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Vancouver’s Coast and Mountains

Photo by Jennifer C.

Vancouver’s Coast and Mountains Itineraries

Cross-Canada Road-Trip: Kamloops to Vancouver via Whistler

Island Hop British Columbia’s Gulf Islands

Vancouver to Whistler: A Classic Road Trip from Sea to Sky

Great Day Trips From Vancouver

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Although Vancouver has plenty to offer, on any longer stay you will almost certainly get the urge to leave the city to experience the beautiful countryside that beckons all around. Of all the day-trip possibilities heading along the Sea-to-Sky Highway to Whistler is the most popular and rightly so, since the drive is fantastic and the resort town boasts not only wonderful vistas from its mountains chock full of things to do at any time of year.


The Fraser Valley

An alternative route into the mountains is through the farmlands in the Fraser Valley which offer an antithesis to Vancouver’s gleaming glass skyline, especially if you drive Highway 7 which meanders past historic farms, a mission and to the unexpected sandy, warm shores at Harrison Hot Springs where an entire resort community has evolved around the lake’s natural hot springs.  Further along the Fraser River, and you’ll arrive in Hope with its collection of wooden sculptures and the historic Othello Tunnels.  Continue up through the jaw-dropping scenery of the Fraser Canyon to Hell’s Gate and take the air tram down to hover just feet above the raging waters as they plummet through a gorge only 110 ft (35m) wide.


Richmond

South of Vancouver, Richmond has yet more to offer.  As one of the largest Asian communities in North America, its Summer Time Night markets are unparalleled, as are its many hundreds of Asian restaurants and shopping opportunities that could well have you believe that this is Hong Kong. Its Buddhist Temple is a delight.

Richmond’s many historic destinations include London Heritage Farm and Steveston Village, once home to the largest commercial fishing fleet on the coast.  Steveston, which is not only home to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery and Britannia National Shipyard National Historic Sites, it is also ‘home-base’ to the TV show, Once Upon a Time. Then there are dykes to cycle, the markets to visit, and the fish ‘n chips to savour along the village boardwalk.


Islands and the Coast

Many more destinations beckon if you have the time to hop on a ferry. The Sunshine Coast is one and invites a longer trip, while other ferries enable short trips to the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island, whose capital Victoria is a particularly enticing destination.


When To Go

The West Coast is a year-round destination and provided you have an umbrella – yes, it may rain in mid-summer – there’s something to see and do every day and in every season.

Wherever you choose to explore, whether Vancouver, the Gulf Islands or the Sunshine Coast, it’s true what you may have heard: there are many days when you can be on a mountain top in the morning, lunch on artisan produce at a farmers market, sail in the afternoon, and relax in the evening over a glass of award-winning (local) vino and and equally acclaimed cuisine.

High and Low Season

The Vancouver Coast & Mountains region is a year-round destination though predictably (outside of Whistler), July–September are busiest. If you plan to travel in these summer months, book accommodations well in advance and be prepared to pay a premium, especially anywhere overlooking the water.  Or in Whistler, in winter, in the heart of the village or on the mountainside in suites offering ski-in/ski-out facilities.

Travel in April-June, or October and your chances for less crowds, value deals, and fair weather are good. That said, the region’s maritime climate will likely mean rain. Always carry an umbrella.  Even on the Sunshine Coast which boasts the province’s sunniest shores.

By Canadian standards winters are very mild; temperatures rarely drop below 5ºC/42

Weather and Climate

With its maritime climate, the West Coast never gets very hot or cold and is characterized by beautiful summers and falls. These are separated by cool, damp winters with strong storms blowing in off the Pacific, and springs of variable, though relatively mild weather. Even in Whistler, snow-filled days can be blessed with blue skies and come spring, skiers may even take to the slopes in swimwear.  Honest!

Nearer to Vancouver, snow may come at higher altitudes and it’s not unusual to see snow capped mountains from downtown. When it does settle in the city – usually in January once every few years, it never stays long.

The maritime climate also means rain is likely during your visit. Those coastal mountains have a way of gathering clouds as they roll in from the ocean causing downpours that sustain the region’s beautifully lush landscapes and rainforests.

Events and Holidays

Special events are very community oriented and those in Whistler are very different from the agricultural fairs you’ll find in the Southern Gulf Islands.

Here are some festivities of note in Richmond, the Fraser Valley and the Sunshine Coast.

Statutory Holidays:
New Years Day – January 1
Family Day (2nd Monday/February)
Good Friday
Victoria Day (3rd Monday/May)
Canada Day – July 1
BC Day (1st Monday/August)
Labour Day
Canadian Thanksgiving (2nd Monday/October)
Remembrance Day – November 11
Christmas Day – December 25

Time Zone

The region is in the Pacific time zone, the same one as Los Angeles and Seattle.  Daylight saving time (one hour ahead) is observed from mid March to early November.

What To Pack and Wear

The old saw, dress in layers, was never truer than on the West Coast. Temperatures are rarely extreme so provided you have a light sweater to ward off summer breezes, and a warmer one in winter, all should be good. Remember quality walking shoes, even hikers if you want to take on some mountain trails.  Check out dress for Whistler and Vancouver since there’s more diversity of restaurants and attractions here and your wardrobe will really depend on your level of travel.

A quality rain-proof wind jacket will never go amiss; and if you do forget your umbrella, they are readily purchased for a handful of dollars at nearly every corner store.

Generally speaking, the Sunshine Coast and Gulf Islands are exceptionally casual. Jeans. Sweatshirts. Runners. Multi-purpose all-weather jackets. Hiking boots. You get the picture.

What it Costs

The diversity of the region means that there’s truly something for every style of travel from camping and hostelling to  uber-deluxe resorts.

Without question, accommodation will be your biggest expense, but that amount really depends on where you choose to stay. In the city, a hotel near the waterfront will be around $350 a night in summer – more (upwards from $450) for a swankier place; a little less for a bland chain, family-style hotel. Boutique hotels and bed-and-beakfasts will cost a less, with rates really dependent on their proximity to the region’s key attraction. In general, costs are half of what you will find in Vancouver.

Abstract Pricing at a Glance

Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.

Price ranges are quoted in C$.

See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
Free
$ => Tickets less than $5 per person
$$ => Tickets $6-15 per person
$$$ => Tickets $16 per person

Sleep
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $101-200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $201 for a double

Eat
$ => $1-20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $21-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)

Shop
N/A => Not applicable

Tours
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-30 per person

Airfare and Car Rental Prices

Air Travel
With so many far-flung communities up and down the coast, and throughout the Vancouver Coast & Mountains region, seaplanes are a mainstay form of travel.  Harbour Air offers a variety of routes, and handles the reservations for charter services of Saltspring Air, Whistler Air and Tantalus Air.  Fares vary according to distance traveled (most routes are roughly $125 each way).

Pacific Coastal Airlines (800/663-2872) fly in/out of Vancouver Airport’s South Terminal to communities throughout the province.

Car Travel
Renting a car costs approximately $60/day but may be less with various discounts. Remember to budget for insurance (about $12/day) which you may be able to waive, thanks to your own coverage or coverage offered by credit cards if used in payment.

Heads Up
Gas in Canada is expensive; not as expensive as in Europe, maybe, but still pretty costly. Canadian newspapers and television are always lamenting the hikes in gas prices and when they drop a few cents from the average of $4 a gallon; well, there’s mayhem at the gas pumps.  Even when converted to U.S. dollars, that’s a hefty US$ a gallon. Clearly, any sort of extended driving tour, where the miles eat up gas much more quickly will add significantly to your budget.

If you plan on visiting islands in your car, you’ll have to pay to transport the car on the ferry in addition to the fee for yourself and others traveling with you. Transport for a car varies, according to ferry and distance, from $30 to $60 per one-way hop from within British Columbia; more from the United States.

Insurance

Travel insurance is one cost that’s often overlooked until the last minute, yet the medical insurance component is particularly important. Check any existing policy you have in your home country and if there’s no cover in Canada it’s best to buy insurance.

Annual policies can be good value if you plan to travel elsewhere in the same year, but be sure you have cover for any outdoor activities you may plan, particularly skiing, though activities like mountain biking may need special cover too. In general policies should not cost as much as those covering you in the USA since medical expenses in Canada are more moderate.

Exchange Rates and Currency

Canadian currency isn’t hard to figure out; it looks a lot like American money, only with different pictures (queens, loons, and so on).

The bills come in $100, $50, $20, $10, and $5 bills, and coins are  25cs, 10cs, and 5cs pieces. Canada also uses handy one- and two-dollar
coins. The gold colored loonie is worth $1, and the slightly bigger twoonie (comprising a silver outer ring and a golden inner disk), is worth $2.

If your preference is for good, old-fashioned hard currency, you won’t have any trouble exchanging your money to Canadian dollars. ATMs are numerous and dispense local currency and every major bank offers some sort of currency exchange services. International Currency Exchange (tel 604-656-1704) operates exchange desks on level 3 of Vancouver International Airport from 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. In addition, several private exchange companies operate in downtown Vancouver.

Money, ATMs, Credit Cards

You won’t have any trouble exchanging your money to Canadian dollars.

ATMs are numerous in Vancouver and Whistler. In the Gulf Islands and along the Sunshine Coast, ATMs are there but less obvious. All ATMs dispense local currency and every major bank offers some sort of currency exchange services.

Credits cards are widely accepted though some merchants may decline American Express.

Tipping and Costs That Add Up

Gauging gratuities
The average tip for most service providers, such as waiters and cab drivers, is 15%, rising to 20% for particularly good service. A 10% to 15% tip is sufficient if you just drink at a bar.

Heads Up
Check your restaurant bill carefully before laying down a tip on the table. Some pricier establishments may include the cost of service as an automatic 15% tip in the bill, although this practice isn’t as widespread in Vancouver as it is in many other tourist towns.

Transportation

Although Vancouver prides itself as being the Gateway to the South Pacific, it isn’t exactly the hub of North America. Even so, most major airlines have direct flights to Vancouver and unless you’re driving up the West Coast, or through the Rocky Mountains, flying to this corner of the world is your best bet.

Once there, you’ll find a decent network of transportation options that include seaplanes, buses, rapid transit(Skytrain), a Seabus that crosses the harbour, small 12-person ferries, and much larger vessels that take cars and passengers to Vancouver Island and elsewhere on the coast, including the Sunshine Coast.  Skytrain provides a 20-minute service between the airport, Richmond, and the downtown waterfront. Translink is the governing body for most options, offering schedules and trip planning tips.

You only really need a car if you’re going further afield to, say, Whistler (though there’s a good shuttle service), Steveston, the Sunshine Coast, or the Fraser Valley.

Getting There

Air
Most major airlines have direct flights to Vancouver and unless you’re driving up the West Coast, or through the Rocky Mountains, flying to this corner of the world is your best bet. If you’re traveling from anywhere in North America, and are happy to do the hop across the border yourself check flights to Seattle.

Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is about a 30-minute drive south of Vancouver. As a Gateway to the Pacific, YVR is a major hub for airlines from Australia, New Zealand and the Orient and is used by 53 airlines and 19 million passengers a year.

The Southern Terminal at YVR is where flights depart to destinations up and down the coast and on Vancouver Island.

Rail
VIA Rail (888-842-7245), Canada’s national passenger rail network, offers a romantic and luxurious way to get to Vancouver from the East Coast but is topped by The Rocky Mountaineer, a train run by an upscale tour operator that prides itself in a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trip through the Canadian Rockies in daylight hours. It also offers connections to Seattle which are otherwise catered for by Amtrak (800-USA-RAIL). Double check your reservation because although the train schedule between Seattle and Vancouver looks as if there are several departures, listings generally include both trains and buses between cities.

Cruises
From May through September, Vancouver is a major starting point for cruises up the Inside Passage to Alaska. Many tour operators offer all-inclusive fly-cruise packages from all over the world.

Getting Around

Car
Exploring the region is easily done by car.  In Vancouver car-rental agencies include  Enterprise Rent-A-Car, 1696 West 1st Ave., 604-742-1722), and Pacific Car Rentals, 501 West Georgia St., (604-689-4506), Budget, 416 West Georgia St., 604-668-7000) and Hertz, 1270 Granville St., 604-606-4711).  Many brand agencies are also located at the Vancouver International Airport.  Renting a car costs approximately $60/day but may be less with various discounts. Remember to budget for insurance (about $12/day) which you may be able to waive, thanks to your own coverage or coverage offered by credit cards if used in payment. Check out the Victoria Guide for rental agencies there.

Associated Costs
Gas in Canada is expensive; not as expensive as in Europe, maybe, but still pretty costly. Canadian newspapers and television are always lamenting the hikes in gas prices and when they drop a few cents from the average of $4 a gallon($1.50/liter); well, there’s mayhem at the gas pumps. Even when converted to U.S. dollars, that’s a hefty.  Clearly, any sort of extended driving tour where the miles eat up gas much more quickly will add significantly to your budget.

Taxi
In Vancouver, Yellow Cabs (604-681-1111) and Black Top Cabs (604-731-1111) are good bets. Outside of the city, taxi services tend to be smaller companies and licensed independents as well as Uber.

Ferries
British Columbia has a fleet of vessels that operate between the Vancouver Lower Mainland (from Tswassen and Horseshoe Bay) to Vancouver Island, all Gulf Islands, and other destinations up and the coast, including a route from Prince Rupert (North Vancouver Island) to the islands of Haida Gwaii.

Public Transportation
Translink (604-953-3333) is Metro Vancouver’s regional transit authority, operating the bus system, Skytrain and the SeaBus.

BC Transit operates the public bus system everywhere else in the province, as does Greyhound.

Background

History

Once a quiet and beautiful backwater, Vancouver was home to small, salmon-fishing Native settlements that moved from one inlet to the other, trading along the Fraser River and beyond.  That all changed late in the 18th century when Spanish and English navigators, in search of routes between Asia and Europe, stumbled across the region’s network of tidal inlets, rivers, islands, and sounds.

After some sparring between the two nations, Captain George Vancouver staked a British claim in 1792.

The region’s resources in lumber, fishing, and trapping quickly saw the arrival of a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post.  And when gold was discovered in the Cariboo, backcountry to the north of Vancouver, hundreds of prospectors rolled through the area during the mid 19th century, solidifying Vancouver’s future as a port of call.

Although the gold veins soon played out, people still came; when Canadian Pacific Railroad surveyors showed up to lay out a terminal station for a new transcontinental railroad line, things would never be the same again.  In fact, finding a way through the Rockies and bringing people and business to the West Coast was the linchpin for British Columbia becoming a part of Canada.  The trains began rolling in from the East Coast in 1887, and from that moment on, Vancouver, having survived a disastrous citywide fire that nearly stopped the entire project in its tracks – grew exponentially.

Cuisine

Vancouver prides itself on its foodie culture.  The 100-mile diet originated here and the overall West Coast lifestyle is all about the virtues of organic, fresh, and healthy.  One look at the quality and abundance of fresh produce on display at Granville Island Market or a visit to any number of Farmer’s Markets is evidence of a spoiled for choice abundance.

As you might expect from the region’s location, with its constant supply of fresh finny, seafood is nearly always a good bet. And the riches of the Fraser Valley delivers fresh farm produce, artisan cheese, and meats. Then there’s the micro-brew movement as well as access to award-winning wines from the Okanagan Valley, long-considered British Columbia’s Napa Valley. Little wonder that foodie tours are all the rage: Edible British Columbia can arrange everything from multiday kayaking trips to halfday tours through Vancouver neighborhoods.

Language

Although its roots are British, and many words still adopt English spelling, Vancouver’s proximity to the United States has made the the spoken and written word predominantly American, albeit with a Canadian ‘eh’ at the end of a sentence.

French may be one of Canada’s official languages but in Vancouver you’re far more likely to hear Mandarin or Cantonese —  60% of high school students have English as a second language, and ESL schools are big draws for international students hoping to become proficient enough to attend university here.

In parts of Vancouver, and in particular directional signs in hospitals and other important institutions, are in multiple languages, including Punjabi, catering to the region’s large Indian population.

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