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British Columbia

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British Columbia or BC is the westernmost province in Canada. Like much of the rest of Canada, it is a large place. British Columbia is about four times the size of Great Britain with less than one tenth of the population.

British Columbia is a very mountainous region with a number of major ranges running mostly north-south from the coast to the border between BC and Alberta. Some of these ranges include the Rockies, the Selkirks, the Purcells and the Coastal Range.

As with most places worth visiting, there is a little something for everyone here. You will definitely want to spend at least some time outside of the main cities in this region, and if you enjoy a very active and adventurous vacation, there are many options here to explore. “Ecotourism” is an often-mentioned attraction in this part of Canada. Whether backpacking in the majestic forests or coast mountains, or kayaking through the many groups of islands, getting off the beaten path is sure to lead to a memorable trip.

Regions

Vancouver Island (Northern, Central, Southern)
Home of British Columbia’s capital and all sorts of marine adventures.
Lower Mainland (Vancouver, Eastern suburbs, Southern Suburbs, North Shore, Sea to Sky, Sunshine Coast, Fraser Valley)
The world-class city of Vancouver and world-class skiing in Whistler (and much more).
Thompson-Okanagan (Okanagan, Thompson-Nicola, Shuswap, Similkameen)
Sun and fun, wineries and beaches in the Okanagan, summertime boating in the Shuswap and rivers, waterfalls and mountains in the Thompson River valley.
Kootenays (West Kootenays, East Kootenays, Columbia-Rockies)
Lakes, deep valleys, hot springs and world famous cat skiing.

Canyons and the Cariboo (Cariboo-Chilcotin, Fraser Canyon)
Retrace history through the narrow confines of the Fraser Canyon and explore the ranchlands and remote parks of the Cariboo.

North and Central Coast
Untouched wilderness and native culture. Famous for fishing

Northern British Columbia
Large region with mountains, forests and wilderness in the east, the start of the mighty Fraser River in the south and limitless vistas and the Alaska Highway in the northwest.

Cities

Listed below are just nine of the province’s most notable urban destinations. Links to others will be found in the various regional articles.

  • Victoria is the provincial capital, on the south tip of Vancouver Island.
  • Kamloops is called the tournament Capital of Canada.
  • Kelowna is the largest city in the British Columbia interior.
  • Nelson is “The Queen City” of the Kootenays, renowned for its tourism, culture and outdoor activities.
  • Penticton is a popular summer destination on Okanagan Lake.
  • Prince George is the largest city in Northern British Columbia and the center of the BC Forest Industry.
  • Prince Rupert, Canada’s rainiest city, is the hub of the North Coast.
  • Vancouver is by far the largest city in British Columbia, and the largest metropolitan area west of Toronto.
  • Whistler is a summer and winter outdoor destination and the site of many events in the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Other destinations

With its abundance of mountains, coastline and wilderness, British Columbia has many destinations outside of its cities and towns. Listed below are nine of the province’s most notable other destinations.

  • Glacier National Park
  • Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve
  • Kootenay National Park
  • Manning Provincial Park
  • Mount Robson Provincial Park
  • Pacific Rim National Park
  • Salt Spring Island
  • Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park
  • Yoho National Park

Understand

BC was the sixth province to join the Confederation of Canada, in 1871. This was done at least partly on the basis of a promise by the Federal Government to build a railway linking BC to the rest of Canada. Significant geographical barriers and political feuding delayed the completion of this railway until 1885 when the last spike was driven home at a place called Craigellachie in the Eagle Pass area in the interior of BC.

Being on the Pacific, there has always been a strong Asian influence. Many Chinese men arrived in the early part of the 19th Century to work in the gold rush of that era and later many more worked on the construction of the railway through the mountains. Also in the late 19th century small Japanese communities were established along what is now Steveston in Richmond, and other inlet communities, all the way to Maple Ridge. Due to Japanese internment during the World War II, many of these communities that have no connection to their ancestral origins were displaced into camps in the southern interior. There are small mixed Asian communities spread out in Vancouver, Vancouver Island and parts of the southern interior of the province.

The indigenous people of BC have been called Indians or Native Canadians, but now the generally accepted term is First Nations.

Prior to arrival of Europeans BC was a very prosperous area. This was largely due the abundance of salmon. This was demonstrated by the advanced culture that existed in BC. More than thirty languages belonging to seven different language families were spoken in BC. Initially the arrival of Europeans was a positive relationship. However, eventually the Europeans brought smallpox and other diseases, which decimated the First Nations population.

Many First Nations people were encouraged or even forcibly required to send their children to residential schools during the early to mid 20th century. These schools were government sponsored. The primary intent of the schools was to assimilate the First Nation population. Children were taught that their culture was backward and evil and were not allowed to speak their native languages. This was a systemic problem at that time and has only recently been addressed and discussed openly.

Many of the First Nation communities have being trying to revive their culture and are now often the center of much of the ecotourism industry.

With a few exceptions, the First Nations of BC (unlike the rest of Canada) have never signed treaties or officially ceded their territory to Canada. Therefore the official ownership of much of the province is contested as the First Nations claim much of the province as their territory. The courts have generally acknowledged that there is a basis for the claims based on historical use of the land and has urged the governments to negotiate a settlement to these claims. Settling these land claims has been a complex issue that is still ongoing. The first modern treaty signed was by the Nis’ga in Northern BC. In 2007, the Tsawassen and Maa-Nulth First Nations signed treaties with the Province and the federal government.

Talk

Although Canada is officially a bilingual French/English country, you would be hard pressed to find many French-speaking people in BC. Services from the federal government are officially available in both English and French. Provincial and municipal governments operate in English only. So some people speak French and a lot of people speak English in British Columbia. Some businesses, especially in Vancouver and Victoria offer services in a number of languages (primarily Asian ones). Banks sometimes indicate by a sign in the window which languages are offered.

At one time Chinook Jargon, a bridge language for trading between English, French and First Nations peoples in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, was common and almost became the official language of BC. Now there are very few speakers of the language, but many terms from the language are common slang terms in parts of BC.

Cheechaku
Newcomer (more common in Northern BC and the Yukon).
Saltchuck
The ocean.
High Muckamuck
The chief, or boss.
Kultus
Bad or worthless.
Skookum
Strong, powerful, or impressive.

Get in

By plane

Vancouver airport is the major international airport of the province, which is served by most major international airlines. Victoria, Abbotsford, Cranbrook, and Kelowna also have international airports that have service to a number of locations within Canada and to some destinations in the United States.

By car

There are a number of land border crossings from the United States into BC from Washington (state). See the Lower Mainland (BC) and Northwest Cascades (WA) articles for details. There are also land border crossings into BC from Idaho, Montana and Alaska. BC is also connected to Alberta and the Yukon by a number of major highways.

By Boat

There are ferries from Washington (state) into Victoria and Sidney, and from Alaska into Prince Rupert.

By Rail

There is rail service by Amtrak from Seattle to Vancouver. Within Canada; VIA Rail offers several different passenger trains. “The Canadian”, a piece of railway history, no longer runs on the CPR. Travelers can still take VIA Rail along the historic and scenic Canadian National Railway which runs north and before it heads east through Jasper and on into Alberta. Between Mission and Ashcroft, BC, the eastbound VIA train runs on Canadian Pacific track due to a directional running agreement between Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. VIA Rail also offers passenger rail service between Jasper, AB, Prince George, BC and Prince Rupert, BC on the north coast with “The Skeena” that runs over Canadian National’s former Grand Truck Pacific BC North line, “The Skeena” connects with BC Ferries’ Inside Passage and Queen Charlotte routes at Prince Rupert.

Get around

BC is a large province. The most convenient way to get to much of the province is by air. However, this can be quite expensive. It is often more expensive to fly to some point in BC than it is to fly to Europe. Vancouver is the regional hub for most air service within BC. Float planes can also be convenient for accessing many coastal locations.

Getting around here is not always easy. Many worthwhile destinations are outside of the cities and not accessible by public transportation options. This makes renting a car quite a popular option for getting around, although there is some bus service to be found. Bear in mind when travelling by car that headlights should be used both day and night, regardless of conditions. If driving during the winter, plan your route carefully as British Columbia experiences some hazardous weather.

If you drive or rent a vehicle, be aware that provincial law requires fuel to be prepaid before filling up. If you use a “pay-at-pump” interface, the station may place a hold on an available amount in your account which may last for a few days. It is wise to ensure you have adequate funds or credit limit room on your payment cards before visiting. Note also that some (but not too many) service stations do not accept cash prepayments, requiring card only.

Pacific Coach Lines and Greyhound operate standard bus service on some of the more popular routes between cities. Sometimes you can arrange to be dropped off at points in between, and in the summer, many different guided bus tours are available. Moose Travel Network runs a unique service on less travelled routes that is a combination between “just getting you there” and a tour of some very worthwhile destinations. They have a number of quite flexible packages available, many of them connecting the coast with popular destinations in the Canadian Rockies like Jasper, Banff and Calgary. There is also daily bus services to Vancouver Island and Whistler.

You will also find that the ferry service (provided by BCFerries) is the only way to access many island and coastal communities. Some of the smaller islands can be visited on foot or by bicycle, but in many cases additional road transportation is necessary. Although ferry service is generally reliable, taking an automobile on board is rarely cheap, and you will likely find it less expensive to take the ferry as a foot passenger and rent an automobile at your destination. If you are taking bus service across a ferry, you should confirm when buying your bus ticket that the ferry fare is included.

Along with “The Canadian” and “The Skeena” VIA Rail Canada – until March 2011 – operated “The Malahat”, a daily regional passenger service between Victoria, the Captial City, and Courtenay, BC (139 railway miles north of Victoria) on the Southern Railway of Vancouver Island, the former Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway. “The Malahat” made one round trip daily out of Victoria while “The Canadian” and “The Skeena” run three times per week. Since March 2011, there has been no service between Victoria and Nanaimo, however it is expected to resume in May 2015.

Rocky Mountain Rail Tours operates tourist trains from Vancouver to Whistler, Vancouver to Kamloops, Kamloops to Banff or Calgary, Kamloops to Jasper, and Whistler to Jasper during the tourist season (May-October). There are many tourist railroad operations that run in BC. The Alberni Pacific Railway in Port Alberni, BC that runs on former Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway trackage. The Kettle Valley Steam Railway that runs out of Summerland BC on the last remaining portion of the famous Kettle Valley Railway. The Kamloops Historical Railway that runs ex-CNR steam over the Kelowna Pacific, CN, and CPR. The White Pass and Yukon Route operates out of Skagway, AK and runs through northern BC on its way to Whitehorse, YT.

Itineraries

  • Sunshine Coast-Vancouver Island Circle Tour – a good way to see Vancouver, the neighbouring Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island

See

  • International Buddhist Temple in Richmond is the most authentic example of traditional palatial Chinese architecture in North America. It is an edifice straight out of the Chinese past, as it resembles any authentic temple that can be found along the banks of the Yangtze River, where one of the world’s oldest civilizations originated. Come explore traditional Chinese art, culture, and the Buddhist philosophy inside this magnificent place. Free admission.
  • Yoho National Park is in eastern BC bordering Banff National Park on the Trans Canada Highway.
  • Glacier National Park takes in part of the Selkirk Mountain Range where the Trans Canada Highway crosses the range through Roger’s Pass.
  • Butchart Gardens near Victoria offers over 50 acres (22 hectares)of gardens and floral display.
  • Stanley Park (Vancouver) — is not just your average urban park! You can stroll through the park on the seawall, check out the aquarium, take a look at the totem poles, and stop at various historical points of interest.
  • Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria
  • Science World Vancouver — nice for kids of all ages. Also has an IMAX Theatre.
  • Vancouver Art Gallery Vancouver
  • Capilano Suspension Bridge and Park North Vancouver

Do

  • Backpack the West Coast Trail or the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail  closer to Victoria
  • Kayak Desolation Sound , Telegraph Cove, the Broken Islands, the Queen Charlotte Islands.
  • Scramble the Rockies!
  • Rock climb the world famous Stawamus Chief in Squamish.
  • Winter Surfing
  • Go skiing at Whistler-Blackcomb, North America’s largest ski area, or the other excellent ski areas throughout the province in destinations near Kimberley, Fernie, Nelson, Kelowna or Rossland.
  • Roam the open range on horseback or try world-class fly-fishing in the Cariboo-Chilcotin

Sleep

Accommodation throughout BC can always be arranged in the usual motels, hotels and B&Bs. BC Provincial Parks have had a good reputation over the years and most have very nice campgrounds. Camping in BC is an experience you shouldn’t miss.

Drink

The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 19.

Beer, wine and spirits are available from the government liquor stores (BCL). They are also available from private beer and wine stores which are usually associated with pubs or bars. Most BCL stores close at 8PM while most private liquor stores are open until 11PM. You cannot buy alcohol in grocery stores.

BC is home to a number of breweries,including the Columbia Brewery in Creston which brews Kokanee, the Granville Island Brewery in Vancouver and Nelson Brewing Company in Nelson. Most breweries offer tours.

BC is also well-renowned for its wine and the Okanagan Valley  is the center of the wine industry in the province. It’s a perfect area to visit during the Autumn grape harvest. There are large number of wineries open for tastings.

Smoke

As of October 17th, 2018, the use and possession of marijuana is legal in all of Canada, and British Columbia is no exception. Previously, discreet use of small amounts was generally tolerated in the larger cities and particularly Vancouver. Persons aged 18 or older can possess up to 30 grams of dried or “equivalent non-dried form” in public. Keep in mind that Vancouver has strict anti-smoking regulations against any kind of indoor smoking so lighting up in a bar or nightclub may get you in trouble.

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