Back to Online Newspapers

Oh Canada

British Columbia is teeming with cool adventures

The Greenheart Tree Walk at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver takes those without a fear of heights into the tree canopy to see a Northwest forest close up. Photo credit: Ken Swarner

Email Article Print Article Share on Facebook Share on Reddit Share on StumbleUpon

It will be a shame if you don't explore British Columbia while you are living here in the Northwest, because while similar in some ways to the greater Pacific Northwest and United States as a whole, there are many unique opportunities a minimum of three hours away that you can't find elsewhere in the region.  From the kitschy feel of Old English styles in Victoria to the ultra-modern, cosmopolitan vibe in Vancouver, and from the amazing wildlife adventures on Vancouver Island to the gastronomical opportunities that await everywhere, BC will blow you away.


First and foremost, U.S. citizens travelling to Canada need a passport or an enhanced driver's license to make things go faster, however, other proofs of citizenship such as a birth certificate will work.  For complete information, go to

Once the documents are right, then you have a few choices on how you'd like to travel.  Many people drive.  From the South Sound, it takes roughly two-and-a-half hours to get to the border at Blaine by car, if you want to go to the mainland portion of BC. From there, it is another 30 minutes to get into Vancouver.  There are alternate crossings - a truck crossing just a couple miles east and another further east near Lynden (both can be seen via Google Maps).  These alternative crossings are sometimes faster.  Wait times at the Blaine crossing can take up to an hour.

Another route into Vancouver is Amtrak - with stations in both Lacey and Tacoma.  You don't save much time getting there, however, you do save an enormous amount of time potentially if the border is slow.  The train waits for no one.  It is also a nice ride along the water.  Amtrak fares from Lacey to Vancouver are roughly $57 one-way for their value fare (but remember you'll need a cab or Uber once in Vancouver since you won't have a car).  And if you plan to fully embrace the greater Vancouver area, you'll need significant transportation.  If you just want to shop and eat, you can walk a lot of the city (if you are in reasonable shape).

To cross over to Vancouver Island (also part of BC, and I'll make a case in this article why you must go there, too) you will need a ferry.  You can cross through BC just south of Vancouver at Twassen, which drops you roughly 40 minutes north of downtown Victoria, take the foot passenger-only Clipper from downtown Seattle, or you can drive to Port Angeles on the U.S. side and ferry directly into downtown Victoria.  For info on the BC Ferries, go here:  BC Ferries are nice, and they have a lot more crossing times.  The cost is also cheaper at around $72 for a car and passenger one-way (plus they have hotel packages).

A new passenger-only ferry is opening next month as well, see details on page 19. The Clipper is fastest, and a lot closer to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Clipper costs start at $149 per person round trip in the summer, but check out their hotel packages for savings, and watch for military and kids fare specials, too.  They are at  For Port Angeles, the Black Ball Ferry is the only choice, with a morning and afternoon sail both ways.  Info is here:  A car and driver is roughly $82 one-way on the Black Ball, but check out their website because they also have some decent packages with Victoria hotels.

There is one more option to Victoria from Seattle - a seaplane.  Kenmore Air will fly you there from Seattle starting around $165 one-way.

Hundreds of jellyfish dance inside their tank at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Photo credit: Ken Swarner


If you have limited time or just want to shop and eat, then staying in downtown Vancouver and planning to walk or Uber is your best bet. But, it does come with some sticker shock.  Vancouver is not cheap to stay, unless you do your homework and look for deals.  Currently, a three-star hotel in the city runs $150 to $200 per night (U.S. funds) for a Saturday in July.  You can save some money staying 20 minutes out of the city in one of the surrounding communities, and driving or taking the transit train into downtown.  I like staying in Burnby at Metro Town.  There is a big mall there, lots of local restaurants and a train that goes into the city.  There are more options there under $200.  You can also stay cheaper at the airport and also take transit into Vancouver - those hotels are under $150 in many cases.  Check rates at sites like, and remember, the U.S. dollar is stronger in Canada, so the exchange rate is in your benefit.

So why Vancouver?  It is more cosmopolitan than anywhere else on the West Coast. This city's ties to Europe and Britain are strong, as is the influence in Asian cuisine and experiences.  Then, interwoven through all of that is a Northwest, wild west culture that includes both First People's and environmental activisim.  Being in Vancouver is like Seattle and San Francisco on steroids.

What's cool in Vancouver?

  • Shopping and people-watching are unique to Vancouver, especially on Robson and Alberni streets.  This high-end shopping district is teeming with Paris fashions, celebrity sightings (Vancouver is known as Hollywood North - tons of TV shows and films are produced here including A Series of Unfortunate Events and Van Helsing) and finely crafted food. Stores include Gucci, Armani, Bebe, Debeers, Versace, Tory Burch and a Tesla showroom just to name a few.  Check the side streets for even more names and labels.  Outside of this area, you'll find local and vintage fashions on Granville Island, Gastown and Yaletown; Asian finds in China Town, malls in Burnby, and under the Four Season downtown, and Little India in South Vancouver.
  • For things to do, the list is long. Start in West Vancouver across the Lion's Gate Bridge with a gondola, run up Grouse Mountain for skiing (yep, while watching the city skyline), hiking, dining, sleigh rides and more (; also there cross the Capilano Suspension Bridge - a little touristy, but they have a fantastic trail program for kids (; a less crowded bridge system is at the University of British Columbia and their extensive suspension bridge over native forest (; don't miss Fly Over Canada at Canada Place along the waterfront - an experience similar to Disney's Soarin' Over California - where you feel suspended inside a documentary featuring the country from sea to shining sea (; explore Stanley Park - one of North America's largest urban parks with a tea house, tons of beach front, a decent Aquarium, massive swimming pool, tons of hiking trails, horse drawn carriage rides, rose garden and more (; or take a curling class where the 2010 Olympians competed near Queen Elizabeth Park at the Vancouver Curling Club - a two-night class runs roughly $50 (; walk the extensive waterfront watching sea planes take off and land.
  • Cultures combine and blend better than anywhere else due to a British meets the Far East dynamic, bringing great chefs from Hong Kong and China, as well as transplants from Toronto and further east to London to the city to create amazing meals.  The food fusion taking place there far exceeds great foodie towns like Seattle and Portland, which is saying a lot.  Where to go?  Try the Blue Water Café in Yale Town ( for their raw bar, live seafood tanks, Northwest ceviche and much more. This is a seafood destination, bar none.  Next, try Salmon & Bannock Bistro (, for their consistent flavors and the blending of aboriginal preparation of local seafood such as wild sockeye.  For classic, authentic Chinese, don't miss Western Lake Chinese Seafood Restaurant, with everything from the familiar such as sweet and sour pork to the less common such as jelly fish and black fungus (

From vintage to high (see expensive) fashion, both Vancouver and Victoria have area’s dedicated to shopping with big influences coming from Europe. Photo credit: Ken Swarner

Want to expand your horizons?  Eat in the dark at Dark Table.  You are ushered to your table by a blind server, and literally, you won't see the light of day until you are ushered back outside.  It is an unforgettable experience - slightly oppressive the first five or so minutes, but quickly becomes quirky, fun and adventurous (
Finally, make a stop at The Beach House in west Vancouver (, a place that treats fish right, bringing out the mild flavors of the sea with Asian nuances including their North Pacific Sablefish with unagi maple glaze, soba noodles, spinach, shiitake mushrooms and dashi broth.

  • Drinking is a blast in Vancouver, especially if you are 19, because that is when the legal drinking age begins.  As for great places to throw a few back, start at the Hotel Georgia's Reflections Garden Terrace - it has a not-so-obvious outdoor patio midway up its tower with an amazing vibe and upscale feel featuring lovely cocktails and tapas (; indulge in the city's gay district along Davie Street, especially in the summer, for an upbeat feel and terrific people-watching catching drinks outside at the Fountainhead Pub (; for a traditional pub, go Irish at The Irish Heather in Gastown for amazing old country food; and finally, watch the sailboats pass from your perch on Granville Island at The Refinery - small, big communal tables, where the cocktails are the stars.


It's a tale of two cities, really.  Vancouver is modern, while Victoria unabashedly promotes an old British Empire feel with horse drawn carriages, double-decker buses, tea houses and British imports and souvenirs.  But, even if you hate the Brits, there is a lot more to love about Victoria.

  • Shoppers love this place, and during the summer months, you have to share the streets with hundreds of cruise ship passengers there for the day returning from Alaska.  Most of the action is centered around Government Street and surrounding alleys and byways.  You'll not only find a decent city mall (Bay Centre), but also tons of souvenir shops selling British and Canadian goods.  Roger's Chocolates are here - Victorian Creames that apparently fancy the Queen.  I like Murchie's Tea and Coffee store, Munroi Books and Ten Thousand Villages.  Also, don't miss the shops in the Fairmont, even if you can't afford them, they are still fun to browse.
  • Beyond kitschy souvenirs, downtown Victoria has a few notable activities not to miss.  First, you must visit the Royal BC Museum - one of the best museums in the entire Pacific Northwest. There is an amazing permanent exhibit on the natural and historical development of the region, IMAX theaters, and revolving exhibits that usually do not disappoint. Aside from that, Victoria has Miniature World - a large display of tiny battle scenes and historical moments in case after case of figurines and large scale enactments (; The Victoria Bug Zoo is decent with two rooms and tons of displays with live animals (; you can sail around the harbor on tiny tug boats that seat roughly 10 people at a time - a fun way to explore (; and get on a tour bus right at the harbour front for hop on and off priviledges to see Oak Bay, Craigdarroch Castle and more (
  • For foodies, Victoria has plenty of pubs and street vendor options, but hop the harbour ferry to Fisherman's Wharf and get fish and chips at Barb's (  Expect a decent line, but the food is worth it, and it's fun to walk around the houseboats here as well.  Other food recommendations for the city include Irish Times Pub in the heart of the shopping area - a great interior, lots of Irish beer on tap, and an extensive menu of Irish foods and more (; Sam's Deli and Bistro for a ring side seat on the sidewalk and a stellar Ploughman's lunch (; and The Fairmont Empress for High Tea (expensive but worth it) - plan this for lunch because it is a lot of food with all of the frilly nuances you'd expect (

The Dr. Sun-Yat Classical Chinese gardens are a happy place for garden enthusiasts or anyone wishing to feel the serenity of nature in the heart of a major city. Photo credit: Ken Swarner


I give wildlife it's own category because getting close to nature is one of British Columbia's greatest treasures.  From the caged to the free, animal enthusiasts will find a lot of reasons to go north.  Here are several of my favorites:

  • Vancouver Island is likely one of the most missed opportunities for Puget Sounders.  Sure, tons have visited Victoria, but far fewer have ventured up either coast, which is a shame - there are some amazing wildlife opportunities.  Start on the west side in Ucluelet or Tofino (or both).  This is a great staging area for whale watching, not just because humpback and gray whales skirt past the island travelling back and forth from Alaska, but also because there are far fewer tourists and tour boats to contend with.  My wife and I once took a small tugboat out, just the two of us with a skipper, and spent 40 minutes in a small cove watching a gray whale dive back and forth under our boat, rolling his big eye up to look at us over and over.  Amazing!  While in Tofino, spend the money and stay for an uber-romantic night with spa at the Wickaninnish Inn.  They can help arrange your whale tour, too (  On the east side of the island in Campbell River, you can also arrange whale trips, especially to see orca whales, but there is also zodiac boats that will take you out to see brown bears fishing along the coast, as well as a spot, literally, hundreds of bald eagles swooping down all around you to fish in the waters ( Thrilling!
  • Whale watching can be done across BC, but most people stage out of Victoria or Vancouver.  I prefer Victoria because the Straight of Juan de Fuca has a lot of orcas, grays and humpbacks that hang out throughout the entire summer, and you don't have to spend a lot of time travelling across the water to see them.  Last August, we were face to face with humpbacks 20 minutes after leaving Victoria's harbor.  A little while later, we watched orcas glide across the water, then 30 minutes after that, we found more humpbacks. It was an amazing three hours on the water to say the least.  Tons of companies offer whale watching, and you can find a list right here (  Use Yelp and Trip Advisor to check reviews of each.
  • On the mainland, near Vancouver, you have the aquarium at Stanley Park already mentioned, but roughly 30 minutes east on Highway 1 is the Greater Vancouver Zoo.  It is a small park, however, they have a couple exhibits that make the trip worthwhile for those that love zoos.  They have a great pool for viewing hippos - up close with lots of viewing areas. They also have a rare red panda which is thrilling to see (though not mentioned on their list of animals online).  I also like the zoo's daily feedings and talks, which are often small and intimate gatherings (  


Gardens are like the animals, deserving of their own mentions.  British Columbia is teeming with plants - from the famous Butchart Gardens to lesser known Chinese and Japanese types, garden enthusiasts are going to love Canada.  Here are some reasons:

  • Without a doubt, Butchart Gardens near Victoria gets the most press and for good reason - it is an amazing collection spread out across an old limestone quarry and ranked by many in the top 20 worldwide.  There is the well-photographed Sunken Garden, Rose Graden, Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, Mediterranean Garden, tea service, concert and firework programs and much more.  Don't leave the Northwest without seeing this gem (  
  • As mentioned already, the University of British Columbia has a suspended walk above their NW forest garden, but next to that is their other gardens with a fabulous display of formal gardens, hill gardening and more.  The students make it all happen, and combined with the forest walk, it is a great place for garden enthusiasts (


I can't leave a discussion of British Columbia without recognizing that most of this discussion focuses on the lower 10 percent of the area.  There are vast forests and fishing communities, hot springs, skiing, hiking and more in the less populated areas.  Several highlights include:

  • Skiers must ski Whistler, because it is one of the world's top ski resorts and it is only four hours from the Puget Sound area. Whistler/Blackcomb offers a ritzy village, massive runs, long runs from the top via gondola, nightlife, five star cuisine - everything a resort skier will appreciate.  Make your plans now for 2018, or ski through mid-May now (
  • Speaking of resorts, another well-known and popular destination is Harrison Hotsprings, roughly an hour or more east of Vancouver.  This resort is a historic landmark and has offered soaks from natural hot springs pumped into their pools to generations.  You can stay on the premises, or get a day pass. The pools are well-kept, with both indoor and outdoor pools, and the facilities are well-appointed and pretty ( Also, during the summer months, there are boat rentals, as well as a massive, floating water park of sorts with slides, walls to climb, ropes to swing and trampolines - all propelling swimmers into the lake for hours of enjoyment.  It is great fun - see the video here:
  • If you like to drive, the AlCan Highway starts in Dawson Creek, which is roughly a 15-hour drive from Tacoma.  There is not a lot to see, but you will get a sense of BC's vast forest land, plus you can head east from Dawson Creek to Edmonton to see the massive mall there, then head south to Calgary for the annual Stampede.
  • Finally, while Banff National Park and Lake Louise are in Alberta (still, gorgeous and a must see), getting there is through BC's Glacier National Park of Canada, Revelstoke and other parts of the Canadian Rockies - not only gorgeous landscape but also great fishing and hot springing.  Come back through Glacier National Park in Montana for an unforgettable road trip.

I hope I've made the case for BC, and maybe you'll have more than one opportunity to explore this fantastic Canadian province before you PCS.

Read next close

Online Newspapers

Wine (in the) country

comments powered by Disqus