in British Columbia-Think you can't afford an international vacation with the family? Think again: The U.S. dollar is riding high around the world right now, but it looks especially strong compared to its Canadian counterpart. As of April 10, one Canadian dollar equaled just 63 cents in American currency. That fact alone does not leave many Americans heading toward what may seem to be only a colder version of home. We know almost nothing about Canada-quick, What's the capital? Who's the prime minister?-yet think of it as thoroughly, boringly familiar. They eat the same food, wear the same clothes, and-except for those troublesome separatists in Quebec-speak the same language. Why bother going to a faraway place that doesn't seem far away? To find out, WORLD visited one small corner of this sprawling country and found three distinct vacations just a short drive-or ferry ride-from each other. British Columbia is the nation's westernmost province, stretching along the Pacific Ocean from south of Bellingham, Wash., to north of Juneau, Alaska. Like the rest of Canada, the province is vast and varied, encompassing bustling cities and barren wastelands, craggy coastlines and towering mountaintops. Try this three-stop itinerary to experience British culture, unspoiled nature, and urban adventure-all in one vacation.
Victoria, the provincial capital of British Columbia, is perhaps the most British city in North America. Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, 40 miles or so southwest of the mainland, Victoria's pubs, parliament buildings, and double-decker buses make it seem like London with a good climate. Most visitors start with the Inner Harbor, a wide promenade that stretches 1,500 feet along the waterfront and offers a great view of the seaplanes from outlying islands as they land among the yachts and sailboats. Buskers, or street performers offering live music, magic, mimes, and plenty of acts that defy categorization, are everywhere, with high-quality performances and not much pressure to toss a few coins into the hat. A few steps from the harbor walk are two of Victoria's best-known buildings. The Empress Hotel, built in 1908, is veddy, veddy British, especially at high tea, which is generally considered a can't-miss stop for tourists (but children under 16 are not allowed in at that time). Next to the Empress is the Provincial Parliament, a Victorian architectural masterpiece with its weathered copper domes, intricate façade, and outlining at night by 3,300 small white light bulbs (part of the building's original, 1897 design). By day, the manicured grounds outside the Parliament greet visitors with a floral welcome mat: thousands of flowers spelling out "Welcome to Victoria." That's especially appropriate for a place that styles itself the "City of Gardens." Flowers are everywhere in Victoria, most memorably in the baskets that seem to hang from every wrought-iron lamppost. In an annual rite of spring, Victoria residents get outside to count the early blooms and call them in for an official tally. (The count takes place in February, a testament to the city's mild climate.) The Inner Harbor can be clogged with tourists, but one mile away is the Rockland neighborhood, where grand, historic mansions sit in the midst of manicured gardens. Biggest of all is Craigdarroch Castle, a 39-room landmark built by a 19th-century coal baron. Some of the neighborhood's finest houses have been converted into outstanding bed-and-breakfast inns. The island's greatest treasure is the Butchart Gardens, a 50-acre park with millions of flowers creatively planted and so perfectly tended that they overwhelm the senses. Wandering the grounds in solitude would be a priceless experience. As it is, you'll have to settle for wandering with thousands of other awestruck tourists, but even at that, the gardens are well worth the $18 admission price (about $11 U.S.).
As you head back toward the mainland, take a couple of days in the middle of nowhere-otherwise known as B.C.'s Gulf Islands. The six principal islands-Salt Spring, Galiano, Mayne, North and South Pender, and Saturna-are all more or less unspoiled by civilization. Sure, there are roads and buildings and people, but they're sparse enough that they don't get in the way of the islands' natural beauty. On these rugged specks of land between Vancouver Island and the B.C. mainland, some tourists come to do absolutely nothing but enjoy the clean air and spectacular views. You can pack a lunch, grab a book, find an uninhabited stretch of rocky beach, and watch the occasional boat drift by, its sails stark white against the blue of the water and the evergreen hillsides of neighboring islands. For a more active getaway, the islands are an outdoor playground. The surrounding Strait of Georgia, though wide and deep, is relatively calm, thanks to the natural barrier provided by Vancouver Island. That makes the Gulf Islands a great place for sea kayaking, with opportunities to view up close porpoises, seals, and otters. The islands also offer miles of hiking trails, with spectacular views as far as Washington's Mt. Ranier to reward you for a difficult climb. If you're mountain biking, you'll find honor stands along the roadside, where farmers set out their offerings and trust you to drop your donation into a box. For the most varied getaway, try Salt Spring, the largest of the Gulf Islands. Besides the vegetate-or-hyperventilate options of the other islands, Salt Spring also offers a thriving art scene, with galleries and artists' studios scattered across its 100 square miles. In the 1960s, the island became a haven for hippies, drug users, and other social dropouts, but the influx of Yuppies seeking vacation homes has changed all that. Indifferent service at an organic restaurant is likely the closest you'll come to a brush with the counterculture.
Don't head back to the States without stopping for several days in Vancouver. The West Coast has its share of beautiful cities-San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, for starters-but Vancouver tops them all. In fact, blessed by stunning geography and dramatic architecture, Vancouver may be the most beautiful city in all of North America. Everyone seems to love this place. Conde Nast Traveler named it one of the 10 best places to visit, Outside magazine called it one of the world's 10 best cities to live in, and the World Council of Cities declared that its quality of life ranked second only to Geneva. Built on a peninsula that juts into the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver is surrounded on three sides by water, with a snow-capped mountain range looming just beyond the harbor. With natural beauty on every side, the whole city seems fresh and clean. (It helps that Canadians keep their cities cleaner than Americans do, anyway.) City planners were careful not to waste Vancouver's natural advantages: Beaches, bike paths, and seawalls seem to be everywhere. The city's premier outdoor space is the 1,000-acre Stanley Park, North America's largest urban park. In it are virgin cedars, several beaches, a swimming pool, an aquarium, a petting zoo, cricket greens, formal gardens, and a miniature railroad. Some families rent bikes in the city's West End, then pedal along the 6.2-mile seawall that encircles the entire park. Other neighborhoods worth checking out include Granville Island (a happy hodge-podge of shops, galleries, restaurants, artists' lofts, along with a train museum), Gastown (the city's oldest neighborhood, with lots of original Victorian buildings), and Yaletown (a hip warehouse district converted to urban lofts, high-end boutiques, and hot restaurants with al fresco dining and great people-watching). Throughout, visitors find world-class shopping at bargain prices.