spent all their summers there. We bought our home in Mustique in the West Indies to spend Christmas and Easter warming up. The rest of each year we spent flying, busing, driving or training from town to town, country to country. My husband built and ran airlines, terminals and hotels all over the world. I ran an ad agency and had offices and clients from Detroit to Peru to London to Brazil. When we dreamed of vacations they were dreams of being in France and Mustique, swimming in warm seas, burning in hot suns with our kids.

When my husband died I had a crazy fit and started selling the big houses we had. I bought a boat I love — Strangelove — but after four years of calming down in the Mediterranean, I began to resent the economics of the weak dollar and 50-euro coffees. So I wandered around my atlas and saw Vancouver on the southwest Pacific coast of Canada — I had an image of Alaska and polar bears and whales. I have never been a fisher-girl or much of a sport of any kind. My vacation clothes have always been bare and floaty and I have been either barefooted or in Manolo’s highest heels on balmy evenings. But I am curious to the core and I didn’t know a thing about the Pacific Coast beyond Malibu, CA. So I made a deal with a very big boat to carry Strangelove from Italy all the way around and through the Panama Canal and then all the way up to Vancouver. I flew to meet it in Seattle which is a short sail to Vancouver. When I saw Strangelove it seemed to have grown since it left Europe. Strangelove is 156 feet. In the Med that is not a big boat. There are hundreds of boats between 200 and 400 feet. But between Seattle and Alaska, the new monster boats and the Russians and Middle Easterners who own them are still very rare and Strangelove is usually the biggest boat around. I am the Queen now on a BIG boat that hasn’t grown an inch!

Arriving by boat from Seattle, the sight of Vancouver is pure J.K. Rowling! You sail past vast purple-green mountains with blinding snow-white tops and furry dark-green islands so dense, so sexy that Hollywood stars hide in them while shooting films here — and there are 1,200 of those islands streaming all the way to Alaska. The sea is clear blue-green to the bottom. Little water planes fly about like paper darts and armies of beautiful young women row in their underwear in kayaks with men in little boats beside them yelling “bend those legs, chest to thighs, stretch those arms!” at them. Whales splash and have right of way. (Each one has a name and a number; this is Whale Land and there are as many whale people as there are green people here.) Then — as you get closer to Vancouver you imagine that it was created last night just for you by Peter Gelb, who orders those great sets for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Vancouver is not an old town left over from 150 years ago. It is illusionary. It is a dream. It can’t be real. It looks as if it was thought up and built last night — towers of shimmering pale blue-green glass with just a pink tower here and a bronze tower there all in a row gazing into the sea. It is a crystal city. The glass matches the sea. How the Vancouver fathers got everyone to agree on building all their glass towers the colors of the sea says something for the theatrical imagination of the leadership in Vancouver. I have a picture of our captain David Hoey, the crew and me with our eyes open wide saying oooooooooh! entering Coal Harbour of Vancouver.

Coal Harbour is an astonishing seaside area of Vancouver with the prettiest port I have ever seen run by the best port office we have experienced. People berthing in the port like it so much they grow flowers on their gangways and droop sadly when they have to leave. I kid you not. There is a seal that simply refuses to leave. Bubbles — an unusual spotted wow of a seal frolics around the boats followed by her companion seal, Bruce, and their baby seal and nothing will drive Bubbles away!

There is what I call “The Walk” which is a seaside walk that winds all around Vancouver and even all around Stanley Park, a joy of a park that Vancouver is very proud of. It’s a perfect park for inspirational walks and charming visits to the Vancouver Aquarium where a rare baby beluga whale born a few weeks ago in captivity is tossing itself around its mother in healthy joy. What I call “The Walk” is miles and miles of walkway on a lush bit of a green park that runs along the edge of the sea in front of all the glass towers, and is the perfect place in life to run or bicycle or skate or have a coffee or sit or read or dream or — have a healthy long walk. It is where I first had a close-up view of Two Harbour Green, a mystical blue-green glass tower being built in a front-row position overlooking the sea and the mountains and the little toy planes and “The Walk” — and where something a little dizzying told me to buy an apartment.

I ignored the first intuition, took a cold shower and went about seeing what it would be like to live in Vancouver. We started by trying out restaurants. A lot of movies have been made in Vancouver and the town is booming with life and growth. There will be Olympics in Vancouver and in Whistler in 2010, so there is a serious choice of restaurants now and more to come and a serious abundance of choice fresh fish. My favorites — and it is hard to choose from so many outstanding ones — are: “C.” One of the best restaurants anywhere in my opinion. Wins multiple awards and should. Famous for pushing responsible sourcing of the ocean’s harvest, too — and for imaginative cooking — and great wines. Just lovely in every way.  Contemporary décor but with a sophisticated calm and a grown-up hand. Nice large summer patio facing the boats in False Creek, too. (Most of the town faces water in one way or another) (tel: 604 681 1164).

Blue Water Café & Raw Bar. Lots of jokes about how fresh the fish are here — how they are still flopping and spraying water when they reach the table. It is deeply respected and has a huge following for the sushi and sashimi — and it has a very happy, warm, relaxed atmosphere that can handle a lot of hungry people with beautifully mixed drinks and wines and cheer. In the heart of Yaletown, another lovely section of town (tel: 604 688 8078).

Cioppino’s. An Italian restaurant where some go to see and be seen but it is really about the food. Terrific Italian cooking. Great personalities — Pino Posteraro, who cooks and runs this place, is known by half the world. Always fun (tel: 604 688 7466).

This is a town with a new restaurant star every day. And the prices are nice, normal prices. There are so many restaurant experiences — sophisticated ones and new hip young ones with stunning decors — all of them happy and smart. Vancouver is a happy town — it is a restaurant town and one that takes its wines seriously — and it takes welcoming you seriously. You never feel as if it is the first time you have eaten anywhere. You arrive, your first time, already a favorite of the house. But we discovered that is true of almost any place you go to do anything.

Vancouver is not the same town it was even five years ago. I’ve never seen a town so cheerfully exploding. I have seen and very much respect Beijing for stunning the architecture world but Vancouver is revving up in every way and is sparkling clean and, most important, everyone is so glad to see you — so welcoming.

Vancouver hasn’t had a lot of super-luxe, top-end hotels before. The Four Seasons has extraordinary service. I have very few revered hotel managers on my list and Elaine Scherer and Simon Pettigrew are two of them — to me it is a sin to lie about hotel service — the Four Seasons is exceedingly well run and comfortable and is in the process of super-luxing itself again little by little. There are a number of good inexpensive hotels here, many with terrific views. But now, to handle the boom happening in Vancouver, there will be stiff competition for hotels at all levels. The Shangri-La, is finishing off the tallest tower in town, a stunning blue-green glass sheath that streams up up up to the stars. The Fairmont Pacific Rim is building a tower on the sea next to Canada Place where so much action will take place and Ritz Carlton is building a beautiful, sophisticated New York-ish tower that Noël Coward would have loved. It will have everything a super-luxe hotel could possibly ever have and is guaranteed to attract the amazing set.

We learned that Vancouver rocks with big music events like the Pemberton Festival this summer, lots of theater, ballet, museums of all kinds, parks everywhere you turn, fun-scary things like the Capilano suspension bridge, Kitsilano beach with its sexy volleyball players, its annual international fireworks spectaculars and the giant heated saltwater pool. The Vancouver Canucks are getting a new retractable roof over the stadium for the Olympics. Vancouver also has a baseball team, the Vancouver Canadians, and the BC Lions football team and so many fine golf courses; you can ski, play golf and swim all in one day. Getting around is easy; the water planes just fly over everything and go almost everywhere. There is the fun of a skyride that takes you 4,000 feet from downtown Vancouver up a mountain to a choice of good places for lunch – or, in winter, the choice of skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and sleigh rides. A short ferry ride away — or even faster in a water plane — there is Victoria on Vancouver Island, usually voted the most popular place to see in the Americas. There is a great dining experience in the Chalet; a French chef creates wonders in a luxe area on the sea. (Ask to see his wine cellar. Ooo la la.) And, of course, there is Whistler, the best ski resort in the Americas – maybe anywhere – just 90 minutes north.

I mean there is a lot to do. Take Yaletown, once an area of lowly warehouses. It was razed and for a while there was nothing there at all. Completely rebuilt, it is now a wildly popular, friendly, stylish new condo area on the marina facing the pretty marina at False Creek, within a block or two of some of the best shops for furniture and art galleries and some of the best restaurants.

Fashion shopping? I found every name that I see in a major city anywhere. And I discovered a number of places that create their own styles that I love and wear and buy for everyone who visits me. Wonderful prices too. Modern furniture — same as New York. They all opened up here because the town is building condos nonstop in those gorgeous towers — they need furniture so those big-name modern Italian brands from the Milan furniture shows are selling briskly here.

My favorite store of all — and where my second intuition convinced me I should buy a small apartment and spend a little time here each year — is called Urban Fare. It is a grocery-pharmacy-magazine-flower shop with a really good delicatessen that stays open late so you can snack there until 11 o’clock. It is drop-dead terrific. The fruit and vegetables are presented like paintings; all the stems are in a row. Each piece looks washed and polished and placed just so for you to admire. But best of all is the MUSIC. There is a music system playing music you would love to have for cocktails in a lounge or at a party you gave at home — it is funny and marvelous and addictive. So shopping for food or toothpaste is FUN and could be a bit sexy too. And you feel you are buying jewels.

I decided to look for the perfect little apartment. I knew from my very first sight of Vancouver just which building I wanted to have an apartment in but was told that building had been sold out since 45 minutes after it was announced a couple of years ago. The apartments were sold from the plans. An expert, sympathetic and highly intelligent real-estate executive, Christine Louw, took me to see other apartments very close, similar, but not The One. There was no way to see the apartment I loved itself. For safety reasons, no one was allowed into the building until it was completed. But one sunny morning Christine e-mailed that the exact apartment I believed I wanted had become available. So it is mine. You will see it in the pictures because they did finally allow us all to go to our apartments and take a good look at what we had bought. I adore it. I may end up glued to the view.

Some of my wOw friends came to Vancouver to hold a board meeting. We became a two-boat-flotilla adding my friend John Calley’s boat, Oriana, to our fleet to have enough staterooms. Oriana is almost a twin of Strangelove’s. We are big enough so that we had to engage members of the Pacific Pilots Association to guide us — smart fellows, they protect you and the boats around you and show you special breathtaking hideaways.

Joni Evans, Liz Smith, Lesley Stahl and Cynthia McFadden arrived with Cynthia’s extra smart and aware son, Spencer. With a young man like that on board, we had to go see a few whales. I was getting used to wildlife living with Bubbles and Bruce and their baby seal at the port and I was curious about those islands where movie stars are hiding out. We found plenty of whales alright but Spencer and Cynthia and Joni — out in Strangelove’s little tender — had the whale of an experience! The daddy of all whales in these parts — his name is Ruffles, he is 59 years old, still actively making baby whales, and he weighs ten tons — along with his grandmother who is 94 and the rest of his pod (I think that means family) came splashing and jumping up in front of their noses. When a ten-ton whale jumps so close he is almost in the boat with you it may not be the thrill of lifetime. Whales are fish-eating, not people-eating, but still, who knows what a whale will do with you in a little boat his size. Anna Hall, the lead spokesperson of Canada’s Anti-Whaling Society and executive director of the Whale Watch Operators Association NorthWest, was with us. She wrote and polices the rules here about whale watching. A pretty, slender but strong blonde, she just says who she is and everyone on the seas, here, waves at her and stops worrying about anything. She relaxed us a bit when she told us that the orcas we saw may be called “killer whales” by the press but the name is a bit misleading. They are out to “kill” salmon or other fish.

My daughters and their children are arriving shortly to see what in the world Mom is up to now. I am hoping to be able to show them the little apartment. But it hasn’t been turned over to owners yet. I’m going to take them on Strangelove through a string of heavenly islands where a lot of simple and pretty vacation houses have been built among very old, very big trees to Desolation Sound, a place everyone who has been there agrees may be the most beautiful boating spot on earth. We will see the whales and seals on the way — and I am just hoping we won’t see any big bears.

When we return we will fly up to Whistler; there is skiing on the glacier there in summer. Vancouver and Whistler were awarded the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Whistler, like Vancouver, is not having a real-estate problem! Houses and condos are in great demand. I don’t think it is because of the Olympics. I think it is pent-up demand, a slow but finally energetic build of delightful condos and houses for people who have been wanting to live in an area Canada thinks has its best weather. There are a lot of people who have finally gotten some money now in oil-rich Canada who are living in cold country but want to live in beautiful, warm Vancouver or sportive Whistler. And there are people like me from all over the world who like the feeling of cleanliness, friendliness and peacefulness in all this beauty — and just want a little place with a big view of it.

Vancouver has another unusual quality we have all noticed on Strangelove. Before it becomes warm sunny summer here, there is a Spring of confused weather – for a while you get all seasons in one day. I am not a scientist so I don’t know why, but Vancouver is particularly lovely in clouds and in the light rain that falls in early Spring. It is always like a painting, then, with streaks of radiance. We were forever saying to one another, “It’s so beautiful here in the rain — I love it here in the rain.” Or, “Look at those lavender clouds, have you ever seen anything like them?” People used to Vancouver say that to newcomers all the time. There is something very different here in the light.

In a month or two I will know a little more about all those silver lamé clouds and British Columbia — and if you’re interested you’ll be the first to hear all about it.

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