For my 27th birthday we visited...Canada! It was the first sojourn out of the US for both of us. Money was tight, but we will be leaving the area soon and this will be one of our last opportunities to visit Vancouver for many years.
We rode the train up north along the sound, at times right beside the Pacific:
When we arrived, we were questioned by a polite but curt Canadian border guard, who gave us a battery of questions about our plans, and let us go unmolested.
We left the train station and immediately found the SkyTrain. This is probably the best form of public transportation I've ever seen. It is what the Monorail in Seattle was trying to be. Best of all, you use the same tickets to ride it as you do the buses there. It basically runs in a circle on a track around the city, going super fast and stopping at each station every few minutes. It makes the craziest noises running along the track, which I couldn't even describe. It also plays strange jingles when it stops and starts to let you know when the doors will be closing or opening (which happens automatically at each stop).
We made it to our hotel - by showing up before our room was ready, the hotel was forced to upgrade our room for free in order to accommodate us, which was super nice. The complimentary breakfast included DIY waffles, which were awesome.
Vancouver is huge, and in very large parts of downtown seems to have been built overnight. The skyline is vast, and most of the buildings are of fairly recent architectural style (read: made almost entirely out of glass and designed with modern geometric styles).
Some of the best buildings we saw:
The city library, in a colosseum/modern style:
Canada Place, which is home to the Vancouver IMAX theater, which is a fairly prominent feature of the waterfront due to this strange design:
The Lookout (Vancouver's ghetto version of the Space Needle):
As you probably know, Canada features two official languages, English and French, and laws require that most signs and labels carry both languages. We found some otherwise familiar items around that had both languages on them:
We also found some other peculiarities. Note how they like to spell "center" (in all cases, not just this one):
Their street crossing signs are all brand new, and feature LED lighting, and most have a hollow figure instead of a filled one to save power (although the only good picture we got was this exception):
Vancouver is scheduled to host the Olympics in 2010, so the whole city was hopping with construction and paraphernalia in preparation for this event. They had a big rock sign with a digital countdown timer in the park next to the art museum.
Some other things we did:
Visited the Space Centre, saw this vintage rocket engine and this 1/5th size model of the Hubble telescope, and the creepy crab water fountain/statue they have out in front):
Caught some nice shots of the skyline from multiple vantage points:
Visited a small part of the enormous park they have sitting at the northwestern corner of the city (which is almost as big as the city itself), and ate a delicious candy bar unique to Canada:
Tried a strange local favorite, called Poutine, which is basically cheese curds and gravy on fries. I didn't love it, but it wasn't bad:
And last but not least, celebrated my birthday in a humble way with delicious cupcakes:
A million other shots of random stuff we saw on the way:
The ride home was a bit more difficult than our arrival. The Canadian border guards hand searched both of our bags and ran past us with the drug dogs, and thoroughly questioned us with that deadly seriousness that clearly conveys the message of "I'm willing to shoot you if you make a wrong move." The American agents that boarded the train and questioned us at the border had the same attitude. It is interesting to watch the tools of the state doing their business.
We made it home to our lonely kitty, who missed us very much.
So what was great about Canada and what wasn't?
Great: infrastructure, especially transportation. The buses weren't as spacious but they were much more technologically advanced, having computerized voices and displays inside showing the next stop. They also had digitial "next arriving" signs at some of the busier stops. The SkyTrain is awesome, and unlike Seattle's Monorail, is actually used by local commuters.
Not so great: the bus system is paperless, so you have no idea what routes go where unless you have access to the Web, which we weren't willing to pay roaming data charges to access, never mind someone who doesn't have a phone with a full Internet browser.
Great: people were all very friendly (except some homeless person who hassled us with Bible verses).
Great: the money is very convenient - there are no $1 bills, only $1 and $2 coins (called loonies and toonies, wtf) which work in all vending machines.
Great: the buses are really polite - instead of the OUT OF SERVICE our buses display, the Canadian buses have a very nice "Sorry...Out of Service." Nice touch.
Great: there is a public discipline on escalators, where people who don't feel like walking up the moving steps stay to the right, and allow fast climbers to move on the left. Maybe there are some American cities where this happens, but I've never been to one.
These are only the benefits given to a traveler; the citizen of Canada also has access to their free healthcare and social services. So all in all...
We couldn't agree more.