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, the valley is a modest place devoid of the sense of entitlement that often settles on tourism-heavy destinations. 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, homegrown cuisine and soft adventures through which you can taste, feel and touch the island’s bounty.
My daughter and I take an early morning ferry to Duke Point in Nanaimo, 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 – the great white whale. It’s a beautiful place, especially so when you’re out on the water.
Our first morning in town we kayak into the Courtenay River estuary with Mike White, a guide with Comox Valley Kayaks. Jellyfish and upturned clam shells float by as we paddle gently towards the Comox Harbour and the Strait of Georgia. Mike, a local who works in the Alberta tar sands and guides kayakers on his days off, gestures 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,” he remarks casually. 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. The heads of seals, actively pursuing their next easy meal, are easy to spot.
We return 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. Crisscrossing the rivers and pedaling past blueberry farms, you’re forced to slow down and get a different view of the valley. Our first stop is 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 is calling. There are bubbling creeks to cross, a swimming hole at the Puntledge River that demands we wriggle sweaty toes in the water, and a chocolate seller with a plate of samples that simply cannot be missed.
We take a quick break at Puntledge Park, a favourite local swimming hole and a launching point for swimmers armed with inflatable tubes and a yen to ride the small rifts of white water downstream. A few brave souls venture waist deep into the water, which is still too chilly to tempt us.
A few kilometres later we are in the retail hub of downtown Courtenay, a three-block 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, one devoid of chains and big box stores and filled instead with the unique tastes of independent shop owners.
Our bike tour ends on a sweet note at Hot Chocolates, clearly a favourite destination for locals if the crowds inside are anything to go by. Combining homemade chocolate with ice cream, gelato, coffee and a gourmet selection of bread, Hot Chocolates is an irrepressibly happy place. Here, diets disappear out the window and folks of all ages and sizes succumb to the sweet decadence of truffles, the irresistible richness of brownies infested with walnuts, and the mesmerizing loveliness of gelato in flavours like mango coconut, carrot cake and pink grapefruit.
A couple hours before sunset we are back on the road, this time behind the wheel of the car and on our way to Comox, a few kilometres away. Here, Danny Clair, owner of Comox Harbour Charters, is gunning his vessel’s engines as he prepares to head out on a sunset crabbing expedition. Hopping aboard we bask in the late afternoon sunshine. We pass by 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 are reeling in 150 feet of rope, at the base of which is a trap containing sixteen indignant Dungeness crab, clawing crazily as they try to resist the crab pot. Checking them briefly for size and sex — by law female crabs must be returned to the water — Danny’s co-captain, Pete, boils and chills the crabs before you can say, “Ahoy, mate!” He delivers a bucketful of crab legs to us for a fresh, waterside dinner. It is the perfect finale to a weekend drenched in sunshine, adventure and raw, west coast beauty.
When You Go
BC Ferries offers daily sailings between Tsawwassen and Duke Point, as well as Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay. The drive from Duke Point to Courtenay is 125 kilometres.
1 (888) 223-3779 | https://www.bcferries.com
Visit Tourism Vancouver Island.
(250) 754-3500 | https://www.tourismvi.ca
The Old House Hotel & Spa is a convenient, well-appointed property that sits on the banks of the Courtenay River and the main thoroughfare into Courtenay and Comox. With lush gardens, bicycles for guest use, a full-service spa and rooms with kitchens, it’s a great choice for a weekend getaway.
(250) 703-0202 | https://www.oldhousevillage.com
Locals Restaurant is the epicentre for farm-fresh food in the Valley, a classy eatery where Chef Ronald St. Pierre is producing incredible cuisine in an historic house with cedar beams, stone fireplace and a wonderful, homey feel.
(250) 338-6493 | https://localscomoxvalley.com
Island Joy Rides offers guided and self-guided bike tours in the Comox Valley that include helmets, snacks, chilled water bottles and brand new bikes.
(855) 830-8522 | https://islandjoyrides.com
Comox Valley Kayaks & Canoes, a waterside operation in Courtenay, offers guided estuary tours, sunset paddles, day trips to Tree Island and paddling excursions to see the Comox Harbour shipwrecks.
(888) 545-5595 | http://comoxvalleykayaks.co
If you love fresh Dungeness crab, you’ll want head out on a sunset crabbing excursion with Comox Harbour Charters. The two-hour cruise in Comox Harbour and Goose Spit delivers stunning views of wildlife, the harbour shipwrecks and the nearby islands, coupled with cooked crabs pulled minutes before from the ocean depths.
(250) 339-5326 | https://comoxharbourcharters.com