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 water 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 hosted 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 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 under 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, excellent restaurants, one superb museum and, despite being home to BC’s oldest Chinatown, 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, and attractive beaches make them great places in which to catch your breath for a few days.
Vancouver Island’s main attraction is the outdoors and whale-watching, an activity which can be pursued from Victoria, Tofino, Ucluelet, Telegraph Coveand 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 Tofino and the 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 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.
The Cariboo is the name given to the broad, rolling ranching country and immense forests of British Columbia’s interior plateau, which extend north of Lillooet between Fraser River to the west and Cariboo Mountains to the east. The region contains marvellous pastoral scenery, and much of the interest it offers – in addition to fishing and boating on thousands of remote lakes – comes from its gold-mining heritage. Initially exploited by fur traders to a small degree, the region was fully opened up following the discovery of gold in 1858 in the lower Fraser Valley. The building of the Cariboo Wagon Road, a stagecoach route north out of Lillooet, spread gold fever right up the Fraser watershed as men leapfrogged from creek to creek, culminating in the big finds at Williams Creek and Barkerville in 1861.
Much of the old Wagon Road is today retraced by Hwy-97 (the Cariboo Hwy), which runs through pine forests and past the occasional ranch and small, marsh-edged lake.
Northern Vancouver Island
It’s a moot point where the north of Vancouver Island starts, but if you’re travelling on Hwy-19 the landscape’s sudden lurch into more unspoilt wilderness after Qualicum Beach makes as good a watershed as any. From the road, the scenery is uneventful but restful on the eye, and graced with ever-improving views of the mainland. Along Hwy-19 lies the hamlet of Buckley Bay (43km north of Qualicum Beach), which consists of little more than a ferry terminal to Denman and Hornby Islands.
Few of the towns along Hwy-19 require major sightseeing, and you could bus or drive the length of Vancouver Island to Port Hardy and take the Inside Passage or Discovery Coast Passage ferry, which are among the top experiences of any visit to BC. Both journeys are a great – and cheap – way of getting what people on the big cruise ships get: views of some of the grandest coastal scenery on the continent, including mountains, islands, waterfalls, glaciers, sea lions, whales and eagles. Alternatively, you could follow the main highway only as far as Courtenay, and from there catch a ferry across to the mainland. Yet if you have the means, try to get into the wild, central interior, much of it contained within Strathcona Provincial Park.
Dominated by copper mining, a large fishing fleet and the usual logging concerns, PORT HARDY, 485km from Victoria and 230km from Campbell River, is best known as the departure point for ships plying one of the more spectacular stretches of the famous Inside Passage to Prince Rupert (and on to Alaska) and the Discovery Coast Passage.
If you have time to kill waiting for boats, you could visit the Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre at 8400 Byng Rd, just off Hwy-19 almost opposite the Pioneer Inn.
The visitor centre at 7250 Market St also has details on the immense wilderness of Cape Scott Provincial Park, whose interior is accessible only by foot and which is supposed to have some of the most consistently bad weather in the world (and some of the most voracious biting insects). As a short taster you could follow the forty-minute hike from the small campsite and trailhead at San Josef River to some sandy beaches. Increasingly popular, but demanding and requiring between four to seven hours plus, is the historic Cape Scott Trail, part of a complex web of trails early Danish pioneers hacked from the forest. Around 28km has been reclaimed, opening a trail to the cape itself.
The Discovery Coast Passage
The Discovery Coast Passage (summer only) offers many of the scenic rewards of the Inside Passage, but over a shorter and more circuitous route between Port Hardy and Bella Coola, where you can pick up Hwy-20 through the Coast Mountains to Williams Lake – it goes nowhere else. En route, the boat stops at Bella Bella, Shearwater, Klemtu and Ocean Falls. You can disembark at all of these places, but there are only a handful of accommodation options among them. Bella Coola is better equipped, and will probably become more so as the route gains popularity.
The Inside Passage
One of Canada’s great trips, between Port Hardy and Prince Rupert on the BC mainland, the Inside Passage makes a good leg in any number of convenient itineraries around BC, especially by linking up with the Greyhound bus network (1 800 661 8747, greyhound.ca) or the VIA Rail terminal at Prince Rupert (1 888 842 7245, viarail.ca). Some travellers will have come from Washington State, others will want to press on from Prince Rupert to Skagway by boat and then head north into Alaska and the Yukon on the Alaska Marine ferry. Many simply treat it as a cruise, sailing north one day and south the next. It’s vital to book accommodation at your final destination before starting your trip; Port Hardy and Prince Rupert hotels are very busy on days when the boat arrives.
Strathcona Provincial Park
Established in 1911, Strathcona Provincial Park is Vancouver Island’s largest protected area, and the oldest park in BC. It’s also where the scenery approaches the grandeur of the mainland mountains. The island’s highest point, Golden Hinde (2220m) is here, and there’s a good chance of seeing rare indigenous wildlife such as the Roosevelt elk, marmot and black-tailed deer. Only two areas have facilities for visitors – Forbidden Plateau on the park’s eastern side, and the more popular Buttle Lakeregion, accessible from Campbell River via Hwy-28. The rest of the park is wilderness, but fully open to backpackers and hardier walkers.
You’ll see numerous pictures of Della Falls around Campbell River which, at 440m, are Canada’s highest, though it takes a two-day trek to see them via Port Alberni.
Hiking in Strathcona Provincial Park
Hiking is superb in Strathcona, with a jaw-dropping scenic combination of jagged mountains – including Golden Hinde (2220m) – lakes, rivers, waterfalls and forest. There are several shorter, marked trails accessible from the highway. All the longer trails can be tramped in a day, though the most popular, the Elk River Trail (10km), which starts from Drum Lake on Hwy-28, lends itself to an overnight stop; popular with backpackers because of its gentle grade, the path ends up at Landslide Lake, an idyllic camping spot. The other highly regarded trail is the Flower Ridge walk, a steep 14km round-trip (extendable by 10km) that starts at the southern end of Buttle Lake and involves a very stiff 1250m elevation gain. The same lung-busting ascent is called for on the Crest Mountain Trail (10km round-trip), a trail into high mountain country accessed from Hwy-28 at the park’s western edge. The backpacking is great once you’ve hauled up onto the summit ridges above the tree-line.
In the Forbidden Plateau area, the most popular trek is the Forbidden Plateau Skyride to the summit of Wood Mountain where there’s a 2km trail to a viewpoint over Boston Canyon.
Tiny TELEGRAPH COVE is a likeable place 8km before you reach Port McNeill, accessed via a paved side road. One of BC’s “boardwalk villages”, the whole community – formerly a lone telegraph office, then a 1920s sawmill village – is raised on wooden stilts over the water. In summer, its historic character is somewhat diluted by a heavy tourist influx.
The enclave is one of the island’s premier whale-watching spots, the main attraction being the pods of killer whales that calve locally. Some nineteen of these families live or visit Robson Bight, 20km down the Johnstone Strait, which was established as an ecological reserve in 1982 (the whales like the gravel beaches, where they come to rub). This is the world’s most accessible and reliable spot to see the creatures – with around a ninety percent chance in season (mid-June to Oct).
Routes and itineraries
Vancouver is at the hub of transport links to many parts of western Canada. 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 Tacoma Airport in the US, which is fifty minutes by plane or around three hours by bus 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 one hour thirty 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.
The Sea to Sky Highway
One of the world’s most picturesque drives, the Sea to Sky Highway, as Hwy-99 is rather lyrically known, takes you from Vancouver to Whistler along a mostly two-lane highway which scores in its coastal stretches, where the road clings perilously to an almost sheer cliff and mountains come dramatically into view on both sides of Howe Sound.
Throughout winter the section between Pemberton and Lillooet, the Duffy Lake Road, is nail-biting and often impassable, though the drive is a stunner, with wonderful views of lakes and glaciers. Regular buses (see BC, Calgary and the Canadian Rockies) connect Vancouver and Whistler (Greyhound continues on to Pemberton), which you can easily manage as a day-trip.
The sea views and coastal drama end 11km beyond Britannia Beach at SQUAMISH, beautifully framed by snow-capped mountains, and known for its excellent climbing, windsurfing, biking, paddling and hiking. The town is famed for the vast granite rock overshadowing it, “The Stawamus Chief”, which looms into view to the east just beyond Shannon Falls. The Chief is the world’s second-biggest free-standing rock (after Gibraltar). The town rates as one of Canada’s top – if not the top – spot for rock climbing. Around 200,000 climbers from around the world come here annually, swarming to more than four hundred routes covering the 700m monolith: the University Wall and its culmination, the Dance Platform, is rated Canada’s toughest climb.
The rock is sacred to the local Squamish Nation, whose ancient tribal name – which means “Mother of the wind” – gives a clue as to the town’s second big activity: windsurfing. There are strong, consistent winds, but the water is cold, so a wet suit is
a good idea (there are rental outlets around town). The area is run by the Squamish Windsports Society (wsquamishwindsports.com) and is 3km from town.
Rounding out Squamish’s outdoor activities is the tremendous mountain-biking terrain – there are over a hundred trails in the area ranging from gnarly single-track routes to readily accessible deactivated forestry roads. The best areas are the Valley Cliff Trails (stream-bed, single-track and woodland trails); Mamquam Forest Service roads (active logging roads with fine views of the Mamquam Glacier); the Cat Lake and Brohm Lake trails; and the Alice Lake trails, which include an abandoned railway
for an easy ride.
The fortunes of sleepy Squamish changed with the opening of the excellent Sea to Sky Gondola in 2014, a superb attraction which has opened up the scenic hiking trails around the alpine areas of Mount Habrich, Sky Pilot Mountain and Goat Ridge through numerous backcountry trails which were previously only accessible to iron-thighed individuals. Don’t miss the Spirit Trail loop, which tells the story of the Squamish Nation and their relationship to the land through interpretive panels.
The Southern Gulf Islands
Scattered between Vancouver Island and the mainland lie several hundred tiny islands, most no more than lumps of rock, a few large enough to hold permanent populations and warrant a regular ferry service. Two main clusters are accessible from Victoria: the Southern Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands, both part of the same archipelago, except that the San Juan group is in the United States.
You get a good look at the Southern Gulf Islands on the seaplanes from Vancouver or on the ferry from Tsawwassen – twisting and threading through their coves and channels. The coastline makes for superb sailing, and an armada of small boats crisscrosses between the islands for most of the year. Hikers and campers are also well served, and fishing is good, with the surrounding waters holding some of the world’s biggest salmon. The climate is mild and the vegetation is particularly lush. There’s also an abundance of marine wildlife (sea lions, orcas, seals, bald eagles, herons, cormorants). All this has made the Gulf Islands the dream idyll of many people from Washington State and BC, whether they’re artists, writers, pensioners or dropouts from the mainstream. For full details of what’s happening on the islands, grab a copy of the Gulf Islander, distributed on the islands and the ferries.
Salt Spring Island
SALT SPRING (pop. 10,000) is the biggest, most settled and most visited of the islands – its population triples in summer. Most enjoyment on Salt Spring, as with the other Gulf Islands, is to be had from sinking back into its laidback approach to life: grabbing a coffee at a café overlooking the water, browsing galleries, cycling the backroads or hiking the odd easy trail. If you’re without transport, however, you may want to think twice about coming here as a day-trip, as getting around is pretty tough, although a public bus service has recently begun operation.
The Sunshine Coast
A mild-weathered stretch of sandy beaches, rugged headlands and peaceful inlets running northwest of Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast offers some of western Canada’s best diving, boating and fishing. A popular spot for soft adventure and hiking, the Sunshine Coast Trail offers Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hike. The only tract of accessible coastline on mainland British Columbia, it’s a possible springboard to Vancouver Island: ferries depart from Powell River, the coast’s largest town, to Comox (on the Island). Most people on short trips make the run to Powell River and then turn tail for Vancouver – there is no alternative route back to the city unless you fly, but there’s plenty to see and do and the coastal journey offers beautiful scenery both ways. Although Hwy-101 ends in Lund, it’s no end of the road, as it’s a jumping-off point to access renowned Marine Park, Desolation Sound and Savary Island. If you are just coming out from Vancouver for the day, note that you will need to make ferry crossings en route: the first is from Horseshoe Bay, from there, it’s a short drive to Gibsons where you pick up Hwy-101 for the 79km run along the coast to Earl’s Cove, and the beautiful (and slightly longer) crossing to Saltery Bay, where the boat provides views of some fine maritime landscapes. The road continues 35km to Powell River before ending 23km later at the picturesque village of Lund.
Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park
Pristine and poetically named, Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park, about 10km north of Lund, offers some of Canada’s best boating and scuba diving, plus fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau called the Strait of Georgia “the best temperate water diving in the world, second only to the Red Sea”, and touring the sound by boat you’ll come across an eye-opening array of colourful sea stars, sea cucumbers and bull kelp, all in open water fringed by green mountains. There’s no road access to the park, but a number of local outfitters run tours to it and can rent all the equipment you could possibly need.
At the very northern end of Hwy-101 – which starts in Puerto Montt, Chile, making it one of the western hemisphere’s longest continuous routes – lies the hamlet of LUND, 28km up the coast from Powell River. This little community is blessed with a breathtaking harbour and an edge-of-the-earth feel. A wooden boardwalk traverses the village, which has a tempting bakery and a handful of art galleries. It will only take you a few minutes to walk the length of Lund, which sees few visitors, its lonesome tranquillity only adding to its charm.