Going deep on Vancouver Island
Look beyond the obvious to find gems in Parksville and Tofino
story and photos by Kate Zimmerman
Visitors to Vancouver Island are spoiled for choice. On one compact bit of land, a mere 460 km. long, you’ll find countless vistas to cuddle up to, unpretentious people who boast that they’re “living the dream,” and food to text home about.
Two recent visits from the rat race of Vancouver to Parksville, on the peaceful leeward side of the island, and Tofino, on the wild windward side, were the very
definition of West Coast getaways. Outdoor and indoor pleasures were integrated: I breathed deeply, slept well, discovered new things. And I dined wonderfully.
Parksville is famously busy in the summer, visitors drawn to its sandy beaches, made enormous when the tide recedes. My mini-break there, however, took
place this past November. This town of 24,000 may be less crowded then, but it’s still a prime escape. High tide or low, grey skies or sunny, opening the curtains to expose the shoreline view from your room – in my case, a cozy suite at the Beach Club Resort – is an arresting moment. Though Parksville presents a more calming seascape than you’ll get from the rambunctious waters around Tofino, that’s its appeal: the scene before you transforms with every shifting cloud.
Other surprises await if you venture into Pacific Prime Restaurant & Lounge, the Beach Club’s dining room. Hotel restaurants are often disappointing, but
sous-chef Andrew Janczak made dinner the night I was there; his superb halibut special arrived with a stunning banana compote, an expertly spiced Punjabi sauce, soothing yogurt raita, and saffron rice. Another delightful discovery: sturgeon served roasted, as a hot-smoked cake and as gravlax on the nightly Trio Tasting Plate comes from UVic’s International Centre for Sturgeon Studies. Altogether, Pacific Prime’s award-winning wine list, well-informed sommeliers and attention to detail make this a notable destination.
Otherwise, many of Parksville’s good restaurants seem to be in strip malls. Cheerful, family-friendly, 30-seat Bread and Honey – only open for breakfast
and lunch – served me the best seafood chowder I’d ever had. Chef and co-owner Michael Sproul chops the chowder’s vegetables into tiny dice, studs the creamy
soup with salmon, scallops and clams, sparks it with thyme, and tops the bowl judiciously with freckles of crisp bacon.
This is a kitchen where everything is homemade, right down to the marmalade, pickles, mustard and ketchup. Sproul, who’s blissful about his work-life balance,
characterizes Bread and Honey as having a “European feel with a West Coast spin.” That may also be how Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa would describe its Dip and
Dine experience. It combines a soak in the mineral pool of the resort’s Grotto with “endless tapas” in the Treetop Tapas & Grill upstairs, consumed while in your
robe. “Endless” means 18 courses of bites that aren’t Spanish, strictly speaking, but are small enough that you can actually go 18 rounds undefeated. A kale salad
with ancient grains, hemp seeds, cape gooseberries, and candied pecans with nutritional yeast dressing was outstanding, as was the lamb with barley risotto,
squash, and sunchokes, but there wasn’t a dud on the roster.
Europe, again, rears its lovely head in the origin story of Morningstar Farm and its Little Qualicum Cheeseworks. Owners Clarke and Nancy Gourlay once worked in humanitarian aid, and the family fell in love with alpine-style Swiss cheese while living in Switzerland. When they moved to Vancouver Island, they decided to pursue the art of cheese making and turned an existing dairy farm into a family business. Little Qualicum’s cheeses, called “single origin” because they’re made with milk from Morningstar’s own cows, are now available throughout B.C.
Morningstar also allows you to bring your own container and fill it up at Canada’s only milk dispenser. In addition to operating a café and selling its products and Mooberrry fruit wines in the farm store, Morningstar welcomes visitors on self-guided tours.
Do-it-yourselfers are thick on the ground here. Beach Club bartender Dave Paul was a keen home-brewer before deciding to establish his tiny “nano-brewery,” Love Shack Libations. Paul conducts tastings of his startlingly good brews at the cedar log bar he made himself, and now supplies his brews to local restaurants.
There’s plenty more to explore in Parksville, but you may also catch yourself on the flip side of the island. Located 2.5 hour (winding) drive away, Tofino’s mystical beaches, bullish waves and locavore eateries have been documented by countless writers. Its convivial Wolf in the Fog restaurant remains a huge draw, with its broken surfboard art, prowling driftwood wolf, gaily mismatched crockery, and Chef Nicholas Nutting’s seasonal menu, which makes the most of the region’s “foraging culture.”
If you’re there in the summer, as I was, that same loose feeling characterizes Tofino’s farmers’ market, where you’ll find jellies made from salal and fireweed, and chewy Montreal-style bagels baked by former Food Network TV producer Christine Overvelde.
Already famous for several of its hotels, Tofino has an impressively renewed option in Tofino Resort & Marina. Bought and refurbished by former hockey player Willie Mitchell, current hockey player Dan Hamhuis, and a developer, it boasts 60-plus waterside rooms, along with two restaurants overseen by celebrated young chef Paul Moran.
The Resort & Marina’s Hatch Waterfront Pub offers casual dishes with unexpected flair, including an inspired breakfast poutine and a umami-bomb organic cheeseburger lavished with slow-cooked onions, smoked mustard, bacon and tomato jam, on a house-made bun. The resort’s elegant 1909 Kitchen, with its porthole-style windows and wood-and-metal colour scheme, has had great reviews.
Tofino or Parksville? You don’t have to choose. And they’re just two of the destinations on this remarkable island that’s a hop, skip and a jump away.
Horne Lake Caves
Nanobrewer Dave Paul.
Wolf in the Fog’s salmon sharing platter.
Seafood Chowder at Bread and Honey.
THERE’S MORE TO VANCOUVER ISLAND THAN STUFFING YOUR GOB
“We live in the golden age of adventure,” says Myles Fullmer, a native of Vermilion, AB, who fell in love with caving and moved to Vancouver Island to pursue his obsession. The island is a “caver’s paradise,” with more than 1,000 explored caves from which to choose – more than in the rest of Canada combined.
People have been caving there for 100 years, 30 of them under the auspices of Horne Lake Caves, in Qualicum Beach, near Parksville. There are four natural caves in Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, some allowing self-guided tours and some requiring a guide like the engaging Fullmer.
Be as brave as you like in your hardhat and headlamp, rappelling up and down waterfalls and squeezing through crevices, or just clamber over rocks underground, as we did, admiring stalactites, stalagmites and fossils. This is one damn cool adventure.
Tofino’s Jeff Chisholm offers adventures of a different sort. As a member of the Tofino Resort and Marina’s Adventure Centre guiding team, Chisholm skippers boat tours through the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve known as Clayoquot Sound. Tours offered by the Adventure Centre include two-hour-plus trips in search of whales and other wildlife as well as hot springs tours and guided fishing trips.
June and July are the best months for whale spotting, especially of orcas. On a sunny afternoon in August, however, Chisholm managed to show us not only gigantic humpbacks, but avuncular sea lions and sea otters rolling themselves up in kelp. He told us about coastal wolves, pointed out the site of the area’s first European settlement, and shared local Indigenous lore. We didn’t see orcas with Chisholm, but to cap off our visit, B.C. Ferries kindly showed off a breaching pair as we pulled out of Nanaimo harbour en route to the mainland.
Tigh-na-Mara Grotto Spa Dip and Dine: grottospa.com/dining/dip-dine
Bread and Honey Food Company: breadandhoneyfoodco.com
Tofino Resort and Marina: tofinoresortandmarina.com
Love Shack Libations: loveshacklibations.com
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks: grottospa.com
The Beach Club Resort: beachclubbc.com
Tofino Public Market: tofinomarket.com
Horne Lake Caves: hornelake.com
Wolf in the Fog: wolfinthefog.com
Kate Zimmerman was the guest of the Parksville Tourism Commission and the restaurants and businesses mentioned by name here. They did not see or approve this article.