CAST 2016 preview: A tester's guide to Vancouver
During some recent downtime, and with a desire to avoid sitting at home or getting sucked-in to doing work, I took a brief holiday in Canada. (Actually, there was one specific reason for choosing Vancouver, but it would take a bit longer to explain.)
It was only once I'd booked my trip that I realised it was also the location of the CAST 2016 conference, from 8-10 August. I've always wanted to attend CAST, and was disappointed to come so close to it. But with Vancouver proving to be particularly awesome, I've decided to return again for CAST!
I've been following the CAST conference online for the past few years (their free, live webCAST is particularly well-managed) and have heard great things about the conference organisation. The event is structured for maximum attendee interaction: it's not just track session, there are also active tutorials, daily Lean Coffee sessions, a pre-conference TestRetreat, and evening social activities to match. The conference sessions themselves are also renowned for lively "open season" discussion at the end, and there's a "tweet printer" which allows online viewers to submit their own questions directly to the room!
The event is being held at the Simon Fraser University, just a block away from the waterfront and the famous Canada Place pavilion, and just a few minutes' walk from the main downtown district. It's also very well-positioned for hotels, bars, restaurants and attractions - more about that in a moment!
Getting there and getting around
If you're arriving at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and heading downtown, things couldn't be easier. Vancouver has an elevated SkyTrain service which gets you downtown quickly and cheaply. A taxi might be cheaper if several of you are sharing, but beware rush-hour traffic: unlike most North American cities, Vancouver doesn't have any freeway-grade roads, so traffic moves at a crawl during peak times.
The great counterbalance for the road network is the array of pedestrian and cycle paths which run throughout the city. Most impressive is the coastline trail, starting at Wreck Beach on the far western point, through the highly desirable Kitsilano district, past Granville Island and the Olympic village, before winding its way through the downtown peninsula and arriving at Stanley Park, which has its own 10km Seawall route. The views are breathtaking and the friendly locals will often stop for a chat!
Where to stay
There is a special conference rate available at the Delta Vancouver Suites, adjoining the conference venue; more details about this can be found on the logistics page. If you're looking for your own hotel, there are a lot of high-quality choices available in Vancouver; the only advice I received is to avoid booking anything east of Cambie St as it's a little dilapidated in those parts (a brief stroll through the neighbourhood confirmed this for me).
If you're staying longer, there are some great Airbnb properties in the city. On both my Vancouver trips, I've been staying in the Olympic Village area: constructed for the 2010 Winter Games, the waterfront area is full of luxurious modern apartments, a peaceful 10-minute walk from downtown.
Places to eat/drink
Personally I like my craft beer, and Vancouver is perfect for this! Just a stone's throw from the conference venue is Steamworks, with a hearty supply of food and drink offerings. There's also the nearby Tap & Barrel on the waterfront, with spectacular beers matched only by their views. But there are great bars to be found on pretty much every corner; one of the finest is the Narrow Lounge with its gothic interior and low-profile entrance (there's no signage to be found, you have to know where to look!)
Other out-of-the-ordinary treats include the sci-fi and fantasy themed Storm Crow Tavern - it's a long walk from downtown, but it's just a single stop along the SkyTrain (Expo/Millennium lines) to Broadway. For gaming fans, the downtown EXP Bar combines the classic dive-bar feel with great local brews, comfort food, and a variety of arcade machines, consoles and quizzes to keep you entertained long after you should have gone home.
For animal-lovers, make sure you book a trip to Catfé, a coffee shop which is also a foster home for local cats. Locals can even adopt their favourite! They do have some space available for "walk-in" visitors, but these go quickly so reservations are recommended.
WOW! Appropriately rainforest-like conditions at Capilano today. Breathtaking scenery! pic.twitter.com/QxXaJWsQnZ— Neil Studd (@StudleyUK) May 28, 2016
My main memory of Vancouver will be the relentless rain, which is always a seasonal risk, but it didn't dampen the activities which were on offer. Many of the city's sights are within walking distance - I wouldn't bother with the "Hop On, Hop Off" bus loop as you'll spend longer in traffic than seeing anything interesting! Take a trip to Stanley Park, where there are great coastal views and inland walks, and if you want to see a slice of the "real" Vancouver then let your feet carry you further along the coastal path to the community of Kitsilano, where you can sit on a suburban beach, with skyscrapers and mountains on the horizon - there's a real microcosm of climates to see!
Further afield, there's plenty to be seen if you take a trip over the Lion's Gate bridge to the North shore. There's the world-famous Capilano suspension bridge (it's high, it's long, and it sways MUCH more than you'd think), there are grizzly bears to be seen on Grouse Mountain, and there's snow and skiing to be found at Whistler. Roads are reasonable if you want to self-drive, although there are a variety of tour groups who offer excursions to these places and more (I had great trips with both West Coast Sightseeing and Landsea Tours.
Any questions? Just ask!
If you're considering a trip to CAST, or you've got a logistical question about Vancouver, feel free to leave a comment below. I'd be delighted to help!
Getting to know the locals. pic.twitter.com/w3tDK9ety9— Neil Studd (@StudleyUK) May 26, 2016