There are two sides to Vancouver Island, geographically speaking; two distinct coasts whose characters are defined by the seas that erode their shores.
The tranquil east coast on the Strait of Georgia has the bulk of the Island’s industry, agriculture and population; the west coast is wild, battered by Pacific storms and relentless waves.
Highway 4 is the easiest way to connect the two. Known for most of its length as the Pacific Rim Highway, it’s a classic BC road trip that passes lakes, cavernous gorges and steep cliffs as it winds through the Island’s beautiful central mountains.
Most people heading west have only one destination in mind: Tofino and its long, golden beaches. But there’s a wealth of sights to sample on the way – and that, of course, includes local craft beer.
The Love Shack is a little beer place…
The Pacific Rim route has the potential to become a classic ale trail route thanks to the opening of several new breweries. They include two near the eastern terminus of Highway 4, in sleepy communities that have long had the reputation of retirement cities. Now craft beer is bringing new vitality to Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
It’s best to spend at least a night in the area so you can take in both breweries. Start at what may be BC’s smallest brewery, Love Shack Libations, which is just west of Qualicum Beach along coastal Highway 19A.
Housed in a small, unassuming industrial unit, Love Shack’s combined brewhouse and tasting room features a beautiful communal table formed from a gnarly piece of salvaged wood.
Here you can try Dave Paul’s bottle-conditioned beer, which he or his wife Rachel will pour into one of an interesting selection of glasses unearthed from thrift stores. You can admire Paul’s brewing rig, which has pride of place in one corner, or take to the vintage typewriter to compose a paean to his very worthy brews.
Try the splendid cream ale or the DPA – the Dave Paul Ale, a dark, well hopped beer of impressive balance.
Your next stop is Parksville, where Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company opened in spring on the east side of town.
The brewery has quickly found its place as a community hub, having already put on a beer and spirits festival hosted by a local Rotary club, as well as beginners yoga sessions in the brewhouse.
Locals are becoming damn proud of their city’s own beer, which is produced under the careful eye of experienced brewmaster Dave Woodward (formerly of Axe & Barrel Brewing Company in Langford and Tofino Brewing Company). Try Jagged Face, a Woodward-trademark bold, West Coast style IPA, singing with citrus and pine flavours; and Comfortably Chum, an impressive take on the German hefeweizen style with added orange peel.
Know as well that you’ll be drinking beer in a UNESCO Biosphere Region that also takes its name from Mount Arrowsmith, the nearby mountain that dominates the western landscape on this part of the island. Looking the other way, there’s plenty of beach space to enjoy, with the hugely popular Parksville and Rathtrevor beaches.
Other nearby attractions include Coombs Old Country Market, where the goats graze on the roof, and for the more adventurous, exploring the Horne Lake Caves. Make sure to stop in at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks for some picnic provisions and a fun self-guided farm tour.
Gorges, peaks and trees
Then you can set out in earnest on your Pacific Rim Highway adventure. Though it’s not long before your first worthwhile stop: the foaming gorge of Little Qualicum Falls. It’s the first sense of wildness you’ll get on the road.
From here, the highway climbs steeply before cresting at hemmed-in Cameron Lake. At the lake’s end you’ll enter MacMillan Provincial Park, home to Cathedral Grove. Here you can take a humbling stroll through ancient western red cedars and Douglas firs, some of which are more than 800 years old.
Craft beer in lumber land
The highway soon begins dropping again, as it heads down to sea level to the forestry town of of Port Alberni.
Lumber is still king in Port Alberni, but the city has begun redefining itself as an outdoors centre: hiking, biking, fishing, windsurfing and diving, to name a few.
At a local level, more young families are escaping the high house prices of BC’s bigger cities and finding much more affordable digs here. They bring their big-city tastes with them and for many that includes fresh craft beer.
Twin City Brewing has satisfied that need and has been bustling ever since it opened in March.
Conveniently situated just a block off Highway 4, Twin City boasts a beautiful lounge with high windows, communal tables, logging-themed accents and a panorama view into the brewhouse and kitchen, where a pizza oven delivers a range of interesting pies (roasted peaches, camembert and prosciutto was one recent example).
The beer is on point on a number of styles including porter, British pale ale and West Coast IPA, while offering a few off-the-wall experiments.
Through the mountains
From Port Alberni, the road narrows and wilderness beckons. Near Sproat Lake Provincial Park is a turn-off for the 35 km-long Great Central Lake, where multi-day adventures start to the foot of Della Falls, one of Canada’s tallest waterfalls.
But on the highway, there are many easier stops that give a sense of the wildness, from sprawling Sproat Lake to pointed Pogo Mountain and the beautiful pools and gorges of Wally Creek.
As the road hugs Kennedy Lake, you can almost get a hint of salt in the air with the coast getting ever closer. Finally the highway forks.
The wild, wet coast
Left takes you to Ucluelet, which is worth a visit to walk the Wild Pacific Trail, where on windier days the full force of the Pacific Ocean can be observed crashing into the rocky shoreline. Plans for a brewpub are well underway at a cute church on the town’s main road.
But most traffic will take a right. It’s here you enter the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, with its superlative beaches, roaring waves, untouched forests and ever-changing light. And rain. Lots and lots of rain. Pack accordingly.
From the highway there are numerous accessible walks, as well as easy access to some of BC’s finest beaches.
Highway 4 terminates at Tofino. This is your stop for organizing kayak trips, whale-watching journeys, surfing lessons, sport fishing and more. You’ll also find incredible food options such as the celebrated Tacofino food truck and the award-winning Wolf in the Fog restaurant.
Then there’s Tofino Brewing Company, whose logo is as common in these parts as people cycling with a surfboard under one arm. The tasting room is functional but cosy, and often packed.
And no wonder when you can get Hoppin’ Cretin – one of BC’s best IPAs – straight from the source. For a different take on the concept of terroir, try the Kelp Stout.
The hardest part of these west coast adventures is having to say goodbye and point the car east. But then you remember all the splendour of the Pacific Rim Highway – and the great beer to be had along the way – and the heartache soon eases.