What happens when you introduce a curious two year old to starfish, ocean waves and cool forests?
Whether you are heli-skiing in British Columbia, windsurfing in Maui or watching your little one connect with farm animals at a petting zoo, travel reminds us to love life. It also persuades us to live in the moment and encourages us to appreciate the beauty that this world offers. Travel is often about sharing special experiences and memories with the people you love. With this in mind, my family recently hit the road for a short getaway to kid-friendly Parksville on beautiful Vancouver Island!
It’s 9:45am on the day of our departure. We are in a rush to get to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal to catch the boat to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Being rushed is how we start most of our trips.
While our daughter and I wait at the door with our shoes on and suitcases packed, my husband frantically throws items into his bag, which he neglected to pack the night before. In his frazzled and disorganized state, I can guarantee that he will forget his toothbrush and various other items. Again, this is nothing new. Once in the car, he smoothly whisks us past traffic and miraculously gets us to the ferry with only minutes to spare.
It’s not peak season for travel to Vancouver Island and ferry traffic reflects this. Passengers are a mix of young families with small children, grey-haired seniors and a group of nicely-dressed Japanese tourists with cameras adorning their necks. As we slowly pull away from Horseshoe Bay, the palatial oceanfront homes lined up along the rocky cliffs bid us farewell. Although I have been on many BC ferry rides, the journey today with our chubby-cheeked tyke is by far the most fun. The novelty of being on a big boat is immensely exciting for kids. Gazing out the windows at the ocean and the birds, indulging in a burger and fries in the cafeteria and playing in the kids’ area are all entertaining activities for our excited tot.
Almost two hours later, we eagerly drive off the ferry and head towards Parksville. We expect a scenic drive along the magnificent ocean. Instead, we are taken by surprise to be greeted by a 10-km strip of non-stop mega stores and fast-food outlets. Every chain and franchise business that exists in Canada is apparently located on this 10-km part of the highway. Finally, Walmart, Canadian Tire, Home Depot, McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and their many, many friends disappear behind us. Thankfully, the remaining 20-km drive to Parksville is less commercialized and more relaxing.
We arrive at our beachfront resort and our ocean-view condo is even more impressive than we expected. This oceanfront retreat is regarded as one of the most luxurious Parksville resorts. After our tired and over-stimulated little girl falls asleep for a nap, I sit myself in front of the brilliantly large windows to soak in the view. The clouds have started to drift apart, allowing for some blessed blue to spread across the sky. Just as the weather report promised, a grey winter day is suddenly sunny and spring-like.
The view is absolutely breathtaking. The vast ocean is peaceful. The nearby islands gently caress the vista. Fishing boats in the distance return from a day of work. Thousands of seabirds playfully fly above the ocean, periodically sweeping down to land on the sandy beach between the tidal pools. Several seals pop their heads out of the water, only to quickly vanish again. Although I’m not certain, I think I spot dolphins, leaping gleefully in the far distance. (I later read that Pacific White-Sided Dolphins are popular in the Straight of Georgia.)
The view from our window makes us feel as if we have VIP front-row seats for an exclusive event. The scenic vista is inspiring, powerful and unforgettable. I feel my mind and body instinctively tapping into the calm flow of nature. I am deeply relaxed for the first time in weeks.
Not only is Parksville astoundingly beautiful, but it’s also a perfect destination for those traveling with small children.
You don’t need to wait until summer to enjoy Parksville. There is lots to do in the spring, fall and winter too! To help you plan your vacation, below are our favourite kid-friendly activities and places to eat in Parksville.
There are only two pick-up trucks parked at Tiger Lily Farm when we arrive. The gift store has a closed sign hanging in the window. There are no other city tourists to be spotted.
As we hesitate to enter through the farm gates, a friendly lady approaches us and introduces herself as Jody. (We later learn that Jody and her husband own Tiger Lily Farm.) She explains that the petting zoo is closed until mid March and that her team is hurriedly preparing the animals and the farm to welcome the first wave of tourists. Rather than bid us farewell, she spontaneously invites us to visit baby goats that were born only the day before! We eagerly follow her up the hill, passing tranquil horses, inquisitive sheep and an adorable pony along the way. This pint-sized pony is sporting a dozen braids in her hair, giving her a Rastafarian look. (A pony ride is included in your entrance ticket.)
As we reach the barn at the top of the hill, a group of full-grown goats greets us with their famous: “baaaaa….baaaaa”. Our sweet toddler excitedly looks at us, realizing that she recognizes these darling animals from her books and puzzles. Jody encourages us to enter the cozy and clean barn. Suddenly we are surrounded by six super cute, furry baby goats. These cuddly, precious creatures look more like stuffed animals in our daughter’s bedroom, than real farm animals!
On our walk back to the car, Megan (Jody’s helper) leads a beautiful brown horse towards us. After our city angel works up the courage to pet this magnificent animal, our impromptu private tour comes to an end. We thank Jody and Megan for sharing their lovely farm with us. As we pull out of the parking area, we smile and wave good-bye.
Only slivers of sunshine make it through the lush, thick canopy of trees. It’s early March and we are alone on the walking trail at Englishman River Falls.
The dirt below our feet is still wet from several days of rain. The old-growth and second-growth Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, arbutus and maple trees are coloured a rich, bright green. If you are quiet and still, you can feel the enhanced energy of this vibrant forest. Although strolling through the rich West Coast forest is a treat in itself, the real stars on this short walk are the upper and lower waterfalls.
As we approach the bridge leading over the river, we hear the incredible roar of the Upper Falls. When the waterfall comes into our view, we gasp. It’s even more dynamic, wild and powerful than we imagined. Plummeting down into a narrow, rocky crevice in the canyon wall, this waterfall is nothing short of spectacular. The Lower Falls are more peaceful with the river gushing through the canyon into a calm, sparkling and clear pool. In the summer, this is a refreshing swimming hole. The raw beauty of Englishman River Falls Provincial Park is striking. As a bonus, the trail is also a pleasant walk with a baby stroller.
Our Parksville, BC accommodation is located only a few minutes from the town’s community beach. In the summer, this sandy beach is packed with families playing in the warm ocean and soaking in the hot, island sun.
Today, we join the locals strolling along the boardwalk with their dogs and the tourists taking photos of the gorgeous view. As we walk further down the boardwalk, the stunning Coast Mountains on the mainland are revealed to us. The boardwalk also grants us a view of snow-covered Mount Arrowsmith, a magnificent and rugged mountain towering above the town of Parksville.
Parksville Community Beach and Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park are amazing places for birdwatching. During our visit in early March, we are lucky to witness thousands of migrating seabirds and Black Brant Geese, which travel here for the annual herring spawn. The Black Brant Geese migrate north from their winter residence in Mexico and stop on the beaches of Parksville to feed on the herring roe and rich sea lettuce. They stay here only for a short period before they continue to fly north to Alaska, Russia and the Arctic.
I have never in my life seen so many birds in one place. Hundreds of birds simultaneously take flight, playfully flying over the ocean and then suddenly swooping down again to land on the beach. Only seconds afterwards, another flock of smaller seabirds swiftly flutter over the ocean. This busy bird activity is non-stop. Being in the presence of several thousand migrating birds is a magical experience. You can’t help but feel a sense of awe for nature. Your kids will love it here!
Parksville Community Park is a super-sized playground. There are loads of swings, teeter totters, slides, climbing bars, spinning devices, diggers, trucks, airplanes as well as a mini zip line and a merry-go-round. There is also a water park, a skateboard park and access to the beach.
Our daughter gleefully runs around, not sure where to play first. After trying several slides and rocking on a little yellow duck, she opts to simply be a spectator. Several 4-year old kids jostle for their positions on a small merry-go-round. Legs and arms hang off the edge, as the merry-go-round gets pushed faster. Our curious munchkin inches her way closer and closer, contemplating getting on the merry-go-round with the “big boys”. I pick her up and promise we’ll come back soon. It’s time for this tired babe to have a nap.
During my first year studying at the University of Victoria, I became friends with a sweet, laid-back island girl. We shared the same first name (Rachel) and had the same fashion style, namely a penchant for wearing recycled garments from the 60s and 70s. Rachel was raised in a small town called Coombs.
When she introduced herself to new people, I often heard her explain that she was from “the place with the goats on the roof”. The name Coombs meant nothing to most people, but a light bulb turned on when she referred to the celebrity, roof-top, grass-grazing goats. Almost two decades later, I finally visit these famous goats at the Coombs Country Market.
Located only seven km from Parksville, Coombs Country Market and the goats on the roof have become a major tourist attraction. It’s a rainy day at the end of winter and the parking lot is almost full. We park at the top of the hill by the new Italian restaurant. (Although we don’t eat at this Trattoria & Pizzeria today, the beauty of this European-looking building with its massive courtyard patio encourage us to dine here the next time we visit.)
As we are just about to walk down the hill to the market, we notice two cute, petite goats peaking their heads out of a miniature wood hut located in a fenced area. Standing on the balcony of their little wood cabin, these adorable goats look curiously at us. It turns out that the goats don’t live on the roof year-round. Although we would have preferred to see the goats on the roof (mostly for our daughter’s delight), Coombs Country Market definitely does not disappoint.
Inside the market, wood beams and hardwood floors give this store a true country vibe. You can buy almost anything here! The market sells gourmet/specialty foods, freshly baked breads, local cheeses, sliced meats and various smoked salmon. You can also find art, hammocks, pottery and carved-wood hiking sticks. Our baby girl discovers a huge display of kids’ toys and is content to chill out here while we shop.
It’s a glorious sunny morning and before heading out for our day of activities, we stop at Pacific Brimm Coffee & Tea Co for a hearty breakfast. Normally, feeding our picky little girl is challenging and often requires trickery, games, applause and a lot of persistence and energy. But today, she contentedly munches on her fluffy pancake and crispy sausage without requiring any of the usual coaxing. We take this as a sign of the superior taste of the food here at Pacific Brimm.
This popular cafe is bustling with activity. Local seniors drink coffee and visit with friends. A young lady works on her laptop in the back by the fireplace. There are several people sitting alone, reading the newspaper. The barrista (who we suspect is the owner) warmly greets each of the local patrons by their name. The interior of the coffee shop, which features hardwood floors, antique furniture and two fireplaces, is welcoming and comfortable. The friendly service, gratifying homemade food and the intimate vibe make us feel as if we are having coffee and breakfast in someone’s home. This is a perfect place to start our day!
My mom often told me that when I was a kid, I only ate spaghetti. My mini sidekick is an equally picky eater. If you ask her on any given day what she wants to eat, she replies: “hot beans” (a.k.a. chili).
While chili with its various beans is a great source of protein, you can’t possibly feed it to a growing child everyday. Thankfully, we have discovered a way to get nutrients into her developing body. We regularly make our own fresh, mostly organic vegetable juices and fruit smoothies.
To balance out the chips, bread, pasta and crackers that make up this little munchkin’s travel diet, we are ecstatic to discover La Vida Vegan juice bar located downtown Parksville. The vibe inside this small, vegan restaurant is friendly, laid-back, clean and healthy. Bushels of bright green kale and parsley placed in water bring colour to the crisp white walls of this two-tabled juice bar. The friendly girl behind the counter expertly describes the ingredients and preparation methods of the vegan meals on the menu. Upon her advice, we order the vegetarian and bean tacos. If I would ever write “OMG” in an article, now would be the appropriate time. These fresh vegan tacos are mind-blowing! The freshly-pressed corn tortilla almost falls apart in your mouth. The flavour of the “veggiekraut”, beans, vegan cream and hot sauce make this taco almost immediately addictive. If I lived in Parksville, these fresh tacos would likely be a staple in my diet!
For juice, I order the invigorating “Chamainus” (ginger, beet, apple and carrots). My husband selects the hydrating “Cowichan” (kale, celery, cucumber, cilantro and lime). Our little doll sucks back almost half of my veggie juice. Feeling energized and hydrated, we leave this small gem of a restaurant with a bounce in our step.
A bubbly server dressed in stylish black boots and a long, beige sweater greets us as we enter the restaurant. Her name is Ally. She proves to be one of the friendliest and most professional servers we’ve had the pleasure of meeting in a long time.
Even though it’s late winter and “off season” in Parksville, this chic restaurant still fills up with hungry diners. The patrons at Chameleons are mostly locals, a testament to the fabulous service and the mouthwatering food. The mushroom risotto with prawns is amazing! The middle-aged couple at the table next to us enjoy the crab bisque. The table of charming seniors across from us are happy with the pork back ribs and the “simply swimmers” (fish of the day). For our daughter, the chef prepares a tasty, homemade chicken pie that is not on the menu. You won’t find an unhealthy kids’ menu with chicken fingers, fries and mac n’ cheese here at Chameleons. Instead, the chef kindly cooks your little one a fresh dish to satisfy his or her unique taste buds.
The service is fast and our food arrives quickly, which is a blessing because we won’t have to torture our impatient toddler with a long wait in a high chair. Our exuberant server immediately brings our daughter some crayons, a colouring book and a puzzle. To further entertain our curious tot, there’s a fish tank at the quiet end of the restaurant. My husband and I sit back in our chairs, relax and enjoy our wine and our meal. This restaurant excels on every level — fantastic food, awesome service and fun for our little angel. As we walk back to our vacation condo, we are approached by fellow tourists, who ask for our advice on a great place to eat. We eagerly recommend Chameleons. We guarantee that they’ll be impressed.
For now, the adventures of my childless past — riding motorbikes through Germany, nightclub hopping in Toronto and spending months learning the language in Russia — remain in my mind’s memory files under the category: “fun and fearless single travel”.
Although the logistics of travel change when you vacation with small children, the soul of travel remains the same. Travel reminds us to love life. It encourages us to appreciate the bounty and beauty that our world offers. Travel is about creating special memories that you will cherish forever.
Today, if you ask our daughter to name her favourite animal, she replies “horsey”. Tiger Lily Farm near Parksville is a special travel memory that our little girl will talk about for a long time. Nothing on this planet brings me more joy than traveling with my mini sidekick. On that note, it’s time to start planning our next child-friendly getaway!
We have a great variety of Parksville accommodations that are beachfront or tucked away in the pristine seaside forest. Call our highly knowledgeable Destination Experts who can answer any questions you may have about things to do in Parksville, or our accommodations. They’re available 7 days a week!