26 JUL 2019: Sometimes the best experiences are in our own back yard. Take Vancouver Island, for example. While still a distant destination for most Canadians, it doesn’t involve passports, foreign currency, or too much of a slog to get there. It’s not on most travellers’ bucket lists, and that makes it ideal for people looking to squeeze in a last holiday summer before the kids are back in school.

The pace is slower, the people are hospitable, and there’s space available on BC Ferries, the V2V Empress, commercial flights or small seaplanes (Harbour Air, North America’s first fully carbon-neutral airline, flies passengers shore to shore from Vancouver). However it’s done, leaving the mainland means escaping the nine-to-five reality for a quick reset. From wilderness to wellness, Vancouver Island packs an amazing range of activities – adventure, wildlife, golf, caving, surfing, fine dining, gardens and wine regions, warm-water beaches, a world-class spa and more – into an area about a quarter the size of England.

With the mildest weather in Canada, it’s a year-round destination that’s particularly welcoming in the summer and early fall. Tofino, on the wilder and wetter west coast, is well booked into storm-watching season, but the gently rolling eastern coastline of the lesser-known middle Island is more accessible, loaded with charm and dotted with attractions that both relax and restore.

The Parksville-Qualicum area is ground zero for wellness and family tourism, with the premium Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa and Resort, the Rathtrevor tidal beaches, the Saturday-morning Qualicum farmers market, Milner Gardens, the Qualicum Cheeseworks and the famous old-growth forest of Cathedral Grove all within a 30-minute drive.

The Grotto Spa, voted #1 spa in Canada by Spas of America, is the 20,000 sq. ft. highlight of the sprawling Tigh-Na-Mara (Gaelic for “house by the sea”), a full-service resort and conference centre with rustic luxe. Set just south of Parksville on 22 acres of forested coastline with dreamy views of the Georgia Strait and a great swath of the Rathtrevor beach, which stretches almost a kilometre out into the Strait at low tide, Tigh-Na-Mara is the area’s premier choice for a stay. The spa is renowned for its mineral pools, high-quality treatments, and the superlative food and drink at its Treetop Tapas and Grill, where the dress code is spa robes and slippers.

The peaceful beauty of Rathtrevor Beach is a balm in itself. Walking out on the sun-warmed sand at low tide, poking around with the crabs and starfish in all the tidal pools, is a soul-soothing experience that restores and rejuvenates. When the tide rolls in, it brings the fun of swimming in some of the warmest waters in Canada. Temperatures are as high as 20 degrees Celsius in summer at the 19 km. of beach along the Parksville-Qualicum coastline’s 19 km. of beaches. It’s not surprising that the area is popular with families – it’s easy to cultivate a child’s appreciation of nature here.

Beyond the beach, there is a different kind of wildlife to discover at North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, where the mantra is “rescue, rehabilitate and release.” Guests who for various reasons cannot be released back into the wild, like the 23-year-old black bear named Canute, Patrick the stressed-out peregrine falcon, or the beautiful barn owl called Joey, are cared for long-term by the experts at the Centre, which receives no government funding and relies on volunteers, donations and modest entrance fees. Another kind of wildlife can be seen down the road in Coombs at the family-owned Old Country Market, a gourmet foods shop where live goats graze the grassy roof above.

The Japanese were first to recognize the therapeutic benefits of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. This recuperative practice uses the healing energy of the forest to clear tension and stress and can be practiced easily in many accessible forests in the Parksville-Qualicum area. Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours offers a number of guided forest bathing walks, or visitors can simply take Highway 4 through MacMillan Park and pull over to walk among the ancient Douglas firs in Cathedral Grove. Some are more than 800 years old.

For more information: myPQB.ca


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