We felt for a moment like we were in northern Italy, looking out from the sunny terrace where we were drinking a very pleasant bottle of local wine in front of the postcard-worthy jagged peaks stretched out at the end of the valley.
It looked, I said, like the Dolomites. But it was not. Nor did the town across the river in in any way resemble a historic Italian village. It was Lillooet, best-known to B.C. high-school history students as a town that had something to do with the gold rush. And maybe jade. Currently, something to do with forestry and hydroelectricity, because it’s on the Fraser River. A place that, if forced to guess, I would have imagined as filled with pickup trucks, logging trucks and diners.
But here we were, on the very designer-y patio of the relatively new Kitchen at Fort Berens restaurant, eating curated appetizer plates and elaborate pasta dishes, looking out at a million-dollar view.
We ended up there accidentally the first time, on our way back from a camping trip that was the first of our only-in-B.C. pandemic summer adventures. But I went back two more times. It turned out that the trip there and back, the area nearby, and then the town itself became as beautiful and interesting for me as any foray to the Gorges du Verdon in France or the Priorat region in Spain. (Okay, not quite the same, but still.)
Just the trip up the Fraser Canyon and back down to Vancouver on the Lillooet-Whistler road is spectacular, the kind of thing that Europeans who visit this province likely pay thousands to travel and then remember with awe the rest of their lives.
Fort Berens Estate Winery
The brown river churning steadily far below the cliffside highway, the ranches and farmhouses perched on narrow green benches at the foot of desert-dry escarpments, the sense of both a vast, scarcely populated piece of B.C. and the chain of Indigenous settlements that have been in the canyon for thousands of years on one part of the loop.
On the other half: a quick swim in Seton Lake, floating between mountain ranges, on the way out of town, then a climb and dip through the forests and along the river of the Duffey Lake/Cayoosh Creek Valley down to Pemberton, Whistler, home.
And then there’s Lillooet itself, a quintessential B.C. working-class town that is slowly evolving. Yes, diners. Also, Abundance Artisan Bakery, the current cool coffee shop and bakery. Yes, many trucks. But also walking trails that take you to the old wooden closed-to-cars bridge over the Fraser or down through desert scrub to the rocky bank where the electric-blue water of the Seton River smashes into the Fraser brown.
Yes, an archetypal B.C. settler town. But also a museum, with markers and a preserved residence that records the layers of history, including Japanese internment camps and the Chinese mine workers who discovered jade—something the locals didn’t think had any value.
It’s going to be discovered by everyone else someday, I keep saying. Glad I got there ahead of the crowd.