Vancouver Island

We explore Bowen Island with a good friend, then head over to Vancouver Island for the highlight of our west coast adventure.

Off the coast of Mayne Island en route to Vancouver Island

In my last post, my wife and I crossed The Rocky Mountains on our 650GS and arrived on Bowen Island, just off the coast of the City of Vancouver.

After a night of reminiscing with an old friend about our university days, we spent a day exploring Bowen Island. Our friend, Joanne, has a Honda scooter that predates Live Aid, so the two old gals (our bikes, that is) zipped about Bowen. We first went down to the shoreline where we got a good view back over to the mainland and witnessed a mini-earthquake, or so it was explained. When small waves suddenly appear without any passing boat to make them, there’s cause to believe there was just a micro-tremor. Interesting, but not very reassuring. I comfort myself that if there ever was The Big One and we happened to be there when it happened, I’d have an ADV motorcycle to get me past traffic and up onto higher ground.

Speaking of higher ground, we then hiked up a small mountain on good report that there was a wooly mammoth somewhere in the forest. You have to have a lot of trust in your host to do that on yet another excruciatingly hot day, but she was good to her word.

Somewhere on Bowen Island

A local sculptor has built this from driftwood carried up from the shoreline. It’s pretty impressive, not just as an object of art but for the effort it must have taken to haul all that driftwood up from the shore. I couldn’t help wondering how many trips it might have taken him to complete the creation, if he worked alone (apparently it’s a “he”; I’m not being sexist here), what implement he used to carry the wood up the trail, etc. Maybe it was the heat, or maybe it was the pragmatist in me, or the masochist, but my mind went there as I marvelled at the accomplishment. And then, sadly, it went to issues of security, and how long it would be before someone vandalizes the sculpture. But let’s not go there. The directions to this local landmark are intentionally vague in tourism brochures, making it a bit of a treasure hunt, and we had to give a few clues while coming back down to a couple we passed who had been looking for some time.

The day was short and we had to say good-bye too soon, which was a running theme on this trip. But we parted with promises not to wait another decade before seeing each other again, either on the west coast or in Montreal.

The next day we crossed to Vancouver Island, landing in Swartz Bay. From there, it was a short ride down the 17 to our room at The Cherry Tree Inn. We chose this location because it was close to Butchart Gardens, a bucket-list item for Marilyn.

The Sunken Garden at Butchart

A love of flowers seems to have skipped a generation in my family, but strolling through these gardens was a very pleasant way to spend the day. What even a neophyte like myself can appreciate is how the original owner, Jennie Butchart, worked the vestiges of the original limestone quarry into the gardens. I could also appreciate the different aesthetic styles of the Sunken, Japanese, Italian, and Rose Gardens. Unfortunately the Menagerie Carousel was closed due to Covid but still visible through the windows. The Butchart Gardens is now a National Historic Site as a sliver of High Society preserved for even plebeians like us to enjoy. More importantly, they had ice-cream for sale.

After Butchart, we rode into Victoria and found ourselves cruising the scenic Dallas Road, which turns into Beach Drive and hugs the shoreline around the southern tip of the city. I have to say, I’ve ridden through some pretty swanky neighbourhoods, including the Hamptons in NH and Senneville on the western tip of Île de Montréal, but I’ve never seen such concentration of wealth as I did that day—one multi-million dollar home after the next for miles along the coast, with “only” few-million-dollar homes clustered off the coast in a sort of suburbs, but with nothing sub about them.

Of course we spent some time in Victoria. We aren’t city folk, but Victoria isn’t really a city; it’s a garden with some stores and restaurants. Somehow we had been on the coast an entire day without having had fish & chips, so we looked online for the recommended best in Victoria and Barb’s came up. It was pretty good, and right on the colourful wharf.

Where else to get the best fish & chips but the Fisherman’s Wharf?

And since I am an English teacher and practising writer, we naturally had to visit Munro’s Books. This famous bookstore, once owned by Jim and (Nobel-laureate) Alice Munro, is housed in a beautiful building with an ornate ceiling and has, of course, a nice selection of books. Space is tight on the bike so no hardcovers for me but I did pick up Eve Joseph’s Quarrels, 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize Winner—a collection of playful prose poems to savour at the fireside over the coming weeks. Then I walked down the street to Old Morris Tobacconist to stock up on pipe tobacco. The owner told me that they are one of the oldest tobacconist in Canada and other interesting factoids like what brand the Queen smokes and that they have one of only two rare Onyx Electroliers in the world, the other being with the Titanic at the bottom of the North Atlantic. I didn’t know what an electrolier is, let alone that the Queen smokes, so I was learning a lot with my purchase. Old Morris also has an incredibly beautiful, ornate building. It’s worth walking in with the pretension that you are a smoker just to enjoy the sights and smells of this classic tobacco shop.

The last functioning one of its kind, unfortunately, not functioning on the day I visited. (Normally there’s a constant flame for lighting your cigar.)

Next stop was, of course, a pub, to power up in the heat for the final leg of my shopping trip. I reconnected with Marilyn, who was reconnecting in turn with another university friend, so I joined them for a beer before heading off again in search of a satellite tracker. I had in mind to pick up a Garmin inReach Mini. In fact, I’d had this in mind all the way from Montreal and even before leaving but partly didn’t have the time and partly was unsure if I needed it. At $450 plus monthly subscription costs, it’s not cheap, and I figured I’d only really need it if I decided to venture up The Dempster Highway. But that decision was still pending, so this one was too. When I got to Victoria and had a minute to think, I decided it would be prudent to get one, if only to keep open the option to try for my ultimate destination, the Arctic Ocean. Unfortunately, now I had backed myself up against a deadline and there were none in stock anywhere in Victoria—not at MEC, not at Atmosphere, not even at the excellent Robinson’s.

When I got back to our room at The Cherry Tree, I searched online. This must either be a very popular item or Garmin had supply distribution problems under Covid because it was sold out everywhere in Victoria, and an online order shipped to Vancouver would take 2-3 days to arrive—no guarantee that I’d get it in time for my departure north. I tried all the big distributors, even Amazon [gasp!] until, frustrated, I threw my phone on the bed and exclaimed to my wife “F*#k it! I’ll do The Dempster without it!” That probably wasn’t politically wise or the best way to make a life-and-death decision, but in truth I was mostly frustrated with myself. I shouldn’t have dilly-dallied before leaving Montreal and just bitten the bullet on this one. Yeah, it’s half a Grand, but that’s the best money you’ll ever spend when you’re lying in a ditch in the middle of nowhere, concussed and bleeding out. Oh well, I’d have to do it Ted-Simon style.

The next day we left Victoria early. It was a big day because our destination was Tofino. The trip only shows four and a half hours on Google Maps, but we had a deadline because a section of Highway 4 that traverses the island closes for construction 1-4 p.m. each day and we had decided to try to beat the closure. The Malahat Highway was spectacular and I would have liked to have taken the more scenic route along the coast once we got over the pass, but we were on a tight deadline. As is, we only had a short stop at Cathedral Grove before pushing on toward Tofino.

Towering redwoods at the appropriately named Cathedral Grove.

In retrospect, I have to say that the ride across the island was better than Tofino itself. Maybe it’s because I’m not a 20-year-old surfer. Here’s the thing I discovered about Tofino: it’s all about the beach. There’s a small strip of restaurants and bars to fuel up for surfing or to party when the surfing’s over, but not much else. Okay, maybe I’m being a bit unfair; we did see some families there enjoying the beach, and some younger couples, but the average age of tourists there was, I would guess, early- to mid-twenties. Marilyn and I splurged a bit on our accommodations with a room at Middle Beach Lodge, knowing that this was the main destination of our trip. I’m glad we did. It made Tofino wonderful in that we could retreat from the party scene and enjoy the lodge’s private beach and comfortable lobby. We also had a gorgeous view from our balcony and could hear the waves throughout the night. (Better than a sleep app.)

Two nights at Middle Beach and then it was time to head back across the island, but not before checking out Long Beach, hiking Rainforest Trail—a boardwalk that snakes through an old-growth forest—and picking up my pannier sticker in Ucluelet.

On the Rainforest Trail.

As we headed back across the island, I suspect Marilyn might have been feeling the end of her vacation nearing. She’d seen Butchart, and Tofino, two bucket-list items for her, and we were now heading east, not west, so ever closer to Vancouver airport and the flight that would take her back to Montreal. But her trip wasn’t completely over; we still had the beautiful Sunshine Coast ahead of us. We headed toward the ferry terminal at Comox, not knowing that more mechanical drama was just around the corner.

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