Travel: On the road in British Columbia
Nick Eardley’s driving tour through the breathtaking landscape of British Columbia in Canada proved an awesome experience
I don’t drive much. There are two reasons for this, both a result of me living in Edinburgh. First, I don’t need to. The city is small enough to navigate on foot, by bus or by taxi. The second is that I don’t want to. The roads are, for the large part, a nightmare; roadworks, potholes, and the tram works that have rendered the capital a driver’s nightmare for longer than I care to remember.
But there’s also an ideological reluctance. I’ve always thought of driving as a romantic pursuit. It’s something I associate with holidays, with fun and adventure. Taking the car to the supermarket is, well, boring. Consequently, I often have to look further afield to find a pleasurable experience on the road.
I’ll confess, however, that Canada hadn’t really crossed my mind as a driving mecca. Like many other people transfixed by Route 66, I had always presumed my long-distance driving adventure in North America would be in the US. In fact, the Rocky Mountains and Seattle were the only areas north of Chicago that I was intent on seeing. Hence, it was with a sense of uncertainty that I jumped on the near ten-hour flight from London Heathrow to Vancouver.
My journey was confined to the most westerly of the Canadian provinces, British Columbia. Despite having a total land size almost four times that of the UK, BC’s population is less than Scotland’s. The vast majority of the people who do live here are based just north of the border with America. Such population concentration means that there is no shortage of open land, and road.
Driving here is an awesome experience, in the true meaning of the word. Once you leave the outskirts of Vancouver there are hours upon hours of dramatic scenery to get lost in. There are few vistas comparable to driving through these valleys on a sunny day; mile upon mile of open road, trees as far as the eye can see, dozens of stunning lakes. We spent six or seven hours on the road some days. We would stop a couple of times, wherever we saw a coffee shop we liked the look of, but other than that we would spend the day taking in the vast openness of this state.
Our vehicle of choice was a Ford RV. It had three beds, a fridge, a kitchen area and toilet, meaning that if we wanted to stop for lunch, we could do so wherever we wanted. It also meant we could save money on hotels (the RV park we stayed at had pitches starting at just £33). As with most vehicles in North America, it was an automatic. That proved frustrating at some points – it would often get caught in the wrong gear. And the fuel cost a fortune. If you’re going for the RV option to save money, remember that a fair chunk of your holiday cash will be spent on fuel.
After our first night at the airport hotel in Vancouver, we spent four days on the road. And we packed in a lot; an RV park, a ranch, one of the world’s most famous ski resorts and over 1,000 miles of driving.
The first resting spot on our whistle-stop tour was an RV park/beach resort in West Kelowna. The site is quiet and friendly; perfect for families or weary travellers needing a good night’s rest. There is a 400ft long beach that overlooks Okanagan Lake, which makes for a stunning location. At night, campfires are lit on the beach and, sitting under beautiful weeping willow trees, you can spend hours staring at the stars and chatting to the locals, who are likely to have some tips about good places to visit. It’s in the state’s wine district, so there are a few stunning wineries with accompanying restaurants near by.
One benefit of jetlag was being able to take in the early mornings. On our second day I woke just as the sun was starting to come up over the lake. I sat on the end of an empty pier looking out at the clear skies and the calm water, while the sun slowly rose behind the hills in the distance. What a way to start the day.
We spent our second night at the Echo Valley Ranch and Spa, 220 miles outside Jesmond in the Cariboo Region, which I’m reliably informed is the province’s cowboy country. Run by Norm, a former engineer from Essex and his Thai wife, Nan, it’s a blend of east and west. You can go horse riding, fly fishing and gold panning, but you can also relax with a Thai massage or start the day with yoga. The buildings are a fascinating blend of Canadian and Thai architecture – the typical wooden ranch buildings stand near the stunning spa centre; still wooden, but distinctly eastern with a sloping roof and Thai features. The rooms are remarkably comfortable and beautifully designed (my favourite feature being the horse door stop).
The place has a relaxed and homely feel; all meals are served around two big tables in the main lodge, where you mix with the other guests. The conversation was diverse with Norm telling us how the aforementioned spa building was, somewhat accidentally, designed by the king of Thailand’s architect; a couple from Vancouver discussing their plans to retire and set up a sanctuary for injured horses; and me explaining Scotland’s constitutional debate. We took out the horses in the morning and tried our hand at lassoing (not easy).
The final stop was Whistler, the host mountain resort for the 2010 Winter Olympics. A must-visit destination for well-heeled skiers and snowboarders in the winter season, for the rest of the year it plays host to downhill mountain biking courses and other outdoor activities. We went ziptrekking – which involves slipping down a zipwire on a harness, very fast. The area is also good for spotting bears. However, Whistler is a tourist town, which means that although there are some excellent restaurants and a fair number of bars to frequent, global brands have a presence on every corner.
Of course, if you decide to go to British Columbia you will be able to spend more than one night in all of these places. But our whistle-stop tour shows just how much you can experience in a short visit if you’re prepared to put the pedal to the metal. And it reminded me of the fun you can have behind the wheel.
• A 7-night fly-drive tour of British Columbia with Virgin Holidays costs from £1,999pp including scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Heathrow to Vancouver, accommodation including one night at the 4V Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel, two nights at Echo Valley Ranch, one night at 3V+ Crystal Lodge in Whistler and three nights of your own arrangements in an RV with RV hire included for the length of the trip. Price is based on a departure on 24 May 2014.
A Little Red return flight from Edinburgh to LHR (based on 24 May departure/31 May return for 2014) costs from £88pp.