We never imagined we could accomplish a road trip like this: cycle up Vancouver Island to Comox, ferry over to Lund, then cycle down the Sunshine Coast on Highway 101. Confident road-cyclists will fall in love with this classic coastal loop, while those accustomed to Victoria’s gentle rail-trails and protected bike lanes will find some sections frightening. The cars and trucks are in a hurry, but we are not; we cycle 600 km in a leisurely sixteen days, with detours to Savary Island, Texada Island, Princess Louisa Inlet, and the Gibsons shoreline.
It looks like Amsterdam, we observe, as we meet a steady stream of cycle-commuters surging towards downtown Victoria at 8 am on August 14. We head north on a series of familiar regional trails (the Galloping Goose, Colquitz River, Glendale, and the Interurban Rail Trail) to begin the Coastal Circle Cycling Route.
“The elderly should stay indoors and avoid rigorous outdoor activities,” advises the Smoky Skies Bulletin, warning us of the risk of exposure to wildfire smoke throughout the province. We go anyway, confident that two factors will protect us from over-exertion: our snail’s pace and our electric-assist bicycles. The Coastal Circle is typically cycled in four days. We budget sixteen days, four times the usual number for this route. Some people buy e-bikes to go faster; clearly, that is not the case with us! We just want more oomph on hills, which allows us to tackle more ambitious routes.
Credit card touring
Our bikes are lightly-loaded: essential clothing, basic items for emergency repairs, and a credit card to eat at restaurants and stay in hotels or B&Bs along the way. This, we learn, is called lightweight or credit card touring. It’s more expensive than traditional bike touring, in which you carry a tent and sleeping bag, but costs can be controlled by deciding where to stay and eat.
Doug gets sticker shock when we research where to stay. Planning and booking are usually handled by Cathy, but because this trip involves route planning with his Garmin GPS, Doug gets involved and is aghast to discover that prices have increased over the past fifty years (he thinks Motel 6 should cost $6 per night, as it did when it opened in 1962). Compromise is reached, with Cathy choosing historic hotels, vintage cabins, and a B&B for half the nights, and Doug choosing budget motels and a yurt for the remainder.
A big rear end
“You have a big rear end,” the deckhand says to Cathy, as we board the Brentwood Bay-Mill Bay ferry. Cathy is taken aback until she realizes the deckhand is referring to her bicycle, the rear end of which he is lifting into a safe place between two bollards. Doug’s bike carries most of our weight (two panniers), but a rear-mounted bike box has also made Cathy’s bike stern-heavy.
We make a total of ten ferry trips on this tour. Vessels and procedures vary a bit, but BC Ferries staff make each ride an efficient and bicycle-friendly experience. The cost for each ferry is $2 per bicycle, so a roll of toonies comes in handy. There is a per passenger fee, too, but that is waived for BC seniors who travel Monday through Thursday. Plan your route accordingly, if you qualify for this discount.
Mind the ferry schedules, even if you aren’t on one. Each ferry arrival produces a stream of tightly-spaced vehicles, with some impatient drivers in the mix. Not wanting to add to their anxiety, we always pull off the road and wait for the pack to pass by.
Everything old is new again
The Old Island Highway, also known as the Oceanside Route, runs parallel to Vancouver Island’s shores north of Parksville. Crossing through seaside communities such as Union Bay, Fanny Bay, and Royston, the Old Island Highway remains much as it was in the 1970s, the back-to-the-land decade when we lived in rural Courtenay.
The Old Island Highway can be rugged and potholed, the shoulders narrow or non-existent, but seeing old, familiar places – and fewer trucks – is comforting, especially after a hellish six kilometres on the four-lane Trans-Canada Highway near Nanoose Bay; we were shaking, literally and figuratively, every time a semi-trailer truck roared by.
We discover a few stretches that avoid tangling with traffic: the Parksville-Qualicum Beach Links (a 13-km low-traffic road route), the short but delightful Royston Seaside Trail (also known as The Breakwater Esplanade), and the Courtenay Riverway.
Smoky Savary and Texada, too
After the Comox-Powell River ferry, we head north for a side trip to the seaside village of Lund, the start of Highway 101 (also known as the Sunshine Coast Highway). Doug wants to visit Savary Island, a narrow sliver of glacial sediment that is actually a migrating sandbar. Cycling is popular on Savary (the water taxi transports bicycles), but we elect to kayak there and sign up for the Savary Sands Day Tour offered by Terracentric Coastal Adventures.
Because of its warm waters and sandy beaches, Savary calls itself the Hawaii of the Pacific Northwest. The water is warm (compared to other water in BC), but the smoky skies are back, it’s chilly, and the Search and Rescue helicopter is performing rescue practices, so we don’t quite feel the comparison with Hawaii (having just returned from Oahu two weeks ago). It’s an enjoyable day, though, and we use some different muscles by paddling from Lund to Duck Bay (16 km, return). After a picnic lunch Corinne, our cheerful and informative guide, leads us on an adventurous walk through dunes and forest to the Spirit Tree.
In the 1930s Powell River’s pulp and paper mill was the world’s largest newsprint supplier. The mill still produces newsprint and specialty papers, but today’s mill belches “only harmless steam from its state-of-the-art wood-fuelled power plant.” When we arrive the effluent is, in fact, invisible, completely overwhelmed by the white-out conditions from BC’s wildfire smoke.
We take our bikes over to Texada, the largest of the Gulf Islands. Visibility is so poor that we shorten our route, heading to Van Anda for lunch at the Mary Mary Café, “a little bit retro.” Ice cream lovers will be interested in the flavour called shark bite: blue vanilla for the ocean, grey chocolate for the shark, red raspberry for the blood.
Egmonsters, as you may have guessed, are the eccentric residents of Egmont, a small waterfront village east of the ferry terminal at Earls Cove.
Egmont is the launch point for cruises to the famous Chatterbox Falls in Princess Louisa Inlet. We join a five-hour sightseeing tour skippered and narrated by Cliff, whose new 27-foot boat, Red Line, is only 102 hours old.
After the boat tour, we cycle to the trailhead for the most-visited attraction on the Sunshine Coast: Skookumchuck Narrows Provincial Park. We hike briskly for four kilometres and arrive at Roland Point at 5:03 pm, precisely the time of an extra-large flood tide. A crowd has gathered at this prime viewing area to watch the turbulent rapids and the kayakers who play in the world-class whitewater.
Under the umbrella
It rains one day, and with our usual good luck, this occurs on the one and only day that we have nothing planned. We take a walk, sharing the one small umbrella we have packed, but the rest of the day is devoted to playing with our yurt at Pender Harbour Resort and Marina. Doug watches You-Tubes about yurt construction (it takes four men seven hours to build a yurt). He opens and closes the yurt’s skylight using a crank handle, then investigates a design flaw that has resulted in some dry rot in the floorboards.
From Pender Harbour to Langdale there are plenty of hills, and the traffic gets busier and busier. To break from the highway traffic, here are two diversions we recommend: Redrooffs Road (10 km, with a stop at splendid Sargeant Bay Provincial Park) and Lower Road through peaceful, rural Roberts Creek.
Pat has lived in Gibsons all his life, and we can see why: it’s a chilled-out town, with water and land activities for all and a backdrop of big-mountain views. Pat is our guide for the Beachcomber Coastal Tour offered by Sunshine Kayaking, and this well-organized three-hour kayaking tour is one of the highlights of our trip. Launching from Gibsons, we make a loop that includes Keats Island, ferry-watching, and a tour of the marina, all narrated by Pat, tugboat captain turned kayak guide. It’s a relaxed three-hour paddle with lots of conversation, but we cover 12 km; either we are getting better at kayaking, Pat is an excellent instructor, or both.
- We are surprised at the variation in road surface conditions. Marked bike lanes are not common, shoulders come and go, and hazards such as potholes, gravel, and pine cones necessitate keeping a keen eye on the road.
- Outside of Victoria, we see few other cyclists, and those we meet are all day-trippers. The touring cyclists come in July, we are told.
- Another surprise: the budget motels encouraged us to bring our bikes into our room for the night. Anything goes?
The home stretch
“I could kiss this road,” sighs Cathy, as we ride through the Swartz Bay ferry terminal and join the flow of cyclists on the 34-km Lochside Trail, which connects the Saanich Peninsula to downtown Victoria. Some sections of the Lochside follow or cross public roadways, but the cycling lane is always wide, clean, and consistent.
We truly enjoyed the Coastal Circle, and as old and timid cyclists, we are proud to have accomplished it. But when it comes to bicycle-friendly routes, there is no place like home.
For trip planning, we acknowledge two websites that are full of useful information:
Google maps can also help plan your route, but this must be supplemented with direct observation and local knowledge. Example: if Google directs you to ride down School Road in Gibson, don’t! Any local will tell you this is the “Hill of Death”; Doug’s GPS measures the grade at 32 percent.
For your first night, please consider Island Skye Bed & Breakfast in the Cowichan Valley. Hosts Paul and Val are avid cyclists, and they will look after you well. Val is the gardener and housekeeper, Paul is the chef and carpenter – and a canoe-tripper (he actually knew Bill Mason!).