There are many ways to get to Prince Rupert, but the bustling port town that is the gateway to the natural splendours of Northern British Columbia is best approached from the water. There’s no better way to do that than on BC Ferries’ famed Inside Passage sailing from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert.
“I think Northern B.C. is a place that deserves as much attention as it can get and sailing up the Inside Passage with BC Ferries is a great way for people to come and experience everything there is up here,” says Blaine Estby, Media Relations Representative for the Northern British Columbia Tourism Association.
“It’s the wilderness out here,” he said. “You can get out on the road and you won’t see anybody for hours, but you can also explore communities like Prince Rupert and Prince George that are coming into their own from a cultural standpoint where people can get everything they would want from a major city. They can find everything from craft breweries to trendy restaurants to cool local shops, but still be close to the wild and really experience British Columbia,”
Come for the bears, stay for the whales
The wilderness and its natural beauty is the true star of Northern B.C. Among the unique attractions that draw visitors here from all over the world is the grizzly bear sanctuary in Khutzeymateen Provincial Park that is easily accessible from Prince Rupert.
“We get tourists that come to Prince Rupert from the other side of the world just to see the grizzly bears because they know this is the highest-populated area on Earth for the grizzlies and you are almost guaranteed to see them,” says Jared Davis, Vice President of Prince Rupert Adventure Tours which takes people out to the sanctuary by boat. “We’ve had people who come up to see the bears and they just literally cry when they see them. They’re crying tears of joy. It’s pretty amazing.”
Their bear tours run from May to July and Davis says last year they had a 100 per cent success rate at spotting them, sighting an average of 12 each trip.
“The Khutzeymateen is beautiful,” said Davis. “It’s Instagram-worthy with its massive mountains that go all the way up through the fjord where there are big beach shorelines with lots of tall sedge grass. The grass is the bears’ main diet. They are just coming out of hibernation right now so they eat all day, munching the grass on the shoreline.”
It’s not unusual to spot whales on the way to see the bears says Davis which is why his company also offers whale-watching tours during the summer.
“We primarily watch the humpback(s). They are the most acrobatic whales,” he says. “I know a lot of people want to see killer whales like Free Willy, but it’s the humpbacks that are going to be jumping out of the water, breaching and bubble-net feeding which they only do in very few places on Earth, and ours is one of them.”
Food and history are on the menu in Prince Rupert
Back on shore, Prince Rupert has plenty of distractions to delight visitors.
“Prince Rupert is at the end of the road, but there’s a secret, rich culture there,” notes Estby. “When we bring guests out there for dinner, people from all over the world, they are amazed by it.”
One of those places is the sushi restaurant Fukasaku, the first in B.C. to be 100 per cent certified by Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program which recognizes the use of sustainable seafood sources. Opa Sushi is another fish option and has been called the best sushi restaurant north of San Francisco. If pizza and pasta are more to your taste, Cowbay Café with its seaside views offers consistently good food; for fine dining, the Crest Hotel’s Waterfront Restaurant is highly recommended.
History buffs are in for a treat when they visit the Museum of Northern British Columbia, an impressive wooden building overlooking the harbour that houses art and artifacts representing thousands of years of local Indigenous history.
“Visitors are usually surprised by the museum because our population is only around 12,000 and people don’t expect a museum of our calibre to be in a small town,” notes Susan Marsden, the museum’s curator. “It’s larger and has a better collection and professional exhibitory and interpretation than they expect.”
There was a time that fishing canneries could be found up and down B.C.’s Pacific Coast and the area around Prince Rupert was no exception. While most of them have long since fallen into disrepair, the tin-roofed buildings of the North Pacific Cannery remain intact in the nearby village of Port Edward, about 30 km from Prince Rupert. The national historic site has been meticulously preserved to allow visitors to learn about this period of history and how important it was to the local economy.
Follow the Skeena to Terrace then head to Smithers
Travellers continue their explorations of Northern B.C. by heading inland toward Smithers by following the Yellowhead Highway. The road plays tag with the mighty Skeena River as it winds its way through mist-covered mountains in a pristine landscape.
Some people take a side trip from Terrace into the Nass River Valley. They travel into the heart of the Nisga’a nation to see the site of Canada’s last volcanic eruption at Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Provincial Park as well as the nearby hot springs and Nisga’a villages.
On the way to Smithers, travellers come to Kitselas Canyon which is an Indigenous village on the banks of the Skeena River. Visitors can see where traditional Indigenous fishing took place and where pulleys were once used to haul paddle wheelers through the canyon in the era before there was a highway.
The road turns southwards to follow the Bulkley River until it arrives in Smithers, a delightful mountain town in the shadow of magnificent, snow-capped Hudson Bay Mountain.
“Smithers is a really cool little mountain town that’s got a Swiss alpine theme down main street,” says Etsby. “It’s at the base of Hudson Bay Mountain which is a ski hill in the winter and in the summer has mountain biking, heli-glamping, jet boat trips, rafting trips and lots more.”
Craft breweries are a growing trend in Northern B.C. Prince Rupert is home to Wheelhouse Brewing and Terrace boasts Sherwood Mountain Brewhouse while Prince George has jumped in on the action with CrossRoads Brewing.
Sampling the pleasures of Prince George
The road from Smithers continues east to Prince George, the largest city in Northern B.C. and a major crossroads and service centre for the region.
“Downtown Prince George has been revitalized to become a really vibrant cultural hub. Nice galleries, local shops and restaurants are popping up. It’s taken a long time, but I think it’s really coming into its own,” notes Estby.
Wine lovers should take note to visit Northern Lights Estate Winery, a local Prince George winemaker that is the northernmost in the province. Grapes don’t grow there, but plenty of other fruits do so the winery produces a variety of sips using blueberry, strawberry, haskap, gooseberry, apple, cherry, raspberry, black currant, and rhubarb.
From Prince George, visitors from the Lower Mainland turn south onto Highway 97 for the ride home. It’s there they notice the road is a little bit busier and the land is a little more built up. The freedom they experienced in the wilderness of Northern B.C. is now behind them, but the memories will always remain.