The salty, seaweed-y smell of Parksville's community beach at low tide brings childhood memories of summer vacations spent here flooding back. That and the sight of the little blurps of grey sand that mark the spots where clams burrow in the intertidal flats.
As a young girl, I would grab my plastic shovel and dig like crazy after those clams. I'd collect seashells and sand dollars and lie faceup in the deliciously warm pools that appeared when the tide went way, way out.
And now, after a long absence, I'm back in Parksville, rediscovering a beach town that appears to have grown up as much as I have.
Certainly, accommodation has gone upscale since my parents first pitched our family's canvas tent at the Park Sands campground, which still sits on Parksville's community beach, wedged between the water and a short, steep slope up to the town centre. A four-lane highway runs along the top of the slope, connecting an almost continuous string of resorts and tourist facilities that stretch south to Rathtrevor Beach and north to Qualicum Beach. Thanks to me winning a door prize at a work-related event, my husband, Kent, and I are staying gratis at the fancy new Beach Club Resort, which stands centre stage on the community beach, occupying the same primo acreage as the grand old Island Hall Hotel (built in 1917 and demolished in 2005) once did.
“Hello, Whistler,” Kent remarks as we drive up to the condo-style development. With its wooden beams, earth tones, and stone accents, the Beach Club does feel ski-chalet-ish. Our one-bedroom suite boasts a tricked-out kitchen, a gas fireplace, a soaker tub, and a balcony with stellar views of the beach, the Strait of Georgia, and the mountains beyond.
The resort also feels like it's in a construction zone, which it is. At the back of the property, there's a high-rise residential tower that's nearing completion and a big dirt hole that will someday be a commercial complex.
Although the resort has much to recommend it—location, accommodation, modern surf 'n' turf restaurant with an impressive martini list, spa—I can't shake the feeling that this slick hotel is a little out of step with the laid-back town it dominates.
Or maybe that's just nostalgia talking. The cluster of family resorts that line Rathtrevor Beach, on the southern outskirts of town, have seen similar development. The most striking addition is the sprawling Tigh-Na-Mara resort, with its Grotto Spa and cavelike mineral pool.
In the same area is the new Riptide Lagoon Adventure Golf. With its 36 mini-golf holes, this Toontown-esque attraction is giving the more established Paradise Fun Park (with its giant old woman's shoe and fully rigged pirate galleon) a run for its money.
One of the more welcome developments in the Parksville area is a suspension bridge that crosses the Englishman River. The 81-metre span gives pedestrians and cyclists access to Top Bridge Community Park and Top Bridge Mountain Bike Park.
To reach the bridge, we drive to the end of Chattell Road. Energetic souls who have the time can follow the five-kilometre Top Bridge trail from Rathtrevor Provincial Park to the bridge.
We walk across the bridge and hike the river gorge trails past dramatic rock formations and deep swimming holes. Three fat-tire enthusiasts pass us on their way to the jumps, built-up stunts, and smooth forest trails that are found throughout the mountain bike park. The cyclist in me yearns to join them.
But this escape is all about slowing down and fattening up, which brings to mind another welcome addition to Parksville: the variety of eateries in town. Whether you're looking for críªpe suzettes, sushi, chow mein, enchiladas, pho, spanakopita, or tandoori, local restaurants serve up the goods. It's a welcome change from the meagre offerings—chop suey; greasy burgers and fries, lots of fries—available when I was a kid.
One night we go Greek at Cabernets Restaurant, housed in an incongruous Tudor-style building. The hostess seats us in a small booth and supplies a fresh tea light. (“A little romantic,” she suggests.) We share a platter of lightly breaded calamari with tangy tzatziki, a generous Greek salad, and a carafe of Boutari.
Another dinner, we opt for takeout from Amrikko's Indian Cuisine. While we wait for our order, we watch two dusty construction workers make their way through half a dozen dishes. “Helluva good idea,” one tells the other between mouthfuls.
Back in our suite we turn on the gas fireplace, open a bottle of crisp Pinot Gris, and tuck into chicken curry, aloo gobi, mango prawns, and jasmine rice. After a postmeal stroll on the beach, Kent suggests taking a dip in the soaker tub. “Helluva good idea,” I say.
One good idea we never get around to is a visit to Morningstar Farm, home of Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and, new this year, Morningstar Creek Winery, where visitors can sample wines made from blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and more.
Did someone say blueberry wine? Another memory comes to mind, this one of a certain teenager guzzling Moody Blue, a sweet blueberry-flavoured sparkling wine. On second thought, maybe I'm not that disappointed to miss the winetasting.
But I am sad to be heading home at the end of the weekend.
On the ferry, I buy a bowl of clam chowder (a constant on the B.C. Ferries menu since, like, forever) to keep the nostalgic feelings flowing. But my thoughts keep getting interrupted, first by a pleasant voice announcing the healthy-eating options and varied retail offerings available onboard, and then by the captain confirming our estimated arrival time and thanking us for sailing with B.C. Ferries.
Wholesome food on a ferry? Interesting shopping? A captain who sounds like he actually cares about my experience? Progress is an amazing thing.
Access: For more information, see www.visitparksvillequalicumbeach.com/.