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Things to do in Western Canada

19 January 2017

From Vancouver to the Rocky Mountains, celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday this year with a visit to this stunning part of the world.

Stanley Park, Vancouver
North America's largest urban park, Stanley Park is bigger than New York's Central Park.

Vancouver is a perennial on World’s Most Liveable City lists.

Wedged between mountains and the Pacific, residents commute (often by bicycle, sometimes by kayak) while peering up at snowy peaks flickering between downtown’s glass skyscrapers.

It’s at weekends when Vancouverites really enjoy their hometown – sunbathing on beaches, cycling through Stanley Park’s pines or skiing on powdery slopes just 30 minutes away.

The city has thrown off lazy comparisons as ‘Canada’s San Francisco’, establishing a cultural identity of its own and a quality of life envied by many cities south of the 49th parallel.

Once you’ve left British Columbia’s landmark city, you find contrasting terrain, from the verdant wine-making Okanagan Valley, and over the province line to the peaks and turquoise lakes of Alberta’s Jasper and Banff National Parks, deep in the Rocky Mountains.

The endless environmental eye-candy makes every leg of the journey ring long in the memory.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Gastown, Vancouver

Not many cities were founded thanks to a pub, but Vancouver started life in 1867 only when Englishman ‘Gassy’ Jack Deighton built a tavern for thirsty sawmill workers.

The settlement emerging around this alehouse became known as Gastown, for decades a seedy skid row full of alcoholics and rundown buildings. Today, it’s Vancouver’s historic heart; a breezy cobblestoned district with handsome heritage buildings occupied by boutiques, brewpubs and bistros.

Learn more about its insalubrious past on a Forbidden Vancouver ‘Lost Souls of Gastown’ tour.

Chinatown, Vancouver

Almost half of Vancouver’s citizens are of Asian origin and the city boasts outstanding Eastern cuisine.

There’s an authentic ambience to Chinatown, with its dragon-festooned décor, ginseng-smelling apothecaries, steamy-windowed eateries and oases of landscaped Taoist-serenity, such as Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden.

Strangest attraction? The Jimi Hendrix Shrine. A bright-red shack (formerly the axeman’s grandmother’s fried-chicken restaurant), with more Jimi memorabilia than you can shake a Strat at.

Main Street and Commercial Drive, Vancouver

These stroll-friendly neighbourhoods exemplify the high-liveability factor. Main Street boasts coffee shops, eclectic stores (such as stationery-store Regional Assembly of Text), vintage clothes and record emporia, and a winning gallery district in The Flats.

The Drive is a colourful strip with a patio dining scene, micro-breweries and eccentric nightlife, from ‘nerd-pubs’ (Storm Crow Tavern’s Doctor Who keepsakes and Game of Thrones events) to poetry slam nights.

Stanley Park, Vancouver

A cluster of eye-catching totem poles greets visitors at the entrance to North America’s largest urban park (at 405 hectares, it’s bigger than Central Park).

Like a microcosm of British Columbia wilderness, it’s hard to believe you’re in a city. Best experienced by bicycle (hire a Mobi, Vancouver’s public-share bike scheme), a ride along its 5½ mile Seawall should unveil log-strewn beaches, Douglas fir trees, candy-striped lighthouses, buzzing seaplanes and harbour seals.

Also check out the park’s fantastic aquarium (particularly its jellyfish and beluga whales).

Granville Island, Vancouver

Local produce, a maritime market, brilliant buskers and the island-in-the-city’s own brewery – a total buzz.

Capilano Suspension Bridge, North Vancouver

Seemingly precarious (but 100% safe) rope bridge swaying a knee-wobblingly 230ft above a forested canyon.

Canada: the history and sights of Vancouver

The Rocky Mountaineer train

Set off from Vancouver, heading east, exchanging urban sophistication for the raw, glacial wilderness of the Rocky Mountains.

The all-round views from the observation cars offer breathtaking panoramas of untamed forest, churning rivers, cascading waterfalls, icy peaks, and matchless moments of splendid isolation such as Spirit Island.

This is a must-do trip to experience one of the most thrilling landscapes in the world, and why Canadians write the best railroad songs.

Jasper, Alberta

Some 4,000 hardy souls inhabit the hub of the eponymous national park, with roots lying in the Hudson Bay Company.

The park, created in 1907, is studded with crystal cold and clear lakes. Your lungs may need some adjusting to the purity of the air, but take a deep breath, steel yourself and take the Skytram for a 7,500ft ride to the top of Whistler Mountain for the best-ever view of the Rockies. Until the next one…

Banff, Alberta

This is as ‘vacation-centric’ as the Rockies get. Building on its history as a hotels and resort development by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 19th century, it literally blows hot and cold, with hot springs in the perhaps offputtingly named Sulphur Mountain and fashionable ski resorts that thrive pretty much year-round.

Canada: Through the Rockies

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

Oenophiles can soak up Canada’s growing reputation for wine production, a six-hour drive (beautiful in itself) from Vancouver.

Whistler, British Columbia

The two mountains of Whistler and Blackcomb are world-famous for their great skiing, with 8,100 acres of slopes.

But Whistler is a very well-appointed resort and is about far more than downhill thrills. In the winter, you can do everything from ice skating to dog sledding, spas, eagle watching and fabulous après ski. In the summer, there are 4x4 tours, helicopter sightseeing tours, white-water rafting, jet boating, golf, and numerous art galleries.

Calgary Stampede, Alberta

One of the events of the year in this part of the world, the event features some of the toughest rodeo contests in the world, including steer wrestling and bull riding.

There are also high-energy stage shows, concerts by country music stars, wagon races, and hands-on experiences for children with the agricultural animals of the Canadian west. From July 6-17.


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.