It was around this time last year that, thanks to unseasonably warm weather and the prospect of sunny skies over a long-weekend, my partner and I thought a camping trip might be a good idea.
Now compared to the rest of Canada, “unseasonably warm” for southern Vancouver Island in the late-winter / early spring could range from, say, 6°C to the mid-teens, depending on the year. But from rain to wind to the very occasional snow, the transition season is nothing if not … unpredictable.
So it was last year when we decided to weekend beside the campfire in Rathtrevor Provincial Park in Parksville, B.C.
And we weren’t alone. In fact, the campground – one of the most popular on Vancouver Island for its central location and proximity to Parksville’s renowned beaches – was pretty much full. The difference we noticed, as we enthusiastically popped together tent poles, was that everyone else was comfortably off the ground in a camper or RV.
The forecast called for a beautiful sunny weekend which of course meant cloudless – read: cold – nights. Suffice it to say, as temperatures dipped below zero overnight, we may have spent as much on firewood as on our campsite (not to mention a new, thick pair of socks on our first foray into town).
The days, though? Absolutely gorgeous, and once properly outfitted, every bit worth those chilly nights.
Day 1: Beaches, brants + billy goats
After several warming cups of tea by the morning campfire, we layered up for a beach walk. Layering is the key word (as with most coastal adventures). In the summer, the canopy of old-growth Douglas fir trees is welcome for its cooling shade, but early in the season, those same evergreen boughs keep the campsite damp and chilly.
Still, you’re never more than a few minutes’ walk from Rathtrevor Beach, with its open, sunny sand and beachside trail. The “neighbour kids” also had the right idea, staying warm riding their bikes along the circuit of paved provincial park roadways.
Dressed in hoodies and windbreakers, with hats and puffy vests tucked away “just in case,” we made our way to the accessible walkway between the woods and beach. At low tide, the water recedes close to a kilometre, beckoning tidepool exploration, sandcastle creations, birdwatching or simply soaking up the sunshine with a good book.
For those travelling with dogs, note that the southeastern part of the beach is off-limits to pets year-round with the northwest section prohibiting pets on the beach between Feb. 15 and April 30. Thousands of Brant geese use the beaches of Rathtrevor and Craig Bay as staging and feeding areas during their spring migration to northern Canada and Alaska.
With a welcome dose of Vitamin D absorbed, it was time to head into town, just a few minutes’ drive or bike ride from the campsite.
Parksville is an inviting beachfront community with a long history as a getaway for families and couples alike. The beach is obviously a starring attraction – just ask the tens of thousands who visit for the annual Parksville Beach Festival and Sand Sculpting Competition – but from hiking to the arts, there’s a whole lot more to discover.
After browsing compact collection of downtown shops, services and restaurants, we warmed up with short drive along Highway 4 to Coombs and the ever-quirky Old Country Market, home to the famed “goats on the roof.” Yes, there really are goats living on the sod roof for much of the year, helping keep the grass in check! Inside the market, we found a tasty mix of baked treats, produce, deli items and unique ingredients from around the world.
With dinner fixings in hand, it was time for a late lunch at a “local” I’d visited many years back during weekend family trips from Victoria, the Rocking Horse Pub. Both warmly familiar and much improved from my memory, the Rocking Horse serves a mix of pub classics and modern West Coast fare, and the French onion soup enjoyed fire-side was the ideal warm-up before heading back to the campsite.
Day 2: Birds, bears + craft beer
A warmer night made for an earlier morning and we embarked on a full day of exploring.
Our first stop was a beer tasting at Parksville’s Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company, located on the Vancouver Island Part II section of the BC Ale Trail. The family-run brewery has been pouring hand-crafted beers to an appreciative crowd since 2017 – we were fortunate that the sun allowed for extra seating on the patio! Snacks, salads and some innovative pizza combinations are also available from the on-site Arrowsmith Pizzeria.
At its heart, the Centre is a rehabilitation facility for injured bald eagles, orphaned black bears and other animals. In fact, they’ve rescued close to 25,000 birds and animals on Vancouver Island since 1985. The NIRWA team re-release as many animals as possible, but those they can’t rehabilitate can become “ambassador animals,” helping educate visitors about the species and greater environmental issues.
Our self-guided tour included a variety of habitats and the opportunity to view many of the ambassadors up close, including owls, ravens, eagles and other birds, along with Rae, the resident black bear. Animals to be released back to the wild are viewed remotely, to prevent human interaction.
From the centre, we enjoyed an off-the-beaten-path drive north to Qualicum Beach and one of the highlights of our short trip: LoveShack Libations, an out-of-the-way nano brewery pouring delicious beer and the makings for a great story.
After a warm welcome by brewer Dave Paul, we pulled up a stool to the tasting bar – packed on this Saturday afternoon – and found ourselves among a group of regulars, including local archaeological anthropology professor Marie Hopwood, whose students had helped grow ingredients for Chosen Chicha, a brew based on a 5,000-year-old recipe. It was my personal favourite pour of the day, sampled amid stainless steel fermentation tanks and friendly chatter.
A few take-aways in hand and it was back to the Rathtrevor for a warm fire, ice-cold Chicha…and woolly socks.
If you go:
- Rathtrevor Provincial Park –bcparks.ca/rathtrevor-beach-park
Food and Bevvies
- The Rocking Horse Pub – 2038 Rocking Horse Pl, Nanoose Bay, rockinghorsepub.ca
- Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company – 425 Stanford Ave E #109, Parksville, arrowsmithbrewing.com
- LoveShack Libations – #1-4134 Island Hwy., West, Qualicum Beach, loveshacklibations.com Note that the brewery does have limited tasting room hours, so do check before visiting.
Things to do
- Coombs Old Country Market – Open March to December at2326 Alberni Hwy, Coombs,oldcountrymarket.com
- North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre – open for public viewing from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily at 1240 Leffler Rd., Errington,niwra.org
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