CALIFORNIA—HERE WE COME !
While Space A travel is fun and free, it is not suited for travelers with a rigid schedule—which we had at the beginning of our journey. To start this adventure, we flew Southwest Airlines from Florida to California—not knowing (as is frequently the case with us) where else we would go nor how we would return home!
Firstly (and the reason for this trip), many members of Carole’s family gathered in Los Angeles (LA) for a family function. There, we were “on the go” for our three-day stay, enjoying much quality family time (Carole’s niece and nephew flew in from Sydney). What a wonderful visit we had.
After our sojourn in LA, we headed south to San Diego, meeting an old friend for lunch one day and simply relaxing and taking in this lovely city (one of our favorites) with its “Eternal Spring” climate and stunning vistas. Yet another Great Adventure with random travel beckoned, so from NAS North Island (where we stayed at the Navy Gateway Inns) on Coronado Island (San Diego), CA, we caught a comfortable Navy C-40 flight to NAS Whidbey Island, WA—from the Mexican to the Canadian borders in less than three hours!
A TALE OF TWO ISLANDS—WHIDBEY AND VANCOUVER ISLANDS!
WHIDBEY ISLAND (where we stayed at the Navy Gateway Inns) never fails to delight us with its natural beauty, lush thick Evergreens, sea lions and otters playing in the nearby waters, and picturesque villages. Although we have been here many times, each time we return our jaws drop from her splendor! Nonetheless, our wanderlust called and Whidbey positioned us well for our three hour Washington State Ferry trip through the magnificent San Juan Islands from nearby Anacortes to Sidney, British Columbia (BC), Canada—a day trip we had made a few years ago.
This time, we decided to explore, in depth, VANCOUVER ISLAND—the largest Pacific Island east of New Zealand. The charming little port town of Sidney, on the island, immediately felt more like Australia than the USA. In beautiful weather, we enjoyed delicious cappuccinos in one of her many sidewalk cafes, strolled to the end of the town pier, stopped to chat with locals, and headed to our cozy B&B in Victoria, BC’s provincial capital.
VICTORIA: What a beautiful city—clean, sparkling, fascinating location on the water—and we are so glad we spent more than just a day here. Our “Airbnb” (Bed and Breakfast) apartment was among the best in which we have stayed and this certainly added to our pleasure. Everything was perfect and the location fantastic—we were pampered by our hosts.
Exploring Vancouver Island’s largest city (about 350,000 people), we ventured into Victoria’s Chinatown (the oldest in Canada), discovered delightful and well-manicured suburbs, enjoyed a cruise on her Inner Harbor, saw float planes take off and land, dined on simple fresh fish straight from the sea, attended the annual Greek Festival, checked out a coal magnate’s magnificent castle and were warmly welcomed by very friendly Canadians everywhere. Superb weather added to our comfort.
Afternoon Tea in Victoria is an old English tradition. While The Empress Hotel is famous for it, we found the prices there had “shotthrough the heavens”. With some research, we found a wonderful alternative—just as elegant in atmosphere and delicious—and at a fraction of the price—the Venus Sophia (rather unusually named) was definitely a hidden gem.
Previously, we had visited Victoria on day trips only, taking in world-famous Butchart Gardens, but on this visit, we had the luxury of an in-depth visit for three days. Now time to discover more of Vancouver Island!
MEANDERINGS AROUND VANCOUVER ISLAND (VI)
Many of our family and friends have only visited VI’s port city of Victoria and while this city is very beautiful, they have missed some of the most spectacular scenery nature has to offer. With no particular destination in mind, we left Victoria by car and meandered to the west coast wilderness, immediately being rewarded with magnificent views along the rugged coastline before heading inland where we saw thousands of majestic giant Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir trees, stretching hundreds of feet into the sky. Passing numerous logging camps, we smelled the freshly cut trees—the logging industry is a multi-million dollar one. Taking the road “less traveled”, we marveled at gorgeous pristine mountain lakes and saw Bambi (baby deer) several times!
While we could have taken the Trans Canada Highway and reached the town of Duncan (our lodging stop for the night) in a short time, we took all day on the Pacific Marine Circle Route, loving every minute of it. There is something to be said for taking time to explore this region in depth at a “snail’s pace”, stopping for coffee and meeting locals who were amazed that we had come all the way from Florida to check out this very special part of the world. There was no better way to end our day than to dine on fresh fish at nearby Maple Bay Marina with Duncan’s yachties.
VI boasts of having Canada’s best climate (particularly in summer) and we agree, as we experienced perfect sightseeing and touring weather, especially for our east coast explorations. While we saw many hardy Canadians swimming and kayaking in Georgia Strait, the waters were too chilly for us (it is not Florida!).
Most of the region once enjoyed prosperity through the coal, logging and shipping industries but many towns came upon hard times. Today, however, there is a booming tourism season with many towns cleverly “reinventing” themselves: Duncan—the City of Totems and its fascinating First Nation (native Indian people) Cowichan Native Heritage Centre; Chemainus—the City of Murals (some 42 vast colorful wall murals documenting the town’s history); Nanaimo—the revitalized port for ferries to the city of Vancouver.
Further up the east coast of VI are many delightful holiday towns, catering to families and retirees—in Parksville, we visited charming Morningstar Farm for wine and cheese tasting. And, like the numerous flocks of Canada Geese (called “Honkers” because of their loud noise) which passed over us everywhere in perfect Vee-formation, it was time for us to continue our own journey of exploration and discovery here.
TO THE (WILD) WEST AND PACIFIC RIM
We now set our sights on VI’s west, passing through rugged “wild” mountains and forests to the deepwater inland port of Port Alberni (PA), our base for the region. It so happened we arrived in time for the annual Salmon Festival, bringing hundreds of avid fishermen to “Canada’s Ultimate Fishing Town”—each in pursuit of the $15,000 prize for catching the Big One. We joined in the festivities with music, dancing and food—and even saw a Black Grizzly Bear on the opposite foreshore.
A highlight was a wonderful day excursion from PA, 35 miles down the Inlet to Bamfield, a cozy hamlet near the Pacific Ocean. Our voyage on the packet freighter MV Frances Barkley (originally built in Norway for the coastal route there) took us to several waypoints, dropping off cargo (LPG canisters, freezers, food and mail to Canada’s only floating post office)—this gave new meaning to the expression “door to door delivery”! Sighting a family of bald eagles, high in a tree, was a delight as well.
Another great outing took us on a winding but scenic (lakes, mountains and forests) road to Tofino and Ucluelet (“Ukee”) on the Pacific Ocean. The bustling, but remote, towns are separated by the Pacific Rim National Park and its many surfing beaches. Funky, alternative and quaint—all were packed for the end-of-summer Labor Day weekend.
Leaving Vancouver Island’s west coast behind, we turned back to the island’s east coast, exploring more. This time we headed to the town of Campbell River (CR), touted as the “World’s Salmon Fishing Capital” (year round) and where tour operators advertise “snorkel with the salmon” (yes!) excursions. While we did not do this (the water was too cold for us), we did see many sea otters playing in and salmon jumping out of the waters of Discovery Passage. Through these rather narrow and sometimes treacherous waters (explored by Captains Cook and Vancouver over 200 years ago) pass Alaska-bound (Inside Passage) cruise ships—and views here were magnificent. CR is also the unofficial “Outdoor HQ” for many activities, e.g., kayaking, canoeing, and river rafting, etc., but we chose more sedate activities as rain set in—visiting the Museum at Campbell River with fabulous First Nations (indigenous peoples) displays and the town’s tiny but fascinating Maritime Heritage Centre.
“Listen to the locals”—and we did! As a result, we found a marvelous flower basket-filled waterfront fish and chips lunch spot (the rain cleared)—the dilemma being which stall to eat at! Later, we headed to exclusive, rustic and luxurious Painter’s Lodge for a look before boarding their free launch across Discovery Passage to their sister resort on Quadra Island. Having had no planned itinerary, we had discovered wonderful hidden gems, thanks to friendly locals who were happy to share their secrets with us.
It seems that many interesting places in VI begin with the letter “C”—Campbell River, Comox, Courtenay, Cumberland, Cowishan Bay. The Comox Valley is renowned as a “foodie” region with estate wines, farm-to-table markets and upscale restaurants. Its principal town, Courtenay, is home to an eclectic mix of New Age shops, a French patisserie to rival anything in Paris, holistic health clinics, yoga studios and a most unusual coffee shop (like a cave for growing mushrooms!) operated by leftover Flower Children. It was all great fun!
Just out of town, the vibe changed at Cumberland—once a prosperous coal mining town in the 1880’s but now just a shadow of its former self, with its Chinese cemetery and a handful of heritage facades. Our favorite was the seaside town of Comox where we stayed. Lunch at a restaurant overlooking the busy marina with a flurry of pleasure boats passing, was a delight. Of particular interest was the Canadian Aviation Museum on the nearby Canadian Air Base Comox.
Continuing to listen to the locals, we found a real English pub (tucked down a rural road), stopped at a “Therapeutic Nursery” to buy plants for our kind B&B hostess, popped into an estate winery and a farm market, and lingered at a hidden BC Provincial Park on the water, watching birds pick at fresh salmon they just caught. Under clear blue, sunny Autumn skies (with some trees changing color and snow-covered mountains on the horizon), we took it all in. What a great experience!
Time to return to Victoria, with a last scenic road detour for lunch on the deck at lovely Cowishan Bay. At our newly adopted “home away from home” in Victoria, we were warmly greeted by our hostess at the B&B in which we stayed two week’s earlier.
HEADING HOME: Farewell Canada and hello USA! We lined up with dozens of vehicles to board the car ferry for our 2+ hour sea journey from Sidney, BC through the many Gulf Islands of Canada and the San Juan Islands of the USA. Carole called this “One of the greatest sea journeys of the world!” Indeed—magnificent! Orcas whales, pleasure craft and, best of all, some of the greatest scenery on the planet, including snow-covered Mt. Baker, soaring in the distance. At what seemed like a blink of the eye, we were off the ferry and back at NAS Whidbey Island, seeking a Space A flight home.
With an extraordinary stroke of luck, we caught a rare Navy C-40 flight from Whidbey Island, to Tyndall AFB, near Panama City, FL, putting us just over four hours’ drive from Jacksonville. After seeing the snow-white sandy beach of the Gulf of Mexico with its warm turquoise waters, we decided to stay at the Sand Dollar Inn on Tyndall AFB and enjoy a few days on the beach before returning home. This is one of the finest stretch of sandy beaches in the world.
Time to return to Jacksonville, so after three days on the beach, we rented a car and drove home and put our heads on our own pillows, concluding our four week odyssey. We had certainly traveled well “Beyond Los Angeles”!
FAMILY—The gathering of family from far and wide rewarded us with warmth and joy. Quality family time in Los Angeles was priceless.
RANDOM MEANDERINGS—We had no idea that this Great Adventure would take us to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada—but we are happy it did. The adventure of traveling to unknown destinations is exciting and we love it.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED—While many of our friends have visited the cities of Vancouver and Victoria, we put over 1,000 miles on our rental car, exploring towns, villages, waterways, mountain paths, beaches and the thick Evergreen woods of “remote” Vancouver Island.
PEOPLE—While the scenery was among the most spectacular in the world, it was the warm and friendly Canadians that made this Great Adventure special—from our sweet B&B hostess in Victoria who baked banana bread just for us, to the kind Canadians everywhere who shared their secrets of hidden wonderful places to check out. We listened to the locals and were richly rewarded for doing so!
If any of the R&R Travel News readers would like to see our Shutterfly slide show of this trip, drop us an email and we will be happy to share this with you.
Col. Marv Feldman, USAF (ret)
and Carole Feldman
Reprint from Jan–Feb 2015 • Volume 45, No. 1