We call it The Bamfield Disconnect. In what has fast become an annual pilgrimage my husband and I pack up clothing, food and camera gear, call in the dog-sitter and for a few days head to one of the prettiest and most laid-back spots on Vancouver Island. For us it is the ultimate getaway – a retreat from the madness of modern life to a slower, gentler place where community still counts for almost everything, where there is tremendous reverence for the natural world and where fewer than 200 residents survive quite happily, thank you, without shopping, spas, fancy homes or most of the other accoutrements of twenty-first century life. Cell phone and internet service are spotty, so it’s not difficult to be totally ‘unplugged’ from your everyday life.
There are a number of things that draw us back to Bamfield each July, first and foremost being its remote location. Perched on the edge of Barkley Sound, this tiny community is a jewel in the crown of the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a collection of beaches, trails and rainforest that span endless miles of the wild west coast of the Island.
East Bamfield serves as the terminus to the world-famous West Coast Trail, a rugged 75 kilometre (47 mile) route originally built in the early 1900s to aid in the rescue of shipwrecked sailors. The east side is also the location of the historic Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (well worth a visit), the stunningly beautiful Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries (host of the spectacular annual Music by the Sea summer concert series), several small businesses, a grocery store, restaurant and the very beautiful, rustic Pachena Bay Campground, which features camping backing right on to an amazing sweep of beach where whales and a variety of other wildlife are frequent visitors.
But it is West Bamfield that has really captured our hearts. Laid-back, quirky and friendly, the ambiance on the west side of the inlet encourages interaction with the locals and other visitors. The post office and the small general store are the social heart of the community, a throwback seldom found anymore. There are no ‘roads’, per se – only wide rough gravel trails that accommodate the ATVs, tractor mowers and various other jalopies that west side residents use to traverse their little slice of heaven. There is a beautiful boardwalk, complete with colourful flower planters, that wends its way along the waterfront and where the west side’s only restaurant, the Boardwalk Bistro, brews up a mean espresso and offers a relaxed change from the hyper vibe of city coffee spots. Be warned that the bistro isn’t always open – it depends on how good the fishing is, which is so typical of the attitude found on the west side. In Bamfield living life to the fullest comes first; everything else is secondary. Wander along the boardwalk and you can enjoy all manner of charming historic homes (you can learn more about them in a beautifully-produced new book, Bamfield Houses, available at the store), the Bamfield Cat Houses (a colourful sanctuary for feral cats), quirky artwork, pretty west coast gardens, peaceful water views and the sight of happy fishermen cleaning their bountiful catch of salmon, halibut or cod. Kayaks and canoes are commonplace sights as they glide along the calm inlet waters, which also attract pleasure boats of every size and shape. You can take a short hike to stunning Brady’s Beach and spend time meandering along a pristine shoreline that looks out to islands and the open Pacific Ocean.
It’s a bit of a challenge to even get to Bamfield – travellers have the choice of driving from Port Alberni or Lake Cowichan on dusty gravel logging roads (not particularly recommended) or enjoying a four hour ‘cruise’ down the Alberni Inlet from Port Alberni on the MV Frances Barkley, a working packet freighter that services the isolated settlements along the inlet, as well as Ucluelet and Bamfield. The Frances Barkley trip is always a great way to decompress – you can sit indoors or out, visit with fellow travellers from all over the world and enjoy several hours simply watching the world go by before pulling in to the government dock in the pretty inlet that serves as Bamfield’s Main Street. The Frances Barkley does day trips to Bamfield several times a week, which allow visitors 1 ½ – 2 hours to enjoy the charms of this captivating community. I made my first trip way back in the early 1970s on the Frances Barkley’s predecessor, the venerable MV Lady Rose. I haven’t been able to stay away since that initial introduction to this most special of places. Anyone contemplating this trip needs to be warned though – you may fall so in love with the place you might never leave. We have met a number of people who have met that fate, happily so.