Feb. 26, 2010

by Ross Laird

The Best Beaches of Vancouver

Diversity and Wonder Abound

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Sunset Beach, looking toward downtown Vancouver. A lovely (and often busy) beach.

Vancouver has some of the best beaches on the west coast of the Americas: vast, open beaches, small beaches, secret beaches. But most people — even locals who have lived here for many years — are familiar only with the big kahuna beaches: Spanish Banks, the Stanley Park beaches, Wreck Beach. There’s a great deal more to explore. Here are my votes for the best beaches (and other waterfront landmarks) in various categories:

Best beach in the Lower Mainland

Centennial Beach. No question about it. But if you live downtown, or on the north shore, you’ve probably never heard of it. On the east side of the Tsawassen peninsula, running in a great swath of white sand all the way down to Point Roberts, Centennial beach is a wonder. The tidal flow from Georgia Straight slides alongside the shore, keeping the water fresh and lively. The sand is identical in texture and color to the Molokai beaches of Hawaii. Amenities are minimal, but so are the crowds. (Follow Highway 99 south through the tunnel, take the ferries exit, follow the signs for Tsawassen, enter the town, turn left at the mall.)

Best beach in central Vancouver

Most votes in this category would go to Spanish Banks — and that’s almost my vote as well. But for the best experience, you need to go west from Spanish Banks, past the final parking lot and slightly up the hill toward UBC. Nowadays, the roadside sign on the hill says Pacific Spirit Park, but old-time locals know this area as Foreshore park (sometimes spelled Forshore). Park in the gravel lot, follow the trail down to the shore, and walk west about 10 or 15 minutes.

Eventually (and this is long before you’d make it around the point to Wreck Beach), you’ll see an old concrete tower. This is as far as you need to go. Between Spanish and Wreck Beaches, the water from English Bay and from Georgia Straight mix together, drawing the sand out farther (skimboarders take note). It’s a quiet spot, with a great view of Howe Sound and Georgia Straight to the southwest. If there’s a chop offshore, you’ll be able to hear the Point Grey bell buoy.

Because getting to the beach requires a small hike, there are no crowds (no amenities, either). A word of warning: don’t try to climb the sand cliffs behind the beach. Just don’t (another story...).

Best secret beach

This one requires some effort, and a boat. The beach is on Passage Island, at the entrance to Howe Sound: close enough to the city that you can get there in a few minutes in a speedboat, or about half an hour by kayak from Eagle Harbour in West Vancouver. On the southwest side of Passage Island, hidden from view except to anyone in the middle of Georgia Straight, is a small, secluded beach of lovely sand.

The local islanders (about eight of them in total) don’t like people to know about this gem, and may even try to shoo you off (as once happened to me). But everything below the high water mark in BC is public property, so spread your towel beneath the line of drying seaweed, be polite, and enjoy.

(There is another small and secret beach, in West Vancouver, near the marine research station. This one is easier to get to, but is also backed by large homes, so has no privacy or particular appeal to those seeking a quiet, relaxing space.)

Best swimming beach

This is not so much a vote for aesthetics but for sanitation. All the lower mainland beaches have high levels of fecal coliform (yuck!) — except the far side of Spanish Banks and Centennial Beach (on the east side of the Tsawwassen peninsula). Centennial has less cross-current, and the water is cleaner than at Point Grey. Basically, the further you get from the city, the better off you are.

If you’re really dedicated, and you have a boat, you can find tropical swimming conditions (I mean it — we’re talking about 90 degree water in the summertime) at Mink Island in Desolation Sound. It’s a long way to go, about 140 miles northwest, but if you happen to be in the area...

Best windsurfing beach

Sadly, there are no reliable windsurfing beaches in the Vancouver area. Sometimes Garry Point in Steveston is decent, but is by no means dependable. For good, strong conditions, you must go to Squamish. And since Squamish is basically a suburb of Vancouver these days, it qualifies (sort of) as being in the lower mainland.

Best socializing beach

Kits, of course. Not a great beach in its own right, and not a welcoming space when it comes to the neighborhood residents, but it’s a happening place — every day, winter and summer.

Second best socializing beach

English Bay. White Rock. Third Beach. Dundarave. Take your pick, depending on your age, culture, and preferences. They’re all excellent places to shmooze, gawk, and people watch.

Best beach in a storm

The White Rock beach faces due south, onto a wide stretch of water than is open all the way to the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Open water means more time for waves to develop. Since Georgia Straight is only about 15 miles wide, waves don’t really have enough space to grow into anything impressive on the Vancouver side. This is why there’s never storm damage on the waterfronts of Vancouver: the shores all face the narrow channel of the Straight.

But at White Rock, the ocean has something of a runway to ramp up speed, and the storm surge (especially in October) can be impressive. A couple of years ago, the surge went right over the breakwater and into the street.

Best historic beach

Where Point Grey Road makes the turn onto Alma Street, there’s a small park with a ramshackle building in the northeast corner. The park is beside the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club, and the building is the Hastings Mill store, Vancouver’s oldest standing structure. It’s a museum that marks the likely spot where European explorers first encountered the local First Nations people.

The beach below the park is lovely: sheltered by sand cliffs on the south side and the yacht club’s breakwater to the north. But the cliffs make it tough to get down to the beach. So: continue west from the corner of Point Grey Road and Alma, pass the yacht club and the tennis club, and park in the east lot of Jericho beach. Walk east along the beach, beneath the dock ramps of the two clubs, and find the secluded, quiet shore where the history of Vancouver began.

Best shoreline curiosity

Just east of Point Atkinson, as the bay arches slightly eastward, there is a sea cave that extends about 75 feet into the solid rock. When the tide is right (low enough that the cave is exposed, high enough that the bottom is covered), you can get a small boat in there, all the way to the end. Be careful: if a BC ferry has recently gone by, the wake is large enough to enter the cave and swamp your boat. It happened to me while I was in the cave in a Boston whaler. The wave rushed in, swamped the motor, and hurled the boat forward — right into the back wall of the cave. Ouch.

Best waterfront mystery

A tunnel runs from the main post office building on Hamilton to the waterfront. It was built during the Second World War to take mail from incoming ships moored at the docks. Extra security, apparently. These days, movies and TV shows use the dry end of the tunnel for spooky atmosphere (the X Files used it several times); but a long stretch of the tunnel’s bottom section is submerged. This means that the outfall is currently underwater, even at low tide. But no one seems to know exactly where it is.

What do you think? Are there treasures I’ve overlooked, secret sanctuaries I haven’t mentioned? With hundreds of miles of waterfront, there are always new discoveries to be made.

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Ross Laird

Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.