YOU’RE ON A FERRY. It’s big, it’s white, and it’s the best (and only) way to get from mainland Vancouver to Vancouver Island (or just ‘the Island’ as locals say). Unless, of course, you have your own boat. But then again, perhaps you’d still take a ferry – after all, who can resist those White Spot fries in the cafeteria?
So you’re on a boat, it’s very early, because you need to sit in the car lineup to catch the morning boat that takes 1.5 hours to Nanaimo, weaving through narrow channels and gorgeous islands, about all of which you wonder who could possibly live on them. But there are houses among the trees. Go figure.
After docking and driving off the ferry in Nanaimo, you zip through town and traffic thins out. It’s a 40 minute drive up the coast, on a quaint highway that shouldn’t have stop lights but it does. On your right, you’re treated to the pristine (and cold) waters of the Strait of Georgia.
Shortly, after what seems like the perfect amount of time to listen to an entire Bon Iver album, you arrive in Parksville.
With a population of approx 12,000, Parksville is best known for its wide, sandy beaches at Parksville Bay and Craig Bay. You’ve also heard rumours of a mythical sandcastle-building competition held here every summer… if your visit has not coincided with it, you’re free to stroll the 5 kilometers of beachfront on your own.
You grab lunch before heading to the meeting spot for your afternoon kayak trip with Jan from Adventuress Sea Kayaking. She has an easy laugh, and before you have the kayaks off her truck, she’s telling you a story about the mysterious island you can see in the distance.
“It was a dark and stormy night in the early 1900s when a couple landed on the beach,” she says. “They thought it was another island and when they woke up the next day and discovered it wasn’t the island they thought, they called this one Mistaken Island.”
Your paddle dips into the impossibly clear ocean. You wonder if your camera will stay safe and dry in the wet bag strapped to the bow. Jan tells you about the local flora and fauna, of which there are many. You wonder where the term ‘fauna’ actually came from, before realizing your arms are getting tired and you haven’t even made it halfway to the island.
You dig in and follow Jan and her promise of seals in the distance. Paddling is like moving meditation. The surface of the water is like your mind, ever changing, always churning, yet relatively easy to navigate if you’re low on friction and high on rhythm.
Eventually you feel eyes watching you with intent. You look up and you’re almost gliding directly into the glistening rocks peppered with seals of all shades of grey and brown. Their eyes shine with anticipation, belying their curiosity.
You can almost hear them thinking: “Uh-oh. Another human. Wonder what this one will do? Maybe he’ll just leave us… HEY WHAT’s he pulling out of his pack!?”
You clumsily pull your camera out of your wet bag, change to a telephoto lense, and struggle with balance as you hold your eye to the viewfinder and snap a few quick ones. Blurry. Another blurry. Finally, you gather your chi and find stillness enough to balance the kayak and take some clear pictures.
Success! The tide happens to push you into the rocks and now the seals take no chances – they dive into the water, disappearing beneath the waves. As you paddle away, their heads break the surface long enough to give you solid looks of disdain, before vanishing again.
It’s getting dark by the time you arrive back at Tigh-Na-Mara, your accommodation for the night. You drive into the grounds, fill out the check-in form, and are pleasantly charmed by the thick wooden beams that make up the office. You wonder what “Tigh-Na-Mara” means in First Nations language, before reading the brochure on the counter and realize it’s actually Gaelic.
With your room keycard in hand, you hop back into your car and drive through the property, past even more charming log cabins complete with rocking chairs on their front patios, until you eventually reach the oceanfront apartments.You enter the room and scan for first impressions. Jet tub? Check. Giant bed? Check. Rustic furniture that you could easily see owning in your own log cabin one day? Check.
You dump your bags, grab your shorts and head out for the final attraction: the Grotto mineral pool. Rather than use prose you might be embarrassed about later, you quote the brochure instead:
This 2,500 square foot warm water pool is infused with natural minerals and trace elements which detoxify the body and rejuvenate the spirit. The pool area includes a two story waterfall, an invigorating glacial plunge cascade and a non-mineralized whirlpool.
Sitting on the edge of the pool, it’s a bit like stumbling into a magical cavern. You’re not sure exactly how the minerals in the water are affecting your body, but you know this just feels — different. You feel lighter, more buoyant.
The clock on the wall reminds you it’s time to grab your bathrobe and wander upstairs to the Treetop Tapas & Grill — essentially an excuse to have an eloquent waiter bring you wine and uniquely prepared dishes.
Midnight. From your patio you can see the lights on the mainland, across the strait, farther away than they appear to be. Noises from down below, splashing in the water. Ducks, you realize.
Your eyes are weary. Tomorrow, you must awake at the quack… you mean… crack of dawn. Unless, of course, you have yourself another 24 hours in Parksville.
Don’t miss author Ian MacKenzie’s visit to the Horne Lake Caves in Notes from a modern Cave Man.