For years I’d visited Vancouver Island without ever stepping foot in Parksville. What a mistake that was! This under the radar town sports an endless stretch of coastline and is one of the best destinations in all of British Columbia for families. Here’s a look at why you ought to visit, where to stay and eat, plus the very best things to do in Parksville.
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Parksville BC is situated on the east side of Vancouver Island, the largest island off the west coast of North America. Parksville is about a 40-minute drive from Nanaimo, which many folks fly into. You can also fly into the BC capital of Victoria and from there it’s about an hour and 45-minute drive.
Parksville itself has a population around 13,000 and is one of those laid back summer towns you may have visited as a kid. There’s a nostalgic feel about the town. It’s pleasant, full of retirees and young families. It’s not a spot you’d go whooping it up in, but it is the perfect spot for an affordable family getaway.
The big draw are in Parksville are its beaches. It’s main beach, Parksville Beach, is a 19 kilometre coastline that’s a geological anomaly from the Ice Age. Its extreme tide can recede up to a kilometre from shore into the Straight of Georgia. When the tide comes back in, the sand has been nicely warmed by the sun, producing some of the warmest ocean water in all of Canada.
Given it’s length and breadth, this is definitely a beach for families (and dogs, so watch where you step). When the tide is out, you don’t have to worry about wee ones getting swept away to sea.
They can frolic in the shallow water, grab a sand shovel and bucket and head off on the hunt for aquatic treasures. On your beach combing trek, you’re sure to find sand dollars, moon snails, and purple starfish in the tide pools.
All that sand is put to good use during the Parksville Beach Festival. The annual summer sand sculpting competition draws master sculptors from around the world, and you can check out their masterpieces from the beach. You’ll get the best views, however, from paying the nominal fee to enter the beach grounds to view them from all angles.
Things to do in Parksville
Hitting the beach is one of the most popular things to do in Parksville and skimboarding has really taken off here. It’s kind of a crazy thing to do, really.
Essentially, you run along a shallow pool of water, drop in a skimboard (a piece of specially designed and laminated wood) and hop on for a ride. Parksville is full of Skimboarders. It’s an excellent outdoor activity for older kids and teens to try. Parents ought have good coordination, balance and confidence before trying it out. Just sayin’.
Besides the beach (combing, swimming, skimming), the most popular things to do in Parksville include hiking, caving and wildlife viewing. There are kiddie attractions like go-karting and mini-golf, plus some excellent parks. I’ll get into all the activities and attractions below.
After you’ve strolled barefoot across the wave rippled sand, you may be hankering for a more robust walk. There are plenty of hiking trails near Parksville, where canopies of old growth trees soothe the senses.
The most popular spot for hiking near Parksville is at Cathedral Grove. This accessible old-growth forest lies within MacMillan Provincial Park and is about a 30-minute drive from Parksville.
Hiking here feels like you’ve entered an enchanted fairyland. Each trail is laced with giant conifers – so tall, you have to throw your head all the way back to glimpse their tops. Within this emerald forest are Douglas fir trees – one of the largest in the park is over 800-years old!
It’s particularly rad to visit Cathedral Grove right after Halloween. Islanders have a tradition of placing their jack o’ lanterns here, and you can see the impressive line up at the park’s entry.
Goats dot the grass-covered roof at Old Country Market, a modern day mercantile located in the nearby community of Coombs. This market is off the charts with product that ranges from gourmet delicacies to art supplies to children’s toys.
You could easily spend over an hour inside the market and more time outside – if the goats on on the roof. These goats have called the market home for over thirty years and love noshing on the living roof.
If you’re looking for hands on goat action, head to Tiger Lily Farm. Here, you’ll encounter a variety of barnyard animals. There are kid goats that need bottle feeding, ponies to ride and bunnies to hug. Scenic horseback rides are also available.
When a town is called Parksville, you’d expect a pretty awesome park, now wouldn’t you? Fortunately Parksville delivers on that front. By far the best playground in town is Ventureland.
This a massive park and playground, situated just off the beach boardwalk, has over 20 pieces of equipment. Bring towels because there’s also a splash park for kids to cool off in. There’s outdoor exercise equipment and kids can test their nerves on the zip line and 12-person teeter totter.
Paradise Mini Golf
There are two 18-hole mini-golf courses at Paradise Adventure Mini Golf and Fun Park. This mini golf is situated right off the main drag AKA Island Highway 19A.
The features at Paradise are pretty impressive and any mini golf aficionado will enjoy this course. Cool off after hitting the links by getting sprayed while you bash into others on bumper boats.
Got a need for speed? Fast Times Grand Prix is the local go-kart track in Parksville. It’s situated between Coombs and Parksville, and is a troop pleasing activity on your way to the Coombs Market.
This half-kilometre go-kart course has a ton of corners – over 30 and you can reach speeds up to 50 km (31 miles) an hour. They have single and double racer carts and carts for younger kids that run 10 km/hr slower.
Caves Vancouver Island
There are over 1600 known caves on Vancouver Island, which makes it home to the highest concentration of caves in North America. If you’re not a spelunking expert, you’ll want to take a tour from the Horne Lake Caves and Outdoor Centre.
Within Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park are four caves to explore. These are some of the most beautiful passages on Vancouver Island, as the caves contain loads of crystal formations and ancient fossils.
These caves are open all year round and remain a constant temperature of 8°C (46°F). On a hot summer day, it’s a fantastic way to be active, while being out of the sun for a few hours.
Family tours typically take an hour and a half, while others (just as family-friendly), are longer. No matter which tour you take, expect cable ladders, crossing over underground streams and squeezing your way through tiny crawl ways.
Eagles and Wildlife on Vancouver Island
Less than a 10-minute drive from Parksville lies the North Island Wildlife Recovery Association. Their mission is to care for ill, injured and orphaned wildlife. If you want to see eagles and other wildlife on Vancouver Island, this is spot to do it at.
From March to October they offer guided and self-guided tours, where you can view the animals, learn their stories and the issues they face. There are often orphaned black bears, eagles and other wildlife to view and learn about.
Making the trek from Mexico all the way up to the Canadian Arctic each March, Brant Geese make a pitstop in Parksville. Up to 20,000 geese drop in along the east coast of Vancouver Island, and their return is celebrated at the annual Brant Wildlife Festival.
If you can’t make it for the festival, join the weekly Bird Walk that departs from the Parksville Beach Community Park at 9 a.m. each Tuesday.
Places to eat in Parksville
There are plenty of places to eat in Parksville, but I’m not going to focus on the restaurants. The grocery stores are well stocked and many hotels offer kitchen units, so you can save money by whipping up your own meals. One thing that really struck me was how affordable the cheese was in Parksville, compared to where I live in Calgary.
The best place to snap up artisanal handcrafted cheeses in Parksville is at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks. Each has a unique twist to it, but I’m partial to their fromage frais.
The cheese shop is situated at Morningstar Farm, which is open to the public. (You can even watch the cows being milked at 4pm!) Stroll through the trails on a self-guided tour and make friends with the cows, pigs, goats, sheep, bunnies and even donkeys.
Another of my favourite places to eat near Parksville is at the Old Country Market in Coombs. They have a robust bakery, cafeteria and tacqueria – all of which have loads of options.
If, like me, you prefer the freshest of seafood, you can procure that at French Creek Seafood, a nearby dockside fish market. This is the spot to stock up on fresh crab, wild salmon and meaty clams. And if you arrive at the right time, there just might be a few spot prawns available before before they’re flown to Asia.
Out of all the hotels you could stay at in Parksville, far, Tigh-Na-Mara is by far the most luxe. That isn’t to say it isn’t approachable and family friendly. It’s one of those resorts that offers so many amenities you could easily hole up here for days without venturing into town. And there’s no resort fees!
Nestled within 22 forested acres, Tigh-Na-Mara is less than a 10 minute drive south of Parskville and is a few minutes walk from Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park.
Guests are spoiled for choice when it comes to this hotel’s room selections. All units are equipped with either a kitchen or kitchenette, and the award-winning Cedar’s Restaurant and Lounge is also on site.
Rustic cottages are kitted out with wood burning fireplaces, kitchen amenities, plus there are laundry facilities for guest use. Spa Bungalows are spacious, kitted out with with little luxe touches and are steps away from the award-winning Grotto Spa. (More on the spa below.)
Additionally, Tigh-Na-Mara has oceanfront suites, which all have modern comforts and convenience, while still rocking a rustic vibe with log craftsmanship. These suites have specular views of the Salish Sea and Coastal Mountains, and the beach is right on your doorstep.
In addition to being anchored along the ocean with miles of sandy beach at your disposal, this Parksville hotel has an indoor pool and outdoor playground. During the school holidays, it operates one of the most robust resort recreation programs in all of Canada.
Sessions range from a complimentary kids club to teen tie-dyeing to family birdhouse building. While children under 16-years of age aren’t allowed into the cavernous mineral pool at Grotto Spa, they can partake in mini spa experiences such as milkshakes and manicures. Did I mention there’s no resort fees at Tigh-Na-Mara?
One of the best parts of coming to Tigh-Na-Mara is the opportunity to visit their Grotto Spa. It looks like, well, an underground grotto. The mineral pools and rock formations transport you to another world – one where the stressors of city life vanish.
This 20,000 sq ft spa sanctuary has consistently been rated the #1 Spa in Canada by Spas of America, a legit spa and wellness website. Grotto Spa’s mineral pool is the real deal with sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium and a host of other minerals and elements that you’d probably recognize from the Periodic Table, but I don’t because high school chemistry and I weren’t that tight.
It’s a full service spa with treatments that range from facials to waxing to wraps to massage to hair and nails. But you’ll want to make a reservation to ensure you can get your treatment of choice.
Parksville Beach Club
Another property to consider in Parksville is The Beach Club Resort. Part of the Bellstar group, this swish high-rise is situated smack-dab on the main beach and is within walking distance of all town’s amenities – from restaurants and grocery stores to mini golf and the playground.
The Beach Club sports incredible views of the Salish Sea from floor to ceiling windows in every unit. You’ll love the convenience of the fully furnished kitchens and separate bedrooms, ensuring everyone get a good night sleep.
They’ve got an indoor pool and hot tub, complimentary bikes and skimboards, and you can rent paddleboards and kayaks on the boardwalk just off the beach.
Camping in the Parksville Qualicum Beach area can be had at 14 campsites that range from oceanfront to riverside to forest campgrounds. Both Surfside RV Resort and Park Sands Beach Resort are family-friendly RV parks with an enviable beachfront location.
Park Sands allows tents, has showers and laundry facilities, while Surfside offers a pool, hot tub and a clubhouse. The RV Grounds at Paradise Fun Park are also well positioned, with easy access to the beach and a mini-golf course.
For a quieter experience, snag a spot at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park. All campsites are within a 5-minute walk of the beach, and are set under majestic Douglas fir trees.
Have you ever visited Vancouver Island? I’m always on the hunt for under the radar activities and destinations. Please tell share with me your favourite spots.