Vancouver food tour leads to delight
Certain stereotypes are used to describe Vancouverites (they're organic food guzzlers and fitness fanatics).
Two hours after stepping off the plane in British Columbia, I'm discovering these cliches are wonderfully true.
I'm opting to orientate myself in this new city by using a different sense: my tastebuds rather than my sight, swapping my usual hop-on, hop-off bus habit for a food tour.
It's easy to pick Manuela Sosa, my guide from Vancouver Foodie Tours - she's the one wielding a handful of name tags and beaming with come and explore energy.
Launched by Michelle Ng in 2010, this small company has been leading a growing number of locals and tourists around the city for a sampling of choice eats garnished with bits of history.
Ng's inspiration: "To bring enrichment and happiness to others through the incredible array of culinary gems that the city has to offer".
Ten of us meet, hungry, on a Sunday on Alberni Street outside Kirin Restaurant, the winner of Vancouver's best dim sum medal for six consecutive years.
Our group's lazy susan is quickly filled with steamed prawn and pork dumplings and sticky rice with pork and dried scallops wrapped in lotus leaves.
"What's your fave?" says Manuela, who was born in Venezuela and raised in Vancouver.
"All of it," says Brett, a surgeon from Washington DC, who is in Vancouver for a conference.
As we wiped XO Sauce from our lips, Manuela led us down the same road toward Urban Fare, a speciality grocery store where you can buy just about any fancy food product.
"When they brought in square watermelons from Japan they sold out within minutes," says Maneula, adding that the fruit retailed for about $113 each.
"So easy to cut," comments Jacqueline from LA, who is visiting the city with her husband after a cruise to Alaska.
At the store, which is packed with oodles of British Columbia items, as well as imported fare, we try handmade local chocolates, organic local sturgeon caviar and mini creme fraiche tarts: "that raspberry on top, it's organic", says Manuela.
As we wander over to West Cordova Street, our guide shares tidbits about the city's history. We pause outside the Marine Building, "considered Canada's finest example of Art Deco architecture", Manuela says.
The building, with a view of the harbour, features a superabundance of sea-themed decorative art, including depictions of crabs, turtles, sea horses and snails.
"It was once the tallest building in the British Empire," says Manuela, before gesturing towards our next destination, Bella Gelateria.
"Enough history, let's eat icecream," she says.
In the store our eyes are wild with desire as we peruse the desserts, which are made the old fashioned way following traditional techniques passed down from the fathers of gelato in Italy.
Fortunately, we are here in October, which is autumn, the low season, so we all find a seat right away (if we were visiting in summer, June to August, a queue would run right out the door and down the street).
Gelato master James Coleridge joins us at our table and explains how he reveals the shop's flavours of the day on Twitter.
Today it's organic coconut milk gelato, chocolate sorbetto and salted caramel gelato.
"The food industry today and especially the gelato industry is making everything industrial, with artificial flavours and powders," says Coleridge, who was apprenticed and honed his skills in Italy.
"We believe in staying in season with our flavours and changing with the weather."
As we depart, he offers these words of warning: "Next time you look at banana gelato, ask yourself, should it really be that yellow? And the pistachio, should it really be that green? If you say no, then stop, flee, don't touch it."
"Anybody hungry?" asks Manuela, as we all waddle out of the gelateria, pop up the umbrellas (many residents affectionately call their home "rain city") and amble towards the Italian Kitchen for some "solid food".
Time for "signature meatballs" on truffled spaghetti and some "big, bold, BC red" (as the waitress pours, she says: "it's organic, no preservatives").
"Tiramisu anyone?" says Manuela. After we left the gelateria, I thought it wouldn't be possible for our group to consume anymore. I was wrong.
"This is awesome," says Mark from Boston who is touring with his wife, Nancy, and is thrilled that they chose Vancouver over Hawaii for their 25th wedding anniversary.
"The food in this city is so impressive," says Nancy, "Tonight we're doing a cooking class, you should come along."
Manuela then takes us back to Alberni Street for our last stop: Market, the first restaurant in Canada for the three-star Michelin chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
At this chic establishment, which spreads over the third floor of the Shangri-La Hotel, we sample the mini Market burger, salmon sashimi on crispy rice and a ginger lime margarita.
To signal the tour is officially over, Manuela, who besides being a tour guide is an actress, bursts into a delightful goodbye song.
We all laugh and agree that hanging out with a group of food enthusiasts - while eating and learning a smidgen of the city's history - is a delightful way to spend your first day in a new place.
Smiling, we all offer Manuela a tip (she accepts graciously) and then we say our goodbyes.
But before we depart we're given our homework: "before you leave Vancouver you must get to the Granville Island public market, it's a foodie paradise, and at the Japanese style hot dog cart, you have to try the highly prized Berkshire pork Terimayo".
She then hands us a collection of discount coupons to use around the city.
Certainly the complimentary upgrade at Bella Gelateria will be put to good use.
IF YOU GO:
TOURING THERE Vancouver Foodie Tours operates the Guilty Pleasures Gourmet Tour from Friday to Monday from 2pm. The three-hour tour costs CAD$69 ($79.7). The World's Best Food Truck Tour runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The two-hour tour costs CAD$49 ($56.65).
STAYING THERE The writer stayed at The Georgian Court Hotel, a 4-star hotel located in downtown Vancouver, which is steps from major shopping, business and entertainment venues. Extras include free internet, a downtown drop off shuttle service, bicycle rental and the Orchid Floor (reserved for women). Rooms from CAD$179 ($207)a night.
MORE INFORMATION tourismvancouver.com
The writer was a guest of Tourism Vancouver.