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Vancouver: Bicycles and zen in Stanley Park

Little boys scurry by on pedal-less bicycles, their legs working a mile a minute like Fred Flinstone to keep up the speed.

Tourists push their bikes off the special cycling lane (most of the time!) to capture happy snaps of themselves on their two-wheeled adventure.

The air smells like the fir trees that surround the path, and like the sea salt that wafts in from the surrounding waters. You can hear tinkling bells and shouts of “on your left!” as the more serious cyclists overtake the meandering tourists.

This is Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre densely-forested public park on the edge of downtown Vancouver. More specifically, this is Stanley Park’s renowned 8.8km long seawall encompassing the park.

Stanley park sea wall

And with this park (and the Capilano Suspension Bridge), Vancouver locals have no reasons to be down. Ever.

For a place named after a stuffy British politician, Stanley Park, with its fresh air and incredible views, is cathartic; a doctor, gym and psychologist all in one. A great antidote to a hectic day at work, to fatigue, a troubled heart, a clogged mind. It’s impossible to feel unhappy here.

The seawall was designed to stave off erosion but it’s far surpassed its original use. It’s perhaps the park’s most popular feature, hugging the cliffs and shoreline with incredible views of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay.

It’s all about hiring a bike and cycling the wall here. And for good reason. The seawall includes a designated one-way cycling lane that impresses from the first kilometre. So my friend and I picked up hire bicycles from Spokes, right near the park, and headed into the foray.

Starting out, you can enjoy the crisp views of the Vancouver downtown skyline through a tangle of yacht masts. It’s a surprisingly modern cityscape that looks more holiday hotspot than metropolis.

vancouver view from stanley park

As the path loops the island, you get some mighty fine views of the turquoise Lions Gate Bridge, Vancouver’s answer to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, both from afar and very up close (the path goes right under the suspension bridge).

lions gate bridge from stanley park

But there are also some other more curious landmarks, including Siwash Rock, or what I prefer to call One Tree Rock. This lonely sentinel is a high rock adorned with a single tree. Native legend has it the rock was a originally a fisherman who was turned to rock as punishment for his immorality – in the native language the outpost is called Slahkayulsh, or “He is standing up”.

Around the second half of the island are a smattering of beaches, imaginatively labelled First Beach and so forth. On the summery day I visited, the sandy shores were replete with beachgoers and with the surrounding pines, it seemed hard to believe I was just a short cycle from the inner city bustle.

But for me, the real highlight was Kent Avery‘s own art gallery using Mother Nature’s gifts and nothing more. Towards the end of the ride, my cycling partner and I came across a series of balanced rock art.

Initially I thought nothing of it. When you travel enough, you find rock towers are a popular art form at any natural location, gathered together presumably by some idling traveller wanting to make a more organic mark on the landscape he or she visits.

But never had I watched a professional rock balancer (yep, apparently there is such a thing) in action – and never had I seen such inconsequential rocks – mere fingertips – balancing an increasingly heavy load.

balancing stones on stanley park

Kent Avery was perched upon a boulder and making minute alterations to balance a large round disc onto a long thin stone. Examples of his graceful artwork studded the area, the very tips of rocks providing the foundations for tall marble towers. They looked fragile yet powerful in their transitory nature.

He cut a bedraggled figure, thin and lean. He looked like the kind of guy who spent his days in the elements. The kind of guy from whom you could draw all manner of wisdoms.

Along the seawall he had photographs of his images, a tip basket, and a short description of his motivations.

“Nothing stays or remains the same … all things pass, including our own bodies,” he wrote.

“The stones come and go, presence and absence, like the ebb and flow of nearby tides. Many people echo the yearning to be more balanced in their own lives. Perhaps they sense the uncanny clarity of the stone silently and unassumingly speaking to them. They are reminders of letting go … of detachment.”

Amen brother.

Over the last couple of years, TripAdvisor has named Stanley Park the best public park in the world. And when you see it, it’s hard to argue with it.

If you’re a visitor, you’ve gotta get down here. Whether you’re missing home or traveller friends or still feeling the jetlag, this place will set you right.

And if you’re a local, you’re doing something wrong if you’re not heading here at least once a week for your daily fix of Stanley Park zen.

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  • Reply
    July 22, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Hey AJ! I love this post about Stanley Park. Really encapsulates a summer day in Vancouver. I’m in China but was thinking about going to Canada for a break…I decided against it, but now I wish I hadn’t! It looks so clean and beautiful. Happy travels x Isabel

    • Reply
      July 23, 2015 at 11:37 am

      Thanks Isabel! Vancouver is a beautiful city – it will provide the perfect respite from the chaos of China! Make sure you get there someday 🙂

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