Pairing local pours with Sea to Sky adventure
Are outdoor pursuits best enjoyed with a locally crafted libation waiting at the end of the trail? I and a small group of fellow travel writers recently made tracks to Squamish to find out. After all, this waterfront town long known for its robust recreational assets is also now home to three B.C. Ale Trail destinations (with three more on the way), two cideries and a distillery. Here’s how our journey of discovery unfolded.
Lofty sights before brews ’n’ bites
Maybe it’s because I live just an hour away in Vancouver, but I’ve never stopped at the Sea to Sky Gondola on my way up the coast. It’s for tourists, I’d think, as I drove by on Hwy. 99, with a mere shoulder glance at the gleaming cabins whisking their human cargo 885 metres above Howe Sound. On a sunny fall afternoon though, I hop aboard with my colleagues, riding up past dense rainforest to subalpine heights with views of Shannon Falls and the granite monolith that is the Stawamus Chief—I even spot hikers on a backside route that I’ve climbed with my family.But it’s not until we reach the gondola summit, with its suspension bridge, loop trails and viewing platforms, that the sound’s turquoise waters and surrounding peaks are on full and arresting display. I’m glad I finally made the stop.Rolling into town two kilometres north, we settle around a long wooden table in Backcountry Brewing’s ’70s-ski-cabin-themed tasting room. Here, vintage-style lanterns, shingles and wood beams bring warmth to the high-ceilinged interior. Soon we’re sampling hoppy ales and lively sours, for which the six-year-old brewery has become best known, as well as pilsners, stouts and seasonal releases from 20 taps. Part of the fun is perusing the menu’s long names and pop culture references: my faves are a pineapple milkshake IPA called This Is My Cat’s Birthday, Today, and a Lord of the Rings-themed imperial stout that nabbed second place at the B.C. Beer Awards 2023.
Also landing on our table are innovative pizzas like the Forager with local organic mushrooms and kale, and the Killa Beez with soppressata and a drizzle of honey—delish! On the way out I poke my head inside the inviting new Barrel Lounge down the hall, where a fireplace, twinkling chandeliers, pheasant-print wallpaper and wall of casks call for a return visit.
A ride on the wild side
After a locally sourced brunch at the riverside Fergie’s Café the next morning (pictured below), we meet up with Blazing Saddles Adventures for an ebike ecotour. Our guide, Brent Macdonald, enthusiastically highlights flora and fauna along the way—spawning pink salmon in the Mamquam River, a forest thick with red cedar, coastal hemlock and Douglas fir. He also knows when to let us absorb the sights on our own. “I don’t do so much talking here,” says Macdonald, as the path starts to wind through a fairy tale-like section of narrow wood bridges and gigantic skunk cabbage leaves. “I let nature do the talking.”
Minutes later, just past the reeds and open mudflats of the Squamish Estuary, nature talks rather loudly. A mother bear and three cubs emerge from a channel and scamper up the bank below us; through the trees I can see water dripping from the mama’s fur, they’re that close. Heart pounding, and quickly quashing a foolish temptation to take a photo with my shaky hands, I sit back in my saddle and quietly pedal onwards, catching up with my equally breathless group down the trail. We’re high on nature and it feels sublime. No wonder Henry David Thoreau wrote: “We need the tonic of wildness . . . we can never have enough of nature.”
Flights of fancy and fermentations
The euphoria flows into the afternoon aboard Sea to Sky Air’s 35-minute Squamish Explorer Tour. I’m flying in a 1973-built Cessna 172, a compact aircraft that flirts with air currents at 2,100 metres (7,000 feet) while offering panoramic views of the Tantalus Mountain Range’s pretty lakes and glacier-frosted peaks. From here, the jagged mountain trio of Omega, Ossa and Alpha (ranging from 1,900 to 2,300 metres respectively) makes the 702-metre Stawamus Chief look like a rocky knoll.Back on the ground and thirsty, we indulge in a different kind of flight on Cliffside Cider’s casual back patio—complete with views of the Chief. Opened in 2018 as Squamish’s first cidery, the homey establishment sources both Okanagan and Pemberton apples for its five artisanal offerings. Served in cute mason jars, both traditional (OG Apple) and offbeat flavours arrive at our table. Their golden and rosy hues catch the late afternoon light, but it’s the spicy Ginger and the Chicha De Pina—a blend of pineapple, cloves, star anise and cinnamon—that catch my attention.More flights await at Howe Sound Brewing, which got the bottle rolling on Squamish’s craft beer scene some 27 years ago. It’s been mopping up the awards ever since, including Brewery of the Year in 2022. We pull up to a high table in the airy taphouse and get to work, sampling flights of both classic and seasonal beers. It’s an all-round thumbs up for the juicy Hazy Daze IPA, while I particularly like the rich Diamond Head Nitro Oatmeal Stout. (With the newly opened Howe Sound East Van, I won’t have far to go to enjoy it again.) Brewpub standbys and pizzas round out our evening, with the tender Fall Off the Bone Pork Ribs for me.
From morning paddle to afternoon ale
My breakfast sandwich at the new Noshy Café turns out to be much more than expected. Happily devouring the savoury stack of bacon, fried egg, fresh greens, tomato, garlic aioli and sesame bun, I’m fully fuelled for our Coastal Stoke stand-up paddleboard (SUP) tour in Howe Sound. Named Átl’ka7tsem (meaning to paddle up the sound) by the Squamish Nation, the 42-kilometre-long fjord was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Region in 2021.Paddling past the Indigenous village of Stawamus at the head of the sound, we spot a great blue heron lifting off from shore. Curious seals rear their glossy heads as we skim across the pleasantly flat surface to a granite outcropping dubbed the west wall. Pointing to the water, guide Eduardo Baldioceda makes sure we understand our good fortune: “I want you to know that this glass you see here, is not what you should expect for normal conditions.”
Still, I somehow manage to lose my balance and flip backwards onto my board. Not once, but three times. “I’ve never seen anyone do that before,” laughs Baldioceda, who is also a biologist, adventure racer (catch him in the reality TV series, World’s Toughest Race) and founder of a Costa Rica ecolodge. “From now on, if I see someone do that, I’ll call it the Sheila move."For the perfect après-paddle, we soak up the cozy-cabin vibes of family-owned A-FRAME Brewing Company. Nostalgic nods to lazy days at the lake loom large here, from the taproom’s tree stump seating and the patio’s outdoor firepits to the lake-themed beer names and labels. Tucking into flights served in mini logs, we lake-hop around the province with the likes of Shuswap Lake IPA, Sproat Lake Pale Ale and Downton Lake Barley Wine. I’ll have to come back to catch seasonal brews Arctic Lake Dark Lager and Cup Lake Lemon & Earl Grey Tart Ale—gold and silver winners at the 2023 Canadian Brewing Awards.
Swept away by spirits
Glaciers both inspire and feed the craft spirits at Raincity Distillery, our last stop on the Sea to Sky Ale Trail. Nestled on a quiet back street, the small-batch facility has been getting noticed by locals and visitors alike since opening in July 2022. Indeed, the onsite cozy cocktail lounge and locally sourced blended spirits make for the ideal nightcap on our final day in town. We sip our way through a tasting, ranging from the smooth Barrel-Aged Gin to the rich Black Tusk Smoked Vodka. And we nibble delectable mushroom, pork and beef dumplings on the side. Cocktails and mocktails cap off the evening, my Yellow Submarine laced with rosemary-infused Last Garden Gin and topped with luscious turmeric coconut cream.
Our journey of discovery complete, we all agree that slaking one’s thirst with a homegrown bevvy makes for the optimal ending to any outdoor pursuit. As if there was any doubt, but we had to hit the trail ourselves to prove it, and Squamish, with its abundant adventure and après offerings, was just the right place.