There's nothing like a face plant in a frigid Canadian river in January to make you wonder whether the career path you've chosen will enable you to be around to enjoy your golden years.
I've had this thought before over the course of my career. I had it while attached by a slim guide wire to a ladder on the Sydney Harbor Bridge. I had it again as I clung to my capsized canoe in the rushing water of North Carolina's Nantahala River. I most definitely had it when listening to my safari guide in Botswana telling me what to do in case we encountered a lion.
Still, after being fished out of the drink and back in the cozy comfort of Sunwolf Lodge in British Columbia, wringing water from my thermal underwear, I had another thought. I would never trade the awesome experience of seeing the world's most beautiful places just because occasionally that experience comes with a warning label attached.
One of these beautiful places is Canada's westernmost province, British Columbia. From big-city Vancouver to Brackendale, picturesquely situated in view of the Tantalus mountain range, to Whistler Resort, this journey from sea to sky provides a feast for all the senses. And with the 2014 Winter Olympics underway in Sochi, Russia, Vancouver, host of the 2010 Games, is a destination worth revisiting.
Considered one of North America's most beautiful cities, Vancouver occupies an enviable location between the Pacific Ocean and the coastal mountain range. Its natural beauty is enhanced by myriad attractions. There are lively neighborhoods such as Gastown, the city's oldest (1867), and Chinatown, where you can indulge in traditional dim sum or wander through Dr. Sun-Yat Sen Classical Chinese Garden, the first of its kind outside China. There's Granville Island, where you may shop for fresh produce in the public market, sample house-made craft beers at Granville Island Brewing Co. and take in a play at Arts Club Theatre.
Stanley Park, one of North America's largest urban parks, is a mosaic of old-growth forest and sandy beaches. The 22-mile seawall is complemented by colorful totem poles, Prospect Point Lighthouse and Vancouver Aquarium.
You'll want to save several hours for the aquarium and its endearing residents — from the adorable otters who grasp one another's paws while they sleep to the majestic Beluga whales that have their own gallery. (Vanaqua.org.)
Vancouver is a mecca for foodies, with great restaurants like Miku. If you want to order the green tea opera for dessert (green tea genoise infused with espresso and Frangelico liqueur, dark chocolate ganache, azuki bean purée and green tea ice cream), be advised: it takes three days to prepare.
Take a big bite out of the city on the Vancouver Food Truck Tour ($49, Foodietours.ca). The two-hour walking tour has stops at five carts, including Soho Road Naan Kebab, Mom's Grilled Cheese and the wildly popular Japadog.
One of the city's newest attractions, FlyOver Canada (Flyovercanada.com), is a real people pleaser. By using virtual flight technology, guests take a breathtaking 4-D aerial journey across Canada without ever leaving their seats.
Visually, it's stunning. You'll soar over the snow-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies, dangle over the dust-shrouded plains of Saskatchewan, skim the skyscrapers of Toronto and Montreal, and loom over the lighthouses of Atlantic Canada.
Enhancing the gorgeous images (showcasing a mix of seasons) are gushes of wind, tantalizing scents and swirling mists. Flying over Niagara Falls, I could feel droplets from the spray on my face. This one's not to be missed.
A mere 45-minute drive from Vancouver, along the gorgeous Sunshine Coast, is the tiny town of Brackendale. Located in the Squamish River Valley, near the confluence of the Squamish and Cheakamus rivers, it is home to the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in North America.
From mid-November to mid-February, the eagles flock here to feed on salmon found in the rivers, and the best way to see them perched high in the trees is on a float trip guided by Jake Freese, co-owner of Sunwolf Cabins.
Freese and his wife, Jess, both British expatriates, are acolytes for all things adventure-related. They offer a roster of year-round activities that also include whitewater rafting, back-country skiing, rock climbing, mountaineering and hiking.
Sunwolf has 10 rustic riverside cabins where, in the summer, guests may their wake-up calls courtesy of the gurgling water. This being winter, I missed that experience; however, the post-float bowl of steaming chili in Fergie's Café made up for it.
In fact, the fare at Fergie's, a modest blue cabin on Sunwolf's grounds, is so delicious that folks have been known to drive from Vancouver just for one of the diet-busting breakfasts. (Try the homemade sausages in unique flavors of pumpkin, orange, fennel and fig.)
Brackendale, with its assortment of shops, cafés and art gallery/theater, is well worth a visit. Save one evening for a brewery tour and hearty dinner at Howe Sound Inn and Brewing Co. in nearby Squamish.
Just a half-hour from Brackendale, the mountain community of Whistler rivals Vail and Aspen as a winter and summer resort. Whistler's pedestrian village — with 200 shops, galleries, restaurants and bars — can be pricey, although I found it less so than the other two.
Don't miss the Olympic Plaza, a legacy of the 2010 Games and now a popular recreational spot and arts and culture venue. In winter, however, Whistler means one thing: awesome skiing on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.
The Whistler Gondola transports skiers (and nonskiers) on a peak-to-peak sightseeing tour of both mountains. As my gondola made the nearly three-mile ascent, I gazed down on towering pines dusted with snow and was reminded of a Christmas snow globe. On this day, visibility wasn't the best, or I also would have seen glaciers, gemlike lakes and even, I was told, the occasional black bear in its protected habitat.
Après-ski, the best place for a hot meal is Christine's Restaurant atop Blackcomb Mountain. The menu features local ingredients, and if you're not planning to ski down, pair your meal with a flight of local wines.