Nestled along Canada’s west coast is Vancouver Island and its beauty is legendary: lush old-growth rainforests, wave-swept beaches that stretch for miles, majestic mountains with snow-capped peaks, rivers teeming with fish, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, and hundreds of islands and islets. It’s less than 20 minutes by air from Vancouver or Seattle. Andrew and Erin Sunter and their young children Aidan and Parker reached the island by ferry for two weeks of family fun.
We rented a cottage in Bowser on the Inside Coast, about 45 minutes south of Nanaimo. From the cottage you can look out across the Georgia Strait and see the mountains on the mainland. The cottage was both rustic and private. The beach there is not sandy but great for walks when the tide is low. One day a sea lion was resting on a rock just beyond the property; there were always many herons about.
Bowser, being near the middle of the island, was the perfect starting point for day trips. We did a couple of long ones, several short ones, and some days we did nothing much at all; it all depended on our moods when we woke up. It’s a huge island so we didn’t see everything but that is a good excuse to return.
There are about 150 provincial parks on the island so you’re always running into one. The oldest is Strathcona Provincial Park, which is in the center of the island and called its ‘backbone’. It is a wilderness park in a mountain setting. It’s actually a ski resort in winter. We did a hike there into the waterfalls.
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The whole family loved Miracle Provincial Park because of the beach. It’s sandy and the water is shallow and relatively warm so it’s very kid friendly. The park is about 20 minutes north of Courtney on the old island highway. There are both fast and old highways on the island. The old highway goes through villages, small towns and farms, places where the pace is slow. We would travel along the old highway to get to our destination and return to the cottage on the fast one.
Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is a fun place to wander around because it is an old growth forest and the giant Douglas fir trees just tower over you. Some of the trees are more than 800 years old. One tree measures 9 metres in circumference. There is a network of trails that are very easy to follow.
The only federal park on the island is Pacific Rim National Park. The West Coast Trail, considered to be one of the most scenic treks in the world, is in the southern part of the park. We spent a day in the northern section, primarily at Long Beach, which is just south of the town of Tofino. Tofino has changed quite a lot since we were there over 10 years ago. It’s now a world-class surfing centre. In fact, a couple of years ago Outside Magazine named Tofino the best surf town in North America. The water on the Pacific is only about 10 degrees so surfers wear full wetsuits. Even the kids who were playing in the sand and splashing around in the water were dressed in wet suits. There are lots of places where you can rent suits and boards and several offering surf lessons.
Another day trip was to the Aquarium at Sydney, where there are thousands of fish, invertebrates, and marine plant life. From there we drove down to Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria. Around the wharf is a floating village where many people live in houseboats; the vibe is a bit counter-culture. Aidan was enthralled when some local vendors held small fish over the dock and seals sprang up from the water to catch them.
You can choose to do something new and different every day on the island. One day we went deep-sea fishing. Another day we went to see goats on a roof! This is in the town of Coombs, just north of Nanaimo. Fifty years ago some Norwegians immigrated to Coombs and built structures with sod roofs. When the sod started to grow they put goats of the roofs to “mow” the grass and the practice continues.
We went by ferry to Denman and Hornby Islands. They are best known because of the American draft dodgers who settled there during the Vietnam War. Today, artists and others seeking a less busy lifestyle live there. There are hundreds of other islands to visit; all you need is time. We didn’t make it to Alert Bay where there’s the world’s largest totem pole or to Cape Scott Provincial Park at the northwestern tip of the island. Both places are must-sees when we return.
We became caught up in the pace of the place and really enjoyed the lazy days. There was no television in the cottage and no one seemed to miss it. We made great meals using the freshest of seafood. The kids spent time just wandering along the beach, playing in the sand, climbing rocks, playing board games. The first day they were nervous about sea creatures but by the end even Parker was walking right through the low tide pools and picking up crabs. We had a fire on the beach each night as did many of our neighbours and we started to feel part of the community.
It’s amazing that this rural lifestyle can be found such a short distance from Vancouver, one of the most vibrant cities in the world. This is simply a great destination, kids or no kids.
By Andrew and Erin Sunter
Photo credits Andrew and Erin Sunter
© Riding the buses 2012