July 13, 2012
It’s time for a mini road trip from one of our newest and most exciting destinations – Vancouver. This journey takes us 80 miles north to Whistler along Highway 99 – better known as the Sea to Sky Highway – and is one of the most spectacularly scenic drives in the Pacific Northwest. You’ll drive though coastal rainforest, alongside looming pine-clad mountains and the deep blue waters of Howe Sound. It’s simply jaw-dropping at every turn and it’s no exaggeration to say the landscape here offers some of the best outdoor recreation opportunities in all of North America.
Without stopping, the drive would take just shy of two hours – but there are so many reasons to get out of the car, we’re pretty sure you’ll want to set aside the whole day…
Take Highway 99 from central Vancouver and head north over the Stanley Park Causeway towards Whytecliff Park, our first stop of the day. This rugged beach park in West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay neighbourhood became Canada’s first Marine Protected Area in 1993. If you venture away from the car park you’ll easily find a secluded driftwood-strewn spot to view the rocky islands and still waters of Howe Sound, criss-crossed all day by ferries serving Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast. Rough but manageable trails lead to clifftops for the best views. Those specks in the water that look like people probably are; the marine park is a popular spot for scuba divers who think nothing of driving up here after office hours to swap a work suit for a wetsuit before plunging into the deep.
About 15 minutes north of Whytecliff is the sleepy little village of Lions Bay where you can stop for coffee directly overlooking the ocean and stock up on fresh baked goods and sandwiches at the cute general store. If you need somewhere to tuck in, one of the best picnic spots along the entire Sea to Sky Highway is at Shannon Falls Provincial Park just south of Stawamus Chief Mountain, about 25 minutes north of Lions Bay. The park can get busy in the height of summer so arrive before midday to secure a picnic table, then work off your lunch with a walk to the base of the falls along the boardwalk and well-maintained trail. Surrounded by old growth trees and a permanent mist, you’ll hear the water’s thundering roar before the tumbling falls come into view. If you’re lucky enough to visit on a clear day, you’ll be rewarded with excellent photo opportunities. Easy accessibility and the non-strenuous hike make this one of the Sea to Sky Highway’s most popular places to pull over.
If you want to split this journey over two days, Squamish would be a great option for an overnight stop. An old mill and logging town, Squamish is now more focused on the tourist dollar as well as being home to many ex-Vancouverites who’ve moved up here to escape the high rents of the city, and the adventure sports and hiking scene is huge. The self-proclaimed Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada offers every kind of adrenaline activity imaginable, including rock climbing, canoeing, white water rafting, kite surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, scuba diving, sailing, dirt biking and cross-country skiing. The less mobile and energetic don’t need to miss out either – try eagle viewing, flightseeing, snowmobiling, golfing or horseriding for a more sedate alternative. Accommodation options range from hotels and B&Bs to campsites, RV parks and log cabins along the riverside.
The word ‘provincial’ might make it sound rather tame, but Garibaldi Park comprises close to 200,000 hectares and is one of the most dramatic – and accessible – wilderness areas in Canada. This is real backcountry stuff – a rugged skyline of steep volcanic mountains, wildflower alpine meadows, near-impenetrable forests of cedar and fir, and a number of stunning turquoise lakes. Shimmering glacier-encircled Wedgemount Lake and 300 metre-deep Garibaldi Lake are two of the most popular, both of which can be reached via a number of moderate-to-challenging hiking trails.
Garibaldi Park covers a huge swathe of land between Squamish and Whistler. This is an area with a high concentration of black bears and you’ll need to be bear aware when hiking or travelling through the area. If you encounter a bear, this will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable moments of your trip, but do take some time beforehand to educate yourself so you’ll know what to do to stay safe.
Continue onwards to the premier year-round mountain resort of Whistler. Everything you can do in Squamish and Garibaldi you can also do here, with the added bonus of more than 200 shops, first class spas, four championship golf courses, a superlative mountain biking park, and over 90 restaurants and bars.
Whistler’s two towering peaks – Whistler and Blackcomb – are spanned by the world-record breaking Peak 2 Peak Gondola which has the world’s longest unsupported span and is the highest lift of its kind, at 436 metres above the valley floor. The Peak Chair is also open daily, whisking visitors to the top of Whistler Mountain for all-encompassing views and various easy trails leading off into the summit terrain. The Whistler alpine experience can even include wine-tasting on a mountain-top patio or high tea at an alpine hut.
Unless you fancy driving back to Vancouver straight away – and we guarantee you won’t – you’ll need somewhere to stay. For the ultimate in mountain luxury, the Fairmont Chateau Whistler (with its Vida Spa) and the Four Seasons Resort are arguably the best hotels in town. Another two options right in the heart of Whistler village are Blackcomb Lodge and Crystal Lodge, both of which have hot tubs and a pool, or Delta Whistler Village Suites if you’d prefer to self-cater.
Virgin Atlantic operate seasonal flights to Vancouver from London Heathrow, with our summer service starting on 14th May 2013.
Thanks to robertcupisz for the header shot.