How much can you have in a city on $10 a day?
Updated On: Jul 30 2013 04:39:36 AM MDT
Three days, $30 and only one free activity per day.
Is that possible in Vancouver, recently named the least affordable city in all of North America by The Economist's annual Cost of Living Survey?
That was my challenge, determined to prove you needn't be loaded to have fun in an expensive place.
Ideally, I'd also have a half decent time -- being poor and miserable isn't easy, after all.
I arrive early morning with a whole day of costly temptations before me, not to mention some serious, judgment-clouding jet lag.
But the early hour means crowds at tourist hotspots are minimal, so I head to the biggest of them all -- Granville Island.
Located south of downtown in False Creek, the area enforces strict rules against franchise stores and restaurants.
Everyone trading within its indoor Public Market is independent, from three generation-old butchers to fledgling artisan chocolatiers.
Great news for cash-strapped travelers like me -- at least it would be, had the concept of haggling not bypassed Canadian culture.
I wasn't expecting the lively back-and-forth negotiation and open-palmed gestures of an Arabian souk, but this is ridiculous.
Sensing my frustration as I attempt to knock a punnet of cherries from $3.99 to $2.50 (a quarter of my daily budget), a fellow shopper says I can get a good, cheap meal by heading over to the fishmongers and asking for "lox trimmings."
I buy half a pound of the smoky fish, jam it between two bagels from the adjacent bakery stall and have my first meal since Heathrow and the best $4 breakfast of my life.
With the market filling up and $26 left in my pocket, I leave Granville Island to explore the city.
On foot, of course.
Zig-zagging north from Granville Bridge, I cut through the downtown area to Devonian Harbour Park on the northwest corner of town.
Though I'd not planned it, it's here I claim today's freebie, in the form of one of the most impressive collections of public art in the world.
There are more than 300 free-to-see murals and sculptures in Vancouver, and some of the most high profile pieces are along the two-kilometer stretch of waterfront that runs from Devonian Park Harbour to Portside Park in Gastown -- Vancouver's obligatory sketchy, arty, craft beer-y neighborhood.
Culture absorbed, it's time to get a buzz going.
Or, at least, as buzzed as $6 (my remaining budget for the day) can get you, which on the brewpub-lined streets of Gastown isn't very much at all (pints range from from $7-$12 at the likes of Chill Winston and The Flying Pig).
Cheaper booze can be found on East Hastings Street, an alarmingly rundown part of town where it feels as though the chances of some sort of aggressive confrontation double with every block.
If it's possible to get tipsy on pocket change in this city, I'm in the right place.
First though, I drop into Treasure Island, a junk shop (in the absolute truest sense of the word) on the corner of Hastings and Carrall Street.
As the sign outside unabashedly proclaims, here you can pick up a pocketknife for a mere $4.99 (or upgrade to a hunting knife for $5 more), while inside the floor is jammed with everything from old VCRs to stacks of "mature" pornography.
Sensing that this isn't the sort of shop that welcomes casual browsers, I grab a can of cashews I find on a shelf next to an old motorcycle helmet full of mobile phone chargers.
They're priced at $1, which I knock down to 50 cents when I point out that they'd passed their best-before date around about the same time Obama took office.
With these I head to the scummiest looking bar I can find -- the Grand Union, just around the corner on Abbott street.
Not even this is cheap at $3.25 for a pint of weak lager.
The bar smells like chemicals and several of the regulars look like they'd quite like to turn me inside out.
Then, just as it looks like things can't get any worse, my phone lights up.
A couple of newlyweds I'd met in Las Vegas, and whom I'd been counting on for some free accommodation here in Vancouver, were now newly divorced and living under separate roofs in Toronto and Montreal.
Feeling incredibly alone, I find a hostel, unholster my credit card and spend three times my daily budget on a bed for the night.
By late morning the next day I feel much better about my extravagant expenditure, courtesy of a good stroll through an excellent park, recommended by the hotel's receptionist.
It means using up my freebie early in the day, but such is the beauty of Chinatown's Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden that it's no sacrifice at all.
Full access and a tour costs $14, but you can wander amid the ponds and blossom-laden trees at the back for nothing.
I spend an hour studying every corner, reassured that -- last night's blip aside -- I just might make it through the next two days on the $19 left in my pocket.
I leave full of confidence, bolstered by a huge sign on top of a neighboring building that shouts "EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT."
And for a while, it is.
I escape the claustrophobic grid of downtown, spending $4 on a 40-minute northbound SeaBus and bus journey to Grouse Mountain (ample time to snaffle a pair of rock-hard croissants purloined from the hostel's breakfast buffet).
Spending nearly half my day's budget on travel hurts, but I'm convinced it's a smart strategy.
My next activity ought to keep me busy for a couple of hours at least, and cost next to nothing. But it will be extremely painful.
I do the "Grouse Grind" -- a 2.9-kilometer trail up the side of the massive mountain on the city's northern boundary.
For me it's a simple way to avoid the $40 cable car fee to the top, but this is something a lot of Vancouverites do for actual fun, tackling the 800-meter elevation in Lycra-clad droves.
An hour and a half is considered a decent time for the reasonably fit, but in my Converse trainers and black jeans, I regard my time of two hours, 15 minutes to be nothing short of heroic.
The view from the top is, of course, worth the searing pain in my calves.
However, I quickly realize that I've left myself in a tricky situation: not only am I almost a kilometer above sea level without the physical fitness to head back the way I'd come, but in a moment of thrifty genius, I'd left half my remaining cash at the hostel and couldn't afford the $10 cable car descent.
For the second time in the trip, I take out my credit card and pay my way out of trouble.
With half the trip still to come, I'm already 300 percent over budget and ready to throw in the towel.
On the bus back to town I spend a long time studying my guidebook's list of recommended steak restaurants in anticipation of a blowout.
Then, out of nowhere, I'm hit by the unmistakable waft of several types of meat sizzling on mobile grills.
There are more than 100 registered food trucks in Vancouver, and today, most of them seem to be here on Howe Street.
Despite the competition, their wares are pricey, but I chance upon a bargain as a gaggle of tourists on a street food tour waddle away from Big Dogs Burger Bus.
They're on sample-sized portions, and their odd numbers mean there's half a juicy, gorgeous-looking bison burger left over.
I ask the vendor -- a multi-tattooed vegan, believe it or not -- if I can buy it for $3.25 (half the price on his chalkboard) and he agrees.
It's not the medium-rare wagyu tenderloin I'd been daydreaming about 15 minutes earlier, but it's still a mighty fine few mouthfuls of meat.
When I've finished, I ask if he's got any tips for doing the city on the cheap.
"You could go to the Vancouver Art Gallery," he says, pointing at the building directly behind me. "It's free on Tuesday nights."
Amazing. I round the corner and charge up the steps to the entrance of the scholarly looking building, whereupon I plant my palm firmly on my forehead.
I'd already used today's freebie -- the Chinese garden -- and the rules of the challenge were clear.
I head through the doors, anyway. Maybe I can buy something from the gift shop.
Turns out, there's no need. The burger chef had got it wrong -- admission on Tuesday nights isn't free, it operates on a donation basis.
I sheepishly drop five cents into the box and spend the rest of the evening familiarizing myself with the vast majority of the gallery's 10,000-strong collection.
Ignoring the accommodation and cable car slip-ups, I've so far spent $22.80, leaving me with $7.20 to survive my final 24 hours in Vancouver.
Public transport is now out of the question, so, anticipating plenty of walking, I make sure to swipe a couple of extra croissants at the breakfast buffet.
I kick things off with a walk from my downtown digs to Stanley Park.
At 404 hectares, the park is a good chunk bigger than New York's Central Park, with less of an artificially landscaped feel to it.
I see the famous totem poles at Brockton Point, stroll through gardens and forests and tour more monuments and memorials than you'd find in some major European cities.
It's not until I reach Beaver Lake, though, that I fully understand why Vancouverites are constantly banging on about this place.
Situated sufficiently deep into the park to escape even the faintest hum of city life, it must rank as one of the most calming urban environments on Earth, even when raccoons steal your croissants, which happened once I'd fallen asleep.
After shooing the would-be bandit away, I check my watch and realize I've been asleep for almost three hours.
I head back to the city taking a detour along English Bay beach and along the coast.
A 30-minute stroll leads me to Kitsilano Beach.
Were it not for the pastiness of the bodies sprawled across its sands, the beach's volleyball nets and shimmering heat mean it could easily be mistaken for a Californian coastline.
Unlike Malibu or Santa Monica, though, the seas are relatively free of swimmers, who instead head for the saltwater swimming pool at the beach's western end.
The $6 entry fee will leave me with just $1.20 for my final meal (which I'd have to enjoy without the luxury of underpants, given that I'd left my swimming shorts in London), but the romance of the moment is too much to resist.
I pay up, strip off and float across to the pool's far side, rest my arms on the pool's edge and admire a magnificent sunset.
But I can't remember a time that I've felt more hungry, and the past three days' diet of bad croissants, expired cashews and street food hasn't left me in the best of conditions.
I have two options: head to the nearest dollar store and trade my remaining money for as many calories as I can get, knowing I'd only failed my challenge a little bit, or break out the credit card, sample Vancouver's pricey side and add a little perspective to the past three days of wallet-watching.
In the end, it's an easy decision: if I'm going to fail, I may as well fail properly.
And so I find myself in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia -- one of two five-star hotels in the most expensive city in North America.
On-site restaurant Hawksworth has been called, by many, the best restaurant in Canada and I have a table for one.
As my main course of tandoori-grilled sturgeon floats into view (a dish whose price tag immediately eclipses the past three days' budget, and then some), I don't feel a single pang of guilt.
My challenge had, admittedly, been a churlish one, and though trying to do Vancouver on a budget had yielded some interesting results, the inescapable truth is that expensive places are best enjoyed with a willful ignorance of the economy.
All in all, I'd say I got my money's worth.
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