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Island Hopping in the Vancouver Island Region

Written by Eric Lucas

Enjoying a walk among the grasslands on Saturna Island.

Enjoying a walk among the grasslands on Saturna Island


Perhaps the ocean’s greatest appeal is that, somewhere deep in our souls, human beings recognize this is the mother of life on our planet. Is there anyone who does not delight in the clean, salt scent of the sea, the sparkling blue gem-hue of its waters, the graceful creatures that live within it, the complex, unceasing rhythm of its waves and the instant adventure that setting out upon it brings?

Our Island sits in the world’s greatest ocean, rising between the open Pacific and the complicated inland waterways - bays, sounds, channels and inlets - known as the Salish Sea. The vast majority of the millions who reach Vancouver Island each year, whether visitors heading here or residents heading home, cross the Strait of Georgia or the Strait of Juan de Fuca onboard sturdy, massive ferries that cleave the water reliably and well. Each such passage remains a marvel to most, even to those who have done so hundreds of times, or more.

But while reaching the Island is a sea-borne adventure, travel among the many smaller islands that ring our main shore is an entirely different experience, more intimate, engaging, colorful and quick. Literally dozens of smaller islands lie offshore Vancouver Island, most along the inland side; scheduled ferry service brings folks to more than a dozen of these, and all are lovely retreats amid this marvelous sea of ours. Quiet sand beaches stretch between rugged headlands, glaucous gulls cry through morning mists, and farmsteads dot rolling plateaus.

Despite their proximity, to the main island and each other, each island is different; each loved above all by its fans, each a place of magic allure to adventurous travelers.

Consider Salt Spring Island, one of the biggest and perhaps the best-known of our neighbour isles. This pastoral fastness rides the sea beneath two bulwark mountains, Maxwell and Tuam, with long valleys and inlets riving the land. Ganges, the main town, is a quaint and dynamic harbour town whose small inns, shops, cafes and galleries remind many of English seaside villages. Apple orchards and sheep farms cluster beneath the two mounts; Salt Spring lamb is a delicacy known throughout British Columbia. Ruckle Provincial Park, at its southeast corner, is a pioneer homestead whose walk-in campsites are famed for their scenic setting atop a bluff. Two interior lakes are fronted by venerable family resorts where kids and adults frolic in warm water in midsummer; artisan cheesemakers ply their trade relying on island hay and feed; artists, musicians, crafters and chefs all enjoy the island’s wealth of peace and produce. It’s a deliriously alluring, blissfully mellow place to spend a week letting the stress of modern life seep out your skin into the balmy air.

And Salt Spring, remember, is just one of many such along our shores.

Some more favorites, all reached by ferry from the main Island:

  • Galiano Island, first stop along the ferry route from the mainland, has a famous upscale inn, a sunny south shore, and a provincial park whose famed white sand beach consists of hundreds of years of shell fragments turned to fines by the sea’s tumbling. A thriving bookstore known province-wide anchors the small village centre.
  • Pender Island is actually two, North and South “joined” across a tideflat by human engineering. A famed marina resort occupies a sparkling back bay, Poets Cove, tucked beneath another high mount, Norman. Much of the island is parkland within the new Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
  • Saturna Island, adjacent to Pender, is the home of a large vineyard (42 acres) and winery specializing in Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer and other cool-climate wines suited to the sun-drenched bench on which the vines grow, washed by cool salt air each evening.
  • Gabriola Island, northernmost of the Gulf Islands group, is just offshore Nanaimo, the Harbour City, from which a 10-minute ferry ride leads to this family resort site loved by generations of summer vacationers. Wooded parkland dominates the interior the island, while small inns and summer camps line its shores. A unique double-beach park, Gabriola Sands, has east- and west-facing sandy shores on which bathers can enjoy morning sun, move across the park’s spit and bask in afternoon sun later.
  • Newcastle Island, a small isle in Nanaimo Harbour, is entirely contained within a provincial park that preserves its serene, rare, and wistfully beautiful oak prairie habitat. Harbour “tub” ferries bring daytrippers across to Newcastle; purple martins nesting along the dock greet arriving visitors.
  • Denman and Hornby, twin islands offshore at Fanny Bay, are two iconoclasts whose beauty and peaceful lifestyle draw small farmers, food artisans (Denman has a famous chocolatier), outdoor recreation fans and progressive thinkers who value the unique land they live on. Hornby - “it takes two ferries just to get here” is a common refrain - is widely known for its recycling centre, one of the world’s most efficient, where islanders reuse or recycle almost everything that comes on the island. Hornby’s twin parks, Helliwell and Tribune Bay, draw throngs of fans to their Douglas-fir headlands (Helliwell) and broad, warm-water sandy beach (Tribune Bay) nicknamed “Little Hawai’i.”
  • Quadra Island, just 10 minutes by ferry from Campbell River, is the home of a thriving Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation band that operates an impressive cedar-building resort, Tsa-Kwa-Luten; and a world-class museum, Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre, which holds an exhibit of priceless potlatch regalia and artifacts. From Quadra, another ferry leads on to Cortes Island, home of one of the world’s leading centres devoted to sustainable living, Hollyhock. It takes two ferries to get here, too.
  • Farther north, offshore Port McNeill, Alert Bay is the village on Cormorant Island. Here one finds the world’s tallest totem pole, a two-piece construction topping out at 53 metres (173 feet). Nearby, the U’mista Centre holds what may be the world’s finest exhibit of potlatch masks, hand-carved works of art whose vivid forms and colors seem to come to life when you view them.

It would take weeks to adequately visit just the islands above - and there are yet more we haven’t mentioned. Vancouver Island itself is big enough that one might occasionally forget our oceanic nature; a trip to one of our many neighbour islands refreshes the understanding that we are a Pacific place, riding along an ocean second to none.




Discovering Tofino

Written by Eric Lucas

A group of surfers on Cox Bay Beach, Tofino

A group of surfers on Cox Bay Beach, Tofino. Photo: Bob Harlond

Poised at the topmost end of the scenic Long Beach Peninsula, washed by clean Pacific air, the music of the waves lifting across its headlands, Tofino is aesthetically marvelous. Eagles fly its skies, the scent of cedar and hemlock freshen its air, graceful seals and gargantuan whales ply its waters. Many thousands of visitors arrive each year to savor these attributes along this far shore of Vancouver Island, enjoying fine food and lodgings that range from economical hostels to world-class luxury resorts.

So why is this appealing place known as “Tough City”? (Often rendered Tuff City.)

Most attribute the nickname to a more rugged past as a logging and fishing capital whose rowdy denizens worked hard and played hard - and as a nod to the correct pronunciation of the town’s name… Tuh-feeno (not “Toe-feeno”). Not that today’s residents and visitors have diminished the energy and enthusiasm they bring to life on the far western verge of Canada.

Consider what’s arguably the area’s most popular sport, surfing. Four seasons a year hardy, drysuit-clad longboard fans ride the steady swells of Long Beach or Chesterman Beach. No, the waters are not tropical. Let’s call them invigorating.

This proximity to the world’s biggest ocean leads to one of Tofino’s most popular travel activities - storm-watching in the winter. And while the town’s cozy, deluxe resorts provide fire-warmed viewing venues, a stroll along one of the area’s broad, sandy beaches in a midwinter gale is a wondrous experience… again, not tropical. Definitely invigorating!

More serene outdoors experiences are found just across from the town’s sheltered harbour on Meares Island. This untouched old-growth rainforest offers strollers immense cedars and hemlocks that filter light and rain from above; it’s a heady half-hour hike, and easily reached from town via a 15-minute water taxi ride.

Though commercial fishing has declined since its mid-century heyday, locally grown oysters and clams, and locally caught salmon, crab, halibut, rockfish, lingcod and many other kinds of seafood form the basis of coastal cookery available at more than a dozen excellent Tofino restaurants. That’s dinner; for breakfast, you can’t beat the muffins, pastries and cultural milieu of Common Loaf Bake Shop, a local institution whose enduring countercultural flair dates back to the 1990s campaigns that shelved massive logging plans in nearby Clayoquot Sound. Today the sound is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a preserve that holds both vital ecosystems and human communities dependent on them.

A tour through Clayoquot Sound is a visit into a magical realm of tree and sea, sun and rain, sand and stone. It’s a delicately balanced landscape, and Tuff City is its welcoming gateway… not tough at all.



Shipwrecks in the Vancouver Island Region

Written by Eric Lucas

A foggy summer morning at a beach near Sooke BC

A foggy summer morning at a beach near Sooke BC.

As any sailor will tell you, a ship at sea is just a few steps from potential disaster - particularly near land. Marvelous and memorable as our island is, its shores have brought low numerous boats over the centuries, from early explorers to 20th century fishing, cargo and naval vessels. They are part of our Island lore, and some of them have actually become sites for a novel pastime. More on that in a minute.

Most famous is the coastline from Sooke Harbour west and north; this storm-tossed shore has seen countless ships founder since European explorers first began passing by centuries ago. Winds drive rudderless or powerless ships onshore here; currents exacerbate the problem; fogs, storms, rain squalls and just general bad weather all conspired to earn this coast the nickname “Graveyard of the Pacific.” So many shipwrecks occurred along this shore that a trail was built to aid survivors who made it to shore; today that path, the West Coast Trail, has been reconstituted into one of the most famous wilderness treks in the world. Hikers here often encounter debris remaining from the downed ships - anchors, timbers, jetsam of all sorts. They often, too, encounter the weather that made this coast so dangerous.

Our inland waters are much calmer, but innumerable rocks, skerries, reefs, tidal rips and other hazards still make navigation a challenge. Modern guidance instruments mean that few ships go down these days - unless they are deliberately scuttled.

Why would anyone do that? To enhance a sport known as “wreck diving,” whose adherents don scuba gear and descend into our cold, very clear waters to discover the rich life that soon takes over sunken ships. Lingcods, flounders and other fish prowl the wreckage; anemones, nudibranchs and other colorful invertebrates pioneer the surfaces; octopi revel in the many crevices and holes.

One famous such ship, the Capilano I, went under at the north end of the Strait of Georgia in 1915 and is considered one of the premier dive sites in British Columbia. The hull is almost completely covered by white anemones, and rockfish wander through the ship.

Not content with authentic shipwrecks, provincial divers banded together to form a group dedicated to deliberately scuttling retired ships to form dive sites. More than a half-dozen freighters and warships have been sunk in inland BC waters, most near the Island at locales such as Sidney, Nanaimo and Campbell River. The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia continues its work today; for more information visit Reef diving is only for certified expert divers, utilizing local outfitters and guides. That said, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that opens a door into another world.



Top Ten...

Things to do in Tofino

For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans, Twitter followers and TVI Staff, what are their FAVORITE things to do in Tofino, on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

Here are their Top Ten...

  1. Walk on the Beach
  2. Storm watching
  3. Surf
  4. Whale Watch
  5. Rainforest Walk
  6. Go Bear Watching
  7. Have a bite to eat at Shelter Restaurant
  8. Go to Meares Island
  9. Visit the Ancient Cedars Spa ath the Wickaninnish Inn
  10. Take a boat ride to the Hot Springs

Ancient Cedars Spa, Vancouver Island

Ancient Cedar Spa at the Wickaninnish Inn - Tofino, Vancouver Island


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