Encompassing everything from rugged Pacific coastline and verdant rainforests to vast lakes and glaciercloaked mountains, the outdoors doesn’t come any greater than in British Columbia and Alberta. Peter Ellegard explores Western Canada’s natural wonders and takes in some adventure on the way.
I remember seeing the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics on TV at home and laughing, like everyone else watching around the world, at the antics of Britain’s clown prince of ski-jumping, Eddie the Eagle, as he hurtled down the ramp, only to plunge like a stone instead of soaring like his namesake.
Fast forward some 20 years and I am standing on the very spot where hapless Eddie launched himself into history at the top of the 90-metre ski-jump tower at Calgary’s Olympic Park, looking down that same slope. And I am anything but laughing now.
A sit-in harness is being put on a safety helmet-clad colleague a few steps down from me and hooked to a grab handle slung on wheels from a suspended cable that runs from the top of the tower and all the way down the length of the ramp to another tower 550 metres away and 100 metres below us. On the other side of the track, a fellow Brit is undergoing the same procedure…and I would be following suit moments later.
We are about to take on Skyline at the Park (http://skylineziplines.ca/calgary) – North America’s fastest zipline, which emulates the speeds and sensations of the 90-metre ski jumpers. So fast do you travel, reaching speeds of between 120kph and 140kph, that the harness incorporates a parachute, which is deployed as you leap to help slow your descent.
For me, climbing the tower was ordeal enough. I am not merely scared of heights, not even petrified; I have a morbid dread of them, probably not helped by a well-meaning PR friend in New Zealand who thought she could help me overcome it by tricking me into doing a bungy jump off a bridge when I thought I was only getting a behind-the-scenes tour.
Yet here I am, about to throw myself into nothingness again, and I can feel the panic levels rising. All too soon, the moment arrives and I am hurtling down to a yell of “Geronimo!”, the force of the wind trying to pull the skin off my face and the fear replaced by pure adrenalin. With a thump, my miniature cablecar hits the buffers, sending arms and legs flailing. As I dismount ready to be hooked up to the final, gentler section, I look back up to where I had been…and my stomach churns.
In a land where adventure of every kind beckons, the zipline is just a taste of what’s in store.
Calgary is the biggest city in Alberta and is one of the main gateways to explore the province and neighbouring British Columbia, which together are known as Western Canada. A favourite way of combining both is to drive, go on a coach tour or take a sightseeing train between Calgary and Vancouver, on British Columbia’s Pacific coast.
It traverses the Rockies, several other mountain ranges, even a desert, while also passing by forests, lakes, orchards and wineries as well as charming towns and all-season mountain resorts.
I have done the journey several times myself, and it is one I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. If you love nature, adventure, excitement or tranquillity, there really isn’t anywhere that beats these two natural and spectacular neighbours. They truly sum up the Great Outdoors.
Calgary is just 90 minutes from the Rockies. You can see its peaks in the distance on clear days. Before leaving the city, step back in time at historic Fort Calgary and Calgary’s fascinating Heritage Park (www.heritagepark.ca).
Then perhaps head south for a couple of days, to visit the wonderfully-named Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump (www.head-smashed-in.com), a UNESCO World Heritage Site over which buffalo were driven by native Americans to their deaths below, and beautiful Waterton Lakes National Park, where you can cruise on a historic steamer into US state Montana and get a commemorative but unofficial stamp in your passport when you make a brief landing to stretch your legs.
Visit Alberta’s Badlands to see Dinosaur Provincial Park and visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology (www.tyrrellmuseum.com), of the world’s largest displays of complete dinosaur skeletons.
Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest, most visited and most famous national park and came about thanks to the chance discovery of hot springs in a mountain cave by three Canadian Pacific Railway construction workers in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains in 1883. Together with neighbouring Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay national parks and three British Columbia provincial parks, it forms the Canadian Rocky Mountains Parks, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
It is a landscape of towering mountains reflected in exquisite blue lakes, of tumbling glaciers and icefields and of lush, forested valleys and pretty alpine meadows.
The park attracts over five million visitors annually, thanks to easy road and rail access. The railway’s arrival linked it with the rest of Canada and inspired two Rockies icons – the turreted Fairmont Banff Springs hotel, built in 1888 to resemble a Scottish baronial castle, and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. Both enjoy picturepostcard settings, the chateau’s romantic views across Lake Louise to Victoria Glacier perhaps just shading it. There is boating on the lake plus hiking in the surrounding mountains and nearby Moraine Lake.
In winter, the area is a haven for skiers, notably Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. When the snow melts, Sunshine Meadows’ high alpine trails become a hikers’ paradise.
For more highs, savour the sweeping vista of Banff and the Bow Valley from the Sulphur Mountain Gondola or ride the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola and join a guided nature walk. I took part in a bear-spotting ramble led by a ranger on my last visit.
You can ride horses in the mountains and canoe on the Bow River, far from the madding tourist crowds yet just minutes from town. A gentle paddle to Vermillion Lakes reveals a glorious view of Mount Rundle. Drive back at sunset for stunning reflections of pink-tinged mountain tops. But mind the mozzies; they attack in squadrons, underlined by the 50-plus bites on my back.
Beyond Lake Louise, you can take a cruise on Jasper’s turquoise Maligne Lake. En route, ride a special Snocoach bus on a three-mile excursion up the Athabasca Glacier in Jasper’s Columbia Icefield.
In Edmonton, the sprawling West Edmonton Mall (www.wem.ca) not only offers over 800 stores, but also has a water park, the world’s second-largest indoor amusement park complete with seven thrill rides, and a sea lion habitat along with an adjacent themed hotel.
British Columbia brims with superlatives: rivers deep, mountains high, cascading waterfalls, ancient moss-draped rainforests and Canada’s only desert among them.
The Kootenay Rockies region is rich in attractions and activities. There are heritage towns such as Bavarian-flavoured Kimberley, ghost towns and restored 1890s pioneer town Fort Steele (www.fortsteele.ca). You can explore the region’s four national parks – Glacier, Kootenay, Mt Revelstoke and Yoho – or get a close encounter of the furred kind at the world’s largest grizzly bear habitat at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Other activities to indulge in include hiking, mountain biking and whitewater kayaking.
Half-way between Vancouver and the Rockies, the Thompson Okanagan region makes a good place to stop off for a few days to relax. The region’s landscape encompasses an amazing variety and contrasts, with everything from lakes and gentle, rolling hills to lofty mountains and from lush orchards and vineyards to arid desert; this is where the Sonora Desert reaches right up into Canada. It also takes in alpine resort Sun Peaks.
Whistler is a year-round mountain playground dominated by its twin peaks, with plenty to do by day, including four top golf courses, and lots of restaurants, bars and stylish shops in the resort. It hosted the downhill ski races and bobsleigh events in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
I was lucky enough to fly in to Whistler’s lake on a vintage Beaver floatplane as a birthday treat some years back, having taken off from Vancouver Harbour.
Although mid-May, snowboarders were enjoying some late spring snow on the mountain top when we took the cable car up to the peak, but it was a lovely day back in the village and my companions and I sat in shirtsleeves as they helped me celebrate the occasion.
Once the snow has gone, you can enjoy hiking on mountain trails, rent a mountain bike or ride the Peak 2 Peak Gondola which links the summits of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
Thrill-seekers can hurl themselves down Whistler’s Ziptrek (www.ziptrek.com/whistler canada) zipwire or go bungee jumping over a white-water river. Bears are often seen around Whistler, while other wildlife includes bald eagles. Brackendale is famed as the bald eagle capital of the world and nearly 4,000 were counted there on one occasion. The downside is they only visit in winter.
The road between Whistler and Vancouver is known as the Sea to Sky Highway. There are several photo stops along the highway. They include Shannon Falls, BC’s third-highest waterfall and scenic rest areas overlooking Howe Sound. At Horseshoe Bay, you can take a ferry over to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. From there, it is 90 minutes to Victoria, with Duncan (for its 80 totem poles) and Chemainus (murals and statues) worth stopping off for on the way.
British Columbia’s elegant capital is a delight, its bustling Inner Harbour overlooked by the stately provincial Parliament Buildings. Take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the city then savour the early-evening atmosphere on foot. The mild climate is the reason behind the exotic floral displays of 55-acre Butchart Gardens, a popular attraction. The city itself blossoms with plants and flowers, and it is the only place in Canada where palm trees grow.
You can also take a boat trip from Victoria to see killer whales, otherwise known as orcas. There is a resident pod of about 80 which lives in its waters.
Vancouver Island’s rugged Pacific coast is a long trek from Victoria but is worth it for its natural splendour.
The road from Nanaimo to Tofino is one of the most spectacular in the world and goes through towering, oldgrowth forests and through the stunning Pacific Rim National Park.
Vancouver enjoys a stunning peninsula setting flanked by mountains and sea. It pulsates with a lively downtown full of shops, restaurants and bars, a large Chinatown and the funky Gastown and Granville Island districts.
Stanley Park is one of the most popular places for locals and visitors. A 1,000-acre forested park, it is Vancouver’s green lungs with wooded trails and a perimeter path offering joggers, walkers and cyclists a sweeping vista of downtown from across the water. A favourite stopping off point is the display of totem poles at Brockton Point while other attractions include the Vancouver Aquarium (www.vanaqua.org), which has beluga whales, sharks, sea lions and otters among its 60,000 marine creatures.
Stanley Park’s totem poles are new, but you can find many excellent surviving examples of north-west coast First Nations totem poles at the Museum of Anthropology (www.moa.ubc.ca) Across Lions Gate Bridge on the North Shore are Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge, both popular summer excursions. In summer, Vancouverites head to the coast to picnic, sunbathe or play. A favourite spot is English Bay Beach, where the annual Celebration of Light fireworks competition lights up the skies at the end of July.
From Sunset Beach, another popular summer hangout, you can take a water bus resembling an overgrown bathtub toy across to Granville Island to browse the public market and boutique shops and take a guided tour of Granville Island Brewing, Canada’s oldest microbrewery.
Vancouver is actually my favourite city in the world and one I never tire of visiting, with its laid-back, outdoors lifestyle and a natural wonderland right on its doorstep. Like Calgary, it, too has hosted the world’s top winter athletes for an Olympiad. Unlike Calgary, I haven’t found somewhere high there to throw myself off.
Western Canada facts
When to go
Western Canada has a similar summer climate to that of the UK although parts of interior British Columbia enjoy hot summer days. The west coast is prone to some rain, but May-September will suit most for touring the country by car, coach or train. Ski the Rockies resorts or Whistler in BC from November through until early May.
Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to Vancouver and Calgary year round and daily to Edmonton from April. Connecting flights to smaller interior airports are served by Air Canada Jazz. British Airways (www.ba.com) has daily flights to Calgary and Vancouver while Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) will fly to Vancouver four times a week from May-October. Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com) has regular charter flights to Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary from May to October.
Canada’s roads make for easy driving and fly-drive holidays are the most popular offered by the tour operators below. You can also rent motorhomes or take an escorted coach tour. Brewster Tours (www.brewster.ca) operates coach sightseeing tours through the Rockies while the Rocky Mountaineer (www.rockymountaineer.com) scenic daylight rail journey has various routes through the Rockies to Vancouver and Whistler.
Operators offering Canada include Bridge & Wickers (www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk), 1st Class Holidays (www.1stclassholidays.com), Canada4U (www.canada4u.co.uk), Frontier Canada (www.frontier-canada.co.uk), Prestige Holidays (www.prestigeholidays.co.uk), Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com), Tailor Made Travel (www.tailor-made.co.uk) and Thomas Cook Holidays (www.thomascook.com).
Tourism British Columbia: http://uk.britishcolumbia.travel
Travel Alberta: http://remembertobreathe.com
Canadian Tourism Commission: http://uk.canada.travel
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm – the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Western Canada.