Quirky charms of Vancouver Island

by Reb Stevenson

From artisan cheeses and blackberry wine to rooms in the trees and goats on the roof, these are the must-see highlights of a trip to Vancouver Island, on Canada's west coast

They say you can never go back. But there are no rules when it comes to writing about it. Parksville-Qualicum, a duo of small towns smack in the middle of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, is my homeland. I go back often, and, as I distance myself from those disdainful teenage years, I appreciate the area's easy-going beauty more and more.

So why should you go there? One, it's an easy day trip from the city of Vancouver - simply hop on a ferry to nearby Nanaimo. Two, it’s an unpretentious slice of real west coast life, nestled up against a placid beach and packed with all sorts of surprising attractions. Here are a few...

The Old Country Market

Back in 1973, entrepreneur Larry Geekie built a modest country store. But instead of opting for run-of-the-mill tiles, he covered his roof in grass and threw a handful of Billy goats on top. It might have seemed a tad mad at the time, but The Old Country Market soon became a smashing success. A favourite with tourists and islanders alike, it has expanded to include a restaurant and souvenir shop, and is the place to find rare imported foodstuffs (Brits in need of an emergency hit of Marmite will be placated). Don't leave without paying a visit to the ice cream counter, where flavours like 'Nanaimo Bar' and 'Billy Gruff Bits'
 are scooped in ample proportions by the teenaged staff. 
2326 Alberni Highway; 250-248-6272

Little Mountain

Only locals (and now readers of Simonseeks) know of Little Mountain.  Venture off the beaten path to this quiet park and you'll be rewarded with a most dramatic view over a sea of trees that expands for kilometres below. You can hike nearby nature paths or sit quietly and contemplate the view, but be warned that there are no guardrails, so take extra care if you have children or poor balance. Here’s how to get there: heading north on the Alberni Highway, turn left on Bellevue Road and left on Little Mountain Road. Proceed to the top, where there is a small parking lot.

North Island Wildlife Recovery and Educational Centre

Enticing a black bear to trundle into your campsite and partake of your dinner is one way to cosy up to wildlife on Vancouver Island.
 But don't be surprised if a cuddle with cute Mr Bear morphs into a wresting match to the death. There will be no such bloodshed at the North Island Wildlife Recovery and Educational Centre. The extensive campus, which focuses upon rehabilitating injured animals, is home to a resident bear, owls and hawks, and boasts the largest indoor eagle flight cage of its kind in North America. 
1240 Leffler Road; 250-248-8534

Paradise Fun Park Mini Golf

Tiger Woods meets Sherwood Forest at this lighthearted family attraction. A 15-metre-high old woman's shoe, pirate galleon, Tudor houses and castle are just a few of the shrunken architectural features that make this mini golf course a hole-in-one for families whose kids are baulking at the idea of visiting another museum. Non-golf elements include bumper boats, an arcade and a snack bar. 
375 W Island Highway; 250-248-6612

Horne Lake Caves

Get a charge out of saying the word 'spelunking'? (Really, who doesn't?)  If so, shimmy into Horne Lake Caves for a healthy bout of claustrophobia. 
This warren of subterranean delights offers all sorts of programmes, from family cavern tours to five hour 'extreme' expeditions that involve vertical climbing.
 There is also something called night caving - as though it wasn't dark enough already.
Exit #75 off Highway 19 / Island Freeway; 250-248-7829

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks

It' s an unabashedly cheesy tourist attraction. Set against photogenic Mount Arrowsmith, the Cheeseworks is both a mecca for foodies and a destination for a simple, tasty afternoon in the country. Apart from sampling and buying artisan cheeses (like Brie, Monterey Jill, feta, blue, fromage frais and raclette, a Swiss favourite that is usually melted on potatoes), visitors can tour the 68-acre grounds, have a picnic and visit farm animals. There is also a new winery on site, specialising in blackberry wine pressed from Vancouver Island berries.
403 Lowry’s Road; 250-954-3931


Free Spirit Spheres
I won't keep you in suspense - Free Spirit Spheres consists of 
two pumpkin-like orbs strung in the trees. And yes, you can sleep in them even if you're not an Ewok. You will wake up swaying gently in the boughs, serenaded by a chorus of songbirds. But despite the setting, Free Spirit Spheres are anything but rustic. An adjacent bathhouse/sauna provides all the necessary hygiene facilities and both spheres are equipped with heating, lighting appliances and a sound system. Bring your iPod, and make sure you've added 'Rock-a-Bye Baby' to your playlist.

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort and Conference Centre
Set within a 22-acre forest, Tigh-Na-Mara's log architecture evokes a west coast wilderness feel for those who shun tents and campfires. Room types include private cottages and ocean-view condominiums. The resort also has an acclaimed spa where the main attraction is a 2,500-square-foot mineral pool fed by a two-storey cascading waterfall. 

The Beach Club Resort
The new kid on the block along Parksville's oceanfront strip, The Beach Club Resort excels at getting you as close to the sand and surf as possible without necessitating a boat. Rooms all have private balconies and create the illusion of hovering over the beach. 

St Andrews Lodge
Run by Mrs E Little since 1939, this cluster of cute little vintage cottages in Qualicum Beach is a diamond in the rough. They're cheap'n'cheerful, unpretentious and open year-round, which is why St Andrews Lodge has an almost cult-like following amongst its perennial visitors. 

Reb Stevenson

I'm a Canadian travel writer who is influenced by Lonely Planet, Larry David and '80s movie montages. I'm also an unabashed Anglophile (pubs, TopShop and marmite - love the whole package) and aim to spend at least three months a year in Britain. You can check out my website, (www.rebstevenson.com) and I also make fun travel videos on YouTube (www.youtube.com/rebstevenson) TRAVEL PHILOSOPHY: I miss childhood. Santa still existed. An ice cream could make an entire day. And there were really cool lunchboxes. But furthermore, have you ever witnessed a kid get wide-eyed over a bug, a puddle, or dust hovering in a stream of sunlight and think to yourself: "wow, how did I go from being THAT lively creature to a cynical grump who needs a bottle of red wine and a Jude Law movie to even get a pulse happening?" I guess that's why I love to travel, because it takes me back to that state of wonder when every sight, taste and smell (good, bad, fish market in the sun, etc) is a feast for the imagination. Sometimes repetition tugs at us like a heavy, relentless anchor. And we might wonder whether our mental playroom is empty now. Heck, no! Just ask the kid you used to be. You can find him or her OUT THERE.