Not long after the whale-watching vessel got underway, our children scampered up the ladder to the open observation deck. Kept warm on this gray day by winter coats, gloves and facemasks, they leaned into the railing. Then their eyes landed on a pod of black-and-white orcas, gracefully rising and falling in unison into the Strait of Georgia.

"There!" they shouted, fingers pointed. Around us, passengers' cameras came out. The captain cut the engine as we closed in. The orcas disappeared beneath the surface of the water and we spun on foot for a 360-degree view — where would they pop up next? Not knowing left us breathless.

As we waited, our captain turned on the underwater microphone. The orcas whistled and clicked to communicate. I felt a thrill go through me at the sound of their language. These weren't orcas brought someplace to perform for land lovers; I could eavesdrop on their life in the wild, and relish their freedom.

"I saw a blowhole!" exclaimed my 8-year-old daughter, Anna, as one rose majestically beside us and exhaled. He lobbed his tail against the surface as if to say hello, spraying water, much to my kids' delight. Then the air filled with the scent of sea lion blood. Seagulls circled above and then dove in, Mother Nature's way of making sure nothing goes to waste.

This is the gift of Vancouver, British Columbia: You can move fluidly from big-city skyscraper life — and the culinary and theatrical delights that come with it — to the detoxifying silence brought on by the bays and straits and pristine forests. Its glass towers are surrounded by jagged snow-topped mountains, and a sea dotted with cargo ships that stretches on beneath a glowing horizon.

As a densely populated low-lying coastal peninsula, it's said to be the world's 10th-most vulnerable city to flooding caused by sea-level rise. In 2010, it vowed to become the "greenest city in the world" in 10 years. As with many big cities, transit is a hot issue. As tourists, we found it fun and affordable.

We puttered across False Creek in a rainbow-colored Aquabus Ferry, a tiny 12-seat water taxi that ran low to the water like a Disney ride, to get to the crowded stalls of the Granville Island Public Market. The boys begged to buy hand carved obsidian knives and leather wallets while I eyed the thick slabs of salmon, fat raspberries and fudge. In a nearby shop, we inhaled the scent of straw as a woman wove a broom with her foot on a spindle. It gave the sense of being in their Papa's barn.

Exploring the outdoors

The next morning, we went to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park and hiked across the 450-foot-long park namesake, slung 230 feet above a river. The height got to me; I couldn't handle my kids being out of reach while we swayed in a throng of selfie-takers.

They loved the sense of risk as they traipsed across the park's 300-foot high Cliffwalk, a series of cantilevered and suspended walkways above the rain forest and river canyon. They dared me to follow them out onto a glass platform. I couldn't do it, and exhaled when I felt the solid ground of the landscaped gardens beneath my feet.

On another bright and sunny day, we rented bicycles at Reckless and fought against the winds to bike the sea wall, built to prevent erosion, around the forested 1,000-acre Stanley Park. We caught a whiff of saltwater and fish. Dogs roamed off leash along urban beaches, splashing into the sea to retrieve sticks, while herons flew overhead. Our 10-year-old, Caleb, was so struck by the beauty of Siwash Rock jutting out of the water on our 5-mile loop that he almost caused a bike pileup by coming to an abrupt stop on the narrow one-way trail.

But mostly, while in Vancouver, we just walked. We passed beneath the emblematic Chinatown arches. In Gastown, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, the iconic 1977 Steam Clock whistled as it shot off steam. One accidental turn led us down a street in the Downtown Eastside — one of Canada's poorest postal codes — where there's a supervised-injection facility with overdose-response supplies. We saw drugs being dished up, public urination, and, as my daughter put it, two men "smelling each other," but still, while saddened by the desperation we saw, we felt relatively safe compared to wandering lost in U.S. cities.

The food scene

Vancouver's food scene left us giddy. Its sizable immigrant population makes for an ethnically diverse food adventure. At Miku, we devoured its signature flame-seared aburi sushi so rich with fusion sauces that it's served without soy sauce or wasabi. Shortly after the sun rose we brunched on crabcake benedict and Belgian sugar waffles with rich Canadian maple syrup at a French restaurant, Provence Marinaside. For dessert, we had Italian Salted Caramel gelato in chocolate-filled cones at Bella Gelateria.

For the rainy days

We didn't spend much time indoors, and I liked that. Sometimes it feels while on vacation we try so hard to stimulate our children that we forget to teach them how to slow down and connect to the natural world. We did check out the dolphin show at the Vancouver Aquarium. At first, my son was dismayed to learn that the "4-D Experience" didn't include space/time travel, but he left enthralled by the film's special effects, like a light spraying of water to mimic an ocean wave.

At Science World, I climbed aboard a treadmill designed like a hamster wheel, and almost injured myself trying to keep up with the pace I'd set to generate energy. I liked that the hands-on exhibits taught our kids how decisions they make canaffect others, to think about where that bottle you just tossed out may wash up on shore and the wildlife it could harm.

On our last night, I jogged along the sea wall with my headphones on, enjoying the evening's rosy glow. One of our shuttle drivers who appeared to be in his 60s had told me that sunsets are what he and his wife love most about Vancouver; almost every night they watch it together. So, I stopped to watch the sun descend over English Bay. As the sky reddened, I thought of the man and his wife holding hands, and their tie to our shared natural home. This, I realized, was what I wanted my children to value — a spiritual connection to the place from where we come and where we will return, and an understanding that it's our job to protect it.

Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of "52 Fights." Find her at