The booming city of Vancouver on the west coast of Canada is British Columbia’s biggest attraction. Each year over 10 million people visit the city, but far fewer explore beyond its forested North Shore or the Pacific Coast horizon. Just a short drive from the city you'll find mountains, lakes, vineyards, islands and inlets to explore, and a fascinating First Nations culture to understand. Here’s 7 brilliant things to do in British Columbia.
With the coronavirus pandemic still holding sway around the globe, nature activities – in the great outdoors – are likely to be popular for the rest of the year and into 2021. That's good news for British Columbia, which is famed for its dramatic wilderness areas, pine-clad islands and snowy peaks. If you're basing yourself in the city, there's plenty of day trips from Vancouver, too.
1. Drive the Sea to Sky Highway
Jump in a car – an SUV is the ride of choice for most Vancouverites – and leave the city behind you on the epic Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler and beyond. Otherwise known as Highway 99, this spectacular winding route takes you ever higher from the shores of Howe Sound to the coastal mountain ranges.
What to do and see: Various stops along the way include the Sea to Sky Gondola with its sweeping views and alpine hiking trails. Keep your eyes peeled for Cultural Journey interpretive kiosks to learn about the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations.
Where to stay: There are plenty of fabulous places to stay to break up the drive. The Crash Hotel Squamish, around the midway point to Whistler, is trendy from start to finish, decked out with plenty of wood, slick bathrooms and some colourful artwork. In Pemberton, opt for Sweetwater Lane Farm B&B, a home from home set in spectacular mountain scenery.
The Sea to Sky Highway out of Vancouver © EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock
2. Ski and snowboard in Whistler
Whistler is consistently named as one of the world’s best ski resorts – it has the dual mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb and a swish resort village nestled at 2214ft. On opening day of the winter season queues for the lifts stretch through town, but every other day in Whistler is mellow and easygoing. Though most choose to spend a good chunk of time on the slopes, skiing makes a perfectly doable day excursion from Vancouver.
What to see and do: Synonymous with skiing and snowboarding, Whistler is king of snow sports. But don't let that put you off if winter pursuits aren't your bag. In the warmer months, you can tackle downhill mountain bike trails and hundreds of hiking trails with views of glaciers and alpine forests, and you might be lucky enough to see a black bear, or even a grizzly. Or – if you just want to put your feet up – there are several classy spas and wellness centres to choose from.
Where to stay: Whistler is full to the rafters with plush hotels, luxurious resorts and characterful lodges. For all the facilities you'd expect of a big-name brand, plump for Delta Hotels by Marriott Whistler Village Suites – there's an outdoor pool, three hot tubs, a fitness centre and dry sauna. Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel Whistler has similar facilities with a more personal touch, while those wanting their own space should book at Glaciers Reach by Allseason Vacation Rentals. All apartments come with a private hot tub, so you can bubble the hours away in peace.
Skiing at Whistler Blackcomb © Alexfe/Shutterstock
3. Hike the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is Vancouver Island’s biggest draw (the island is a 3-hour car and ferry ride or short flight away from downtown Vancouver). The park incorporates the three distinct units of Long Beach, Broken Group Islands (accessible only by water) and one of the most popular hikes in British Columbia, the 75km multi-day West Coast Trail. Tofino and Ucluelet are two major hubs that both get very busy in the summer months, so consider visiting in the off season when formidable winter gales whip up 20ft-high waves.
What to see and do: Wild and undeveloped and with swathes of old growth rainforest and often deserted beaches, the Pacific Rim surf breaks are legendary and storm watching de rigueur. Hiking and kayaking are also popular here, while there's plenty of First Nations culture to soak up, too.
Where to stay: If you don't fancy camping out inside the park itself, there are some cute guesthouse options where you can spot wildlife in comfort. In Ucluelet, make for the Wild Pacific Bed and Breakfast or Ocean Mist Guesthouse; both are homely spots.
The Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island © Carrie Cole/Shutterstock
4. Visit the remote islands of Haida Gwaii
The archipelago of Haida Gwaii is a two-hour flight north from Vancouver or a scenic two-day drive to Prince Rupert and then a ferry (eight hours). Getting here might be one of the more expensive things to do in British Columbia, but it’s worth every penny. The stresses of the modern world seem far away in Haida Gwaii’s pristine and wild landscapes.
What to see and do: Kayaking, beachcombing, wildlife watching, fishing and surfing are the only pressures on your time in Haida Gwaii. Explore the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and you’ll gain a fascinating insight into Haida First Nations culture. The islands have been inhabited for more than 12,500 years and abandoned village sites and mouldering totem poles are a potent reminder of recent history.
Where to stay: As befits such a remote corner of British Columbia, accommodation options are thin on the ground on the islands, which are all the better for it. Try Duffy's Cottages and Suites, Sunrise Cabin or Misty Harbour Inn in the village of Charlotte.
An aboriginal canoe on the shores of the Haida Gwaii Islands © Linda Szeto/Shutterstock
5. Head to Shuswap to explore First Nations culture
Visitors to British Columbia are likely to learn about the culture and traditions of Coast Salish peoples (who traditionally occupied the Northwest Pacific Coast), but the Shuswap (roughly covering the environs of Shuswap Lake, including Little Shuswap and Adams Lake) is a great place for an introduction to Interior Salish peoples.
What to see and do: Aside from soaking up the area's First Nations culture, the nearby Tsútswecw Provincial Park (formerly Roderick-Haig) is the best spot to see one of the largest salmon runs in North America; dominant years (every four) have been marked by Europeans since 1958, but by First Nations for thousands of years. Between late September and late October, millions of Sockeye salmon travel 500km from the Pacific Ocean to the Adams River, turning bright red as they swim upstream to their freshwater spawning grounds.
Where to stay: Quaaout Lodge has an enviable lakeside spot in Skwlax (Squilax) territory and they have a cultural coordinator who leads storytelling and foraging tours and can arrange canoe trips with Mocassin Trails, an inspiring new First Nations-owned tour company.
The clear waters of Shuswap Lake © Vaclav Skrivanek/Shutterstock
6. Sip Riesling at the wineries in the Okanagan
With more than 300 vineyards – many of which have won international awards – wine tasting in the Okanagan Valley is one of the essential things to do in British Columbia. Just outside the city limits of Kamloops in the Thompson Okanagan (northern Okanagan) is a burgeoning area with a unique arid terroir; the hoodoos on the side of the highway are more Southwest USA than Canada. Harper’s Trail Estate Winery was the first winery in Kamloops (their Riesling is an essential purchase) and Monte Creek Ranch Winery produce a wonderful Pinot Noir (ask about the story behind the “Hands Up” label).
Further south in the lake country around Kelowna are more established wineries including Summerhill and their organic bistro (the pyramid built according to the ratios of sacred geometry is a talking point) and Mission Hill Family Estate (the Bordeaux-inspired Oculus 2012 was good enough for Prince Willian and Kate Middleton on their 2016 visit). Finally, on to Penticton and its rolling orchards and vineyards to visit Hillside and sample their signature Muscat during lunch at their delectable bistro.
What to see and do: The Okanagan Valley is home to some truly stunning scenery, with aqua lakes flanked by mountains striped with green vines. The beaches and waterways bring boaters and swimmers, while hiking, biking and skiing are popular here, too. Oh, and did we mention wine tasting?
Where to stay: To stay lakeside with all the facilities under the Canadian sun – and your very own wine bar – book a room at the Walnut Beach Resort. In downtown Kelowna, the luxurious Delta Hotels Grand Okanagan Resort has a picturesque lakeside setting and an extensive Okanagan Valley wine list. For somewhere a little more down to earth, pick the Absolute Beach B&B, also in Kelowna. Friendly staff, a heritage building and the fact that the property opens straight onto the sandy shores is temptation enough for us.
Vines growing in the Okanagan Valley © Nalidsa/Shutterstock
7. Bike the Kettle Valley Rail Trail
A silver strike in the Kootenays region in the 1880s meant that a link from the BC interior to Vancouver and the coast was suddenly needed. In 1915, the Kettle Valley Railway linking the towns of Castlegar and Hope was completed. By the time the railway corridor was abandoned from the 1960s onwards, locals were using it as an unofficial recreation area. Today, various sections of the Kettle Valley Rail Trail are open to cyclists.
What to see and do: The stunning 80km between Myra Canyon and Penticton is the highlight. It’s here that the railroad passes over a series of vertiginous trestles before the cruise down to Chute Lake and the town of Penticton. It’s true wilderness: the trail can be rough going and bears are sometimes in the area.
Where to stay: In Penticton, Wesbert Winery & Guest Suites offers exceptionally good value, while umpteen patrons of Slumber Lodge report on the comfy beds: if it's a deep slumber you're after, look no further.
The kettle Valley Rail Trail bike path © Amy K. Mitchell/Shutterstock
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