You know a city is special when you can sun on a sandy Pacific Coast beach only a few minutes from your downtown hotel -- and go for a summer swim, too, though the water is a bit nippy. You know it is even more special when, at that beach, your eyes can climb the forest-green slopes of soaring Grouse Mountain, not much farther away, and easily spot the winter ski resort at its 4,100-foot summit.

Ocean beaches on its doorstep and ski mountains in its back yard: Vancouver, at the southernmost corner of British Columbia, is a nature lover's dream. It's an outdoors city that seems to radiate a robust vitality, and the mountain air is clean and spiced with a salty tang. An abundance of outdoor pleasures -- sailing, fishing, hiking -- has fostered an easy-going informality; Vancouver is as laid back as California to the south. One of its urban beaches, hidden below a cliff, is bathing-suit optional.

Of course, the summer attraction that's expected to draw millions of visitors to Vancouver is Expo 86, Canada's world's fair. It promises to be a first-rate show -- a mix of space-age exhibits and plenty of fun. But when the tourists return home, what they remember most may be the city itself, a scenic dazzler.

For Vancouver is indeed a city of uncommon beauty, rivaling Seattle and San Francisco as the West Coast's (or for that matter, the world's) most eye-appealing setting. The views from almost anywhere -- and that includes the colorful fairgrounds on False Creek -- are superb.

To the immediate north of the city, just across Burrard Inlet, are the Coast Mountains. They rise sharply from the sea like a protective wall, marking the dividing line between urbanization and a vast wild realm beyond. Much of the year the closest peaks are tipped with snow, though Vancouver itself enjoys a surprisingly mild climate despite its northern location and gets only infrequent winter snows.

To the west, like a wide, wind-swept lake, is the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver's passage to the Pacific. Protected by the mountain-fringed island of Vancouver on the other side, it is a weekend sailor's delight, its shoreline dotted with inviting coves and fishing villages. (Both the city and the island opposite are named Vancouver, which can be confusing to newcomers.) Downtown Vancouver, the city, is built on a stubby peninsula that juts right into the strait, looking out onto water on three sides.

At times the harbor sea lanes seem almost as busy as city streets: Dozens of sailboats skip before freighters bound for the Orient; the Seabus, a commuter ferry, shuttles back and forth across Burrard Inlet (a fine sightseeing trip); tugs tow floating corrals of logs to the sawmill; windsurfers dart like rainbow-hued gnats beyond the beaches, and every once in a while a seaplane from Victoria, the province's quaint capital on Vancouver Island, comes splashing in for a salty landing.

But Vancouver's beauty is not only in distant views. Its many parks are gorgeous, kept lushly green year-round by what residents admit is a sometimes soggy sky. Winter days often are overcast, and drizzles can last for days. Summers, fortunately, are sunnier, though Expo visitors should take umbrellas. When the clouds lift, the city sparkles with a wonderful rain-washed freshness.

The most famous of Vancouver's parks is Stanley Park, a 1,000-acre hilly preserve of Douglas firs and red cedars that begins just beyond the West End, a classy downtown neighborhood of high-rise apartments. (Thanks in part to these city dwellers, Vancouver's nightlife bustles.)sw sk

Miles of trails cut through Stanley Park's woods -- one route takes you by a cluster of authentic totem poles -- but perhaps the best pathway is along the seven-mile-long sea wall that circles the park, skirting three good swimming beaches. On an early-morning walk, you forget the city, hidden by the trees, and imagine (when the joggers have disappeared ahead) that you are hiking along some remote shore in the wilds to the north.

Vancouver is a young city, officially just 100 years old this year. Originally a logging and mining village at the mouth of the Fraser River, it became in 1887 the western terminus of the trans-Canada railway. As a result, it has grown into one of the busiest port cities in North America, shipping much of the grain from Canada's midwest to foreign markets. Expo 86 is the city's big centennial birthday party.

It was named for Capt. George Vancouver, a British explorer who claimed the area for Britain in 1792, but he only stuck around briefly, leaving the Capilano and Squamish Indians in peace. Not until 35 years later did the famous Hudson's Bay Co. establish the first settlement, a fur-trading post about 30 miles up the Fraser River from the future city site. But in 1858, gold was discovered on the Fraser, and thousands of prospectors flocked to the region.

Small farming and lumbering settlements sprang up, and coal was found near what is now Stanley Park. The sheltered bay on the park's northern shore is still known as Coal Harbour. In 1867, a frontier character by the name of John Deighton -- he was called "Gassy Jack" because he talked so much -- opened a saloon, which soon grew, so the story goes, into the raucous community of Gastown, now considered the oldest part of Vancouver.

A life-sized statue of Gassy Jack -- dressed in long coat, formal vest and wide, floppy hat -- stands in the heart of old Gastown, which has been given a Victorian restoration complete with cobblestone streets and a steam-operated town clock that whistles every quarter hour. Jack appears a little sad, and you can't really blame him. A saloon keeper, he spends his days looking out not upon one of the neighborhood's pubs but only the ice-cream parlor across the street.

Eventually, Gastown was renamed Granville, thought more appropriate to a growing community. A few years later, in 1886, it became Vancouver, an even more prestigious name selected by the Canadian Pacific Railway. The first train from the East reached the new town the following year. Today, a century later, Vancouver is a modern city of 414,000 inhabitants within a metropolitan region that totals about 1.2 million -- the commercial and industrial headquarters of British Columbia.

Expo 86 promises exotic foods from many of the 54 nations that are exhibiting at the fair, but outside its gates a visitor will find an equally diverse selection, evidence that Vancouver's youth does not lack sophistication. Part of the reason is the city's ethnic mixture. So many European-style cafe's, delis and pastry shops (Mozart Konditorei is an excellent example) line downtown Robson Street that it is called "Robsonstrasse."

Only a few blocks east is Vancouver's large and bustling Chinatown, where every third doorway seems to open onto a restaurant. In nearby Gastown, you can find authentic French cafe's, such as La Brasserie de l'Horloge (across Water Street from the steam clock), reflecting the French side of Canada's dual French and British origins. The Teahouse Restaurant at Ferguson Point in Stanley Park is very properly British, and the sea view is excellent.

At least one restaurant, the Quilicum in the West End, serves native Indian dishes in an atmospheric stone and wood dining room decorated with Indian masks and other handicrafts. Taped Indian music plays softly in the background. The speciality is barbecued salmon, a delicious dish grilled over mesquite; and caribou, goat, rabbit, trout and oysters also are on the menu. The waitress, adorned with silver necklaces and bracelets, probably will be the owner; if so, it is her husband who designed the jewelry and some of the Indian artwork around you.

Colorful as it is, the city's relatively short history illustrates just how recently the North American wilderness was tamed, north and south of the border. Skyscrapers are shooting up all over downtown, but a visitor senses that Vancouver's spirit is still firmly linked to its frontier past. It helps explain the roguish choice of a gabby saloon keeper to be celebrated as one of the city's founders.

For all its attributes, Vancouver sees itself as still an undiscovered city, as unfamiliar to fellow Canadians as it is to its American neighbors -- though residents point out, somewhat smugly, that Canadians who move to Vancouver from colder, less-scenic provinces back East seldom ever want to return to their former homes. Expo 86, they hope, will put Vancouver on the world's vacation map.

It deserves to be. The city itself is full of interesting and entertaining things to do, and it is also a jumping-off place for year-round outdoor adventures: great scenic drives, ferry rides to the islands of the strait, mountain fishing expeditions, world-class skiing in the winter, backpacking and white-water rafting -- none of them very far away.

Obviously visitors to Vancouver this summer will want to tour the fair -- it opens Friday and runs through Oct. 13 -- but it would be unfortunate to hurry away without taking time to explore the city and the surrounding countryside. Much of what there is to see -- Gastown, Chinatown, "Robsonstrasse" -- is within a reasonable walking distance of downtown hotels, as are the Expo 86 grounds. You might want to catch a bus to Stanley Park, since you will probably do a lot of walking when you get there.

While in Chinatown, search out the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, just behind the Chinese Cultural Center on Pender Street. Secluded behind high walls, it is an exquisite re-creation of a classical Chinese garden. Arched bridges cross to tiny islands topped with small temples; a waterfall tumbles down a huge boulder. Follow the stepping stones, and you will disappear behind the falling water.

Visiting Vancouver's finest gardens -- well worth the effort -- could take much of a day; probably the easiest way is to take a guided motorcoach tour, which touches at the most important, or rent a car. One stop should be the Nitobe Memorial Garden, a part of the large and varied Botanical Gardens at the University of British Columbia on Point Grey. The Nitobe is an easy 20-minute drive south from downtown through a lovely flower-filled residential area that borders English Bay.

Like the Chinese garden, the Nitobe, designed by a Japanese landscape architect, is quite formal, but otherwise they are very different, and it is fascinating to discover the contrasts between them. The Chinese garden is an exotic fantasy, a dream world; the Japanese, a more subtle reshaping of the natural world. The first amuses; the other soothes.

As a printed guide describes it, you enter the Nitobe "at the island of creation," the start of a journey through life. The island "is shaped like a turtle, the mythological carrier of the spirit, and to the right is the dark journey through birth, and then into childhood -- up a steep and difficult path for some and a short, pleasant path for others." The trail continues onward in a circular route through adolescence to old age, where a resting bench awaits among a cluster of shrubs, "a corner of tranquility."

As you leave the botanical gardens, visit the university's Museum of Anthropology, interesting both architecturally and for its respected collection of Northwest Coast Indian artifacts. A featured exhibit in the Great Hall is a curious, bearlike creature with a grinning, canine face. Carved by a Haida Indian artist from the base of a large red cedar tree, it crouches, as if ready to spring -- a frightening appearance, since it is as huge as any bear alive.

The museum's entire western face is a staggered succession of tall glass panels, looking out upon the painted totem poles and rebuilt wood structures of a Haida village. Beyond are the cliffs of Grey Point and the Strait of Georgia. The view is excellent.

For a close-in adventure, drive (or take a city bus) across Lions Gate Bridge at the tip of Stanley Park to North Vancouver. A pair of aerial tramways carries sightseers on an eight-minute ride up the wooded slopes of Grouse Mountain to the summit -- to ski in the winter and enjoy the views the rest of the year.

Nearby is the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a commercial tourist attraction dating from 1899 that remains exciting -- or scary, if you have a fear of high places. The bridge, about one and a half times longer than a football field, spans the rugged canyon of the Capilano River, a cascade popular with white-water rafters.

A true suspension bridge of wire rope and wood decking, it hangs a dizzying 25 stories above the canyon's rocks and trees. At that height, every bounce of the bridge -- it sways, too -- takes your breath away. A lot of paying customers turn back before they have made it even a quarter of the way across.sw sk

One of Vancouver's most agreeable places -- this one is safely on the ground -- is Granville Island, actually a small peninsula thrusting into False Creek, just south of the downtown area near the Expo grounds. It is a colorful daytime and nightime pleasure garden of cafe's, pubs, shops and theaters that has grown up among the rambling warehouses of a one-time dumpy industrial neighborhood.

You can get there by bus, taxi or False Creek ferry, shuttling continuously from the southern end of Burrard Street next to the Vancouver Aquatic Centre. Take the little ferry; it's the most fun.

The heart of Granville is the huge Public Market, open Tuesday through Sunday, where Vancouver residents throng for fresh Fraser Valley vegetables, fruit, flowers, local fish and baked goods. A visitor can quickly fill a picnic basket at the market -- you will find a water-view spot to rest -- or lunch at one of the fine cafe's. Bridges has good chowder, good service and very good views of the marina.

Perhaps the most-popular shop is For Kids Only, a two-story bright-yellow former warehouse that is full of boutiques selling only items for the youngsters: clothes, toys, balloons, comic books, records, popcorn, candy and ice cream. It is as busy as a three-ringed circus, and just as appealing.

A few steps away is Blackberry Books, an excellent source for guidebooks and picture souvenir books to the island, the city, the province and the country.

Grown-ups may want to duck into the spotless Granville Island Brewery for a tour. A very small operation, it makes a choice lager ("Island Lager") and a darker bock beer ("Island Bock"), both without preservatives or chemicals. All the pubs on the island, and elsewhere in the city, sell them.

On any tour of Vancouver, the time comes eventually to relax. If you haven't sampled too many Island Lagers already, head at sunset for the Cascades Lounge of the elegant new Pan Pacific Vancouver on Burrard Inlet. It is one of the best places for -- what else? -- yet another stunning view of glorious outdoor Vancouver.