Vancouver’s cityscape is defined not as much by gorgeous architecture or dynamic streetlife as by the natural beauty that surrounds it. You can’t escape the green mountains visible from every angle, the deep blue water that twinkles at the end of hilly streets, the Douglas Firs standing tall in front yards. Even the glass apartment towers that have become a symbol of the city’s progressive urbanism are designed less to shape the city than to facilitate the gaze beyond it.
It’s perfectly appropriate, then, that Vancouver’s greatest public space is not a street or a square but a beach. English Bay Beach, located next to downtown Vancouver, is a crescent sweep of sand with a view of the bay where George Vancouver met Dionisio Galiano in 1792. It is a natural gathering spot, located at the terminus of two commercial streets, near the entrance to Stanley Park. Here, the city doesn’t just brush up against the sea, it spills right into it.
A little over a century ago, the beach was littered with swimming shacks, holiday houses and hotels. A burly man from Barbados, Joe Fortes, made his home in a small beachside house, where he taught a generation of young Vancouverites to swim. He became the city’s first official lifeguard in 1901. After his death in 1922, the Vancouver parks board began buying up beachside properties in order to build a public open space. In 1989, 16 Chinese windmill palm trees were planted near the beach to give it a more tropical appearance, an experiment that has been so successful that another hundred palms have been added to the beachside promenade.
While it’s hard for a beach not to become a lively place, especially when it is as centrally-located as this one, what makes English Bay Beach so spectacular is the sunset. When the sky is clear, the beach becomes a giant amphitheatre where thousands gather to watch the nightly spectacle. Many stay after dark, leaning against the large pieces of driftwood that have been neatly arranged on the sand by park authorities. Few manmade places have the English Bay sunset’s power of attraction.
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