The Republic Of Northern Island– Small towns can have many secrets but this small town, my newly adopted one of Port McNeill, has one of the best-kept secrets going. However, before I tell you, we first need some background perspective.
For those of you who grew up with groups like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, or Santana, you are of an age to remember what Tofino, Ucluelet and Long Beach were really like back in the late ’60s.
Before they became what they are today, access was along a sometimes very rough logging road from Port Alberni. And the towns were just small logging and commercial fishing villages.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest tourism was, at best, in its infancy. But if you brought a tent, you could sleep on the beach or in a self-built driftwood shelter and seldom did you have to share that long stretch of beach with more than a dozen others.
In hindsight, many wish we could have seen the future and purchased a home back then (under $15,000) or started a business. But we didn’t and where once you camped and surfed, you now find resorts, timeshares and large waterfront homes.
So those days are gone and Vancouver Island is about as affordable and interesting as living in Vancouver. Or is it and here’s where the secrets begin….
As you recover from your Easter chocolates, take a moment to consider discovering what I call, the Lost Coast of Vancouver Island.
Drive past Campbell River and keep driving for another two hours. This time, the road is paved all the way but goes from four lanes to two as you drive over coastal mountains and alongside lakes and rivers until you are almost at the end of the Island and the road. Here you will find Port McNeill and the beginning of the yet to be discovered Northern Island.
It’s a small logging, fishing town with a few motels, no fancy restaurants — although a new chef in town is trying to change that — and a limited tourism infrastructure. But she has some incredibly wonderful secrets that, like Tofino back in the ’60s, are known to only a limited number of people.
Some of the best sea kayaking in the world happens close by, in the protected waters of the Broughton Archipelago. You can catch your own dinner of Dungeness crab, salmon, or the seafood gourmet’s prized Halibut. Or watch the Orcas gather to feed or stop by their rubbing beach off Malcolm Island.
Mountain biking, hiking, fly fishing and exploring are at your doorstep and the open Pacific of the west coast’s Cape Scott is about 90 plus minutes from town. You’ll find long wind-swept sandy beaches, small deserted coves and enough logging roads to insure you could back road explore for an entire summer and never be in the same place twice. And if you are a photographer or painter, you will find it difficult to even consider leaving.
Much like the mythical town of Brigadoon on the Scottish coast, the North Island seems to rise out of the mist. Luckily for us though, it’s not just once every 100 years.
Apart from the secrets created by its location, Port McNeill has another surprise for the jaded urbanite. Like Tofino and Ucluelet of past decades, it offers something no other community can, affordable housing. A three- B/R home overlooking the ocean will set you back $220,000 and if you want to go top end, you would be looking between $350,000 and $450,000.
On the business side of things, the town is short on restaurants, could use a craft brew pub — although rumour has it one is being considered — a small boutique-style hotel would be popular along with all the other related businesses. Long-term house and condo rentals are in desperately short supply and Air BnB style inventory are both still viable and affordable investments.
With the exception of real estate, I suspect business investment is mid- to long-term but then, so too was the Long Beach area at one time.
It is much like Northern California’s Lost Coast. A bit mysterious, out of the way and not quite funky and artsy yet but heading in that direction. It is a paradise for those who enjoy the outdoors, offering the perfect mix of easy-to-walk trails along with tough, multi-day coastal hikes for the experienced outdoors person.
But, most of all, who you were before arriving is nowhere near as important as who you become once here.
Bill McQuarrie is a former Kamloops entrepreneur who has retired to Vancouver Island where he spends a lot of time fly fishing. He can be contacted at email@example.com. He tweets @bafflegabbed.