We explored the length and breadth of the island, discovering treasures around every bend.
Discovering The Magic Of Vancouver Island
We found whales on the north coast and bears fishing for salmon in the interior. We kayaked in pristine waters, took a mail boat cruise to a remote village, hiked trails through moss-covered ancient forests, visited beautiful gardens, and walked stunning beaches on both coasts. We immersed ourselves in the First Nations culture and the vibrant local art scene. We indulged in a bounty of local foods from farmers markets, vineyards, breweries, cheese makers, fishmongers, tea houses, and bakeries.
The entire experience was pure magic. Except for the lack of internet connection, which was pull-your-hair-out frustrating. If you can’t live without internet, you don’t want to go to Vancouver Island. Your phone might work (sometimes), but your internet connection, never. I’ll share more about this in an island wrap-up post, but for now, let’s talk about the little town of Duncan, a mere 40 miles north of Sidney.
Exploring Delightful Duncan
Leaving Sidney, we envisioned small towns and wilderness ahead. Instead, we found ourselves driving through stop-and-go traffic on a highway lined with strip malls. And then it started to rain. It wasn’t exactly an auspicious beginning to our explorations of Vancouver Island.
But then we pulled off the highway in Duncan, also known as The City of Totems.
There were two things that drew us to Duncan: the large collection of First Nations totem poles, and the farmers market. Both were outstanding, even in the rain.
A Fabulous Farmers’ Market
The Duncan Farmers Market takes place year round, rain or shine. Every Saturday, 150 vendors gather in the heart of downtown Duncan, laying out a cornucopia of island bounty. The Cowichan Valley is blessed with as close to a Mediterranean climate as you get in Canada, and has become a slow-food mecca for organic farmers, artisanal cheese makers, foragers, fishermen, vintners, brewmasters, chocolatiers, coffee roasters, and chefs. For food lovers (like us!) it’s heaven.
We knew nothing about the Cowichan Valley before stopping in Duncan, but immediately put it on our list for an extended visit later in our trip. As for the farmers market, we came away with feta and Brie from grass fed happy cows, beautiful organic berries and greens, fresh roasted coffee, and local smoked salmon. If our fridge hadn’t been stuffed full of Lopez Island goodies, we would have bought a lot more.
A Gorgeous Collection Of Totems
Along with hosting the largest farmers market in the Cowichan Valley, Duncan has a superb collection of totems in the downtown area. Totem poles are unique to the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast. It’s not unusual to find totems in British Columbia—many communities raise totem poles as a sign of respect to the First Nations peoples.
It is unusual to find such a rich concentration of totem poles, though. In 1985, the mayor of Duncan initiated the totem pole project to celebrate the close ties between the City and the Quw’utsun’ (Cowichan) people. He also hoped the totems would attract visitors, but that’s not the primary message that comes through (there’s nothing amusement park-esque about the totem poles, fortunately).
Today, 39 totems, all created by aboriginal carvers, are placed throughout the town. The signs accompanying each tell the story of the totem pole from the carver’s perspective. Totem tours are offered during the summer, or you can follow the yellow footprints of the totem trail on your own.
The Stories Of Totems
Carved from cedar, totem poles tell stories of individual clans, and communicate history and legends. Each animal symbolizes human traits, personality and values. For example, Bear represents strength, family, and courage. Mischievous and curious Raven embodies creation, knowledge, and the unknown, while Owl signifies wisdom and intuition. Otter is one of my favorites, symbolizing friendship and family, as well as happiness and never ending curiosity.
Eagle represents wisdom, great vision, and healing, and this totem tells a story of transformation. An eagle carries away a man on a vision quest. He returns as a young person wrapped safely in the eagle’s wings, representing his Guardian Spirit. Now, his life begins again, with a second chance to change his ways.
Good Food In Duncan
If you get hungry wandering in Duncan, the Duncan Garage is a gathering place for locals and visitors offering homemade soups, salads, and lots more, all focused on local foods and with a definite retro hippie vibe. While you’re at it, you can browse the excellent little bookstore and shop the little natural foods store. It’s a cute, colorful place, right along the totem trail.
We spent several hours in Duncan and then resumed our journey northward. It was a great stop, and well worth the short detour off the highway.
Thanks, as always, for sharing your adventure. Vancouver Island has always been on “the list”; it has just moved up a few notches!
Definitely move this one up the list, Dick. Vancouver Island is beautiful, with so many diverse adventures. You’ll love it!
It is nice to read of others impressions of our Island. We sometimes take it for granted and forget what a beautiful place it is.
Angela, thanks for sharing your island with us. :-) We’re already looking forward to returning. It’s fun to hear from you.
I’m really looking forward to reading about your five weeks. So you know what that means for you!! Let’s get on it:) The totems are so beautiful. I knew there was a reason the otter is my favorite. Love what it represents:) The farmers market produce has my mouth watering!!
Pam, that five weeks without internet was a huge pain. I have so many fun adventures to share with you — I’ll do my best to catch up! :-))
Can’t wait to read more… sounds like a wonderful time was had!
Brenda, it truly was wonderful, in every way. And there’s so much more to explore!
Thanks for expanding on Duncan. Whenever I go up to Parksville, I drive through Duncan as quickly as possible because I think there’s nothing there but the residue of a closed timber industry. I’ll check it out next time.
Sheila, Duncan is a lovely little town — at least the downtown area is, where the totems and the farmers market are located. Duncan did a great job of reinventing itself after the timber industry shut down. I know you would enjoy visiting — don’t miss the Duncan Garage Cafe!
Reading your blog always makes me smile. It’s full of enthusiasm, like walking the trail with you, pondering at a farmers market and best yet….we never know where you will take us next!!! Hope we meet on the road again. And thanks for the update. When are you headed to Maine??? Awesome adventures in New England!!!
Thanks so much, Julie. :-) Maine is definitely on our list, along with the rest of New England. I know you can give us some good tips! We would love to meet up with you — are you heading to Florida this winter?
I am just catching up with you two, after six weeks of travel in the U.S. to visit family. Looks like you have had an incredible jampacked summer!
A farmers market and totem poles! How lucky can ya get?
I hope you had a wonderful time with family, Peta. It’s good to hear from you — I need to catch up with you, as well!
What a terrific little town! What a hoot to learn of a Mediterranean-like climate so far north. Those totems are fascinating, I love that each has a story.
Lisa, we were surprised to hear the climate described as “Mediterranean” — and then we found fig trees growing in the Cowichan Valley! It seems that they can grow just about anything there. We found the totems and their stories fascinating, too.
I love the totems – thank you so much for sharing them and their lovely stories. The detail is wonderful. More weeks without internet after the island – you won’t know how to act when you have a good connection :-)))
Jodee, the totems are wonderful — I know you would enjoy them. As far as the internet, I’m still in awe of having speedy and reliable connection the past few days. :-)
We need to up our farmer’s market game. You guys always find the best ones! We have come across a couple good ones, but not many I would go stand in the rain for. This one? Absolutely. The strawberries look incredible! Neat town… The totem poles are definitely interesting, especially when you understand the meaning behind each one. Smart way for the mayor to make the town stand out.
Laura, we’re always on the lookout for farmers markets — it’s one of the first things I research when we’re visiting an area. It’s a great way to not only find the best local produce and other goodies, but we also enjoy being part of the local scene. We’ve found a lot of good ones in our travels!
Wow, what an interesting place. So glad you took the time to stop and show us what Duncan has to offer.
The food “scene” and the bookstore would have been enough, but those totems are fabulous. My visual favorites are the one in your header….looks like a rather aggressive kissing bear….and the very detailed eagle sitting primly on a man’s head.
Wonderful post, once again. I’ll be happy to patiently wait for more ;-)
Ha!!! Now that I look more closely I see that the “two” totems I described above are one in the same!
Thanks so much, Sue. I’m glad you enjoyed the little tour of Duncan — we’re really happy we stopped there. The totems were captivating, as well as the stories behind them. You’re right, your favorite totem images are part of the same totem pole! The standing figure is Dzunuk’wa (Wild Woman), a fearsome figure who steals away children who don’t listen to their parents. Thunderbird, a supernatural being of strength, is on top. It looks like Eagle, except for the two curved horns of plumage on top of the head.
I think what I miss most about not being on the road full-time are the farmers’ markets. I agree that you two seem to find the very best, no matter where you travel. Thanks so much for the information on the totems. I supported a Native American class this past summer and love the symbolism and the creation stories. Continued safe travels to you both!
How interesting that you supported a Native American class at Yellowstone, LuAnn! I would love participating in that. Eric and I both find Native American (or in the case of Canada, First Nation’s) cultures fascinating. The farmers market in Duncan was especially fine, and would have been even better on a not rainy day.
I had no idea you were there 5 weeks. Clearly from your second paragraph you were VERY busy. I hate hearing the words stop and go traffic and strip malls. Really? But Duncan sounds and looks fantastic. Even the idea of a farmer’s market year round – do they have snow there – is great. So sorry you had to do it in the rain rather than on a brilliant sunny day. Those totems are just breath taking. I love it as an honoring of and respect for the Native Culture. I love the explanations of the symbolism. No wonder otters are such a favorite of mine. Do you know if the brilliant colors were done on original totems in centuries past? They are wonderful. Your pictures are just so fantastic. And of course to end with a shot of a bookstore, well that’s top notch!!