VANCOUVER, B.C. – As snow falls on the craggy peaks providing the stunning backdrop to this glimmering city on the Pacific, Vancouver prepares to welcome thousands of athletes and visitors from around the world for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
More than 5,500 athletes and coaches, almost 11,000 members of the media and up to 350,000 visitors are expected for the Games, which kick off with an opening ceremony Friday.
In preparation, Vancouver is being draped in Olympic finery. Giant murals of athletes cover downtown skyscrapers. Green, white and blue Olympic banners adorn the street poles.
Participating countries are putting the final touches on pavilions to welcome visitors – including an Olympic first, pavilions to welcome gay and lesbian visitors, located in both Vancouver and Whistler.
The city’s Visitor Information Centre and satellite kiosks will be open throughout the city, and hundreds of sky-blue-uniformed volunteers are trained and ready to answer visitors’ questions.
This is Canada’s third time welcoming the Olympics. It hosted the Montreal 1976 Summer Games and the 1988 Calgary Winter Games. But no Canadian has ever won a gold medal on home turf.
Vancouver is also the most populous destination ever to host the Winter Olympics, with 2.1 million people in the greater regional area, according to Canada’s 2006 census.
It considers itself to be a sophisticated destination, with five-star hotels, glittering skyscrapers and tremendous ethnic diversity. About a third of those who live in the Vancouver metropolitan area are of Asian descent, according to census statistics.
Nearby winter resorts such as Whistler, known for its vibrant village and challenging terrain, have been compared to Vail and other lively ski towns.
But access to Whistler for alpine Olympic events is being strictly controlled. Private cars without parking permits won’t get past checkpoints at the town of Squamish on the breathtaking 90-mile Sea-to-Sky Highway.
Those lucky enough to get to Whistler can ride the Peak 2 Peak gondola. It has the longest unsupported span for a gondola of its kind in the world at 1.88 miles, and the highest lift of its kind above the valley floor at 1,427 feet.
Accommodations for the games are scarce but not impossible to find. Organizing committee vice-president of services Terry Wright said the demand is unprecedented for a winter Olympics, but Tourism Vancouver anticipates rooms becoming available and suggests checking its Web site regularly for openings.
Dozens of ads for private accommodations dot Web sites like such as Craigslist.
For visitors with thinner wallets, a 300-bed hostel is opening at The Eldorado Hotel on Kingsway Avenue. Other hostels operate in the Gastown and Main Street areas.
Those who don’t have tickets to the games can still celebrate with other fans at two so-called LiveCity sites in the downtown area, where events will be shown on giant screens.
But the 2010 Games aren’t just about sports. The Cultural Olympiad will present everything from art shows to rock concerts at theaters and other sites throughout the region ( www.vancouver2010.com/ cultural-festivals- and-events/).
To get around, visitors will be encouraged to use public transport. Parking restrictions and road closures will be in effect during the Games.
A new passenger tram connects the athletes’ village and Granville Island, which features artists studios and a public market to tease the senses.
Visitors to Vancouver will find local history reflected in its attractions, neighborhoods and even in some of the Olympic symbols.
The region has been home to First Nations peoples for many centuries, and the 2010 Olympic logo is a colorful interpretation of an Inuit stone structure called an inukshuk. One of these stone landmarks, considered a symbol of welcome, is found on the beach in Vancouver, on the downtown side of English Bay. Two more are located on Whistler Mountain.
Visitors can learn more about the region’s indigenous culture at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Europeans arrived in British Columbia in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of the fur trade. Several gold rushes brought prospectors from around the world.
The Gastown neighborhood, in the heart of old Vancouver, grew up quickly around a makeshift tavern established in 1867 by gold prospector Jack Deighton. The name Gastown came from Deighton’s nickname, Gassy, slang for someone who talks a lot.
Any exploration of Vancouver would be incomplete without experiencing Gastown’s old-world charm, cobbled streets, much-photographed steam clock, quaint pubs, restaurants and galleries.
Just be careful not to stray too far south of Gastown into the city’s notoriously squalid and poverty-stricken Downtown Eastside, where drugs and prostitution are rampant.
But that’s just one small part of Vancouver. Chic Robson Street is considered Rodeo Drive North, while trendy Kitsilano with its boutiques and restaurants is a showcase for the laid-back West Coast lifestyle.
Nearby Denman Street offers a wide variety of eateries or a place to grab a coffee before strolling along the beaches of English Bay or through Stanley Park’s rain forest.
The Punjabi Market at 49th Avenue and Main Street delivers the spicy tang of the Indian subcontinent, and Little Italy on Commercial Drive provides a distinctive Mediterranean flavor.
Chinatown offers a taste of the Orient for all price ranges; try Floata Seafood on Keefer Street, or Hon’s Wonton House at various locations around town. A Chinese New Year parade is scheduled for next Sunday, starting at 9:30 a.m. at the Millennium Gate on Pender Street west of Main Street.
Coffee bars are the city’s preferred hangout, but java junkies should consider the Italian coffee houses on retro-hippy Commercial Drive for a real treat.
Caffeine fiends can enjoy a Canadian tradition, a double-double, at Canadian coffee chain Tim Horton’s. It’s a java loaded with cream and sugar at the business made famous by one of Canada’s hockey legends.
The coffee is so much a part of the Canadian psyche that an outlet was opened for Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Those wanting a beer with their hockey can try local microbrewery suds at the Yaletown Brewing Company or The Steamworks pub, with views of the working harbor.
For those with $500 to burn, Molson Hockey House next to BC Place Stadium offers a chance to rub shoulders with National Hockey League stars over beer and food by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck while watching hockey on giant screens.
Beatles fans can see John Lennon’s psychedelic Rolls-Royce at The Royal B.C. Museum in downtown Victoria.
Visitors who want to explore places outside the city can take a quick hop to British Columbia’s picturesque capital city of Victoria, located on Vancouver Island. You can fly in to the island from the city of Vancouver for $145 on a float plane. Ferries are available as well.
Using Victoria as a base, the curious can book whale-watching expeditions in the hope that a killer whale’s giant dorsal fin will rise above the surf.
Other attractions on Vancouver Island include the Butchart Gardens, the Abkhazi Gardens, and Pacific Rim National Park, known for surfing and its scenic but remote West Coast Trail.
Finally, for skiers, a trip along British Columbia’s Powder Highway is worth the drive into the province’s Interior.
Skiers can start with helicopter skiing in the Purcell Mountains near Revelstoke and finish at Rossland’s Red Mountain, where past Canadian Olympic gold medalists Nancy Greene and Kerrin Lee-Gartner learned to ski.
In the valley below, in the city of Trail, is the Teck smelter, where the metal for the 2010 medals was refined.
Other ski areas include Sun Peaks outside Kamloops, Apex Mountain Resort near Penticton, Big White Ski Resort south of Kelowna and Silver Star Mountain Resort near Vernon.
Farther east are the Canadian Rockies for winter sports and the breathtaking scenery at Banff National Park and Lake Louise.
The Olympics will undoubtedly raise Vancouver’s profile as a destination, leading even those who aren’t in town for the games to think about a future visit.
As Monica Campbell Hoppe, spokeswoman for the Canadian Tourism Commission put it: “The 2010 Winter Games are one of those rare moments a country gets to showcase themselves to the world in a positive way.”