Long known as Canada’s enclave of hippies, snowboarders and back-to-the-land revivalists, the west coast province of British Columbia (B.C.) has always been the nation’s rugged hideaway, impossible to tame, says Ashlee Starratt.
Cradled by the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, its geography is a timeless testament to the strength of nature – and our precarious place among it.
Boasting one of the North American continent’s only temperate rainforests, Vancouver Island’s MacMillan Provincial Park, is one of the island’s most popular outdoor tourist treks. It’s here you’ll find some of the world’s oldest and largest Douglas fir trees in its Cathedral Grove – the great stands of giants revered by the region’s First Nations people and part of an ancient ecosystem primordial.
It’s a province where nature speaks, and humankind listens as the old ways live on among the new; and where respect for the heritage, culture, and wisdom of its Squamish and Haida First Nations people is upheld. For many, this part of the country encapsulates the ideal of the Canadian frontier on the doorstep of the Great North.
But it’s B.C.’s metropolis of Vancouver, a seaport city in the province’s Lower Mainland region, that’s carved out its niche as the urban epicentre of western Canada. Dubbed ‘Hollywood North’ (due to its popularity as a filming location by its neighbours to the south), or ‘Van City’ by the skater/snowboarder set, it’s an urban oasis known as much for its arts and culture, nightlife, and foodie scenes as much as its celeb sightings – and, all in proximity to some truly stunning nature.
Wander along the cobbles of its historical Gastown – named for the old-fashioned lamps that light the neighbourhood – with its Victorian décor, and snap a selfie in front of the landmark Steam Clock. Or browse through its lively art galleries and hip eateries that offer up some of the best dining for locavores.
Or head over to Granville Island, a peninsular shopping district and marina adjacent to Downtown Vancouver and wander along its piers and bustling marina market or take in a show at one of its many theatres and performing arts spaces.
Vancouver is an incredibly accessible city with an excellent public transit system that includes an automated SkyTrain that will whizz you from Point A to Point B, wherever you need to go in short order. For those seeking a touch of the outdoors, it’s a city that delivers in spades. Explore the educational aquatic exhibits at the kid-friendly Vancouver Aquarium, wander through the seasonal gardens of the urban Queen Elizabeth Park, or hit the trails with spectacular city views and take a lift-ride up the 1,200-metre Grouse Mountain. Just keep your eyes peeled for Ryan Reynolds!
My favourite place- The city’s iconic Stanley Park is a 405-hectare public park that’s considered the crown jewel of Vancouver. Surrounded by the waters of Vancouver Harbour and English Bay, its history dates back to the 1858 Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and beyond to when the land was used by the region’s indigenous peoples. With over half a million trees – some centuries old – what makes this incredible urban oasis unique is that it wasn’t plotted out by any landscape architects, but rather is the embodiment of a natural integration between forest and urban landscape. Walk or bike the trails along the park’s serene coastal edge where the waters meet the Vancouver Seawall, or visit the polar bear exhibit, its many beaches; and marvel at the gargantuan specimens of Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedars and Sitka spruce trees that tower over it all.
Highlights- Thrill-seekers can head to North Vancouver, on the city’s outskirts, and head to the vertigo-inducing Capilano Suspension Bridge. Originally built in 1889, this 140-metre pedestrian footbridge spans the Capilano River gorge, 70 metres above its rushing waters. Drawing about 800,000 visitors a year it’s one of Vancouver’s most popular attractions. Just don’t look down! You can also spend an afternoon satisfying your curiosity for Canadian heritage at the Museum of Anthropology with its stunning compilation of ancient and contemporary Aboriginal works, or the Vancouver Art Gallery, which showcases the best from western Canada’s regional artists. Finally, take a shopping and foodie excursion to Chinatown – the largest in North America outside of San Francisco. Vancouver has the second-largest Chinese population outside of China, and this cultural enclave is well-worth the visit, with its buzzing dim sum eateries, Asian bakeries, shops, stalls and apothecaries selling everything under the sun.
Lowlights- While personal safety is quite high in Vancouver, have your wits about you, as in any other big city. While the Downtown core and West End are usually busy and well-populated at all times, be careful around the Lower Eastside where theft and crime are more prevalent.
Souvenirs- Carved Haida totems and wooden masks, indigenous soapstone sculptures, maple products, beadwork jewellery and woven dreamcatchers.
Getting there- Most major GCC carriers fly to the central Canadian hubs of Montréal or Toronto. From there, take an Air Canada or WestJet flight to Vancouver International Airport.
Where to stay- Budget-friendly Airbnb options abound, and all the world’s major hotel chains can be found in the city. For a unique boutique hotel experience book in at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia located right downtown.
1. Go whale-watching for orcas at Horseshoe Bay.
2. Take a ferry day-trip to Vancouver Island.
3. Visit the Butchart Gardens in the provincial capital of Victoria.
4. Take a drive along the famous Sea-to-Sky Highway.
5. Visit the bustling and eclectic Richmond Night Market.