All Hail, Prince Rupert

Visitors seeking First Nations culture plus a dollop of English empire head to Canada's Northwest coast.
Text by Steven R. Lorton

Springtime days are long and rich with discovery in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. The cool, silvery mornings are well under way by 5 a.m. The sun glows through a light fog. Mist hangs in the dark-green conifers that cloak the mountains, and basalt peaks jab the sky. Walk out on your hotel balcony and you know you're experiencing the Inside Passage at its primeval best.

Until three years ago, this little gem of a city―infused with First Nation and British Imperial legacy―went largely unnoticed. Now there is a cruise-ship dock, flights and train service are more frequent, and there's still time to see Prince Rupert before everyone else does.

By 8 a.m. down at the main dock, Mike Taylor, like many other adventure tour guides in town, readies his boat for whale-watching or a sail to Khutzeymateen Grizzly Bear Sanctuary. "Take binoculars and a telephoto," he says. "We don't get too close. It's all about respect." Later that day he'll lead travelers out to Pike Island to see an ancient Tsimshian village site, then take them on a hike to nearby petroglyphs.

Midmorning, Ian Morven is headed to the Carving Shed, which is part of the Museum of Northern British Columbia. Ian credits his handsome silver work and cedar carving to his Nisga'a roots, stretching back more than 10,000 years. "I pretty much live the culture," he says. "We pick berries in summer, fish, and hunt. We respect the land, our culture, and our elders."

There's that word "respect" again. You hear it often in conversations around Prince Rupert. Cities, like people, have characters, and the psychological bedrock of this community is a healthy, albeit quiet, self-respect. You sense it best at Moose Tot Park, a humble city playground where, in the shadow of towering totems, children, the descendants of this melting pot, play with rambunctious glee. Mops of hair―black, blonde, brown, and red―flop in every direction.

Over in Cow Bay, it's buzzing well before noon. This dockside street of impeccably restored buildings dates back to 1918, when a herd of dairy cattle was shipped up to produce a local milk supply. With no dock for unloading, the cows were pushed off the boat to swim ashore. They landed on what is today Cow Bay.

Charming history aside, Prince Rupert is a sophisticated town. Gathered around the tables at Cowpuccino's, locals hash over global warming, Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and the latest furniture by designer Paul Cope. His pieces are carried locally in a shop called Homework, where owners David Smook and Lucy Pribas offer a cutting-edge assortment of high-quality goods. Prince Rupert has taste.

And with good taste comes good food. Seafood is abundant and ocean-fresh. Cow Bay Café, Rain Dining Lounge, and the Waterfront Restaurant at the Crest Hotel all top the list for fine dining.

Speaking of dinner, by 4 p.m. as many as 50 hungry bald eagles perch on the dock waiting for a fish or crab to drop as Porcher Seafoods unloads its catch. When a behemoth cruise ship makes its way slowly up the harbor, eagles fly into the air, and passengers rush to the starboard bow in a stampede so great the ship seems to list.

Down at the dock it looks as though everyone in town is wearing a costume, ready to give visitors the Royal Prince Rupert treatment. Commercial? Of course. But it feels more like a town picnic.

The excitement winds down at about 8 in the evening, when residents gather at the Crest Hotel. While they're drinking good Canadian beer and swapping stories about their day, the mayor shows up. Herb Pond is articulate, movie-star handsome, gung-ho for Prince Rupert, and approachable. Someone asks him about the new container-terminal going in, and about timber due to be logged off the surrounding hills. Is this a problem? "We've looked at it all very carefully and we've made good choices," he says. "No one wants Prince Rupert to change. It will all be done with respect. Respect for the land and the people."

Done with respect. There's that word again.