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Often one of the most difficult aspects of traveling is making simple decisions.

“Who wants to go hiking?” “How about the museum?” “Umm … any takers on a cold beer and pool?”

Our former family of five knew this dance all too well. But adding three new pieces to the decision-making puzzle – two sons-in-law and a 3-month-old baby girl – called for new considerations. Exchanging cramped hostels for spacious vacation homes, chicken buses for rental cars and backpacks for diaper bags, we opened our next chapter in “growing” family travel.

Vancouver, the capital city of British Columbia, is as the brochures depict, “spectacular by nature.” It’s a perfectly composed diorama of ocean, beach, rainforest, mountain and – er – steel?

Modern skyscrapers and glistening glass-fronted buildings enjoy a surprising harmony with the forested foothills and snow-dusted mountains to her north, while the Pacific-fed Strait of Georgia embraces the city from the west.

Mother Nature certainly meets modernity in this utopian location, offering enough activities to keep you busy until the next millennium.

We needed a game plan. Settling into our charming craftsman rental, we chewed on frozen lasagna while digesting tourism options. Ultimately choosing activities based on individual interests, we discovered the city both together and apart (although baby Annabelle hardly had a say in the matter). Here are just a few highlights:

Once the industrial heart of the city, Granville Island is said to be the birthplace of Vancouver. Dominated by sawmills, cement factories and shipyards, the area flourished until the Great Depression. Forced to close, mills fell into ruin and the area deteriorated into an uninhabitable waste dump.

That’s hard to imagine today as you stroll the original cobblestone streets, visit eclectic art galleries, catch a theater performance and sample local fare from the region’s best farmers and fishermen at the famous Public Market. This rags-to-riches restoration project reclaimed the historical site and transformed it into the community haven enjoyed today.

Another iconic stop is Stanley Park. Situated at the base of the heavily urbanized downtown peninsula, this emerald jewel is to Vancouverites what Central Park is to New Yorkers. Rent a bike or dust off those roller blades and enjoy the 5-mile loop track with 360-degree views of the city and surroundings.

Continuing for miles beyond the park, this spectacular seaside walkway flanks much of the city and connects you to some of Vancouver’s best beaches. They may not be your all-inclusive, pina colada in hand varietal, but come summer, metropolitan sands swell with winter-weary sun worshippers.

After a long day on your feet, relax in Gastown. One of Vancouver’s oldest neighborhoods, its historic charm and independent spirit welcome locals and tourists alike, offering some of the city’s hottest restaurants and nightclubs.

For the history enthusiast, look beyond the city’s gleaming cosmopolitan center to discover a past more diverse than the nature surrounding it. From towering totem poles to aboriginal art sewn into the patchwork of downtown modernity, the First Nation’s tribes were the region’s original inhabitants, and a visit to Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology offers a great introduction.

From Vancouver City, we boarded one of numerous 90-minute ferry rides bound for Vancouver Island.

Geographically central, the city of Nanaimo seemed like the perfect midway point between all of our desired destinations. If only we had known the true scale of the island. Stretching over 300 miles from north to south, let’s just say we spent much of our days in the car. Thankfully, the amenities of our Airbnb rectified the remote location. An enormous house came complete with hot tub, bonfire pit, semi-private beach, and Skippy, our resident harbor seal.

Divided by a rugged spine of snow-kissed mountains, the “wild west coast” brims with unruly beach breaks and remote wilderness. The eastern lowlands provide more accessible hiking and biking trails, vineyards and the majority of the island’s tourism. Not to mention paved roads.

The island’s largest city, Victoria, thrives on its southernmost tip. Framed by wide pedestrian streets and laced in British colonial architecture, the Inner Harbor is Victoria’s primary destination. Buzzing with lively cafés, street performances, festivals and classic boat shows, there is something for everyone.

Victoria is also home to some rather unique housing arrangements. Fisherman’s Wharf introduces you first to overpriced clam chowder, and second to famous heritage homes.

Quirky and colorful, about the only thing these homes have in common is their ability to float.

Just outside of Victoria, Butchart Gardens will leave you spellbound. Over a century ago, Jenni Butchart began transforming her husband’s exhausted limestone quarries into a place of life and beauty. Today, her vision and legacy sprawls over 55 perfectly manicured acres. Like pages in a fairy tale, Zen-inspired Japanese gardens unfold into classic Italian landscapes, and mysterious sunken gardens emerge in rows of flawless rose patches.

And what trip isn’t complete without a tick off the ol’ bucket list? Zooming into the brisk morning air, our high-powered, 12-seater orange pontoon carried us toward the Gulf Islands – and its famed aquatic resident. “Orca, 2 o’clock”! Whipping around just in time, I saw the long black fin pierce the watery plane. A curious onyx eye and glistening backside quickly followed along with a loud, forceful exhalation of retained air. Paying us little to no mind, she descended just as quickly as she ascended.

Where did she go? Will this be the only sighting? The tension was palpable. Our palms grew sweaty with the anticipation of capturing the perfect photo. “Over there!” Our orca had returned – with friends. Captivated by their synchronized aquatic maneuvers, unpredictable up-close encounters and dazzling breaches, we enjoyed a performance that even National Geographic would envy. And this was only the first of many.

With so many incredible adventures, I think I speak for all of us when I say that our favorite memories were made in the evenings. That is when we’d settle into our aging Adirondack chairs, share stories of our days and enjoy sunset over Nanoose Bay, our private respite.

We muse that this trip was a “learning experience,” recognizing that seven adults and a baby all have different needs, wants and expectations of their trip. And so the next travel chapter has been opened. Let’s see where it takes us next.


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