Last summer, somewhere between graduating from university and committing to a 9 to 5 lifestyle for the next 5 years I decided to get out. Out to a place full of breathtaking nature yet vibrant with culture and modern lifestyle. It didn’t take me a long time to decide on a place – I wanted to discover Canada. My particular focus was on British Columbia and the two months I spent there were enough for me to get a deep look into what life in BC is all about. Everywhere I went I relied on locals showing me around, telling me where to go and pointing out the highlights of their area. Pretty soon, I let go of my travel book and listened to the voices of Canada instead and soon enough I stopped being a tourist.
It feels like I went up and down every road I came across. Rental cars, buses, rideshares, planes, horse-backs, horse waggons and of course my feet took me to almost every corner of ‘Beautiful British Columbia’ as well as to the neighbouring states of Alberta, Washington and Oregon.
From the waters of the Central Chilcotin area to the heights the Canadian Rockies, along the mighty Fraser River to the southern parts close to and across the US border I couchsurfed and wwoofed my way through various living rooms and kitchens. From backcountry cabins and canvas teepees, to Vancouver condos and countryside B&Bs – I did them all. So why not share my favourite things to do and places to see in British Columbia? Here we go:
1. Experience Vancouver like a local
Your travel book will probably tell you to see the ‘amazing steam-clock’ in Gastown and marvel at the ‘architectural achievement’ of the Canada Place. Well, you can do all that of course OR instead you could do things a Vancouverian would do.
First of all, get yourself a rental bike at Denman Street, in between Downtown and Stanley Park, and explore this unusually bike-friendly city on 2 wheels. Plenty of bike routes lead you from parks and shores back to skyscraping Downtown and super-trendy Yaletown. A bike ferry takes you to the Granville Public Market across the water.
After a long day enjoying the seabreeze and colorful street of the Metro area, find your way to one of Vancouver’s superb CouchSurfing hosts. You’ll find most of them in suburban areas, shouldering the downtown area, as that’s where rents are still reasonable. If you’re having a hard time finding a place to stay, check out the super-helpful Emergency-CS-group. My hosts pointed out what to do (e.g. the Grouse Grind in North Vancouver) and what to leave aside (e.g. the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park). They took me out to great and cheap dinners (e.g. Stepho’s Greek Taverna at Davie St) and gave me a hand with the confusing public transport system.
2. Pick your parks well
The thing to do is going to Jasper and Banff National Parks. I did it too and – predictably – it was awesome. If you, however, want to experiene more untouched wilderness those 2 would not be your top choices. Here’s what I recommend you do instead:
Forget spending all your money on shoppings trips, expensive restaurants or fancy hotels. What you should really be spending your money on in BC is a plane. While the Canadian Coast is not fully accessible by car, a plane gives you the freedom of moving around. The aereal way is the best way to access even the most remote areas in and around Tweedsmuir Provincial Park (Central Coast, north of Vancouver). Follow route 20 from Williams Lake to Bella Coola and take a stop in Nimpo Lake. From there a small floatplane takes you in to Turner Lake. Look forward to a lonely cabin or campsite, sandy beaches, unaccessible shorelines, weeklong canoe trips to the connecting lakes, the feeling of standing at the edge of 300m dropping Hunlen Falls and an idyllic view on BC from above.
Still don’t want to skip the Rockies? Well, then Yoho National Park is the choice for you. Being only a short drive west of Lake Louise, this is the perfect retreat if things get too crowded in Banff National Park. While there are certain Must-Stops for every tourist(-bus) – Emerald Lake and the Natural Bridge – this park also offers major activities off the beaten track. For a spectacular view on BC’s mountains and lakes, access to hiking trails on all difficulty levels and simple hut accomodation drive up to Lake O’Hara. You will receive all information needed at the Alpine Club of Canada. Once you get there nothing stands between you, romantic hut-atmosphere and impressive landscapes.
3. Support Local Producers
Canada is a country known for its striking nature. Especially the Southern parts one can find intensely used farmlands. Travelling in this area makes it redundant to shop at huge supermarket chains. You should rather prefer to shop local. Driving along Hwy 1, you’ll see signs of all sizes leading your way to farm and street sales or local farmer’s markets. Almost every bigger town offers a weekly farmer’s market (usually weekends), where you can get fresh vegetables and fruit, grown in the area surrounding you. Even in Vancouver, there’s the Granville Public Market, a huge market on Granville Island, supplying the urban community with fresh food from BC.
Spending some time in the Salmon Arm area, I got to know the delicious dairy products of the D. Dutchmen Dairy Farm. Locals and travellers enjoy their chocolatemilk, just as homemade ice cream – all made by milk from cows, which are more than happy to be petted behind the store.
4. Get to know the Natives
Reading a Canadian map makes it pretty obvious – places like Squamish, Sicamous, Kitimat or Haida Gwaii did not get their names by the British, but my the native Americans populating these parts of Canada since hundred and thousands of years.
Disregarding the many problems the Natives were and still are facing, being sucked up by a society so crucially different from their own, they try hard to keep alive their culture and make it blooming again. By now, Canadians try to support this need as good as possible, the the work is done together.
In Vancouver, as well as in Victoria one can find impressive anthropological museums, showing the different Native cultures spread over the country, just as well as artefacts found all over BC. The islands of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) are mostly covered by the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, and this in by far not the only Native reserve, as there are innumerable all over the province.
To achieve an over-all Native knowledge it is best to visit one of the various heritage villages, to be found in many of the Reserves. A very good example for balancing the transfer of knowledge to travellers and „white people“, as well as to young people of Native heritage is the Xatśūll Heritage Village at Soda Creek (15km north of Williams Lake, route 97). The Xatśūll community is the northern-most Shuswap community, and invites the visitors to explore their traditional dirthouses, summer sheds, cooking methods and fishing territories. Situated right next to the mighty Fraser River, this heritage village gives a good overview over the Xatśūll culture, as well as an peak into other Native cultures – for example by supplying teepees. Through workshops school classes and visiting groups can learn how to craft objects of daily use or how to cook on a fire pit.
It seems like British Columbia is rich of everything: breath-taking natural spectacles along the coast and in the mountains, colorful local food products at farmer’s markets, the friendliest people I have ever met, tradition-consciousness in the museums and heritage villages, and urban green lifestyle in Vancouver. What a place to visit!
*guest post by Katharina Kamleitner