So you've been to the ferry terminal. Think you've been to Tsawwassen? Think again.
The one thing most people know about Tsawwassen is that there's a trick to its name. Ferry announcements use "suh-woss-en", and many say that's also how people from the Tsawwassen First Nation say it. But if you venture to Tsawwassen, you may be surprised to discover that locals pronounce the T, as in "tuh-woss-en". Further emphasizing the T, many of the younger residents refer to it as T-town.
Tsawwassen, a community of about 20,000, may be one of the most ignored parts of the Lower Mainland, as hundreds of people each day rush past it on their way to the ferry terminal, and then on to the Gulf Islands or Vancouver Island. Located about a 45-minute drive south of Vancouver, Tsawwassen is part of the municipality of Delta, along with North Delta and Ladner.
If you were to head south from Vancouver on a clear day, across the Oak Street Bridge, through Richmond on Highway 99, through the Massey Tunnel, and then onto Highway 17 heading toward the ferry, you might be fortunate enough to see Mount Baker, snowcapped and Mount Fuji–like, hovering not far away in Washington state. After a bend in the road, you come to the intersection of Highway 17 and 56th Street. Letting the ferry traffic fly past, you turn into Tsawwassen.
You may notice a certain emphasis on weather in the town—good weather, in particular. The sign on the highway indicating the turnoff features a sun. In places, Tsawwassen's main street, 56th Street, has palm trees growing in the median. The town's yearly celebration is called the Sun Festival. Promotional materials claim that Tsawwassen gets three days of sunshine for every one in Vancouver.
A low blow was dealt in 2004 when an article about Point Roberts in National Geographic called Tsawwassen a "strip-mall hell", but that doesn't hold true today. As a community where a large number of residents commute to work in Richmond and Vancouver, and many go elsewhere to shop, sustaining business is a challenge. Although 56th Street may not appear to be that different from the main streets of other areas of the Lower Mainland, with branches of a number of chain stores, it has many one-off shops and restaurants worth exploring. If you're looking for a book to take to the beach (see below), Albany Books (1240 56th Street) is pleasant and full of well-chosen volumes. After a day of exploring, why not have dinner at a Tsawwassen original? Local favourites include Alfa (1097 56th Street) and Mario's Kitchen (1105 56th Street).
Settlers came to the area in the latter part of the 1800s, but First Nations groups have been there for thousands of years. You may cherish childhood memories of visiting Splashdown Park, but you likely didn't know that it's built on land leased from the Tsawwassen First Nation. The group also leases out land on which an enclave of upscale homes has been built. The Tsawwassen made the news in July when members approved the first urban treaty in Canada. The treaty involves land—particularly in the Agricultural Land Reserve—and is controversial.
Use of land has long been a flash point in Tsawwassen. Although less of it is used for agriculture than in neighbouring Ladner, development proposals can be contentious, such as the Southlands proposal that was defeated decades ago. The Gateway Program is also causing concern since it involves an expansion of the Roberts Bank port, sometimes called Deltaport or Superport, and an increase in traffic through the region.
Until 1959, Tsawwassen was accessible only by water. A ferry ran across the Fraser River until the George Massey Tunnel opened that year. Before the tunnel, many used it as a place to vacation in the summer, but the tunnel brought in year-round residents. Tsawwassen also became a major gateway to the islands when the BC Ferries terminal opened in 1960. But rather than just a jumping-off point, Tsawwassen can be a destination.
Best untrammelled coast
Boundary Bay Regional Park and Centennial Beach
The entrance to Boundary Bay Regional Park's dike trail is near 12th Avenue and Boundary Bay Road; Centennial Beach can be reached using a side road that branches off farther south on Boundary Bay Road (www.metrovancouver.org/services/parks/parks-greenways-reserves/boundary-bay-regional-park).
If you want to get away from the activity found at many Lower Mainland parks and beaches, a visit to Boundary Bay Regional Park and Centennial Beach may be in order. This Metro Vancouver park hosts millions of migratory birds each year in the spring and fall. Herons are commonly spotted here, and a walk along the dike is pleasant at any time of year. This special habitat is another reason some locals are concerned about development and land use.
Centennial Beach is idyllic in a different kind of way. Here, children frolic in the sand, kite-flying is popular, and when the tide is out sandbars can be explored. Way across the water is White Rock, and hovering above it all is Mount Baker, particularly beautiful at sunset. No beach bunnies here; just good, clean fun.
Best way to get back to our roots
Boundary Bay Earthwise Garden
Boundary Bay Road and 3rd Avenue
This garden is a combination of demonstration and do-it-yourself. In front of an outdoor paved area meant for gatherings, there's a garden that shows how native plants thrive in their natural habitat, and how plants with similar shade and moisture needs can flourish together. Around the side and the back of a storage building are allotments planted by individuals and groups such as a nearby elementary school class. Onions, carrots, hot peppers, tomatoes, and a variety of other vegetables are grown, and it's pleasant strolling between the plots and peering into the garden worlds people have created.
A project of the DRS Earthwise Society, which came into being as the Delta Recycling Society in 1979, the project promotes sustainable, environmentally friendly gardening. It's a reminder that even in the middle of what was once a farming community, there is still much to be learned about agriculture, especially by a generation that is removed from the land.
Best place to see the power and the beauty
Fred Gingell Park and Tsawwassen Beach
What at first appears to be a nice little park sandwiched between two lots on English Bluff Road, home to some of the most valuable real estate in the community, yields a breathtaking view of the Strait of Georgia, the hazy blue shapes of various Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island in the distance, the comings and goings from the ferry terminal, and the feats of windsurfers and kite surfers. Opened in 2001 and named for a well-liked MLA (and how often do you hear that?) who represented South Delta for almost a decade during the 1990s, the park has significance as the beginning of the only designated public access to Tsawwassen Beach. The Tsawwassen Beach Neighbourhood Nature Trail consists of a stairway, a trail, and steps, and it takes about a half-hour round trip, although you'll want to stay a lot longer than that: at the bottom, you can wander along the beach, gazing out at the water and ogling the impressive beachside houses.
But what is one of Tsawwassen's nicest spots is home to one of its most fractious issues. Since 1955, a cable has supplied power to the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island, and the almost 25-kilometre underwater portion of the cable starts at Fred Gingell Park. (The land for the park was jointly provided by BC Hydro and the Corporation of Delta.) Power lines have become an issue in Tsawwassen because the lines that supply the cable run overland through residential areas, and it's being proposed that higher-voltage lines be built in order to meet increasing demand from the islands.
Best reason to invade Point Roberts
Kiniski's Reef Tavern
1334 Gulf Road, Point Roberts, Washington
(Reach Point Roberts by heading north along 56th Street to the border crossing.)
Although many a Tsawwassenite has gone south for a fill-up of cheap American gas when the Canadian dollar is strong, many others ventured across the border for a drink when Sunday drinking was illegal in Canada. And although some have doubtless pondered the odds of a successful takeover of the small U.S. peninsula that hangs from Tsawwassen just below the 49th parallel, these days one of the best reasons to go to Point Roberts is Kiniski's Reef Tavern. (Remember to bring your passport; otherwise, your invasion will be hampered by American border guards.) Across the street from the now-closed Breakers, this establishment, located only metres from the water, consists of a bar and a large patio looking west across the Strait of Georgia toward the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. The walls of the pub are lined with photos and posters that pay tribute to the Kiniski wrestling family, which includes Gene and sons Nick and Kelly. (The pub is owned by Nick Kiniski.) Various kinds of American beer and large plates of nachos are on offer, besides pull tabs, a type of lottery game. Sometimes, one particular bald eagle (eagles are often seen in Point Roberts) can be enticed to swing by the patio for some raw chicken.