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.
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.
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.