The heart of the rainy season may not seem like the best time to visit one of North America's wettest cities ― a metropolis that receives, on average, some 50 inches of precipitation per year, with nearly 5 of them falling in February.
But there are good reasons to visit now. On a practical level, in the winter Vancouver, B.C., is less expensive (hotels offer cheaper rates) and less crowded than it is during summer. Aesthetically, winter's mists contribute to a lovely, quiet mood and provide a subtler backdrop for some of the city's attractions.
Start your rainy day Vancouver tour at the city's landmark Umbrella Shop. This small store ― in business for 65 years ― elevates the humble umbrella to star status. Umbrellas are covered with every imaginable pattern and color: sunflowers, hand-painted poppies, iridescent blue. Some have wood handles carved like eagles' heads and high-tech opening-and-closing mechanisms that bring a finely tuned Jaguar to mind. They hang from the ceiling, decorate Edwardian antiques, and fill vases.
Start your time in Vancouver with one of these tucked under your arm and you'll come to enjoy the rain, as does Glen Flader, who makes these umbrellas with the same Singer sewing machines his grandfather used when he started the business.
Gray is beautiful
A typical Vancouver February includes only 87 hours of sunlight, a measly three hours a day. There are places, however, that benefit greatly from the soft light of winter. At the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology ― a stunning building designed by world-renowned Canadian architect Arthur Erickson ― the experience of walking among the native people's masks and artifacts is made even more profound by the presence of nature in the sound of rain on the skylights, the shifting light that pours through huge windows, and the spectacular view of Howe Sound at the end of the darkened Anniversary Gallery.
Exhibits include objects from the South Pacific, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas, with a strong emphasis on the culture of the First Nations. The Anniversary Gallery houses unique art in the exhibition Gathering Strength: New Generations in Northwest Coast Art.
"You could take away all of the objects and it's still a very interesting walk," says museum projects manager David Cunningham. "If a cloud goes over, you notice a difference. There's a wonderful connection from the inside to the outside."
That connection also enriches a February visit to the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park. The brilliant colors of the exotic plants are at their most vivid when contrasted with the gray of winter on the other side of the glass. A walk through the outdoor display gardens is rewarding regardless of the weather.
Nearby, Science World is a perfect place to spend a few hours on a rainy day. There are more than 150 interactive exhibits, including the Strobe Drop, which allows you to believe for a moment that you can do something about the weather. Adjust the strobe light shining on columns of dripping water and the droplets appear to be falling up. This month a special exhibit-- China! 7000 Years of Innovation--focuses on Chinese technology and science.
To experience underwater life, head to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre in Stanley Park, where the Pacific Canada Pavilion gives you a glimpse of life in the Strait of Georgia. A huge aquarium houses a massive kelp bed and a school of 3,000 herring and other marine creatures. In addition, the Vancouver Aquarium offers the most unusual accommodations in Vancouver. When evening falls, the 35 people who've signed up for the Night Lights Sleepover program have the aquarium to themselves. The highlight of these monthly events comes when the participants roll out their sleeping bags next to the beluga tank in the Arctic Canada exhibit. The room is dark, the five white whales glow in the black water, and you can hear their whistles and chirps through the glass.
Does overnighting in an aquarium seem a bit too watery an experience? If so, spend a rainy Vancouver evening someplace cozy and dry. Bridges restaurant on Granville Island offers three levels of dining: comfort food by the fireplace in the pub, a more ambitious menu in the bistro, and formality and haute cuisine in the dining room. All three rooms have spectacular views of the city and the Pacific Ocean. Another warming option is Bacchus Restaurant in the Wedgewood Hotel. Here you'll find some of Vancouver's best food, such as seared foie gras and rack of lamb, plus an excellent wine list and cozy fireside tables. With pleasures like these, who cares about a little rain?
For information about Vancouver, contact the Greater Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau at (604) 683-2000 or www.tourismvancouver.com. Prices are in Canadian dollars. Area code is 604 unless noted.
Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park. $3.60. 33rd Ave. and Canby St.; 257-8570.
Museum of Anthropology. Closed Mon; $7, free 5-9 Tue. 6393 N.W. Marine Dr.; 822-3825.
Science World. Features an Omnimax theater. 1455 Quebec St. at Terminal Ave.; 443-7443.
Umbrella Shop. 1106 W. Broadway Ave.; 669-9444 or (877) 427-6559.
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. $13.85, $9.15 ages 4-12; Night Lights Sleepover $94, $83 ages 4-12. Stanley Park; 659-3474 or www.vancouver-aquarium.org.
Bacchus Restaurant. At the Wedgewood Hotel. 845 Hornby St.; 608-5319.
Bridges. 1696 Duranleau St.; 687-4400.