One of the world’s great urban spaces, Stanley Park is Vancouver’s green heart, helping lend the city its particular character. At nearly four square kilometres, it’s one of the largest urban parks in North America – a semiwilderness of dense rainforest, marshland and three beaches: English Bay which has a waterslide during summer season, Second Beach with its pool and concession stands, and the quieter Third Beach which allows barbecues. Ocean surrounds the park on three sides, with a road and parallel cycleway/pedestrian promenade following the Seawall all the way round. A brisk walk of this coastal path takes two to three hours and you get exceptional views of the city and across the water to the mountains.

Away from the coastal trail network and main draw – the aquarium – the interior is lush scrub and forest, with leafy paths and few people. There are also plenty of open, wooded or flower-decorated spaces to picnic, snooze or watch the world go by. There’s a café-restaurant at Prospect Point, a busy spot on the park’s northern tip, popular for its outdoor deck and sweeping views. Southwest of here lies Siwash Rock, also known by its indigenous name Slhxi7lsh, an outcrop which has defied the weather for centuries, attracting numerous First Nations legends in the process, and which is distinguished by its solitary tree.

The peninsula was partially logged in the 1860s, but in 1886 the newly formed city council – showing typical Canadian foresight and an admirable sense of priorities – moved to make what had become a military reserve into a permanent park. Thus its remaining first-growth forest of cedar, hemlock and Douglas fir, and the swamp now known as Lost Lagoon, were saved for posterity in the name of Lord Stanley, Canada’s governor general from 1888 to 1893.

The Lost Lagoon

Exploring the park, especially on a busy Sunday, gives a good taste of what it means to live in Vancouver. The first thing you see is the Lost Lagoon, a tranquil lake that started life as a tidal inlet, and got its name because its water all but disappeared at low tide. Dozens of feathered species inhabit its shoreline from great blue herons to urban bald eagles. You can find out more at the Stanley Park Ecology Society (w stanleyparkecology.ca) who have a small nature house on Lost Lagoon. To the northwest is the Cathedral Trail, which takes you through beautiful West Coast forest, and just east are the pretty Rose Garden and Vancouver Rowing Club, before which stands a statue of Scottish poet Robbie Burns.

Seawall path

If you’re following the Seawall or taking a more modest loop of the most easterly point of Stanley Park, you’ll pass Brockton Point Visitor Centre, where three carved red-cedar portals welcome visitors to the traditional land of the Coast Salish people, and you’ll see the park’s totem poles. The first poles were at Lumberman’s Arch, and originally came from Vancouver Island’s Alert Bay in the 1920s, and then more were added in 1936 from Haida Gwaii and BC’s central coast Rivers inlet. In the mid-1960s they were moved to Brockton Point, and then sent to various museums for preservation. Some of the remaining poles are loaned replacements, others specially commissioned; the last, carved by Robert Yelton of the Squamish Nation, was added in 2009.

Vancouver Aquarium

Ranked among North America’s best attractions of its kind, the Vancouver Aquarium is the park’s most popular destination. Home to over seventy thousand animals including penguins, sea otters and beluga whales, and with state-of-the-art exhibits, it is undergoing a major revitalization project to add a new entranceway, restaurant and larger galleries by 2014.

The Arctic section concerns the fragile world of the Canadian North, offering a chance to see whales face to face through glass and peer in at cod, char, cucumbers and hot-pink sea anemones, all indigenous to this icy domain. The steamy Amazon gallery displays the vegetation, fishes, marmosets, sloths and other creatures of the rainforest in a climate-controlled environment, which includes an open enclosure with flying macaws; while the Wild Coast habitat performs a similar role for otters, harbour porpoises and other animals of the waters of BC.

Annually, the aquarium sees nearly a million visitors, and at times it seems like they’re all stopping by at once. To avoid cramming in like a sardine, aim to visit on a weekday or during morning hours.

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