Road Tripping on the Vancouver Island-Sunshine Coast Ale Trail

Photo by Rick Graham | Destination BC

The B.C. Ale Trail scatters across the massive province of British Columbia, highlighting the craft breweries, the communities and the breathtaking scenery along the way. Most people sip their way along the B.C. Ale Trail in geographic fragments, as I did when I embarked on a journey up lower Vancouver Island, across the Inside Passage and down the Sunshine Coast, meeting artisan brewers and sampling a diverse collection of notable beers along the way.

It’s easy to make Victoria your jumping-off point. (Victoria is home to its own collection of craft breweries, but that’s another story.) From Victoria, take the Trans-Canada Highway north, and get ready to travel 250 miles of unforgettable scenery, ride three ferries, visit nine craft breweries and sample at least 50 beers, all in three to four days. And remember to bring a designated driver along on the Vancouver Island-Sunshine Coast Ale Trail.

When you go
>> Find out more at bcaletrail.ca and hellobc.com.
>> Check the B.C Ferries schedule and reserve passage at bcferries.com.

Chemainus–Nanaimo
You’re off to a riotous start in the town of Chemainus, 1.5 hours north of Victoria. The hardscrabble tale of brewers who made their exodus from the Vancouver brewing scene to pursue a more pastoral dream of island life is one of many starts and stops. But Riot Brewing Company (riotbrewing.com), one of the island’s newest, finally opened and was an instant hit. Claim a stool in the modern, new tasting room and line up a sampler. Check out their fun punk/skateboard-inspired labels, and ask about how yeast is happier when music is piped into the tanks.

Thirty minutes up the highway, you’ll come to British Columbia’s second largest city, Nanaimo. Go straight to the tasting room at Longwood Brewery (longwoodbeer.com). Local farmers grow much of the hops and barley for their craft beers—all unfiltered. Among my favorites on the entire trail is Stoutnik, a deep, elegant Russian imperial stout that just might inspire a Dostoyevskian journey to the depths of your soul… or not.

Wolf Brewing Company (wolfbrewingcompany.com), your next stop, is in an industrial district of warehouses and distribution centers. This no-nonsense brewery crafts beers in traditional British styles. The Scotch Ale and the Black & Tan, a smart blend of the brewer’s Golden Honey Ale and Dark Malt Porter, both sent my taste buds on a trip to the British Isles.

There’s no need for a designated driver this evening. In Nanaimo, stay at the Coast Bastion Hotel (coasthotels.com), within walking distance of White Sails Brewing (whitesailsbrewing.com), your last stop of the day. This local gathering spot is the perfect place to start a conversation with a local and buy your new Canadian acquaintance a beer.

Parksville–Cumberland–Courtenay
From Nanaimo, drive 30 minutes north on Highway 19 to Parksville. The next stop is Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company (arrowsmithbrewing.com), another new addition to the island brew scene. Sample beers crafted by local gents who recognized that their community was missing an important element: its own craft brewery. It was named Brewery of the Year, and their clean, crisp Arrowsmith Pale Ale won first place in the 2017 B.C. Beer Awards, a fine accomplishment for a newcomer.

Cumberland, 45 minutes farther north on Highway 19, is well-known among mountain bikers. It’s also oozing with authentic mountain-town charm with a small but thriving boutique-shopping scene worth browsing. Here, the cozy tap room at Cumberland Brewing Company (cumberlandbrewing.com) is the place to be. Four core beers and some special brews make up the list; Forest Fog unfiltered wheat ale was among my top picks on the ale trail.

In the nearby town of Courtenay, Gladstone Brewing (gladstonebrewing.ca) set up shop in a former mechanic shop as evidenced by the throwback auto-shop relics. It’s a lively town hub with a focus on Belgian-style ales, European-style lagers and citrus-forward Northwest-style IPAs.

In Courtenay, check in at Old House Hotel and Spa (oldhousevillage.com) for your second night’s sleep. Or, if it’s early enough in the day to continue the ale trail, head to nearby Comox and catch the ferry to Powell River (1.5 hours), your port of entry on the Sunshine Coast.

Sunshine Coast
The rainforest-clad western slopes of the Coast Mountains descend to rocky shorelines and protected coves. The ale trail continues along this 110-mile scenic route, which is only accessible by ferry and is divided into two portions—north and south—separated by an inlet.

In Powell River head to Townsite Brewing (townsitebrewing.com), located in the historic Townsite District. There, I discovered a new love: Belgian beers. The creative force behind their award-winners is British Columbia’s only born-in-Belgium, trained-in-Belgium brewmaster. Their lineup of beers is both elegant and daunting, from saisons to sours to barrel-aged brews.

If you spend the night in Powell River, choose The Old Courthouse Inn (oldcourthouseinn.ca), where you’ll likely stay in an old courtroom, breakfast included. It’s a short walk to Townsite Brewing.

On to the south Sunshine Coast: Drive south to Saltery Bay (about 30 minutes). There, catch the ferry (50 minutes) to Sechelt and continue to the town of Gibsons (about 1.5 hours), where a visit to the slick, new Gibsons Public Market (gibsonspublicmarket.com) is a must. No brewery, but you’ll find gourmet specialty vendors.

The last stop on the ale trail sits on an 11-acre farm just outside of Gibsons. Persephone Brewing (persephonebrewing.com) grows their own hops and serves beer in their barn-turned-tasting room. They have produced award winners, and their holistic approach to farming, brewing and community is inspiring.

Spend your last night in luxury at Bonniebrook Lodge (bonniebrook.com), a boutique inn with a water view and an exquisite on-site restaurant.

From Hopkins Landing near Gibsons, catch the ferry to Horseshoe Bay and conclude your road trip with the drive to Vancouver.

Best eats along the Ale Trail
>> Nanaimo: Longwood Brewpub (longwoodbrewpub.com) and Gabriel’s Café (gabrielscafe.ca)
>> Cumberland: Riders Pizza (riderspizza.com)
>> Courtenay: White Whale (whitewhalecourtenay.ca)
>> Lund: Boardwalk Restaurant (boardwalkrestaurantpowellriverlund.com)
>> Powell River: Coastal Cookery (costadelsollatincuisine.com)
>> Gibsons: Emelle’s Market Bistro (gibsonspublicmarket.com) and Chasters Restaurant (bonniebrook.com)
Outdoor adventures along the Ale Trail
>> Nanaimo: Guided nature hike with Coastal Revelations Ecotours (ecotourdirectory.com/ecotours/canada/coastal_revelations.php)
>> Parksville: Guided caving at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park (hornelake.com)
>> Lund (30 minutes north of Powell River): Guided wildlife-watching Zodiac cruise in Desolation Sound with Terracentric Coastal Adventures (terracentricadventures.com)