B.C. road trip beckons

There’s nothing I like better than a road trip. A full tank of gas, my beautiful wife, Lisa, by my side (“Um, I think you might have the map upside down there, honey!”) and my little boy, James, strapped into his booster seat like an astronaut in a space capsule.

We’ve picked a real doozy this time. Or, I should say, I’ve picked a real doozy. Lisa would rather be on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, while I’m trying to sell a road trip through British Columbia: motels, small towns, campgrounds, roadside diners, and 2000-plus kilometres of highway.

“Trees, trees, and more trees,” Lisa says, waving a hand.

“But I’m 50 this year,” I argue.

“What’s that got to do with it,” she says, suspicious now, wary of impending spousal bamboozlement.

“When you have a birthday with a zero in it, you get to pick the holiday,” I tell her.

“Oh, good,” she says. “That means we’ll be going to Paris next year when I turn 40.”

“I thought you were only 38.”

“You’re so sweet to say that.”

I win, I think.

Simple route, many pleasures
The route I’ve chosen is simple and inevitable, dictated by and depende upon the natural geography of the province. Vancouver to Victoria by ferry, then north by road up Vancouver Island to Port Hardy where we’ll journey by ferry through the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert.

We’ll go back inland from there, but water will still determine our course, only now it comes packaged in rivers, two mighty and majestic rivers, the combined flows of which drain half the province.

The Skeena will guide us from Prince Rupert to Hazelton, terminus for the sternwheelers that plied the river from 1886 to 1913, bringing supplies and optimists for the mines towns that sprang up in the early part of the century. We’ll continue on east to Prince George where we’ll meet up with the mighty Fraser River, following it south through the ranchlands of the Cariboo and the shuddering walls of the Fraser Canyon to our little home back in Vancouver.

Vancouver-Victoria-Port Hardy
The Europeans first started building around Victoria’s picturesque and well-protected Inner Harbour in 1843 when it was chosen by James Douglas of the Hudson’s Bay Company as the site for a fort to both serve the fur trade and fend off pesky American entrepreneurs.

Eventually, it became the provincial capital and, thanks to its original inhabitants’ affection for all things English – or perhaps affectation is a better word – it became a kind of ersatz copy of the original, a legacy it now flogs mercilessly to the descendants of those same Yankees so reviled a century and a half ago.

Summer can be absolutely frantic as tourists from around the world clog the streets, clamouring for seats aboard horse-drawn carriages and “genuine” English double-decker buses. No one quite believes any of it, but the intensity alone can make it fun and, despite the kitsch, Victoria has a natural beauty no amount of commercialism seems capable of destroying. It’s where you’ll find the best hotels and restaurants outside Vancouver, our favourites being Laurel Point at the entrance to the harbour, the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel, which opened in 1908 and remains one of Canada’s great railway hotels, and the recently added and opulent Pacific Grand.

Next page: The Island Highway beckons

The Island Highway runs north from Victoria, winding through a rural landscape, and oenophiles are encouraged to meander into the Cowichan Valley where a number of wineries have sprung up in recent years. This is also where you can find the famous Cowichan sweaters knitted by the Indians of the same name.

Those with plenty of time of their hands should turn west at Parksville and drive over the mountains to the vast and enchanting beaches located in Pacific Rim National Park.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that time so we plow on past Qualicum Beach and Fanny Bay (famous for its oysters), Comox and Courtenay, seemingly leaving civilization behind at Campbell River where the highway spills out into the forest for the 240-kilometre drive to Port Hardy.

Despite the fact that it’s the middle of summer, the road is deserted, a fact I find nothing short of thrilling. We later discover that this is par for the season.

We make one quick stop before Port Hardy, at Telegraph Cove (population 15), so named because in 1912 it was the northern terminus of the island telegraph line. Today, it’s a quaint community built on a boardwalk along the rocky harbor. Be sure to visit the local whale museum; whale-watching tours are offered.

Inside Passage-Prince Rupert
Port Hardy is effectively the end of the road and it’s where we line up early one morning to catch the ferry to Prince Rupert. The MV Queen of the North, which makes the 15-hour trip every two days, is showing its age these days, but the rusty bits and lack of outdoor seating are more than compensated for by an excellent kitchen and the spectacular views of the Inside Passage, a natural marine highway protected on one side by the towering Coast Mountains and on the other by thousands of islands.

Once a Haida Indian trading route, the lack of paved road access has left the area virtually unpopulated on a permanent basis. Canneries became, for a brief period, the only visible signs of habitation, but as boats became equipped with refrigeration units, even these fell into disuse.

When the railway barons solicited funds to build the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, the dream included turning the sleepy fishing village of Prince Rupert into the San Francisco of the north. Alas, it was not to be. The railway came, but the development did not. Today, Prince Rupert remains a picturesque town at the mouth of the Skeena River that’s always waiting for prosperity, which is always reported to be just around the corner.

As usual when travelling in small-town B.C., Lisa and I check into the local Coast Hotel, where from our window we can see the tops of the cruise ships that now make the town a regular stop on their Alaska itineraries.

Forget about commerce. The best thing about Prince Rupert is the rugged natural environment. Fishing, camping, mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, diving – Prince Rupert has it all. Be sure to check out the local museum, a gold mine of Native Indian art and artifacts. Day excursions are also offered to the nearby village of Metlakatla.

The road goes east from here, up the Skeena River, and this drive now ranks with us as one of the world’s prettiest. Precipitous, snow-capped mountains rear up on both sides, but they’re set back far enough that you can actually see it all as you’re travelling through. Again, the highway seems ours alone.

Our first stop is Terrace where we spend a few days with Lisa’s old university buddy Dr. Mark Forgie, a dentist who thinks its perfectly normal to get of bed at four in the morning to go fishing. We join him and are rewarded with a 30-pound white spring salmon, which Mark pulls out of the water while my two-year-old son, James, leaps into the air and cheers with such enthusiasm that I begin to fear that in a few years, he’ll be tugging at my hair in the pre-dawn hours and cajoling me out of bed and into hip waders.

Like most northerners, Mark treats us like family, but leave we must, travelling through Hazelton, Smithers, Telkwa and Burns Lake to the rolling grasslands of B.C.’s vast central interior. Biggest town on this part of the route is Vanderhoof, named for Herbert Vanderhoof (Dutch for “of the farm”), a Chicago publisher who expected to make a killing when the railway came through!

After a quick detour up to Fort St James, founded by the great explorer Simon Fraser and the site of a reconstructed HBC fort operated by Parks Canada, we roll into Prince George and make a beeline for the local Coast Hotel.

It’s here in Prince George that we meet up with the mighty Fraser River, the rich brown waters of which we will follow all the way home through Cariboo country to Vancouver. We’re in ranch country now, big sky country, and no end of signs along the highway invite us to “come on in and saddle up.” Ordinarily, we would do just that for it is hard to find a westerner, even citified ones such as ourselves, who don’t picture themselves capable of ropin’ and rasslin’ with the best of them, but of course having a baby saves us from having to prove it. Next time ‘fer sure’.

The towns slip past: Quesnel, Williams Lake (famous for its annual stampede), 100 Mile House.

From Cache Creek, the road hugs the banks of the Thomson River before meeting up with the Fraser River again at Lytton. Fortunately, we come through as the sun is setting, and the canyon walls are splashed in hues of orange and gold. Not as popular a route as it used to be, the roadside is lined with boarded-up restaurants and motels, giving it a ghost-town allure of dreams turned to dust. We’re enjoying it so much we have to pull over several times to let the speed demons go by.

Vancouver, when we finally arrive at 11 p.m., seems like another world.

“Welcome home,” I say to Lisa as two drivers go at each other with their horns at a stoplight.

“We can always go back,” she says reassuringly.