sea to sky getaway

We may not be forging trails through the Amazon or spending our days wandering the ruins of ancient cities, but we still have the travel bug. Getting away for the weekend is the best we can do right now, but one quick trip we always enjoy is a run up the Sea to Sky Highway, the section of highway 99 that runs from Vancouver to Whistler (and beyond). It was a wet, early spring weekend, so we didn’t visit any of the natural attractions (Shannon Falls, Stawamus Chief, and many lakes), but instead focused on three popular museums along this stretch of recently rebuilt and widened road.

About an hour up the highway from Vancouver is a massive 100+ year old copper mine, once the largest in the British Empire but now a unique tourist attraction well worth pulling off the highway for. The central attraction at the Britannia Mine Museum is the ancient 26-story gravity-driven milling tower that clings to the side of the mountain overlooking Howe Sound. When you pay your admission, say yes to the train, a 45-minute tour on rails and on foot, deep underground and then into the mill. Our train conductor and guide, Marshall, worked the mines for many years prior to its closure in 1974 (due to low world copper prices). He gave a great tour, introducing us to the tools and working conditions, honey pots, and mucking. Don’t wear your best shoes; the tunnel is cool, damp, and muddy!

Some of the equipment recalls the very early days of the mine, rebuilt or expanded three times since 1904. Working this mine was clearly hard, back-breaking and unhealthy. It is remarkable that all 50 million tons of ore produced here, pried with drills and dynamite from the hard rock lining 200 km of tunnels, had to be loaded one shovel full at a time into ore cars for transport into the mill. Numerous original buildings on site feature displays of old equipment and explanations of the numerous processes underway here over the years: blacksmithing, assaying, engineering, ore processing, and more.

We then headed for Whistler, with a stop to refill our coffee mugs at Squamish. For non-skiers, Whistler doesn’t have much to offer by way of attractions (just lots of shopping, eating and drinking). But a ten-minute walk from the parking lots behind the main village is the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre. It has an excellent series of displays on the main floor that introduce visitors to the historic and contemporary lives and livelihoods of the Squamish and Lil’wat First Nations. Through film, text panels, artworks, artifacts, and guided tours, there is a lot to absorb and appreciate. The tours include a traditional drumming and singing demonstration, and hands-on activities are offered. We were unlucky to visit on a day when both the upstairs temporary exhibition rooms and the outside display area including the longhouse and Istken (pit house) were closed for installations or renovations (that was two weeks ago, everything should be open by now).

Speaking of eating and drinking, our favourite lunch or dinner stop in the village is Brewhouse – part of the Mark James group of brewery restaurants, which means fresh beer and tasty pub fare. Yum!

We zipped back to Squamish and stayed the night at the Executive Suites Garibaldi Springs. We had purchased our accommodation through Groupon, and did not realize it was located off the highway, far from downtown Squamish. So much for walking to our favourite Squamish brewpub, operated by Howe Sound Brewing. Fortunately, there was a fundraiser for the local women’s shelter that night at the hotel and tickets were still available, so it wasn’t a wasted evening.

On Sunday we headed over to the West Coast Railway Heritage Park to see what was new. We last visited this railroader’s playground several years ago; now there is a large roundhouse that shelters several engines, cabooses, and other railway cars. It’s great to be able to see the old machines up close inside a great hall because every time we go, it is either raining, or between showers; the case this time as well.

Perhaps the main attraction inside the roundhouse is the massive Royal Hudson 2860 steam locomotive, which some local readers will remember used to run tourists from North Vancouver to Squamish and back through the 1980s and 1990s. It looks like it could be fired up at any time with the nearby old passenger cars in tow. A large machine shop holds a couple of passenger cars undergoing reconstruction – you can see how much work goes into restoring railcars that in some cases sat rotting in railway yards for decades, or had been converted into storage sheds or even an artist’s studio. My favourite rail car in the outdoor area was the restored mail car, complete with desks, rows and rows of sorting bags, and a display describing the exploits of stagecoach and train robber Billy Miner.

While some of the passenger and sleeper cars have been restored, others have been turned into display rooms with railway equipment, old signs and much more; one set of cars features an extensive model railway layout. We didn’t go for a ride, but there is also a miniature railway that circles the 12-acre site. The park is hidden in the woods just north of Squamish town centre. There’s not much signage anywhere until you’re right there, so do consult a map before heading in.

One more coffee refill, and then we headed for home. Weekend tally: three museums, one brewpub, one black bear sighting, and a modest contribution to protecting women escaping male violence.