British Columbia’s ‘Secret’ Sunshine Coast
Extending 110 miles along the Strait of Georgia, from Howe Sound to Desolation Sound, this Canadian west coast wonderland is filled with coastal bays, uncrowded campgrounds and old-growth forests
North of Vancouver, British Columbia, there’s a strip of waterfront called “the Sunshine Coast” filled with colorful art, great restaurants, thrilling nature-based activities and gorgeous water views. But “the Coast” as residents call it, should be called “the Secret Coast” for how few RVers know about its treasures. We took a few days to discover this paradise for ourselves.
The drive from Portland, Oregon, to Vancouver takes seven to eight hours and, as usual, we don’t leave town until 7 p.m. It’s a three-day weekend so our late start enables us to skirt the traffic and we sail up Interstate 5 through Seattle, Washington. When we reach Bellingham, Washington, we’re weary and glad we’re booked at neat-as-a-pin Bellingham RV Park. Our full-hookup gravel site is blessedly level and surprisingly quiet, despite its freeway proximity.
We have ferry reservations so we’re out early and can’t enjoy the park’s amenities. But we make a note to stop here on future sojourns.
We zip through the border in 30 minutes and, on Highway 99, take Exit 32 to the Richmond Country Farms stand. Veggies aren’t allowed to cross the border so this is a great place to buy local blueberries, corn and tomatoes.
Northbound traffic cuts through downtown Vancouver. There’s a bypass, but we miss it and get tangled in noontime traffic. Our 25-foot Class C Greyhawk feels like a giant beast navigating congested city streets and it’s an hour before we clear the city.
A Ferry Ride Away
Fortunately, we’ve made a reservation with BC Ferries on the Horseshoe Bay-Langdale ferry and we cruise into line with time to spare. Traveling the province’s waterways via ferry is easy and convenient for RVers — and the only way to reach the Sunshine Coast. BC Ferries routinely transports motorhomes and they’re fast, on time and cruise through gorgeous waterways.
On the ferry, we snug up behind another RV and head upstairs where there’s passenger seating, a cafeteria and a gift shop. On the outer decks, we snap photos of forested islands and the emerald water.
Forty minutes later, we disembark and churn past the little town of Gibsons to Sechelt, one of the largest villages on the Coast. Sechelt is a walkable town filled with cafés, bakeries and one-of-a-kind shops. We stop at the visitors center to get our bearings and pick up maps.
Since our puppies have been on the road too long, we head east to Hidden Grove, a wonderful old-growth preserve that allows dogs. We step into this shady, green oasis of cedars and Douglas firs and road stresses melt. Our dogs romp beneath 500-year-old giants along gentle paths (including two wheelchair-accessible trails) and we all work off some energy.
Then we drive a couple of miles to Target Marine, a land-based sturgeon hatchery for Northern Divine, a caviar Travel and Leisure magazine calls some of the world’s best. Sales manager Theressa Logan takes us on a brief tour where 200,000 small sturgeon (smolts) swim. In a larger tank, dozens of larger fish — up to 350 pounds or more — float lazily. These fish are raised for 10 to 15 years on organic feed before they’re harvested and we watch workers process the shiny black eggs. We taste the soft, briny caviar and understand why this black gold is in high demand. We buy some caviar and a 5-pound chunk of sturgeon.
It’s getting dark, so we head south to Roberts Creek Provincial Park located just off Highway 101. This park doesn’t have hookups, but it has potable water, pit toilets and a dump station, and the 21 sites are big and deeply forested with fire rings and picnic tables. The park also has hiking trails and, at $18, it’s a bargain.
Sea Kayaking and Boat Tours
The next day, we meet our guide from Halfmoon Sea Kayaks. The only way to really appreciate the Sunshine Coast is to get on the water and kayaking its bays and inlets allows you to really see its beauty. We don life jackets, snug into the skinny crafts and paddle out. The water is so clear we can see purple, yellow and orange sea stars pasted on the rocks below. We paddle by waterfront homes — some modest, others palatial — and stretches of undeveloped land sculpted with rugged granite and dotted with artful orange madrone (arbutus) trees.
We paddle for a few hours and then pull into Smuggler Cove, a protected inlet. We drag our boats onto shore and enjoy chicken sandwiches. On our return voyage, several harbor seals play peek-a-boo with our kayaks, their gray-and-white spotted heads and puppy-dog eyes peering soulfully at us just above the waves.
After kayaking, we follow a friend’s suggestion and motor down a narrow road to the fishing village of Garden Bay on Pender Harbour. On the way, we stop at Flying Anvil Studio, an eclectic iron workshop selling giant garden gongs. The shop also offers glass, ceramic and wood artwork by local artists. There are many artists on the Sunshine Coast (a brochure lists more than 60) and, if an artist displays the special purple banner, it means “Come on in.”
In Garden Bay, Fisherman’s Resort and Marina offers only four gravel-topped RV sites, two full-service, two water and electric. Fisherman’s has picnic tables, clean showers, laundry, and flat sites (maximum length 28 feet) and it’s a perfect “secret” spot. The owner calls his friend, who operates the Slow Cat, and Captain Paul takes us on a leisurely hour-long tour of Pender Harbour complete with colorful tales of pirates and rum running.
By now we’ve worked up an appetite. Back in the motorhome, we cook up sturgeon steaks and sit under the awning listening to the water gently lap against boats in the marina.
Artworks and Food
The next morning we’re eager to see the work of more Sunshine Coast artists. They aren’t hard to find. Along Highway 101, there’s a grouping of yurts connected by wooden decks housing FibreWorks Studio & Gallery, the largest fiber-art collection on the Coast. Owner Yvonne Stowell shows us the gallery and teaching space. In one yurt, the Wednesday Weavers, a group of would-be fiber artists, are learning the ins and outs of weaving from a master.
Just down the road in Madeira Park, we meet Cindy Cantelon, artist and owner of Copper Sky Gallery and Café. Cantelon has melded her love of food and passion for art into a thriving community meeting space. People come for freshly baked breads, scones, cookies, sandwiches, soups and salads and the artwork. The café walls are festooned with paintings and photos from local artists and oversized metal works by her artist-husband. We enjoy toasted Reuben sandwiches, freshly brewed coffee, and gluten-free brownies and wander the gallery-gift shop’s collection of glass, jewelry and Cantelon’s metal animals in green-and-gold patinas.
We spend the rest of the afternoon looking for purple artist banners. We visit potters, painters, and glass artists and the work leaves us dazzled. Unfortunately, some home studios are located down tiny, gravel lanes or driveways our Class C can’t navigate so we pass them by.
North to Powell River/Lund
After another quiet night at Fisherman’s Marina, we head north. The temperature is in the 70s, but forest maples show the first blush of fall. Past Madeira Park, the road narrows, angles inland and becomes twistier. We pass Ruby Lake, a long freshwater lake where a lone water skier carves S’s in the mirrored surface.
At the end of the highway, we hop a BC Ferry (Earls Cove-Saltery Bay) to the farthest end of the Coast. After the 50-minute ferry ride, we check out Saltery Bay Provincial Park, another forested campground perfect for RVs. We walk the dogs on a short hiking trail to Mermaid Cove, a popular dive site. We’re tempted to camp here, but a mountain lion has recently been spotted nearby so we press on.
The northern part of the Coast is wilder and less inhabited. Homes and businesses are few and the roadway hugs the water with spectacular views. We pull into Powell River, an amalgam of four small communities. Westview, the first and largest, is the new Powell River and its downtown is a gathering of older buildings and quaint shops. On the outskirts are grocery stories, gas stations and modern conveniences.
The heart of Westview is Willingdon Beach Park, a large green space with a bandstand, play area, waterpark and a rail bed converted to a walking path. Next door is Willingdon Beach Campsite, a big shady RV park. The Campsite offers large spaces with hookups. Sites on the beach, like ours, have electric only (no water), but great views. Tired from our travels, we walk the dogs and wander the beach.
Our next stop is Powell River Historic Townsite, the historic mill town that started Powell River. The big pulp mill still operates, its giant metal towers looming over downtown belching steam. A handful of entrepreneurs are breathing life back into this historic place with a movie theater, a brewery, a restaurant and a hotel and café.
Late in the afternoon, we drive to Lund, the last town on the Coast and Mile 0 of Highway 101 stretching from Canada to Mexico. Lund is little more than a dock and marina surrounded by a scattering of businesses, including Nancy’s Bakery where they make killer cinnamon buns, Pollen Sweaters where they knit “working sweaters” that last for years and Terracentric Coastal Adventures where we join outdoor educator Christine for a zodiac tour.
We snug on life vests and board a rigid-bottom pontoon boat. It’s amazingly smooth and quiet as Captain Christine, an area native, motors onto the water. It’s hard to take in all the beauty of Desolation Sound — forested islands, craggy with granite, green with fir and cedar, golden with madrone trees. The sky and water have turned pewter and I pull my fleece around me against the chill.
Christine knows the area’s geology and flora and fauna. She points out a low, light-green mossy-like growth. “That’s reindeer lichen,” she says. “Up close the branches look like reindeer antlers. With the recent rain, it’s puffed up like a sponge.”
We motor past a pile of Stellar sea lions lounging on a small rock island, their big bodies robed in reddish or tawny yellow fur. These marine creatures, which are threatened in the North Pacific, can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. As we pass, mothers bark to their pups.
Back on land, our stomachs sound like sea lions so we drive to Laughing Oyster, a favorite local eatery in Powell River. We’ll camp tonight at Garnet Rock Oceanside Resort, a full-service RV park 45 minutes south of Lund, with commanding water views. But for now, we’re enjoying sautéed halibut and shrimp with light-as-air Hollandaise as the sun sets over the water, toasting the Sunshine Coast, our secret place.
For More Information
888-223-3779 | www.bcferries.com
Bellingham RV Park
888-372-1224 | www.bellinghamrvpark.com
Fisherman’s Resort and Marina
Halfmoon Sea Kayaks
877-885-2948 | www.halfmoonseakayaks.com
Sunshine Coast Canada
Terracentric Coastal Adventures
888-552-5558 | www.terracentricadventures.com
Willingdon Beach Campsite
604-485-2242 | www.willingdonbeach.ca