Chris Wingrove, our Walking Leader Operations Manager, wanted to experience a new part of the world. So he went with HF Holidays to experience the most captivating areas of Canada!
Choosing a holiday can be tough, especially when you’re as fussy as me. For me a great destination includes spectacular landscapes to walk in, cultural attractions to delve into and wonderful local food and drink to tantalise the tastebuds. I like exploring vibrant cities, or losing myself in quiet expanses of wild country, drinking in the vistas from mountain tops and listening to the sound of waves breaking on sandy shores. Our Vancouver and Vancouver Island itinerary appears to offer all these things, and more. Did the packed schedule deliver on its promise and leave this picky passenger satisfied?
Vancouver frequently features in ‘Best Cities in the World to Live’ polls and spending a few days here it wasn’t hard to see why. The architecture of the city reflects its perfect geographical situation, with the glass, steel and stone of the buildings reflecting the greens and blues of the sea and surrounding mountain forests. Our hotel, The Metropolitan, was a great base to explore from - a ten-minute walk from the waterfront, and just around the corner from some of Vancouver’s top galleries and museums.
Our first full day was spent zipping around some of the city’s best neighbourhoods, from the oldest part of the city, Gastown, to the bustling foodie haven of Granville Island. Bill, our guide for the entire tour, is a British Columbia native and full of stories, anecdotes and love for his home province. We also spent time exploring the city’s green lung, Stanley Park. This 1000-acre park is home to over half a million trees, First Nation totems and gateways and is renowned as one of the finest urban parks in the world. I revisited the park on a couple more occasions during my stay: once on foot early in the morning, when I seemed to have stretches of the seawall to myself; and another to whizz around on a rental bike, admiring views that alternated between cityscape and mountain backdrops as I circled the park.
Our introductory day was rounded off with a walk through nearby Lighthouse Park, with our route snaking through the trees before emerging out to a panoramic sea view. We returned to North Vancouver that evening for dinner at the Salmon House on the Hill, where we watched the sun set over plates of delicious Pacific pine-smoked salmon.
Vancouver and the surrounding mountains hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, and we visited one of the venues, Cypress Mountain, for one of the walking highlights of the whole tour. Despite being within easy reach of downtown Vancouver, the mountains here are serious walking territory. I plumped for the harder option, and we ascended quickly, skirting bare ski runs and a surprising amount of late-lying snow under the trees. The group shared a wonderful few hours enjoying the contrast between sunny blue skies, and crisp snow-covered ground before reaching Cabin Lake. The conditions prevented us ascending further, but even at this altitude we were treated to views towards higher, snow-capped peaks.
The next day we arrived on Vancouver Island in time for the Canada 150 celebrations. Our destination for the party was Nanaimo, where we were greeted by a bustling scene of flags, food stalls and red and white everywhere: a perfect way to celebrate the day like a local, with hot dogs and Nanaimo bars - a sugary, custard filled and chocolate topped treat. Tearing ourselves away from the party, we beach-hopped our way towards Courtenay, our base for the first part of our island exploration. The coastline of Vancouver Island is dotted with smaller groups of islands, and the next day we explored two of the smaller ones - Hornby and Denman Islands. The pace of life here is horizontally laid-back, with small ferries shuttling gently between here and the main island jetty. Our walk hugged the coastline, with excellent views back towards the distant mountains on the mainland. It was a leisurely walk, fortunately so, as our pace allowed us to spot seals and bald eagles in close quarters.
Later that day, we were treated to a tasting at Beaufort Wines, owned by Hollywood director James Cameron. It was a complete surprise to me that there’s a thriving wine industry on the island, let alone one with such strong environmental and organic credentials as this vineyard. Their fresh and clean whites were the highlight, and it was no surprise to find these on sale at our local restaurant that evening.
Walk on the Wild Side
Vancouver Island is surprisingly large; the island is the size of Sicily and is the largest landmass between North America and Asia. The scenery is as varied as its size suggests. The next leg of our journey saw us travel across the island, cutting across its mountainous spine towards the unspoilt Pacific coastline. Our drive was split into three sections, punctuated with bitesize walks; one in the ancient forests in the islands’ interior, the other along the silent shores of Kwistis and our first glimpse of the open ocean.
We arrived in Tofino with a feeling that we’d reached the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond here, save the vast expanse of the Pacific. The rugged coastline dominated our experience during our stay. We walked most of the Wild Pacific Trail during our time here, keeping a watchful eye out for wildlife as we went. Bill informed us that this is bear country, and there are warnings about wolf sightings too. We’ve had bear bells clipped to our rucksacks from early in the tour, the tinkling sound announcing our presence wherever we went. Fortunately, the wildest life we saw that day was a playful sea otter and majestic sea eagles.
We headed out on the water the next day, zipping across a calm Clayoquot Sound. Home to pristine forests and First Nations settlements, our destination was a key battleground in the War of the Woods in the early 1990s, as locals and environmental groups successfully fought to preserve huge areas of forest from logging companies. Meares Island was quiet when we arrived, the boardwalks echoing to the sound of our boots alone. The forest seemed to absorb noise, and under the light-filtering canopy of leaves the world seemed to close in. It was a solitary but peaceful experience, only broken on our return to the jetty by a touring kayak party.
Later that day we were back in Tofino for a wildlife spotting mission: looking out for bears foraging on the tideline. After an hour or so we’d drawn a blank. It was warm in the bright June sunshine, and our guides thought the bears might be staying cool by hiding in the shade. It looked as though we were going to return disappointed when the radio buzzed into life - bears had been spotted nearby by one of the sister crews. Mere moments later, we were face to face with black bears, turning over massive rocks with ease, looking for tasty morsels to eat. Leaving the bear to its dinner, the engines were gunned, and we were skimming back to Tofino.
Our hotel helped maintain this amazing connection to nature, being mere steps from Mackenzie Beach and all rooms featuring stunning views of the Pacific. Leisurely dinners were finished in time for sunset strolls along the sands each evening, smoke from barbecues and music gently drifting over the waves.
I decided to explore at a more leisurely pace on our free day, walking into Tofino early the next morning to take a guided kayak tour of the islands we’d whizzed past the previous day. After a wobbly start, we were silently gliding through narrow passages spotting crabs, starfish and colourful seaweed in the crystal-clear waters. We set off under a low morning fog, and as the sun burnt through we were treated to splendid views across the Sound and over to the surrounding mountains – and all before breakfast. Later in the afternoon, I headed for a small roadside lay-by opposite our hotel that played host to a range of small-scale eateries, including the famed TacoFino - a food truck serving up awesome local fish tacos. Tofino was definitely my kinda place.
Our final stop on the island was its largest city, Victoria. The city has a distinct colonial feel, with grandiose buildings clustered around a bustling harbour front. Our hotel was once again at the heart of the action, just across the road from the state legislature building. After a walking tour of the city, we took a short hop out of town to climb Mount Douglas - an easily accessible peak, giving superb views back towards Victoria. A free morning saw me head to the Royal BC Museum in time for its opening. After a few hours browsing the excellent natural history and First Nations exhibitions I popped out of the doors to a completely different scene - Victoria’s Pride March was in full flight, a riot of colour, music and lurid costumes. It was a perfect contrast to the more traditional image that Victoria showed us on first sight.
Our final journey of the trip saw us close the loop and return to Vancouver, via the picture-postcard Butchart Gardens. Heading out of Victoria by ferry, we sailed through the Gulf Islands and briefly into US waters, keeping our eyes peeled for dolphins playing in our wake. Coming back into Vancouver came with mixed emotions: excited to return to such an incredible city, but sad that it signalled the end of our travels. Our final evening as a group was spent having dinner atop the Harbour Building in its revolving restaurant, chatting and reminiscing over the trip and its many highlights. Out of the windows the vista slowly alternated between sea and mountain - the perfect summary of this Canada experience, and a perfect balance for this very happy traveller.
If you've been inspired by Chris's incredible holiday to Vancouver & Vancouver Island, you'll want to hurry as our last departure is in July! The holiday is guaranteed to run!
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0345 470 8558.
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