KATYA HOLLOWAY writes from her hometown of Vancouver as the city gears up for the 2010 Winter Olympics.

In a buzzing office in the heart of Vancouver, an ever-growing team of excitable Canadians are hatching a clever plan. It’s not one of world domination, but a scheme to make this laidback city one of the most desired tourist destinations by 2010, to have spectacular images of its dazzling skyscrapers, pristine harbour and snowcapped mountains beamed in real-time to billions of television screens around the world.

To entice Hans from Austria to hop on a flight to Vancouver for a week-long ski trip at Whistler-Blackcomb mountain. To attract Macca from Manchester, Bazza from Australia and Andy from New Zealand to start saving their pennies for their next holiday to Canada.

It’s hardly a secret plot to conquer the world. In fact, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (Vanoc) is hard at work preparing the city to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

I think people will be amazed and impressed with the beauty of the area,” raves Chris Brumwell, media relations manager at Vanoc, when asked how he thinks visitors will react to seeing Vancouver for the first time.

Standing in downtown Vancouver, he weather is pleasant, and yet you are surrounded by snowcapped mountains. If you are up in the mountains, you can be standing in the snow and looking down at the city below. The spectacular beauty of the area can’t be beat.”

While the opening ceremony may be another 3_ years away, the city is already running wild with anticipation. Sales of Canadian flags, patches and bumper stickers have gone through the roof as patriotic Vancouverites stock up on red-and-white paraphernalia. Fridges are stocked high with beer, chicken wings and poutine (national dish of hot chips drenched in cheese and gravy) to celebrate the coming party season.

Indeed, there are some very exciting times ahead, Brumwell concedes.

“People are quite friendly in Vancouver and as the Games comes closer, Canadians will welcome the world with a great smile on their face,” he says. “A real spirit comes upon a city during the Olympics and Vancouver will be a leader.”

All sales pitches aside, any Canadian will tell you that if there’s ever been a better time to visit Vancouver, it’s now. Vanoc plans to spend C$1.7 billion on goods and services preparing for the Games, and it’s projected that another $2 billion will be spent indirectly up to the event by sponsors and suppliers, athletic teams and visiting tourists.

As I write, mounds of earth are being carved away for a new transit line linking the suburbs to Vancouver. Road crews are blasting through mountain sides to expand the Sea-to-Sky Highway from Vancouver to Whistler. Soon, travelling around Vancouver will be as effortless as snowboarding down a powdery mountain slope.

The government estimates hundreds of thousands of visitors will head to Vancouver before, during and after the Games. And television coverage is expected to peak interest in the city long after the last ski jump is jumped.

Work hard, play hard

If you are one of the lucky ones who was born in a country that allows for Working Holiday Visas in Canada (including Australians and Kiwis), a strong economy leading up to the Games means employment opportunities in Vancouver are booming.

Construction workers in particular are in high demand as Vanoc gets busy on building $580 million worth of new facilities. There are also loads of hospitality jobs available, and this number is expected to skyrocket in the two weeks during the Winter Games.

“There may not ever be a more exciting time to come,” says Brumwell.

Emily Armstrong, a travel media specialist for Tourism Vancouver, agrees. But if you simply want to head here for the action, visitors can purchase tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies as well as any of the sporting events.

An absolute must – if you ask any Canadian – is to check out a hockey game while you’re here. And a word of warning: don’t dare call the sport “ice” hockey unless you want to be laughed at. This is a tough-as-nails game populated with toothless, 6’3″ mountain men and you don’t want to risk the chance of looking like a pansy by belittling the national sport.

When the hockey isn’t on, strap on the board, skis or snowshoes to explore the three local ski mountains in Vancouver – Seymour, Grouse and Cypress. The latter will be the site of snowboard and freestyle skiing competitions for two weeks during the Olympics, but if you’d like to show off your own skills, the other two mountains will be open for business at this time (I’d recommend Grouse).

For those of you who simply aren’t into winter sports, there’s plenty to do outdoors that doesn’t involve skiing or boarding, says Armstrong.

“During winter, the weather is temperate, so there is still biking and hiking in February,” she recommends. “Visitors can enjoy a range of activities on both the mountains and the ocean.”

Sports and events

The venues for the 2010 Olympic Games will stretch over a 120 kilometre zone from the suburb of Richmond to downtown Vancouver and the snowy peaks of Whistler. Most skating and hockey events will take place in Vancouver, while nearby Cypress Mountain will host the snowboard and freestyle skiing. New runs and snowmaking facilities are being introduced to upgrade the mountain by November 2007.

BC Place Stadium in Vancouver will host the opening and closing ceremonies, while General Motors Place and the University of British Columbia will be the site of all the hockey games. All other skiing, bobsleigh, luge and snow-related sports will take place in Whistler, as will all the Paralympic Winter Games events. The Richmond Oval will be used for speed skating. New Olympic Villages are under construction in Vancouver and Whistler to house athletes, coaches and officials.

Party time

The celebrations will be largely divided between downtown Vancouver and the town of Whistler – a two-hour drive away. Within Whistler Village, all the watering holes are within walking distance of each other, so simply head to the area at the base of the Blackcomb Mountain gondola chair and prepare for a boozy pub crawl.

As for Vancouver, pick up a copy of The Georgia Straight from any roadside stand to see what kind of parties or clubbing events are going on that night. For a laidback night sipping homebrewed beers with friendly Canadian folk, head to the Loose Moose. They’ve got big screens to watch the hockey while you sample the local lagers. For something a bit more seedy, the Cambie was voted best place for cheap beer in 2005 by The Georgia Straight.

Some of the city’s biggest nightclubs are Shine (DJs), Sonar (DJs) and The Roxy (voted the best pick-up bar in 2005 by The Georgia Straight). For celebrity-spotting, check out Skybar, where the A-listers tend to congregate after a day of filming (Vancouver is known as the Hollywood of the north). Vancouver’s gay scene is centred along David and Denman streets in the West End.

• The Olympic Winter Games run February 12-28, 2010. The Paralympic Winter Games run March 12-21, 2010. More than 40 countries will be represented.
• For tickets to the events or information on the Olympics, see www.vancouver2010.com. For travel or tourist information, see www.tourismwhistler.com or www.tourism vancouver.com.”