The first time I visited Vancouver was during an August one summer years ago, and the city was at its glorious best. The sun clung to the sky til near 10 at night, the temperature stayed steady around 28 Celsius degrees each day, and the effervescent mood of the city made it feel like everyone was on a vacation. A few years later, I returned, but in November. The difference was drastic.
Vancouver was dark, wet, sullen. Streets were empty, residents marched to work and back with heads down as if staring at their shoes was less glum than observing their environment. The city had not only become grey, it was dull.
Shelley Hayashi had the vision to do something about it. While Hayashi couldn’t change Mother Nature’s effect on the seasons, she felt she could alter the mood of her city. In 2013, she launched Lumière Vancouver, a grassroots festival focused on public art and the celebration of Vancouver in the depths of fall. The festival began in the city’s west end along Denman Street, near the beach of English Bay, with light sculptures and performance art.
This year, it expanded to four locations, all west of Burrard Street. Lumière lit up the public square at the Vancouver Art Gallery with a turtle sculpture that would erupt flames and a massive tricycle with a DJ. An opera singer would perform every couple of hours and the DJ would provide accompanying music while a driver pedalled the tricycle around the square in a circus-like scene reminiscent of a World’s Fair, back when that was a thing. Installations at Jim Deva Plaza on Davie Street included a performer dressed as a neon robot on stilts and a tent for dancing to EDM. English Bay continued to showcase light sculptures from MK Illumination Canada. Joining the popular Luna the Whale sculpture were Stanley the Blue Heron and Davie, a 29-foot bear surrounded by illuminated salmon.
“I’m from the concierge world so I know that in this time of year occupancy is so low for the hotels, where in the summer you can’t get a hotel room. It’s so busy. I thought that if we can maintain that same interest in November, well wouldn’t that be wonderful,” Hayashi says of her motivation to launch Lumière.
The city’s West End Business Improvement Association was the first to get on board with the program and continues to spearhead the experience. A free trolley takes visitors around the four sites and restaurants have helped promote the programming as well. Papi’s Seafood and Oyster Bar created the Lumière cocktail, featuring vodka, Prosecco, raspberry syrup and Bols Bleu.
While Hayashi’s goal is to create an event that will attract tourists to Vancouver during its lowest season for visitation, West End BIA executive director Stephen Regan points out that the event is focused on giving residents a reason to celebrate November in the city.
“We let everyone involved know that we want to make sure they tell a story of Vancouver, because if it’s good for locals it will always be good for tourists,” he notes.
While Lumière only operated for the weekend of November 1, some of its installations — including the gorgeous illuminations on English Bay — will be on display for weeks to come.
Cornucopia on Tap in Whistler
If organizers of Lumière want to be inspired by a low-season festival that has turned into a phenomenon, they just have to look north. Whistler’s annual Cornucopia is probably the most successful shoulder-season event in Canada. More than 7,700 visitors attended the 2018 festival and as many are expected for this year’s edition, which runs from November 7-17.
Cornucopia features dozens of hours of programming and culinary delights. It includes seminars from global culinary talents, winery dinners at Whistler’s acclaimed restaurants like Il Caminetto and Araxi, luncheons with local and visiting chefs, and late-night parties with a focus on food and wine. Check the Cornucopia website for details as you plan your visit.