Oh, Canada!

The view from the top of Lone Cone trail on Meares Island.
The view from the top of Lone Cone trail on Meares Island. / A. Bolton
  • Bear watching, kayaking and goats on a roof - those were just some of the highlights of a 10-day road trip through British Columbia

It was the chance to visit an old college friend that gave me an excuse to explore this eye-wateringly beautiful part of the world. A first-time visitor to Canada, I wanted to get the most out of the holiday - and what better way to do that than a road trip.

But before we hit the road, I spent a couple of days in Vancouver wandering around the city on foot and on bicycle. Vancouver struck me as a clean, modern and bustling city with an abundance of skyscrapers for a city that size - all set against a snow-capped mountain range.

But despite its grandiose appearance, the downtown area is relatively small and can easily be crossed on foot in less than an hour. I recommend a trip to the top of the Vancouver Lookout Tower (only 12 bucks) where you are treated to unrivalled views of the skyline and, if money permits, there's a rather expensive restaurant on the top floor too.

Other highlights included a stroll around China Town and Gastown, the latter being the oldest part of the city, out of which Vancouver grew in the 1870s. Here you will find the infamous steam clock, which as the name suggests, is a clock that runs on steam and subsequently draws a big crowd on the street.

Those who like to bury their noses in a book should visit Macleod's Books, an old-world second-hand book store where they are piled almost to the ceiling in a chaotic, but charming manner.

However, the highlight was hiring a bicycle and cycling around the old sea wall, which at 28 kilometres in length, claims to be the world's longest uninterrupted waterfront path (it certainly felt like it).

Along the path there were totem poles, cannons, lighthouses and more photo opportunities than you a shake a selfie stick at.

Back in Blighty

Day three saw us catch a two-hour ferry from Tsawwassen to Vancouver Island, where we then headed to the capital of British Columbia, Victoria. This charming and magnificent seaside town has a very British feel to it. This could be due to the architecture, including the hugely impressive British Columbia Parliament Building or the Fairmont Express Hotel and its traditional afternoon tea, or perhaps something to do with the boat-lined Inner Harbour where scores of people queue up for fresh fish and chips. That and there are quite a few Union Jacks flying around.

For the princely sum of 40 bucks, Ocean Island Inn Backpackers Suites in Victoria provided one of the best-value hostel experiences I've ever had. We stayed in a double room, with breakfast and dinner included, and a free welcoming cocktail - all in a very central location.

From this night I made two important observations about locals: Canadians can't understand the word "water" when pronounced in a British accent; and it is compulsory for all Canadian males under the age of 40 to wear a baseball cap.

Something else I noticed, not just in Victoria, but all along the road trip, is the sheer volume of independent breweries everywhere. The local beer was very popular among the locals in each place we stopped, and something I was quite happy to experience too.

Goats on a roof

Day four, which had an ominous start thanks to a parking ticket and a dent in the hire car, saw us drive to the aptly titled Goats on a Roof market. Why is it called that? Because there are goats eating grass on the roof of the market, of course.

It's worth a stop for that novelty alone, although truth be told we did buy some delicious cheese and pepperoni sticks there.

We then passed Cathedral Grove, which is an endangered remnant of an ancient Douglas fir forest. The biggest trees here are about 800 years old and measure 75m (250ft) in height and 9m (29ft) in circumference. According to history experts, and Google, these trees are the survivors of a forest fire that ravaged the area about 350 years ago - and are well worth a visit for a lovely walk and some memorable photos.

The seaside town of Tofino boasts an abundance of breathtaking mountain vistas, forests as far as the eye can see and plenty of hiking and water-based activities - all set against the backdrop of a lively town with a hippy vibe. Here we spent four nights camping in Green Point Camp Ground on Long Beach, which was about 20 kilometres from Tofino.

The fearsome threesome

For those of us who camp in Spain, let me tell you that it is quite a shock to hear that the campsite is roamed at night by none other than the fearsome threesome: bears, wolves and cougars. So yes, any food that you cook is not to be left in your tent and instead locked in bear-proof cages dotted around the campsite. And woe betide anyone who accidentally drops food on the floor outside their tent.

One of the park rangers cheerfully recalled how a family had awoken at 3am one morning to find a wolf in the outer section of their tent. They were of course hysterical. Let's just say when you made it to the sanctuary of the toilet block (with animal proof doors) in the middle of the night to do your business, you felt relieved that you hadn't been mauled along the way. However, if you follow the simple rules the chances of meeting one of these ferocious beasts is actually quite remote.

Dodging these beasts aside, however, the town had a variety of activities on offer. One to be recommended is climbing the Lone Cone trail on Meares Island (40 bucks). At a height of 730 metres, this is easily the most difficult, but most rewarding hike I've ever had the displeasure of completing. After reluctantly signing a waiver that it would be my fault if I was mauled by a bear while attempting this feat, we set off up the trail, a near vertical slog.

Armed with a hangover, unsuitable clothing and an inadequate supply of water, it probably wasn't the smartest choice of activity that morning. But three hours later and we were at the top drinking a shot of celebratory whisky and soaking up some stunning views.

The way down had an exciting twist. Being on constant high bear alert, a lone hiker decided to creep up behind us and announce his arrival with a loud crash, causing us to shriek in a manner I'm sure he felt was quite amusing.

In search of bears

Another day saw us hire kayaks and in a group of six we duly paddled out to a number of remote islands in search of bears. Having never seen a real-life bear, I'm chuffed to say we saw a grand total of three that afternoon, and managed to get as close as 10 metres to the bears while quietly bobbing up and down from the safety of our kayak.

Seeing a bear up close.

Seeing a bear up close. / A. B.

This was the undoubted highlight of the trip for me, and we had a fantastic and knowledgeable guide called "Hunter" (yes, that's his real name).

It was only on the boat trip back to the main land with the kayaks that we were then shown a photo of one of the guides being followed by an orca in the same stretch of water, where we had just spent two-and-a-half hours floating.

As for Tofino, anybody who has been to Tarifa in Spain would recognise a similar laid-back vibe in the town. Peppered with a number of eateries and bars, it also boasted a Canadian Royal Legion Club that was packed to the rafters most nights with live music.

Those who like to do trail walks are also spoilt for choice, as there were a number of coastal and beach routes, where virgin forest met virgin beaches and a rugged, unspoilt coastline.

So, impressions of this beautiful part of British Columbia? Absolutely stunning and well worth a longer visit.