The Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island’s east side is a food-and-wine mecca, and I’d heard its recreation options were equally bountiful. A plus for springtime: The valley boasts the warmest average temperatures in all of Canada (“cowichan” in the local native language means “warm land”).
I wasn’t so sure when I arrived on a cool day with weather ranging from drizzle to downpour. Maybe warmest temperature didn’t mean all that much in Canada.
My bad attitude disappeared when I awoke the next day to blue skies and headed out on the first of many trails I would explore over my long weekend in this broad, bucolic valley 45 minutes north of Victoria.
Flat or steep?
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Hiking and cycling are year-round activities here. You have one big choice when you plan an excursion: would you like your trail flat or steep?
Cowichan River Provincial Park is ideal if flat is the day’s desire. The park’s well-maintained section of the Trans Canada Trail follows the river for 12 miles. Stopping or jumping-in points along the way feature parking areas, campsites and pit toilets.
The best thing about the forested path is the Cowichan River itself. In the winter, it’s swift and powerful. I saw three teenage boys happily pulling whitewater kayaks out of the churning depths after a plunge down Class IV rapids. During the summer, this is a popular put-in spot for leisurely tubing floats. Anglers love the river for its salmon runs.
After you’ve explored the river, do yourself a favor and have dinner at nearby Stone Soup Inn, where renowned chef Brock Windsor crafts meticulous tasting menus from fresh, local ingredients. Even better: Book one of the two rooms above the restaurant so you can drink your fill of the wine pairings.
At the other end of the valley, you’ll probably see both cyclists and hikers on the Kinsol Trestle. This monumental structure crosses a deep gorge on the nearly complete 76-mile Cowichan Valley Trail, also part of the Trans Canada Trail. Although the Cowichan Valley Trail is not yet finished, the trestle’s restoration in 2011 let users access about 43 contiguous miles.
The tallest wooden trestle in Canada, at 145 feet high and 614 feet long, the Kinsol is one of eight restored trestles on this former railway bed. Trains stopped using the 100-year-old structure in 1979, and after vandals and weather damaged it, authorities had to decide what to do with the increasingly dangerous remains. Enthusiasts convinced local governments and nonprofits to rebuild rather than destroy it, and now the trestle is a symbol of community pride.
Or head for the hills
If steep is more your style, head for the surrounding hills. Local governments have set aside swaths of forest as reserves that are crisscrossed with hiking and mountain-biking trails. Which hill you choose depends on how long you want to hike and what you want to see at the end.
At Mount Tzouhalem (the “t” is silent), just north of charming Cowichan Bay Village, the first overlook is about 45 minutes up a sheltered trail. It’s another half-hour to fantastic views at the summit.
Right next door, Maple Mountain offers a diverse selection of trails and views of Maple Bay immediately below. Most trails are relatively short, making them ideal for getting your heart pumping before you spend an afternoon investigating farm stands or wineries.
Burning all those calories gives you an excellent excuse to dive into the valley’s culinary delights. The mild climate and fertile valley make this a perfect place for agriculture, and those who aren’t growers seem to be making things from what others have grown.
Wine draws the biggest crowds in summertime. One popular way to combine the best of the valley’s offerings is to do a cycling winery tour with picnics or lunch stops along the way.
The people in “the Cowichan” were as sunny as the weather. It’s not surprising that people in Cowichan Bay Village act the way small-town folks did decades ago: This is the first official “Cittaslow” community in North America. The designation reflects the area’s emphasis on promoting a sense of place and choosing local, neighborly and sustainable over generic and industrialized.
When I stopped in at the Hilary’s Cheese lunch counter on Cowichan Bay’s cozy waterfront, owner Hilary Abbott sat down to give me directions and advice. He shook his head in wonder at people who complain about a lack of parking along the compact waterfront. “People think they have a parking problem, when really what they have is a walking problem,” he said.
I couldn’t help but think that in this walking-friendly part of the world, those folks must be in the minority.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.