Into the blue: six ways to enjoy British Columbia’s healing waters

Backed by the lake-studded Rocky Mountains and pounded by the Pacific Ocean, Canada’s most ecologically diverse province is home to almost infinite watery wonders, from beachside strolls to kayaking. Here are six to get you started.

Vast and almost impossibly clear, with imposing mountain views, Howe Sound has all the ingredients for epic stand-up paddleboarding.

Photograph by DESTINATION BC/HUBERT KANG
Published 7 Sept 2021, 16:12 BST, Updated 14 Sept 2021, 17:39 BST

Water reigns supreme in British Columbia. Mountain valleys are patchworked with emerald, beach-fringed lakes, and the province's 16,000 miles of Pacific coastline is fractured with dramatic fjord-like ocean inlets scattered with over 40,000 islands. A third of the world’s remaining coastal temperate rainforest thrives here, and veined with such mighty rivers as the Fraser, rain-verdant British Columbia is a place to enjoy the green and serene. There are watery adventures everywhere, from adrenalin-pumping rapids on Fraser River to sun-soaked stand-up paddle boarding off urban beaches. Visitors can learn to pilot a kayak, too, to explore remote areas of the province like Haida Gwaii, where shores are overlooked by the thunder birds, grizzly bears and orca whales that adorn Indigenous totem poles. 

From a watery colour palette of serene blue greens to the soothing sound of the waves, there are almost infinite ways to let the calming power of British Columbia’s lakes, rivers and ocean shores soothe the mind, body and soul. We look at the best ways to feel wild and free in BC.

Paddling along the coastline of Desolation Sound at low tide will throw up all sorts of natural wonders, from moss-slicked cliff faces to crabs scuttling along the rocks.

Photograph by Destination BC/Andrew Strain

1. ON THE BEACH
 

Find blissful solitude on the Sunshine Coast, a 111-mile stretch of beach-backed shoreline north of Vancouver, where a mild climate and a scattering of artsy, oceanside hamlets lend the wild outdoors a laid back charm. Though it's still connected to the mainland, the only way to access this region is by crossing a body of water (Howe Sound), which lends the area an indie, island-mentality. There, fjord-like inlets offer big adventure and the soundtrack is pure nature, from shore-battering storms in the rainy season to the gentle rhythm of Pacific waves in drier months. Or head to the Strait of Georgia's (also known as the Salish Sea) 200 Gulf Islands to swim and scuba in protected waters and reefs, before slowing down in a boho beach hotel.

Orcas frequent the fish-rich waters of British Columbia's coastline year-round, and can grow up to 32 feet long — almost as long as a bus.

Photograph by Destination BC/Reuben Krabbe

2. BY BOAT
 

Orca, humpback, grey, minke and more — the giants of the sea are spotted year-round in their natural habitat along British Columbia’s shores. Whale watching, one of our planet’s most life-affirming wildlife experiences, is even accessible from the province’s coastal cities: Vancouver, and Victoria on Vancouver Island are easy-reach hubs for a day trip of whale-watching. Visitors can also plan a soul-stilling trip to the remote Haida Gwaii archipelago or the dramatically frayed coastline of the nearby Inside Passage to paddle with local guides in search of the cetaceans that star in Indigenous origin stories.

Squamish sits at the northern tip of the island-dotted Howe Sound, and is surrounded by mountains like the Stawamus Chief, a huge granite monolith.

Photograph by Destination BC/Hubert Kang

3. ON FOOT 
 

One of North America’s tallest granite monoliths rises 2,303ft, in the coastal community of Squamish, north of Vancouver. Intermediate level hikers frequent the Stawamus Chief’s three peaks with its ocean-blue views of nearby Howe Sound. Or follow in the footsteps of romantics, adventurers and photographers among the 41 named waterfalls (and counting) at Wells Gray in east-central BC, where trails are lined by lichen-drenched boulders and tiered viewing platforms. Here, you'll find Helmcken Falls, the fourth largest waterfall in Canada.

For hiking aficionados, unplug and go off-grid with a multi-day backpacking hike along the 47-mile West Coast Trail, on Vancouver Island’s southwest coast (a permit is needed for this and with remote, challenging terrain, isn’t for those new to hiking). Part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, this route runs through lush rainforest, along the island’s wild, rainforest-fringed shores with campsites en route.

Rafting on the Vedder River in Chilliwack combines high-octane rapids with smooth, clear stretches of river, where you'll likely spot golden eagles and osprey.

Photograph by Destination BC/Hubert Kang

4. BY PADDLE
 

Laced with dozens of beaches and backed by rosette-winning vineyards terraced in the foothills of the Rockies, there are few such easy-to-reach places to paddle as Lake Okanagan. Muscles can be engaged and minds decompressed on a kayak, stand up paddleboard or canoe through Kelowna’s 16-mile buoy-guided paddle trail, taking in two bird sanctuaries, three waterfront resorts and myriad places for camping. Or how about paddling British Columbia’s longest waterway? The Fraser River offers some of Canada’s most adrenaline-charging white water and the chance to unplug with epic trips covering areas like the headwaters high in the Alberta-bordering mountains, all the way down to Vancouver’s south end, with opportunities to camp among many different biogeoclimatic zones, from swift creeks to white waters dotted with sagebrush and pines.

No trip to the Rockies is complete without a visit to a hot springs resort; there are six to choose from in the southeast corner of British Columbia.

Photograph by Destination BC/Dave Heath

5. AT THE HOT SPRINGS
 

Often dubbed the ‘Powder Highway’ for its access to superlative ski resorts like Revelstoke and reliably dry winter snow, Highway 95A is a boon for any visitor looking to soothe sore muscles after a long day of adventuring with a soak in steaming springs often combined with invigorating ice-cold plunge pools that are great for circulation. The route takes you to rustic cabins and campgrounds to fully-fledged wellness retreats and six hot springs resorts that offer healing, mineral-rich waters, which have been used by Indigenous peoples for centuries. The area is also a gateway to multiple national parks for near-limitless summer hiking and mountain biking.

Vancouver Island is home to two of three contending 'salmon capitals of the world', Port Alberni and Campbell River, and whether you're fishing for them or snorkelling among them, you'll likely experience runs of salmon that are thousands-strong.

 

 

Photograph by Getty Images

6. BENEATH THE WAVES
 

For one of North America’s most sparkling travel experiences, head to Vancouver Island to snorkel with salmon on the Campbell River, to float with the current immersed in an underwater world surrounded by the thousands of pinks, cohos, sockeye and chinook salmon that head upstream to spawn each autumn. Or dive further into the deep, with scuba trips taking in BC’s treasure map of Pacific Ocean shipwrecks, or easy shore-accessed dives, both offering the chance to spot a rainbow of marine species including Giant Pacific octopuses, wolf eels, six-gill sharks, soft corals, and immense red sea fans.  

Essentials
 

Getting there & around
Vancouver International Airport is the obvious arrival point from the UK, and Air Canada and British Airways fly direct to Vancouver from Heathrow. Prices start from around £467 return. British Columbia was made for road trips, so once there, it’s best to hire a car before heading out into the wilds. BC Ferries sails to almost 50 different ports of call along the coast, including Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii, the Sunshine Coast and the Gulf Islands.

When to go
British Columbia is beautiful year-round. To make the most of the province's incredible natural bounty, however, come as early as spring, when forests are still green but temperatures begin to rise, and it's more pleasant out on the water.

Nature has a lasting effect on us and experts say that the bigger the nature, the better. Take a moment and connect with British Columbia's great wilderness, even before you travel. Call the Wild at HelloBC.com

call the wild

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