VANCOUVER, British Columbia

The ground was a spongy, fragrant carpet of fir, hemlock and cedar needles, and the air had a loamy scent from the previous night's rains. But this was no experience deep in the Canadian north woods. It was a stroll to Beaver Lake in Stanley Park, on the northwestern edge of the metropolis that is Vancouver.

This is an urban treasure, 1,000 acres of parkland — equal in size to the rest of downtown — and a magnet for residents and visitors seeking recreation or tranquillity. Established 120 years ago on a peninsula, Stanley Park is home to an aquarium, restaurants, gardens, athletic fields, beaches and a seawall promenade that encircles the park. For leisure-seekers, the possibilities are limitless.

A couple of roads loop through Stanley Park, and to reduce traffic congestion, they're one-way affairs in a counterclockwise direction.

This means that vehicle-bound visitors who overshoot a particular attraction must make a complete circuit of the park to get back to it. Parking, meanwhile, is quickly overwhelmed when the weather is nice.

A much better option is to rent a bike from the Spokes shop (www. vancouverbikerental.com) just outside the park boundaries and pedal unhurriedly along the seawall. This is about as good as it gets for the casual bike rider: terrain that is almost universally flat, a dedicated bike path so you don't have to jostle with cars (there is a separate pathway for walkers), and spectacular scenery — across Burrard Inlet to north and west Vancouver.

Also, at this pedal-power pace, discoveries great and small are readily made. Easily the most popular tourist stop is a site simply called Totem Poles. Here, brightly painted carvings of British Columbia's First Nations people cluster in a little forest of artistic expression.

In the 1880s, the Canadian government discouraged First Nations practices, and while some of British Columbia's totems were removed to museums, many others simply deteriorated where they stood. The ones here were created by contemporary carvers, replicating old ones that survive only in photographs. (There is also an excellent gift shop at this stop.)

Many lesser-known features may be encountered on a ride along the seawall. "Girl in a Wetsuit," by sculptor Elek Imready, perches on a rock just offshore, her flippers spread out before her; this is Vancouver's answer to Copenhagen's "Little Mermaid." Elsewhere, there is a stone-cross memorial to eight people drowned in a ship collision 100 years ago, a semicircle of stones along the shore that is the remains of an ancient Indian fish trap, and probably the most pathetic attraction in the park, Hollow Tree. It's a dying trunk with no core that people used to back their cars into and pose for pictures, but now it has to be held up with steel cables and support poles, yet is still tipping precariously. Enough already: Let it topple over with dignity and be left to the park's prolific mosses and ferns.

One of Stanley Park's most peculiar features is the Nine O'Clock Gun. It's a scary-looking 12-pound muzzle-loading cannon from 1816 that sailors from the nearby Deadman's Island base dutifully fire every evening at 9 p.m. People strolling along the Coal Harbour Seawall across the water thrill to hear its distinctive whump.

The Vancouver Aquarium, in the heart of Stanley Park, is particularly popular with youngsters, as its exhibits include white beluga whales, frisky otters and a thriving tidal pool.

To educate visitors about the plight of some of the creatures in the wild, the aquarium offers its Encounters, up-close experiences with Steller sea lions, sea otters, beluga whales, dolphins and sea turtles.

On a recent such encounter, Nicole Cann and Troy Neale introduced a group of visitors to Tasu, a sea lion with a deafening bark - especially when the steel bucket holding fat herring was in sight.

It was the day before Tasu was to be released into open water for further studying, and guests tried not to be intimidated by the prospect of dropping a slippery, silvery fish into the snapping jaws of this beautiful marine mammal.

If you work up a hunger after rambling through Stanley Park, you won't have to retreat to the city for a bite to eat. There are a few restaurants here, and the verdant surroundings provide a peaceful ambience.

One of the best spots for lunch is the Prospect Point Cafe, primarily for its views. It's set atop a wooded knob at the northern edge of the park, and has the feel of a treehouse. A rustic patio with a clear-plastic roof peers out through the woods, the view taking in Lions Gate Bridge, Burrard Inlet and North Vancouver in the distance.

Another popular establishment is the Fish House, on the west side of the park. Lunchtime features seafood-based salads and entrees in a former tennis clubhouse, overlooking a lawn where Canada's iconic geese are known to congregate. It seems diners are segregated after a quick assessment by the hostess: Those dressed more formally in the province's British tradition are ushered into the dining room, while the more casually attired bicyclists and walkers are conducted into a den-like room warmed by a fireplace.


WANT TO GO?
TIPS: From downtown Vancouver, most visitors enter Stanley Park from Georgia Street. Head right on Park Drive to a parking area and information kiosk on the left. At self-service machines here, an all-day parking pass may be purchased for $4 with a credit-card swipe. Pick up a Stanley Park map at the kiosk - there is often a stack of them on the counter even when the booth isn't manned. A free shuttle bus operates in the park during its busiest season, mid-June to late-September.

BIKES: Spokes Bicycle Rentals is just outside the park boundaries, at 1798 W. Georgia St. A half-day rental (six hours) of a hybrid bike is $28.57 Canadian. www.vancouverbikerental.com; (604) 688-5141.

 

AQUARIUM: The aquarium is at 845 Avison Way. The Steller sea lion encounter costs $35 for adults, $15 for kids ages 8 to 12. www.vanaqua.org; (604) 659-3546.

LODGING: The Pacific Palisades, a boutique hotel in the Kimpton chain, is fairly convenient to Stanley Park, at 1277 Robson St. It's got a 1970s retro vibe, and features a comfortable lobby, indoor pool and afternoon wine social in an art gallery. Rates from $250 Canadian. www.pacificpalisadeshotel.com; (604) 891-5161.

EATS: In addition to the Prospect Point Cafe and the Fish House, both of which are in Stanley Park, another good option on the west side of downtown is Parkside, 1906 Haro St., (604) 683-6912, www.parksiderestaurant.ca. For dinner overlooking the water, you can't beat Lift Bar and Grill, on the Coal Harbour Seawall: (604) 689-5438, www.liftbarandgrill.com.