Victoria, Tofino, Parksville. If there are spotlight stealers on Vancouver Island, it's this trio that garners all the attention. For road warriors who love to venture off the beaten track, this bodes well for the Comox Valley.
On a summery weekend visit to Courtenay, Comox and Cumberland, we learned this verdant coastal region is an undiscovered treasure chest brimming with fun activities.
Rich in history, what you see is what you get in the Comox Valley - and what meets the eye is unforgettable natural beauty, charming downtown cores, an emphasis on local, home grown cuisine and soft adventures through which you can taste, feel and touch the island's bounty.
My daughter and I took an early morning ferry to Duke Point, hitting the gas on Highway 19 North for the 80-minute drive from the Duke Point ferry terminal to Courtenay.
The largest of the three cities in the Comox Valley, Courtenay marks the confluence of the Tsolum and Puntledge rivers and sits in the embrace of a half-circle of mountains and a massive, flat-topped glacier, Queneesh. It's a beautiful place, especially so when you're out on the water.
Our first morning in town we kayaked into the Courtenay River estuary with Mike White, a guide with Comox Valley Kayaks. Jellyfish and upturned clam shells floated by as we paddled gently towards the Comox Harbour and the Strait of Georgia. White gestured towards the banks of the estuary.
"In low tide you can see the remains of fishing traps left by the First Nations thousands of years ago," White remarked.
They knew then, as locals know now, that the Courtenay River and estuary are thick with salmon at certain times of the year. In the fall the water churns with spawning salmon and the heads of seals, actively pursuing their next easy meal, are easy to spot.
We returned to town in time to change footwear, grab a biking helmet and meet Laurel Cronk, owner of Island Joy Rides. With a trailer packed with brand new bicycles, road snacks, iced water and chilled towels, Cronk leads guided bike tours in the valley, gentle rides along country roads and bike trails with stops at various culinary destinations along the way.
Criss-crossing the rivers and pedaling past blueberry farms, you're forced to slow down and get a different view of the valley. Our first stop was the Comox Valley Farmers'Market, a colourful Saturday tradition where vendors sell fresh fruit, flowers, Comox cheese and bison yogurt. It's a social place where folks are only too willing to 'talk locavore'and share their passion for what they grow and make.
But the road was calling.
There were bubbling creeks to cross, a swimming hole at the Puntledge River that demanded we wriggle sweaty toes in the water, and a chocolate seller with a plate of samples that simply could not be missed.
A few kilometers later we parked our bikes outside the fruit winery Blue Moon Farm, Winery & Ciderworx, tasting cider and berry wines paired with rich, dark chocolate. Behind the tasting room the blueberry plants were heavy with fruit.
Down the road a bit further we were in the retail hub of downtown Courtenay, a threeblock radius of eclectic boutiques, home décor stores, clothiers selling the apparel of little-known designers and a shoe shop that dates back to 1929. It's a charmingly fun centre to explore.
A couple hours before sunset we were back on the road, this time behind the wheel of the car and on our way to Comox. Here, Danny Clair, owner of Comox Harbour Charters, was gunning his vessel's engines as he prepared to head out on a sunset crabbing trip.
Hopping aboard we basked in the late afternoon sunshine, passing bald eagles on deserted beaches, the heads of curious seals surfacing briefly to look around, and the rusted bellies of old vessels, deliberately sunk in a row to create a breakwater outside the harbour.
A few minutes into our ride we were reeling in 150-feet of rope, at the base of which was a trap containing 16 indignant Dungeness crab, clawing crazily as they tried to resist the crab pot. Checking them briefly for size and sex, Danny's co-captain, Pete, boiled and chilled those crabs before you could say 'ahoy, mate!'delivering a bucketful of crab legs to us for a fresh, waterside dinner. It was the perfect finale to a weekend drenched in sunshine, adventure and raw, West Coast beauty.
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