Initially, seven days might seem like hardly enough time to absorb the wonderment of Vancouver Island, BC. But I’m a firm believer that something like time (as well as budget, location and weather) should never be barriers to collecting great travel moments and stories. This summer, one week was all we had for vacation and we were feeling a pull to go west.
Rightly considered one of the most idyllic destinations in Canada, Vancouver Island busts with wild, temperate rainforest beauty and each of its coasts holds enough allure and mystery to make it tough to decide where to focus your journey. It’s also an adventure hound’s paradise; land, sea and air activities are a major part of islander life. My brother has lived there for years and he helped us craft a week that would glean some of the best of a few regions (Victoria, and lower parts of the west and east coast) rather than a superficial full island expedition that would only leave us feeling whipped and toured out. The end result: a beautiful trip that was good for mind, body and soul, budget-friendly and unforgettable.
1. HIKE DOWN TO MYSTIC BEACH
You had me at “hike”, Vancouver Island. I love a good trail and with its abundance of easily accessible trailheads, this island just begs to be tromped all over . We stepped on to the Mystic Beach trailhead (90 minutes west of Victoria), which would give us just the teeniest taste of the Juan de Fuca trail. Full out it’s about 47 km long one way and ain’t no stroll in the park, hugging the ravishing and ragged west coast. But we were day tripping so it was satisfying enough to descend through magical forest to Mystic Beach. Is “magical” too strong a word? I think not. Fifty steps in I guarantee you’ll stop, pull out your camera and start taking pictures:
All that mossy Douglas fir, Sitka and fern growth just kind of closes in like only a rainforest can; you can almost hear the trees and feel the ground breathing. And no hike in BC is complete without bouncing over at least one suspension bridge.
2. SWING OUT OVER THE OCEAN
There is reward for bounding down what feels like a small mountain and realizing you have to climb back up when you leave. This is it:
At some point, some brave soul had belly crawled over the branch of a tree about 23 metres above the cliff and rigged up this feature so that for all time, those who dared could swing like a child out over the surf and back again.
Mystic Beach is a great place to camp, chill out and discover caves. It’s not a sunbathing beach. It’s a rocky, surfy, natural beach. Like most beaches on Vancouver Island, if you visit, keep an eye on the tide.
3. FUJIYA- TAKE OUT SUSHI WONDERLAND!
Peter has always shied away from sushi. I suspect it stems back to the time he came to my house when we were dating and my classy mom served oysters and crackers as an appetizer. He felt pressure to sample and they exceeded his worst fears. I adore sushi and Vancouver Island cuisine does too. When we stepped into Fujiya, a little Japanese supermarket in Victoria offering amazing on-site Sushi delights, I think I saw him begin to quiver. We joined the lineup to the self-serve bins and were quickly caught up in a wave of Sushi take-out frenzy. Again, Pete was feeling pressure but in the two minute ride he managed to scope out something safely adventurous and Peter-palate friendly. The rest of us grabbed helpings of Hawaiian Poke Salad, Sashimi, Spicy Salmon rolls, and creations I’ve never heard of. The prices are half of what you’d pay in most places and everything is incredibly fresh.
4. SUSHI PICNIC AT BOTANY BAY AND BOTANICAL BEACH
Where Mystic Beach is close to the head, Botany Bay and Botanical Beach make up the tail (or you can reverse that) of the Juan de Fuca trail. We zipped up Hwy 14 West Coast Road, stopping short of Port Renfrew and hopped on another trail to take us down to the otherworldly outcroppings of Botany Bay. Shards of shale and quartz jut through black basalt, framing the Juan de Fuca Strait. It’s hazardous closer to the water but there’s a great ridge up above; the perfect spot for a sushi picnic.
To work off the carbs, we re-entered the rainforest and trekked over to Botanical Beach. This is one of those spots where you’ll find graphic “don’t say you weren’t warned” signage speaking of imminent danger somewhere in the area (the Grand Canyon also comes to mind). We stopped to study a black and white photo of three lads being caught off guard by rogue waves on the rocks below. Alone with probably the same thoughts (were they rescued…?) we explored a driftwood graveyard, rich tidal pools, and with one eye always on the waves – the rocks.
5. SEE GOATS ON THE ROOF
Back when my brother was building his boat in the town of Coombs, he’d tell me about Goats on the Roof. At first I thought this was a case of wild escapee goats claiming stake of an abandoned building; something maybe akin to the story of the famous Chincoteague Ponies. It turns out goats first arrived on the roof of this organically bent market in 1973 when it’s Norwegian owners had a few glasses of wine and decided that the grass on their sod-roofed store was getting too long. Why can’t I think like that?
To grab household items, great ice cream, photos, foods like Goat Radish and Goats on the Roof coffee beans and “pooping goat” stickers for your son, make sure you stop here. Just be ready to try explaining to friends back home why there are goats on a roof.
6. VISIT PARKSVILLE
Pete was starting to get bummed-out because he’s a beach guy and so far we hadn’t visited one where he really felt he could kick of his Keens and run in sand.
Oh we found him some sand all right; lots and lots of sand.
The Parksville Sandcastle Exhibition attracts master sculptors the world over who are given only sand, water, and 24 hours to create. Visitors get tokens and can vote towards the People’s Choice Award. This visitor found it hard to choose; I walked around the exhibit a couple of times agonizing over the most amazing details ever crafted by human hands and sand. Pete was quick to make his picks; I found him here:
At low tide, Parksville Beach stretches its sandy body out for about a kilometre into the Strait of Georgia. Our timing might have been a bit off (Pete almost lost his t-shirt and shoes), but a gorgeous view, ample boardwalk and lots of happy beachgoers made for a great BC summer vibe.
7. GET ON THE WATER
I always like to scrutinize coastlines from the water, letting imagination kick in. It’s fun to go with, “Which famous explorer sailed here?” and “Is that beach ‘castaway friendly’?” From kayaks to ferries there are plenty of options to float off for a few hours and explore the coast.
Without a doubt sailing takes the purist approach to working the water – it’s hard to beat the exhilaration of teaming up with wind, waves and sails. What do I know about sailing? Very little, but along with musicians, sailors are on my list of fascinating people who have mastered a complex, enjoyable skill. When I get the chance, I like to get close to their work. So when the wind was right, we bounded out on my brother’s sailboat, marveling at his rapid chess-game approach to navigating us through Cadboro Bay – a historical smuggler’s cove, and out into open seas.
8. DINE IN DOWNTOWN VICTORIA
Such a charming city centre, and since my last visit in 1998, I’d say it’s now way cooler and far more interesting. I’m not a shopper so popped into only one store that enticed me with outdoor racks of Buddha-inspired clothing, but I am a food-lover. Over the decades Victoria has really raised the bar on the seed to table food philosophy, by being so authentic without trying too hard (Ontario – please take note). On our first night we ate at Rebar, my favourite restaurant, and now I know why. Chef Audrey Alsterberg is one of the pioneers responsible for influencing the Victoria food scene and everything at Rebar is lovingly juiced, stewed, ground, steamed, roasted and toasted. Every item elevates the soul but you can’t go wrong with the Monk’s Curry or Rice and Veggie Steamer. I could eat here most nights
Or I could easily join the line at an up cycled cargo container down at the pier. Ok, you got me – I’m not a fan of fancy-shmancy dining. But grab an amazing Salmon Tacone at Red Fish Blue Fish, find a spot at the outdoor table bar, catch the gulls in the water putting on a show below, and you’ll rethink your dining habits.
9. CYCLE THE GALLOPING GOOSE/LOCKSIDE TRAIL
We’re cyclists and it was pretty cool to be at the other end of the Trans Canada Trail. This portion connects the downtown to Sooke in one direction and Saanich in the other – in total it’s about an 80km trail one way. We had every intention to hop on the more rugged Goose trail, but our day trip whittled down to a three hour outing and the bike rental shop suggested Lockside would give us the most scenic ride in this time. Pretty and pastoral, we blazed through a lot of woods, countryside and ocean-view suburban backyards.
Island View Beach became our end goal. Like the mountain in the movies that looks closer than it actually is, the beach seemed more reachable on the map. It was a 5km sojourn off the trail but was purely bucolic; we felt like we were in European countryside, pumping our bikes through healthy fields of flowers and crops, up the side of a small mountain and down to the sea. Running out of time with the bike rental, we were sadly rushed and had only a few minutes to get off the bikes and drink in some Island View before racing back. Next time, we’ll grab the Goose.
10. CLIMB MOUNT DOUGLAS
Just to give you an idea how fit and active the islanders are, they work off supper and get ready for bed by climbing a mountain. Mount Douglas is near Victoria in Saanich and its 228 metre summit beckons you to keep climbing for a breathtaking 360 degree view of Victoria, Cordova Bay, Malahat, and on a clear day, the Juan de Fuca strait and Washington’s Olympic and Cascade ranges. Throw in an unbeatable sunset view and you’ll be breathing, “we have to live here” over and over. The trails are steep and challenging and at points meander through dense forest. No bedtime tea required after this little workout.
FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS: EAT BLACKBERRIES, FEED A SEAL, TAKE VICTORIA LOCAL TRANSIT
Why? Because they grow everywhere, because seal-feeding is encouraged at Oak Bay Marina and because islanders will make you feel like you’re taking a ride with a bunch of friends and a happy parent at the wheel.
This was one week and I could go on ( old-growth forests, the legend of Cadborosaurus, rascally otters, etc. ) Yes, two weeks would have given us time to camp/surf in Tofino and Ucluelet, climb Mount Arrowsmith and visit some of the Gulf Islands, but these are all reasons to return.
Sometimes, one day, weekend or week is all you can get so focus up, scale back and just have fun. You’ll have few regrets.
You might find out too, what was really calling you.