5 Reasons to Visit British Columbia that Have Nothing to Do With the Olympics
Even if you’re not a sports nut, you’ve probably heard that the 2010 Winter Olympics are in Vancouver, British Columbia. (This fact has been drilled into your head especially hard if you live in or near British Columbia.)
I don’t doubt that there are people all over the world – people who are not athletes or related to athletes – who’ve been planning their BC trips ever since the Vancouver location was announced. But I’m not an Olympics junkie.
So instead of thinking of all the Olympics-related events in and around Vancouver come next February/March, I’m focused on all the exceptionally cool things about BC that people who pay attention only to the games will miss.
To be fair, there are places in British Columbia (especially in the north) that won’t be fun during the games. They’ll be “cool,” but not in the good sense of the word. So while I’m making this a list of great reasons to visit British Columbia that have nothing to do with the Olympics, I’m not suggesting that you should do these things in the dead of winter. That would be silly. Olympics junkies, I suggest you take this list as an open invitation to return to BC next summer.
(Everyone else, make your BC summer travel plans now before the Olympics junkies reserve everything.)
5 Great Reasons to Visit BC (Besides the Olympics)
1. The tourism department kicks ass.
What happens when a city wins an Olympics bid? If they’re smart, they splash out gobs of money on things that’ll last (and serve a purpose) well beyond the games. In addition to things like building the Olympic Village and building or renovating places where the various events will be held, the clever folks at BC Tourism beefed up their services throughout the province.
Some of their efforts may not last too far beyond the Olympics (like the longer hours at Tourist Information offices, some open until 9pm), but the brand-new TI buildings and top-notch travel guides are, I’d guess, here to stay. As long as you’ve got a branch or two of BC Tourism along your route, there’s almost no need to have a guidebook – they’ve got detailed magazine-like guides for each region of the province, not to mention friendly and helpful staff at each office.
And I’m seriously in love with their slogan, too – “Super, Natural British Columbia.” Well done, advertising people. You nailed it with that one.
2. The people in British Columbia are some of the nicest on the planet.
When I got back from Scotland, I announced that the Scots were the warmest people on earth. And I still think they’re right up there. But I now think they might have some competition from the folks in BC (not counting the dummy in the picture, of course). Given the amount of money BC had clearly spent on their TIs, I actually wondered at some point if every single resident of the province hadn’t been put on some kind of payroll – it’s like they all work for the chamber of commerce.
You don’t have to stand on a street corner holding a map and looking lost, all you have to do is wear a smile and a local is bound to come up and start a conversation with you – and, in the process of just being friendly, dole out some great travel tips as well. British Columbians (I’m guessing here, I have no idea what they call themselves) are proud of the place they call home, and with good reason, but their level of openness was notable.
They make you feel welcome. They make you feel instantly like family. They want you to love BC like they do. And it works.
3. Haida Gwaii. That is all.
Since a stay on the islands of Haida Gwaii was the main purpose of my recent visit to British Columbia, and since it not only didn’t disappoint but exceeded all expectations, I now think it’s a place everyone should go once in their lives. This archipelago off the northern coast of BC (called the Queen Charlotte Islands by most of the world, but Haida Gwaii – meaning “land of the Haida people” – by the people whose opinions, in my opinion, count most) can be challenging to reach, especially by water, and even during the summer. The rewards for those who make the effort, however, are great.
Haida Gwaii may be most famous for the ancient (and slowly disintegrating back into the earth) Haida village sites dotting the islands, one of which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But even without a field trip to one of those sites, there are good reasons to spend time on the islands. There’s the excellent Haida Heritage Centre, which features not only superb examples of Haida carving and art from many moons ago but also a carving shed where Haida artists are continually working on new totems. And you don’t have to be a bird watcher to get a kick out of seeing what can only be described as herds of bald eagles and ravens all over the place. I kept wondering why people weren’t more excited about all the bald eagles until I remembered it wasn’t their national bird.
But even beyond the sights and physical things that make Haida Gwaii worth visiting, there’s a peacefulness on the islands – there’s a sense of calm, and the feeling that you’re very far away from, well, everything. It’s the kind of thing that permeates the skin. When you hear over and over again that “such-and-such a place will change you,” you’re bound to scoff (I did). But I get it now, and I firmly believe what I was told a few times before I went myself: Haida Gwaii will change you.
4. The food in British Columbia can be downright fantastic.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I heard “British Columbia” I didn’t immediately think “great cuisine.” (Maybe it’s the word “British” that’s doing the damage.) So imagine my surprise when nearly everywhere I went I was treated to excellent food made with fresh and local ingredients.
Sure, in some places that meant a big plate of fries piled high with battered and fried fish, but it was – and I’m not joking – some of the best fish & chips I’ve had in my life. I didn’t ask how long ago that fish had been breathing (wait, do fish breathe?), but given the proximity much of the province has to water, it couldn’t have been long between that fish’s last breath and when it became my lunch.
In a hand-built cottage-cum-restaurant on Haida Gwaii, I had the best fish chowder on earth and a salad made from stuff that had been picked moments before it was served. In the Okanagan Valley, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh produce, with fruit and veg stands lining the roads, and I don’t need to tell wine lovers about the embarrassment of riches the vineyards in that area produce.
In short, half the time even when you’re expecting typical ho-hum diner food, it turns out to be great. And if you’re seeking out even reasonably good restaurants, you don’t have to look too hard to find pretty wonderful meals.
>>read how you can eat your way around Vancouver
5. There’s an even better view around the corner from the one you just gushed over.
The trip that recently brought me through BC was a road trip I took with my mother – a trip that had been talked about and loosely planned for years. My mother’s a good photographer, but I’m convinced one of the reasons she brought me along was as the trip’s “official photographer,” so she could just point at something and say, “Oh, take a picture of that, please.” Which she did. And which I was happy to do.
But perhaps my favorite moments as the “official photographer” came during our drives from one place to another, along often recently-paved and nearly-empty highways tucked between impossibly and ruggedly beautiful vistas, when one of us would sigh at the loveliness of the view. Such a declaration was dangerous, as it was typically followed by a sudden decrease in speed as the driver would flick on the hazard lights and pull over to the side of the road (these were highways, remember) so I could jump out of the car and take pictures.
It became somewhat comical – especially because (and here we are, getting to the title of this item finally) there was inevitably something more stunning and photo-worthy just around the corner from the view that had, moments before, been the prettiest thing ever. And yes, we’d screech to a halt again and hop out of the car for more pictures.
As a side note, remember #2 above, the thing about the super-nice locals? One late-night photo-op caused a driver coming in the opposite direction to zip across four lanes of the highway (all empty, mind you) to pull over beside us and find out if we were okay. “Yes, fine thanks, just taking pictures of all the pretty.” I said, sheepishly.
>>plan one of the 7 great American road trips for a long weekend
But wait, there’s more…
I’m barely scratching the surface here when it comes to all the reasons to visit British Columbia. I haven’t mentioned all the cool islands around Vancouver Island, or the already-well-known cities like Victoria, or the excellent BC Ferries, or the portion of the Inside Passage that isn’t Alaska. I’m leaving out Smithers, the town name I always had to say with my best “Simpsons” impression and which then proved to be more gorgeous than funny, and Prince Rupert, which was not only perfectly adorable but was also where I had the best coffee of the entire trip.
In short, although I’m only recently back from my sojourn north, I’m already trying to figure out a reason to plan a return trip. Which is what you should be doing – Olympics or no.
>> If you’re planning a trip, be sure to check out the official BC Tourism website, as it’s nearly as wonderful as BC itself. And before you ask, no – BC Tourism had nothing to do with my trip or this article. I went to British Columbia on an honest-to-goodness vacation, told almost no one that I’m a travel writer, didn’t ask for (or get) discounts in exchange for anything, and haven’t contacted BC Tourism since I got home. I simply loved it up there and was treated amazingly well, simply because I was a visitor with an interest in BC.
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About the Author
Jessica Spiegel is a staff writer at BootsnAll who typically only gushes with this much enthusiasm about Italy (for evidence, just check the pages of the Italy travel guide she writes for BnA), but who found so much to love about British Columbia that she’s eager to share it with others.
all photos in this article by Jessica Spiegel & may not be used without permission