Beyond Vancouver: five under-the-radar destinations in British Columbia, for surfing, skiing, mountain biking and more
Within a day’s drive of Vancouver are Canada’s second biggest ski slope after Whistler, an alpine lake with crystal clear waters, and one of the most underrated surfing spots in the world
Vancouver is the epicentre of British Columbia. However, the western Canadian province covers a vast area of almost a million square kilometres (386,000 square miles) and features multiple environments: snow-capped mountains, sun-drenched beaches and loads to do in both summer and winter.
Within a day’s drive you can encounter, the ocean, ski slopes, forest and desert. Tourism in British Columbia generates around C$15 billion (US$11.3 billion) annually and is one of its largest industries. The province is sparsely populated so getting around is easy, and the locals are more than welcoming to visitors.
With that in mind, here are five things to do if you’re feeling adventurous and ready to break off the most trodden tourist tracks.
1. Sun Peaks
While Whistler is an internationally known ski slope just outside of Vancouver, there’s another mountain in British Columbia with a cult following.
Sun Peaks, which is just north of Kamloops, is Canada’s second largest ski slope. While it’s second only to Whistler in size, this mountain offers something different – a chance to experience unique runs at a lesser known resort. The area also encompasses a quaint little resort town, and all the same amenities as Whistler are available, including quality hotels, ski shops, pubs and restaurants. The cost of a day pass is a fraction of what it is in Whistler, and you will not be waiting nearly as long for a chairlift.
How to get there: Head northeast out of Vancouver by bus or car to Kamloops (about a four-hour drive). But be warned, the roads in the winter can be treacherous, so you may want to take a flight from Vancouver to Kamloops. Then it’s a short 45-minute drive from Kamloops to the ski slopes.
2. Surfing in Tofino
On the western side of Vancouver Island lies one of the most underrated surfing spots in the world. The small town of Tofino, which has around 2,000 permanent residents, has some of the most consistent waves off its shores, albeit the temperature is a little less than tropical. Here, surfers put on wet suits and hit the water for some of the most breathtaking swells with west coast backdrops.
The laid-back culture of the area is enticing. You can stay in a cosy bed and breakfast run by locals who will give you a rundown on what to do and where to go in the area. The surf shops offer board rentals and lessons, and knowledgeable staff can help you maximise your time out in the water.
How to get there: After arriving in Vancouver, rent a car (or take the bus) and head to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, which is just south of Vancouver, which will ferry you to Vancouver Island. The drive from Swartz Bay to Tofino will take you about four-and-a-half hours, but the roads are tranquil and cut through a beautiful forested landscape.
3. Green Lake
If you are looking for a pristine travel destination, you have to visit Green Lake, nestled in the interior of the province. This area, sparsely inhabited, offers a lake experience like no other. Green Lake is known as what’s called a “soda lake”, which means its alkaline content is high. The result is crystal blue and green waters with little vegetation that resembles something out of the Caribbean, yet surrounded by dense evergreen forests.
You can swim in the water and feel refreshed, go kayaking or simply lie on the grey sand beaches and soak up the sun. It’s best to head there during the months of July or August, as the high elevation (1,069 metres above sea level) means that during the winter, this area is filled with snow and the water is frozen. Note that lately the area has become a hot spot for wildfires, so check the environmental report before heading there.
How to get there: For this one, you’ll probably have to rent a car or an RV. Head north to Kamloops, and then keep driving north to the small town of 70 Mile. Consider booking a spot at one of the two provincial campsites in advance, head to a bed and breakfast, or try out the Flying U dude ranch, where you can also ride horses.
4. Richmond night market
South of Vancouver, Richmond has a distinctly Chinese flavour to it – the city is 54 per cent ethnically Asian. The city is one of the hottest areas for real estate development, and visitors who speak only Mandarin or Cantonese will not have any issues exploring this city. Many of the locals speak Chinese and most signage is in Chinese.
One of the city’s hidden gems is its annual night market, which takes place during the weekends from May to October near the Bridgeport Skytrain Station and the River Rock Casino. Here you’ll get to sample the best Asian fusion cuisine in the province, as more than 200 retail vendors offer food, clothing and various items. The night market, which started back in 2000, has also expanded to feature kid’s play areas, games and even live entertainment.
How to get there: Vancouver’s airport is next to Richmond, so you can hop on the Skytrain and head to a hotel or straight to the night market in minutes. Consider staying at the River Rock Casino and then heading out for the night, but beware, the lines can get long if the weather is nice or it is a long weekend in British Columbia.
5. Mountain biking in Smithers
Looking for a little action in your life? If the idea of zooming down some mountainous terrain on a bike appeals to you, then you have to visit Smithers, in British Columbia’s Bulkley Valley, in the northwestern corner of the province. The locals have turned the outlying areas around the small city into a paradise for bikers in the summer months.
The mountain biking community has made trails, ramps, jumps and wooden bridges, and routes snake through the area like rivers. You can rent all the requisite gear and bikes from local shops at a low cost, and hire a guide. While some of the trails have been made for experts, a lot of them are fairly easy so that even those with little biking experience can tackle them.
How to get there: the best way is to fly to Kamloops or Prince George from Vancouver International Airport and take a bus or drive to Smithers. If you are feeling adventurous, you can rent a car in Vancouver and drive there, but it will take you about a day to do it.
Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airlines and Air Canada fly between Hong Kong and Vancouver