Think about winter in British Columbia and snowy mountain towns and top-notch skiing come quickly to mind. Yet to understand the landscape as locals do is to also experience another side of Canada’s westernmost province during its frostiest season: coastal life.
During the year’s coldest months, British Columbia’s coast tells its own story — one of surprising diversity, where countless adventures and unique experiences capture the imagination and beckon all would-be explorers. The question is never what to do, but what to do first?
Here are a few places start.
Vancouver, British Columbia’s largest city, is as renowned for its outskirts, the vast wilderness, as for its sophisticated metropolitan core.
Just a 30-minute drive from downtown, across the Burrard Inlet and over land that the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation have inhabited for millennia, Vancouver’s coastal waters beckon. A winter paddling tour with Deep Cove Canoe and Kayak, for example, explores the fjord at a leisurely pace, often in silence and alongside seals playing and eagles fishing; it’s a journey backed by snow-capped mountains that seem to spring from deep beneath the water below, rising sharply into the sky above.
Sandwiched as it is between the Coast Mountain Range and the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver’s wintry precipitation also presents the perfect opportunity to make like a local and hike on hundreds of kilometres of well-marked, year-round trails, which in the rain are at their most mystical. From Vancouver’s Pacific Spirit Regional Park to its legendary North Shore, there’s no shortage of quick day trip adventures in the rainforest. Prefer to pedal? Mild temperatures and thick forests of fir, cedar and hemlock trees — not to mention numerous trails and a nine-kilometre (six-mile) bicycle path along the seawall — lure cyclists to the 405 hectares (1,000 acres) that make up Vancouver's lush Stanley Park, even in winter.
For a quick escape beyond the city sights, Bowen Island is a scenic 20-minute ferry crossing from West Vancouver. It’s simple to self-guide once there, but when boutique company Bowen Island Tours takes the reigns, your appreciation for island life is sure to deepen. Their Off the Beaten Track to Artisan Square excursion, for example, wanders through the woods along lush, secluded paths lined with waist-high ferns and towering trees. Ocean and mountain viewpoints provide scenic rewards along the way before the tour wraps at the island’s Artisan Square, a cultural hub that promises both culinary and creative adventures.
If staying dry is preferred, exercising one's mind is an alluring option. Back in Vancouver, Context Travel's expert-led, small-group tours guide intellectually-curious travellers to city hot spots, touching on everything from architecture and First Nations culture, to hip neighbourhood haunts and farmers market delights. Led by a local artist, architect, chef or docent, tours delve into Vancouver’s thriving culture, often featuring hands-on or behind-the-scenes experiences.
Worked up an appetite? Then head to the city’s happening Crosstown neighbourhood, and take a turn in the kitchen with a cooking class at The Dirty Apron. Led by Chef David Robertson and his wife, Sara — often with celebrity chef appearances — instruction celebrates popular regional cuisines (think: Asian and European fusion) and highlights the bounty from the region’s rich marine environment and fertile valleys.
A Hop, Skip and a Jump Away
The word “relax” takes on a whole new meaning along the rolling eastern coastline of Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Here, the mild winter climate is the envy of Canada, and the mellow pace, thriving arts communities and charming small towns rate high amongst British Columbians.
The largest Pacific Island east of New Zealand, Vancouver Island is a place where Mother Nature is always at play; witness this from Qualicum Beach and Parksville, where resident Orcas and dolphins can be spotted from secluded coves, and 250 species of birds flit annually through beautiful, nearby wetlands. Tigh-na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort provides the perfect jumping off point to explore this region and, much thanks to its famous Grotto Spa, is a destination in and of itself.
On nearby Galiano Island, a morning spent exploring the rugged headlands, tidal lagoons and white shell beaches of Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park, the oldest park in the Canadian Gulf Islands, provides the perfect segue to an afternoon of relaxing indulgence. The Marona Del Mar Spa at the cosy Galiano Inn, for example, integrates the landscape into its offerings, with sea salt, seaweed and glacier clay making appearances in its healing signature treatments; once buffed, kneaded and polished, retreat to your private seaside cottage to sit fireside, breathe in the salty air and listen to the firewood snap and crackle. Or, experience the landscape gastronomically; foodies are abuzz about nearby Pilgrimme Restaurant, which dishes up an ever-rotating selection of locally harvested ingredients, as well as British Columbia wines and craft beers.
When it roars outside, choosing the perfect place to weather — and watch — a storm is an opportunity in itself.
Few places boast the wondrously wild allure of Vancouver Island’s west coast. At the end of Highway 4, the longest east-west route across the Island, the charming and distinct towns of Tofino and Ucluelet are ground zero for spectacular winter storm watching; behold in fascination at The Wickaninninish Inn, a revered Relais & Châteaux gem, or a number of other properties perched on the edge of the province. Long Beach Lodge Resort not only has front row seats to each mesmerizing tempest, but each room includes rain boots and hearty jackets for diving into the thick of them while the bold can take surfing lessons (complete with board and wetsuit) for a more literal immersion in the region.
Now imagine an area larger than California or Japan, and twice the size of the United Kingdom. Fill it with soaring mountain peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, hot springs and the whispers of hundreds of indigenous generations through the ancient rainforest. This is Northern British Columbia. Zoom in on the northwesterly, pristine coastline packed with nature reserves, provincial parks and island archipelagos, and you have Haida Gwaii.
Surfing isn’t naturally what comes to mind when one thinks of Haida Gwaii. But every winter, after the salmon have run through the region and grey whales have migrated east and south again, the North Beach Surf Shop’s annual Expression Session surf festival kicks off the season, and surfers drift north to carve out their stories on perfect — and often empty — waves. Thanks to “room and board,” a seasonal package offered by the North Beach Surf Shop in conjunction with eco-tourism lodge North Beach Cabins, it’s never been so easy to paddle out.
In fact, easy is a veritable theme throughout the province’s coastal communities during any season. Seaside in British Columbia, life is about slowing down, revelling in the moment, and always, always having eyes open for that next, inevitable adventure.
For more on British Columbia's destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com.