I’m not entirely convinced Vancouver Island is an island. How can snow-capped mountains, ski resorts, waterfalls and wineries all exist on one island?
Though I’ve been visiting the Canadian island since childhood, I’ve only managed to explore about a third of it. The goal on a recent trip was to cover the middle region of the island’s east side from north of Parksville to Campbell River, crossing the 50th parallel.
Courtenay and Comox are the twin cities of the Comox Valley area, about 140 miles north of Victoria. Sandwiched between mountains and the coast, the area is popular with retirees and offers various levels of accommodations. Miles of convoluted coastline shelter smaller islands, salmon fishing and kayaking opportunities.
I based myself at a bed and breakfast just south of Courtenay. Both towns have enough restaurants to offer variety to visitors, but my favorite was Locals in Courtenay. The restaurant has an extensive menu of house-made items served in a wood-finished setting. The salads alone look like works of art.
If you’ve bristled at the shuttle buses of Yosemite and the crowds at Mount Rainier, you’ll appreciate Strathcona Provincial Park. Even the most accessible parts of this park are crowd-free. That’s not saying a lot is accessible. The 300,000-acre park is largely undeveloped.
Strathcona covers the snow-capped spine, or centre as the Canadians call it, of Vancouver Island. I visited Forbidden Plateau — partly because I like to go where I’m forbidden to, and partly because it’s one of the two most-developed access points. (The other is Butte Lake.)
Forbidden Plateau is a fairly level area that includes wetlands, forests and lakes. You can design your own walk of a few minutes or of several miles on a maze of trails. I took a short loop hike to Lake Helen Mackenzie and Battleship Lake.
One of the astounding aspects of the trail system — at least on my 4-mile loop — is that almost all of it is boardwalk. Alpine swamps be damned.
The trail took me through sunny wetlands and shady forests to the two lakes that are nestled below small tree-covered mountains.
Turn 180 degrees from Forbidden Plateau and you come face to face with Mount Washington Alpine Ski Resort. Like most North American ski areas, this one has less-than-scenic condos, a few homes and a rustic lodge. I was visiting in the off-season, which meant bare slopes and not much activity.
There was, however, a ski lift taking hikers and ramblers to the top of the 5,200-foot mountain. The grade is steep as the price — $17 — but it’s easy to find 2-for-1 coupons.
One mile may not seem high by Cascade standards, but this is an island. And while I couldn’t see the Pacific Ocean, I could see just about everything else when I got to the top. To the east was the Strait of Georgia and mainland British Columbia. To the west were the jagged, snow-covered peaks of Strathcona. Down below, looking like puddles from this height, were lakes – some I had just hiked to.
I’m too stingy with my trail mix to give it to wild critters, but others were clearly more generous. No sooner had I picked up a small pebble to examine it (it’s what travel writers do) when a gray jay landed on my hand. That’s when I noticed the birds were landing on other people’s hands, heads and shoulders. It was as if a Disney version of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” was being filmed.
Crossing the 50th parallel seems momentous – until it happens. A marker just south of Campbell River notes the spot. Campbell River has lodging galore – much of it catering to the visitors who come for the salmon fishing, which the city highly touts.
I stopped at the public pier. An ice cream stand was doing a brisk business. Fishermen were casting off the pier as boats sped back and forth in the shimmering water.
The town seems the right size for fishermen, but other visitors might run out of things to do if they’re not interested in golf or kayaking.
Though the wineries are not as prolific in the Comox Valley as they are in the wider and more pastoral Cowichan Valley to the south, there’s enough for a day of wine tasting. I visited the region’s wine pioneer, Beaufort Winery, just north of Courtenay.
The winery makes eight varieties of red, including sparkling and port, most for less than $20. Though the tasting room was closed on the day I visited, manager Mark Timmermans let me wander the estate. A modest gray farmhouse takes center stage. It’s all fairly benign until you consider the large wooden Easter Island-style head that overlooks the eight acres of vineyards.
The winery also has another claim that few can make: It’s owned by “Titanic” and “Avatar” director James Cameron. The Hollywood titan has an interest in sustainable agriculture, something already in practice at Beaufort when he bought it in early 2014.
FANNY BAY INN
Road houses can sometimes be scary if you’re not in a biker gang. But the collection of vintage Jaguars parked outside the Fanny Bay Inn suggested the Hells Angels probably weren’t inside.
I pulled a U-turn on the coastal road between Courtenay and Parksville and parked.
You can call Fanny Bay Inn a water-to-plate restaurant. The restaurant sits next to its namesake, Fanny Bay, home to an oyster growing operation. One of the gulf islands, Denman, is just off shore.
I sat outside at a picnic table near a large big leaf maple tree and ordered six oysters on the half shell for $12.95. They came with a cucumber mignonette, which sounded too fussy for me, but they were fresh and subtly prepared, the way I like them.
Perhaps it was the big trees of Cathedral Grove that gave James Cameron some ideas for “Avatar.” The gigantic Douglas firs in MacMillan Provincial Park are breathtakingly big — and old. Some have been standing 800 years.
The 700-acre park, networked with trails, spans both sides of the busy Alberni Highway (4) that connects Port Alberni with Parksville. A fierce 1997 windstorm toppled many of the giants, but the chaotic jumble of fallen and standing behemoths only adds to the otherworldly experience.
Sunbathers were camped out at nearby Cameron Lake on my visit. On the Parksville side of the lake is Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park. As much as Cathedral Grove wants you to look up, you’ll want to gaze down here. The falls themselves are fine, but it’s the walk along the banks of the whitewater-filled rocky chasm that impresses.