Africa has the Serengeti Plain, South America has the Amazon Basin, and North America has Cape Churchill on the Hudson Bay – the polar bear capital of the world.
One of the largest of all terrestrial predators, with some weighing fifteen hundred pounds, polar bears are generally elusive creatures, yet they gather at Cape Churchill yearly before Hudson Bay freezes, allowing them to venture off to hunt seals on its dramatic ice floes. Spectators watch from tundra buggies as the bears frolic and play in family groups, the newborn cubs just black noses and eyes against the white of the snow.
The flora and wildlife of the arctic tundra create a beautiful backdrop for nature lovers, while the spectacular display of the aurora borealis lights up the brittle-cold night skies.
Regularly ranked as one of the top ten museums in North America, Victoria’s Royal British Columbia is as much fun for kids as for adults and as intriguing to locals as to foreigners. Visitors can walk through the province’s history from the Ice Age (the 10-foot woolly mammoth is a guaranteed hit with children) to its mining and fishing heritage, with lifelike dioramas showing the wealth of wildlife and flora from the mountains to the deltas to the temperate rain forests.
A new state-of-the-art climate exhibit uses satellite imagery, live webcams, and graphic and text displays to explore weather patterns and changes. Perhaps most intriguing is the First Peoples Gallery, which details the history of the region’s several distinct coastal nations before and after the arrival of Europeans, with displays of hand-carved masks, ceremonial garb and headdresses, decorative accessories and textiles, and iconic totem poles.
Directly behind the museum is Thunderbird Park, the largest display of totem poles anywhere. On-site wood-carvers occasionally demonstrate their age-old methods.
In Vancouver, the province’s largest city, museum meisters will assure you that the Museum of Anthropology’s collection of native art and culture is no less stellar, making for a worthwhile thirty-minute trip west of Granville Island to the campus of the University of British Columbia.
Housed in an award-winning building by Arthur Erickson, it’s best known for the cedar sculpture The Raven and the First Men by Haida artist Bill Reid. The jury’s out regarding who wins the totem pole contest – both museums’ collections are remarkable.
Quaint Telegraph Cove, a cluster of wooden houses built precariously on stilts on the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, has a population that hovers around eleven, but it’s the residents offshore that people come to bond with.
Separating Vancouver Island from the pine-covered coast of British Columbia, Johnstone Strait is seasonal home to the world’s largest concentration of orcas (killer whales). Roughly 200 orcas inhabit these waters from late June throughout the winter months.
Stubbs Island Whale Watching operates two 60-foot Coast Guard certified vessels, both with heated areas inside, viewing decks, and hydrophones that allow passengers to eavesdrop on the whales’ haunting melodies and other communications.
With a curiosity that matches the visitors’ own, the powerful, silent whales may approach the boat, which has become familiar to them over the company’s twenty-three years of cruising (the success rate of sightings is 90 percent). Individually named and identified by their scars, their white “saddle patch” markings, and the shapes of their flukes, the whales slice through these calm waters, diving and surfacing as visitors ooh and ahh. Who’s watching whom?
With its stunning diversity of Pacific seafood, high annual rainfall, and mild coastal climate that produces some of the best growing conditions in North America, Vancouver Island was a culinary revolution waiting to happen.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that two now internationally known restaurant/inns should have opened their doors only a short and scenic drive from Victoria, BC’s intimate and very British capital.
On a lonely wooded promontory overlooking a cozy cove and the Strait of Juan de Fuca beyond, Sinclair and Fredrica Philips’s neat white clapboard Sooke Harbour House has long been acclaimed as one of North America’s foremost hotel-restaurants for authentic regional cuisine.
Served amid panoramic views and lit by candle chandeliers, delicious repasts are complemented by an award-winning list of more than 2,000 wines, 40 of them served by the glass. Lovingly tended gardens reach down to the water’s edge, with 400 varieties of rare and unusual herbs, edible flowers, and organic vegetables that are used liberally and innovatively in the menu’s ever-changing, one-of-a-kind dishes.
All of the rooms have fireplaces and most have whirlpools for two positioned to enjoy the gorgeous views. Delicious packed lunches encourage guests to explore the area’s natural attractions.
Less homelike and more formal (and thus the special-occasion destination of many couples), the Aerie Resort offers stiff competition with its premium-quality kitchen and jaw-dropping setting, high atop Mallahat Summit at 1,200 feet, overlooking Finlayson Arm and southern Vancouver Island.
Austrian-born Maria Schuster and her house-proud staff make sure that any stay is a special occasion, offering old-world hospitality, meticulous attention to detail, and a wonderful mix of comfort and elegance. Meals combine elements of classic French cuisine with a cornucopia of Pacific Northwest possibilities, flavored with a dash of decadence to match the setting.
Head out from the charming, ever-so-British city of Victoria on Vancouver Island’s southern tip and civilization quickly dwindles, replaced by the magnificent Pacific Northwest landscape. The snaking two-lane highway weaves past silver-blue lakes and cuts through high mountain passes and dense old-growth forests whose towering spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees are some of the largest and oldest in North America.
On the island’s rugged and sparsely populated western coast, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is hallowed ground for ecotourists, its famous West Coast Trail hailed by the Sierra Club as one of the most spectacular and challenging hikes on the continent.
In summer, intermediate and experienced hikers arrive from all over the world to follow the 47-mile stretch. Novices can take in the island’s grandeur walking some of the national park’s less demanding segments, or strolling along the 7-mile curve of Long Beach, some 500 yards wide at low tide and the park’s sandy centerpiece.
The area’s rocky shoreline was once known by mariners as the Graveyard of the Pacific for the ferocious winter storms that hit these craggy headlands, but yesterday’s tragedy is today’s tourist attraction, providing a number of historic shipwrecks for scuba divers to explore. Diverse marine life is also a major draw: Clayoquot Sound and the archipelago of the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound are unbeatable for sea lions, bald eagles, and large numbers of whales.
Even winter is mesmerizing, with howling winds, sheets of rain, and crashing 20-foot Pacific waves that have spawned the curious pastime of winter storm watching on the exposed western coast around Tofino, the quirkily charming village that serves as the end of the Trans-Canadian Highway and as unofficial gateway to the park.
Four miles south of town sits the stylishly stalwart Wickaninnish Inn, a surprisingly luxurious outpost in these remote parts, providing possibly the continent’s best front-row seats for witnessing nature’s fury.
Each of the handsome rooms has floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies close enough to the sea that you can hear the waves while you relax beside the fireplace, or in the windowside hot tub. Guests can dine at the inn’s Pointe Restaurant, whose 240-degree views vie with the chefs Northwest specialties for sheer drama.
Save yourself the cost of an airline ticket to Tokyo and head for Tojo’s, a bright and popular restaurant that is named for its revered chef-owner, an amiable innovator responsible for some of the best sushi Canadian dollars can buy.
The dining rooms’ window tables with their stunning views over False Creek and the North Shore mountains beyond are the obvious choice, but they’re not what you want. Instead, head for the coveted ten-seat omakase (“in the chef’s hands”) sushi counter, where the beaming and energetic Tojo performs his magic with the precision of a surgeon and the faintest Vegas swagger.
Specialties reflect the changing seasons, but tuna and salmon are perennial favorites, consumed at the rate of 300 pounds and 200 pounds, respectively, every week. The waters around Vancouver are rich with king, coho, sockeye, chum, and pink salmon, and Tojo gets his hands on the very best of the lot, maintaining an unwavering commitment to fresh local ingredients. Everything is always handmade, never prepared in advance.
Foodies should also head to Granville Island (a now-gentrified former industrial area beneath the Granville Street Bridge) and spend the morning at Granville Market, one of North America’s best, brimming with seafood, meats, and wines from the province’s vineyards – the finest British Columbia has to offer. Its food court reflects the cross-pollination of Canada’s most ethnically diverse city.
Canada has always prided itself on its vibrant multiculturalism, a fascinating mosaic of peoples and customs that finds its apogee in Vancouver. Canada’s third largest city has been looking to Asia since Chinese immigrants arrived with the 1858 gold rush (and later to work on the transcontinental railroad).
The massive influx of the 1980s and 1990s, when many left Hong Kong in anticipation of mainland China’s takeover, spurred the city’s transformation into the Pacific Rim melting pot of today.
The traditions of Asia found fertile ground in this former outpost of the British Empire. In a wonderful vision of urban renewal, the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden rises from a former parking lot on the edge of Vancouver’s Chinatown, the third largest Asian enclave outside the Orient, topped only by those of San Francisco and New York.
It was the first (and is reputed to be the most authentic) full-scale classical Chinese garden ever built outside of China, begun in 1985 by more than fifty skilled traditional artisans and gardeners brought in from Suzhou, China’s famous Garden City. The finished product is a pocket-sized otherworld, a walled oasis of harmony where careful attention is paid to a classical balance between yin and yang: constrasting light and shadow, large and small, smooth and rough – the exquisite re-creation of a typical 14th-century Ming garden.
Almost everything was brought from China, including the pagoda roof tiles, the naturally sculpted rocks, the worn pebbles that create the mosaics covering the winding pathways, and the bronze, bat-shaped door handles.
Confirmation that getting there really is half the fun, the spectacular 75-mile Sea-to-Sky coastal road linking Vancouver and Whistler-Blackcomb is probably the most beautiful approach to any ski resort in the world. With the exception of Alberta, no other Canadian province comes close to matching British Columbia’s mountain beauty and grandeur, as both the highway and a day on the slopes will confirm.
The giant twin peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb, linked at their base by the European-style, pedestrian-only Whistler Village, are not only North America’s biggest ski destinations but are regularly ranked as the best – and their two-for-one lift tickets just sweeten the deal.
There are countless superlatives here: the greatest vertical drop (more than 5,000 feet) of any ski resort on the continent, 7,000 acres of skiable terrain (that’s 2,000 acres more than the largest U.S. resort), more than 200 marked trails, 12 massive alpine bowls, an unfathomable 30 feet of snowfall per year, and a ski season that runs from late November through May (with summer skiing on Blackcomb mid-June through August).
It would all seem overwhelming if not for an unparalleled high-speed lift system and a smiling and efficient staff (from waitresses to ski instructors). In fact, the very size of Whistler-Blackcomb allows the million-plus annual visitors to disappear on their personal favorite runs – it never really feels crowded.
The only possible downside is the weather, which is unpredictable in the extreme: With the resort base a mere 2,200 feet above sea level, it’s often raining down below, though almost always clearing as you head peakward. Go high.
Although 55 percent of the trails on both mountains are tagged for intermediates, Whistler-Blackcomb has acquired something of a cult reputation with advanced and extreme skiers – a bid for the 2010 Olympics indicates the quality of the terrain. Runs are both extensive (the longest is 7 miles) and dramatically set, with renowned views from the chairlift. Insatiable skiers can also take advantage of guided heli-skiing.
Whistler-Blackcomb boasts more slope-side lodging than any other resort in North America. Its only ski-in/ski-out property, however, is the swank Fairmont Chateau Whistler Resort, a friendly, gabled fortress dominating the ski area at the base of Blackcomb Mountain and embodying the style of the grand old Canadian Pacific railroad hotels. With 560 rooms it’s not exactly intimate, and it isn’t cheap (especially for the fit-for-royalty suites), but it’s the place to ski and be seen. Its famous buffet brunch, served on Sundays, is reason enough to check in, as are superlative spa treatments that are nirvana for après-ski weariness.
As the seasons turn, Chateau Whistler effortlessly segues into a summertime playground, with its 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. course regularly ranked as Canada’s best, and three other courses lying within striking distance.
There are no roads leading to Nimmo Bay, an eighteen-guest wilderness resort that sits on the remote, undeveloped, and largely unsung western coast of Canada. Instead, a sleek helicopter ferries you in from neighboring Vancouver Island, passing over the Inside Passages Queen Charlotte Strait, where you might spot Alaska-bound cruise ships, killer whales, or a school of porpoises.
You are deposited at Nimmo Bay Resort, a pocket-size enclave of luxury carved sensitively into what must be the middle of nowhere. Begin your day with a little beachcombing, caving, ocean kayaking, or river rafting.
Or, choose among a series of thrilling “heli-adventures” courtesy of the resort’s private pilot – ascending 6,000 feet up and over ancient rain forests for a gourmet mountaintop picnic and a nice glacier hike; flying to a small Kwakiutl Indian village whose totem poles tell the story of ancestors who settled these shores many centuries ago; or heading to the area’s pristine, nameless rivers and streams for catch-and-release fishing, with wild salmon tipping the scales at 50 to 60 pounds and cutthroat trout and Dolly Varden char regularly weighing in at 5 pounds.
For all the sensory overload, the overwhelming encounter with nature, and the adrenaline-pumping experiences, perhaps the best part of every day’s adventure is to return to the resort’s nine chalets, built on stilts on this tidal, fjordlike bay.
The dining here competes with Vancouver’s best – think hours-old “drunken” salmon in a secret-recipe marinade, followed by a dessert of frozen white and dark chocolate truffles. The evening is topped off with a good soak in the open-air hot tub, located at the foot of a mountainside waterfall. When they created this bliss-in-the-wilderness sanctuary more than twenty years ago, the Murray family was written off as a bunch of eccentric dreamers. No one’s laughing now.
British Columbia’s remote southeast corner is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Americas and a year-round wonderland just begging to be explored – but how, as the area is almost completely devoid of roads? Canadian Mountain Holidays solved that problem beginning in 1965, ferrying in outdoor enthusiasts aboard its fleet of helicopters.
Today, it remains one of the most reputable heli-adventure outfitters in the world, and in southeastern BC also operates twelve lodges perched at about 4,000 feet in the Cariboo, Bugaboo, Monashee, and Purcells mountain ranges. In the winter months, each lodge promises its forty-some heli-skiing guests exclusive access to 14,000 square miles of virgin snow – about 300 times more than even the largest of North America’s ski resorts can offer, and without a chairlift (or chairlift line) in sight.
Only strong, intermediate to advanced skiers need apply: In the course of one mind-boggling week, helicopters set them down for eight to fifteen different runs per day, all on snow uncrossed by any other human’s tracks.
The preferences and skills of the individual – and the expert guides and pilots’ consideration of weather and snow conditions – will determine the day’s adventure, all bookended by mountain-man breakfasts and epicurean dinners, with a massage to round things out.
As soon as the snows melt, expectations turn to hiking and trekking through a primordial world full of wildflowers, massive glaciers, rivulets, and monumental views of dozens of snow-capped, mile-high peaks. Some heli-hiking ambles are gentle enough to accommodate four-generation-family groups; others require a degree of technical skill and even some mountaineering experience – the possibilities are endless.