Taking a long weekend from Seattle to get “oot” and “aboot” in Canada is as easy as pie. But why stick to the well-trodden paths of Vancouver and Victoria when you can give some Canadian small towns a try, eh?
Get to the best Canadian small towns via a drive over the border; by ferry to Victoria (it’s under three hours aboard the Victoria Clipper from downtown Seattle) and then onward; by Amtrak Cascades train to Vancouver and beyond; or by air.
From Seattle, the hour-long flight to Vancouver’s international airport (YVR) opens up connecting flights by Canada’s big and small carriers. Kenmore Air has several flights to Canada from both Seattle/Lake Union and Kenmore/Lake Washington. You can also fly by seaplane from Seattle to downtown Vancouver via Harbour Air, the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, and then on to some of the province’s most attractive small towns.
Once in Canada, there are a few other seaplane options, such as Sunshine Coast Air that takes you between the Sunshine Coast’s Sechelt and Nanaimo, Tofino, Victoria, and Vancouver’s harbor and YVR’s south terminal, which is a free 10-minute shuttle from the main terminal. And don’t forget Alberta — Alaska Airlines and WestJet/Delta fly nonstop between Seattle and Calgary in 100 minutes and then you’re just an hour away from the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks.
Long weekends often fall on different dates for Canada and the US, so check both countries’ calendars to get a sense of the crowds you can expect. Count on the long weekend covering Canada Day (July 1) and the Fourth of July to be extremely popular with everyone wanting a getaway. Vaccinated travelers no longer need a COVID-19 test to enter Canada, but don’t forget to provide required info within 72 hours before your arrival via the ArriveCan app.
The mountain town of Whistler and the Whistler/Blackcomb resort cohosted the 2010 Olympic games with Vancouver. Whether you’re coming with kids or without, mountain biking in summer or skiing/snowboarding in winter, there’s plenty to keep you busy in Whistler. Take your pick from soaking in Scandinave Spa’s Nordic baths while admiring the mountain views; soaring in the air by zipline or the Peak 2 Peak gondola; or watching wildlife like black bears, whistling hoary marmots, and tiny pikas.
Where to stay in Whistler: The most luxe stays are at Fairmont Chateau Whistler, right at the base of Blackcomb Mountain, and Four Seasons Whistler. At Pan Pacific Whistler’s Mountainside resort, you can watch people zoom down the mountain from the heated rooftop pool. In the quieter Whistler Creekside neighborhood, Nita Lake Lodge and its spa are right on the lake. If you’re traveling with your pup, Summit Lodge loves pets as much as you do.
How to get there: Get to Whistler from Vancouver via the Sea to Sky highway (by car or shuttle, including directly from YVR), by Rocky Mountaineer train, helicopter, or floatplane (with either Whistler Air or Harbour Air).
Surf town Tofino is in the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere and within the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. Come here for beachcombing, storm watching, hiking and biking in the rainforest, kayaking, and surfing. Book the Tofino Adventure Centre’s Ultimate Adventure and you’ll go whale or bear-watching and crabbing, and then chefs at 1909 Kitchen will cook up your catch for a dinner feast.
Where to stay in Tofino: For a beachfront chalet complete with hot tub, it’s hard to top Pacific Sands Beach Resort on Cox Bay. For a little zaniness, choose Hotel Zed with its bike path through the lobby, secret 1980s arcade, physic’s den (complete with visits from a tarot card reader), and mini disco.
How to get there: Tofino is on Vancouver Island’s west coast and can be reached by car from Victoria or Nanaimo after a ferry ride from Vancouver’s Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay terminals, as well as by air. Pacific Coastal Airlines and Harbour Air’s seaplanes are the biggest options.
Parksville and Qualicum Beach
These two neighboring beach towns on Vancouver Island’s east coast have views of the Salish Sea and its treed islands plus the occasional cruise ship on its way to Alaska. With some of the warmest ocean waters in Canada and big tides that call for barefoot explorers of all ages, Parksville Beach hosts an elaborate sand sculpture competition in mid-July (until the end of August) and Qualicum’s has a paved promenade for high tide. Admire 800-year-old Douglas firs (including one with a nine-yard circumference) at Cathedral Grove or ride a cave slide to see fossils, and even rappel down a seven-story underground waterfall at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. Your tastebuds will enjoy farmers’ markets, microbreweries and distilleries, and local cheeses. Don’t miss stopping in nearby Coombs to see the goats on the roof of the Old Country Market and pick up gourmet products, old-fashioned toys, inventive doughnuts, ice cream, and more.
Where to stay in Parksville and Qualicum Beach: Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort has log cabin rooms plus a grotto spa (spa packages include unlimited tapas, eaten decked out in your spa robe). At Free Spirit Spheres, you’ll sleep in a wooden ball suspended above the forest floor.
How to get there: A two-hour drive from Victoria or just 40 minutes from the Departure Bay ferry dock in Nanaimo (the Vancouver Horseshoe Bay ferry docks here; the Tsawwassen ferry brings you to Nanaimo’s Duke Point and adds a couple minutes to the drive). Vancouver to Nanaimo flight options include Harbour Air, Seair, and Helijet helicopters.
Salt Spring Island
Salt Spring Island is known for the large proportion of working and retired artists and artisans — from potters and cheesemakers to musicians and poets — among its population of 12,000. Visiting Salt Spring means the opportunity to sample their creations.
The island’s largest village is called Ganges and it’s home to the very popular Saturday farmers’ market (April to October). Wander around town and hike just outside of it, check out the local products for sale at Mouat’s Trading Company, or catch a show at the ArtSpring Theatre. Take the self-guided Salt Spring Studio Tour to visit galleries, shops, and farms throughout Salt Spring plus sample the island’s cider, wine, and beer.
Where to stay on Salt Spring Island: Hastings House is a luxe Relais & Châteaux property with the cuisine and hospitality the brand is famous for (including fresh muffins delivered to your door each morning). Most of the rooms at Harbour House Hotel have views of the sunrise over the Salish Sea.
How to get there: Salt Spring Island is the most accessible of the Gulf Islands. From Vancouver it can be reached by seaplane (with Harbour Air and Seair) and by ferry from both Vancouver’s Tsawwassen terminal and Victoria’s Swartz Bay (come as a foot passenger; efforts are underway to reduce traffic and make it easier to visit Salt Spring without a car).
The Sunshine Coast
BC’s Sunshine Coast has several charming towns including Gibsons (featured on the 1972-1990 TV show The Beachcombers), Sechelt, and Halfmoon Bay.
Basing yourself near the town of Egmont, 80 minutes from the ferry terminal, means you’re close to the twice-daily tidal phenomenon at Skookumchuck Narrows. Here, the reversing tide forms massive rapids, whirlpools, and a standing wave that can be surfed, kayaked, and paddeboarded — or just watched from the safety of shore. Go biking, hiking, beachcombing, or perhaps take a zodiac tour to the “Grand Canyon of BC,” Princess Louisa Inlet, where you’ll see ancient Coast Salish petroglyphs, waterfalls, and perhaps seals, sea lions, eagles, cormorants, osprey, and grizzlies.
Where to stay: In Egmont, West Coast Wilderness Lodge offers ocean and forest views from your own deck. In Halfmoon Bay, you can stay in a tenthouse hidden along a forest boardwalk at Rockwater Secret Cove Resort.
How to get there: While part of BC’s mainland, the Sunshine Coast is not reachable by road. Seaplanes from Victoria and Vancouver (with Harbour Air and Sunshine Coast Air), as well as the 40-minute Horseshoe Bay-Langdale ferry will get you there.
This southeastern BC town rewards with more restaurants and cafes per capita than San Francisco (including fave gathering spot Oso Negro Coffee), amazing second-hand clothing shops like Strutters, and art galleries showcasing the work of local makers. For those who want to take in the spectacular scenery of the region, you can go mountain biking, swimming in hot springs at Ainsworth or off sandy beaches at Lakeside Park, ski in 40 feet of powder at Whitewater Ski Resort, or take the world’s longest free ferry ride. Don’t forget to dedicate some time to people-watching – Nelson is a fun and quirky little town with an attitude to match.
Where to stay: The Hume Hotel & Spa, first built in 1898, has modern amenities, heritage charm, and an on-site spa for all your relaxation needs. Or go for more Nordic minimalism at The Adventure Hotel. In Rossland, the Josie hotel is right at the base of RED Mountain.
How to get there: You’ll need an eight-hour drive or an Air Canada flight to Castlegar from Vancouver to get to Nelson.
You can also take a long weekend in the province of Alberta — the drive from the prairie city of Calgary into the towering Rocky Mountains alone is almost worth the trip. The town of Banff is the most popular to stay. There are plenty of interesting stops on the way: admire hoodoos and turquoise glacial lakes, hike to petroglyphs and waterfalls, and potentially see elk and other wildlife near the highway. Once in Banff, visit the hot springs, ski at Norquay, Sunshine, or Lake Louise, ride the gondolas, explore the cave under Grotto Mountain, or take a hike in the fresh mountain air.
Where to stay in Banff: The iconic stay is at the “Castle in the Rockies,” Fairmont Banff Springs. Even if you’re staying elsewhere, book a meal (perhaps the fondue experience at Waldhaus) or a treatment at Willow Stream Spa (it includes soaks in the indoor mineral pool and waterfalls and outdoor hot tub with mountain views), and be sure to leave time to take a wander around this historic building and grounds. Alternatively, check out Matador’s list of the best Airbnbs in Banff.
How to get there: Both Alaska Airlines and WestJet/Delta will get you from Seattle to Calgary in under two hours. Then, rent a car or take the Banff Airporter into the mountains; without stops it takes about 90 minutes to get to Banff. Note that Banff is inside the national park, so to stay in Banff you’ll need a National Park Pass, which can be purchased from your car at the park gates.