Pacific Rim, Canada’s true West Coast

 

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Parksville BC

You would think that we, on Salt Spring Island, live on Canada’s west coast.

But the true west coast along the open ocean, is one more ferry ride and about a 3 hours drive away.
Cutting across the mountainous heart of Vancouver Island, Highway 4 winds through Port Alberni to the Pacific coast. On this particular trip, we spent one night in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island’s east coast. We roamed the wide sandy beach, picking up a sand dollar here and a polished rock there. We sipped tea on the gorgeous patio of The Beach Club Resort right on the beach in Parksville. And we had a beautiful AirBnB booked in Qualicum Beach. The very private cottage was in the heart of town, allowing us to walk to shops and restaurants.
IMG_0554The next morning we made the mandatory stop in Coombs. This tiny town has only a few services but made a huge tourist attraction out of a former farm stand. Some 30 years ago it was a farm stand with local pumpkins and apples in the fall. Now it is a huge supermarket/deli with lots of shopping options. Stores have sprouted up around it, selling icecream and t-shirts. 
But the reason for all this is likely the goats on the roof. Yes, you read that right. The old farm stand and now the beautiful supermarket, sports a grass sod roof on which various goats roam and graze at will. This is enough of an attraction that hordes of tourists stop and take pictures. It’s a fun and interesting stop. And after gazing at grazing goats, you can pick up a tye-dyed t-shirt or a giant lawn ornament next door.
IMG_5609The next stop is even more popular and also more natural. Cathedral Grove, also named McMillan Provincial Park, is an awe inspiring place. Huge towering trees block out the sun, filter the rain and support an intriguing eco system. Some of the trees are 800 years old and 75 meters tall, making you feel like a tiny dwarf. Fallen trees support new ones. I doubt that there is much wildlife left since every car and motorhome stops here, but it is gorgeous and definitely worth the loop walk through the grove. I just hope that BC Parks will spend the money and effort to provide a safer way to park. The tiny parking area along the road is not nearly enough and cars parked along the shoulders, with people crossing the road at will, is an accident waiting to happen.
Port Alberni is a large town with many services and lots of camping, hiking and fishing nearby.
We continued on, past the picturesque Sprout Lake to the junction where you turn south to reach Ucluelet or north to reach Tofino. 
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Tofino used to be my favourite of the two isolated towns – with a cozy coffeeshop and a relaxed hippy atmosphere. Now Ucluelet feels more like a nice small town while Tofino is overrun with people and sky high prices. We couldn’t find affordable accommodations even when booking two months ahead. So this time we ended up staying in Ucluelet.
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It used to be a bit run down fishermen’s village. Through the inevitable evolution along BC’s gorgeous coastline, Ucluelet has morfed into a friendly town of a few permanent residents and a surging summer population. We found a lovely cabin, complete with fireplace and jetted tub, in the woods and near the coast. Both towns have a nice Coop Supermarket with fresh produce and lots of choices. Since we had a kitchen we made our own meals but had to find a coffeeshop to get wifi.
Unfortunately we had two days of rain, out of our three days on the coast. But a walk in the rain forest does feel more authentic when the trees are dripping…
IMG_0562Pacific Rim National Park stretches between the two towns and beyond (including the Broken Islands group). One of Canada’s most splendid coast lines is protected in this national park. Several long beaches offer a great place for a brisk walk, watching foamy waves and mist, scenic rocks and outcrops dotting the shore.
Equally impressive are the short rain coast walks. Here a sturdy wooden walk way allows visitors a glimpse of a unique ecosystem. Ancient logs serve as nurseries for new growth. Giant skunk cabbage leaves and tiny unfurling ferns live side by side, thriving on the more than 3 meters of rain that falls here annually.
Immense cedars and spruce form a green canopy that filters the sunlight, if there is any. IMG_5651
Another must-stop is the Kw’istis Visitor Centre with an interpretive display of both natural and First Nations histories. We even watched spouting whales from the upstairs room. Be sure to ask the front desk staff for one of the movies listed. This is a great way to learn more about this beautiful area – one of Canada’s most scenic natural places.

Island Time:Vancouver Island N + Quadra

IMG_1249After cruising around Denman and Hornby Islands (see previous blog) we headed north. The road and the vegetation made me feel like we were headed for the Yukon. But this was north on the island. Right after Campbell River there were no more towns, no gas stations, not many side roads. Just a road north. The clouds settled in low and grey. The drizzle was steady. After a few hours we managed a quick picnic at a rest area. We had not seen any stores or restaurants since we left Campbell River so we were glad to have our own food with us. We drove into Port Hardy and I was surprised at what a small town it is. Gas was 15 cents per liter more than down south. We tried a few hotels/motels and all were well over 100.- for a simple room with a bed. After a stop to the local tourist information office, we walked over to a backpackers’ hostel. A private room was 50.-. Good deal. The place was interesting since it was in a converted movie theatre. A hallway, kitchen and rooms had been build in what was the theatre part. Bathrooms had been added and everything was neatly painted and decorated. It was clean and the managers exceptionally friendly. IMG_1239

With a cheap room, we decided we had earned a nice diner in the pub next door: fresh prawn and mango taco’s. IMG_1203

The following day we drove slightly south to the ferry in Port McNeill, a small seaside town. We stopped in a small hamlet on the way,
Fort Rupert, where old totem poles lined the water front. A beautiful First Nations gravesite was full of decaying totems, carved from cedar, with proud ravens and orcas.
Then continued to Port McNeill where we boarded the ferry for a 45 minute ride to Cormorant Island and the tiny town of Alert Bay. IMG_1216This First Nations village has many beautiful totems ranging from new to ancient. We walked along the wooden boardwalk, saw the run down buildings that were a cannery, fishery and net storage. A tiny library, cute shops, even a bannock place. It felt like Alaska or the Yukon. The best place to visit was the impressive Cultural Centre with many masks and other artifacts and films about potlatches. I highly recommend a visit to this remote, unique village.IMG_1209

Back on the main island we drove just minutes out of Port McNeill, down a dirt road, to a newly developed golf/disk golf resort with a small RV park and cabins. The one room cabin we had booked online turned out to be a nice, new and quite large room with a bathroom and sitting area. We enjoyed a glass of wine outside, looking out over the water, a cruise ship chugging by, and Cormorant Island in the distance. Bald eagles glided over and perched in trees around us.

Driving south, the clouds had lifted and the drizzle was replaced by blue sky and sunshine. It seemed a different world. We made our way down the coast to Telegraph Cove. IMG_1260

We had heard a lot about this picturesque village on the northern coast but were quite disappointed. A few buildings were indeed perched on stilts in the water. But not an entire town. The cove itself was chockfull of a marina. The few buildings there seemed to all be part of the same tourist resort. It was nice to see history preserved, with old buildings and wooden boardwalks, and plagues describing the history of the original town. But overall it felt like a tourist trap, not truly worth the drive in and out.
From here we drove south in one stretch, straight to the ferry terminal in Campbell River and from there to Quadra Island, the largest of thIMG_1270e Discovery Islands. We had found it difficult to find much concrete information about facilities and accommodations prior to visiting this island. Even at the ferry terminal we couldn’t find a map for the island. We had made a reservation at a campground. Turned out to be at the Heriot Bay Inn, an old pub and restaurant. The campsites lined the cove, with murky waters but a bustling marina. At $37.- per night this was not great since it felt like a parking lots, with our neighbours less than a foot away when sleeping in our tent. We didn’t use the sewer or power in the site but still had to pay extra for a shower. The pub was fairly noisy at night. If we go again, we would likely try to find a spot at Wewaikai Campground (wewaikai.com) which had more attractive coast views and beach access. IMG_1224

We did enjoy driving every road on Quadra, from the lighthouse on the southern tip, through the First Nations village with a cultural centre, having coffee at Café Aroma, browsing at the fabulous bookstore, to exploring the rugged north end. The best part, I think, was hiking Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park, with the sheltered bay on one side and the open waters of the Strait of Georgia on the other. IMG_1237

Island Time: Northern Vancouver Island

IMG_1142IMG_1190We have a week and a half to explore close to home. Often our trips take us across the world. This time, we don’t need to content with carry-on luggage or airports. We simply load up the car and leave home.

Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are close to some of the world’s most beautiful natural areas. We have seen much of it but have never been to northern Vancouver Island.

 

Most visitors come to the large island, about the size of The Netherlands, to visit Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. And while this is a gorgeous, friendly city with lots to do, the island has so much more to offer. On a previous trip we took our Westfalia camper through Victoria to Sooke and around the southern tip of the island to Port Renfrew and back to Cowichan. On this trip we saw stately rain forests, bears and isolated beaches.

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Cable ferry

We’ve driven through Port Alberni across the island from east to west to visit the small, quaint towns of Ucuelet and Tofino on the breathtaking west coast where surfers roam white beaches and hippies inhabit the coffee shops in town.

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Qualicum First Nations Campsite

But this time, we drive north through Nanaimo and Qualicum to our first camping spot on the shore of the Salish Sea: the Qualicum First Nations Campground. This beautiful piece of land along the east coast of Vancouver Island offers many RV sites right along the water. Each site had water and a picnic table, several had sewer service. There were no toilet buildings but a few very clean, odourless port-a-potties did the job. We enjoyed staring over the water and listening to the waves as we fell asleep in our tent.

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Only on the islands…

The next morning we packed up and drove north to the ferry to Denman and Hornby Islands. I hadn’t, until then, realized that you need to go to Denman first to get to Hornby. The brand new cable ferry ride took about 20 minutes. The fee of around 40.- was for two people and a car and allows us to stay on either island for as long we like, return fare included.

We decided to work our way back and scooted straight across Denman to Hornby. There we were surprised to find much still closed, even on the last day of May. The pub/restaurant by the ferry landing was closed. The bookstore was closed. And several signs along the way said ‘closed’. We drove several of the few roads on the island and liked what we saw: pastoral farms, very green, forests of tall evergreens and ferns. We found an eclectic cluster of Coop store, coffee shop, craft and clothing shops.

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Hornby

The detailed (free) island map showed a B & B, which did not seem to exist in reality. But a resort which, according to its website, was closed turned out to be open. Moral: don’t believe it until you see it.

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Sea Breeze

The resort where we ended up staying two nights because it was so wonderful, is called Sea Breeze: http://www.seabreezelodge.com.

It offers spacious cottages right along the coast line. We sit on our porch in adirondack chairs to sip our morning coffee. The cottages are very private. Ours has a kitchen and fireplace. At $145.- this was not cheap but the kitchen allowed us to make all of our own meals, which made it the same or less expensive than a B & B room plus having to eat out.

There’s even a very good hot tub to soak in. And on the blustery nights we spent here, we sure enjoyed the fireplace. IMG_1164

We managed to go for a wonderful hike during the only time it rained while we were on Hornby. We did the return Ford Cove to Shingle Spit Trail, about 2.5 KM one way. Gorgeous setting, relatively level and a well maintained trail along the coast, amid towering cedars, ferns and gleaming arbutus. Nice to spot lots of fossil rocks along the way. But no cafe, no patio, no pub on either side. Just a marina at Ford Cove with a little store.

From Horny we drove back to Denman, which is apparently nicknamed ‘Hornby’s speed bump’ since most visitors race across it to reach the ferry to Hornby. To us Denman did indeed seem less attractive. Many of its roads were unpaved and we saw a plethora of signs telling us to “keep out” and “no trespassing”. There were not many services on the island – we did’t find a patio on the water, nor a cute little pub. We did discover a very good coffee shop, well hidden inside the local hardware store! In the back, a secret garden with brand new adirondack chairs invited us to linger. The bookstore next door was open and well stocked with good titles.

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Denman

A 15 minute ferry ride took us back to the main island and we drove north to Comox, where we had booked a perfect AirBnB: the ground floor of a brand new house. A small living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom offered luxurious bedding and towels and everything we needed in a kitchen including muffins, fruit and coffee. For 75.- this was a perfect find and highly recommended.

Next blog: Port Hardy, Alert Bay and Telegraph Cove

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