IF YOU’RE thinking Canada’s west coast, for once don’t do the predictable things. Break away from the crowd. Hire a car.
Avoid tourist traps like Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper, where you will be trampled underfoot by the hordes. Instead, wander through forests, hike mountain trails. Breakfast with long-distance truckers in roadside cafes, watch wildlife, see how people live in remote communities.A notice at the entrance to Cottonwood Park in the town of Prince George reads: This is a Bear-Tolerant Community. Not the kind of sign we usually find in parks here. But wild animals are a fact of life. Hikers hang tinkling bells from their daypacks to tell bears of their presence. Yellow signs alert you to the risk of hitting a moose as it wanders peacefully across the road. Deer forage in front gardens. A beaver waddles purposefully through a hotel parking lot, heading for the nearby pond. And you will never forget the eerie cry of the loon as it floats on mirror-still lakes. Clearwater is a small settlement south of Prince George, not much more than a gas station, a few lines of houses, a roadside restaurant. But that restaurant has a gigantic parking area where a small rental car looks lost. It wasn’t designed for you, it was planned around those enormous truck-trailer combos which ply up and down the Yellowhead Highway linking the Yukon with Vancouver, Alaska with CalIfornia. Just turning one of those things requires more space than an Irish housing estate.
That’s when you realise that cruises might not be for you. Passengers are trapped, unable to do anything but dine constantly or look out at the passing scenery in the dark. You, on the other hand, can not only enjoy the sight of the passing ship, you can see the scenery unfold as you drive, stop to explore tiny bays, chase passing orca whales to get the best photograph.For the experience of a lifetime, go out with the postman. This coastline is so indented, it would give Norway’s fjords an inferiority complex. Whole communities are inaccessible by any means other than boat. Or floatplane. Which is how the mail gets delivered. Coril Air at Campbell River will take you along too. Fly up remote sounds, land in sunlit bays, climb wooden ladders to tiny landings. A cook needs to be dropped off at a logging barge in the middle of nowhere. The cheerful red-headed lady in bib-front overalls was eager to get back to “her” barge. Her kids were grown, she had time to herself, she loved her job. “Three weeks on, one week off.” Wasn’t she worried, being the only woman among all those tough lumberjacks? “There’s one iron rule. You don’t mess with the cook!” Ferries are a way of life in coastal BC, and if your opinion of ferry terminals is jaundiced, then prepare for the experience of a lifetime at Tsawassen. Just south of Vancouver Airport, this is where you catch the boat for Victoria, and it’s the glorious standard to which all others should aspire. Crammed with shops, cafes, stalls, must-have clothing, designer sunglasses, fresh fudge, Chinese buffets, and of course freshly-ground coffee. Always aim to get to Tsawassen at least an hour early. Instead of retracing your steps from Campbell River to Victoria, hop across to Powell River on the mainland and travel down that coast. Every so often, the road ends suddenly at a pier, you board a ferry to the next stretch, and so on. It’s called the Sunshine Coast, but Hopscotch would be more descriptive. Each boat ride gives you glimpses of tiny tree-covered islands, dreamlike wooden houses, the occasional whale or seal. At Lund, just beyond Powell River on the edge of Desolation Sound, the road really does end. From there it’s hiking or paddling your own canoe. And here is a truly unique place to stay. The Dome is a tiny round beehive tucked into the depths of the forest, where deer graze on the lawns outside and bears potter by at nightfall. You are simply miles from anywhere and for those wanting the true wilderness experience but with modern conveniences (sauna anyone?), this is Nirvana.
Dublin or Cork to Vancouver: via Heathrow with British Airways, from €700 return; via Amsterdam with KLM from €625 return. Where to stay
Passage View Motel, Campbell River, from €55 per night for a double room. In Vancouver, outside the city centre is cheaper.
Quality Inn Maple Ridge (from €59) is a good jumping off point for the Rockies; Quality Inn Langley (from €64) for the Tsawassen ferry to Victoria. Find the unique Dome at Lund on www.magicaldome.com
Expect to pay €10-€12 for excellent meat and fish main courses, €3 for a large beer.
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