Seven B.C. fall escapes for those feeling the urge to get out of town

There’s nothing quite like taking a break from Metro Vancouver to clear your head and recalibrate your soul

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      Sometimes, even if it’s just for your mental health, you have to get out of town.

      And with so many B.C. communities facing hard times during this pandemic, it makes sense to stay within the province.

      If this pandemic has you experiencing cabin fever, here are a few locations to consider.

      But please don’t go if you’re showing any symptoms of COVID-19. And respect physical-distancing rules and wear a mask wherever this is recommended.

      This year's Whistler Writers Festival takes place online from October 15 to 18.
      Mirae Campbell


      What can you say about B.C.’s four-season wonderland that people might not already know? Let’s start with what’s new for the 2020-21 season, like an online ski-lift reservation system to help staff manage the volume of visitors in a safer way.

      According to the Whistler Resort Association’s website, pass holders have up to seven priority reservation days and seven week-of reservation days that they book in advance, starting on November 6. Just over a month later, on December 8, it will be possible to buy day-specific lift tickets online, again reducing contact between visitors and staff.

      “We want to provide assurance to our guests that we will do our very best to minimize crowds at all times—be it a holiday weekend or the unpredictable powder day,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said in a recent news release. “We believe this approach will help ensure a safe experience for everyone while prioritizing access for our pass holders.”

      As popular as skiing and snowboarding might be, there’s more to this community than racing down a mountain at breakneck speed. In the fall, it’s possible to indulge in zipline tours, bear-viewing, or spending a lazy day by one of the resort’s lakes. It’s not too late to take a kayak or a standup paddleboard out on the water, either.

      In recent years, Whistler has also upped its game when it comes to arts and culture. The Audain Art Museum remains open for those wearing face coverings from Thursdays to Sundays.

      Its current show, The Extended Moment: Fifty Years of Collecting Photographs, runs until October 18 and features 80 images by such luminaries as Diane Arbus, Edward Burtynsky, and Stan Douglas, among others.

      The Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre features Lil’wat artist Ed Archie NoiseCat’s display of art pieces, Sqātsza7 Tmicw–Father Land, continues to the end of February.

      There's also the 18th annual Whistler Writers Festival, but unlike in previous years, it won't feature rooms full of writers and readers bantering about books.

      This time, it's taking place online from October 15 to 18. For more information, visit the website.

      Photographers often stop to capture images of the ‘Namgis traditional Big House (right) in Alert Bay.

      North Vancouver Island

      The North Island, the least-travelled part of Vancouver Island, might see fewer tourists but is less crowded as a result and is, generally speaking, a more pristine experience in terms of wilderness.

      The “three ports”—Port McNeill, Port Alice, and Port Hardy—are the largest towns north of Campbell River, a world-famous salmon-fishing destination that is pretty much considered to be the North Island’s southern boundary. Paved roads outside of these destinations accessible by the Island Highway (Highway 19) are few, so you need to plan carefully before you go.

      Wilderness activities—mainly whale- and grizzly bear–watching, scenic water tours, diving and fishing charters, and hiking—dominate the environment here, with Port Hardy playing the role of jumping-off point for both local adventures (Cape Scott Provincial Park, the challenging North Coast Trail) and those farther afield (the B.C. Ferries connection to Prince Rupert through the Inside Passage is a legendary 15-hour day trip, with further connections to Alaska and Haida Gwaii).

      Port McNeill, on the relatively sheltered northeast tip of the Island, houses mainly forestry and fisheries workers and their families. A ferry crosses Broughton Strait to the former Finnish utopian community of Sointula on Malcolm Island and Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, both within the territories of the ’Namgis First Nation (part of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations).

      Port Alice, situated farther west, on Neroutsos Inlet, boasts fantastic diving in Quatsino Sound, nearby caving opportunities, and great fishing and wildlife-viewing opportunities.

      Campbell River brags about its famous salmon fishing, especially its famed traditional “tyee” fishery (chinook salmon of 30 pounds or more, caught from a rowboat on specific tackle), celebrated in the legendary stories that have come out of its historic Painter’s Lodge fishing resort. Fishing charters abound here, and though tyee season is fading by late September/October, there are still plenty of feisty northern coho salmon, fall chum salmon, and younger chinook lurking about. Many locals and tourists catch salmon right off the landmark Discovery Fishing Pier in downtown Campbell River.

      Harrison Lake looks pretty amazing at sunset.

      Harrison Hot Springs

      Harrison Hot Springs offers a convenient getaway for people wanting a quick escape from the city. The Fraser Valley municipality located 130 kilometres east of Vancouver presents an accessible haven just 90 minutes away by car.

      First made famous by mineral waters that have been valued by the Sts’ailes First Nation as a healing place, Harrison Hot Springs is a complete destination.

      There’s something for everyone in the resort town, which has provided rest and comfort to visitors for more than a century. For accommodations, one can choose anything from hotels to cottages, campgrounds and RV parks, depending on the budget.

      When exploring Harrison Lake and the Harrison River, visitors can access a variety of boats, kayaks, and canoes from Killer Cove Boat Rentals. One suggested water trip goes down the river to the nearby town of Harrison Mills, where thousands of eagles start arriving in October and November to feast on spawned-out salmon. For families with children, the Harrison Watersports Water Park, a floating fun park on the lake, is an option.

      Harrison Hot Springs also offers a number of land adventures. One can get in touch with Harrison Eco Tours for guided hikes, or just do it with a map.

      Visitors can try the one-kilometre Spirit Trail, a short walk through a forest where several trees have been adorned with beautiful masks by a local artist.

      Those interested in the town’s rich history can take the Heritage Walk.

      European settlers on their way to find gold were said to have stumbled on the hot springs by accident in 1858. The Sts’ailes people call these kwals, or boiling water. The first hotel in town was built in 1886.

      Biking is another popular activity in Harrison Hot Springs. From there, one can also explore the scenic town of Agassiz on two wheels.

      Art lovers can visit Canwest Art Gallery on the Lake, and the Ranger Station Art Gallery. There’s also the Sasquatch Museum, which is dedicated to the mythical creature that the Sts’ailes call Sa:sq’ets, or caretaker of the land.

      Here's what it looks like looking out from West Coast Wilderness Lodge, which is near Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park.
      Caroline Ali

      Sunshine Coast

      If you’ve never been to the Sunshine Coast, this may be the ideal time to explore the 180-kilometre stretch extending from Gibsons and Roberts Creek in the south all the way up to Lund on the northern end. For nature lovers,

      Skookumchuck Narrows reveals how turbulent the sea can become, with extra-large tides anticipated at different times on every day from Thursday (September 24) to the end of the month. The spectacular whirlpools are part of Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park, which was created in 1957.

      The Sunshine Coast also has an increasingly famous Ale Trail, with craft breweries, distilleries, and cideries running along the so-called Brewers’ Coast. Two of the best known are Persephone Brewing’s beer farm in Gibsons and Townsite Brewing in the historic section of Powell River.

      Another attraction in fall is the Sunshine Coast Art Crawl, which takes place from October 23 to 25. This year, in response to the pandemic, it’s being held virtually at many venues. Others are offering visits by appointment. In addition, there will be a Zoom party and online listings showing images of the artists’ work.

      Then there’s the cycling, boating, hiking, rock-climbing, kayaking, canoeing, and standup paddleboarding that takes place at many locations. Hey, we may be in the midst of a pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we have to stay cloistered in our living rooms. If you do head to the Sunshine Coast this autumn, please respect the wishes of the locals. They’re not keen to have city slickers from Metro Vancouver bringing any COVID with them.

      From Baynes Peak on Salt Spring Island, there’s a glorious view of Fulford Harbour, which is home to a B.C. Ferries terminal.

      Southern Gulf Islands

      B.C.’s Southern Gulf Islands are oases of calm sitting in the Salish Sea between Vancouver, Victoria, and Nanaimo to the north.

      Tourists from outside Canada and residents of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island visit and vacation there, helped by an efficient ferry system that serves all the large islands and even allows some residents to commute to work on the mainland or the Island daily.

      The islands are part of a larger archipelago that includes the San Juan Islands in the U.S. and the so-called Northern Gulf Islands, which extend all the way to Quadra Island near Campbell River, well north of Nanaimo.

      Some of the southernmost islands have a Mediterranean-style climate that allows agricultural opportunities not seen anywhere else in B.C., such as olive production, and enables unique ecosystems, such as that associated with Garry oak trees, to thrive.

      The major southern islands’ permanent population of about 20,000 residents (with Salt Spring accounting for half that total) soars during the summer months, so the autumn is a good time to look for that perfect waterfront or cozy tree-hidden cottage rental.

      We don’t have the space to go into detail about the individual charms of such popular island getaways as Salt Spring, Mayne, Saturna, Galiano, Gabriola, and the North and South Pender islands. An abundance of information is available from websites detailing accommodations, activities, and the varied recreational offerings to be found on their shores.

      Whale-watching and orca-spotting (orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family) are popular Salish Sea activities, and salmon fishing outranks almost all other types, although it slows down a bit after the chinook and sockeye runs diminish in late summer. But mostly visitors just like to putter around their island retreats: kayaking, cycling, and hiking accessible trails; basking in the fall sunshine and visiting farms and artists’ studios; and patronizing specialty bakeries, farmers markets, and sipping vintages in a local winery’s tasting room.

      The view of Layer Cake Hill in Kelowna from the 15-kilometre marker of the Mission Creek Greenway.


      Kelowna keeps visitors coming back for lots of reasons.

      One never runs out of things to do in the scenic city by the Okanagan Lake.

      With its cool breezes, fall makes a good season for outdoor adventure in this destination area. It’s a little over four hours away by car from Vancouver.

      Downtown Kelowna’s waterfront boardwalk provides a nice place to start. The two-kilometre promenade offers views of the lake and also connects to a wildlife park.

      Visitors can also explore the city on bike. Kelowna features about 300 kilometres of bike lanes and 40 kilometres of separated pathways. Opportunities also abound for mountain biking nearby.

      The Mission Creek Greenway is a 16-kilometre trail shared by cyclists, joggers, and walkers. It offers an easy to moderate hike, connecting to parks, interpretive viewing spots, rest locations, and picnic sites.

      Kelowna gave birth to winemaking in B.C., and there are five wine trails to choose from to savour premium vintages. One is the Downtown Grapes to Grain trail, with stops at Sandhill Estate Winery and Ricco Bambino Urban Winery.
      Guided wine tours are available. Calona Wines, which was founded in 1932, is the oldest continuously operating winery in the province.

      For a piece of history, visitors may want to see the Myra Canyon Trestles, located 24 kilometres from downtown. The landmark was once part of the Kettle Valley Steam Railway, built during the early 20th century. A restored locomotive provides a 90-minute ride along the preserved section of the railway.

      Harvest season comes in the fall. With its deep agricultural tradition, Kelowna offers a wide selection of fruit, produce, and flowers.

      Families planning to take their dog for a vacation need not worry. There are many hotels and accommodations that are pet-friendly.

      Dogs are allowed on-leash at Knox Mountain Park. Rising about 300 metres above Okanagan Lake, the 310-hectare park provides sightseeing opportunities as well as hiking, biking, and birding.

      For those seeking a tranquil spot to unwind, downtown boasts the Kasugai Garden Park. The Japanese garden’s features include waterfalls, a pond with koi fish, and lanterns. It closes for the season at the end of October.

      Hikers are often drawn to the lush rainforests near the west coast of Vancouver Island.


      The Tofino-Ucluelet area on Vancouver Island’s west coast is an international-tourism hot spot, and not just because of its anchor tenant, Pacific Rim National Park, which includes the aptly named 16-kilometre Long Beach.

      These two villages have repurposed toward a resort-based livelihood during the past few decades as their former economic mainstays, logging and fishing, have diminished in importance. Ecotourism rules, as befits the area that saw some epic battles in Canadian environmental-activism history.

      Whale-watching outfits in both towns compete with bear- and wildlife-watching companies, and kayaking opportunities (guided or rentals) abound. Area beaches are also famous for their surfing, and several businesses offer lessons and equipment rentals. Because of this, there has been a minor boom in resort hotels, marinas, campgrounds, fishing charters (mostly salmon and halibut), and associated businesses, including restaurants, bakeries, and specialty shopping outlets.

      Most visitors travel by car along Highway 4, which bisects the island as it runs toward Pacific Rim National Park. They can walk trails and take in the magnificent old-growth cedars and Douglas firs preserved in MacMillan Provincial Park’s famous Cathedral Grove east of Port Alberni, at the head of Alberni Inlet.

      On the other side of that former forestry hub, a fork in the road as you reach the ocean makes you choose between Tofino (right) or Ucluelet (left), about 30 minutes’ drive apart.

      Ucluelet’s magnificent Barkley Sound Broken Island Group (90 islands within the park boundary, day-use only during the pandemic), the Wild Pacific Trail, and its small but wonderful nonprofit aquarium (which releases all its resident animals back into local waters at its end-of-November seasonal close) beckon to the south.

      To the north, Tofino’s generally fancier restaurants, shopping, accommodations, and galleries cater to those looking for more of a touristy vibe.

      But the wilderness experience dominates both, and in mere minutes you can be hiking Meares Island old-growth trails or kayaking among whales in Barkley Sound. If you intend to traverse or visit First Nations lands, as Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council president Judith Sayers told the Straight, ask permission.

      “We were asking people to contact the First Nation directly if they want to go into their territories. Check their websites [for visitor info]; if it’s not there, call their office.”

      Surfers can’t seem to get enough of the waves alongside Pacific Rim National Park Reserve