When people think of the phrase, ‘Sea to sky’, Whistler and the drive up that toll-free highway is most often what comes to mind, but in my recent time exploring the Comox valley and north island, I discovered another sea to sky experience – one that beats the Whistler experience hands down.
I spent the majority of July taking an extended break with my two little ones, enjoying the coastal waters and mountains of some of BC’s best places to unwind : Savary Island, and the Comox valley/north island area. Having taken the circle route on BC ferries following the first part of July on Savary, we spent a couple of days in Courtney, and were so taken with the area that we returned immediately following a quick break at home for my teenage sons birthday.
The Comox- Courtenay area is the hub of the mid-north island area, and offers the quintessential small town experience with all the big city amenities that most of us are used to. Courtenay is a lovely, clean small city, nestled in along riverways lined with trails and beaches, and filled with the friendliest residents I’ve ever experienced while travelling. For me, the kicker was finding the Superstore… a must have for anyone with a family like mine, particularly on vacation ! Stopping in for a “quick” bit of grocery shopping made me feel like I had lived there my entire life, with people greeting each other in the aisles and making friendly conversation as we walked. It’s a sad commentary on big city life when such open friendliness makes you wonder what’s in the local water!! Always one to enjoy passing the time of day with friendly strangers, it suited me just fine.
When choosing where to stay as a central location to explore from, we were lucky enough to have access to a lovely home on the alpine slopes of Mt. Washington, a mere five-minute walk from the chair lift to the top of the mountain, and a short 20 minute drive to Courtenay and the local beaches. In fact, the home we were staying in is only accessible by skis or cat in winter, and there were still large piles of snow all around when we arrived, making for an unforgettable experience for the two little ones!
We quickly ventured up to the main lodge area, and were greeted with panoramic views all around, which reminds me now as I write, the drive up to the Mt. Washington ski area far beats any scenery you see on the ski to sky highway! As far as you could see, the Strait of Georgia twinkled in the sunlight, and we could clearly see our Savary with its high sandy cliffs, and the mainland coastal mountains beyond. To be quite honest, it’s the kind of scenery that makes you feel insignificant and small, and at the same time, so full of longing ,contentment and wonder that you feel you just might burst… or perhaps that’s just me. : )
Many people may not know that over half the nordic trails on Mt. Washington resort are within the Strathcona National Park area, and anyone can easily access the Forbidden Plateau hiking areas at the bottom of the alpine.
Without a doubt, this park is a must see for anyone wanting to access the wilderness in general, but in particular because it has a long network of boardwalk trails that are completely wheelchair accessible in the middle of nowhere,in some of the most pristine country I’ve ever been in throughout all of BC. Seriously.
In fact, I was walking along the mountain boardwalk with the little ones, thinking what a great thing this trail does to open horizons for people with accessibility issues, when we encountered a family with a girl in a large chair. She was clearly not able to move on her own, or even perhaps speak, I’m guessing, but the look on her face as she gazed out upon the aptly named Paradise Meadows will stay with me forever. One could feel the essence of her joy as she passed, her father obviously taking in just as much joy as she. This boardwalk trail is a wonderful feat to have accomplished.
The Mt. Washington area is a real gem, as is Strathcona Park in general, and because both are far closer to the some of the best beaches in BC at this location – as well as golfing, scuba diving and kayaking, cave exploring,wineries, breweries… (the list truly is endless)…I would say the Comox-Courtenay area beats Whistler hands down for the ultimate sea to sky experience. And for a family, it’s a heck of a lot more affordable since a good majority of activities are free, or very low-cost. !
For brevity, I’ll stick to the highlights. If there was a theme to the trip at all, it soon became clear that BC history – natural and man-made – would be the completely unintentional one, with an emphasis on the industries and the men that built this province.
We discovered just how rich Vancouver Island is in fossils and prehistoric history, visited the Courtenay museum( awesome exhibits and admission by donation only) and then ventured out on our own paleontological expedition to dig for fossils along the Puntledge river, and in the shale deposits on the beach by the Royston wrecks. Lo and behold, a couple hours of careful excavation yielded a bounty of shell,teeth and plant fossils on the Puntledge, and some lovely long shell fossils and a rather large portion of bone from the shale at the wrecks. Imagine how exciting it was for the kids to hold something a dinosaur may have walked on in their little hands! Priceless.
Another lovely day was spent at Kye bay, which backs onto the Comox airport and airforce base, making for a double treat for kids and adults alike. Where else can you lay back in your own private tide pool, and watch the planes go overhead? No photos there, unfortunately my camera was acting up,but check out this flicker link for some gorgeous views. http://www.flickr.com/photos/comoxvalley/ Warm waters, plentiful marine life for the little ones to poke at ,and plenty of space to find your own bit of heaven here on earth.
The highlight of the trip for each of us, would have to be the ride on the Alberni Pacific Railway… an hour and ten minute round trip ride out to the national historic site of the McClean Mill, and one that left behind the past and highlighted the importance of the future to me as I rode with my two young sons.
As the train clicketedy-clacked along the tracks, I couldn’t help but think about the last time I rode the BC rail line up to Prince George, as I often did when it was in operation. To me, it’s still a wonderful mode of transport, offering the opportunity to see scenery and history all in one – after all, the building of these tracks around BC is a part of our heritage among many cultures. The McClean mill was a striking look back at how a steam-powered mill operated for many years and really struck home how dangerous logging was back in the ” good old days” – and how very little has changed for workers since then. It is a wonderful tribute to loggers and the forestry workers on times long gone, and might just install a healthy dose of respect for those who are not knowledgeable about the industry that built much of this province.
Of course, I did end up talking with a few people along the way, and funny enough, the subject of BC Rail came up… but how could it not, when trains and rail is a passion for many? It’s clear to me that there are a hell of a lot of people, regular people, who will still be following what coverage of the trial there is in September, because, criminal allegations aside, the train was a part of our history that should have, and very well could have remained a part of a lucrative future for many British Columbians.
In light of the lagging forestry industry, many towns in BC are turning towards development of tourism as an alternative industry to attract people into interior and northern areas. What better tourism offering could there be than a historic rail line tour right up into the heart of our province? Call me what you may, but as someone who actually rode those rails up the Fraser valley to my home town of Prince George, I’ve always believed it to be another wrong turn to terminate the passenger service in lieu of revamping it into a tourist draw, not unlike the infamous rail line to Whistler.
Onto other adventures, we drove out to Cumberland to see the area, and I discovered yet more ,somewhat obscure BC history, surrounding the chinese and black workers that worked in the mines. Very, very interesting and a cute little place for a lunch and stroll down the historical main street.
However, some of the best moments of serendipity happen in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly what happened on our way back from Sayward- a dot on the map that is an access point for the most pristine coastal beauty, and the clearest, cleanest ocean water I’ve seen in all of BC.
I stood on the wharf and looked down into 30 feet deep water that was completely crystal clear to the bottom, in which was growing the most magnificent stalks of kelp. And you know what I thought of? Enbridge.
There I was, supposedly on vacation, and I was thinking about that bloody stupid pipeline, and what would happen to the ecological paradise that comprises so much of our coastline if the project gets approval. A spill in a place like this, or in a pristine wilderness area along the pipeline’s proposed route, will be devastating. I say will, because if that pipeline is built, a spill will happen, sooner or later.
Back to serendipity.
It was at the corner of the road to Sayward and highway 19, a more than ordinary intersection at best, that I spotted a tent in the parking lot of an ice cream shop. It was there that I met the man behind the Grouse Mountain wood sculptures, Glenn Greensides. Glenn was working on a little bear, very intently, and of course, I wandered over and started asking questions… one thing led to another, and it turned out that Glenn has a connection to another blogger we all love, via a small one, ( and my hometown ) but nonetheless, it launched a conversation that lasted as long as a moose track ice cream cone…which in my case, is a long time… But heck, how often does one happen onto a world renowned artist like Glenn, working on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?
Glenn’s art can be seen as far away as Japan, and his passion and drive is palpable, and more than a little contagious. He’s the most easy-going person, and before I left he gave me one of his slide-show DVD’s to pass onto our fellow blogger, and to anyone else who would be interested in seeing his art, so if that’s you, give me a shout on the contact page and I’ll send you one!
As the hot July days marched on, and our departure grew ever close, a near panic set in. I didn’t want to leave. We’d enjoyed the roaming deer of Comox, the absolutely endless beauty, the natural abundance of things to do and again, the wonderfully friendly people. The only thing I didn’t get to do, with the two little ones about non-stop, was stop and sample some of the many local wines of the area, and I was really excited to hear there is a vodka distillery on Hornby, but I couldn’t even scare up a bottle locally! I do hear their vodka and gin is exceptional, but until I can get a bottle myself, you’ll have to take the word of others on that one. Apparently, they have discovered the way to make a vodka that won’t give you a hangover….not that I would ever be drinking that much, but the benefits are still obvious..lol.
There is something magical about this area of Vancouver Island, something special that captures the heart and soothes the soul.
Maybe it’s the relaxing, non-rushed attitude of the islanders, maybe it’s the rural feel that emanates from the homemade road side signs advertising fresh eggs and home-grown veggies everywhere you go, but I think it goes a lot deeper than that. People on the island really get how special the place they call home is, and it shows everywhere you go. There is a deep pride that I encountered everywhere, and it lives even within the many new Canadians whom I discovered along the way - people from England, and Australia, who like myself, came for a visit, felt the call of the wild island paradise… and stayed. To me, that speaks volumes to the power of this land, this province, and the wonderful area of the Comox valley.
I’m working on uploading many more of my vacation photos in an online photo album, and will post a link here when it is complete. For now, why not take a little trip back in time with this short, youtube clip of that wonderous Alberni Pacific Steam Railway….
” The promised BC Ferries Story”
Of course, heading to Nanaimo from the mainland, we ended up on the two-hour trip aboard the Coastal Inspiration. After boarding the vessel, we ended up parked right beside this sign, which was less than inspiring!! After having a good laugh with a couple other passengers, I snapped this picture and went upstairs, only to discover that a large portion of the ships passenger areas were locked and unavailable. We found a nice quiet area to settle for the next couple hours, and only discovered that we left a very coveted hat on board after we finally arrived at Mt. Washington. I called my daughter at home, and had her call BC ferries to see if it had been found during clean up, or turned in, but nothing.
Needless to say, my son and I were sad at the loss, but hoped that it might turn up down the road. At the end of our vacation, we returned to Tsawwassen on the same ( lack of )Coastal Inspiration, again with many large areas locked off to passengers.
Too curious, I asked a crew member why so much was locked off and he told me , quietly, it was because BC Ferries didn’t want to pay for the five or so extra crew it would take to staff those areas ( which included the lounge, which I hear is gorgeous but no one can access it, a cafe and another childrens play area ).
The government spends all this money on these massive, bumpy ferries only to lock a good portion off because they don’t want to pay for the staffing.Could this be true? I welcome a reply from BC Ferries,but I digress.
My kids and I ended up in the very same location, the very same seats we had started the great adventure on. Rowan dropped a car under the seat, and I asked Cameron, my five-year old, to see if he could go under and get it. Under the chair he went, and then he started giggling like a cheeky monkey.
As he backed out, he called to me: ” Look what I found Mom!!”… and it was the lost hat.
Found, again, over a week later under the very same seat it was lost under. We laughed at the funniness of it all, but it makes me wonder: How often do you figure they clean the damn boat??