The ink was barely dry on my driver's license in the early '70s when I set off on my first road trip from home in North Vancouver, Canada. Back then Highway 99 — or the Squamish Highway — was a dangerous, zigzagging, two-lane route chopped into the walls of the steep fiord lining scenic Howe Sound.
In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the route, now known as the Sea to Sky Highway, received a major makeover. It was widened, straightened, shortened and tamed, but remains one of the world's most spectacular seaside drives and is a veritable invitation for a road trip.
Banners announcing "Mile Zero of the Sea to Sky Highway" mark the route's starting point in West Vancouver's closely knit seaside village of Horseshoe Bay, where I picked up Linda, my longtime road-trip-buddy sister.
We were going to revisit the route, spending three days exploring the small communities, attractions and backcountry detours that travelers often miss when they scurry to the tourism behemoth that Whistler Blackcomb has become.
When we explained to locals that we are doing a Sea to Sky road trip, excluding Whistler, we got grins and thumbs up all the way from West Vancouver to the rural outpost of Pemberton 84 miles north. The experience was both nostalgic and excitingly new, because the region retains its small-town British Columbia charm while attracting an outdoorsy younger generation that aims to make the wilderness accessible.
Panoramic views of Bowen and Gambier islands unfolded as we drove toward Lions Bay for our first stop at Mile 9, a beach walk at Porteau Cove, a provincial park popular with scuba divers communing with the flora and fauna adorning a shipwreck and artificial reefs.
The park, just 35 minutes from downtown Vancouver, offers accommodations that include waterfront campsites and two log cottages built for the 2010 Olympics. The upscale Legacy Cabins, with beavers and bears carved into their big logs, have views over Howe Sound.
Eight miles farther, Britannia Beach was our favorite pit stop. At the Galileo Coffee Co., housed in a 1905 building, we picked up Canadianos (Americanos with maple syrup) to sip while sitting on the deck overlooking the snow-capped peaks of the Tantalus Range on the narrowing fiord's far side.
This cafe was the former home of the manager of the Britannia Mine, perched on the slope above us and once the British Commonwealth's biggest copper mine. It closed in the 1970s but was revamped in 2010 as the Britannia Mine Museum, a great place to experience a miner's day in the 130 miles of tunnels that snake 2,000 feet underground. We donned hard hats and hopped into a cramped miners' shuttle for an intense guided tour of those tunnels.
Our 67-year-old interpreter/guide Marshall Tichauer mined here from 1965 to 1974. He started a drill used to insert dynamite deep into the rock wall, introducing us to the job's deafening noise. He demonstrated mining by candlelight as in the early days when the isolated town of 2,000 could be reached only by steamship.
All along the route there is wilderness — roadside ponds with picnic tables and short trails into the forest, turnoffs to Alice Lake and Cat Lake, great places to lounge away an afternoon. Just north of Britannia, Shannon Falls plummets 1,100 feet down a cliff, and an easy trail leads to its misty base through towering trees and old-growth stumps.
Stawamus Chief Mountain, or the "Chief," a sheer cliff rising dramatically on our right and a landmark and renowned magnet for rock climbers who dangle from its vertical granite walls, meant we were about to reach Squamish. It's at the head of 26-mile-long Howe Sound, a community of 20,000 that has morphed in recent years from a sleepy former logging town into one of British Columbia's premier adrenaline centers.
"We're pretty much known as the 'bathroom break' halfway between Vancouver and Whistler," said Jessamy Freese, owner of Sunwolf, a riverside cabin resort. "Most people don't realize what they're missing here."
Squamish calls itself the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. It's a hot spot among rock climbers, white-water rafters, kite-boarders and mountain bikers. The town's proximity to Vancouver and reasonable housing have created a youth boom: 60% of the population is under 40.
Low-key Squamish also is known for its lively Saturday farmers market and the popular Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Co., a family-owned brew-and-gastropub.
The Chief is a major draw not only for climbers but also for hikers who tackle the six-mile, round-trip trek up and over the top for its amazing views of the sound and the glacier-capped mountains to the north. It's one of the province's most popular day hikes.
In May those amazing vistas finally became accessible to all — even those in wheelchairs — with the launch of the Sea to Sky Gondola soaring 2,900 feet alongside the Chief into the spectacular coastal ranges. In just 10 minutes you're whisked into terrain once the domain of only hikers, climbers and backcountry skiers.
At a cafe/restaurant you can dine on local cuisine, as well as take in the panoramic views from decks jutting over the cliff edge. A dizzying suspension bridge leads to easy interpretive trails that wind into the forest, with the stark-white Sky Pilot Mountain as a backdrop.
For hard-core backcountry enthusiasts the gondola is a blessing too, trimming four to five hours of hard climbing off the trail time to hook into multiday hikes in neighboring Garibaldi Provincial Park.
By Day 3, the Sea to Sky Highway had become a sleek four lanes, but it still followed an ancient trade route used by aboriginal coastal and inland peoples. As a tribute to the region's rich aboriginal history, traditional cedar-hat-topped visitor information pavilions are posted at scenic overlooks.
Our sole stop in Whistler was the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, a First Nations museum complete with grand canoes, masks, a pit house, an extensive gift shop and the Thunderbird Café, which serves aboriginal-themed, locally sourced meals such as grilled salmon bannock burgers, venison chili and bison sausages on pretzel buns.
From Whistler north the road narrowed to two lanes reminiscent of the original winding highway, with views of waterfalls, lakes and boardwalk-encircled ponds to prowl on bird-watching excursions.
Rural Pemberton, 21 miles north of the Whistler ski resort, has a population of 4,500. Although it had the fastest national growth rate — 14.7% — after the 2010 Olympics were announced, "Pembie" is still a sleepy rural outpost. Even the McDonald's has hitching posts. The general store from 1956 is just as we remembered it, crammed with items as diverse as moccasins and real-fur Davy Crockett hats and left-handed guitars.
Pemberton is not only Whistler's affordable bedroom community, it's also the site of the resort's many activities, such as paragliding, sky-diving, jet-boating and heli-skiing. There is epic mountain biking in the high country, but the flat valley floor makes cycling popular for everyone, so we cruised along the river dike route and along country roads with the backdrop of snow-capped Mt. Currie.
Pemberton is also becoming a farm-fresh food destination. Every August during the Slow Food Cycle Sunday, farms open their doors for the day so visitors can purchase baked goodies and veggies such as the region's famous potatoes that long ago gave the area the nickname Spud Valley.
Some of those renowned local organic potatoes make their way into Schramm, an organic potato vodka made at the Pemberton Distillery, where we finished our cycling trip with a tour.
"We use five types of potatoes, traditional craft methods and hand-operated copper pot stills," said master distiller Tyler Schramm, who started his popular enterprise in 2009. As we raised glasses of the crystal-clear, smooth-tasting liquor, we agreed we had never tasted more luscious taters.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VANCOUVER, CANADA
From LAX, Air Canada, American, US Airways, Alaska, WestJet, United and Delta offer nonstop service to Vancouver, and Delta, Alaska and Air Canada offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $321, including taxes and fees.
The Sea to Sky Highway begins in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, 20 minutes from downtown Vancouver.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Olympic Legacy Cabins, Porteau Cove, British Columbia; (604) 986-9371, bit.ly/1rja7x5. Waterfront log cabins built for the 2010 Olympics. From $139 a night, depending on the season.
Log House Inn, 1357 Elmwood Drive, Pemberton; (604) 894-6000, www.loghouseinn.com. Stylish log B&B within walking distance of town. From $130, including full breakfast.
Pemberton Valley Lodge, 1490 Sea to Sky Highway, Pemberton; (877) 894-2800, www.pembertonvalleylodge.com. Modern lodge with mountain views. Doubles from $140.
WHERE TO EAT
Troll's Restaurant, 6408 Bay St., West Vancouver; (604) 921-7755, trollsrestaurant.com. A Vancouver waterfront institution with main courses from $9.
Howe Sound Inn & Brewing Co.; 37801 Cleveland Ave., Squamish; (604) 892-2603 or 800-919-ALES, howesound.com. One of the best pubs for food and beer in British Columbia's Lower Mainland. Mains from $10.
Kozo Cafe, 38163 Second Ave., Squamish; (604) 567-2999, kozocafe.vpweb.ca. Small, no-frills outpost with some of the best sushi in the Vancouver area. Lunch weekdays only; from $25 for two.
WaterShed Grill; 41101 Government Road, Squamish; (604) 898-6665, www.thewatershedgrill.com. Casual pub for a cold drink on the dike overlooking the Squamish River.
Mile One Eating House; 7330 Arbutus St., Pemberton; (604) 384-3842, www.mileoneeatinghouse.com. Casual eatery with a focus on locally sourced ingredients and artisanal products. Main courses from $7.
WHAT TO DO
Britannia Mine Museum; 1 Forbes Way, Britannia Beach; (604) 896-2233, www.britanniaminemuseum.ca. Open daily. Check tour times in advance. Adults $25.
Sea to Sky Gondola; 36800 Highway 99, Squamish; (604) 892-2550, www.seatoskygondola.com. Open daily. Adults $33. Kids and family rates available.
Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, 4584 Blackcomb Way, Whistler; (866) 441-7522, www.slcc.ca. Modern venue for exploring the ancient culture of local indigenous peoples. Open daily, adults $18. Monday admission by donation.
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism BC, www.hellobc.com
Tourism Squamish, www.tourismsquamish.com
Tourism Pemberton; www.tourismpembertonbc.com