Sunshine Coast Getaway

Joe Wiebe | June 2012

The Sunshine Coast is an enigma. Although it’s part of the BC mainland, deep fjords that extend into the Coastal Mountains make it accessible only by boat or plane. That sense of separation from the rest of the province gives it the feel of an island—indeed, the first time I drove off the ferry from Horseshoe Bay at Langdale earlier this spring, I immediately thought I’d arrived on a secret, unknown Gulf Island. The rocky, forested landscape—broken up here and there by farms, artisanal studios and small communities—reminded me of Pender, Denman or Salt Spring.

The Lower Sunshine Coast, however, is more densely populated than any of those isles and there is even a significant contingent of residents who commute regularly to Vancouver from communities such as Gibsons, Sechelt or Roberts Creek. Just minutes from the ferry, Gibsons was made famous by the long-running CBC television show The Beachcombers, which was filmed there from 1972 to 1990. Today, Molly’s Reach—the café featured prominently in the show—anchors a charming, touristy area known as Lower Gibsons that hugs the seaside above a picturesque marina with views of Keats Island and Bowen Island beyond.

Fifteen minutes north of Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast Highway is Roberts Creek—or ‘Gumboot Nation’, as this ex-hippie haven is nicknamed as a reflection of its down-in-the-muck spirit. This small unincorporated village has a colourful history as a place where many draft dodgers settled during the Vietnam War and it’s definitely worth a stop, with an excellent beach and a wide range of artistic studios.

The next stop heading up the coast is Sechelt, the largest community on the Lower Coast. The name, which means ‘land between two waters’, comes from the Coast Salish Shishalh people, and—true to its name—Sechelt is situated on a sandy isthmus with the Georgia Strait below and the Sechelt Inlet above. With lots of outdoor activities from boating and kayaking to hiking and biking to choose from in the area, this is a great place to rent a cabin or to stay at a B&B or motel for a night or two.

Beyond Sechelt, I noticed the roadside attractions and laneways were replaced by trees, trees and more trees. It’s doubtful many Vancouver commuters live above Sechelt, since they’d be looking at a three-hour commute each way. But there are still a few intriguing stops along the way to the next ferry at the top of the Sechelt Peninsula—I enjoyed a well-prepared lunch made with fresh ingredients at Cindy’s Copper Sky Gallery & Café in Madeira Park, a tiny village half an hour past Sechelt.

From there, it was about 20 minutes to the ferry at Earl’s Cove, which connects to the Upper Coast. Nearby is the famous Skookumchuk Narrows, where tides cause enormously powerful rapids, whirlpools and standing waves and more than 750 billion litres of seawater drain in and out of Sechelt Inlet twice daily (check tide schedules at the local visitor’s centre to make sure you know when to make the easy four kilometre hike from the parking lot to the rapids).

After a 50-minute ride on the ferry to Saltery Bay, the Upper Coast beckoned. Going back to my Gulf Island comparison, this part of the Sunshine Coast reminded me of Hornby Island, itself a ferry ride beyond Denman Island. Hornby is one of my favourite places in BC, and after this trip so too is the Upper Coast—especially Powell River. Part of it was the sense of separation from regular day-to-day life; it’s too far to go for just a day trip, which forces you to slow down and relax. Though it’s only about half an hour northwest of the ferry, when I was in Powell River I felt like I was a light year away from Vancouver.

Powell River has a very interesting history, centred on its paper mill—which was the world’s largest for a time. At the height of its industrial output, one in every 25 of the world’s newspapers was printed on paper produced there.

The Powell River Paper Company dammed the short river between Powell Lake and the Georgia Strait to produce hydroelectric power in 1908, then built the mill and started producing paper in 1912. It also designed and built housing and community resources for its employees following a utopian planning philosophy called the Garden City Movement, which respected the humanity of industrial workers and their families first and foremost. The result was the original Townsite of Powell River, which was recognized as a National Historic Site in 1995.

Today, Powell River has spread far beyond that original footprint, but the Townsite neighbourhood—which includes dozens of heritage homes built in the Arts and Craft architectural style and laid out in a pre-planned grid above and around the mill—has become a popular destination for urban ex-pats fleeing the bustle and outrageous real estate prices of Vancouver. In fact, when I saw one of these well-maintained houses on sale for less than $200,000 I nearly put in an offer myself!

The mill overshadows everything in Townsite, as does the pungent odour it generates—but there’s also the smell of fresh beer brewing at the brand-new Townsite Brewing, oil paints and pottery glazes from its many artisanal workshops and, dare I say, the occasional whiff of pot smoke—after all, the Sunshine Coast is also one of the top marijuana-producing areas in the world.

“Pow Town” is definitely family-friendly­—my toddler loved combing through the sand and rocks at Willingdon Beach, and Powell Lake has floating cabins that can be rented for a perfect family summer holiday. For more adventurous types, there is a five- to seven-day canoe route that follows a circle of lakes surrounding the town. Kayaking and diving are excellent in the area, and many sailboats stop at Powell River’s brand-new marina before heading up to Desolation Sound to the north.

Another active outdoor option is the Sunshine Coast Trail, which stretches the length of the Upper Coast. Divided into five sections, the 180 kilometre trail includes walk-in campsites, picnic tables, outhouses, benches, shelters and even swimming wharfs all along the way. If camping isn’t your style you can hike for the day and then stay at B&Bs each night. Started in 1992 and completed in 2001, the trail was a labour of love for several local residents who wanted to preserve some of the little remaining old growth forest in the area.

But if fine dining, cultural activities and sunset viewing are more your style, Powell River has great options for you, too. Several festivals are held each summer—including two music fests and one celebrating blackberries—and the downtown area is home to several diverse restaurants. And with a west-facing view of the steep mountains of northern Vancouver Island, the sunsets are always spectacular. Just remember to pick up a growler of Zunga Golden Blonde Ale at Townsite Brewery first. By the way, ‘zunga’ is Powell River-ese for a rope swing over water—see, you’re already sounding like a local!