Island journey

Find your spirit of adventure on Vancouver Island's east coast

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Bring your adrenaline ― and your appetite

South of Nanaimo, we peel off Highway 1 to the Bungy Zone Adrenaline Centre, where elastic junkies pay about $80 to leap 143 feet into the Nanaimo River Gorge. Spectators, among which I happily count myself, get in free. This enterprise helps dissolve my image of Canada as our gentler, saner neighbor ― especially when manager Sascha Schrader tells me that to celebrate Valentine's Day in 2004, 268 people took the plunge ― in the nude! Why? "Because it's cheap." The chilly Valentine special is just $8.

Nanaimo, the island's next-largest city after Victoria, offers real downtown shopping, not a clump of twee boutiques. I scoop up a minor treasure at Fascinating Rhythm, a new- and used- CD, video, and DVD shop: Gordon Lightfoot's greatest hits, for just $8. Dinner at Glow World Cuisine, Nanaimo's primo restaurant, costs a bit more ― our check is $53 without wine, still a bargain. The restaurant is fetchingly housed in the city's 1893 fire hall, and on the night we're there, jazz singer Dinah D is accompanying herself, improbably but successfully, on her acoustic bass, which she calls Countess Basie. The food is eclectic and terrific, centering on local ingredients such as wild mushrooms and free-range ducks from the Cowichan Valley.

"There's a culinary mini revolution going on," maître d' Mark Watchin tells me. "A lot of people are moving to the island from places like Toronto and Vancouver, and they have different expectations. Some of them are starting hobby farms, and we're getting wonderful ingredients."

Too briefly, we tour Milner Gardens & Woodland's rhododendron grove of 500 specimens on an old seaside estate. The grounds are alive with the arias of chestnut-backed chickadees and the percussive raps of pileated woodpeckers. We visit the Courtenay & District Museum and Palaeontology Centre to ponder the elasmosaur fossil, a 39-foot aquatic reptile with flippers the size of guitars, now swimming in midair over the museum's atrium. We also hear rumors of a wonderful waterfall, Stotan Falls, on the Puntledge River where the sea monster was unearthed in 1988, and track it down. We plod to the middle of the river and sit on a limestone ledge, surrounded by a counterpoint of cascades.

In Campbell River we spend a couple of hours meandering the Rotary Sea Walk, admiring sophisticated driftwood sculptures. We hop the ferry to Quadra Island ― a 10-minute journey that we'd happily make in our kayaks, except that the afternoon crossing current in Seymour Narrows will hit 15 knots, in which we'd be bugs in a Maytag.

Back in Campbell River, we've reached the northern terminus of our expedition. But it looks more like a gateway. A gallery manager urges me to continue on to the north island ― "It's a whole different world: more bears than people, and it's incredible." Strathcona Provincial Park's towering peaks and lonely lakes lie an hour west. And just outside town is yet another cataract, Elk Falls. Pressed for time, we snatch a tantalizing glimpse from the lower parking lot, but the trek to the falls has to wait.

Next trip, we'll leave that appalling mainland phrase ― "pressed for time" ― at the ferry terminal.

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