Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia, and the Canadian Rockies region, which stretches into the province of Alberta, are incredibly diverse, with distinct regions that vary both in geography and culture.
Vancouver is one of the most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities in the world. While there are certainly good museums and tourist sights, what we love most are the incredible mosaic of people and languages, the bustle of the streets, the mountains reaching down into the sea, and the wonderful food. Kayaking and canoeing are just off your front step in False Creek and the Georgia Strait, and skiing just up the road at Whistler/Blackcomb Mountain Resorts, one of the continent's greatest ski areas.
Vancouver Island is a world apart from busy urban Vancouver. At the island's southern tip is the British Columbia capital of Victoria, a small, charming city that makes a lot of fuss about its Merry Olde Englishness. In summer, the crowds can be off-putting, the sham Britishness intolerable. But in the off season, Victoria is just a beautifully preserved frontier town in a magnificently scenic seaside location.
The rest of the mountainous island ranges from rural to wild. It would be easy to spend an entire vacation just on Vancouver Island, especially if you take a few days for sea kayaking on the island's wilderness west coast near Tofino, or off the east coast in the beautiful Gulf Islands. Or you can learn to scuba dive: No less an authority than Jacques Cousteau has claimed that these waters are some of the best diving environments in the world. Vancouver Island is also home to dozens of First Nations Canadian bands. If you're shopping for Native arts, this is the best single destination in western Canada.
From the northern tip of Vancouver Island, you can take the 15-hour BC Ferries trip through the famed Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, a port town just shy of the Alaska Panhandle. Getting a glimpse of the dramatically scenic Inside Passage is what fuels the Alaska-to-Vancouver cruise-ship industry; by taking this route on BC Ferries, you'll save yourself thousands of dollars and catch the same views. From Prince Rupert, you can journey out to the mystical Queen Charlotte Islands, the ancient homeland of the Haida people, or turn inland and drive up the glacier-carved Skeena River valley to Prince George, on the Fraser River.
You can also reach the upper reaches of the Fraser River from Vancouver by following Hwy. 99 north past Whistler and Lillooet to the Cariboo Country. This route follows the historic Cariboo Trail, a gold-rush stage-coach road blazed in the 1860s. The road now leads through cattle- and horse-covered grasslands, past 19th-century ranches, and by lakes thick with trout. The gold rush started at Barkerville, which is now one of the best-preserved ghost towns in North America. In addition to this great family destination, the Cariboo Country offers the province's best guest ranches and rustic lakeside fishing resorts.
The Thompson River meets the Fraser River south of Lillooet. This mighty river's southern fork has its headwaters in the Shuswap Lakes, a series of interconnected lakes that are favorites of houseboaters. The north fork Thompson River rises in the mountains of Wells Gray Provincial Park, one of British Columbia's neglected gems. Hiking and camping are as compelling as in the nearby Canadian Rockies, but without the overwhelming crowds.
One of the best summer family destinations in western Canada is the Okanagan Valley. Stretching from the U.S.-Canadian border nearly 200km (124 miles) north to Vernon, this arid canyon is filled with glacier-trenched lakes, which in summer become the playground for all manner of watersports. The summer heat is also good for wine grapes: This is the center for British Columbia's growing wine industry. Add to that a dozen golf courses and excellent lodging and dining in the cities of Penticton and Kelowna, and you've got the makings for an excellent vacation.
The Canadian Rockies are among the most dramatically scenic destinations in the world. Unfortunately, this is hardly a secret -- you'll find the entire area dripping with tourists in summer and early fall. Banff and Jasper national parks in Alberta are especially busy; however, it's hard to find fault with the sheer beauty of these places. The British Columbia side of the Rockies contains much less busy mountain parks, including Yoho, Glacier, and Kootenay national parks, plus Mount Robson Provincial Park. Another spectacular mountain retreat is Waterton Lakes National Park, which adjoins the United States' Glacier National Park.
Spending several days in the Rockies should remain a part of any western Canadian itinerary. Despite the crowds, the town of Banff is charming and filled with great hotels and fine restaurants; Lake Louise is a magical sight; and the Icefields Parkway, which joins Banff and Jasper parks, is completely spellbinding. Throughout this area, chances are good you'll see lots of wildlife, like black bears, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and elk. The parks all offer marvelous outdoor recreation, including hiking, mountain biking, climbing, and skiing.
Calgary, the city that oil built, is a friendly town in the foothills of the Rockies. One of the most prosperous cities in all of Canada, it's still a ranchers' town, and the disparity between its role as a cow town and world oil center is one of its charms. The dichotomies are never more apparent than during the Calgary Stampede, the world's largest rodeo and an excuse for turning the city into one huge party. You can also thank Calgary's prosperity for its wonderful restaurant scene.
Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, sits high above the North Saskatchewan River at the center of a vast, farm-covered plain. This welcoming city's historic district is great for strolling and eating. While Edmonton lacks the high spirits and urbane attitude of Calgary, it's no slouch when it comes to fine dining and excellent hotels. And if you enjoy shopping -- or swimming, carnival rides, or performing dolphins -- then you must visit the West Edmonton Mall, one of the world's largest shopping centers. Like a cross between Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Gap, West Ed Mall is unlike any mall you've ever seen.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.