Canada’s west-coast city of Vancouver is consistently rated highly in terms of quality of life, so if you are in town on business, make sure you add a weekend to explore. You can split your time between downtown and the mountains (for skiing, Whistler is just 90 minutes by car), or take a boat to Vancouver Island for some whale-watching.
A wealthy seaport city of green glass and liberal vibes, downtown Vancouver is a grid of glittering towers surrounded by water on three sides. If you’re weary from jet lag, the breeze blowing over False Creek is reviving, as is a meal of the national dish, poutine (French fries, cheese and gravy), good any time of the day or night.
Quirky Granville Island is a short hop via Aquabus across the water from downtown – here you will find Edible Canada, which has a bistro with an outdoor terrace and a shop selling local produce. Once an industrial site, Granville’s corrugated-tin factories and warehouses have been reappropriated for farmers’ markets, boutiques, galleries and craft shops, as well as Molson’s Brewery and the Liberty Distillery, which opened in 2013 – pop in for a snifter of Endeavour gin.
If you’re short on time, the best way to get a sense of the city’s geography is to zoom out of the inner harbor on a high-speed inflatable Zodiac boat. Tours with Sea Vancouver (C$42/$32) take you around the shores of Stanley Park at the tip of the peninsula (here you can rent a bike, see totem poles and lounge on sandy beaches), and under Lions Gate suspension bridge, which crosses the Burrard Inlet.
Rising for an early breakfast at the Opus hotel (vancouver.opushotel.com), take the Sea to Sky Highway to Squamish, less than an hour’s drive away. The dramatic mountain road looks down on Howe Sound, where shipwrecks lie at the bottom, waiting for curious scuba divers. Shannon Falls, just over a mile from your destination, is a good stop, but it is at a higher altitude that the adventure begins.
The Sea to Sky Gondola (C$37.95/ $29) opened in 2014 and delivers you via cable car 2,900 feet up to Summit Lodge, previously a half-day’s hike, in a matter of minutes. A prime starting point for the alpine trails that weave through coastal forest, it’s also a stunning spot to get lunch while enjoying views of Howe Sound and the granite face of the Stawamus Chief, which is popular with daredevil climbers who paraglide off it. When venturing into backcountry, watch out for bears, cougars and wolves.
If you choose to head to Vancouver Island, take a boat from outside the Westin Bayshore hotel and put on the canary-yellow waterproofs given by tour company Prince of Whales, whose office is in the lobby. (Visit princeofwhales.com; tours May-Oct, C$150/$115.)
Although sightings aren’t guaranteed, killer whales, minke whales, humpbacks, porpoises and sea lions all reside in these cold waters, and are a thrill to see first-hand – the sea’s surface broken by the dark curve of a whale’s back breaching, and then its tail, rising in slow motion as it prepares to dive. Humpbacks can remain underwater for as long as 30 minutes, and there is no telling where they will come up again, so boats frequently radio each other to alert captains of their whereabouts.
The crossing takes you through the Haro Strait, which straddles the border between Canada and the US, and past forested shores draped in mist. Shipmates are told not to go swimming as plunging into American waters would mean you’d need more than a passport to be welcomed back on board.
By lunchtime you will be pulling into the quaint harbor of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. At 12,000 square miles, much of it mountain wilderness, it is one of the largest landmasses off this side of North America, although British Columbia’s sleepy, bohemian capital of Victoria feels more like a village.
Just past the waterfront Inn at Laurel Point (laurelpoint.com) is a huddle of brightly painted floating houses. Here you can buy some fish to feed the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf, and admire the dinky seaplanes as they take off on their return to Vancouver. (Air Canada operates from Victoria International.)
To venture further afield, join a three-hour bicycle tour organized by rental shop the Pedaler, on Belleville Street. The “Beans and Bites” circuit takes in tastings of local baked goods (the cinnamon rolls are pure pleasure) and coffee (the cold-brew carbonated espresso at Fernwood is like Coke on steroids). Other options include the “Hoppy Hour” beer ride.
Victoria may be peaceful in the day, but there’s some lively nightlife to enjoy. At the Strathcona hotel’s surf-themed rooftop bar (complete with sandy volleyball courts), youngsters jostle for cocktails served in plastic buckets. At the Bard and Banker you can listen to live Irish folk bands, or go to Swans Brewpub for bluegrass. The locals are friendly, too – Vancouver Island is a place you are guaranteed to make friends.
There’s no shortage of fine food either. Canoe Brewpub (just off Chinatown) does a hearty maple bacon burger, while around the corner, Olo serves inventive small plates such as sprouted wheat garganelli,
Hollie Wood Zen oysters, and orca bean tempeh (also known as calypso beans).
Drive half an hour out of town and you can sample the wares of the Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse, which is on the Saanich Peninsula. Its organic orchards grow 50 varieties of apples and flights of cider can be tasted at long tables. (The rose-red Bramble Bubbly is highly quaffable, but more discerning palates may yield to the Pippins.)
A short drive from the farm is Butchart Gardens (C$29.90/$23), one of the island’s most famous attractions. Back in the late 1800s, the site was home to a limestone quarry mined by Robert Butchart until his cement-making business exhausted its resources.
After that, his wife Jennie turned it into a magnificent sunken floral garden, which was finished in 1921. Further gardens, ponds and lawns were added over the years and, today, more than a million bedding plants in 900 flower varieties bloom between March and October.
If you have time, meander your way through the Japanese garden and then finish with lunch at the elegant Dining Room – no weekend would be complete without Yukon Gold potato bisque and some wild British Columbian salmon.
From Vancouver International Airport (YVR), Air Canada operates to a growing number of global destinations, including Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles International, Newark Liberty and San Francisco, plus seasonal service to Anchorage. In addition Air Canada Express flies to Portland, OR, San Jose, CA, and Seattle, with two more being added – San Diego on Dec. 15 and Dallas/Fort Worth beginning in February. Air Canada Rouge serves Hawaiian destinations, plus Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
For details visit aircanada.com
By Jenny Southan