Having already explored some of the sea along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, I’m soaring into the sky like never before.
Glacier Air’s flightseeing tour of Squamish Airport’s scenic surroundings marks the first time I’ve taken control of anything with wings. Halfway through the 25-minute jaunt amid sunny and neophyte-friendly spring skies, pilot Francois Leh removes his hands and feet from his half of the Cessna 172’s dual-control system.
A few tentative yoke turns and flap-adjustments later – along with plenty of calming instruction from Leh – I’m encouraged to bank left towards the Tantalus Range and its namesake peak. Within minutes, the glacier-strewn slopes seem close enough to touch as I guide the plane over Lake Lovely Water, a midnight-blue keyhole set amid jagged crevasses and towering rock spires.
My three-day Sea-to-Sky road trip is more than living up to its name, yet I’m only a third of the way along the 140-kilometre route north of Vancouver. While the surrounding natural beauty hasn’t changed much since the highway opened in 1958, the 2010 Winter Olympics prompted the provincial government to vastly improve the driving experience by widening and dividing much of the route, adding barriers and rest stops and upgrading exits.
All the better for making the memorable pit stops listed here, which encompass sea, sky and all manner of adventurous and awe-inspiring diversions in between.
Squamish Estuary kayak tour
Less than two hours after watching dawn break over Howe Sound from the Whytecliff Lookout Point in Horseshoe Bay – the Sea-to-Sky’s southern gateway – I’m plying the languid waters of the Squamish River Estuary with a Sea-to-Sky Adventure Company guide. The three-hour morning tour offers a gentle introduction to the “Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada,” as Squamish, B.C., is known, in part by providing superb views of the iconic Stawamus Chief – a 702-metre-tall chunk of granite – and of wind-whipped Howe Sound, which are legendary among rock climbers and kiteboarders.
Mossy abandoned moorings rise out of the river as we approach the sound, and as if on cue, the haunting call of a loon pierces the still morning air. Later, we spot a pair of great blue herons, which share the diverse ecosystem with otters, harbour seals, bald eagles and belted kingfishers.
The Chief Trail
The kayak tour wraps up just in time for lunch at the Howe Sound Brewery Restaurant on the southern outskirts of downtown Squamish. The high-ceilinged, amply patioed venue pours an array of hand-pulled ales and lagers, one of which pairs deliciously with an overflowing Sesame Avocado Power Bowl.
Next, I begin the five-kilometre ascent of the nearby Stawamus Chief, one of the world’s largest free-standing granite monoliths. Unlike the Rock of Gibraltar, there’s no cable car. Rather, hikers must make their way up the Chief Trail’s innumerable stairs and switchbacks, which culminate in a series of rocky outcroppings that practically beg for ‘king of the world’ selfies to be snapped.
Shannon Falls Provincial Park
Knees aching from my gravity-fuelled descent of the Chief, I wobble along the short hiking trail that leads to Shannon Falls Provincial Park. Comprising a series of cliffs rising 335 metres above the Sea-to-Sky Highway, B.C.’s third-highest cascade bathes me in pleasantly cool mist as I admire its tumbling waters from an expansive viewing platform.
The steaming waters of the outdoor hot tub at Squamish’s Executive Suites Hotel and Resort proves similarly invigorating at the end of an action-packed first day. The same goes for a 10-ounce chargrilled rib-eye at the in-house Norman Rudy’s pub, which was named after a pair of local avalanche-rescue dogs.
Sea to Sky Gondola
Sure, I could hike the steep 7.5-kilometre trail to the Sea to Sky Gondola’s Summit Lodge, but given my exertions on the Chief the day before, I feel I’ve earned a paid ride up. Ten minutes and 885 vertical metres later, coffee in hand, I watch the morning sun illuminate the Sky Pilot massif from a 465-square-metrewest-facing patio, one of three viewing platforms linked by a pair of interpretive walking loops. From there, I step out onto the 100-metre-long Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge, which adds a vertiginous dimension to the glorious alpine vistas.
There’s plenty to do up here, what with the Mountain Skills Academy & Adventures tour operator offering one-hour via ferrata (protected climbing route) excursions across nearby cliffs, bouldering and rock-climbing nearby, and a sprawling network of hiking trails providing access to the B.C. backcountry. This list may grow even longer in 2020, when a new Elevated Tree Walk is slated to wind 26 metres into the sky above the aptly named Panorama Ridge.
I only have time to admire the views from the three platforms before taking the gondola back down. I have a date with a Cessna, after all.
After the flight, and bidding Glacier Air’s Leh goodbye, I turn my rental car north towards Whistler, home of North America’s largest ski resort.
Peak 2 Peak Gondola and Cloudraker Skybridge
With Whistler now welcoming more visitors in summer than in winter – 1.7 million versus 1.4 million – it’s hardly surprising that the resort has been adding warm-weather diversions. The new Cloudraker Skybridge is a prime example. Spanning Whistler Bowl, the 130-metre-long cantilevered walkway leads to the Raven’s Eye viewing platform near the summit of Whistler Mountain.
The viewing platform is the culmination of a unique alpine journey. Starting from my luxurious digs at Nita Lake Lodge, I grab a complimentary bicycle and pedal along a picturesque lakeside path to the five-kilometre-long Whistler Village Gondola, which carries me up to the Roundhouse Lodge and Restaurant. From there, a short hike leads to the Peak Chairlift, which carries visitors to the Skybridge.
An even shorter stroll leads to the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, which in 2008 became the world’s first lift to join two adjacent mountains. It holds world records for the longest free span between towers (3.03 kilometres) and elevation (436 metres), but beyond these impressive stats, the gondola is pleasingly practical, carrying sightseers and hikers from the Roundhouse to Blackcomb’s Rendezvous Restaurant in just 11 minutes and delivering spectacular alpine views along the way. Since late 2018, the new Blackcomb Gondola has combined with Peak 2 Peak and the Whistler Village Gondola to offer the only three-gondola connection.
Strolling from glass-floored gondola cabins to lofty lookouts provides plenty of eye candy, to be sure, but by now I’m looking to get the adrenalin flowing. That’s where Ziptrek Ecotours comes in. The dense evergreen forest along Fitzsimmons Creek is home to 11 ziplines and dozens of bridges and viewing platforms, the highlight being the Sasquatch. Reaching speeds of more than 100 kilometres an hour, the longest zip line in Canada spans more than two kilometres as it links Blackcomb and Whistler mountains.
My own screams still ringing in my ears, I ride over to the Scandinave Spa Whistler to ease my weary limbs in the 2,320-square-metre 25,000-square-foot complex of Nordic-inspired pools, steam rooms and saunas.
Sea, sky, and eucalyptus-scented steam – together at last.
The writer travel was supported in part by Destination British Columbia. It did not review or approve this article.