Touring Sea To Sky in the shoulder season

Southwestern B.C. region quickly establishing itself as a craft brewing mecca

We are blessed with one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the world.

Such a treasure in our own backyard is often easily overlooked. In the early years of my travels to Whistler, Highway 99 North was known as one of the most dangerous drives in the province. After many upgrades, culminating with the pre-Olympic construction, the Sea to Sky Highway is a marvel of engineering that leaves you free to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. A four-day shoulder season/craft beer trip from Vancouver to Pemberton is a perfect way to experience the region

DAY 1

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A wonderful thing about a trip like this is there is no need to start at the crack of dawn. On the first day a 9 a.m. departure gives you plenty of time. We decided to use a Nissan Rogue rental car from Avis: relatively compact, 4x4 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 the breakfast as one of the best in the Lower Mainland. Heading off from Horseshoe to Squamish there are quite a few sights worth taking the time to check out. Normally a 45 minute drive, it can easily take six plus hours as a tourist. The first stop is at Porteau Cove. From the old ferry dock, just off the highway, you can get amazing views down Howe Sound south towards Anvil Island, Horseshoe Bay and Bowen Island. There is also a provincial campground at the site. Further up the highway is the historic Britannia Mine Museum. Here you have an opportunity to travel into the mine on an electric train and experience an informative guided demonstration about methods of mining used over the 70 years it was active as a copper mine. The main 11-storey building has been beautifully restored and is a Historic National Monument.

Further up the road the next stop is Shannon Falls at the 58 kilometre  mark. It is the third highest waterfall in British Columbia at 335 metres. In the shoulder season it will most likely be flowing at a higher volume than summer or winter.

A very short distance up the highway is the Sea to Sky Gondola. The 12-minute ride to the top is highly recommended no matter what the weather. Once up at the peak there is a fully licensed cafeteria with Howe Sound craft beer on tap. Tina Legacie, guest services manager, says “HSB actually created the beer for us, called “Sky Pilot” – named after one of the peaks above the gondola.”

By late afternoon it is beer time in Squamish. We stayed at the cosy Howe Sound Inn. Very comfortable rooms and a great pub with excellent food all under one roof. Check ahead to see if you can get a reservation for a brewery tour. HSB is a prolific brewery with many special releases added to their main line every year.

We met with Leslie Fenn, owner of Howe Sound Brewery for a beer tasting, appetizers and dinner. Gourmet food accompanied the regular and special releases. The high vaulted ceiling with a large picture window in the brew pub frames a wonderful view of the Stawamus Chief.

Rumour has it that a few more breweries are opening in 2017 – we need to return to Squamish for further research later this year.

DAY 2

Morning comes all too quickly as another day of sightseeing and exploring craft breweries awaits. For a delicious out-in-the wilderness breakfast go past Brackendale and take a left turn at the Squamish Valley Road/airport light. Travel down Squamish Valley Road to Fergie’s Café in Paradise Valley for a local-sourced meal, in a rainforest setting right beside the Cheakamus River.

On the road again our next stop is Brandywine Falls set in the middle of a major volcanic landscape. Only a short 15-minute walk from the parking lot through a lush forest will bring you to the viewpoint overlooking the falls. At the southern end of the trail is the Daisy Lake viewpoint with illustrated display signs telling the story of the 34,000 year fiery past of the Garibaldi Volcanic Belt.

Continuing 20 minutes north we arrived in Whistler Village in time for check-in at the Pan Pacific in the centre of Whistler. During shoulder season you can get a suite for half the price of winter or summer with a buffet breakfast included.

Arriving in time for lunch at the Whistler Brewhouse sets the tone for 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 a midday palate.  

After the Brewhouse it was time to head to Function Junction for some afternoon tastings at Whistler Brewing and Coast Mountain Brewing. I would recommend leaving the car parked in Whistler and taking a taxi or catching local transit in order to free up some time to sample at FJ.

Whistler Brewing’s head brewmaster, Matt Dean, is sure to have some great seasonal beer for you to try.

Just around the corner is Coast Mountain Brewery. Run by Kevin Winter and his wife, they produce amazing small batch beers. The Saison on tap during our visit was possibly the best I have ever had. Taxi back to Whistler and out to Dubh Linn Gate Irish Pub for dinner. On the weekends there is live music for your listening pleasure.
 
DAY 3

After a buffet breakfast and checking out of the hotel, it is off to the world class Audain Art Museum. A wonderful display of privately collected West Coast native and contemporary art has been gathered into an unique architectural designed building at 4350 Blackcomb Way – right behind Whistler North Village. The current exhibition is contemporary photographer Fred Herzog’s Shadowlands running through May 22.

Getting back out on the highway with a growler or two in the trunk, we decided to do a little 4x4ing before heading to Pemberton. Depending on the season, there are many options to fit in some backcountry sightseeing. We decided to head up to Callaghan Lake. The turn-off is south of Whistler with a paved road all the way to the turn-off just before the Olympic Callaghan Nordic Centre. We hit some snow on the road near the lake, but otherwise a relatively easy 4x4 drive.

Once back out on the highway heading north again, 20 kilometres past Whistler, the next sight is Nairn Falls. The powerful double waterfall is very dramatic in the shoulder season when there is a high volume of water. Be sure to stay on the trails and within the fenced areas as the rocks are extremely slick year-round.

We arrived at our final destination of Pemberton early afternoon. This traditional sleepy town is a very happening place these days. With two new breweries slated to open this year and a solid distillery already in place Pemberton is establishing a name for itself in craft brewing. Consisting of a beautiful lush valley, hemmed in on all sides with mountains looming straight up, it has a very exclusive vibe. Twelve kilometres west of town is a massive 500 acre Across The Creek Organics potato/wheat farm.

In the summer of 2016, owner Bruce Miller grew for the first time 20 acres of barley. His wife, Brenda, is an avid home brewer and also had a dream of having a brewery, once their six boys were grown up. Part of having their brewery is growing their own barley. During our visit Brenda was working with Kevin down at Coast Mountain Brewing as an apprentice – getting valuable mentoring for her own organic brewery this year. While visiting the farm be sure to purchase a bag of German Butter Potatoes. Chefs from all over the Lower Mainland take the trip to the farm to fill their vans with these golden gems.

DAY 4

After picking up some muffins and coffee in town we headed east to meet Tyler Schramm, distiller and owner, at Pemberton Distillery. Their flagship products include organic vodka, gin, absinthe, schnapps and liqueurs made from Pemberton Valley potatoes sourced 16 kilometres away from Bruce Miller’s farm. If none of those items tickle your fancy there is also whiskey and brandy offered.

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 come from a solid background history of five star restaurants in Vancouver and B.C. resorts. Cindy Yew, owner/manager states “the goal for Mile One is to be the culinary Base Camp of your day. Get fuelled 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 very reasonably priced and over the top in the quality of locally sourced ingredients and flavour. Make sure you try their buttermilk bread and buns from the adjoining market bakery. There is a generous amount of craft beer available in bottles and in the near future the local breweries will be on tap.

Best time to travel on a budget for the best accommodation deals is late March to mid-May and mid September to mid-November.

This article first appeared in What’s Brewing, Spring 2017: whatsbrewing.ca/2017/04/sea-sky-vacation-adventure.

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