The Ultimate British Columbia Road Trip
The vast, epic landscape of British Columbia, from the Rockies to the Pacific coast, from backwoods encampments to wine country to the deluxe lodges of Vancouver Island--T+L embarks on a 750-mile Canadian road trip.
It was a Monday afternoon in August and I was at the Swamp Tavern in Spokane, Washington, watching a week-old replay of a pre-season football game. I was in the wrong place and the evidence was mounting. “You know,” the man next to me at the bar said, “I love my little Luger. It will shoot anything.”
Like thousands of other Americans every year, I was headed north to British Columbia. A recent road trip while on assignment in Lebanon had ended with my detention in a military prison, and ever since, I had been taken by the idea of a replacement adventure to a foreign country where I could drive around without a plan, an interpreter, or the fear of imprisonment.
British Columbia seemed uniquely qualified. With its soaring mountain ranges, lush rain forests, gleaming lakes, and hundreds of miles of Pacific coastline, Canada’s westernmost province is known as a haven for artists, draft dodgers, and outdoors enthusiasts. In 1998, B.C.’s visitors bureau went so far as to trademark the words “Super, Natural,” forcing the area’s reputedly epic international snowboarding competition, the Red Bull “Supernatural Event,” to relinquish its title. (It is now the “Ultra Natural.”) B.C. is the birthplace of Greenpeace, political pacesetter for progressive change, and accessible by motor vehicle from Spokane’s airport and Swamp Tavern. The worst I figured could befall me there was a sunburn.
Two hours later, enveloped by a sweet-smelling forest in Metaline Falls, I smiled at a Canadian customs officer who became increasingly unsatisfied with my responses and directed me to pull my mini-SUV rental over and submit to further questioning. It is easy to forget that, however carefree the intention or serene the setting, the road trip is not an easy sell to anyone in a uniform. I had little idea where I was going. Nor where I was staying, except for the first two days, which I would spend in Nelson, the presumptive capital of the famous “BC Bud” pot—some call the town Colombia North.
And there was another problem. B.C. is the size of 6,000 Spokanes, or five Washington States, and my objective was to meander from my current location near the province’s eastern border with Alberta to its western Pacific islands, then back to catch a flight in Seattle, in eight days. Even if done by race car and speedboat, this attempt would deter the most intrepid road-tripper. But my profound naïveté appeared to be what won my release from the border agent, and two hours later, as the sun set over the Kootenay Mountains, I was pulling into Nelson.
Sloped on a hill that rolls down to the western finger of Kootenay Lake, Nelson has the charming, wooded look of Steve Martin’s Roxanne, which was shot here in 1986. Baker Street, Nelson’s quaint commercial drag, has retained its 19th-century silver-mining-town feel. Red-brick buildings with arched windows and turrets sit beside colorful Victorians, and the town food co-op is mobbed with residents who don’t need to rely on phones to keep in touch with each other.
Nelson also has more bars, restaurants, and cafés per capita than any town in Canada, and I headed up the hill to one of the local favorites, BiBo. Nights in Nelson get chilly, and only a few patrons were enjoying the lake view from the garden terrace. Inside, a cozy, 28-seat dining room was buzzing with locals in fleece jackets and suntans.
I sat at the small bar and introduced myself to B.C. cuisine with a honey-glazed lake trout fished from Lois Lake, all the way west on Vancouver Island. I paired that dish with a refreshing Kettle Valley Semillon Sauvignon Blanc from the Okanagan Valley, Canada’s biggest wine-producing region, which is just over the Monashee Mountains to the west. I added both locations to my plans and lingered awhile, reading the Nelson Daily. (Woman Bites Bar Employee, read one headline.)
Like many mountain towns, Nelson faces a constant struggle between developers and conservationists. The co-op recently banded together to buy up its entire block in order to stop a hotel development project. The latest battle was over a proposed giant ski area, the Jumbo Glacier Resort, 70 miles away. Angry protests prompted an odd ploy by the developer: it founded a new municipality on the project’s land and installed a mayor who presides over a voting population of one. “The economy’s about to get a lot worse,” a longtime resident in yoga pants told me at a café the next morning. Nelson’s economy is widely speculated to be dependent on profits from small-time marijuana dealers. With legalization on the near horizon, they would be unable to compete with large-scale retailers. “In five years there won’t be any yoga studios or restaurants left,” she said.
It was a sobering thought, and I took it with me to the bar at the Hume Hotel, where I was having a drink with Julius Strauss, a British former war correspondent who was a friend of my roommate’s from Iraq. Strauss had moved from Moscow to B.C. in 2005 after giving up war journalism for a more placid existence guiding tourists to see grizzly bears. We sat down in the no-frills upstairs pub. Thin, sprightly, and decidedly ungrizzled, Strauss, 46, now runs a boutique guest ranch about 100 miles north of Nelson called the Grizzly Bear Ranch. (“We hated the name at first,” his wife, Kristin, told me. “But it fit.”)
The ranch operates during spring and fall, when visitors stay in six cabins spread out along a river. It was August, so they were closed, but Strauss invited me up anyway. A licensed acrobatic pilot, he’d planned to fly back and forth from Nelson, but the plane wasn’t available. “Unfortunately I crashed it,” he said.
Despite my growing concern about the distance I expected to cover, I took Strauss up on his offer and in the morning I was back in the car headed north. The thing about the open road in British Columbia is that it doesn’t really exist. The roads wind and wind; some go nowhere. In fact, as vast as the territory is, there are no primary roads in the northern 90 percent of B.C. About 90 percent of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, and B.C. is no exception. For most of my curving ride past lakes, rivers, and the Selkirk Mountains to Strauss’s place, I saw few signs of life, or signs at all. Eventually I was lost on a dirt road, with no cell coverage. It was almost dusk when I arrived, but at least I had managed to avoid Strauss’s neighbor, a one-legged man who was stopping cars using a fake tollbooth. “The neighbors here are interesting,” Strauss said as he greeted me, an ax in one hand. Another local had posted a sign near his property, Leave Bears for the Hunters. For fear of bear poachers, Strauss won’t give out his exact address.
We walked around the massive ranch, which is set beside the roaring Lardeau River and is full of thick, 100-foot-tall cedar trees. There are about 10,000 grizzlies in B.C., more than anywhere else in the world except Alaska, and Strauss’s ranch is a locus. The Lardeau has the largest rainbow trout in the world. The bears eat the fish and live among the gigantic cedars. Strauss is worried the Jumbo Glacier development could change that. The bears’ already shrinking territory goes along what is known as the Selkirk Corridor, down into Montana and Idaho, which ensures a necessary diversity of species. “The new roads would stop their journey. It would be a disaster for the bears,” Strauss said.
We didn’t have time to look for any so we split some logs and cooked burgers on a bonfire beneath the star-filled sky.
At sundown the following day, I was racing due south toward the U.S. border along the fingerlike 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake, in Canada’s version of Napa Valley. It had been a zigzag, westerly path of seven hours, including two ferries and a twirl through both the Monashee Mountains and the Okanagan Highlands. I had a sore back, an empty tank of gas, and, inexplicably, Strauss’s truck key in my pocket.
The Okanagan Valley stretches for 155 miles, all the way to Osoyoos, on the border of Washington. With five days left and the western coast still 250 miles away, I decided to head straight to the center of the region, Penticton, home to one of the area’s largest wineries, Poplar Grove. It was closed. But on its grounds, perched on a hill with a sweeping veranda overlooking the Okanagan and Skaha lakes, was a popular local restaurant, the Vanilla Pod.
I ordered a glass of Poplar Grove Viognier on the terrace, the cool air revitalizing me. In the distance, hills of grapevine rows fell toward the lake like hair braids. The area is booming. There are 215 wineries. In 1981, at the first Okanagan Valley Wine Festival, there were 12. The commercial airport serving the valley, in Kelowna, has expanded seven times.
I asked after the owner, who joined me for dinner by a wall of windows. An East End Londoner with a bald head and firm handshake, Paul Jones came to B.C. in 1975 to work in the hotel industry in Vancouver. “I moved away and back four times,” he said. “I love this region.”
His restaurant is a microcosm of the area. In 2006, he bought Vanilla Pod when it was owned by a chef and located in nearby Summerland. In his first three years, Jones expanded twice, and in 2011, Poplar Grove’s owners asked if he wanted to move to a spot they were building on the winery. Now he has 36 employees.
Bruno Terroso, his award-winning chef, who has been with the restaurant eight years, brought out our dinners. I had a sablefish, Jones a rack of lamb. “I’ve been thinking about this all day,” he said, as Terroso put it on the table. With all the growth, competition for kitchen staff is intense. “A new cheese maker and several new wineries are about to open,” Jones said. “And Alberta is hurting us with a lot of camps ,” he added, referring to the new oil boom in the neighboring province that has created numerous high-paying jobs.
James was full of information, including how to get to the post office, where the following day I went to return Strauss’s key before hitting the road again. I needed to reach Vancouver by nightfall, another 300 miles through valleys between mountaintops too high to see. Five hours later, I was crossing the Port Mann Bridge, the second-largest cable-supported bridge in North America, into the big lights of Vancouver.
By most standards, Vancouver isn’t huge, but of B.C.’s 4.5 million people, more than half live in its metro area, and its crowded streets, high-rises, and population density were too much for me. I headed out for dinner to the West End’s Hapa Izakaya, the Japanese tapas place that started a food craze, where I had an unbeatable Dungeness crab tempura roll. But in the morning I went straight to the B.C. Ferries port north of town.
The B.C. Ferries system has 36 vessels serving 47 locations. I had to decide between going up the Georgia Strait to the Sunshine Coast, where my lake trout in Nelson had come from, or hooking left to Vancouver Island, where my last visit had resulted in a marriage of one month.
I chose the latter. My voyage by ferry clocked a blissful two hours. The sun on my face and ocean wind in my hair energized me, and I drove out of the ship’s hull into the port town of Nanaimo feeling optimistic about my progress.
Vancouver Island is huge. British explorer Captain James Cook, upon reaching its shores in 1778, mistook it for the mainland. My ride snaked alongside gleaming blue lakes in the shadow of breathtaking mountains as high as 7,200 feet. I couldn’t help stopping to swim in one of them, Sproat Lake, where a bald eagle circled above me in a cloudless blue sky. Finally as the sky began to darken, I cut across the island through a light mist onto Highway 4, one of the westernmost roads in North America. Around 6:30, I hit Tofino, a small fishing village at the end of a peninsula, and the terminal point of the Pacific Rim Highway. I had literally reached the end of the road.
I hobbled out of the car and through the door of the Schooner Restaurant, a steak-and-seafood tavern, where a lumberjack pointed at me. “You smoke weed,” he said.
There was a 45-minute wait for a table, but I spotted a single open barstool and sat down gingerly. Along the bar, patrons were talking about swapping wait shifts and the late-night scene at a bar a few blocks away. The man in a baseball hat next to me drinking scotch, Craig Heber, was one of the town’s three cab drivers. He handed me his card. “There’s no way to call me though,” he said. He lived on a float house in the ocean, and he’d managed that morning to drop his phone in a bowl of Cheerios.
Pure exhaustion had led me to splurge on a room at the Wickaninnish Inn, consistently ranked among the world’s best places to stay but not overly extravagant. Opened in 1996, the Wick, as it’s known, is a family operation. The owner’s father, one of the first physicians in Tofino, delivered the office manager. It sits on a hundred acres of untouched rain forest and the longest beach in town, Chesterman. (All of Canada’s beaches are public.)
I left the door to my ocean-view balcony open and slept for 10 hours. In the morning, it was overcast, and I walked along the beach, where surfers in wet suits were riding waves and local artists in flip-flops were working inside a public wood-carving shack funded by the owners of the Wick.
Later I walked down the main road, where a few galleries and restaurants look out at what became in the yellow afternoon light an otherworldly view: floatplanes skidded across the bay in front of purple forested mountains sprouting from the ocean floor. For the next two days, I traveled by boat and seaplane. Gray whales preened alongside my ship; sea otters sunned themselves on floating bark.
One morning I joined Mike White, a retired Coast Guard sailor, to visit the renowned wildlife artist Wayne Adams, a master painter, ivory carver, and local legend. For an hour we chugged at nine knots, past islands and a salmon farm, until we reached a small cove on Meares Island. A small, magenta-and-turquoise village, like a children’s board game in 3-D, floated in the sea. “We couldn’t afford to buy a piece of land anywhere,” Adams, who took 10 years to build the place, told me as we walked down a floating plank. It was raining lightly, and a row of carved blue elves, seated on benches four feet in the air, churned their hands. Out of them, water poured onto rows of plants.
We went into his studio in the main house, where a walrus tooth he was several weeks into carving sat. He estimated it was 10,000 years old. Adjacent was the living room where, instead of a coffee table, part of the floor was cut out and covered with removable glass, so Adams can fish from his couch. The entire place is self-sustaining. In fact, sometimes he goes more than a month without leaving.
I, however, had a flight to catch in another country in two days. In the morning I was back on the road, intent on paying my respects to British Columbia’s capital, Victoria. Four hours later, I drove along the majestic harbor and past the château-style Fairmont Empress Hotel, one of Canada’s most famous, and the sprawling parliament building with its baroque turquoise dome. I had been hearing about a neighborhood called Fernwood, once infamous for its crack houses, that had been turned around by local activists.
Fernwood’s main intersection, at Fernwood and Gladstone, is the only corner left in Victoria with its original structures—brick town houses and a Tudor-style inn. The area is now pedestrian-only; many of the city’s best restaurants are located there, along with a live theater house and a nonprofit neighborhood café. Since I had only one night, I decided to eat two dinners, first at the Stage Wine Bar (grilled halloumi and poached calamari) and then at Ça Va (scallops with caramelized onions), the modern newcomer from chef Fauna Martin, who trained in Australia but grew up a block away.
The next morning I drove my car onto the Washington State Ferry and then drove 50 more miles to the Bainbridge Island ferry, which dropped me off in the shadow of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. Hundreds of miles of travel behind me, I handed my keys to the Hertz checkout person at the airport. “How did you enjoy Washington?” she said.
T+L Guide to British Columbia
Getting There & Around
Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, and Delta offer nonstop flights to Vancouver from a number of U.S. cities. Rent a car at the airport for easy transport along British Columbia Highway 1.
Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria 721 Government St., Victoria. $$
Grizzly Bear Ranch Kaslo. $$$$$
Sonora Resort An adventure eco-retreat in the Discovery Islands, north of Vancouver Island. Richmond. $$$$
Wickaninnish Inn Tofino. $$$
Eat and Drink
BiBo 518 Hall St., Nelson. $$
Ça Va Bistro Moderne 1296 Gladstone Ave., Victoria. $$$
Hapa Izakaya 1479 Robson St., Vancouver. $$
Hume Hotel 422 Vernon St., Nelson. $$
Schooner Restaurant 331 Campbell St., Tofino. $$$
Stage Wine Bar 1307 Gladstone Ave., Victoria. $$
Vanilla Pod Restaurant at Poplar Grove 425 Middle Bench Rd., North Penticton. $$$
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150