Paradise found

Sunshine Coast's laid-back lifestyle, affordability lures Vancouverites

“What kind of commute do I have? Let me see. There are three traffic lights between here and home and if they’re all red, then maybe 10 or 12 minutes.”

Lorna Ketler is relaxed as she stands in her clothing store in the heart of lower Gibsons Landing on the Sunshine Coast. She’s steps away from Molly’s Reach Restaurant, once home to the CBC series The Beachcombers.

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A former Vancouverite, Ketler has reason to smile. The sun is shining on a recent summer day as locals and visitors wander into Bodacious, the popular clothing store she relocated from busy Main Street in Vancouver three-and-a-half years ago.

Part of the draw in moving to the Sunshine Coast was the more affordable real estate. But it’s also meant sacrifices. Ketler’s husband George must now commute to his job at Rocky Mountaineer in Vancouver five days a week. George is lucky in that a friend loans him a parking spot near the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. In the morning Ketler drops him off in Langdale and he picks up their second car on the West Vancouver side for the drive into the city.

The Sunshine Coast is becoming a haven for many Vancouverites tired of the exorbitant cost of real estate, endless traffic, non-stop construction and urban social problems. While some have made the leap completely, there are others who live on the Sunshine Coast and commute to Vancouver. In the case of some couples the Courier spoke with, that means one person is left with a lengthy commute while the other works locally, often from home. But according to many locals, it’s an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of living in paradise. And paradise it is.

While the Sunshine Coast includes 180 kilometres of land stretching from Gibsons to Lund, Gibsons and Roberts Creek seem to lure the majority of Vancouverites looking to get away from the city. Being surrounded by ocean it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re on an island, but do not make the mistake of referring to the area as such in front of any locals or you’ll be quickly corrected. “It’s not an island, it’s a peninsula” was the chorus heard more than once.

Gibsons is a 40-minute ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver and five kilometres from the Langdale ferry terminal. There are several options available for travel for those still making the commute to the mainland, including ride- share programs.

According to B.C. Ferries, approximately 1,000 residents of the Sunshine Coast regularly commute to Vancouver for work, so the route is a popular one.

Deborah Marshall, executive director of public affairs for B.C. Ferries, says frequent travellers may use the “Experience Card” to obtain discounts of more than 20 per cent on the Horseshoe Bay to Langdale route. She notes many commuters take advantage of the Jack Bell Foundation car pool and ride-share programs.

“With the high real estate values in the Lower Mainland, families can find their dollar goes a lot further on the Sunshine Coast,” says Marshall. “It’s a 40 minute ferry trip, so at under an hour, it is appealing to people.”
Reasonable real estate prices indeed make Gibsons attractive to Vancouverites frustrated at their inability to purchase a home in the city.

“We were looking at homes for $1 million in Vancouver,” says Ketler. “So, on a whim we decided to head over to Gibsons to take a look.”

When the couple discovered they could purchase a three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home with a view for under $400,000, their decision was an easy one. Before moving to Gibsons they rented near Main Street.

A look through the Sunshine Coast Real Estate Guide for July 2012 showed one-bedroom condos starting at $167,000 and luxury, five-bedroom, executive waterfront homes starting at about $700,000. That compares to Vancouver where a $1-million home is typically a tear down.

Family first drew Stafford Lumley from Vancouver to Gibsons, where he opened Smitty’s Oyster House at the historic wharf adjacent next to Molly’s Reach, but it’s his new lifestyle that keeps him on the Sunshine Coast.

Lumley was encouraged by his wife at the time to make the move in 2003, so she could be close to her family. Before moving to Gibsons, Lumley was living the urban dream as owner of Rodney’s Oyster House in Yaletown, where world-renowned oysterman Rodney Clark taught Lumley everything there is to know about oysters.

After the 2003 move, Lumley lived part-time in Vancouver and commuted back and forth to be with his family, but then in 2005 he discovered the vacant marine repair chandlery built by Henry (Smitty) Smith in 1957, adjacent to Molly’s Reach. He renovated the decrepit blue warehouse and in 2008 opened the ocean-front oyster bar he’d always dreamed of. Lumley and his wife have since separated and the couple shares custody of their three daughters, fittingly named Royal, Pearl and Löv.

Sitting at the 27-foot, spruce harvest table that lines the front of Smitty’s Oyster House on a warm summer evening, Lumley admits he had doubts about the move that first winter. It’s a surprising admission, considering that as he speaks the restaurant is packed with customers with a steady lineup of diners outside waiting for a table.

“But it was all worth it,” says Lumley. “I live right up the hill and walk here every day. In Yaletown, my parking tickets alone were $2,500. They’ve just introduced parking enforcement in Gibsons, but I don’t even have to drive my car.”

Lumley has embraced a more active lifestyle. He spends time on the water, fishes and plays hockey thanks to several of his friends having also moved to the area due to its affordability. Visits to Vancouver remind him how much he appreciates his new lifestyle.

“I have no regrets and every time I go to the city I think thank God I can go home to Gibsons,” says Lumley. “What I do regret is that there aren’t more places to eat.”

A combination of both lower real estate prices and family appealed to architect Will Schmidts and wife Sylvie Bruce, who works in pharmaceutical sales.

The couple moved to Roberts Creek from North Vancouver in 2009 not long after Schmidts completed projects that for six years saw him travelling back and forth to Moscow, Russia, as well as regular visits to Shanghai, China. Their daughter, who recently turned four, was also getting to an age where daycare was an issue.

“We thought, why should we pay $1,600 a month to have someone else raise our child?” says Schmidts. “That was when I decided to step away from designing houses.”

But Schmidts wasn’t ready to leave house design behind and the couple purchased the home in Roberts Creek that has since become the Shades of Jade Inn and Spa, a bed and breakfast located a three-minute walk from Henderson Beach. Schmidts designed the inn, a stunning combination of West Coast luxury and Zen-like ambiance set in a B.C. rainforest, which opened in 2010.

“We’ve done a lot of travelling and had stayed at B&Bs,” says Schmidts. “We knew we’d need to replace my income somehow, so we decided on a B&B.”

Schmidts is a stay-at-home dad to their daughter, with help from Bruce’s mother who lives nearby. Schmidts admits he had to adjust after living a fast-paced, deadline-driven life.

“But now I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Bruce commutes four days a week to Vancouver and uses her time on the ferry to catch up on paperwork, which she says is an advantage she has over commuters who drive.

“That time is very productive,” says Bruce. “I use it to catch up on emails and administration. When I drive off that ferry I’m done, which means I can spend more time with my family.”

She describes her life on the Sunshine Coast as “balanced.” Having grown up in the area, Bruce craved a return to life by the ocean, which today is within walking distance of Shades of Jade. She also gets to see more of her extended family since her parents and her brother-in-law have since moved to the Sunshine Coast.

“When I come home at the end of the day I’m energized,” says Bruce. “Is it worth it? Absolutely. It’s awesome.”

Awesome, maybe, but newcomers have to make adjustments to a slower pace of doing things. They also find themselves less connected technologically.

Depending on Internet connections, working on the move and away from the office can prove problematic. During the Courier’s two-day stay on the Sunshine Coast, mobile connections were tenuous. But the lack of instant Twitter access didn’t seem to cause undue stress to anyone—with the exception of this reporter. During a dinner party on the ocean-front lawn of Chaster’s restaurant located at Bonniebrook Lodge in Gibsons, efforts to tweet were met with chuckles from the laid-back participants, none of whom had an iPhone or BlackBerry in hand.

“That always happens,” they said. “You’ll get used to it.”

Newcomers are also bringing new ideas and expectations to the region.

Gibsons mayor Wayne Rowe wouldn’t describe the differing opinions of newcomers versus longtime residents as “conflict,” but he admits the old guard looks at change with trepidation.

“It’s like that book Who Moved my Cheese?” says Rowe, of the book that deals with change in life. “Things are comfortable and people move here to get away from their dense urban environment and hustle and bustle of the city, but then they’re surprised when things move so slowly.”

Rowe says it’s important Gibsons doesn’t become a satellite suburb, like Langley or Abbotsford, for Vancouver. Instead, he wants newcomers to embrace their change in lifestyle rather than keeping one foot in the city.

While a proposal to build a small convention centre has many recent transplants excited, Rowe says they must realize the town has an aging infrastructure and there’s a lot to consider before going ahead with such a project.

“They’re used to having certain amenities and they want to see those amenities,” says Rowe. “But I tell them don’t expect things to get done quickly.”

Even calling a repairman in Gibsons takes time.

“You can expect to wait two days or even a week for them to call back,” says Rowe. “It’s very laid back here and newcomers need to get used to the fact that things happen on ‘Coast time.’ That takes a bit of adjusting to when you’re used to 24-hour service in Vancouver.”

That said, Rowe admits the Town of Gibsons can’t stand still and some growth is inevitable, particularly with the increasing number of new residents moving from Vancouver.

“If you don’t grow, you go backwards,” says Rowe. “But it will be controlled development, otherwise we’ll overburden our infrastructure.”

Despite making adjustments, the former city dwellers say they feel welcome. Ketler says it took time to realize how her new community had embraced her. The self-employed Ketler describes herself as being burned out last April after not having a day off in many months.

“Some friends I’ve made here asked, ‘What do you need?’” says Ketler. “And they arranged to take over the store so I could have three days off. Their kindness was overwhelming.”

Ketler has also embraced an active lifestyle she never had living in Vancouver. She’s taken up swimming in the ocean, kayaking and cycling, all the while keeping an eye out for bears, cougars and deer.

Her accomplishment is what all who move there seem to seek and find.

“I’ve rediscovered myself on the Sunshine Coast,” she says.

sthomas@vancourier.com

Twitter: sthomas10

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