The southeast end of Vancouver’s gay village’s main drag, Davie Street, is anchored by a community garden overflowing with flowers and vegetables. Several blocks past the bars, stores and restaurants, with their obligatory rainbow flags, at the other end of the Davie Village, a hill slopes down to the ocean, a beach and the edge of Stanley Park. And always there are the mountains rising to the north and Sunset Beach only a block or two away. Vancouver is a stunningly beautiful city and natural wonders are always close at hand.
The sea-kissed climate accelerates vegetation growth — greenery is everywhere and of the gigantic variety — and seems to add a certain sparkle to the men. Natural wonders, indeed — with surfer dudes in board shorts, and little else, strolling the streets and long-haired post-hippie hunks in abundance. The new-age influence on the city cannot be underestimated and, fortunately, seems to extend to sexual freedom as well. A flight attendant friend confides that he loves stopovers in Vancouver because of the large numbers of horny men. He appears to be correct.
The weather in Vancouver encourages experiencing the outdoors. When the sun shines — and despite the city’s damp reputation, I experienced five warm and wonderful days in a row — the beaches are packed; when the rain arrives, Davie Street remains full and the bars even more so. There are not 50 shades of grey; there are thousands, explains a Vancouver native. “One has to learn to embrace the grey and enjoy all the colours within it.”
The surrounding mountains are ideal for hiking, and Out and About Vancouver
organizes many outings that involve lots of walking and socializing. The Grouse Grind – a 2.9 kilometre, hour-and-a-half trek up Grouse Mountain
on a trail dubbed The Grind – is a popular, if strenuous, adventure. I can’t vouch for the hike, but the cable car and chairlift to the top of the mountain are spectacular rides, with the city of Vancouver gleaming like a retreating jewel as one sails into the sky. At the top are various tourist attractions – Grinder and Coco, the grizzly bears; the Eye of the Wind turbine, with a viewing tour; paragliding; restaurants; and, of course, yoga classes to stretch out the kinks for those who actually hiked – including a five-line zipline. Sailing over the treetops at 80 kilometres an hour with nothing below but certain death and gorgeous scenery is surprisingly Zen-like.
Adjacent to the Davie Village is the large and sprawling Stanley Park. I naively decided to stroll its perimeter before dinner and, having woefully underestimated the distance involved, became completely lost while trying to take a shortcut. Within minutes a helpful park ranger noticed my puzzled expression and pulled up with concise instructions and a much more detailed map. Perhaps that is the most astonishing thing about Vancouver — everyone, from bus drivers to restaurant servers — is incredibly friendly. There is no need to worry about getting lost — the next person along will be glad to help out. After pointing me in the right direction, the ranger spotted two teenaged boys rolling joints on a public bench. No arrests or even admonitions, just a “Please do that out of sight.”
Out of sight is easy in Stanley Park
, which is undoubtedly why it is a famous, albeit dangerous, cruising area. Trails wind everywhere, but during the day it is packed with tourists and nosy children. Aside from the greenery and meandering men, the park boasts a collection of totem poles and the Vancouver Aquarium. After the tranquility and spaciousness of the park, the aquarium feels a bit cramped, but the dapper penguins are amusing and the ghostly albino beluga whales are haunting, especially when seen through the below-the-waterline viewing decks. The park is ringed with beaches, ranging from the busy to the almost secluded. But Vancouver’s most famous beach is a bus ride away from the downtown core.
is notorious for its nudity but is actually more memorable for its relaxed vibe and tranquility. The stairs are steep (especially when climbing back up) but well worth the lengthy descent. After braving the horrifying port-a-potties at the staircase entrance, I was enticed to carry a cooler full of supplies down the stairs – manual labour is the only way to get anything to or from the beach – in exchange for a hot dog. At the halfway point I was cursing my gullibility, but at the end of the morning, when I bit into the grilled sausage, smothered in sauerkraut and freshly fried onions (I pray for whoever carried down the deep fryer and oil) it was worth it.
Ostensibly divided into family, straight and gay – travelling right to left when facing the ocean – the space is small enough that all spill together, and with the great social leveller of nakedness it works just fine. Naked children frolic in the waves, and the men surreptitiously cruise or relax in conversation. Vendors offer an array of food, beachwear, crafts, massage and, of course, yoga, while a handsome Fabio look-alike with an impressively dangling wiener wanders, carrying a sign advertising Tarot readings. For all the nudity, and the proportionately high percentage of naked gay men, the sexual energy is muted. While it is amusing to watch the first tentative and blushing moments when new arrivals disrobe, within minutes having one's private parts exposed feels comfortable and natural. Conversational groups are common, a card game on a blanket proves no one has an ace up their sleeve, but most just bask in the sun. There is a stillness to the beach that is intoxicating and feels removed from the world.
Not all of Vancouver is as tranquil. Commercial Drive seems to have a female singer/songwriter strumming a guitar and spilling angst on every block, which nicely complements the secondhand and vintage stores, head shops, organic everything stores and cafés. Once an Italian immigrant enclave, the area has been colonized by lesbians, and the two groups mingle easily, with espresso tables divided equally between elderly men soaking in the scenery and dykes displaying their tats. Grandview Park sits mid-centre, and Havana
, directly across Commercial Drive, is a popular brunch patio. Nuevo Latino cuisine and mojitos nourish the noshers while a rotating gallery displaying predominantly gay artists fills the spacious indoors.
Perusing the art I noticed what became a Vancouver motif. More often than statistically predictable the men I encountered expressed a desire to find the right man, settle down and have children. While there is a hedonistic quality to the city — there are three busy bathhouses — it seemed to vanish at the sight of an attractive gay male couple with a newborn. The sight of a gurgling pudgeball cradled in a bulging bicep inked with tribal designs brought a bustling room to a standstill and seemed to inspire envy and admiration.
The buskers on lower Granville Street — upper Granville is part of the upscale shopping district, where designers and purveyors of luxury goods can be found — play electric, and the Led Zeppelin licks complement the mix of theatres, hostels, tattoo parlours, head shops (found on almost every street — Vancouverites do enjoy their pot), and rock ’n’ goth–wear stores. Lower Granville is home to, down a dark flight of stairs, M2M
, a bathhouse that caters to leather events and has been experimenting with pansexual events. Sister bathhouse F212
, which aims at the collegiate and business types (the mid-day Dip & Dash is a deal, a social occasion and a stress-releaser), is in the heart of the Village but accessible only from the back alley below Davie Street. Steamworks
is farther away, on the edge of Chinatown and close enough to the sketchy Downtown Eastside to provide an illicit thrill.
The bars lining Davie are eclectic and have something for every taste. Celebrities
is a vast dance club that plays the hits and packs in a mixed crowd, including a fair proportion of “allies” (the Vancouver word for heteros) in the dressed-to-impress lineup that forms early. Numbers
is also huge, with multiple levels and rooms belying the understated entrance. Dancefloors, cruising cubbyholes, multiple bars and a mercifully glassed-in karaoke room are all features of this one-stop entertainment destination. Across the street, The Fountainhead Pub
has a great patio for watching the street, a great selection of beers, occasional drag shows and hearty food. Here again the patience of Vancouverites astonishes me, as the gently wisecracking waitress takes a lunch order for many — each with specific dietary requirements — and delivers separate bills without being asked or losing her composure.
The Junction Pub
is a large space with a constant stream of theme nights, drag shows and DJs. PumpJack Pub
is a meat-and-potatoes bar, with a backroom and a distinctly masculine aura. In the absence of a dedicated leather bar, the chaps park here. Oasis Ultra Lounge
is up a flight of stairs and has rotating theme nights, dinner shows, talent contests and dancing. The 1181
lounge is dimly lit and perfect for cruising for that well-dressed man of your dreams.
Also on Davie Street is the well-stocked underwear and sex toy shop Priape
and Little Sister’s
, which has morphed from the brave bookstore that fought back against Canada Customs into a gay literary hub, ticket outlet and community gathering place packed with shelves containing every dildo, brand of lube and sexual enjoyment enhancer known to man or woman.
As is their wont, the Vancouver avant-garde are busy colonizing less gay and well-travelled parts of the city. The Cobalt
– a self-consciously grotty hotel bar that wears its stains and patina of broken dreams with pride – is at the base of Main Street. The door guardian at “the” Cobalt party of the year blithely exhaled attitude and denied entry to all but those adhering stringently to the hipster dress code. Apparently she was unaware of the fresh bloodstains on the sidewalk and didn't realize that the trans men in harnesses and their genderfuck drag companions across the street at the Electric Owl
had trumped her party’s place-to-be-seen factor. By the time this story's posted, the hipsters will have found a new refuge, but there is one stalwart that appears to be indestructible even though it's even farther from Davie Street. Not specifically gay but utterly campy is The Waldorf Hotel
with its Tiki Bar, ice cream socials, resident black velvet painter and the most innovative – and frequently gayest – live music programming in the city.
Live theatre is one of the draws on Granville Island
, with a cluster of warehouses converted into showplaces for musicals, experiments and many gay-themed entertainments. The Island is also home to multiple artisans, galleries, funky boutiques, a huge farmers' market and numerous restaurants. Edible at the Market
is devoted to locally sourced foods, so the menu changes constantly, but every dish that our table of jaded journalists tested was a taste bonanza. The maple syrup and bacon caesar is a constant and a must-try. And if eating locally sourced isn’t outdoorsy enough, there is a boat rental, where for $10 – after passing a written test – you can be licensed to set sail and harvest your own crabs fresh from the ocean.
The 2010 Winter Olympics have left Vancouver with a legacy of great public transit. The SkyTrain whisks one from the airport to downtown in fewer than 20 minutes and for well under $10. The Aquabus
is a fun way to travel to Granville Island or around the edges of downtown. Service is friendly but adheres to no discernible set schedule, so speed is not guaranteed, which fits nicely with Vancouver’s laissez-faire approach to time; meetings are usually scheduled at insert time here-ish, which allows for fluctuations and frustrations. Buses criss-cross the city, and translink.ca
gives detailed and clear instructions on travelling from any destination to another. Or you can stroll the serpentine streets that seem to have something exciting over every hill – gourmet food trucks in the financial district, giant sparrow statues in the Olympic Village, the Dr Seuss-esque Erickson condo building tilting amusingly amidst the glass towers that scar the waterfront.
Or, like many a Vancouverite, relax with a coffee in the beautiful surroundings – Vancouver has more Starbucks per square inch than seems plausible – because whatever is next will happen at insert time here-ish.
Vancouver travel information at our sister site guidemag.com.
Where to stay
There are three hotels right in the Davie Village that cater specifically to gay guests. The Century Plaza
is just north of the eastern of the Village and boasts the friendliest, most accommodating staff I have ever encountered; I received a written apology for not cleaning the room after I had told the housekeeper not to bother. The rooms are not as glamorous as the website suggests, but they are comfortable and spacious. The pool was a disappointment, but Sunset Beach is less than a block away and the most direct bus route to Wreck Beach leaves only one block over.
is right in the centre of the Davie Village and the hotel’s restaurant, Moxie’s Grill & Bar, opens right onto the cruisiest section of the sidewalk. While boasting ocean-view suites, The Sandman is also the hotel within easiest staggering distance of the major bars.
The Coast Plaza Hotel & Suites
is at the far western of the Village and is perhaps the poshest of the three. It also plays host to many gay events, including the raucous Chicas Pride party and BOLDFest – when a bull dyke pukes in the men's room in the lobby and no one bats an eye, you know you’re in a world-class gay hotel.
Also of note are two boutique hotels to the east of the Village: the Inn at False Creek
and the Executive Hotel Vintage Park
. And the Burrard
, with its funky neon renovation, is a hip address to have while visiting the city.
Farther from the Village but recommended are the Loden Hotel
, the Blue Horizon Hotel
and the luxurious Opus
Drew Rowsome is the lead singer of Crackpuppy and loved basking in the Vancouver sun, despite the resultant sunburned ass.