Vancouver Island Runs From Worldly to Wild

By Cindy Loose
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 26, 2009

As the former Royal Canadian Mounted Police boat speeds toward the spot where we will swim with seals, captain Ian Hall tells us his teenage daughter is in the water so often that the seals know and trust her.

When their pups are young, instead of leaving them on the beach as usual, the parents bring their babies to Hall's daughter when she arrives.

"They'll go off and fish, she cuddles and plays with the pups in the water, and every 20 minutes or so the adults swim by to make sure everything is all right," Hall says.

Since 1963, when the movie "Flipper" debuted, it has been my dream to make friends with a sea mammal. Finally, just off the coast of Vancouver Island, I will get my chance.

Other nature opportunities abound around the island, and I plan to explore most of the eastern coast, snorkeling with salmon on the island's Campbell River, kayaking among orcas in the Johnstone Strait and seeing the moose, caribou and rare white and black Kermode bears in what is said to be the last intact temperate old-growth forest in the world.

But those ideas came in the early planning stage, before I realized that Vancouver Island is the size of Belgium. I had already reluctantly ruled out visiting the wild western coast and its natural hot springs, and I soon realized that unless I run myself ragged, I cannot in five days do everything I want to do, even on the eastern coast.

Scaling back allows me time to enjoy the fabulous little gateway city, Victoria; to stroll through picturesque small towns; to walk along the beach; and to take exhilarating rides on zip lines. There is also time for picnics and good restaurants and nights in charming little inns, including one with a deck, hot tub, kayaks and a rope for swinging out over and dropping into the water. Visits to a fabulous formal garden and a world-class sand sculpture contest round out the trip.

And of course, best of all, the chance to make friends with a seal.

Through the Gateway

Victoria can be reached by air or by ferry from Seattle or Vancouver and is a popular day or overnight trip. The city alone deserves a longer visit. It is large enough to offer great shopping, restaurants, museums, night life and other attractions yet small enough to feel manageable. Victoria is also scrupulously clean, and many of its gardens and buildings have a distinctly English feel. Yet the energy of the place, developed during the gold rush of 1858, feels very New World.

Vacation destinations always have something special to offer, but Victoria passes my all-time ultimate test: I decide I want to live here.

My teenage daughter, Maddie, and her friend, Yasmin, are excited that instead of familiar chain stores, Victoria offers mostly chic little shops and boutiques, many with high-quality goods you won't find just anywhere. I'm pleased that the city feels so safe that I can go off on my own without any worries. Together we find a restaurant we like so much that, despite the many choices, we decide to return two days in a row.

Like most Canadian cities, Victoria is blessed by having countryside close by. Within moments of leaving the city we hit open land, quaint small towns and villages. In less than an hour we pull into Cowichan Bay Village, and I immediately feel a desperate desire to move to this quiet place that feels like a bit of Scotland transplanted to the Americas.

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