Words and photos by Chris Istace, Canadian Travel Writer

I thought it would be fun to put together a whirlwind tour for a day trip in the Cowichan Valley—to travel to the far reaches of the region to experience the diversity of the landscape and to seek out Cowichan’s unusual and out-of-the-way retailers.

What I found is sure to appeal to every shopping taste, from artistic to practical and from new to antique.

Now on to the list!

My first stop was Ladysmith, the north boundary of the Cowichan Valley, for a visit to Mary Fox Pottery. I made my way to this cozy West Coast home-based studio that is as charming on the outside as the inside. Mary greeted me with her big smile and provided a grand tour. Her ease and friendliness assured me that this is the reception any visitor would receive.

Mary’s work is profound. What struck me the most was how she combines her pottery creations with natural pieces. For example, barnacle-encrusted ocean rocks support many of her unique glass pieces. Check out her website and plan your visit.

The next stop followed the oceanside route south to the charming artisanal community of Chemainus. I popped into two shops that hold similar names but couldn’t be more different. Beyond the Usual on Willow Street and Bound to be Different on Chemainus Road. These shops are new to the community in the last few years and speak to a re-energizing and excitement amongst retailers in this popular tourist spot.

Bound to be Different has an eclectic mix of jewelry, clothing, unique artwork, clocks, furniture, books, and cards. Not to be missed, its eye-catching storefront holds pink T-Rex heads. You enter into a dazzlingly decorated store that almost distracts you from the equally beautiful product.

Beyond The Usual is a shop with a unique mix that is definitely reaching a wide spectrum of visitors. The shop’s slogan states they are a shop for the active lifestyle, for both young and old, inspiring everyone to get outdoors. This is evident in their wide selection of shoes, sandals, clothing, hats, swimwear, backpacks, and more. They also feature a metaphysical section with gems, crystals, salt lamps, incense, books, and sculptures. Lastly, the store rounds out with skateboards, scooters, longboards, and mountain bike apparel.

After leaving Chemainus, a zip further south on the Island Highway and a right-hand turn west on Highway 18 took me to the far west community of Lake Cowichan. This stop had charm, a blast from the past, and a little buzz to get me through the day. I visited Scarlett’s Second Hand Boutique on the far side of the river.

Scarlett is the owner, not just the name for the shop. She was certainly someone you could spend the day chatting with, easily losing track of time. You can enjoy a cup of coffee or espresso from her coffee bar where she proudly serves drumroaster coffee—a locally roasted Cowichan coffee. Coffee in hand, explore the shop where she instills a mission statement of reduce-reuse-recycle. With quality used clothing, accessories, and refinished furniture, as well as local handmade items, her statement is met.

With my stop complete, the car headed towards the City of Duncan, the hub of the Cowichan Valley. The city’s diversity and number of shops could keep a person busy all day, but my goal was to visit one small section in the core of the city.

With plenty of parking available, I took advantage of the free city parking alongside the old railway tracks near the totems and museum (I tuck this in my pocket as another great spot to visit!). I headed across the crosswalk and made my way to Judy Hill Gallery.

The Judy Hill Gallery is a store dedicated to showcasing the rich cultural heritage of Vancouver Island Northwest Coastal Native art and giftware. Judy has created a carefully chosen and diverse selection within her gallery. The store has a long history of over 25 years and Judy has become nationally known as an expert in the field.

Down the street is The Red Balloon Toy Shop, a fun shop for the older crowd if you enjoy nostalgia or even if you are a bright-eyed toddler to whom the world is full of wonder. This shop boasts a selection of toys, crafts, Lego, dolls, board games, puzzles, kites, and whatever else you can imagine that rivals anything I have seen in some of Canada’s largest cities. The Red Balloon Toy Shop is the place you visit when you want high-quality, unique items that are hard to find.

The final shop in Duncan on my whirlwind tour was Cardino Shoes. I’m more likely to be looking at hiking boots but one can’t deny first-class customer service and a shop that is clearly a destination for footwear. For the woman in your life, I would add Cardino’s to your must-stop list. I especially liked their slogan: “Wearing footwear that supports us to do everything we do gives us the confidence to be who we really are — and who we aspire to be.”

Back onto the Island Highway, I headed south to Whipple Tree Junction, a collection of shops located along the highway and a truly interesting roadside stop unique to the valley. My goal was visit Nest Collective.

Nest Collective is where local artisans and entrepreneurs have come together to collaborate and meld their efforts into a communal retail space. Each member of the collective has space for their business and nothing short of incredible creativity exudes from each space. Eclectic, funky, nostalgic, functional, fantastic, and fun.

My day was just a quick glimpse into the region and some of the shopping experiences to be had. I truly hope you find time to visit. I must warn you though: be sure to give yourself an extra day or two as this is only the tip of the iceberg!

We didn’t even talk about the outdoors and of course the wine, beer and food…

Another great way to #ExploreCowichan

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