September 13, 2016
Spelunking, spas and sandcastles
BY JANE MUNDY
Just a short ferry ride away, Vancouver Island’s east coast offers an idyllic escape with endless activities. We follow the Island Highway north of Nanaimo and discover that you can cover a lot of ground in four days, enjoying everything from spa treatments to caving to kayaking to savouring the island’s culinary bounty. And, we learn, there’s always something, somewhere, to surprise.
Low tide here at the Beach Club Resort in Parksville calls on your inner child to build sandcastles and poke around tide pools – the latter activity is especially popular with eagles and blue herons. We cruise the boardwalk just long enough to work up an appetite at the resort’s Pacific Prime Restaurant. Chef Rick Davidson suggests bison meatballs and for breakfast eggs benny with foie gras. He is spot on.
Surprise: A stellar sommelier and wine selection. The annual food and wine festival Parksville Uncorked is on my calendar (Feb. 23 to 26, 2017).
As first-time cavers, we choose the “easy” three-hour guided tour at Horne Lake Caves, along with a family with two children. Note: You’ll get wet and dirty crawling and squeezing through three caves, including a section called the “cheese grater,” so it’s a good idea to take a change of clothes.
About 60 kilometres north of Qualicum Beach, along the meandering, single-lane Oceanside Route, also known as the Old Island Highway (Hwy. 19A), we stop in the happening village of Cumberland. “Strollers and mini-bikes have replaced bar fights spilling into the streets,” says Darren Adam as we sample a flight of beer at his Cumberland Brewing Company. It’s Sunday, so most stores in the century-old wood and brick buildings are closed, but the brewery patio is hopping.
Spaaaaaahh. Further north, just south of Courtenay, we arrive at the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort. Soaking for a few hours in the mineral pools and tidal baths of the resort’s hydropath is an excellent way to recover after caving. The spa is a stone’s throw from our oceanview suite, where we promptly fall into comas.
Surprise: Driving through an arbutus grove in Horne Lakes Provincial Park to the caves.
Armed with coffee to go, we hold out for breakfast until we reach the famous Hot Chocolates artisan sweet shop in Courtenay. Fuelled with sugary pastries, we continue north to Shelter Point Distillery, one of the first in Canada to make single-malt whisky. Tastings are free and if you’re a whisky connoisseur, plan on purchasing.
Onward to Elk Falls Provincial Park – time to shed a few carbs. Strolling along the new 64-metre-long suspension bridge that sways 60 metres above the canyon floor, with spectacular views of the rushing falls, is a must. This popular park is also considered one of the best campground accommodations in Campbell River.
From Campbell River – where it is said the salmon once ran so thick you could walk across the river on their backs without getting your feet wet – we take the 10-minute ferry ride to Quadra Island. With its sheltered coves, lush rainforest and pristine waters, Quadra is paradise for kayakers and birders, divers and snorkelers, and circumnavigating the island is like driving into a time warp where nothing ever changes.
At SouthEnd Farm & Vineyards, we are introduced to the winery’s delightful Bara rosé (the grapes come from vineyards on Quadra and in the Comox Valley) and Gimpy the chicken, who was picked on as a baby and now lives the laid-back good life.
From our window at Taku Resort, we see the dock loaded with kayaks that we’ll be paddling later. Chris Arends, co-owner and guide for Quadra Island Kayaks, leads us through waters off the island’s eastern shore that the Jacques Cousteau Society considers one of the top locations in the world. We hike to the top of Turtle Mountain, where we enjoy a picnic and views that stretch to Powell River.
The time warp is confirmed that night by Lois Taylor, who purchased Heriot Bay Inn with a group of islanders. “I came here in the ’80s and never left. Nothing much has changed since,” she says. We tuck into the freshest local oysters and halibut – the menu may not have changed much in 30 years either.
Surprise: Ghost sighting upstairs at the Inn.
Back in Parksville we meet Gary and Ronda Murdock of Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours. Their Parksville Qualicum Beach Treasurers Tour includes oceanside parks almost deserted except for wildlife. “I took a local to Wall Beach. He’s lived here for 50 years and didn’t know this secret spot,” says Gary. Through his scope we spy an eagle and chick and Steller sea lions close to shore.
The grand finale is Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort, a collection of wooden condos overlooking the Strait of Georgia and log cabins surrounded by cedars and firs. Go for the “dip and dine” package. After wallowing in the Grotto Spa’s mineral pool, we head upstairs to the Treetops Tapas & Grill, where bathrobed guests sip martinis and white wine and share excellent tapas that are, indeed, endless.
Surprise: No wonder communities around Parksville have seen city dwellers moving here in droves. My only regret is not adding Days 5 to 7.
Visit vancouverisland.travel for more information.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Vancouver Island, which neither reviewed nor approved this article before publication.