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Mild west, frozen north

Sea views, ski venues hold gold

By John Powers
Globe Staff / January 17, 2010

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia - Since I’m unlikely to venture up to the Rockies, I’m leaving the Timberland boots at home next month, along with the fleece parka, the woolen hat, and the lined leather gloves. I’m packing loafers, a blazer, a raincoat, shorts, and sunglasses. These may be the Winter Olympics, but winter hereabouts is a meteorological lottery. A year ago last month the city was buried in snow. Last week rain and 50-degree temperatures shut down the Cypress Mountain venue for freestyle skiing and snowboarding. And when I was here last February, the sun shone for five straight days.

The Games never have been held in a place quite like this, a site surrounded by water but within reach of the mountains amid a climate so temperate that Vancouver conceivably could host the Summer Olympics during the winter. The mercurial weather is a byproduct of the city’s unique location, which promises a breathtaking backdrop that no previous host could offer.

The scenery was one of Vancouver’s selling points, along with its extraordinary ethnic and cultural diversity, when the bidders wooed the International Olympic Committee seven years ago for the privilege of bringing this quadrennial sleighride back to Canada for the first time since Calgary played host in 1988.

The Sea to Sky Games, which begin Feb. 12 and run for 17 days, will give 3 billion global televiewers a spectacular glimpse of the country’s third largest (behind Toronto and Montreal) and most livable city, which has both a cosmopolitan and outdoorsy feel. You can stroll from the center of town into a 1,000-acre wilderness haven (Stanley Park) that has a lagoon, 17 miles of walking and cycling trails, an aquarium, a children’s farmyard, and a seawall path looking out on English Bay and Burrard Inlet.

Asian immigrants discovered Canada’s western gateway several decades ago, coming from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines to add a distinct Eastern flavor to what was once a British enclave. Yet many residents of Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes have yet to make it across the prairie for a visit.

Canada’s massive breadth has much to do with that, covering more than 3,100 miles, 10 provinces, three territories, and six time zones. “For us to go to Newfoundland is like going from Portugal to Siberia,’’ says John Furlong, chief executive of the Olympic organizing committee.

The Games have given the rest of the country a convenient excuse to drop by for a look and though our northern neighbors have snapped up most of the tickets, there still are thousands remaining. While high-demand attractions like the opening ceremonies and medal events in ice hockey and figure skating have been oversubscribed for months, there are 15 sports on the program and at least a couple of dozen opportunities to see something every day.

The best ways to get to Olympus are by going through CoSport (www.cosport.com), the US Olympic Committee’s official agent, or VANOC (www.vancouver2010.com), the Vancouver organizing committee. CoSport offers tickets that can be booked online, while VANOC has set up both a novel fan-to-fan marketplace to put buyers and sellers together and an auction system for the most popular events.

Unless you’re staying near downtown, though, you’ll need to hop on a bus to get to most of the Olympic competitions. The days are gone when the Winter Games were held in intimate villages like St. Moritz, Switzerland, and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, where spectators could walk to most events. The recent trend has been toward big cities like Nagano, Japan, Salt Lake City, and Turin, that are roomy enough to handle the avalanche of visitors that seems to increase with each quadrennium.

There essentially are separate Games now, one for ice sports in and around the city and one for snow in mountain resorts that can be 100 or more miles away. What will be different in Vancouver is that the sliding events (bobsled, luge, and skeleton) will be up near the Alpine, Nordic, and biathlon events in Whistler, which is more than 70 miles north of the city. Other than the indoor competitions, only the freestyle and snowboarding events at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver will be close by.

So the odds are good that if you have a random fistful of tickets, you’ll find yourself up in Whistler at least once. And since the weather is decidedly more wintry there, you’ll need to bundle up. But because there’s no spectator parking at any of the venues, the only way to get to Whistler other than by parachute will be to take an Olympic bus, which will be reserved for ticketholders who buy a separate transportation pass.

One reason Vancouver nearly lost out to the remote South Korean resort of Pyeongchang in the first round of the 2003 balloting (that is, besides the IOC’s byzantine backroom politics) was voters’ concern about weather-related delays along the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, which is a two-hour drive from downtown in good conditions.

The provincial government has done what it could to eliminate bottlenecks by widening and straightening the road (officially Route 99), adding passing lanes, and upgrading sightlines. While a visit to the mountains will consume most of a day, it’s worth the round-trip trek. The scenery is spectacular, particularly around sunset, and the resort, which has the largest ski area in North America, is one of the most popular and upscale on the continent. The pedestrian-only village is crammed with 90 pubs and restaurants, ranging from Italian to Mongolian, and more than 200 shops.

You still can see dozens of events without leaving Vancouver. Only one of the venues is downtown: GM Place, home of the National Hockey League’s Canucks, and which will be named Canada Hockey Place during the Games. The others can be reached easily by SkyTrain, the light-rail system that has 32 stations, by bus, or by the new Canada Line rapid transit that connects downtown to Richmond and the international airport.

Richmond, which is only 8 1/2 miles south of the city, is where you’ll find the orange-clad Dutch fans, who will spend almost all their time inside the sparkling 8,000-seat speed skating oval, which is made of glass walls and a wooden roof using beetle-damaged pine. Floating atop the Fraser River outside will be a replica of the Canadian Olympic Committee logo made from 13 million cranberries contributed by local growers.

Just east of downtown is the Pacific Coliseum, which will host the figure skating and short-track speedskating events. This is where Bruins poster boy Milan Lucic immortalized himself with one pugnacious shift as a junior player in the championship game. His framed portrait hangs next to Bruce Springsteen’s at the entrance to the gallery suites. To the south near Queen Elizabeth Park is the Vancouver Olympic Centre, which will stage curling, the country’s No. 2 winter sport, and where the 6,000 seats will be jammed whenever the home rink is on the ice.

Though it’s a big-time city, Vancouver is surprisingly intimate and its historic neighborhoods like Gastown, Yaletown, and Chinatown are easily walkable from downtown, which will be celebration central during the Games. The main attraction will be the nightly victory ceremonies inside BC Place, where entertainers like Barenaked Ladies, Nelly Furtado, and Loverboy will perform live before the day’s champions receive their medals. (Whistler’s winners will have their own version in the resort village.)

If you live in the States this could be your best chance to see a Winter Games for another decade or two. The 2014 edition will be on the Black Sea in Sochi, Russia, and Pyeongchang may finally get its turn in 2018. This also may be the last time you’ll need to bring both a rain slicker and sunblock.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

If You Go

Though there are no nonstop flights between Boston and Vancouver, Air Canada, United, American, Northwest, Alaska, and Delta Airlines all have connecting service. The best ways to obtain Olympic tickets are through the Vancouver organizing committee, which offers both a fan-to-fan marketplace and a ticket auction on its website (www.vancouver2010.com) or through CoSport, the official US agent (www.cosport.com).