POWELL RIVER, B.C. -- "It's raining in Vancouver!" our tour guide proclaimed, raising her cellphone with a grin.
We all smiled back.
We were about two hours north of the big city, well-mired in its drizzly bleak mid-winter, but we might as well have been on another planet.
It was 7 C, the grass was green and the sun was shining. Life is good, on the Sunshine Coast.
We've come to explore this 180-km coastline because it's one of B.C.'s 'hidden gems' or 'secret treasures' or whatever you want to call it (and we heard it all). Even a lot of Vancouverites don't seem to know much about this isolated chip of their mainland along the Georgia Strait. Vancouverites tend to head west, to the pricier Vancouver Island or Gulf islands when they feel like getting away from it all.
But the Sunshine Coast -- a name given by a smart real estate developer more than 50 years ago -- boasts an average of 231 days of sunshine a year, compared with Vancouver's meagre 166. You'd think that might be a particular draw.
And for the slowly thawing prairie girl in the group, (who's used to more than 300 days of sunshine a year, one might note) there's a much more compelling statistic: at least 330 FROST-FREE days a year.
Tourists and cottagers flock to the Sunshine Coast in the summertime for its beaches, freshwater lakes, kayaking, hiking, golfing and some of the best scuba-diving in the world. The summer is a myriad of festivals -- choral to jazz to literary. But we're experiencing Sunshine on the shoulder -- the off-season when the hoteliers and restaurateurs are really glad to see you. And it feels like we have the place to ourselves.
The trade-off for chilly scuba-diving in February is off-season rates on everything (from October to April), solitary hiking trails, no-waiting golf games, scenic kayaking, boat tours, or fishing charters; and even some prairie winter sports such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. And for Manitobans, the lush greenery and ocean and mountain scenery make it a great winter escape.
The views are particularly breathtaking when you've been strait-jacketed in a Prairie white-out for more than three months. Everything looks and smells so GREEN, an intoxicating blend of cedar, spruce, woodsmoke and greenery. Even the boats on those wide-open waters look like colourful bath toys.
"I had one girl from Winnipeg, when she came in the door (and saw the view) she cried -- she'd never seen the ocean," said Marsha Cargill, owner of the Beach Hideaway B & B in Sechelt.
I'd never get in the way of a good ocean-deprived Winnipegger story myself, but I'm figuring it's more likely she wept because it was just that beautiful. I took a lot of pictures from that B & B's floor-to-ceiling panorama of the Strait of Georgia.
Steep mountains and fjords give the Sunshine Coast its laid-back island flavour; you can only reach it by ferry or plane.
Once there, you take the 'world's longest highway' the Pan-American (a.k.a. Pacific Coastal Highway 101) north to reach most of the coast's major centres -- if you can call them that. They are a collection of quirky little towns, all attached to that ribbon of highway that begins in 'Mile 0' on the Upper Coast at Lund, and bottoms out somewhere in Chile if you continue south through Vancouver's Lower Mainland, California and beyond.
The first stop past the ferry landing is Gibsons, the site of the old Beachcombers series (1972-1990, and it lives on in APTN and CBC reruns). Landmarks such as Molly's Reach are still there, plus a few cute sets-turned-shops that are a nice legacy for the community of about 4,000.
Then it's a series of charming little places, from former hippie haven Roberts Creek to Halfmoon Bay to the biggest town on the lower coast, Sechelt and beyond to the picture-perfect Pender Harbour area, with its labyrinth of islands and bays (dubbed the 'Venice of the North'). Everything is a fairly short drive away on this highway. Take another 50-minute ferry and you reach the Upper Coast, the urban heart of which is the more blue-collar city of Powell River, pop. 13,000.
The pace is a whole lot slower on the Sunshine Coast, a century-old vacation spot that has struggled to find a solid economic base since the decline of the pulp and paper industry. Some folks are trying to establish a caviar fishery; others are farming oysters, salmon and other fish. Many are employed in a wide array of eco-tourism ventures.
While its beauty and affordability (compared with most of B.C.) attracts vacationers and retired people, it takes a creative mind to find a way to make a living here. Luckily, it also attracts a lot of those.
The Sunshine Coast has the highest per-capita number of artists, artisans and crafters in Canada.
There are people like Cindy Cantelon from the Copper Sky Gallery & Cafe in Madeira Park. Cantelon is originally from Edmonton, but moved to the Sunshine Coast with her artist husband, Marshall Mar. They make sculptures of silver pewter, copper-plated pewter and fabricated copper, displayed in their sunny gallery along with a wide variety of other local artists' work. Their cafe is a popular meeting place in Madeira, too, with some great food on offer.
Yvonne Stowell grew up in Miami, Man., but now operates a renowned fibre arts workshop, gallery and studio out of six yurts in the Pender Harbour area. Standing in one of these great circular spaces, Stowell explained she and her husband chose to operate out of yurts because they offer a "lighter footprint and a totally different energy." She weaves, spins, dyes and knits her own fibres, and offers international workshops in many crafts.
Just like the WAVE artist tours in Winnipeg and the Interlake, the Sunshine Coast artists have banded together to offer people a glimpse at their work inside their homes and studios. Wherever you see a 'Purple Banner' flying, it's an invitation to drop in, and you can spot those banners all the way from Langdale to Lund, year 'round.
So you can come for the great outdoors -- the hiking, boating, diving, etc. -- and still spend hours exploring the arts and crafts of the area, and one-of-a-kind shops.
They are inspired, the artists say, by the beauty of the place; the deep green old forest, the bright blue ocean, the colourful and abundant sea life, the mountains and islands, lakes and waterfalls.
After just a few days, I joked I was having a mid-life crisis. "It smells like cedar, the grass is so green and the skies hold a million stars," I wrote my frozen sisters in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario. "Across the harbour, I can see Nanaimo. Let's sell everything we own and move here. We can be glass blowers..."
The Upper Coast is a little longer haul, but opens up a world of even less-explored beauty. From Powell River, you can get to Lund, Savary Island, Desolation Sound Marine Park, or Texada Island, the 'jewel of the Georgia Strait.'
One of Powell River's most famous residents has to be German emigrant Eagle Walz, whose vision, drive, and determination helped build the Sunshine Coast Trail, a massive 20-year labour of love. He and other members of the BOMB squad (Bloody Old Man's Brigade) are still embellishing the trail today, building sleeping lofts for those hardy hikers who refuse to veer off to overnight health spas.
Walz isn't the only European to fall for the charms of the Sunshine Coast.
Volker and Silke Pfeifer left Germany 13 years ago to set up a fabulous organic food store and cafe in Powell River. Why? "Because it's the most beautiful place on earth," Silke shrugged.
Sunshine on the shoulder
Five things to see and do in the off-season
-- Hike the Sunshine Coast Trail: It's 180-km long, and you can hop on and off whenever you want. It meanders through three provincial parks, old-growth forest, over salmon streams, and attracts about 1,000 outside visitors a year, as opposed to the 10,000 who tromp the more well-known West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. We saw a 1,000-year-old Douglas Fir on the Toquenatch stretch. And not another soul. (sunshinecoast-trail.com)
-- Kayak, sail, canoe, fish, golf, dive, horse-back ride, cross-country ski, snowshoe
Contact Jamie Mani at Alpha Adventures, which operates on both the Upper and Lower Coast in Sechelt and Powell River. He makes an outstanding starlight chocolate fondue (outdooradventurestore.ca)
-- Explore the Princess Louisa Inlet
There are 60 waterfalls in the Princess Louisa Inlet, and the tidal rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows have been deemed a 'world whitewater wonder.' With its wide array of marine life, set against a Tolkien-like backdrop of rocks, trees and hills, this is a stunning place. We saw seals, bald eagles, cormorants, black orange and white sea scooters, and a happy gang of Pacific white-sided dolphins.
Contact Bryce Christie at Sunshine Coast Tours (sunshinecoasttours.bc.ca)
-- Shop for beautiful things
If you love art, this is the place to be. All along the coast there are galleries, studios and one-of-a-kind shops, including the Earthly Creatures Gallery in Madeira Park, Pender Harbour. Another standout was the Tug Ghum Gallery in the historic Lund Hotel, where local artist and gallery owner Debra Bevaart offers her own stone carvings and an eclectic collection of more than 40 other local artists' creations.
-- Detox and retox
Even our pretty little B & B in Sechelt offered in-suite spa services, all you need to do is ask. But if you're looking for a five-star spa experience, try Painted Boat at Pender Harbour. It is pretty much full in August and July, but on a weekday in February, we had the whole resort and spa to ourselves. The spa garden has a Finnish dry/wet sauna, a hot pool, waterfall massage, salt-water float pool and a glacier shower. You can 'retox' nearby in the excellent restaurant at Painted Boat. And it's all nestled in five acres of Douglas fir, red cedar and arbutus trees on a hill overlooking the bay. (paintedboat.com)
If you get to Powell River, dine at The Alchemist Restaurant on Marine Avenue, the chefs and co-owners are outstanding.
Or for a little more casual fare, try the Manzanita Restaurant at the Old Courthouse Inn.
Canadian songstress Joni Mitchell divides her time between Los Angeles and a home at Halfmoon Bay. Broadcaster Bill Good has retired to Roberts Creek. Terry Jacks, Colin James and Oprah Winfrey have all spent time on the Coast, as well as more than a few NHL stars, screenwriters and movie-types. The movie The Last Mimzy (2007) was partially filmed in Roberts Creek, and Gibsons was the location for the 1993 Stephen King movie Needful Things, the movie Desolation Sound (2005), and the teen flick Charlie St. Cloud (2010) starring heartthrob Zac Efron. Last but not least, of course, is the iconic CBC-TV series, The Beachcombers starring Bruno Gerussi, that has kept Gibsons on the Canuck map since 1972.
How to get there; how to get around
The Sunshine Coast is a 30-minute drive from Vancouver to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, and a 40-minute ferry crossing to reach its southernmost tip. Believe it or not, a lot of lower coast residents happily commute to Vancouver for one-day shopping excursions or medical appointments. We also met one man who said he commuted four hours daily to his job in Vancouver's Kerrisdale. (bcferries.com)
To reach the Upper Sunshine Coast, you take another 50-minute ferry from Earls Cove to Saltery Bay.
Or you can fly -- Powell River has an airport, and it's an easy 35 minutes to Vancouver.
The Malaspina Coach Service offers a twice-daily bus shuttle that stops everywhere you want. (malaspinacoast.com)
Or you can hire your own shuttle from Sunshine Coast Limousine, Shuttle & Taxi. (sunshinecoastcircletours.com)