There’s only one highway that traverses Vancouver Island from south to north. Which means that as we returned south from our northern and western explorations of the island in early October, we had the opportunity to visit places that we missed the first time around.
Southern Vancouver Island boasts of a Mediterranean climate, which seems like wishful thinking. And then we saw the vineyards, lavender fields, and fig trees—not too far from old-growth forests and mossy trails. I’d call it fusion Mediterranean-Canadian. Whatever it is, it’s gorgeous.
We set up camp in two different areas for our explorations: Qualicum Beach and Crofton, only 58 miles apart. In between is a cornucopia of fascinating things to explore: colorful towns, farms, wineries, hiking, beaches, farm-to-table restaurants and creative food purveyors. And goats on a market roof, a tourist trap that I absolutely had to see. We could have easily spent a month in this area and not run out of things to do.
On our way from our previous stop in Port Alberni to Qualicum Beach, we made a quick stop in Cathedral Grove. This protected grove is estimated to be around 800 years old. If you’ve seen the redwoods in California, you’ve seen bigger trees. But any old-growth forest saved is a good thing. There’s precious little old-growth remaining on Vancouver Island and it was a hard-won fight to save these trees.
This was once the heartland of the Douglas Fir Empire, providing economic sustenance for communities in the area. As the logging industry took a nose dive, local towns were in danger of withering on the vine. But from all appearances, each has discovered a way to not only hold on, but to thrive.
Near Qualicum Beach, the miles of scenic waterfront and beaches are a huge attraction. Apparently the sand warms the incoming tide, making the water swimmable in summer. The beach at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is more than a mile long, and at low tide, a half-mile wide. It’s a meditative walk of beach and ocean and sky…and more beach and ocean and sky…with a few sand dollars thrown in for excitement.
Just a few miles inland is lovely Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park. Hiking trails wind through moss-laden forests, along a crystal clear aquamarine river to a series of falls cascading through a rocky gorge.
In a previous post, I wrote about how the town of Duncan commissioned a spectacular array of totems from First Nation’s artists to encourage tourism. Nearby Chemainus, once merely a sawmill town on a downhill slide, has done something similar by transforming itself into a festival of street art. More than forty enormous murals adorn buildings in the downtown area, each depicting an aspect of the town’s history. We’ve seen quite a few towns with murals in our travels, but these really are exceptional.
In the 1850s, farmers discovered the pastoral Cowichan Valley. Honestly, I don’t know why everyone in Canada isn’t trying to squeeze into this little patch of sun and warmth. There’s a flourishing local foods movement, with organic farms, wineries, farm-to-table restaurants, and even an organic tea farm.
Westholme Tea Farm in North Cowichan was high on my list of places to visit. Although we thought it would be a quick stop, two hours later, Eric had to drag me away. The lush gardens, the lovely tea shop, and the welcoming staff charmed us. We tasted various teas, and then chose pots of tea and homemade almond orange cake to enjoy in the garden.
They have an appealing philosophy: “We believe in creating imperfect moments of joy, beauty and splendour.“
Out of at least a dozen appealing wineries in the Cowichan Valley, we settled on Unsworth Vineyards. The wines were very good, and lunch was superb: Clams in white wine with shaved fennel, ahi with tomato peach chutney, and a salad with pears and candied walnuts. While we ate, we watched their chickens patrolling for bugs in the vineyard. It’s a beautiful place—even the chickens have a charming tiny house.
We walked off our lunch and wine tasting at the nearby Kinsol Trestle, one of the largest freestanding wooden railway trestles in the world. Designed by engineers and built by local farmers and loggers, the trestle was in use from 1920 until the late 1970s, when it was abandoned and fell into ruin. In 2011, the restored trestle was reopened for hikers and bikers. It’s hard to imagine the herculean effort it took to build this structure, not once, but twice.
One of the most beautiful towns we visited (in a whole array of beautiful towns) was Cowichan Bay. It couldn’t be more picturesque. And it couldn’t have been a more picture-perfect day. We stopped for afternoon coffee at True Grain Bread, a unique bakery that uses only organic BC grown heritage and ancient grains, with everything baked in stone hearth ovens.
Last but not least, we went to visit the goats at Coombs Old Country Market. It’s kind of a tourist trap, but it’s a very nice tourist trap, and there’s an interesting back story. The market was built by a Norwegian family in the early 1970’s with a traditional sod roof. As the story goes, a few glasses of wine inspired the idea to put a few goats on the roof to mow the grass. The goats became celebrities, business picked up, and 30 years later, the goats are a permanent seasonal fixture.
About the RV Parks:
Cedar Grove RV Park in Qualicum Beach was just what we needed after a week with no electricity or water in Ucluelet and Port Alberni. It’s a rather modest park with hard-packed dirt sites, but it has full hook-ups, free internet, and a nice small laundry. We were very happy with our site backing up to the Little Qualicum River. This place is booked solid in the summer, but in the fall, we had no problem getting a site.
We loved our site (and view!) at Osborne Bay Resort in Crofton. Full hookups, useless internet, and there’s a lovely walking trail along the bay. This was also our launch site for a several day trip to nearby Salt Spring Island (the ferry landing is right next door).
Next Up: Whimsical Salt Spring Island