No Hotel Rooms? No Problem.

Kid-friendly Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

Hotel Condon in Condon, Oregon

I’ve recently been contacted by readers, despairing that my top hotel picks are either priced out of reach or unavailable for the upcoming summer. Family hotels in Portland, Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle are booked solid, sold out and too expensive!

Well, no surprise — I’ve dealt with the same situation, even as a travel writer. Here’s what I typically do when faced with sold-out hotel rooms, a planned trip and kids.

1. Set up in the suburbs. Now, some suburbs are better than others. For example, many suburbs of Vancouver offer the SkyTrain option into downtown Vancouver, so I’ll look for hotels near the SkyTrain. Portland offers this as well. Seattle is still working on getting their transit act together, so that’s not as much fun — but I’ve done it. Worst case scenario, I resign to driving into the city and paying for parking.

2. Use Priceline’s “Express Deals” tab. If it’s a heavily-booked weekend, I probably won’t hook a successful, low-priced bid for a decent hotel in my desired destination. But the “Express Deals” usually work at hitting the sweet spot of price and location. The potential downside: because you don’t get to choose your bedding type, you may end up with one King, three kids, and no sleep. To circumvent this, look for “Bed choice available” in the text of the express deal. This can allow you to choose two Queens, two doubles, or whatever you need. OR arrive very, very early in the morning, and you may end up with a bed choice (this has always worked for us, but we arrive at 9 a.m.).

3. BYOB (bring your own bed). With a teen and a kid (who will not share a bed with one another), I bring an air mattress for my younger child, or build a “sleep nest” out of pillows, cushions, blankets, and more pillows. This allows me some flexibility in the kind of bedding arrangements we can find, or which type of Priceline stay we reserve.

4. Get very creative or expand the budget. Home swaps? VRBO? AirBnB? Non-reservable, last-minute camping spots? Hostel rooms — there are family rooms available, but often booked far in advance; with teens you might find the bunk options reasonable? Vacation swaps? Petsitting or housesitting stays (I’ve found great petsitters through, although I haven’t used it as a traveler, yet.)?

5. Ask about a waitlist. If I have my heart set on a specific hotel, I might call 24-48 hours in advance of a stay and ask if there have been any cancellations. Or I’ll call earlier and ask if there’s a waitlist of any sort. Smaller hotel owners may be willing to work with a family — they want their hotel or inn filled for the weekend.

6. Reschedule the trip. This is the worst option, but sometimes necessary. Look for a weekend that isn’t insane — weekend festivals can pack Northwest hotels. This only works if I’m driving, not flying. I’ve done it many times. I’m unwilling to pay $150 for a one-star hotel room in the grottiest part of town, and there’s always another weekend that could work.

New for Families from Victoria Clipper

For U.S. residents, there’s never been a better time to visit Canada. Thanks to the strong dollar, U.S. visitors will find items less expensive, from hotels to restaurants (if you withdraw Canadian money from an ATM, using your low-transaction-fee debit or credit card).

The Victoria Clipper has a few new options I thought I’d share — they’ve added a Family Fun on Bicycles tour that takes families on a private, two-hour cycling tour of Victoria ($41.75/adults, $26.50/children over age 2, prices in USD). The tours fit the family — so young kids may want to visit the petting zoo at Beacon Hill Park or feed the seals at a wharf, older children can visit historical sites or explore one of the beaches outside of downtown.

Meeting a Beacon Hill peacock; Photo courtesy The Pedaler.

Meeting a Beacon Hill peacock; Photo courtesy The Pedaler.

The Pedaler (leading the tours) can set you up with a cargo trike that can either be driven by a tour operator or a family member, bike trailers for toddlers or a trail-a-bike so your child can pedal behind your bike. Kid-sized bicycles are also available; the smallest size is 20”. Check out the options at The Pedaler’s site.

The Clipper also offers Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre as an add-on option to travel/accommodations. The centre is in Sidney, BC, which is either a 30-minute drive or very long bus ride from downtown Victoria. I’d suggest it only if you have an extra day or so, because of the time involved. However, Sidney (also called Sidney-by-the-Sea) is sweet, petite, fish ‘n’ chips-style town.

A few more notes for families:

  • Children under age 12 are $10 per paying adult when booked with an overnight package. The children’s tickets sans package aren’t too expensive either ($35). Go before they turn 12!
  • The Clipper now offers online check-in, and you’re assigned a boarding group when you pay for your reservation. BUT! Pre-boarding is still available for families traveling with children under age three. Request pre-boarding at the ticket desk at your departure terminal, even if you’ve already checked in. You want to board as early as possible to get the best seats (My favorite spots are the four-person tables near the bathrooms/exit; upstairs four-person tables; and front-of-ship seats)
  • On the breakfast menu, there’s a kid’s basket called the “Lil’ Sailor” with Kellogg’s cereal, milk, string mozzarella cheese, a cup of fruit and a fun surprise ($4.50), if you didn’t have time to pack a breakfast.
  • You’ll hear about contests and promotions by signing up for the Victoria Clipper’s email list — no quick-link, scroll to the bottom of the page and look for the “Subscribe” text-entry box. I heard about the new online check-in via the e-mail list. Or you can follow the Clipper on social media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

How to Get Good Seats on the Victoria Clipper

The Victoria Clipper passenger ferry is an efficient, pleasurable way to travel between Seattle and Victoria, whether you’re with kids, as a couple or boating solo. While you can take ferries from Anacortes to Sidney, or Port Angeles to Victoria, the Clipper is the fastest (no-flight) way to reach Vancouver Island’s shores from Seattle, or vice versa.

However, the Victoria Clipper boards in groups, and if you’re in the dreaded last boarding groups, you won’t have your pick of seats. You may find yourself wedged between strangers in less-than-ideal spots without views of the gorgeous islands, inlets and mountains.

I personally love the window-side, table-seating area (even if I do have to share it with other travelers), the front of the boat, the upstairs, or seats with plenty of play-room nearby. So I really want a spot in one of the first boarding groups. Here are three ways to get a Victoria Clipper seat:

How to Get Great Seats on the Victoria Clipper

1. Travel with your children under age two. Parents with young children qualify for pre-boarding, so you (and your stroller and other gear) will get on first. If you have kids older than two or still need special assistance, you can ask (but no guarantee). Ask about pre-boarding options at check-in or when purchasing tickets.

2. Get your assignment early. Visit the Clipper offices in Seattle or Victoria, check in and get your assigned boarding seven days before departure. You don’t have to wait until day of departure to get your assigned seating — and almost everyone else will be doing that — instead, you can check in and get your boarding group up to a week (7 days) in advance.

3. Join the Commodore Club. Clipper passengers who often travel between Seattle and Victoria may wish to sign up for this club, which gives you points toward a free Clipper trip with every trip purchased. According to the person who signed me up, the frequent-boating Club also lets you join Boarding Group 1 when you purchase tickets (if this is not your experience, please let me know).

Tofino with Kids: Advice from a dad insider

Tofino BC with Kids

Tofino with Kids

Tofino is where wilderness and luxury meet. It’s a wave-washed destination where even the public campgrounds are never far from million-dollar views.

John Platenius is the parent of two children (ages 5 and 7) and a resident of Tofino, a top summer vacation spot along Vancouver Island’s western shore. Platenius has just put out a fine new book on the region, Tofino Guide, retailing for $19.95. Read more at his Tofino-focused website or leave questions below in the comments.

Here are Platenius’ tips on things to do with kids in Tofino, his recommendations for great hotels and campgrounds, and even the best hiking trail with a preschooler. (Photo at right, Platenius’s son playing on a Tofino beach)

1. Can you recommend a good Tofino hotel, if you’re staying with kids?

Platenius: Oh oh — prepare yourself for long answer, because there are so many great hotels and resorts in Tofino. Most people come here for the beaches, so it’s a natural fit to recommend a place located on one of the beaches. I can truly say that you can’t go wrong by any of the hotels and resorts that are located on a beach. For many families visiting Tofino, price is the main determining factor. Luckily for budget travelers, our peak season of July and August is relatively short, and there are incredible deals outside of these months. If adventurous families want to come to Tofino in the winter months, they can find a room or even a cabin at a luxury resort for $100 per night — and that’s for a stupendous beach location with cushy amenities!

The most established family-oriented hotel and resort on the beach is Pacific Sands Beach Resort. It’s located on Cox Bay and is a great choice. But it really comes down to taste and what’s available at the time. Pacific Sand’s neighbors, Cox Bay Beach Resort and Long Beach Lodge get rave reviews and are equally stunning in terms of location and amenities.

Chesterman Beach only has one hotel, the Wickaninnish Inn. The Wick is a Relais and Chateâux property and it’s the definition of luxury. My family goes there for coffee fairly often to take in the incredible atmosphere and feel special. If price is not your determining factor for accommodation, I would recommend it in a heartbeat. They have a kid-friendly   special called “Wick Kids” which has a kid-version of a gift basket and they offer complimentary child care when guests dine at their restaurant perched over the Pacific.

And then there is MacKenzie Beach, which has two places that I often recommend — again depending on the price and need for amenities. Middle Beach Lodge is an established resort that offers an out-of-this world experience. It was built with heritage materials and is appointed with marine antiques and artifacts that create a warm and relaxing mood. The owner likes to quote a writer who visited there and said “Ralph Lauren would be happy here,” and I too think that’s a great description. Middle Beach has a good approach to welcoming kids to a resort, with family-specific cabins, which are located a great distance from their adult-specific lodge. It’s a 40-acre property, so there’s lots of room for everyone.

The last place I’d recommend on the beach is Ocean Village Beach Resort on MacKenzie Beach. It was recently purchased by a green development team that revitalized the property. It is one of the few places in Tofino that has an indoor swimming pool. It also has an expansive lawn that leads down to the sandy beach, which makes it very attractive to families with wee ones.

OK – there’s one more on MacKenzie Beach that I should mention: Crystal Cove Resort. This place has an awesome private play park for kids. While it is mostly set-up for RVs, they have some really nifty cabins for rent that are built up on stilts, so it feels like your sleeping in a tree fort.

It’s also important to point out that many families choose to stay in vacation rentals — entire houses that have been set up for nightly rentals. My family loves to stay in a vacation rental when we travel, because we can cook our own food, and the kids have more space to roam around and play freely. Most of the resorts that I mentioned above have cabins that they rent in this fashion and there’s two large vacation rental management companies in town: Tofino Vacation Rentals and Tofino Beach Homes. Additionally there are over 100 privately owned vacation rentals in Tofino, so there are tons of options available.

2. Which beach is the best for toddlers or preschoolers visiting Tofino?

Platenius: In my mind, all beaches are great for young ones. Exploring, digging, boogie boarding, skipping rope with bull kelp — what fun! In Tofino Guide, I recommend MacKenzie Beach as the calmest beach for toddlers looking to wade around in the water. It’s relatively protected from the swell and wind, which generally makes for calmer water. There’s also some spectacular tidepools at one end of the beach that make for wonderful exploring if it’s a low tide. Kids love to squish their fingers into sea anemones and giggle as the alien-like blob squirts out water and closes it’s tentacles.

3. Can you recommend any family Tofino/Ucluelet restaurants where you can take kids?

Platenius: Ooooh. That’s a tough one. Most of the restaurants in Tofino are attractive for families, and all of them are good. Three come to mind, and I’ll explain the perks of each. All three give crayons and have kid-friendly choices.

SoBo — which stands for Sophisticated Bohemian — is run by parents of two young ones, so it’s a natural first choice. The owners recently commissioned a local father to build an attractive but functional play toy for kids to use on their patio. He built a mini replica of the purple bus that they used to operate out of when they first opened and it’s a great draw for kids. Our kids love to eat lunch at this restaurant, and they usually order a kid-friendly version of their miso oudon noodle soup. SoBo’s polenta fries are practically a staple for many Tofino families.

Shelter Restaurant is another great choice for kids, especially for lunch. It’s a bit darker, and more lounge-like than the other three, which I think can be fun for kids to experience. They have the best booths in Tofino — big and cushy. They also play surf movies on four or five TVs, which my kids love to watch. The kid’s pizza there is a great choice.

And then there’s the restaurant at the Weigh West Marine Resort, which has been around for a long time. It’s perched right over the water on wooden pilings, so kids can lean over the window and watch the marine life below. It’s common to see river otters and sea lions swimming right by your window, and you can watch the star fish clinging to the pilings. You are literally dining in an intertidal zone! The kids fish and chips is great, and it’s a good value too.

4. What is your favorite hiking trail in the area (that would be suitable for a family with young kids), and why?

Platenius: The Rainforest Trail, Loop B is my first choice. It’s about one kilometer long (0.6 miles), which I find a perfect distance for my 5-year-old daughter. The entire loop is boardwalked, which makes for easy walking, and there are great interpretive signs about the temperate rainforest ecosystem. One section of the trail crosses a ravine by way of a huge log that fell who-knows how long ago, which impresses the kids and the adults in the crew.

5. Can you recommend a favorite family-friendly campsite near Tofino? Why is it good for kids?

Platenius: Before I answer this one, I should mention that if families are looking to camp in Tofino in July or August, they should make reservations well in advance.

All of the campgrounds are family friendly, but I think Green Point Campground, in the Pacific Rim National Park is probably the top choice for families. It’s situated up above Long Beach, which is about a five-minute walk from most campsites. The reason I choose this one is because it gets you away from it all, but still has all the amenities you’d expect at a campground. Because it’s in the National Park, it’s significantly cheaper than the others. There’s a theater in the campground that hosts naturalists and park staff who present evening shows on topics like black bears, gray whales and the local indigenous culture.

Kid-friendly Resorts of Vancouver Island

Family resorts of Vancouver Island

Family resorts of Vancouver Island: Tofino

Smart Vancouver families in the know have already made their reservations for Vancouver Island. Want to play catch-up?

I pulled together a selection of ultra-deluxe Vancouver Island resorts and affordable family accommodations, as I’m doing my own research for a trip through Vancouver Island. I found plenty of resorts where children are definitely NOT welcome; one said that kids were welcome to use the pool — for exactly three hours per day!

I’ve mostly listed upcoming high season prices. On Vancouver Island, high season runs roughly from June 25-early September. Shoulder seasons will offer savings between 10-25%. Winter season will offer discounts of up to 25-50%. You’ll find a similar pricing structure when you go to book your travel via BC Ferries, which offers car, pedestrian and bicycle transportation to Vancouver Island and the Gulf Coast Islands.

Confused about where, exactly, you’ll find the towns mentioned? I created a map:

View Vancouver Island on a larger map.

Photo above: Courtesy of Pacific Sands Beach Resort, Tofino, British Columbia.

Vancouver Island Family Vacation Resorts:

Parksville Family Resorts

This is the most popular Vancouver Island beachside town for families. Featuring warmer water, sandy beaches, easy access to Vancouver and Victoria and plenty of family activities, Parksville serves up a treasure of a destination.

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort. On the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, this family resort boasts full-fledged family packages, an outdoor playground and indoor pool, plus 3 kilometres of sandy beach. Many cottage-style and suite-style units provide full kitchens and spacious living areas for family relaxation. To top it of, Tigh-Na-Mara offers kids-eat-free hours (5-6 p.m.) at the restaurants, a children’s menu, coupons for free activities, children’s playground and a free summer drop-in children’s program. Rates: From $207/night in high season (summer).

Beach Acres Resort. Near the mild-mannered Rathtrevor Beach, this Parksville kid-friendly resort hosts families in cottages and townhouses, while entertaining kids of all ages. Weekday activities for kids ages 5 and up include craft afternoons, pizza and movie nights, family camp fires with s’mores; for kids age 10 and up, there’s mini-golf adventure, sports tournaments and pizza and movie nights. There’s an indoor pool, lots of sports activities (volleyball, tennis, badminton, horseshoes!), and a children’s playground. Rates: From $259/night in high season.

Ocean Trails. For active family vacationers who don’t need many services, Ocean Trails may be one of your best options. This resort lays out multiple sports activities (basketball, tennis, volleyball) on-site, offers a children’s playground, is surrounded by 7 acres of green space. You’re close to Rathtrevor Beach, and rates here are lower than many other resorts. No restaurant available, so bring your own food for your kitchen-equipped condo. Rates: From $149/night in high season.

Beach Club Resort. Just steps from your hotel room, you’ll wade into the warmest ocean swimming water in Canada. Explore marine life in the tidepools or create sandcastles on the wide, flat beaches. If it’s a rainy day out, dive into the indoor pool or relax in your room (1 and 2-bedroom, villas and suites available). Babysitting/child-minding services and a children’s menu available. Rates: Start at about $300/night.


Campbell River, British Columbia Resorts

Campbell River is known as the “Salmon Fishing Capital of the World,” but it doesn’t just reel in fish fanatics. Head here for wildlife-watching, farmers’ markets and a laid-back lifestyle.

Painter’s Lodge. Painter’s Lodge attracts fishing enthusiasts but welcomes children as well. Kids can play the Wii in the activity centre, pick up their kids’ package upon check in (it contains a coloring book and other little things) or meet a childminder or babysitter if the parents are off on a fishing excursion. A tennis court and outdoor pool are keep-em-busy options when the weather’s nice. A solid family accommodations option: the large loft-style room featuring two twins upstairs and a queen bed downstairs. Rates: From $148/night in high season.

North Vancouver Island Resorts

With working-class villages and whale-watching opportunities, North Vancouver Island’s quiet, rugged pleasures are perfect for a low-key vacation.

Telegraph Cove Resort. Most families coming this far north up Vancouver Island are here for whale-watching, kayaking and hiking. Set down your tent on the resort’s campground, or settle in to one of the eclectic cabins, houses or inn-style rooms (the resort is at the site of an early-20th-century village).  You won’t find anything catering to kids beyond a swingset on a field and a few puzzles, but the diversity of affordable, family-friendly options make the resort a solid bet. A short drive from Port McNeill. Rates: Start from $220/night.


Tofino Family Resorts

On Vancouver Island’s wild Western shore, you’re far from manicured beaches and tamed nature. So it’s obviously a perfect place to bring your hyper toddler or run-all-day preschooler — once you manage the long cross-island drive. Tofino offers upscale, world-renowned resorts for adults and children alike.

Pacific Sands Beach Resort. This resort’s free kids camp starts at 9:30 a.m. daily and runs six days per week from July through Labour Day Weekend. Camp activities include crafts, scavenger hunts, musical instruments from seashells, sealife identification, sandcastle-building, and marshmallow roasts. Suites and villas range from 520 to 1,400 square feet – plenty of room for families. Look for the family getaway weekend packages. Rates: From $285/night per night.

Crystal Cove Beach Resort. You’ll find a nice mix of pet-friendly accommodation options at Crystal Cove. Over 30 modernized (wifi! wood-burning fireplaces! DVD players!) 1- and 2-bedroom log cabins await families looking for a splurge, while 72 serviced sites welcome RVers on a budget. Kids can play near the warm-ish MacKenzie Beach or enjoy the resort’s deluxe kids’ playground, featuring swings, teeter-totter, sandbox and more. Rates: From $290/2 people per night in high season; children 3 and over are an extra $10/night. RV sites start from $55/night.

Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. A very different kind of West Coast adventure awaits you at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. Families come to this summer-only spot to enjoy the all-inclusive atmosphere, which includes airfare from Vancouver, your stay in a luxe outpost tent, all activities (there are over a dozen, including bear-watching, kayaking, horseback riding, fishing, cooking classes, archery). Oh, and possibly even a massage or two. Older kids, tweens and teens get the most out of a stay, as they can go on excursions while you relax into a massage or traipse off on a different excursion. It’s not cheap; all-inclusive weekly rates easily run into the five digits. Rates: From $4,750 for three nights, all inclusive, airfare included.

Long Beach Lodge Resort. This resort doesn’t offer an indoor pool, but does provide the “Surf Club,” where children learn how to surf from a private instructor (for an additional fee). Other kid-friendly amenities: Toys to borrow, a family movie library and children’s board games. Cottage rentals include a hot tub on the back deck. Children eat free off the Great Room’s kids’ menu, when dining with parents at the 5:30 seating. Rates: From $319/night.

Comox Valley Family Resorts

Color abounds in this eastern Vancouver Island community, from wildflower-dotted mountains to artwork in one of the region’s seaside villages (Comox, Courtenay).

Old House Village Hotel and Spa.These budget-minded one-bedroom Courtenay suites provide full kitchens for your in-room cooking ease. Kids can enjoy nearby beaches and the Comox Valley Aquatic Centre (a 5-minute drive away), plus the outdoor heated pool. Rates: From $149/night in summer.


Pender Island and Salt Spring Island Family Resorts

These tiny islands are accessible from Vancouver Island, and attract visitors seeking a bucolic, farm-dotted region full of artisan outlets. Come here to kick back in a sub-Mediterranean climate and soak up the island lifestyle.

Poet’s Cove. Stay in a Pender Island cottage or villa for plenty of family room, then head outside for pooltime (one pool is reserved for adults only, the other pool is all-ages), tennis courts, basketball, ping-pong tables, and a mini-playground with slide and swing. There’s a kid’s camp (weekends only until July, then daily throughout July and August) with fun crafts and activities. Rates: From around $300/night in high season.

Salt Spring Harbour House. While this Salt Spring Island resort doesn’t offer a pool or playground, it does provide the ultimate chilled-out island experience, right on an organic farm. Visit the farm’s goats and gardens, then hop in the car for a 5-minute drive to Salt Spring’s playground and the Rainbow Road Public Pool. Under 12-year-olds stay free. Rates: From $135/night in summer high season.



35 Free and Cheap Things to Do in Victoria with Kids

Victoria, BC, is a family-friendly destination we return to over and over again. Not just because I have a Victoria-based friend with impressive culinary skills (Hey, it’s a nice perk!). But also because Victoria offers so many affordable and free options.

35 free and cheap things to do in Victoria BC with kids:

    1. Enjoy outdoor festivals and celebrations in one of Canada’s sunniest cities.
    2. Watch for bald eagles and salmon at Goldstream Park.
    3. Ride trail-a-bikes or pull your toddler in a bike carrier along the 55 kilometre (34 mi) long Galloping Goose Trail.
    4. Go on a self-guided spooky Victoria tour with your preteen or teen – discover the haunts of spectres, poltergeists and ghostly pianos.
    5. Paddle around (with hands or oars) with kids onto Elk / Beaver Lake.
    6. Meet the farmer! Visit a Vancouver Island farmer’s market, go on a farm tour or go on a u-pick farm on Vancouver Island.

  1. Go to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on the first Tuesday of the month, when admission is by donation.
  2. Ride the double-decker bus to Sidney, BC.
  3. Visit Victoria’s parliament building on a free public tour.
  4. Buy some fish scraps from The Fish Store and feed the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf.
  5. Picnic and play in the Watering Garden at Beacon Hill Park, then count blooms along pathways.
  6. Relax in the lazy river in the Gordon Head Pool or the Esquimalt Recreation Pool.
  7. Catch a summer concert performance from Victoria Symphony Canada.
  8. Watch the running of the goats at Beacon Hill Farm.
  9. Visit the gun batteries and watch historical re-enactments at Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites of Canada.
  10. Along Victoria’s Inner Harbour, watch buskers perform and seaplanes land.
  11. Pack snacks and enjoy a family hike in Victoria.
  12. Count the hanging flower baskets in downtown Victoria, then learn to make a proper Victorian Hanging Basket.
  13. Walk through Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest alley in Canada.
  14. Go to a star party at the Centre of the Universe.
  15. Climb through an giant octopus eye and slide down a fish tale in the trippy Cadboro-Gyro Park.

    Cadboro park with kids

    The crazy-cool playground at Cadboro-Gyro Park

  16. Treasure a storytime at children’s bookstore Tall Tales Books.
  17. Look for a golden-crowned sparrow or barred owl at Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary.
  18. Bring a copy of Peter Rabbit to the University of Victoria campus, where you’ll see rabbits here, there and everywhere.
  19. Try one of Saanich’s free family events.
  20. Catch a Stars and Strollers first-run movie (with baby!) at SilverCity Victoria.
  21. Pick out a cute, vintage comic book at Legends Comics or pack of Pokemon cards at Curious Comics.
  22. Go for a kids’ tea at Crumsby’s Cupcake Cafe, walk among the old-fashioned tudor buildings in Oak Bay, then dip your toes in the ocean at one of the Oak Bay beaches.
  23. Challenge your child to identify the animals on the totem poles in the Thunderbird Park, east of the Royal BC Museum.
  24. Bring binoculars to spot Caddie (Cadborosarus) in the waters off Vancouver Island.
  25. Sit inside the second-story, luxe lounge area at the Fairmont Empress hotel and people-watch new hotel arrivals (don’t forget to make up silly stories about each one).
  26. Reflect in the gothic-style Christ Church Cathedral or the stained-glass gorgeous St Andrew’s Cathedral.
  27. Walk along Ogden Point breakwater. Stare up at the giant cruise ships or look down and watch divers surface.
  28. Make a splash at the Beckwith “frog pond” splash feature in Saanich.
  29. Drive or hike up Mount Douglas, where you can look out over the city and out to Washington State’s Olympic Mountain Range.

Can you suggest a free or cheap family-friendly Victoria attraction, restaurant or activity?

Families Travel! Amber goes to Parksville BC

Could any trip be more kid friendly? A BC beachside vacation, combined with a tour of a family farm and an artisan cheese factory.

kid on Parksville beach near parksville accommodations

Running on the Parksville Beach

Vancouver mom and blogger Amber Strocel and husband Jon recently returned to Parksville, BC with their kids Hannah, age 5, and Jacob, 22 months. Parksville is about 45 minutes north of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, and one of Strocel’s favorite vacation spots (she’s been to the retreat three times now).

And after reading over their vacation, I’m jealous! I’m ready to book my stay – read this over, and see if you’re not ready to go, too.

Where are you staying? Did you find a family-friendly Parksville, BC, hotel or other Parksville accommodations?

We stayed at the Beach Acres Resort. We really like it. It’s right on Rathtrevor Beach, which is quite possibly the best beach ever. All of the units have a full kitchen, so we can cook our own meals. We have a two-bedroom townhouse with an ocean view, and it’s very affordable and really spacious. The resort also has a pool, playground, tennis courts and beach toys for the kids to use.

What kinds of family activities do you enjoy on a Parksville vacation? What kinds of things do you do with kids in Parksville?

We love Rathtrevor Beach. It’s very sandy, and has amazing low tides and very warm water. At low tide you can walk forever, exploring the tide pools. And at high tide, the water is the warmest in Canada and not too deep. If you’re not staying in one of the resorts on the beach, you can visit Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park for the afternoon, or for camping.

Parksville Rathtrevor Beach at Low Tide a Parksville beach

Parksville Rathtrevor Beach at Low Tide

Lions Venture Park in downtown Parksville is a not-to-be-missed playground. It is one of the biggest playgrounds I have ever seen, with an incredible variety of playground equipment. There is also a water park and a concession, and it’s right on Parksville’s main beach. During the summer there is a sandcastle competition in the park, as well.

The Old Country Market in nearby Coombs is also a must-see. There are goats on the grassy roof, and people come from all over to see them. The market itself is amazing. It has grocery store including a deli and bakery with some of the best pies going, toys, dishes, hats, bamboo cutting boards and cooking utensils, hammocks, rugs, art and other things I’m sure I’m forgetting. There’s also a restaurant, an ice cream stand, a produce stand, a garden centre, clothing stores, a surf shop and a bunch of other shops in the open street market. Adjacent to the Old Country Market is the big, open plaza, with a collection of statues that the kids can climb on. Coombs is only about 10 minutes away, and it’s totally worth the drive.

The other fun thing about Parksville is all the deer. Local gardeners don’t enjoy the way they eat their plants, but kids think they’re so cool. They’re pretty comfortable around people, too. During four days in Parksville we’ve logged six deer sightings. My toddler learned the word ‘deer’ pretty early on.

Can you recommend any Parksville restaurants?

We haven’t really eaten out in Parksville, because we have the kitchen to use, and we have an almost 2-year-old kid. I can say that the last time we were here that Lefty’s in Parksville and Qualicum Beach was really good, and pretty kid-friendly, too.

You visited a Vancouver Island farm with kids, right?

Yes, we went to Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, which is located on Morningstar Farm. I would totally recommend Little Qualicum to others, especially people who are interested in local food, and cheese in particular. Little Qualicum produces some artisan cheeses, and lots of amazing spiced and flavoured cheeses. They use raw milk for their aged cheese. This is really quality crafted cheese. And the berry wines, also, are one of a kind.

Parksville with kids: Goats at family-friendly Little Qualicum Farm

Goats at Little Qualicum, located on Morningstar Farm

Can you tell me more about your Little Qualicum cheese factory tour?

The tour is self-guided, and we spent about 30 minutes. There is a half-hour walk around the farm that we didn’t take, because of the ages of our kids. The farm is well laid-out with maps in the farm store and lots of signs, so you can really structure it for your family and your children’s attention span. They also have guided tours on the weekends, and for large groups.

things to do with kids in parksville: See the Milking Parlor at Little Qualicum farm tour

Milking Parlour at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks

They have samples of all the cheeses in the farm store. I tasted at least six different kinds. My kids were big fans of the cheese curd, which makes a fun squeaky sound when you eat it. It’s made every Thursday, so we were able to have some super-fresh curd by visiting on a Thursday.

What do your kids like best about the farm and cheese factory?

My kids most enjoyed seeing the animals. Kids can go into the bunny enclosure with the rabbits, and that was the highlight for my 5-year-old. There were also calves and goats in their own enclosures.

My toddler especially enjoyed the way that one goat stuck its nose through the wire fence and nibbled on his hat. I didn’t as much (I like the hat!) but Jacob cried when we took him away from the goat. For them, the visit was less about the cheese and more about the farm animals.

As part of the tour you can see how the cows live, walk through the milking parlour where all of the milk comes from to make the cheese, see the pigs they raise for meat and peek into the window and see the cheese being made. You really get a glimpse into a fabulous local food producer. And it’s fun for kids, to boot, with animals to see and an old tractor to climb on and cheese to eat.

What’s the best age for visiting a kid-friendly farm in British Columbia?

I think that the best age for visiting Little Qualicum would be around 4-10. My toddler had a good time, but keeping him out of cow patties and keeping him contained in the farm store was a challenge. Also, I was somewhat concerned about him around the electric fencing that is used on the walk around the farm. That was one reason we didn’t attempt the walk, actually.

So, you’d recommend it? Is there anything you’d do differently next time?

The farm is on my list of must-see things in the Parksville area. If I were to do anything differently, I might show up on a weekend because they have ice cream on the weekend, as well as guided tours. My 5-year-old was disappointed that there was an ice cream stand and no ice cream.

This is a working farm, and you are visiting someone’s home. You can expect to be in the midst of farm activity and farm animals like dogs and cats. You are getting a real picture of what’s happening on this farm. But it’s also important to respect the work that’s happening around you, and to be considerate of the family that lives there.

Thank you, Amber! Read more about Little Qualicum’s sustainable practices on Amber’s blog.

Read more about family-friendly Parksville at the Qualicum Beach & Parksville BC Tourism website.

Read 49 Things to Do in Parksville from BC Tourism.

Kid-Friendly Hikes Near Victoria, BC

To find out more about family-friendly hiking and camping near Victoria, BC I interviewed Kari Jones, a mom to one son and the author of the book “Hiking Adventures with Children: Southern Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula” which you can order from Kari’s blog or from

Q: Is there a kid-friendly hike within Victoria’s city limits that you recommend? What do you like about it?

There are so many walks within Victoria; it’s hard to choose just one. But if I have to, I’d say Mystic Vale is my favourite. The walk starts at the University of Victoria, which is easily accessible by car or bus, but once you are in the Vale, it’s hard to remember you’re in the middle of the city. It’s a little bit of wilderness.

Mystic Vale (This photo and one at right — also Mystic Vale — courtesy of Sarah Pugh)

There are tall trees, wildflowers, and a little stream that runs its length. With small children, going to Mystic Vale can be a whole morning’s outing. The best place to park is along Cedar Hill Cross Road, and if you go by bus, you have to walk across the campus to Cedar Hill Cross Road (not far, about 5 minutes of walking). The Vale itself is probably only one kilometer or so, but I will see if I can get a specific length. If you look at the map at this link, the vale is the red line. As you can see, you can make a loop out of it by walking on the red line, which is up above the vale (in the valley).There is no cost, and it is always open, though I wouldn’t recommend visiting it in the dark. It would be easy to trip.

Can you recommend a hike (within 45 minutes of downtown Victoria) that’s good for families with toddlers? Is there a spot accessible via public transportation?

Francis/King Regional Park is about a 20-minute drive from downtown Victoria, and is a fantastic place for toddlers. There are several hikes, the easiest of which is the Elsie King Trail. This park is inland, so it’s drier than some of the coast walks.

Francis/King park, photo courtesy Marci Zoretich

The area is home to so many species of plants and animals I can’t name them all.  In the spring there are wildflowers all along the trails, and we have seen newts, moles, owls, and other hard-to-see creatures there.

If you are on a bus, Beaver Lake is a nice place to walk. It’s flat, and the trail is well defined. It’s less “wild” than Francis King, but there is still a lot of wildlife to entertain a toddler with.

Q: Can you recommend a hike (within 45 minutes of downtown Victoria) that’s good for elementary-age kids — children who can go a little further without complaint?

Witty’s Lagoon is a fantastic place for families with kids of any age. It’s a bit of a hike from the road to the beach, so be prepared to carry toddlers. Any kid will enjoy watching the water cascade down the waterfall and running along the lagoon. Once you reach the end of the trail, the beach opens up and you can spend a whole day amusing yourself in the sand and water. On a sunny day the water warms up on the sandy flats, and many people enjoy swimming when the tide is high.

Q: Where is your favorite kid-friendly hiking spot mid-island? What do you like about it? Who is it good for (age-wise)?

In the winter, people visit the ski resort at Strathcona Provincial Park, but many aren’t familiar with the great summer hiking. This park is really best in mid-summer, once all the snow has melted. There are lakes to swim in, mountains to climb, and alpine meadows to walk through and camping platforms to erect your tent on. It is a wilderness destination, so you have to carry in everything you need and carry it all back out again. It’s great for families with children small enough to carry or old enough to carry a small pack.

Q: Do you have a favorite Victoria post-hike spot to take your kid for treats?

After a hike we often stop in at Demmitasse (1320 Blanshard Street, Victoria) in Oak Bay for a baked treat and a hot chocolate or coffee (depending on your age!). It’s a family-run bakery on McNeil Avenue, which has seats outside where you can sit, even if you are stinky from hiking, and sip at lattes, cappuccinos or hot chocolates. My son always chooses a popsicle, even when the rest of us are having hot drinks. They cater to all our needs.

Q: How about camping? Can you recommend a great car-camping location not too far from Victoria, with trails or a lake (or similar) nearby?

My favourite car camping location is Ruckle Park. It’s on Saltspring Island, and what I love about it is that you drive to a parking lot, park the car, and walk to your campsite a few meters away. So when you’re camping, you have easy access to your car, but your view consists of ocean and trees. There’s a lovely hike from the campground to a small beach where kids can safely wade or play in the sand or search for purple shore crabs. The campsite is very near to a working sheep farm, which you can also walk around if you want a longer hike.

Thanks, Kari! Readers, can you suggest any hikes?

Victoria with Kids: 5 Things to Do with Toddlers in Victoria, BC

A reader writes in:

We are planning a family vacation to Victoria in June with our 2 year old.  Do you have any recommendations for kid-friendly hotels and activities?  Thank you so much for your help! — Jessica

I’m so excited for you. Victoria is one of my favorite destinations, particularly with toddlers.

My first suggestion — buy my book! In Northwest Kid Trips: Portland, Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver, I lay out Victoria activities picks by age, and you’ll find more hotel and dining options than I have here.

But here are additional suggestions:

Kid-friendly Victoria BC Hotels:

I like staying at the Royal Scot Hotel & Suites, because I like the kitchen-equipped rooms, particularly when staying anywhere with kids, and I like how big the suites run (one bedroom separate from living area with a pull-out couch). There’s also an indoor pool and jacuzzi, always a hit with kids.

If you’re not particularly concerned about room size, The Fairmont Empress offers luxe rooms (some with views of the Inner Harbour) and a fun little kid’s activity pack at check-in. The Admiral Inn also provides simple, kitchen-equipped rooms, but the suite dimensions are slightly smaller.  I have more hotels (including kid-friendly Victoria bed and breakfast options) in my book.

Things to do in Victoria with kids:

  • Beacon Hill Petting Zoo. I know, you’ve probably visited a bazillion petting zoos already in your son’s short life. But this one is super cute. It’s only a few loonies to get in, and once inside, your toddler will be wowed by the Running of the Goats and the chance to groom the goats. I write more about Beacon Hill Children’s Zoo in this post, “Victoria Pick: Beacon Hill Petting Zoo.”
  • Butchart Gardens. Your child will mostly love running up and down the paths, poking the flowers (the Gardens is where my son learned the phrase “one-finger touch!”) and riding the carousel. You’ll love the spectacular diversity — sunken gardens, Japanese gardens, rose gardens. Don’t forget your camera, and don’t forget to check out these kid tips first. How to get to Butchart Gardens? You can always go with Gray Line Tours. But on a weekday, go for less on the city’s Route #75 bus. If you’re lucky, it’ll be a double-decker. Board at the first pick-up point to ensure a front-row seat on top. Toddlers and preschoolers LOVE the double-decker buses. If you bring a stroller, make sure it’s small and collapses easily to get it up the stairwell.
  • Royal BC Museum. The whole museum is fabulous — one of my favorites — but your toddler will love the Natural History Gallery, which has life-size, sound-rich exhibits showcasing of forest, seashore and ancient life. So a Woolly Mammoth towers overhead and a you’ll go toe-to-toe with a moose, right before you walk into the birdcalls in a seashore exhibit. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I really swear that seashore exhibit smells like the sea.
  • Fisherman’s Wharf. You can feed a seal! For real. Watch your toddler’s hands (some seals are grabby) and make sure the child doesn’t go over the wharf’s edge. I write more about the Fisherman’s Wharf on my “Island Time: 9 Fine Kid-Friendly Picks in Victoria, BC.”
  • Victoria’s Community Centers. If you brought your car (by traveling on either the Washington State Ferries or the M.V. Coho), you can drive to one of the fantastic Community Centre swimming pools. In Saanich, for example, check out these options at Gordon Head Recreation Center. Pirate ships, wave pools, swim toys, Tarzan ropes and toddler pools. They’re quite amazing, honestly.
  • With a 2-year-old child, you can take advantage of naptime in the stroller and shop downtown or shop along Fort Street (antiques). Oh, I miss those days…

What you might not do in Victoria BC with toddlers:

  • Victoria Bug Zoo. You’ll want to listen to the funny tour guides, and your child won’t, and you may feel frustrated at how quickly you have to leave. It’s a fantastic Victoria attraction — and I love it — but with a child that age, you might expect it to be more of a 20-minute stop, unless your child has a much longer attention span than the average toddler, and is far gentler (to hold the bugs without squishing them). The Victoria Bug Zoo can be a better choice for preschool-aged children and up.
  • Miniature World and Royal London Wax Museum. I don’t think either will hold his interest, unless he knows plenty of fairy tales. The wax museum has a very gory part that is best avoided unless your child is already watching PG-13 or R-rated films. Even I had nightmares afterward. But I am a big baby like that. It’s easy to skip the hallway though, without your child even knowing that you’re passing it by.
  • Pacific Undersea Gardens. I do not recommend this attraction to anyone, sorry. It’s currently rated #79 out of 79 attractions in Victoria, BC on Tripadvisor. If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know, then e-mail me.


Kid-friendly Victoria BC Dining: See my post on family-friendly Victoria restaurants. With a toddler, I would go with the Rebar, Hernande’z, Crumsby’s, Paradiso di Stelle and Noodle Box (all profiled in the piece).

That’s it! Remember, I love answering reader questions. E-mail me at lora AT with your questions and I’ll do my best.

Families Travel! Geocaching with kids

Geocaching may be the perfect Cascadia sport. It’s a puzzle (appealing to our inner geek), it’s an outdoor excursion (appealing to our inner jock), it’s a social trading game (yes, even cheerleaders can play).

Geocachers hide containers with tradeable trinkets – pick one and keep it, and leave your trade inside. Cache stashes could offer small plastic toys, movie tickets, foreign money or stickers. Note your visit in the logbook with a stamp or signature, also kept in the container.

Caches can be tucked away anywhere: city park, campground stream, old-growth tree or a mountain peak.

How do you find these containers? With your Global Positioning System (GPS) device or cellphone, after retrieving instructions from a geocaching website (the most popular is, although regional sites also offer hide ‘n’ seek clues).  It’s a game you can play anywhere – even when on a family vacation.

This week, we’ll find out more about the kid-friendly sport of geocaching with Lisa and Martin Pedersen of the site, which focuses on their family life, geocaching and children’s activities.  Lisa and Martin live in the Comox Valley of BC’s Vancouver Island, and are the parents of Annika, 5, and twins Bryce and Jada, 2. All photos below are courtesy of the Pedersens, and certainly bring geocaching to life!

Q: How do you geocache with kids?

Our kids are all young, so they just help us find the cache once we locate the area. Finding caches is a lot of fun, but hiding caches for other people to find is also important.  Our oldest child has hidden a cache of her own and she enjoyed deciding on the trading items.

Q: What sort of toys did your daughter put into the cache?

For Annika’s cache, she decided that she wanted to include international coins. We had a lot of coins from our previous travels, which we put inside her cache. People are trading coins for ones in their collection.  In other caches we hidden we’ve put geocaching supplies or small plastic toys that kids like.

Q: Is it an all-season outdoor sport or best in summer?

Geocaching is an all season activity, it just depends on how much one enjoys going outside in the winter months.  Many caches are hidden at ground level so they can be a real challenge to find in the snow.

Like most outdoor activities, geocaching is most popular on warm sunny days.

Q: Why is BC a great place to go geocaching with kids?

BC is an outdoor paradise (yes, we are biased) so we love an outdoor activity that shows some of the hidden area gems. Many forests, mountain parks, lakes, rivers, beaches and towns are filled with geocaches, for all difficulty levels. Many geocachers live in BC, so there are lots of caches to find wherever you go.

Q: Do you need any special equipment to go geocaching?

To go geocaching you need a GPS receiver that can direct you to the coordinates of the hidden geocache. Like any electronic device, the cost can vary depending on the features you’re looking for.  You can buy a GPS receiver under $100, and you can pay much more.

We spent $300 for one that had special geocaching features and came with topographic maps.  There are a lot of good, used GPS units for sale.  If you are unsure if geocaching is for you then you may want to rent a GPS unit from an outdoor outfitter, or see if you can tag along with an experienced geocacher.  Some cell phones now come with GPS capabilities as well.

Q: Any geocaching tech that kids really enjoy?

Travel bugs are a cool thing that kids can get into.  You purchase these small tags that attach to a trading toy.  You put the toys (with tag) into a cache and other geocachers will find the toys and move them on to another cache.  Travel bugs are tracked on the website, so kids can follow their travel bugs and read the stories of their adventure.

Q: What’s the coolest cache you’ve found?

We like tricky caches hidden in a very clever container or those requiring us to solve a tough puzzle. We’ve found caches inside fake sprinkler nozzles, rocks, logs, among others.

A fun cache we found lately took us to a street sign, where we found a small sticker with numbers on it.  You had to figure out that this was the number of a book that was on the shelf in the local library.  The geocacher had made arrangements with the library to shelve a logbook where people could find and then sign their name.

After you have been geocaching for a while these sort of tricks become easier to figure out.  This was a very unique cache and a fun one to do with the family.  There are many extremely tough puzzle caches, or multiple step caches, for people who really like challenges.

Q: Which caches do your kids like best?

Our kids — mostly due to their age — like any large container with lots of things to trade.  In their eyes the best caches are full of toys where they can trade something of equal or greater value for something new they like. Sometimes choosing a toy takes longer than actually finding the cache.

Our kids think there is nothing like going for a hike in the woods and returning with a new toy.

Q: What would you suggest to families just getting started or who want to learn more?

If geocaching sounds interesting, then visit, the official website listing all the geocaches hidden worldwide.

It’s very easy to get started but it may take a little while to get the hang of it, if you’ve never used a GPS before.  There are many local geocaching groups you can find online. We have found that geocachers are very approachable and like to help out new cachers.

You can also find out on the website if there are any free events in your area put on by local cachers (usually a very casual potluck) where you can meet people and get lots of tips.

Q: Any parting thoughts?

We recently moved back to Vancouver Island, to a town we did not know very well.  Through geocaching we’ve now visited many of the local sites and found some hidden gems like swimming holes or shell collecting beaches.

We’ve found that geocaching is a great excuse to go outside and spend time as a family.  A word of warning, however: It is a very addictive activity.