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Prince Rupert surprised us even before our plane landed. We knew that the city was on the northwest coast of British Columbia, but we didn't know it was offshore on Kaien Island.

Chief Clarence Nielson and Violet McKay wear Tsimshian regalia.
Chief Clarence Nielson and Violet McKay wear Tsimshian regalia.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

When our Air Canada YPR flight descended to the pine-covered islands hugging the fjord-indented coastline, we discovered that the airport was also on an island, one called Digby. A cruise ship was anchored nearby. Prince Rupert is a port-of-call for several Alaska and BC Inside Passage cruises.

Tsimshian people

First Nations culture is alive and well in Prince Rupert. Tsimshian people catch salmon in the summer and dry it and seaweed for the winter, as their ancestors did 5,000 years ago.

The cedar-scented Museum of Northern B.C. displays a shaman's crown made from bear claws. We also saw petroglyphs and baskets, so tightly woven that they hold water without leaking.

Local festivals give visitors the opportunity to see First Nations people garbed in traditional regalia. The highlight, for us, was meeting Tsimshian chief, Clarence Nielson, and his wife, Violet McKay.

They proudly showed us the clan crests on the back of their robes. Clarence Nielson belongs to the grizzly bear clan, while Violet McKay is a member of the eagle clan.

First Nations art

The ongoing vibrancy of the First Nations culture surprised us. We met William White, a Tsimshian weaver, whose aunt taught him cedar bark weaving at his family's seaweed camp in 1982. Today, his striking work graces both private and museum collections.

William White, Tsimshian weaver, works at loom.
William White, Tsimshian weaver, works at loom.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

At the Carving Shed, just one block from the Museum of Northern British Columbia, First Nations carvers create totem poles, cedar panels and masks. We discovered more than a dozen totem poles on a tour that brought us from the B.C. Ferry Terminal to Totem Park on Hospital Lookout.

Eagle head on totem pole
Eagle head on totem pole
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Archeological tours

There are nearly 200 archeological sites near Prince Rupert. Seashore Charters offers archeology tours that visit First Nations village sites that predate the pyramids in Egypt.

At Pike Island, 40 minutes by ferry from Prince Rupert, First Nations guides showed us petroglyphs and three village sites abandoned by their ancestors 18 to 20 centuries ago. They pointed out plants they ate and used for medicine, and explained how indigenous people rendered oil from candle fish.

Ethnic restaurants

Although Prince Rupert has a population of less than 16,000, it has a surprising number of restaurants. They include seafood restaurants, pubs and ethnic restaurants serving Italian, Vietnamese, Greek, Japanese and Chinese food.

We didn't expect to see a trendy district in this northern port. Cow Bay, with its black and white-painted fire hydrants and charming boutiques, restaurants and bed and breakfasts, was a pleasant surprise. (It received its name in 1908, after a Swiss man unloaded a herd of dairy cattle, from a ship. The cows swam ashore.)

Cow Bay Cafe
Cow Bay Cafe
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Cowpuccino's Coffee House served us delicious blueberry coffeecake and latte for breakfast. At the Cow Bay Café, we enjoyed a great halibut with green chutney for dinner.

Prince Rupert also has an Internet café, Java Dot Cup. Other restaurants range from fine dining at Lush, in Chances Casino, to Rain, an uptown tapas bar.

Prince Rupert weather

Another surprise was the mild climate of Prince Rupert. We had expected cold temperatures, because Prince Rupert is only 60 kilometres south of the Alaska Panhandle.

"We only have snow one year in seven," said a local resident, when we expressed our surprise. "It's usual for us to golf right up to Christmas."

Prince Rupert is called the City of Rainbows, because it receives 254 cm of "liquid sunshine" annually. We brought rain gear, but didn't need it.

Moderating effects of the Pacific Ocean ensure that the 22-kilometre-long Prince Rupert harbour, the third largest natural harbour in the world, remains ice-free year-round. It was one reason why city founder, Charles Hays, decided to make Prince Rupert the terminus for his transcontinental Grand Trunk Pacific Railway.

Boardwalk between homes. North Pacific Cannery Village Museum. Port Edward, B.C.
Boardwalk between homes. North Pacific Cannery Village Museum. Port Edward, B.C.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The second reason was because ships crossing the Pacific to Asia take a day or two less time from here. Prince Rupert is closer to Japan than it is to Vancouver. Unfortunately, Hays didn't realize his dream of making Prince Rupert a port to rival Vancouver. Returning from a fund-raising trip to Britain, he booked passage on the Titanic.

Queen Charlotte Islands

Although Prince Rupert has enough attractions and activities, like sport fishing, to keep visitors occupied, it's also a base for other excursions. Float planes and ferries depart from Prince Rupert for the Queen Charlotte Islands. Prince Rupert Adventure Tours bring visitors whale watching, mid-July through October, and to Khutzeymateen for viewing grizzly bears, mid-May through July.

Just a half-hour drive south of Prince Rupert, along Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway), is Port Edward, home to the North Pacific Cannery Village Museum. Strolling along a boardwalk, we peered into homes and stores once used by families that worked here. After watching a performance that brought their stories to life, we enjoyed chowder, barbecued salmon and freshly baked cinnamon buns in the old mess hall.

On the way back to Prince Rupert, we discovered the Shoe Tree. Just four kilometres from the city, it's covered with sneakers, clogs, ski boots, baby shoes, high heels and rubber boots.

For us, it confirmed only one thing. Prince Rupert is one surprising city.


Prince Rupert lodging

In addition to hotels and inns, Prince Rupert has several bed and breakfasts. The most convenient hotels for passengers arriving by air are the Coast Prince Rupert Hotel, the Inn on the Harbour Hotel and the Highliner Plaza Hotel, all within walking distance of each other.

Buses transfer passengers, by ferry, between the Digby Island Airport and the Highliner Plaza Hotel.

Tourism Prince Rupert: www.tourismprincerupert.com

Tourism BC: www.hellobc.com