The Canadian dream

Retrace the footsteps of Vancouver’s earliest Jewish community to see why the city is just so tempting


Repeatedly named one of the world’s most desirable cities to live in, it’s easy to see why people would be drawn to Vancouver — a welcoming vibe, mountain backdrop, boat-filled harbour, and plenty of green spaces.

Back in the last half of the 19th century, after the California Gold Rush, it was the possibility of finding gold in the Fraser Valley that was the big temptation — including for Jews settling here, the first members of what would grow to be Canada’s third largest Jewish population.

David Oppenheimer became the city’s second mayor, and was instrumental in laying the infrastructure for what is now a thriving metropolis, with joggers and cyclists out in force along the shores, the glass of its high-rise buildings keeping the city’s atmosphere light and relaxing.

To retrace the steps of those early Jews, I join Michael Schwartz, Director of Community Engagement for the Jewish Museum who organises Jewish historic walking tours. We meet at the site of the city’s first synagogue built in 1911 and later enlarged to become home to the orthodox community.

Many of the earliest immigrants, who came mostly from the US and Britain, settled in this area, living in Strathcona, Vancouver’s East End and working in the stores of nearby Gastown.

Today the city has several communities, each with its own synagogue, although the original building, while retaining its façade, has been turned into a block of flats.

As we walk, Michael points out signs on trees encouraging visitors to connect via their phones and learn more about the area. At present the Museum only exists online with visitors able to listen to podcasts and videos on a whole spectrum of Jewish history.

The city also has a Jewish Community Centre, home to the city’s Holocaust Centre, an educational hub, which puts on exhibitions from time to time, often incorporating a local element.

Visitors can also find four kosher restaurants as well as several serving Jewish-style food such as bagels and falafel. Vancouver’s vegetarian restaurants are winning awards, particularly the Acorn, listed amongst the best in Canada. And being near the Pacific Ocean, the fish tends to be local and freshly caught too.

Close to my boutique hotel, Opus, I have a memorable meal at the chic Blue Water Café. My sablefish — black cod — cooked with bok choy, edamame beans and quinoa comes with a miso sake glaze.

While it can feel daunting finding your way around a strange city, the hotel — conveniently situated near the water and a train station — also lends out bicycles, with bike lanes everywhere around the city.

If you’re heading further afield, there’s also a complimentary chauffeur service, taking me across town to East Pender for my meeting with Michael.

Vancouver’s hop-on, hop off bus tour is a quick way of getting to know the city too, especially on a short break, with many visitors then heading onwards to the Rockies, Whistler and Banff.

Our guide, on telling us of the numerous sporting activities available, recounted how he was able to go skiing on Grouse Mountain in the morning and play tennis by the harbour later the same day.

There are beaches in the city too, and the drive takes you to Stanley Park, bordering the water where you’ll find several of these located. Within its thousand acres are a rainforest, a habitat for wildlife, and a display of towering Totem Poles.

Artists from the First Nations, the country’s indigenous people, have carved these to record their history and legends.

Grouse Mountain itself is another unmissable experience. A free shuttle service from the Cruise Port Terminal takes me to their gondola.

Known as the Skyride, thanks to the outdoor platform on its top where the more adventurous can stand during the summer months, it carries as many as 80 passengers. I stay firmly inside as it whisks me 2,800 feet up the mountain to the area where a lot of the activities originate.

The choice varies according to the season but there are things to do on the mountain year-round. In the summer, eat in the Observatory restaurant with the lights of the city twinkling below, while in winter visitors can enjoy all the sports that come with the snow.

You’ll also find five zip lines, including two just below the 4,100ft peak, which are accessed via an open chairlift. While a friend is harnessed up and accompanied by two instructors, I head off in search of the two orphan grizzly bears that have made their home on the mountain.

A vast area has been sectioned off for Coola and Grinder, and apart from their food, their environment has been kept as similar as possible to that if they lived in the wild. I was not disappointed, arriving just as the rangers were feeding them large chunks of salmon.

One explained that as winter sets in the bears’ appetites increase and they eat more food to carry them through their hibernation, which happens during the coldest winter months between November and March.

You’ll find art and culture alongside the wildlife and outdoorsy activities too. Man-made Granville Island, an entertainment hub with a large indoor food market where both visitors and locals come to shop, is a short hop by ferry from our hotel.

The area is filled with arts and craft studios as well as workshops. Buskers, who are licensed and have to be of a certain standard, entertain me at various stops as I walk around eyeing up the large silos, representing what was once an industrial site, now painted with artwork.

The area is a great place for finding original souvenirs, and tasting local produce including cheese, maple syrup, wild sockeye salmon, along with wine.

Although rarely exported to the UK, with nearly a thousand vineyards and a variety of grapes British Columbia is a winemaking region, including some vineyards close to the city.

From history and food to activities and wildlife, today’s visitors to Vancouver are sure to strike gold too.

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