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Continued: Lesser-known treasures of Vancouver Island

  • Article by: PAMELA MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: May 5, 2012 - 2:02 PM

Two friends and I put our feet up at the sunny sidewalk cafe and set down our souvenirs near steaming coffee and gourmet sweets. And what souvenirs: bright, beautiful murals -- a little abstract, a little nature-inspired -- painted on large canvas banners.

My travel companions, art lovers on modest budgets, had gotten them at an eclectic gallery as I wandered nearby admiring the work of a Canadian artist I had never heard of and will not soon forget. Before that, we had visited an evocative museum in this beautiful Vancouver Island town, watched boats on its indigo harbor, stumbled into a First Nations celebration -- not a tourist event -- where we, tourists to our toes, were treated with great graciousness.

Urban treats, art, history, culture, a lovely harbor, a walkable city, friendly folks: You might think we were in Victoria.

It was Nanaimo.

Odds are, unless you're Canadian, you've never heard of Nanaimo. With a population of almost 84,000, it's the second largest town on sprawling, diverse Vancouver Island, 70 miles north of Victoria, far easier than that city to navigate, more affordable, and best of all, closer to the less-traveled areas of the island we most wanted to see.

A few days earlier, on a mid-June evening last year, my friends and I had taken a ferry from Vancouver west across the Strait of Georgia to Nanaimo. We'd been amazed to see smoke rising from Vancouver's gleaming downtown, the result of rioters trashing the lovely city after the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks to win hockey's Stanley Cup. By the time we went back days later, it had been tidied up by mortified citizens and was again at its best. And yes, we also spent time in Victoria. But neither city was our true destination.

This trip, with friends of my youth, was aimed at exploring places on Vancouver Island where fewer people go than Vancouver (which is not on Vancouver Island) and Victoria (which is).

You could spend months visiting Vancouver Island's mountains, beaches, forests, towns and fringe islands and not see half of it. We explored energetically for 10 days, yet took in only slivers.

On that first day of our journey, after driving our rental car off the ferry in Nanaimo, we headed northwest to the resort town of Parksville, home to hundreds of rental houses.

We stayed at a dandy three-bedroom for about $900 a week, pretty cheap when shared by three people. From there we'd hike to nearby Rathtrevor Provincial Park Beach morning and evening. Parksville was a hub from which, each day, we'd venture out in a new direction.

West to the Pacific Rim

Just to our west was the town of Coombs, full of charming hippies young and old (like us! -- the old ones, anyway), with a funky market area fronted by an organic-foods restaurant on whose grassy roof tiptoed belled goats. It was solstice week, the weather was downright Mediterranean, and I could have spent the whole day sitting there with my feet up with a glass of wine and some stinky cheese on my armrest, but my less indolent friends persuaded me to go farther west with them to MacMillan Provincial Park.

We were soon hiking in the aptly named Cathedral Grove, over which tower stands of 800-year-old Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock. Even we perennially chatty three fell mute along these fragrant trails into deep forest.

The next day, we drove still farther west on Hwy. 4, into a tart salt breeze along the wild, windy west coast of Vancouver Island.

We had read plenty about two small towns there -- Tofino, upscale and orderly, and Ucluelet, a working town with a lot of bars and docks, not much to see, or so our guidebooks implied. So we went to Ucluelet, communing with locals on a dock and watching a propeller-scarred seal pop up among fishing boats, prowling for tossed guts.

Nearby, we hiked on a vast, shell-studded Pacific Rim beach where gray waves boomed, and on high, swinging boardwalks into a primeval rainforest, home to the birth ponds of salmon and "Avatar"-like scenes. We also ventured deep into an eerie boreal bog where mysterious birds called out.

Finding art, getting lost

Another day, an entirely different direction -- the aforementioned trip to Nanaimo.

There, we heard a cannon boom at the Bastion, a fur-trade-era fort. At the Nanaimo Museum, we were fascinated and spooked by a re-creation of a 19th-century coal mine and its list of the infinitely various horrible accidents that killed hundreds of miners. At the Nanaimo Art Museum, I admired the seascapes of painter E.J. Hughes (1913-2007) while my friends sorted through those bright, beautiful, inexpensive murals, painted on banners that had festooned downtown the summer before.

Best of all, at a bayside park, we stumbled into that First Nations gathering, with dancing, crafts, food and picnicking families.

Later, in the verdant Cowichan Valley, I made a misstep that could have overshadowed all the glories of that day.

Every third day of our trip was mine to orchestrate. Unlike those of my more astute friends, my plans tended to be vague. This day, "a long hike in a wild place" was what I had in mind.

Cowichan River Provincial Park was gorgeous, the sky was blue and I had a map. What could go wrong?

What I failed to note was the mountainous nature of our mileslong riverside route. As the afternoon wore on, we fell quiet, then alarmed, not because we couldn't handle the terrain, but because one in our party has a blood-sugar imbalance and our food and water were gone.

After three hours, we reached the trail's end, crossed the river gorge and found a gravel-road route back. But I had to do some serious appeasing of my companions. Note to self: No winging it in the northern forest.

Another day, we ventured on a ferry to one of the Southern Gulf islands that line Vancouver Island's southeastern hip like green lace. Salt Spring Island is an artists' and winemakers' paradise, and the Saturday market we visited in the town of Ganges was an almost ecstatic experience. We grooved to the Australian tribal-techno band Ganga Giri, prowled for local cheeses, vegetables and fish for our evening meal, and did lots of people-watching and chatting with the locals.

Then we drove to the island's hilly heart to sample local wines. Sitting under that solstice sun, we watched eagles float overhead and gazed down at emerald forest and iridescent ocean.

"What a perfect day!" we kept exclaiming to one another.

North, to the unexpected

But for me, the trip's best moment came the morning we drove north. Later in the day, we would picnic at Miracle Beach and stroll among its tidal pools, drive late in the afternoon to the busy town of Campbell River, then veer west to Elk Falls Provincial Park, where we hiked along a tumultuous glacial river and marveled at the giant maple leaves (the farther north you go, the bigger the maple leaves).

But it was an unexpected turn earlier in the day that led us to the place I remember most fondly of all.

At dawn, we'd been a little irritable, perhaps having overappreciated local wines the night before. Plus, one in our party had been jolted awake by something snarling outside her window (we never figured out what). Driving north on Hwy. 19 at about 7 a.m., we craved coffee, so we turned west at a shabby sign that promised a small town, Cumberland, a few miles down the road.

Cumberland, unmentioned in our tourist guides, was a happy, eclectic place, with a tiny coffee shop, brightly painted shack-homes and signs pointing to trails leading into deep forest, one of which we took, sprightlier after coffee, scones and chatting with locals.

Best of all, threading off the road to Cumberland were even narrower gravel roads that led to old cemeteries where lay Chinese and Japanese workers who had come to Canada in centuries prior to toil in mines and other harsh venues. Mossy inscribed stones stood sentinel. No one was there except for wild birds and we three. We fell silent anew, and spent a long while in that beautiful place communing with the spirits of the departed.

They, and we, could not have been in a more heavenly spot.

Pamela Miller • 612-673-4290

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