Life was a little hectic last week when I went to Vancouver Island, BC on a short road trip. Ostensibly for Harbors Magazine but more just to get the hell out of here for a few days. There's a gallery of pix - count yourself lucky I didn't post them all!
This is a lo-o-o-ng post and it would have been good to do it on the road but by the time we got to our hotels each night, I was pooped! So...
I coralled Susan to come with me and although we didn't do a lot of miles, we saw and experienced some amazing scenery and places. It wasn't random travel; the itinerary was set up by the local area public relations guy and I had asked for three different types of accommodation and suggestions and recommendations about what to see. We had a rough idea about things, but it really was a great exploration as niether of us had ever been to the midsection of the island called Oceanside, or the Parksville Qualicum Beach area on the east coast of the island.
We got an early start on Tuesday; Dan took Susan to the park-and-ride on the highway at 6am and we loaded her stuff and off we went to get the ferry to the island. The Coho is a big, old car ferry that plies the Straits of Juan de Fuca, between Victoria on Vancouver Island and Port Angeles on the US side. It's the same one Mum and I took back in the early 70s when we did the trip up from Southern California into Canada.
The weather forecast wasn't looking so hot, with rain predicted for the next few days. It was chilly and overcast when we boarded and headed upstairs to the galley area where it was a bit warmer. But when we arrived in Victoria, it had cleared a bit and the sun was trying to come out. We wiggled our way out of the city proper and headed north.
From that point on, the weather cooperated and we had sun most of the time, with periods of cloudiness and a bit of rain at night. If you don't live in this area, you might wonder about the focus on the weather - our normal weather here is cool to cold and gray most of the time, so to have these gorgeous sunny days was almost a miracle! But the area we went seems to have its own little micro-climate in its own little rainshadow.
Driving into the populated area, we were a little concerned as it looked rather like an area surrounding an airport with car lots and strip malls. We wondered what could be so attractive about the place! But as we got beyond that short strip of main road, the place changed. Parksville feels more commercial with more of the franchise places along the main road. But the views and the beaches are breathtaking all the way. Just a few clicks up the road, the feel changes to a much more high-end atmosphere in Qualicum Beach. Big houses, fancy golf courses, expensive cars.
Our first hotel was actually a condo complex called Shorewater, right on the beach in Qualicum Beach. It was very pleasant with a super friendly manager who was also very helpful about what to see and do in the area. The unit is completely self-contained and fully equipped with pots and pans, the works.
We had arrived quite late in the day, so went into the town which is just a bit inland to see one of the places on our itinerary. Called Tosh, it is a lovely restored schoolhouse that houses a small theatre and several art galleries. And of course a gift shop! We browsed for a while but we were both dragging by then, so a cup of coffee was in order and went to Lefty's which had been recommended. A good call as it is locally roasted organic Karma coffee and very good.
Back at the condo, we got gussied up for dinner that was supposedly (note supposedly) organized at Giovanni's Italian Restaurant, which was highly recommended by everyone we spoke to. However....
When we arrived, they had no idea who we were so I had to do some fancy footwork and we ended up talking to Giovanni himself who is very personable and very accommodating, with us ending up having an absolutely wonderful meal, compliments of Giovanni himself. I had the best Osso Buco I have ever had and ate way too much! Susan had calamari and a Caesar salad and we washed it all down with a lovely house red (I have to find out what it was, so smooth and mellow).
It was definitely embarrassing at the time, showing up like that, but in the end it turned out ok.
It is quite amazing how much there is to do in the area, and we barely touched on it, picking and choosing what and where we would visit. The area is not huge, by any means so everything is quite close together. So we had to decide what piqued our fancy and ended up with a short list of sorts.
Milner Gardens was top of the list. What a treasure that is! Veronica Milner believed in fairies and this is definitely a fairy haven. Spectacular wild forest and beautiful, manicured gardens surrounding a heritage house, visited by Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It's the type of place you want to keep going back to throughout the year, experiencing the different seasons. The rhododendrons were still out, but a lot of them were over. There are over 500 varieties of rhodies, trees and shrubs that Veronica had collected from around the world and some are enormous, reaching maybe 30 feet! I could go on and on about it but check out their website and I will have some pix in the gallery.
We spent the morning there and then moved on to our next hotel called Ocean Trails Resort. This was a lovely, two bedroom unit also in a condo/timeshare complex. Set in well-cared-for grounds, there is a zig-zagging ramp down to the beach.
After checking in, we unloaded our stuff then headed inland a bit to Coombs, where we had heard there is a country store with goats on the roof! Well, we had to see that and off we went - to be sorely disappointed! Yes, the goats are on the roof which is fun, but the surrounding area has turned into a real tourist trap with stores selling just about everything from China! And clothing stores with cheap stuff that all looked like it came from the same wholesaler! And even in the "farm stand," the produce looked old and tired and we only saw one item that was marked organic.
Our next stop was more intriquing. Butterfly World! Not just butterflies but birds and tortoises and turtles and iguanas! Walking into the big aviary was like walking into a sauna but all the critters seemed happy except for one butterfly caught in a spider web which freaked Susan out! So one of the assistants came to try to release it but I think it might have not lived it's full life! There was also an orchid garden which had some lovely specimens but was a new addition so they were just sort of hanging around!
After we found our way back to our home for the night, we went for a walk to the beach by way of the zig zag pathway down, down, down to the sand. But oh, so worth it. These beaches are what this area is known for. Vast expanses of sand when the tide goes out so you walk way out to where it drops off. We were very lucky as the tides were perfect. There are a few hotels right on the beach and I can't think of a better place to take children for a holiday - it would be even better if the temperature was about 20 degrees warmer! But still... just gorgeous.
The hike up the ramp wasn't so gorgeous but not as hard as it first appeared!
Dinner that night was at a location that I will not disclose as it really wasn't very good - tasteless Caesar salad and overcooked halibut! The best part was the dessert - berry cheesecake and a peanut butter chocolate concoction! We had to take some of it back with us - just way too much sugar! In fact, so much sugar I had a hard time going to sleep. Sugar and too fat a comforter does not a good night's sleep make.
By this time, I knew that I wouldn't be doing trips like this again. The last time I did anything like it was back in 2000 when I did the EDS Atlantic Challenge, chasing boats all over the place. Thirteen years makes a difference and it is just too exhausting, packing up and move every day, always on the move. I much prefer a slower pace, maybe not see as many things but see more of what interests me.
Anyway, we packed up went back to Rathtrevor Provincial Park which is this immense bay lined with driftwood. Once again the tide was out and we walked w-a-y out. Quite amazing. The whole area is water and islands. From the beaches, wherever you are, you see islands and water - and very few boats. And lots of birdlife - eagles and other raptors and gulls and ducks. The beaches are littered with shells - mostly clams and oysters - which are festooned with seaweeds which look dead but will rehydrate as the tide returns.
This day was going to be an easy day but we ended up driving north through Lighthouse Country, a much more rural area that includes a First Nation reservation. Unfortunately these are often rather conspicuously tacky! Views along the way were spectacular and we ended up at Deep Bay where the Vancouver Island University has a research facility that is open to the public - for a fee. Lucky for us, we had a VIP Media Pass that got us into just about everything we went to.
The building is an amazing place - completely self sustaining - power, water, the lot! And that includes all the scientific equipment and tanks required for the oysters and marine life research that is happening there. There are tanks filled with algae that keep the captive oysters alive while they are being studied! The building itself looks like it could be a space ship - and the views! Wow - all glass looking out over Deep Bay. There were wonderful fish tanks and touching tanks with star fish and sea anemones and all sorts of shrimp and nudibranchs. I should have been a marine something or other!
Before heading into the University, we stopped at the marina, just because I love them! And they have a program going there that is working to save the purple martins and almost all the dock pilings have martin nests in them. The program is running in a lot a marinas and in the past few years, the known nesting pairs has gone from five pairs to more than 30 so it's working!
A nice easy drive and a check in at out third and final hotel, which was the ritziest of them all. The Beach Club Resort sits right on the beach with just a long boardwalk separating it from the sand. Uniformed help, discreet lighting, spa and fine restaurant. This is the one that gets written up for the magazine next month. We had a nice room - a bit small by my standards as it had two very large queen size beds and not much else - but the terrace made up for the small space. We were on the fourth floor and the view of the Coast Range of mountains on the mainland stood out above the Strait of Georgia - and all the islands.
It was tough to pull ourselves away from that view, but we decided to do one more "attraction," and it turned out to be one of the favorites! We went to a working dairy farm that is also the cheeseworks. It was late in the day and all the cows were lining up to be milked. They were brought in eight at a time, four on each side of the milking pen, hooked up to the machine while they munched away on their feed. Then let out to join the other girls who were already done and the next eight moved in! I haven't been in a milking shed since I was 10 or so! The smells brought it all back - warm, fresh milk!
There were also pigs and calves and bunnies! It had been raining a bit so it was muddy but what fun! I bought some of their brie which is delicious!
We got back to our ritzy hotel in time to clean up and go to dinner in the hotel restaurant. West Coast style, they call it. Quite spare, nothing on the walls, darkish colors but very, very nice with the wide view over the outside dining patio (we declined! as we didn't have think parkas!) to the beach and water. David, our waiter was great! Full of stories, very attentive with great suggestions.
Something we had noticed when we first got out of Victoria were the Wine Route signs. This was something I hadn't heard about - it just seems that the area would be too cold and wet for grapes but apparently not and there are dozens of wineries dotting the landscape. What brought me to that is the wine we had for dinner which was one of the nicest Fume Blancs I have had in a long time. It came from a winery called The Muse and definitely made the dinner more memorable. They have a new chef who is very good. I had halibut that was cooked correctly and Susan had salmon - all excellent and part of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program which helps source sustainable seafood.
I have one complaint about these hotels - and it's all about the pillows! Why do they have to have these enormously fat pillows that make your neck twist all wrong? I used to have a pillow that traveled with me and I think it's time for another like it!
Anyway... we packed up one last time and headed down island, taking a small side trip for good coffee and a look at Nanaimo on the way to the ferry. It was good that we didn't have to rush and got through customs without a hitch.
By 6 we were back here at the house, Dan waiting for Susan and the kitties happy to see me and not pissed off at all! Overall, it was a good trip and the area we visited deserves a lot more exposure as there is just so much to do there and we hardly touched on the attractions. I would definitely recommend it to people who want to go exploring, hiking, spelunking, kayaking, wine tasting ... and on and on. But go in the summer! The season is very short - basically July, August and September if they are lucky.
So tomorrow I am going to Roche Harbor to do the article about the cidery and distiller based there and then I need to write the article before Tuesday, so rather busy!