A fall family escape packs a safe-travel punch

Autumn brings less crowds, lower prices and cooler temperatures to B.C.’s top travel destinations. But where to go and what to do in the midst of a health crisis? Craving a post-school-start getaway, my family and I recently made tracks to the Parksville region on Vancouver Island’s sheltered east coast. Bustling and balmy in summer, the locale proved to be an ideal pandemic-proof fall travel haven.

Indeed, as B.C. continues to ride out the COVID-19 wave, is there a safer place to be than in the middle of a massive tide-pool-dotted beach, on a quiet Douglas fir forest trail or at a patio picnic table? Here’s how we spent our quick but much-needed island sojourn.

 

1. Room with a boardwalk-and-beach view

1BellStarAfter a 1.5-hour-plus BC Ferries ride from Vancouver and 35-minute scoot up island to Parksville, we happily pull into our seaside base for the weekendthe cushy Beach Club Resort. Perched on a boardwalk-lined bay, the hotel comprises a nine-floor tower fanned by two wings, with most rooms promising sigh-worthy Georgia Strait and Gulf Island window and balcony views.

Taking note of the hotel’s Stay Safe program at check-in, we know not to expect daily housekeeping (instead, staff do a deep clean between each stay). And we make sure to reserve our hour’s splash in the indoor pool and hot tub, and a socially distanced table at the onsite Pacific Prime Restaurantwhere we’ll later dine on a heaping share plate of cajun-spiced calamari, fresh-catch-of-the-day salmon and tiramisu parfaits.

Settling into our sizeable one-bedroom suite with gas fireplace and comfy chairs, we look forward to sampling the Beach Club’s Stay Well program too. Though the kayaks and stand-up paddle boards have been packed away for the year, beach chairs, bikes, binoculars, yoga mats and art supplies are still to be had. Guests also have access to the hotel’s online No Excuses Guide, with tips on geocaching, hiking trails, best selfie stops and more.

 

2. A hop, skip and log-jump away

2Dan ToulgoetDrawing the drapes open come morning, we’re instantly smitten with the Parksville Beach-at-low-tide panorama that greets us. Soon we’re trekking across seashell-sprinkled tidal flats in our rubber boots, spotting Western sandpipers, scoters, gulls and the occasional great blue heron along the way. The waters here routinely recede by one kilometre, exposing a vast natural playground that prompts us to break out the frisbee. Except for a smattering of other beachgoers, we have this sweeping marine oasis all to ourselves.

With some 20 km of sandy shoreline, the Parksville area is also home to Rathtrevor Beach and its 72-picnic-table day-use area, the Qualicum Beach waterfront and paved promenade, and the beaches of Lighthouse Country... more wide-open places for us to while away a crisp fall day.

 

3. Teen-friendly sightseeing

3Michelle HarnettSet among the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region, Parksville makes for the perfect portal through which to explore this 1,200-square-kilometre UNESCO site. And the Amazing Places Geotour makes for the perfect way for families to check it out: while my husband and I soak up each spot’s natural and human-made splendours, our teenage son keeps busy scoping out the clues and coordinates that ultimately lead to each hidden geocache. From 800-year-old giant Douglas fir in Qualicum Beach’s trail-lined Heritage Forest to the Top Bridge Crossing suspension span over the Englishman River, the route takes us to points of interest we otherwise might have missed.

Next, hopping on mountain bikes back at the hotel, we warm up on the adjacent wooden boardwalk before rolling out along the Coombs to Parksville Rail Trail. The near-seven-km gravel path passes fields, woodlands and bald eagles before practically landing us on the doorstep of Goats on Roof Old Country Market and its curious collection of housewares, decor and food items (think Mexican wine glasses, Nepalese prayer flags and house-made sweet mustard). Three gooey treats from Billy G’s Donut Shop later, and we’re back in the saddle for the ride home.

 

4. Farm tour and takeout

4Dan ToulgoetCelebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021, Little Qualicum Cheeseworks on Morningstar Farm offers urbanites a unique behind-the-barn-door peek at life on a dairy farm. From the 1950s-era dairy parlour, dubbed the Mooseum, to the state-of-the-art robotic milker, the 90-acre property serves up a blend of the past and presentalong with some 67,000 kilograms of artisan cheese a year.

Meeting up with Raymond Gourlay, who co-manages the business with his mom, Nancy, we learn that downtown Parksville used to be mostly farmland and that dairy cows eat all day, every day. “If a horse ate this much, it would just die,” he says, as we watch some of the farm’s 60 Holsteins, brown Swiss crosses and milking shorthorns munch on a mix of grass and grain. “It’s an insane amount of calories. But they’re also each producing 40 litres of very rich, creamy milk every day.”

On our way out through the Farmgate Store, we stop at Canada’s first on-tap milk dispenser before picking up our preordered Free Ranger cheese and charcuterie box. Nabbing a fresh baguette in town, we then head to the beach to savour this gourmet picnic of cured meats and specialty cheeses, including the creamy Island Brie and red-wine-laced Tipsy Jill. Add in sides of grainy mustard, red pepper jelly, green grapes, dried sweet fruit and nuts, and al fresco dining just doesn’t get any better.

 

5. More fresh-air fare

5Dan ToulgoetSpeaking of eating outside, Parksville’s restaurant patios can still be sipped and supped on well into fall (the region, after all, has been called Canada’s Riviera for its mild climate). On a sunny afternoon, we tuck into a steak-and-mushroom pie in the Black Goose Inn’s backyard with sea and garden views. Still, taking a turn through the 1921 Samuel Maclure-designed-home-turned-British-pub, we agree the wood-panelled brick-lined indoor dining spaces (with socially distanced tables, of course) would make for a cozy fireside retreat on a rainy day.

On the flipside, to-go options are plentiful around here too, ranging from Realm Food Co.’s local organic sandwiches and bowls to Mount Arrowsmith Brewing’s handmade pizzas and Q Burger’s hand-smashed beef creations.

Discover more fall getaways to Parksville and Vancouver Island.