Canada: Stunning journey to edge of the world

By David Eames

Wildlife, thrilling scenery and art abound on Canada's Sunshine Coast, writes David Eames.

Kayaking the Okeover Arm near Lund. Photo / Tourism BC, Dannielle Hayes
Kayaking the Okeover Arm near Lund. Photo / Tourism BC, Dannielle Hayes

There are moments in a man's life when he has to stand, square shouldered, and look his adversary in the eye.

But being confronted by a raccoon on a boardwalk in the Canadian forest is not one of them - raccoons are big up close and that black strip across their eyes makes them look criminal.

You soon realise animals hold sway in rural British Columbia. Everywhere are signposted warnings not to feed them or to watch out for wandering bears.

It's about then one realises, there's a food chain here, and humans aren't always at the top. We're in BC for a 10-day roadtrip up the Sunshine Coast, down Vancouver Island and across Georgia Strait - via Saltspring and Pender islands - back to Vancouver city.

But what's that ... Sunshine Coast ... Canada ... in autumn?

Canada is not commonly associated with sunshine and this part of the country is just across the border from the Pacific Northwest's most-famously-rainy city of Seattle.

The Sunshine Coast, however, is a bit special. The route runs some 180km from Howe Sound in the south to the aptly-named Desolation Sound up north.

It was named in the 1950s for its Mediterranean-style climate. The coast has a lower rainfall than the rest of BC and an average 231 sunshine days a year. Despite being accessible only by ferry, the area is a popular holiday spot for Canadians and Americans - at least it was until the financial crisis and more toughening of the border laws slowed the influx.

The 13-hour flight from Auckland is the best type to have - comfortable and uneventful, and collecting the rental in which we are to make the journey equally so.

A quick word on driving in Canada: it is not as difficult as you might think. Not only does Vancouver have a pretty good motorway, driving on the right-hand side seems easier when you actually have a steering wheel in front of you.

Our journey begins on the mainland Coast road - officially, Highway 101 - from just outside Gibson, a 45-minute ferry ride from the northern outskirts of Vancouver city.

Unfortunately, the climate's hardly Mediterranean as we arrive at Rockwater Resort, about an hour north.

It's not raining, but when it's howling a force 10, you don't really want to be staying in a tent. Rockwater has a few of them, perched on a rocky promontory overlooking a deep, green sea.

Luckily, they're the last word in luxury. Basically, a house frame with removable canvas walls, the tent-houses have luxury baths, balconies and breathtaking views across the Georgia Strait.

They're just the place to wash off a long flight and enjoy a nice bottle of Canadian red.

If there's one thing to watch out for, it's the rice paper walls surrounding mission-critical areas such as the toilet. The Sunshine Coast is all about the outdoors and a good way to get the best view is to head hundreds of metres offshore. You'll need a sea kayak for that and there are plenty of operators along the coast with rates starting from about $60 for a four-hour excursion.

Halfmoon Sea Kayaks operates out of Rockwater and offers a range of activities, from casual paddles along the coastline, to overnight trips, or longer.

Art is a big deal to the locals, and our car comes in handy for checking out a few of the more than 65 home studios and galleries dotted along the route.

A "Green Banner Route" provides a handy guide to all the great eateries and food vendors along the way, too.

There's not a lot of traffic on Highway 101 and, before long, I'm driving like a local - which is to say, slowly. Canada appears to have no set open-road speed limit, and one must drive to the posted signs, usually between 60km/h to 80km/h.

It's unbearable, but the snail's pace does provides an opportunity to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

BC Ferries run regular services throughout Georgia Strait and the Sunshine Coast, and travellers must catch one to reach the northern end of the coast road. As a rule, they are punctual and well staffed. The scenery only gets better once off the ferry and motoring towards Lund - the top of Route 101 - and the gateway to Desolation Sound.

Lund really does feel like a frontier town.

There's a pub - which provides excellent accommodation - and a number of restaurants and takeaways supplying hearty tucker.

But the drawcard is Desolation Sound. The mouth of which sits just to the north of the village.

A tour of the sound is compulsory and utterly worthwhile.

Mountains erupt silently from the cold, black waters of the sound, with each one apparently trying to outdo its neighbour in height.

It's said Desolation - a favourite stopover for boaties cruising the Pacific Northwest - is the location of the steepest drop from mountain peak to sea floor in North America.

I don't know if that's true, but Desolation Sound makes you feel like you're standing on the edge of the world.

There's a number of gated communities just inside the sound, home to wealthy Vancouverites, and Seattle millionaires - but the well-manicured properties soon disappear to make way for miles and miles of trees that seem to - and probably do - stretch all the way to Alaska.

One can only imagine the men who carve out a life among those peaks and valleys.

They'll be tough, bearded, wilderness types, who drive pick-ups and when they get together, drink beer and talk about grizzlies, elk and sock-eye salmon.

Actually, wild animals are a popular topic of conversation for people all along the Sunshine Coast, whether it's tales of deer destroying carefully-tended vegetable plots, speculation on the salmon run, or yarns about bears wandering from the forest to ransack a rubbish bin.

Generally, we're told, black bears inhabit the lower areas and coastline, leaving the wild interior to the larger, more temperamental grizzlies. Every so often, a grizzly will venture into town having navigated its way down forestry tracks.

Usually, they are tranquillised and helicoptered back into the hinterland.

From Lund, it's a short hop back to Powell River, to catch a ferry to Comox/Little River, Vancouver Island.

It's often said the Canadian countryside is a lot like New Zealand's, but it's not until we reach Vancouver Island we realise that might be the case.

While the island has it share of fir trees, it's refreshing finally to see something deciduous. It's strangely invigorating to see a bit of farmland, too.

Unfortunately, our itinerary only allows for one night on Vancouver Island, which we spend in the coastal city of Nanaimo.

With a population of 80,000, the city sits on a picturesque waterfront and has a vibrant arts culture.

It also has a vigorous bar scene, too, we're told, but an early start the next day puts paid to too much carousing.

From Nanaimo, it's another short ferry ride on to Saltspring and Pender islands - two wildly different stop-overs.

Where Saltspring - which resembled rural Hawke's Bay - is an island of (organic) farming, wineries and roadside stalls, Pender is heavily-forested. Both are stunningly beautiful.

By the time we return our trusty rental in downtown Vancouver, it is dusty.

A holiday to what Canadians call the Sunshine Coast could be a hard sell to New Zealanders for whom both coasts and sunshine abound.

But maybe we Kiwis need to be a little open-minded. The British Columbia coast and islands circuit is something so much bigger, so much more epic, than anything you are likely to see in these parts - unless, perhaps, you fancy spending your hols in Milford Sound.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies to Vancouver twice weekly.

Getting around: For information on the network of ferries which cover the coast of British Columbia see bcferries.com.

Further information: See the British Columbia Tourism website.

David Eames visited British Columbia courtesy of Tourism British Columbia and Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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