Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 20, 2017

© Vancouver, Coast and Mountains/Bob Young

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Sunshine boast

BC's Pacific fringe wows with small-town charm, world-class diving and miles and miles of peace

It was an overcast day and the ferry’s prow rose and fell as the ship churned across the large inlet, cutting through the Pacific’s choppy water. On deck, you could see the harbour we had left, a busy scene dominated by Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal. Closer by, a pair of seals bobbed in the ferry’s wake, the waves a shadowy green colour that reflected the towering coastal mountains.

Also visible was the shore ahead, a shaggy slope of forest tumbling down to the sea’s edge. In the moody weather, it looked primeval and undiscovered, but as we drew nearer, the serendipitous occurred: the clouds above us parted, and dazzling sunshine lit up the rugged landscape. Glinting roofs and colourful houses peeked out from the hillside. As our ferry moved towards the dock, ready to offload the vehicles crowding its deck, a large sign shone under the bright blue sky. “Welcome to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast,” it said.

Just a 40-minute ferry ride north across Howe Sound from West Vancouver, the lovely ocean peninsula known as the Sunshine Coast has a character all of its own. Due to a rain-shadow caused by local mountains, the 200-kilometre-long region is the warmest and driest part of Canada’s Pacific coastline, enjoying especially clear weather from July to early October. In addition, the peninsula is a spectacularly beautiful area, featuring a shoreline lined with picturesque communities and a mountainous interior broken up by inlets and fjords that extend kilometres from the open ocean.

The region is also the one chance to get close to this kind of scenery, as it is the only part of the coastline north of Vancouver that is both inhabited and easily accessible by car. A single paved highway, Route 101, stretches the length of the peninsula from the Vancouver ferry in Langdale to the northernmost town of Lund, deep in the rainforest.

Coastal Viewing 101

In many ways, the Sunshine Coast is an ideal place for a scenic road trip. The peninsula’s rural ambience means that services, amenities and accommodation are plentiful but never congested. At the same time, distances between points of interest are always short (Route 101 is 180 kilometres long in total).

Settled from the sea before roads existed, almost all development up the Sunshine Coast is confined to the left, ocean-view side of the highway as you drive north. Along the shore, a chain of pretty seaside towns and villages cater to visitors with a wide range of accommodations from campgrounds and B&Bs to lavish resorts.

Seafood restaurants offering the day’s catch abound, as do the outdoor outfitters and tour operators who will help you access the peninsula’s untamed wilderness on the inland, right-hand side of Route 101 — an endless swathe of alpine forest interrupted by glimpses of inlets and eagles. Activities range from kayaking, sailing, diving and fishing to hiking, camping, biking, riding, climbing, and zip-lining.

Beginning Your Trip

Arriving on the Sunshine Coast from Vancouver, Route 101 begins at the ferry and immediately deposits you in the town of Gibsons Landing, all of five minutes from the dock. A famously idyllic place to live, Gibsons recently won a prestigious international award as the most livable small community in the world. The town was the location of CBC’s long-running TV drama, The Beachcombers (1971-90), detailing the adventures of the fictional Nick Adonidas, the captain of a Sunshine Coast log-salvage tug played by Bruno Gerussi.

Molly’s Reach (647 School Road, Gibsons; tel: 604-886-9710; mollysreach.ca), the local restaurant extensively featured in The Beachcombers, is still a prominent landmark in the harbour area known as the Landing, filled with shops, galleries and cafés, as well as the Sunshine Coast Museum (716 Winn Street, Gibsons; tel: 404-886-8232; sunshinecoastmuseum.ca). The adjacent Winegarden Waterfront Park hosts free outdoor concerts in summer and a weekend market where local artisans display their work.

There are a wide variety of hotels and B&Bs, as well as more rarefied accommodation like the secluded Discovery Place Retreat (1556 Park Avenue, Roberts Creek; tel: 604-885-0405; discoveryplaceretreat.com), designed to host intimate executive meetings for clients such as medical practices.

Inland Sea

A scenic 20-minute drive north is Sechelt, located between the Strait of Georgia and the southern end of the inland Sechelt Inlet. The narrow 86-kilometre-long ocean inlet remains largely pristine and is made up of three large fjords. According to no less an authority than Jacques Cousteau, who filmed here, its marine habitat is one of the most fecund anywhere. The fishing is excellent, and the abundant marine and shore wildlife can be easily sighted from sea kayaks.
It's also the best way to visit beautiful Tzoonie Narrows Provincial Marine Park(env.gov.bc.ca), one of eight such parks in Sechelt Inlet, where the cliff walls of a tapering channel narrow to 12 metres. Tzoonie is also a first-rate site for scuba diving, as is the Chaudiere, a former Canadian Navy destroyer sunk and converted into an artificial reef.

There are many local outdoor touring companies and outfitters: Alpha Adventures (#2-4330 Highway 101; tel: 877-435-2925; outdooradventurestore.ca), in nearby Wilson Creek, is one of the best, offering instruction, equipment and touring packages for all kinds of land and sea adventures.

New Age haunts

The Sunshine Coast’s serenity and sense of sanctuary have long made it a haven for those seeking to incorporate that sensibility into the stuff of daily life. North of Sechelt, holistic retreats line Highway 101, most offering variations of therapeutic practice (meditation, yoga and massage prevail).

Just outside the village of Halfmoon Bay, there’s a Chinese Zen monastery on a mountaintop — Sunshine Cha’an Buddhist Temple Society (11148 Highway101, Halfmoon Bay; tel: 604-883-1167; sunshinezencentre.blogspot.com) — an otherworldly temple that welcomes visitors and offers free accommodation and meals if your interest deepens.

Down on the seashore, is the rambling Halfmoon Haven (8505 Redroofs Road, Halfmoon Bay; tel: 604-740-5720; halfmoonhaven.com; three-bedroom beach cottage or two-bedroom suite from $199), a beachfront retreat and holistic spa with reasonable rates that is wonderfully informal, as well as kid and pet friendly. Beachcombers star Gerussi lived for a long time in an outbuilding on the property.

Haute comfort

All of 10 minutes further north and featuring accommodation at the other end of the scale is the swank and childfree Rockwater Secret Cove Resort (5356 Ole's Cove Road, Halfmoon Bay; tel: 604-885-7038; rockwatersecretcoveresort.com; double rooms from $169, tenthouse suites from $294). Conventional lodging is available but the main draw remains the “tenthouse suites.”

These palatial canvas tents for two are spaced out along a long boardwalk ramping over cliffs overlooking the ocean. Each contains king-sized beds, heated slate flooring, propane fireplaces, CD-players and WiFi, along with a decadent two-person massage tub. The restaurant is also regarded as one of the best on the Sunshine Coast. Be aware that noise can be an issue when the resort is full: canvas tent walls are never entirely soundproof.

Just up the shoreline is where the bridgeless Jervis Inlet cuts the Sunshine Coast in two. Before heading over to Earls Cove to catch the hour-long ferry ride to Saltery Bay on what’s known as the Upper Coast, you pass through the sleepy town of Pender Harbour on the way to another luxury retreat, the Painted Boat Resort, Spa and Marina (12849 Lagoon Road, Madeira Park; tel: 604-883-2456; paintedboat.com; two-bedroom villas from $240).

Located on the water in a glen of old-growth trees, Painted Boat offers kitchen-equipped, two-storey, two-bedroom family villas. The resort spa is one of the best in Canada, with seven state-of-the-art treatment rooms, a hydrotherapy room and a glacial clay room. Outdoors, it has a sauna cave, saltwater flotation pool, and jacuzzi pool with massage waterfall, all contained in a walled Japanese garden off the cedar-planked complex. Overlooking the wharf, the resort’s restaurant is known for elegant dining.

On the wild side

Once across Jervis Inlet, the Upper Sunshine Coast is much wilder and emptier. Signs warning of bear and cougar begin to appear; the old-growth forests are filled with enormous trees, looming and solemn. Powell River, an old-time mill town at kilometre 135 from Vancouver, is the one large centre here (population of 15,000), with an airport offering half-hour flights back to the big city on Pacific Coastal Airlines (tel: 800-663-2872; pacific-coastal.com).

The area offers great kayaking, world-class salmon and trout fishing, and is a magnet for scuba divers with 19 dive sites and an underwater sculpture garden. An 18-hole golf course is located just outside of town.

Accommodations range from luxury bed-and-breakfasts to family resorts and affordable cottages. The funky Desolation Resort (2695 Dawson Road, Powell River; tel: 604-483-3592; desolationresort.com; doubles from $119) lies 10 minutes from the village of Lund, in thick forest on the inland edge of Desolation Sound. Ten fully equipped chalets nestle in the soaring firs and cedars overlooking the placid channel.

Fifteen minutes away is one of the Sunshine Coast’s premiere restaurants, the Laughing Oyster (10052 Malaspina Road, Powell River; tel: 604-483-9775; laughingoyster.ca) on Okeover Inlet, run by the inimitable singing chef, David Bowes, a great restaurateur and seasoned entertainer. Be sure to make reservations during the summer months despite the seeming isolation: the Laughing Oyster has an international clientele.

Just north of here, the historic village of Lund is the end of the Sunshine Coast Highway. At this point, all that’s left to do is turn around and drive slowly southward, savouring the diverse beauty of Route 101 once again.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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