Friday, August 21, 2015

Vancouver Island Road Trip: Hangouts, Harbours, and a Humpback

On Thursday morning, we crossed the bridge to Willie's for breakfast again, where Glory's 'small' order of French toast was still an enormous plateful, and my Southwestern Eggs Benny (with chipotle hollandaise and chorizo served on cornbread) were amazing, then checked out of the Delta.  After one last shopping excursion to Victoria's Out of Ireland shop (we no longer have such a thing in Edmonton, unfortunately), we hit the road to Qualicum Beach.

It is about a two hour drive on some beautiful coastal highway, and we arrived in time to hit the eponymous beach for a brief and somewhat chilly swim before checking into our motel, The Sand Pebbles Inn.

It's an old-timey sort of place, but clean and well maintained, with a friendly face at the check-in desk, which is always welcome.  Neither of the girls could remember staying in a hotel that used actual physical keys as opposed to some sort of card device, so that was a minor novelty for them as well.  And the view from our second-floor balcony was spectacular, so, like Victoria, we lamented not having arranged to stay for at least one more day.

Our friends the Parlows had invited us for dinner, and we were within walking distance, so we strolled over for our first family barbecue together in ten years.  I've known Island Mike since 8th grade, Kelly and Audrey get on like a house on fire, and their now university-aged children (!), Mackenzie and Griffin, were both home and are absolutely delightful.  Even Kelly's sister Laurie and brother-in-law Trevor made it out to say hi, and we apparently only missed Mike's dad (who lives on the Sunshine Coast, home to CBC's venerable The Beachcombers!) by a matter of minutes.

This was the first time our two families (plus) had been together in over ten years, as the Parlows were in Europe when we crashed their pad house-sat for them back in 2009. After supper, Mackenzie, Griffin and Tyler were brilliant hosts to the girls, entertaining them with games while the grown ups caught up. Such a good time was had, in fact, that we sadly neglected to take any pictures! Such is always the way, it seems.

Returning to The Sand Pebbles, we discovered things had heated up in our room pretty significantly, but by opening up both the patio and room doors wide and then turning the provided fan on full, we were able to cool them down fairly quickly.  Not quickly enough for Glory, who also harbored concerns about sharing a double-bed (as opposed to the queen-size of the two previous nights) with her sister, and so quickly improvised a bed out of sofa cushions and a spare blanket on the balcony.  She ended up moving back indoors in the middle of the night as the tide came in, and the waves lapping against the seawall became a little too noisy in close proximity.

The next morning saw us back on the road, after a stop at Qualicum Foods, possibly my favourite grocery store in the world.  We loaded up with muffins, fruit and smoothies, grabbed some lattes from the cafe upstairs, and headed out on Highway 4, past Port Alberni and bound for Ucluelet.

This was our third excursion to the far side of Vancouver Island, but our previous visits had always centered around Tofino.  Ucluelet is a little smaller, not yet as popular, and Jamie's Whaling Station had a buy-one-get-one promotion that sealed the deal.

We wandered around the wharfside shops for a bit, grabbed a couple of souvenirs (including the requisite fridge magnet we pick up at every stop possible), before checking in at Jamie's.  The crew there confirmed the Tofino-Ucluelet rivalry was a real but largely friendly affair, similar perhaps to the difference between Jasper and Banff, with Ucluelet's blue-collar heritage making it feel a little less polished than Tofino. With our tour leaving at 1:30 (not the 1:00 I had misremembered), that left us enough time for some sausage rolls and pastries at Zoe's Bakery and Cafe just up the road.

We had dressed in long pants and sleeves for the first time all trip that morning, and now gathered up our raincoats in preparation for 3 and 1/2 hours onboard the MV Lady Selkirk. The girls had expressed hope for another outing on a zodiac, but quickly warmed to the idea of looking for whales aboard a 65' cruiser.  I mean, literally warmed: it was only a high of 17 degrees on shore, and the wind and spray made it feel much cooler on the water, so having the option of shelter and hot chocolate belowdecks was greatly appreciated.

Taking our seats on a bench on the foredeck as it provided the most unobstructed views, we proceeded out of Ucluelet harbour while Captain Scott described various points of interest along the way, including a couple of indigenous fishing villages and a bald eagle perched high in a tree along the waterline.

It took us over an hour to get to the point where a whale had been spotted that morning, and the spray from the bow-wind was enough to saturate my pants at one point, but before too long, we saw him too: a moderate-sized humpback doing some deep-water feeding in the channel. Suddenly no one was cold, warming blankets were hurriedly stowed, and the foredeck railings quickly filled with excited tourists looking for the telltale spouting that would indicate where the elusive beast would be surfacing.

He was the only whale we saw that day, but despite having seen humpbacks on two previous occasions, this was the first time we had seen one with its tail flukes out of the water.  It is a long ways short of the rare drama of a whale breaching the surface (the purpose of which is still only speculated on, and which we have also never seen) but definitely superior to simply seeing the massive creatures surfacing to breathe and trying to discern their shape and scale beneath the reflective waters.

We brought a camcorder, a point-and-shoot and Glory's DSLR, but in the end, getting good pictures of these shy cetaceans has as a lot to do with skill and experience, and almost as much to do with luck and patience as it does with the quality of equipment.

The pitching and rolling of the boat makes it very difficult to frame things properly when zoomed in, and the test footage I took of an American sailboat at maximum zoom pretty much demands to be accompanied by Gravol. I managed to get a little bit of decent footage of the whale at least, and Glory got a couple of decent shots while we trailed the whale for the better part of an hour.

(Apologies for all the wind noise!)

With a final flick of his massive tail serving as a goodbye wave, we moved on up the coast to see some seals resting after an obviously tiresome mating season (!), as well as a far larger Steller sea lion reclining on the same rocky outcrop.

On our return, we saw a tall ship in the distance, visiting the island for some marina festival or another.  Viewed in the middle distances, through the mists, you might have been looking through a time machine to the age of sail.

Going belowdecks for part of the return journey meant we were mostly dry and almost warm by the time we got back to the dock in Ucluelet.

Back on dry land, it was a short journey from the wharf to our hotel, the Canadian Princess Fishing Lodge. There are no Air Miles lodging options on the West Coast of the Island, but there was a decent offer on Expedia that helped. And for a place primarily focused on giving people (generally men) a place to eat and sleep in close proximity to the docks the next day, it was surprisingly comfortable.  I'd also never stayed in a hotel or motel that had its own boot room, set three steps up from where we would be sleeping.

The view from the port deck of the Canadian Princess.
The local cable company has two specialty channels: The Lighthouse Cam (doesn't appear to work online at present), depicting the Amphitrite lighthouse out on the point, which is scenic but also lets anglers and surfers alike see how active the waters are offshore, as well as the HarbourCam, which lets you watch the lodge's 9-vessel fishing fleet head out on their charters starting at 6:00 am,

The lodge's namesake is a former hydrographic survey ship moored next to the parking lot where you check in, and on our way to dinner onboard, we passed a whiteboard that indicated someone had very recently caught a 70 pound halibut. Y'know, angling has never held that much appeal for me, personally, but if someone else provides all the equipment, will help you find then gut and wrap your catch (if you should be so lucky), and they let you pre-purchase a six-pack of beer that will be waiting for you in a cooler when you board, I'm thinking we might have to come back at some point and try it out.

I'm not sure what you get in the Fisherman's Breakfast in the Quarterdeck Restaurant ($40, service starts at 0400!), but the four of us ate in the Stewart Room of the Chartroom Lounge and both our food and service was great, plus the novelty of eating on a ship helps immensely, even if it means your first beer starts out looking tipsy.

Lots of seafood on the menu, appropriately enough, but a bit of west coast verve on the whole affair, which is always appreciated. We shared an order of teriyaki duck wings and some calamari, then Glory devoured her salmon burger, Audrey's albacore was delightful, Fenya's crab dip was almost too rich if you can imagine it, and my blackened fish tacos were just what the doctor ordered. A big bottle of Dark Matter brown ale from Hoyne Brewing in Victoria settled things off nicely, and then it was off to clean up before bed.

But our family was  not through with Ucluelet yet...

No comments:

Post a Comment