Totem pole showing carvings of an eagle and a whale in Duncan, the ”City of Totems”, which has more than 80 totems spread around town, including the world’s widest. A downtown walking trail passes 40 of them and a free map tells the story of their significance to the First Nations people.
Vancouver Island – Been There

From Totem Town to a pastoral paradise

Photo by Michael Wheatley

Vancouver Island – Been There From Totem Town to a pastoral paradise

On Vancouver Island, I leave the jarring “British Candy Shoppes” of Victoria behind for the town of Duncan, only 65 km up the east coast, to find a charming railroad town that has reinvented itself as “the city of totems”.

Kieran Meeke
Kieran Meeke Travel Writer

Over 80 totem poles, including the world’s largest by width, lie scattered throughout Duncan’s laid-back downtown area, where they pop up incongruously in front of banks, next to cafés and tucked away in alleys.

Despite their mundane locations and a lack of interpretative signs, these dynamic artworks have not been utterly tamed. I see a ferocious bear snarling out at passing shoppers, a majestic eagle peering down at the tourists and an eye-popping wild woman of the woods leering menacingly at children sucking on ice creams.

This eastern end of the island's Cowichan Valley is a pastoral paradise of rivers, farms and woods where you can’t throw an heirloom apple core without hitting an organic miller or biodynamic winery. Its spiritual home is Cowichan Bay, North America’s first community to receive Cittaslow status from the “slow food” movement of Italy, emphasizing local, fresh and natural ingredients. This tiny seaside town is little more than a strip of ramshackle shops, houses and restaurants held together by a string of picturesque piers. Lush woods run right up to the other side of its only road. True Grain Bread, a bustling bakery that feels anything but slow, mills its own flour from local grains. I sample a warm, gooey pastry while enjoying the view from the shiny new Terrain Kitchen restaurant nearby and feel the cares of home falling from my shoulders.

Anglophiles will be pleased by the profusion of fish and chip restaurants in Cowichan Bay – and even more pleased by a lack of the frozen fillets and soggy chips that plague many chippies in the old country. I enjoy big, fat flakes of Pacific cod and halibut, accompanied by perfectly flurry chunky chips. Deep fried oysters, though, are the biggest revelation – an explosion of hot, salty deliciousness.

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