An Island for the Mind
Human history, literature, and art abound with accounts of mythical Islands where peace and beauty provide a balm to the straining soul; or as Alexander Pope put it, “Soft is the strain when zephyr gently blows/And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows…”
The places in which we dwell are as much psychological as physical. And “the islands” of our collective imagination evoke refuges from a world “that is too much with us.”
Such dreamed of havens are uncorrupted and serene — islands of tranquility in a sea of workaday storms. They are insular but not isolated places in which we envision regaining the energy and wonder of innocence. Here we hope to rediscover all that is natural, real, and authentic; attaining a quiet enlightenment.
For many, Vancouver Island on Canada’s Pacific coast is this vision actualized.
The superlatives evoked by the land and seascapes of Vancouver Island are spontaneous and visceral; but it is also a destination where your senses and sensibilities are not overwhelmed. Vancouver Island does not stun the visitor into a stupefied reverie. Instead, the sense of place here is integrated and engaging; the human element is always part of the big picture.
Highly accessible from a travel point of view, Vancouver Island is also very approachable on a conceptual level. The solace of the ocean, the old growth forests, the mountains, the abundance of natural amenities, and the mild climate gently invite a re-thinking of issues of lifestyle and quality of life. It’s not surprising that Vancouver Island is Canada’s premier retirement destination.
It also comes as no surprise that the annual “Top 100: Best in the World” issue of announced a couple of years ago that Vancouver Island had won that magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award for Top North American Island.
I’m not one for competition per se — I’m Canadian after all, and know that the world of travel is a cornucopia of apples and oranges — but I do appreciate seeing quality recognized and affirmed.
There are of course many wonderful island destinations in North America. In the list of Condé Nast’s top 100, Vancouver Island (ahem … for the fifth year in a row) led such notable island destinations as Nantucket, Massachusetts; Prince Edward Island, Canada; Kiawah, South Carolina; Amelia Island, Florida; Sanibel, Florida; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Captiva, Florida; Mount Desert Island, Maine; and San Juan Islands, Washington.
Oh, and I should also point out that Vancouver Island was voted “Best Island” for two years running by Travel + Leisure magazine. And because of the diversity of marine life off its shores Vancouver Island has been consistently rated one of the top North American diving experiences by Rodale’s Scuba magazine. Other awards of excellence in 2004 included Best Dive Destination, Top Value, Top Marine Life, Healthiest Marine Environment, [Best] Shore Diving, and [Best] Small Animal encounters. (There has to be a “best island” book here for some eager travel journalist.)
But as yours truly and the other readers of Condé Nast seem to have recognized, Vancouver Island deserves a very special accolade.
Island myths usually have a timeless or out-of-time quality. This is perhaps the intuitive appeal of such stories; our desire to escape our mortal condition. In some of the more storm-tossed island stories, of course, our mortality and our humanity are seriously challenged. Whether the island be a Peter Pan retreat, a Crusoe reality show for one, an Aldous Huxley utopia, a Lord of the Flies crucible, a Margaret Mead living laboratory, a Darwinian epiphany, a singular comparative case study of society and culture, or the powerful metaphor we use in our everyday speech, time is indeed of the essence — on the island.
On Vancouver Island, you have time to put “it” all into perspective. And you have a variegated space of natural splendour in which to do so. Alternative rhythms are in the nature of this island in particular.
Vancouver Island is a complete destination unto itself, and unlike many smaller islands, its size and diversity encourage multi-directional travel. You always have a sense of having somewhere else to go, of being able to discover and follow alternative routes and to penetrate further into the heart of the Island and it’s way of life.
And, as you soon discover, part of that way of life includes a quiet sense of self-determination; not a withdrawal from “mainland-mainstream” life but rather a preference for a lifestyle as autonomous as the Island’s resplendent natural world. For adrenalin-driven urbanites it may take time to “read” the Island’s alternative directional signals, but they are actually quite obvious once you accept the Island’s complementary frame of reference.
The kudos, awards, and glowing descriptions bestowed upon Vancouver Island may make it sound like the much sought after getaway paradise, but it is important to emphasize that the Island is in the realm of reality. And the totality of the Vancouver Island experience, which underscores a mainly unimpaired natural state, is more than the stuff of dreams. You can easily get there from here and once you get there, you will immediately recognize that you are not in some hyped theme park; you are not just having a “reality-based experience,” you are living and breathing the experience.
As I have suggested, Vancouver Island is not a “dream destination” accessible only to the élite traveller; it is in fact the perfect home base for every type of traveller. (If you can hang on for a minute, I will shortly attempt to give a brief overview of the multiplicity of activities and interests you can engage in on the Island.
In terms of its size, Vancouver Island is the largest on the west coast of North America. A little under 500 kilometres long and ranging from 50-80 kilometres wide, you can see that there is more than adequate space for everyone and the distances are very do-able for a one or two-week stay on the Island — for your first visit.
Lying off the coast of Mainland British Columbia, the Island is buffered by the Georgia Strait to the East, the Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits to the north, and the Juan de Fuca Strait to the south. (The views of Mount Vernon and Washington State from the southern coastal drive just outside Victoria, are stunning. You may be tempted to stand on the shore and shout, “Hey people! Come on over. Look what we’ve discovered! But in all likelihood, you will just continue to breath deeply and absorb the view.)
The Island has rugged coastlines (especially on its Pacific Rim coast) that provide a non-stop photo op. In geological terms it is a continuation of the coastal mountains of the western U.S. The heavily forested interior blend with mountains that rise as high as 1000 metres. The coastal lowlands ring the Island as if the great tectonic plan intended the Island to be the best of both worlds; on this side the ocean, on that the mountains and valleys. And as you can see from the linked maps above, wherever you are on the Island you are within easy reach of both.
The interior of the Island is a medley of freshwater lakes, rivers, streams. Gently winding roads meander beside the rivers flowing through steep, narrow valleys. Fjord-like inlets on the West Coast — especially the Alberni Inlet — provide secondary waterways to the interior. Vancouver Island is a major cruise destination, but especially so for smaller vessels that navigate the interior routes.
Human beings have been living on the Island for thousands of years and the distinct art forms and traditions of its aboriginal peoples are seen everywhere, silent but expressive witnesses to a nature-centred way of life and culture that is still very much integrated into contemporary life on the Island. Today the Island is home to 44 individual First Nations and has 271 Indian Reserves.
Vancouver Island has also been a major trading centre for a long time, visited by explorers and traders from Spain, Russia, France, the United States, and of course Britain.
Captain James Cook, that man-about-the-world, has the distinction of having charted both Canada’s east coast (Newfoundland) and its west coast, in particular Vancouver Island. Along with George Vancouver (a Captain in the British Royal Navy who actually sailed with Cook twice before getting his own gig), Cook helped establish the British presence on this part of the continent’s west coast. Vancouver subsequently mapped the coastline between California and Alaska and became the definitive authority that the longed for Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific was not to be found on this coast. Vancouver also was charged with dealing with Spanish claims to the Island, a task that met with little success on his part. However — perhaps it was the benign effect of the venue — Vancouver and the Spanish did some co-exploring together and then left the proprietorial business to their respective governments.
But it was the establishment of one of the legendary Hudson’s Bay Company outposts at Fort Victoria in 1843 that really started the trade flowing. And the 1846 Orgeon Treaty, which established once and for all that Vancouver Island was indeed British territory, and eventually led to the Island becoming a British Crown Colony in 1849.
And finally Vancouver Island and its mainland mates across the Georgia Strait were enticed into becoming part of the Dominion of Canada (as the province of British Columbia) in 1871. (I imagine someone standing looking out over the Pacific on the Island’s west coast and singing a hardy “Rule Britannia,” but not of course in any obnoxious way.)
As you will discover, Vancouver Island is not a one-dimensional experience. Life on the Island emulates and reflects the prodigious natural world that is message and medium of the destination. Here you are constantly reminded of the fundamental environmental principles of interdependence and the interconnectedness of all things.
Allow me to brainstorm a quick list of what Vancouver Island has to offer.
(a) Gourmet dining. (Name the award and someone on the Island has won it. Name the publication and it has covered it.);
(b) Soft adventure and long meditative walks on secluded beaches;
(c) Spectacular, continuous and year-round gardens. (Spring flowers appear in February … but you have to mow your lawn.);
(d) Abundant species of birds, waterfowl, eagles, marine mammals, great whales, the odd bear or cougar… salmon runs;
(e) Nature reserves and parks — provincial and local — that are indigenous; certainly not the contrived green spaces where cities gasp for air;
(f) One of the top golfing destinations in North America. Golf here is an integrated experience and a state of mind — not an obsession nor an intrusion. I personally identify with the attitude of golfers on Vancouver Island; I share their take on this game of life. (See Golfing by the Book. Also see http://www.vancouverisland.travel/golf/ Vancouver Island’s Golf Directory. And, for one-stop-shopping for the best in in Island golf, information and packages, visit Golf Vancouver Island.)
(g) British Columbia’s serene capital city, Victoria. A city on a truly human scale. Also an arts and museum capital. (And don’t be fooled by the stereotype of “staid Victoria.” There is a vigorous nightlife here where youthful good times are as natural as the milieu.)
(h) Outstanding west coast architecture that demonstrates why the aesthetic of human structures can enhance the natural world as opposed to detracting from it;
(i) Unique aboriginal culture that diminishes ethnocentric perceptions;
(j) A transportation infrastructure that meets all needs. Want to drive there? RV? Go by boat? Fly in? Tour by vintage railroads? Arrive and depart by the famous B.C. ferry system from several points on the mainland, including the U.S. Bike? Kayak? Canoe? Hike? Stroll? Just don’t expect freeways, OK?
(k) A ménage of secondary islands (See Island Hopping in the Gulf Islands), each of which has its own distinct character, arts, nature, or specialty dining;
(l) Accommodation for all budgets and tastes.
(n) Interested in wildlife? Ever been to a Trumpeter Swan Festival? You can on Vancouver Island. And there’s more wildlife to consider here.
That should get you started.
The really difficult part about visiting Vancouver Island, is having enough time. The easy part is planning an itinerary. Our friend Barb is wont say that she loves travelling to the same place three times: (a) doing the research and preparation; (b) the actual trip; (c) and the post-trip sharing of experiences and memories. This is exactly what the Vancouver Island travel experience is all about.
Here’s how to complete part one.
Go to the Vancouver Island/Victoria and the Gulf Islands website . Everything you need initially is there. I recommend sending for a copy of their annual Vacation Guide which is an excellent print publication with an especially good map of the Island that gives driving distances and times (indispensable!). It also provides suggested itineraries. The Guide highlights and defines the various regions of the Island and makes it easy to mix and match to suit your travel style and preferences.
Your choices are many.
Arrive by sea from Vancouver, Anacortes, Washington, or Seattle. By regular airlines, you can fly non-stop from Toronto (and other points east) direct and/or non-stop to Victoria or Nanaimo.
Numerous Airlines operating from the west coast of the U.S. — Alaska Airlines, for example — will connect you to Victoria. If you are coming from the U.S., consider flying through Seattle.
(My favourite Internet multi-airline website is ItaSoftware because your search results from this site give all the details (financial and otherwise) up front. There are no additional or hidden costs to factor in. Having said that, however, if you find a good deal, be sure and check with the airlines involved directly. They may even be able to offer you a better deal.)
Some personal favourites on Vancouver Island
I find the “romance” and history of Victoria’s iconic Empress Hotel very interesting from a cultural-anthropological point of view … “people-watching” … (see Châteaux in Canada: the Great Railway Hotels) but I must admit to a weakness for the intimacy of boutique hotels.
The Magnolia in Victoria and The Beacon Inn in nearby Sidney are role models for this type of accommodation. (If you stay at the latter, tell General Manager Graham Bell I said hello. Also, for more on boutique hotels, see Hôtel-boutique, Québec Chic.)
And if you love literature, may I recommend Sidney and its Book Town. Part of the International Organization of Book Towns, this small town looking south to Washington State has eight independent stores and fulfills the organization’s criteria for being “a small rural town or village in which second-hand and antiquarian bookshops are concentrated. Most Book Towns have developed in villages of historic interest or of scenic beauty.”
An easy drive from either Victoria or Sidney is the world-famous Butchart Gardens. This is one of the most famous horticultural centres in the world. It is also one of those places that you hear so much about that you become almost blasé about it before going. But when you get there and see it, you understand why you have heard so much about it!
The Royal British Columbia Museum is a world class institution and a very interactive museum. Its permanent galleries especially will introduce you to the unique west coast indigenous cultures and ecosystems.
Oceanside (Parksville and Qualicum Beach) is one of Vancouver Island’s favourite playgrounds as well as the fastest growing retirement destination in Canada. This is a golfer’s, beach lover’s, naturalist’s, and sailor’s treasure trove. Golfing with Tim Wait at Morningstar International Golf Course, and being a somewhat skeptical Easterner, I had to ask the inevitable question. “Is really true that you can golf half a day here and ski the other half?” Tim replied, “Don’t forget kayaking.” (It’s the math I have trouble with.)
The lovely city of Nanaimo, also one of the principal entry ports to Vancouver Island, is known for its urban design that integrates so well with the landscape. Especially noteworthy is the harbour trail that combines wonderful sea views with horticultural splendour. Vancouver Island’s B&B industry provides an extensive visitor-friendly network.
Marianne and Harold Robinson’s Long Lake Waterfront B&B will give you a close-up view of the Island lifestyle.
On the way to Tofino on Vancouver Island’s west coast, you pass through Cathedral Grove, a forest of 800-year-old trees. Here you get an intense sense of why nature is so often venerated.
The Pacific Rim National Park (part of Canada’s system of national parks) is a hiker’s paradise and actually a series of wildlife preserves along the west coast. You can access it at various entry points. My favourite is Long Beach.
Ask somebody who has visited Tofino and what they experienced in this secluded fishing village. But be prepared to just sit back and listen to them be ecstatic. And if you want a slightly upscale accommodation, I recommend the Pacific Sands Beach Resort. The walkways over the rocks will lead you to some of the best ocean views I guarantee you will ever see. Unfortunately they are not easily accessible for those with mobility concerns.
And another once-in-a-lifetime Tofino experience is a whale watching tour in Clayquot Sound. And this old guy did it in a zodiac on a particularly windy (understatement) day with a hardy couple from Ireland and another from Holland. As we flew over the waves and then plunged into great troughs, gray whales surfaced every now and then to keep on eye on the curious landlubbers. At one point, we were envelopped in the mist of a whale’s exhalation. The pungent tepid odour of salt and a whale’s breakfast is an olfactory memory that will stay with me for a long time. Jamie’s Whaling Station has many such excursions, most not as derring-do as ours.
(By the way, I was so taken with Tofino that it now provides the backdrop for my personal business cards and personal website.
Long recognized as a “foodie” destination, Vancouver Island could rest on those laurels alone. We savoured the (usually seafood) specialties and Island wines from many excellent restaurants. You might want to add these to your list: The Shelter restaurant in Tofino (even the website is delectable); the ACME Food Company in Nanaimo (funky food, funky venue); Deep Cove Chalet a short drive from the B.C. Ferry terminal in Saanich (culinary bliss); and Pag’s (Pagliacci’s) in Victoria. Pag’s is the really fun side of Victoria, especially if you are in the company of Kristine George of Tourism Victoria; ambassador extraordinaire for Vancouver Island.
“Our knowledge is a little island in a great ocean of nonknowledge.” — Isaac Bashevis Singer