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The Secret Gardens of Vancouver

From forest hikes to botanical trails and edible food gardens, Vancouver allows you to breathe deeply.

Vancouver glitters with a sea of glassy skyscrapers, many, crowned with private roof gardens. Beneath them are patchworks of leafy green spaces where community vegetable gardens grow on a trust basis. Meander into Stanley Park from English Bay, where beavers, racoons, squirrels and great blue herons reside, and emerge from an oasis of ancient forest to golden beaches facing snow-cloaked mountains. Wherever you roam in Vancouver, nature and wildlife are nearby. And I am here to breathe it all in.

Summer is in the air and its breeze runs through my hair. I’m hiking through Greater Vancouver’s Lynn Canyon Park with tour company, Into the Wild. Following the footsteps of our guide, Paul, the Lynn River rages to our left until we bounce across a 50 metre-high suspension bridge. A crisp mist bathes our faces from the plummeting waterfall beside us.

This section of the Baden-Powell Trail passes a weir spilling the purest, clearest water until a boardwalk descends us among the pines and maples. It’s a 1000-year-old temperate rainforest, but most trees here are second growth and a century old. Douglas firs, western red cedars and western hemlocks stud the landscape.

“The evergreen Douglas fir contains a wound-sealing sap that smells like tiger balm,” says Paul. Indeed, its gluey texture almost sticks our fingers together. “And the roots of the western hemlock are vitamin C-rich,” he says, pointing, “valued by the First Nations people who used them to season halibut, our local fish. The leaves are said to taste peppery.”

The rocks underfoot are smooth as they were once the old riverbed. Moss drapes the branches like curtains in this fairy tale landscape while large ferns shade the undergrowth. As we track alongside the river, its waters voice their applause when we arrive at icy 30-Foot Pool. With its source being snowmelt, it freezes regularly during winter. Today, the inviting waterhole is a green, limpid mirror.

Bear-proof bins nearby mean this is black bear territory. The bins are only operable by releasing a latch, hidden within a fortified steel cover designed to resist the strength (and intelligence) of bears.

We climb 160 steps towards juvenile maple trees and thousands of Douglas firs, where dappled sunlight guides the dreamy trail. Giant cedars once inhabited this forest. First Nations people carved cedar wood for totem pole and boatbuilding, and made clothing and masks from its bark—a practice passed down through generations. Logging devastated these cultural crafts before the forest became protected. Paul points out a heritage cedar, then a heritage Douglas fir that survived early logging—estimated to be 200-300 years old.

We reach Twin Falls Bridge straddling Lynn Creek. Salmon swim upstream to spawn here—3km from the coast. Impressively, salmon return to the exact spot where they were born to procreate after spending their life in the ocean.

Today I wander into Vancouver’s Chinatown, but I swap the buzz of its vibrant streets for the tranquillity of Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The doctor after whom this garden-home was built was the first post-Ming President of China. It depicts the classical garden-homes of Suzhou scholars during the Ming Dynasty era—the first to be built outside of China.

Lila, our guide, leads us through the storybook setting, which begins in the China Maple Hall. It’s adorned with framed Suzhou silk embroidery, porcelain vases and elaborate wooden carvings from gingko and camphor.

The garden’s centrepiece is a gazebo positioned to resemble a mountain. Its roof curls upwards so as to not obstruct the views. A ginkgo tree grows above a hand-tiled courtyard laid out in a balanced chiaroscuro pattern. Embracing the Daoist yin and yang philosophy, light and dark, large and small, and smooth and rough features are balanced throughout. The grounds are also gendered for homeostasis. On the feminine side, tile decoration is round. On the masculine side, tiles are angled.

Building materials—including the carved wood, courtyard pebbles, hand-fired roof tiles and the rare limestone Taihu rocks—all came from China. They were reassembled by a group of workers (themselves brought from Suzhou) using traditional 14th-century building methods (without tools, screws, or glue).

We walk through a circular doorway to a large water lily pond shaded by a mature willow. The pond is alive with tortoises, koi and frogs and butterflies flit here and there. Along a zigzag pathway designed so to slow visitors and heighten their appreciation of the space, we reach the jade water pavilion with its balustrades and ornate windows. Further along is the circular Moon Gate, the entrance to the home, oriented to face south in line with feng shui.

We visit the scholar’s spacious study with a large desk, upon which he would pen poetry in calligraphy. In the adjoining courtyard, where he would paint, mint leaves are strategically planted between the cracks of the tiles so that their aroma releases when walked upon. An elevated stage for musical performances sits quietly in the corner.

Our tour culminates with tastings of Chinese jasmine leaf tea in the Hall of One Hundred Rivers, which exhibits local Chinese artworks. It’s all rather delightful.

Today I head southwest of the city in search of the wild, the ornamental and the medicinal. The UBC Botanical Garden’s self-guided walking trails showcase wild-collected plants in various gardens.

One features the BC Rainforest Garden. It sits pretty-as-a-picture with its charming timber bridges, while hummingbirds flap about the salmonberry bushes as dragonflies skim the pond.

However, I’m particularly attracted to the sustainably grown organic Food Garden that flourishes in tiered beds between an espalier pear and apple tree boundary. I find everything from lima beans, heirloom capsicums, turnips, chickpeas, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, artichokes, garlic, lentils and quinoa to gooseberries, grapes and strawberries. Friends of the Garden volunteers harvest and donate the produce to local charity food banks.

In the yew hedge-bordered Harold & Frances Holt Physic Garden, medicinal and poisonous plants grow in concentric beds. Relating on the Doctrine of Signatures belief system, plaques in this medieval apothecary display quotes (both factual and mythical) explaining the plants’ historical European uses from the 1500s. On show are butcher’s broom (a meat preserver), lungwort (used as a respiratory aid), wall germander (used to treat gout), and stinking hellebore (a powerful toxin once used as a purgative).

With that food for thought, I then tackle the Greenheart TreeWalk. This eco attraction has been constructed sensitively with a ‘tree hugger’ cable system, and without a nail or bolt in sight. Through a network of suspended bridges and tree platforms, I sway through over 300 metres of aerial walkways viewing 100-year-old cedars and Douglas firs. The lofty viewing platform is the perfect spot from which to spy upon woodpeckers and owls, and I keep an eye out for the resident bald eagle. Alas, it remains covert on this occasion.

Green Vancouver is quite literally a breath of fresh air. And this year marks Canada’s sesquicentennial milestone. So, in rejoicing its magnificent natural beauty, I say: “Happy 150th birthday, Canada!”

Emirates flies daily between Dubai and Vancouver via London or LA.
For couples: Wedgewood Hotel & Spa tucks neatly in the city centre on Hornby Street. Vancouver’s only Relais & Chateaux boutique property offers suites fitted with marble bathrooms, luxurious bedding, original paintings and antique furniture. www.wedgewoodhotel.com
For families: The Residence Club offers a vast range of apartments across the city. Coal Harbour properties are perfectly located for access to the city, beaches and Stanley Park. www.theresidence.club.
Headed by Executive Chef, Montgomery Lau, Bacchus Restaurant & Lounge offers French-inspired fine dining in an exquisite setting dressed in dark wood and designer furniture. Dine to the subtle sounds of the live jazz pianist.
www.wedgewoodhotel.com/bacchus-restaurant. The Teahouse Restaurant nestles between forest and ocean in Stanley Park. Enjoy sumptuous charcuterie tasting boards, lamb racks and fresh Haida Gwaii halibut.
www.vancouverdine.com/teahouse LIFT at Coal Harbour offers a rooftop deck and overwater views towards Stanley Park and the mountains beyond. Their crab and shrimp cakes explode with flavour. www.liftbarandgrill.com


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