Vancouver Island Flows From Wild To Worldly

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.

The town is built as a narrow sliver around a bay that washes numerous small islands before flowing into the Strait of Georgia. Fishing boats bring their catch to a half-dozen restaurants and fish-and-chips joints. The commingled smells of salt water and fresh bread fill the air, and we soon identify the source of the bread aroma: True Grain Bread and Mill, selling awesome desserts and hearty loaves of bread made of stone-milled heirloom organic grains. Next door, at Hilary's Cheese & Deli, we pick up a selection of gourmet cheeses and bowls of homemade soup, and we have a picnic. I imagine myself putting on wellies every morning and working in the garden of my newly purchased cottage before walking into town for breakfast. If I get bored I can always drive into Victoria for a day, and I'll become the relaxed, happy-go-lucky person I've always believed I could be under the right circumstances. In fact, I might become eccentric, and everyone in the village will know me.

A 45-minute drive north brings us to WildPlay Elements Park, which is arguably the most extensive tree-climbing, zip-line adventure course in the world. Seventy ladders, zip lines, rope swings, wobbly bridges and nets have been installed among the trees on a large part of the 17 acres of woods that make up WildPlay. I nix the idea of a bungee jump off the bridge that sits 140 feet over a canyon, and though Maddie protests, I frankly think she is relieved that I've pulled parental rank.

Tired but exhilarated, we drive the short distance up the coast to Nanaimo, where I've booked a downtown hotel along the waterfront. It's clear that a lot of money has been spent on the waterfront, which features restaurants and coffee shops along an extensive walkway. A small restaurant built directly on the docks offers outdoor dining. We choose it for the ambiance alone, but it turns out that Penny's Palapa serves excellent and authentic Mexican food.

The area away from the waterfront clearly has seen better times; Yasmin pronounces the city park "sketchy," and it doesn't feel right to be in a fairly large town when there is so much natural beauty around. An Internet search reveals that just a few miles away, there are a number of B&Bs along the water.

We take a chance and head a few miles north, to the Whitehouse on Long Lake, and I immediately decide that this is where I want to live. The house, with several one-bedroom apartments, sits on a slight hill above the water. Our apartment has a glassed-in sun porch with a water view. A stone walkway through gardens leads to a deck.

Maddie and Yasmin immediately take turns grabbing the rope swing hanging from a tree, screaming as they plunge into the crystal-clear water. They promise that it feels warm once you're in the water, and eventually I am persuaded to take my own series of screaming plunges. The island is one of the warmest, most temperate areas in Canada, and the water is fine, although once out of it, we head directly to the hot tub.

The Riviera, Roughly

The next day, we reluctantly leave our fabulous retreat to check out Parksville and Qualicum Beach, towns that are said to be Canada's Riviera. That's quite a stretch. On one hand, beaches of rough sand and pebbles stretch for miles. On the other hand, the towns don't come even close to the charm of the Riviera. Of the two towns, I prefer the small inns and B&Bs of Qualicum to the beachfront hotels of Parksville.

In Parksville, we're wowed by the giant, world-class sand castle competition, and in Qualicum Beach, the Milner Gardens are not to be missed. The 70-acre estate that was once the home of businessman Horatio Milner and his wife, Veronica, a British aristocrat related to Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, features amazing formal gardens. Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Diana have visited the estate. The nearby Cathedral Grove features hiking among 800-year-old trees. The farther north you drive along the coastal highway, the wilder the landscape becomes.

Sealed With a Swim

The Campbell River, where you can snorkel with salmon, is only a 90-minute drive from Parksville, but it would mean a 3 1/2 -hour drive on winding roads to get from there back to Victoria. Johnstone Strait, where you can kayak among whales, is a six- to eight-hour drive from Victoria. I decide to content myself with swimming with seals near Nanaimo, and it is the trip highlight.

We drop anchor off Vancouver Island about 150 yards from Snake Island, where more than 100 seals are lounging on the beach. Wearing a wet suit and snorkel gear, I slip into the water and swim within a few feet of where they sit on the sand. The largest of the Pacific harbor seals can be six feet long and weigh 150 pounds. The younger seals are half-grown. They and their parents stare at me.

Soon the younger seals begin slipping into the water. I see them riding seaward, but they do not come close to me. I float near the shore for half an hour, hoping to make a friend, but have no luck.

So I begin snorkeling and realize that the other sea creatures are worth the trip. The bottom of the sea is a blaze of color, covered with starfish, sea anemones and cloud sponges. The ocher starfish and purple sea starfish, ranging in size from a doughnut to a school desk, have five arms, or rays. Morning sunstars are up to eight feet in diameter and have seven to 14 rays. Vermillion stars are named for their color, and there are also bright-orange stars: cookie stars, mud stars, bat stars and cushion stars. The floor of the sea is littered with them, and I make shallow dives to touch them.

Suddenly, dark forms slide by within a few feet of my body. The seals have joined me. They circle, almost within my reach, gliding by slower and slower as they apparently decide I am not a threat.

They never get close enough to touch. We do not become friends. But I am honored and thrilled to make their acquaintance.

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