Valiant Vancouver Island
Blackberries, seals, and Nanaimo bars – you’ll find them all while cycling around Vancouver Island, writes Irene Middleman Thomas
Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in Canada’s temperate British Columbia province are a treasure trove for adventure cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts. For those of us in landlocked areas, it’s difficult, but exciting, to imagine an area full of rivers, bays, estuaries, ocean beaches, and tiny spits of land reaching out into the water. There are hundreds of kilometers of cycling terrain, ranging from wild and rugged coastal rainforest to pastoral farmland to heart-pounding hills. Wildlife is rich here – you’d have to try hard NOT to see seals, deer, dolphins and eagles, and you just might view an orca, bear, or cougar. The best times for cycling, locals agree, would be May through October.
We visited in mid September, which gave us the delightful first kiss of autumn’s colors as well as refreshing cooler weather. British Columbia is Canada’s leader in agricultural diversity, with more than 225 farm products, including berries and fruits, vegetables, poultry, beef, lamb, pork, bison, venison, shellfish and seafood, honey, herbs, wine and cheese – and we took advantage of it all. You will eat well here – guaranteed. An ideal time to visit might be during the region’s many festivals. Two of the most noted are the August Comox Valley Farm Cycle Tour and the June BC Shellfish Festival. Be sure to book well in advance, if wanting to attend these events.
For cyclists, the hills are a challenge, but one well worth the effort. We started a week-long independent cycling adventure in our base city of Victoria, British Columbia’s gorgeous, very British-flavoured capital city located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. We took a three-day foray to the Cowichan Valley and Salt Spring Island, then returned to Victoria for a day, and then journeyed up to the Campbell River region for another three days of cycling.
Staying at the cycle-friendly, luxurious LEED® Platinum certified Parkside Victoria Resort & Spa (good bistro too!) we could lock our bikes in a storage room, and were conveniently just blocks away from two rental companies, including the one we used: Cycle Treks. We were also close by most of the major tourist attractions in Victoria. The hotel let us keep our Avis rental car in their garage while we were off on the island in between stays as well.
Vancouver Island has several cycling companies which offer guided trips, but are also able to rent bikes and to provide assistance in planning independent trips. We utilised the help of Cycle Treks, located next to the Harbour Air Floatplane terminal in the Inner Harbour of Victoria, to plan our South Island three-dayer, and then worked with Island Joy Rides, based in Campbell River, for the next three-day adventure. On both journeys we did about 30 miles a day, which allowed us plenty of time to sightsee and to indulge in little blackberry picking breaks. We were thrilled to find out that in September, juicy, delicious wild blackberries are everywhere on Vancouver Island, simply everywhere, in huge, dense thickets.
Any trip on Vancouver Island is almost sure to use the BC Ferries, the world’s largest and most sophisticated ferry system, with 36 boats and 25 routes. The ferries are on time, very well-organised, and extremely bike-friendly. On larger routes, you’ll find a restaurant, various indoor and outdoor seating lounges, travel brochures from the area, and even a gift shop. Our first ferry was from Vancouver on the mainland to Victoria, but there is an international airport in Victoria as well. We were charmed by the British influence of the area while on the ferry, with such signs as, “We think you’d fancy this,” in the snack shop. From the ferries, you’ll spot dolphins, seals, sea birds, and sometimes, even orcas.
We left our Avis rental car in the underground lot at the Parkside, and walked with a two-day supply of clothing to Cycle Treks to rent our bikes and fill our panniers, leaving the bulk of our luggage in the car. Cycle Treks provided us with our Canadian-made hybrid bikes, helmets, panniers, maps and directions. The company, which also rents bikes by the hour or day, specialised in guided trips and loosely directed us to use their ‘Gulf Island Ride’ itinerary. Cycling a few blocks through the downtown Inner Harbour area, we crossed over the blue Johnson Bridge and made our way to the start (marked by a totem pole) of the Galloping Goose, a popular and well-designed urban bike path. I saw and feasted on my first blackberries here.
We took the Galloping Goose, passing under several bridges decorated with native First Nations murals, viewing crew teams practicing in the river, crossing through a wide variety of homes, businesses, schools and parks on either side of the wide trail. Some hardy energetic souls might choose to take the Malahat Drive highway north instead of the ferry, but we had heard it was pretty intense and decided to take it easy on our first day. Transferring onto the rest of the route, we made it to the little Brentwood Bay ferry terminal in about two hours. Yes, we got a bit lost several (many?) times, despite the maps, but the locals are friendly, very much so, and were actually eager to help us. One man actually stopped his car to assist when he saw us peering over our map in a parking lot! Roads on the island are twisty, change names often, and I’d be willing to bet that if you cycle independently, you’ll find yourself scratching your head several times, no matter how many maps you use. But we are adventure cyclists, right? Just ask, and someone will come to help you.
The 25-minute boat ride took us to Mill Bay, where for about an hour, we followed a complicated bit of directions, reveling passing by darting deer and farms with horses, cows, llamas and fruit trees. We ended up at the truly charming and bike-friendly respite of Merridale Ciderworks. A lovely pastoral spot, we very much enjoyed lunch (exceptional menu with suggested cider pairings,) accompanied by a flight of six hard ciders, then took a tour of the ciderworks, orchard and spa. Following that, we stopped for a wine tasting at 24-acre Cherry Point Estate Vineyards, one of the first licensed wineries in the area, with 18 varieties of wine. Soon after, we arrived at our destination of the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay.
The warm and inviting staff encouraged us to take the bikes into our suite, which was well-equipped and afforded a glorious view of Cowichan Bay. This tiny town, also named Cowichan Bay, is famed for its locally-grown and made foods, including an acclaimed cheesemaker (Hilary’s Cheese and Deli,) a delightful bakery, True Grain Bread & Mill and a homemade ice cream shop called ‘Udder Guy’s’, all on a walkable stretch from the hotel (which, by the way, has an excellent restaurant on site as well.) If you indulge in too much cake, cheese and whatever, take part in the hotel’s in-house yoga classes, offered three times a week. We also enjoyed the free Cowichan Wooden Boat Society’s museum, which displays quite a bit of history about the nautical history of the area. We didn’t have time, sadly, but heard that the local whale watching tours run by Ocean EcoVentures (the owner also owns a high-quality art gallery) are very good.
To read the second part of Irene’s visit to Vancouver Island, don’t forget to log onto the CD-Traveller website on Tuesday!