A Trip to Bella Coola: Stay, Eat, and Listen!

Welcome sign to Bella Coola Valley at airport, Ben Chung stands in front of sign

It’s a busy time for me, but that’s a good thing.

Part of my business includes some work-related travel through what we now know as British Columbia.

Recently, I had the pleasure and privilege to travel to Bella Coola or Nuxalkulmc (Nuxalk territory).

As an important caveat, I could not promote reckless and potentially dangerous travel that flouts local health restrictions and could proliferate the spread of disease (e.g., COVID-19). Please keep in the current state of the pandemic if you choose to travel for non-essential reasons to remote communities, including Bella Coola. And, do everything you can to prevent the transmission of disease, including vaccination.

Check local emergency updates and press releases from the respective community where you intend to travel in case of doubt to ensure you can be welcomed.

Ben Chung, in front of Bella Coola Valley welcome sign
Landed! (Photo credits by Kyra Borland)

Located a bit inland (950 kilometres from Vancouver), the territory of this central coast Nation sits in a lush valley. It is accessible by air via Pacific Coastal Airlines, sea by BC Ferries, and road.

Landing strip of Bella Coola Valley airport
The Bella Coola Airport is small and efficient! Follow the check-in times and regulations so you don’t miss your flight! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

The Nuxalk are an Indigenous Nation who have resided in this area since immemorial. Historically, some have refered to the people as ‘Bella Coola’ too. However, the more appropriate name is Nuxalkmc (Nuxalk people), and this former name is more of a grafted, general term. Nuxalkulmc corresponds to Nuxalk territory at large.

The Nuxalk language is a distinct Salish language, which is geographically different from its linguistic cousins and relatives. (Salish languages are usually spoken more southernly on the coast and interior.)

Sign describing sputc (oolichan) and their importance to the Nuxalk people
Sputc or ‘oolichan/eulachon’ are central to Nuxalk culture and economy. Through processing, these tiny fish become oolichan grease, which is a prized (and delicious) trade commodity in the region. Since 1999, the oolichan runs have been much smaller and not to the level for a sustainable fishery in the river, which has had lasting community impacts. (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Linguistically, some know the language for its syntax (word order) that permits long strings of consonant sounds to form complex and content rich phrases.

To learn some Nuxalk, definitely check out the community-managed Nuxalk FirstVoices site.

Getting There

Upon landing in the local airport in Hagensborg, my colleague and I picked up our rented car. Conveniently, it operates out of the airport with drop-off being the same location: Bella Coola Vehicle Rentals.

Vehicle check-in counter
Check in at the counter, get a Jeep! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

I would suggest flying into Bella Coola or driving through.

If you are inexperienced at flying in small aircrafts, I recommend driving over flying. Our descent was … rough, and while I am fine with turbulence, the proximity to the mountain landscape and the plane itself shocked me as we lowered rapidly to land in the narrow valley!

Wing of airplane

The main road that will get you into town is Bella Coola Highway 20, which will also get you to Williams Lake, situated in the interior of the region.

The general climate is what you might expect for a location this north. The winters can be cold, but from May to September, the weather picks up and can be sunny and warm (with highs of 20°C).

The name Hagensnborg comes from Norwegian origins. Historically, missionaries from Minnesota and Wisconsin settled in the area, which established a colonial presence in the area. To reach Bella Coola, you will have to pass through it and manage the legendary ‘hill’, which is a steep incline just east of the locale if travelling by road from Williams Lake.

Bella Coola Valley Airport
We love a wee airport! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

As a note, Hagensborg has a boil water advisory whereas Bella Coola does not. In fact, Bella Coola water is some of the freshest. I can attest the tap water is pristine compared to my city alternative!

The stunning views and calm of the air are relaxing. And, tourism in the region takes advantage of these traits.

Eco-tours are available, and as it should be stated, I 100% recommend purchasing and contributing to Nuxalk owners, guides, and the local economy.

Choosing Accommodations

Lodges exist along the roadside including the Eagle Lodge Bella Coola or Bella Coola Mountain Lodge. Another highlight is the Tallheo Cannery Guest House, which is a more scenic and remote accommodation, which requires a boat ride from the Bella Coola Harbour.

The name Tallheo comes from the place name Talyu found in an adjacent inlet. Tallio is another common spelling.  

Nevertheless, for ease, I recommend staying in town, in Bella Coola.

Bella Coola Valley Inn
Exterior of Bella Coola Valley Inn (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Bella Coola itself is Q’um’kuts in the Nuxalk language. The name Bella Coola actually comes from the Heiltsuk language, spoken westward, in a separate community and Nation. Learn more about the Heiltsuk Community in Bella Bella, here: The Handsome HQ of Heiltsuk Territory: Bella Bella

Q’um’kuts is the area and community where many other villages, forced to amalgamate, came together in the mid-1940s as a result of ongoing colonial efforts.

In town, there are lodging options like the Bella Coola Valley Inn and the Cumbrian Inn.

Coincidentally, at check-in, I learned that the Bella Coola Valley Inn is currently run by my fellow countrymen aka Koreans!

The adjoining restaurant offers a selection of food (highly rated by the local community), including Korean food! I was shocked that I was able to enjoy galbi and dwaeji bulgogi remotely, and I must say, it was up to par.

Other dishes to try on the menu include their amazing burgers, fish ‘n chips, and pasta features!

Spicy Korean pork dish
 돼지불고기! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Q’um’kuts/ Bella Coola is small, so cooking might not be an option depending on your accommodation. We ate at the Inn, again, highly rated, every evening we were there. It also means that businesses close early, so prepare for a dinner before 7pm if you want to eat out.

(The local pub is also only open on the weekends.)

But, other restaurants exist in town like Freddy’s Restaurant to switch up a dinner routine and the local Co-Op sells great sandwiches at the bakery.

Freddy’s has a good selection of options including some South Asian dishes! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

I also recommend this little milkshake shop/tattoo/piercing parlour across from Freddy’s. The shakes are superb! (If it appears closed, you need to text the number on the door to see when the smoothie master will be back.)

Where Else to Eat

One of the best finds was on our last day, heading to the airport.

Small restaurant
Cute on the outside, delicious on the inside! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

My Lunch Stop is exactly as the name details – a lunch stop (which incredible options).

Front of small restaurant
(Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Delicious pastries, handcrafted sandwiches, and other treats, I ordered two sandwiches (one for then, and one for later). However, I consumed both in one sitting since they were just that good!

Spanakopita and apple turnovers
Homemade pastries, steak sandwiches, and fresh coffee for an affordable price! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Either as a nice send-off or a good pick-me-up after a flight, this eatery must be visited if you are headed to Q’um’kuts/ Bella Coola!

What to Do

Excursions and adventurous activities are the main draws for tourists to this area as well as to experience Nuxalk hospitality and culture, respectfully.

The river system is central with freshwater fishing being popular; licenses and gear available at the Kopas store in town or at the Eagle Lodge with guided tours available through the Tweedsmuir Park Lodge. For the most part, many of the lodge accommodations provide their own dining options and add-on packages like the Bella Coola Grizzly Tours and Adventure Resort.

Bella Coola River
Heading out to sea! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Other outside activities like hiking and, depending on the season, winter sports are also appealing to visitors.

The Copper Sun Gallery & Journeys (part of the Nuxalk Development Corporation) is your main avenue to engage with and learn about the Nuxalk past and present to carry with you, a more rounded understanding of this place, into the future. The company offers multiple tour packages including rafting, mountain, cedar, and petroglyph excursions.

Bella Coola River
The sprawling sky, clouds kissing the mountains, and crisp air remind you that you are in the Great Bear Rainforest! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

At the end of a great, productive week, we were fortunate enough to be taken to view the petroglyphs by an experienced guide who explained their many interpretations and more about the region’s layered, rich history.

These petroglyphs should not be photographed and displayed on social media. Those on tours should really listen and take in the information being shared.

Stop sign in Nuxalk, Tsayalhx
‘Stop’ in Nuxalk, which specifically relates to stoping motion with one’s legs. (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

The expansive number of carvings is outstanding. The more you focus on a given space, once you hike up to this special area, the more petroglyphs you realise are visible in this compact, natural canvas.

I have to say stutwiniitscw ‘thank you’ to Chris for the amazing afternoon!

Where to Shop

I also recommend shopping, yes, you heard me.

Acwsalcta School (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

The local, Nuxalk run gift store is located at 834 Four Mile Subdivision, across from the Acwsalcta School.

Gift shop
Visit Mamayu! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

Mamayu ‘butterfly’ is your one-stop shop for garb, art, jewelry, and so much more! I forgot to bring a sweatshirt and purchased a great one for a decent price here; they have some great sales too!

After doing some hiking, maybe a local tour, some retail relaxation is called for, always.

Interior of gift shop
Friendly service, affordable prices, and bit of something for everyone! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

If you are a beader or craftsperson, I also suggest hitting up the Bella Coola Wild Craft Gallery in town. Pick up some buttons for blankets, porcupine quills, and more for your regalia!

Tap into 91.1 FM

My last recommendation is to also take a drive and tune into Nuxalk Radio, 91.1 FM. A non-commercial, educational initiative, this great station is a stellar example of Indigenous radio-hosting and programming.

You can listen to Nuxalk language to practice along with, hear stories, interviews, and other Indigenous-centred episodes and programs from a variety of creators.

Country road with mountains
A cool drive, listening to Nuxalk Radio, taking in the views – also a perfect afternoon! (Photo credits by PintsizedPioneer)

It was my first trip to the community and region, and I have to say, I would be back in a heartbeat if I have the opportunity. I cannot express the gratitude that I have to be able to work with such great people and engage with folks on their lands, listen, and witness.

All in all, if you have the chance and ability to learn from and visit the Nuxalkmc in Nuxalkulmc, you should! I had missed travelling, especially to small towns, since the pandemic began. This trip was restorative.

Q’um’kuts/ Bella Coola is the kind of place where you can (and should) wave to a driver passing by. It is a place to strike up a conversation and make lasting connections. And, I hope that when you visit there, you do so!

More to come soon with travel to the coast, and then we are headed to Scotland (again)! Nice to be back in the saddle so to speak – stay tuned for more Vancouver-based recommendations, quips, and travel advice for this summer too.