weekend trip with mom: a few days in the comox valley

I thought it would be fun for my mom to see a different part of Vancouver Island. I didn't want her going home thinking the whole island is a sparsely populated rain forest! Plus it's more fun stuff to do together. I booked an Airbnb in Royston -- just south of the town of Courtenay -- and we did some exploring from there.

Saturday: driving and eating

First there was the drive down-island, which included our obligatory stop at Ideal Cafe. We contrive to eat there whenever we go to Campbell River or beyond -- which means anytime we go anywhere out of the North Island. After another great breakfast, we found the Airbnb, a two-bedroom cottage with a patio, surrounded by pear trees and blackberry bushes, and steps away from the water.

Courtenay sits on an estuary, directly across from the town of Comox, and the cottage was only steps away from trails along the water. Estuaries are supposed to be paradise for birders: there was a bench hidden in tall grass, and our host leaves binoculars out for guests to use. We didn't see any exciting birds at the water, although we saw many herons flying, and I spotted a red-tailed hawk on a wire. We had dinner in Courtenay -- not a rave review so I'm omitting the details -- but we had a good time.

Sunday: sand art and trees, food trucks and ice cream

On Sunday we took another beautiful drive, down to Parksville for the annual Sand Sculpting Competition. This is held in a section of a beautiful community park, with immaculate gardens and landscaping, an absolutely amazing playground, tennis courts, volleyball nets, and all kinds of other fun, adjacent to a beautiful sandy beach. Well done, Parksville.

The competition is held in a fenced-off area. They had a scavenger hunt going on for kids, and each visitor is given a poker chip to vote for their favourite sculpture. The art and expression were quite amazing.

Those are all sand -- no other material allowed except water. The sculptures must be built on the spot in a set number of hours: rules are here.

We picnicked from food trucks, which boasted fresh, local ingredients and some seriously delicious eats. One notable truck was Farm to Fire -- two guys making individual pizzas in a wood-fired stove. In a truck. Wow.

From there we ventured west on Highway 4, the only road that goes across the island from coast to coast, beginning near Parksville and Qualicum Beach, and ending at the Pacific Ocean, near the surfing-resort towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. We had never driven on 4 before, so that was kind of cool.

The town of Coombs had its fair going on, which looked incredibly crowded and touristy, so we were happy to drive past without stopping. Coombs is known for the store with goats on the roof. We saw them. We kept driving.

We were heading to MacMillan Provincial Park, an accessible bit of forest, and home to Cathedral Grove, said to be the only original-growth forest on the Island. There were many cars and many people. Not the ideal way to experience the woods, but I love that it's accessible to all, and I'm glad that so many people want to experience it.

On the way home, on another great tip from a co-worker, we stopped at a gas station for ice cream, a local favourite. Totally worth it.

We were too tired (and had eaten too much!) for another dinner out. We stopped at a supermarket, and later had a picnic on the patio, then spent the evening reading and relaxing.

Monday: the towns

We started Monday with a few errands in Comox. Comox has a lovely, cutesy main street and beautiful views of the estuary. When it's clear enough, mountains are visible in two directions. (The running theme of my mom's visit is "There are snow-capped mountains in that direction... but you can't see them." Those bright-blue skies with sparkling mountains in the distance don't seem to happen in summer.)

We stopped at the I-Hos Gallery, which I'd read is "like a museum" full of gorgeous Indigenous art. No and no. It is a large gift shop, and not even a particularly nice one.

After a brief walk in Comox, we had another picnic lunch on our patio, then found the Royston Seaside Trail. Exactly as advertised, it's a lovely flat trail along the estuary -- water on one side and huge houses with elaborate gardens on the other.

Apparently people like to look at old rusted boats and call them "shipwrecks".


I was hoping to visit a local-history museum in nearby Cumberland. The area was once a mining region, and that naturally includes radical labour activism. The museum website makes me hopeful for something not sanitized -- but I'll have to wait for that. It is closed on Mondays.

Instead, we visited the Courtenay Museum and Paleontology Centre. Don't let the spiffy website fool you: in person, it's a bit of a wreck. Note to curators: display cases with fossils do not need to be strewn with decorative sea shells. Posters for Jurassic World do not belong in a science exhibit. Not recommended.

But no matter, we saw a bit of downtown Courtenay, had a caffeine break in a laid-back local cafe, then drove into some beautiful hilly outskirts to find Spirits of the West Coast Native Art Gallery. This is a small gallery with unique and stunning artwork created by Indigenous artists. I was especially taken with work in argillite, a black stone quarried on Haida Gwaii. The Haida artists who work in the stone leave some areas rough and some polished, giving it depth and texture, and use tiny bits of abalone and mother-of-pearl for accents. It has an sharp, austere look, very beautiful and powerful.

Later on, we had dinner at "The Roy" -- Roy's Towne Pub, right up the street from our cottage. There's a mini-mart there, too. When we first got in, we were surprised that the host had left no coffee or tea, so we went down the street to pick some up. The store looks like a run-down bodega; I thought I'd have to drive to a supermarket to get decent coffee. But lookee here, in the middle of the junk food, a huge selection of organic, fair trade coffee, beans and ground, plus an impressive selection of wine. The owners of this little store know their customers.

Tuesday: back to reality

We left very early on Tuesday morning, so Allan could clock into work at noon. On the way, we had our first-ever disappointment at Ideal Cafe: they were out of shreds! No shreds?! On Vancouver Island, when you order breakfast, the server asks how you want your potatoes: cubes or shreds. Many places also ask if you want green onions in the shreddies. Shreds! Soooo delicious.

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