Beyond Whistler, Canada: And the road goes on forever

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Beyond Whistler, Canada: And the road goes on forever

There's always some mild embarrassment when you don’t enjoy some place everyone expects you will. "Oh, you'll love Whistler," they all said. But I didn't.

Admittedly I didn't see it at its snow-covered best and I’m sure this town just north of Vancouver is very pretty and vibrant in ski season.

But I was there mid-week and between seasons. There were only bare flecks of snow on Mt Whistler, the town was deserted other than a few golf groups, and the Alpine-style architecture just looked fake to me.

Don't get me wrong, I had a decent enough time -- I recommend the superb French restaurant Apres to anyone -- and on the Saturday morning I went up the ski-lift and watched the thirtysomething mountain bikers soaring off cliffs and bluffs like airborne idiots who should know better.

But nothing became Whistler like my leaving off it, and that is when Canada became compelling. Alone on the road, watching vast expanses of Canada change from pine-covered mountains to arid high desert plateau, driving along ancient riverbeds or beside silent and beautiful lakes.

Oh Canada, as their song says.

Mid-morning I nose the car out of Whistler and onto Highway 99 to start a leisurely five day loop across this lower part of British Columbia, through places with names like Kamloops and Salmon Arm, down the beautiful Okanagan Valley and Kelowna, then back to Vancouver the long way. My final day I am prepared to drive around 600kms along smaller roads.

Five days in a good car on excellent and largely deserted roads. My idea of a good time.

I tune the radio to local stations -- God, they play a lot of old Bachman Turner Overdrive in Canada! -- and up ahead is Pemberton at which I stop to fill the tank and get the essentials for any decent drive: Gatorade and beef jerky.

I press on through a beautiful valley pock-marked by homes of First Nation people, identifiable by the car wrecks in the yards. I make to stop and chat but three guys sitting on a battered couch in a junkyard garden don't look welcoming. I drive on towards Lillooet and feel the landscape roll beneath me.

It is autumn, the sky is clear and the air warm, and the colours of the forest are spectacular: vivid yellows which have leaped from a painting by Van Gogh, dark rich browns, splatters of red leaves on the canvas of the deep green pine forests . . . All that, and massive mountains rising up from the side of the single-lane highway.

This is a country where the solidity of the ancient land feels at ease with itself and it feels . . . eerily reassuring, perhaps?

Outside Lillooet is a mountain of bare rock bleached almost white with only the occasional pine tree amidst the landslides of scree. I sit looking at it in silence, below me is huge turquoise blue lake.

Lillooet is carved into the sides of a broad river valley. As I rise on the road above, it looks like a series of sad trailer parks interspersed with a few homes. But here the landscape changes markedly and the vastness of this small corner of Canada makes itself known.

The road coils above the valley and across its vast breadth I can see large flat farms of rich green, like misplaced golf courses carved into the otherwise arid land. By the top of the plateau it is possible to look for what seems like hundreds of kilometres in every direction -- and there is no suggestion of human life anywhere. Everything -- except for the blue canopy of endless sky -- is beneath me.

I drive on: rivers sparkle in the light; lakes are rimmed with white fallen logs; and through the thick forest I glimpse the rails of the Canadian-Pacific track reflecting the sharp sun and running like silver threads through the landscape.

I have been spinning the dial and the radio is booming Wagner. Perfect.

The journey takes on its own character: long dry plateaus drop down to fertile farmland; the road snakes through low valleys and quarter-horse farms; at Cache Creek the highway ends and I turn onto the evocatively named TransCanada Highway. It is possible to ride this strip of asphalt through Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and beyond . . .

I settle for stopping at Lake Le Jeune off the highway before Kamloops. That afternoon I watch beavers in the lake and fish jumping, and at night stand beneath the black sky splattered with a thick dusting of bright stars. There is barely a sound and the air is crisp and clear.

And so the journey continues: past even more beautiful lakes which command my camera, and I tune in to local AM community stations and learn about cake stalls and mammogram scans in the small towns. Roaring rivers tumble beside the quiet highway, people in small towns and service stations chat and are mildly curious about where I am going.

"You’ll like it there," seems a common response, and it doesn't matter where that "there" is. But it's true, I am liking it everywhere.

I stay at the breathtaking Lake Okanagan Resort on a cliff above the lake. I go into nearby Kelowna and wander around the art galleries, chat with a First Nation couple, and have dinner at the wonderful Fresco Restaurant. The following morning I have a lumberjack-sized breakfast at the Grateful Fed Psyche-Deli Café beneath kitschy and classic album covers from the 60s and 70s, and then spent the day in the Okanagan vineyards.

This is the way to waste your time, watching seaplanes landing on lakes with a glass of crisp white wine in hand.

And so the days drift by before I take to the highway again, on down through the wine valley to Penticton, skirting great lakes and forests, past a town called Hope, through great swathes of Nature running to the sky or the horizon, stopping by creeks to watch autumn leaves drift in the water . . .

At journey's end I can sense the city before I see it, the air seems thicker somehow, and the occasional car on the road hints at what is to come: the motorway back into downtown Vancouver where I miss a turnoff and end up in the suburbs.

I stop two schoolgirls to ask for direction to East Hastings Street.

Like everyone I have encountered they have been born helpful and polite. They ask where I’m from. I tell them, then sketch in the trip I have taken these past few happy days.

"Did you go to Whistler?" asks one of them.

I say I did, then hesitantly add I didn't much like it.

"No, me neither," she says.

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