Over the summer, my family from “back East” visited Vancouver for the first time since I moved here. For me, this presented a unique challenge … both as a host and as a travel writer. Vancouver in itself is beautiful, but the vast province of British Columbia – bigger than France and Italy put together – is the real attraction. The scenery extends from coastal islands with an almost Mediterranean feel to glacier-topped mountain ranges, interior deserts, and canyons and grasslands straight out of an American Western. But how was I going to show all this off – or at least some it – in just a week or so. In the end, I tried to follow the wise traveler’s maxim: Do half as much and you’ll enjoy it twice as much.
An Ultimate British Columbia Week
By Remy Scalza for the Vancouver Sun
Published Sept. 5, 2015
(For the online version of the article on the Vancouver Sun website, click here)
Who knew a $3.50 ticket for the Aquabus could buy so many Vancouver memories?
I’m packed into one of the brightly coloured water taxis with my family from back East, here visiting me — and British Columbia — for the first time.
The little ferry putters its way across False Creek, dodging multimillion-dollar yachts and tiny sailboats, en route to Granville Island. It’s old hat for me. But my mom and sister have whipped out iPhones and are madly snapping shots of the city skyline, Burrard Bridge and sleepy-eyed cormorants floating by on the waves. Dad even gets wrangled into posing for a selfie or two with the rest of us.
It’s Day 1 of their weeklong vacation. And for me it’s the first day of a serious dilemma: How do I show off the best of British Columbia — or at least this corner of it — in just seven days? As a transplant to Vancouver, it’s taken me years to soak up the mountains, deserts, wine country, islands and canyons in this part of Canada — and I’ve only scratched the surface.
But, at least tonight, I’m following rule No. 1 of vacation hosting — keep ’em well fed. Instead of racing around the city, we take a slow walk past the Granville Island Public Market, past the picturesquely out-of-place cement factory with its towering silos, to one of the prettiest patios in the city — Dockside Restaurant. Tables cluster around outdoor fireplaces near the water’s edge, while boats at anchor bob in the inlet below.
And the food’s not bad either. Chili squid, Haida Gwaii halibut, albacore tuna, fresh sablefish with citrus glaze; the kind of seafood bounty Vancouverites take for granted and people from … well, just about anywhere else … go absolutely gaga over.
As we tuck in, the setting sun shoots a few rays our way, turning False Creek glittering shades of orange and gold.
Afterward, I drop the family off at the Opus Hotel in the historic Yaletown district. Tucked amid century-old brick warehouses, it’s got a neighbourhood feel missing at some of the bigger chains, but doesn’t skimp on style … even when that means raising a few eyebrows. Guest bathrooms famously feature floor-to-ceiling windows — and not the one-way glass kind — that look out onto the street below. I leave Mom and Dad with a firm warning to stay well robed and say good night.
Exploring Vancouver’s back yard
Our plan is to get out of town, but I’d be betraying my home city if I didn’t steer my family to a few local highlights first. The next day is spent getting up close and personal with the belugas in the Vancouver Aquarium, trolling the designer stores on Robson Street and pounding the cobblestones in Gastown.
For a little more adventure, we cross to the North Shore for one of the city’s true natural gems. Just a short drive past the tour buses (and $36 admission fees) at a certain suspension bridge is the free Capilano River Regional Park. We hike through remnants of old-growth forest, working our way along well-marked trails deep into the gorge. Down at the open-air fish hatchery, wild salmon are putting on a show, churning their way up the fish ladder en route to their spawning grounds. It ends up being a long day, but the camera memory cards are full and no one’s grumbling … yet.
However, here’s where things get tricky. One must-see on any B.C. vacation is the Gulf Islands — the hundreds of wild, forested isles, both big and small, strung through the Strait of Georgia. But our time is limited and even a simple jaunt to Victoria on Vancouver Island can take a full day. In a compromise, the following morning we hop aboard a BC Ferries vessel for a quick cruise to the next best thing, Bowen Island: just 20 minutes from Vancouver but, in every other respect, a world away.
Tiny Snug Cove is bustling with boat and ferry traffic when we pull in. After walking through the village — dotted with pubs and little restaurants — we strike out for Dorman Point, a rocky bluff reached by a two-kilometre hike. The trail turns steep quickly, with huge ferns and massive Douglas firs giving the forest an almost primeval feel.
Up top, a grove of arbutus trees — gorgeous red bark peeling in long strips — overhangs a cliff that drops straight down to the water.
To cool off after the hike, we hop in the car and make a quick beeline across the island to what may be one of the Lower Mainland’s last “undiscovered” beaches (notice the scare quotes): Cape Roger Curtis. Until recently, the entire area — some 650 acres and four kilometres of coastline — was undeveloped. (A new, high-end housing complex is changing things, but beaches remain relatively pristine for now.)
We slide down a steep trail to a broad crescent of pebble beach. Apart from a lone sunbather, we have the coast and the brisk Pacific Ocean water here entirely to ourselves.
Mountain living, B.C. style
But the clock is ticking. With five days left, we could strike out north for the mountains of Whistler or venture to the vast, rolling Cariboo Country beyond or even hopscotch our way up the Sunshine Coast. But for that ideal mix of B.C. scenery and culture, of jaw-dropping landscapes and creature comforts — all in a tight time frame — I think there’s really only way to go: east toward the Okanagan Lake and wine country.
After a five-hour drive on Highway 1, then up and over the mountains of Manning Park on the white-knuckle Crowsnest Highway, the family is getting a little stir crazy. But our first stop isn’t far. I pull off the highway just before the fruit-stand town of Keremeos and follow a dirt road to our destination: the dusty parking lot that serves as base camp for Cathedral Lakes Lodge.
A few thousand metres straight up the mountainside is what’s billed as Canada’s highest full-service wilderness lodge — a complex of cabins situated in the middle of 80,000-acre Cathedral Provincial Park and surrounded by a half-dozen mountain lakes. Getting there, however, won’t be easy. We pack into the lodge’s beat-up Chevy Suburban with a few other guests for the hour-long ascent up a rutted dirt road.
The incline is so severe that I’m actually pegged back in my seat by gravity, managing only to steal occasional glimpses through the window at the sheer drop-offs below.
Up top, at 2,100 metres above sea level, we step out to a different world. The air is crisper and clearer and the silence is absolute — no cars, no planes, no cellphones. The modest camp, powered almost completely by solar energy on sunny summer days, is encircled by a ridge of jagged mountains stretching from horizon to horizon. Pine and spruce grow in thick colonnades and, out front, the light glints off a lake clear as glass.
The clanging of a dinner bell brings 50 or so guests out of cabins, off surrounding trails and into the lodge. Inside, we find anything but camp food: A lavish spread of salads and soups, pork loin with fresh beets, even a passable flan. Afterward, we retreat to our bungalow — a few simple bedrooms around a common area — where Dad makes himself handy, managing to coax a fire from the woodstoves. We call it an early night — a good thing considering what lies ahead.
“It is nothing. Anyone can do it. You cannot get lost,” insists Cedric, our French-accented host at the lodge, when I ask him the next morning about an ambitious-looking, all-day hike that climbs several hundred metres onto the ridge. Reassured — sort of — we set out, huffing and puffing for an hour through thick forest to turquoise-hued Glacier Lake. From there, the going gets a little rough. High above the tree line, we scramble up stretches of scree, hunting for stone cairns that mark the path. The last, nearly vertical stretch is conquered on all fours and with no shortage of cursing at Cedric.
But it’s worth it. The view from the knife’s edge of the ridge is an uninterrupted panorama stretching literally hundreds of square miles — west into the Cascades, south to the looming cones of Mount Baker and Mount Rainier and east to the Okanagan and Kootenays beyond. On the descent, as if on cue, mountain goats amble out and pose in front of a Caribbean-blue lake.
A taste of the Okanagan
After two nights “roughing it” in the B.C. wilderness, we’re in the home stretch and ready for some R & R. We careen back down the mountain and pile into the car for a short drive to our last stop: Osoyoos, the South Okanagan hot spot famous for its desert scenery and invitingly warm lake. In town, we cruise past mini golf courses and lakefront motels on Main Street, then wind through vineyards and orchards to our hotel, situated on a secluded ridge outside town.
A collection of elegant, adobe-style buildings set high above Osoyoos Lake, Spirit Ridge turns out to be a perfect family option. We pile into a three-bedroom suite — with full kitchen and, a true luxury, a trio of bathrooms — and open the patio doors to soak up the view: rows of vines stretching down to the lake and dry foothills covered with sagebrush and lavender.
After almost a solid week together — in the plane, the car and the hotels — the family desperately needs some “me” time. Luckily, there’s plenty of distraction within walking distance. Literally steps from our room is Canada’s first aboriginal-owned winery, NK’Mip. My wife and I escape for a tasting, sampling everything from fruit-forward Pinot Noirs to big Bordeaux blends for the bargain price of $3 a person. Mom and Dad poke into the NK’Mip Desert Cultural Centre just next door. Displays inside highlight a traditional First Nations pit house and indigenous art from the early 1900s, while interpretive trails wind deep into the desert (just watch for rattlesnakes). My sister meanwhile, camps out at the hotel pool, catching up on a tan and a week’s worth of texting.
At night, we reconvene back in the suite for dinner, family-style — salmon and burgers on the barbecue, Okanagan veggies sliced and diced into a salad and sweet local corn. Uncorking a bottle of B.C. wine (or two), we dig into the fitting 100-mile feast. Just outside, little kids are getting in a few last runs on the pool’s water slide. The sky is fading to nighttime shades of blue and purple. We may not have seen all of the province, but we’ve had a B.C. week to remember. And the most amazing part: We’re all still talking.