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Carless and carefree: Victoria to Courtenay by train on Vancouver Island

Qualicum Beach VIA Rail station on Vancouver Island.

Qualicum Beach VIA Rail station on Vancouver Island. (Sue Frause)

I prefer road trips that don’t include me as the driver. And now with the gas gods scowling down on us, even folks who would never leave their beloved vehicles at home are opting for alternative ways to roam. Plus, lots can happen when you’re not behind the wheel. You can read. Listen to tunes. Eavesdrop. Take a snooze. Or see familiar sights with fresh eyes. My favorite way to travel to British Columbia is a combination of trains, buses, boats, and planes. This is the fourth and final in a series of my carless, carefree getaway to BC. Depending on your time and budget, cut and clip as necessary.

As much time as I’ve spent on Vancouver Island, it was only until a few years ago I realized you could take a train up the island. VIA Rail Canada has a train that runs between Victoria and Courtenay. Called the Malahat after one of the rugged and forested regions it travels through, it leaves Victoria daily at 8 a.m. The one-way fare is $28.

The first time that I took the train in 2007, well — I didn’t. Due to mechanical problems, the train wasn’t running, so I ended up taking Pacific Coach Lines both ways. I took an evening bus and didn’t arrive in Courtenay until around 11 p.m. and got back on the bus the next morning right after breakfast. So I didn’t see much of Courtenay.

When you arrive at the VIA Rail station in downtown Victoria, located at the east end of Johnson Bridge on Pandora, ask for a handout, which lists all the sights along the way. Also, there is no food service on the train, so pack a breakfast if you haven’t already eaten.

At the beginning of the trip, the train makes an eight-mile club over Malahat Pass, climbing 650 feet. The views are impressive, so bring along your camera. Around Mile 16, you can see Mount Baker 75 miles away if it’s a clear day. Stops include Chemainus, known for its 37 murals throughout the town; Nanaimo, where a 2007 fire caused extensive damage to the VIA Rail station and it remains closed, except for the platform; and Parksville, a resort town with four miles of sandy beach. My favorite station is the red and white wooden structure at Qualicum Beach, built in 1914 and making the town a service and distribution center for the logging industry and a destination.

The 138-mile journey between Victoria and Courtenay is scheduled to take five hours, and we arrived in Courtenay only 15 minutes late. I spent the night at Old House Village Suites & Hotel (they have a car that will pick you up). It’s a lovely new hotel with a spa that’s scheduled to open in November 2008.

The fun thing about going round-trip on a train is you get to see what’s on the other side on the way back. The return trip from Courtenay leaves daily at 3:15 p.m. (giving you plenty of time to poke around Courtenay) and arrives in Victoria at 8 p.m. Just in time to check into a hotel, have dinner, and rest up before the trip back to Seattle via Kenmore Air or the Victoria Clipper.

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