As a family, we love nature, wildlife and the great outdoors, particularly when paired with good food and a tasty tipple. When looking for our next holiday destination, after much deliberation - Canada came up trumps. I last visited Canada when I was 21 years old and, in the 20 years since, both Canada and I have changed a little. While part of me wanted to head to the east coast to pastures new I was also keen to revisit the west with a little more cash in my pocket and a different perspective.
We knew that even with 3 weeks we were going to be pushed for time and so as a first Canada trip for my partner and 7-year-old daughter we decided to split the time evenly between British Colombia and the Rockies. We love our little campervan at home but have long wanted to try out a bigger, better-equipped motorhome. And where better than Canada!
The arrival of budget Airlines has made flights to Canada more affordable if booked well in advance, even in the Summer school holidays. For us the direct Gatwick to Vancouver and return Edmonton to Gatwick combination worked perfectly. If travelling with WestJet take a tablet and make sure you download their app for access to their movies and TV shows on demand. In Economy, there is limited food available for purchase only so be prepared or stock up in advance.
After a night in Vancouver, we took the 2-hour ferry trip to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island and drove on to the picturesque, laid back town of Ucluelet, or ‘Ukee’ to its residents. The Pacific Rim Highway stretches from Ucluelet to the popular town of Tofino, with 40 km of sandy surf beaches and temperate rainforest frequented by bears, wolves and cougars.
We instantly fell in love with this area. We had a great couple of days exploring the beaches and trails, selecting the shorter routes to allow for Maya’s limited enthusiasm for hiking. The Kwisitis Visitor Centre offers Interpretive programs that run daily throughout the summer, where Park Rangers will explain about the area and show you that mornings bear and wolf prints on the beach. They even had a visit from Ucluelet Aquarium so the kids could get involved handling urchins, starfish and the like.
There are several whale and bear watching outfits as well as kayaking operators in the area. We booked onto a Wildlife Cruise with Archipelago Tours. This ex Fishermen couple have been running small group tours to the Broken Islands for 15 years, on the boat that is their home. The trip is super relaxed and highly informative on both the wildlife and cultural history of the area.
On route to they took us to regular hang out spots for bears, sea lions, seals and my daughters’ favourite – sea otters, with a detour to find a whale if any have been spotted in the area. We were all blown away by the great wildlife sightings and a delicious gourmet lunch and glass of wine whilst anchored in the beautiful Broken Islands.
I have an affiliation with Vancouver as it’s where my parents met and lived for a while. When my mother dragged my father back to the UK, he waved farewell to his old Geordie clan who mainly stayed on and set up home in British Colombia (managing to maintain a better Geordie accent than me even 50 years on).
For us, it meant a place to stay in Vancouver and some friendly and familiar faces for my daughter Maya who did enjoy having a homely base. Without this luxury I would recommend an apartment-style hotel as constant sightseeing and eating out for every meal can get a little much for the little ones.
Vancouver is a beautiful coastal city surrounded by mountains and jam-packed with things to do. The food has a strong Asian influence - luckily chicken noodle soup has become a firm favourite for Maya, so we were well covered. First stop was the obligatory cycle ride around the Stanley Park sea wall. Despite a queue at Spokes’ Bike Shop, we were on our way within 10 minutes, kitted out with 2 bikes and a tagalong for Maya to join Vancouver’s locals and tourists alike making use of this iconic 8km path.
After lunch, we headed up through the North Shore to Grouse Mountain and Capilano Suspension Bridges. As we got there quite late in the afternoon, it wasn’t too crowded, and we boarded a nearly empty cable car and made the 1000m ascent to the top of Grouse Mountain. I was reminded of my own acrophobia and nearly pulled a muscle holding on so tight to the rail! Maya loved seeing the 2 rescue grizzly bears, Grinder and Coola, who live up there in a large enclosure, as well as the birds of prey show.
We decided Whistler was a little too far away for this trip but booked onto a family rafting trip from the adventure town of Squamish, just an hour North of Vancouver. On route we stopped off at a mine museum above the Howe Sound, a community built around a copper mine. We were all really impressed by the tour - it took us down into the mine by train and ended up with a fantastic interactive Boom show in the processing plant.
It was a glorious sunny afternoon, so we got kitted up in our wetsuits and headed a little way upriver before boarding our rafts for an afternoon of rapids, eagles and cold-water dips. Though relatively gentle due to the family element there was enough excitement with a crazy headwind in patches, stunning scenery and a decent amount of fast, choppy and hold-on-tight moments.
Maya’s confidence grew enough progress to the front rim of the boat, facing the open water and shouting out pirate-style orders to the rest of us. We were even welcomed by our 4th wild bear of the trip plodding along our landing beach.
The Rocky Mountaineer is a fantastic way to experience the epic journey from Vancouver through the Rockies to either Banff or Jasper. It is, however, a premium train with a premium price. The alternative is a little less luxurious but equally view rewarding journey onboard The Canadian that runs between Vancouver and Edmonton, and onto Toronto. You can book yourself a cabin for the journey, or for the more budget-minded an economy seat. This is what we went for and despite my reservations, it turned out brilliantly.
We were delighted to discover that families do get to board first and the train staff had pre-allocated our seats together. As a 3 we were given 4 seats facing each other which, once footrests were out formed a virtual bed (for Maya at least). The separate café and domed viewing car meant you could trot around to socialise or escape the clusters of kids enjoying their new-found friendships. Maya had a ball. We arrived late into Edmonton and were quickly reunited with our luggage before taking a taxi to our hotel.
We picked up our CanaDream motorhome from the Edmonton depot to begin our 10-day adventure through the Rockies. We decided to go for a 6 Berth as there was little difference in price or size between the 4 and 6 berth vehicles and this option gave us permanent beds, an onboard toilet and shower as well as fully equipped kitchen with fridge freezer, oven, hob, microwave and sink.
Travelling in peak season it is well worth pre-booking campsites in the parks which can be done via the Parcs Canada website. Some of the private campsites in the Rockies are not pre-bookable but at this time of year, you would need to arrive early or have luck on your side to get your preferred spot. Some sites do not offer electric hook up or have limited spots with electricity, but most motorhomes will have a gas supply and often a generator if required for longer periods off-grid.
Leaving Edmonton behind, we broke our journey for a night in Rocky Mountain House before continuing to Canmore. This was an out of town unmanned campsite on a lake overlooking cement works but a nice enough spot for a campfire and relax. The town of Canmore is an alpine adventure town offering skiing in the winter and biking in in the summer. Many use this area as a base for exploring the Canadian Rockies rather than the busier hub of Banff just an hour up the road.
Banff is a busy place bustling with tourists in the stacks of shops, restaurants and cafes that line the main streets which are bordered by beautiful mountains. We managed to get Maya to do a decent amount of hiking including up Tunnel Mountain fuelled by the knowledge that Queen Elizabeth also climbed to the lookout as a child with her father.
I can recommend the Bison Burger with wild boar bacon at Park Distillery Restaurant & Bar on Banff Avenue, who also offer a great selection of vegan food. Maya would recommend the cowboy shop on the main street for cowboy boots that I decided were a more practical buy than the hat she also took a shine to.
Further up the road, we came to Lake Louise. This area is more like a shopping mall village than a town and can get very busy. The lake is beautiful but is usually at it’s best in the early evening when the evening light bathes the town and the peaks are picture-perfect. If you want to visit Moraine Lake, I’d recommend buying your shuttle ticket early, as they do sell out.
We chose to rise early on our departure from Lake Louise to get to Peyto Lake pre crowds which is another stunning spot, particularly in the morning light and practically alone. Along the fantastic Icefields Parkway, we stopped at various viewpoints including a wander up to the Athabasca Glacier to visit the skywalk. A highlight for us was Horseshoe Lake where locals jump off cliffs into freezing glacier-fed waters. We did gentle steps rather than great leaps, but it made for a refreshing and beautiful break.
At the top of the road we reached Jasper. We just loved it here. It’s a great little town surrounded by stunning mountains. In honesty, we were ready for a bit of a break from lakes and hiking, so we spent most of our time pottering around the town, enjoying the setting, the atmosphere and the fantastic beer (and food) offered by the Jasper Brewing company. We also spotted Elk on the campsite border so didn’t even have to travel for the wildlife.
Our final stop on our way back to Edmonton was at Elk Island National Park. This park is lovely and full of wildlife having played an important part in the conservation of the American bison. It’s the largest fully enclosed park in Canada on the edge of the boreal forest and being so much quieter offered a contrasting experience to our other park adventures.
From here we headed back to the depot do drop off our camper and hitch a ride to the airport for our flight home after an amazing fun, scenery and wildlife-filled trip.
If you’re interested in planning a family trip to Canada, then I can help! Just give me a call on +44 1273320580 or request a quote. We are experts in planning tailor-made holidays and round the world flights, so we can work together with you until we’ve created your perfect trip.