Need to get out of town? Get a dose of northern exposure and leave your bustling life behind at the wonderful Sunshine Coast.
British Columbia's Sunshine Coast has long been a refuge for people seeking to escape urban pressures. There are so many water vistas it could be one of Canada's Gulf Islands. It's actually part of the mainland, but because it's cut off by thrusting mountains, the easiest way to reach it is on the 40-minute car ferries that regularly depart from Horseshoe Bay, on Vancouver's north shore.
In the famously gray Northwest, "Sunshine Coast" seems a classic case of wishful branding by some ad agency. But the name was coined nearly a century ago by early settlers, who observed that this stretch of coast sees more sun than other areas of British Columbia. Of course, rain sustains the evergreen beauty of the temperate rain forest that borders the mountains.
The Sunshine Coast is more than 100 miles long, threaded together by Highway 101. I'm sticking to the lower coast, from the town of Gibsons to Egmont, which are about 50 miles apart.
Gibsons features a bustling marina, a long waterfront walk, and touristy-but-quirky restaurants and galleries such as Molly's Reach (604/886-9710). A short walk away at Gibsons Public Art Gallery (604/886-0531) near the marina, I admire the many ways painters--local and not--have captured the coast on canvas.
Inspired to hit the beach, it's seven miles to the village of Roberts Creek where I laze on the soft sand and watch passing boats on the Strait of Georgia. Later, over coffee, fried eggs, and crisp hash browns at Gumboot Restaurant and Garden Cafe (604/885-4218), I find the coast's easygoing vibe summed up in the mottos printed on the cafe's postcards; among them: "No rain, no rainbows."
Back on Highway 101, I drive toward the town of Sechelt, which straddles a narrow isthmus between the Georgia Strait and the 20-mile-long Sechelt Inlet. All along the Sunshine Coast, purple banners mark studios and galleries that display the work of artists who've found inspiration here. I find their wares on the side of the road at Sechelt's lively Saturday market, along with local produce, fresh halibut, and an accordionist who doesn't mind harmonizing with the wind chimes for sale.
I arrive at the bed-and-breakfast aptly named A Place by the Sea (866/885-2746), where the rooms overlook Porpoise Bay and have balconies perfect for a relaxed breakfast of freshly baked scones and a sunny eggs Benedict.
For dinner, I try the casual Lighthouse Pub (604/885-9494). I take a seat on the expansive waterfront deck, which is lively with laughter and cheers. I savor a juicy patty on a warm Kaiser bun, sip on Okanagan Spring Pale Ale, and watch floatplanes skim idyllic Porpoise Bay.
The next morning, it's a nine-mile drive to Halfmoon Bay, home of the Rockwater Secret Cove Resort (877/296-4593). Luxurious, private “tenthouse suites” are equipped with inviting beds, propane fireplaces, hydrotherapy tubs, and ample windows. A boardwalk links each suite to the main building and a first-rate dining room overlooking the Malaspina Strait. A day here goes something like this: Check in, book an outdoor massage in "the spa without walls," dine on fresh crab ravioli, and then hit the fine linen sheets.
After sleeping under the stars, I continue 11 miles up the road, where I'm immediately lured into a trio of communities at Pender Harbour. On the deep-water marina, the contemporary Northwest-style Painted Boat Resort (604/883-2456) coddles its guests with two-bedroom villas and suites with kitchens and patios or balconies, as well as a spa with an outdoor glacier-rain shower and warm saltwater flotation pool.
Anxious to get on the water, I find Sunshine Coast Tours in Egmont (800/870-9055) which launches about 30 minutes from the resort. On my first outing, a 12-passenger boat cruises up miles of glacier-cut fjords, framed by mountains with snow-dusted peaks.
Once back on land, it's time to head south to the ferry. I stop again in Gibsons for a dockside feast of fresh shellfish and Thai-style halibut at Smitty's Oyster House (604/886-4665). This final feast distills the essentials of a Sunshine Coast experience: succulent seafood, a harbor view, big trees, and the enduring--and laid-back--frontier spirit.