Comox Valley “real” Sea to Sky experience tops anything Whistler can offer – no contest.

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 : the Sunshine Coast and the Comox valley/north island area.  Having taken the circle route on BC ferries following the first part of July on the Sunshine Coast, 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 gulf islands with 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.

“Royston Wrecks”

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. 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.

Rising back in time…

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.

who doesn’t love ” The Conductor?”

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.

Sayward coastline

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.

The art of Glenn Greensides

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

Moon on Mt. Washington

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….

” Welcome to the Coastal Inspiration “

” 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 ).

Get that.

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. One of them dropped a car under the seat, and I asked 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??

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11 Responses to Comox Valley “real” Sea to Sky experience tops anything Whistler can offer – no contest.

  1. Cyndi in BC says:

    An awesome blog post by one of my favourite bloggers. One day I want to go explore Vancouver Island this way. :) I wish there was still passenger service between PG and Vancouver too. It’s a beautiful trip that I always enjoyed too.


  2. Laila says:

    Thanks Cyndi, it’s certainly been a blast and one adventure that can be done on a small, small budget. There are many private ( read no hst) rentals out there that are more than accomodating at rock bottom prices, and when you can cook all your meals yourself, pack lunches etc like we did, the wallet rarely has to come out except for gas and fresh veg ! The only thing we payed for was the train ride, which was a splurge for us, but a much loved one. Everything else was free, and the kids certainly will remember it for a long, long time….


  3. Joan says:

    Hi Laila,
    Glad to hear you all had such a good trip. I too love Vancouver Island.
    Were you able to go to the top deck on the c-class fiascos. It is my understanding that the top deck is not assessable because Campbell was so over-budget that he had to chinz on the aluminum making the ferries too light and top heavy which would cause them to tip over. Needless to say he was still waaay over budget. They have so many problems I have heard that Campbell is secretly trying to sell at least one of them off (or give away) as he did with the beautiful fast ferries, complete with the best aluminum money could buy. The propellers are too large and sit too far out of the water causing them to erode the surrounding coast and the dock we spent $11 million to prep for them and probably many more $$ since then. They are gas guzzlers and are in drydock 4 out of 7 days a week so the huge ungreen cost of fuel looks good. The parts are made in Russia, (ferries built in Germany, non union), and take two years to get here and are veeerrry expensive. Way more problems with them which you can check out for yourself if you can find anything on them but it appears Campbell has been able to keep even this a secret…………..Recall in the fall! The fast ferries were excellent, they only needed a little tweaking. The good old wooden ferries made in B.C. union shipyards still do most of the work. I have this from a good source who has B.C. Ferries as one of his accounts. I’m sure the staff is told what to say to inquisitive people…like you and me.


  4. BC Mary says:


    Delighted to see your posting today about all the old familiar places … the places we’re fighting for, in our hearts, whenever we try to protect against mindless exploitation.

    and Joan:

    permission is requested to circulate this information. Is that OK by you? I’m so weary of seeing British Columbia pushed and shoved from one secret disaster to another …


  5. Joan says:

    Yes, for sure Mary. Someone has to spread the word about everything, the MSM sure doesn’t report anything but ambulance chasing, Squire and Randene cooking up a storm a few minutes into the news, and nothing but petty stuff from far away places. Guess Campbell and James died, they’re not doing anything according to corrupt media. I used to be a news junky but now I even forget it’s coming on. Welcome to 10 years of Corporate/organized crime rule in B.C.

    I’ve talked about this at Grant G’s site and HO’s months ago, it would be in their archives.
    Hope you are feeling fine and all the best.

    I read all your stuff on Railgate, you do a fabulous job and thanks for that.


  6. Laila says:

    Hi Joan,Mary,

    This prop problem made the news back in 07/08 and there have been varying reports about it since.

    From the Tyee:

    This link talks about the props being too high out of the water and sucking air when the ship is fully loaded.

    Here is the issue I see. The Coastal Inspiration was since put on the Duke point run because it can hold more overheight vehicles. However, there is still a limit on the number of overheight/oversize vehicles that can occupy the ship.

    When we travelled both ways on the same ferry, we saw the large number of over size vehicles, mainly rigs and trucks with boat trailors. Even though the ferry had maintained the maximum number of vehicles, and left some behind, the ferry was clearly not close to being full with people, hence the reason I think one whole deck was shut off to the public, as well as the lounge and some other areas. There simply isn’t enough passengers on board to merit the opening of these areas!

    I also heard, or read somewhere- although I can’t find the link t the moment- that another reason this ferry was put on the duke point route was because of the issues with size making the turns through the gulf islands, and that prop wash causing issues with those islanders.

    Hope that helps.

    SB, I did make it to Victoria, and even went into the Legislature buildings and wandered around with my little ones. Pictures to come. It was fun, although clearly Campbell has had some work done on his face and teeth since he first became he has a bit of a Jim Carey look in the photo in the Leg.


  7. BC Mary says:

    What about the Legislature Library? What’s happening there, these days?


    • Laila says:

      Hi Mary, I didn’t get to go into the library, or some other areas, because of renovations and upgrades that were going on. But I- ” ahem”- did get to use the bathroom facilities, which were quite grand…lol…all joking aside, it was hard, with the two little ones in tow, to keep them from destroying the place, and they were far more interested in stomping in the hall because it has such a great echo quality to it ! Travelling with little kids is an adventure, but with no family about, there isn’t really any other option for me. I’d love to go back on my own to really look around, so if there is an MLA out there who will invite me when the Legislature is back in session, I would love to see government at work, and really look around at the building.

      From what I did see, the buildings are quite beautiful, lovely stained glass everywhere and the walls feel very alive.. if only they could talk, I’m sure there would be volumes of stories to behold!

      Zalm, thanks for the kind words, and if you like, I can email you the photo in question. It’s a gorgeous place, and I love to get off the beaten track, so to speak. Everytime I do, the best moments happen and best memories result. As for the ferries, it would be nice to see someone in the media pick this up and find out what the hell is going on again. Shocking to see so much wasted space that is expensive as hell to run empty. And you have it smack on, Campbell is a bloody fake when it comes to made in bc. I’ll post a photo of some massive old logs I found at a mill – dont ask – that are alleged to be going to china…..logs that are cathedral grove size.


  8. SB says:

    the legislature buildings arew orth seeing ive actually had after hours tour from an MLA i knew its a very neat piece of history to see in itself , im mid island and do tend to head north more than south just like it better as you can now understand too.
    The library was still there last time i was in the buildings Mary and i do beleieve open to public at certain times then , has beena few years so not sure as of now.


  9. zalm says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Laila. This was a nice reminder of how great the Island can be (which I’ve always known, since I was a tyke visiting family friends in a place so much more relaxed, charming, unique, and…I dunno – neighbourly?…. than the Big Smoke. When the wife and I had not much money after marrying twenty years ago, that was our holiday one year, and I can’t believe we got all the way up to Sayward ourselves, but didn’t look in the water! Mind you, we did stop at Malcolm Island and try to look up distant relatives from my mother’s side and found a wonderfully relaxed community that had learned to get along with each other – Finnish socialists and hippy draft-dodgers, each looking askance at the other out of one eye… one simply has to laugh.

    I absolutely LOVE that shot of Sayward at the beach – that’s one I’d love to have on the desktop. Not to mention Mt. Washington, but I’ve already got some of those from Black Tusk, Mt. Robson, Firvale-Tweedsmuir, and one misspent week trying to hike to Mt. Waddington to climb it from the Lillooet river headwaters, when we could see it there right in the distance, but probably never got any closer than fifty miles to it….

    Incidentally, I appreciate what Joan is trying to say above, but you’re on the right track with BC Ferries – it’s a Campbell piece of idiocy all right, but it’s not because the product is bad. Flensburg is a union yard (as all yards are in Germany – they have industry-wide unionizing – take THAT and put it in your back pocket, Mr. Campbell!) It’s an efficient boat meant to run full throttle for long periods (22 hours etc, as on the Adriatic or Baltic crossings) and while the steel may be Russian, the forming and wrighting are all German, as are the drives. Good luck getting parts in the a timely fashion, but if they’re as good as the other boats in Europe, you won’t need to repair them often.

    This is what Clark was trying to do, and I commend him for it, only I don’t think he was wise trying to do it by himself (ie the province) when what was needed was a coordinated effort between national and provincial governments, as Germany, Finland, Korea, China and Bangladesh are doing. Pockets weren’t deep enough, and the product probably was the wrong one for the market.

    Nevertheless, that’s not something you’d catch Campbell doing – trying to prove that “Made in BC” can be as good as anything anywhere else in the world. No, he’d just rather sell BC to the world…

    Anyway, keep up the good work!


  10. Mike F says:

    Wonderfully written article! It sums up what I always tell people about my little slice of paradise and the place that I love to call home… The Comox Valley. Thanks for the great pictures as well and please spread the word as I am truly proud of our community and the people who make it what it is!



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