For all the limits the global pandemic put on our lives, 2020 was also my year of travelling gratefully.
I moved to British Columbia from Ontario two years ago. In early summer 2020, B.C. health officials began to encourage safe, respectful and local travel. I stuck to road trips, the car packed with hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, snacks and lots of patience.
Thankful to be able to see more of my new British Columbia home, I showed my gratitude by shopping local, picked up lots of takeout and left big tips.
Travel wasn’t without jitters, which made me even more careful. I kept my distance and always wore a mask, choosing hotels that had outside entrances and stairs over places with lobbies and elevators. A kitchenette was always a bonus.
I hope my year of travelling gratefully will inspire you to explore B.C when it’s safe to hit the road once again.
First there was an excellent lunch at David Hawksworth’s Hawksworth Restaurant, then the official unveiling of the new Air Canada Signature Suite at Vancouver International Airport on March 12, the last “normal” day of 2020.
Afterwards, I checked into the Hotel Fairmont Vancouver Airport, located above the U.S. departure gates. The typically packed area was completely empty, an eerie experience. Earlier, a woman on a city bus looked enviously at my hand sanitizer and asked where I’d gotten it. It was sold out everywhere she’d looked, she said.
For a flight nerd like me, the biggest perk of the Fairmont is the runway ramp views from the large windows in my room. I had a feeling air travel was about to undergo a change, but I didn’t know how drastic things would get.
The next day, British Columbia was in lockdown. I flew home to Victoria on Air Canada’s shortest flight. The 13-minute hop always makes me smile and the Gulf Islands views are unbeatable. This flight was different. I felt relief when I landed on what was my final flight of the year.
After four months of sticking close to home, the 10-minute ferry ride to Quadra Island on a tiny BC Ferries car carrier from Campbell River felt like a grand getaway.
Largest in the Discovery Islands archipelago in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, Quadra mixes wild, forested beauty and winding rural roads. The pace is slow. People are friendly, with a laid-back, hippie vibe.
We booked three nights at Taku Resort and Marina in the village of Heriot Bay, which had the bonus of an in-room kitchenette, motel-style entry and all COVID protocols in place.
Our time on Quadra was spent exploring rural roads, often with no particular destination in mind. We climbed North and South Chinese Mountain trails, steady uphill treks that rewarded us with inspiring views. A beach picnic overlooking the turquoise water of Morte Lake midway through a long hike made me wish I’d brought my bathing suit.
Later, we spent time with SouthEnd Farm Winery owner Ben McGuffie, who runs Quadra Island’s only winery with his wife Jill Ogasawara with the motto “small farm, too many ideas.”
The outdoor tasting room overlooked the vines, four-acre farm and forest. We relaxed with a glass of wine, rescue dog Truman flaked out on the patio stones at our feet.
The thrilling drive to the wild west coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria brings you to a T-junction and a question. Right or left? Tofino or Ucluelet? I went left for a change and checked out Ukee, as the locals call it.
Exceptional coastal cuisine was part of my stay at Pluvio restaurant + rooms, run by Warren Barr and Lily Verney-Downey, both formerly of the Wickaninnish Inn. Named one of the best new restaurants in Canada in 2019 by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine, Barr’s multi-course chef’s tasting menu is a delectable, often-playful culinary adventure embracing local, seasonal and foraged foods. Four, cozy rooms behind Pluvio have Scanda design details. Breakfast packed in a metal picnic box was left at my door before dawn.
Located on the traditional territory of the Ucluelet First Nation, I learned about local Indigenous culture from Nuu-chah-nulth carver, artist and gallery owner Tlehpik Hjalmer Wenstob at Cedar House Gallery.
I’m a big fan of the Ucluelet Aquarium, home of Canada’s first collect-and-release collection. It’s just across the street from the gallery.
The magnificent, eight km-long Wild Pacific Trail is the best hiking experience in the region as far as I’m concerned. With multiple trailheads in town, winding forest paths lead to seascape overlooks, where the only sounds are seabirds and the churning ocean pounding craggy shoreline rocks.
I made the most of rugged beach views from a room at Black Rock Oceanfront Resort. Although I had a kitchenette, I wanted to try the kimchee and oyster crispy pancakes at South Korean modern street food restaurant Seom. They were delicious. Back in my room, I sat by the fireplace with a book, listening to the surf.
The next day, I checked out the new Ucluelet Brewing Company, housed in the renovated former St. Aidan’s on the Hill Anglican church, then had a tasting appointment at Pacific Rim Distillery, where 28-year-old, fourth-generation distiller Luke Erridge makes smooth, small-batch craft spirits, just like his granddad taught him.
Staycations were popular close-to-home getaways for Canadians. I checked in at Magnolia Hotel & Spa in Victoria for an indulgent overnight at the 64-room boutique hotel, ranked the No. 1 top hotel in Canada by Trip Advisor users this year. The hotel was seeing lots of pandemic-weary parents leaving kids with grandparents for some adults-only time.
My large room had views of the B.C. Legislature, which puts on a show when 3,500 energy-efficient lights that outline the building come on at dusk.
The Magnolia has a program of themed Curated Trails routes that guests can do on a loaner bike or on foot. The new Bountiful Peninsula self-drive tour takes in the farms and wineries of the nearby Saanich Peninsula, the area where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle moved temporarily in late 2019. That evening, I had some of the produce from these farms on Chef Brian Tesolin’s seasonal tasting menu at the hotel’s award-winning The Courtney Room dining room.
There’s a relaxed small-town vibe and a variety of ways to connect with nature year-round in these communities, located about a two-hour drive up-island from Victoria.
The beach is a natural wonder, appearing to stretch out forever into the Straight of Georgia at low tide, with the Coast Mountains forming a distant background. There are lush and peaceful forests to explore, some with waterfall walks, and the Mediterranean-style climate is ideal for outdoor activities year-round.
I played mermaid for an hour at Avacena seaweed baths experience in Qualicum Beach, sinking back in one of two repurposed claw-foot tubs filled with heated water. Located outdoors and overlooking a garden, the slippery, colourful seaweed in my tub was far from icky. It was cool and silky and felt good on my skin.
This region is a prime birdwatching spot. Birds take a break there while on the Pacific Flyway migratory route from Patagonia to Alaska.
It’s on the new BC Bird Trail, launched by Tourism Richmond in September. Like an Ale Trail for bird lovers, the online resource and trip-planning tool has self-guided itineraries for birdwatching events and destinations across central Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley.
Get even closer to birds at the North Island Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, a non-profit wildlife rehabilitation site that cares for injured animals. I met a variety of wildlife too badly injured to survive in the wild, including bears, owls, eagles and hawks.
My private tours with Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours in Parksville focused on beginner birdwatching and took me to hidden outdoor places to explore in Qualicum Beach.
Remote and wild, Tofino is home to passionate surfers, summer idylls, winter storm watching, rainforests and stunning beaches. The robustly creative culinary scene celebrates the ocean, forests and Vancouver Island farms.
It’s just so fun to be here and it feels so far removed from the rest of the world. I could watch the surfers for hours and I never tired of walking the elevated loop trails in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the paths of the Tofino Botanical Gardens.
Tofino itself is a small place, just a few blocks and home to about 1,900 full-time residents. You’ll never go without great coffee or a chance to explore the outdoors here. The vibe has all the chill of a surf town twinned with the joy of being in the heart of the UNESCO-designated Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve.
Even during these challenging times for tourism, there was a surprising amount of new activity in Tofino, including the new “super-natural grocer” Gaia Grocery and a slice of Paris on the coast at Ouest Artisan Patisserie, which opened in a 160-square-foot converted shipping container. The croissants, macarons and pasties were exceptional.
There’s also a fun and funky new hotel, the latest stay in the British Columbia-based, retro-themed Hotel Zed chain. The lobby has a bike path running through it, an old-school video arcade, private disco and psychic den.
I also stayed at Tofino + Marina and Resort, which has a new culinary team of executive chef Terry Somerville and pastry chef Kristine Morrow for on-site restaurants 1909 Kitchen dining room and The Hatch pub. They also host a foraging program with the restaurant’s former executive chef and Top Chef Canada Season 7 winner Paul Moran, who’s now running a wild food foraging retail site. His weekend-long Foraging Memories experience start up again in spring, where he leads small groups to hunt for edible treasure before they return to the hotel for a foraging feast prepared by Somerville.