Travel, Eh?

25 Reasons to Visit British Columbia Right Now

Great things are afoot up north. Dig out the passport and pack your best toque—it’s time for a fresh visit to Vancouver, Victoria, and the rest of British Columbia.

By Allison Williams Illustrations by Ryan Snook June 19, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Seattle Met

There are a million classic reasons to visit our fair friend to the north (­hello, ketchup chips and kickass Asian food). But Canada is hardly stuck in maple syrup; Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, Tofino, and the rest of British Columbia bustle with new food, strange escapades, and distinctly Canadian ways to have fun.

You can fly downtown to downtown

Vancouver Kenmore Air worked through the bureaucratic red tape to launch a downtown Seattle to downtown Vancouver seaplane flight in April 2018, linking our Lake Union to a dock on Coal Harbour. Two flights depart each way on weekdays, and what they lack in economy (about $285 each way) they make up for in killer photo ops. Not to mention convenience: It takes about two hours total from check-in to exiting Vancouver customs. Go from Pike Place Market to Stanley Park without darkening a car door.

Luxury hotels can travel

Haida Gwaii It was a strange sight this spring: A tugboat towed a three-story floating building through Vancouver’s Coal Harbour, the wood beams above its open balcony visible from downtown’s glassy towers. Fresh off a face-lift, the floating Ocean House hotel was on its way to distant Haida Gwaii, a chain of islands right where the BC coast gives way to Alaska. The luxe hotel can park with minimal impact in the wild archipelago, a distant inlet where guests arrive only by helicopter. The Haida First Nation operators don’t mistake remoteness for cultural remove; resident carvers and weavers are allotted workspace on board, and Haida interpreters lead tours of the region’s sacred sites.

The lush rainforest in Kaisun is just a hop, skip, and a jump from Ocean House.

Granville Island is cool again

Vancouver Call it BC’s Pike Place Market; walkable ­Granville Island has long been full of old standbys like a public market, fish-and-chips stands, and a handmade broom shop. This summer a blast of fresh fare arrives via a popup restaurant inside three repurposed shipping containers. A supergroup of local restaurateurs, including Joël Watanabe of Italian-­Japanese fusion joint Kissa Tanto, call their counter-­service eatery Popina Canteen.

A Bumbershoot clone kicks off this year

Vancouver Like our own summer music shindig, the new Skookum Festival September 7–9 features music (Florence and the Machine, the Killers, St. Vincent), art shows, and food events against an iconic backdrop—Stanley Park in this case. Organizers paired with local First Nations and will offer a free bike valet to encourage festivalgoers to pedal to the party.

Canadians don't fear wine stains

Kelowna The Okanagan Valley wine region is famous within the province—just try finding a BC wine list without one of its rieslings or cab francs. It boasts more than 180 wineries, more than our own Walla Walla area. The region uses its copious (for Canada) sunshine every way it can, like in a popular wine half marathon and July’s Dîner en Blanc—hundreds of white-clad diners at a mass BYO picnic, like a P. Diddy party for public radio fans.

Image: Ryan Snook

The Empress deigns to forgive

Can you blame the Fairmont Empress Hotel? When business traveler Nick Burchill stayed in the Victoria landmark 17 years ago, he left his room window open and dried Halifax sausage sitting about—a gift for his navy buddies. After a flock of seagulls trashed the room, the hotel banned him for life. Nearly two decades later, Burchill described the day on Facebook as “a tornado of seagull excrement, feathers, pepperoni chunks and fairly large birds whipping around the room.”

“It’s all true!” says public relations director Tracey Drake, laughing; Burchill is one of the few blacklisted guests anyone can remember. But the Empress staff was delighted when Burchill returned this spring with an elaborate apology (and a pepperoni gift), earning himself a pardon.

“He was quite funny, quite charming,” Drake says, though his late-March timing initially made them suspect an April Fools’ joke.

Forgiveness for a once-reckless guest is in line with the Empress’s new look; last year’s $60 million renovation literally tore the old ivy off the regal hotel. Portraits of hotel namesake Queen Victoria peer from Q Bar’s walls, distressed graffiti style in a salute to the modern update. If you look closely enough, she might be laughing, too.

Image: Ryan Snook

Captain Canuck breaks the law, a lot

Almost every comic book in Canada is illegal. Technically. Since 1949, part of the so-called Fulton Law prohibited any illustrated book that depicted a crime—like, say, ray-gunning the moon or kidnapping sidekicks.

Where’d they get such an idea? America, of course. Here the Comic Code Authority formed in 1954 to literally put its stamp of approval on U.S. comics; it prohibited ones that “explicitly present the unique details and methods of a crime” and noted that “in every instance good shall triumph over evil,” because that’s realistic. While such laws originally straitjacketed the industry, no one’s paid heed to them—on either side of the border—in decades.

In Victoria’s tiny comics district, a strip of gaming and bookstores on Johnson Street downtown, no one has heard of the Fulton Law. Shops largely sell American comics, and most clerks struggled to remember Canadian superheroes. Even Captain Canuck, with his nonlethal batons, pales in popularity to Captain America.

The Canadian government is doing a sweep of these zombie laws, clearing out a few archaic prohibitions. Thanks to the update, not only will crime comics become legal, but so will dueling and pretending to perform witchcraft. Talk about a free-for-all.

Cocktails get experimental downtown

Vancouver When the Fairmont Pacific Rim’s second-floor restaurant, Oru, disappeared in 2016, no one missed it much. But Botanist, the eatery that replaced Oru the next spring, has quickly gained acclaim. Maybe it’s because its bar takes gadgetry to the next level with centrifuges and evaporators, using the lab tech to produce complex cocktails made of tinctures and elixirs. Even the glassware is trying something new, in vessels shaped like birds or that rest on driftwood.

Bikes now rule Grouse Mountain

Vancouver The city’s next-door ski mountain—you can ride a public bus there—already had summer ziplines, hiking trails, paraglide rides, and rescued grizzly bears. This summer pedal-assist mountain biking joins the roster of Grouse Mountain adventures. If the dramatic views from the new trails aren’t enough, ride on the roof of Grouse’s tram up or down the mountain in what’s called a Skyride Surf Adventure.

Pod hotels got an update

Whistler Capsule hotels have a reputation for coffin-size accommodations, but Whistler’s Pangea Pod Hotel is expanding the definition. The hotel clumps six to 18 full beds in a suite, then isolates each memory-foam mattress into its own generous cubby finished in wood. Set to open well before Whistler’s next ski season, it’s up against the best; area hostels already boast saunas, bar crawls, and massive discounts at local favorite Southside Diner.

You can base a whole town on no-bake dessert

Nanaimo The small coastal city of Nanaimo, once a coal mining town and now a major ferry port, means one thing in Canada—calories. The Nanaimo Bar shows its 1950 roots: a no-bake three-layer dessert made of graham cracker and almond crust, yellow custard, and chocolate ganache. The burg is so proud that there’s a Nanaimo Bar Trail with a whopping 39 stops; the treat is reimagined into a cupcake, cheesecake, milkshake, latte, spring roll, and more. To date, no one’s managed a truly healthy version.

 Parq Vancouver has a Kusamalike elevator

Vancouver It’s strange that neither the sixth-floor public park, complete with 30,000 square feet of trees and reflecting pools, nor the two-floor casino is the coolest part of the new Parq Vancouver complex behind the city’s BC Place. That would be the sumptuous Douglas Hotel’s elevators within the compound, lined with lights and reflective walls. It may not be explicitly inspired by Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors art exhibition, but it produces a similar geometric selfie.

Sterile warehouse vibes have been banished thanks to Backcountry Brewing's new tasting room.

Squamish has become a beer town

Squamish Word’s out that funky Squamish—once an old mill town, still a rock climber’s hangout—is growing a beer scene. Downtown’s Howe Sound Brewing has mixed hops and poured pints since 1996, ballooning to a brewpub and hotel sprawled over a city block. In its first year Backcountry Brewing has turned a sterile warehouse block north of town into a lively tasting room hangout, and A-Frame Brewing boasts a caramel-colored cream ale that pairs perfectly with its outdoor fire pit. They’re all at Squamish Beer Festival on July 7, an outdoor event pouring more than 200 brews and ciders.

Image: Ryan Snook

BC is all in on pot

The inside of a cannabis greenhouse definitely has an aroma when the buds are in full bloom—not the stanky whiff you’d catch outside Neumos, but a fresh, botanical scent.

Especially the inside of the world’s biggest pot greenhouse; when Jordan Sinclair, the vice president of communications at trans-Canada operation Canopy Growth, visits one of the company’s greenhouses, his wife can tell when he gets home at night. “It’s almost like aromatherapy,” he says.

There’s a lot to behold—in March, Canopy Growth was the majority purchaser of a property in Langley, BC, converting former bell pepper–growing acres to cannabis in anticipation of Canada’s imminent recreational use decriminalization. Green bonus: Weed takes one-eightieth the water the peppers did.

The Langley property will be the biggest indoor grow operation in the world with some three million square feet of plants, all of which need carefully calibrated light to blossom correctly. They’ll feed party joints and medical products; while, say, a California grower’s market stops at the state line, Canopy will soon sell from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland.

Sinclair remembers his first legal joint purchase in Seattle, how strange it felt; but he expects Canada will get over the novelty quickly. “Society’s already doing this,” he says. “We’re just adding a little structure and a little bit of class.”

Whistler can't stop, won't stop

Whistler When Vail Resorts bought Whistler Blackcomb ski resort in 2016, Pacific Northwest mountain fiends held their collective breath. Turns out that higher lift tickets come with rewards, some $66 million Canadian in improvements. A brand-new suspension bridge atop Whistler Peak takes summer sightseers 50 meters above Whistler Bowl, and the bike park will expand by 15 kilometers. Come winter, a brand-new gondola replaces pokey old Blackcomb chairlifts.

Canucks butcher beans now

Victoria It’s no insult to call Very Good Butchers a bloodless operation; after all, it’s a fully vegan operation. Recently expanded to a retail counter and mini eatery in Victoria Public Market, it hawks seitan bacon and British-style bangers made from navy beans and leeks. The staff is endlessly earnest, offering tasting notes on every meat-adjacent cut and hot cauliflower wing sauce, from behind a sign that reads, “Allergies? Lettuce know.”

Fine dining takes its time in Victoria

Victoria Though downtown Magnolia Hotel and Spa dates back to 1998, it leased its ground floor dining space until this year, finally opening its own Courtney Room, where chef Sam Harris applies French techniques to Vancouver Island ingredients. The wine list is so long the glassed-in wine cellar needed more shelves within a week of opening. Harris’s secret weapons are his five-figure kitchen appliances: The French-made Arredoinox Maturmeat 60 dry-ages tenderloins and rib eyes, handmade charcuterie, and beef headed to a swoonworthy tartare dotted with brown-butter croutons; the American blast chiller produces sashimi-grade seafood. In a town known for afternoon tea, it’s a whole new kind of delicate dining.

Tofino grew a hopping downtown

Tofino Vancouver Island’s surf town has long stretched along the coast like a lazy surfer, a long peninsula dotted with a beloved taco truck here, a luxury hotel there. But Tofino has slowly grown a walkable downtown, where recent sidewalk upgrades better link booming eateries that lean into seafood and foraged fare. Two former NHL players bought a faded downtown motel there, then transformed it into the Tofino Resort and Marina last year. How’s this for lively: The resort boasts a Sunday hip-hop brunch to the sounds of Tupac and Biggie.

Canada stole the world's biggest esports event

Vancouver Competitive video games are no joke. The International event, where teams play multiplayer game Dota 2 from Bellevue-based Valve, is basically the Olympics of gaming—if the gold medal came with a payout in the millions. The esports event jumps to Rogers Arena (August 20–25) after six years in Seattle, where the pot will seem even bigger in Canadian dollars.

Head to Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park to soak in Lussier Hot Springs.

The Kootenays is hot spring heaven

Kootenays The Rocky Mountains radiate into the lower right side of the British Columbia rectangle, harboring epic ski hills and the source of the Columbia River. Remote but not empty, it’s littered with hot springs of every flavor. Swimming pools and steamy caves? Ainsworth Hot Springs has ’em. Halcyon Hot Springs burbles with curative -iums (sodium, magnesium, strontium, lithium), and Lussier Hot Springs seep into riverbank rock pools. Nature loves a hot tub.

You can't keep leaping Canadians down

Parking tickets are, in Vancouver, a minimum of $42 CAD. Speeding will cost you at least $138. But jumping off a wharf in North Vancouver on a hot day? The city council there passed a law that would have fined leapers a whopping $200.

Turns out Canadians love to jump off things. When the Peak to Peak Gondola debuted in Whistler in 2008, famous BASE jumper and Vancouver native Shane McConkey bounded out of a cabin more than 1,400 feet above the valley floor during the opening festivities. Six years later, a man pried open a gondola door to repeat the stunt illegally, calling out, “That’s for you, McConkey!” on his descent.

Back in North Van, Lynn Canyon Park has become a cliff jumping playground, leapers daring each other even as they pass a memorial to a teenager who died doing it. Daredevils queue on protruding rocks and a small bridge to hurl themselves into green-tinged creek water below.

So why the fine at Deep Cove wharf in North Vancouver? Officials worry about the safety of both leapers and the kayakers who paddle under the structure. But within weeks of the bylaw passage in May, the city council was already discussing scrapping the fine. After all, flinging oneself into the abyss is a Canadian tradition.

Image: Ryan Snook

It's time for an Adams River run

Kamloops It’s not the end of the world when the rivers run red in British Columbia; it happens as often as the winter Olympics. Ruby-scaled sockeye salmon spawn in especially large droves every four years, and this fall’s Adams River dominant run is the quadrennial fish rush. The Salute to the Sockeye festival northeast of Kamloops offers interpretive tours September 28 through late October; miss this one and you’ll have to wait until after we endure the next presidential election.

The clock is ticking on Vancouver's art HQ

Vancouver A neoclassic courthouse building with Ionic columns and a central Robson Square address—what more could a museum want? Turns out the Vancouver Art Gallery wants a new space and has been working on new digs for more than a decade, finally landing on a conceptual design in 2015. Funding for the new building has lagged, so while that means the gallery has to continue without much-needed exhibit and education space for now, traditionalists get a little time to enjoy those Ionic columns, even as what’s inside is thoroughly modern.

Axe throwing is a thing now

Whistler, Surrey The sport of axe throwing—like darts, but with a potentially lethal Paul Bunyon spin—is a global trend, popping up as far away as Brooklyn and Paris. But it turns out that chucking a steel tool at a bull’s-eye was a natural fit for BC: Forged Axe Throwing near Whistler hosts weekly league matches in its wood-lined storefront, and coast-to-coast chain Bad Axe Throwing has an outpost in Surrey, just past the U.S. border. There’s something very Canuck about embracing the lumberjack equivalent of trash-can basketball as a sport.

Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver

Vancouver Canadians as enthusiastic environmentalists? Checks out. Diehards who put passion into action with visible, disruptive protest? Hardly the rep of the country that gave us Dudley Do-Right. But environmental group Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in an attempt to stop U.S. nuclear testing in Alaska; this summer the Vancouver Maritime Museum marks the 50th (ish) anniversary with the exhibit Making Waves: The Story and Legacy of Greenpeace with photos and tales of the protest juggernaut’s early days, like how the distinct name came about because they couldn’t fit the space between green and peace on a button.

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