Canada: Vancouver by RV

By Simon Kay

Simon Kay enjoys precious father-son time exploring Canadian countryside

Stratcona Park on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Photo / Supplied
Stratcona Park on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Photo / Supplied

I won't lie to you, it took a little getting used to. But after adjusting to the additional vehicle size and to driving on the right hand side of the road, I can't think of a better way to explore the Canadian countryside than in a campervan.

My 14-year-old son Otto and I flew to Vancouver (the city) on a Sunday afternoon, picked up our RV (recreational vehicle) the next morning and caught a ferry to Vancouver (the island). We spent the next eight days clocking up 800km, doing something remarkable every day, from watching grizzly bears and killer whales and working with birds of prey, to learning bushcraft skills in the wilderness and clambering through caves. And, between these attractions, we took in stunning scenery while on the road in our RV.

Our campervan was from Fraserway, Canada's largest RV company which has been operating for 43 years and has more than 1000 hire vehicles available nationwide. These range in size from a 7m truck camper (which basically has a living area attached to the back of a V8 or V10 ute) ideal for a couple, all the way up to a 9m A class motorhome which can sleep a family of six.

Our vehicle was 7.7m long, 3.4m high and 2.5m wide. Having not driven a campervan before, these dimensions were markedly bigger than the Corona that normally gets me from A to B. After carefully navigating my way around the provincial capital Victoria during our first afternoon on the island, we had dinner at a harbourside restaurant and then headed to our first RV park which was supposed to be a 20-minute drive from the city centre.

We had a GPS but that couldn't compensate for an incorrect address. As twilight turned to night and the road grew more remote, I had to accept we were lost. So I doubled back, parked up a side street and accosted a woman outside a real estate office. Initially, she looked at me as if I were some kind of vagrant until hearing my accent. Then, like every Canadian I encountered, she was unfailingly friendly and helpful. Every Canadian I spoke to had either been to New Zealand or wanted to go.

So, armed with the right directions, we arrived at our RV park after 9pm. Our site number details were taped to the office door. Our site for the night was on an incline and was quite a tight fit, with a fence on one side and a tree on the other. I drove straight in but when I couldn't connect the power or water, it became clear that I needed to turn our RV around and reverse into the site.

I must have been making a pig's ear of my manoeuvring because out of the darkness emerged a man who introduced himself as a truck driver and offered to back the RV in for me. Tired from a full-on previous 48 hours and irked at the address mix-up, I was happy to accept.

After my first-day dramas, I quickly got to grips with driving our campervan.The Fraserway rep had told me it generally takes a day or two for RV novices like me to get used to its larger dimensions. He was right.

Our vehicle had most of the comforts of home, including an oven, fridge, heater, toilet and shower. We topped up the water and drained the wastewater at RV parks every couple of days. We also had the ability to slide one of the walls out an extra metre, when parked, to maximise our floor space.

There are plenty of RV parks dotted around the island, several with their own attractions. Paradise Fun Park in Parksville boasted one of the most impressive mini-golf courses I've played.

Vehicle rental costs vary depending on the time of year. The most expensive months are July and August, when most Europeans and Canadians have their summer holidays. Petrol is much cheaper in Canada than here, currently C$1.23 ($1.42) a litre in Victoria. I spent around C$350 ($410) on petrol during our trip.

On Vancouver Island, generally the further north you drive from Victoria, the more rugged and remote the land. The furthest north we reached was Campbell River, around 270km north of Victoria. From Campbell River, we drove 40km south-west along the Gold River Highway towards Strathcona, a remote lodge and outdoor education centre on the shores of Upper Campbell Lake.

It was a picturesque drive. There were few signs of human habitation, with bush on one side of the road and postcard-like views out over the lake on the other. At several points on that journey, the scenery was so stunning, I was tempted to pull over and settle in for the night.

And that's one of the big advantages of RVs - if you see a spot where you want to stop, you can almost certainly do just that. In national or provincial parks, you have to stay in designated areas, but unless there's a sign which says no overnighting is allowed, you can park up anywhere you like.

Something for everyone

It's a common theme for parents. As your kids grow older, the list of things they'll do with you grows shorter. Family holidays are a likely casualty during the teen years. But any opposition can be overcome if a holiday's attractions are sufficiently extraordinary.

My 14-year-old son Otto had no qualms when the prospect of accompanying me to Canada's Vancouver Island was raised. And at the end of our eight-day trip together doing loads of blokey stuff (not a shop in sight), he declared it "the best holiday ever".

The timing of flights and the crossing of relatively few time zones adds to Vancouver's appeal. Air New Zealand flies directly to the city three nights a week. We left at 8pm, slept on the plane, and 13 hours later, arrived in Vancouver at 2pm. The time difference was only four hours, so we had no issues with jet lag.

Vancouver Island is an ideal destination for a father-son trip. There are numerous wilderness and wildlife attractions, plus adventure activities.

My highlights were the animals: getting within metres of killer whales and grizzly bears in their natural habitats, and having a hawk swoop out of a tree on to my arm were unforgettable experiences.

For Otto, the adventure activities provided thrills just as enjoyable. One was ziplining, which are basically flash flying foxes. There are several zipline operations in British Columbia. We went to AdrenaLine Zipline Adventure Tours near Sooke, a 40-minute drive from the provincial capital Victoria.

We started at the top of a hill and worked our way back to the bottom via seven zipline rides and two suspension bridges, stopping at platforms built high in the treetops. The first five get progressively longer, from 50m to 300m, up to 50m above the ground. The last two are shorter but steeper, meaning you go faster, up to 60km/h. Our guides did all manner of flips, twirls and spins on their rides down. Our attempts at similar moves were not as stylish.

A day in the wilderness, based at Strathcona Park Lodge, around 300km from Victoria near Campbell River, was another memorable experience for Otto. Strathcona is in a picturesque location on the shores of Upper Campbell Lake and in the morning of our day there, we motored across the lake with our guide and tracked animals, mainly elk and bear.

Our guide gave us an array of options for our afternoon in the bush. Otto chose hut-building and fire-starting. So we built an A-frame shelter using numerous branches lying around, with moss for the roof and floor. The truly keen can stay overnight in their huts. We were unable to start a fire the traditional way of the First Nation Canadians with sticks and a bow but Otto succeeded using an old-fashioned flint and steel tool that you strike to create sparks. Strathcona can personalise packages that last hours or days.

After a full-on day in the wild, we unwound un one of Strathcona's restaurants, watching the sun set over the hills, before retiring to our water's edge cabin and a bonfire lit by more conventional means.

Simon Kay travelled to Vancouver courtesy of Air New Zealand, the Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourism British Columbia and FraserwayRVs.

- Herald on Sunday

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