A man dressed to enjoy the Symphony Splash in Victoria, one of the largest annual symphonic events in North America, attracting 40,000 spectators to see the Victoria Symphony playing on a floating stage in the Inner Harbour. The free August event ends with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with bells, live cannon and fireworks.
Vancouver Island – Long Read

So much nature on the doorstep

Photo by Chris Cheadle

Vancouver Island – Long Read So much nature on the doorstep

Hello Vancouver Island, a world apart from the rest of Canada and where tiny Salt Spring even prints its own money. It is a place where you can make a living using a chainsaw to sculpt logs, or building treehouses for adults. Where else would it be perfectly normal to have a herd of goats grazing on the roof of a shop?

Mark Harris
Mark Harris Travel Writer

In the mid-1500s, English explorer and/or pirate Sir Francis Drake claimed the west coast of North America for Queen Elizabeth I, naming it “New Albion”. Although some say he landed just north of present-day San Francisco, others believe he had discovered an island that reminded him of England, an island later called after another English explorer, George Vancouver.

Visiting Vancouver Island from my home in Seattle, USA, I feel I am stepping back in time, to a piece of England still adrift in the northwest Pacific. Perhaps not as far as the 1500s but certainly the 1950s. It starts at Seattle’s Lake Union airport, which is really just a cozy shack and a floating dock. My pilot Larry greets all eight of his passengers by name, then helps us with our luggage and takes orders for taxis at our destination. It is not that the flight is unpopular. His seaplane is at full capacity and he cheerfully tells me: “Sit up front in the cockpit if you like, as long as you promise not to touch anything.” But first comes the important question: “How much do you weigh?” Every kilo counts when you’re flying low, dodging the sailboats, kayakers and stand-up paddle-boarders sharing our ‘runway’.

Once onboard the propeller-driven de Havilland Otter seaplane, I find our luggage secured precariously behind us in a cargo net. It turns out 1950s flying is not all champagne and cigars, either. The prop noise is deafening, the ride bumpy and the only in-flight entertainment is the view. But what a view it is: the glorious coastline of the Puget Sound unfolds beneath me, a complex system of waterways and inlets that stretches both sides of the US/Canada border. Protecting both Seattle and Vancouver from the waves of the Pacific Ocean, it also shelters hundreds of tree-topped islands. By far the largest is Vancouver Island (not to be confused with the mainland city) which is nearly 500 km long but only 80 km wide.

Swooping into Victoria, Vancouver Island’s major city and the capital of the Canadian province of British Columbia, Larry brings the plane in to settle with barely a splash on the water of the Inner Harbour. Two buildings dominate the waterfront: the neo-Baroque Parliament which houses the province’s legislature and the ivy-clad Edwardian-style Fairmont Empress hotel. Neither would look out of place in a English provincial town.

Afternoon tea fit for a king

When I sit in the chintz-rich lobby of the Empress hotel to enjoy afternoon tea, the Canadian world outside of chunky trucks and cars driving on the North American side of the road falls away in the reverential silence. I am confronted by an afternoon tea fit for a king – literally. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II have both sampled these delicate sandwiches, decadent cakes and savory scones. As I raise the delicate china cup to my lips, a piano tinkles in the background and I find my little pinkie sticking out of its own dainty accord – a quiet salute to England.

“Guests respect the history behind our stories,” says Nathan Pearce, the hotel’s food and beverage director. “Tea has been served in the hotel since we opened in 1908 and we now serve a blend of six teas from all corners of the Empire: Kenya, Tanzania, South India, Assam, Sri Lanka, and China.”

Elsewhere in the hotel, I can enjoy Anglicized curries beneath tiger skins and Indian art in the Bengal Lounge, or classic gin drinks in the wood-paneled comfort of the Empress Room. There’s a timeless feel to the place, as if its clocks stopped between World War I and II and never quite started up again.

The clocks have not stopped in Victoria’s Parliament Buildings, whose atmosphere and splendor resemble London’s House of Commons in miniature but where the “glories” of the British Empire have hit a setback. Historical murals painted inside the impressive rotunda in the heyday of the empire depicted bare-breasted First Nations women logging trees under the supervision of a white man, and a native chief bowing to a judge. This unsentimental depiction of power was covered up in 2008 after years of complaints from First Nations leaders. While many are happy that British Columbia’s lawmakers no longer assemble beneath such demeaning portraits, others see it as rewriting history to sanitize the excesses of colonial rule.

The city of totems

Step outside of Victoria, named for England’s imperial queen of course, and the power of Britain starts to fade. 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”. 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.

Eagles, porpoises and even killer whales,

The further I get from Victoria, the more Vancouver Island wears its old-fashioned-ness in American rather than English style. Out go the Heritage Museums and tea rooms, in comes a self-reliant individualism smacking of frontier days. Salt Spring Island is a short, open deck ferry hop from just north of Duncan. As I ride out to this largest of the Gulf Islands, hundreds of islands and islets that separate Vancouver Island from the mainland, I keep an eye peeled for eagles, porpoises and even killer whales, which cruise the chilly waters here for the plentiful salmon.

At first glance, Salt Spring is just another rural getaway, home to well-heeled retirees, hard-working farmers and flocks of tourists seeking gentle hiking, cycling and watersport adventures. It has cute place names, as I notice when I drive from Vesuvius (the ferry dock) to Ganges (the island’s equally cute main town) in just a few minutes. But Salt Springers also have a fierce independence that calls to mind the frontier spirit of the American west.

It was settled in 1858 by ex-slaves fleeing racism in California, and became a haven for Americans again in the 20th century, welcoming draft dodgers from the Vietnam War. Then, in 2001, the island decided to issue its own currency, the Salt Spring Dollar (or $$). Redeemable at parity with the Canadian dollar, the $$ enjoys almost universal acceptance among the island’s businesses and B&Bs.

Here’s the clever part. By having professional artists design the richly detailed $$ bills, Salt Spring exchanges thousands each year to tourists who would rather have a unique memento than their equivalent value in artisan honey or locally made chocolate truffles. “We’ve sold around $1 million Salt Spring Dollars,” says Michael Contardi, president of the Salt Spring Island Monetary Foundation. “And about $150,000 has never been redeemed. We hold it for ten years and then we spend it.”

Our currency is as safe as possible,

More than a decade down the line, the Foundation has just unveiled the only cash machine in North America dispensing alternative currency. When I stick in my debit card, I get freshly minted Salt Spring $$ in return, with the choice of one of eight local community groups to receive a five percent donation from the Foundation. But I am warned against the temptation to run off extra $$ on the nearest photocopier.

“Our currency is as safe as possible,” Michael tells me. “Embedded holograms, unique serial numbers and gold foil printing make it not worth counterfeiting. We have never had an instance of a counterfeit bill.” Sure enough, I get back on the ferry still with a handful of $$ in my wallet, including several extremely artistic $$2 bills, coming as they do with a reclining beauty pictured on their reverse.

Salt Spring may win prizes for independence, but I discover even more quirkiness when I head north. In fact, I might even accuse Tom Chudleigh, master carpenter, of English eccentricity. Past Nanaimo, the busy ferry town that connects Vancouver Island to its urban namesake on the mainland, past the jolly seaside resorts of Parksville and Qualicum Beach, I turn off the highway, following a country road that brings me to possibly the coolest place to stay in North America.

Cabins in the woods are great, tree houses are better but could there be anything more magical than spending a night in a perfectly built wooden sphere, suspended by ropes between old growth trees? Free Spirit Spheres are Tom’s brainchild and he strikes me as a bit of a genuine free spirit himself. For the past 15 years, he has been building three-meter-wide spheres to hang as tree houses in the sacred groves of Vancouver Island’s temperate rainforest.

I won’t hang the spheres for them

“It would be easier to build boxes,” he says. “But there’s something special about a sphere. There’s so much symbolism in there, it’s all about unity and oneness.” We scale a spiral staircase and cross a suspension bridge to enter Eve, his first creation, hand-made from strips of Western red cedar. The attention to detail inside the spheres is astonishing, from cascading fold-down tables and beds, to doors and windows that fit perfectly flush.

Each of the three spheres here represents around two and a half years of work. “That’s because I have to make literally everything myself,” says Tom, as he demonstrates a clever self-locking door mechanism. “You can’t buy window hinges or door frames for spheres at Home Depot. Go into one with a level and square, and where would you start?” Instead, he uses a combination of high and low technologies: a laser beam to frame up the interior; melted-down church candlesticks to forge bronze fittings; and now a fiber-glass workshop to build spheres for others.

Land Rover used one of his spheres in a commercial and a developer in Germany would like six for his own resort. Tom rubs his hair while a grin spreads across his face. “I’ll sell them a kit but I won’t hang the spheres for them – I know how much work it is to keep them hanging straight.” A night in a sphere is not cheap but they are usually booked up throughout the summer.

With the door closed and the sphere swaying gently, it is as if I am bobbing through the woods, a seed carried by a drifting spider’s web. The sphere’s portholes give a bird’s eye view of the forest and, as the sun goes down, soft evening light spills through the trees, illuminating ground squirrels (a bit like chipmunks) and the occasional flutter of feathers. It is unbelievably peaceful, and I sleep as soundly as I ever have. The only drawback? The night-time journey down the spiral staircase and over a bed of rustling fir needles to the composting toilet is not exactly en suite.

Achingly sharp snow-tipped mountains

Driving north the next day, after many hours of empty highways and beautiful views, I eventually reach Campbell River. Here is the Canada I recognize from countless nature documentaries; wide-open vistas, achingly sharp snow-tipped mountains, and salmon runs so thick you can almost walk from one side of the river to the other. A bizarre experience here is to snorkel upstream with tens of thousands of salmon as they throng upriver to spawn in the dying days of summer (see mini-feature). A wetsuit to brave the chilly waters of the Campbell is supplied.

Even the people up here are craggy and wild. Lee Yateman is one the island’s most sought after artists, a softly-spoken 59-year old with salt and pepper hair. People from all over the world beat a path to his studios in the remote town of Gold River. But Lee doesn’t wield anything as effete as watercolours or pastels: a chainsaw is his paintbrush and salvaged trunks of cedar and yew his canvas. While many roadside chainsaw carvers stick to traditional subjects like ferocious bears and soaring eagles, Lee is, predictably, more adventurous.

“I’m not afraid to try anything,” he tells me. “I’ve had people wanting likenesses of pets and deceased relatives. I’ve done giant coffee beans for a coffee shop in the USA, dragons, elephants and even had a request from a cathedral in England for a nativity scene.”

Watching Lee at work is a far cry from visiting most artists’ workshops. The chainsaw roars, wood chips fly and the rich scents of gasoline fumes and cut cedar fill the air. Lee won international prominence when he carved the emblem for the hit Xbox game Gears of War 3 live on a dock in Vancouver harbor. “That was fun but it was kept top secret as they didn’t want every gamer from the west coast showing up,” he says. Even as fame beckons him away from the beauty of Vancouver Island’s northern coast, he is resisting the pull of the big time: “I just had a request to go to LA for a carving on a reality show. I couldn’t as I don’t have a passport.”

Luxury resorts serve gourmet food

My next stops are the small coastal communities of Tofino and Ucluelet on Vancouver Island’s west coast, exposed to the full fury of the Pacific Ocean, and perfect for storm-watching in the winter months. No roughing it here, though: luxury resorts serve gourmet food as waves beat on the long sandy beaches and dramatic tree-topped cliffs. March and April here see the migration of upwards of 20,000 grey whales from the warm waters of Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska’s Bering Strait.

The waves that pound the beaches year-round attract wet-suited surfers, while those of a more relaxed disposition, such as myself, check out Hot Springs Cove, a boat ride up the coast. Here, a gentle boardwalk through dense rainforest leads to a steaming hot spring right at the water’s edge which I share with tired kayakers soothing their aching muscles. “You cannot fight the currents,” says Clark, an accountant in Vancouver City in real life. “You have to learn how to work with them.”

After hearing more such stories, I head for the heartbreaking beauty of the Broken Group islands. This cluster of islands in the nearby Barkley Sound is a maze of pocket-size beaches, calm lagoons, starfish-draped reefs and craggy rocks. Even better, the water of the inner islands is usually blissfully calm, making it a superb place to try open water kayaking for the first time. I join a small group tour of the islands, although I see more experienced paddlers loading their boats on the MV Frances Barkley in Port Alberni. This 1950s-era (naturally) freighter was originally commissioned in Norway and now potters sedately through the Broken Group, resupplying isolated fishing communities and doing a brisk tourist trade in the summer months.

On the long drive back to Victoria, I stop in on the ridiculously fun town of Coombs, just before Highway 1. I was told I would know it by the goats on the roof of Old Country Market and, sure enough, that’s exactly what I see. “It all started in 1971, when the store’s first owner wanted a grass roof for his hamburger stand,” says Arthur Urie, the current manager and owner of its three penthouse goats. “Local students needed somewhere to graze their goats for the weekend – and in those three days he sold more burgers than ever before.”

The best place in the world

In the years since then, the burger stand has grown into a supermarket and the goats have become accustomed to gawping customers. Hold up an ice cream cone and they might take a nibble but don’t park your open-top car too close to the eaves – one Jaguar car owner returned from lunch to find an unpleasant surprise on his expensive leather interior.

It strikes me that there are some very interesting people on Vancouver Island and I wonder what it is that sets people from here apart. “We honestly believe we live in the best place in the world,” says Victoria resident Karen O’Brien. “We are very proud of where we live but at the same time we don’t want to encourage too many people to come and spoil it. I can’t think of any other place where you have access to so much nature on your doorstep – we literally have to look out for cougars and bears – and go to see live theatre or a concert at night that can rival anywhere else in the world.”

And so I arrive back at Victoria’s seaplane terminal which is, if anything, even smaller than the one in Seattle. Larry is our pilot again but this time I’m sharing the cabin with a small, excitable dog. Its owners, Phil and Janet, visiting from a suburb of Seattle, simply scoop him up on their laps as Larry fires up the engine for our flight home. “He’d stick his head out of the window if we let him,” says Phil.

After my week on the island, having a dog as our co-pilot seems the most natural thing in the world. I now understand why the people of Vancouver island share that English reputation for not being excitable: nothing can possibly surprise them any more.

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