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In living color

Nelson, a picturesque mountain hamlet in British Columbia, was built on mining 125 years ago. Today it's known for its spectacular fall foliage, outdoor sports and relaxed, artistic vibe.

October 16, 2011|Christopher Reynolds
  • Summer may be Nelson, Canada's busiest season, but "fall is the most beautiful time," says Virginia Wassick, co-proprietor of Grand Lakefront Bed & Breakfast on nearby Kootenay Lake. Nelson is about 150 miles north of Spokane, Wash.
Summer may be Nelson, Canada's busiest season, but "fall is… (Graham Edwards )

NELSON, CANADA — Up in the northwest forest where Washington, Idaho and British Columbia converge, there's a lazy little international border crossing called Nelway, about the size of a gas station.

"Where are you headed?" a Canadian border patrol agent asked when my family rolled up a few months ago, heading north from Washington.

"Nelson," I told him as he began his search of our car.

"It's OK," said the officer, unenthusiastically. "Kinda hippie-ish. Very laid-back."

Not a problem, sir. The town of Nelson, semi-Victorian, substantially bohemian, sportier and more artsy than your average hamlet of 9,700 souls, sits in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, about 30 miles north of the U.S. border. Picture a college town that has misplaced its university.

It has dramatic leaves in fall, skiing in winter, swimming and boating in summer, hiking and mountain biking much of the year. Thousands of American draft resisters and back-to-the-landers chose this area as a haven 40 years ago, and hundreds are said to remain, but it gets barely a trickle of U.S. tourists.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, October 18, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Nelson, Canada: In the Oct. 16 Travel section, an article about Nelson, Canada, misspelled the last name of Nelson resident Ernest Hekkanen as Hekkaman.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 23, 2011 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Travel Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Nelson, Canada: In the Oct. 16 Travel section, an article about Nelson, Canada, misspelled the last name of Nelson resident Ernest Hekkanen as Hekkaman.

Just below the town lies the west arm of photogenic Kootenay Lake. Just above town rises Toad Mountain, where the discovery of silver prompted the founding of Nelson about 125 years ago. Nelson's stone and brick Victorians, once the province of off-duty miners and loggers, now house or neighbor eccentric shops, galleries and restaurants. The Sacred Ride (on Baker Street) peddles bikes. Downward Dog (Front Street) offers pet supplies. The Funky Monkey (Front Street) grills burgers. ROAM (Baker Street) promises gear for rivers, oceans and mountains.

Summer may be the busiest season, but "fall is the most beautiful time," said Virginia Wassick, who, with her husband, Duncan, runs the three-room Grand Lakefront Bed & Breakfast in a rambling old house near the lake's edge. In September and October, Wassick said, the guests "come and stay a week or two and sit on the deck, look at the colors and read books. I love the September-October people. They're so laid-back."

Nelson -- about 150 miles north of Spokane, Wash., more than 400 miles east of Vancouver, Canada -- is too little and isolated to stand as a major destination by itself. But you can fly into Spokane or Castlegar, British Columbia (about 25 miles south of Nelson), and spend a few days driving a 135-mile loop from Nelson past the mountains, lakes, rivers, meadows and towns of Kaslo, New Denver, Silverton and Slocan. Or follow the 280-mile International Selkirk Loop ( www, which includes handsome chunks of Idaho and Washington.

For us, Nelson was a three-day respite at the northernmost point of a 1,200-mile road trip that began in Seattle and ended in Portland, Ore. We window-shopped on Baker Street; bought many "Magic Treehouse" volumes in Otter Books for our 7-year-old daughter, Grace; paced the little pier that juts into the lake; took a skiff for a buzz around on the water; and drove across the big orange bridge -- which locals call "BOB" because, remember, it's a Big Orange Bridge -- toward the postcard views at Pulpit Rock overlook and Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.

With more time, we would have soaked at Ainsworth Hot Springs (about 30 miles northeast) and caught the free ferry at nearby Balfour (a 35-minute ride across the lake to Kootenay Bay). But we did ride an antique streetcar along the Waterfront Pathway to Lakeside Park, where you'll find an organic concession stand (summer only) and busy playground. Downtown, we shared a good but pricey brunch at BiBO, followed by a great (and pricier) dinner at the All Seasons Cafe, Nelson's top restaurant. Uptown, I took a ride on old BNSF railroad track that has been converted into a mountain-biking trail.

One day I drank hemp ale. Another, I ate a hemp cookie. But there were no purchases at the hemp boutique on Ward Street, so no hemp hat trick.

We stayed at the Prestige Resort, a pricey hotel at the water's edge that should be the greatest place in town, given its location. Instead, it felt like an opportunity squandered -- a dull, dark building best suited to the housing of Dunder-Mifflin business travelers. Next time we'll look more closely at the New Grand Hotel (more character, lower rates) or a local B&B.

This being Canada, the town has a hockey team and a curling club, both busy from fall through late winter or early spring. The Whitewater Ski Resort, about 20 minutes outside Nelson, is a small operation (three chairlifts, 1,184 skiable acres, no lodgings) that gets big powder -- an average of 40 feet of snow per winter. The resort's Fresh Tracks Cafe is a favorite among B.C. foodies, many of whom revere the "Whitewater Cooks" cookbook by former resort chef Shelley Adams.

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