Some travelers visit Vancouver to watch orcas swim in misty waters or to ride bikes on leafy trails in Stanley Park.
I visit to play Russian roulette. OK, maybe that’s overly dramatic, but Vancouver is a perilous place inhabited by fearless people.
And many of those perils involve high places. You can swing from suspension bridges, ride on top of a gondola while it climbs the side of a mountain or take a stroll on a glass walkway that juts from a towering cliff.
Some shrinks call it the High Place Phenomenon, a pseudo death-wish experience. Vancouverites call it fun.
“We certainly have activities that some people may consider scary, but I think ‘thrilling’ is a good way to describe them,” said Julia Grant, who represents Grouse Mountain Resort. Daredevils who Skyride Surf can zoom 5,300 feet up the side of a mountain while on the roof — not inside — of the resort’s gondola.
I tried to take a flier on the ride, but a sudden rainstorm drove us inside the gondola, making me extraordinarily happy.
Full transparency: I dislike heights. I’m not acrophobic — in other words, I don’t think I have an irrational phobia about it. But I’m wildly uncomfortable balancing on the edge of nothingness. I don’t know why I volunteered to do this story, which I nicknamed “Vertical Vancouver.” Maybe I did it as a form of self-punishment.
To make matters worse, the photographer I worked with isn’t fond of heights either, I learned as we were both balancing on the edge of nothingness.
Not surprising, I guess. About one in three people say they experience some discomfort or distress when exposed to heights, according to a study in the Journal of Neurology.
But that’s no reason to avoid Vancouver’s challenging attractions. If I can conquer them, anybody can, so here are some of the ways you can scare yourself silly in British Columbia’s largest city.
Suspension simulated and real
Canada Place, in the central business district, is an architectural curiosity with billowing 90-foot-high fiberglass sails that look as if they’re ready to catch the wind at any moment and disappear into beautiful Burrard Inlet.
The city landmark was built for Expo 86, a world’s fair, and now serves as a dock for cruise ships. It’s also the site of FlyOver Canada, an excellent place to begin our Vertical Vancouver tour.
FlyOver is a lot like Disney California Adventure’s Soarin’ attraction. You hang suspended, feet dangling, in front of a huge screen displaying aerial footage of Canada’s incredible scenery.
The simulated coast-to-coast ride climbs to the summit of snow-capped peaks, dips into deep valleys bisected by rivers, skims across prairies and crisscrosses Vancouver and other cities. Wind, mist and scents combine with the ride’s motion to create a high-flying experience.
FlyOver won’t leave you in a cold sweat with a thumping heartbeat the way riding on the roof of a gondola might. It’s unlikely you’re going to faint and embarrass yourself.
Vancouver Lookout won’t send you into a tailspin either unless you have an elevator phobia. Zoom to the top of this downtown landmark — 553 feet high — in a glass elevator in 40 seconds flat. You’ll get a rotating 360-degree view of the city, mountains and coastal waters.
You can dine at the Lookout’s Top of Vancouver restaurant, where they waive the admission fee ($14 for adults), but the menu is pricey (pastas from $38, pork ribs $45).
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Vancouver’s best-known daredevil location, is where the thrill-seeking started 130 years ago. Here you’ll find yourself inching across one of the world’s longest and highest pedestrian suspension bridges — and cringing if you dislike heights.
The footbridge, built in 1889 with hemp rope and cedar planks, is 450 feet long and 230 feet above the roiling Capilano River. It has been updated, of course, but it’s still a hair-raising endeavor. It sways as you walk — a lot — especially if there’s a pack of teenagers on it trying to make it buck, bob and bounce.
The bridge begins and ends at ground level but sags alarmingly in the middle. In essence, you’re descending a hill on the first half and ascending on the second half. Meanwhile, the bridge is lurching underfoot as those teens stomp across trying to make it somersault.
I clung tightly to the handrails. It seemed a mile across instead of a measly 12th of a mile.. I looked at the river far below. Bad idea. I closed my eyes. Another bad idea.
Are people ever so scared they can’t move, I wondered, afraid it might happen to me.
“They freeze sometimes,” Susan Kaffka, vice president of sales and marketing for the park, told me later. “But our staff is really well trained. They talk to them and make sure they get across and back. Dogs are worse than people. They end up on their bellies because they’re so scared.”
I felt a little like that while I was on the bridge. Then I spotted photographer Jim Edwards. He was already on the far side. And he was shooting pictures of me as Bridge Paralysis set in. I thought I saw a grin on his face.
My paralysis “magically” vanished, and in a few quick minutes I joined him. “That’s not going on Facebook,” I said. He didn’t answer.
“You know we’re on an island now,” he said. “We have to go back across this bridge to leave.” Rats. And no, it wasn’t easier the second time.
Capilano has other scary attractions. You can walk 110 feet above the forest floor on Treetops Adventure, which has seven suspended footbridges. Or you can try Cliffwalk, a concrete path with a series of narrow cantilevered bridges, stairs and platforms. (Park admission starts at $41 for adults.)
Stepping it up
With Capilano’s suspension bridge under your belt, you’re ready to try Sea to Sky, which is both an eye-popping scenic drive and a gondola ride in Squamish, about 45 minutes from downtown Vancouver.
Midway you’ll find Sea to Sky Gondola, an adventure park that steps up the thrill level with its Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge and a series of cantilevered viewing platforms that stretch over nothingness. (Admission begins at $32 for adults.)
The 10-minute gondola ride offers pretty views of the sound, the coastal forest and surrounding mountains. But the car is mainly glass, so people who are nervous about heights may want to close their eyes. That would be a shame because the view is so spectacular.
Jump off at the top to access loop walking and hiking trails, rock climbing, backcountry routes and the Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge.
Here we go again, I thought, when I saw it. But there were pluses; Capilano’s bridge is more famous, but it seemed gritty compared with this shining creation.
Plus, the Sky Pilot bridge had only a couple of people walking on it, a nice change from Capilano, which had dozens of people coming at me from both directions each time I crossed.
Sky Pilot also had a wonderful mountaintop view of Howe Sound far below. I walked about a third of the way along its 328-foot length when a group of 10 stalwart tourists started across, several holding umbrellas.
As the bridge began to buck, I grabbed the handrail tightly. The group walked around me, seemingly unaffected by the reeling bridge or the cowering American. Their umbrellas never even dipped.
When I finally reached the other side, I considered my next step. Should I try more suspension bridges? The area is loaded with them, including bridges in Cascade Falls, Lynn Canyon and Lillooet. There’s also the Greenheart TreeWalk at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden in Vancouver. I passed on all of them.
Then I heard about another opportunity that chilled me to the bone: Dinner in the Sky, a totally crazy Vancouver dining experience. According to the website, “You will be lifted over 100 feet off the ground by a 200-foot crane to see the city in a very unique perspective.” A video showed a smiling group of about 20 people seated at a table hovering high over Vancouver.
How do I book this, I thought, scanning the page. And then I saw the fine print: “We will be closed for the 2019 season.”
It made my day.
THE BEST WAY TO VANCOUVER, CANADA
From LAX, Air Canada, American, United and WestJet offer nonstop service to Vancouver, and Alaska, Delta and United offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip airfare from $251, including taxes and fees.
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Pacific Rim, 1038 Canada Place, Vancouver; (800) 257-7544. This shimmering downtown hotel has rooms that overlook Coal Harbour, Stanley Park and the North Shore Mountains. Doubles from $356 a night.
The Burrard, 1100 Burrard St., Vancouver; (800) 663-0366. Refurbished ’50s motel is hip, with amenities such as bikes, outdoor patios and Nespresso units. Doubles from $220.
The Listel Hotel, 1300 Robson St., Vancouver; (800) 663-5491. Check out the art at this chic boutique downtown hotel that prides itself on its gallery and well-designed rooms. Doubles from $304.
WHERE TO EAT
Top of Vancouver, 555 W. Hastings St. at Harbour Centre, Vancouver; (604) 669-2220. Entrees start at $22 for lunch (prime rib sandwiches and salads) and $28 for dinner (pastas, meats, seafood).
Cliff House, 3735 Capilano Road, North Vancouver; (604) 985-7479. Toast yourself and your crew for making it across Capilano Suspension Bridge at this cheerful park cafe. Dine on burgers ($15), chicken ($18) or wild salmon ($21).
Observatory at Grouse Mountain, 6400 Nancy Greene Way, North Vancouver; (604) 980-9311. Find a cafe, snack bar, outdoor barbecue and fine-dining venue among the nine places to eat when you jump off the tram. The Observatory, which specializes in West Coast entrees such as wild salmon, is upscale with a great sunset view. Entrees from $21.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Vancouver, (604) 683-2000