A walk along Robson Street in Vancouver, British Columbia, is much like walking in London's Piccadilly Circus. The old cliche -- that if you sit at Piccadilly all day, you'll see everything in the world walk by -- also works in Vancouver.

The major city of Canada's west coast province, Vancouver has a British air, and I saw several men in kilts and a couple with bagpipes. But there were also some in turbans, and I passed a group of people who apparently were there to attend a Hindu wedding.Vancouver is a major player in the Pacific Rim economy, and the Asian influence is obvious. Many menus are printed in English, French and Japanese.

Waiting for the Airporter shuttle -- which, by the way, is the best transportation from the Vancouver airport, downtown and back again -- I heard people speaking German, Japanese, French, British (nearly as distinct from American as any other language) and several unfamiliar tongues that had a Middle Eastern sound.

Knowing little about Vancouver prior to my first visit, I was pleasantly surprised, not only by the diversity of its population but by the variety of its geography. A Pacific coast city in every way, Vancouver also has the air of northern wilderness, mixed with the sophistication of a metropolis of 1.8 million people that boasts of being the No. 3 center for moviemaking in North America.

The city reminds me of San Francisco, but it's much cleaner and has only a fraction of the homeless population of the City by the Bay. You could window-shop along Granville or Robson without constantly feeding the empty cups of panhandlers.

But let's talk about the shopping. I was billeted at the Pan Pacific Hotel on Burrard Harbor, well within walking distance of the best and most varied shopping experience I've encountered in some time. Robson Street is crowded on both sides with boutiques catering to any taste imaginable.

Toys, clothes, electronics, music, books and many more items were offered by some of the friendliest clerks I've dealt with. Canadians are known for their outgoing, polite and helpful personalities, and I'm a believer. "No problem" is their motto, and they make sure it's true for their customers.

At the hotel, services were provided happily, and the bell boy, as well as the person who delivered a beverage to my room, refused tips. An amazing custom!

Just around the corner from the hotel is Gastown, a historic area of Vancouver with cobblestone streets and renovated buildings more than 100 years old.

I bought my hat in Gastown. The store was a wonderful little women's hat boutique with another of those irresistible sales clerks who make you feel you're patronizing a family member's business.

It was a cozy little store with a surprising number of hats. Black bowlers to straws to knitted hats to satisfy those headed north to Alaska. But the one that caught my eye had a definite Australian look to it. A bit of Crocodile Dundee mixed with Jane Austen. Well, Jane Austen in the country, not in town.

But $70?

Then I remembered these were Canadian dollars, and when I used my Visa card, the exchange rate would kick in and I'd be spending only about $50 U.S.

So the snappy little fedora went home with me.

I dare anyone visiting Vancouver to resist buying something -- or a lot of somethings. The difference in value of U.S. to Canadian dollars makes it seem everything is on sale. If you're determined only to get a meal and see the sights, leave your big bills -- and your credit cards -- in the hotel safe.

Vancouver is also a dream for those who like their vacations in the outdoors. The first week of October, when I was there, was cool at night and perfect during the day -- about 67 degrees (that's translated into Fahrenheit -- it would be about 20 degrees Celsius to Canadians. This way of measuring temperature is probably meant to get you ready for winter when that northern chill takes hold).

Mountains rise straight up from the ocean so that within sight of the Pacific are three ski resorts -- on Cypress Mountain, Grouse Mountain and Seymour Mountain. During summer and fall, mountain biking is rampant on the mountain peaks and on biking trails through the lush forests surrounding the city.

Stanley Park -- also within walking distance of the Pan Pacific Hotel -- has a 10-kilometer trail along a sea wall and is perfect for early morning jogs or bike rides.

Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park just north of Stanley Park in North Vancouver is the area's oldest attraction. It offers guided tours, history and forestry exhibits, a native carving center, spectacular scenery, nature and totem parks, award-winning gardens and some great shopping and restaurants boasting that great Northwest cuisine, which means seafood.

Or cross the harbor from Vancouver to North Vancouver aboard the seabus, which will set you back the price of bus fare -- about $2 Canadian and $1.50 weekends ($1.34 and $1 U.S., respectively). Walk about 20 feet from the dock and enjoy the marketplace, where grapes are the size of ping pong balls and you can buy traditional Canadian souvenirs -- handmade items, clothing, totem poles -- and enjoy a steaming bowl of seafood chowder with a big hunk of bread for less than $5 Canadian.

An outdoor seaside deck lets you enjoy the skyline of Vancouver across Burrard Inlet.

A wonderful way to see the forests and coastline north of Vancouver is by train. The BC Rail operates a vintage railroad that takes passengers on a variety of excursions. I took the dinner train along the scenic Howe Sound to Porteau Cove where a jazz band entertained under the stars before the train headed back to the depot.

The trip is a bit pricey at $99.95 for the upper dome cars or $82.95 for the salon cars. But remember the exchange rate. Those prices are Canadian dollars. In U.S. dollars those prices are $67 and $57. The dinner train runs Wednesday through Sunday May 5 to Oct. 3, with weekend trips through Oct. 24. Call BC Rail at 1-800-339-8752.

Should you find you've exhausted all the opportunities for entertainment (which could take a while) in the city, you'll find the world-class ski resort community of Whistler about a two-hour drive north of Vancouver. On a beautiful scenic highway, the forested mountain resort is worth seeing in summer and is especially delightful for winter activities.

Marilyn Karras took in the sights of Vancouver prior to a meeting there of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors.