Quality playtime in Qualicum Beach
Oceanside towns with sedate reputations abound with fun events, great food and activities
Surreal limestone formations grace the Riverbend Cave at Horne Lake Caves
Photograph by: Tourism Vancouver Island/Boomer
“Horace, let’s go golfing in Qualicum Beach again, like we did on your 90th birthday.”
“Letitia, my dear, I’d rather sit on the porch of our Parksville B&B and fall asleep with my prune juice martini.”
If you think this dialogue sums up the style of visitors to these beautiful, laid-back communities on Vancouver Island’s east coast, it’s time to scrap your ageist stereotypes.
Granted, the Oceanside region is home to seven golf courses located less than 30 minutes from one another, plus 14 charming B&B’s.
And retirees do love the area. Take the kindly, elderly volunteers who serve scones with homemade strawberry jam and tea at the picturesque, 2001-opened Milner Gardens. Special displays of steampunk gnomes and teddy bears nowadays complement a stunning assortment of 400-plus rhododendrons.
However, there are more adventurous reasons to make the three-hour car journey from Vancouver, which includes the scenic 90-minute BC Ferries crossing from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay.
Here are four double-whammy experiences that offer a balance between excitement and relaxation, and appeal to everyone from preschoolers to pensioners. (Even Horace and Letitia.)
1) Caving and cheese
Did you know Vancouver Island has a whopping 1,600 caves? That’s more than the rest of Canada put together. To satisfy your inner Indiana Jones, make an advance reservation for the 90-minute Family Cavern Tour ($26/adults, $22/children), and follow the winding dirt road off the Island Highway (Highway 19) to the Horne Lake Caves.
Your guided tour kicks off with a 25-minute hike amid lush alder and maple trees to the dramatic entrance to the Riverbend Cave. Watch for rufflehead grouse, salamanders, and garter snakes en route. Guide Jessie Campbell makes sure everyone’s helmet lamps are on before descending steep metal steps into the yawning blackness.
The cave is 348 metres long and 68 metres deep. As you climb down over slippery boulders, wearing sturdy footwear and long pants in the humid 8 C atmosphere, you’ll marvel at drapery stalactites, a guardian wolf, and even a Buddha statue — all likenesses that appear mysteriously in the ancient, fragile limestone formations. Just look, don’t touch, Jessie cautions. It’s all part of being a good “cave ambassador.”
If you enjoy the slightly cheesy ring of that honorific, you’ll love rewarding yourself afterwards at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and MooBerry Winery. An hour’s drive away, they’re side by side at Morningstar Farm, where you can watch cows getting milked and cheesemakers packaging their wares before you taste the artisan products.
Don’t miss the top-selling brie, Qualicum Spice (laden with paprika flakes, tomato, and cucumber), or Rathtrevor (similar to Gruyere). MooBerry’s signature blackberry wine is crisp and dry (11 per cent), like the other fruit vintages at the tasting counter, including pear, apple, and blueberry wines.
2) Go-karting, spa goodness
Since opening in June, Fast Time Grand Prix has already attracted speed demons from as far away as Texas. Featuring 35 turns on a half-kilometre course, this Parksville go-kart track offers a little taste of Jacques Villeneuve-style adrenalin.
Strive to complete eight laps without spinning out at 50 km-h in your top-of-the-line Sodi kart. You can pick a whimsical “track name” and then get instant timed results post-race for bragging rights over your buddies. Co-founders Norm Spann and Doug Mclean welcome drivers aged 11 and up, and the track supports BC Transplant in honour of Mclean’s late 16-year-old stepson.
Ready to recharge after driving hell bent for leather? Head to the nearby Grotto Spa at the Tigh-Na-Mara Resort. It was named Western Canada’s top spa by Spas of America.
Refresh your wind-whipped skin with a customized facial and relax in the warm mineral pool. Then feast on endless tapas in your spa robe at the Treetops Tapas & Grill. Highlights range from seared Digby scallops on watermelon cubes to meatballs combining bison, venison, and pork.
If you can slot in a stay at Tigh-Na-Mara, all the better. Situated amid 8.9 hectares of arbutus and Douglas fir forest, the resort offers pet-friendly log cottages, bungalows with private patios and Jacuzzis, and spacious hotel rooms overlooking Rathtrevor Beach. For ocean swimming, Tigh-Na-Mara boasts Canada’s warmest waters at up to 24 C — a nice bonus if you only want spine-tingling moments at the go-kart track.
3) Horseback riding and haute cuisine
Whether you prefer the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated series or Aerosmith’s Back in the Saddle Again, going horseback riding at Tiger Lily Farm is quite entrancing.
Hop on a horse, and head out with guide Katie McKenzie for an hour-long circuit in the rural community of Errington. Amid bush and gently rolling trails, bird song abounds as you check out a beaver lodge and listen to the wind rustling through tall poplars. Back at the farm, kids can pet calves and bunnies, and even milk goats.
Now that you know where your food comes from, enjoy global cuisine with local ingredients at Qualicum Beach’s Bistro 694. Pair Kashmiri butter chicken or Balinese prawn curry with Vancouver Island-brewed beer or French, German, and Argentine wine. The ambience is enhanced with piped-in jazz piano and glass doors left open facing Memorial Avenue.
4) Marine biology and halibut burgers
One of the area’s best-hidden secrets is the Deep Bay Marine Field Station. This state-of-the-art facility opened in 2013. It recalls the Richmond Olympic Oval with its curved, clam-shaped roof. You can take a lab on how to dig clams, handle sea cucumbers and anemones in the Touch Tanks, or check out the reconstruction of a gigantic grey whale skeleton (targeted for Christmas completion).
“With the iPad generation, it seems like no one takes their kids to the beach to get wet and muddy anymore,” said manager Brian Kingzett. “We want people to have a more tangible relationship with local marine life.”
Operated by Vancouver Island University, the Field Station is also among Canada’s most environmentally friendly buildings. It has platinum LEED certification, using reclaimed pine beetle wood, geo-exchange heating, and more.
View wildlife-themed artwork, attend an Oysters 101 dinner, or even attend a summer concert here. Or plan to join a herring spawn boat tour during the annual Brant Festival in March. It’s an amazing spectacle with brant geese and seagulls devouring herring eggs in aquamarine waters.
After your marine education, kick back at the adjacent Ship and Shore Cafe with a halibut burger or cod and chips on the patio. Swig a Lighthouse beer, and admire the fishing boats moored in the Deep Bay harbour.
Plan your visit
BC Ferries: bcferries.com
Milner Gardens: viu.ca/milnergardens
Horne Lake Caves: hornelake.com
Fast Time Grand Prix: fasttimegrandprix.ca
Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara: grottospa.com
Tiger Lily Farm: tigerlilyfarm.ca
Deep Bay Marine Field Station: viu.ca/deepbay
Qualicum Beach Inn: Stylish, modern makeover completed in May. New pool, sauna and fitness room. Contemporary dining in circular Cview Restaurant. From $199/night. qualicumbeachinn.com
Free Spirit Spheres: World-renowned, suspended spherical tree houses evoke “hobbit holes meet Lothlorien” in The Lord of the Rings. From $155/night. freespiritspheres.com
Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort: Enjoy three kilometres of sandy beach, two on-site restaurants, and upscale spa treatments at this forested Parksville classic. tigh-na-mara.com
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks: cheeseworks.ca
Treetop Tapas & Grill: grottospa.com
MooBerry Winery: mooberrywinery.com
Bistro 694: bistro694.com
Ship and Shore Cafe: shipshoredeepbay.com
Parksville & Qualicum Beach: visitparksvillequalicumbeach.com
Tourism Vancouver Island: tourismvi.ca
Destination BC: hellobc.com
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