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Not financial institutions. Not Spanish.

It’s a beach that goes on forever.

We start wearing sandals because the land edge is a bit rough underfoot,

but once past that there’s bare-foot freedom before us, this open space, this soft sandy invitation, this journey to the edge of the earth, way way out there.

We walk north first, straight towards the mountains

until we reach deep open water nearly a kilometre away where the cargo ships sit, metal leviathans waiting to enter the port. It’s the closest we’ll ever get to them.

It’s practically a Vancouver institution. If the sun’s shining, or even if it isn’t (which, being Vancouver is often the case), when the tide is out at Spanish Banks it’s time to go to the beach!

The beach, with its expansive sand bank was, of course, named after some early colonial explorers, and commemorates a meeting between some English guys and some Spanish guys back in the 1700’s. Before that the land was, of course, used by the locals, the Musqueam people, who called the place Ulksen. It was a training site for their youth, and the sea was used for canoe pulling and fishing.

Our journey from land to sea takes us through shallows that never fully dry up,

past skimboarders whizzing through them,

past flocks of noisy squawking Canada geese,

past green seaweed that should be under the sea,

past teenagers playing,

and past jubilant splashes of beach-brilliant colour, a riotous celebration in this blue on blue-grey world.

This is where we are!

On this vast expanse of sand where normally the sea lies, revealed like magic to the sun and the free moist air. And it’s exhilarating!

The beach faces Burrard Inlet, English Bay, the North Shore, and the downtown skyline. Although it is one continuous sand bank it has been divided into three separate though contiguous beaches, hence the colloquial plural Spanish Banks. The westernmost beach, where dogs are allowed off-leash, and where loud music is forbidden, is the best place for low-tide exploration. Adjacent to the beaches are grassy fields, a bike path and a walking path running parallel to the water, and volley ball courts on the east beach.

We walk and walk and walk. When we get to the edge where the land drops steeply off and quickly becomes deep enough for the freighters,

Container lego thanks to photoshop

we turn left and follow the shore west as far as we can towards the open waters of the Salish Sea.

Spanish Banks at low tide is all about the lapping slapping water, the breeze, the soft salt air, and the freedom to move. And there is plenty of movement. People roam and dogs romp in the wide-open space.

It’s beach playtime and everything goes – from sun bathing, to swimming in the frigid Pacific Ocean, to fishing, to, randomly, an office team-building excursion.

A flock of cormorants flies by.

On the water motorboats come and go, a tug chugs, precariously balanced paddle boarders make hard-earned progress, and a kiteboarder rides the wind and waves.

And one day Don meets his new best friend!

We don’t know his name. We just know he’s one of the happiest friendliest people we’ve ever met. He just about accosts us. From nowhere. We are all a bit nonplussed, bemused, puzzled. He’s like a big, and big-hearted, American leprechaun who sprang from the ether to entertain and love us. Especially Don. Everyone is smiling.

And then there are the dogs! And more dogs and more dogs. The happiest of dogs!

I’m not a dog person, but watching the dogs revelling in their freedom I see how much fun they are having, and how that uncontrolled uninhibited loose-limbed presence and joy is transmitted by osmosis to the people with them. They make people happy and it is here on Spanish Banks that I really get to see that. They make me happy. I smile at their antics. They are all having so much fun! A lesson in unrestrained jubilation.

We walk west as far as we can go. Behind Don and our friends you can see a channel marker.

People try to reach it. One time, on a cooler day, I walk towards it as Don watches from the farthest point north from the shore, and the farthest point west, at the very edge of the land.

I have a fanciful notion that I can reach the Chanel marker, but of course it’s not possible. Not without swimming. The water gets too deep and I have to turn back.

Photo by Don Read

 That’s when I see the heron, silently stealthily patiently fishing.

Then after a while it takes off, flying so low, almost right in front of me.

We’ve reached the end. Reluctantly we turn and face towards the city, the downtown skyline etched on the horizon.

Slower now, we stroll the distance back, making more of a diagonal towards the carpark and the Spanish Banks West Concession with its wafting aromas of hotdogs and burgers, fries and ketchup.

From the open sea in the west to the downtown skyline in the east to the mountains of the north, the panorama offers views of Stanley Park, Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress Mountains, Bowen and Gambier Islands, and the Sunshine Coast; a perfect juxtaposition of nature and the metropolis.

After several sun-soaked and/or wind-swept hours we arrive back at the car ready for sustenance. We head, not to the concession stand, but to Rain Or Shine, the best place for ice cream on the way home. We know how to have fun!

Spanish Banks is on the unceded land of the Musqueam First Nation.

Next post: The Travel Highlights Series – three festivals, one in India, one in Peru, one in Mexico, and all three sensational!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2021.