Famous sunsets, fish-and-chips bonanza await
Photos by Vanessa Blackburn
A Coastal Salish legend tells of a young chief who lived on Vancouver Island. He told his young bride he would hurl a giant white boulder across the Strait of Georgia and wherever the huge rock landed, they would make a home.
According to that legend, the rock landed on the sun-drenched shores of White Rock, British Columbia, and the chief’s descendants became the great Semiahmoo nation, whose encampments first marked the edges of White Rock’s East and West beaches.
The white rock from which the city takes its name still sits on the shores of Semiahmoo Bay.
A seaside gem just five minutes from the Peace Arch border crossing, White Rock is a peaceful hamlet carved out of a busy metropolitan area. The five-square-mile city feels more like a district, as it is surrounded by South Surrey on three sides while the fourth meets Semiahmoo Bay to the south.
But the character of White Rock draws a harder line than any city border. Wine boutiques, thrift shops and art galleries line the streets and coalesce with trendy bistros to produce a character that is eclectic and bohemian chic. The streets can be dancing with activity but the pace still seems peaceful and relaxed, the way time seems to move when you’re on vacation.
“It’s a change of pace,” said Anne Fahlman, tourism director for the White Rock/South Surrey Chamber of Commerce. “It’s a small town atmosphere and that’s very rare to see in the city.”
Nicknamed “the Naples of B.C” and the “Canadian Riviera,” White Rock is known for its mild climate and gorgeous bay views. But the undisputed centerpiece of White Rock is the pier and promenade along Semiahmoo Bay. In the mornings, people of all ages walk up and down the mile-and-a-half promenade; some move slowly along the beach taking in the sea air and others use the pier and promenade as an exercise machine with much better views.
Fahlman said there is a peaceful aspect to the White Rock community that doesn’t come with the headaches and frenzied pace found in other parts of the Lower Mainland.
“If you’ve got any troubles on your mind, you just walk down that pier and they’re gone,” Fahlman said.
White Rock resident Crystal Lyght comes down to the promenade for a stroll every morning. She originally moved to White Rock in 1973 but then promptly moved away to North Shore, Ontario, where she has lived for the past 33 years. However, she was never able to get White Rock out of her mind and moved back in October 2006.
Lyght noted what most other residents are very quick to point out: White Rock is a beautiful town with a pace that sets it apart from the rest of the province.
“This is my California equivalent,” Lyght said.
The promenade follows the path of the Burlington Northern railway tracks that first brought passenger train service to White Rock. The White Rock Station was built in 1912 and passengers came and went until 1971. The station is now the White Rock Station Museum and Archives, which displays native art, work from local artists, and natural history exhibits.
An area of natural beauty
Meagan Kus, the executive director of the White Rock Station Museum and Archives, said she lives in Vancouver but loves working in White Rock. From her window in the White Rock museum, she can see hikers, bikers, walkers and runners out enjoying the outdoors.
Out on the water, sailors drop anchor and scoot ashore on motorized, inflatable rafts, while kayakers cut a line through their path. Immediately adjacent and southeast of the promenade, hikers make their way into the estuaries of Semiahmoo Park to observe some of White Rock’s natural beauty.
“There is so much to do here when it comes to outdoor activities,” Kus said. “This is an incredibly diverse area for natural beauty. You can watch herons, sandpipers and all kinds of waterfowl all along the beach.”
A town crazy for fish and chips
Across the street from the museum is a colorful amalgam of shops, residences, bistros and gelaterias. The restaurants are diverse enough even though just about every place has fish and chips on the menu.
Jush Altintas, owner of the Ocean Rock Bistro, has had his restaurant/bar up and running for about two years and has a conflicted relationship with the schools of fish and fries on the waterfront. Altintas said his first year of business was really tough because there is so much competition on Marine Drive.
“My sales in the first five months were terrible, but then I added fish and chips to the menu and I did more business in three weeks than in the previous five months,” Altintas said. “I bloody hate fish and chips, but the people here love it.”
Fish and chips aside, Altintas said White Rock is an amazing place to live, work and visit. Like many of the shopkeepers along Marine Drive, Altintas lives above his restaurant and enjoys soaking up the sunshine when he is not slinging crepes and cocktails to tourists.
“I think this is a very relaxing and friendly place to be,” he said. “More friendly, I think, than other places I have been.”
In fact, White Rock comes together for several community events such as the annual Semiahmoo Bay International Regatta and Kite Festival this April 26 and 27, which is two days of yacht racing and kite flying to benefit the White Rock/South Surrey Foundation.
Fahlman said that White Rock is an extremely outdoorsy, health-conscious community that loves its cycling, which can be seen at White Rock’s Tour de White Rock. The international cycling race attracts more than 150 world-class cyclists and is a major spectator event.
“People sit out on their decks and along the streets in the morning and have their coffee as the bikes go by,” Fahlman said.
But as one attempts to describe the lure of White Rock, you find that most people speak of something intangible. Fahlman said it is difficult to describe to someone who is not standing on the pier and looking out at the horizon and taking deep breaths of crisp sea air.
“It’s not just the place; it’s a feeling here—it’s an atmosphere.”
Once you’re there…
Where to eat
Cosmos Restaurant, 14871 Marine Drive, (604) 531-3511. Enjoy Greek and Continental fine dining for lunch and dinner seven days a week. Enjoy excellent food on a heated, outdoor patio with amazing bay views. Plus, Friday and Saturday evenings feature male and female belly dancers.
Green Papaya Restaurant, 15057 Marine Drive, (604) 536-9811. A new Vietnamese fusion restaurant, Green Papaya combines Vietnamese flavors with the agricultural bounty of the Lower Mainland’s West Coast.
Moby Dick Famous Fish and Chips, 15479 Marine Drive, (604) 536-2424. A family-operated local favorite since 1975, Moby Dick is a promenade mainstay. Enjoy the latest catch while surrounded by whale pictures, fishnets and other maritime memorabilia.
Washington Avenue Grill, 15782 Marine Drive, (604) 541-4244. Enjoy a casual dining experience in Washington Avenue Grill’s glass atrium, main dining room or patio. All have breathtaking bay views and are privy to the restaurant’s award-winning wine list and Western fusion menu.
Where to drink
Iguana’s Beach Grill, 14985 Marine Drive, (604) 538-2891. Iguana’s combines local beer and cocktails with a fusion of Mexican, Italian and Californian cuisine to create a superior dining experience with live music on Fridays and Saturdays.
Sandpiper Pub, 15595 Marine Drive, (604) 531-2635. With karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays, live music Tuesdays and Thursdays, and wing-night on Mondays, it’s a party every night of the week at the Sandpiper. Come for the cold beer but stay for the great food and wine boutique.
Where to shop
Whitby’s Books, Gifts and Magazines, 14833 Marine Drive, (604) 536-3711. With thousands of books and hundreds of magazine titles, Whitby’s has something for just about everyone. Gifts range from singing quartz crystal balls to native gifts.
Kerrisdale Design and Décor, 1407 Johnston Road, (604) 635-3601. Kerrisdale Design provides an exclusive collection of furniture and décor items that epitomize clean lines and timeless silhouettes. Kerrisdale items are classic but not trendy and attempt to create a timeless look for the home.
Cherry Blossom in Blue Antiques, 15545 Marine Drive, (778) 837-7362. This little antique shop by the seashore sells unique and unusual antiques such as collectable miniature vases and antique jewelry, paintings and statues.
Where to stay
A Beach House…On the Beach, 15241 Marine Drive, (604) 536-5200. Rent one and two-bedroom oceanfront suites at one of White Rock’s premier beach houses. There are also multiple decks and a rooftop terrace.
Ocean Promenade Hotel, 15611 Marine Drive, (604) 542-0102. With sweeping bay views and a gourmet kitchen, the Ocean Promenade is a luxurious way to soak up the waterfront.
Daly Bed & Bread Guest House, 13152 Marine Drive, (604) 531-2531. Enjoy the panoramic bay views in a rustic, two-room suite at Daly Bed & Bread. The house’s rooms are well appointed with antique furniture, private entrances, sitting areas, a deck and a private bathroom.
The White Rock Heritage Pier on Marine Drive, just past Fir Street. Built in 1915 and reopened in 1977, White Rock’s wooden pier juts out 1,559 feet into Semiahmoo Bay and is the centerpiece of the promenade.
White Rock Station Museum and Archives, 14970 Marine Drive, (604) 541-2222. The Great Northern Railway built the White Rock station in 1912, and passenger service continued until 1971. The building is now home to exhibits on native birds, local artists and the First Nation Semiahmoo.
Totem Plaza, Marine Drive at Cypress Street. Totem Plaza gets its name from the totem poles that mark the entrance to Lions Lookout Park. Coast Salish artist Susan Point and Haida artist Robert Davidson designed the totem poles and named them “The Gift.” The totems were first displayed to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and its alliance with the Semiahmoo First Nation.
Getting to White Rock, B.C.
Take I-5 North toward Vancouver, B.C., which becomes provincial Route 99 at the Canadian border. Take exit 2 toward Highway 99A/White Rock/Cloverdale. Follow roundabout toward Eighth Avenue and head west. Eighth Avenue becomes Marine Drive.
Crossing the border:
Adults need a passport or birth certificate and driver’s license or other government-issued identification. Children must have their birth certificates and possibly a letter of permission for travel from parent or guardian if not present.