Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Monday, October 26, 2015

roadtrip! the canadian west part #1 - 7 days across british columbia

Living in Germany, now for almost five years, I constantly meet people who have either visited Canada themselves or know someone who has...and everyone wants to talk about how amazing it is. I concur!

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a tour of Western Canada, driving more than 2300 kms (now that's a roadtrip...and we only covered two provinces!).

Upon landing in Vancouver, British Columbia, we immediately set our sights on boarding the ferry at Tsawassan Ferry Terminal. We were booked on the evening ferry to Galiano Island, one gem admidst a cluster of nature's finest - the Southern Gulf Islands. My only goal: an adirondack chair, a mug of red wine, and an orca-filled view of the Pacific.

I began a routine of waking up early, at first due to jetlag, and then because I didn't want to miss a moment of the view. As the sun would wake, I sat wrapped in a blanket, coffee in hand, and just waited. For nothing in particular. Every now and then, I would see a sea lion, his big head bobbing in the water. He would make snorting noises, as if exhausted from swimming a marathon. I could've watched all day.

Galiano Island, along with many of the Southern Gulf Islands, are actually home to people and not so much tourist destinations. Some of the island's earliest settlers worked at the long-since-gone salting factories. There is a little school house, and a downtown made up of a main street and three side streets, some art galleries and lots of dense forest.

Great guy and I spent many hours hiking through, what felt like, untouched, virgin forest. Coming out onto bluffs overlooking Active Pass was a treat. Or wandering along White Shell Beach, and even quickly jumping into the frigid Pacific, at Montague Harbour, was exhilarating (to say the least). The ocean water among the islands was the clearest, ice-jade colour we had ever seen.

Two days after arriving, we took the 2-hour ferry ride to Swartz Bay, Vancouver Island, wanting to spend the day with great guy's niece who lives in Victoria. 

I have been to Victoria a few times, and now more than ever, I was struck by how British it feels. There is an old-world regal-ness to the harbour area. I was half expecting the queen to make an appearance. The only other place where I've felt this royal-vibe, funnily enough wasn't London (not even close), but the island of Gibraltar, where the Union Jack and the queen's face adorn almost every shopfront. 

Victoria's crown jewel is the Empress Hotel, and like most of the Fairmont Hotels, this one is impressive inside and out. Great guy and I wandered through the grand hallways of the hotel, and I almost had him convinced to indulge in high tea with me. Well, okay, not even close. There's no way he'd ever pay $60 for a cup of tea and cookies, even if they are really pretty cookies. It's on my bucket list though...high tea with the queen. Someday...

Directly beside the Empress Hotel is the British Columbia Parliament, which we popped into to have a quick look. The history of how the parliament buildings came to be in Victoria, and then progressively built, was outlined along a photograph wall. It's an architecturally-fascinating building to wander through and the tour takes you through its entirety.

Inside the B.C. Parliament's dome
Victoria's charm spreads throughout the historic downtown streets, wafting past former carriage lanes, and drifting onto terraced garden patios. The red brick buildings, old-fashioned lamp posts, heavy swirling fascia crying out 'look at me!', stand at attention along every block. 

We wandered down a cobblestoned alley and stopped for ice cream. Red Label flavour, anyone? Only in Canada.

With our chocolate and pistacio flavours (it wasn't five o'clock anywhere close to where we were) we ambled slowly to the car that would then take us to the ferry. Victoria is known for its beautiful parks - Butchart Gardens is one of Canada's most famous. But right in the centre of Victoria, Beacon Hill Park, is an incredibly expansive, green and flowery place to spend some time.

And, ever a fan of the rich stories in a totem pole, I couldn't resist taking the time to study the faces of the eagle, bear, raven, etc. in the totems we came across. I find the artwork, especially in the eyes, fascinating. Each totem tells a story; the qualities assigned to the animals, and where they're placed on the totem, reveal their meaning to those who know them.

As we left Victoria and drove along the coast to Swartz Bay, we stopped at the beach and at Sidney Harbour. There is something peaceful about walking amongst rows of sleeping white boats, all with various adventures behind and in front of them. Great guy makes us stop at pretty much every harbour we see; this one I couldn't complain about.

Among the islanders, eating and producing organically is a way of life. In fact, with the mild climate that it enjoys, B.C. is known for its many roadside fruit and vegetable stands throughout the southern part of the province. I had to stop and snap a few photos of this incredible pumpkin patch that went on as far as the eye could see. At its accompanying market across the street, we picked up a host of fresh goodies to keep us company on the roadtrip we were about to begin.  

Great guy's niece surprised us by coming to Galiano Island with her roommate and staying the night. Before we said goodbye and headed to the mainland, we went for a hike together and took a group shot...a must.

On day #4, we began the 1000 km trek by car, which great guy was not looking forward to. Germans would plan a two-week trip, with supplies for a month, before heading out to drive that kind of distance. Most Canadians I know do that in a day...if not, we'd never get anywhere!

People in Germany often ask me what the culture is like in Canada. 'What's Canadian food?' I hear all the time. Though it's sometimes frustrating not to have something easy to say, it's also a huge advantage, in my opinion, that 'Canadian culture' is that what each of our families bring to the table. I surprise people when I tell them things like I grew up eating mostly German food, and that we celebrated Christmas on the 24th. Canada is a big beautiful mix of history, tradition, rituals, and stories...around every corner you see, hear, smell varying artwork, languages, music, festivals and food. Nothing and no one is perfect, but I believe the country is richer because of this diversity, and Vancouver is a Grade A example.

Salishan First Nation Drummers opening an event in Vancouver
We stopped for a few precious hours in Vancouver; a total shame really. It is one of my favourite cities, having an international, worldly atmosphere while still being simply Canadian. Vancouver is a great place for anyone to land because no matter what you're after I would bet Vancouver has it. An eclectic arts & music scene...

...all shades of designer, vintage, and just plain ol' normal shopping...

...and every outdoor activity, from family to extreme, that you can think of, is possible within an hour of Vancouver. Kayaking, deep-sea fishing, and scuba diving in the Pacific. Sun-tanning, beachcombing, and surfing along endless seawalls or sandy beaches. Biking...from mountain, downhill and tandem, all the way to the GranFondo 122km sea to sky race. And that's just in the summer - in the winter there's almost more to do!

Well, as I said, we only had a few hours and since I was with a Van-virgin, I opted to show him Stanley Park. With the seawall, totems, downtown and mountain views, and the aquarium, Stanley Park has a lot of bang for buck. For anyone who loves marine life...or any life for that matter, a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium should be on your list. Great guy, the sea creature that he is, was excited. 

This place doesn't feel like your hometown zoo. In almost every pool or tank, there is either active research ongoing or signage explaining current conservation projects. Most, if not all, of the animals at the aquarium were rescued and rehabilitated, then deemed not suitable to be released back into the wild. There were many stories about where the animals had come from, what had happened to them, and how they managed to survive.

I was impressed by the interactive, up-close-and-personal opportunities of the aquarium. You can't help but absorb interesting information about the local sea incredible underwater world that's so close, yet seems almost magical and unreal.

Did you know that a glorious, floating herd of jellyfish is called a 'smack'? A smack of if that's the sound it would make if you flung one against a wall (not that anyone should ever do that).

It is amazing to stand in front of a tank the size of a small house, with only a pane of glass between you a zillion sea creatures. Watching fish of all shapes and sizes, corals, plants and other sea life just getting on with their's the next best thing to diving, but without the pesky fear of sharks eating you. The kids got so excited about sticking their hands into the interactive pools, and screamed in delight when the giant turtle finally opened its eyes. 

If we would've had a few more hours, I would've taken great guy to Bowen Island. It's just a short ferry ride from North Vancouver to this quaint island; home to fishing boats, art galleries and lots of big ol' trees.

Early in the afternoon we started our journey eastwards, sticking close to the American border, heading along the #3 highway. This isn't the fastest way east, but it's the more scenic. One thing that every Canadian small town has, as sure as there's a pickup truck, there's a Chinese Canadian restaurant. Sometimes you'll strike gold with these, other times not so much. I suggest you give them a try...needless to say, great guy was not impressed. 

This route has some wonderful big lakes (Osooyoos, Christina, Koocanusa) where you can easily spend a few hours or days, but there are also many picturesque rest stops along the way. We stopped a few times, to stretch our legs and tank some energy (a German saying...which doesn't translate into English well). As we got closer to the Rockies, I got more a child before Christmas. Being an Alberta girl, I sure do miss seeing mountains all the time!

Our destination for the last two days of this roadtrip was the ultra-cool, mountain resort town of Fernie, B.C. We were meeting friends from Calgary, who have property here, and who spend pretty much any chance they get being here instead of there.

They had organized two days of intro-to-golfing-and-fly-fishing for great guy. He was beyond excited and pretty much had been talking about nothing else for weeks. Fernie didn't disappoint...even when the Fish & Wildlife officer stopped them at the river and, upon seeing great guy's temporary, out-of-country fishing licence, asked in all seriousness 'You're the alien?'

Meanwhile, the mountains surrounding Fernie entertained me as I managed not to die mountain biking. Only once before, when I was much younger and in the midst of my basketball career, had I actually ridden a bike up a real mountain - that was in the Alps with my uncle....and on this day it seemed like a lifetime ago. 

All in all, we had a great time in Fernie, dodging sandtraps and grizzlies (in my head they were around every corner), catching (and releasing) fish in a-river-runs-through-it style, and most of all, just having some good quality friend-time. 

And who knew that in Fernie the eats are so good? Some local recommendations: The Curry Bowl, Loaf, The Brickhouse, and Crumbs Cakery. We ate at two of the four and they were excellent. Cool vibes, homemade pasta, long wooden bars, and barely an empty seat. Perfect.

We left British Columbia after seven days with a trunk full of memories...and we're already working on a plan to return. I need to get back to that adirondack chair, glass of wine and the ocean full of heart and mind will not let go!

Coming up: Alberta Rockies Roadtrip! Stay tuned!

Travel Tips:

find the perfect place for you to lay your head on air bnb (great app)
island hop with BC Ferries ( or just stay put and enjoy
fly into Victoria or Vancouver, rent a car/motorhome/bike and go
fly out of Calgary (once you've hit Fernie, you're just 3 hours from Calgary)

stop along the way in any of the numerous beautiful small towns and cities, with big lakes (Okanagan anyone?) and big skies

grab a road map (you won't always have cell service), vere off the road everyone travels and find your own won't disappoint!

and most importantly, be friendly and people will be friendly to you
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