Welcome to wide-open wilderness, unforgettable islands, rich native cultures, and delightful cities in Western Canada.
You’ll feel like an explorer as you visit Western Canada’s numerous national parks, deep fjords, lush temperate rainforests, and scenic waterways. Johnstone Strait boasts the world’s largest pod of orcas—with over 200 in a single pod—as well as humpback, minke and grey whales, porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins, seals, and sea lions. Visit the Inside Passage to look for the rare and mysterious spirit bear or the rainforest wolf. In Gulf Islands National Park, birders might spot bald eagles, black oyster catchers and an abundance of seabirds. The British Columbian coastline thrills with big water, big currents and even exciting rapids!
Nestled amid this spectacular natural scenery are welcoming cities. Beautiful Victoria offers visitors marvelous European architecture, the Butchart Gardens, and several museums. A stop in Vancouver might include a visit to Stanley Park’s superb public market or China Town. Whistler is home to North America’s largest ski resort.
On your Western Canada cruise, you’ll have the unique opportunity to learn about aboriginal Canadians, known as First Nations. Enjoy a history lesson from tribe members who still inhabit remote islands and small settlements, especially near Alert Bay. Here you can see a stunning collection of potlatch masks made by the Kwakwaka'wakw peoples or witness a traditional dance performed by the Tsasala Cultural Group. In the Queen Charlotte Islands, you can view more than 500 archeological sites of the Haida people, who still live in the area today.
Western Canada presents unparalleled opportunities for outdoor activities. Many of the area’s treasures are best seen up close, and a range of vehicles and vessels is available. Explore quiet waterways or get up close to a whale in kayak or Zodiac. Feel the wind in your hair from the deck of a sailboat. Enjoy the rugged terrain on a bike or hike, or simply relax on deck to maximize your enjoyment of this rugged, rich land.
While you’re here, sample the seafood—it’s fresh and delicious!
Long before Europeans arrived in Western Canada, the islands and coastlines were home to thousands of aboriginal Canadians, known today as the First Nations. Petroglyphs, relics and middens—piles of discarded shells and bones—remain as evidence of the Coast Salish people who lived in the area at least 5000 years ago. Over the centuries, First Nations cultivated traditions such as the Sun Dance, Potlach and totem pole.
After European contact, outbreaks of influenza, measles and small pox resulted in a 40 to 80 percent decline in the native population, which had no immunity to such diseases. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada’s Indian Act mandated assimilation of indigenous peoples and banned traditional practices and religions. Many First Nations carried on their traditions in secret and passed their history down through oral tradition. Descendents of these early Canadians still live and thrive in their ancient homelands. Today, all bans lifted, there is a renewed interest in learning about and preserving the First Nations cultures, traditions and heritage. Alert Bay, originally home to the Namgis First Nation, is known as the epicenter of this cultural resurgence.
Europeans first arrived in the Gulf Islands around 1790, when Spain sought to occupy the area, but George Vancouver and the Hudson Bay Company claimed the land—and its prime trading potential—for Brittan in 1792. In 1872, after a nearly 13-year boarder dispute with the United States, (precipitated by the actions of a rogue British pig trespassing in an American garden) the Gulf Islands officially became part of Canada (the United States received the San Juan Islands during this transaction).
The 1850s brought a gold rush to Canada. Thousands flocked to Miners Bay on Mayne Island, forming the area’s first settlement. Australians, British and African Americans escaping slavery later settled in the Gulf Islands and cultivated orchards. For years, produce from the region was highly coveted and generated revenue for the area. Visitors today can still find remnants of these abandoned orchards. Additional industries that have waxed and waned include logging, fishing, mining, canneries and quarries.
Since the 1850s, the population of the Gulf Islands has slowly but steadily increased. Many people—retirees especially—relocate to enjoy the laid-back island lifestyle, recreational opportunities and pristine nature. Tourism—like Gulf Islands cruises—cottage industries and the arts have replaced the orchards and canneries of years past. Some islands pride themselves on having few roads, no power lines and no shopping malls.
Geologically speaking, the islands are an ancient submerged mountain range. They enjoy a moderate climate with less than 30 inches of rain per year. The waters teem with marine life, including sea lion, seals, porpoises, orca, humpback, minke and gray whales. Fresh and saltwater salmon abound. On land live river otters, mink, raccoons, and bear. Plant life includes the rare Gary oak tree and wild lilies. Large tracts of land are protected in national and provincial parks. The area’s rugged coastlines, expansive blue waters and deep forests make it easy to see why tales of pirates and sea monsters still tickle the imagination of residents and visitors alike.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER