BC’s Sunshine Coast is a bit of a puzzle: for some reason, despite being an easy ferry ride away from Vancouver, it’s remained somewhat under the radar as a vacation destination. And when you get there, you can’t quite figure out why everyone else isn’t. The scenery is breathtaking; it’s all the wildness of the West Coast, but totally accessible. It’s laid back and artsy, but also home to top-tier luxury resorts, spas and fine dining. It’s the jumping off point for some of the most stunning areas you can access in a boat on the south coast, and fantastic hiking, mountain biking and other outdoor adventures. The point I’m getting at as, there really is something special about the strip of BC’s southern coastline that runs the 70km (44 miles) from Gibsons in the south to Lund in the north. And I finally got to experience the entire length of it on a recent 3-day, whirlwind road trip.
Getting there from Vancouver
An interesting feature of the Sunshine Coast is that although it’s part of BC’s mainland, you can’t drive there directly there from Vancouver. You can, however, drive your car onto a ferry and enjoy the scenic 40-minute float from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale/Gibsons. You can also take a float plane from downtown Vancouver into Sechelt (just north of Gibsons) and rent a vehicle there, which is what we did. Once you’ve arrived, you’re on “Sunshine Coast time” – so grab a latte from the nearest bakery (I swear, they must have the most bakeries per capita in BC), take off your watch and take a deep, relaxing breath of that ocean air.
In order to get the full south-to-north Sunshine Coast Highway experience, after flying into Sechelt and grabbing a rental car, we drove south to Gibsons and offically began our road trip there. The southern-most town and the beginning of the Sunshine Coast Highway, Gibsons is perhaps best-known for being home to Molly’s Reach (the setting of the popular 1970s-90s sitcom Beachcombers). But although that’s how Gibsons may have earned its reputation, there’s more to the seaside village than Beachcombers. Like the Sunshine Coast Olive Oil Company, for example.
Opened just this summer, the Sunshine Coast Olive Oil company is a foodie’s dream – it’s one of only five stores in North America (and the only one in Canada) certified as an Ultra Premium olive oil retailer. The walls are lined with an almost overwhelming number of different artisan olive oils and balsamic vinegars. Luckily, we had owner Fiona Pinnell to guide us through a tasting. I left with several bottles (including my favourite, a mushroom truffle olive oil).
If artisan oils and vinegars aren’t your thing, Gibson’s quaint downtown is full of plenty of other shops, bakeries and coffee shops. And of course, there’s always the option to grab a Beachcombers-style beer at Molly’s Reach!
Tucked away in the forest between the highway and the sea, just north of Gibsons, is the cute little community of Roberts Creek, BC. It’s a perfect example of that unique Sunshine Coast vibe – artisan shops, a woodworking studio and community garden are just a few of the things you’ll find in its centre. Suggestion: grab a coffee from Gumboot Garden Cafe and head down for a stroll on the beach. After doing just that ourselves, we hopped back in the car and continued on our northward journey.
Next stop on the journey north: Sechelt. The biggest community on BC’s Sunshine Coast, here you’ll find plenty of shops and amenities, and many different accommodations. Our time in Sechelt happened to coincide with a bit of a coastal rainstorm, so we decided not to take a stroll along the lovely waterfront paths. Instead, we grabbed a coffee and snack for the road at the charming The Bakery (I wasn’t kidding about the Sunshine Coast’s obsession with baked goods!) Although we weren’t staying in Sechelt, we were able to check out a couple of the accommodations on offer in the area, including the Driftwood Inn (a great family accommodation right on the waterfront downtown) and Rockwater Secret Cove Resort, a luxury getaway and very popular wedding venue located in Secret Cove just a few kilometres north of Sechelt.
Madeira Park/Pender Harbour
The sun came out as we pulled into the community of Pender Harbour / Madeira Park. Perfect timing, as we happened to arrive in the midst of the 18th annual Pender Harbour Jazz Festival, and the tiny community was abuzz with locals and tourists. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs, and checked out the harbour, where countless purple starfish lined the seafloor and pilings of the docks.
We also got the opportunity to explore Painted Boat Resort Spa & Marina, a gorgeous development on the waterfront in Pender Harbour, and another popular spot for weddings (you can see why!):
As we made our way further north on the Sunshine Coast Highway, the trees became thicker and the cell phone reception more spotty. But as we left the highway and drove down the windy road towards Egmont and the West Coast Wilderness Lodge, I realized we wouldn’t need to worry about entertaining ourselves on our phones, because we’d be too busy looking at this:
The view from the main building at West Coast wilderness Lodge quite literally took my breath away. And as we were visiting in the “shoulder season” between the summer rush and when the lodge closes for the winter, we had the place nearly to ourselves. WCWL is a destination in and of itself, and I could have spent much more than one morning waking up to that view (with maybe a zodiac cruise up Princess Louisa Inlet or a day at the eco-spa added to the itinerary?)
If we hadn’t been heading Powell River first thing the next morning, we would have definitely checked out the nearby Skookumchuk Narrows. The Narrows (as explained by Sunshine Coast Tourism) are famous because “twice daily, nature puts on a show as the tide changes and the flow of saltwater switches, reversing the direction and power of these incredibly turbulent rapids. The difference in water levels between one side of the rapids and the other sometimes exceeds 9 ft in height, with 200 billion gallons of water flowing through the Skookumchuck Narrows connecting Sechelt and Jervis Inlets. The Sechelt Rapids are famous for their spectacular whirlpools and, for extreme kayakers and divers, “Skook” is one of the great whitewater wonders of the world, attracting thrill-seekers from across the globe.” But alas, our time was limited – it’s definitely on the list for my next trip up the Sunshine Coast.
Bright and early, we waved goodbye to West Coast Wilderness Lodge and headed out for the short drive north to Earls Cove and the ferry to Powell River. Again, although Powell River is still on the mainland, it’s not accessible by road. You can fly in, or take the ferry from Courtenay on Vancouver Island or Earls Cove on the mainland, which is where we were. Lucky for us, the sun came out just in time for our sailing, and we were able to enjoy most of the hour-long float on the deck as we glided north between tree-covered islands and mainland.
Upon arrival, we met up with Paul from Tourism Powell River, who was to show us the sights. Sights which, much to my delight, included Townsite Brewing (housed in the town’s historic post office building), where we were treated to a tour and tasting. I’d tried their beer before in Vancouver, but, as any beer, it was best fresh from the brewery. (you can find their brews all the way along the Sunshine Coast, plus in some private liquor stores in Vancouver).
The City of Powell River is actually an amalgamation of several communities: the historic Townsite (the original city built to house employees of what was once the world’s largest pulp and paper mill), as well as the Westview and Cranberry and Wildwood areas. The townsite neighbourhood is bursting with local history, and Paul took us on a short walking tour of some of the restored homes and businesses. One of these is the Patricia Theatre, which has been open since 1913 and is the longest running movie theatre in Canada.
After exploring the townsite, we headed back to the main drag along the waterfront for some lunch, where we discovered the amazingness that is Costa del Sol and their fish tacos. Eating tacos with a pint of Townsite beer, fresh from the nearby brewery, I realized that there’s something surprisingly cool about Powell River – I could see myself spending much more than a day here. And we were only able to scratch the surface – Powell River’s known for its top-notch mountain biking and hiking (one of its main attractions is the stunning Sunshine Coast trail, an 180km adventure that runs the length of the Sunshine Coast and has the designation of being Canada’s longest hut-to-hut trail). It’s also known for being the access point to two gorgeous nearby islands: Texada, the largest of the North Gulf Islands, and the much smaller Savary, known for its white sand beaches and having the warmest ocean water north of Mexico.
After our day exploring Powell River, we headed north once more, to the northern-most point on the Sunshine Coast and the gateway to the stunning and rugged Desolation Sound: Lund.
In the summertime, its a bustling hub for boaters to load up on supplies before heading north towards the “spectacular fjords, mountains, and wildlife” of the sound. In the fall, it’s pretty quiet – but we enjoyed a beautiful stroll around the harbour, and were treated to a double rainbow upon our return to the Historic Lund Hotel, where we’d be spending the night. We watched the sun start to lower in the sky over a drink in the beautiful old hotel, before heading off to a fantastic meal at the nearby Laughing Oyster Restaurant. This meal was probably our most enjoyable of the trip – the view from the heated balcony was stunning, and owner/executive chef David Bowes serenaded the crowd, made up of everyone from Brits to Aussies to locals, with Beatles songs as we ate. It was a perfect end to our last night on the Sunshine Coast, and a perfect example of what’s so fantastic about the area – incredibly friendly locals, laid back vibes, fantastic food and views that are pretty hard to beat.
Our final morning started with pastries: all the way up the coast, we’d been told about Nancy’s Bakery, and specifically, Nancy’s cinnamon buns. Apparently Nancy’s is the go-to spot to stock up on edible supplies for nautical adventures further up the coast.
After our deliciously sweet breakfast, it was time to re-trace our steps back down the coast and make our way back to Vancouver. Our three day whirlwind trip was just enough to pique my interest and leave me wanting more – I will definitely be back for more Sunshine Coast adventures!