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Sea to Sky Vacation Adventure

We in BC are blessed with one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the world. In the early years of my travels to Whistler, Highway 99 North was known as the most dangerous road in the province. After many upgrades, including the pre-Olympic mega-upgrade, the Sea to Sky highway is now a marvel of engineering that leaves you free to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. I recently took a four-day shoulder season craft beer trip from Vancouver to Pemberton. Here’s how it went.

Best Times to Travel: Late March to mid-May, mid-September to mid-November (aka, the ‘shoulder seasons’ on either side of the Summer peak).

Day 1

Howe Sound Brewing

No need to start at the crack of dawn; a 9 a.m. departure is perfect. We loaded up our rented Nissan Rogue from Avis. It was perfect for our trip: four-wheel drive, but relatively compact and easy on the gas. In four days of travel, we only used one tank of gas.

Our first stop was breakfast at Trolls in Horseshoe Bay. I have enjoyed their west coast menu for years and still rate their breakfast as one of the best in the Lower Mainland. Between Horseshoe Bay and Squamish are quite a few worth taking the time to check out. This 45-minute drive can easily take more than six hours if you’re being a tourist.

The old ferry dock in Porteau Cove, just off the highway, offers amazing views down Howe Sound south towards Anvil Island, Horseshoe Bay and Bowen Island. There is also a provincial campground at this site.

Further up the highway is the historic Britannia Mine Museum, where you travel into the mine on an electric train for a guided demonstration about methods of mining used over the 70 years the place was an active copper mine. It is easy to imagine the miners’ toil and suffering. The beautifully restored 11-story main building is now a National Historic Site. Check out the historical memorabilia and try your hand at gold panning before you leave.

Further up the road is Shannon Falls, the third-highest waterfall in British Columbia (335 meters). The flow is usually higher in shoulder season than summer or winter. It is easy to get breathtaking photos from many viewpoints along the short trail that takes you to the lookout. Parking is free and there is no admission charge.

A short distance up the highway is the Sea to Sky Gondola, where the 12-minute ride to the top is incredible no matter what the weather. The cafeteria at the top is fully licensed, with Howe Sound craft beer on tap. Howe Sound Brewing created a beer just for them and named it Sky Pilot after one of the peaks above the gondola. Tina Legacie, guest services manager notes, “there is so much to do on top, no matter what the season! Try the suspension bridge and many trails.” If you really fall in love with the top of the mountain experience, pick up a season or year pass. It is only a 45-minute drive from Vancouver.

Late afternoon is beer time in Squamish. We stayed at the cozy Howe Sound Inn & Brewery, which has comfortable rooms and a great pub with excellent food all under one roof. Call ahead to see if you can book a brewery tour. This is truly a prolific brewery with many special releases on top of their mainstays every year. We met with Leslie Fenn, co-owner of Howe Sound Brewery, for beer tasting, appetizers, and dinner, and were excited to try many of the regular beers and special releases. The gourmet food that accompanied the delicious beers was perfect. The brew pub’s vaulted ceiling and large picture window perfectly frame a wonderful view of the Stawamus Chief. Rumor has it that a few more breweries are opening in 2017—we might need to return for a Squamish weekend!

Day 2

Amazing Coastline

Another day of sightseeing and exploring craft breweries awaited. We drove past Brackendale and turned left at the Squamish Valley road/airport light, to Fergie’s Cafe in Paradise Valley for a truly memorable locally sourced gourmet breakfast in the rainforest on the banks of the Cheakamus River.

Next stop on the road north, the beautiful Brandywine Falls flows in the middle of a major volcanic landscape. A 15-minute walk from the parking lot through lush forest brings you to the viewpoint overlooking the falls. Further on, at the southern end of the trail, is a wonderful viewpoint overlooking Daisy Lake, with many illustrated displays that tell the story of the fiery 34,000-year past in the surrounding Garibaldi volcanic belt.

Twenty minutes north, we checked in at the Pan Pacific Whistler Mountainside, in the centre of Whistler Village. During shoulder season, you can get a wonderful suite for half the price of winter or summer, including a buffet breakfast.

Lunch at the Whistler Brewhouse was an important part of the day. Brewmaster Derrick Franche has been producing excellent beers for many years; be sure to try his seasonal. We had a very tart sour that was just right for my midday palate! The lunch menu is excellent.

After the Brewhouse, we backtracked south to Function Junction, for some afternoon tastings at Whistler Brewing and Coast Mountain Brewing. There is so much beer to sample at Function Junction, I recommend leaving the car parked in the Village and taking a taxi or local transit.

The name Whistler Brewing has a long history, and the people behind it today have stepped up its quality as a craft brewery. Head brewmaster Matt Dean is sure to have some great seasonals for you to try along with one or two appetizers in the taproom. Just around the corner is Coast Mountain Brewing, where Kevin and Angie Winter produce amazing small batch beers. The saison on tap during my visit was possibly the best I have ever had.

Our day wasn’t over yet; we got a taxi back to the village and had dinner at the Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub. They have a great selection of craft beer to enjoy with your pub food, and there is usually live music on the weekends. And from there, back to the hotel to for some R&R before another full day.

Day 3

Coast Mountain Brewing

After the complimentary buffet breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and investigated the world-class Audain Art Museum’s wonderful display of privately collected West Coast native and contemporary art that has been gathered into the unique building at 4350 Blackcomb Way, right behind Whistler North Village. The current exhibition of internationally renowned contemporary photographer Fred Herzog’s “Shadowlands” is on until May 22, 2017.

Back on the highway with a growler or two of beer in the trunk, we decided to do a little back-country sightseeing before continuing north to Pemberton. There are many options, depending on the season. We went to Callaghan Lake; the turnoff is south of Whistler, and Callaghan Valley Road is paved all the way to the turnoff just before Whistler Olympic Park. We had some snow on the road near the lake, but otherwise it was an easy drive.

Heading north again, 20 km past Whistler is Nairn Falls. The double waterfall is guaranteed to be dramatic in shoulder season, when there is a high volume of water. Be sure to stay on the trails and within the fenced areas; the rocks are extremely slick year-round.

The formerly sleepy town of Pemberton is a happening place these days. With two new breweries slated to open this year and a solid distillery already established, it looks like a good place to spend a few days. The beautiful lush valley, hemmed in on all sides by towering mountains, has a very cozy feel. Twelve kilometres west of the town is Across the Creek Organics, the 500-acre potato/wheat farm where, in the summer of 2016, owner Bruce Miller grew 20 acres of barley for the first time. Why did a potato farmer grow barley? His wife, Brenda, is an avid home brewer and had a dream of having a brewery once their six boys were grown up. Part of having that brewery is growing their own barley. (During our visit, Brenda was apprenticing down at Coast Mountain Brewing ahead of opening her own organic brewery this year.) While visiting the farm, be sure to pick up a bag of German Butter Potatoes. Chefs from all over the Lower Mainland make the 2.5-hour trip to the farm to fill their vans with these golden gems.

In the late afternoon we returned to town and stocked up on some deli food for a quiet evening in our suite at Pemberton Valley Lodge. Our living room balcony had a wonderful view of Mt. Currie, and we sipped our golden liquid treasures from the day before in front of a glowing fire as evening fell.

Day 4

Pemberton Valley Lodge

We picked up some muffins and coffee in town and headed east to meet Tyler Schramm, distiller and owner at Pemberton Distillery. Their flagship products are the world’s only organic vodka, gin, absinthe, schnapps and liqueurs made from Pemberton Valley potatoes (sourced from— you guessed it—Bruce’s farm 16 km away). If none of those tickle your fancy, there is also whisky and brandy. Tyler is proud that Pemberton is the only distillery in the world whose products are all certified organic.

Our last stop before heading south was back at the highway junction in Pemberton. You must have lunch or dinner at the Mile One Eating House. The owners have a background in five-star restaurants in Vancouver and BC resorts. Owner/manager Cindy Yew says the goal for Mile One is “to be the culinary base camp of your day: get fueled up before you go out for a day of work or adventure and then return to sit around and share and relax at the end of the day.” The food is reasonably priced and uses top-quality locally sourced ingredients. Make sure you try their buttermilk bread and buns from the adjoining market bakery. There is a generous variety of bottled craft beer available, and the local breweries will be on tap in the near future.

For value and enjoyment, this was an amazing trip. We met so many wonderful people, experienced so many gorgeous sights, great beers, and delicious meals. When you travel in the shoulder season, people actually have time to stop and talk to you.

Sea To Sky Craft Directory


Brian K. Smith

Brian K. Smith, MPA is an accredited member of the BC Association of Travel Writers. He is a member of Professional Photographers of Canada with a Master of Photographic Arts designation. Brian writes the Have Camera, Will Travel column and is Chief Photographer for What's Brewing.

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