When we think of paradise, we think of faraway destinations with exotic food, drink and landscapes. For a beer lover, this could be in the bars of Prague, the monastery breweries of Belgium, or the urban breweries along the banks of the Willamette River in Portland. Or, closer to home, the scenic spas and unique breweries of Vancouver Island.
At Horseshoe Bay, a 20-minute drive from downtown Vancouver, you board a ferry for the 95-minute crossing to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay, where our adventure begins. The full tour took us a total of 11 days, but it can easily be tackled in 2 or 3 separate parts to truly savour the craft breweries, cideries, distilleries, wineries, great food and lodging, and unforgettable scenic vistas. From the ferry, we drive 35 minutes north on Highway 19 to Parksville where our tour begins with two nights at Tigh Na Mara Seaside Spa Resort. Our spacious suite overlooked the expansive beaches next to Rathtrevor Provincial Park. To get our heads in the right space, we immediately head north to Qualicum for a forest-bathing tour with guides Rhonda and Gary Murdock. Surrounded by old-growth forest, you are taught how to be aware of all the elements in the forest, from the movement of air, the smells, sounds, and light. Our host serves us a delicious forest tea at the end of the 90-minute experience.
Ten minutes away is the smallest brewery on Vancouver Island: the award-winning Love Shack Libations, situated on Highway 19A in Qualicum Beach. Brewer Dave Paul is a one-man-show at this one-of-a-kind nano brewery. When not at his kettles working his craft, he’ll invite you into his tasting room/brewery. He has no need to market his beer outside of the brewery; his dedicated followers wait eagerly to buy up everything he produces. We taste award-winning pils, ales, porters and IPAs and then head back to the resort to have dinner at Cedars. The food is delicious and a good selection of local craft beers are on tap. A nightcap under the stars on the balcony, with a lullaby of waves caressing the shore, finishes off Day 1 perfectly.
We start getting into island mode, with a mid-morning appointment at the lush Grotto Spa for pool bathing and a relaxing massage. We visit Milner Gardens and Woodland, north of Parksville. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip once stayed at this colourful seaside rhododendron estate. Be sure to partake in English afternoon tea!
We arrive back to the resort just in time for a relaxing hour in the spa mineral pool and all-you-can-eat gourmet Endless Tapas Experience, dressed in bathrobes.
After an early rise to catch the sunrise at low tide on the long beach, I take off my shoes and walk through the cool shallow tidal pools. Baby crabs run for cover everywhere. After breakfast, we’re off to visit Mount Arrowsmith Brewing. There is massive expansion going on. A whole new section of the brewery is being installed, to almost double its size, and a new kitchen and dining area is being prepped. Head brewer Dave Woodward is beaming. The two-year-old award-winning brewery is doing very well.
From Parksville we take the coastal highway 19A through small villages along the beautiful seashore to Royston. The third and fourth nights’ stay is at the recently renovated Kingfisher Lodge. Beautiful spacious suites overlook Comox Harbour and the Strait of Georgia. Bald eagles and great blue herons fish off the rocks in front of us. Our dinner at Ocean 7 Restaurant is spectacular. We start off with a beer cocktail and then enjoy wonderful craft beers to complement our gourmet dinner. The restaurant manager, chef, and bartender all check with us to make sure the experience is topnotch.
…begins with a walk on the beach to get closer to the dozen or so bald eagles sitting at tidal pools waiting for breakfast. Then at 10 a.m., we meet Gaetane for a 6-hour Gourmet Tour of the Comox Valley. We visit Clever Crow Sea Salt craft store, the amazing Shelter Point Distillery, then Cumberland Brewing for lunch and a double flight of all their premium beers. From there we visit Dark Side Chocolates for dessert. Back on the road, we stop in at Beaufort Vineyard and finally Wayward Distillery, where honey is the base of the spirits. The cocktails are fragrant and delicious! We return to the resort just in time for a Pacific Mist Spa Hydropath treatment before dinner. The paradise element is in full swing now!
…begins in Courtenay at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market, where everything looks fresh and appetizing, and the savoury and sweet baked goods are out of this world! George, the proprietor of Raven’s Moon Craft Cider, is there with a selection of his 10 craft ciders. After a tasting of his delicious products, a few more bottles get added to the stash in the back of the SUV. Before we drive south, we stop at Gladstone Brewery in Courtenay. Built in a historic mechanic’s garage, Gladstone opened its doors in 2015. Owner/head brewer Daniel Sharratt takes us through a two-flight taster selection of his award-winning beers. We leave with a good stock of ales and IPAs for the days ahead.
…is busy, starting with a scenic drive along Highway 1A through rolling pastures to Maple Bay and then heading inland to Duncan. Lunch is on the rooftop patio at the Craig Street Brew Pub; great appies and very decent beer made on-site. Right after, we head to Small Block Brewing: very small, but delicious beer with great branding. From there, it is a short hop south to Red Arrow Brewing, on the site previously occupied by the Arrow Custom Motorcycle Shop.
We have a wonderful tour with Brewer Chris Gress, pick up a few bottles of IPA, and then dash south on the highway to Cobble Hill. Winding country roads take you into the rolling hills to the famous Merridale Cidery. Owners Janet and Rick are waiting with a wonderful charcuterie plate, cider cocktails, and tasters of all their ciders. This is the final destination for Day 6. After a familiarisation tour, Rick takes us to the on-site distillery—apparently the first Provincially-Certified Craft Distillery in B.C.—where we are treated to some very special vodkas and gins.
Later, we have a delicious picnic dinner at our yurt. It is a chilly, breezy night, but the gas fireplace in our deluxe oasis keeps us nice and warm. The next morning Janet meets us for a five-star breakfast from their kitchen—perfect for the long day of travel ahead.
We cross over from the east coast to the west coast of Vancouver Island. From Cobble Hill, it is a beautiful 4.5-hour drive past Duncan, Nanaimo, Parksville, and Port Alberni. There is a little rain in Cathedral Grove, where we walk among the towering centuries-old giant Douglas Firs. Another 90 minutes from Port Alberni takes us to the T-junction with the Pacific Rim highway.
Turning right takes you towards Tofino through Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (PRNPR). If you wish to stop in the park, you must purchase a National Parks pass (good at all National Parks in Canada). Our destination is Long Beach Lodge & Resort on the edge of Cox Bay, for a three-night stay. We arrive in time to partake in the “Beer Heaven Program” at the Great Room Bar, where beverage manager André has a number of artisanal craft beers lined up for the happy-hour tasting. They stock over 99 selections! After many tastings (17) and some crispy polenta bites and mussels and clams, it’s time to head out to enjoy a dramatic blood orange sunset mirrored perfectly on the glossy wet sand beach.
It begins with another perfect blue sky. After a light breakfast and a wander around Tofino, it’s time to head to Tofino Brewing for a tasting. Lunch is from Picnic Charcuterie, across the street. The afternoon is spent exploring PRNPR. Be sure to visit the Kwisitis Visitor Centre at Wickaninnish Beach. There is so much to explore, including the Rainforest Trails and Schooner Cove. A few hours later, we return to Tofino for dinner at Tuff City Sushi. It has quite a reputation for good food and drama. Get there early enough to be sure to get a table out on the back patio, where you are treated to an expansive view of Tofino Harbour, Meares Island, and Clayoquot Sound. Local craft beer is served there.
Ucluelet is at the south end of Highway 4, a short 35-minute drive from the hotel. Right in the middle of the town, a former church is transforming into a brewery/pub. Still under construction at the time of our visit, it will be a welcome addition to the craft breweries of BC. Just down the hill at the harbour is the Aquarium. Everything in it is fresh from the surrounding waters of Barkley Sound. Once a year, the complete contents of the aquarium are returned to the sea. Make sure to set aside a couple of hours to walk the Wild Pacific Trail, south of Ucluelet, for incredible vistas of the wild open Pacific Ocean meeting the jagged shipwrecking rocks of the peninsula. Back in town, be sure to visit Pacific Rim Distilling. Luke, the proprietor, will tell you about the original family recipes that have made this an award-winning establishment of vodka and gin.
We’re back on the highway heading east to Port Alberni, home of Twin City Brewing. Brewmaster Aaron Colyn greats us at the door for a tour of the first craft brewery in Port Alberni. At the BC Beer Awards, this new kid on the block won four awards, including Best in Show. Their pizzas are second to none. Also on the menu are spicy Thai lettuce wraps and smoked meat sandwiches. In 2019, Dog Mountain Brewing will be opening in the historic section of town. I have tasted their beers and they are very good! It seems Port Alberni is heading towards being a craft beer destination of its own!
We travel back to Nanaimo to return to Vancouver. It has been quite a tour, full of beautiful vistas, friendly people, amazing resorts and hotels and libations of every kind. The craft beer list of breweries continues to rapidly expand on The Island, like the rest of the province. Sunny days are here to stay, just a ferry ride away. Our SUV returns to Vancouver laden with the liquid riches of Paradise.