Touring Vancouver Island

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In some ways it feels like yesterday, while in others it feels like it was a different lifetime altogether. I can hardly recall what it was like to travel before this pandemic. You may remember my friend Grant from our trip to LA in January where we rode the Ducati Supersport and Supersport S. Well back in the summer of 2014, he was about my only friend who hadn’t sold their motorcycle to buy an engagement ring or patio furniture. I’m not kidding. Rather than convince old buddies to get back into riding, I just made new friends.

Grant and I met in grade eight and immediately hit it off over our shared love of music, Monty Python and motorcycles. His late father had a Virago that he’d let grant ride on the bike of. At the time he was the only guy I knew with a real motorcycle jacket. Not only did he teach me how to play Wonderwall on the acoustic guitar when we were in the eighth grade, he also introduced me to the film Easy Rider at the impressionable age of 14 which has stuck with me to this day.

A definitive film that explores the rise and fall of the hippy movement and encapsulates the counter-culture of the 1960’s, it has become something of a cinematic bible for the motorcyclist community. I will admit that I found the concluding sequences rather traumatizing at the time and it took me years to understand the true depth of the political statements being made, however I was immediately hooked – mesmerized by the artistic cinematographic style, enchanted by the musical score and utterly infatuated with the romance of escaping to the open road on two wheels.
We long talked about setting out on a similar adventure together, but work schedules, mortgages, girlfriends and various other life obligations never allowed it until that summer when we both decided that we were in dire need of a vacation. Both working in fast-paced, high pressure and high stress jobs, we were in search of balance, relaxation and perspective, rather than ill-gotten riches, narcotics or houses of ill repute.

Vancouver Island is a wonderful place to ride. But pack rain gear as the weather can, and often does, change quickly.

Whenever I’m arranging a trip, I do my best to incorporate an item on my bucket list that requires crossing off. Rather than head to a place like Las Vegas or down to ‘Nawlins to find ourselves a couple Mardi Gras Queens, we decided to visit the opposite end of the spectrum by exploring sleepy Vancouver Island to bask in the epic scenery and try our hand at surfing in Tofino.

Grant rips around Vancouver on a nimble little British cafe racer these days but we didn’t feel that it would best suit the distances we’d be travelling over the course of a week-long excursion. Favouring function over the form of two wildly uncomfortable choppers like Captain America and Billy, we arranged a couple of new Hogs from Trev Deeley Harley-Davidson. Unaccustomed to the larger stature of a V-Twin bagger, Grant opted to ride a Street Bob with optional soft saddle bags and removable windscreen, while I chose the perennially best-selling Street Glide that featured upgraded highway pegs and heated hand grips, both of which came in handy.

Grant was initially skeptical about the size and stature of the Harley, not to mention the potato-potato idle for which Harley is famous. The first set of traffic lights we stopped at he lifted his visor and inquired in all seriousness, “Is it supposed to be vibrating like this?” I laughed, assuring him all was normal and that the 103 cubic-inch V-Twin would simply take some getting used to after years of riding a Bonneville with a much smaller displacement parallel twin.

After months of planning and anticipation, the trip officially kicked off once the bikes were safely stowed aboard the Spirit of British Columbia at the BC Ferry terminal in Tsawwassen en route to Swartz Bay. Rather than being turned away by proprietors of seedy motels and forced to sleep on the hard ground outdoors, we were welcomed with open arms and treated like royalty at luxury establishments in Victoria like the Parkside Hotel and quality restaurants like 10 Acres. All of their meat and organic produce is sourced from a local plot of land they farm which consists of, you guessed it, ten acres. Menu items were accentuated and paired with local wines and craft beers, of which there are many quality options to choose from in the area. The bikes were parked for the night, so we indulged. After an incredible meal, we walked over to Big Bad Johns to experience Victoria’s casual nightlife. The best way to explain BBJs is merely to convey that there are peanut shells on the floor and bras stapled to the ceiling. Get the picture?

Dustin and Grant aboard the Spirit of British Columbia from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay.

The next morning, we toured around Dallas Road and had an amazing breakfast at Willies Bakery, before setting off to the west side of the island to explore the Sooke Potholes. Cooling off in one of the many refreshing watering holes carved into the rocks, we unfortunately did so without the company of cute, naked hippie chicks. Pity.

The skies then opened up for the first of many times over the course of the week. Vancouver Island’s temperate climate that is free from humidity makes it perfect for touring comfortably with full riding gear, but make sure you pack quality wet weather attire no matter what time of year you visit. You’ll need it. Visibility was limited as we crossed the Malahat on our way to Parksville in the pouring rain. Disappointing since the steep cliffs and dense forests create an incredible view on a clear day. Thankfully once we arrived at The Beach Club Resort the bikes could dry off in the underground parking lot and we could thaw out in our expansive rooms that featured all of the comforts of home and then some. My condo doesn’t happen to have a king-sized bed, fireplace or a spectacular ocean view.

Setting off for Campbell River, we made a stop at Shelter Point Distillery. One of only two single malt whiskey distilleries in Canada, Shelter Point is a truly professional operation that follows the Scottish tradition but with Vancouver Island water and ingredients. Living off the land and making their own destiny by following their collective vision, President Patrick Evans and project manager Jason Marinus are passionate about their craft and it shows. The first run of their whiskey was still undergoing the aging process in oak barrels but vodka is available now, and it’s delicious. They provided us with a bottle after a tour of their establishment which we sampled once we arrived at the Tsa Kwa Luten Resort on Quadra Island.

The view from the Tsa Kwa Luten Resort on Quadra Island.

Grant became more complimentary of the Street Bob as time went on. “I feel like I’ve committed myself to one British lady,” He opined as we sipped whiskey and reflected on the day’s ride. “But now I’m on a week-long fling with an American woman and I’ll be honest, it actually feels pretty good.”
Taking the BC Ferry to Quadra Island is somewhat like taking a trip in a time machine. Touring the winding roads of the island, we witnessed countless residents and well-preserved classic vehicles that all seemed to be frozen in time. The pace of life is slower and less hectic on the island. It took some time for a couple of city slickers to become accustomed to, but it was also exactly what we needed. After spending the better part of the day exploring the island, we relaxed on the beach at the Rebecca Spit in the sunshine.

Signs around the island warning of wildlife aren’t just for decoration and should be heeded by adjusting speed and riding formations accordingly. We saw nearly a dozen deer on Quadra Island over the course of two days, one of which I would have collided with had I not initiated an unexpected and immediate emergency maneuver after it bounded out directly into the middle of the road. Shaken but relieved, we arrived at the Gowlland Harbour Resort where the only thing better than the view was the meal, which once again was sourced from local farms and painstakingly prepared by owner/operator DeAnn Bremner. A former fishing lodge, the resort has been renovated and revamped to provide a relaxing luxury getaway from civilization and some of the best meals you’ll ever consume. Truly.

The bikes parked at Shelter Point Distillery.

Riding south towards Parksville, we then headed west onto Highway 4 past Alberni on to Tofino which was among the most enjoyable roads I have ever ridden in my life. Measuring 163 kilometres, the longest east-west road on the Island snakes maniacally up, down and around. Each unpredictable turn brings distinctive scenery unlike you’ve ever seen and the sweet smell of fresh air that is both vibrant and intoxicating. I felt genuinely sorry for the people sharing the road with us who were confined to cages on four wheels and am shocked that the isolated outpost of Tofino has managed to stay a sleepy little town for as long as it has.

Like most places, Vancouver Island is best explored by motorcycle.

Soaked to the core after a long day of riding, we were greeted by the nearly embarrassingly attentive and welcoming staff at the Wickaninnish Inn, a luxurious and opulent hotel with an amazing restaurant located right on the ocean and surrounded by rugged, pristine beauty of indescribable proportions. Sipping on a cold, delicious Hoppin’ Cretin IPA from the local Tofino Brewing Company, the rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we enjoyed an amazing meal in The Pointe restaurant. The next day we checked into our own private condo at the Cox Bay Resort which featured ideal surf conditions right outside our door. Anna, our lovely and patient instructor from Bruhwiler’s Surf School (pretty much anyone who knows about surfing in Canada knows pro surfer Raph Bruhwiler), gave us a grueling three-hour lesson. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed something so much that I was so terrible at. Even after gulping gallons of ice-cold salt water and only managing to stay up for a few brief moments at a time, I was still smiling so much that my face hurt. One more Bucket List item successfully crossed off. On the last day of our trip we once again traversed Highway 4 across the island, then over to Departure Bay in Nanaimo to catch the BC Ferry to Horseshoe Bay. As we maneuvered the bikes into a parking stall under Grant’s condo, he shut down the rumbling Street Bob and nodded in smiling approval, “I think I need to buy a Harley.” Six years later he still hasn’t purchased one, but he still talks about it all the time. Maybe one day.

Spectacular views at every turn.

We slept well, ate like kings, met plenty of friendly, genuine people and witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It certainly wasn’t the wildest ride two unmarried guys have ever embarked on. In reality, our expedition was definitively the antithesis of Easy Rider in many ways. Thankfully we’ve both got a few more items on our bucket lists that need crossing off.

3 COMMENTS

  1. “Touring Vancouver Island”… well, at least the southern part. Check a map – You missed, to name a few, Sayward, Kelsey Bay, Tahsis, Woss, Alert Bay, Sointula, Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Port Alice, Coal Harbour, Winter Harbour and others.

    • To be fair, we didn’t say the ENTIRE island. Thanks for the suggestions, they give us a reason to return for Part II.

  2. Great read. I will add 2 things from recent trips. Keep going past Sooke to Port Renfrew and then back to Lake Cowichan. This route is now all paved, very quiet past Sooke, rugged, remote and beautiful. The pavement is bumpy in spots thanks to logging trucks, but well worth it. Highway 28 from Campbell River to Gold River is the best technical road on the island. The Gold River pulp mill closed awhile back so you have an amazing road with almost no traffic. The last 10 km to GR are boring if you are pressed for time. The Westmin Road along Buttle Lake is nice as well. Highway 28 is the best road on the island by far, the road to Tofino is beautiful but so busy now. Of course on Harleys you probably have a line up behind you, not in front of you. Cam

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