Eco-Tourism: British Columbia Style

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The Canadian province’s tag line is “Beautiful British Columbia” (it’s even on their number plates!) and it’s not very hard to see why

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Overlooking Knight Inlet

A bit late with this one – but I only just started this blog and I really wanted to write about our experience. Our first (and only… so far!) visit to BC was in late summer of 2016, and I left a piece of my heart behind. I’ve written about how travel is one of the things I feel guilty about, but we try and be responsible and this trip was all about the environment.

Our experiences there have never been far from my mind since, and they left me with a new sense of awe at the natural world, and (bonus!) A LOT of photos and information for me to share with my Biology and Environment class.

The spectacularly wild and wonderful…

British Columbia is home to the Great Bear Rainforest and the spectacular Vancouver Island in the West, the Rockies in the East, the cities of Vancouver and Victoria in the south west and all manner of flora and fauna to marvel at in between.

The first few days we spent in Vancouver getting our bearings, before heading for the Horseshoe Bay ferry to the island, via a little jaunt up the sea to sky highway to Whistler. But for me it was all about Vancouver Island…

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One of many spectacular views along the Sea to Sky Highway

We got the Horseshoe Bay – Nanaimo ferry and decided to head straight from Nanaimo to Ucluelet on the west coast of the island. That’s when the fun started!

We started driving in early evening and could see the storm rolling in, by the time we were driving in the mountains, the most epic thunderstorm we had ever seen started roaring above us. It was great until we couldn’t see the road at all (on a windy mountain pass) and we had to pull over for quite some time.

That evening we only just made it to our accommodation, the Canadian Princess Lodge, before it closed for check-in, the lady was just about to lock up when we arrived. But we were lucky enough to have the most amazing room with loads of windows and decking overlooking the bay and we watched the remainder of the thunderstorm we just drove through (with some Stanley Park IPA).

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Pacific Wild Trail

We chose Ucluelet (over the more-touristy Tofino) actually on the recommendation of a friend who had been before, and we weren’t disappointed. We hiked the Pacific Wild Trail and marvelled at the rugged windswept coast, we visited the small but perfectly formed aquarium, a non-profit, which operates a catch and release policy, we ate at Hank’s where I (at the grand old age of thirty) tried cornbread for the first time, and most amazingly we saw Grey Whales, Sea Lions and all manner of birdlife.

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Anemones at Ucluelet Aquarium

From Ucluelet we visited Tofino and its nearby famous beaches, watched the surfers enjoy the waves and had a few chuckles at the tongue-in-cheek signage in and around the area.

Then we moved on to Port Alberni where we strayed for a night, as a stop-over before our drive to the wilder north part of the island. In Port Alberni we stayed in a unique B and B called the Swept Away Inn. Basically a converted tug boat. Our hosts Bouchra and Dan were wonderful, hospitable (I recall a lot of wine!) and extremely knowledgeable about the area. Bouchra cooked the most amazing spiced eggs and sweet potatoes for breakfast. We were also given the side eye by their local Seal who was waiting for scraps!

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Amazingly Large Tree at Cathedral Grove near Port Alberni

From Port Alberni we drove up to Hidden Cove Lodge near Telegraph Cove via a couple of stop offs including the magical Cathedral Grove, a stand of giant Douglas Fir Trees.

Hidden Cove Lodge was an absolute gem of a find, it quite literally is in a little hidden cove… a little piece of heaven. It was here we saw our first Hummingbird (I was beyond ecstatic), Stellar Jays and King Fishers. The food was amazing, and you can get picked up for whale and bear watching right off of the jetty.

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Telegraph Cove

Telegraph Cove itself is the most picture-postcard-perfect little place. We spent a little while just sitting having coffee there and watching the world (well the odd fisherman and kayakers) go by. From Telegraph Cove we took a whale watching tour with Stubb’s Island, we saw Harbour Porpoise, Seals, Sea Lions, Dolphins and no less than seven Humpback Whales! (we also saw another “humpy” just cruising on by past Hidden Cove Lodge later that evening). We had a little explore locally for a few days before heading to Campbell River.

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One of eight Humpback Whales seen in one day near Telegraph Cove

We had pre-booked to stay at Knight Inlet Lodge, in Glendale Cove which is actually on the mainland so we had to go to Campbell River to catch a seaplane. We had some time to kill in Campbell River and found ourselves at Elk Falls Provincial Park, it has a wonderful suspension bridge and spectacular waterfall, also very friendly robins.

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An American Robin we befriended at Elk Falls Provincial Park

Knight Inlet Lodge was one of the best experiences of my life, there is no doubt it is expensive, but it is worth every. single. penny. It is situated within the Great Bear Rainforest, an almost pristine piece of wilderness full of Grizzly (Brown) Bears, Black Bears and Cougars. Knight Inlet Lodge is a floating lodge situated on the inlet and specialises in taking small groups Grizzly watching…

And oh boy did we watch Grizzlies! As well as Dolphins, Bald Eagles (as common as pigeons!) and other birdlife. Knight Inlet is home to one of the largest concentrations of Grizzly Bears in BC. We stayed for two nights, and went out on eight separate short trips (they are timed on a rotation to make sure the guests get as much viewing time but also give the bears some downtime). And we saw bears on every one of them, except the hike that we did (and we were pretty glad about that to be honest!).

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Looking for Salmon – a male Grizzly at Glendale Cove

Knight Inlet just shows how much value there is in eco-tourism, in an area that (at the time) was still hunting grounds for Grizzlies. Grizzlies are no longer hunted for trophies in British Columbia and I’d like to think we helped, by signing petitions with Pacific Wild and writing to the government. I also wrote a long and impassioned Facebook post about it at the time, which was one of the pre-cursors to actually starting this blog.

Knight inlet is about responsible viewing and environmental stewardship, they helped found the Brown Bear Research Network, operate a small Salmon hatchery and financially support other initiatives. After all Salmon are the keystone species of the Great Bear Rainforest, without them this ecosystem simply would not exist, as indeed would much of the economy of the area.

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Bald Eagle – common in BC but no less majestic

From Knight Inlet we headed back to Campbell River, which is more of a traditional working town we didn’t really plan to stay, but we had a few days so opted for Painter’s Lodge, and it was a fantastic decision. From there we went Salmon fishing, saw Killer Whales (Orcas) and a Black Bear.

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Black Bear – grumpy looking so-and-so

I was beyond excited at seeing Killer Whales, I grew up watching Free Willy on repeat and it actually bought tears to my eyes. We were lucky enough to follow them for hours and see them tail-slap and breach after catching a meal.

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Male Killer Whale celebrating food. We’ve decided he is my spirit animal because this too is my reaction to food.

From Campbell River we went to Victoria and had a little time to explore the quaint city. From Victoria we caught the ferry back to the mainlaind and got in a quick visit to Steveson (where they film Once Upon a Time) and the beach at Stanley Park as we got a couple of lovely warm days.

The not-so-hot but to be honest better than a lot of places…

I’ll be honest, I didn’t particularly enjoy Vancouver, I mean it’s nice and all but cities are not my thing. Stanley Park is wonderful though. Also the airport, that’s a tourist attraction in itself. The Capliano Suspension Bridge was also fab, not so much for the bridge but the walk in the trees on the other side, not one for you if you have vertigo though.

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Totem poles in Stanley Park

Whistler… Whistler is cute, but not unlike Keswick on a bank holiday weekend. Busy, pretty mountains and sport shops a plenty. If you’re not into mountain biking or winter sports though you’re not missing much. Did have an amazing poutine there though, so there’s that.

The odd (to a European anyway)…

The strict drinking laws are a little jarring, and seem a little odd given the frequency of cannabis smoking in public that we saw (pretty sure that’s still not legal, so yeah… odd). Bars have tinted windows, and on the rare occasion there is an outside area it’s fenced in or surrounded by a wall of glass. We had to wait outside for one restaurant and they wouldn’t even serve us a soft drink.

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Enjoying Stanley Park IPA in Ucluelet

The UK doesn’t have best reputation for drinking culture, but at least it is a open culture and surely seeing alcohol been used responsibly, from an early age fosters more of a sensible relationship with it? Instead of it being something illicit and taboo (which, as someone who works with teenagers, I can assure you makes it all the more desirable).

Also portion sizes… I like food, but not that much food.

But the good really does outweigh the bad, it’s such a gorgeous place.

A little piece of my heart lives on Vancouver Island…

I have been to many places and loved most of them, but British Columbia, specifically Northern Vancouver Island, is the only one I would up and move to tomorrow…

The vastness of the wilderness, the almost pristine landscape, so wild yet so peaceful. In the UK there is barely a scrap of land untouched by the actions of man, so to see such wild on such a scale, was out of this world. As an environmentalist it had always been my dream to see this ecosystem, and to be able to see whales, and eagles, and bears, and everything in between… was just amazing.

I’ve decided we are going to win the lottery and move all of our friends and family there…

But until then I can’t wait until our next visit.

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