Vancouver Island: Victoria to Nanaimo

photo: The pitted stone beach at Newcastle Island off the coast at Nanaimo

The very pitted stone beach at Newcastle Island off Nanaimo, with the sea in the background.

Driving out of Victoria this morning took me through the Island's wine country: being a solo driver in a wine region kind of sucks. So no stops for me - in part because I misread the sign for Merridale Cidery and missed the turn: it was the only one I meant to go see. As I write, I'm consoling myself with a pint of their cider at the Vault Café (which is a humorous tale in itself).

But before you hit the wine country, you go through ... the area probably has a name, I don't know what it is. But in that area is Goldstream Provincial Park, a place I desperately need to look up. The area is made up of hills that aspire to be mountains: they fail because they're not tall enough and have trees, not snow, on top - but they sure got the angle right. And the spectacular views. I have this weird idea that islands are relatively flat: Vancouver Island has zero interest in my confirmation bias. And I'm good with that. So is there hiking in Goldstream? Our researchers will get back to you ... (Yes: you can hike to Niagara Falls! Truly: not quite as wide as its more famous namesake in Ontario. Or you can hike to the top of Mt. Finlayson.)

I detoured to Duncan, to see the town of totem poles. They do indeed have one at nearly every intersection, but I escaped as soon as I could because the entire downtown is mired in road work. Ten minutes trapped in the middle of a 50 metre long block is fairly convincing. Just north of town I talked to tourist info, who suggested Hill's Native Arts to feed my argillite needs.

Argillite is only mined on Graham Island, and is controlled entirely by the Haida Gwaii Nation. Graham Island is 300 km north of Vancouver Island ... which kind of nixed my idea of going to the source.

Hill's were back on the south side of Duncan and a little tricky to find. They had a couple of small totem poles in argillite, but they didn't quite work for me. Hill's turns out to be a chain: I visited the one in Nanaimo as well where they had larger pieces (for up to $1200) but none were moving me, or at least not $1200 worth.

The destination for the day was Nanaimo, which - as I was told by one of the people in a tourist information stop - is just not a very big town. It feels bigger, but the downtown is about 5x5 blocks. It fits in B.C., with their very green and environmentally friendly attitude (setting aside the fact that the province's biggest businesses are forestry and fishing): the Vault Café has got this sort of retro-Bohemian thing going on, serving coffee and beer with tables and chintzy armchairs, a gorgeous beam and plaster ceiling and a wonderfully mixed clientèle. But Nanaimo has a dirty secret (not that they particularly try to hide it - there's a big plaque downtown), Nanaimo was founded on coal mines. The industry is long gone, but it's probably not a history they boast about.

At the recommendation of both my guide book and the tourist information stop in Ladysmith (where I encountered an avid hiker - the tourist info people are always happy to help with whatever your interest is, but it's great when they share it), I hopped the ferry to Newcastle Island. Unfortunately, it was 1500 and the final return ferry was at 1645, so I had less time than I'd hoped for, but I did manage to do a six kilometre loop along the shoreline, past the thing they optimistically called a lake (most of it is actually a rather lovely swamp, but somehow that word has bad connotations and is avoided ... do you prefer "bog? how about "wetlands?"), and down the centre of the island back to the docks. The shoreline was particularly interesting with its incredibly pitted and photogenic rock. The last leg was a bit rushed as I didn't want to spend the night on the island, but it's a really lovely place. I suspect I wouldn't like it as much in the summer: there are a couple acres near the dock where the riding mowers were at work trimming the very large area for community camping (I'm picturing school trips, although I have no proof), but the rest of the island is wild. The trails are about as flat and manicured as it's possible for them to be: dead smooth gravel. I've been contemplating the difference between "walking" and "hiking" for the last couple days, and this cemented my definition: walking has rhythm, hiking does not. And what you're doing on Newcastle Island is definitely walking.

I had dinner sitting on a wood bench on a dock in Nanaimo harbour outside the floating shack labelled "Trollers," who are reported (by many people other than them) to have the best fish and chips in 150 km. But I was fish-and-chipped out after the last two nights, so I ordered an oyster burger ... and was denied. They were out of oysters. So I had clam chowder and crab cakes. The clam chowder was very creamy and quite good, but in my opinion it needed a few more clams and maybe a touch more onion. The crab cakes were peppery and quite nice.

As I was sitting at the dock, a woman was coaxing her rather large dog into the front seat of her sea kayak, with considerable encouragement from Trollers' patrons. The dog was perhaps not keen on sharing the seating with a weed whacker, but was eventually convinced by a french fry. There were also a couple large waterproof packs full of supplies. I should point out that Protection Island, right next to Newcastle Island, is just off shore of Nanaimo and has a population of about 600 (according to the ferry captain). It was just a rather bizarre vision: it was the weed whacker that really made it.

My hotel tonight wasn't as far out of town as I thought: it turned out to be slightly less than a kilometre on foot, important when you want to hoist a couple pints in the evening and NOT drive back. So I asked the guy at the hotel desk about pubs ... and just my luck, drew a teetotaller. He did his best, but really had no clue. So I walked into town and got scared off by Cambies - the hard-to-break furniture and nothing-else-breakable attitude always worries me. So I walked on to The Vault Café, where I asked about where to go for local beers. She said "how about here?" They hadn't advertised beer or alcohol outside at all, so I was surprised but happy. So that's where I finished my day with a Merridale Cider.