Family road trip: Discover British Columbia
Push the car into drive and begin a family road trip through Canada that takes in dramatic mountain scenery, beautiful coastlines and exciting cities. | By Joanna Tweedy | June 24, 2022
We know what you’re thinking — why on earth would I want to get in a car and head out for the Canadian yonder with small children and potentially a bored teen in tow? Well, simply put: It’s fun (no really, we promise!). Plus, this easy-to-navigate 465-mile road trip through Canada’s most westerly province includes stops in four popular British Columbia destinations, meaning no one — teenager included — will have a chance to get bored. Make the most of your family travel adventure by adding these stops to your itinerary:
Vancouver’s Stanley Park: Rent bicycles and explore the city’s green space
Wind down in the mountains: Enjoy a relaxing spa treatment in Whistler
Feast alfresco: Enjoy fish and chips by the water in Victoria, British Columbia’s historic capital
The first two days of your trip see you exploring the sights of Vancouver. Roll over Granville Bridge on Highway 99 into downtown and soak up a spectacular welcoming panoramic of western Canada’s city-by-the-water as you go. Transport connections here are good — including the SkyTrain and the SeaBus ferry — but a car is useful for enjoying the best things to do in Vancouver.
Among them is 30-acre Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (3735 Capilano Rd.). Just 25 minutes’ drive north of downtown, it feels like another world, with Douglas firs soaring all around. The main event is the extraordinary 1889 cable bridge, which stretches 137 meters (450 feet) across the Capilano River. Walking across it is a hit with all ages (although nerves might need to be steadied when it begins to gently sway). Traveling with younger kids? Head straight for the seven-bridge Treetops Adventure for sky-high thrills.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, head south across town to Granville Island. The Granville Island Public Market’s tasty offerings include everything from wild sockeye salmon to deli treats. Oh, and don’t worry about any picky eaters — the market’s restaurants serve up delicious plates of pizza, burgers and other kid-friendly fare.
Make sure to save room for a cinnamon bun at Stuart’s Bakery or some classic sweet treats from Maples’ Sugar Shack.
From downtown, renting bikes is a great way for families to explore Vancouver’s 405-hectare (1,001 acres) Stanley Park. Home to a collection of nine First Nations totem poles and the city’s aquarium, the park is latticed by well sign-posted cycling routes. Soak up wonderful views of west and north Vancouver at Prospect Point lookout.
Put Vancouver’s futuristic skyline in the rearview mirror and get ready to spend the next two days exploring British Columbia’s impressive peaks. It’s a short drive north to Whistler — less than two hours on the Sea to Sky Highway (still Highway 99) — and this is one stop you won’t want to miss.
The road hugs Howe Sound, a network of breathtaking fjords, and it’s worth a pit-stop in the mountain town of Squamish to savor these vistas from above. Grab a family ticket on the Sea to Sky Gondola and prepare to enjoy floor-to-ceiling views of the Sound alongside sweeping mountain forests and glittering Shannon Falls. Any budding zoologists in your party? The Sound is home to hundreds of different animal species.
Whistler, which sits at 675 meters (2,200 feet) above sea level, remains Canada’s most popular ski town, but it’s enticing year-round. Whistler Village is awash with luxury hotels, upscale restaurants and designer boutiques, with plenty of spas ideal for unwinding. Book a treatment at Hilton Whistler Resort and Spa Hotel’s Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa, or head for the heated outdoor pool, where you can breathe in British Columbia’s crystal-clear air as you swim.
Now that you’ve spent the first day of your stay getting rest and relaxation, you can make day two all about adventure. Luckily, Whistler offers every kind of mountain pursuit, from trail biking to tree-top adventures. Ziptrek Ecotours organizes thrilling rides through emerald Fitzsimmons Valley, or drive to nearby Alpha Lake Park and hire a paddleboard for the day. And there’s no need to worry about packing snacks or lunches as food trucks — selling everything from gourmet grilled cheese to deliciously filled crepes — often pull up at this popular location. Once you’ve had your fill, head back to your hotel for a good night’s rest. We’re now at the halfway point of our epic Canadian road trip and the morning brings four more days of adventure to enjoy.
From Whistler, this family road trip sees you cruise back down the Sea to Sky Highway for the 85-minute drive to Horseshoe Bay. From here, car ferries take just shy of two hours to reach Nanaimo on Vancouver Island’s east coast.
Stretching 300 miles (450 kilometers) from top to toe, Vancouver Island puts quaint rural villages, whale watching towns and soaring forests on the map — as well as British Columbia’s capital, Victoria.
Cutting east to west from Nanaimo, with the Pacific town of Tofino as the destination, takes around three hours on Highway 4. En route, Cathedral Grove lets visitors immerse themselves in British Columbia’s Big Tree heritage. Young tourists will love craning their necks skyward to take in the Douglas firs, some of which are more than 800 years old.
We recommend spending another two days taking in the sights of Tofino. The town lies at the southern edge of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Clayoquot Sound and its outdoor attractions offer activities for everyone to enjoy. Head for the ‘W’-shaped Chesterman Beach, where families can rent surf boards (available year-round!), hunt for sea stars in tide pools, fly a kite over the sands or simply sunbathe on them. You can also book a whale watching cruise with The Whale Centre (tours run from March to November) or take a boat tour around Meares Island, home to native black bears.
Tofino’s center is ideal for evening dinners with the family; serving up everything from fish and chips at the Wildside Grill (1180 Pacific Rim Hwy.) to Italian soft serve at Tofino Licks (220 Campbell St.).
We’ve now come to the final stop on our family expedition: British Columbia’s capital. From Tofino, it’s around 200 miles (317 kilometers) via the island’s main highways — east on the 4 before joining the 19 and connecting with the 1 — to reach Victoria. This leg of your journey will take around four hours, so it’s a good idea to plan some stops along the way.
Coombs Old Country Market (2326 Alberni Hwy.) is a fun halfway point. This quaint landmark has been selling fresh produce since 1973, and has a doughnut shop, creamery and Italian trattoria. It’s the goats though, who live on the market’s roof and keep the grass low, that make this a favorite with islanders and young travelers. The final third of this road trip bypasses Cowichan Bay, a historic east coast waterfront town. Take a breather at the nature center (1845 Cowichan Bay Rd.) and learn about the area’s unique wildlife. Don’t leave without making some new friends at the touch tank. The whole family will enjoy getting the chance to meet vermillion seastars, purple sea urchins and other sea critters.
Hop back in the car for another 50 minutes and you’ll reach Victoria. The perfect bookend to your travels, and where you’ll spend the final two days of your trip. This historic city feels almost European with its grandiose 19th century Parliament Buildings and Victorian shopping streets. Totem poles and First Nations artwork pay homage to Vancouver Island’s indigenous people here too.
Victoria is best explored on foot or bike — or from the ocean; cute water taxis zip around the bay between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. daily. Check out family-friendly attractions, including Miniature World (649 Humboldt St.) and the IMAX Victoria in the Royal BC Museum (675 Belleville St.), which explains the region’s heritage with interactive displays.
Step back 100 years with afternoon tea at The Pendray Inn & Tea House (309 Belleville St.) or join hipsters for a barista coffee at Loft + Ladder Coffee House — both are equally Instagram-friendly for any travelers trying to keep their growing follower fanbase happy. Next up: window-shopping at local independent boutiques on Lower Johnson Street, close to the city’s atmospheric Chinatown.
Close out your trip by enjoying sunset at Fisherman’s Wharf. Located just around the corner from the Inner Harbour and home to a tangle of delicious waterside takeaways, the area offers alfresco dining and a family road trip experience that’s hard to beat.
Joanna Tweedy is an award-winning travel writer and editor who lives in London.