With vibrant cities ranked amongst the best places to live in the world, jaw dropping scenery rich in wildlife, and a reputation for the most welcoming and friendly people found anywhere in the world, it is no wonder that Lonely Planet has picked Canada as the No.1 country to visit in 2017.
As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday next year, there’s no better time to visit. Yet, being the second largest country in the world, and with so many outstanding places to see, it can be a daunting task whittling down your wish list to any one region that you would most long to explore.
But when I think about British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast, I know that would be my choice. To convince you, here are my top 10 things to see and do around and about British Columbia. Add them together, and they make the perfect destination, whether it’s your first time to Canada or your 100th.
1. Discover Vancouver
A city that has captured my heart, Vancouver has it all, from Stanley Park, a beautiful 405 hectare public park packed with wildlife and forests walks, to Granville Island, a food (and beer) lover’s paradise. Then there’s the whale-watching tours, Vancouver Art Gallery, Bard on the Beach, and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, to name just a few of its attractions. All this set against a backdrop of magnificent mountains in one direction and the Salish Sea in the other. If you’re still not convinced, then check out my article about the Top Three Reasons to Visit Vancouver. It’s also the perfect starting point from which to explore more of British Columbia, and you’d be crazy not to.
2. Explore the Sunshine Coast Highway
A visit to Canada’s Sunshine Coast, just north of Vancouver, feels like stepping back in time, with one quaint seaside town after another. I fell in love with the place, the people, and the sense of community along the Sunshine Coast Highway 101. Go there before the rest of the world discovers it.
Starting at Gibsons in the south, take a stroll down to the marina, eat fish ‘n chips in Molly’s Reach, and drink a beer flight (four beer tasters) at Persephone Brewing. In Lund, at the most northerly point of the highway, enjoy the view across the marina to the snow-capped mountains of Vancouver Island before tucking into breakfast at Nancy’s Bakery. Along the way you’ll see some stunning scenery, but be sure not to miss Powell River’s Farmers Market – I bought a bumble berry pie here, made from the mixed berries found in the baker’s garden that morning. You don’t get fresher than that.
3. Go peak to peak at Whistler Blackcomb
Something I’ve yet to see for myself are the glorious 360-degree views of mountains, lakes, glaciers and forests from the record breaking glass bottom gondolas at Whistler. A ride on a gondola from peak to peak at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort is top of my wish list for a return visit.
4. Visit Victoria, the capital of British Columbia
My first experience of Canada was a few days in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Despite the long flight and jet lag, I couldn’t wait to explore and it more than lived up to my expectations. The Victorian architecture, the warmth of the locals and the fabulous food scene – I loved it all.
And there’s plenty to do here. A visit to the Royal British Columbia Museum is a must, but you could also pop in for a traditional English afternoon tea in the elegant and historic Fairmont Empress; take a stroll around the picturesque harbour to the colourful Fisherman’s Wharf while watching the floatplanes come in to land and the dinky water taxis chug; by or explore Victoria’s Chinatown, the oldest of its kind in Canada, with its ornate historic buildings, quirky shops, fashionable restaurants and the colourful, shop-lined Fan Tan Alley, one of the narrowest streets in Canada.
5. Whale Watching on Vancouver Island
Top of many people’s list when they visit British Columbia is the wildlife and in particular, whale-watching. While there’s no guarantee you’ll see any whales – nature is a force unto itself after all – you will see some wonderful wildlife out on the water, whether you go from Victoria, Campbell River, Telegraph Cove or Tofino. Harbour seals, sea lions, and seabirds such as Storm Petrels are all common sights, and if you are lucky, you may also see orcas, gray whales, or even the gargantuan humpback whales. If you are interested in learning more you can read about responsible whale-watching in my post from Victoria.
6. Drive the Pacific Rim Highway
There’s only one road that can take you from Vancouver Island’s east coast to the towns, beaches and untamed wilderness of Clayoquot Sound on the west coast, and that is the Pacific Rim Highway. Passing stunning lakes, old growth forests and snow-capped mountains as the road winds its way through the island’s interior mountain range, it’s worth coming here for the views alone.
Be sure to make a stop in MacMillan Provincial Park at the western tip of Cameron Lake, as here you’ll find Cathedral Grove. This is the most accessible place on the island from which to admire the magnificent ancient fir trees, some of which are around 800 years old, towering over you upto 250 feet above your head.
7. British Columbia’s Craft Beer Revolution
Since 1982 when the first Canadian microbrewery opened in Horseshoe Bay, British Columbia has seen a steady growth in numbers, from one to some one hundred microbreweries. The five I visited were all superb. Each one was unique, offering a different experience from the next, from a slick operation with great beer and food at Granville Island Brewing to a party in the barn with a live band at Persephone Brewing Company. I really do need to go back one day to try the 95 or so others that I missed!
Arm yourself with a copy of the Craft Beer Revolution: The Insider’s Guide to B.C. Breweries, and work out a route that will take you both to the places in B.C. that you most long to visit, as well as a craft brewery or twenty along the way, and you have the makings of an excellent adventure.
8. Hike the Pacific Rim National Park
Throughout 2017, all the National Parks right across the country will be accessible free of charge as part of Canada’s birthday celebrations.
The Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island’s west coast is a fantastic place to hike through old growth forests along the stunning coastline. Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail is particularly spectacular, but there are a number of wonderful rainforest trails throughout the park.
The really adventurous and experienced, however, should head further south to take on the 47 mile West Coast Trail, reputedly one of the hardest hiking trails in British Columbia. It involves boulder and log walks, ladders, mud and wonderful coastal scenery, hidden coves, peculiar rock formations, old growth forests, and quite possibly the odd bear, wolf or cougar along the way.
9. Visit Tofino and the wildlife of Clayoquot Sound
Black bears, gray whales, sea otters and the most stunning bright green anemones are just some of the beautiful creatures that I saw when I visited Clayoquot Sound, a wild and unspoilt wilderness on the doorstep of Tofino. This remote yet lively town at the end of the Pacific Rim Highway makes the perfect base from which to discover the area. As well as wildlife watching, hiking, biking and surfing are all popular activities here, and will help you build up an appetite before tucking into the town’s vibrant food and drink scene. Read about my animal-packed experience in my article, The Wildlife of Clayoquot Sound.
10. Grizzly Bear watching in The Great Bear Rainforest
A light rain is falling, as we sit in a small boat and wait, our cameras are at the ready. And then I see them, two round fluffy brown ears, peeping up from behind the grass-like sedge. In perfect unison, two of us point at the same spot on the bank and softly exclaim – “Bear!”
My first grizzly bear sighting was an experience I’ll never forget. It’s a memory indelibly etched in my mind, as is the Great Bear Rainforest itself. The last great expanse of temperate rainforest, a maze of islands, waterways and forests – it was one of the most beautiful and beguiling places I’ve ever seen. Here I could be still, just happy being, drinking in every sight, sound and smell of the damp forest, watching the trees overhanging the waterways dripping with moss, the silence only broken by the occasional bird call or the splash of an oar.