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Easy Places – Uh, That’s Easy to Afford, Not Easy to Get To

Vancouver Magazine, May / June 1997

Whistler - we all know what happened there. The Gulf Islands, the Sunshine Coast? Lovely, and priced accordingly. The Okanagan and the Shuswap - in just five years, between 1988 and 1993, average selling prices more than doubled. Vancouver's traditional cottage country is no longer a place to get away from it all, if by "it" you mean high prices, big crowds and all that time spent waiting in ferry lineups or otherwise getting around.

"It's been so long since we dealt with recreational properties," says Mary Small, an agent with Century 21 Islands Realty on Salt Spring Island. It's the same everywhere. Once prices reach a certain threshold- say, $200,000- properties stop being cottages and start turning into principal residences.

The secluded waterfront retreat, the country seat, the all-round place in the sun is hard to find, unless you're prepared to step outside the sphere of established cottage country into areas as yet undiscovered, still undeveloped or just off the beaten path. The suprising good news is that even today, such areas do exist. Here we investigate five of them, from the frontier of the Bulkley Valley to the small-town quaintness of the West Kootenays.

1. Tulameen/Aspen Grove

Within a three hour driving radius of Vancouver, that last best place where you can still find something affordable and nice may be the rain-shadow country to the east of the Coquihalla Highway. Not necessarily lakefront, though. The few major bodies of water (Otter, Allison, and Glimpse lakes) were sewn up years ago. The lots there are pretty pricey ($170,000 and up), and turnover is slow. But for barely six figures you can still get 10 to 40 acres near a highway, perhaps with a house and probably with a mountain out back.

From the open range land of the Nicola Valley to the steeper, forested mountainsides of the North Cascades, this country was made for the horsey set. Hikers and mountain bikers are catching on, too. But mostly, it's as close to the city as you can get and still live a pioneering lifestyle every weekend, clearing brush, fixing fences, and building a house with your own two hands.

The climate is ideal- hot and dry in summer, cool and dry in winter. You'll have to drive half an hour to the nearest store, but not nearly so far to one of the dozens of small fishing lakes and swimming holes accessible off side roads, of which there are many. Though never fully settled, the Tulameen-Aspen Grove area has been a cross-roads for Hudson's Bay Company traders, cattle drives and railroads for close to 150 years. The forest is typically second-growth, with some open hayfields or grazing land and an occasional surviving pioneer farmhouse. Cows are a big part of the landscape, so you've got to enjoy driving over cattleguards.

For a place to stay while you check out the area, try the Coalmont Hotel  (250) 295-6066 , in the Tulameen Valley; or Quilchena Hotel,  (250) 378-2611 , along Highway 5 on Nicola Lake. The country you're looking for lies roughly between these two historic hostelries.

LISTING: New two-bedroom ranchhouse on 10 acres in the Kane Valley, just five kilometers off the Coquihalla. For seasonal or year-round living, with wood stove, decks, and loft. $175,000. Geraldine Ablett, Re/max Nicola Valley Realty, Merritt.

2. Kootenays

Rudy Nielsen, President of NIHO Land & Cattle Co. in New Westminster, tells a story about how older Vancouverites see their city getting so big, so they cash in their houses and move to Kelowna. Kelowna old-timers see their city getting too big, so they sell out and move to Nelson. Nelsonians, barely able to recognize the place anymore escape to Creston or Nakusp.

Well, maybe the latter is a bit of a stretch. The Kootenays are simply too far from anywhere to be overrun anytime soon. Still, they have been influenced by the "Penturbia" phenomenon, the fifth great migration of North Americans, described by Washington State academic Jack Lessinger in his bestseller of the same name. (The fourth was to the suburbs. The fifth takes us back to small towns. Here life is like it used to be, yet modern communications technology lets you carry on your information-age career- at least according to Lessinger's theory.) You can see it in enclaves such as Nelson, Rossland, and Kaslo. Land prices reflect it, too.

Fortunately, other Kootenay towns remain well-kept secrets. One of the best areas lies along Upper Arrow Lake around Nakusp. The valley here used to contain mostly 10-acre lots. Typically reduced to about seven acres by the raising of the lake (for hydro-electric development) and the subsequent rerouting of the highway, these parcels usually have paved access and 100 meters of lake frontage, and sell for $100,000 to $130,000. Some include orchards; odd ones contain rustic buildings suitable to inhabit for a few summers while you build you own cabin.

The landscape of towering mountains, dense forest and fjord-like lakes will remind you of the coast- and, apart from a chillier winter, the weather will too. The attractions go beyond fishing, water-skiing and lying in a hammock, however. Fifteen kilometers out of town lie the Nakusp Hot Springs. Local developers are also trying to revive the old Halcyon Springs, site of a hotel that burned down in the '50s. A 90-minute drive eastward will take you through the ghost town of Sandon and on the artists' colony of Kaslo on Kootenay Lake. The spectacular hiking trails of Valhalla Provincial Park lie about an hour away in the Slocan Valley. In winter, Nakusp is a major heli-skiing center, with two wilderness lodges operated by Canadian Mountain Holidays in the surrounding mountains.

Drive time from Vancouver via the Coquihalla and Monashee highways clocks in at six to seven hours. The century-old Leland Hotel,  (250) 265-4221 , in Nakusp, or the Windsor,  (250) 369-2244 , in Trout Lake, provide authentic (if slightly shabby) bases for exploring the area.

LISTING: Nifty little summer retreat on Crown lease (payments are about $500 a year) overlooking Arrow Lake. Just $39,000. Mark Bouvette, Selkirk Realty, Nakusp,  (250) 265-3635 .

3. South Cariboo

The Inter-Lakes Region east on 100 Mile House is the closest BC comes to classic. call-of-the-loon cottage country: 2,000 lakes scattered over a rolling, forested plateau. This area boomed once before, in the 1970's, when much of the waterfront (Sheridan Lake also has 205 kilometers of it) was carved up into affordable half- and three-quarter-acre parcels. After the crash of 1981, when 20-percent interest rates sent financing costs through the roof, the area languished, patronized mainly by American sport fishers and savvy middle-aged suburbanites from the Fraser Valley.

In the '90s, the rest of us woke up to our oversight, and the price of vacant lots ballooned from $20,000 to $100,000. However, people in the real-estate business believe the fun is just beginning for this area five hours by car from Vancouver. "A cabin on a lake here is like money in the bank," says NIHO's Rudy Nielsen. Those built 20 years ago enjoyed relatively lenient development guidelines. To subdivide now, you'll need two acres, a lot of space between you and the lake and a state-of-the-art septic system.

And at $125,000 for a waterfront cabin with indoor plumbing on one of the main lakes (Bridge, Sheridan or Green), the South Cariboo is still a bargain. Discount that price by $15,000 if you venture off Highway 24 ("The Fishing Highway," as it's called thereabouts) to the remoter Deka or Sulphurous lakes. In other words, grab 'em while they last- and bring along your hammer and paintbrush.

This isn't just any old waterfront, after all, but the native habitat of the Kamloops trout, among the feistiest of freshwater fighting fish. Most activities here center around water and boating, at least when conditions allow. Situated 1,200 meters above sea level, the area does have a long winter. For many, that's a bonus; 100 Mile lays a worthy claim to the title of BC's cross-country ski capital.

For the visitor, there are dozens of lodges on the lakes themselves, though the best ones tend to be booked a year in advance. Camping might be a better option if you visit in the high season. There's a small village at Bridge Lake in the heart of the Inter-Lakes. Most services are available at 100 Mile, 45 minutes away.

LISTING: "Clean and cosy" two-bedroom cabin on a half acre on Birch Lake. Vaulted ceiling, sun deck, and private dock on the water. $115,000. Brad Potter, Country Lakes Realty, Bridge Lake.

Here's What you Missed - Sobering proof that location, location equals money, money, money

The Okanagan: Two-bedroom bungalow plus guest house with 70 feet of frontage on Okanagan Lake in Naramata. Bought in 1972 for $40,000, it sold for twice as much six years later. It changed hands again in 1996 for between $325,000 and $340,000. Lesley Tannen, Re/max Penticton Realty  (250) 492-2266 
Salt Spring. Two-thirds-acre lot with stairs to beach and deep-water moorage. Valued at $65,000 in 1977, it sold for $110,000 in 1989 and again for $220,000 in 1994. Today, it's listed for $319,000. Norman Rothwell, Windermere Salt Spring Island,  (250) 537-5515 .
Whistler: 9451 Emerald Drive. Six bedroom, three bathrooms, three fireplaces, hot tub and sauna, 2,800 square feet on three levels. This all-wood character house was built by the legendary Zube Aylwars. Purchased at the peak of the market in 1980 for $225,000, it was listed again this spring at $649,000 and reportedly sold for the full asking price.

4. Nechako-Bulkley Valley

Conventional Wisdom has it that the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, and location. If you're a little unconventional, however, and willing to forgo location, and perhaps location, to, you can pick up just about everything else you want in a summer cottage for a song. The place: Northern BC.

Cluculz, Fraser, and Francois lakes have long been summer retreats for those seeking to escape the urban sprawl of Prince George. But these days, some intrepid Lower-Mainlanders have begun making the 10-hour trek up to the lake district off the Yellowhead 16. Here, for a change, one-half- to one-acre lots on the water are plentiful. In the past few years, values have doubled and even tripled.

But before you get in a spin, consider that prices are still an eminently reasonable $20-40,000 for a waterfront lot and $50-60,000 for a cabin with indoor plumbing and probably even electricity. Many of the existing cabins are built on land leased from the provincial government and local Indian bands. You buy the cabin, and pay anywhere from $400 to $1,000 a year for the lease. The native leases expire in eight years and can't be bought out. But the government ones can be, typically for $25,000 or $30,000. What has the locals up in arms is the fact that these leasehold lots could be had for around $10,000 just a few years ago.

Otherwise, you have everything here you might expect in cottage country: boating, fishing, water-skiing, relaxing, chopping wood, bugs, the odd rowdy party and rolling hills covered in aspen and lodgepole pine. The village of Fraser Lake, about midway between the airport towns of Prince George and Smithers, is the logical base from which to explore the area before buying. For still more adventurous cottagers, there are the really humongous Babine and Stuart Lakes nestled into the mountains of the north, or for those who envision a hobby-farming retirement, the wide-open 160-acre ranchettes of the Bulkley Valley to the northwest.

Listing: Insulated, 668-square-foot cabin on a half-acre government leased lot on the north shore of Fraser Lake. Propane light, heat and appliances. Just $33,000, with lease payments of $537 a year. Stan Irvine, Vanderhoof Real Estate, Vanderhoof.

5. North Coast

This is the place our guide to cheap getaways lets you down. If you have a hunch you missed the opportunity for a coastal hideaway, well, you're absolutely correct, and there's nothing we can do about it. Everything on this side of Campbell River has been developed, and short of the odd five-acre lot on Cortes Island (get the map out) or a postage size piece of something you'll need your own boat to get to, there's little in the price range of someone already paying one mortgage.

Ah, you say, but what about the other side of Campbell River, that vast swath of granite we call northern Vancouver Island, and over on the northern mainland? Here indeed you will find glorious wind-swept coasts, colbalt-blue water, white sand beaches and the added feature of no neighbours for miles around. The trouble is that what you won't find is any private land to speak of.

"There isn't any. There are parks out there, but there's nothing really for sale," laments Wally Taylor, owner of Taylor Realty in Port Hardy. "I'd love to be able to sell some of it, but it's all Crown land. They tied up what's left on this coast in the CORE report a few years ago."

Well, truth be told, the odd parcel does come up for sale- a piece of the old settlements of Quatsino or Coal Harbour, a syndicated fishing retreat on Rivers Inlet, or a little island without water that the logging companies passed over.

NIHO's Rudy Nielsen runs his red pen over a wall map of the north coast, pointing out the parcels of private land. Forty-four at last count, and they don't come cheap.

"It's a special breed of cat who buys on the coast," Nielsen says. "He's rich, he's got a big boat or even a float plane, and he probably loves to fish." More often than not, buyers are in it for investment purposes, hoping that the law of supply and demand being what it is, prices will head even higher in the future. Those who do plan to spend some time there typically build luxurious cabins, often with their own generators but, notably, without phones. These people really want to get away.

The weather is far less predictable than on the south coast- ranging from benign to brutal when you least expect it. Which is a major consideration, because your means of transportation- boat, float plane or 4X4- will likely be weather dependent. Port Hardy is the best place to start any investigation of the area, but to see it all, you'll likely need a plane.

LISTING: Christiansen Point, 159 acres near Cape Scott at Vancouver Island's northern tip. An old Danish homestead with 500 feet of pebbly Pacific Ocean frontage. And a creek runs through it. $359,000. Rudy Nielsen, NIHO Land & Cattle Co., New Westminster.