Early in the morning, the first Aquabus of the day putters across False Creek, heading towards Granville Island. The morning sun might just have barely risen, still blinking sleepily down through the clouds. The sounds of the island, too, are likely beginning to stir. Fruit-filled crates destined for the Public Market clap against the ground and the cries of resident seagulls echo against the water. Somewhere in all of this is the mysterious secret of Granville Island, which draws some 10.5 million people each year. Rumours have it that there's some magic recipe that makes visitors long to return to the island.
Something special does seem to happen when you take that first step onto Granville Island. Despite being home to 300 businesses, studios and facilities, the destination still retains an old-fashioned, timeless feeling. Craftsmen and artists take up residence here, and it's clear that the tradition of apprenticeship and mastery is alive and well. You can see it in the detail of a ceramic bowl or the gentle curve of a freshly blown glass vase, the intricacy of a piece of jewellery or the flick of a painter's brush.
Still, the influx of artists is a relatively new occurrence. Granville Island's architecture, much of which comprises remodeled warehouses, whisper of the island's industrial past. There are still cranes and rail tracks around, subtle tributes to its days cranking out manufactured goods. In the less visited areas of the island, you might hear a glimpse of it. Little clinks of iron against iron. The whirring of engines. In the 1880s, the island was a major hotbed for industrial activity, and sawmilling, iron works and slaughterhouses were commonplace sights. After World War II, however, a series of fires and a changing economy put the island into disrepair.
Luckily, the island was rejuvenated in the 1970s, and since then has been touted as a model for urban planners trying to figure out the secret behind Granville Island's popularity. The first place they usually look is the Public Market, arguably the epicentre for Vancouver's culinary enthusiasm. The goods tell their own stories: strawberries straight from Fraser Valley, Okanagan cherries, fresh Coho salmon and live Dungeness crabs. It's small wonder that Vancouver top chefs are often spotted shopping here for high-quality and rare ingredients for their menus. Luckily, even the casual visitor can partake in the abundance. Several delis and restaurants feature a variety of cuisines. Slurp Japanese noodles. Nosh on Greek gyros. Grab a slice of Italian pizza. Could the vast quantity and array of food be Granville Island's secret? After all, that's certainly one way to win over fans.
Some foodies would respond with an emphatic "yes," but music lovers might have a different perspective for the sheer fact that street music is one of the most distinctive characteristics of Granville Island. Singer/songwriters strum away in open courtyards, drum circles form out of nowhere, and a clear strain of a melody from violin or saxophone melody often seems to make its way to the ears of an unsuspecting visitor.
Music plays an even bigger part in the festivals that Granville Island hosts. Take the renowned Vancouver International Jazz Festival each summer, which showcases some of the best jazz talent in the world, or the rockin' stages at Winterruption, Vancouver's famous three-day arts and culture festival. Both of these, along with other festivals that occur throughout the year, undoubtedly add to the island's magic. You'll find dragons dancing during Chinese New Year, clowns running wild during the Vancouver International Children's Festival and the holiday spirit reveling during the Yuletide Traditions festival.
The playfulness of it all caters to the imaginations of the children who visit, and the island can turn into an all-out playground for the young ones. They can taste magic fudge at Olde World Fudge or hunt for hidden gems at Kids Market, the island's special place for all things kids-related (handcrafted toys, puppets, and clothing). Then there's the island's Water Park, the largest free attraction of its kind in North America. For children, the water pipes and slides may just as well be secret tunnels they've discovered on some grand fantastical adventure.
The secret might just be Granville Island's wonderful sense of imagination. Many visitors talk about it but never pinpoint it. They think of the island's superbly fresh food, its diverse array of music, its rich entertainment and its exciting attractions, but at the end of the day, the island offers a different kind of reality - one of magic, charm and timelessness. It radiates a dream-like quality that all great islands have, leaving visitors with memories not easily forgotten. It's no wonder they want to come back.
Granville Island Details
Hours of Operation
Granville Island Public Market: Open seven days a week, 9 a.m. - 7 p.m.
Most other retail stores: Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.