| Travel | Family fun

Malcolm Island, Vancouver Island

A paradise for outdoor enthusiasts  

Are you and your family ready for a "time out" from the hectic rush of everyday living? Worn out by the crowds, the noise and the relentless pace of metropolitan life?

Have I got a place for you.

On Malcolm Island, you and your family can relax, kick back and just be. In this community, drivers don't honk at the dogs sleeping in the road, they just navigate around them. On the 15-mile-long island, there is one place to rent bikes (during our visit in last summer, they only had six, so you might want to bring your own). And, if you want to check your email, there are just two public places to get on the Internet, and neither of them is open on Sunday.

Malcolm Island is just off the northeastern tip of Vancouver Island, about a 25-minute ferry ride from Port McNeil, and a world away from rampant consumerism, multi-tasking and other unfriendly aspects of modern life. Not for nothing did the Finnish utopian community that first settled on the island in 1901 name the (only) town Sointula, the Finnish word meaning "place of harmony." The pervasive natural beauty and serenity indeed are soothing to the soul. And while we visited in the summer, all of the island's businesses and attractions are open year-round (although some with limited hours) for residents and tourists.

Today, around 800 people live on Malcolm Island, with about a third descended from the original community.

You and your children can explore the island's fascinating history at the museum, located just a short walk from the ferry dock. It's open daily in the summer, but at other times you can see it by appointment. Although, as museums go, this is a small one, take your time: Packed with the stuff of decades ofdaily living, including photographs, school books and farm equipment, every item has a story. If a guide is available, listen to an intriguing (if rambling) account of how this outpost of "practical dreamers" has survived -- and sometimes thrived -- over the last century.

Sointula also has the longest running co-op store (featuring groceries and other essentials) in the BC province; a bakery/café called Wild Island, with luscious eats and ice cream by the cone right near the ferry dock; a place to rent videos; more than one ATM and a resource center with helpful staff. Add the non-touristy ambience that embraces many of the values on which it was founded, and you know you have ventured somewhere special. Community events (a pancake breakfast at the senior center, a concert given by local talent) give you the opportunity to mingle with residents and hear their stories (some grew up on the island, while others are transplants from Canadian and U.S. cities.)

Economically, Malcolm Island is struggling: For years, residents made a living fishing and logging, but those opportunities have shriveled. Visitors to the island help the economy, and there are several cottages and guest houses where you will be comfortable. (With limited space, reservations are a must.) While some accommodations are geared to adults only, most are family-friendly. We stayed at Sea 4 Miles Cottages, in a small, comfortable, two-bedroom house that lives up to its name and includes grounds with a play area. The island also features two campgrounds (one public, one private).

For outdoor enthusiasts of all ages, Malcolm Island is a paradise. It's fun to hike up the few roads that crisscross part of the island, enjoying the rural feel of this community. There are also designated trails with heart-stopping views. Junior marine biologists will enjoy the beaches and tide pools crawling with life. Budding artists and designers will delight in the wide array of shells, rocks and driftwood -- and be inspired by the way islanders use these items to create unique fences and house decorations. Plus, how many places can boast of having a blacksmith?

Not to be missed:

Bere Point: camping, hiking and whale watching.

Beautiful walks: Mateoja Heritage Trail, Beautiful Bay Trail, Lighthouse Beach Trail.

Take in the abundant wildlife, which includes lots of bald eagles and herons.

Getting there:

Unless you really enjoy very long car rides, I suggest you take two days to travel from Seattle to Malcolm Island. Drive north on Interstate 5 into Canada, take exit for the Tsawwassen ferry to Nanaimo, located northeast of Vancouver Island's popular tourist destination, Victoria.

Be sure to make a reservation for this busy ferry route. Crossing time to Nanaimo (Duke Point) is two hours. You can stop overnight in Nanaimo, a city with an interesting museum right downtown, or continue on Highway 19 up to Campbell River (about halfway up the island), which adds another two-plus hours of driving. North of Campbell River, you are heading into a much more remote area. Take food, water and toilet paper (for emergency pit stops) with you, and gas up the car before you leave Campbell River.

Allow about three hours (or more) to get from Campbell River to Port McNeil. (Winding roads, enchanting scenery and wildlife sightings will slow you down, and there are places to pull off the road and marvel at what you see.) Once in Port McNeil, head for the ferry dock. It's about a 25-minute ride from Port McNeil to Sointula.

Malcom Island side trips:

Take the ferry from Sointula to Port McNeil, and stay on to go to Alert Bay. (Car is optional if you and your kids are enthusiastic walkers.) Explore the Ecological Park which includes nature trails, and do not miss the U'Mista Cultural Centre, with its totem poles, masks and definitely-worth-a-stop gift shop.

Odds and ends:
  • Lines at the Canada/USA border can cause delays. Although not required at the time of this writing, it's a good idea to carry passports for everyone.
  • Cameras, binoculars, warm clothing and rain gear will make your adventure more fun and comfortable.
  • The 8 a.m. ferry from Sointula leaves at 7:20 a.m. on Sundays.
  • Hungry families, take note: The co-op grocery store is closed on Sundays.

Deborah Berger is a freelance writer/ editor and mother of one son.


  • www.island.net/~sointula is packed with tips on how to get to Malcolm Island, where to stay and what to do.
  • www.sointulainfo.ca provides general information, or you can call the Sointula Resource Centre at 250-973-2001.
  • www.bcferries.com has ferry schedules and reservations. Call 1-888-BC FERRY
  • www.hellobc.com has a wealth of information including hotels in Campbell River and Nanaimo. Call 1-800 HELLO BC
  • www.umista.ca has information on the U'Mista Culture Centre
  • http://alertbay.ca has general information about Alert Bay or call the Visitor Centre at 250-974-5024

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