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Wrap up your summer on one of Vancouver Island’s best beaches

Big read: Fourteen picture-perfect places to catch a few rays this long weekend

The road is long and slow — a washboard, packed taut by the pounding wheels of decades of logging trucks.

Its view is mostly of the shaved forestland that coats much of that Vancouver Island people rarely see — windrows of logging debris, and second-growth trees encrusted with the dust of summer-long drought.

And the journey — 90 minutes over the spine of Vancouver Island from Port Hardy, itself six hours from the civilization of the capital city of Victoria — is enough to make the hardiest of travellers moan “are we there yet?”

But in the end, emerging from the 2.5-kilometre rainforest trail at the end of the road into the glory of San Josef Bay in the sunshine makes it all worthwhile.

Sparkling, clear aquamarine waters, different from the deeper, more familiar Island jades, grays and blues loll against some of the finest, softest sands ever introduced to a pair of feet, bordered by two wooded arms reaching to embrace the open Pacific for three kilometres in either direction in a manner both intimate and sprawling. Jagged, narrow rock cylinders piercing their way out of the sand in an ironic echo of industrial smokestacks in the steady breeze of the cleanest air one might ever breath.

On a crowded day, you might be sharing this space with two dozen people. On a quieter day, it might just be you and your universe.

This, the southern terminus of the legendary Cape Scott Trail adorns the northern extremity of the Island like a jewel in its crown.

But it is just one of many choice destinations available to beach lovers of all stripes here in Canada’s rugged Pacific southwest as they prepare to soak in the final rays of summer this holiday long weekend. Here are some of our other favourites worth checking out.

Rathtrevor Beach

The defining feature of a beach may be water, but a close second is sand. And nowhere on Vancouver Island will you find more sand than at Rathtrevor Beach.

Sand for bocce. Sand for digging. Sand for beach sports. Sand for wading. Sand for shell-hunting. Sand for sunbathing. And sand for what seems to go on forever — two kilometres of shoreline that can stretch for nearly another kilometre of flats out into Georgia Strait at low tide. Spend the day with the kids building an immense castle, then watch it get swallowed by the tide.

Located a few kilometres south of Parksville in the mid-Island, easily accessible from pretty much anywhere, Rathtrevor Beach is the signature feature of Rathtrevor Provincial Park, the most popular campground on Vancouver Island. Campers and day trippers alike flock here to enjoy lunch in a sprawling picnic area overlooking the beach and relax and play in the sand.

Botanical Beach

Scientists have been flocking to Botanical Beach for more than 100 years searching for knowledge. The rest of us go there to watch the great waves of the mighty Pacific pound against the rocky shores of our country’s southernmost corner and sweep across a garden of fascinating tidal pools.

Two hours west of Victoria, just outside of Port Renfrew, Botanical Beach’s edge-of-world geology and ecology led to the establishment of a University of Minnesota outpost in 1900, where researchers from around the world studied how sea life coped with the constant changes from peace to brutality in the sea-carved basins and crevasses of this moonscape of limestone.

You can examine them for yourself after taking a 15-minute trail from the parking lot to the beach.

Willows Beach

Elegant, relaxed and refined are the signature qualities of Oak Bay. So it should come as no surprise that one of the Island’s most distinguished beaches is a touchstone of this toney Victoria suburb.

Clean sand, judiciously scattered driftwood seating opportunities and welcomingly warm waters make Willows Beach the perfect place to enjoy a quiet book while the kids swim and putter. Or just gaze out at the great views of Discovery Island, Mount Baker and Oak Bay Marina.

The beach, one of Greater Victoria’s most popular, is close to the heritage homes and shopping district and is tied to a community park that includes a tree-shaded picnic area and a tea room.

The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail

If rugged and wild, yet still relatively accessible is your thing, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a relatively recent addition to the Island’s necklace of provincial parks is probably in your wheelhouse.

In addition to its popularity with overnight hikers, this 47-kilometre linear park — which has its eastern outpost about an hour west of Victoria — offers several access points for day-trippers to experience some of the well-worn stones, dense overhanging evergreens and spectacular sunsets and that comprise Vancouver Island’s south coast.

Hike in from the China Creek day use parking lot just west of Port Renfrew to check out the creek cascading in to the sea at Mystic Beach, or check out surf and feel the zen at Sombrio Beach, 15 minutes east of Port Renfrew.

Qualicum Beach

Qualicum Beach the town is noted for its ban on fast food restaurants and the oldest population in Canada. Qualicum Beach, the beach projects the same relaxed, romantic, low-speed vibe.

This four-kilometre arc is never crowded, never boisterous and never challenging. Its sands are leavened with a judicious supply of rock and driftwood that usually limit the sunbathers, while shade trees, grassy picnic areas and breezes coming off Georgia Strait (and a staggering backdrop of the Coast Mountains) soften the summer heat. But if you want a pleasant, peaceful walk along a quiet, semi-urban seawall through a mix of independent motels, restaurants and summer cottages that recall the atmosphere of a half-century ago, you won’t regret your Sunday drive.

About 40 minutes north of Nanaimo, the beach also marks the boundary of Lighthouse Country — a succession of small secluded beaches running north towards Bowser, featuring more great views and a paradise for beachcombers.

Witty’s Lagoon

Close enough to the city to eliminate the excuses, far enough away to justify the jaunt, Witty’s Lagoon in Metchosin is a serene outpost of nature where the quiet Westshore community of Metchosin meets the Strait of Juan de Fuca about a half-hour from downtown Victoria.

A regional park where a freshwater creek mingles with the ocean over a mix of salt marsh, sand and rocky promenades, the beach and the surrounding trails offer something for everyone, whether it’s a chance to explore the nooks and crannies of Mother Nature, or just sit on the sand, or a log, and enjoy the panorama opening toward the Olympic Mountains of Washington State.

It’s the perfect spot to watch an immense variety of shorebirds do their thing, or to bring the kids to play for the afternoon.

Sidney Spit

Though it’s not that far away from Vancouver Island’s largest population hub, Sidney Spit offers a surprising layer of seclusion. That’s because you can’t get there in a car.

Part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, the spit is a narrow finger of sand that juts out for close to two kilometres from the northwest point of Sidney Island, not far from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. While it virtually disappears at high tide, the rest of the time the spit offers a tremendous corridor of light sand pointing directly into some of the Island’s best sunsets.

Providing excellent offshore anchorage, the spit is a prime destination for boaters of all stripes. If you aren’t a mariner yourself, a seasonal foot ferry runs out of downtown Sidney, that will let you enjoy lounging in the sand, hiking through the park’s wooded areas south of the spit, or even do some tenting near the remains of an old brickworks operation.

Parksville Beach

Those looking for a quiet place to get away from it all will probably prefer other entries on this list. But those seeking a family-fun urban beach experience will have to look no further than the community beach in Parksville.

Located right in the heart of downtown Parksville, three hours or less from practically anywhere on Vancouver Island, this kid-friendly beach features tennis courts, food concessions, a skatepark, a waterplay park and Vancouver Island’s best collection of beach volleyball courts, all surrounded by beachfront restaurants and hotels, and recreation facilities.

A boardwalk perfect for a short evening stroll separates the upper area of the park from a sunbathing-friendly upper beach that quickly eases to shallows that become expansive sand flats at low tide. And, of course, during the heart of summer the beach serves as a showcase for the annual sand sculpting competition, featuring some elite (if temporary) art.

Transfer Beach

Those who want most of the amenities that Parksville offers on a more intimate, less-busy scale may want to take a short jaunt off the highway in Ladysmith to visit Transfer Beach.

Expansive, well-landscaped, soft, grassy slopes offer spectacular views of the sun rising over the Gulf Islands in the mornings and great views of the water for picnickers all day long.

The park’s attractions radiate from what is reputed to be the warmest saltwater swimming north of San Francisco and include a kids playground and water park, food trucks, a popular kayak and paddleboard rental outlet and music hosted from a unique natural amphitheatre perched over the water.

Tribune Bay

Some might say it’s cheating to include Tribune Bay on this list; it is, after all, on Hornby Island, not Vancouver Island. But we’re not going to let that technicality rob you of some of the whitest sands you will ever experience.

Another southeast-facing bowl with a gorgeous vista, Tribune’s shallow, sheltered waters are usually dotted with anchored boaters and paddleboarders. It’s located in a low-amenity provincial park, but seriously, all you are really going to want to do is lie on your towel and soak up the sun on a kilometre of sand, with the occasional break to splash around in the warm sea.

Getting there involves taking the cable ferry to Denman Island south of Courtenay, driving across Denman to a second ferry to Hornby, then driving across Hornby to the park. The beach can be busier than you might think because it is well worth the drive.

Raft Cove

“The view is better when it is earned.” – Anonymous

It is, for most, the hardest to reach beach on this list. But those that make the effort to get to Raft Cove will be well-rewarded.

This spectacular and remote sandy strip of Pacific bliss is on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, 65 km southwest of Port Hardy and an eight-hour drive from Victoria – the last two of which are on active logging roads. Access to the beach is either through hiking a rugged two-kilometre trail through coastal old-growth forest or paddling in via the Mackjack River.

Be sure to start the two-hour paddle close to high tide to avoid having to portage through low sections. At the end of the paddle or hike is a paradise for surfing, fishing, camping and exploring with a crescent sandy beach, roaring Pacific waves, and a protected estuary teeming with wildlife.

Thetis Lake

Sometimes you want to get away from it all for the peace and quiet. And sometimes you want to get away from it all to have a little fun.

It would be a mistake to refer to Thetis Lake Regional Park as boisterous, but of all the beachfront parks in the Greater Victoria area, this View Royal park is the one where you will most often encounter dogs and kids and joggers and groups of young people out enjoying a chance to bust out of the city and have some fun on the water or the surrounding trails.

The beach itself isn’t huge and it can get crowded, but there is plenty of access to the water and a handful of “secret” beaches from the hiking trails that weave around it. Diving, swimming, paddling, it’s all available at this popular spot just off the Island Highway at the western edge of Greater Victoria.

Long Beach

Winter storms pounding the beaches, gray whales on their annual 12,000-mile migration, infinite sunsets and some of Canada’s best surfing. Yes, everybody is familiar with the Long Beach experience.

That doesn’t change the fact this picture-perfect 40-kilometre stretch of Pacific Oceanfront between Tofino and Ucluelet (and in addition to Long Beach itself, we are counting the beaches of Chesterman, Wickanninish, Cox Bay, Florencia Bay and more) this, potentially the longest stretch of sandy beach in Canada, has become perhaps Vancouver Island’s biggest tourist attraction.

Three hours from Nanaimo, along the improving Highway 4, the beaches of the Pacific Rim still offer everything from day trips to week-long getaways for everyone from posh middle-age couples to the 20-something free spirits in their Volkswagen vans.

— with a file from Keri Coles


John McKinley

About the Author: John McKinley

I have been a Black Press Media journalist for more than 30 years and today coordinate digital news content across our network.
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