Follow the scenic route to the Comox Valley

May 21, 2008

Follow the scenic route to the Comox Valley

Text CR Jack Christie Photo CR Louise Christie

Over the past decade, I’ve seen numerous people flee Vancouver for greener pastures in the Comox Valley. Affordable housing heads the list of attractions, but outdoor pursuits are a close second. Like to ski or snowboard? Mountain bike? Golf? Sail? All on the same day? ’Nuff said.

Together, the valley’s three principal towns—Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland—go back to the days of first contact between Europeans and First Nations in colonial New Caledonia, as B.C. was known in the mid-1800s. Attractions for new arrivals are as evident now as then. From abundant seafood to lush farmland, this valley provides all the necessities of life, including wireless high-speed Internet.

Yes, the times are changing in the valley, though what I enjoy as much as anything is the journey itself. Driving the Oceanside Route (Highway 19A) offers a glance back in time to an era before the Inland Island Highway (Highway 19) was completed. Since then, the welcomed difference is the pace of traffic, much more sedate now as speed-driven travellers head for the express route. Take your time getting to the Comox Valley. Trust me. Something serene will happen in the process.

Oyster Bay. Fanny Bay. Clam Bay. Shelter Bay. Get the picture? The Oceanside Route begins 25 kilometres north of Nanaimo at Craig’s Crossing and leads 80 kilometres to Courtenay, continuing on to Campbell River. This is the more scenic bayside approach to the Comox Valley that travellers on the Island Highway never experience. Don’t resist the temptation to stop when the feeling grips you, particularly north of Parksville, where an expanse of sand flats and oyster beds fans out into the Salish Sea. Slow down as you pass through Union Bay, whose historic brick post office gives mute testimony to the little village’s past as an important port a century ago. A steady breeze blows across cobble beaches that give way at low tide to hard-packed sand, where herons stalk, seals bark, ravens caw, and bald eagles intermingle with skimboarders.

Pull in to the rest area at Oyster Bay Shoreline Park, 30 kilometres north of Courtenay, where the coastline suddenly opens up with sweeping vistas north to Quadra Island and Campbell River. A monster midden of shells packing a powerfully salty aroma surrounds Mac’s Oysters on Fanny Bay, just south of the Denman Island ferry dock at Buckley Bay. Quaint restaurants and guest lodges dot the coast and beckon you to stop. And so you should, especially as towns like Qualicum Beach go to such admirable effort to put their best faces forward with showy floral displays.

One of the best places to begin an exploration is the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market (comoxvalleyfarmersmarket.com), located at the Exhibition Grounds on Headquarters Road in Courtenay. The market takes place on Saturdays, April to October, and is one of the best ways to connect with locals as well as to view and sample valley products, from berry pies to venison sausage to handwoven baskets to gold-medal cheese from the Smith family’s Natural Pastures Cheese Company (635 McPhee Avenue, Courtenay; 250-334-4422 or 1-866-244-4422; www.naturalpastures.com). They’re just as proud of their certified-heritage-farm status as they are of their award-winning Camembert cheese, not to mention seven other soft and semisoft varieties, including Wasabi Verdelait, in which Japan meets Switzerland.

When it comes to working up an appetite, head to Seal Bay Forest and Nature Park, where you can cycle, picnic, run, swim, or simply walk the trails. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that this is an official B.C. Wildlife Watch viewing site, be prepared to whoop like a loon on the 15-kilometre, multi-use, single-track trail that loops around the western portion of this park’s diverse landscape. If you’re biking, the soft, undulating pathway breeds confidence in your ability to go fast and feel safe at the same time as you roll through the forest. The high-pitched sound of your approach will also help alert others, who in all probability will be in the same exalted headspace. Start anywhere along the loop and follow the yellow markers. As well, a two-kilometre wheelchair loop leads through the woods from Bates or Seabank road.

If you’re not feeling quite so pumped, you’ll appreciate the numerous trails marked solely for those on foot, such as the Don Apps Trail, which leads hikers down through fern-clad ravines to a wide bay, a special place worth seeking out. At about Easter time, California and Steller sea lions appear along this coast, particularly around Seal Bay, as they pursue the annual oolichan migration. Take care: the urge to slip away for good to the Comox Valley is contagious.

Access: Travel information is available at the Comox Valley Visitor Information Centre (2040 Cliffe Avenue, Courtenay; 250-334-3234 or 1-888-357-4471; www.discovercomoxvalley.com). Guidebooks are available at Blue Heron Books (1775 Comox Road, Comox; 250-339-6111) and Laughing Oyster Book Shop (286 5th Street, Courtenay; 250-334-2511).

To find Seal Bay Forest and Nature Park, follow signs east from the Island Highway to the Powell River ferry on Ryan Road, then north on a blend of Anderton, Waveland, and Bates roads. Alternatively, east from Island Highway on Coleman Road and south on Bates Road to the main parking area; trails can also be accessed from Hardy, Huband, and Mitchell roads, among others.

The Comox Valley is well-served by extensive networks of both road and off-road trails. There are bike shops to serve each specialty, including Mountain City Cycle (120 Fifth Street, Courtenay; 250-334-0084), Simon’s Cycles (3–1841 Comox Avenue, Comox; 250-339-6683; www.simoncycle.com), and Trail Bicycles (1999 Lake Trail Road, Courtenay; 250-334-2456) for sales, service, rentals, gear, and trail info.
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