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10 great reasons to explore British Columbia

  1. For the adrenalin rushes

    Outdoor enthusiasts flock year-round to Whistler Blackcomb, 120km north of Vancouver. As the resort name suggests, one lift ticket accesses two mountains. Skiers and boarders can enjoy lively apres action in Whistler Village. The resort, with terrain ranging from long corduroy runs to powder-filled bowls, attracts beginners through to seasoned shredders. From December to April, enjoy a fondue dinner by riding a snowmobile up to a cosy hut high on Blackcomb.

    The lifts are also put to good use in warmer months when Whistler becomes a mountain bike mecca – there are 70 trails designed for every skill level. Whistler Bungee, a 15-minute drive south of the village, offers year-round jumps from a bridge above the glacier-fed Cheakamus River. And that’s not the only way to make like a bird. Ziptrek offers a twilight zipline experience where participants fly through old-growth forest while wearing headlamps.

    In North Vancouver, there’s another way to get up among the treetops. Stroll the Capilano Suspension Bridge above the Capilano River or tackle the park’s Cliffwalk – a walkway dramatically strung from a cliff above the canyon.

    In British Columbia’s east, Canadian Mountain Holidays offers heli-skiing and heli-hiking tours through remote terrain. Even billionaire Sir Richard Branson has given it a go.

  2. It’s one big film set

    If British Columbia looks awfully familiar, it may be because the province’s diverse landscapes and architecture attract location scouts looking for backdrops for feature films and TV series.

    Parts of the 2014 movie Dawn of the Planet of the Apes were shot in the forests of Capilano River Regional Park in North Vancouver and Golden Ears Provincial Park, 50km east of Vancouver. The futuristic Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, part of Vancouver’s University of British Columbia campus, was used in the George Clooney film Tomorrowland, Josie and the Pussycats, Catwoman, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Antitrust.

    Directors are also drawn to the art-deco beauty of Vancouver’s Marine Building, a skyscraper with charming sea creatures carved into its façade. Productions that have used the building include Smallville, Fantastic Four, Blade: Trinity and Timecop.

    Vancouver’s photogenic Gastown neighbourhood, and nearby Strathcona and Chinatown, have featured in Big Eyes, Fringe, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Legends of the Fall. Gastown’s triangular “flatiron” building, Hotel Europe, was used as the Seattle Historical Society for the 1980 supernatural thriller, The Changeling, starring George C. Scott. Victoria’s 40-room Hatley Castle appeared in two X-Men movies as Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

  3. Food glorious food

    The 100-mile food movement was born in Vancouver. Live the concept and devour local fare at places such as the Edible Canada bistro or the weekly farmers’ markets on Granville Island. Restaurants such as Forage also celebrate the best of British Columbia. Try one of the province’s most celebrated new restaurants: you’ll find Pilgrimme tucked into the woods of Galiano Island between Vancouver and Victoria.

    Vancouver also has a lively food truck and food cart scene. When celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain hit Vancouver, he raved about Japadog (its signature hotdog is dressed with teriyaki sauce, mayo and seaweed). The Kaboom Box serves hot-smoked salmon sandwiches while Disco Cheetah Korean Grill puts a Korean spin on tacos, burritos and quesadillas. One way to experience the best of the city’s food-truck scene (which kicked off with a pilot program in 2010) is to take an Edible Canada food tour. The tours also cover the best of the Granville Island markets and guilty pleasures such as wine, cheese and chocolate.

    It’s also fun to head to the paddocks where the food comes from. Start exploring the farms and vineyards of Okanagan Valley with a tour of Covert Farms in a 1952 Mercury truck or trundle around Vancouver Island’s gourmet trails.

  4. Urban beaches and parks

    Vancouver is home to one of the world’s loveliest urban parks. Stanley Park’s stone seawall encircles a 400-hectare slab of coastal rainforest. Go for a walk or a run, or flop onto the park’s urban beaches. Swim at Second Beach or watch the sun set from Third Beach. In summer, Theatre under the Stars presents hit musicals in the park.

    In late July, the Celebration of Light – the world’s longest running offshore fireworks competition – pits international pyro teams against each other at English Bay. The 2016 event takes place on July 23, 27 and 30.

    Many people say that the best view of downtown Vancouver is from Spanish Banks – a series of beaches along the shores of English Bay in the West Point Grey neighbourhood. Make like a local and play a game of beach volleyball, promenade along the beach, or sit and have a picnic. The view from Kits Beach (the nickname for Kitsilano Beach) isn’t bad either: it takes in downtown’s skyscrapers, the lush greenery of Stanley Park and the mountains beyond.

    Deep Cove, 13km from downtown, bills itself as “close to Vancouver and a million miles away”. Outdoor enthusiasts flock here to paddle kayaks on the calm waters or to hike the Baden-Powell Trail up to Quarry Rock.

  5. We’ll drink to that

    It takes four hours to drive from Vancouver to one of Canada’s premier wine regions: the Okanagan Valley. With a wide range of micro-climates that even includes a pocket desert, winemakers have planted more than 80 grape varieties here. Spend a few days taste-testing your way around some of the 200-plus wineries (there are plenty of day tours available for those who don’t wish to drive). The region is also home to North America’s first Aboriginal-owned and operated winery, Nk’Mip Cellars, on the shores of Lake Osoyoos. There’s always a range available to taste for free; those who want to delve deeper into the vineyard’s portfolio pay a nominal fee that goes towards the preservation of the Okanagan language.

    Prefer to pull up a stool and let someone mix you a cocktail? The Hawksworth Bar, within Vancouver’s Rosewood Hotel Georgia, does a neat line in vintage cocktails. The Airmail, circa 1941, is a blend of rum, honey syrup, fresh lime juice and bubbles.

    Over in Victoria on Vancouver Island, Clive’s Classic Lounge shakes classic recipes such as the 1950s-era Vancouver cocktail (gin, sweet vermouth, Benedictine and orange bitters). The menu even features a 19th-century concoction: the coffee cocktail mixes brandy and port with sugar syrup and an egg.

  6. Riding (and cycling) the rails

    Vancouver is the starting point for several iconic train journeys. One of the world’s best scenic trains, the Rocky Mountaineer, travels through different parts of British Columbia. The Rainforest to Gold Rush route, for instance, heads through Whistler to Jasper in neighbouring Alberta. Other routes travel through Kamloops to reach Lake Louise and Banff. In 2016, the train will change its previous three levels of travel to just two – GoldLeaf and SilverLeaf – so that all passengers travel in dome cars to soak up the scenery. Meals and drinks are included for both classes. GoldLeaf passengers head to a downstairs dining room for meals while SilverLeaf passengers are served in their seats. Menus showcase local fare such as berries and salmon.

    VIA Rail’s The Canadian takes four nights to travel between Vancouver and Toronto. At 4466km, the journey is longer than Australia’s own Indian Pacific route between Perth and Sydney (4352km).  VIA Rail has also tweaked its service: in 2015 it introduced a prestige sleeper class. These luxury cabins feature an L-shaped modular couch that morphs into a double bed.

    Those who prefer to cycle over a railway line can tackle the Kettle Valley Rail Trail – its most dramatic section traverses a high bridge over Myra Canyon north-east of Penticton.

  7. Hit the shops

    The great thing about a holiday is there’s plenty of time to shop. But where are the hot-to-trot spots in a city as big as Vancouver? Head to the fashion and design district of Gastown to find the first store of Kit and Ace, a clothing line specialising in “technical cashmere” created by Shannon and J.J. Wilson, the wife and son of Lululemon Athletica founder Chip Wilson.

    On the same Water Street block is Parliament Interiors – its contemporary and mid-century-inspired fashion and home accessories include cushions printed with historic photos of Vancouver.   On the next block is an outlet of m0851, the cult Montreal label that does hand-sewn leather jackets and bags.

    Another area where you can spend hours browsing is Yaletown, a former warehouse district now buzzing with restaurants, bars and fashion stores. Check out the women’s and men’s hat range at Goorin Bros.

    Near Granville Island is Lattimer Gallery, which showcases the work of Inuit and Northwest Coast native artists. The work ranges from jewellery and stone sculptures to paintings, prints, masks and totem poles.

    Vancouver Island is known for toasty-warm Cowichan sweaters. The First Nations Cowichan people adapted European knitting techniques to produce these iconic sweaters, emblazoned with motifs such as eagles, orcas and bison.

  8. Have a whale of a time

    Even with just a few hours to spare, it’s possible to see British Columbia’s amazing marine life. Sewell’s Marina offers sea safaris in Horseshoe Bay – a 45-minute drive from downtown Vancouver (this is also the departure point for ferries to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island).  Surf a few ferry waves and keep an eye out for playful harbour seals during a two-hour boat ride through the Howe Sound fjord. The area’s prolific birdlife includes bald eagles and oystercatchers.

    British Columbia’s whale-watching season runs from May to October. Tours depart from Vancouver and several points around Vancouver Island such as Victoria, Tofino and Telegraph Cove. Orcas are the headline act but humpbacks also travel through the area as they migrate between Alaska and Hawaii. Other species include minke and gray whales. Head out for a few hours in an open-air Zodiac or choose a longer tour in a bigger vessel.

    For an even more up-close marine encounter, try a sea otter kayak tour. West Coast Expeditions offers five-day tours on Spring Island off the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Guests kayak through clusters of islets keeping an eye out for sea otters – most likely to be found near kelp beds – as well as tufted puffins, sea lions or jumping salmon. If it’s a full moon, it’s possible to go for a night kayak.

  9. Go look for a grizzly

    Want to see a grizzly in its natural environment? Bears roam British Columbia’s evocative Great Bear Rainforest. Travel by float plane from Vancouver Island’s Port Hardy back to the mainland where Great Bear Lodge is anchored in a remote inlet. Depending on the season, you may see bears feeding on sedge, plucking summer berries from bushes or swiping salmon from the streams. Don’t be surprised to hear a familiar accent at the floating lodge – host Marg Leehane grew up in Australia.

    At Spirit Bear Lodge, also within the Great Bear Rainforest, go on a cultural journey with local Kitasoo guides to look for the rare white bears known as spirit bears (scientists think they’re a genetic variation of black bears). The waterfront lodge is built along the lines of a traditional First Nations longhouse.

    To reach Tweedsmuir Park Lodge near Bella Coola, drive or fly from Vancouver or take a ferry from Port Hardy. Grizzlies wander past the former hunting and fishing lodge, sometimes even having a snooze on the lawns.

    The most accessible grizzlies live at Grouse Mountain – 15 minutes’ drive from downtown Vancouver. The mountain’s Refuge for Endangered Wildlife is home to orphaned bears Grinder and Coola, as well as a grey wolf (and former movie star) called Alpha.

  10. In search of serenity

    So your idea of a holiday is to fly and flop? There are plenty of ways to spend a low-energy day or two. Pop over to Victoria to take afternoon tea in a wingback chair within the oh-so-elegant Fairmont Empress. The hotel serves its signature tea blend in dainty china cups to accompany treats such as fresh strawberries and cream, raisin scones and rose petal shortbread. Afternoon tea can be upgraded to include cheeses, tawny port and honey harvested from the chef’s garden.  Near Victoria are the Butchart Gardens – a former quarry transformed into stunning show gardens that have something to offer year-round.

    At the Nordic day spa Scandinave Spa Whistler, soak in outdoor hot baths while looking out over spruce and cedar forests and Whistler Blackcomb’s valleys.

    On Siwash Lake Ranch, a 5.5-hour drive from Vancouver, inhale the scent of saddle leather while riding the trails of this luxury dude ranch in the foothills of the Cariboo Mountains. The ranch is noted for its Synergy with Horses horsemanship program.

    For something completely different, head to Sparkling Hill Resort in the Okanagan Valley. Developed by the Swarovski family patriarch, the luxury lakeside wellness retreat literally sparkles with 3.5 million crystals.