Go Outside: A Mini-Guide to British Columbia – British Columbia, Canada

A place has to be pretty confident to have a tag line on their license plates like “Beautiful British Columbia.” Neighboring Alberta makes a claim to be “Wild Rose Country,” but nothing as small as roses for BC; it’s beautiful, no argument allowed. Tourism BC goes for the slogan “Super, Natural British Columbia.” With that sort of hard sell, it’d be easy for the province to disappoint. But BC is beautiful, and natural, though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise on the road into town from Vancouver’s airport. Don’t let the dreary flatlands in Richmond fool you. Stocked with towering mountains, rushing rivers, temperate rainforest and peaceful island getaways, BC is an outdoorsman’s dream. If you like to do something outside, you can do it in BC: fishing, boating, hiking, camping, river-rafting, surfing, scuba-diving, bicycling, rock-climbing, and skiing, just to name a few.

The province does offer less in the way of entertainment for more indoorsy folk. You might hear Vancouver’s residents engaged in a never-ending debate about whether their hometown really is the “no-fun city.” The province is putting some money and effort into cultural attractions as the 2010 Vancouver/Whistler Olympics approaches, so over the next few years things may improve.

The weather in BC is one of the things that residents pride themselves on; compared to Canada’s east, winters here are mild, if rather wet. If you’re interested in trying out the ski-hills that will host the Olympics, January and February are strong months for the snowpack. Summer visitors will see less rain and some hot, sticky days; late May and early September both feature great weather and less tourists.

Getting There
Vancouver’s airport is known as YVR and is located in Richmond, a suburb just south of the city proper. There are shuttle buses into downtown Vancouver for $13; a taxi costs about $25; for $3.25, you can ride a public bus. Catch the 424 at the airport, which does a loop to Airport Station, where a number of buses are available. The fastest route into town is on a bus known as the 98 B-Line.

It’s possible to come to BC by train; VIA Rail, Canada’s train system, runs into Vancouver from Jasper, Alberta. Amtrak runs up from Seattle. Busses also run from Seattle and Alberta on Greyhound. Finally, there is a ferry that crosses from Port Angeles in Washington State to Victoria, on Vancouver Island.

Getting Around
Visiting BC in a car is the easiest way to get around, and for those hoping to see large areas of the province or get into the backwoods, one of the only ways. Budget, among other companies, rents cars in cities throughout the province. Be warned that driving in winter outside of the cities can be treacherous; the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which runs from Vancouver to Whistler, is notorious for punishing sloppy drivers, and the Coquihalla Highway, which runs into the Okanagan, is sometimes closed due to blizzard conditions — even in the middle of summer.

Greyhound Canada has a comprehensive network of stops throughout the province, although once in the interior or up Vancouver Island you may find it hard to reach some attractions without a vehicle of your own. Backpackers can enjoy the fun atmosphere on BC’s only youth tour bus, the Moose; it’s hop-on hop-off and itineraries include loops to Tofino, Whistler, and routes into Alberta across the Rockies, via Kelowna or Shuswap Lake.

While Air Canada is Canada’s major airline, Westjet is doing booming business as the discount carrier in Canada’s west. Between the two lines, most of the province is accessible by plane.

With such an extensive coastline, any visitor to BC will probably end up taking a boat to reach a destination at some point. The major route is Vancouver — Victoria on the BC Ferries, a scenic crossing that takes about an hour and a half. The same company runs smaller boats between a number of destinations in the Gulf Islands, northern Vancouver Island, and the Sunshine Coast. Taking your vehicle on the ferry will cost you (a lot) more than walking on, but it’s possible to take your car with you on island outings. Routes running up the Inside Passage and over to the Queen Charlotte Islands and Discovery Coast Passage are popular scenic trips. In March, 2006, the ferry that usually runs the Inside Passage route crashed and sank; at the time of writing, BC Ferries is working to restore service along the route, but there may be turmoil in scheduling and boat availability for sometime.

Major Services
There are medical centers in Victoria (on Courtney St.) and Vancouver (Denman St., to name just one); major banks, ATMs, money exchange and visitor information are available throughout both cities. The Canadian dollar is a good deal for many visitors, as it’s worth less than the American dollar or the Euro. Consulates are found in downtown Vancouver. Vancouver’s central library, downtown on Georgia St., has free Internet terminals, as well as being a tourist site in itself. You can’t miss it: it looks like the Roman Coliseum, and you may recognize it from a number of films and television shows.

See a complete listing of Vancouver’s many charms in the Bootsnall Mini-Guide to Vancouver.

Victoria has a bit of a reputation as a retirement town, and it certainly has a quaint, British feel that fits an older generation; but this isn’t just a place for those with a blue rinse; those with a blue-dyed mohawk would find the student and youth culture, driven by the nearby University of Victoria, appealing. It has less attitude than Vancouver, it’s definitely safer (it may be the safest large city in Canada) and it’s way less busy. Traffic here never qualifies as jammed. If you’ve taken the ferry over from Vancouver and take public transit into the city (bus #70, just outside the ferry terminal), you’ll get a dose of British right away: the bus is a double-decker.

Most of the major tourist attractions are in the small downtown core, along the waterfront at the Inner Harbour. Outlying suburbs like Oak Bay and Saanich are worth visiting on a scenic drive; the huge homes of the wealthy loom over the sea and a number of nice beaches mark the coast. There’s also Butchart Gardens, a must-see for many visitors. Adding to the natural beauty of the gardens are seasonal entertainment; over the Christmas holidays the grounds are decked in lights, while summer has weekend fireworks and music. A worthwhile daytrip from the city is to Sidney Spit, a sand isle just outside the small city of Sidney. A passenger ferry makes the trip out in summer; swim, sunbathe, explore the forested interior and end with a picnic.

Of the city’s central attractions, the Royal British Columbia Museum is the strongest; it gives visitors a wonderful sense of BC’s natural and social history. Just down the street, BC’s current history is formed at the Parliament Buildings; the building makes a nice postcard snapshot, but a visit inside isn’t necessary. Watching the politicians debate when legislature is in session is worth a giggle, although it’s a little depressing to watch grown men smack their desks and shriek like kindergarten students. For a break after the excitement, take a stroll in Beacon Hill Park, just south of the museum, or enjoy afternoon tea at the imposing Empress Hotel, Victoria’s most recognizable and luxurious landmark. A visit to either the Royal London Wax Museum or Miniature World is sure to make you feel like a tourist, so it may be best to avoid them and spend the afternoon outside; visit Cycle BC Rentals on Wharf Street, pick up a bike and meander down the Galloping Goose Trail which follows an old rail line from Victoria to Sooke.

Ocean Island Inn Backpackers is a funky, welcoming hostel located five minutes’ walk from the Empress Hotel and the Royal BC Museum; the front desk is open twenty-four hours a day, they sell cheap eats, and they run a number of good day tours, including one to the popular swimming holes in Sooke. Head here to find out which pubs and bars are hosting good local bands during your stay.

The Gulf Islands
When the ferry crosses from Vancouver to Victoria it spends a portion of the trip winding through a series of islands, affording those on the boat a glimpse of fir-clad hills, small lighthouses, sheltered bays and secluded cottages. The five largest of the Southern Gulf Islands — Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna — are accessible by ferry themselves, mainly from Victoria’s Swartz Bay terminal. The Gulf Islands Water Taxi also runs a passenger-only water shuttle between some of the islands during the summer. Two more islands, Denman and Hornby, are the highlights of the Northern Gulf Islands, which can be visited by a ferry from Buckley Bay, on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island.

The laid-back locals here are a treat; many people move to the Gulf Islands to find an easy escape from civilization’s pressures, and it shows in their lifestyles. On Wednesday nights in summer, visitors to Hornby Island should head to the Cardboard House Bakery with a picnic blanket and a peasant skirt. Folk musicians play a set on an impromptu stage in the orchard while locals dance and munch on pizza from the bakery. This outdoorsy community event is typical of island nightlife.

The sunny climes and gorgeous scenery have attracted a glut of artists; a day spent visiting galleries and artist’s studios on any of the islands would find a number of worthwhile buys. You may pass roadside stands filled with incredible watercolor paintings, find great buys on hand-thrown and painted pottery, or admire intricate driftwood carvings. The info centers on each island have lists of studios that are open to visit, but an aimless backroad drive may reveal a gem under a wooden sign saying “Handmade Soap” or “Metal Sculptures.” For a chance to see many of the artisans together at once, head to Salt Spring’s Saturday market, which begins in April and runs through October from 8:30-3:30. The market promises that everything there was made, baked, or grown by the vendors, so unlike markets where visitors are disappointed to see the same kitschy old goods, this one delivers both the fresh and the local.

As is true of the rest of the province, going outside is the best activity on the islands. Kayaking tours are available on most islands; seeing the islands from water level is spectacular, and sunset or moonlight tours are popular. The water is warm enough during the summer to enjoy swimming. Many beaches are the rocky type, so water shoes will save tender feet, but there are also some fantastic white sand options; Hornby’s Tribune Bay has a huge stretch of soft sand and a neighboring nude beach, while Saturna’s Winter Cove, part of the new Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, has good hiking to go with its sand beach. Since many of the islands rise steeply from the water, mountainous terrain is available for hiking and bicycling enthusiasts. Saltspring’s Mt. Maxwell is a good place for a walk, a view, and a sighting of Gary oaks, a species found only in BC’s seaside southwest.

Accommodation on the islands is plentiful, and many locals rent out an extra cottage or house, giving visitors temporary access to a vacation home of their own. B&Bs are numerous, each with their own local flavour — spa-style, evening meals with jazz musicians, or places with horseback-riding lessons are all available. Browse the Internet or call up the local information centre to find deals. Camping is a popular way to enjoy the weather here. Some hits include: Ruckle Provincial Park on Saltspring where a $14/night spot puts you in a beachside field at one of the island’s best parks; Mayne Island Eco Camping is $12 a night and has a hot tub; Brad’s Dad’s Land on Hornby Island has a great cliffside setting near the ferry dock.

Vancouver Island
If you’ve only got time for one part of Vancouver Island, head northwest to Pacific Rim National Park, where the full might of the Pacific Ocean crashes onto miles of sand, sometimes carrying glass fishing floats all the way from Japan. City-dwellers used to the continual roar of nighttime traffic will find the unbroken rush of the waves sounds almost familiar, but far more soothing. There are three parts to the National Park: Long Beach, the stretch of (long) beaches between the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet, is the most accessible, while the Broken Group Islands require a boat and camping gear to visit, and the popular West Coast Trail requires at least six days and a high degree of physical fitness.

Tofino is a good base for exploring Long Beach, although a number of nice resorts, including the very cushy Wickaninnish Inn, have set-ups right on the beach. Tofino’s HI hostel, Whalers on the Point Guesthouse, is regularly lauded as one of the best in the country. While you’re here think about taking a surf lesson; Long Beach is the best surf spot in Canada, with the waves consistent and strong. Pacific Surf School and Surf Sister are some of the companies that offer day and longer-term lessons. There’s a great day trip out of Tofino to Hot Springs Cove, where a series of natural hot springs are nestled in the rocks along the shoreline. The cold ocean waves fling up above the rocks and help cool heated visitors. Be warned — there’s a tradition of nudity here.

On the road down from Tofino to Long Beach there are a number of other nice beaches, including Mackenzie, Chesterman and Cox. These aren’t swimming beaches — the surf’s too strong, the water too cold — but are great for scenic walks; rocky tunnels that fill with the tide and deep canyons that hikers can navigate add to the sense of adventure, while constant wind has pressed the spruce trees back at an amusing forty-five degree angle from the beach. You may feel some sympathy for their lifelong battle when the keening wind presses against you. In the official park, Long beach, Combers Beach and Wickaninnish Beach are really giant stretch of sand, running for almost five miles. There’s good hiking here; Wickaninnish Trail, to Florencia Bay, covers the best variety in landscapes.

If you’re interested in visiting the Broken Islands, which are totally uninhabited by humans but allow minimal-impact camping on a few of the archipelago, the best way is to go with a kayaking tour. Wildheart Adventures run 4-day tours that cover the best of the islands. The West Coast Trail is a 45-mile trail along the coast that includes ladder climbs and rope bridges; you need a permit, which costs $90, and you’ll have to carry a week’s worth of food and camping gear. Having done it is a badge of honor among outdoors enthusiasts on the west coast.

If you like the sounds of the WCT but aren’t sure you’re prepared, the Juan de Fuca trail, north of Sooke, is about half the length and doesn’t require a permit. The scenery, however, is similar. For Vancouver Island hiking that doesn’t need a tent and won’t get you wet, head to Strathcona Provincial Park, in the center of the island, for some great day hikes.

Other Vancouver Island stopover spots include the beaches near Qualicum and Parksville; Campbell River, a good spot for fishing and family beach holidays; and Telegraph Cove, in the north, a great spot for whale-watching.

Mountain Tops
Along with Vancouver, the very popular city of Whistler will be the host for the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics. Regularly acknowledged as one of the best ski/snowboarding slopes in North America, it also suffers from overcrowding and long line-ups; the consensus among visitors is that the mountain’s pleasures are worth the small aggravations. Those not interested in the ski/snowboard scene (and even if you’re not, it’s worth it to pick up a lift ticket and a lesson during winter) could try cross-country skiing around the lakes, or visit in summer, when things aren’t as busy and you can enjoy a scenic gondola ride up the mountaintop. There are a number of music festivals throughout the year and the pedestrians-only Whistler town centre has good shopping and eating.

Staying cheap here, no matter what time of year, is a tough proposition, and booking ahead is advised. All the places with dorms are a fair walk from the main village. UBC Lodge runs dormitory-style accommodations but they’re popular with university students and fill up fast.

Squamish, on the road from Vancouver to Whistler, is a great summertime alternative. The town is turning into an adventure sports capital with rock-climbers and wind-surfers making their way here. “The Chief” is a rock formation that looms outside the town; it’s a popular rock-climbing spot. If you’ve never climbed, Squamish has guides that can teach you.

If Whistler’s crowded streets and lifts aren’t your scene, consider heading to BC’s eastern border with Alberta for slopes with a bit more space. The sheer number of mountains here means it’s a winter-sports paradise. There are quite a few ski resorts up here, such as Whitewater Winter Resort and Fernie Alpine Resort, and none of them are anywhere near as busy as Whistler. Hip and charming towns like Fernie and Nelson make good gateways to the snow, or getaways in the summer; both have a lot of restored historic buildings. During the winter this is a good area for backpackers to look for work; hostels in the towns can help you find a ski-season job.

The Okanagan
The southern interior of British Columbia is much dryer than the lush, constantly dripping forests of the “wet coast”; it’s here, between Osoyoos and Vernon, that you can experience wine-touring, ripe fruit, and the warm waters of Lake Okanagan. You might even be lucky enough to spot Ogopogo, a legendary lake creature that must be a cousin to the Loch Ness Monster.

The three main towns around the Okanagan Valley are Penticon, Kelowna and Vernon, each of which have much to recommend them to visitors. To distill them to their essence, Penticton’s sporty, Kelowna cultural and Vernon artsy. A recent rash of summer wildfires has threatened the area, Kelowna especially, but the residents are still going strong. Unfortunately one of the best bike-riding trails in the province, the Kettle Valley Railway, was largely destroyed in the fires. However the area around all three towns is still wonderful for bicyclists, with gentle hills and good lake breezes. Penticton and Vernon have HI hostels while Kelowna has an outpost of the fun SameSun brand.

While the cities are fun, choosing to stay at one of the lakeside resorts, B&Bs, or cabins is nicer. The feel of a long-lost childhood vacation is prevalent here, as you snooze on the sunny dock, fish from a pedal boat, and run down shady lanes to the local ice-cream shop. The fruits that grow in the area include strawberries, cherries, peaches, apricots, raspberries and grapes; the feeling of warm, sticky fruit juice running down your hands and face can’t be beat. The names of the small towns that bracket the lake north of Penticton evoke the essence of summer holiday: Peachland, Naramata, and the aptly-named Summerland. If you want to visit wineries, the most popular in the area are Quails’ Gate, CedarCreek, Mission Hill and Jackson-Triggs, but any number of others are worth a visit.

The Thompson Valley, which visitors driving to the Okanagan will pass through, has a number of worthwhile stops, including the houseboats on Shuswap Lake, the hiking and chipmunks in Manning Park, and some great white-water rafting (try Kumsheen Raft Adventures. Kamloops is the biggest city in the area. Don’t be fooled by the town of Harrison Hot Springs; the springs aren’t accessible to the public, except at the public pool or the resort. It is a nice town, though.

Northern Climes
The further north you go in BC, the more wild things become. Those interested in real backcountry wilderness, big-game hunting or fishing, or flying into remote lodges will find something of interest up here. Remember that summer is prime season for some very large mosquitoes, so bring bug spray and be prepared to itch a bit. Taking a ferry up the coast (see info in Getting Around) is a popular way of seeing the more northerly coastline; driving the Alaska Highway is a good way of experiencing the remote interior without needing to get off a main road. Of the towns in the north, Prince Rupert and Smithers are both well-situated (the first on the coast, the second inland) and interesting in and of themselves. Prince Rupert is a good spot for a fishing charter as well as the place to catch the ferry to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

If you can manage the time and effort to visit the Queen Charlottes, make sure you do so; most British Columbians have never been here but would list the islands high on their list of to-go places. You can fly in or take the ferry; the water on the crossing is generally rough, so pop an anti-nausea tablet before you go. There are a number of small towns on the islands, including Queen Charlotte City and Tlell, where accommodation is available; it must be booked in advance. The islands are covered in trees, birds and animals not found on the mainland; Gwaii Haanas National Park, only accessible by boat or plane, is also the site of abandoned Haida towns. Ninstints, where a row of totem poles stands on a wild beach, is a very popular postcard shot, but seeing it in person is still awe-inspiring. To visit the park you’ll need to book in advance, as visitor numbers are limited; going with a tour, usually by kayak or sailboat, may be easier as tour operators will deal with red tape and know the best spots to visit. Try Queen Charlotte Adventures.

Wherever you choose to go in BC, and however long you have to visit, you’re sure to find that locals’ number one tip is “get outside.” Many of them have moved to the province for that very opportunity, so keep that maxim in mind when considering your long-term itinerary or what to do with a spare afternoon. Whether it’s a day’s stroll in Stanley Park or seven days slogging on the West Coast Trail, those days outside are what visitors will remember best from a trip to British Columbia.