July 18, 2024

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British Columbia travel guide

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Drop your gaze out of the plane window as you fly over British Columbia and your eyes will be overworked by vermillion-coloured lakes, spruce-skirted canyons and incisor-shaped peaks. This is the problem with a visit to British Columbia — there are so many national parks, mountain ranges and ski resorts to discover that it’s near impossible to know what to do first.

How about a road trip through the Canadian Rockies into the folds of mountain ranges, with such evocative names as the Bugaboos, Monashees, Selkirks and Valhallas? Or, on Vancouver Island, why not transfer onto a whale-watching boat off Campbell River’s temperate rainforest, to gawp at acrobatic orcas? Or board a heliskiing safari from Whistler to Kicking Horse, to land in places where there are almost no imprints of humankind? Talk about natural beauty. Oohs and aahs are guaranteed.

Downtime (and what downtime!) might involve: taking the “Rhône less travelled” into the Okanagan Valley, the world’s northernmost serious wine area; setting the sat-nav for a circuitous hot springs tour of the mineral-rich Kootenays in the BC Rockies; or cruising along the lesser-known Sunshine Coast. Either way, a change will come over you, and you’ll begin to get a sense of what Churchill meant when he called Canada “The Great Dominion”.

Main photo: Wedgemount Lake, Whistler (Daniel Ernst/Destination Canada)

What to do

Western Canada is a place you daydream about long before you arrive. But visit British Columbia with a finely-tuned plan and those yearnings easily become reality. In summer, top choices are a Vancouver Island road trip from Victoria, for sea kayaking with killer whales in the Johnstone Strait, or backpacking the West Coast Trail through the wildly beautiful Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

Back on mainland North America, follow the road east to the Fraser Valley, for fly-fishing monstrous sockeye salmon, steelhead and sturgeon, then be dazzled by the natural beauty of Kelowna. This is your base for Okanagan Valley wine tasting, as here almost everyone owns a vineyard. In a hot year, the chardonnay and pinot noir harvests are outstanding and, for good reason, it’s called the “new Napa”. Stretch your trip east to neighbouring province Alberta and you’ll reach Mount Robson Provincial Park, a honeypot for climbers, hikers and wild campers. Another highlight? The speckled, glaciated face of the Canadian Rockies’ highest peak.

Come in winter, on the other hand, and you’ll get used to a summit-gleam in your eyes. The Powder Highway, a ragbag collection of ski resorts, wiggles from Rossland to Nelson to Revelstoke to Kicking Horse to Fernie and is dubbed Route 66 for skiers and snowboarders. Frankly, it’s underselling it. The off-piste seems to go on forever, and with blue skies and powder white mixing like watercolour, it’s an overdose of natural beauty.

Where to stay

From frontier-style lodges to downtown grande dames, British Columbia brims with irresistible choice. Beyond the cities, almost every backcountry motel or ski-resort cabin comes with stupendous views as standard: the peerless Canadian Rockies deep in the interior; the mirror-calm lake views at Penticton and Kelowna in the Okanagan Valley; the temperate rainforest, while floating on an ecotourism lodge on black bear turf.

The province’s big three — Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler — are festooned with A-grade, château-like hotels, while the buzzword is sustainability, despite the moose-head taxidermy. You can also impress a Torontonian by telling them British Columbia is home to an astonishing 1,000 provincial parks, most of which whisk you straight into The Call of the Wild territory, thanks to in-amongst-it tent pitches and RV hook-ups.

Elsewhere, there’s something about edge-of-the-world Tofino, on the western extremity of Vancouver Island, that lends itself to elemental resorts. Storm chasers and moneyed surfers love the Wickaninnish Inn, while what Clayoquot Wilderness Resort lacks in glamour, it makes up for in natural beauty and eco initiatives. The lure here is prospector-style canvas tents and luxury tipis in the midst of bear-filled temperate rainforest.

Food and drink

You can’t say you’ve visited British Columbia until you’ve had one too many Caesars (it’s the Canadian take on a Bloody Mary). But before that, begin in Vancouver, with surplus seafood, buck-a-shuck oysters and surf-shack tacos. Between the coast and the Canadian Rockies, ski resorts and national park towns distill all the cliches. Expect poutine, maple-loaded pancakes, whopping great steaks and cedar-plank salmon. One exception? Kicking Horse, where you’ll find Canada’s highest dining experience, with a view over five soul-stirring national parks.

Sushi is a big deal province-wide — the BC roll is a bite-sized nugget of barbecued Pacific salmon; as are Nanaimo bars — layered choccie cookies from Vancouver Island. Victoria is the spiritual home of the craft brewery, where mop-your-chin burgers and chicken wings soak up trophy-winning IPAs, while the provincial pin-up for fine dining and exquisite wine is the Okanagan Valley. Down-to-earth wineries for the ultimate tasting tour are Mission Hill, Quail’s Gate and Summer Pyramid Hill, an organic label with a bizarre pyramid-shaped cellar.

Don’t miss

The rush to the Canadian Rockies or Vancouver Island often bypasses some of the more secretive corners of Canada’s wildest province. The Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea are as seductive as British Columbia gets, with the likes of Salt Spring Island home to Ma and Pa wineries, farmers’ markets and cabins by the shore. Also part of the micro archipelago, Pender Island is equally sublime.

Zoom out on the map, almost to the Alaskan border, and you’ll find the far-flung First Nations territory of Haida G’waii. An otherworldly proposition altogether, this northern Galapagos is home to the Haida, an indigenous people once known as the Vikings of the Pacific Northwest.

You’ll get the idea of how much else there is to savour tracing a line to Prince Rupert and Khutzeymateen Provincial Park, the only grizzly bear sanctuary in Canada. From here to Bella Coola to Prince George there is an adventure for every day of the year. Tweedsmuir South Provincial Park for heliskiing and Wells Gray Provincial Park for canoe-touring are standouts.

Talking of epic wilderness, you don’t really need to look much further beyond Vancouver. Take the Seabus to the city’s North Shore to stride across one of two gorge walkways. Both the Capilano Suspension Bridge and Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge are archetypical storybook Canada.

Know before you go

Canada is no longer the bargain it once was. But around $200-250 (£120-150) a day can still go a long way, particularly if you’re planning a road trip (fuel is especially cheap). And where do you start? British Columbia is four times bigger than the UK, so focus on one area to make the most of your time; if sold on Vancouver Island, save the Canadian Rockies for your next trip.

Frankly, the best times to visit British Columbia are whenever you can manage. Winter, with dogsledding, ski resorts and hot springs, is an unadulterated joy, while the national parks go well beyond the call of duty in summer. Bucket-list adventure, epic nature and mountain highs? And the rest.

Take me there

Inspired to visit British Columbia but yet to book your trip? Here are the best hotels from Booking.com and Expedia.

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