Vancouver: From skid row to Sheraton, a travel tale from hell turns into paradise in smoky Pacific Northwest

The boardwalk along Coal Harbour with Vancouver’s skyline in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — I knew we were in trouble when our Indian Sikh cab driver’s mood suddenly changed. Sikhs don’t believe in worldly things. Material possessions are accepted, not sought. So when a Sikh from India warns you about a poor neighborhood, you listen.

Particularly if he’s talking about your hotel.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!,” he said as he double-checked its address and turned a corner. “Vellie bawd ahreah. Why you stay theyah?”

Bad area? In Vancouver? Vancouver is one of the world’s ideal cities. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked it tops among the “most well-living cities” in the world five straight years. I was born, raised, educated and employed in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver is the place we went to escape reality.

It’s like Sydney with slap shots.

In 2016 Vancouver's homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo
In 2016 Vancouver’s homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

But as we drove down Hastings Street, we saw the source of his fears. Homeless, dozens then hundreds, lined both sides of the street. They stood, sat and laid three deep among scattered and battered pup tents, sleeping bags and blankets. It looked like a refugee camp from a border war.

I looked at Marina, my Italian girlfriend who dreamed of seeing Vancouver, the focus of our two-week vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the jetlag, her eyes were open as if she just saw an asteroid destroy a small planet.

“Fa SCHIFO!” she said. That’s one of my favorite Italian phrases. Unfortunately, “It SUCKS!” doesn’t sound good coming from your girlfriend after you introduce her to her dream vacation spot.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.
The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

It got worse. We checked into the hotel, the Patricia, and I wondered if it inspired “Psycho.” We walked in past a broken-down piano in the lobby. Marina is deathly afraid of spiders so I didn’t look for cobwebs. The elevator didn’t work. I tried turning on a reading lamp in our tiny fourth-floor room and the knob fell off in my hand. The bathroom’s folding door had no handle. It had no wifi.

As we dropped our bags, Marina immediately took a chair and wedged it under the door handle, as if we were escaping the cast of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Marina's reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.
Marina’s reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

“No esco! No esco!” (I don’t go out! I don’t go out!),” she said.

I went to the lobby and asked the manager, a young, pleasant but beaten-down man who looked as if he’s asked every hour about the neighborhood.

“It’s not as dangerous as it seems,” was his endorsement.

Funny, when I booked the room way back in September, its description said the Patricia was next to Chinatown, which I know and enjoy, and Gastown, Vancouver’s hopping nightlife district. The Patricia is in Vancouver’s first neighborhood and built in 1913. Pictures of the rooms looked great. At $80 Canadian ($70 U.S.), it was about the only hotel I found in the city under $150.

Now I know why.

Marina was speechless. I could’ve told her I didn’t have enough time to research the area. After all, I only had 11 months. Instead, I drank.

Frustrated, angry and limping from kicking myself all the way up and down the four flights of stairs we had to climb, I went to the roomy bar and ordered a Patricia Lager. No, the hotel has no working elevator but it does have a craft beer.

Jeff, a smiling, pony-tailed bartender, poured me the beer and said the neighborhood really isn’t dangerous. He walks home from work. The homeless are too stoned, drunk or sleepy to do any damage. But the blight on an otherwise spectacularly beautiful city, with one of the top skyline views in the world, is like vomit on a tuxedo.

I told him, “I’ve been in worse rooms in my life. A hotel in rural Egypt had the shower drain double as the toilet drain. But in 102 countries, I’ve never stayed in a worse neighborhood.”

I told him I remember Hastings Street from the 2010 Winter Olympics. But it hosted a couple blocks of homeless, like any city. It was nothing like this, a post-apocalyptic urban meltdown. I counted five straight blocks with people sleeping on the street. That’s not counting the ones in shelters.

“In the 2010 Olympics they put all the homeless shelters on this street,” Jeff said. “It’s gotten worse ever since. They come from all over Canada because of the moderate weather.”

Yes, if you’re out of work, out of luck and out of money, Vancouver is the place to find a park bench. It’s the warmest Canadian city in winter and coolest in summer. It has never recorded a temperature higher than 95 and never below zero.

As he talked, an elderly homeless man teetered up to the bar with a $10 bill. Jeff went to the back and brought back a big plastic bag of 12 cans of Carling Black Label, a vile swill from British Columbia I couldn’t keep down even in my poorest college days.

“But it has 8.5 percent alcohol,” Jeff said.

A tall, older man heard us and approached. A sympathizer to the homeless, he said before the 1986 World Expo, all the hotels with single-pensioner rooms, such as the Patricia, booted all its tenants onto the street. Many haven’t left.

“I know how to fix it,” the man said before walking away. “Get a gun!”

Apparently, the man comes to the Patricia only for the music. On this night, it was three middle-aged guitarists playing as a half dozen elderly, lumpy Vancouverites rocked awkwardly in the dim light.

Meanwhile, Marina had returned from smoking a cigarette outside. Normally, she smokes only after meals. We lost our appetite long ago.

“John, I saw a couple smoking crack outside,” she said.

I wanted to ask a rude question but fortunately I didn’t know Italian for “Did they share?” Also, Marina didn’t look in the mood for humor. Ever since we entered the hotel, curiously, a raven appeared on her shoulder.

Like Portland in my native Oregon, Vancouver’s homeless situation is reaching a crisis level. According to a CBC report in March, Vancouver has 2,181 homeless. The number went up 2 percent in 2017 after a 16-17 percent jump in 2016. Forty percent were indigenous people, 22 percent were from outside Vancouver and 25 percent surveyed said they were addicted to opioids. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s No. 1 campaign promise in 2015 was to solve the problem.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.
Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

However, fear not, bella. I’ve had worse travel stories from hell.

I’m a big fan of Priceline, the United States website where you bid for hotel rooms. You find the city and check off your desired neighborhoods, star rating and price. If Priceline finds a match, it automatically charges your credit card. It’s risky. You must take the hotel it gives you. However, hotels use it to fill empty rooms and the closer you get to your arrival date, the cheaper they become and are way below listed rates on their websites.

I didn’t think Priceline worked in Canada. I was wrong.

I sat, alone, in the lobby which did have wifi and inserted a four-star hotel for $170. Bingo! Priceline gave us the Sheraton Wall Centre for $170. I looked at its website. Its normal price …

… $570.

It’s on the West End near Stanley Park with views of Vancouver’s glorious skyline, an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and huge rooms with giant flat-screen TVs.

And bathroom doors.

We checked in the next morning and Marina hugged me before we reached the elevator. Yes, she said, she will sleep with me again.

Going from Vancouver’s East End, particularly Hastings Street, to the West End is like going from Tijuana to San Diego. They’re that close. In one short cab ride, we found ourselves in an August wonderland filled with water all around, glorious parks, fantastic seafood, liberal politics and safe streets.

Part of Vancouver's glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci
Part of Vancouver’s glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve written before, the Pacific Northwest is one of the few places on Earth comfortable to travel in August. The others are Scandinavia, Mongolia and, of course, Alaska. In our three days in Vancouver, it never got over 80 degrees. It never rained.

No wonder 10.3 million tourists visited in 2017, raising $4.8 billion for a city that employs 70,000 people in the tourist industry. And, no wonder, housing costs are skyrocketing to where the average two-level home costs about $1 million, nearly three times the national average.

Utopia ain’t cheap folks and if you can handle rain — it rains at least every other day from October to March — this city of 630,000 is as close to urban perfection as you’ll find.

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci
The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The place I wanted to take Marina was Vancouver’s crown jewel: Stanley Park. It’s the largest urban park in Canada and my favorite spot in the city. It’s 1,000 acres encompassing a half million trees, some as high as 250 feet and 100 years old. Water surrounds nearly the entire park. A bike/jogging path circumvents the quasi island with a dirt-bike track zigging through the trees. It has a world-famous aquarium, snack stands and a tony cafe. In 2014 TripAdvisor named it the top park in the world.

We rented hybrid street bikes from one of the long line of rental shops along nearby Denman Street and cycled a short way across West Georgia Street from downtown into the park. As we started pedaling, I stopped Marina and told her to turn to her right. There she saw the view that has captivated me my entire life and millions for generations. It’s the view of Vancouver’s glittery skyline. The city has no signature world-renowned building but the collection of downtown skyscrapers and glistening new apartment high rises in the background and a fleet of pleasure boats bobbing on Coal Harbour is a painting few artists can capture. On a clear e day it’s breathtaking. It ranks up there with Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer statue, New York from an airplane and San Francisco from across Golden Gate Bridge as my favorite skylines in the world.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.
Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Cycling around Stanley Park is more tour than exercise. We couldn’t go too far without stopping at a site or a view. We stopped at a totem park with totem poles honoring the indigenous people who populated the island
before it was turned into a park in 1886. The paint still looked as if it was applied yesterday. We cruised up the east side, not to say slowly but joggers were passing us. We stopped to gaze at a tiny lighthouse and the long, majestic Lions Gate Bridge. We passed a long sandy beach with clean, clear water that looked inviting except for the inevitable sterility-inducing temperature. After Marina headed back to a cafe for lunch, I launched an assault on a twisty, road up a hill where the summit offered good views of downtown.
One of Stanley Park's many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci
One of Stanley Park’s many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, even now the views could be better. The worst forest fires in British Columbia history, totalling more than 5,000 square miles, has left Vancouver — and much of the Northwest — in a permanent brown haze. For three years I bragged to Marina about my spotless corner of the planet. Then we spent two weeks driving around what looked like L.A. in the ‘60s. Vancouver isn’t as bad as rural Washington, where people have been told in some areas to stay indoors, but the smoke did drop a slight film on one of the world’s best views.

We headed indoors the next day. We took a cute, brightly painted water taxi across False Creek to Granville Island, one of the great public markets in North America. Coming from Rome, littered with public markets sporting Italy’s best natural products, Granville Island was a must stop despite its tourist trappings. Inside a long, red A-framed building are 150 vendors selling everything from $300 hand-crafted knives to apples, from 150 varieties of tea at Granville Island Tea Company to rotisserie chicken and sausages at L’Epicerie Rotisserie and Gourmet Shop. After spending $2.90 for an almond cookie filled with chocolate cream and covered in chocolate, I walked back to the vendor and said, “This is the greatest dessert ever produced by human hands.” She reacted as if she’d heard it before.

Grandville Island's Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci
Grandville Island’s Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

I bought a small hand-painted carving of an orca made by a local member of the Carrier Nation. To British Columbia’s indigenous people, the orca, or killer whale, is symbolic of communication, intuition and harmony, perfect for my retired life in Rome. The sprawling crafts store is one of more than 100 other businesses outside the market that help Granville Island annually generate $215 million worth of business for the city.

No wonder as we bounced around False Creek, passing 100-foot yachts and towering apartment houses, the Aquabus pilot told us the upper-floor apartments were going for $2 million-$4 million. Hell, if I retired to Vancouver, I might be on Hastings Street, too.

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci
Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ironically, we wound up on Hastings Street on our last night. No, I hadn’t run out of money. We had to cross Hastings to get from the bus stop to Gastown. It wasn’t particularly dangerous. We passed some middle-aged men arguing in a slurring speech I couldn’t comprehend. Some older people were too passed out to even open their eyes. I smelled urine.
Vancouver's Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci
Vancouver’s Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But in two blocks we found Gastown. It’s a sprawling string of rollicking bars and restaurants along Water Street, anchored by the famed Steam Clock that toots an obnoxious steam whistle every 15 minutes. On a lovely comfortable night in the high ‘60s, every outdoor seat in every bar was filled. We did find a corner table at a funky split-level bar called Six Acres, billed as Gastown’s “coziest tavern” and maybe the only pub in the world with candlelit corners. At our outdoor table a waitress with a bowling pin tattooed on her thigh served me a Doaus Kolsch, one of BC’s growing number of craft beers, and stared at the ass of Gassy Jack. His statue honors John “Gassy Jack” Deighton who arrived in Vancouver in 1867 and built the first pub in this neighborhood. Vancouver has been toasting ever since. His statue, appropriately, is atop a whiskey barrel.
Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver's first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci
Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver’s first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Then a man staggered up to us and tried bumming gas fare. Maybe he was one of the lucky ones. Maybe he was one who’s close to getting off Hastings Street.