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Okay, so perhaps the term ‘soul search’ is a little over the top. Then again, so were my first thoughts when I arrived in the quaint community of Campbell River — if I were ever to write a gripping novel of love, loss, or personal discovery, I would want to write it here.
This isn't because Campbell River is particularly fascinating subject matter, but because being there brings forth a kind of inward creativity I find stifled by the pace of modern urban living. There is a certain kind of peace that comes with solitude, and if you've never travelled alone, I highly recommend giving it a whirl.
Campbell River is a small city on the east coast of Vancouver Island and a good place to start your introspective adventure if you don't want to wander too far from home. It's the kind of place one goes to stare out a window and watch the rain drop over a frothy cup of joe, or sit on a bench by the ocean and watch the waves crash into the shoreline as the mind wanders freely.
In other words, Campbell River is the kind of place one goes to to be in the company of one’s own thoughts — to write, to read, to reflect. Here are my top five reasons to go to 'soul searching' in Campbell River while the city is quiet during the winter months:
1. The Drive
The easiest way to get to Campbell River through public transit is the speedy (albeit crammed) IslandLink Bus service. Having travelled by land, air, and water across 10 countries in Africa, I’ve always maintained that travel by road is the best way to go — nothing stimulates the deepest parts of the mind more than watching the world go by through a passenger window. The drive up the Island Highway is beautiful; after Buckley Bay it transitions from rolling yellow hills of farmland to colourful waterfront properties overlooking the ocean. Cormorants dry their wings out on rocks by the shoreline and majestic trumpeter swans forage in people’s backyards. There’s no better time to think than when you physically can’t be doing anything else, so take time during the drive to absorb the scenery — your thoughts might spin more quickly than the wheels of the bus itself.
2. The People
Campbell River is a small municipality of roughly 30,000 permanent residents. It may have all the amenities as a result of industry development, but there’s no denying its small-town feel: people still smile and wave when they pass each other on the street, and the servers know the names of their restaurant regulars. I once mentioned casually to a barista at the local Java Shack that I was visiting for the weekend, and had one fellow customer welcome me to town and another recommend a great spot for brunch. The presence of such warmth and a strong sense of community adds an undeniable ambiance to Campbell River that not only inspires, but makes you feel immediately at home. Travel can often be an overstimulating experience, but the easy-going nature of the people there forces you to relax.
3. The Dining
In his work, A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Welles writes: “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations.” While I can’t personally attest to food’s ability to mitigate family tension, I can say that few things are more rejuvenating than a solid meal on vacation after a hectic work week. As its name suggests, Campbell River specializes in fresh seafood, and even lauds itself as “The Salmon Capital of the World.” I couldn’t resist taking part in its cuisine and tucked into salmon fish and chips served on old school newspaper at the Quay West Kitchen. What makes eating in Campbell River so unique is that even at 7 p.m. on a Saturday, the restaurants are quiet. I unplugged (turned my phone, laptop, and iPod off) and ate a wonderfully cooked dinner slowly by myself. The restaurant overlooks the glistening ocean and is decorated with black and white photos of the city’s history from as far back as 1916.
4. The Scenery
Campbell River is a quaint coastal community that lies at the southernmost tip of the magnificent Great Bear Rainforest, adjacent to the Discovery Passage. If you take a stroll down the famous Island Highway, you can see the swath of green that is Quadra Island, fisherman casting their lines on the water, and tugboats bobbing up and down by the docks in the harbour. If I had more time there, I would have booked myself a cabin by the ocean and spent hours at a time reading and writing on a bench by the shore, and hiked the Canyon View Trail to see salmon spawning in the river. I would have crossed the Elk Falls Suspension Bridge overlooking the tumbling water, and perhaps if I were feeling ambitious, rented a kayak for an afternoon to tour the beautiful Discovery Islands. Campbell River really is a wild place — a great place to enjoy the subtle stimulation of nature that seems to seep into one's veins the way museums, architecture, and other conventional attractions can't.
5. The Art
Despite being a small island city, Campbell River has an incredibly thriving arts community. Walking around town, you’ll find posters advertising theatrical productions like Beauty and the Beast livening up community activity boards, while public art — bronze statues, Indigenous carvings, painted utility boxes and historical plaques — add colour and vibrancy on grey rainy days. American actress Stella Adler once said, "Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one," and Campbell River is no exception. On your drive in, it’s impossible to miss the The Big Rock, an anomaly in the local landscape that has graced the shoreline for at least 10,000 years and become a beloved site for local graffiti artists. First Nations have their own legends about how it got there, but the best version I heard was that a foolish grizzly bear challenged a clever black bear to a jumping competition from the mainland to the island. While the black bear hastily leapt the distance during low tide, the grizzly bear hesitated and got caught during high tide. His heels touched the waters of Campbell River, instantly turning him to stone. According to local lore, this is also the reason there are no grizzly bears on Vancouver Island, and only black bears.