Arriving in Powell River
The car is loaded with snacks, cameras, binoculars, gumboots and a jam-packed itinerary for four days of exploring the Sunshine Coast Ale Trail.
We begin our journey in Comox on Vancouver Island, embarking on a 90-minute ferry ride with gorgeous coastal views to Powell River. The largest community on the Upper Sunshine Coast, Powell River began as a place to house the crews from the waterfront pulp mill. Now it’s a growing outpost for families, adventure and a ton of great local food.
The Westview neighbourhood is the jumping-off point and we immediately find our first delicious stop on Marine Avenue. Base Camp is a cafe with a full kitchen, local art and live music on the weekends. There’s a patio out front and staff are eager to chat about what’s happening around town.
Our accommodation, located in the city’s historic Townsite area, is the Old Courthouse Inn. A Tudor Revival building completed in 1939, it’s now a unique gem of an eight-room bed and breakfast. It used to house a courthouse, jail, police station and other provincial services. Signs on the doors let you know which one your room used to be. The history of the building, as well as its great staff under owners Kelly Belanger and JP Brosseau, make the Old Courthouse a fun spot to stay, with lots of small details that will have you thinking back on it fondly. The glasses from Townsite Brewing in our room are a great touch.
The Upper Coast’s only brewery is a short stroll from the inn. Housed in a brick building that feels more like Brooklyn than rural West Coast, Townsite Brewing boasts a Belgian brewmaster and award-winning craft beer. The new lounge and integrated brewing museum – part of the wider Economusee project – is also a vibrant hub in the heart of this community.
Co-owner and brewery manager Chloe Bryana Smith takes us on a tour of the brewery. Her excitement for what’s been built here is really contagious. It’s fun to hear the story of growing a brewery and all the trials and rewards that come along with it; hearing how breweries get modern equipment into old buildings, deal with leaks or explosions, and about the things that go amazingly well makes you appreciate the end product even more. Smith has in-depth brewing knowledge and experience and her storytelling abilities make her a perfect host. Hospitality is deep in the culture here.
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For me, a highlight of any food or drink tour is always the experimental, lab-type space. In a brewery like Townsite, it’s the barrel room upstairs. That’s where we find Smith’s husband, Townsite brewmaster Cédric Dauchot, making notes. It’s also where the commitment to Dauchot’s craft is really highlighted, where the beer is alive and changing, and patience is key. Making great barrel-aged beer requires time, and good timing.
Dauchot graduated from L’institut Meurice in Brussels in 2004 with an engineering degree in the science of brewing and went on to become head of brewing operations for Les 3 Brasseurs Canada in Montreal from 2005 to 2010. His experience drives the direction for Townsite and gives the brewery a unique lineup. We’re lucky enough to get tastings from the barrels and learn about how it all comes together.
Back downstairs in the lively lounge, we sample some of Townsite’s more readily available brews, including Zunga, a great golden blonde ale named after what locals yell when dropping off a rope swing into the Pacific in nearby Desolation Sound. Suncoast Pale Ale – only available on draught on the Sunshine Coast – Tin Hat IPA, Pow Town Porter, Perfect Storm oatmeal stout and the Zwarte Wheat dark witbier are the brewery’s other delicious year-round beers we love. Depending on the season, you might also find the rich and spicy Bière d’Hiver, the deliciously fruit Blackberry Festivale, or the Timewarp pale ale, brewed with hops harvested around Powell River and Texada Island in early fall.
We gather around the bar with Dauchot, Smith, Smith’s dad and some friends, talking more about their journey and what the brewery and its lounge has brought to the community. A local woman named Blankita sets up a table selling Mexican food that sells out fast, and as the sun fades, the room fills up.
The community behind the brewery is clear all over town. You’ll find Townsite beer on tap almost everywhere you go, while the crowd in the lounge is on a first-name basis with the brewery’s owners. Events and local food vendors appear regularly; check the brewery’s social media and website for details. We leave Townsite with a mixed case of bombers and later find a few sold-out seasonals at private liquor stores around the coast.
Back at the Old Courthouse Inn, the big comfy bed draws you in for a nap. But a snooze would mean missing out on wandering the halls of the inn to take in all the antiques and memorabilia on display. It’s a crazy, Instagram-worthy collection. Upstairs and down, you could easily spend an hour exclaiming and pointing at all the gems.
For dinner we head to Coastal Cookery, which boasts a great view of Malaspina Strait and a gorgeous redwood cedar bar. We order the gyoza (so good) and a glass of Townsite beer – though there’s a good BC wine list too – while deciding on our main dishes. The backyard beer can chicken is great, as is the salmon burger, and though we also eye up dishes like crispy Brussels sprouts and buttermilk chicken bites, we save room for dessert.
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The husband-and-wife team of Michael and Sarah Salome run Coastal Cookery. They met while working at Cactus Club, he in the kitchen, her in the front of house. They married and moved to the Sunshine Coast. In 2012 they opened their first restaurant, Costa del Sol, featuring Latin-inspired cuisine in a small room and a cozy outdoor garden patio. They opened Coastal Cookery across the street in 2014. Both places have a warm room, local menus and great service; these guys far exceed small-town expectations. It’s reminiscent of other BC Ale Trail destinations like Squamish and Nelson, where young locals have helped drive a local food culture beyond the simple diners of the past. We finish off the evening with a top-shelf Scotch for him and dessert for (mostly) me.
Exploring Desolation Sound
Lund might be the end of the road, but it’s the place where explorations of Desolation Sound begin.
Old Courthouse guests are treated to a hot breakfast at the in-house Edie Rae’s Cafe. This classic diner-style cafe, named for JP’s mother, is a great place to start the day. The eggs are perfectly poached from 7am on, everything is made fresh, and the menu has something for everyone.
A half-hour’s scenic drive north-west through the coastal woods is the community of Lund. The Mile Zero marker of the highway is here, but the vast coastline beyond to the north is even more scenic. But many journeys continue here by boat: to Savary Island, Desolation Sound and beyond. We set off on a three-hour Zodiac tour with a local guide to explore some of the vast, scenic coastline.
Desolation Sound place is rich in history from First Nations to Captain Cook, with sea life and towering cliffs. Even on a foggy, chilled morning, the stunning, natural beauty will leave you in awe. Staring out at the Salish Sea you can feel the energy here, powerful and breathtaking in its beauty. Eagles soar and seals swim past as the Zodiac moves slowly between islands through waters filled with jellyfish. The trees stand tall and silent in the fog, the sun breaks through the clouds, and our guide has history and stories to share. Terracentric Coastal Adventures’ tour gives us just a glimpse of life here in this remote, magical place. It’s a West Coast experience not soon forgotten.
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Back on land, we warm up over lunch at the Boardwalk Restaurant overlooking Lund’s harbour. There are herbs growing on the patio, local art, Townsite beer and a seasonal menu here. Chef Roy and his wife Rayana sold their fish ’n’ chips restaurant in Vancouver to move to the coast and in 2014 they bought the Boardwalk. Most menu items are gluten free and our lingcod fish ’n’ chips, tacos, and chowder made a great midday feast.
After a browse along the garden-lined boardwalk, we check in for the night at the Lund Hotel, which faces the harbour and looks out across the sea to Savary Island. The Swedish brothers who founded Lund built the hotel in 1905. In 2016, the Tla’amin Nation bought the hotel, which features a general store, restaurant, gallery and comfortable beds.
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We head back to Powell River for the evening to catch a film at the Patricia Theatre, Canada’s oldest continuously running cinema, which opened in 1913. It offers live theatre, music and movies (check its website for upcoming shows) and features plush red seats and classic style. Dinner options in Powell River are few after 9pm, so plan ahead if you’re eating after a movie. We tuck into a warm corner booth at Costa del Sol for delicious tacos and key lime pie, a margarita on the rocks and some great music.
The adventure continues on the Lower Sunshine Coast.
With hikes, mountain bike trails and gorgeous kayaking destinations aplenty, you could spend plenty of time on the Upper Coast. But the Lower Coast also beckons with plenty of attractions and activities.
Leaving Lund behind, we stop in at 32 Lakes Coffee Roasters across from Townsite Brewing. The large, open loft style space has great coffee, art (large metal sculptures on our visit) and board games. Beautiful wood handles on the espresso machine hint at quality coffee to come, and the biscuits are divine. Another husband-and-wife team, Nathan and Margo Jantz, are behind this café, having started roasting coffee on the coast in 2012 after moving there from Vancouver.
The road south out of Powell River ends at Saltery Bay, where a ferry awaits for the stunning 50-minute crossing to Earls Cove. I’m grateful we have binoculars to take in the birdlife, dense rainforest, arbutus trees and coastal panoramas from the ferry decks as we cruise between islands. It’s difficult to tire of the BC’s coastal scenery, even in the fog – or maybe especially. It’s pretty rad drifting past all the natural beauty, no matter what size of boat you’re in.
Skookumchuck Narrows is a top attraction of the Lower Coast. The provincial park is barely 10 minutes’ drive from the dock at Earls Cove, but a straightforward one-hour hike is required to witness one of BC’s natural marvels. Twice a day, the tide change reverses the flow of water in the narrows separating Sechelt and Jervis inlets. This creates rapids that move at up to 30 km/h, creating a water level difference that can exceed two meters while 200 billion gallons of water are exchanged. Make sure to time your day around the tide schedule so you can catch the maximum wave action. The trail is well travelled, and good for most ages and abilities.
The trail is well travelled, and good for most ages and abilities. A few minutes from the road, a vintage truck in the forest has a sign for the Skookumchuck Cafe on the slope above. Never one to walk past a sign advertising fresh baked goods, inside the tiny space we found local crafts for sale, and the sweet smell of cinnamon buns. Great coffee, fresh bread, organic local sandwiches and salads make them a perfect spot to start (and end) a trip the narrows.
The hike follows a road past private homes and engulfs us in lush, dense rainforest. After winding through the forest and past Brown Lake we come to a rocky shoreline with a view of the narrows. A half-dozen kayakers are in the water, offering additional entertainment. Cameras on helmets, they drop into the waves from above, where they appear to sit in the rapids as the water rushes past them. They bounce in and out of the whirlpool, rolling and riding the wave, until they surf or roll back into calmer waters.
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We then pull in to the Backeddy Resort & Marina in nearby Egmont for the night. We find ourselves staring out at the boats and yet another gorgeous waterfront backdrop. There’s a range of accommodation here, from RV sites to super cool-looking geodesic domes, inn rooms and a few types of cabin. The resort rents kayaks, standup paddleboards and mountain bikes.
Our “room” turns out to be a gorgeous waterfront cabin with a bed facing the sea and a wood-burning fireplace. After a beer on the deck we wander over to the onsite Backeddy Pub to sit on the waterfront patio for dinner and more beer. The food is well beyond the usual pub fare. The menu is fresh and local, with most things made in house, and there’s a dedicated pastry chef. The house-made vegan spring rolls are crispy and so delicious we almost order seconds. A Niçoise salad is excellent, and the spicy prawns pair well with an exclusive collaboration Townsite brew the pub has on tap.
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Back in our cabin, with the fire crackling and the moon glowing, I get the feeling this magical corner of the Sunshine Coast will sit warmly in our memories for a long time to come. The evident time and care invested by owners Peter and Suzanne Laurie really shows. The staff are friendly and happy, and the atmosphere is great. You feel connected to the stunning natural surroundings and have all the comforts you need.
From Egmont to Gibsons
The Lower Coast offers many different attractions, including a trio of craft breweries.
We wake up to birdsong and forested shore views, with only the promise of brunch able to make us leave the warm luxury of our bed.
Inlets Restaurant at the nearby West Coast Wilderness Resort is in a bright lodge filled with art. In almost every direction the views look out over the calm inlet, its tiny islands shrouded by morning marine fog. I order the Grizzly Benedict with smoked salmon and avocado – always a great combination. The menu here is fresh, local and seasonal, and in warmer months the patios are a tough place to leave.
The journey down the Lower Coast passes quicker than we would like. There are some great spots that we’ve checked out in the past, including many artists’ galleries and studios, Pender Harbour (which hosts a well attended jazz festival in the fall) and the many independent shops and restaurants of Sechelt, the Sunshine Coast’s largest community, home to around 9,000 people. We stop at the scenic waterfront pier in Davis Bay, a great place for a walk on the beach or to shoot some photos. Patience is often rewarded with blue herons, eagles and sea life.
Heading past Roberts Creek (where the Gumboot Restaurant is another recommended place to eat), we reach our final destination on the coast, the small town of Gibsons. Its downtown area is stretched out along a pretty waterfront. A marina, pier, shops, restaurants, galleries and a public market make for a full day (or more, if you have it) of walking, eating, shopping and sightseeing. While my travelling companion takes a stroll through the marina, I visit some shops and take the waterfront path, camera in hand, to check out the public art en route. Molly’s Reach, a restaurant made famous from a classic Canadian TV show called The Beachcombers, is located near the pier and serves great fish ’n’ chips.
Just stumbling distance away is the town’s newer brewery, Gibsons Tapworks, which opened in early 2017. The brewery, founded by three guys with strong links to Gibsons, features an unassuming, cosy tasting room that has a real community feel. That said, residents and visitors alike are welcome for the trivia nights, movie screenings and the live music that goes down here, while local food trucks also make a regular appearance. Tapworks beer includes a popular oatmeal stout and the One Sailing Wait IPA.
The Sunshine Coast Ale Trail covers a sizeable area with a ton of outdoor activities, art and local food between Powell River and Gibsons. There’s a huge community of artisans, food producers, writers and outdoor based activities and tours here. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Sunshine Coast and there is always something new to do, though the ale trail concept is a great way to see a familiar landscape with fresh eyes.
Up the hill and just outside of town is the 11-acre farm where Persephone Brewing Company not only makes beer but grows hops and vegetables, raises animals and builds community in a rich and powerful way. It’s BC’s only brewery certified as a B Corporation, which means that Persephone fulfils a mission to consider far more than just the financial bottom line of their operations.
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The tasting room offers flights and glasses of the brewery’s lineup. There’s also a pizza oven out back and local food vendors are featured on a rotating basis. Picnic tables and benches are scattered around the farm and there’s plenty of room for kids to play. The whole place feels like a casual backyard on a family farm.
We spend some time with general manager Dion Whyte, who takes us on a tour. His excitement for the work Persephone is doing is clear. With a background in governmental policy in sustainability, Dion has great vision for the ongoing project of building a farm and brewery while also focusing on the social good in their hiring, company culture and community impact. With community initiatives like working with the Sunshine Coast Association for Community Living (SCACL) to employ people with developmental disabilities, and a commitment to organic farming, there is a lot to more to Persephone than the beer – which just so happens to be delicious.
Always on tap is the brewery’s best-selling Goddess golden ale, an IPA, a pale ale and the Hop Yard red ale, along with a few others. Seasonal beers include ales brewed with hops from farm, a Wee Heavy scotch ale, a black lager, a smoked porter and single-hop series showcasing the flavour of a specific hop variety. The brewery has racked up quite a few awards and I’ve like all their beers, many of which are distributed across BC.
Genuine hospitality, a laid-back vibe and commitment to social and environmental good abound here. The communities are filled with entrepreneurs, artists, young families and long-standing residents who have made this region a great place to travel and, from many stories we hear, live. Like all of the ale trails around BC, the Sunshine Coast route has a unique story to tell.
Since Chantal’s visit, a fourth brewery opened on the Sunshine Coast: the 101 Brewhouse and Distillery.
Paddle to an offshore islet, browse for locally made treasures or relax on a white sand beach: BC’s Sunshine Coast, with its sheltered coves and artsy seaside villages, has all the scenic charm and laidback vibe of an island getaway. The difference is that this sunny shoreline is actually part of the mainland and just 40 minutes by ferry from West Vancouver, or 1.5 hours from Comox on Vancouver Island.