Parksville and Qualicum Beach

Just over a half-hour drive north from the Nanaimo airport, one could easily zip past the twin Vancouver Island towns of Parksville and Qualicum Beach without ever realizing they’re there. Yet, lined by the Salish Sea and enveloped in Coastal Douglas firs, it only takes one visit to understand why many find solace in these two tucked-away communities. A weekend getaway to Parksville and Qualicum Beach is less an escape than an experience in reconnecting with others, the environment, and, yes, the self.

When visiting, a natural nesting choice is Parksville’s Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort. Tucked into a forested pocket of Parksville, the resort is home to the Grotto Spa, with its mineral-enriched pool, and the Treetops Tapas & Grill restaurant, serving West Coast–inspired small plates. The Tigh-Na-Mara’s recently renovated ocean-view properties incorporate rustic charm with fresh modernity, mixing wood accents and white countertops under vaulted ceilings. Overlooking Rathtrevor Beach, these studios and suites fill with natural light from the east, where private balconies await stargazers.

Down on the shore, local painter Monk (née Penny Hiebert) can often be found with her giant easel during low tide. Monk’s paintings, vibrant scenes of local beaches and forests, are most well-known for their unconventional creation process involving passersby who contribute brushstrokes inspired by personal passions—a music note, a cresting wave—before inscribing a wish onto the back of the canvas. One might feel sheepish participating in her work, but Monk assures, “The whole reason I do this is to help people feel empowered about being creative … There’s thousands of Picassos out there, there’s thousands of Rembrandts. We just need to open them up.”

Lined by the Salish Sea and enveloped in Coastal Douglas firs, it only takes one visit to understand why many find solace here.

Enriching food is integral to the Parksville and Qualicum Beach experience, and local and organic options are readily available. Pop over to Parksville’s quiet downtown for a brunch of Bread and Honey Food Company’s delectably light eggs Benedict, made with free-range eggs and tender back bacon (cured in-house) and accompanied by a nest of shredded hash browns. Down by the town’s boardwalk, Pacific Prime Restaurant serves local cheese, wine, and an excellent selection of Ocean Wise-certified seafood—try the gamut with the Quattro of Seafood, featuring sockeye salmon, halibut, scallops, and prawns.

Hardly 10 minutes north in Qualicum Beach, every ingredient at Island Sodaworks is cultivated organically, with many hailing from owner and chef Mandolyn Jonasson’s own farm, where she oversees an intensive pasturing process. “We’re building awesome soil … and at the same time, the animals work synergistically to give us awesome food, which allows the whole thing to perpetuate,” she explains. Her modest menu (with standouts like bone broth “root ramen” and spicy coconut curry) is set alongside daily specials and the namesake probiotic sodas—the bubbly Schisandra berry option is said to tonify the liver and purify the blood.

This cooperative relationship with the environment is on full display at Qualicum Beach’s 70-acre Milner Gardens and Woodland. Maintained and studied by Vancouver Island University, twisted paths lead through the “wild garden”, a term coined by 19th-century Irish horticulturist and writer, William Robinson. The muted, seemingly enchanted grounds embrace botany’s natural forms, sweeping visitors away from the modern world.

A weekend getaway here is not necessarily an escape, but an experience in reconnecting with others, the environment, and, yes, the self.

Even wilder is the practice of forest bathing, also known as the Japanese art of shinrin-yoku, which informed recent studies relating long walks in wooded areas with lowered stress and cholesterol and boosted immune systems. It’s a beneficial practice, and one Parksville locals Ronda and Gary Murdock have introduced to their repertoire at Pacific Rainforest Adventure Tours.

During a forest bath (which, to note, doesn’t involve water or suds), the Murdocks lead groups silently through areas like Qualicum Beach’s Heritage Forest, drawing from the trees’ healing properties. Western Red Cedars, for instance, purportedly emit strength when one’s back is to them. Before demonstrating this stance, Ronda presses her palms together for a moment; afterwards, she rests her hand on the peeling trunk, explaining, “We give thanks.” Gary, who spent years working with B.C. Forest Service, plucks harmful plants like English holly and ivy throughout the excursion. “There’s all that healing power in the forest; maybe the forest needs us,” he says. “We definitely need the forest.” And to exit, as upon entering, a murmur of “thank you” resonates through the wood.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how one has changed during a stay in these coastal towns, but flying back over trees and sea, the mind feels clear, refreshed, and perhaps a little more open.

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort and Conference Centre, 1155 Resort Drive, Parksville, B,C., 1-800-663-7373.