By Virginia Thompson
Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary of its Confederation this year, so what better year to visit our northern neighbor? Especially when all of the national parks, many in number, well-staffed and well-cared for, are free in 2017!
My husband, Tom Shaffer, and I chose British Columbia as our vacation site. It is truly one of the most beautiful places on the continent, at least during the dry summer months, featuring glistening lakes, streams, beaches, the Pacific Ocean, endless forests of ancient cedar trees — all surrounded by tall snow-capped mountains.
Our weather was picture-perfect, with blue skies and high temps in the upper 70s. We started in Vancouver, where we hiked miles of trails in Stanley Park and biked the 6-mile seawall on the Burrard Inlet. A gondola trip to the top of Grouse Mountain provided spectacular views of mountains (including Mount Rainier) and an outstanding gourmet dinner at sunset. The Capilano Suspension Bridge Park included a long and bouncy pedestrian suspension bridge several hundred feet above a gorgeous mountain stream. Seven other shorter suspension bridges took us among the treetops, and a cliff walk allowed a close-up inspection of the rocks that produce the steep walls.
Vancouver and its environs also host innumerable cultural institutions that provide insight into the Canadian psyche. Among these sites: Granville Island Market, a combination of the Reading Terminal Market and Seattle’s Pike Place Market, with a character and feel unique to Vancouver and a great place to people-watch and buy unique foods and souvenirs.
The University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology holds remarkably large totem poles and house poles (so-called because they tell the history of the house’s inhabitants) and displays hundreds of cases and drawers of specimens that would be stored in back rooms in typical museums. In nearby Whistler Village, we visited the Squamish-Lil’Wat Cultural Center to learn about two local First Nations tribes. The center offered a peek into the people’s connection to the land, sense of community, shared responsibility, and the hard work required for their existence.
The Bill Reid Gallery of Northwestern Art highlights the work of a BC native artist, born of a Haida Tribe mother and an American father, whose impact on Canadian art makes him one of Canada’s greatest artists. He was a goldsmith, carver, sculptor, and writer whose work is on Canadian postage stamps and the $20 bill.
After five days in the Vancouver area, we took a ferry to Vancouver Island, where we first traveled to Ucluelet on the island’s west coast. One of the highlights was a 5-hour wildlife boat tour through the Broken Islands, where many seals and sea lions entertained us by lounging on the sunny rocks. We also saw many bald eagles, some bear and deer, but, alas, no whales, as they are “unpredictable,” per the tour operators. The tour also provided us with the area’s history and a wonderful salmon lunch, accompanied by hummingbirds attracted by the feeders while we were anchored for lunch. Ucluelet was the only place we experienced some rain, but we managed to hike parts of the Wild Pacific Trail with its ancient cedar trees.
Victoria was our last stop, and here we saw Butchart Gardens, a smaller Longwood Gardens with an unbelievable sunken garden in the limestone quarry that previously operated on the site. Craigdarroch Castle, off the beaten path of Victoria, was built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, who died before the home’s completion. His wife and children lived there, and its later history as a military hospital, college, school board offices, and music conservatory brought significant changes to the original building, those changes interesting in their own right. Stained glass, woodwork, and Victorian-era furnishings make this a must-see attraction. The castle, a Canadian designated national historical site, is still undergoing renovations. Of course, no trip to Victoria is complete without exploring the walkway around the harbor, taking the tour of the BC legislative buildings, visiting the BC Museum, and shopping for unique items along Government Street.
Every trip leaves you with certain overarching impressions of the people and places you visit. One of our joys, visiting in the last two weeks of July, was the length of the days. The sun rose at about 5:45 a.m., and while it didn’t set until about 9:15 p.m., it stayed light until about 10 p.m. Other general impressions were the friendliness of the people (with the exception of Victoria, which seems to cater to tourists more than the other places), the absolute right-of-way that pedestrians have, and more prohibitions against smoking than we are used to. Biking and hiking trails are everywhere (even on divided four lane highways), and they are well used.
People are outdoorsy and activity-based during the summer months — kayaks, bikes, paddleboards, and other toys for outdoor fun seem to top every vehicle. Because of Vancouver’s moderate year-round climate, there is a significant homeless population in the city. Forest fires in interior BC reduced visibility for us in some areas, including at Whistler. There are no Canadian pennies anymore, and prices are rounded up or down if paying in cash; $1 and $2 coins replace paper, and the lowest denomination of bills is the $5.
Canada’s beauty and abundant activities made our two weeks there a wonderful vacation. It was very hard to leave and return to “normal” life.