Vancouver Island a scenic paradise

Vacationers fell in love with Canadian coastal region’s wildlife, hot springs, flowers
  I’ll share this secret with you if you promise to keep it to yourself: My wife and I discovered a place that’s easy to get to, has clean, safe, flower-filled cities surrounded by stunning forests, mountains and lakes, excellent wildlife viewing (killer whales, bears and bald eagles), and lots of outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, swimming and biking. It’s Vancouver Island and nearby Knight Inlet on the coast of British Columbia. We spent a week falling in love with this splendid region in mid-June. At first we didn’t realize how large this island is: At 290 miles long by 50 miles wide, it’s the largest Pacific island east of New Zealand and boasts one of the most pleasant, sunny climates in Canada. We began our journey in Seattle, where we boarded the Victoria Clipper for the 2½-hour ride to Victoria. The ferry’s airline-style reclining seats, combined with panoramic views of the Olympic Peninsula mountains, along with occasional whale sightings, made for a fast, comfortable and enjoyable crossing. Who wouldn’t fall in love with flower-filled Victoria? As our ferry docked near the center of town, we were immediately struck by the city’s turn-of-the-20th-century English charm. White, horse-drawn carriages clattered past us as we walked the few blocks to the upscale Magnolia Hotel, conveniently located near all the main sights. From our hotel room, we gazed at the sparkling harbor fringed with moored yachts and animated by a steady procession of seaplanes taking off and landing. Pedestrians and bicyclists navigated the uncrowded streets below, reminding us that Victoria is one of the most walkable cities in Canada (Walk Score 2014), and has more bike commuters per capita than anywhere else in Canada. In the evening, after dinner, we strolled along the waterfront, where all sorts of musicians played and colored lights painted the facades of the imposing granite Legislature and the venerable Empress Hotel with luminous shades of purple, red and amber. No trip to Victoria is complete without a visit to the world-famous Butchart Gardens. We added a fun twist by taking the Prince of Whales whale-watching cruise that gave us a rare opportunity to see a large number of orcas (“killer whales”) before dropping us off at the gardens. The volume of visitors thinned out considerably as we walked toward more distant garden paths and the tranquil ambience allowed us to savor the special beauty of that botanical wonderland. As we drove from Victoria to our next destination, Tofino and Ucluelet, we were stunned by the beauty of unexpectedly tall mountains, shimmering blue lakes and vast forests. Tucked away in the island’s wild, rainy west coast, those neighboring small communities are renowned for their rugged coastal shorelines, rain forest hiking trails, inter-island kayaking, fishing, but most of all for us, the unique Tofino hot springs. A casual conversation with a Canadian couple while hiking in Banff last year had planted the seed for our current trip: “Since your wife loves hot springs, you must go to Tofino; those are the best, most natural hot springs we’ve ever found.” A ninety-minute boat ride on a drizzly day brought us to the small island where the hot springs reside. Along the way, we spotted gray whales and huge sea lions, but our mission was focused on the hot springs. After a 1.5-kilometer hike on a boardwalk through the rain forest, we reached the rocky, steam-infused enclave, which did indeed exceed our expectations. My wife stood in the cascading hot waterfall while others sat in a series of natural rock pools. My favorite place lay hidden at a magic spot where the ocean and the hot water stream converged — the hot springs water warmed my back while pulsating surges of brisk ocean water cooled my front. We stayed in Ucluelet instead of the more popular Tofino, but we were happy with our choice because Ucluelet provided a welcome, subdued charm, a terrific hands-on aquarium and short but gratifying hikes along its Wild Pacific Trail. In addition, I discovered my all-time favorite fish and chips meal at a modest food truck in the middle of town. Each room at the Water’s Edge Resort featured a private hot tub on the back porch, and as we soaked in our tub’s soothing hot water, we watched fishing boats cruise down the bay as bald eagles soared overhead. Thus far, we had enjoyed everything about our tour of Vancouver Island, but the best was yet to come when we flew to the Knight Inlet Lodge. Located in the remote wilderness of British Columbia, the lodge boasts “the best grizzly bear viewing in British Columbia.” A pleasant, three-hour drive brought us to Campbell River, the starting point of our grizzly lodge tour. Early the next morning a small seaplane flew us across the Alaskan inland passage to Knight Inlet, located about 150 miles north of Vancouver and only reachable by boat or seaplane. Our half-hour flight provided a mesmerizing view of mountains, fjords and forests — the only description that stuck in my mind was “fantasyland.” After our seaplane taxied to the floating lodge’s dock, we disembarked, stashed our belongings in our modest but clean and comfortable room, grabbed a lifejacket and binoculars and jumped into a small motorboat heading across the bay to observe our first grizzly bear. Over the next two days, we saw several young adult grizzlies feeding on the grass by the shoreline. In addition, we saw a black bear munching on clams behind our dining room, a couple of sea lions and several bald eagles (including one 20 feet away from our boat, eating a large Canada goose). But, I have to admit that included among my favorite creatures were the purple and orange barn swallows that darted through the passageways, pausing only momentarily to feed their babies huddled in their mud nests on walls throughout the lodge. When we weren’t out on excursions, we were feasting on first-rate meals, with ample wine and assorted desserts provided with dinner. Reflecting back on our trip to Vancouver Island and Knight Inlet, I would say that it ranks among our best trips. Not only do we highly recommend this same itinerary to any traveler, we are anxious to do what we have rarely wanted to do: return for more.  

If you go

LODGING

Magnolia Hotel & Spa: 623 Courtney St., Victoria; (877) 624-6654; magnoliahotel.com. Rated four stars by AAA and a Top 25 Luxury Hotel in Canada by Trip Advisor. Water’s Edge Resort at Pacific Rim: 1971 Harbour Crescent, Ucluelet; (888) 423-3453; GuestServices@WatersEdgeResort.ca. One- and two-bedroom suites with kitchen, private outdoor Jacuzzi and great views. Knight Inlet Lodge: info@grizzlytours.com or www.grizzlytours.com; (250) 337-1953.

ACTIVITIES

Jamie’s Whaling Station: 606 Campbell St., Tofino; (250) 725-3919; www.jamies.com. Since 1982, offers tours of hot springs, whale or bear watching, kayaking, canoeing. Ucluelet Aquarium: 180 Main St., Ucluelet. (250) 726-AQUA; www.uclueletaquarium.org. Ask for a tour and you are in for a treat; it’s not big, but it’s fascinating and fun.

EATING

The Fish Store & Oyster Bar: 368 Main St., Tofino; (250) 725-2264. Same owner offers custom fish packing at West Pacific Seafoods; (250) 725-2244.

TRANSPORTATION

Victoria Clipper: 2701 Alaskan Way, Pier 69, Seattle; (800) 888-2535; www.clippervacations.com.

TOURIST INFORMATION

Victoria tourism: www.tourismvictoria.com