Unique Attractions

The always popular, goats on the roof at the Coombs Country Market draw visitors to the area and are a popular picture taking subject.

Photo Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island

"Unique" is one of the most overused words of modern times. Technically, grammarians insist that it means "one of a kind"—nothing else, anywhere in the universe, is exactly like it.

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The universe is a mighty big place, so we can only say we are fairly sure that, even applying those rigorous standards, there are more than a few unique places and attractions on and around Vancouver Island. And, if we stretch the criteria just a bit and use the word “novel,” there are even more. Herewith a sort of believe-it-or-not catalog. We suggest that grammarians visit and decide for themselves what adjectives to apply:

• World Parrot Refuge: Here, in a spacious conservatory near Coombs, is a facility devoted solely to providing a home for the parrots, cockatiels, parakeets and other tropical birds that have been abandoned by their human “owners.” Though there are other such refuges, this is the only one in Canada, and the only one in the world outside subtropical climes.

But, of course, parrots and their cousins are widely traded, bred and sold outside their equatorial homelands, and the nearly 1,000 birds who live here are among thousands that find themselves in dire circumstances each year. Beautiful, intelligent, sociable and good-natured, parrots do not ask to be transported to northern latitudes, then discarded. Visiting them here is an experience both entertaining and through-provoking—and we’re glad to provide a home to this memorable facility.

• Goats on the Roof: Not far from the parrot refuge, the Coombs Country Store is a sod-roof building patterned after the traditional buildings in the Norwegian countryside from which founders Kristian and Solveig Graaten came to Canada in the early 1970s. Sometime soon afterward, the grass on the roof was getting rather long, and the founders decided to “borrow” a few goats and put them up there—classic example of a win-win situation. Happy, productive goats; manicured roof sod.

And there they are to this day. Well, not the same goats, of course; but the roof endures, the grass grows, the goats mow. And thousands and thousands of visitors take snapshots, these days dispatching them around the world by smartphone.

Sod roofs, by the way, have become popular modern examples of low-tech sustainability. Many 21st century buildings use them to filter rainwater and reduce the detrimental effects of impermeable surfaces covering the planet. And the goats represent a technology millions of years old.

• Hot Springs Cove: Many are the hot springs around the world in which human beings have soaked and relaxed for thousands of years. There are innumerable such springs up and down the West Coast, as this is a geologically dynamic area with lots of water and complex rock strata that accomplishes the necessary transfer of heat from subterranean sources to surface-bound water.

But very, very few places exist where the spring is adjacent to the ocean; the hot water flows down to sea level; and visitors can enjoy the unique experience of relaxing in the hot water, gazing our over the incoming tide, and welcoming periodic refreshment as bracing North Pacific waves wash in over the lower pools.

It’s a provincial park with a boardwalk, a small changing facility, and a dock at which visiting boats tie up. Several tour operators in Tofino offer day trips to the springs, an hour or so away; along the way, whale, eagle, sea lion and seal sightings are common. In fact, under perfect circumstances, you could lie back in the hot spring, breathe a sigh of relaxation, scan the ocean vista before you—and see whales, seals and sea lions as a wave pours cool sea water on you. All at once. Not likely, but potentially possible.

• MV Uchuck: Vancouver Island has many communities that historically were reached only by water—roads are relatively modern embellishments. While the Island’s road network is still expanding, and a number of towns are now on the highway system that did not use to be, bringing supplies by boat is still the best way in many places.

Thus the MV Uchuck III, a sturdy 136-foot vessel that plies the complex waters of the west side of the Island, from Gold River to Fair Harbour and back. Along the way, it carries the mail, brings supplies and equipment to remote lodges and camps in Nootka and Kyuquot Sounds—and carries adventurous travelers.

These may be kayakers heading for little-traveled inlets and sounds, such as Nootka; hikers wanting a dropoff at a remote trailhead; or just visitors who want to see a still little-traveled section of the wild West Coast. Overnight stops in small villages allow an up-close perspective on life in places that remain peaceful outposts of civilization. And like the boat tours to Hot Springs Cove, journeys aboard the Uchuck are also superb wildlife-viewing voyages.

And, while you travel and sightsee, the boat is doing its job—bearing the artifacts of civilization to its most remote points. This is a working ship, and thus a window into the real life of the West Coast.

• U’mista and Nuyumbalees: More than a century ago, European colonizers of the West Coast thought that creating a “modern” civilization here required erasing the very advanced human culture that had been thriving here for thousands of years. Among other things, government and church officials wanted to stamp out the ancient practice of potlatch, the traditional community gatherings at which our First Nations peoples feasted, danced, chanted and performed ceremonial functions such as naming children, honoring the dead and installing new leaders. Potlatch was forbidden by law; when some bands continued their ancestral practice, officials seized the masks, capes and other artifacts that were central to the ceremonies.

Many of these items—sacred to the Kwakwaka’wakw from whom they were stolen, and beautiful works of art—wound up on display in museums or in private collections. And there they remained, wrongfully taken, for decades.

Times change, and responsible voices began to call for the return of the masks and other potlatch regalia. Agreements were fashioned to bring many of the artifacts back to their homeland, and two very special museums were built to hold the repatriated regalia. At Nuyumbalees, on Quadra Island; and Umista, at Alert Bay, dozens of ceremonial masks, capes, posts, boxes and other works are on display for all to see, within the communities from which they were seized.

Here, they represent not just fabulous works of art—though that they certainly are. They reflect not just the centuries-old belief systems of this area’s original inhabitants—though they are that, too.

These are spirits themselves, in reality, symbols of a most meaningful story. Once upon a time taken—kidnapped—they have been brought home. So they are living embodiments of a story that continues.

Nowhere else that we know of can you bear witness to this saga. It may be the most compelling of all the one-of-a-kind sights on our Island, and we’re proud they’re here.

What else is unique? Perhaps every single sight you see on Vancouver Island: If one day this spring you are hiking a trail down to the water, and you spy the first hummingbird of the season buzzing amid the fresh green salal looking for the salmonberry blossoms that have brought it north from its winter home in California—maybe no one has ever before seen that particular bird in that single shaft of sunlight, dancing its way from this bush to that.

Most likely, in fact, that moment is unique. It’s easy to find your own. Join us.


Tofino Botanical Garden

Photo Credit: Marnie Recker

It's no surprise that, as a verdant island in a fruitful ocean with a gentle climate, we have a bounty of marvelous gardens to enjoy. And as spring rises with the sun in the sky, our many such locales are lighting up with the colors and scents of the new season.

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First and foremost is our crown jewel, one of the world’s top gardens by every estimation. Butchart Gardens draws admirers from around the globe to wander its paths, past its thousand beds of flowers, bushes and ornamental trees, awestruck at the sheer variety of the plants on display and the artful compositions its horticulturists have achieved. For example, in the next few months, more than 300,000 bulbs will burst into bloom in Butchart’s 55 acres a half hour north of Victoria.

But that is just one of many around the island. Some gardens are, like Butchart, formal creations whose every corner is carefully arranged. Others, such as Abkhazi Gardens. Here, right in a Victoria neighborhood, two early 20th century newcomers to Canada melded their plantings into the Garry oak woodlands and rocky outcrops of the native landscape, fashioning a unique example of how the two different styles could coexist.

Out on the edge of the Island, a similar approach is found at Tofino Botanical Gardens, though here the native spruce-cedar rainforest is even more dominant, with introduced specimens tucked into the land. One may find 8-foot tall Himalayan lilies beneath the sheltering arms of cedar trees, for instance. Salal, iris, palms, water lilies, ferns, bleeding hearts, even a large (carved wooden) alligator—hundreds of rainforest denizens from around the world thrive here.

Milner Gardens, near Qualicum Beach, concentrates on the beauties of woodlands, mixing native and introduced species; it’s especially appealing in spring and fall. Beacon Hill Park, in Victoria, displays hundreds of rhododendrons and azaleas, and will be coming into its full glory in the next few months.

Of course, virtually all our parks and preserves include gardens of various sorts, from tidy rose beds to lively groupings of daffodils in greenswards. In fact, one could say almost all the Island is a garden—from the sprightly spring bells of salal bushes beneath spruce forests, to the vermilion colors of vine maple leaves at the edge of Douglas-fir woods in September. The growth never ends—nor do the visual splendors it provides.

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