There is something special about arriving at a destination by sea, whether it be by yacht, utilitarian ferry or luxury ocean liner, a certain romantic throw-back to those films of the 30’s maybe, but it still works. Our arrival from Seattle aboard the Victoria Clipper into the splendid harbour of Vancouver Island’s capitol Victoria certainly signalled a special start to our holiday. I would wager that the majority of people arriving onto Vancouver Island, come on a 1 or 2 day break as part of a tour and rarely venture beyond the confines of the city of Victoria and its attractions, even though there is so much more to see if you have the ambition to strike out further.
As we gently manoeuvred down the entry channel, taxi float planes came into land alongside us confirming that this was no ordinary harbour. As we rounded the corner past the military/coast guard base the landmark sight comes into view, The Fairmont Empress Hotel once covered in Ivy, but now naked, dominates the scene. This iconic hotel is to be our resting place, but not tonight for we have appointments with Canadian Customs, Dollar car rental and then a 264Km trip up the island to Campbell River.
When you look on a map of Canada, Vancouver Island looks like a just a small rock off the west coast from Vancouver, but the reality changes when you realise that Canada is a vast country, over 4000 miles coast to coast. Checking the distances between places on the island, e.g. Victoria to Port Hardy in the north of the island is 502 Km (some 313 miles, the equivalent of London to Carlisle), it is clear we are in for a lot of driving and breaking up the journey is vital if you hope to retain some semblance of sanity, So we headed straight for Highway 1 (The Trans-Canada Highway). Heading northwest, we negotiate numerous road works intent on completing the conversion of the old road into a dual carriageway. Ploughing on through the tree lined sections of Thetis Lake and Goldstream parks we finally emerge and are greeted by the sight of the blue water of the Saanich Inlet which we will follow, with short detours inland to accommodate the vagaries of nature, on the way to our first stop the mural town of Chemainus, a mere 70Km away.
Chemainus is a town built on lumber in the mid-19th century, but began declining in the 20th, and when the last saw mill closed in 1983 the local authorities decided to take advantage of its position of mid-way between the ferry port at Nanaimo and the capital Victoria and tap into the tourist market in a novel way. They invited artists from all parts, including local First Nation artists, to come and ‘brighten the place up’ and paint giant murals depicting Chemainus history on the blank walls of the town’s buildings. Now there are more than 30 murals adorning the walls around the town centre, some simply reflecting moments from history while others offer a more caustic social commentary. One of my favourites is a rather haunting installation called The Three Generations, which has three fibre glass statues of First Nation women in front of a simple river scene. What makes this so enthralling is that the women have no eyes, just black holes which seems to represent how the soul of the First Nations people has been sucked out by the coming of the white man.
After a break for lunch, it was back on the road for the 190 Km trip to our first night’s stop at Campbell River. Re-joining highway 1 we shoe-horn ourselves in between the trucks and coaches heading for the ferry. Some 37Km later at Nanaimo the separation occurs, we take the slip road onto highway 19, while almost everyone else heads for the ferry and the mainland. Don’t get the idea that we were joining a country road though, highway 19 is still a dual carriageway, but this time with only the occasional vehicle for company it is certainly less intense, but still potentially dangerous as boredom could easily creep in.
For a while we hug the coast and get some wonderful views of the Strait of Georgia as we head northward passing signs for: Nanoose; Parksville and highway 4 to the west coast; Quailicum Beach and the delightfully named Fanny Bay. After Buckley Bay the road turns inland and we lose the views and the monotony begins of kilometre upon kilometre of open road with only the occasional pick-up truck speeding past for fleeting company. We keep religiously to the speed limits, because we are tourists and have been told that the local police don’t have much else to do.
Eventually we see signs for our destination Campbell River (Wiwekam) and opposite Campbell River airport we turn off and head down into the town. Some 5km later we arrive at the quayside and wonder where our hotel may be, because our inventory document assumes a certain amount of self-discovery on our part. Parking up we find a gift shop that is still open (the time is 4.45 pm) and gain instructions to our destination and 30 mins later we pull up at the reception of our destination, the Painter’s Lodge Hotel.
Painter’s Lodge is a distributed kind of hotel with a central core containing the reception, offices, restaurant and bar, with the bedrooms spread around the core in a number of two storey buildings of log cabin type construction, containing 8 bedrooms each. Our block is next to the core building with a view of Discovery Passage the stretch of water between Vancouver Island and Quadra Island.
A quick drop off of our things and we head out for a quick explore of our surroundings. The first job is to find the path to the waterfront and the small floating dock where small boats are tied up ready for the next day’s anglers search for a salmon. When the clomp, clomp of our footsteps on the wooden boards fade a strange sound soon engulfs us, the sound of silence. Total quiet: no voices; no engine noises; nothing, until a loan bird breaks the trance with a single squawk and flies away to gloat. This is, of course, one of this hotel’s selling points and boy does it work! It is quite a foam rubber hammer to the system to land in such a place, a million miles away from the city we left earlier in the day.
Coming to terms with this onslaught to the senses takes a little time, and during this zen like experience, admiring the effect the setting sun is having on Quadra Island across the passage, the mood changes. Slowly entering our peripheral vision from the left is a glowing, spooky white entity, slowly it morphs into the shape of a ship gliding towards us. Now if you believed in such things this ‘ghostly’ apparition may have caused some concern, but as it got closer it became clear that this was a cruise ship. One probably returning from an Alaskan/Inside Passage cruise, whose predominantly white superstructure is brilliantly highlighted by the setting sun. Even knowing this it was still an ethereal sight as it silently glides past us on its way to Vancouver or Seattle, retaining its white glow until it disappears from view rounding the end of Quadra Island and heading down to the Strait of Georgia. As the sun disappeared below the hills behind us and darkness began to fall, we succumbed to the rumblings from our stomachs and headed for the hotel bar to devour burger, some salmon and, of course, beer, as it is now past 8 pm and it had been long time since lunch at Chemainus.
After two nights in this haven of peace and tranquillity it was time to move on to our next port of call this time on the west coast of the island, Tofino. After giving the car its breakfast, we head back onto highway 19 and head south some 117 Km to Parksville where we take the turn for highway 4, the Pacific Rim Highway and head west.
Soon the road looses its dual status and starts to climb up the foothills of Mt Arrowsmith and the MacMillan Provincial Park, before descending along a wide straight road back to sea level and the town of Port Albertni at the head of Barkley Sound, a Pacific inlet that almost dissects the island. A right turn at sea level and it’s off our third destination, Tofino on the ‘wild’ Pacific coast. The road soon changes and you could easily be back in Snowdonia or the Lake District as it twists and turns climbing over the central mountain range. First skirting the wonderfully named Sproat Lake and then the equally wonderful Pogo Mountain, before starting the decent following the Kennedy River valley till it reaches Kennedy Lake.
Road abruptly reaches a ‘T’ junction with signs for Tofino to the right and left to Ucluelet. Having a little time to spare we turn left, using the tourist map we picked up at Painters Lodge, and head off to search out Uncluelet. After a few wrong turns we reach the centre of the town, a small quiet little place (hardly a town) with a small harbour front park, gift shops, craft centre, cafes, supermarket and a few small hotels/guest houses. After a quick walk round the harbour and its environs it is time for lunch of sandwiches from the supermarket eaten at the park benches, dodging the wasps interested at the recycling bins, we head off to Tofino some 40 Km up Highway 4 (Pacific Rim Highway) a rather grand name for what is in reality an ordinary coast road.
As we motor on along the highway, with a flat calm Pacific Ocean lapping against Long Beach to our left, we pass the usual road signs, e.g. don’t litter, camping grounds, trails, Tofino-Long Beach airport etc and then I spot one I had not expected. An unassuming rectangular white sign with a picture of Hokusai’s famous Wave on the top half and below it in bold text – ‘Tsunami alert’ followed by a list of four things to do and go if one occurred. I can tell you that the first time you see something like that, it causes you to think for a moment and more than one conscious and sub-conscious double-take takes place trying to come to terms with the incongruity of the situation just witnessed.
Still trying to come to terms with things, we pass the turn for our hotel and have to perform a quick U-turn at the next junction and head for the Best Western Tin Wiz. Although in the Best Western chain, the hotel is owned by the local first nations people – Tla-o-qui-aht and Tin Wiz means ‘calm waters’ in their language (had they met Magellan?). Although only a standard 3* rated hotel, it is the location that makes it special. Adjacent to a sheltered beach where you can walk out of the hotel, cross the lawn and straight onto the sand. With an invitation like this we do not waste time unpacking our cases and head straight for the sand. Luckily the tide was out so with a wide expanse of beach before us we set out for a pre-dinner promenade. Wherever you are, walking on a beach in the evening, especially with the sun sinking, is one of the most relaxing and revitalizing things anyone can do and almost guaranteed to bring you closer to your partner.
Tofino is larger than Uncluelet and is situated on a promontory at the end of the Esowista Peninsula at the very end of the Pacific Rim Highway. When we visited we could detect a certain listlessness about the place, which we could not put our fingers on at the time. People were aimlessly wandering about, sitting on walls and talking about nothing in particular. An enquiry in a gift shop brought the answer, for as well as being a gateway to the wildlife of the area, Tofino’s location on the pacific coast makes it a big draw for surfers. However, when we arrived the ocean was living up to the name Magellan had given it and was flat calm, and had been for some days. As a result, the surfers were just waiting, some on their skate boards, for the waves to return.
Two breakfasts later find us on the road again returning to Victoria for two nights at, if the truth be told, one of the primary reasons for travelling here – the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Ever since we first saw this iconic building some 11 years ago we had vowed to return and now the time had come and we had booked a harbour view room for maximum impact. For a hotel of this standing you can expect a welcome gift in the room on arrival, usually a couple of rather nice chocolates on your pillow and some flowers, here we also had the nice chocolate, but this time there was a slight difference, for we were presented with an edible chocolate tea cup and spoon on the dressing table.
Sunday and it’s time for a treat so we book dinner out at a restaurant recommended by the hotel concierge which is a few blocks along the harbour front. Along the harbour Prominade we find a series of concrete Orcas standing on their tails and variously painted with views of the town, or covered with tessellated ceramic designs. An interesting allegory to the concrete cows and bulls seen in various other cities.
The final day of our visit and it is time for some culture, so a quick left-turn out of the hotel, cross a busy road and into the Royal BC museum. The museum and the archive are custodians of artefacts and documents detailing the history of British Columbia from the earliest times from both a natural history and human history perspectives over two floors, highlighting both the benefits and detriments their meeting causes. As well as the usual static exhibits, there are special and visiting exhibitions and an IMAX Theatre. In Thunderbird Park by the main entrance there is a selection of totem poles and historic buildings.
After our culture fix it is time for a spot of lunch, an ice cream and then a stroll around the harbour, soaking up the sights and sounds for the last time. As we headed back towards the inner harbour wall, what sounded like a party began to drift over the water, soon the source became clear, it was a busker sitting on a raised area opposite the Information centre entrance. Not the usual badly played guitar and off-key singing this one, but a true one-man percussion band: drum kit; xylophone; a homemade contraption containing various children’s toys, all set off with a black crash helmet with pink bunny ears. Bashing out tunes that are not usually heard, (drum and base I am reliably informed by those who know about these things).
Afterwards there is just time for a last afternoon tea on the hotel veranda before catching the 1800 Victoria Clipper back to Seattle and the long journey home. On reflection we realise that we needed more than the seven days we had allocated ourselves, at least another three days, probably a week, would be needed to do the trip justice. There is a vast area north of Campbell River that we did not have time to explore, Port Hardy is some 238 Km further up Highway 19 and is the gateway to a number of parks and wilderness areas and the chance of even more wildlife encounters. Still that is an adventure for another day. Frustrating, but at least it it forms the basis and reason for a further adventure at a later date.