My younger sister Johanne has always been the braver one. She rode a bike and dove off the high jump before me. So, while on Vancouver Island for the seventh annual Parksville Uncorked Wine Food Festival last February, she told me we were going to visit the Horne Lake Caves.
I was picturing a hike in the forest, maybe with a short peak inside some very large caves before we were on our merry way but I was wrong. Before the morning we set out I Googled the caves and tried to talk Johanne into doing something else that day. She was determined that after years of wanting to explore the caves, this trip was on her bucket list and I wasn't getting out of it.
We arrived at the end of a rocky windy road in the middle of a verdant forest. After a brief safety chat, we were given helmets, headlamps, raingear, hiking boots and flashlights and headed out on a 10-minute trek through the forest from the park entrance to the mouth of the first cave.
The opening to the cave is tight, roughly cut into the side of the mountain. There are rippled, jagged edges jutting out. Careful to avoid the uneven rocks around us, we made our way underground with the other excited cave enthusiasts. The small opening gave way to a much larger, taller room with more space to move. Scanning light across the rock revealed incredible crystal formations and ancient fossils. .. I forgot about my claustrophobia.
If you enjoy great food and wine, satisfy your whims at one of several events during this year's four-day food and wine festival. Friday night saw us heading to the popular Swirl, a fun evening of sipping some of B.C.'s best local wines paired with wonderfully delicious gourmet bites. Saturday we were invited to the Pacific Prime Restaurant Quails' Gate Winemaker's Dinner showcasing The Beach Club executive chef Rick Davidson fine dining cuisine. Davidson's menu was heavily influenced by fresh and local and imbued with amazing flavours.
Here is a must-do list for outdoor enthusiasts:
My parents used to live in Parksville and a visit to the Vancouver Island with my teenage sons nearly 20 years ago always involved a walk through Cathedral Grove. For those who venture to Tofino, you pass Cathedral Grove on your way.
It is part of the MacMillan Provincial Park, nestled at the top end of Cameron Lake, only minutes from Qualicum Beach and Parksville.
Cathedral Grove is a lush old-growth rainforest that is unique to Vancouver Island. You can literally spend hours wandering through the rugged trail system - taking in the 800 year-old massive Douglas fir trees - it truly does make you feel small.
Horne Lake Caves:
Vancouver Island has the distinction of being home to the highest concentration of caves in North America and more explored limestone caves than in all other Canadian provinces combined. The areas is so rich in caves, with more than 1,000, that it is commonly referred to as the "Island of Caves." Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park was voted Best Natural Outdoor Site in B.C. You can opt to explore a public cave on your own or participate in a guided Horne Lake cave tour. (I recommend the tour as our guide was a wealth of interesting and historical tidbits.) From October to May, a creek flows through the caves, turning them from a normally quiet environment to a loud watery manifestation. See an underground river, climb a waterfall, slide down the ramps and ladders and try an optional squeeze through the "wormhole," a small taste of "wild" caving. Participants will negotiate some tight passages, short climbs, ramps, ladders and lots of cave scrambling.
As one of the province's most popular family destinations, Rathtrevor Beach is home to many resorts (along Resort Drive) and to the B.C. Provincial Park Campground of the same name. The attractions include: five kilometres of beach to explore, a forest (complete with a circular, oceanfront trail), and parkland (including shaded picnic grounds). The Rathtrevor Provincial Park to Top Bridge Municipal Park and Mountain Bike Park is an off-road route that links the provincial park and resorts with a popular walking and swimming area on the Englishman River. Round trip distance from Rathtrevor is 10 km.
Spa-ing at Tigh-Na-Mara: Is there any sister or girlfriend getaway that is complete without a spa day?
We ventured out on a bright sunny morning to the Tigh Na Mara's Grotto Spa. Named No. 1 Spa in the province (Spas of America), the spa was bestowed with this honour because it truly offers a great selection of signature treatments and services by some of the friendliest staff I've met.
Gaelic for "House By the Sea," Tigh-Na-Mara's stretches some 22 acres with towering Arbutus and fir trees that skirts a picturesque stretch of sandy beachfront facing the Strait of Georgia.
Before our treatments, Johanne and I indulged in a soothing dip in the spa's detoxifying mineral pool. Simulating a natural stone grotto, the pool is drenched with natural minerals and trace elements that detoxify the body and rejuvenate your soul - I felt completely serene as I stepped out to ready myself for an hour-long custom Regime Facial while Johanne headed for an Aromatherapy Massage.
Because "spa-ing" is about female bonding, the spa's Relaxation Lounge is where you go to linger before or after your treatments - it's very conducive to gossiping with your gal pals over a cup of Zen green tea. Today, it's full of women, dressed in standard spa fashion - plush bathrobes and cushy slippers -who've left behind jobs, children, and husbands for a weekend of pampering.
Snug in our robes, we indulged in a Lounge Platter and a glass of wine from the Treetop Tapas Grill. It doesn't get much better than this. When we returned to our oceanfront room, relaxed from our invigorating treatments, we headed out for a brisk walk along the resort's boardwalk.
Where to Stay:
On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, The Beach Club Resort is one of Vancouver Island's largest resorts, with an indoor pool, hot tub and gym.
Rates: a couple's retreat starts at $359/night. The resort offers specials and packages - check the website. Location: 181 Beachside Dr., Parksville. Telephone: 888-760-2008 (toll free) or 250-248-8999. Website: beachclubbc.com.
Parksville Uncorked 8th Annual Wine and Culinary Festival Feb. 18-21 Whether you are passionate about wine or beer, you'll enjoy tastings, featured wine dinners, and bubbly brunches. Last year's festival events sold out. Book early. Parksville Uncorked benefits Variety -Children's Charity Rotary Club Parksville. For tickets and information, visit visitparksvillequalicumbeach. com/things-to-do-parksville-uncorked.
How to get there from Vancouver: Take BC Ferries from Tsawwassen terminal to Nanaimo. The scenic ferry ride takes 1½ hours and then it's a short 30 minute drive north to Parksville. Visit: bcferries.com. For more information, call 1-888-799-3222 or ParksvilleQualicumBeach.com.