Even in the city of Vancouver, Canada, there are forests and lakes on your doorstep. Take a trip to Ucluelet, Lund or the Pacific Rim National Park, and the wildlife (and the views) get better still…
Our hotel, the Pacific Palisades, was just off Robson Street – the main shopping thoroughfare, where the usual North American and European chain shops set the tone. If holiday shopping is not your thing, take a stroll around the city wilderness of Stanley Park. Within minutes you will be surrounded by coniferous forest and looking out on the adjoining lake and shoreline, with an occasional glimpse of downtown through the trees.
For the perfect jetlag cure, don your hiking boots and purchase a $9 city travel ticket that entitles you to transport (by Skytrain, harbour ferry and bus) to the foot of Grouse Mountain. From here, walk the "Grouse Grind", a 2.9km climb to the summit. The ascent is through cool, damp temperate rainforest, but the view from the peak over the tops of the cedars to the harbour and city below is spectacular. This is a ski resort in winter, but in summer there are lumberjack displays, zip-lining and sanctuaries for grizzly bears and raptors.
A $43 one-way ticket will cover the road journey (with Pacific Coach Lines; reservations +00 1 604 662 7575) and the sea crossing (with BC Ferries) through to downtown Victoria. As you approach the beautiful coastline of Vancouver Island, it is possible to see humpback whales from the sundeck if you are lucky.
Victoria is a charming university city, a kind of little brother to Vancouver. Many guidebooks focus on its quaint tea-sipping Englishness, but there is also a great selection of bars, pubs and live entertainment. The Inn at Laurel Point, at the mouth of the inner harbour, has lovely rooms and a bar from which you can watch the seaplanes landing in the bay. A leisurely stroll along the sea path will take you into town for a few pints and a hearty bowl of seafood chowder at The Keg (500 Fort Street; 250 386 7789), one of a chain of superb brewpubs throughout the region. Afterwards, you can browse the waterside market stalls offering First Nations art and jewellery.
Ucluelet and Tofino
Hire a car from Avis (www.avis.com) and take a picturesque five-hour drive to the west coast town of Ucluelet. The tourist slogan welcomes you to "Life on the edge" – and, looking at the rocky fingers of land protruding into the Pacific, and the road signs warning that you are entering a tsunami danger area, that seems perfectly accurate. The quaint Reef Point Cottages may not have an ocean view, but they do have wooden cabins from which you can spot bald eagles and black bears. A Seafari tour with Aquamarine Adventures (+00 1 250 726 7727, www.westcoastwhales.com) takes you to the Broken Group Islands in a bouncy zodiac boat for $79. You will see an incredible array of wildlife including whales (grey and humpback), sea lions, black bears, sea otters, harbour porpoises and bald eagles.
Pacific Rim National Park
The beaches of the Pacific Rim National Park lie between Tofino and Ucluelet. The Pacific breakers that crash on to the rocks on Long Beach shroud the shoreline in morning mist, attracting fearless surfers in the summer, and tourists flocking to see the spectacular storms in winter. Huge tree trunks stack up at the fringes of the beach – evidence of the power of the waves that lash this coastline. When the mist clears, it is possible to lie back on miles of golden sands with a picnic, and watch the spume from the blow-holes of humpback whales offshore.
A $29 ferry crossing from Comox to Powell River (just show up) will get you back to the mainland; from here, the tiny coastal settlement of Lund is a 45-minute drive. It is situated on the Sunshine Coast, at the end of Highway 101 – the Pan American Highway that runs south for 15,020km until it reaches the toe of Chile’s boot. From its general store to its pizza restaurant, Lund has the feeling of a town owned by a single family. Stay at the quaint Historic Lund Hotel, perched on a headland between two tiny harbours. The motel-style rooms are fine, but splash out on one of the ocean-front rooms for a wonderful view, complete with sunset. The restaurant and bar are managed by friendly staff, and you can enjoy delicious locally caught halibut – served with chips – while gazing out over the sheltered waters of Desolation Sound. The coastal mountain range shelters this stretch of coast, producing a micro climate of comparatively warm summers and mild winters.
This 7km-long strip of continually shifting glacial sand can be reached by riverbus (fare $10) across Desolation Sound from Lund. There are very few vehicles here, and the forested interior has only a few vacation homes. This is a nice place for beachcombing and hiking.
From Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver, it is a two-hour drive up the spectacular Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler, the venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics. In summer, there is plenty of mountain biking, zip lining and hiking here. The ski gondolas remain open for a panoramic view of the area, and the town itself is lively by day or night.
For great people-watching, sit on the patio of the Longhorn Saloon at the foot of Whistler Mountain and watch the grimy mountain bikers finish their descent. Whistler Outdoor Experience (+00 1 604 932 3389, www.whistleroutdoor.com) offers gentle kayaking trips down the quaintly named River of Golden Dreams for $54, as well as horse riding and fishing excursions.
For a break from the breathtaking scenery, try some retail therapy. There is an impressive range of of shopping outlets in Whistler, plus plenty of restaurants and inns for the après ski (or après kayaking). Stay at the friendly Cedar Springs Lodge, 4km outside the village. The walk into town past the Jack Nicklaus golf course is typically picturesque – and rural enough to encounter the odd black bear munching its way through the fern roots beside the path.
For dinner, try the fabulous Mongolie Grill (604 938 9416, www.mongoliegrill.com), where you load your plate and queue for the chefs to stir-fry the ingredients with a sauce of your choice. If your credit card has maxed out, try The Old Spaghetti Factory (604 938 1081, www.oldspaghettifactory.ca) for a three-course meal for about $13.