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Parksville and Qualicum: Where beauty and wildlife beckon

Both Parksville and Qualicum Beach are in the UNESCO designated biosphere reserve called the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region — one of only three biosphere reserves in British Columbia.

Nature is a top tourism draw for visitors to Parksville and Qualicum Beach, two charming cities in a unique geographical setting with many parks, gardens, lakes, nature trails and, of course, sandy beaches.

It’s also one of the top spots on Vancouver Island for bird ­lovers, who come to see the more than 240 resident and tens of thousands of migrating birds who feed on its shores. Birds are so popular here, Parksville-­Qualicum Beach hosts an annual Brant Wildlife Festival, happening March 31 to April 8, to celebrate the arrival of the endangered Brant goose, also known as the little sea goose.

“This area is so fantastic. People come here to see the beauty and the wildlife,” says conservationist Lynne Brookes, who wrote the B.C. Bird Trail Guide brochure.

(Destination B.C., Birds Canada and Indigenous Tourism B.C. also have a collection of self-guided itineraries for bird watching in five regions of B.C., including one for Parksville Qualicum Beach at

Brookes says at one time Brant geese bypassed Vancouver Island entirely, during their annual migration north from Mexico, after their numbers were decimated in the late 1800s and early 1900s by hunters. But they are slowly returning, thanks to local and provincial preservation efforts, with the most recent count in mid-March of 414 Brant geese spotted in this ecologically rich area.

Both Parksville and Qualicum Beach are in the UNESCO designated biosphere reserve called the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region — one of only three biosphere reserves in British Columbia (the others are in Clayoquot Sound and Atl'katsem/Howe Sound). The region extends from the top of Mount Arrowsmith to 300 metres into the Strait of Georgia — a vertical range that makes it unique among all 19 Canadian biosphere reserves.

“Nature is our No. 1 draw. Tourists come to look at all the trees, the ponds, the seashore, the beauty of the ocean and the mountains behind. Which is why it’s so important to really preserve it and protect it for the wildlife and the native plants but also for people’s enjoyment and education,” she says.

Brookes also volunteers with the North Island Wildlife Association, which has been rehabilitating ill, injured and orphaned wildlife on Vancouver Island since 1985.

The wildlife rehabilitation centre is a great place for visitors to learn about local wildlife and native plants by touring the facility, where injured animals from hummingbirds to bears are cared for. Although some of the animals, once healthy enough to return to the wild, are not on view to the public, the birds and animals that can’t be returned successfully can be seen, such as Ray, a six-year-old black bear who suffers seizures and needs medication to survive and Casey, an American bald eagle with a non-repairable dislocated wing.

There’s also a viewing area where visitors can secretly watch eagles as they regain their flying skills in a 30-metre long eagle flight enclosure. Currently, there are six eagles on the mend, with one strong enough to be released during the upcoming Brant Wildlife Festival.

Besides birdwatching, Parksville-Qualicum Beach is also a great place to see heritage forests, where many old growth trees can still be found. Besides the well-known Cathedral Grove, a 20-minute drive from downtown Qualicum Beach, there’s Milner Gardens and Woodland, an ancient unspoiled forest on 28 hectares adjacent to an oceanside bluff.

After exploring its trails, visitors can stop in for a traditional English afternoon tea in the Camellia Tea Room, located in the historic summer home of the Milner family.

The heritage house, built in 1931 to resemble a Ceylonese tea plantation, has had many famous guests including the late Queen and Prince Philip, who stayed here during one of their visits to Canada, and in 1986, Prince Charles and Diana, the late Princess of Wales, took a break from Expo ʼ86 to relax here.

Parksville-Qualicum Beach, just a two hour drive from ­Victoria, is the ideal vacation spot not only for royalty but anyone who appreciates nature.

Where to stay and eat:

• The Beach Club Resort hotel is located just off the Parksville Beach Boardwalk and has spacious suites with private balconies for guests to enjoy panoramic views of the ocean or mountains. Amenities include a seaside pool and hot tub, fitness centre, Stonewater Spa and the Pacific Prime Restaurant and Lounge, with a beachfront patio. The restaurant menu has been completely revamped by new executive Chef Nate Catto, who has brought more focus to what British Columbia does best — fresh seafood locally sourced, from octopus and salmon to my favourite dinner item on the menu, a hazelnut-crusted halibut with a vanilla lobster cream.

• Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort is on 22 forested acres beside the ocean and has the award-winning Grotto Spa. Guests can enjoy a unique spa and culinary experience, called Dip and Dine, where you first relax in the mineral pool and hot tub then go upstairs to dine in your spa robe and sandals at the Treetop Tapas & Grill. Here you’ll enjoy a special two-hour meal called Endless Tapas. The chef changes the tapas menu four times a year, but always offers gourmet items with interesting flavour combinations. You can reorder as much as you want and for me that would be the smoked sablefish chowder, prawns with coconut and galangal risotto and the scallops.

• Free Spirit Spheres in ­Qualicum Beach is a unique accommodation that will have you literally hanging in the forest in hand-made orbs, created by engineer Tom Chudleigh. He has made six orbs, each one taking about three years to make — two of which are wooden and the others made of fibreglass from a mould. Two of the orbs are for rent, each one suspended in the centre of tall trees by a network of ropes with large round windows looking out to the treetops nearby.

The interiors are comfortable with fine cabinetry woodwork throughout and beds and tables that easily lift down and can be raised out of the way when not in use. In 2017 Chudleigh won the B.C. Industrial Award for most remarkable B.C. experience.

• Qualicum Beach Café, looking out to the oceanfront, first opened in February 2021, in the Qualicum Beach Inn, and is operated by the same folks who have been operating the Water St. Café in Vancouver since 1988. The calibre of food is the same high standard of its sister restaurant and the menu is diverse. If you are there for brunch, I’d recommend any one of their Eggs Benedict, with house-made hollandaise, and would return again in March when they bring out a special “Lobster Madness” menu just to experience their delicious Lobster Benny one more time.

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