There are holidays where you plan everything online, scouring travel sites for the highest ranked restaurants and the most popular destinations. You assess the ratio of “likes” to the number of voters, analyse user reviews and make calculated decisions to get the most bang for your buck.
And then there are holidays staying with friends. These trips, which you couldn’t plan if you tried, let you experience some of the little luxuries of life in their part of the world. Whether it’s a hike through the forest or a place to pick up some house-made snacks on the drive home, holidaying with friends is a chance to experience the rituals and traditions they love about where they live. I was lucky enough to have a friend from Ladysmith show me some of the sights. Here are five ways to do as the locals do in central Vancouver Island.
Hike the Holland Creek and Heart Lake trails
A network of trails weaves through spectacular lush forest
Crossing Holland Creek on the loop trail behind Ladysmith
Minutes away from Ladysmith’s charming main street is the entrance to a network of trails and loops that traverse the dense, lush forests behind the town. The Holland Creek trail is an easy 5.8 km hike which follows both sides of the creek, providing views of Crystal Falls and the Colliery Dams. The Heart Lake loop is a more challenging trip but hikers prepared to tackle the steep climb are rewarded with spectacular views along the way. The trail passes a lookout with a view of Ladysmith and the Gulf islands before it ascends further to picturesque Heart Lake. Flat rocks at the edge of the lake seem made for sitting and pondering the grand landscape of forests and mountains reflected on the lake’s surface.
For a longer hike, the Heart Lake Loop connects to the Stocking Lake Trail, which is 11.8 km long and takes about two hours. Be aware that bears inhabit the forests, particularly at this time of year when the salmon are spawning, and cougars are sometimes sighted around Holland Creek. You can download a map and more information about Ladysmith parks and trails.
Comfort food at The Crow and Gate English Pub
The Crow and Gate English Pub in Cedar tips its hat to neighbourhood watering holes in the U.K.
The dimly lit, varnished wooden interior of this English-style pub is decorated with vintage beer coasters and warmed by an open fireplace. Established by Englishman Jack Nash shortly after relaxed B.C. liquor laws allowed it, the rural watering hole is said to have been the first neighbourhood pub in British Columbia. Service is prompt and personable and their selection of comfort food is served in generous portions.
Locals claim the beef dip is the world’s best and, as someone who samples a beef dip wherever it’s available, I’d say it’s among the best I’ve had. The sliced beef, which is slightly rare and extremely tender, retains more flavour than most and benefits from being sandwiched without cheese. It’s big and hearty without being greasy or oily, and it comes with a crispy-fresh salad instead of fries. The crab cakes, fresh and flavoursome, also come highly recommended. Located at a 2313 Yellow Point Road, Cedar, The Crow and Gate is a cosy place to escape the winter cold and to recharge after an active day on the trails.
Gourmet galore at the Old Country Market at Coombs
Even in the cold weather it’s hard to resist trying one of more than 60 ice cream flavours at the Coombs Old Country Market
Inside the Coombs Old Country Market
The goats that live on the roof at Coombs are gone for the winter but shopping there is still done with a Goat Tote
The Coombs Village Old Country Market is best known for the goats that live on its grassy roof during the summer, but there’s plenty to see and taste after the four-legged residents are transported somewhere warmer for the winter. Visitors can pick up a “goat tote” and browse the aisles for gourmet foods (try the garlic and pepper salmon jerky) and boutique home wares, or sample one of the home-cooked pastries from the market bakery. There’s also an ice cream shop with almost 70 flavours, a fresh produce market, the Cuckoo Italian restaurant and some sculptures for the children to explore.
Lunch at Lefty’s
The light chicken and leek stew at Lefty’s Fresh Food Restaurant
The 60’s inspired interior of Lefty’s at Parksville
If you’re not already bursting at the seams after a visit to the markets, stop in for lunch at Lefty’s Fresh Food Restaurant in Parksville, a 10 km drive from Coombs. The combination of booths and wacky leather chairs have a 60s feel but the relaxed vibe and friendly service makes it feel more like your local diner, perfect for a grey day. Their chicken stew with leek is light but flavourful and served with a delicious toast, which is somehow simultaneously crisp and buttery.
Fresh ingredients is the focus at Lefty’s, named for the left-handed friends who started it, and their lunch menu consists of wraps, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and a few stand-alone dishes like coconut prawns. The restaurant is also open for breakfast and dinner.
Sweet treats at the Old Town Bakery in Ladysmith
The cream cheese cinnamon bun, an Old Town Bakery specialty
Grandma’s slice, a peanut butter and marshmallow treat with a surprise crunch
Ladysmith locals must be strong-willed to resist daily visits to this sweet-tooth’s paradise on the town’s main street. Famed for its cinnamon rolls, the bakery dedicates most of its floor space to display cases of lovingly-made pastries, cupcakes, slices, breads and cookies. The cream cheese cinnamon rolls come highly recommended and do not disappoint. Ropes of cinnamon and almonds are wound through the large cubes of soft dough, which is topped by cream cheese icing with a hint of vanilla.
Grandma’s slice, a colourful wedge of peanut butter with marshmallows floating inside, looks entirely smooth until your first bite reveals a surprising crunch, separating the ingredients for a lighter, pillowy texture. The bakery also serves savory dishes and coffee.
Getting to the Island
The ferry from Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver to Departure Bay, Nanaimo costs $15.50 for adults and $7.75 for children (kids ages five and under travel free) and a further $51.25 to take your car, which you will need to get around unless you hire one on arrival. For more information and the schedule visit www.bcferries.com.