July 15, 2013 -- As far as international visits go, Vancouver is tough to beat. Its easy access makes it budget-friendly; you can fly into YVR, easily one of the most vibrant airports in Canada, or visit by boat, bus or car. You're there in less than three hours if you're driving from Seattle. And once you arrive, the natural beauty that surrounds (and defines) Vancouver, the lively nightlife, the booming culinary scene, the shopping, the arts and its unique cosmopolitan, globally inspired flair are sure to fill the senses. Some draws are perennial favorites, like Stanley Park, Granville Island and Chinatown. But that's just the beginning.
Go Bare, Skip the Suit
Wreck Beach is ideal for sun worshippers, but perhaps not for the faint of heart. It's a clothes-optional beach, but hey, no one knows you when you're on vacation, right? The beach attracts fans of the au naturel of all ages; faculty and students from the nearby University of British Columbia campus are known to pass the time there. The most accessible stretch of Wreck Beach is at the end of Trail 6 inside Pacific Spirit Regional Park, just west of Vancouver; 483 steps take you down, making the walk back up its own workout. You'll find a variety of vendors peddling their wares, too, selling drinks, snacks and clothes. (Even swim trunks, should you change your mind.)
Pack a Picnic, Skip the Café
After you nab some cheese at one of Vancouver's phenomenal gourmet food shops, and a bottle of regional wine next door, treat yourself to a picnic at one of the most beautiful open spaces in Vancouver. Lighthouse Park is home to an actual, working lighthouse, which is closed to the public. But the wilderness that surrounds it, from jagged cliffs to towering firs, makes it the perfect spot to throw down a blanket. And when lunch (and the nap that follows) is over, go for a hike to beautiful Jackpine Point.
See Salmon, Don't Just Savor Them
The Capilano Salmon Hatchery in North Vancouver is a unique attraction, made even better by the fact that it's free and open year-round. Located right along the Capilano River, this hatchery offers a glimpse into the life cycle of salmon and trout, from egg to juvenile to adult. The young ones are released into the river in the spring and, depending on the species, adults return throughout the summer and fall. If it's spawning season, you can see fish literally jump out of the water as they swim upstream. You can do a self-guided tour of the facility and even enjoy a hike or a picnic on the surrounding grounds. Bring the kids!
See the Vineyard, Skip the Bar
Wine bars have become big draws amidst Vancouver's burgeoning food scene. But visiting the real thing – one of the many BC vineyards that continue to garner industry acclaim – is as easy as taking a one-hour drive from downtown Vancouver. Wineries like Lulu Island and Township 7, located in BC's Fraser Valley, feature varied portfolios, from chardonnay to merlot; sipping on some local ice wine is not to be missed. A few of the wineries welcome visitors year-round, though best access will be from April to September. And if you'd rather leave the driving to someone else, several tour companies offer half-day tours that include visits to four or five tasting rooms.
Go to Church, Skip the Museum
The arts scene in Vancouver is awesome: Museum-hopping opportunities abound. But many of the structures in this city, thanks to their architecture and history, are artsy attractions in their own right. Like the Christ Church Cathedral, a parish that dates back to the 1880s and which today draws visitors of all denominations with its Gothic Revival look, intricate arches, Douglas fir beams and stunning stained glass windows – 32 in all. There's also an impressive labyrinth located on the sanctuary floor. Visitation hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the week, with evening labyrinth access on weekends (call ahead to ensure times).
If you want more art, you're in the right place; the cathedral's location on Burrad Street puts it amongst a bevy of arts galleries and theaters. For a 24-hour art experience, consider a stay on one of the Gallery Floors at the Listel Hotel, where rooms are designed as individual galleries and feature limited-edition originals curated by the celebrated Buschlen Mowatt Gallery.
Steep, Don't Slurp
It's worth mentioning that the hotel right across the street from Christ Church Cathedral – the AAA 4-Diamond Fairmont Hotel Vancouver – is an artistic draw in its own right. This elegant, castle-themed property, respectfully dubbed The Grand Lady, dates back to 1888 and has hosted international royalty.
And it may be the best spot in town for a spot of tea. The Fairmont brand features dozens of signature teas – black, white, green and herbal – and for $49, you can experience them at this hotel in style; sandwiches (like the slow-roasted beef striploin, horseradish, onion and pickle on grain bread) and sweets (like apricot tea cake) come standard. Add a glass of bubbly for $10. And kids can join the steeping; the hotel's Bubblegum Tea includes sandwiches and strawberries bathed in Devonshire cream and preserves for $19. For other elevated tea experiences, check out the Adonia Tea House and the Urban Tea Merchant.
See the Farm, Skip the Zoo
The Greater Vancouver Zoo is an awesome getaway for families: more than 800 animals on some 120 acres. But for a more hands-on experience, check out Maplewood Farm in North Vancouver, home to several hundred animals – cows, pigs, donkeys, goats and sheep. There are petting areas where you can get up close and personal with – and feed – ducks and bunnies. And their Behind the Scenes program lets kids (ages 3 to 10) groom Shetland ponies and collect chicken eggs; these are scheduled on specific dates throughout summer and fall.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features hotel, airfare and a bevy of local deals in Vancouver and British Columbia at http://www.travelzoo.com/british-columbia/.