Canada is an absolutely stunning country. It has wide open spaces and turquoise blue lakes, surrounded by the snowy caps of the Rocky Mountains. There are hot springs and local breweries, poutine and bear jams. It is an ideal place to explore and grow as a family.
This itinerary covers the sights, history and culture of Vancouver, and gets you out into the Alps, exploring the lakes and away from the crowds.
Day One and Two – Vancouver Island
Vancouver is home to bears, plentiful deer, sea lions and cougars(!!). There’s whale and dolphin watching, otters to spot, and the elusive grey wolf.
The flight to the island is itself worthy of making the trip, with the stunning harbour views and wildlife spotting. Alternatively, you can get up close and personal with a ferry trip.
We were lucky enough to be hosted by friends who showed us the “local” spots.
Goats on the Roof
Goats on the Roof is a large country market, with a grass roof and goats grazing on the roof. The market itself offers food products, produce, bakery and a deli amongst the retail outlets. It is a must see if you are around Nainamo, but check if the goats are going to be out first. We were there in June and they were out, but some reviews say they are not out in the colder months.
Also worth checking out (if you’re not used to these large outdoor stores) is Cabelas. Cabelas is an outdoor hunting and fishing store on a scale we had never seen before! Definitely worth the visit, not only to marvel at the size but to view the life-sized models of Canadian animals. Also, a fantastic place to shop, a lot cheaper than souvenir shops.
Our hosts had a boat, so we were able to spend a beautiful day out on Nainamo Harbour trawling for salmon and watching the log barges, as well as seal spotting at Gabriola Island. Unfortunately, there were no orcas out today.
If you are going to spend some time on the island I would definitely recommend a boat trip. Orca Dreams looks amazing and offers multi-day luxury camping and whale watching in the wilderness of Vancouver Island.
When planning your trip to Vancouver Island, it pays to remember how large the island is – roughly half the size of New Zealand! So a trip from one end to the other would take around 7 hours to drive.
Our primary reason to visit Vancouver Island was to visit friends. If you wanted to skip this destination, you could easily add another day in Vancouver, and potentially a day in Calgary at the end of the trip.
For more details check out our visit to Vancouver Island It all starts now.
Day Three and Four – Vancouver
Vancouver is a city of beauty and culture. A city of depth. With two days to spend, it’s a matter of fitting in everything you can – and having comfortable shoes.
My own personal favs had to be the beauty and calmness of the waterfront, and eating local delicacies – everywhere!
Start the day EARLY with a walk along the waterfront. Watch the sunrise over the harbour, walk past the gorgeous little houseboats and the plethora of float planes, check out the convention centre before the crowds of the day, and get your pic with the Olympic Torch.
Grab a latte for breakfast and get ready for the day.
One option for getting around Vancouver is a hop on hop off bus. These are expensive, but the difficulty with parking makes it more convenient than renting a car. You can also get a two-day pass, as Stanley Park is worthy of its own day.
Stanley Park is huge, it covers 1,000 acres and would take two or three hours to walk the 9km journey around the perimeter. The reality is, with attractions all over the place, and a great deal of crisscrossing, you are likely to walk a fair bit more than this.
My top ten things to do in Stanley Park:
- I would highly recommend hiring cycles and start with a bike around the park, allow approximately an hour for this.
- Then there is art in the park to explore, and towering totem poles at one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist attractions.
- Take a horse-drawn carriage ride.
- Hike the nature trails and explore nature at Beaver Lake and the Lost Lagoon.
- Swim at the beaches or in the heated freshwater swimming pool.
- Vancouver Aquarium – Canada’s largest aquarium and home to more than 70,000 animals.
- Have fun in the water park.
- If you have small children they would also enjoy the Stanley Park Miniature Train through the towering cedars and Douglas fir trees.
- Find the relics of the Stanley Park Zoo and the long forgotten polar-bear enclosure – a Vancouver institution until 1996, and now hiding, unknown to most visitors.
Your second (or alternate) day on the hop on hop off bus is a chance to explore a number of other Vancouver institutions.
Granville Island was historically a home to factories and sawmills, and is now a favourite both with locals and visitors. There is an amazing market full of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, baking, and also cooked foods – both local and exotic, not to mention a variety of freshly brewed coffees.
The “island” is also one of the city’s key cultural districts with theatres, artisan workshops and craft studios.
The kids LOVED learning with the interactive displays at Science World. Highly recommended for an afternoon in Vancouver.
Also a lovely waterfront spot and playground for a picnic lunch.
Finish the day at the historic Gastown, and enjoy a cold drink and some great food at one of the local establishments. Gastown is Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood, and the hop on hop off bus provides a lesson in its rich history.
Gastown is home to a thriving fashion scene, boutiques, one-of-a-kind galleries and fantastic food. It’s a gathering place for stylish locals and an ideal neighbourhood to explore on foot.
For more details, including where to stay in Vancouver (we have a fabulous recommendation), and where to book tickets, as well as how to geocache in Stanely Park, follow our journey – Vancouver with two children, walking shoes… and the man flu.
Day Five, Six and Seven – Jasper National Park
Day Five was spent on the train to Jasper National Park. The train was a great chance to relax, and to unplug from the cities and the online world, and to connect with our children. No WIFI, no screens. Just old-fashioned books, glass-domed cars, wildlife spotting, good service, great food, and us.
The scenery in Jasper National Park is stunning, there is so much to see. Although we only had one day in Jasper, we definitely needed another so this itinerary factors in an additional day in Jasper.
Jasper is surrounded by the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and at almost every turn there are vistas of blue lakes or rushing rivers, and not to mention the meandering wildlife. Of all the places we visited on this trip, Jasper National Park was my favourite.
The drive up to Meitte Hot Springs via Highway 16 itself is stunning and a great opportunity to spot wildlife. We didn’t spot a bear (they had seen a number the day before, and it appears they spotted one just after we left), but we did find elk and mountain goats.
The Hot Springs themselves were beautiful, and feature the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies. Imagine soaking away the stresses of everyday life, surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The locals gave us their ‘insider tip’ – they recommended soaking in the hot pool, followed by a quick dip in the cold plunge pool, then back into the hot pool. This was recommended as a fantastic way of getting the circulation going. I wasn’t brave enough, I was just enjoying my soak.
Another extremely scenic drive – Maligne Lake Drive is a long winding road through a glacier valley, running between the Maligne and Elizabeth mountain ranges. The scenery included the towering peaks of the Rocky Mountains, turquoise coloured glacier lakes, the rushing Maligne River and plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife.
Our destination – the glacier-fed Lake Maligne, is often promoted as one of the most beautiful lakes in the Jasper National Park. It is famed for its baby blue water and is surrounded by the rocky, photogenic peaks of the Canadian Rockies.
Lake Maligne was one of our favourite stops. I would absolutely recommend it has a “must do” in Jasper.
I think the photos speak for themselves.
In Jasper, your best bets for spotting wildlife are driving along Highway 93A (‘the old highway’), Highway 16 (to Meitte Road), or the Maligne Lake Road. The best time for spotting wildlife is early in the morning or late in the evening.
We have travelled both Highway 16 (and Meitte Road, to the Hot Springs) and Maligne Lake Road, today we’ve decided to take the old Highway 93A out of Jasper to try to spot the elusive bears. We were taking it slow, with the girls and I looking for signs of bears. The real giveaway was the Parks of Canada truck parked on the side of the road with its hazards on. It drove off as we arrived, but they had already given it away. They’d spotted a mummy bear with her two cubs grazing in the forest just off the side of the road. It was breath-taking. We stayed in the car, took our photos, and moved on before we disturbed her. But we were absolutely in love.
Day Eight – Icefields Parkway
This itinerary is planned around the Icefields Parkway.
The Icefields Parkway (Highway 93, or ‘Promenade des Glaciers’ in French) is a 230km majestic drive between Jasper and Banff. I have never travelled any other road in the world that has such a diversity of attractions – aquamarine lakes, spectacular mountain ranges, rushing waterfalls, glaciers and wildlife! A UNESCO World Heritage Site in its own right.
A plethora of stops along the way provide opportunities to marvel at the phenomenal natural scenery.
The Columbia Icefield is a ‘must-stop’ destination. Book a tour onto the glacier itself in a snow-coach. Try ancient glacier water. Learn about global warming. Hang out on the ice.
Alternatively, if your budget doesn’t stretch to a snow-coach trip onto the glacier itself you can view the glacier from either the car park or the upper deck at the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre (opposite side of the road).
Glacier Sky Walk
The Sky Walk is a glass-floored observation platform 280 metres above the Sunwapta Valley.
The Sky Walk itself was spectacular (but difficult to get a decent photo). If you don’t like heights this might not be your favourite spot on the Icefields Parkway.
“A traffic jam caused by tourists stopping to look at bears near the road”.
Bears, bears everywhere. This bear really entertained the kids (and the crowds) with what they named “grizzlastics”. He was having a great time sunning himself on a hill, laying down, sticking his but in the air and at the crowds. We got the impression he was a regular.
Peyto Lake and Bow Summit Lookout
This 2.9km walk to the Bow Summit Lookout is absolutely worth it for this lake’s stunning blue waters and the Instagram worthy pic!
Tourists are often photographed sitting high up on a cliff overlooking the aquamarine lake. When you get there in real life – you realise there are several safety barriers these tourists must be climbing up/over and around to get that iconic shot. We’ve decided to stay within safety barriers, particularly with children in tow – so our photos are from the safety of the lookout.
Bow Lake is another stunning lake lining the Icefields Parkway and a perfect place to view more glaciers – the Crowfoot Glacier, Wapta Icefield and Bow Glacier. And of course, it is surrounded by stunning mountains.
Get all the details in our blog Icefields Parkway
Day Nine and Ten – Lake Louise, Banff National Park
Snow, snow everywhere.
Lake Louise is another stunning turquoise, glacier-fed lake ringed by mountainous peaks. It is the most photographed spot in the Canadian Rockies (Spirit Island at Lake Maligne the second most photographed spot!). The Lake is overlooked by the Chateau (some say stately, I may say a monstrosity). There are hiking trails winding up the Alps to the Lake Agnes Tea House for a bird’s-eye view and hearty scones and tea. There’s a canoe dock in summer, and a skating rink on the frozen lake in winter.
But today – there was just snow!
Bow Valley Parkway
Get off the Highway and take the scenic route whenever you can! (if for no other reason than to avoid the motorway).
The Bow Valley Parkway runs between Lake Louise and Banff town and is part of the Banff National Park, another “road less travelled”.
A (usually) picturesque drive with plenty of wildlife and more breathtaking views of the Alps. Stunning turquoise blue water, waterfalls, glaciers, snowy peaks, and many viewing points to stop.
Early morning your dusk are your best times to spot wildlife.
Again the photos speak for themselves – this is the usual view:
Although this happened the day we were there:
Regardless of the visibility, there is still a great museum at the top of the gondola and a surprisingly quiet indoor spot to hang out on a snowy day in Banff!
We had planned to spend the day in Calgary before flying out in the evening, however, unfortunately, our flight was cancelled and we needed to catch the early flight to get into Billings the same day. So the only part of Calgary we experienced was the Airport.
However, if you want to explore Calgary, you could try the Tourism Calgary website.
An Amazing Journey Series
Five years ago we re-evaluated our lives and our goals after the sudden loss of my mother in law. We vowed to slow down and to enjoy life with our small children. We got outside and explored. And we travelled.
When my daughter was born on Independence Day I had always dreamed of taking her to see the fireworks at Disneyland for her birthday. So by the time we made the trip from New Zealand for her 12th birthday, it had been years in the planning.
But we weren’t going to go all that way without making the most of it! We made a bucket list, starting at Yellowstone in the North and finishing at Disneyland on Independence Day. But how to get to Yellowstone? Well, why not through Canada?
So we flew into Vancouver and took the train up to Jasper NP. We saw a bear and her cubs in Jasper, swam in hot pools and visited the amazing blue lakes on the Icefield Parkway. We drunk glacier water and ate Poutine, got snowed on in Banff, drove the Bear Tooth Highway into Yellowstone NP – froze – thawed out and ate toasted Brussell Sprouts on a terrace overlooking the Grand Tetons, stood in the middle of the road to take our ‘Forest Gump’ photo, camped in 40 degree heat at Monument Valley, hiked at Arches NP, ate all you can eat pancakes for Father’s Day (my husband got two Father’s Days!) and climbed to the Cliff Houses at Messe Verde.
The girls did their homework perched on a rock inside the Grand Canyon. I cried on Route 66 remembering my father’s unfulfilled dream to visit the iconic stretch of Highway. We melted in the searing heat at Las Vegas! And shared a few swear words as we tried to traverse the Strip in a 10′ wide RV on a Friday night. We camped and hiked and fell in love with Yosemite NP and collected wines from Napa Valley. We explored the cute historical Cole Valley in San Francisco and watched Whales (and Trump supporters) from the Golden Gate Bridge. And spent a fortune at the American Girl Doll store, met the amazing and generous locals at Cambria, ate King Crab on Santa Barbara Pier and breakfast burritos at Flows Cafe at Disney California.
By the time we checked in at LAX for the long trip home – we had travelled 4000 miles by car, train, helicopter, plane and RV. We had cooked on BBQs and open fires and toasted marshmallows. We’d eaten shrimp nachos and champagne ice cream sundaes. We were self-proclaimed Walmart experts and had our favourite Starbucks orders. We’d met Micky and Mini and spent Miss T’s birthday at Disneyland on the 4th July.
And the best part of all of it? Spending five uninterrupted weeks with my children.
I’m going to share our journey on my blog Accounting4chaos, as well as my tips for travelling with children, saving money, self-catering in hotel rooms, surviving Disneyland (you shouldn’t have to wait in ques) and, of course, our itinerary.