Mid Island, Mid Winter
Just returned to my home in Calgary after three restful weeks in the Qualicum area on Vancouver Island. The West Coast and the nearby islands are a milder climate than most other parts of Canada so this vacation was a great escape from the chilly month of January.
This was mainly a solo adventure, although I had my Yorkshire terrior along. My lovely accommodation was in a rural gated community, in Qualicum Landing, approximately 10 minutes north of Qualicum Beach.
Knowing there would be quite a bit of highway driving, I wanted to take my own car rather than rent for that period. This meant driving the mountain passes - Kicking Horse, Roger’s Pass, Coquihalla and the Kelowna – Merritt connector. DH joined me for the drive out to Vancouver Island. DD joined me for a quick birthday celebration and helped with the drive back.
With good planning and luck, the drive from Calgary to Qualicum, during daylight in the summer, including ferry times, is about 15 hours. This could take much longer in January, so we planned for an overnight both directions because of the obvious winter driving conditions.
The winter driving varied depending on the weather ( rain or snow), the road conditions (packed snow, black ice, pooling water, dry roads), and the time of day. Some might say daylight travel is best but we found the bright sunlight and the whiteness of the walls of snow to be blinding at times.
Best tip: Check road conditions and major events before heading out; we encountered delays due to avalanche blasting which added to challenge of how to stay warm while waiting for the road to reopen and may result in added nights in hotels
On the way over, we chose the ferry from Twassawsen to Nanaimo. Two hours.
The ferry was enjoyable, and after the initial crowds had cleared from the restaurant, we grabbed a bite and there were lots of choices. There was also lots of seating, work cubicles, free WIFI and on the car levels below the main deck , there were heated booths where you could take your pet as the cars cool off rapidly in the winter months.
Returning to the mainland, we took the ferry from Nanaimo to Horseshoe Bay (1.5) which places you right on the Trans Canada Highway.
The drive out was uneventful but the drive home was more than double what we expected. This is a rare circumstance but it happens. Our longest delay was due to avalanche blasting which meant the roads had to be cleared from the newly arrived piles of snow. There were updates about every 3-4 hours, online and over the radio but the delay ended up being a total of 8.5 hours. Because we were traveling with an elderly little dog, some of the obvious choices of how to spend hours and hours mid-trip were not possible. We were fortunate because my brother has a cozy cottage about 45 minutes from where we were stopped , so we just backtracked and did some channel surfing as we enjoyed the views on the channel that connects Shuswap and Mara Lakes. Enough about winter driving in the mountains. Don’t do it!
On the Island…. It was easy to settle in Qualicum Landing. The community is right on the water and there are sea glimpses from all around the strata. The closest village is Qualicum Beach, about 12 minutes driving time between the two. With only a few days to explore the Qualicum/Parksville area with the company of DH, we were anxious to drive along the scenic Old Island Highway and of course we found a few gems.
Here are some of our favorites - DH’S, DD’s and mine. Thanks to friends and neighbours for sharing their own favorites and helping us to enjoy rare sights.
Spider Lake was a short drive ( maybe 10 km, 6 miles) from Qualicum Landing, It has some pretty walking trails, picnic tables and there are beautiful arbutus trees here. This is peaceful and scenic site for kayaking… no where to rent nearby. We went on a Saturday and it was raining lightly. A thin mist hung on the lake and a dad and young son had just launched their aluminum boat and had their fishing gear. The dad was wearing short sleeves and a garbage bag. January, you say?
Qualicum Beach is a pretty little village and we enjoyed wandering around. I love the food store called Qualicum Foods . There is a café upstairs in where they make our favorite Wicked Thai Chicken Soup and a pretty good soy latte.
Across the street from Qualicum Foods is the Old School House Museum. Admission is free, or by donation. At the time of my trip, a fiber arts display was showing, so I spent some time there. I am a quilter and owned a loom and spun my own wool a long time ago when I was a hippie so the displays were of interest to me.
It is heart warming to see so many fiber artists still in love with their craft!
Downstairs in the museum is a gift shop, and some studios where you can take private or group classes, especially in pottery or painting. The artists rent their space and are happy to chat with visitors.
Right in the heart of Qualicum Beach, a few blocks from Qualicum Foods we discovered the short trail at Ravensong Aquatic Centre. The paths are assessable from the parking lot and have off lease and on leash areas for pets …lots of rambunctious large breed of dogs. Interesting mosses and ferns. This was both my DH and later in the trip, my DD’s favorite walking trails.
“Feels like a Twilight movie, “ said DD.
“or Lord of the Rings.” A friend says she feels like a Hobitt on this rainforest trail.
The trails are unique, thick layers of fragrant cedar shavings. I don’t recall seeing an actual name, but we decided “Hamster Trail “ would be appropriate.
The aquatic centre called “Ravensong” has some reasonably priced drop in aquatic classes, less than 6$ for the class, infrared sauna and hot tub but I ended up not fitting them in to the itinerary. The mean age of Qualicum Beach is 58, so there are age appropriate classes for all abilities.
There seems to be lots of healing types of businesses in the Qualicum area.
Services and practitioners of massage, chiropractic, naturopathic and other forms alternative medicine are readily available. I noticed one place where you could pay by the minute. $1/1 min. for a back massage.
There is a sea wall at the water where the tide tables are posted. A good place for ice cream in the summer, but those outdoor venues were closed for winter.
North along the Old Island Highway is a First Nations Campground quite near to Bowser, about 20 minute north of Qualicum Beach. In the winter months, there are No Trespassing signs posted, but people ignore them and every time I stopped, there were other folks wandering about hoping to spot the bald eagles. A couple of juveniles were still hanging around the nest. The wingspan of the parents was really something and to see the size of the huge fish skeletons littering the ground from the feedings, it is easy to see how big those eagles are .
A little lagoon separates the two sides of the campground. It must be a hilarious sight in the camping months as there is a sign that says.
Pediatrics, north side
Geriatrics, south side
On the water between the two “wards” there are a couple of species of birds, including Trumpeter Swans. They were a noisy bunch, for sure.
Another fantastic walk near here called the Lighthouse Trail. It is a path 2.3 km each direction. Exit inland at the Sandbar Café, then turn right at the Ambulance dispatch station. Lots of parking here, and The Beanstop in Bowser is a nice place to warm up with a latte and a date square or cinnamon afterwards.
A beautiful stop to shop and have tea afterwards is Bamboozle, then Tea Leaf., right next door These are really out of the way shops, and you have to keep your eyes peeled for the turnoff. ( first left turn after Coombs, driving towards Parksville. It’s rural) I was lucky to catch their half price sale, after which the shops close for 3 months.
There was lots of interesting home decor, lined baskets for market visits, jewelery accessories, and art. I bought a bright red fur detailed wrap for a birthday party with a Mardi Gras theme, some fingerless gloves and change purchases. On the sale day, there must have been 100 women lined up to go in when the doors opened. They served dainty sandwiches - salmon, egg, ham with a sweet hot mustard - squares and either sherry in tall narrow glasses or hot chai, personally brewed by the owner’s Indian husband. I rather enjoyed the shopping trip and lingered much longer than I expected.
Another worthwhile drive, perhaps 30 minutes west of Qualicum Beach is Cathedral Grove. Parking apparently can be a problem, especially in the popular summer months, but there were few cars in January. Very pretty.
Sadly, during my visit, the incredible Market at Coombs was closed for the season. I loved browsing there when I visited last September and was hoping to get a loaf of the delicious Arrowsmith bread.
Enjoyed the grocery store called Tomm’s in Bowser where they bring in bread from Gabriola Island Bakery. I wondered how such a charming store could be so well stocked with fresh products.
There are several golf courses in the surrounding area and the die hard golfers were walking the course in January. I noticed that Oceanside Yoga studio ran a Yoga for Golfers course, and were accepting drop ins as well. There were other workshops offered at Oceanside such a Nutrition class and JinShin Do, an acupressure technique for shoulder/neck pain.
I did a Karma yoga class at the Hot N Cool yoga studio in the nearby town pf Parksville. It is a donation class, 10$ and the proceeds go to an orphanage in Kenya. I liked the studio…. Ceiling painted black with whimsical galaxies and red lights. The instruction was top notch as well.
My favorite yoga in the area was at Kingfisher Resort, a few miles south of Courtenay. From my beach location, it was about 25 minutes drive, but well worth the effort. The resort is a gem, right on the water, all decorated with beautiful vertical grain Douglas Fir. Warm and inviting. The yoga studio is cork floors, with a detailed sea star as it’s centre. You are really pampered here at the Resort. The instructors lay your yoga mat out for you, bring your props, offer water and chai tea, and bring a scented lavender eye patch to block out the light in svanasana.
Must mention the fireplace in the studio? Now that is Hot Yoga! The restorative class had 12 students, all different abilities. In the morning class, it was only me…. a private session, at a group rate. The use of the warm pool and hot tub is included in your price of 12$. A bargain.
At Kingfisher Resort, DD and I did the Hydropath. It was about an hour long session - eucalyptus steam cave, glacial waterfall, hot and cold river walk, seasalt and seaweed scrub and salt pool. It was rather Disneyesque in a good way and we had fun together. The resort supplies lovely products for your shower ….Simply Organic and Thyme cream.
When driving north, Fanny Bay has a big boom where a big crowd of noisy sea lions gather. You can hearing them barking even if you are just driving past! Parking there if you want to walk out along the dock for a closer look.
I’m told that Cumberland , just out of Courtenay has an interesting mining history, a Chinese cemetery and a good bakery. Next time!
A great score for us was the Cakebread Bakery in Courtenay, where we purchased a yummy small cake for DD’s birthday. Chocolate and hazelnut mousse with a chocolate ganache rolled in hazelnuts. Yum! Yum!
Didn’t eat out much but enjoyed Amrriko’s Indian Cuisine in Parksville, ( chili paneer) and returned a couple of times to AJ’s Mobile Catering—a silver truck in the parking lot of the Home Hardware in Parksville. Loved the Kick Butt burger, fried onions, bacon, tomato lettuce, grilled while you wait.
The weather varied in January, lows of -7 to highs of 10. I was surprised that the plants don’t die even if it is cold like that. There were buds forming on the rhododendrums and tulips were poking through. I loved to see all the ferns around, growing wild.
It’s novel and nice to support the locals….area artisans have standard signage outside their studios or homes and display their craft. Many cafes sell the work of local artists. Farm markets are all around and many operate on the honor system, especially for eggs. You just leave your $4.50 , take your carton of free run eggs and drive away.
There is a working farm called Morningside Farm close to Parksville that welcomes visitors.
Qualicum Cheeseworks , MooBerry Winery, Mornignside Farm…. It’s all the same place. They have a cute gift shop and allow you to explore around the farm but it was chilly when I visited. Every Thurs you can view the cheese curd being scraped. It happens between 1:30 and 2:30 – if this interests you , call on the day and find out exactly what time they plan to do it. There are large windows to watch any of the cheese making at Qualicum Cheeseworks. Fresh warm cheese curd , all squeaky is available at 4pm on Thursdays and around this time you can see the cows being milked too.
The gal in the gift shop was saying that many local schools bring the kids here for a learning experience. The kids see “whatever” is happening even a birth. There are bunnies, sheep, cows and chickens.
There is a section of meat in the freezer – pork sausage, cuts of beef and lamb. I bought some of the lamb stewing meat, simmered it for hours but then couldn’t eat it. I had that same reaction that many of the school kids get when they link the lambs romping in the pastures to the brown packages in the freezer. My Yorkie was not disturbed by this and enjoyed the stew.
Incidentally, dogs on leashes are welcome on the property but can not go in the milking barn or the gift shop for obvious reasons.
Three weeks on Vancouver Island was a great way to spend January and there is plenty to do mid Island, mid Winter.
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Vancouver Island - Mid Island Mid Winter