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Above it all in Vancouver

The Vancouver Lookout offers a quick, orienting look at the growth and sprawl of the Vancouver metro area. Credit: Credit: Knute Berger

In the amusement park business, they talk about the "squeal factor:" Do a park's attractions provide enough thrills? This seems to be a trend in modern tourism as new technologies amp up travel experiences.

The trend is on full display in Vancouver, B.C. I was up there recently on a travel assignment which included being put up by Tourism Vancouver and set loose with a pass to check out some of the sights. What struck me was how many attractions involved getting high — without B.C. bud. 

Gondola rides (like Grouse Mountain) and float plane tours are common, but I tried a few in-town experiences that offered different ways of seeing the city and its environs from on high while remaining firmly attached to the ground. (Still, acrophobes are advised to head to Stanley Park.)

First, we went down to Canada Place on Burrard Inlet, which is the kind of tourism nexus Seattle would like to have on its own waterfront. It's right downtown, cruise ships can pull in and the pier is full of attractions, including the latest, Fly Over Canada, a 4-D virtual flying experience.

Fly Over Canada is an IMAX film in a domed theater with images surrounding you. But the 4th dimension comes into play as you are strapped into seats that move giving the impression that you’re sitting in a comfortable armchair while flying over Canada's most spectacular scenery. You bank, you soar, you dive. The mist and various scents that waft over you add a touch of realism. You even feel the chill of the icebergs and snow below. 

This is the kind of audio-visual sensation common in world's fair pavilions where visitors can feel rained on or creeped out by the slithery feel of reptiles passing under their seats, depending on the show's ambitions. They come in 3-D and 4-D; some even claim 5-D or 6-D, which means absolutely nothing in the Newtonian universe. It's just the nature of carnival ride promoters the world over making extraordinary claims.

The purpose is to create an illusion, to trick your brain with spectacular graphics and other sensations that heighten the effect. Fly Over Canada's helicopters traversed the continent from east to west in order to simulate this virtual ride that is more exciting than most aircraft trips you've ever had. You soar above the wheat harvesters and remote mountain skiers, the spectacular scenery from sea to shining sea.

It's beautiful, but also a bit hollow, like living inside an expensive travel brochure. Still, it has major squeal appeal and I  recommend it to friends and family as a satisfying, half-hour, entirely artificial, all-weather thrill.

After Fly Over, we hopped a bus and headed over the Lion's Gate Bridge to North Vancouver. We wanted to see the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a wobbly wonder that spans the Capilano River,  and which King County residents might mistake for the Green River Gorge. It's a popular tourist site. The day we were there it was packed with people from all over the world.

They had come to walk across the swaying bridge, which brings to mind scenes from an Indiana Jones movie. When lots of people are on the span, it requires a certain amount of effort to keep your feet — the elderly can be challenged to stay upright. But it's all quite safe.

The folks that run the attraction were not satisfied with a mere bridge, cafe and tourist shops, however. A few years ago, they added a Treewalk. Once you cross the suspension bridge, you can follow a trail that takes you into the canopy of a mature Northwest forest. You wander from tree to tree on suspended walkways and rest in mid-air on platforms that give you that Swiss Family Robinson feel. It's all done without spikes or nails, so no harm to the trees.

In 2011, Capilano opened a Cliffwalk, a boardwalk trail that runs along a face of one of the gorges, and then swings out so you can stand on a transparent platform high above the river and rocks below. These types of high-wire attractions are popping up all over — at the Grand Canyon and Jasper National Park, for example. They are securely attached to the hillsides and use the thrill of the cantilever to get you to walk into space, against your better judgment. They are designed to fool you into thinking they are more dangerous than they are. 

But they do serve a sightseeing purpose. At Capilano, the Ciffwalk is a great way to see the geology of the site, to get an up-close look at the twisted trees and roots as they hang off the edge of the cliff and cling to the rock. The Treewalk puts you into the native forest and gives you a raven's eye view of the habitat.

For something more urban and old-school, there's downtown's Vancouver Lookout, which resembles a truncated Space Needle top plopped on the roof of the Harbour Centre office tower. (That Centre spelling lets you know you’re not in Kansas anymore). The result is clunky — it's concrete, after all — but the ‘70s structure has some Space Age cool, and from the observation deck (there's also a revolving restaurant, natch) you get a good 360-degree view of the city. It's a particularly favorable view of the changing Vancouver skyline. You can peer down into historic Gastown or see the growing mass of high-rises, all with water-and-mountain backdrops.

The experience feels a bit dated; many of the sights are no longer visible. For example, the landmark geodesic-domed science center on False Creek that was built for Expo '86 is now hidden right behind a newer structure. This underscores the fact that visitors are viewing a rapidly changing skyline, which includes former bedroom suburbs that now sport gleaming office towers, much like Bellevue's. The Vancouver Lookout can give you a quick, orienting course in the growth and sprawl of that city's expanding metro area.

We were lucky enough to have our visit coincide with an art exhibit at the Vancouver Gallery, which featured the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and British Columbia's Northwest mystic painter Emily Carr.

Burtynsky takes the most beautiful photographs of awful things: tar sands digs, oil wells, desert sprawl, open pit mines, chiseled quarries. He’s fascinated by the challenge of bridging the gap between nature photography and documenting our extractive economy. If the Sierra Club trafficked in calendars with gorgeous images of ravaged landscapes, Burtynsky would be the Ansel Adams of the genre. Many of his pictures are elevated or aerial shots which reveal land use patterns. It's inspiring and sobering when you realize that a pattern, breathtaking from the air, turns out to be toxic chemicals leeching into the soil. 

The exhibit also put his work "in dialogue" with the works of painter Carr who I think of as the Van Gogh of our old growth forests. Her images of trees, landscapes and skies vibrate with energy. While she was fascinated by North Coast indigenous subjects and the B.C. environment, her paintings from the 1930s and '40s also document a landscape being logged, slashed and transformed by man. She found the clear cuts and stumps worthy subjects too. The show is now closed, but, you can get an overview of the exhibit at the above links, and the work of both artists is in the museum's permanent collection. 

The Vancouver Gallery show didn't deliver the "squeal factor," though the images were thrilling in their way. But it enriched what we were seeing outside the gallery, which was the beauty and interesting architecture of a place that is growing rapidly yet still relies on an economy based in mining, fishing, oil and timber. It helped us get a sense of our relationship with the landscape, and transported us beyond the tourist realm. We became observers, explorers even, of the complex realities facing Cascadia.

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