When most people think of an island paradise, they imagine a tropical destination such as Hawaii or somewhere in the Caribbean, or maybe an even more exotic port of call like Fiji, with white sand beaches, spectacular sunsets and colorful frou-frou drinks.
I probably would have envisioned the same - that is until I spent some quality time with our neighbor to the north, Vancouver Island. It’s hard to believe that such an idyllic locale is so close and yet so unfamiliar to many Seattle area residents, who usually venture only as far as Victoria for a dose of British charm.
I was delighted to discover that there’s so much more to Vancouver Island than its provincial capital. On a recent trip, a friend and I set off to explore the area known as the Central Island, as well as the Pacific Rim region or the island’s West Coast.
The former includes Nanaimo and the communities of Parksville and Qualicum Beach, often regarded as "Canada’s Riviera" for their mild climate, sandy beaches and oceanside resorts.Home base for us was the comfortable and elegantly rustic Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Resort & Spa in Parksville.
Despite having a stellar reputation within Western Canada, this gem of a property is relatively unknown outside of the region.
Its amenities are extensive and activity-inspired individuals will find everything from on-site tennis and basketball courts, fitness room, beach volleyball, bicycle rentals, indoor pool, yoga classes on the beach, wine tasting and a comprehensive kids’ recreation program.
And then, of course, there’s the Grotto Spa, recently voted the #1 Spa in Western Canada. It’s 20,000 square feet of bliss, featuring a mineral pool, fed by a two-story cascading waterfall.
Designed to emulate a natural stone grotto, this warm water pool is infused with natural minerals and trace elements which are said to help detoxify the body and rejuvenate the spirit.
I discovered that relaxation takes on a whole new meaning after spending an afternoon soaking in the pool, followed by a coconut sugar scrub, mango enzyme body wrap and watermelon papaya body butter massage. To complete your spa experience, head upstairs to the Treetop Tapas & Grill and indulge in a unique dining experience – in your robe! Make sure to choose the "Endless Tapas," where you’ll be treated to an incredible array of dishes, offering a variety of tastes and textures to excite the senses (thank goodness you can loosen that belt on your robe!).
The spa is a definite highlight of the property, but the beach is its focal point. When the tide goes out, you can walk for what seems like miles until you reach the ocean.
Along the way, there are dozens of tide pools full of tiny treasures from the sea, like small crabs and almost perfectly formed sand dollars. It’s a delightful place to stroll, make a sand castle, dig for clams, fly a kite, take a dip in the water and even witness a wedding ceremony.
You’ll find everyone from families with young kids to couples looking for a romantic escape at Tigh Na Mara, as it’s a property that’s sophisticated enough for adults, but fully embraces children as well.
From there, you can set off to explore the surrounding area in more depth. Head for Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park for some hiking, rock-climbing, canoeing, or my favorite – spelunking (cave exploration).
The caverns are a magical underground world where you’ll find beautiful crystal formations and ancient fossils. And the park offers everything from family-oriented tours to deep, dark adventurous forays that include rappelling down a seven-story waterfall. Guides will share their knowledge of the caves’ fascinating geology and history, as well as add in a few interesting bits of trivia.
Did you know that if you lick a banana slug, your tongue will become temporarily paralyzed and you will have trouble speaking?
No one in our group was game to test this assertion, though my friend gave it momentary consideration.
A good stop for lunch is at Coombs, a village dotted with several heritage buildings where you can find funky buys in clothing and souvenirs and get a look at the world-famous goats on the roof of the Coombs Old Country Market.
Cathedral Grove should also be on your list of special places to visit in this region. It’s a well-known stand of ancient Douglas fir; some are over 800 years old and measure 29 feet in circumference.
These towering behemoths are jaw-dropping in both size and beauty and have an almost mystical-like presence. Another Edenesque spot is Milner Gardens and Woodland, an ancient coastal forest and garden oasis perched on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Georgia.
After wandering through the peaceful woods, make a beeline for the historic Milner House where you can enjoy a traditional afternoon English tea in the Camellia Tea Room, while taking in the picturesque ocean views.
The home features memorabilia from the famed Milner family and their many celebrated guests, among them Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.
Rivaling the Central Island in natural beauty is the Pacific Rim region, a rugged outdoor playground, home to some of the best surfing, whale watching, fishing and kayaking in Western Canada. Just getting to this area is an adventure that involves an enchanted journey on the Pacific Rim Highway, through twisty, often misty, roads, with some of the most striking scenery you’ll ever see, from craggy bluffs and roaring rivers to majestic lakes and verdant forests. One of the main communities in this region is Ucluelet, which is where my traveling companion and I elected to stay. The town’s name stems from a local First Nations expression for "safe harbor" and up until 1959, it was only accessible by sea. Our digs were at Black Rock Resort, a property that truly redefines West Coast luxury. Designed with respect for the land and sea, the resort’s innovative architecture – of rock, water, glass, steel and wood –enhances, as well as contrasts with the wild Pacific landscape.
Expansive spaces, natural light and awe-inspiring vistas create a connection to the serenity and power of Vancouver Island’s striking coast.
You may never want to leave the place and simply decide to stay put watching the ocean from your private balcony and keeping an eye open for whales, soaking in one of the water’s edge hot tubs, getting pampered at the Drift Spa and dining on sumptuous West Coast cuisine in the resort’s famed Fetch Restaurant.
But, if that’s not enough for you, then I suggest stretching your legs with a hike on the Wild Pacific Trail, which conveniently passes right by the property. This famous trail skirts the jagged coast, meandering through ancient spruce and cedar rain forest and along rock promontories with panoramic views of Barkley Sound and the Broken Islands of Pacific Rim National Park. The scenery is breathtaking and as the waves pound against the shore, you’ll know this is not just another Kodak moment. It’s a magical experience that connects you with Mother Nature in her rawest and untamed state.
For another up close and personal encounter with this spectacular environment, opt for a kayak tour. You don’t need to go far. The Ucluelet Harbor teems with wildlife and you’re guaranteed to spot bald eagles circling overhead, herons feasting on fish and seals and otters playfully popping their heads up near your boat as you paddle by.
To complement this excursion, make sure to visit the Ucluelet Aquarium, which may in fact be the world’s smallest public aquarium. Despite its tiny size, however, there’s an amazing variety of marine life, all found in local waters within a 3-mile radius. Operating on a catch and release program, the facility employs divers to bring up specimens during the spring and summer months. Come October, there’s a release party and all the creatures are returned to their original locales.
Continuing on the Pacific Rim Highway, you’ll pass a stretch of spectacular beaches called the Long Beach area. At its terminus is Tofino, another eco-adventure playground that is known for its sub culture of hippies, environmentalists and surfers.
The area is also home to many artisans, whose eclectic work can be seen in the numerous galleries and shops that line the main streets. Although summer is prime tourist time in both Ucluelet and Tofino, the winter also draws visitors with promises of incredible storm watching opportunities. And then there’s spring, when one of the grandest processions on the planet, the Grey Whale migration, takes place. Vancouver Island is the ideal setting to escape the crowds and experience nature in its pure, untouched state. It’s my idea of paradise.
If you go:
To get to Vancouver Island, take the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes to Sydney (12.5 miles north of Victoria) or the Black Ball Ferry Line from Port Angeles to Victoria. Parksville is approximately 91 miles northwest of Victoria by car. From there, it’s another 90 miles west to Ucluelet. And from Ucluelet to Tofino is 26 miles. To make the trip easier, an overnight stay in Victoria on the return is recommended.
Tigh Na Mara Seaside Spa Resort: www.tigh-na-mara.com
Oceanside Tourism Association: www.oceansidetourism.com
Pacific Rim Visitor Center: www.pacificrimvisitor.ca
Black Rock Resort: www.blackrockresort.com
Parkside Victoria Resort & Spa (a new urban resort hotel in Victoria, featuring "Green Building" sustainable design and tasteful décor): www.ParksideLifestyle.com