It’s a cool, dark evening as I paddle my kayak through the calm waters of Sechelt Inlet on the Sunshine Coast. The wind whistles gently but otherwise there is no other sound to connect me to my surroundings. Then within minutes, I hear the grunts and snuffling of seals as they come up for air, and then dive down again, creating a loud splash as they cross the surface of the water.
“Run your hand through the water,” says my guide, Greg Rushton, who — with partner Meriel Cammell of Metta Eco-Experiences — is leading a small group through the “Into the Night Kayak Journey.” I lean over the side of the vessel, moving my fingers through the water and as I do, it’s like I’m waving a magic wand: gold sparkles glitter into the darkness. I have just had my first experience with bioluminescence, in which living organisms produce and emit a light through chemical reactions in their bodies. The same light that flashes from my fingertips also appears in a long glaring strip under the kayak next to me. It looks like it glows inside the water.
“We often see the backdrop of nature but don’t always go into nature,” says Rushton. This tour allows us to “open up our love and connection with the natural world.” I am definitely feeling “inside nature.”
All the activity is happening minutes away from lush rainforest and the small waterfront village of Egmont. Some call the Sunshine Coast a hidden gem. Others say it’s a gem that’s no longer hidden. But either way, the Sunshine Coast is a stunning 180-kilometre (112-mile) area on the southern edge of British Columbia’s mainland, accessible only by air or water (or an unpaved logging road) because of its rugged coast. Still, the region is close enough to Vancouver that it’s easy and worthwhile to explore.
As its name implies, the strip of coastline gets more sunny days than Vancouver and other areas nearby and has a mild climate all-year round. A 40-minute ferry ride from West Vancouver will get you to the southern section of the Coast, which you can then tour by car via its two-lane highway. Then if you want to go to the north section to visit the beautiful Texada and Savary Islands, explore Desolation Sound and do back-country hiking on the Sunshine Coast Trail, you will need one more 50-minute ferry ride.
As our five-day stay began, my husband and I stick to the southern portion of the Coast, and experience it leisurely — with land-based activities (hiking, dining out, and a visit to a spa); and water activities (kayaking and boat tours to see seals and whales). We also discover some great little seaside villages along our route, and many art studios and galleries, which are demarcated with a purple banner flown outside as part of the year-round Purple Banner Tour. Clearly residents have a love of their home, and express it creatively through their art.
Eco-tourism Stars on the Sunshine Coast
Amidst old-growth forests, and vistas with mountains and ocean views, hiking opportunities abound on the Coast. Here are some highlights:
Frances Point Provincial Park in the Pender Harbour region has a trail winding along its rocky coast with beautiful views of the Georgia Strait and Vancouver Island. Mount Daniel and Pender Hill Park are two other great places to hike nearby, with steeper climbs, but beautiful views at the top.
One of the most well-known hikes is a trail in Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park, where visitors can see the Sechelt Rapids and giant whirlpools: These are formed by twice-daily surges when the tide and flow of saltwater changes, with water levels sometimes reaching as high as nine feet. Although the views of the rapids and whirlpools are the end goal, the leisurely four-kilometre (2.5-mile) hike to get to the lookout point is worth the trek in itself. The trail traverses through lush rainforest, past a lake, and meanders next to low-hanging moss, giant Douglas fir, red cedars and hemlock. (If you are planning to go, check for the best tide times to see the rapids and whirlpools at their most dramatic, and be sure to stop in for a cinnamon bun at the Skookumchuck Bakery & Café just five minutes into your walk.)
Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park near Secret Cove is picturesque with an easy 4.3-kilometre (2.7-mile) out-and-back hike where you walk along marshy boardwalks and through rugged train with beautiful views of the water.
Wildlife Excitement in Pender Harbour
On a 90-minute pontoon tour of Pender Harbour, Mark Brezer of SloCat Harbour Tours points out eagles and blue heron flying overhead and harbour seals lounging like “rock sausages” against the flat rock. I see many of my favourite trees, the orangey-red arbutus, which are able to stand up against strong winds and shed their bark like a serpent discards its skin. Using binoculars supplied by the boat, I make out a humpback whale and admire the mountains in the distance while Brezer tells stories of the area.
Pender Harbour is a small community with only about 3,000 residents, mostly retirees, he explains, and not even a police station. “It’s quiet and friendly and everyone knows each other,” he says. “When you move to Pender, you have to set your watch back 50 years.”
On another experience, a guide from the West Coast Wilderness Lodge takes us on a high-speed pontoon boat to see Hotham Sound and the area around the Jervis Inlet, the deepest fjord on B.C.’s coast. We see the majestic Harmony Falls, which drop more than 1,400 feet, and we marvel at massive cliff faces, with trees miraculously growing out of the sheer granite bedrock. The guide describes petroglyphs or ancient rock paintings from the Coast Salish First Nations showing Indigenous boys climbing and then jumping off rocks (hopefully successfully), as a rite of passage into manhood.
Stay and Dine on the Sunshine Coast
The Painted Boat Resort Spa & Marina in Madeira Park has 31 upscale waterfront villas with everything you need to dine in and feel comfortable and pampered, from fully-equipped kitchen to outdoor barbecue and sitting area to open-concept living room with fireplace. While you are there, reserve a couple of hours to get a treatment and relax in their Spa Serenity Garden. For a mere $42 (or free if you have a treatment), you can enjoy this little secret garden oasis with heated pool, sauna, outdoor cold rain shower, and hot pool with waterfall and firepit. You can also dine out at their high-end Lagoon Restaurant.
The West Coast Wilderness Lodge is one of the premier spots to stay on the southern section of the Sunshine Coast with 26 guest rooms, with plans to build many more. Set high on a hill, you can choose between panoramic ocean views or serenity of the surrounding forest. The lodge offers package tours that include outdoor adventures, meals and accommodations: particularly popular is their Princess Louisa package, where your cruise takes you to the Princess Louisa Inlet, a fjord renowned for its beauty. The lodge’s Inlets Restaurant boasts an excellent wine list, stunning views, and locally sourced cuisine with a delicious and affordable breakfast.
Another worthy and less expensive option is a stay at the Backeddy Resort & Marina literally right next door. At the resort, choose between glamping in a geodesic dome, or staying in a vintage A-frame or more modern waterfront cabin. We stayed in a waterfront cabin, which although small (just 240 square feet), had floor-to-ceiling windows with similar views of West Coast Wilderness Lodge, but not from as high up, and a wood-burning stove in the corner. For meals, go to the Backeddy Pub for a burger or tacos, and a waterfront view.
Cool Small Towns in B.C.
Roberts Creek was our unexpected find: A funky arts community and a wellness vibe. Wander its shops to buy local pottery or jewellery. Pause for a psychic reading. And make time for a meal at the Gumboot Restaurant — or a coffee at the Gumboot Café. Then walk down to the water, where you will find a colourful mandala painted onto the pavement, which residents and visitors repaint each year. The pebble beach at Roberts Creek is also pretty, and a perfect spot for a picnic.
Gibsons Landing, just south of Roberts Creek and 10 minutes from the ferry docks in Langdale, is most famous for being the setting of CBC’s long-running The Beachcombers, which our family watched religiously on Sunday nights when I was a child. If you share my zest for Beachcombers memorabilia, have lunch at Molly’s Reach Restaurant and check out the relics at the Sunshine Coast Museum and Archives. The town also boasts some great restaurants: try Smitty’s Oyster House and Chasters Restaurant for oceanside views.
MORE ABOUT VISITING THE SUNSHINE COAST
BC Ferries: Check the website for sailings and fares for your desired date of travel. Although ferries run frequently from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Langdale on the Sunshine Coast, be sure to make reservations ahead to avoid waiting potentially hours in a queue.
Seasonal Notes: Check the vendor websites before making plans, as some accommodations and restaurants are shut in the cooler weather between October and May.