Second Cities: Destinations to add onto a trip to Vancouver

Jan 5, 2020

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Welcome to TPGs series, Second Cities. The series is designed to help you find smaller or less-popular-but-equally-amazing places to visit no more than a few hours by air or land from your original destination so you can maximize your itinerary.

Dramatically located on Canada’s Pacific Coast, Vancouver is a cultural hub of world-class food and museums. But if you venture beyond the city limits, you can visit a remote island for surfers and whale watchers, ski the peaks of Whistler and eat some of the best Asian food on the continent.

Here are three second cities to add to your itinerary if Vancouver, British Columbia, is your next destination.

Whistler

About two hours north of Vancouver, the glacier-capped peaks of Whistler Mountain and Blackcomb Peak draw a year-round crowd of outdoors enthusiasts. Winter brings plenty of snow to Whistler and Blackcomb, while summer brings a colorful crop of wildflowers to alpine meadows. You don’t need to be hardcore skier or hiker to enjoy a trip to Whistler; you can get big views from the pedestrian-friendly village at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

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Whistler Peak. (Photo by VisualCommunications/Getty Images)
Whistler Mountain. (Photo by VisualCommunications/Getty Images)

Getting there: To get to Whistler, take the scenic Sea-to-Sky Highway (BC Highway 99) that winds along the shore from Vancouver then turns into the towering Coast Mountains (part of the Pacific Coast Ranges in British Columbia) to Whistler. Several regular shuttles make the trip between Vancouver and Whistler, but renting a car is ideal for exploring sites along the way, including the highest waterfall in British Columbia at Shannon Falls Provincial Park or the impressive granite cliffs of Stawamus Chief Provincial Park.

Where to stay: The Westin Resort & Spa, Whistler is a Category 7 Marriott property starting at 50,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night for a rewards stay. Located in the heart of Whistler Village, this luxury hotel is an ideal base for hitting the slopes, shops and restaurants — and mountain-view rooms allow you to check out the conditions on the slopes without getting out of bed.

Read more: Planning a Winter Ski Trip to Whistler Using Miles and Points

What to see and do: For the best views of the surrounding Coast Mountains, ride the Peak 2 Peak Gondola that links the summits of Whistler and Blackcomb — at 1.88 miles long, it is listed as the longest and highest lift on earth in the Guinness Book of World Records. The gondola has wrap-around windows that look out on a seriously jagged landscape, coastal rainforest and glaciers splintered by deep crevasses.

The Peak to Peak Gondola at the Whistler Blackcomb Resort. (Photo by stockstudioX/Getty Images)
The sky’s the limit on the the Peak 2 Peak Gondola. (Photo by stockstudioX/Getty Images)

Hikers should grab the free shuttle bus to explore the laid-back Lost Lake Loop or tackle the all-day Skywalk Trail leading from old-growth forest to the alpine zone and a glacier-fed lake. Winter is all about skiing and riding at Whistler Blackcomb, North America’s biggest ski resort. Along with resorts in the Rockies, New England, and Australia, Whistler Blackcomb is covered by the Epic Pass, which offers big discounts for booking before the ski season starts.

Whistler is known for great spas, too. For some après-adventure relaxation, bring a bathing suit to Spa Scandinave, whose prescribed rotation of hot and cold treatments channels Nordic traditions. Outdoor hot tubs and plunge pools look out on forested peaks, and the sod roofs of the sauna buildings bloom with wildflowers in the summer.

Tofino

Tofino is a tiny surf town on Vancouver Island with bohemian charm where hippie holdouts rub shoulders with a new crop of visitors who frequent new stylish restaurants and art galleries. Wild weather draws storm watchers through the winter months and you can spot pro surfers in the local pub when the waves are closed out. Tofino is also the perfect starting point for trips into the maze of waterways that cut into the west coast of Vancouver Island or into forests with centuries-old trees.

Tofino Harbour on Vancouver Island. (Photo by Pierre Longnus/Getty Images)
Tofino Harbour on Vancouver Island. (Photo by Pierre Longnus/Getty Images)

Getting there: To reach Tofino from Vancouver by road, take the Horseshoe Bay ferry from West Vancouver to Nanaimo, then continue to Tofino on the three-hour drive that winds across the island’s forested interior. Quicker, easier, and more spectacular is catching a Harbour Air floatplane: you’ll lift off from Vancouver Harbour and touch down on the Tofino waterfront in under an hour.

Where to stay: The waterfront Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort has ocean-facing balconies, an on-site surf shop and a free shuttle to downtown and Long Beach. Rooms can be booked with 24,000 Best Western Rewards points per night.

What to see and do: You’re never far from the ocean and getting out on the water is a highlight of a visit to Tofino. Relatively calm waves in June, July and August make the summer ideal for learning how to surf at one of the many Tofino surf schools. Book a lesson at Surf Sister Surf School or Tofino Surf School, and don a wetsuit to stay warm in the chilly waves. Big waves start to roll in during the fall. To surf with the experts — or just watch them from shore — head to the crescent-shaped beach of Cox Bay. Explore the inlets with T’ashii Paddle School, whose First Nations Canoe Tours visit nearby islands in traditional dugout cedar canoes made by a First Nations carver.

Cox Bay near Tofino. (Photo by DEDDEDA/Design Pics/Getty Images)
Cox Bay near Tofino. (Photo by DEDDEDA/Design Pics/Getty Images)

With a compact downtown that’s easily walkable, Tofino has a great collection of galleries, many featuring local artisans and First Nations designs. Works by local jewelers photographers and leather workers are on display at The Factory, one of the best places to browse for gifts. Shop for stylized images of British Columbia landscapes at the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery or head to the House of Himwatsa Native Art Gallery to see carvings, sculpture and paintings by a broad range of First Nations artists.

In recent years, Tofino has attracted national attention for its creative chefs who focus on B.C. flavors. A leisurely brunch at Wolf in the Fog, named the best new restaurant in Canada in 2014, has become a weekend tradition, featuring seaweed salads and halibut cakes paired with breakfast cocktails. Another restaurant easily worth the 40-minute drive down the coast is Pluvio, which opened in Spring 2019, offering a menu featuring foraged ingredients from the coast and forest.

Richmond

Twenty minutes away from downtown Vancouver, English-language signs give way to Chinese characters in the thriving community of Richmond. It’s Canada’s most Chinese city and it’s become a bucket-list stop for West Coast foodies. Food is front and center for most visitors, but there’s plenty more to explore — from a rambling Buddhist temple to a museum dedicated to the Vancouver Olympics.

The International Buddhist Temple in Richmond, Vancouver. (Photo by Richard Cummins/Getty Images)
The International Buddhist Temple in Richmond. (Photo by Richard Cummins/Getty Images)

Getting there: Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is served by nonstop flights from Canada and the United States, Mexico, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Don’t miss SkyTeam’s Priority Pass Lounge at YVR.

Where to stay: Richmond is about 20 minutes from YVR and has a full lineup of big-name hotel chains with rewards programs, including Hilton, Four Points by Sheraton and Marriott. Stay at the Westin Wall Centre, Vancouver Airport, a Category 5 hotel that can be booked for 30,000 points off-peak and you’ll be a 10-minute walk from the popular Richmond Night Market.

What to see and do: For many, the first stop is the Richmond Night Market, the largest night market on the continent with everything from quirky import goods, games and food specialties, including  Taiwanese fried chicken steaks, tofu with grass jelly and old-fashioned dragon’s beard candy. This is not the only food stop.

The Richmond Night Market. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
The Richmond Night Market. (Photo by Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

If you can, save room for a trip along the Richmond Dumpling Trail, which links the city’s best spots for wontons, xiao long bao and siu mai. (If you want to get more gourmet dining in before you’re too full to walk, join a Dumpling Trail Tour.) There’s plenty to eat besides dumplings, too. Absurdly delicious beef noodle soup at Chef Hung Noodle has won Taiwan’s annual beef noodle soup competition three times and the dim sum at Chef Tony is legendary. Glazed ribs, chicken and duck are the starring attractions at the cash-only HK B.B.Q. Master, and it’s all about the silky stuff at the aptly named Excellent Tofu.

When your appetite is sated, channel Olympic glory at The ROX, the Richmond Olympic Experience, which has immersive simulators that put you in the boots of Olympic competitors: Hit a ski jump at top speed, paddle a whitewater kayak course or catch the vicarious rush of simulated bobsledding. Before you leave, make a final stop at the International Buddhist Temple, which evokes the grandeur of Beijing’s Forbidden City, complete with tiled roofs, stylized lions, and the penetrating aroma of incense. It’s a deeply religious place that’s open to all — don’t forget to get your fortune told.

Featured photo of Vancouver by Rob Atkins/Getty Images.

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