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Pacific Northwest Passage: Simple Pleasures and Extraordinary Beauty from Seattle to Vancouver

Whether it’s the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker to the east, islands in Elliot Bay and Puget Sound dotting the western horizon, or reveling in the regal beauty of Mount Rainier, there’s a sense of something special waiting for you just beyond Seattle’s city limits. Head north though, and a five-hour trip ends in Whistler, British Columbia. But why rush it? The drive from Seattle to Whistler passes through rainforests, rocky cliffs and west coast villages and also allows for a stop in Vancouver, a world-class destination in its own right. Taking your time along the way allows you to savor the best of this rugged coast.

The Scenic Route

Start your trip from Seattle’s Fairmont Olympic Hotel, called the "grandest hotel west of the Rockies" when it opened in 1924. An hour north is Chuckanut Drive, a 20-mile scenic byway that hugs the cliffs overlooking Samish Bay. While the scenery is amazing, foodies are lured here by the Oyster Bar in Bow, renowned for its local and seasonal menus as well as a 25-page wine list, named to Wine Spectator’s Outstanding Wine List of the World for 23 years straight. If you’re feeling hands-on, stroll over to Taylor Shellfish Oyster Farm. The farm provides tools and a grill and you buy a bushel, shuck and grill your oysters outside at a picnic table. Twenty minutes more on the road brings you to the Fairhaven Historic District of Bellingham, a charming college town with a laid-back feel, where Fairhaven Fish and Chips, housed in an antique red double-decker bus, serves fried seafood with a side of quirkiness. 

Chuckanut Drive, considered of North America's most scenic drives

Border Crossing

An hour north of Bellingham, on the Canadian side of the border, you'll reach one of Vancouver’s most distinctive landmarks to stop at for an overnight stay. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, known as “The Castle in the City,” opened in 1939, and has hosted the king and queen of England, among other notable celebrity guests. Vancouver has been called “the world in a city,” and it’s true. The international flavor lives on at the Olympic Village (from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games), now home to picturesque shops, restaurants and bars, such as Craft Beer Market, which boasts Canada’s largest collection of draft beers. With 140 beers on tap, you can sample a local lager like Red Truck light followed by Boddington’s Bitter Ale from the UK.

To get an authentic feel for the city, leave your car behind and board the Aquabus, a ferry with eight stops, including Granville Island, home to the city’s bustling Public Market, with its shops, restaurants and galleries. Or see the city by pedal power; ask the hotel’s concierge for a complimentary BMW bike rental. We recommend following the seawall to Stanley Park, where you’ll pass ships in the harbor on your way to the park’s three beaches, Lost Lagoon, totem poles and a multitude of playgrounds for all ages. Before the sun sets over English Bay, have your picture taken with “A-maze-ing Laughter,” the 14 larger-than-life bronze art installation at English Bay Beach. 

Vancouver's quirky, colorful Aquabus is one of the best ways to see the city

While in town, check out Fairmont Pacific Rim, with modern style that juxtaposes nicely with the history of Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Dine at ORU or giovane and revel in the action of the lobby bar. Hop across the street to the “middle sister” in Vancouver’s Fairmont hotel family, the Fairmont Waterfront featuring ARC restaurant & bar and known for its organic rooftop garden, honeybees and environmental practices. 

Points North

When your time in Vancouver ends, head north on the Sea-to-Sky Highway (Highway 99), along the shores of Howe Sound, on what’s been called the world’s most beautiful drive. After about an hour, you’ll encounter the tiny hamlet of Britannia Beach, and Galileo Coffee, a sweet little white-clapboard coffee shop with house-roasted beans, baked goods and gorgeous ocean views. Half an hour more brings you to Squamish’s  Sea to Sky Gondola, a 10-minute, 2,700-foot ride with unmatched views over Howe Sound Fjord. It’s a great reason to stop driving and simply enjoy this corner of beauty.

Sea-to-Sky Highway skirts Howe Sound and Britannia Beach on the way to Whistler

With your appetite for scenery sated, why not satisfy another appetite?  Dig in to lunch just a few miles up the road at rustic Fergie’s Cafe in Brackendale, where you can indulge in local-raised eggs benny and homemade sausages in exotic flavors like truffle & orange, winter spice & blueberry, or hot apricot.

From here, head inland toward Whistler and The Fairmont Chateau Whistler, a year-round resort in the charming village of Whistler, set against the majesty of Blackcomb Mountain. Before you arrive make time to stop in the Function Junction area, often called Whistler’s Soho because of its eclectic feel. Pick up breakfast at Purebread Bakery, known for “seriously seedy” breads, treats and sandwiches. A stop at Art Junction Gallery, with works by 40 regional artists, contrasts nicely with a visit to Prior Snowboard & Ski Factory, where each board is considered a work of art, and where you can watch them being made too. The perfect finish to the day is savouring the craft beers at Whistler Brewing Company. The Cheakamus Chai-Maple Ale, made with an infusion of maple syrup, is local flavor at its finest.

The Whistler Brewing Company is a popular apres-ski spot

Every section of the trip from Seattle to Whistler includes dazzling beauty, quiet pockets of local charm and delightful surprises waiting around the next bend in the road. It’s a road trip you’ll want to take over and over again.

Joanne O'Sullivan is a freelance writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. Her work has appeared in Bootsnall, Arttrav, Asheville Citizen-Times, The Florentine, and other travel and lifestyle publications.



Photo Credits
View from Chuckanut Drive by Roy Patrick Tan 

The Aquabus making its rounds by David J Laporte 

Sea-to-Sky by "Edwård"

Whistler Mountain Mixer - Whistler Brewing Company by Radiobread 



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