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Exploring Vancouver Island
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Exploring Vancouver Island
  Vancouver Island Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

Hiking through the misty rain forest, laying back on a pebbly beach, exploring Victorian heritage and snapping pictures of killer whales scratching their bellies are just a few memorable experiences in store for visitors to Vancouver Island.

Located on the south side of British Columbia, the island stretches from north to south for 280 miles and is about 50 to 60 miles wide. It is a big island, however, most of the 700,000 people live on its southern tip around Victoria, the capital of BC, and Nanaimo, an ex-coal mining town on the east coast.

The communities on the island can no longer depend on logging, mining and fishing to sustain them although these industries are still in operation in some areas. Many families, aware of the island's natural attractions, have started businesses relating to tourism, such as adventure tours, fishing camps, horseback riding and guided hikes. Entire villages have been cleaned up and made pretty. Paths ramble along waterfronts, flower gardens bloom and boutiques and gift shops bulge with quality merchandise.

Victoria deservedly attracts the most attention. Established by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1843 as Fort Victoria, the city looks much the same as it did at the turn of the century. To those that arrive by water, the look is quite inviting. Low-rise, stone buildings line paved sidewalks. Planters hanging from old-fashioned lampposts explode with multi- colored petunias. In the evening the sound of clip-clops from the horse and buggies trotting on the stones echoes through the streets and the imposing Parliament buildings sparkle with thousands of twinkling lights. Behind the facades of restored districts such as Bastion Square, Market Square and Eaton Center, visitors find local arts and crafts and fine wool and China from around the world.

Nanaimo also has a historic district, complete with brick-lined sidewalks and ornate buildings including a 1896 courthouse. In the town's museum, displays include a coal mine, a pioneer town and a Chinese gallery. The Chinese, by the way, played a very important role in the development of the island and all of BC. Some of Canada's earliest immigrants, they came to work in the mines and railroads and stayed.

Southwest of Nanaimo in the Cowichan and Chemainus Valleys, blessed with sunshine and mild weather, vineyards flourish. Excellent camping facilities straddle the trout-laden Lake Cowichan; Duncan's entrance is lined with handsome totem poles and Chemainus proudly boasts to be the "little town that did." (What Chemainus did was paint 33 history revealing murals on the walls of businesses on the main street.)

North of Nanaimo, highway 19 travels along the east coast connecting villages that hug the ocean, each with individual character: Parksville features some of BC's best beaches and Port Hardy on the extreme northern tip is a good place for supplies and service. The boardwalk village of Telegraph Cove, a must-take side trip just south of Port McNeill, is the place to watch killer whales cavorting in Johnstone Straight. Another worthy detour is to Gold River, at the end of Highway 28. Here visitors and locals alike enjoy wilderness activities such as caving and hiking. The colorful sights in the cold waters beneath Georgia Straight dazzle Scuba divers and fisher men and women flock to Campbell River to cast their bait in Discovery Passage.

Over on the other side, the ragged west coast is broken by inlets, streams and sandbars and in places, a lush rain forest, with giant firs and cedars some hundreds of years old. Its rugged beauty cannot be ignored, except once during the year and that is late March, early April, when the gray whales are migrating. During the whale festival, held in the artsy town of Tofino, hundreds of onlookers hoping to get a glimpse of this remarkable event converge on Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park.

The only way to reach this mostly uninhabited side of the island is via Highway 4. Highway 4 features several highlights, too: Just before reaching Port Alberni, a harbor city attached to the west coast via Barkley Sound, the road cuts through Cathedral Grove. The awe-inspiring majesty of this stand of old growth firs and cedars is just one more unforgettable sight on Vancouver Island.

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