Weekend Tripper: Parksville promises beach-side bounty

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      The Strait of Georgia teems with life, as evidenced by the mussels, sand dollars, crab claws, and oyster shells that cover Parksville beach (and the squadrons of shorebirds investigating them) which stretches out in an unbroken expanse towards the mountains on the horizon.

      Good seafood is ever-present on BC’s shores, but Parksville boasts some of the freshest. The whole region is rich in local fare, making it ideal for a fall foodie trip.

      At low tide, all kind of birds appear on the vast flat expanse of Parksville Beach to find fresh food.
      V. S. Wells

      Take French Creek, where dozens of fishing boats are docked. The seafood market here buys fresh, sustainably caught seafood from these very mariners.

      The store’s work recently earned it an award from the international Marine Stewardship Council, adding the delicious taste of responsible production to their seasonal stock of sockeye salmon, albacore tuna, spot prawns, pacific halibut, and more. 

      Fishing boats are docked in the marina at French Creek.
      V. S. Wells

      For less aquatic goods, head to Qualicum Beach farmers’ market, which boasts an impressive range of locally produced and sourced goods every Saturday morning. A short hop away from Parksville, the farmers’ market has over 100 vendors from around the Island peddling their wares.

      From some of the best homemade granola bars this writer’s ever tasted, to an Italian man selling fruity balsamics alongside ciabatta, to locally foraged pink oyster mushrooms, there’s plenty to choose from. The market operates year-round, with vendors gradually moving indoors as the mercury falls, seeing vegan chocolatiers sharing space with artisanal cape-makers and neighbourhood artists. (Though, new this year, there are plans to run festive outdoor night markets in the run-up to the holidays, starting on November 26.)

      There’s also locally produced cheese in the region, including Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, which is nestled in the foothills between Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Famed for their Monterrey Jill cheese that you can find in stores and markets across BC, the dairy farm (and attached cheesemaking factory) is open to the public. The quaint red barns and a small menagerie of rabbits, goats, and sheep add rustic charm to a high-tech operation, where Holstein and Jersey cows are automatically milked by a robot, and a Roomba-style organizer regularly patrols the feeding area to keep their hay in line.

      Since opening in 2001, the farm has remained a small, family-run operation. Current owners Albert Gorter and Chelsea Enns took over the business in 2021, taking care of 45 dairy cows and producing a dozen types of cheese, from soft spreads and fresh curds to Welsh-style Caerphilly and a tangy Mt Moriarty. 

      It’s not just local food that Parksville has going for it. An island menu is incomplete without drinks, such as beers from Love Shack Libations, a nano-brewery in Qualicum Beach that grew out of brewmaster Dave Paul’s obsession with home hopware.

      A variety of Love Shack Libation's nano-brewed beers.
      V. S. Wells

      Folks seeking something harder can check out Misguided Spirits, whose award-winning vodka and gin form the basis for perfect cocktails. And, if you don’t mind taking your taste buds a little further afield, Unsworth Vineyards (near Mill Bay) produces a wide range of carefully cultivated bottles—part of a coterie of Cowichan Valley wineries that are working to rival Okanagan as BC’s best wine region.

      All these food and drink creators are suppliers for the Beach Club Resort in Parksville, whose focus on local ingredients highlights all the good stuff that the Island has to offer while supporting sustainable local businesses (and boasting dreamy views of the sandy shore). Showing off what goes into the carefully curated line-up of providers speaks to how much thought goes into every part of a meal, from the sablefish caught off the Island's coast, to the vegetables grown by local farmers, to the Chardonnay grapes harvested by dedicated viticulturists.

      In between indulging your taste buds, make sure to take a stroll around Parksville. The town has a strong emphasis on small businesses, with the streets filled with cute cafes, lovingly curated home goods boutiques, and a truly impressive number of witchy occult-tinged stores. Wander the seafront wooden boardwalk with a hot cup of coffee, or play a round of kitschy minigolf for a hit of nostalgia. 

      The boardwalk stretches in front of a high-tide Parksville Beach.
      V. S. Wells

      “I’m actually kind of happy it’s raining a little bit,” says Nate Catto, executive chef of the Beach Club’s Pacific Prime restaurant, during a winemaker’s dinner in the hotel’s covered patio.

      Since taking the reigns at the restaurant last December, Catto, with support from general manager Lisa McCormick, has been instrumental in using the menu to bring out the best of the Island’s natural abundance: celebrating the stuff that we can only get on the wild west coast. 

      And that, of course, includes our ever-present rain. After a decade in Fort McMurray, it’s clear the chef has missed it. “It adds a little something to the environment,” he says.

      It’s a reminder that the weather systems here are a blessing: they’re what make the harvest bountiful.