From caving to floating in spa waters, head east for some natural, mineral-filled wonders

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“Keep your hands to yourself!” cries Oscar, as we descend deep inside Horne Lake Caves, a 30-minute drive from Parksville on Vancouver Island. “One pinkie can destroy hundreds of years of growth.”

High above hang giant icicle-shaped stalactites in Riverbend Cave, and to the right there are waterfalls of calcite (we even climb up to see a marshmallow-like chunk that strikingly resembles a Buddha shape). It’s all part of a mesmerizing underground cathedral with minerals glittering under the lights on our helmets.

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We’re teetering on the uneven, occasionally slippery rocks, thanks to the “three-points-of-contact-at-all-time” and “be-slow-to-be- smooth, go-slow-to-go-fast” mantras from our instructor. Our group — a couple from Toronto and a family up for the day from Victoria— navigates the narrow damp passages and giant boulders cantilevering into the 554-metre-long cave.

Horne Lake Caves
Inside the Horne Lake Caves. Photo by Lucy Hyslop

We wind our way further down past more fossils and other crystalline formations encountering the three stages of caving. Beyond the “entrance” and “twilight” parts of a cave—where the sunlight can still seep in—we emerge into the final one. Finding rocks to sit on and switching off our lights, we are now in the dark zone, utter darkness.

After decades exploring above ground on the island, it’s thrilling to be subterranean. It opens up a whole new playground. After all, as home to some 1,500 surveyed caves, it’s little wonder Vancouver Island is touted as the “caving capital of Canada.”

Blinking as we emerge into the full May sunshine, I warm up quickly by peeling off the layers needed for the eight degrees or so inside the caves. However, the rock theme continues to thread through my three-day trip.

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Pamper yourself

Back in Parksville, I lap up my first soothing mineral pool at The Grotto Spa at the newly renovated Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort, a long-standing family favourite that’s built into a bluff above the Salish Sea with horizons to chase over nearly two kilometres of tidal flats. With its sculpted rock interiors, the attractive Grotto also features an invigorating cool waterfall and it now boasts chic cedar-barrel saunas with windows looking out on the surrounding 22 acres of forest.

Immersion Spa and Wellness
The experience showers and mineral pool at Naturally Pacific Resorts’ Immersion Spa and Wellness. Photo by Michael Vanarey

The following day, it’s time for my a relaxing float in potassium, magnesium and sodium. An hour up the Island Highway, Campbell River’s newly-launched Naturally Pacific Resort and its Immersion Spa & Wellness—and experiential showers—are equally exceptional. All with its vantage point overlooking not only its own verdant golf course, but across the Salish Sea and the boats of the fishing town.

Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours

Early the next morning I climb aboard a boat with Homalco Wildlife & Cultural Tours as we venture out to Cortes and Quadra islands in hopes of seeing migrating humpbacks. On the ecological island of Mitlenatch we see—and smell—stellar sea lions hanging out and Pacific white-sided dolphins dart alongside our boat. Sadly no whales this time.

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Our skipper Al tells us about “the people of the fast-running waters”’ in his generous conversation about his Homalco (or Xwémalhkwu) background. We head across calm channels to their former home at Aupe or New Church House, now an abandoned village.

Sea lions
Sea lions at Mitlenatch Island Nature Park off Campbell River. Photo by Lucy Hyslop

This sheltered seaboard in general may not enjoy the surfing elan of its west coast cousin, Tofino, but it certainly feels like it’s riding its own wave of these types of First Nations discovery and wellbeing journeys, as well as a trail of culinary stops.

Culinary stops along the way

At Naturally Pacific, it’s Carve Kitchen & Meatery wowing the taste buds, with a lick-the-bowl asparagus (freshly picked from its garden) soup. And down in the ocean-side town with the wondrous Elk Falls Provincial Park as its neighbour, Freyja Croissant delivers delicious croissants based on a Scandinavian recipe (the store is named for a renowned Norse goddess). The owners–originally from Hungary—have also just opened Meraki, a new cafe a few yards away, complete with a floral bar to order a bouquet alongside your pastries. (Thankfully, it’s all near the saltwater-fishing epicentre of Discovery Pier, which is a good place to walk off the calories.)

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Back in Parksville and Qualicum Beach, much is adding to the ongoing charm and reinvention of this coast. British expat Jeremy Perkins— leaving behind a previous career as a professional viola player (he performed in The Phantom of the Opera)—has turned a humble cup of joe into an art form at French Press Coffee Roasters.

Gastown’s Water Street Cafe owners have also expanded into Qualicum and Nanoose Bay. (You’d be hard pressed to find a better view than over the Fairwinds Marina in Schooner Cove from Nanoose Bay Cafe—or a better manila clam spaghetti vongole or chocolate mousse torte.)

Whether it’s a cave’s absolute darkness or the bright shimmer of these new foodie havens, the Salish Sea and coastal towns, the east always shows Vancouver Island in a good light.


Horne Lake Caves
Going underground: Just under two hours long, the Riverbend Cave is the easiest of many guided routes at Horne Lake Caves. A comfortable, intriguing introduction (even for those of us who prefer life above ground…)

Qualicum Beach Farmers’ Market
Come hungry, leave sated. This year-round Saturday morning market is a feast for the eyes and tummy. Heaps of fresh local produce, flowers, baked goods, wine, craft distilleries, artisanal goods—pottery, textiles, beauty products, and candles—and food and coffee trucks.

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The Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara

The Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara. Photo by Courtesy Tigh-Na-Mara

Hit pause with the two-hour wellness experience at The Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara. If you have time, book the tapas tasting menu as well—and eat, as the Treetops restaurant name suggests—closer to the canopy. The imaginative nine courses take diners from “the ocean” to the “forest floor.” Enjoy Quadra island scallops, leek ash tuile and yuzu caviar followed by wild mushrooms with black garlic.

North Island Wildlife Recovery
With “no education but plenty of work ethic,” Sylvia Campbell and her husband Robin started the North Island Wildlife Recovery nearly 40 years ago. Meander through a beautiful garden, near Parksville, and see great horned owl to black bears, eagles and ravens.

Where to eat on the East coast of Vancouver Island

Nanoose Bay Cafe

Nanoose Bay Cafe.
The view at Nanoose Bay Cafe. Photo by Courtesy Nanoose Bay Cafe

Those clever folk at Gastown’s Water Street Cafe have sprinkled their culinary chops over the east coast of the island, too. At its Nanoose Bay Cafe, leave extra time to wander around its artisan marketplace.

French Press Coffee Roasters

French Press Coffee Roasters
French Press Coffee Roasters has cafe’s in Qualicum Beach and Parksville. Photo by Lucy Hyslop

For next-level coffee, fuel up with French Press Coffee Roasters in Parksville or Qualicum Beach (although brace yourself for a possible line-up at the latter; it’s that popular). Try the Camilo Merizalde (for the aficionados, it’s Double Anaerobic) blend from Colombia—as owner Jeremy Perkins says of the extraordinary flavour, “It’s bonkers!”

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Freyja Croissant
Expect exceptional croissants (the pistachio one floats my boat). (and its swish new venue:

Where to stay on the East coast of Vancouver Island

Naturally Pacific Resort

Naturally Pacific Resort
Naturally Pacific Resort overlooking the golf course in Campbell River. Photo by Michael Vanarey

Overnight sensation: A thoughtfully curated hotel which elevates the standard of accommodation—and food—in the area. If you manage to actually prize yourself away from the Immersion Spa & Wellness sanctum or the Crave Kitchen & Meatery, there’s also a state-of-the-art driving range at Velocity next door.

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort

From the first whiff of acres of cedars and the expansive ocean vistas, you quickly feel a great sense of place. After all, Tigh-Na-Mara means ‘House by the Sea’ in Gaelic.

Fairwinds Residences
Next door to Nanoose Bay Cafe, these are smart ceiling-to-floor windowed suites with enviable oceanfront views across the marina.

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