Vancouver and Vancouver Island stand apart from the rest of British Columbia, the big-city outlook and bustling, cosmopolitan streets of Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest metropolis, and Victoria, the provincial capital, dramatically at odds with the interior’s small towns, remote villages and vast tracts of wilderness. While Vancouver Island has scenery that occasionally matches that of the interior, its landscapes are generally more modest, the island’s intimate and self-contained nature and relatively small extent creating a region that feels more sea-based than the rest of mainland BC.
Vancouver is one of the world’s great scenic cities, its watery and mountain-ringed setting equalling those of Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. Long after the many fine galleries and museums, and the even better restaurants, have faded, the memory of the Coast Mountains rearing above Burrard Inlet, or the beaches and semi-wilderness of Stanley Park, will linger. Vancouver is also a sophisticated and hedonistic city, having more in common with the West Coast ethos and outlook of San Francisco than, say, Toronto or Ottawa to the east.
With all its natural advantages, it is no wonder most of Vancouver is booming, the Downtown core growing rapidly in a wave of gleaming new condominiums; the city’s eastern fringes, however, remain grittier and, in places, downright impoverished. The boom, and Vancouver’s enhanced international profile, received an additional boost after the city was awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics, the honour in no small part due to the proximity of Whistler, 125km north of Vancouver, a modern centre for winter sports, hiking, golf and, above all, mountain biking (the resort now has as many summer as winter visitors). Beyond Whistler stretch the endless forests and ranch country of the Fraser Valley and Cariboo region, a largely untamed wilderness whose remote towns sprang up in the fever of the 1860s Gold Rush.
The Sea to Sky Highway (Hwy-99) to Whistler is one of two tempting obvious road excursions from Vancouver. The other is the 150km Sunshine Coast (Hwy-101), distinguished by stretches of fine coastal scenery, but experienced by most travellers only as far as Horseshoe Bay, one of several points of embarkation for ferries to Vancouver Island.
The proximity of Vancouver Island to Vancouver makes it one of western Canada’s premier tourist destinations. The largest of North America’s west-coast islands, it stretches almost 500km from north to south, but has a population of just 750,000, mostly concentrated around Victoria, whose small-town feel belies its role as BC’s second metropolis and provincial capital. Today, the city is considerably smaller than Vancouver, a comfortable and easy-going place of small-town values, a pretty waterfront, numerous gardens, excellent restaurants, one superb museum and a decidedly English ambience.
Most visitors to the island start in Victoria, easily reached by ferry or seaplane from Vancouver or nearby ferry terminals. Few break their journey en route between the cities, missing out on the Gulf Islands, an archipelago scattered across the Strait of Georgia between the mainland and Vancouver Island. If you have time, the islands’ laidback vibe, numerous small galleries, glorious seascapes and often bohemian population make them great places in which to catch your breath for a few days.
Vancouver Island’s main attraction is the outdoors and, increasingly, whale-watching, an activity which can be pursued from Victoria, Tofino, Ucluelet, Telegraph Cove and several other places on the island. The scenery is a mosaic of landscapes, principally defined by a central spine of snowcapped mountains that divide it between the rugged and sparsely populated wilderness of the west coast and the more sheltered lowlands of the east. Rippling hills characterize the northern and southern tips, and few areas are free of the lush forest mantle that supports one of BC’s most lucrative logging industries.
The beaches on Vancouver Island lure locals and tourists alike, while the magnificent seascapes of the unmissable Pacific Rim National Park and the mountainous vastness of Strathcona Provincial Park are the main destinations for most visitors. Both parks offer a panoply of outdoor activities, with hikers being particularly well served by the national park’s West Coast Trail, a demanding and very popular long-distance path. Of the visitors who venture farther north, most are either fishermen or whale-watchers, or those intending to catch a ferry from Port Hardy, linked by bus to Victoria, at the northern tip, along the Inside Passage or Discovery Passage to Prince Rupert or Bella Coola, two of western Canada’s most memorable journeys.Read More
Routes and itineraries
Routes and itineraries
Vancouver is at the hub of transport links to many parts of western Canada. Deciding where to move onward from the city – and how to go – presents a wealth of possibilities. The basic alternative routes and itineraries are listed here together with cross-references to more detailed accounts of the various options.
The Yukon and Alaska
You can fly to Whitehorse in the Yukon directly from Vancouver. Air Canada (w aircanada.com) has nonstop flights from Vancouver to Anchorage, Alaska. For air travel to a greater variety of Alaskan destinations, head to the Seattle airport in the US. Flying to Seattle or taking a bus to Sea-Tac Airport takes around three hours from Downtown or the Vancouver airport. You can drive to Alaska through southern BC to Dawson Creek, where you can pick up the Alaska Hwy, which runs through the Yukon to Fairbanks; allow at least three days. Alternatively, drive to Prince George, head west towards Prince Rupert and then strike north up the Cassiar Hwy to connect with the Alaska Hwy in the Yukon. By bus, you could take a Greyhound (t 1 800 661 8747, w greyhound.ca) to Prince George (one day), connecting with another Greyhound to Dawson Creek and Whitehorse (two days). Buses link Whitehorse with other Yukon and Alaskan destinations. To travel to Alaska by boat from Vancouver you need to go via Bellingham (in the US), Prince Rupert or Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
BC, Calgary and the Canadian Rockies
Two main roads strike east from Vancouver towards Alberta and the Canadian Rockies – the Trans-Canada Highway and Hwy-3, both served by regular Greyhound buses (t 1 800 661 8747, w greyhound.ca). Both give access to the Okanagan, and the Kootenays. VIA trains (t 1 888 842 7245, w viarail.ca) run three times weekly through the region via Kamloops to Jasper and Edmonton; there is no train service to Calgary. Buses serve the Cariboo region, in the central part of the province. Several itineraries can be put together by combining car or public transport journeys in the BC interior with BC Ferries’ connections from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island to either Bella Coola or Prince Rupert.
It takes about twelve hours to drive to Calgary on the Trans-Canada Hwy, and around ninety minutes less to reach Banff; Greyhound buses (t 1 800 661 8747, w greyhound.ca) operate over the same route. Frequent one-hour flights connect Vancouver and Calgary.