Hit the Road

Adventures in Vancouver Island

I am strolling on Deck 5 of the Queen of Alberni on a glorious September afternoon as the ferry churns through the Strait of Georgia.

Cave guide Elliot Eden (left) points out some of the other-worldly formations found in one of hundreds of caves that inhabit Vancouver Island. This one is found in Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park. Amateur spelunkers can take 90-minute to 5-hour guided tours that demand varying degrees of skill. There is camping and many other activities in adjacent Horne Lake Regional Park.  Photos by Jerry OndashOn a beautiful day, passengers aboard the Queen of Alberni ferry can enjoy the two-hour ride from British Columbia’s mainland to Duke Point (just south of Nanaimo) on the boat’s top deck. The ferries carry everything from pedestrians to fully loaded semi-trucks through the Strait of Georgia. Dining services (including gluten-free items), wi-fi and shopping are available.   If spelunking in Vancouver Island’s caves is not your forte, you can enjoy the sunshine above at nearby Horne Lake, where camping, boating and other activities are offered – all within 30 minutes of the Parksville/Qualicum Beach area. Summer is peak season, but September offers beautiful weather and fewer crowds.  Michael Addiscott, second from left, offers advice to a novice paddleboarder just off Qualicum Beach. Addiscott, a guide for Outsider Adventures Inc., moved from his native Scotland to the Canadian Riviera because of the proximity and convenience of outdoor activities in the area. “You can do everything or nothing,” he tells visitors.  Stay at the Shorewater Resort in Qualicum Beach and this landscape is just out your back door. The resort’s 24 units are stocked with everything visitors need for an extended stay. Evening walks on the beach can be the perfect ending to an active day, or the perfect ending to a laid-back one.   Sunrise Ridge Waterfront Resort is ideally located for a few days or extended stays on the Canadian Riviera on the southeast coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Guests who stay in the high-end, well stocked condos have access to this heated pool and fitness facilities.
It’s a two-hour ride between Tsawwassen, British Columbia, and Nanaimo, a city on the southern end of Vancouver Island. Our final destination: the beach cities north of Nanaimo, an area the locals call the Canadian Riviera.

You can tell which ferry passengers are Canadian; they are in shirtsleeves and shorts; we are bundled in Gore-Tex. Having escaped the 90-some degree weather in San Diego County, we are glad to be here in Canada’s cooler Southwest. Our week’s itinerary includes two days in Parksville and two in Qualicum Beach, towns along the Oceanside Route. Both are ideal bases from which to explore the south end of Vancouver Island, and both offer “everything and nothing,” as Michael Addiscott says. He’s an Outsider Adventures guide who came to Vancouver Island from Scotland because of the proximity of limitless outdoor activities. Whether mountain biking is your thing, or you prefer the quiet of a forest path or formal gardens, the island has something for all ages, abilities and activity levels.

You can stay crazy-busy here or you can just chill, he says, plus “I don’t have to get in the car to get on a trail. I just have to walk out my front door and get on my bike.”

Addiscott shames me into paddle boarding by telling me that on the previous day, a 60-year-old woman with a recent hip replacement tried it and loved it. I’m not sure he’s telling the truth, but his words worked. With his patient coaching, I eventually stand up and manage to stay up as we paddle through the transparent water off Qualicum Beach.

“You can see so much more from up here,” Addiscott declares as we spot a couple of flounder and a school of small salmon sliding across the sandy bottom.

Despite Vancouver Island’s northern location, the waters off its coast feel warmer than those of Southern California. British Columbians can thank the North Pacific Current for this.

Earlier my husband and I took out a two-person kayak for an hour. Paddling along the coast, we could see the snow-covered mountains that tower near Whistler on mainland British Columbia.

On another afternoon, we drove 45 minutes east to Horne Lake Caves, where with two guides and a half-dozen others, we descended into one of the 1,000 caves on Vancouver Island. Elliot Eden, a dual citizen of Canada and Britain, led our group down, around and through the narrow, damp, often slippery passages, illuminated only by our headlamps. (If you are prone to claustrophobia or are reluctant to get cozy with strangers, best avoid this adventure.) In the process, he offered lessons in biology and geology, and emphasized the fragility of the cave and the fascinating story of the hundreds of years it takes to “grow” some of the features like stalactites, stalagmites and other mysteriously beautiful formations. He left no visitor questions unanswered.

And then there was the darkness thing.

“One of the characteristics of a true cave is that there is no light — anywhere,” Eden said. “This is one of the few places where nothing changes whether your eyes are open or closed,” he said.

And then he proved it. We extinguished our lights for five minutes — and breathed deeply.

Fortunately, it was easier climbing up and out of the cave than going in. Back on top, we hung out at the scenic, tranquil lake, enjoying (and thankful for) the late afternoon sun.

If you go

Outsider Adventures: outsideradventures.com. Headquarters for knowledgeable guides and great gear in Qualicum Beach. Kayak and paddleboard rentals; guided hikes and walking tours. Get out of the car and see the island’s beauty up close.

Horne Lake Caves: (250) 248-7829. Guided tours up to five hours; self-guided tours in some areas. Equipment provided. Bring a jacket and sturdy shoes.

Visit env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/horne_lk/.

Where to stay

Parksville: Sunrise Ridge Waterfront Resort; sunriseridge.ca. Luxury condos. Fully equipped one-, two- and three-bedroom units with high-end kitchens, king-size beds, roomy soaker tubs and patio grill. Facilities include outdoor heated pool and fitness facility. Short walk to the beach.

Qualicum Beach: Shorewater Condominium Resort; shorewaterresort.com. 24 condo units; each stocked with everything for an extended stay, including picnic tables. Step out of your room right onto the beach. Bonus: view of the coastal range on the mainland. Walk on the beach early morning or evening a beautiful thing.

More to come on Vancouver Island: A city of murals; wine country; foodies and local focus; giant trees, stately gardens and butterflies.




Related posts

Zoo set to debut largest exhibit yet

E'Louise Ondash

Learning how to fly a trained bird of prey

E'Louise Ondash

Gift ideas for the traveler on your Christmas list

E'Louise Ondash

Everything’s-right-with-the-world in Ojai

E'Louise Ondash

Hit the Road: Sometimes plan B makes for grade A adventure

E'Louise Ondash

Hit the Road: Travel tips for the new year and beyond

E'Louise Ondash