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In Vancouver, enjoyment is an Olympic event

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Across Vancouver, banners and billboards have been trumpeting the 2010 Olympics, which started Friday. Many folks associate the athletic extravaganza with Whistler, where the spotlight is on downhill skiing, bobsledding and other high-profile events. But many other venues for figure skating, hockey and much more are taking place across the lower mainland, in parts of the city where I once lived, studied and played. With the strong focus on Olympic events, out-of-towners might miss the rich diversity of the neighborhoods alongside the Winter Games' venues, the places that make Vancouver unique.

West Vancouver

I grew up on the slopes of the north shore's snowy zigzag skyline that is Vancouver's mountainous backdrop. With the wilderness in my backyard, I could hike out my back door. Our parents would drop us kids at a beach in summer or a ski resort in winter after school for night skiing.

One of those ski spots, Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver, is the Olympic venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. Though Cypress will be closed to the public for skiing throughout the Olympics, Grouse Mountain in North Vancouver will take up the slack with round-the-clock schussing.

The British-flavored suburb of West Vancouver is Canada's wealthiest postal code. The Trans-Canada Highway whizzes through West Van toward Whistler, but there is a leisurely, less-well-known parallel route, Marine Drive -- or "the lower road" in local parlance -- that winds along the seaside through one charming village after another.

The first is Ambleside, the beach that was my playground while my parents shopped at nearby Park Royal mall. A paved pedestrian sea wall meanders west along the waterfront, passing galleries, cafes and cottages.

Dundarave is the next very English enclave complete with lamp-post flower baskets, a classic tearoom and the Red Lion pub for a pint.

Marine Drive then roller-coasters past the old-growth forest and hiking trails of Lighthouse Park and the tiny outpost of Tiddly Cove. It's a slow, scenic route with the steep, mossy cliff-side on your right and the drop into the ocean on your left.

Mount Pleasant

My grandparents lived in the Mount Pleasant area of downtown Vancouver, and some of my earliest memories were set, near their home, in Queen Elizabeth Park, a former hilly basalt quarry transformed long ago into lush flower gardens. Under a glass dome where hundreds of birds fly free, the Bloedel Floral Conservatory is open for year-round flower-gazing.

Butting onto the north end of the park, the Vancouver Olympic Centre is hosting curling competitions as well as the Paralympic events of wheelchair curling and ice sledge hockey.

The park is wedged between Cambie and Main streets, two neighborhoods that underwent serious gentrification in the last decade.

It may be Main Street, but it's certainly not mainstream. The flavor is bohemian, with small, no-frills ethnic eateries and cafes offering poetry readings and, at Our Town, ukulele nights. There are funky vintage stores and one-of-a-kind boutiques such as Front and Eugene Choo, with locally designed clothes likely crafted from bamboo, soy fabric or hemp.

The University of British Columbia

The sprawling campus of B.C.'s biggest university has a genteel feel to its ivy-covered buildings amid rain forest trees. When I attended UBC, I liked cycling to class along the bike route that hooks into Stanley Park's sea wall and travels past Spanish Banks, a grand beach with views of the city skyline and north shore mountains.

Point Grey is lush with rain forest, and you can stroll 70 feet up in the air through magnificent conifers on a canopy walkway for a bird's-eye view of the mosses, lichens, birds and insects that occupy the high ground. The 1,000-foot-long boardwalk is in the David C. Lam Asian Garden section of UBC's Botanical Garden and features trees, plants and flowers from that part of the globe.

Not far away, the eerie giant eyes of ravens, eagles and bears peer from ancient totem poles rescued from abandoned First Nations villages along the British Columbia coast and now protected within UBC's Museum of Anthropology. This stylized long house, designed by architect Arthur Erickson, on a cliff overlooking the ocean is a dramatic building and one of the premier museums featuring Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations.

Richmond

In summers when I was a kid, our family would head to Lulu Island, one of a cluster of islands making up the city of Richmond just south of Vancouver, to pick blueberries and strawberries on fields stretching across the rich river delta. Although still famed for its berries, the area has witnessed some of the lower mainland's most significant landscape changes.

During the Olympics, Richmond is hosting the speed skating events in a unique Olympic venue with a wave-shaped roof constructed from a million board feet of lumber taken from trees killed by the devastating pine beetle plague, wood that would otherwise have gone to waste.

In the last two decades Richmond has become Vancouver's new Chinatown, home to the second-biggest Asian community in North America; Asian Canadians now make up about 60% of Richmond's population.

Stepping into one of Richmond's shopping malls is a quick trip to the contemporary Orient. Yaohan Centre has a giant pan-Asian supermarket, and Aberdeen Centre is classic, over-the-top Hong Kong, right down to a showy multimedia water-fountain production in the foyer.

There are Sikh temples, the biggest Buddhist temple in North America, Chinese foot massage parlors and herb shops, but I go to Richmond to eat, especially at the Richmond Night Market, open weekends throughout the summer. You can smell the spicy lamb kebabs and sautéed noodles long before you reach the maze of 300 stalls lighted by strings of lights and hazed in plumes of smoke from grilled squid and prawns.

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