Think you’ve done Vancouver? Once you’ve sampled the culture, amazing eats and perfect liveability of this coastal city, don’t despair: just an hour or two beyond its borders, you’ll find an array of stunning wilderness and adventure, and a bit more culture and cuisine too. Take your pick among the best British Columbia side trips from Vancouver.
1. Victoria: High teas and history
The capital of British Columbia, Victoria takes heritage and hospitality seriously.
Victoria is best explored on foot. If you’re interested in the history behind its architecture or intrigued by its darker side, consider a walking tour. Discover the Past offers daytime and evening walking tours that cover everything from the city’s gold rush days to its most famous ghosts and their favourite haunts.
Nowhere can beat the location of the Fairmont Empress, an imposing building overlooking the Inner Harbour. An extensive renovation in 2017 updated this hotel without damaging its original 1908 grandeur. High tea in the sophisticated Lobby Lounge is served on the same Empress china used for visiting royals and other dignitaries.
2. Whistler: Not just for snow junkies
Now considered a year-round destination, the mountain resort of Whistler goes out of its way to make sure you’ll have fun.
Whistler’s skiing and snowboarding scene is world famous, and the excellent ski school helps everyone from complete beginners to those looking to improve their technique. The mountains are just as popular in summer with hikers and bikers, and the resort also runs excellent bear-watching walks.
At over three kilometres long and rising 436 metres above the valley floor, the Peak 2 Peak Gondola connects the tops of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, giving skiers and sightseers alike an incredible, 15-minute scenic ride over glaciers, forests and the valley. Atop Whistler mountain, visitors can test their head for heights by walking to the West Ridge on the 130-metre-long Cloudraker Suspension Bridge.
There’s nothing quite like an outdoor spa in the mountains with snow on the ground to make you feel disconnected from the pressures of modern life. At Scandinave Spa, move from sauna, steam room or hot tub to plunge pool or cold shower. Pull up a chair around the fire pit, or head into one of the warm relaxation rooms for a snooze. Open year-round.
3. Okanagan Valley: Wine country
British Columbia makes excellent wine, the vast majority of it produced in the Okanagan Valley. Thanks to distinct micro-climates and soil differences, the region produces wine as varied as Riesling and Syrah.
To get a sense of the different wineries and their varietals, you need to visit several, tasting as you go. Experience Wine Tours is known for its excellent itineraries, wine knowledge and customer service. Daily tours are conducted by qualified sommeliers and include a picnic lunch of local produce, artisanal cheeses and charcuterie.
The boutique guesthouse at Burrowing Owl Estate Winery offers 10 luxury rooms, all with private balconies overlooking the vineyards, plus one especially luxurious two-bedroom suite. Lunch and dinner are served in its excellent Sonora Room restaurant. A number of private tours and tastings are offered, and custom tours can be arranged with advance notice.
Culture meets nature
Just south of the Okanagan is the Osoyoos Desert. The hottest, driest part of Canada is also home to the Osoyoos Indian Band and its award-winning winery Nk’Mip Cellars. Taste the incredible reds, tour the winery and be sure to have lunch on the spectacular patio. Visit the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre right next door to learn more about the desert ecology, the rattlesnake rehabilitation programme and local Aboriginal traditions.
4. Galiano Island: Castaway for a day
Get away from it all and visit one of the Gulf Islands. Galiano is less than an hour by ferry from Vancouver, but you’ll feel as if you have travelled to a distant land of pristine nature.
It measures just 27 kilometres long, so seeing all of Galiano is doable on a day trip. If you come without a car, the best way to get around is to hire a moped from Galiano Adventures. The information centre has free maps and route suggestions.
Watch for whales
The waters that surround Galiano are part of a feeding route for killer whales. For a clear view of Active Pass, and the best chance of spotting one of the many whale pods that visit the area, head to the southern end of the island and hike one of the short trails through beautiful Bluffs Park. You can also trek a two-hour loop of the park over easy terrain.
Pilgrimme opened in 2015 and was instantly declared one of Canada’s best restaurants, praised for its use of local and foraged ingredients. Even in winter, two-thirds of the ingredients are sourced from Galiano, and you will be hard-pressed to find a chef more committed to the flavours of the Pacific Northwest than co-owner Jesse McCleery. Book well in advance.
5. Tofino: Rugged beach town
A small town on the western-most edge of Vancouver Island, Tofino boasts wide beaches and a chilled-out vibe.
Harbour Air opened a new floatplane route in summer 2018, taking visitors from downtown Vancouver directly into Tofino marina. On a clear day this thrilling, scenic flight is worth the trip alone.
Positioned on a promontory jutting into the Pacific, the Wickaninnish Inn is the jewel of Tofino. You’ll get to enjoy unobstructed views from the rooms, incredible Pacific Northwest cuisine at the Pointe Restaurant and a luxurious ocean-side spa. Visit in winter for spectacular storm watching.
Don’t just watch: take the plunge and learn to surf. Pacific Surf School offers lessons for groups, individuals or families, and there are adaptive programmes for individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities.
This story was originally published in October 2018 and updated in August 2020