Hidden gems in British Columbia

Most visitors to British Columbia already know about the ancient rainforests and the great skiing, the sandy beaches, tranquil islands, and vibrant cities. They have covered the wildlife, the wilderness, and maybe even the wineries.
But there's more - a lot more. In a province the size of Western Europe there will always be something new, undiscovered, up-and-coming, or just well-hidden.

British Columbia's secret hotspots

The Wine Islands
Playing Sonoma to the Okanagan Valley's Napa, Vancouver Island and the Southern Gulf Islands, blessed with a Mediterranean climate and dedicated winemakers, are emerging as one of North America's newest and fastest growing wine destinations. Visitors can stop in at any of 17 wineries in the area, as well as a traditional cidery and a fruit winery. Several cheese-makers, organic farmers and farmers' markets also welcome visitors. Local chefs are in on this food renaissance too, serving the best of the islands' seafood, produce and wine in scenically-sited restaurants. Most of the vineyards are in the Cowichan Valley, 45 minutes north of Victoria, with several on the nearby Saanich Peninsula and three more a short ferry hop away on Saturna and Salt Spring Islands.

BC's Pocket Desert
Tucked into the southernmost tip of British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, this extraordinary habitat, Canada's only desert, is among the most fragile and endangered ecosystems in North America. With more than 100 rare plants and over 300 rare invertebrates it hosts one of Canada's largest concentrations of species at risk and is of international importance.

Canada's Best Little Arts Town
With its dramatic lake and mountain setting, arts college, and well-preserved 19th century architecture, the city of Nelson, well off the beaten track in southeastern BC, has become a magnet for artists, writers, and filmmakers. Known to movie-goers as the location for the Steve Martin's 1986 film Roxanne, this lakeside spot is so rich with galleries, festivals, and cultural life it's been named, by John Villani in his book The 100 Best Small Arts Towns in America , as one Canada's leading arts towns. Nature play a role here too: the surrounding landscape, of snowy peaks, lakes, hot springs, and pristine but accessible parkland, is among the most beautiful -- and artistically inspiring -- in the province.

The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
The Southern Gulf Islands, an idyllic sprinkling of wild and rural, inhabited and uninhabited islands lie in British Columbia's Strait of Georgia between the cities of Vancouver and Victoria. Blessed with a Mediterranean-style climate and a bucolic landscape of woodlands and meadows, coastal bluffs and white shell beaches, the archipelago is home to a wealth of wildlife, including eagles, falcons, deer, and shorebirds; orcas, porpoises, sea lions, seals and otters thrive offshore. A small population of organic farmers, artists, and retirees work hard to preserve the islands' unique environment and way of life, despite their proximity to BC's two largest cities.

The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada, established on May 9, 2003, protects 35 square kilometers (about 13.5 square miles) of land spread over 15 islands and approximately 60 islets and reefs south of Active Pass, as well as 26 square km (10 square miles) of adjacent waters. Parts of the park are only accessible to boaters, but park areas on Mayne, Saturna, and the Pender Islands can be a reached by car ferry and road. A seasonal foot ferry from Sidney BC takes visitors to the Sidney Spit section of the park.

The Emerald Sea
Canada may not be the first place you think of for a Scuba holiday, but members of the diving community, including readers of Rodale's Scuba Diving and even the late Jacques Cousteau, have consistently ranked BC's waters, known as the Emerald Sea, among the top dive sites in the world.

BC's sea life is vibrant and plentiful year round, but local divers agree that winter is best. That's when the view-obscuring plankton dies off and visibility can reach 150 feet, with water clarity rivaling that of the most popular Caribbean dive sites.

Top BC dive sites include the waters off Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where three artificial reefs have been sunk; the Rivtow Lion, which was successfully sunk on Sunday February 6, 2005 in Departure Bay; God's Pocket Provincial Park, near Port Hardy on Vancouver Island, where the underwater scenery wowed M. Cousteau; and the Sunshine Coast's Saltery Bay Provincial Park, home to the Emerald Princess, Canada's first underwater statue/

The Serengeti of the North
In Northern British Columbia, the Muskwa-Kechika Management Area comprises some 6.4 million hectares (approximately 15 million acres) of wilderness. The region, north of Prince George, northwest of Fort St. John and extending to the Yukon Border, covers an area roughly the size of Ireland.

This spectacular landscape of glacier-draped peaks, alpine valleys and major wetlands, is so rich in wildlife it's been dubbed The Serengeti of the North. Home to Grizzly and black bear, lynx, Stone's sheep, bison, mountain goat, moose, elk, caribou, mule and white-tailed deer, it remains one of the best places on earth to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

Several companies offer guided excursions into the area.

The Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve
Home to some five million species of animals, plants, and insects, including some of the world's largest and oldest trees, the west coast of Vancouver Island has been recognized as one of the most biologically diverse regions on earth.

In January 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), designated Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound as a World Biosphere Reserve.

The 350,000 hectare (864,869 acre) reserve encompasses ancient temperate rainforest, long sandy beaches, lakes, rivers and streams, mountain peaks, rocky shores, coastal mudflats and estuaries, each with its rich population of flora and fauna. The Long Beach Unit of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the town of Tofino, as well as sixteen provincial parks and ecological reserves, are all within the reserve.

The Clayoquot (pronounced kla-kwat) Sound Biosphere Reserve is the first of its kind on Canada's West Coast and the first to have a marine component within its boundary.

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