Hwy 1 (mostly), Sooke BC to Courtenay BC
Anchored by the earth, this passionate sign is all about sensuality, and is always seeking out pleasure.http://www.horoscopes.com
That’s right, Taurus is the hedonist of the zodiac – the one your mother warned you about. The one that will always convince you to have dessert or buy the shoes. A perfect Taurus vacation is all about stimulating all the senses; stunning visuals, delicious food, luxurious spas, scents of salt air and roses, and the delightful sounds of barking sea lions. Taurus is the earthiest of earth signs, and being close to nature is not inconsistent with their love of luxury; it’s just that we prefer it from the balcony of a luxury hotel versus lying on the hard earth in a tent. Preferably with a fruity cocktail in hand.
And yes, that we means that I, dear reader, am a Taurus – and as H.B.I.C. (Head Bull in Charge) will be sharing with you my very favourite spots on the planet. Although the city of Victoria should also be included in this list, it needs one or more posts to itself to do it justice. So we open with Sooke, BC.
As Victoria has grown, Sooke has become a thriving commuter community but manages to maintain (so far) it’s remote seaside village ambiance. A few years back I was visiting friends in the area and chose the Bestwestern Prestige Oceanfront Resort to take advantage of my Bestwestern points. I was so charmed I’ve been back a couple of times since. The rear of the hotel has wraparound verandas and neo-classical style columns on multiple levels that feel transplanted from the Florida Keys. The verandas overlook a wharf and marina, complete with a gaggle of seals and sea lions that hang around waiting for scraps from the fish boats. The shallow harbour entrance, further narrowed by a thin strip of land – Whiffen Spit – provides a haven from the orca pods that hunt them in the open Pacific to the east. I adore seals and sea lions – I too, love to eat fish, frolic in the water, and then laze about in the sun, yakking with my buddies. I’m also pleasantly chubby with a cute face and can make puppy dog eyes when needed.
The experience of stepping out onto the veranda early in the morning with coffee in hand and surveying the harbour critters is well worth the splurge. Upgrade to the balcony room – trust me. I did not use the spa services on any of my visits, but there is a full service spa on site. The ground floor pool juts out from one wing facing the ocean, with floor to ceiling glass so you can enjoy the view while you swim. The lobby area has a feel of casual luxury; expensive boat shoes on feet that would never touch a tiller. I did visit the full service restaurant where I ordered something tropical and fruity and learned that the stress is on the first syllable in Hypnotiq, not the last, to my mortification.
At low tide, I did the walk along Whiffen Spit in a light drizzle, nodding to locals out with their dogs and kids. The Spit is not much more than a large sandbar, studded with rocks and driftwood that stretches almost all the way across to South Sooke at low tide. Walking it feels a bit like traversing a tightrope across the ocean.
Sooke is connected to Highway 1 via Highway 14, a 2 lane twisty little ribbon of a road between Sooke and Langford. No stop in Langford is complete without a bite at the 6 Mile Pub and Eatery, the oldest pub in BC. My first trips to the 6 Mile date back to 1988, when it was much more pub than eatery (at least as far as I knew), and felt a little rough and rustic so far from the pubs that catered to the campus crowd.
Imagine my surprise some 30 years later when I arranged to meet up with a local friend for lunch and found myself reading a menu that boasted organic everything and frog friendly coffee. The uneven wood floors and casual ambience remains; but the food tastes like it must have been brought in from an upscale downtown restaurant. There are typical hearty pub fare dishes; for example the poutine made with their own 30 hour beef bone gravy. I don’t know what they do with it for all that time, but the end result is magical. I’m drooling right now just thinking about it. The Alaskan crab cake is fresh and sweet with a touch of heat from chili oil. The carrot and ginger soup brought raves on another trip. They specialize in local, sustainable food, and their greens and herbs are grown in a small garden visible from the deck tables, nestled between the building and a small creek.
The location of the 6 Mile along the busy Old Island Highway makes it a bit of a challenge to get to Highway 1 if you are not familiar with the area. Best to use GPS as you’ll need to backtrack through Langford and then reconnect to an exit route.
From Langford, a short drive brings you to Goldstream Park at the base of the Malahat. A lovely spot to hike, I would imagine, but this Taurus would rather drive to the top and then take in the entire inlet from the viewpoint off the highway. The Malahat is a typical twisty-turny drive required when getting to a much higher elevation in a very short space – it can get very congested, but has improved with a few more passing areas added in recent years. Note of warning – given it is almost entirely shaded by trees and surrounding hillside, this area is extremely prone to black ice in early spring and late fall. It can be a bit tricky on the island as the humidity makes for overnight frost that doesn’t thaw as quickly in elevated and shady areas. But the view from the top is well worth the climb.
Highway 1 continues through a number of small communities largely unseen from the highway as they sit down the slopes and perch along the water’s edge. Cowichan Bay has a small stretch of stores selling artisan goods, whale watching charters, and a few choices for great fish and chips. You can sit down to a not so healthy portion of halibut at The Masthead, or do English style take away at Rob’s Lighthouse Eatery. Whether walking or viewing from a window table, be sure to take in the adorably upscale houseboats docked along the Fisherman’s Wharf below. (Note – do not confuse Cowichan Bay with Cowichan Lake. Cowichan Bay sits on the ocean while Cowichan Lake is just that. There is a lovely community out along the lake but the places I am noting here are on the sea side of the highway (to the right when going north along highway 1).
There are a number of small farm markets, wineries, and even a tea company (the only tea grown in Canada) along the road between Cowichan Bay and Nanaimo. Duncan sits in the middle, a small town that acts as a service center to the growing shoreline and retirement communities that surround it. Old Town Duncan has some cute little shops, but parking can be difficult on weekends. If you’re already hungry again, the Doghouse Restaurant sits conveniently along the highway as it passes through Duncan. Always packed, it offers a huge diner style menu, specializing in breakfast and scrumptious desserts in a glass display case right up at the front entrance. Gluten free options are available.
Pro tip: Split a sandwich combo with a friend so you have room for pie – strawberry pie piled with whipped cream, classic lemon meringue with mile high meringue, or the peanut butter pie topped with chocolate ganache and a side of vanilla ice cream. Dessert here is a meal unto itself.
The Westholme Tea Company is a truly unique enterprise, which set out to be the first company to grow it’s own tea right here in Canada. They have a small onsite tea room that looks out onto their gardens, which also grow many of the herbs that are used in flavouring their blends. They sell a gorgeous array of ceramics, teaware, books about tea, and of course, their own tea blends on their online store. As of this writing, they remain the only commercial grower of organic tea in all of Canada.
If time isn’t an issue, you can take several side roads that will bring you along the coast and offer hundreds of views of tidal flats, herons, and deer. A right turn off highway 1 at Mount Sicker, approximately 10 km north of Duncan, will take you onto Chemainus Rd or Highway 1A. This side road will wind through farms and fields, skirting Crofton and crossing the picturesque Chemainus River before meandering along to the small town itself. Chemainus is decorated with murals depicting the history of the area, and I once spent a gorgeous fall afternoon following the footprint trail to see them with a gigantic ice cream cone to cool off. The town’s other main attraction is it’s dinner theatre; unfortunately, as of this writing it is on pandemic hiatus. If stopping for a bite, Bonnie Martin’s provides diner style fair and the best Chinese food in town if you’re lucky enough to stop in on one of their Chinese special nights – if not, the Wor Wonton Soup is now a permanent fixture on their dinner menu.
A recent addition is a craft market showcasing local artisans. I was told that the crib board below was hand carved by a local young man who would be thrilled to hear he had sold two that day, the lady at the register being a friend of his mom. (I bought another as a gift).
Continuing along Chemainus Rd will take you through the aptly named village of Saltair before rejoining Highway 1 near Ladysmith. Nanaimo is a short drive from Ladysmith, and although there’s nothing wrong with it as a destination, in this case you do want to take the bypass. Driving through Nanaimo will have you feeling like you’ve fallen into a strange dimension where just when you think you’ve made it to the other side – Bam! more Nanaimo. Nanaimo feels like its ten blocks wide and 40 km long, with several hundred thousand stoplights along the way. Take the bypass. Trust me.
Highway 1 ends at the south end of Nanaimo, and the bypass becomes Highway 19, where the Vancouver Island “Riviera zone” begins. From Parksville to Qualicum beach there are 20 km of beaches with shallow waters warm enough to be tolerable for swimming in the summer months. Parksville holds a 5 1/2 week long summer festival annually, Beachfest, (although on Covid hiatus until 2022) that culminates with its famous sandcastle competition.
No trip to the central island is complete without a stop at the Old Country Market – the official name of “Goats on Roof, which is what everyone actually calls it. A marketplace filled with locally produced items, this unique spot has grown significantly over the years and although has gotten a bit “touristy” is still a must see side trip. Originally a roadside fruit stand, the little building was built close to the hillside, and the resident goats farm often could be seen lounging on the sod and grass roof. Now boasting an ice cream parlour, multiple restaurants, and a much expanded market, it is busy year round. The bakery produces an amazing array of delectable pastries and is a great place to stock up on “hotel snacks” before reaching your final destination. Parking is at a premium, but if you drive uphill past the restaurants they have an expanded lot up above the marketplace. It’s a steep climb back up, but you’ll want to burn off that giant ice cream cone and chocolate croissant anyway.
There’s a number of cross roads that will get you there, depending on whether or not you decide to turn off Highway 19 and take the drive through Parksville and Qualicum Beach. From the highway 19 bypass, you will want to exit onto highway 4A, the Alberni Highway, and Coombs is 6 or 7 km from the exit.
You can also get onto highway 4A just north of the Parksville Community Park. The third route is via highway 4 in Qualicum beach, and then taking the left onto 4A to Coombs. There are plenty of signs in the area, just look for this adorable logo:
Once you maneuver yourself back onto Highway 19, you can settle in after that long climb up the hill to the car for the 60 km drive to your final destination, the Kingfisher Resort and Spa. It’s easy to miss as the front of the resort looks a bit like a large house set back from the highway, so pay close attention for signs. If you hit Courtenay, you’ve gone too far: turn around and about 10 minutes south you’ll spot it on the oceanfront side of the road.
There are two blocks of rooms, and again, splurge on the beachfront. The campus is set up in roughly a square, with the main block of hotel rooms nearest the road and opening out onto a central garden with pathways and flowers everywhere in between. On one side of the square is the outdoor pool and full service spa; on the other the restaurant. Completing the square is a separate block of ocean front suites. The ground floor rooms open directly onto the beach; the upper rooms have balconies facing the ocean and offer brilliant views of the sun rising over Texada Island, and the southern Coast Mountain range beyond.
The restaurant is fine dining with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients, especially seafood. If you’re an oyster or mussel fan, this is about as fresh as it gets. This was the first place I tasted chanterelle mushrooms and OMG. Mind blown. Portions are smallish – not unusual for fine dining – but you will have room for dessert and you will not be disappointed. If you’re not up for a rich torte, their homemade, fresh churned specialty ice creams are fabulous.
It’s hard for me to say what is my favourite thing about the Kingfisher because everything is equally amazing – the food, the views, the gardens, and the spa. The Pacific Mist Hydropath is, however, the most unique thing about the Kingfisher, and is an absolute blast. I’ve been three times, twice with my Mom and once with the Hub. Both loved it – although Hub skipped the mud bath and Mom skipped the sauna. Staff are pretty flexible and eager to give you the best possible experience. There’s enough noise from all the rushing water to drown out any noise from other parties, even when Mom and I got the giggles following a near self-drowning incident in the plunge pool. (Let’s just say that it is important when judging the depth of a pool vis a vis your ability to breath to remember that your mouth is actually several inches below your full height).
The hydropath consists of a number of stations that are all water based treatments designed to relax and rejuvenate. The entire space is designed as though it is a series of caves and the stations are not visible to each other, combining privacy with the exotic. A staff member will guide you through the various stations, explaining what it is, what to do, and providing ice cold cucumber or lemon water throughout. Stations include waterfall showers, a sauna, a hot tub, a mineral plunge pool, and a river walk pool with jets at various levels providing a water massage from ankle to hip as you slowly walk through. Low tubs carved into the rock provide a relaxing spot for a full body seaweed and mud scrub, before a final rinse. The entire experience runs a full hour, followed by a trip to the relaxation lounge upstairs where you can sip on your choice of infused ice waters and enjoy the ocean view on a chaise.
The spa also has provides a full range of massage and esthetician services to meet your every need. They often offer midweek specials and promotions, especially in low season, so I’d recommend signing up for email updates and watching for the perfect deal that allows you to get the maximum luxury you can afford. This is a fantastic place for a girls weekend, a romantic getaway, or, if you’ve had enough of being cooped up with your family, an indulgent solo adventure.
Getting there is a lot easier than leaving: If flying in, the major airlines offer flights to Victoria, Nanaimo, and Courtenay-Comox. Check schedules as some do not run daily. Ferries run from Vancouver to Nanaimo and Victoria daily. When Hub and I did a similar version of this a few years back, we flew direct via Westjet from Calgary to Victoria on the way there and direct back from Nanaimo to Calgary. If time allows, you can drive both directions, and take in some of the side roads and attractions.
Note – Except where otherwise noted, all images and photographs are taken by and the property of Michelle Graf
Author’s Note: My proofing skills skills improve after publishing. Upon reviewing, I noticed that I mangled one particular metaphor. I’m leaving it in for giggles, but please do not try to steer a boat with your feet – deck shoes or not.