Canada's most westerly province, British Columbia is sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains on the east and the mighty Pacific Ocean on the west, bordered to the south by the USA and to the north by the Northwest and Yukon territories. Its location on the Pacific Rim ensures that British Columbia has a rich blend of cultures, with large numbers of Asian communities living among the descendants of the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh pioneers. Together with the area's own rich indigenous heritage, this makes for interesting towns and cities with a cosmopolitan ambience.
The combination of sea and mountains, together with the broken coastline sporting hundreds of islands and inlets, gives the province a diverse set of natural attractions and recreational opportunities, from world-class winter sports to sailing or hiking in tall forests. It is especially attractive to travellers who enjoy the great outdoors, particularly because a good transport infrastructure of ferries, charter boats, trains and well-maintained roads makes it possible to access all the best wilderness spots in British Columbia with ease and comfort.
The provincial capital of British Columbia is the city of Victoria, situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, but its largest and most populated city is Vancouver, known as Canada's 'emerald jewel' because of its green-blue vistas of mountains and sea.
British Columbia is home to four national parks, seven provincial heritage sites, and hundreds other nature reserves. The Okanagan area is one of Canada's three wine-growing regions, known for its extreme terrain with the highest point in the Canadian Rockies, the highest waterfall in Canada, and the country's only desert region.
The scenic Cariboo Chilcotin Coast is a maze of forests winding through mountains and plains with hidden lakes dotting the landscape. The coast has a number of beautiful fjords, and is a popular destination for canoeing. The volcanic mountains of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park provide trekking opportunities, and the Kootenay Rockies have some of the best skiing and snowboarding in Canada.
The pride of Vancouver's network of parks and gardens, Stanley Park, covering 1,000 acres (405 hectares), is one of the largest parks in any urban centre in North America. Situated in the heart of Vancouver's densely populated West End, stretching out on a peninsula and surrounded on three sides by water, Stanley Park is both a refuge for visitors seeking a brief escape from the urban jungle, a showcase for the natural beauty that surrounds the city, and an entertainment centre. The park is criss-crossed through its dense rainforest interior by miles of wide gravel paths surrounding Beaver Lake and Lost Lagoon. It is home to hundreds of migratory birds such as Canada geese, swans and ducks, and large populations of racoons, squirrels, skunks and coyotes. The park has a miniature railroad, putt-putt gold course, and an aquarium. It is also possible to walk, jog, cycle or rollerblade around the 6.5 mile (10.5km) long seawall that encircles the perimeter.
Museum of Anthropology
In the west of Vancouver, at the University of British Columbia on the cliffs of Point Grey, totem poles mark the way to the Museum of Anthropology, world-renowned for its displays of Northwest Coast First Nations art. One of its main features is the world's largest collection of works by internationally acclaimed Haida artist, Bill Reid, including his famous cedar sculpture 'The Raven and the First Men'. In the museum's unique Visible Storage Galleries more than 15,000 objects and artefacts from around the world are arranged according to culture and use. In the grounds of the museum are two Haida houses to be admired, showing the dramatic beauty of traditional Northwest Coast architecture.
Vancouver's Chinatown is not only a strong, established ethnic community, but also a popular tourist attraction and prosperous commercial district. Its bustling streets are full of colour and commerce; even the pagoda-topped telephone booths add to the atmosphere. Shop displays spill onto the pavements, and tables groan with the weight of exotic foodstuffs and the strange wares of the Chinese apothecaries. The Sam Kee Building in Pender Street is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the narrowest building in the world, at only six-foot (two metres) wide. This was the result of a local property owner reacting to the expropriation of most of his land in 1912 for the widening of the street: Chang Toy decided to build what he could on the remaining tiny strip. Another main attraction in Chinatown is the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, enclosed behind high walls, that was built in 1986 at a cost of $5.3-million with the craftsmen and materials all imported from China. It is a quiet haven of walkways, pavilions, gnarled trees, water features and natural rock sculptures. Next door to the Garden is the Chinese Cultural Centre with its elaborate gated entrance hand-painted in traditional colours.
The fascinating little historic enclave of Gastown, in the central core area of Vancouver alongside Chinatown, transports visitors back in time to envision the city in days of old, with its cobbled streets, antique gaslights, Victorian architecture and maze of narrow alleys, courtyards and passages wherein hide boutiques and restaurants. Gastown was named after Vancouver's first settler and saloon owner, Jack "Gassy" Deighton, whose historic hotel was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1886 along with much of the city. The fire swept through the town in less than an hour, leaving only two of the 400 or so houses standing. "Gassy" Jack has been immortalised with a statue in Maple Tree Square in Gastown. Another point of interest is the Lamplighter Pub in the Dominion Hotel, which was the first Vancouver inn to serve alcohol to women. The Europe Hotel was the first fireproof building in western Canada, having been built just after the fire in 1892. Gastown keeps time with the world's first steam clock, which plays the Westminster chimes every 15 minutes on five brass steam whistles inside its cast bronze case. These and many other interesting corners of Gastown can be explored on a daily walking tour, offered at 2pm each day between June and August, which starts at the Gassy Jack statue and takes 90 minutes.
On Vancouver's north shore, just a 15-minute drive from the downtown area across the Lions Gate Bridge, is the year-round mountaintop playground of Grouse Mountain. Ascending the mountain is part of the adventure in the Super Skyride, a 100-passenger tram that glides up the steep mountain slopes carrying visitors up 3,700ft (1,100m) above sea level in just eight minutes. At the top, apart from magical views of the city below, is the 'Theatre in the Sky', which offers a high-tech presentation about Vancouver. There is also a cedar longhouse called the Hiwus Feasthouse that offers the chance to experience native West Coast culture with displays of dancing, storytelling, chanting and native cuisine. There are hiking trails up the side of Grouse Mountain and on the east side one of them features the Grouse Grind, which is billed as the world's biggest stair-climb. Mountain biking is also a popular pursuit on the mountainside, as is, of course, skiing and snowboarding in the winter months.
Queen Elizabeth Park
Transformed from an ugly stone quarry in the 1950s, the exquisite Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver now boasts lush gardens bursting with flowers, live theatre, the Bloedel Floral Conservatory, a restaurant, a Pitch and Putt course and much more. The park receives about six million visitors annually who come to enjoy a 360 degree view of Vancouver from its highest point, 505 feet (167m) above sea level. The Bloedel Floral Conservatory, with its characteristic geodesic dome, is home to over 100 species of tropical birds that roam free in the area, as well as hundreds of species of exotic plants and flowers. Other highlights of the park include the Quarry Garden, J. Seward Johnson's sculpture "The Photo Session," the Lions Clock and the arboretum, with its fine examples of indigenous trees from across Canada. Spring is an excellent time to visit the park as it becomes a riot of colour, with white and pink cherry blossoms and all sorts of flowers displaying their finest.
What was once a run-down industrial area in Vancouver is now a thriving entertainment and shopping centre, with a vibrant market central to the Island's activities, as well as the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, a theatre and brewery. The island is easily accessible, located in the middle of Vancouver under the Granville Street Bridge on the south shore of False Creek and linked by a road to the city, barely seeming like a separate entity, but a relaxing 'city break' nonetheless. The public market is a riot of colours, smells and tastes and fresh produce, fresh meats and fish, flowers, tasty treats, crafts, clothing and souvenirs are on offer. The separate Kids Market is a must for children, with toy stores, games and more and the Maritime Market offers everything from boat-builders, a museum and tours, to appropriate boating clothing and supplies. Visits to the Granville Island Brewing Company and taste-tests of their brews are possible, or for something more cultural, one can catch a show at the Island's theatre or enjoy a student art show at the Emily Carr Institute. The island has the biggest free waterpark in British Columbia, open May to September. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Island, however, is to grab something to eat from one of the many stalls, choose a table outside and watch the people go by, or take a self-guided tour, being sure not to miss the picturesque houseboats docked at the Island.
Situated in North Vancouver, Lonsdale Quay offers spectacular views of downtown Vancouver and its harbour, as well as the north shore mountains, and a variety of shops, restaurants and an excellent public market. The best way to experience the Quay is to catch the SeaBus from Waterfront Station on Cordova Street in downtown Vancouver, a fifteen minute ride that allows one to relax and enjoy the view, watch seaplanes land and see what cruise ships are in the harbour, before embarking on some retail therapy. The market, though slightly smaller than that of Granville Island, boasts mouth-watering fresh goods, from seafood to fresh fruit and vegetables, pastries and sweets and there is a wide range of restaurants available, including Mexican, Greek, Japanese, Indian and more. There are also a variety of stalls selling all sorts of arts and crafts, souvenirs and clothing and the retail level boasts plenty of boutiques, a kids play area and specialty kids stores, topped by the Lonsdale Quay Hotel. A climb up the Quay's signature red tower with its large Q on top is a good way to work off all the delicious food and to enjoy spectacular views of the city and mountains.
Capilano Suspension Bridge
Built in 1889, the Capilano Suspension Bridge is one of Vancouver's oldest and most popular tourist attractions, with plenty of activities and sights in the park for visitors to enjoy, besides the bridge itself. Stretching 450 feet (137m) across and perched 230 feet (70m) above the Capilano River, the bridge was originally made of cedar planks and hemp rope, but is now a more sturdy construction of reinforced steel and concrete; though still not for the faint-hearted. A recent addition to the park is the Treetops Adventure, where elevated suspension bridges allow visitors a spectacular view of the rainforest, while they walk above the forest floor between Douglas Fir trees. Other attractions in the park include a story centre, a First Nations Cultural Centre where visitors can see carvers, weavers and beaders at work, a large collection of First Nations Totem Poles, and guided tours of the rainforest. Admission includes all these sights and activities, and there are also several food options and a shop.
Vancouver Art Gallery
Established in 1931, the Vancouver Art Gallery boasts thousands of national and international exhibitions by a range of artists, sculptors and photographers, housed in a turn-of-the-century heritage building in the centre of downtown Vancouver. The building also houses a cafe and shop. National and international touring exhibitions take place regularly at the Gallery, from Picasso to Rodin, Andy Warhol and others. Whether you prefer the Old Masters or more contemporary artists, the Vancouver Art Gallery is well worth paying a visit.
Vancouver Lookout at the Harbour Centre
Perhaps one of the best ways to begin one's visit to Vancouver is with a trip up the Harbour Centre Tower to the Lookout, where one can enjoy a 360 degree view of the city, Greater Vancouver, the North Shore mountains and on a clear day, even neighbouring Vancouver Island. A 45-second trip in the outdoor glass-fronted Skylift elevator delivers visitors to the Lookout and informative signs point out key attractions in the city and surrounds. As tickets are valid for the entire day and evening, visitors can also enjoy a cup of coffee while watching the sunset from the Lookout or see the lights of the city begin to twinkle below. The tower is also home to The Top of Vancouver Revolving Restaurant, though run separately from the Lookout, and visitors can enjoy the unique experience of dining above the city while the restaurant completes a full revolution every hour. The Skylift to the restaurant is free. The Harbour Centre itself is home to part of the Simon Fraser University campus, several shops and a food court.
VanDusen Botanical Garden
With 22 hectares (55 acres) and roughly 11,000 different plant species, VanDusen Botanical Garden is a spectacular showcase of the natural world, right in the heart of Vancouver. Landscaped gardens are laid out exquisitely and specific areas are cultivated to demonstrate botanical relationships or geographical origins, such as the popular Rhododendron Walk or the Sino Himalayan Garden. One of the most popular events held in the garden is the annual Festival of Lights, when the beauty of the flowers is matched by over a million dazzling lights, set up in order to celebrate the festive season. Choirs and carol singers, visits with Santa, a Dancing Light display on Lake Island in the park, the Golden Chain Walk, magicians and tasty treats are all part of this family favourite, running from 9-31 December each year. Daily walking and cart tours are available in the garden from April to October at 2pm and also at 11am on Wednesdays.
Commercial Drive is as non-commercial as it gets, though it has become one of Vancouver's most eclectic, and increasingly trendy, neighbourhoods. What started out as a skid road for the lumber industry in the late 1800s, swiftly became a neighbourhood of English tradesmen and shopkeepers with the birth of the interurban railway. World War I brought an influx of Chinese, Italian and Eastern European immigrants and World War II saw a vast increase in the Italian population, earning the Drive the moniker 'Little Italy' for many years. Diversity and energy are still the hallmarks of this area, and an afternoon is well spent exploring its various treasures, from all types of food to chic boutiques, second-hand stores, live music venues and more. Go ice-skating at the Britannia Community Centre rink or bowling at the Grandview Lanes, enjoy a delicious Italian gelato or espresso, or simply grab a table at one of the many bars or restaurants, and people watch. There are always plenty of festivals and events going on, too, such as the Parade of Lost Souls on the Saturday before Halloween, the Stone Soup Festival in May and the Eastside Culture Crawl in November.
Tucked in the Strait of Georgia, in between Vancouver Island and the mainland, are the picturesque Gulf Islands. More than a dozen of these long, thin islands, and numerous islets, can be found on Canada's West Coast and each island has its own character and beauty, making them well worth a visit. Originally home to the Coast Salish First Nations, the Spanish and English soon followed, laying claim to the island chain. Nowadays, the islands are home to artists, writers, retirees and those seeking a more community-based lifestyle, and many Vancouverites escape to holiday homes tucked in amongst the rainforest. Large parts of the islands have been designated as Marine Parks, preserving the land for the numerous birds and animals that also call the islands home. Bowen Island is only a 20-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay and visitors can enjoy a stroll from Snug Harbour, past the historic Union Steamship Company store, grab a bite to eat or take a walk in the Crippen Regional Park. Galiano Island is the second biggest of the group, and is about the size of Manhattan Island in New York. Only 50 minutes away on the Tsawassen ferry on the Lower Mainland, Galiano Island draws all sorts of visitors who come to picnic in Bellhouse Park; take a walk through the lush rainforest up to Bluffs Park to enjoy spectacular views of neighbouring Islands; indulge in a spot of fishing, kayaking or golf; or to visit to one of the local galleries or shops. Many of the islands host events and festivals each year where the community spirit and laid-back atmosphere typical of the Gulf Islands is evident.
With well over a million visitors a year, the hundred-year-old Butchart Gardens remain a favourite, and one of Vancouver Island's principal attractions. Situated about 14 miles (21km) north of Victoria, the Gardens were begun in the early 1900s by Jennie Butchart (wife of industrialist Robert Pim Butchart) in an abandoned limestone quarry owned by the family and their fame soon spread, attracting thousands. Now, 55 acres are open to be explored, and visitors can wander the paths through exquisitely laid out gardens, including the Sunken Garden (the original garden started in the quarry), a Japanese Garden, Rose Garden and Italian Garden. Spring and autumn are perhaps the best times to visit, when the Gardens become a riot of colour, though winter and summer hold their own delights. Every Saturday, from the beginning of July to the end of September, the Gardens are transformed by a dazzling fireworks show, as well as a recital on the self-playing, rare Aeolian Pipe Organ and the Night Illuminations light display. Other attractions and events in the park include an ice-skating rink and Twelve Days of Christmas display in December, and afternoon and evening shows and concerts in summer.
Fairmont Empress Hotel
One of the iconic images of Victoria is the much loved and well-visited Fairmont Empress Hotel, a fully restored Edwardian treasure that has seen visits from royalty, celebrities and travellers from around the world. Set on the banks of Victoria's Inner Harbour, the Empress is a grand and majestic building full of stories, retaining its British heritage through its traditional Afternoon Tea - a popular 'event' with tourists and locals alike that begun when the hotel opened in 1908. Reservations are essential up to a week or two in advance and the dress code is smart casual. The Empress is centrally located, close to the Parliament Buildings, Royal BC Museum, the Victoria Convention Centre and various shops and attractions, and now boasts a spa centre and golf course. This 'Jewel of the Pacific' is a definite highlight of any visit to Victoria, and for those who can afford it, it is well worth a stay - you may even receive a visit from one of the hotel ghosts.
British Columbia Parliament Buildings
Built in 1893, the British Columbia Government Parliament Buildings were initially criticised as an unnecessary expense, but now form a major tourist attraction in Victoria, as well as serving as the legislative centre for the province. Designed by 25-year old architect Francis Rattenbury (who also designed The Fairmont Empress Hotel), these beautiful buildings and exquisite grounds are situated at Victoria's Inner Harbour, close to many of Victoria's other main attractions. Various performances routinely take place in the grounds and visitors can enjoy the spectacular sight of the Buildings at night, when over 3,000 lights outlining the buildings create a fairy-tale like picture. Tours of the Buildings are available and visitors can observe the House in session from the public galleries.
San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands form one of the best boater paradises in the world. The hundreds of islands are separated by nationality but are part of the same scenic and rugged archipelago, located off the northwest coast of Washington State. Much of the area is in a rain shadow behind Vancouver Island, making a surprisingly dry and sunny reprieve in the northwest. Little island communities, great wildlife and the open water provide a real and intuitive disconnect from the mainland. Frequent government ferry services connect the mainland and larger inhabited islands to each other, but scores are only visitable by smaller shuttle boats and yachts. Friday Harbour is San Juan's largest town and an enchanting tourist destination, seemingly out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Anchorages are bustling throughout summer, but largely empty in other seasons. Yacht charters are available out of Bellingham.
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
Home to a vast array of aquatic mammals and animals, at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre you'll find sea otters, whales, sea lions and plenty more creatures. Exhibits, displays and programs are geared towards kids; including Clownfish Cove, with small animals, play areas, and costumes aimed at teaching children about the natural world and the importance of marine conservation. The aquarium features a gift shop, cafeteria, and wheelchair access.
Greater Vancouver Zoo
Animal lovers of all ages will have a fabulous time exploring the Greater Vancouver Zoo. Boasting 124 species of animals, such as lions, giraffe, black bears, bison, spider monkeys and caracals, and that's just naming a few, children will simple love exploring all the animals and naming the ones they know. Kids can enjoy meeting a reptile, taking the safari mini train, listening to an educational talk or even watching the lions and tigers being fed.
Perfect for kids up to the age of 10, Maplewood Farm features more than 200 barnyard animals for children to meet and interact with. Children can learn about the favourite furry friends such as goats, sheep, cows, pot-bellied pigs, ponies, bunnies and hens and get to pet them too. A great attraction for kids on holiday in Vancouver.
Just outside the town of Hope, about an hour's drive east of Vancouver, lies the Coquihalla Provincial Park, home to the celebrated Othello Tunnels. This quintet of railway tunnels, which traverse the spectacular, steep-sided Coquihalla Gorge, were built for the Kettle Valley Railway, and today, offer visitors both a fascinating insight into the history of the area, as well as a wonderfully scenic and unique hiking experience. While the Othello Tunnels themselves are dark and dank (flashlights are recommended), the two-mile (about 3.5km) old railway trail also crosses above thundering rapids, and cuts through impressive, nearly 1,000-foot (300-metre) granite rock faces. The Othello Tunnels are an accessible and highly rewarding day trip from Vancouver, offering visitors of all ages a great mix of exercise and adventure.
Vancouver International Airport
Location: The airport is located eight miles (13km) south of Vancouver.
Contacts: Tel: +1 (604) 207 7077.
Time Zone: GMT -8 (GMT -7 between the first Sunday in April and the Saturday before the last Sunday in October).
Departure tax: None.
Transfer between terminals: The two terminals are within walking distance of each other, but a courtesy shuttle is available.
Facilities: Both terminals have ATMs, bureaux de change and a bank. There is a selection of bars, restaurants and fast food outlets scattered throughout the airport, as well as a variety of shops, including duty-free, Internet access, baggage storage and a medical centre. Children's play areas and a nursery are also available.
Parking: Vancouver International Airport offers a range of parking options in the parkade directly opposite the terminals. Hourly parking starts at C$8.50 per hour, but reduced daily and weekly rates are also available. The cheaper economy lot is within short walking distance from the terminal, while the long-term parking lot is conveniently connected to the terminals via a shuttle bus.
Transfer to the city: The Canada Line, part of the city's AirLink network, connects the airport to downtown Vancouver in about 25 minutes. The service runs every 8 to 20 minutes and costs $8.75 to downtown during the weekdays, $7.50 on weeknights and weekends. Scheduled buses are available to downtown Vancouver, Whistler, Vancouver Island and Washington State; the Airporter bus to downtown Vancouver costs C$13.50 one way. Courtesy shuttles transport passengers to the Long-Term Parking Lot, South Terminal, local hotels and other destinations near the airport. Public bus services to Vancouver, Richmond and further afield are available at the Airport Station Bus Terminal, near the Delta Hotel; information on schedules and fares is available at TransLink, Tourism InfoCentres and Customer Service counters in both terminals. Car rentals and taxis are also available, as are Highend Limousines (604 298 1000).
Car rental: Car hire companies Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, National and Thrifty are represented next to the terminal on the ground floor. Highend Limousines (604 298 1000) are also available to rent.
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