Oceanside Route Driving Tour
A drive around Nanaimo's northern neighbours Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Coombs, and Errington, collectively known as Oceanside, makes a fascinating 112-kilometer daytrip from the Harbour City. Parksville is a busy commercial town of just over 10,000, while quiet Qualicum Beach is more upscale, one of Canada's wealthiest towns with the highest average age in the country. The fast food outlets, self storage lockers, car dealerships, tourist traps, and unplanned strip development seen along Highway 19A through Parksville are largely absent from Qualicum Beach. The contrast between the neighbouring communities is striking. Nearby Coombs and Errington are rural market gardening communities with a number of unique visitor attractions and a lovely provincial park.
Coming from Nanaimo, we turn off Highway 19 onto Highway 19A (East Island Highway) at Exit 46 at the southeast entrance to Parksville. A km from the turnoff is the Parksville and District Chamber of Commerce, 1275 East Island Highway, with stacks of advertising fliers aimed at tourists. The Craig Heritage Park Museum (map key 1), 1245 East Island Highway right next to the info centre, shelters eight historic buildings, the oldest being the 1888 French Creek Post Office, the youngest the 1942 Parksville Firehall. The museum building itself showcases 2,000 pioneer artifacts. It's open daily from 10 am to 5 pm from May to September and $5 admission is charged (reductions for children and seniors).
Go left from the museum and right on Hwy 19A. One and a half km west of the museum, turn right off Hwy 19A to 348-hectare Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park (map key 2). Aside from 175 campsites, two picnic shelters, and a nature house, Rathtrevor offers scenic walks along two km of wide, sandy beach. At low tide up to a kilometer of sand can be exposed offshore, and in March vast flocks of black Brant geese stage through Rathtrevor during their annual migration from Baja California to Alaska. Park admission is free.
Just north on Hwy 19A, turn immediately right onto Plummer Road well before the metal bridge. Plummer follows the river, becoming Shorewood Drive at the bend. At the T-junction 1.9 km from Hwy 19A, turn left on Mariner Way and go straight ahead to its end. The Englishman River Gallery (map key 3), 711 Mariner Way (daily 10 am to 5 pm), displays the work of 25 local artists on a magnificent seaside property.
A block back from the gallery, park near the mailboxes at the start of San Malo Crescent and go for a walk along the riverside at low tide. Chum salmon spawn here in November and you get a great view of Mount Arrowsmith yearround. In 1992 the Nature Trust of BC and other groups paid $2.7 million for 87 hectares of land in the Englishman River estuary to rescue it from trailer park development. Sadly, the Surfside RV Resort across the river had already been approved and remains an eyesore to this day. Continue along San Malo to Shorewood Drive, then right and back to Hwy 19A where you turn right.
Parksville Community Park (map key 4), off East Island Highway at the Corfield Street lights, 1.7 km west of the Englishman River Bridge, is a family-oriented recreation park with picnic tables, children's playground, baseball, skateboarding, tennis, and other sporting facilities. In mid-summer some of the warmest sea waters in Canada lap the park's shallow tidal beach and the swimming is excellent on an incoming tide. In August there's a major sand sculpting competition here. The parking is free.
Continue 2.8 km west on Hwy 19A, turning left into Wembley Mall. Keep left in front of Save On Foods and continue 300 meters straight ahead to St Anne's Anglican Church (map key 5) on Church Road. This is Parksville's oldest church, founded in 1894. The log construction, wooden steeple, and pioneer cemetery are rather incongruous in the heart of suburbia.
Go back to the stop sign on the corner of Church Road and Wembley Road and turn left. One km northwest on Wembley Road, turn left on Lowry's Road which jogs left and continues 1.3 km to Morningstar Farm (map key 6) just beyond the train tracks. This delightful attraction is a must if you have children along as there are barns sheltering cows, hens, horses, pigs, and sheep, plus a 30-minute self-guided farm trail offering excellent views of Mount Arrowsmith. On the premises is the Little Qualicum Cheeseworks where you can sample their 14 artisan cheeses made on the premises and fruit wines from the MooBerry Winery. Morningstar Farm is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm and admission is free.
Retrace your steps back along Lowry's Road, turn left on Wembley Road, and 1.1 km north you 'll reach Hwy 19A where you turn left. Just 100 meters up the highway take a sharp right on Lee Road to the Lasqueti Island Ferry (map key 7) at French Creek. Lasqueti Island, between Vancouver and Texada islands, is not served by car ferry. Yearround the walk-on passenger ferry departs French Creek three times daily except Tuesday (there's also no service on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from September to June). The ferry leaves French Creek at 9:45 am, 2:30 pm, and 5:30 pm with limited service on Sunday mornings. If you'd like to make it a daytrip, the 9:45 am ferry will drop you at False Bay on Lasqueti Island before 11 am, giving you five hours to look around before catching the 4 pm service back to French Creek. The one way fare is $9.50 per person ($10.50 in July and August) with half price reductions for seniors (excluding weekends and holidays). Cars can be left at French Creek for $4 a day.
West on Hwy 19A, you enter Qualicum Beach, and 4.5 km from French Creek, we arrive at Milner Gardens and Woodlands (map key 8), 2179 West Island Highway. This is one of Vancouver Island's top attractions, with 28 hectares of gardens, meadows, and old-growth Douglas fir forest. From 1 to 4 pm refreshments are served at the Camellia Tea Room in Milner House (1931). In 1987 Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were entertained at Milner House and since 1996 the gardens have been administered by Vancouver Island University. Milner Gardens are open from 10 am to 5 pm, daily May to August and Thursday to Sunday in April, September, and early October. Admission is $10 plus tax with reductions for children under 13 and students.
The Qualicum Beach Visitor Information Centre (map key 9), 2711 West Island Highway, two km beyond Milner Gardens, is open yearround. The coastal drive along the Qualicum Beach Riviera here is one of the finest in Canada with wonderful views across the Strait of Georgia to snowcapped mountain ranges. The promenade 300 meters beyond the visitor centre is spectacular. Park, picnic, stroll, and enjoy the scene.
A bit over two km beyond the visitor centre, take a left onto Crescent Road West which you follow 1.8 km south to Beach Road. Turn right to the Qualicum Beach Museum (map key 10), 587 Beach Road, housed in two historic electricity generating stations. To the right of the entrance is the former Qualicum Beach power house dating from 1929. The two-story building to the left was moved here from Port Alberni. The paleontology collection downstairs features a walrus named Rosie 70,000 years old discovered nearby. Upstairs is a large collection of local artifacts. This fascinating museum opens Tuesday to Saturday from 11 am to 4 pm June to September or Tuesday and Thursday from 1 to 4 pm October to May. Admission is by donation. Qualicum Beach's old railway station (1913), with daily service to Courtenay and Victoria, is just across the street from the museum. A 1925 Baldwin steam engine is on display beside the station.
Continue four blocks southwest on Beach Road and right one block on Fern Road West to the Qualicum Beach Civic Centre (map key 11), a prestigious venue for meetings of up to 650 persons. The Ravensong Aquatic Centre beside the Civic Centre includes a 25-meter swimming pool, a heated pool, whirlpool, sauna, and steam room. It's open daily, admission $5.66 with discounts for those under 19 or over 59. The large Tsimshian canoe beside the Aquatic Centre was carved in 1994.
Three blocks southeast is The Old School House Art Centre (map key 12), 122 Fern Road West, in a school building dating from 1912. Many local artists have studios here which you can visit Monday from noon to 4:30 pm and Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4:30 pm. Take the time to stroll around beautiful downtown Qualicum Beach, noting the Town Hall (with the clock tower), the Village Theatre, cafes, and specialty shops. The Qualicum Beach Farmer's Market is held on Veteran's Way off Memorial Ave. toward the Royal Canadian Legion, Saturdays from 9 am to noon May to early October.
We continue our driving tour by turning right and heading south on Memorial Avenue (Hwy 4) to the pleasant country town of Coombs. You go under Hwy 19 and over the railway tracks. Five km from Fern Road, swing left onto Hwy 4A. Half a km ahead, turn right to Butterfly World and Gardens (map key 13), 1080 Winchester Road, where butterflies, birds, and bugs fly and crawl freely around indoor tropical gardens rich in orchids. It's open daily from 10 am to 5 pm May to September and 10 am to 4 pm in March, April, and October. Admission is $12 plus tax with small discounts for seniors, students, and children.
Two km east on Hwy 4A, the Old Country Market (map key 14), 2326 Hwy 4A, is famous for its goats on the roof and ice cream cones in summer. The area around the market has many additional shops intended to catch tourists heading west toward Tofino and finding a parking space can be a challenge. There are fairs, festivals, and rodeos in Coombs throughout the summer. Coombs General Store, 2268 Hwy 4A, 200 meters east of the Old Country Market, dates from 1911, soon after Coombs was settled by poor English families brought to Canada by the Salvation Army.
The World Parrot Refuge (map key 15), 2116 Hwy 4A, 700 meters east of Coombs General Store, was founded in 2005 as a retirement home for feathered pets. It now accommodates over 800 parrots. The heated indoor free-flight areas are ideal for these very social birds, who seem to enjoy human company almost as much as being in the flock. It's open daily yearround from 10 am to 4 pm. Admission is $12 plus tax with reductions for children and seniors.
Three km east, turn right on Errington Road, and after 1.9 km, turn left on Grafton Road. A long block east, turn left to the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre (map key 16), 1240 Leffler Road. This worthwhile facility provides a permanent home for injured or orphaned eagles, owls, vultures, swans, hawks, falcons, deer, and bears unable to survive in the wild. Animals and birds which can be rehabilitated are eventually released. It's open daily from 9 am to 5 pm mid March to mid December, admission $8 plus tax with reductions for children 12 and under.
Take Grafton Road back to Errington Road and turn left. One block south is Errington War Memorial Hall (map key 17), 1390 Errington Road, opened in 1922 and still used for community activities. From June to September, the Errington Farmer's Market is held in the forest park next to the hall Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm.
Just over two km south, Tiger Lily Farm (map key 18), 1692 Errington Road, is a children's petting farm and horseback riding stable. Admission to the barnyard is $9 plus tax for adults or $33 for families, one children's pony ride included. Trail rides are $30/40/75/110 per person plus tax for a half/one/two/three hours. The farm is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm mid-March to October. Kids love this place.
Another 3.6 km southeast of Tiger Lily Farm is 97-hectare Englishman River Falls Provincial Park (map key 19). A hiking trail loops through old growth Douglas fir forest around a canyon between two waterfalls. The water arrives fresh from Mount Arrowsmith, and in summer you can swim in the river below the lower falls. If you'd care to stay for the night, the park has 103 campsites. From the park it's 36 km back to Nanaimo via Errington Road, Hwy 4A, and Hwy 19 keeping right all the way.