By Andrew Penner
As we pulled up to the fourth tee box on the Valley Course at Bear Mountain – one of my favourite courses in Canada, I’d like to add – I was faced with a dilemma. A head-scratching, gut-wrenching decision that could make or break my round. (Of course, I started bogey, bogey, bogey, so it’s possible the “break” had already occurred.) Either way, it was a conundrum. With the beverage cart waiting, I had to make the call quickly. Do I purchase my beer before or after I hit my drive?
Indeed, as every golfer knows, making difficult decisions – even for recreational players who average six skulls and a couple of hosel-fades per round – is par for the course. But on Vancouver Island, as I’ve found out on a handful of trips over the years, the vast majority of the decisions, on or off the course, are arbitrary. (Even the ones that involve beer.) After all, you’ve already made the most important call of all. You’ve decided to go.
With fourteen scenic courses – from Victoria to Campbell River – the 250-kilometre Vancouver Island Golf Trail is one of the best golf trails on the planet. And, regardless if you jet off to Victoria for a quick weekend of swings and swills or dipsy doodle your way along the entire trail (highly recommended), golfing on Vancouver Island has a character, a flavour, that is unlike anything else in North America.
For starters, you’re on an island. Life is slower. The congested, fast-paced ways of the mainland are non-existent. Ask anyone who has traveled the trail, that in itself makes a Vancouver Island getaway worth every cent you spend.
And, of course, the scenery – the wave-smashed shores, the lush rainforests, the coastal mountains capped with snow – is simply stunning. Few places in North America offer the type of raw natural beauty that is so accessible, so front and centre, as on Vancouver Island.
For golfers, the cherry on top is the quality of the golf. From seaside gems to parkland layouts that meander through unspoiled forests, the golf courses are outstanding. And, not only that, but each of the four distinct regions on the trail – Victoria, Cowichan, Parksville & Qualicum Beach, and Courtney & Campbell River – offers its own brand of golf, its own unique add-on experiences, so every type of traveller can find their happy place.
In Victoria (the perfect place to start your pilgrimage), for example, the culinary and craft beer scene is phenomenal. Dubbed “The Cradle of the Craft Beer Revolution,” the historic downtown core, which wraps around the pristine Inner Harbour, is home to some of the most notable craft brewpubs in Canada. Spinnakers, Canoe, Swans, Phillips, Driftwood, and of course, Vancouver Island Brewing are just a few of the places where you can hang your hat after golf and swap tall tales and tasty ales. (Interestingly, Vancouver Island Brewing recently concocted a delicious beer called “Vancouver Island Golf Trail Ale.” For obvious reasons, this was my beverage of choice on my recent trip!
Rest assured, there will be plenty of tales to tell after golfing at Bear Mountain.
The two epic courses – Valley and Mountain – serve up amazing views, dramatic elevation changes, and the type of bold and creative architecture that has made Nicklaus Design one of the world’s most esteemed design firms. If there is a “signature” facility on the Vancouver Island Golf Trail, Bear Mountain would likely get the nod. Tip: If you must choose between the two courses, the Valley Course is wider, more forgiving, and a better fit for higher handicap players. The original Mountain Course, while absolutely spectacular, can be a bear!
Additional rounds in the Victoria area can be tacked on at Highland Pacific, Arbutus Ridge, and Olympic View, where, in 1994, Tiger Woods competed in an amateur event for Stanford University.
As you make your way “up island” along the trail, the Cowichan Valley is your next stop. There, in the warm-weather confines of this sun-soaked valley, you’ll find wineries, picture-perfect farms, and the classic parkland layout at the Cowichan Valley Golf & Country Club.
A perfect day in the Cowichan is a round of golf in the morning followed by a visit to a couple of wineries like Blue Grouse or Cherry Point in the afternoon. Or, if you really need to rev up your getaway, the Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit affords wannabe racers an opportunity to drive luxury sports cars around a professionally-built circuit. (On my last visit, after a few warm-up laps, I was able to channel my inner “Ricky Bobby.” You know, shake n’ bake.)
However, if you want the slow lane, the Parksville & Qualicum Beach area is the ultimate locale. Stunning beaches that stretch out for kilometres, cozy coastal towns, and tucked-away resorts with world-class spas (the Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort is one of my all-time favourites) are highlights.
Not surprisingly, the golf in this region also has a peaceful and pastoral flavour. Both Morningstar, a challenging Les Furber creation, and Pheasant Glen meander through pines and marshland and serve up scenic, championship-calibre tests that won’t disappoint. Also, Fairwinds and Eaglecrest are sporty, mid-length courses that are ideal for recreational players who don’t feel the need to bring a 7,000-yard beast to its knees.
But if you really love courses “in nature,” then the Campbell River area is a must. Storey Creek, one of the true gems on the trail, parades through a pristine forest and is the ultimate golf adventure. Nearly every hole swerves through towering trees and idyllic ponds and gently undulating terrain accentuates the beauty.
For something even more remote, a side trip to Quadra Island for a spin around the charming Quadra Island Golf Club is another quintessential Vancouver Island Golf Trail experience. There you’ll find nine sweet little holes that dart down hills and curl through the rainforest.
The two other courses in this region – Campbell River and Crown Isle – are immaculately-conditioned contemporary layouts that will appeal to every skill level. Campbell River, located in the heart of town, also boasts a state-of-the-art Toptracer driving range that makes practicing both fun and addictive. Adventurers can cap off their trip with a thrilling marine and wildlife tour via zodiac with Campbell River Whale Watching. Orcas, humpback whales, sea lions, seals, porpoises, black bears, and eagles are sighted regularly.
True, you may not be able to do everything – fourteen courses and dozens of craft breweries is a lot to fit in! – on your voyage down the Vancouver Island Golf Trail. But, take heart – whatever you choose to do, wherever you choose to go, and whatever you choose to sip – you’ll be on Vancouver Island. And that is all that really matters.
Andrew Penner is a freelance writer based in Calgary, Alberta.
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