Once upon a time, when our son was much younger and so were we, there was a quirky, one-building grocery shack in Coombs – with goats nibbling on its grass roof.
We used to vacation as a family in Parksville. It was a sleepy little town with not much more than the goat-topped store in nearby Coombs and a couple of rustic resorts with cabins on the beach.
How times have changed!
Now there are many fun things to do in Parksville and neighboring Qualicum Beach. These picturesque beach towns in British Columbia, Canada, are all grown-up!
Things to do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach
We visited the two resort towns recently for a sunny getaway. The towns are about seven miles apart (a short 12-minute drive away from each other).
So here’s what to do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach today.
1) See the goats on the roof, Coombs
Since we started with the Coombs goats on the roof, let’s fill you in on what you see now.
The country store (which started as a fruit stand back in 1973) still sports a trip of goats mowing the green grass roof.
But today it’s a full-blown visitor attraction – the Coombs Country Market. And it packs people in with its popular local market (shades of Whole Foods), buzzing Italian trattoria, expansive ice-cream parlour, garden center, clothing boutique – and even a furniture gallery.
Many other stores and cafés have also cropped up around the Coombs Old Country Market.
You could easily spend half a day at this delightful market and not get bored.
2) Walk Rathtrevor Beach
Some things stay the same though, despite the passage of time.
Located on the edge of Parksville town, Rathtrevor Beach is a three-mile stretch of beachfront famous for its warm shallow waters.
It’s one of the best beaches in Canada – certainly one of the top beaches in B.C. And it still holds huge appeal for both family holidays and adult getaways.
The first thing we did after arriving was to ditch the flip-flops and walk out onto the beach. The tide had rolled out almost as far as the eye could see.
We relished the pleasure of squishing our toes into the soft grey sand, amazed at all the tiny sea critters. Zillions of little grey and red crabs scuttled about as our feet sloshed through the bathtub-warm water; tiny harmless jellyfish floated by.
Later in the evening, the tide came in right up to the shoreline. As we sat on our balcony over a glass of wine, watching the sky turn pink, a swimmer caught our attention.
Parksville boasts the warmest ocean swimming in Canada. How did we miss actually swimming in the water all those years ago? Somehow back then we mistakenly thought the beach was just an ankle- to knee-deep playground for kids.
We could have spent our whole getaway on this beach in Parksville or looking at the beach from the deck…
3) Explore Horne Lake Caves
But of course, we were also keen to check out some of the area’s other attractions too. Like Horne Lake Caves.
There are more than 1,000 caves on Vancouver Island. (You can read about some of them here.)
But the caves at Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park are the only ones safely accessible to the public.
From the small visitor education centre, we crossed a suspension bridge to meet our enthusiastic cave guide, Alex, for the “easy” Riverbend Explorer tour.
It’s possible to explore one of the caves on your own.
But its crystalline rock formations aren’t as pristine as in the 1/4-mile Riverbend Cave, which can only be entered via a guided tour.
As soon as we stepped through the gated entrance, our world became inky black except for the lights on our headlamps.
There are no electric lights, handrails or ladders in this wilderness cave system, and we scooched down (our butts sometimes the recommended “third contact point”) to scramble over boulders and squeeze through narrow openings.
When we gazed up, following our guide’s flashlight beam, our jaws dropped as we took it all in. Everywhere you look, there are glistening crystalline ice “draperies,” thin delicate tubes and stalactites.
One sparkling white formation looked just like a Buddha.
Surprisingly, there’s life in this netherworld. We noticed a tiny bug, the size of a speck of dirt, swimming in a palm-sized cave pool.
It’s probably just as well we didn’t see the other cave critters though – cave crickets, beetles, spiders and bats – which all co-exist here in total darkness.
4) Soak in the Grotto Spa
A decidedly different grotto experience awaits you at the Tigh-Na-Mara Grotto Spa.
The large warm mineral pool with gentle waterfall is designed like a natural stone grotto, but with a high ceiling and windows.
If you’re looking for a Parksville spa for a little “me” time, you’ll naturally want to check this grotto spa out!
After soaking in the Tigh-Na-Mara spa pool until we were as mellow as milk, we slipped on white bathrobes and headed upstairs to the intimate Treetop Tapas restaurant.
5) Enjoy endless tapas in your bathrobe
The only restaurant of its kind in Canada, the Treetop Tapas restaurant is reserved exclusively for robed spa guests. And it makes for a relaxed evening to go for dinner straight from the shower with wet hair and no makeup!
The menu is fixed – a selection of 16 tapas, all made to order and creatively presented, one after the other.
Gazing out through cedar-framed windows at the serene forest, we oohed and ahhed over fresh crab meat wrapped in zucchini slices, and duck with camembert polenta and mustard greens.
And, yes, wine can be ordered too.
6) Taste craft beer at Love Shack Libations
You’ll also want to pay Love Shack Libations a visit.
Blink as you’re driving along the Island Highway and you could miss it. (The map below should help you find it though.)
The story? After moving to Qualicum Beach from Whistler in 2005, Dave Paul lived in a tent while building a “love shack” for his family.
Along the way, the veteran bartender started brewing beer at home, then learned how to make all-grain beer – which he says is like switching from making Betty Crocker cakes out of the box to baking à la Martha Stewart.
He now shares his tasty concoctions at his 12 ft by 16 ft, one-man shop – Love Shack Libations.
Sitting on bar stools around a cedar plank tasting bar, we sipped his four mainstays – Killer Kolsch, D.P.A. (Dave Paul Ale), Crafty Cream Ale and Precious Porter – as well as other seasonal products, from an eclectic assortment of martini, sherry, highball and other glasses.
The beer is good, and word has spread about his Vancouver Island brewery. Restaurant demand for his beer is more than Dave wants to produce. And even though his “microbrewery” was officially closed except for our appointment, people still trickled in to buy his hand-bottled creations.
7) Sample cheese at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
Another fun stop is Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and the MooBerry Winery, both located on the picturesque Morningstar Farm.
Watch the team of cheesemakers make artisan cheeses from milk from the farm’s dairy cows.
You can also taste some of the popular brie, feta, blue and other Little Qualicum cheeses, as well as various fruit wines. (We thought the gooseberry wine would go well poured over vanilla ice-cream!)
The wine-and-cheese tastings are free. (The cheeses, in particular, are so good that chances are you’ll buy something.)
Outside, it’s fun to pet the rabbits and other farm animals.
8) Play at Rathtrevor Provincial Park
We’ve already mentioned Rathtrevor Beach. Of all the Parksville attractions, it’s probably the most popular – and the main reason flocks of families like to spend a summer holiday in Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
The beach is only one part of the Rathtrevor provincial park, however.
In the park itself, there are shady picnic tables on the lawn. (To sit on the beach, you’ll need to bring your own umbrella to stick in the sand.)
A circular, two-mile walking trail – the Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park Loop – also winds through the park’s old growth trees and along the edge of the beach.
In spring, the park is a kaleidoscope of color from all the wildflowers.
9) Eat at Cuckoo, Coombs
We ended our mini-trip with a bang-up dinner at Cuckoo, the Coombs Italian restaurant at the Coombs Country Market.
We could have sat inside the authentic Italian villa at tables set with white linens.
But it was a lovely warm evening. The outside terrace overlooked a dry forested riverbed; mini-lights were strung overhead in leafy trees. Of course, this setting won us over.
Pastas at the Cuckoo restaurant are home-made, and the rich and creamy spaghetti carbonara hit the spot – as did our Parksville and Qualicum Beach getaway.
Where to stay in Parksville? Parksville is bigger than Qualicum Beach, so it has more accommodation choices.
We stayed at the Beach Club (right in the center of Parksville) and Tigh-Na-Mara (just outside Parksville). We can recommend both – they’re the best places to stay in Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
Beach Club Resort
The Beach Club is newer – with bigger, more modern accommodations.
Situated right on sandy Parksville Beach, it has contemporary studios and large one-bedroom units with full kitchens, air-conditioning, gas fireplaces and large balconies.
Tip: Ask for an oceanview-facing unit; they’re worth the extra cost. Some units have no view (they face other buildings).
Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort
The Tigh-Na-Mara resort is more woodsy (surrounded by forest), with nicely gussied up rooms, cabins and suites.
Families might like the self-contained cabins. (But the cabins don’t have ocean views.)
Couples, however, should definitely book one of the beautiful oceanview suites.
There are other Rathtrevor Beach accommodations (duplex-style units), but Tigh-Na-Mara is the signature full-service resort – with a spa, restaurant, swimming pool and other amenities.
Our media visit to Parksville and Qualicum Beach was arranged by Parksville Qualicum Beach Tourism. All views and words are our own, however. As professional travel writers, we can always report freely on our travel experiences without influence.
Our newspaper travel article on Parksville
We first wrote about all the crazy fun things to do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach for a local Canadian newspaper. Here’s our newspaper story.
Photos 2, 3, 13, 21 and 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Photos 1 and 17 Tigh-Na-Mara | Photo 4 Parksville Qualicum Beach Tourism | Remaining photos courtesy of the respective Parksville attractions