Beautiful but convenient, remote yet well-connected – is there any virtue that Vancouver Island doesn’t have?
Some 40 miles off western Canada’s coast lies the pristine paradise of Vancouver Island. In the spring it’s a place of blossom and blue skies; an idyllic backwater where picture-perfect fishing ports slumber against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.
If, like me, you take the Vancouver Island ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, these peaks will be the first things to catch your eye. Half hidden by cumulus clouds, they speak to the expectant traveller of unchartered wildernesses and impending adventure.
It’s a sight calculated to put a spring in your step, and I certainly wasn’t short of bounce as my ferry pulled smoothly into port a minute ahead of schedule. The journey had been an experience in itself; two hours of bright sunshine, sparkling waters and sweet music, the latter thoughtfully provided by a group of travelling guitarists who set up camp on the deck behind me. The island had already afforded several tantalising glimpses of secluded coves and lush forests; and now, laid out in front of me, was the port city of Nanaimo just waiting to be explored.
Nanaimo has always been regarded as a second-class destination, its appeal eclipsed by the chocolate-box charm of nearby Victoria. Recently, however, this rather shabby working port has been transformed through public and commercial cash injections into one of Vancouver Island’s prime tourist hubs. Take a wander along the waterfront and you’ll immediately realise that it’s a place that holds strong appeal for the luxury market – down by the moorings some extremely slick and expensive yachts intermingle with the local fishing boasts. A selection of new restaurants and bars are mushrooming up along the seaside promenade, and the detritus of the old port is slowly being cleared to make way for hotels and conference centres.
Among these is the Best Western Dorchester Hotel, which a fellow traveller assured me offers ‘decent rooms and stupendous views of the harbour’ – but personally I prefer my accommodation a little more intimate. That’s why I was booked into Maple View Bed and Breakfast, a family guesthouse set high on the hills above Nanaimo and run by a friendly family of British expats. As it turned out, my preference for intimacy paid off this time: the location was simply spectacular, with far-reaching views of the sea in front and the mountains behind; the beds were the ultimate in feather-stuffed luxury; and the owners, Sue and Peter Hardie, were charm personified.
But I couldn’t take advantage of their hospitality forever, and after a slap-up English breakfast I was bowling down the main arterial highway towards the island’s capital, Victoria. Follow this spinal route, which is served frequently by Greyhound coaches, and you’ll see some of the stunning scenery that makes Vancouver Island special. You’ll wind through Ladysmith (the small community that produced Pamela Anderson) and down to Duncan (a sprawling settlement with a dishevelled charm and a commercial edge). Duncan is in the Mill Bay area, a beautiful stretch of coastline backing on to picturesque countryside and sun-drenched vineyards – perfect for those looking for a civilised escape from the pressures of modern life.
For a taste of a world that time forgot, don’t miss nearby Cowichan Bay village. An easy drive from Duncan or a short walk from Cowichan Station, the community is a charming collection of rustic fishing cottages and colourful glass-fronted boutiques. The ice cream at Udder Guy’s on the main high street is, frankly, the best in the western hemisphere, while a selection of waterfront restaurants serve succulent fresh seafood and a range of locally-made wines.
From Cowichan Bay, I continued south along Highway 1 until I reached Victoria. The best place to start exploring this pint-sized city is on the seafront, where a colourful selection of stalls, restaurants and souvenir stands pay testament to its reputation as a tourism hub. I lunched at the Blue Crab Bar and Grill – a low-key eatery overlooking the ocean that offers delicious yet inexpensive seafood – and spent the rest of the afternoon browsing the eclectic assortment of speciality shops surrounding the harbour.
The next day, after a night at the lively HI Hostel, it was back down to the waterfront for the highlight of my Vancouver Island trip: whale watching. Orcas, minke, grey whales and dolphins all inhabit the waters around the island, and I was determined to see at least one of these elusive species before leaving. My tour operator of choice was Seacoast Expeditions, who boast a near 100 per cent viewing success rate during peak times and offer adrenaline-inducing expeditions in Zodiac boats (think a cross between a speedboat and a rubber dinghy).
Unfortunately, I was out of luck. Despite a crystal-clear ocean and a sun that shone as brightly as a burnished penny in the sky, the whales were refusing to play ball. Not a whisk of a wet tale or a jet of spray from a blow hole did I see on that trip. The Zodiac ride was a great experience, but I returned to the ferry resigned to the fact that my ambition of seeing a whale would have to wait until the next holiday.
And then, a few kilometres off the coast, a shout went up: ‘Whale!’ Everybody rushed to the side of the boat, jostling and shoving one another to get a good view. There was a minute of silence during which I held my breath and crossed my fingers underneath the balustrade. Then the waters rolled back, revealing a great black back shining wetly in the sinking sun. It was an orca – more beautiful in the flesh than I could ever have imagined – and it was swimming so close to the ferry that, if the deck had been at water level, I could almost have reached out and touched it.
For a few long moments the orca swam beside us. Then it branched off, releasing a fountain of spray in a mocking farewell gesture before plunging back down into the ocean. As it dived, it raised its tail in a friendly salute. ‘Goodbye,' it seemed to say, ‘and come back soon.’