Discover Vancouver Island and the Rocky Mountains

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Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Vancouver is a big city with an interesting history and a good range of restaurants and bars, that will keep a tourist busy for several days, but it is also in a fantastic location if you are interested in wildlife viewing. Whale watching is possible in a half day trip from Vancouver and Vancouver Island is a short drive away, if you are interested in seeing bears, sea otters and many other interesting creatures.

This article gives travel advice, tips and hotel recommendations based on my experiences while touring Canada and my journeys to Vancouver and Vancouver Island by boat, seaplane and car and taking the Rocky Mountaineer train to Jasper then by car to Calgary.

Canada Travel Recommendations

In September 2005 I took a two-week holiday in Canada with my partner, starting in Vancouver, exploring Vancouver Island by car, then taking the Rocky Mountaineer train to Jasper and on to Lake Louise, Banff and Calgary. Our main objective was to experience the beauty of the vast wide open-spaces, but also spend a few days enjoying Canadian culture in some of the towns and cities.

Vancouver

Vancouver, British Columbia

We flew with Air Canada from Heathrow Terminal 3 into Vancouver. Rather than having a car while in Vancouver, we took a taxi to our hotel and explored the city mostly on foot. We stayed at an hotel called “Rosedale on Robson” for two nights, which served as a good base for exploring the city. The hotel is a comfortable modern place with little character and has an American style restaurant, called “Rosie’s” which was O.K. for breakfast but not particularly inspiring.

There were quite a wide variety of things to keep us amused in Vancouver. Chinatown is good, although not the best Chinatown in the world, with reasonable food at affordable prices from a wide variety of restaurants, and the usual Chinese markets and architecture certainly making it worth visiting. It is the second biggest Chinatown in North America, due to the huge Mandarin and Cantonese speaking community making up about 30% of the population of the city. Perhaps a more interesting place to visit, to experience Vancouver’s history is Gastown, which was established in 1867 and incorporated into Vancouver in 1886, and retains many old buildings and some of its character. It is quite a tourist y area with many souvenir shops but also has a good selection of cafes and makes an excellent place for a slightly overpriced lunch. Granville Island, actually a small peninsula underneath the Granville Street Bridge and connected to downtown, is also popular with tourists and gets very busy. It is again historically interesting, and quite British in character, with a variety of architecture, markets, galleries and theatres. Stanley Park is a pleasant place to get away from the city, while being walking distance from downtown and it houses the aquarium which is quite small, but with reasonable selection of things to see. The cute sea otters make it definitely worthwhile.

Robson Street also has history running back to the late 1800s but it is less evident here. It runs through the middle of downtown and is good for shopping, restaurants, cafes and the Vancouver Art Gallery. I didn’t find it as interesting as the other locations mentioned above, but then I hate shopping. There were however bars in which to seek refuge while my other-half shopped.

There are wildlife watching opportunities accessible from Vancouver. We checked-in at 7:15am at a jetty near downtown for a seaplane flight to Victoria, Vancouver Island and within a couple of hours we were on an orca whale watching excursion in a Zodiac motor boat. Equipped with bright orange floatation suits we managed to almost stay warm (it was mid-September) as we blasted out into the cold waters for a couple of hours. We saw sea lions, seals and sea otters but no whales. We were a little disappointed, but still a great trip. We had coffee in the splendid Empress Hotel while trying to thaw out. The journey back was less exciting: a bus to Vancouver via the ferry.

Wildlife Watching from Vancouver

Bald Eagles, North Vancouver Island, BC

There are wildlife watching opportunities accessible from Vancouver. We checked-in at 7:15am at a jetty near downtown for a seaplane flight to Victoria, Vancouver Island and within a couple of hours we were on an orca whale watching excursion in a Zodiac motor boat. Equipped with bright orange floatation suits we managed to almost stay warm (it was mid-September) as we blasted out into the cold waters for a couple of hours. We saw sea lions, seals and sea otters but no whales. We were a little disappointed, but still a great trip. We had coffee in the splendid Empress Hotel while trying to thaw out. The journey back was less exciting: a bus to Vancouver via the ferry.

Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

The next stage of the holiday was the real adventure. We collected our hire car from Thrifty, in the basement of Century Plaza Hotel on Robson St. and took the BC Ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo then drove to Tofino. This is a small friendly establishment in a fantastic location. Dinner was served in the main lodge, overlooking Pacific Ocean, with one sitting for everyone. Appetizers and drinks served in the bar at 6pm and fresh crab served at 7pm.

We continued with our search for whales and took three-hour whale watching tour on a Zodiac boat, from Tofino. This time we had success. We got close to several grey whales. A wonderful, if slightly chilly experience. Culinary experiences were not so good. We drove out looking for food and ended up at a small diner. Everything else was shut, including the Lodge Restaurant, although they were able to serve a glass of wine in the lodge overlooking the sea at the Middle Beach Resort.

We had ticked off whales, so now we wanted something furry to look at and took a three hour bear watching tour on a Zodiac boat from the same place in Tofino. A fantastic early morning trip cruising along the beaches watching the brown bears lifting rocks and searching for breakfast. Two baby bears watched from high up in a near-by tree. It was quite misty at that time in the morning, but this added to the experience.

Campbell River, Vancouver Island

Campbell River Cruise

Next day we drove to Campbell River, Vancouver Island, dropped the car in a car park and were picked up in a huge luxury motor boat (just the two of us) and taken to Sonora Resort. This is a luxury wildlife viewing and fishing resort on a small island. There was a slightly corporate “Meet & Greet” on arrival at Sonora, and an option to meet the staff, a glass of wine and the signing of disclaimers (in case we got eaten by a grizzly?) We had only signed-up for grizzly bear watching, but most other people there were apparently out to catch enormous salmon (along with a bit of corporate team building perhaps)

The room was luxurious, again in a log-cabin style, but with a fireplace open on both sides between the huge bathroom and bedroom. Views from the terrace and even from the bath were stunning. There was a huge fully stocked bar in the room, which turned out to be free (shame I didn’t know that when I arrived) as was all food and drink served at any time. There was however a suggested tip of $200 each, per day, for staff, guides and the spa (i.e. $600 each per day)

The grizzly bear watching excursion left at 7:00am by boat, then four-wheel drive and then some time in a wooden hide high up on stilts, with just two other guests. We were told that a sighting was highly probable. We saw eleven of them. We watched two bears catch enormous salmon from the hide a very short distance away. This was followed by barbeque lunch on a beautiful beach. Breakfast and lunch the following day with wonderful views of the sea preceded the water taxi back to Campbell River and the drive back to Vancouver via the ferry.

Jasper

Maligne Canyon, Jasper National Park

Jasper is a very pleasant town in a stunning setting. There are a selection of Canadian brewpubs and restaurants. Andy’s Swiss/Canadian Restaurant came highly recommended and was quite good, by Canadian standards, and reasonably priced with a good atmosphere.

We collected another rental car in Jasper and explored the surrounding area.

There are plenty of things to do such as white water rafting or the gondola up to Whistlers Mountain for some hiking. We just drove around with the occasional “hike”

We stayed for two nights at the Bear Hill Lodge in Jasper, in a pleasant small cabin.

We continued the journey on the “beautiful “Ice field Parkway, which was really quite dull, but I suppose it would have been rude not to visit on the way to Lake Louise. Had another awful lunch there and continued.

Lake Louise and Banff

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada

We stayed at Lake Louise Inn for one night. There was a power-cut, but eventually were able to have dinner in the “Lounge” pub/restaurant in the Lake Louise Inn, which was again, awful food. Lake Louise, however is stunningly beautiful and worth visiting.

Next there was a short drive to Banff for two nights in a small cabin at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge. Lunch in the bar next to a fire in the lodge was a great way to regain sensations in my fingers. I tried to light fire in the room and failed several times, but eventually was able to get that nice and warm too. Downtown Banff is small and interesting, with a museum worth a short visit, but the Banff Springs Hotel with its Victorian and Art Deco interior is a great place to spend a few hours. A good restaurant and bar, probably a very good, if rather expensive place to stay.

Finally there was a two-hour drive to Calgary and the Air Canada flight to the UK.

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