A plane ride over the mountains and a vacation, with money to spend. The prospect of viewing wildlife and pristine terrain from the decks of the MV Frances Barkley. What more could a family of five visiting the Alberni Valley for the first time ask for?
How about some indication that our destination even existed?
It was lucky for Port Alberni that we knew that we had to go there, because otherwise, we might never have found it. We were sorely disappointed when looking at the dozens of brochures on display at the Comox Valley Airport where we landed. None of the brochures provided information about Port Alberni or the Alberni Valley.
Our hope that we could find some sort of green option for transit, a bus, or even a shuttle van, to carry us into the Alberni Valley was also dashed. This was a big surprise to this tourist, given the area’s focus on natural wonders and conservation.
We assumed we would find a range of options, but we didn’t. This is often part of the adventure for us, choosing our mode of transportation when we get to the airport. We have allowed our children to choose our travelling method too.
When you look at a map of Vancouver Island, there’s lot of neat things to do. We assumed things would be linked. For instance, how do backpackers arriving on Vancouver Island make it to the West Coast Trail?
So instead of boarding a bus to excitedly read brochures about our destination, we instead had to find the rental car counter where we doled out $500 in car rental and insurance costs.
We had hoped to pay a nominal bus or shuttle fee. Instead, we dipped into our spending money, just to be able to get to where we had intended to spend that money.
We then got lost coming out of the Comox airport and ended up driving around the Comox Valley for longer than we intended. There were no signs indicating where to go and adding that to the lack of applicable maps, again, it was like Port Alberni did not even exist.
Finally, a friendly Comox resident pointed us in the right direction, but not before trying to tempt us to stay longer in Comox.
We were seriously tempted.
We had a short conversation about how these Van Islanders must be lot more independent than us Ontarians. Were we really so reliant on others to tell us the way to go? Or was the Alberni Valley some mythical land that only the truly favoured could actually find?
We found the highway and we were on our way.
Though it was hard for a newcomer to find, we were immediately enraptured upon entering the Alberni Valley. The natural beauty was like that in a fairy tale. We knew from our research that some of the trees we were seeing were at least 1,000 years old in some cases and that some of the lakes were rumoured to have no bottom.
The kids’ eyes were as big as saucers. They instinctively knew that what they were seeing was amazing.
My former life as a field biologist took hold and I couldn’t help but compare the trees, rocks and lakes to what I have seen in Ontario. There really was no comparison. This was exactly the type of experience that every parent wants their kid to have. My kids still talk about it.
My first impression of the Alberni Valley? I will always remember the moist, lush, smell of a thriving ecosystem, the feel of the cool, pure, air against my face, and the soothing sway of the moss-covered trees against a backdrop of mountains. Cathedral Grove was a remarkable place that my family would never forget.
As we crested a hill and entered the City of Port Alberni via the Redford Extension, the contrast was as upsetting as the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.
My first impression of Port Alberni? Bleak and depressing. And it really smelled badly, like rotting fish, industrial exhaust, and mill effluent. Industry had clearly won out over nature here.
We considered turning around and heading out of the city and back to the beauty that surrounds it. However, we had to be in Port as it was where we would catch the ferry to our next destination.
We decided to make the best of it and to try to find some bright spots to help get us through our stay.
We did find a few bright spots, but they took some finding. Harbour Quay was popular with the whole family, between the playground, the shopping and the doughnut shop. We also enjoyed the docks adjacent to it.
The quay barely ate up a half-day though, and it left us wanting more. We got some tips from some other visitors that Victoria Quay was worth a visit if we wanted to see some wildlife across the inlet.
We were surprised that there was little indication that we could walk or hike to some other destination from Harbour Quay. One of our expectations, being in this beautiful province, was that we would find lots of opportunities for hiking. There were numerous, beautiful trails for all skill levels, but it seemed almost ironic to have to drive around between them to be able to hike.
We had expected more connectivity between destinations.
“Port Alberni has the good fortune to be on the highway to Tofino, explained one local resident. “We get tourists without even trying, because everyone going to Tofino has to drive through here.”
Could it be that Port Alberni and the surrounding valley take for granted that they will get tourism dollars by virtue of their location? That was certainly one explanation for the lack of effort we experienced while in the area.
It felt like a missed opportunity. Getting tourists to the area is certainly a common goal of many municipalities. Convincing them to stay a while and spend some money is the linchpin, though. Otherwise, all that one is doing is directing traffic.
We ended on a high note with a trip on the Frances Barkley and once again remarked that as we pulled away from Port Alberni, the real reason for us being there was omnipresent. Clearly, nature is the biggest tourist attraction of the valley, and our family was left wanting more after a few days in Port Alberni.
* Next week: The third of three parts, first impressions of a winter visit to the Alberni Valley.