10 Unmissable Things
Rarely do visitors ask, “What can we do in Cowichan?” More often, the question is “What can’t we leave out?” If that occurs to you, we understand and we have you covered. What follows is a “bucket list” of sorts that includes 10 “unmissable” things that you simply can’t, well, miss. Of course, it’s possible to do everything on this list, it’s just a matter of how much time you spend here. Have a read and we think you might want to book a longer vacation.
#1 Tasting wine, spirits, ciders and beers.
“That devotion to one of the most delicate balancing acts in existence – of timing, taste, weather and skill – is paying off, as we discovered during a recent day trip that took us to several award-winning wineries and the equally-successful sole cider producer in the valley.”
Shirley Culpin, Blogger, Hello BC
There isn’t an exact date when the Cowichan Valley realized its renaissance from outpost fruit and grain producer to becoming “Napa of the North”, but it’s safe to say that in the last two decades, the region has given rise to dozens of upstart operations that have capitalized on the region’s favourable climate and soil to create world-class potent potables. Among these are wines of every description, cider, craft beer and more recently, spirits. Most are relatively small operations (relative to world producers), but just about all of them either grow what they need or source it locally. In every case, each operation welcomes you to swing by, explore their technique and sample the fruits of their labour.
If wine, spirit and beer tasting is your cup of tea, you’ll find the Cowichan Valley eminently accommodating with a “wine route” that extends from Mill Bay to right the way through to Ladysmith. For more info, download the map here.
#2 Walking the Kinsol Trestle
“This fabulous living history artifact is part of the Cowichan Valley Trail and the most spectacular and impressive of the eight trestles along the trail.”
Broader Horizons, Nanaimo, Trip Advisor
Although the Cowichan region has always been ideally suited for growing timber, it’s rugged topography has made it particularly difficult to haul it. In order to transport timber by rail, massive chasms needed to be spanned by way of wooden trestles. By far the largest of those found on Vancouver Island is the 144-foot-high Kinsol Trestle that spans the Koksilah River just north of Shawnigan Lake. Completed in 1920 and named for the short-lived “King Solomon Mine”, it is an engineering feat, even by today’s standards and remains one of the loftiest wooden railway trestles in the world. The Kinsol Trestle is part of the Trans Canada Trail network that skirts Shawnigan Lake and winds its way to Cowichan Lake, North Cowichan and Ladysmith.
Glen Eagles Road
Shawnigan Lake, BC V0R 2W0
#3 Shopping at the Duncan Farmers Market
“The Duncan Farmers Market is a small window into the delicious soul of the Cowichan Valley… the market was recently named the best in B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets, a sign of the area’s plenty.”
Mia Stainsby, The Vancouver Sun
If you find yourself in Duncan on any given Saturday, you simply can’t miss the Duncan Farmers Market. One of the largest markets of its kind in BC, it is spread out over several city blocks in downtown Duncan, and subscribes to a “you make it, you bake it, you grow it, you sell it” philosophy. Here, you’ll find the freshest local fruits, vegetables, baking, jams & jellies, honey, crafts, clothing, pet treats and more! The market is open year-round with a short two-week closure over Christmas & New Years — usually reopening the middle of January.
Summer: Saturdays 9am to 2pm
Fall: Saturdays 10am to 2pm
Duncan Street & Ingram Street
#4 Tubing on the Cowichan River
“The Cowichan River is tame and fun for the whole family.”
Michaela Ludwig, Canadian Traveller
The Cowichan River extends 47km from its source at Lake Cowichan to its mouth at Cowichan Bay. Designated as a Canadian Heritage River in 2003, it serves as a home to many animal species and a viaduct for several species of fish (see fly fishing). In the summer, the river is a spectacular venue for what is commonly known as “tubing”. The jury’s out on whether “tubing” is a sport, pastime or simply a leisure activity, but in essence, tubing on the Cowichan River involves a one-way, down-river trip in emerald green and (mostly) quiet waters of aboard an inflatable inner tube. There are many variations on where to start/end the trip and there are even businesses that will outfit and shuttle you.
#5 Biking or hiking to a mountain summit
“The trails in the Cowichan Valley are among my favourite to ride – you have the sweet gravity fuelled adventures of Prevost, the established network of Mount Tzouhalem if you’re looking for something with a little more flow. Maple Mountain, however, has always been a bit of a mystery — until now…”
Mike D’Antoni, SMB.com
Being in a valley, we are surrounded by a number of peaks that can all be accessed one way or another. Maple Mountain, for example has “Maple Syrup,” a breathtaking 9 km mountain trail that’s part of a broad network of hiking and biking trails on that mountain. Other prominent landmarks you can summit include Mount Tzouhalem, Mount Prevost and Cobble Hill. Whether you hike or bike to these summits, you’ll be afforded stunning views of the Salish Sea, The Gulf Islands and the Saanich Peninsula.
Trailhead: In the middle of Osborne Bay Road
(between Herd Road and the town of Crofton)
#6 Paddling by moonlight on Cowichan Bay
“We slipped silently through the water and soaked in the blue glow of the moon as it rose over Salt Spring Island and the Saanich Peninsula.”
KL Holden, St. Albans, UK, Trip Advisor
If paddling a kayak or canoe by the light of the moon is on your bucket list, get ready to check it off. Here in Cowichan we have places in Maple Bay and Cowichan Bay that can set you up for this increasingly popular nocturnal pastime. Bing Crosby was a frequent visitor to the waters around Cowichan Bay and there’s a local legend that suggests those who paddle there when the moon is high can hear him quietly singing in his distinctive warm bass-baritone voice. Other magical sounds you may hear when kayaking or canoeing include those of sea otters, seals and even whales.
The Village of Cowichan Bay is five minutes south of Duncan on Cowichan Bay Road.
#7 Whale Watching
“Best day of our holiday. Beautiful calm day, scenery was breathtaking and we soon got to see a family of killer whales…to cap things off, we saw two humpback whales on the way back to Cowichan Bay.”
PhilDennis76, TripAdvisor 2016
Almost half of the Cowichan region borders different parts of the Pacific Ocean. On the western side of Vancouver Island, it’s the rugged stretch of open ocean between Port Renfrew and Nitinat Lake. On the eastern side, it’s the idyllic archipelago known as the Salish Sea. Both of these areas are teeming with marine wildlife which can be experienced up close by way of various tour companies. Some of the stars of the show include orcas, humpback, minke and gray whales, seals, porpoises, sea lions, plus a wide variety of marine birds, such as bald eagles, ospreys and cormorants. What’s it like seeing a 40-ton whale up close in its natural environment? Some will tell you it’s a life-changing, spiritual experience.
#8 Experiencing birds of prey up close
“There he was with his talons holding tightly onto my glove, eyeball to eyeball we were. A real live hawk just landed on my hand! Now, that doesn’t happen every day.”
Jay Kennedy, TravellingIslanders.com
Cowichan is home to many species of birds, large and small. Arguably, the most regal of these are the raptors. You can see them in their natural setting here, but nowhere will you get to see them as up close as you will at Pacific Northwest Raptors in Duncan. Here you can meet Eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, vultures and more and watch them fly above and around you – free of all constraints. At the same time, you’ll learn about their personalities, ecology, habitat and hunting techniques. “Flights” are available daily staring in early March.
1877 Herd Road
#9 Viewing the Chemainus Murals
“Viewing the painted murals provides an opportunity to explore the village and to see one of BC’s biggest outdoor art gallery exhibit.”
Eh Canada, Travel and Adventure Guide
At one time, the village of Chemainus was fortunate enough to benefit from three of Vancouver Island’s biggest resources: fishing, mining and forestry. As resource revenues steadily declined, the town hatched an optimistic plan that would prove Chemainus to be more resourceful than it ever was in the past. The idea was to capture Chemainus’ history in a series of large, striking murals painted on the walls of the town. With that decision, a new industry was born and inspired the town’s well-earned description, “The Little Town That Could”. Today, there are 44 amazing murals and various sculptures, which can all be viewed on foot, 365 days a year.
Chemainus is located 32 km (20 mi) south of Nanaimo and 80 km (50 mi) north of Victoria on the Trans-Canada Highway.
#10 Touring the Duncan totems
“An easy and very interesting excursion that sheds light on First Nations culture and the innate talent within in. It is an hour well-spent.”
Shirley Culpin, Vancouverislandbeyondvictoria.com
First Nations culture has always been and will remain a big part of Cowichan’s fabric. Traditional lore has been preserved by word of mouth and by way of hand carved totem poles too. Each totem pole tells a story that can be retold if you know what to look for. In Duncan, “The City of Totems”, you can tour a collection of 38 colourful totem poles created by First Nations master carvers in a free, self-guided tour. Along the way you’ll encounter the world’s widest totem pole and “Quench”, a brass totem pole that serves as a public water fountain.
To get to downtown from the highway, turn west on Coronation Avenue or Trunk Road
Tell us what you think! Vote for your favourite Cowichan experience.
Have you paddled Cowichan Bay in the moonlight? Perhaps you’ve mountain biked Maple Syrup, tubed the Cowichan River or been on a wine tour. If you’ve visited our region, we’d love to know what you feel were the best experiences. There’s no deadline and you can be a visitor from far away or a local resident–we just want to know your most unique and enjoyable experience. Of course, if you feel we’ve missed the boat somewhere or there’s an experience you’d like to nominate, we’d like to hear about that too.
Pacific Northwest Raptors