There is such a “wow” factor about Vancouver Island.
There are big vistas, like the one atop Mount Washington. There are impressive mountain ranges, like the jagged Mackenzie Range. With more than 2,100 miles of coastline, there are choices of water views, such as the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean or the island-studded Johnstone Strait.
But visitors can find plenty of hidden gems on this island of more than 12,400 square miles, the largest island on North America’s west coast. My family and I discovered some great places, despite the limited size. And if young children are among the travelers, an hour or two at these locales are well spent. Here are some worth including on a family vacation itinerary.
Where: Ucluelet, B.C., south of the Long Beach Unit of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on the west side of the island.
The attraction: There are bigger living rooms than this diminutive operation, but it’s all about the creatures and the kids.
What we liked: The kids got wet, they learned something new and they had fun. They have touch tanks and aquariums filled with sea stars, sculpins, crabs, a Pacific octopus, anemones, rockfish, jellyfish, sea slug, pipefish, coho salmon fry and more. All the creatures come from nearby Barkley and Clayoquot sounds, and are returned at the end of the summer.
The young staff of volunteers is eager to get kids to touch the underside of a sea star or touch the tentacles of an anemone. “I’ll touch it if you touch it,” was the common challenge among visitors.
And that’s the idea, said curator Dave Hurwitz. “When you make it fun, kids will learn. That’s what we’re all about.”
Inside scoop: The place was crowded on the rainy morning we visited. Now that permits have been issued to allow construction in the intertidal zone, the aquarium is moving forward with plans for a new building. Hurwitz said he is going to invite architecture students from a Victoria university to submit designs for the building. The goal is to have the new building open by 2010.
Cost: $5 per adult and $2 per child.
Museum at Campbell River
Where: At the south end of Campbell River, B.C., on Highway 19A
The attraction: A museum that focuses on the local history of this town on the island’s east side.
What we liked: This award-winning facility, celebrating its 50th anniversary, could serve as a model for small-town museums. Visitors are first introduced to the history of the First Nation people who lived in the region. From the First Nation gallery, exhibits led us through the growth of the logging and fishing industries, the community’s development and the rise of recreational salmon fishing and the gamed Tyee Club.
Among the movies at the museum is one about Ripple Rock. With its top just feet below the surface, the rock made the south end of Seymour Passage one of the most dangerous waterways in British Columbia. The movie detailed the amazing engineering feat in which tunnels were dug underneath the twin spires and then filled with explosives. The top of Ripple Rock was lowered in 1958 by as much as 61 feet by what the movies call the world’s largest non-atomic explosion. There is a viewpoint off the highway north of town that overlooks the passage.
Inside scoop: There is a great display of First Nation masks that are used to illustrate the narrated story of “The Treasures of Siwidi.” Robert Ostler Park downtown offers views of the busy harbor and Discovery Passage. They playground is a great place to let the young ones burn off energy before a picnic lunch.
Cost: $6 adults, $4 students or $15 for a family (2 adults and children younger than 19)
Where: On Highway 4, 15 minutes west of Port Alberni, B.C.
The attraction: There is Sproat Lake Provincial Park that has a good beach, picnic area, campground and petroglyphs and the nearby Coulson Flying Tankers, the world’s largest firefighting bombers.
What we liked: Be sure to do the short hike to the petroplyphs. There are nine images in a rock wall just above the waterline. A small dock gives visitors a good view but also protects the images by keeping people back. Little is known about the images, known as K’ak’awin, most of which depict sea creatures.
Coulson, a private firefighting operation, flies two World War II-vintage Martin Mars flying boats. The planes, with 200-feet wingspans, can carry 7,200 gallons of water or foam. When not in service, you can tour the planes at the lakeside headquarters. The small visitor center is filled with photos of the planes in action, and there are two videos to watch.
Inside scoop: Of the seven Mars planes built during the war, only two remain, Hawaii Mars and Philippines Mars. When we were there, the Hawaii Mars was fighting fires in California. Gift shop prices seemed high.
Cost: Day fees at the park differ depending on how long you stay, but $3 will give you plenty of time. Plane tours are $10 a person, but the visitor center is free.
MacMillan Provincial Park
Where: On Highway 4, about 10 mile east of Port Alberni, B.C.
The attraction: The small park is home to Cathedral Grove with its stand of 800-year-old Douglas firs.
What we liked: It was hard to grasp the scale and the ages of these giant trees. The largest Douglas firs measure more than 29.5 feet in circumference. There are plenty of places for kids to climb and crawl among the trees. But the park is more than big trees; we saw plenty of snails and slugs. The Cameron River flows along on edge of the park, leading to Cameron Lake. There is a picnic area just east of the park on the lake.
Inside scoop: A trail on the south end of the park is closed because several bridges were washed out by flooding. The park is on both sides of the busy highway so be cautious when crossing. Parking can be at a premium on busy days, so be sure your vehicle is well off the road if you’re not in the main parking lot.
Whale Interpretive Center
Where: Telegraph Cove, 15 minutes from Port McNeill, B.C., at the north end of Johnstone Strait.
The attraction: A great place to learn about the creatures that live in the nearby waters and the environmental and human challenges they face.
What we liked: This is the kind of place where you can let the kids go and know they will learn something, have fun and not get lost. The staff was very attentive, answering all the questions a visitor might have, regardless of age. The museum has an impressive display of full skeltons, including an orca, Dall’s porpoise, fin whale, bald eagle and a cougar.
Suspended from the ceiling, the 65-foot skeleton of a fin whale that was struck and killed by a cruise ship in 1999 dominates the museum. Fin whales are second in size to blue whales.
There also is a set of blue whale jaw bones that stretch from the floor to the ceiling almost two stories above visitors.
Inside scoop: The museum’s core message came through loud and clear. “One of our goals here is to educate the public that we can do things to protect the whales,” said museum guide Calida MacKenzie. “The good news is we are slowly learning, we just need to learn more. Every person can make a difference.”
Cost: By donation
Old Country Market
Where: On Highway 4A in Coombs, B.C., not far from the popular destination of Parksville.
The attraction: Homemade pastries, bread, Cornish pasties and ice cream.
What we liked: OK, the goats on the grass-covered roof is pure kitsch, but the goodies inside are well worth the stop. So good, in fact, that we managed to stop three times while traveling around the island. We are fans of Cornish pasties, and the small ones sold made for a perfect lunch. They also had Jamaican patties, brioche, steak and kidney pies and African samosas. We also enjoyed the market’s desserts, such as fruit tarts, eclairs and hazelnut ganache-covered brownies. The lines were long in front of the ice cream counter featuring more than 20 flavors.
Inside scoop: A fun way to pass the time is to eat your ice cream outdoors and count the number of times a kid jumps out of the way after an adult says that the water trickling from the roof is really coming from the business end of the goats. There are a number of souvenier shops in the complex.
Cost: Depends on what you buy
Where: On Cormorant Island across Boughton Strait from Port McNeill, B.C.
The attraction: The island is the home of the Namgis (pronounced Namm-geese) First Nation. Places to visit include the U’mista Cultural Center and what is called the tallest totem pole in the world at 173 feet high.
What we liked: Our plans to visit the cultural center, featuring tribal masks and ceremonial regalia, were scrapped when there was a power outage on island shortly before our ferry arrived. But we did get to meet wood carver Johnathan Henderson, who is part of a well-known family of First Nation artists and has works at The Legacy gallery in Seattle.
The power outage forced Henderson outdoors to work on a large red cedar mask. When it’s completed, he plans to mount it on a carved circle of cedar measuring 46 inches across.
Inside scoop: Head for the cultural center first, especially if you are going to walk. It’s about 15 minutes from the ferry terminal. A cemetery featuring a number of totem poles is in the other direction.
Cost: The ferry was $30.50 for two adults and two children to walk on.
Admission to the center is $5 for adults, seniors and students and $1 for children younger than 12.
Vancouver Island Info Sources
“The Essential Vancouver Island Outdoor Recreation Guide” by John Kimantas (Whitecap Books). Lots of good information on island parks.
“Hidden British Columbia: Including Vancouver, Victoria, and Whistler” by Eric Lucas (Ulysses Press). Offered plenty of information on towns and things to see.
“Backroad Mapbook Vancouver Island, B.C.” This is the Canadian eqivalent to the DeLorme Gazetteers so popular with outdoors types here in the United States.
“Frommer’s Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands & the San Juan Islands” by Chris McBeath (Frommer’s). Your standard Frommer’s guide, very formulaic.