Most visitors to Vancouver with a few days to spare and the desire to see British Columbia’s coastal hinterlands default to Vancouver Island. But for something unexpected and equally scenic, set your sights instead on a ferry-bound adventure northwest of the city to the lesser-known Sunshine Coast.
A wilderness dotted with laid-back beach and fishing communities, an artist trail, and waterfront lodges that range from rustic to luxe, the Sunshine Coast stretches for 110 miles along the Strait of Georgia, between Howe Sound and Desolation Sound. While part of British Columbia’s mainland, the region maintains an isolated, island-like feel since it can only be accessed by a 40-minute ferry ride or 20-minute flight from Vancouver due to the mountainous terrain.
To really soak in the surrounds on a three-night trip, it’s best to focus on the South Coast (the northern Sunshine Coast has much to offer, too, but requires an additional ferry and more time to explore). Pack big B.C. nature into minimal mileage on this up-and-back route that takes you from the ferry terminal in Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver along the Sunshine Coast Highway to Egmont.
The trip: 175 miles
What to drive: Any rental car will do since the road is sealed all the way, albeit twisting. You can pick up and return your vehicle at the main terminal at Vancouver International Airport.
When to go: Summer is high season, with the warmest temperatures and most visitors (still minimal compared to Vancouver Island at the same time). Opt for a shoulder-season trip in September and October or April through early June for a better feel of the slow pace.
Load your car onto BC Ferries’ late-morning ferry from West Vancouver to Langdale and then head up top to the ship’s observation deck for gorgeous Howe Sound views as you depart Horseshoe Bay. Once you arrive in Langdale, just 40 minutes later, roll off the boat and make the 10-minute drive south along the coast to the artist enclave of Gibsons (pop. 4,900), on a hillside overlooking the islands of Howe Sound.
The most picturesque place for lunch, weather permitting, is the outdoor terrace at Drift Cafe & Bistro, where you can watch the sailboats blow out from the town marina while tucking into a bowl of white wine mussels or, come autumn, whatever local chanterelle-filled dish is on offer from the forage-friendly chef. It’s a short stroll from the café downhill to Gibsons Landing on the waterfront, where artisan vendors at Gibsons Public Market sell candied salmon jerky, handcrafted charcuterie, and the like. Have a peek at the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre, upstairs from the market, where aquariums and touch tanks filled with anemones and octopus that dwell in the surrounding waters give a window into the colorful marine life that thrives in the freezing waters of Howe Sound.
From there, it’s a 35-minute drive north to Sechelt, where you can head out on a two-hour guided kayak trip in the Sechelt Inlet with Pedals & Paddles. The waters are usually clear enough to spot starfish and sea cucumbers on the seafloor among the darting fish. Unwind nearby with a craft beer and lingcod and chips at Batch 44 Brewery & Kitchen, Sechelt’s first craft brewery. Spend the night on the water 10 minutes north at Pointehouse, where suites with yacht-like details bring sea views streaming in through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Mingle with locals grabbing a scone with their morning coffee at Euspiria Cafe, about 16 miles north in Madeira Park. Then follow the coastal road a few minutes west to Pender Harbour to head out on a 90-minute SloCat tour, a 12-passenger boat trip around the harbor where you’ll learn about the area’s First Nations history and spot harbor seals and bald eagles.
Refuel for lunch at Grasshopper Pub, overlooking the marina, where the butter chicken poutine marries east and west in a most delicious way. Then, it’s all about art on the self-guided Purple Banner Tour as you head north along the Sunshine Coast Highway looking for studio stops. Any place with purple flags means you’re welcome to pop in for a visit with artists in their element. Don’t miss the luminous colors and textures in the abstract paintings at Motoko, where the Japanese-Canadian artist by the same name can often be found at work. Right near her studio, a shaded trail to Pender Hill (a 30-minute steep hike) leads to a spectacular lookout over Malaspina Strait that’s well worth it if you’re feeling energetic.
Spend the night where you started your day, back in Madeira Park. Check into the Painted Boat Resort Spa & Marina, a laid-back retreat with 31 waterfront villas fronting the Salish Sea and a soothing spa garden where you can relax around the outdoor fire pit after a sauna session. Finish with a steaming bowl of bouillabaisse, made with local halibut and wild prawns, at the resort’s Lagoon Restaurant.
Start the day with a vicarious adrenaline rush some 18 miles north at Skookumchuk Narrows Provincial Park in Egmont. Trailside, inside a cozy cabin stocked with firewood, Skookumchuk Bakery is a 10-minute hike from the parking lot, and you can grab a gluten-free breakfast sandwich or cinnamon bun with your coffee.
Consider it fuel for the five-mile round trip hike along an easy, forested trail to an incredible natural spectacle at the Sechelt Rapids. Here, at high tide, powerful whirlpools in the Skookumchuk Narrows form a natural playground for adventurous kayakers, who navigate the rapids like daredevils. Catch your breath watching their bravado from a safe vantage point ashore. (Be sure to plan this part of your trip around viewing times, which depend on the tide.)
Back at the parking lot, it’s less than three miles up the road to Backeddy Resort & Marina, where geodesic glamping domes and cabins line the shore and the resort’s pub does a tasty sockeye burger on brioche.
For a truly special stay, book a room at the nearby all-inclusive West Coast Wilderness Lodge, with views of the Sechelt Inlet that look positively Alaskan in their grandeur from the sweeping outdoor terrace and restaurant. The lodge offers full-day cruises that wind deep into the sound with stops at the 120-foot-tall Chatterbox Falls for lunch. Short boat trips to a nearby sea lion colony and nighttime bioluminescent kayaking tours are also on offer. You may want to add on an extra night relaxing at the lodge before making the drive a mere 90 minutes south to Langdale and catching the ferry back to Vancouver, which has felt so deceptively far away this whole time.
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