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Tips For RVing On Vancouver Island, BC

Tips For RVing On Vancouver Island, BC

Posted by on Jan 22, 2018 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Maps, Travel | 22 comments

We’ve had a lot of wonderful adventures in our four-and-a-half years of full-time travels, but our five weeks on Vancouver Island was definitely one of the highlights so far. From outdoor adventures to world-class museums; and farmers’ markets to gourmet restaurants; Vancouver Island offers all of the things we enjoy, wrapped up in a package of spectacular coastline, quaint towns, a sparkling jewel of a capital city, and a vibrant First Nations culture.

Because we had so much difficulty finding information about RV travel on the island, I thought it might be helpful to share some things we learned for those of you considering the trip.

The Big Picture

We planned our island tour hoping to catch the best weather in each area (it varies greatly from south to north, and east to west). We also wanted the optimal opportunity for a variety of outdoor adventures and for seeing wildlife.

We headed north first to catch the prime whale watching season, then west to the wild coast of Pacific Rim National Park. Following our mailboat cruise in Port Alberni (and bear and salmon watching) we returned to the east coast to explore the temperate Cowichan Valley and Salt Spring Island, just off the coast. We wound up our time on the island with a few days in lovely Victoria—at this point, the weather was distinctly beginning to turn toward fall.

The little green campers denote all of the places we stayed on the island. Click on any icon, and you’ll see where we stayed, with a link to the associated blog post about our adventures there.

A Snapshot Of Vancouver Island Adventures

How To Get There

Two passenger/vehicle ferries make the round-trip journey from the U.S. Neither are luxurious, but you’ll have comfortable inside seating and large windows to enjoy the scenery (or you can move outside to the deck if the weather is good). A Washington State Ferry travels from Anacortes, Washington to Sidney, B.C. A private ferry line (Black Ball Ferry, MV Coho) makes the trip from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, B.C.

Washington State Ferry carrying passengers and vehicles

We’ve taken our rig on ferries dozens of times (we spend our summers in the San Juan Islands) and it’s a straightforward process. A deckhand will guide you onto the ferry and into position. It will be tight quarters, especially if the ferry is full. Just go slow, be vigilant, and don’t let them rush you!

It’s always close quarters on the ferry

The ferries can handle any size rigs. Even the small ferries to the outer islands surrounding Vancouver Island can easily manage the largest RV.

On a small BC Ferry to Salt Spring Island from Vancouver Island

Anacortes, WA to Sidney, B.C.: Although this route takes almost three hours, it’s by far the most scenic and sails through calm, sheltered waters on a Washington State Ferry. You’ll travel through the picturesque San Juan Islands to the small harbor of Sidney on Vancouver Island. Sidney has a beautiful and interesting waterfront, and it’s only a half-hour drive to Victoria and the highway that takes you north on the island.

Views of Mt. Baker while sailing through the San Juan Islands

Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C. The journey on the Black Ball Ferry MV Coho is shorter (about 90 minutes) but you’ll be traveling over 20 miles of open water with nothing interesting to look at, and you’ll feel the enormous ferry roll with every ocean swell. (To add drama you might have two women sitting across from you making the sign of the cross every time the ferry pitches.) However, it delivers you directly to the Inner Harbour in Victoria, which is interesting and convenient if Victoria is your destination.

Victoria’s bustling Inner Harbour; the ferry landing is right downtown

The cost of the ferries is approximately the same. We paid about $200 each way for our tickets (the price increases with the length of your rig). You don’t need to purchase a round-trip ticket, and you don’t save anything by doing so. Make reservations in advance to secure your space on the ferry, and plan to arrive about 90 minutes ahead of your sailing to go through Customs. You can always change your reservation if need be, with minimal or no charges if you provide sufficient notice.

How Bad Is Customs?

Really, not bad at all. We breezed through Customs on our entry to Vancouver Island and were stopped and searched when we returned to the States (but it was no big deal and only delayed us about 15 minutes). Here’s what we learned: You are not going to be able to figure out exactly what is and isn’t allowed, coming or going. That’s because the laws are ephemeral, and can change at any time.

Instead of worrying about it, make a list of the foods you’re carrying so that you’re prepared for any questions the customs agent asks. We were searched in Port Angeles because of a lemon (apparently bringing citrus into the States—even citrus grown here—is a red flag). The U.S. Customs Officer confiscated our lemon and after a quick glance in our refrigerator sent us on our way.

The important thing is, be honest. If they find something you haven’t declared, the fines are stiff. “Forgetting” that you have something is not a valid excuse.

Going through Customs in Port Angeles; it’s pretty straightforward (don’t bring lemons!)

What’s The Weather Like?

We were on the island for most of September and into mid-October. This is typically a good window of weather with plenty of sunshine and little rain.

The temperatures were comfortable, generally in the mid-40’s at night and the mid-60’s during the day. Perfect hiking and biking weather! Of course, you’ll want to wear layers and have a good rain jacket. We were also happy to have waterproof boots, which came in handy for hiking muddy trails.

The weather is mostly excellent in the fall for outdoor adventures

Other Reasons To Go In The Fall

You will miss the crush of summer crowds. Tourism drops off sharply after Labor Day, which means you won’t need reservations for most campgrounds, but most campgrounds and other attractions are still open, at least until mid-October.

If you’re heading up the island, be sure to plan that early in your trip. The further north, the colder and wetter it tends to be. The weather on the west coast is random, so plan extra time there. We lucked out with sunshine and mild temperatures for the week we spent in Tofino/Ucluelet, but we met people that spent only a day or two in the area and didn’t see a thing because of heavy storms.

Watch out for Labour Day (they celebrate it the first Monday in September, same as Labor Day in the U.S.). That’s their last hurrah of summer camping. We planned our trip to arrive just after Labor Day. Also watch out for the second Monday in October, their Thanksgiving. That one caught us by surprise. Apparently, a lot of people go camping that weekend—we found a sweet place on Salt Spring Island, but only after a bit of scrambling.

One more excellent reason to visit in the fall: Lots of wildlife! This is a great time for whale watching up north, the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers, and the bears are actively fishing.

September is an excellent time for whale watching expeditions from Telegraph Cove

Getting Around

Travel on Vancouver Island is pretty simple. Traveling south to north, there’s a long ribbon of highway that begins in Victoria (Hwy 1 north). In Nanaimo, about halfway up the island, it changes to Hwy 19 north to Telegraph Cove and beyond. The roads are wide and well maintained. Don’t miss a small detour onto scenic Hwy 19A, the Oceanside Route between Parksville and Campbell River.

Highway 4, the road from Port Alberni west to Tofino is another story. It’s the only access road to Tofino/Ucluelet/Pacific Rim National Park. Two lanes, winding, hairpin curves, rock cliffs that narrow as they rise and a stretch with an 18% grade is not friendly for big rigs. We were fine (we have a 27-foot trailer and a Tundra), but I’m not sure that I’d drive that road with anything much bigger. Then again, tractor-trailers use that route. Which seems crazy.

The challenging road to Tofino and Ucluelet. Don’t think I’d drive this with a big rig.

Try to not miss Tofino/Ucluelet/Pacific Rim National Park. Consider leaving your rig behind if it’s not appropriate for that winding road, and stay in other accommodations for a couple of days. It’s worth it!

Make the trip to Tofino if you can, even if you have to leave your rig behind for a few days.

Where To Stay

We stayed in everything from B.C. Provincial Parks to tiny rustic RV parks to fancy RV resorts. The provincial parks are beautiful but have no water or electric hookups. They offer taps for filling water, dump stations, and bathhouses, though. The private parks tend toward full-hookups and internet (sometimes good, sometimes not).

We made reservations a couple of weeks ahead for our time in Tofino, because it’s a popular place, even in the fall. Other than that, we looked ahead a few days at a time and called places that looked interesting. We had no trouble getting beautiful sites (in summer, it would be a different story).

We enjoyed wonderful views at the RV Park in Nanaimo, BC

The campsites are spacious and beautiful (and rustic) in the Provincial Parks on Vancouver Island

About That Internet

Your provider, even though it promises connection in Canada, is going to be lame. We had intermittent cell coverage on the island, and as far as useable internet connection via our phones or hotspot, we had none.

Verizon connects to the cell towers on Vancouver Island (Telus or Rogers will show up on your phone). Phone coverage is actually okay except when driving from one town to the next (or if you’re heading somewhere really remote). Traveling up the island, you won’t have coverage from north of Campbell River until you reach Telegraph Cove (about 2 hours driving time). Heading west from Port Alberni, you’ll be out of range for a couple of hours until you get close to Tofino and Ucluelet.

Almost all private parks offer internet (most of it pretty good, some of it excellent) and you can always get blazing fast internet at coffee shops. No, it’s not as convenient as sitting in your RV, but we spent some lovely afternoons in lovely coffee shops doing what we needed to do on the internet.

Catching up with the internet in a cozy coffee shop in Port Alberni

Next Up: Rainy Days And Gardens: Portland, OR

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A Crossroads of Cultures: Victoria, BC

A Crossroads of Cultures: Victoria, BC

Posted by on Jan 13, 2018 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Travel | 24 comments

In mid-October, we wrapped up our Vancouver Island adventure with a few days in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. It’s kind of like traveling to England without having to cross the Atlantic. Afternoon tea, flower-filled gardens, and horse-drawn carriages trotting along streets lined with grand Victorian architecture are reminders of Victoria’s British colonial past.

But there are other facets of Victoria that we find even more intriguing—the totems in the downtown area, for example, honoring the First Nations that were the original inhabitants here.

First Nations Totems against a backdrop of Victorian buildings in downtown Victoria

We visited Victoria about 15 years ago (pre-RVing), and our most vivid memories were of the excellent Royal British Columbia Museum. We’ve been wanting to return, and that’s where we headed first.

There’s a lot more to the museum than just the First Nations exhibits, but this was the most captivating part for us. The museum focuses not only on the past, but also the present and future of the First Nations peoples.

The Royal BC Museum

First Nations canoe filled with cedar bark containers

First Nations totems and a longhouse

The “talking masks” relate tribal legends as each mask is illuminated

Victoria is an exceptionally walkable city. Some of the most famous attractions—The Royal British Columbia Museum, the Parliament Buildings, and the Fairmont Empress Hotel—are within a couple of blocks of the Inner Harbour.

It’s also an enjoyable walk along the waterfront to Fisherman’s Wharf. If you get tired, you can catch one of the cute little water taxis back across the harbour. Or ride one just for fun.

A view of the Inner Harbour from the water

An orca topiary decorates the Inner Harbour walkway

A multi-talented street musician on the waterfront

Cute water taxis buzz around the harbour like little bumblebees

Colorful Fisherman’s Wharf, about a mile from the Inner Harbour

Catching a water taxi at Fisherman’s Wharf

Enjoying fish tacos at Red Fish Blue Fish at the Inner Harbour; there’s usually an enormous line

On another day, we joined a free hour-long tour of the ornate BC Parliament Building. Our tour guide was engaging and informative, and even taught us how to greet the Queen, which I’m sure will come in handy someday.

The grand BC Parliament Building—the blue domes are copper that has oxidized

Our tour guide explains the symbolism of British Columbia’s coat of arms

A traditional cedar canoe graces the rotunda in the Parliament Building. It was carved by the Honourable Steven L. Point, the former Lieutenant Governor as well as a former Skowkale First Nation chief, provincial court judge and treaty negotiator. (The canoe is named Shxwtitostel which means “a safe place to cross the river” in Halq’eméylem.)

“Shxwtitostel is a gift to all peoples in British Columbia as a symbol of my belief that we need to create a better understanding amongst all people that we are in the same canoe,” said the Lieutenant Governor. “No matter where you are from, we all need to paddle together.”

Traditional First Nations canoe carved by a former Lieutenant Governor

The rotunda of the Parliament Building; each quadrant represents the four industries of the time: fishing, agriculture, forestry, and mining

Learning how to behave properly when meeting the Queen

Stained glass windows in the Parliament House—science and art are given equal weight

It’s worth taking a stroll downtown at night, when the Parliament Building sparkles with thousands of lights. The buildings were first lighted for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and were meant to represent jewels in the night sky.

The Parliament House twinkles at night

A scene out of Victorian England—horse and carriage passing by the Fairmont Empress Hotel

We got hooked on the tradition of afternoon tea during our weeks on Vancouver Island. It’s such a civilized thing to do, taking a break in the afternoon. We considered high tea at the famed Fairmont Empress Hotel, but changed our minds when we discovered the cost would be $75 per person. Instead, we made our way to Chinatown, where we had organic tea and a slice of flourless chocolate cake at the charming little Venus Sophia Tea Room for about $15, total.

In the tea room of the Fairmont Empress Hotel

Afternoon tea at the cozy Venus Sophia Tea room

Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada, and the second largest. The colorful buildings and bustling streets speak to the resiliency of the culture and traditions brought to Canada by Chinese immigrants in search of gold (and later, to work on the railroads) more than 150 years ago.

The Gate of Harmonious Interest in Victoria’s Chinatown

The Chinese Public School, built in 1908 to educate Chinese students who were prohibited from attending public school in Victoria. The school still teaches Chinese language, history, and culture.

Fan Tan Alley, a narrow alley once home to opium and gambling dens. Gates at each end of the alley were locked to prevent surprise police raids.

Colorful buildings in Old Town Victoria

Victoria is famous for its gardens, and of course, Butchart Gardens tops the list. We went to several gardens, but we passed on Butchart. We were there 15 years ago, and while it’s worth a one-time visit, our taste runs more to less formal, less flower-basket filled gardens.

This time we explored the lovely gardens of Beacon Hill Park (conveniently downtown and free), the Government House Gardens (residence of the Lieutenant Governor and free), and the gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific. All different, and all definitely worth seeing.

Lovely trails in Beacon Hill Park, downtown Victoria

An orca sundial at Government House gardens

Beautiful winding pathways through perennial borders at Government House gardens

Gardens at Horticulture Centre of the Pacific

There are all kinds of demonstration gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific

Students working in the gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific

During our stay in Victoria, we also made a couple of day trips to explore nearby areas. On a crisp, early fall day we set out to see Fisgard Lighthouse and Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Park.

Fall colors on the path to Fisgard Lighthouse

The wonderfully photogenic Fisgard Lighthouse

It couldn’t have been a better day for visiting the lighthouse

Inside the lighthouse, the black and white floor pattern was painted by a light keeper to simulate marble tiles

A military searchlight camouflaged as a boathouse on the coast at Fort Rodd

Our other out-of-town excursion was a biking adventure. The bike trails in and around Victoria are wonderful repurposed rails-to-trails. There are many miles of trails—we rode about 20 miles on the Galloping Goose Trail near Sooke, some of the prettiest and least urban of the trails.

Biking the Galloping Goose Trail to the Sooke Potholes

Our few days in Victoria was the perfect ending to our five week Vancouver Island tour. Would we return to the island? Absolutely. This was one of our top RVing experiences in our four-and-a-half years of full-timing.

About the campground:

There aren’t a lot of options close to Victoria. We stayed at Fort Victoria RV Park, conveniently located just a few miles from downtown Victoria. It’s nothing fancy (although it should be for the price!) but it’s clean, quiet, and offers full-hookups and free internet. Ask for a site away from the highway—it’s much quieter.

Fort Victoria RV Park, Victoria, BC

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Whimsical Salt Spring Island, BC

Whimsical Salt Spring Island, BC

Posted by on Dec 29, 2017 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Travel | 30 comments

Just off the southeast coast of Vancouver Island lie the Gulf Islands, an archipelago of more than 200 craggy and wild isles. Many are little more than rocky prominences; a few are large enough to be quite civilized, in the unique Pacific Northwest style of artistic hippie chic, mossy forest trails, exquisite coastline, and a thriving local food scene.

The second week in October, we boarded the tiny ferry in Crofton to spend a few days on Salt Spring Island, the largest isle in the clutch of Gulf Islands. This was the smallest ferry we’ve taken our trailer on. Note: Do not trust the ferry workers to know how much room you need to maneuver your rig. Because you might, hypothetically speaking, rip the end cap off of your slide cover roller.

The little ferry to Salt Spring Island from the Crofton ferry landing

Other than that hypothetical end cap getting ripped off and having to borrow a rickety ladder to extend our slide (and retract it), we thoroughly enjoyed our stay on Salt Spring Island.

Colorful Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island

We spent our days trekking the beautiful shoreline at Ruckle Provincial Park and the rugged trails on Mt. Erskine, one of the most fun trails we’ve hiked. It offers not only spectacular views, but also a treasure hunt of fairy doors hidden in moss-covered rocks along the way.

Historic farm at Ruckle Provincial Park

Hiking at Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island

Hiking the shoreline trails at Ruckle Provincial Park

On the rugged trails at Mt. Erskine Provincial Park

Fairy doors are hidden along the trail on Mt. Erskine

A treasure hunt for fairy doors

A raven door! (Well, maybe it’s a crow door)

We found a half-dozen doors along the trail, and there are more we didn’t find

At the top of Mt. Erskine

Whimsy is most definitely a defining characteristic of Salt Spring Island.

Strolling the streets of downtown Ganges

Café Talia is a cozy place for coffee

A colorful garden shop on the island

The delightful Vesuvius Café, with wonderful coffee, soups, and baked goodies

In the village of Fulford Harbour

A seaside home in Vesuvius Village

I’m looking over my shoulder from West Texas right now, wistfully longing for the farmers’ markets of the Pacific Northwest. The Saturday Market on Salt Spring Island is especially fine.

The colorful Saturday Market on Salt Spring Island

Heyday Farm, offering an abundance of organic veggies

Eco-friendly packaging for organic tomatoes at the market

Fall harvest time at the Saturday Market

Small Earth Farm; one of many small local farm stands

An excellent taco stand at the market. Apparently we have a thing for tacos.

Yummy pork tacos with local greens, pickled red onions, and chipotle aoili

Those pear almond tarts were wickedly good. I wish I had one now.

Salt Spring goat cheese, offering all kinds of flavors (lemon was our favorite)

A shopping bag’s Philosophy of Life

That way to Salt Spring Winery

At lovely Salt Spring Vineyard and tasting room

Blackberry wine in the garden (and a brownie, because of course wine + chocolate is best)

Beer tasting at Salt Spring Island Ales; the Earl Grey IPA was excellent

About the campground:

We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Mowhinna Creek Campground. Our site was large and private, with full hookups and internet. Best of all, it’s just a few miles from Ganges, the central happening place on the island (including the Saturday Market).

Fall colors at Mowhinna Creek Campground

Our site at the campground was spacious, private, and beautiful. And they loaned us a ladder.

Next Up: Exploring Victoria, BC: And Vancouver Island Wrap-Up

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Treasures Of South Vancouver Island

Treasures Of South Vancouver Island

Posted by on Dec 19, 2017 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Travel | 28 comments

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.

Feeling kind of small among the giant Douglas Firs in Cathedral Grove

It’s pretty awe-inspiring looking up in Cathedral Grove

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.

A peaceful scene on the Qualicum Beach waterfront

The pathway to Rathtrevor Beach

It’s a long way to the water when it’s low tide at Rathtrevor Beach

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.

Little Qualicum Falls

More waterfalls on the Little Qualicum River

The Little Qualicum River, beautifully clear and aquamarine

On the bridge overlooking the Little Qualicum River

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.

I’m betting a chainsaw was used in the carving of the town sign

It’s still a logging town on a much smaller scale….but now with cool murals

What it looked like in the early logging days

“Memories of a Chinese Boy” mural

A tribute to Canadian artist Emily Carr

Native Heritage mural honoring the indigenous peoples of the area

Mural of a Salish woman in a cedar bark robe watching the arrival of a European sailing ship

The founder of the Japanese-Canadian Boy Scouts lived in Chemainus; all Japanese were later interned during the war

The telephone arrives in Chemainus, 1908

Hong Hing Store: originally a laundry/grocery/second hand goods store that expanded into a bootlegging and gambling house. It was a very popular place, as you can imagine.

He thought about joining up

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.

In the gardens at Westholme Tea Farm; the fig tree gives credence to the Mediterranean claim.

Inside the cozy tea room at Westholme Tea Farm

So many choices!

Everything is simply and beautifully displayed

Tea time in Westholme garden; pots of green/rose petal/vanilla and Earl Grey/lavender

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.

Unsworth Restaurant, in a restored early 1900s farmhouse

Even the chickens have an artistic, colorful home

Natural pest control

Wine tasting at Unsworth Vineyards

Clams in white wine with chickpeas and shaved fennel

Ahi with tomato peach chutney

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.

On the Kinsol Trestle

It’s quite a feat of engineering at 144 feet tall and noteworthy for its seven-degree curve

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.

Picturesque Cowichan Bay on a perfect day

On the dock at Cowichan Bay

Colorful and elaborate floating homes on Cowichan Bay

I liked the sign

True Grain Bread, a unique organic bakery in Cowichan Bay

I know, I know. It’s a cookie. But it’s an exceptional chocolate chip cookie made with heritage BC grains and baked in a stone hearth oven.

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.

Goats on the roof at Coombs Country Market

Eating the roof is encouraged (the grass, not the actual roof)

Inside Coombs Country Market—it’s all about the goats. But they also have a nice array of gourmet foods and wines.

About the RV Parks:

Cedar Grove RV Park, Qualicum Beach

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.

Osborne Bay RV Resort, Crofton, BC

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

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A Mailboat Cruise: Port Alberni, BC

A Mailboat Cruise: Port Alberni, BC

Posted by on Dec 11, 2017 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Travel | 31 comments

Wading through thick fog on a late September morning, we boarded the MV Frances Barkley, a sturdy steel-hulled 1950’s vintage ferry originally built for the fjords of Norway.

Along with 40 other passengers, bags of mail, and freight for outposts along the route, we chugged out of Port Alberni. Our destination: Bamfield, a remote village on the west coast of Vancouver Island, approximately 40 nautical miles away.

Pea soup fog in the harbor as we leave Port Alberni

The MV Frances Barkley is a working packet freighter, and this is most definitely not a luxury cruise. There’s a choice of seating indoors: rump-sprung red leatherette in the forward section, or industrial style dinette chairs and formica tables in the galley. The food offerings are of the traditional greasy spoon variety (we brought our own picnic fare).

But the views are grand, the crew is friendly, and the passengers are an interesting mix of world travelers who have somehow found their way to this unique experience.

Not planning on needing this

The galley isn’t luxurious but the views are excellent

The crew was happy to answer questions when they weren’t busy with other tasks

Leaving the fog behind as we cruised down the Alberni Inlet

Enjoying the scenery as the fog begins to lift

View from the stern of the Frances Barkley

Cruising along the Alberni Inlet

As it warmed up, everyone moved outdoors

Our captain, in his delightful Scottish brogue, shared a bit of history as we cruised along. Our first stop was the Kildonan Post Office, Canada’s last floating post office and the site of a former fish cannery built in 1903.

The freighter sidled up to the post office, the friendly old dog trotted out to greet the boat, and bags of mail were exchanged.

The Kildonan Post Office, Canada’s last floating post office

Remote homes and beautiful scenery along the Alberni Inlet

Floating homes are a popular option

We reached the boardwalk village of Bamfield at close to noon, after about 3 1/2 hours of sailing time. The captain gave us the option of staying on the boat as it made the rounds of the Barkley Sound, or exploring the town of Bamfield. He suggested either walking the boardwalk or hiking the half-mile trail to Brady’s Beach.

We chose to do both (couldn’t stand the thought of missing out on anything!), which meant a speedy hike to the beach and some leisurely exploration of the tide pools, followed by a speedy hike back and a speedy walk up and down the boardwalk. We barely made it back to the boat on time. Had we missed the boat, we would have spent a couple of nights in Bamfield until the Frances Barkley called again. I can think of worse ways to spend a couple of days.

Sailing into the remote village of Bamfield, population 200

Exploring the Bamfield boardwalk

Bamfield mermaid overlooking the sound

That way to Brady’s Beach

Beautiful Brady’s Beach—those turquoise waters look tropical!

Exploring the tidepools at Brady’s Beach with Lars and Oasis, new friends from Germany

Colorful ochre sea stars in the tidepools

Leaving Bamfield, all too soon

Peaceful and beautiful scenery cruising back to Port Alberni

A humpback whale makes an appearance close to the boat

Port Alberni is a surprisingly delightful town. We were there only to sail on the Frances Barkley, but enjoyed our time so much that we ended up lingering for four days. We stayed at nearby Sproat Lake Provincial Park, the perfect location for exploring Port Alberni and nearby Stamp River Provincial Park.

The Port Alberni Lighthouse is located on the waterfront and serves as the Maritime Discovery Center. The lighthouse was never a “real” lighthouse (it was built in the 1990’s by the maritime heritage society using generic lighthouse plans) but it contains a historic lantern taken from Chrome Island off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Although the lantern beacon is turned on during the summer, it has to be turned off at night because it disturbs the neighbors.

The Port Alberni Lighthouse; the home of the Maritime Discovery Centre

While strolling along the pier, we came upon a wild little boat whirling, spinning, and bounding in the rough waters. It looked like a crazed Australian shepherd rounding up a herd of sheep—but this was a herd of enormous logs. We learned later that this is a boom boat, and rounding up logs is precisely its job description. Isn’t that the cutest boat? I want one!

A boom boat rounding up logs

Corralling logs in preparation for loading onto a freighter in Port Alberni

The Tatoosh, a boom boat on display at the Maritime Discovery Centre

We spent most of the rest of our days in Port Alberni searching for bears. The fall is salmon run season, and the bears come out for the easy pickings. We hung out at the Somass River in Port Alberni waiting for the bears to show up. They did, and it was fun watching them fish, but we didn’t get any decent photos. Well, except for this one.

The Somass River In Port Alberni; this was our best bear sighting on the river

Papermills on the Somass River; like a scene out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale

Welcome Totem of the First Nations Hupacasath peoples

Relaxing at the SteamPunk Cafe; the best place in town for good coffee and great internet

We had great luck at beautiful Stamp River Provincial Park, though. The salmon run thick in the Stamp River, and we cheered them on as they flung themselves up the falls. Not sure why some of the fish insist on taking the hard way when there’s a fish ladder available. It was way more fun to watch them go up the falls, but it was also pretty cool to see the fish on live camera squeezing themselves through the ladder.

At the beautiful Stamp River, in search of salmon and bears

Watching the salmon leaping up the falls (Go, salmon, go!!)

We were in search of bears, and spent a couple of afternoons looking for them. We watched them fishing far away across the river, but wanted closer views. A hiking trail took us to a remote area of the river, where we found the bears leisurely fishing.

Hiking the trails at Stamp Falls in search of bears

Waiting for the bears to arrive

Spotting a big black bear downstream on the Stamp River

Black bear and Common Merganser sharing fishing grounds

Black bears are good swimmers!

Emerging from the river

This guy looks big….time to pack up our party and leave!

About the campground:

Campsite at Sproat Lake Provincial Park

We really enjoyed our peaceful stay at Sproat Lake Provincial Park. Like all of Canada’s provincial parks, there are no hookups. But the sites are large and level, there’s water available throughout the campground, and the showers are decent. The park is 15 minutes from Port Alberni and about 20 minutes from Stamp River Provincial Park, an excellent place to see salmon and bears in the fall.

There are two loops in the campground; we preferred the lower loop, which is closer to the lake. No internet (of course!). But there’s blazing fast free internet and a cozy atmosphere at the SteamPunk Café in Port Alberni. The coffee is good, and the owner makes yummy scones from his grandmother’s recipe.

Next Up: Treasures Of The Cowichan Valley, British Columbia

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The Wild West Coast: Tofino & Ucluelet

The Wild West Coast: Tofino & Ucluelet

Posted by on Nov 30, 2017 in British Columbia, Canada, Gallery, Travel | 40 comments

“You ARE going to Tofino, aren’t you?” That was the query of everyone we met on Vancouver Island.

Considered the gem of the island, Tofino has it all—astonishingly beautiful scenery, epic outdoor adventures, and a surprisingly sophisticated food scene. All this, in a town of 2,000 perched on the remote and wild west coast of the island. Tofino is also right next door to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and within a few miles of the intriguing harbor town of Ucluelet. Yes, we were definitely going to Tofino.

Highway 4, the road that connects the east coast to the west, is an adventure unto itself. Narrow, two lanes, hairpin curves, and sheer rock walls—you get the idea. I was too busy “helping” Eric drive to take any photos.

Arriving safely in Tofino, we breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed into our site at Crystal Cove Beach Resort. Tide pools and a gorgeous beach are all part of the benefits of the RV Park.

Our introduction to Tofino sunsets on Mackenzie Beach, just steps from our site

After our first glorious sunset and evening on the beach, we set out to explore Tofino the next day on our bikes. This is a surfing town, and for a moment (a very brief moment) we thought about taking a surfing lesson. But there’s that whole ordeal of having to squeeze into a wetsuit and getting into really cold water. Not to mention sharks, and looking a lot like a seal when you’re in a wetsuit, and sharks liking to snack on seals. As it turns out, we were too busy hiking, biking, kayaking, and eating to try surfing.

A setting for a town doesn’t get much prettier than this

Picturesque Tofino Harbor (since we’re in BC, that would be “harbour”)

We spent a half-day kayaking on an awesome tour of Clayoquot Sound. A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, this is a pristine landscape of old-growth forest and a maze of inlets and islands. Our guide was terrific, sharing the history of the area and pointing out flora and fauna along the way.

A kayak tour of Clayoquot Sound

The food in Tofino is outrageously good. We ate our way through town, trying everything from tasty healthy fast food at Sea Monster to a fabulous meal of fresh caught halibut at Wolf In The Fog, considered one of the top restaurants on all of Vancouver Island. I think the best meal of all, though, was the salmon chowder at Sobo. Made with both fresh and smoked salmon, it was outstanding.

Best salmon chowder, ever

There are many beaches in Tofino and nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, and we explored them all. Each has a different personality, ranging from miles of expansive sandy coastline perfect for long walks to tiny jewel-like coves. The west coast of Vancouver Island is known for wild weather and spectacular wave action, but the ocean was tame while we were there.

Beautiful Chesterman Beach, our favorite for long walks

After five days in Tofino, we moved about 15 miles south to Pacific Rim National Park for an additional three days. This put us in the heart of the park, and closer to the village of Ucluelet, a less polished version of Tofino.

A variety of hiking trails wend through old-growth forest and along the coast in Pacific Rim National Park. The hikes are generally short (the longest is only 5.0 miles round trip) but most involve rugged boardwalks and zillions of stairs. It’s a quieting experience to walk through these ancient, cedar scented forests.

We hiked every trail in the park. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Trail, named for the First Nations people of this area. Other of our favorites were the Rainforest Loop Trails and the Schooner Cove Trail.

Every trail in Pacific Rim National Park looks something like this

At the start of the Nuu Chah Nulth Trail

Welcome to Ucluelet! (pronounced You-CLUE-let). The locals just call it “Ukee.”

Picturesque Ucluelet harbor

There are three outstanding attractions in Ucluelet: The breathtakingly beautiful Wild Pacific Trail (including Lighthouse Loop), the sweet little aquarium, and the Raven Lady Oyster Forte food truck.

Yes, a food truck made our list of top attractions in Ucluelet. This particular food truck turns out delicious gourmet offerings, including excellent fish tacos and an addictive combination of smoked oysters on fig crostini with whipped blue cheese and pickled red onions.

The Raven Lady food truck courtyard

Gourmet food truck offerings: Smoked oysters and local fish tacos with fruit salsa

As for the seafood we didn’t eat, the Ucluelet Aquarium is a delightful small local catch-and-release aquarium. Each specimen is collected locally in early spring, then released in the fall. It’s astonishing how many beautifully colored, fanciful creatures live in the seas here.

The aquarium has many “touch tanks” and we spent a couple of hours getting to know the different critters of the sea—velvety or knobby sea stars, prickly sea urchins, delicate anemones that feel sticky to the touch (that’s the feeling of tiny poisonous harpoons, but harmless to people), and rubbery-textured sea cucumbers. So much fun.

The wonderful Ucluelet Aquarium

The Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet is one of the most beautiful shoreline trails we’ve experienced anywhere in our travels. The crashing waves and plaintive clanging of the bell buoys just offshore added to the meditative ambiance. I can still hear those bells when I look at these photos.

Beautiful rugged coastline on the Wild Pacific Trail

Amphitrite Lighthouse, built to withstand wild storms

About the campgrounds: 

Crystal Cove Beach Resort is an excellent location for exploring the village of Tofino. It’s truly a resort, with gorgeous landscaping and lots of amenities (wifi, free bikes, movies, morning coffee). The RV sites, however, don’t really qualify as “resort” quality, but they have full hook-ups and are private. With tide pools and a gorgeous beach not far from our site and the bike path to Tofino right across the road, we loved staying here. Book ahead! This place is popular and there were no sites available when we decided to extend our stay. Hence, after five days we moved to the National Park, where we got the last available site for three nights.

Our rustic site at Crystal Cove Resort

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is hugely popular, even in late September. The campground is heavily forested and borders beautiful Long Beach (the best sites have views of the beach). No hookups, but the bathhouses are nice and there’s water available throughout the campground. We liked being close to all of the trails in the park, and it’s just a few miles from Ucluelet.

Our campsite in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Next Up: A Mailboat Cruise: Port Alberni, BC

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