Surviving and Thriving at Vancouver 2010

8:00 a.m. We drove through the Canadian border. No lineups. Yes, it was a little eerie. After years of fearing the worst, the crossing ended up being no more problematic than a Starbucks’ drive-through at 9 p.m.

8:30 a.m. We parked at the King George SkyTrain Station (on the Metro Line), easily found a space, then paid the parking kiosk with our credit card (about $10 for parking). We boarded the first car, and the kids shared a lone forward-facing seat as the train weaved through housing, over bridges, past construction, and between stands of fir and cedar. “I’m driving,” my 4-year-old son whispered. Uh oh.

9:20 a.m. We arrived at Waterfront Station after a 45-minute ride, and got a few photos with a Quatchi mannequin that lives within the station.

We wandered along W. Cordova Street to see the Olympic Flame (gated off, so bring a telephoto lens if you want an up-close shot), then visited Canada Place, where the kids picked up free maple-leaf flags and signed the digital guestbook.

10:45 a.m. We walked a few blocks to one of my favorite restaurants – Sciue — before the crowds arrived. I like the ease of eating here: Choose your pizza, pay and find a seat. The kids scarfed down their cheese and tomato pizza (authentic Italian-style, so it’s not over-cheesed), while my husband and I enjoyed the ultra-spicy olive pizza.

The television played live coverage of the events; we were able to enjoy a perfectly foamy cappuccino while watching skiers work it. The kids shared a Fentimans’ orange fizz soda, which isn’t displayed. But if you ask, they’ll pull one out of the fridge.

We people-watched out through Sciue’s large plate-glass windows : red-mittened parents holding hands with red-mittened kids, protesters, Russian athletes and college-age students. Before leaving, we bought two pastries for sudden hunger pangs.

11:00 a.m.We hiked a few blocks up toward the BC Pavilion, housed inside of the Vancouver Art Gallery. An enormous line snaked along the sidewalk, and we didn’t want to be late for our 1 p.m. appointment.

So instead, we checked out the outdoor scene. Crowds clustered around the fountain, kids ran across the wide plaza, and families lined up to get a photo in a bobsled. Downtown’s Olympic clock sits here, along with a three-story floral mural and two photogenic lions.

11:30 a.m. Another block over, at GE Plaza, one block away, for Meet the Mascots ice show. The blue-jacketed Olympic helpers can offer inside tips, like when and where to be for good seats. Based on the info, we figured we had some time to wander around.

Local performers sang, juggled and danced (the best could do all three). Kids lined up to get a photo of themselves on the Vancouver Sun’s cover, to ride the zipline or pedal a bike to Sochi.

We also made a concerted effort to find a map of the day’s Cultural Olympiad events. I hadn’t brought one with me, assuming that I’d easily be able to find one. Unfortunately, no such luck. Every kiosk worker said, “sorry, we’re out,” and the only travelers with maps appeared to have brought them from home.

Noon. Based on the advice above, we sat on the ice rink’s long stone benches by the skate rental area. We had front-row seats, right in front of the rink’s waist-high glass wall. An hour’s a long time to wait, but it’s more comfortable when you can sit.

We took out the almond-chocolate croissants for a snack, let the kids scribble in my notepad and counted cool hats. An impressive First Nations performer rapped, sang Johnny Cash and performed a hoop dance at the southwest end of the stage. We could only view him from the rear, but even that was impressive (uh, I don’t mean it THAT way). At around 12:45, ice skaters warmed up, twirling like tornados.

1:00 p.m. Meet the Mascots began. Basically, it was a big group hugfest with all of the mascots – at least for the kids in the front, along the glass wall.  A prerecorded announcement told the story of the mascots, and costumed skaters skated alongside.

The kids saw and pawed at all of their favorite Northwest-themed characters, including Quatchi (Sasquatch)and Miga (bear-orca mashup). Warning: it can be dark along the sides of the rink, so bring a flash camera or one that works in low light. For the kids, Meet the Mascots was the day’s highlight.

2:00 p.m. My son coveted a certain type of Quatchi-hat we saw on kids at the rink, so we went into Sears (701 Granville) to pick one up. My 10-year-old daughter selected a MukMuk stuffed animal.

Sears offered stuffed animals, tee shirts, a rapidly-dwindling selection of hats, pins and other tchochkes. However, they don’t carry the red mittens – a product only for sale at the Bay.

The line to enter The Bay’s Olympic themed store was an entire city-block long. Although we didn’t join the line, we enjoyed seeing all of the patriotic costumes.

2:15 p.m. We decided to walk towards Science World, roughly two miles away and home to Russky Dom, the Russian Pavilion. Along Robson Street, we passed Canadian families festooned in red, public art, gentle protestors and welcome signs in a U.N. of languages. Oh, and a Batman-costumed street performer. Guess which was my son’s favorite?

We turned south on Beatty St., stopping at the Slovakian-inspired Kolachy for a quick bite of stuffed whole-wheat goodness. Our son took his afternoon nap in the stroller.

2:45 p.m. And then he woke up to a playground!  We found the imaginative little Coopers’ Park full of climbing equipment, cup-shaped spinning rides, colorful slides, a web worthy of spider-man. While the kids played for 15 minutes, we adults enjoyed picturesque views of False Creek and chatted with a local mom. She said that she was unimpressed with most pavilions so far; to get into each one seemed to require either a 45-minute or one-hour wait, the only alternative was to arrive at 10 a.m. Once inside the pavilions, there wasn’t much for kids to do, unless they enjoy reading tourism brochures.

3:00 p.m. Further along, we saw street vendors at Plaza of Nations (noodles, hot dogs, egg rolls, donair and the like), none of which looked particularly good. We also saw a performer on the stage. He wasn’t much good either. Sorry! Maybe a slow time of day.

3:30 p.m. We stumbled upon a quiet surprise – a garden of inukshuks along False Creek’s frontage sidewalk. A man studiously balanced stone atop of stone, and kept them in place with some sort of cement or glue, I’m not sure. Passerby oohed over the spectacle and delicately entered the garden to take pics.

From this vantage point, we could take in views of Science World, the athletes’ village draped in national flags and boats ferrying across False Creek.

4:00 p.m. At Science World, we started to get into line when the line-keeper (or guard, or some sort of official-looking guy) told us that with the stroller, we didn’t need to wait in line. We went to the line’s front, where other VIPs were entering, and breezed into the pavilion. Adding Russia to the places-to-visit list!

The kids liked Sochi World’s upstairs area, which offered a virtual hockey game and spinning sphere seats. Visitors can sit and watch the games live, but no refreshments were for sale, despite a bar set up in the room’s corner.

At night, Sochi World becomes party central for adults only. But during the day, kids can score hockey goals. A warning — it took us a half-hour to reach the front of the virtual hockey’s short line. I would not wait if there were a long line.

My son said this was his second-favorite part of the day, but my 10-year-old daughter didn’t enjoy the pavilion very much. Too much waiting, she said.

5:00 p.m. We boarded the SkyTrain back to Surrey, along with half of Vancouver. It was standing-room only, and we needed to fold up the stroller for the long 45-minute trip back to King George Station. The crowds thinned considerably by New Westminster station.

5:45 p.m. We went to White Spot for dinner, a safe bet when you’re not exactly sure where to eat and everyone’s famished. It’s like an upscale U.S. Denny’s — less diner, more dining — with wooden shutters, quiet booths and an internationally influenced menu. The kids ordered their favorite item on the menu – a Pirate Pak.

Macaroni and cheese, salad (or fries) delivered in a paper pirate ship, with strawberry ice cream for dessert. I had a “heart-healthy” scallop pasta and my husband had a burger. A good note to leave on!

We arrived at the border at about 7:15 p.m., scooting right through. No lines. I’ve actually never seen the lanes so empty at that time of night. The guard said a lot of Washingtonians were staying home.

The kids watched a movie on the iPod Touch, and we arrived in Seattle by 9:30 p.m. Nice!

Things I’m glad we did: read up on events we wanted to hit beforehand, arrived early for everything, wandered through streets, saw the inukshuk garden and enjoyed the festival-like atmosphere.

Things I wish we’d done: visited the Canadian mint booth, listened to live music in the evening, bought event tickets when they were released. I’d always assumed it would be a huge hassle to reach the Olympics and enjoy sporting events, but the transportation was smooth and the crowds were manageable.

Oh well. There’s always 2012, right?

Lora Shinn writes about family travel, Pacific NW travel, grown-up travel...and travel in general. Her travel-related articles and essays have appeared in Family Fun, Parenting, AFAR, National Geographic Traveler, AAA magazines and Redbook, among others.