Travel
6 min

Vancouver

The gay heart of Canada's West Coast

Credit: Guidemag files
The southeast end of Vancouver’s gay village’s main drag, Davie Street, is anchored by a community garden overflowing with flowers and vegetables. Several blocks past the bars, stores and restaurants, with their obligatory rainbow flags, at the other end of the Davie Village, a hill slopes down to the ocean, a beach and the edge of Stanley Park. The mountains rise to the north and Sunset Beach is always just a block or two away; Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city and natural wonders are always close at hand.
 
The sea-kissed climate accelerates the growth of vegetation — greenery is everywhere and mostly gigantic — and seems to add a certain sparkle to the men. Natural wonders, indeed — with surfer dudes in board shorts, and little else, strolling the streets and long-haired post-hippie hunks in abundance. The new-age influence on the city cannot be underestimated and, fortunately, seems to extend to sexual freedom as well. A flight attendant friend confides that he loves stopovers in Vancouver because of the large numbers of horny men. 
 
The weather in Vancouver encourages people to experience the outdoors. When the sun shines — and despite the city’s damp reputation, I experienced five warm and wonderful days in a row — the beaches are packed; when the rain arrives, Davie Street remains full and the bars even more so. There are not 50 shades of grey; there are thousands, a Vancouver native explains. “One has to learn to embrace the grey and enjoy all the colours within it.”
 
The surrounding mountains are ideal for hiking, and Out and About Vancouver organizes many outings that involve lots of walking and socializing. The Grouse Grind — a 2.9 kilometre, hour-and-a-half trek up Grouse Mountain on a trail dubbed The Grind — is a popular, if strenuous, adventure. I can’t vouch for the hike, but the cable car and chairlift to the top of the mountain are spectacular rides, with the city of Vancouver gleaming like a retreating jewel as one sails into the sky. At the top are various tourist attractions: Grinder and Coco, the grizzly bears; the Eye of the Wind turbine, with a viewing tour; paragliding; restaurants; yoga classes to stretch out the kinks for those who actually hiked; and a five-line zipline. 
 
Adjacent to the Davie Village is the large and sprawling Stanley Park. I naively decided to stroll its perimeter before dinner and, having woefully underestimated the distance involved, became completely lost while trying to take a shortcut. Within minutes a helpful park ranger noticed my puzzled expression and pulled up with concise instructions and a much more detailed map. Perhaps that is the most astonishing thing about Vancouver: everyone, from bus drivers to restaurant servers, is incredibly friendly. There is no need to worry about getting lost — the next person along will be glad to help out. After pointing me in the right direction, the ranger spotted two teenaged boys rolling joints on a public bench. No arrests or even admonitions, just a “Please do that out of sight.”
 
Out of sight is easy in Stanley Park, which is undoubtedly why it is a famous, albeit dangerous, cruising area. Trails wind everywhere, but during the day it is packed with tourists and nosy children. Aside from the greenery and meandering men, the park boasts a collection of totem poles and the Vancouver Aquarium. After the tranquility and spaciousness of the park, the aquarium feels a bit cramped, but the dapper penguins are amusing and the ghostly albino beluga whales are haunting, especially when seen from the below-the-waterline viewing decks. 
 
Vancouver’s most famous beach is Wreck Beach, notorious for its nudity but actually more memorable for its relaxed vibe and tranquility. The stairs are steep (especially when climbing back up) but well worth the lengthy descent. 
 
Ostensibly divided into family, straight and gay — travelling right to left when facing the ocean — the space is small enough that all spill together, and with the great social leveller of nakedness it works just fine. 
 
Not all of Vancouver is as tranquil. Commercial Drive seems to have a female singer/songwriter strumming a guitar and spilling angst on every block, which nicely complements the secondhand and vintage stores, head shops, organic everything stores and caf├ęs. Once an Italian immigrant enclave, the area has been colonized by lesbians, and the two groups mingle easily, with espresso tables divided equally between elderly men soaking in the scenery and dykes displaying their tats. Grandview Park sits mid-centre, and Havana, directly across Commercial Drive, is a popular brunch patio. Nuevo Latino cuisine and mojitos nourish the noshers while a rotating gallery displaying predominantly gay artists fills the spacious indoors.
 
Perusing the art I notice what becomes a Vancouver motif. More often than statistically predictable, the men I encounter express a desire to find the right man, settle down and have children. While there is a hedonistic quality to the city — there are three busy bathhouses — it seems to vanish at the sight of an attractive gay male couple with a newborn. The sight of a gurgling pudgeball cradled in a bulging, inked bicep brings a bustling room to a standstill and seems to inspire envy and admiration.
 
The buskers on lower Granville Street — upper Granville is part of the upscale shopping district, where designers and purveyors of luxury goods can be found — play electric, and the Led Zeppelin licks complement the mix of theatres, hostels, tattoo parlours, head shops (found on almost every street — Vancouverites do enjoy their pot), and rock- and goth-wear stores. 
 
F212 bathhouse, which aims at the collegiate and business types (the mid-day Dip & Dash is a deal, a social occasion and a stress-releaser), is in the heart of the Village but accessible only from the back alley below Davie Street. Steamworks is farther away, on the edge of Chinatown and close enough to the sketchy Downtown Eastside to provide an illicit thrill.
 
The bars lining Davie are eclectic and have something for every taste. Celebrities is a vast dance club that plays the hits and packs in a mixed crowd, including a fair proportion of “allies” (the Vancouver word for heteros) in the dressed-to-impress lineup that forms early. Numbers is also huge, with multiple levels and rooms belying the understated entrance. Dancefloors, cruising cubbyholes, multiple bars and a mercifully glassed-in karaoke room are all features of this one-stop entertainment destination. Across the street, the Fountainhead Pub has a great patio for watching the street, a great selection of beers, occasional drag shows and hearty food. Here again the patience of Vancouverites astonishes me, as the gently wisecracking waitress takes a lunch order for many — each with specific dietary requirements — and delivers separate bills without being asked or losing her composure.
 
The Junction Pub is a large space with a constant stream of theme nights, drag shows and DJs. PumpJack Pub is a meat-and-potatoes bar, with a backroom and a distinctly masculine aura. In the absence of a dedicated leather bar, the chaps park here. Oasis Ultra Lounge is up a flight of stairs and has rotating theme nights, dinner shows, talent contests and dancing. The 1181 lounge is dimly lit and perfect for cruising for that well-dressed man of your dreams.
 
Also on Davie Street are the well-stocked underwear and sex-toy shop Priape and Little Sister’s, which has morphed from the brave bookstore that fought back against Canada Customs into a gay literary hub, ticket outlet and community gathering place packed with shelves containing every dildo, brand of lube and sexual enjoyment enhancer known to man or woman.
 
As is their wont, the Vancouver avant-garde are busy colonizing less gay and well-travelled parts of the city. The Cobalt — a self-consciously grotty hotel bar that wears its stains and patina of broken dreams with pride — is at the base of Main Street. The door guardian at the Cobalt party of the year blithely exhales attitude and denies entry to all but those adhering stringently to the hipster dress code. Apparently, she is unaware of the fresh bloodstains on the sidewalk and doesn’t realize that the trans men in harnesses and their genderfuck drag companions across the street at the Electric Owl have trumped her party’s place-to-be-seen factor. 
 
Live theatre is one of the draws on Granville Island, with a cluster of warehouses converted into showplaces for musicals, experiments and many gay-themed entertainments. The island is also home to multiple artisans, galleries, funky boutiques, a huge farmers’ market and numerous restaurants. Edible at the Market is devoted to locally sourced foods, so the menu changes constantly, but every dish that our table of jaded journalists tests is a taste bonanza. The maple syrup and bacon caesar is a constant and a must-try. And if eating locally sourced isn’t outdoorsy enough, there is a boat rental, where for $10 — after passing a written test — you can be licensed to set sail and harvest your own crabs fresh from the ocean.
 
The 2010 Winter Olympics have left Vancouver with a legacy of great public transit. The SkyTrain whisks one from the airport to downtown in fewer than 20 minutes and for well under $10. The Aquabus is a fun way to travel to Granville Island or around the edges of downtown. Service is friendly but adheres to no discernible schedule, so speed is not guaranteed, which fits nicely with Vancouver’s laissez-faire approach to time; meetings are usually scheduled at “insert time here”-ish, which allows for fluctuations and frustrations. Buses criss-cross the city, and TransLink’s website gives detailed and clear instructions on travelling from any destination to another. Or you can stroll the serpentine streets that seem to have something exciting over every hill — gourmet food trucks in the financial district, giant sparrow statues in the Olympic Village, the Dr Seuss-esque Erickson condo building tilting amusingly amidst the glass towers that scar the waterfront. 
 
Or, like many a Vancouverite, relax with a coffee in the beautiful surroundings — Vancouver has more Starbucks per square inch than seems plausible — because whatever is next will happen at insert time here-ish.