Rolling on and off the water on a drive and ferry trip to British Columbia
A BC Ferries ship makes its way to its destination near Vancouver Island, Canada. (Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register, MCT / September 5, 2012)
Ferry. Road. Ferry. Road
Fish for lunch. Fish for dinner. Pancakes for breakfast (yes, you can have fish if you really must).
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, most of all, ferries that link the once-isolated villages and big cities.
It's a fragmented trip. Just when you start rolling along the highway, you come to a stop at a ferry terminal. Just when you are relaxing on the deck of the ship gliding across a strait, it's time to hustle down to your car and follow the rest of the cargo hold back out onto the pavement.
Like Seattle's Puget Sound to the south and Alaska's Inside Passage to the north, Vancouver Island and the optimistically named Sunshine Coast of British Columbia are visited in a hop-skip-jump fashion that turns out to be manageable because you are surrounded by thousands of other people who have done all this a million (or so it seems to them) times.
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
Quote: "The weather is about the same as in Southern California, except it's 20 degrees colder and raining really, really hard." - Westjet pilot on flight from Orange County, Calif., to Vancouver.
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. We hit it on a quiet night when there were few diners. 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 at a hotel there was cheaper and 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
Quote: "The cold, the space and the open seas - this is what we came to Canada to see." - Nina Schopka, a tourist from Munich, Germany, as she cupped a paper mug of coffee to keep her hands warm.
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 with the maple leaf flag proudly flapping in the breeze. 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 surprisingly nice 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
Quote: "S-O-C-I-A-L-I-S-M is the only way. S-O-C-I-A-L-I-S-M is here to stay." - "Canadian Dream," song by Sam Roberts heard in downtown Victoria shopping area.
Along the way: The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria. Built in 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as the western crown jewel of its string of transcontinental, castle-like hotels, it's a grand outpost of colonial-style British tradition in the far west of Canada.
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 people, 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 me as both lunch and dinner for the day. 721 Government St.; 866-540-4429; http://www.fairmont.com/empress-victoria
Why Victoria: The most British bit of British Columbia. It was "discovered" in March 1778 by Capt. James Cook, the British explorer who seemed to have "discovered" every other place between Alaska and Kauai. One of Cook's senior officers was William Bligh, he of the future HMS Bounty mutiny. Within a year, Cook would be killed in Hawaii, his head cracked open in a fight with natives over a small boat.
-Victoria to Courtenay
Distance: 147 miles by car
Quote: "The British who came west loved British Columbia. They made it more British than Britain." - George del Falco, who moved to British Columbia 39 years ago from Ontario in eastern Canada.
Along the way: Paradise Fun Park in Parksville has two "world class" 18-hole miniature golf courses. The easier one is called Surf n' Turf, but I manned up and went for the tougher Treasure Island, built around the three-masted S.N. Sinkaputt. Around the hills, down the slopes, past the cuckoo clock and the sign noting it is 4,773 miles to London, I battled bank shots, chutes, clanking drawbridges and windmills. Result: Eight over par. 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. You can start out with hummus, continue with togarashi tuna salad and then have the sockeye salmon burger. The approach is more whimsical than pretentious, so expect to share the room with local families and serious foodies out for a romantic night. 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
Quote: "This was supposed to be a worker's utopia. The owners cared. Healthy hearts. Healthy hands. Healthy minds. Happy employees would make good citizens. For a long time it worked. The foundation of this town is unlike just about anywhere." - Ann Nelson, former Anaheim and Buena Park, Calif., resident living in Powell River.
Along the way: The Patricia Theatre. Run by Nelson and her son Brian, the lovingly restored 1928 theater is the centerpiece of the town's renaissance as an arts community. The restoration of old homes and shops has spurred a mini-boom, with the population now at 14,000. It's a mix of artists, retirees, transplants like Nelson and longtime locals. 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. Stop in on the way to the ferry if the brown swill at the motel breakfast doesn't kick start your day. 364 Eighth St., No. 106; 250-338-5592; rhodoscoffee.com
Why Powell River: A newspaperman's heart is going to love Powell River - which once ground trees into 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.
Quote: "I'm looking way out at the ocean
"Love to see that green water in motion
"I'm going to get a boat
"And we can row it
"If you ever get the notion
"To be needed by me
"Fresh salmon frying
"And the tide rolling in."
-Joni Mitchell, "Lesson in Survival," from the album "For the Roses"
Along the way: Rockwater Secret Cove Resort. A favorite of the high-end glossy magazines for its luxury tents set dramatically on rocks overlooking an inlet, all linked by a weathered wood walkway. It's a romantic spot. I'm not a huge fan of "glamping" - glamour camping - since canvas still doesn't keep out your neighbor's noise. 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: Joni Mitchell. If you've ever seen her album "For the Roses," you've seen the Halfmoon Bay area. In high school, I fell in love with the freckle-faced woman on the cover (and perhaps a bit with the nude - tastefully photographed far away and from the back - on a rock in an inlet). Mitchell bought a place here as a hideaway from the craziness of fame in Los Angeles and New York. She still keeps a residence in the area and is active in local preservation struggles. 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.
Quote: "We hope you have a good time in L.A." - Westjet pilot's announcement as we approach John Wayne Airport in Orange County on the flight back from 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. It helped that the roiling gray clouds parted frequently for blasts of sunlight that freckled the waters before receding into the low-lying mist. A classic bit of put-on-your-jacket Canada.
Good eats: Molly's Reach, Gibsons Landing. Locals will tell you there are better places to eat on the Sunshine Coast and even better places to eat up the street in Gibsons. But I'm a sucker for other cultures' icons, especially ones I know absolutely 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 kind of like the "Cheers" bar in Boston. It doesn't matter if the food is good, you've achieved your goal when you walk in the door. Dive into someone else's sentimental obsessions. Fun to see the glow on the tourists' faces when they come through the door. 647 School Road; 604-885-9106; mollysreach.ca
Why Vancouver: The end.
IF YOU GO:
BC FERRIES: Fast and efficient ferries are suited to long hauls from the mainland to Vancouver Island or short jumps across long inlets. Book your reservations 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.
MORE INFO: HelloBC.com, sunshinecoastcanada.com
Gary A. Warner: email@example.com