Vancouver itself is a spectator sport, no tickets required
I'm not sure what I was expecting three days before the Opening Ceremony of the XXI Winter Olympics. I know whenever my hubby and I are having dinner or weekend guests, I'm scrambling right up to the last moment before the door flies open to familiar faces. Well, not Vancouver. With a quarter of a million strangers expected in Doug Coupland's so-named City of Glass Feb. 12-28, it quietly oozed calm and cool. Most folks I talked with didn't even seem all that upset about the lack of snow at Cypress Mountain, the venue for snowboard and freestyle competitions.
I traveled on a weekday aboard Amtrak Cascades from Everett to Vancouver, shortly after they announced stepped-up security for the Winter Games. As a frequent Amtrak rider through Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom counties, I didn't notice anything different. The only surprise was the lack of passengers on board — I was one of only two in a Business Class car. But the onboard attendant assured me that they were filling up fast for the duration of the Winter Games. In 2009, Amtrak started running two round-trip trains daily between Seattle and Vancouver to accommodate the Olympics (after the Games, there is no assurance the increased service will continue).
When I disembarked at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, the questions by Canada Border Services were pretty routine: "Why are you up here?" (pre-Olympics fun); "Are you meeting anyone?" (yes, a friend for dinner); and "Where are you staying?" (Moda Hotel). I didn't mention that I was a journalist.
After a ten-buck cab ride to my hotel, made a bit more complicated due to blocked-off streets, I walked down to Yaletown. What a contrast from the three years when the streets of this former warehouse district were torn up during construction of the Canada Line. The Yaletown-Roundhouse Station, one of 16 SkyTrain stations along the 11.8-mile line connecting downtown Vancouver-Richmond-Vancouver International Airport, is located directly across from Yaletown's trendy Opus Hotel. Vancouver businesses were more than relieved when it opened three months early on Aug. 17, 2009. Olympics-wise, the 25-minute trip between the airport and downtown Vancouver is sure to be a boon for both residents and visitors, along with being able to take it to the Richmond Public Oval, the Olympic venue for speed skating.
Many of the 100+ restaurants in Yaletown were erecting outdoor heated tents and installing additional lighting, anticipating Olympic overflow. While the familiar red and white maple leaf flags were blowin' in the afternoon breeze, blue-garbed Olympic ambassadors were on the street corners, answering questions and dispensing directions. Olympic-esque offerings by businesses in the neighborhood included a $55 "Fan Facial" at skoah and even enticements for the Olympic athletes. Blue Water Cafe, along with its three other Top Table restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler, is saluting all medal-winning athletes with a complimentary bottle of Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne to enjoy with family and friends.
After dinner, I strolled on Granville Street, partially closed off and filled with celebratory sculpture. Robson Square was a hubbub of activity, and the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery were jammed with people watchers. I happened to arrive for a dress rehearsal of a twice-nightly laser-light-pyrotechnics show called "Ignite the Dream." Glitches and all, it was pretty impressive. Overhead, a zip-liner tested the wires, and during the Games it will be yet another free activity at Robson Square, just like the ice skating. Expect long lines for both.
All around me, I heard languages from around the globe, and tried to decipher the jackets of the athletes as they strolled by in their team uniforms. Wow, they're young. The nearby Hudson's Bay Company, headquarters for the authorized Olympic Superstore, was crammed with testy shoppers hoping to snag a pair of the coveted red mittens. Word on the street was that one more shipment was to arrive prior to the Games — I was lucky to snag two pairs.
Although I don't have tickets for the Winter Games, I'm planning to make a trip back north. I only scratched the surface of free things to do, including touring some of the Canadian pavilions and hospitality houses: Canada's Northern House is located right downtown, and is museum-like in feel with a dandy gift shop; CentrePlace Manitoba features a model of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, designed by U.S. architect Antoine Predock, and is scheduled to open in Winnipeg in 2012; and the oh-so-fun-and-friendly Atlantic Canada House on Granville Island has cool music and good grub. Nearby is the House of Switzerland, located in Bridges restaurant, and featuring all things Swiss (including fondue, raclette and loads of chocolate).
Before my evening train departed for Everett, I stopped by the Bacchus Lounge at the Wedgewood Hotel. It's one of my favorite bars (along with 900 West at The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, where Wayne the waiter and I are on a first-name basis). The Wedgewood will be closed to the general public during the duration of the Games, as it's the headquarters of CTV, the broadcaster for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Canada. I ordered a glass of B.C. wine to go with my Vancouver Sun while two guys in suits next to me bragged about their respective hockey and curling tickets.
Let the Games begin.