One of the many highlights of exploring Vancouver during the Olympics is learning about so many other countries and cultures in such a small area. Various national and provincial houses, or pavilions, have sprouted across the city—some in new, temporary structures; others in existing buildings—and are free and open to the public.
A few blocks from Robson Square (home of the Vancouver Art Gallery and a 550-foot zip line), you’ll find Canada’s North House, where you can meet dog mushers, see a (stuffed) muskox, and get your photo taken next to an Inukshuk, one of the main symbols for this year’s Olympic Games. Several block in another direction and you'll come across the Aboriginal Pavilion, which runs short (like, 10-minute) films on the history and background of Canada’s original settlers. Hint: Line up early so you can snag one of a handful of seats inside the theater or else you’ll be propping up the wall or sitting with dozens of people on the ground while watching the show on the building’s domed ceiling. The pavilion is also hosting free events like Inuit throat singing and Metis jigging and hoop dancing.
Head for the top floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, right in the heart of Robson Square, to visit the British Columbia (BC) Canada Pavilion, which has fun, interactive exhibits on the province’s ecosystem and natural resources, as well as a wild 4D movie that touches almost all your senses: You’ll smell pine scents as you’re zipping through the trees, get a gust of wind in your hair while zigzagging down ski slopes, and feel the jolt of getting hit by a snowball—all in a virtual realm.
Other pavilions highlight the culture and lifestyles in provinces like Manitoba, Alberta, Quebec, and Saskatchewan, and in countries such as Korea, Ireland, and Ukraine.
Two hours to the north, Whistler has a long list of country pavilions. Some of these “hospitality houses,” as they’re also called—like the Austria House, Italy House, Whistler Canada Olympic House, and USA House—restrict access to athletes and their friends, families, and supporters. Others wholeheartedly welcome visitors. You can swing by the Norway House at Maurice Young Millennium Place anytime between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. for fresh Norwegian waffles and traditional goat cheese (which is alone worth the visit). Be ready to cheer on Norwegian biathletes.
The Whistler Canada Olympic House, located in the new library on Main Street, opens its doors to the public on Saturday, Feb. 20 and Feb. 27 between 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for a community pancake breakfast. You’ll also have a chance to meet a couple of non-competing and 2010 Olympians, including Canadian fencer Julie Mahoney, who competed in the 2000 Olympics, and 2008 Olympic diver Marie-Eve Marleau from Quebec. If nothing else, go to see the new “super-green” building, which maximizes the use of natural light and air, and has a roof made from locally available hemlock.
The House of Switzerland Canada 2010, located along the pedestrian-only Village Stroll, is set up mainly as a restaurant, although it will also host activities and events. Definitely stop in if you fancy authentic cheese and chocolate fondues, or raclette, a Swiss dish with melted cheese that’s eaten with potatoes, pickles, and pearled onions and should honestly be entered into some sort of Food Hall of Fame.
I haven’t been to the Jamaican Bobsleigh House yet, but a friend tells me it is open to the public and features live reggae, Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum, and Red Stripe beer. And it’s rumored that Chris Stokes, founding member of the Jamaica Bobsleigh Team, may make a visit.
Another highlight is the PRIDE House, located in the Pan Pacific Whistler hotel, which is the first PRIDE House that’s ever appeared at an Olympic event. Don’t think it’s just for gay and lesbian athletes and their supporters. According to Ken Coolen, who helped organize the house, “It’s a place where people can be their authentic selves. It has nothing to do with gay or straight.” The house has several exhibits, including a photo display of gay and lesbian athletes and a bronze sculpture called “Slapshotolus” that depicts a hockey player in classic Greek style and is modeled after the artist Myron's famous discus thrower, Discobolus, one of the only remaining copies of which is in Italy’s National Museum of Rome.
Photos by Kari Bodnarchuk for The Boston Globe