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Family travel: British Columbia from surf to snow

Travel wishes can come true if you dream, plan and graft hard enough. And they don’t need to break the bank or take too much of your overstretched time. One of our family writers recounts her favourite trip to British Columbia, moving from surf to snow

Family travel: British Columbia from surf to snow
A serene Tofino inlet. Image: Wickaninnish Inn/Michael Becker

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It was the seaweed that sealed the deal. Standing on the beach in one of the most westerly points in Canada — due west of here: nought but open Pacific Ocean until the shores of Japan, 4,000 miles away — the winter wind whipped at the surf. The sand, meanwhile, was strewn with seaweed that looked straight out of the sunny Asian tropics: huge tangled tendrils of bulbous bull kelp, several feet long and fireman’s hose thick; a weird beach jungle that belied the backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Just where in the world were we?

Regular visitors to Canada’s East Coast, our family — my husband, daughter Ella, then eight years old, and I‚ were familiar with supersize North American landscapes. But this was different. Our first pilgrimage out west brought a unique British Columbia baptism of nature. Inland, we had walked in reverent silence through stands of giant Douglas fir trees and ancient Western red cedar, whose circumferences we could not encircle with our arms, even when the three of us joined hands to try. On Chesterman Beach in the surf town of Tofino, we delved deep into the temperate coastal rainforest, where we didn’t spot resident grizzly or black bears but we did marvel, opened-mouthed, at the gazillion shades of green in this old-growth forest: ferns with jade fronds the size of golf umbrellas, towering tree trunks carpeted with springy emerald moss and curtains of iridescent lichen. And then came the seaweed…

The bull kelp, which washes ashore in western Canada’s thundering winter storms, is thick enough to use as a skipping rope. But rather than jump over it, local kids prefer to land hard on its ‘mermaid’s bladder’ bulbs, often resulting in a brilliant if briny mini explosion. Ella was entirely entertained by this activity alone, but Tofino offered up so many more natural thrills. We watched storms roll in over the Pacific through the cathedral-like windows of the Wickaninnish Inn, our hotel that stood proud on a surf-pounded point of Tofino headland — a hub for storm chasers. Then, on a bright still day, we pulled on wetsuits and plunged into the surf — moderate height, maximum chill — under the guidance of a local lady whose long blonde hair and serious upper body strength had Ella utterly enamoured.

Inland, at Silver Star resort in the Monashee Mountains, we moved from surf to snow. Little known to Brits, this towering range is tucked away between the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Ocean, defined by mild winters, brilliant family facilities including ski-in ski-out cabins, and record amounts of powder snow. The slopes were shushing distance from our apartment. This, and restaurants stocked with classic Canadian comfort food — heaps of ribs, moose burgers and excellent pinot noir from the local Okanagan valley, makes the Monashee pretty much perfect.

Perfect, too, were the pistes at Big White, a short drive away: a bigger, buzzy resort, where a fun-focused, state-of-the-art ski school equipped Ella with a snazzy satellite tracker that mapped her route. There was ice climbing, show shoeing through silent forests of pine, dog-sledding sessions with husky puppies to pet, each day capped with a firework display: Disney On Ice standards of entertainment. But yet again, the natural displays wowed most. On Big White’s highest peaks we skied around ‘snow ghosts’ — windblown, iced-over trees that tower above us like yetis, all looming white limbs and icicle talons. Their surreal image, like the supersize seaweed, is a unique British Columbian sight that happily haunts us still.

Essentials

Age most suited: 8+ or younger if sporty.
How to do it: A 10-night coast & mountains stay with room-only hotels, car hire, return flights, and ferry crossing to Vancouver Island costs £1,267 per person. canadianaffair.com

Published in the Family 2019 issue, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)