Picturesque loop by land, sea

On the road and by ferry, explore British Columbia

Orange County RegisterNovember 10, 2012 

  • If you go B.C. ferries: Fast and efficient ferries are suited to long hauls from the mainland to Vancouver Island or short jumps across long inlets. Reserve ahead of time during peak summer months or holidays like Thanksgiving. Morning southbound sailings and evening northbound sailings along the southern Sunshine Coast can get crowded with commuters going in and out of Vancouver. Prices vary by season and time. Go to bcferries.com or call 888-223-3779. Info: HelloBC.com, sunshinecoastcanada.com

Land. Sea. Land. Sea.

Ferry. Road. Ferry. Road.

A looping trip west out of Vancouver, British Columbia, means a lot of water and mountains that get in the way. But the Canadians have tamed their pockmarked geography with winding roads, deep tunnels and ferries that link the once-isolated villages and big cities. Come along for a roll-on, roll-off trip around the southwestern edge of Canada’s most southwestern province.

Vancouver airport

to Tsawwassen

Distance: 20 miles by car.

Along the way: Steveston, once dubbed “Salmonopolis,” has changed from a onetime village with scores of canneries into a Vancouver suburb with a museum about cannery life in the early 20th century. The only thing that has stayed the same is you can eat the famous fish almost anywhere in town.

Good eats: Steveston Seafood House. The chef wanted to cook my wild salmon a little too rare. I wanted it cooked through. The final result was a triumph of compromise. Tender and fresh with that meaty feel of nonfarm-raised salmon. A triumphant first meal on my first evening in Canada. 3951 Moncton St., Steveston district of Richmond; 604-271-5252; stevestonseafoodhouse.com

Why Tsawwassen? It’s the ferry terminal for Vancouver Island. Sleeping there meant we could catch one of the first departures across the Strait of Georgia the next morning.

Tsawwassen to

Swartz Bay

Distance: 24 miles via ferry.

Along the way: Active Pass, between Galiano and Mayne islands. The ferry pivoted, turned and churned a zig-zag course around rocky shoals, deep pockets of blue water and within sight of vacation homes. Orcas like the area for its Chinook salmon. We saw a pod of eight breaching and flapping their tails.

Good eats: The Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal has a food court with excellent coffee, baked goods and fresh fruit. You can eat on the deck of the ferry as it heads to Vancouver Island.

Why Swartz Bay: It’s the main ferry terminal for Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, at the south end of Vancouver Island. It’s a short drive down the peninsula – stop at Butchart Gardens if you have a couple of hours to spend.

Swartz Bay to Victoria

Distance: 20 miles by car.

Along the way: The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria. Built in 1908, it’s a grand outpost of colonial-style British tradition.

Good eats: High tea, Fairmont Empress Hotel. No import recalls the old country more than that most expensive yet wondrously pretentious experience of “high tea,” a formal riot of pots and silver, scones and jams, finger sandwiches and the extraordinary creation from Devonshire, clotted (like your arteries afterward) cream. Our bill came to $152 for two, including tip. The price is steep, but having Earl Grey and a plate of cucumber, curry chicken, tuna and salmon sandwiches at 4 p.m. is more than enough for both lunch and dinner for the day. 721 Government St.; 866-540-4429; fairmont.com/empress-victoria

Why Victoria: The most British bit of British Columbia.

Victoria to Courtenay

Distance: 147 miles by car.

Along the way: Paradise Fun Park in Parksville has two “world class” 18-hole miniature golf courses. A round will cost you $7.50 Canadian. 375 W. Island Highway; 250-248-6612; paradisefunpark.net

Good eats: Atlas Cafe, Courtenay. An eclectic mix of Canadian, Japanese, Greek, Mexican and anything else the chefs set their minds to. The approach is more whimsical than pretentious. 224 Sixth St.; 250-338-9838; atlascafe.ca

Why Courtenay: It’s the nearest major town to the ferry port at Comox. Since it wasn’t ski season and the hordes weren’t heading up to nearby Mount Washington, the plentiful supply of motel rooms made for a cheap night after the high life at the Empress. And it’s a great place to see streaking Canadian jet fighters over the waterfront from the big base just to the north.

Courtenay to Powell River

Distance: 33 miles, mostly by ferry.

Along the way: The lovingly restored 1928 Patricia Theatre, centerpiece of the town’s renaissance as an arts community. It still has the feeling of a tough industrial town, but with a new lease on life.

Good eats: Rhodos Coffee Roasting Co., Courtenay. Along with Serious Coffee, Courtenay had some of the best espresso I found on the trip. 364 Eighth St., No. 106; 250-338-5592; rhodoscoffee.com

Why Powell River: A newspaperman’s heart is going to love Powell River – which made newsprint used around the world. But the town refused to go belly-up when the mill laid off thousands and ownership changed. It has reinvented itself anew within a shell of the old town.

Powell River

to Halfmoon Bay

Distance: 60 miles, including a ferry between Saltery Bay and Earl’s Landing.

Along the way: Rockwater Secret Cove Resort. A favorite of the high-end glossy magazines for its luxury tents set on rocks overlooking an inlet. It’s a romantic spot.I checked out the tents and the log cabins, and my vote goes to the less glitzy but more sequestered cabins. 5356 Ole’s Cove Road, Halfmoon Bay; 877-296-4593; rockwatersecretcoveresort.com

Good eats: Rockwater Secret Cove Resort. Even if you can’t afford to stay at the resort, stop in for a drink or dinner at the pretty little cove set amid the woods and water of the Sunshine Coast.

Why Halfmoon Bay: If you’ve ever seen Joni Mitchell’s album “For the Roses,” you’ve seen the Halfmoon Bay area. Mitchell bought a place here as a hideaway and is active in local preservation. I went to the General Store, where she is known to visit, but no Joni on this trip.

Halfmoon Bay to Vancouver airport

Distance: 92 miles, including a ferry from Langdale to Horseshoe Bay and getting seriously lost driving in North Vancouver.

Along the way: After so many beautiful trips across the water, the 40-minute ferry ride between Gambier and Bowen Islands was the most dramatic of the trip, with towering, pine-covered mountainsides.

Good eats: Molly’s Reach, Gibsons Landing. Locals will tell you there are better places to eat, but I’m a sucker for other cultures’ icons, especially ones I know nothing about. Molly’s was the setting for a hit TV series called “The Beachcombers,” and Canadians will drive across the continent just to have fish and chips here. It’s like the “Cheers” bar in Boston. It doesn’t matter if the food is good; you’ve achieved your goal when you walk in. 647 School Road; 604-885-9106; mollysreach.ca

Why Vancouver: The end.

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