Adventure in Western Canada: Vancouver
Maple leaves, uninterrupted snow, mounties. We’ve all heard the Canadian stereotypes. But that’s all they are – sweeping observations that barely provide a snapshot of this vast country. The truth is: nothing can prepare you for the sheer beauty and scale of what Canada is really like. Which is why embarking on a two-week exploration of the westernmost provinces (British Columbia and Alberta) struck me as the perfect adventure. The journey begins in Vancouver…
From the porch of a blue, wood-clad B&B in East Van, I immediately spotted the differences between London’s suburbs and the outskirts of Canada’s most lively, cultural city. In Vancouver you’re not choked by traffic fumes, the streets are impeccably clean and the Canadians don’t seem to have a bad word to say about this beloved hub. Just a stroll away, eclectic Chinatown meets with hip Gastown, which quickly transforms into the city’s commercial and cultural centre: Downtown. Already you can see the emerald glow of Stanley Park.
We had three days to explore, so began our journey in the tourist heart that is Canada Place, jumping aboard the open-air Vancouver Trolley to get an overview of the city on its two routes through Downtown and the Park. Sun cream was applied in heaps of course because – like typical Brits – we hadn’t checked the weather before our departure and weren’t expecting the 28-degree heat that was beating down upon us. The 1,001-acre park ahead was a true natural behemoth, home to the Vancouver Aquarium, vast rose gardens, historic totem poles and a wonderful lookout across the Lion’s Gate Bridge known as Prospect Point. You can get the hop-on, hop-off trolley to take you to each stop (departures every 30 minutes) or, if you’re feeling energetic, explore on foot.
Summer evenings in the city are reserved for beautiful sunsets – perhaps best viewed from the Vancouver Lookout Tower. We took the lift up just before dinner and were able to gaze across the Park we’d just explored, over to Vancouver Island and out to the surrounding towns.
Head north on day two, where Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridge await via a free shuttle bus from Canada Place. Adventure is an option here: you can take the more sedate gondola to the top of the peak or do the aptly-named Grouse Grind trail instead. I’ll give you one guess which one we went for.
It took us nearly two hours in the blistering heat to reach the summit, scrambling up steep rocks while fighting off mosquitoes. Luckily, we were armed with two bottles of water and a bag of Starburst – otherwise I don’t think we’d have made it.
At the top, our gruelling hike was rewarded with panoramic views across Vancouver below, as well as a burger from the mountain-top restaurant. Further exploration of the peak saw impressive wooden carvings, a unique lumberjack show and a grizzly bear sanctuary. Seeing those chequered shirts and thick brown fur made the whole trek worthwhile.
In the afternoon, catch the Grouse Mountain shuttle to Capilano – just a five-minute journey. Here you can experience its namesake: a 70-metre-high suspension bridge spanning a 140-metre-wide canyon, as well as a treetop walk, cliff-side stroll and a bird’s of prey display.
We had a tough decision on the third day: get the ferry over to Victoria and Vancouver Island, or head for Richmond to spot some sea life. Neither my boyfriend or I had seen whales before, so we opted for the latter, spending five hours bobbing along the Georgia Strait in search of cetaceans. We didn’t search for long. Within 90 minutes our Vancouver Whale Watch boat was being flanked by a resident pod of Orcas. And that was just the start.
A few radio transmissions later and we were flying across the ocean, straight for a nearby quad of humpbacks. A pod of transient orcas weren’t far behind, hungrily eyeing up a lone seal as it bobbed by our vessel, looking decidedly sorry for itself. Thankfully we didn't witness a bloodbath, but the memory of a humpback breaching right next to us, with the mighty Mount Baker as its backdrop, will stick with me forever. I don’t know what Vancouver Island is like, but I’m certain we made the right choice.
Where to stay: Location-wise, you can’t go wrong with the hotels that surround Canada Place – try the Pan Pacific or Fairmont Waterfront.
An incredible way to travel
In Canada, flying is overrated. The best way to explore and take in the incredible landscapes is by foot, car, or rail. Enter the Rocky Mountaineer.
Our chosen route was the two-day Journey Through the Clouds, leaving Vancouver and heading to Jasper via the arid semi-desert-(yes, you read right: desert)-scapes of Kamloops. A flight might get you from Vancouver to Calgary in under an hour, but we quickly discovered that this was the best way to take in all the scenery.
Through the glass domed roof of the Gold Leaf Service, you’ll feel like you’re inside the canyons and mountains, getting closer to British Columbia’s rivers, peaks and waterfalls than any car or plane would take you. Combine that with exemplary service and five-star dining, and you’re onto a winner. My personal favourite? The beef short ribs were to-die-for, especially when accompanied by a glass of sauvignon.