Road trippin’ on the Island

Now that I no longer have to commute weekly to Vancouver Island, and have had a year away from the ships, the BC Ferry trip aboard the SS Coastal Renaissance from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on a sunny day is actually quite pleasant. Surprisingly, on this sunny day, the ferry wasn’t full, perhaps a testament to the hike in prices that’s driving away business these days.

Spending some time with a friend living in Cedar, a small community south of Nanaimo formerly a subdivision for Harmac Pulp and Paper mill workers, was lovely. Cedar’s quiet and beautiful on a sunny summer day; we decided to take advantage of the weather to do a road trip up island to the Milner Garden and Woodlands just outside Qualicum Beach. Our first stop was the Petroglyph Park in south Nanaimo just off the old highway. Here’s information on the Park from the BC Parks website:

The high concentration of prehistoric rock carvings is the main attraction at Petroglyph Provincial Park, located at the south end of Nanaimo. Visitors can get a glimpse back to a time more than 1,000 years ago, when First Nations peoples created these traditional carvings. This day-use park offers excellent viewing opportunities of these petroglyphs. Locations for rock art carvings were chosen carefully, and were almost always made at places of power or mystery – places where the forces of nature were believed to be especially strong. These areas are usually marked by natural features such as waterfalls, rock formations or caves, and most are near water.

A short walkway leads from the parking lot to an interpretive area with information boards that offer details about the history of the area and help to decipher the petroglyphs. The images – depicting everything from mystical wolf-like creatures to fish and human figures – were made for a variety of reasons, including territorial ownership and to commemorate special events among a people with no written language. The sandstone gallery of petroglyphs, located on a hill overlooking Nanaimo Harbour, is just a short distance from the interpretive area along the walkway. Concrete replica castings of the petroglyphs can be found in the main interpretation area.

Petroglyph Park is tiny – two hectares – and has a couple of huge sandstone rock formations, underneath which may be more First Nations artifacts.

Rolling up the highway, we stopped briefly at the McColl Fossil Centre on the campus at Vancouver Island University, my old stomping grounds. The Centre, a wooden pagoda-like structure, contains a gigantic Cretaceous Palm, according to Maggie, after whom the Centre is named, it is the biggest plant fossil in North America – very cool

On this day the Milner Gardens and Woodland was very quiet, just us, a few volunteers, and the local butterflies, birds, and dragonflies. Paths winding through a small old growth Douglas Fir forest lead down to the gardens and house, past the gift shop and pool, the latter currently being refurbished as a water feature which will look beautiful when it’s done.

At the moment, several pink water lilies are floating on its placid surface, attracting many brilliantly-coloured dragonflies. I love water features, water temples, water palaces – anything to do with water, plants, and sculpture. This pond would look beautiful at night with small candle-lit boats drifting over it …. perhaps one day.

A gigantic Chinese Dogwood tree covered in a blanket of white blossoms sits next to a labyrinth recently etched into the grass near the Milner house. While Maggie walked the labyrinth, I wandered around looking at the various small ponds and attendant statuary.

Inside the house a few folks were having tea on the premises where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip and Princess Di once dined. One can see their enormous signatures in the guest book, Di’s scrawl and happy face graphic, written not too long before she died, taking up an entire page.

Here’s a link to more info about the Gardens, gifted to Vancouver Island University which runs them now.

Since we were in the area, our road trip concluded with a late lunch on the terrace at the Cuckoo Italian Restaurant at Coombs, famous for its rooftop goats (the town, not the restaurant). We had a excellent lunch, highly recommended, and I patted a sweet female goat hanging around near the restaurant’s fence.

I had no idea that goats have horizontal pupils – guess I’ve never been this close to one before …

Above is a view of the Gabriola ferry dock and the island beyond. “Have heads, will travel”: below is a picture of me with one of my head transport bags; packing my seven painted heads and mannequin parts aboard the ferry and bus for the return trip was amusing – many folks were quite interested and the quips were flying. After getting on the public bus at Horseshoe Bay and asking what the fare was, the driver said $2.75 for me but “What about that guy there?”, indicating the dummy in my bag – being told that the mannequin was a senior, he said, “Well, no charge then”.

See more photos here.

Walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ II: Tet Paul Nature Trail, Soufriere, St Lucia

St Lucia is a “soft adventure” travel paradise, which means that there are hiking, walking, and biking opportunities galore here. We decided to check out the newish two year old Tet Paul Nature Trail, located in the farming community of Chateau Belair, since visitors had described it as having the most amazing views of the two pitons (peaks).

Most people take a tour bus to get to this place but, since we’re on a shoe string here, we decided to take local minibus transport; after all, a fleet of them are parked right outside our hotel every single day. After a filling cooked breakfast at the new coffee shop kitty corner to the hotel, we hopped on the old red van headed down to Vieux Forte in the south; after it filled up with 15 people, all crammed into a claustrophobia-inducing tight space, we were off down the incredibly winding main highway.

After a ride of about 15 minutes, we were deposited at the entrance to Fond Doux Holiday Plantation, and followed the signs all the way up a long, winding road to the top on which we found the Tet Paul entrance hut. Along the way we passed a couple of munching cows who lowed at us plaintively. Before entering into the site, we had a cup of coffee to cool down from the 2 mile trudge up the road.

Our guide Pascal, a young local guy, took us through the six acre site, pointing out all the local vegetation and explaining how they work the plantation. An “antique house” – small wooden two room hut – and a cassava flour-making area also give an idea of local life back in the day.

From the trail are some of the most spectacular views of the South of the island, the Jalousie Bay, Petit Piton and Gros Piton, as well as Martinique and St. Vincent on clear days.

The gentle ascent features a variety of exotic fruit trees, (e.g. guava, soursop, avocado, pineapple, okra) as well as medicinal plants and trees. Work on the plantation is done by local rastas, one of whom was lounging in the shade as we passed by.

Two viewpoints in particular give fabulous views, one out over Gros Piton and the panorama of green to the Maria Islands offshore from Vieux forte and the other over the Jalousie Plantation and Petit Piton.

From the top of the “Stairway to Heaven” we could see the great Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy’s villa right below us, its huge blue pool glinting in the sun like a jewel.

The local community, with the help of landowners in the area and the Soufriere Foundation, worked for six years to get the funding for this nature walk and it provides employment for local youth who are trained in hospitality and tourism and given the necessary background to be able to conduct tours of the area.

After a tour of about an hour or so, we headed back down the hill to the main highway, intending to wait for a returning minibus. While there, I chatted to a guy also waiting; when a friend in a pickup truck stopped to pick him up, we also were offered a ride. Sitting in the back of the speeding pickup truck as it careened around the sharp switch backs almost did me in but we reached the turnoff to Jalousie Beach without incident. Just as we were clambering out of the back, another van rolled up whose occupants were kind enough to offer us a ride part-way down to the beach – huzzah! We didn’t make it to Jalousie, though, but back to Malgretoute and into the refreshing pounding surf. On our way back, we saw not just the usual mom and baby goat, but also another mom and two tinier babies, born not very long ago. The two very little ones, hearing us coming, tried to hide in a crack in the rock cliff but as we approached closer, were frightened into running back to mom.

A huge five masted sailing ship, dwarfing all the other anchored sailboats and catamarans, cruised into the harbour and anchored for the afternoon, which meant that the town was much busier than usual with both locals and tourists milling around the downtown area.

See more pictures here.