Our Comox Valley City Guide update comes to us from Simone Thompson, a designer and photographer living in Comox Valley, Vancouver. As a resident of the Valley for the past 10 years, Simone has learned the ins and outs of this ocean-side city. Today, she shares with us some of my many new additions to the area. Thanks Simone for this wonderful update! –– Stephanie
Read the full guide after the jump…
Stretched between a glacier and the ocean, about halfway up the east side of Vancouver Island, BC, lays the Comox Valley. It is home to an ocean-view ski hill (which often has the deepest snow base on the planet in the winter and gorgeous meadows of wildflowers in the summer), a few small islands, an air force base, tons of beaches and farm land, and many forest, river, and lake areas. The valley cradles a large handful of communities, the largest of which are Courtenay and Comox. The scenery is as stunning as you can imagine, the recreational opportunities are limitless, and the art life is just as rich. I do believe there is something for everyone in this valley but since I can’t share it all I’ll just tell you about my favorite places which relate to aspects of design that are fairly unique to the area.
The seaside town of Comox can easily be explored on foot but one of my favorite things about visiting the Comox peninsula is the drive from Courtenay. You’ll see seagulls, crows, eagles, kayakers, herons, seals, and evidence of ancient First Nations fishing weirs. It is especially beautiful at sunrise and sunset, and amazing under a full moon at high tide!
61 Filberg Road
In the 1930s the Filberg family built their summer house and some unusual out-buildings on these 9 water-front acres, leaving it all to the town in 1977. Make sure you get a good look at the front gates – rumor has it the existing letter Fs used to be swastika symbols. The house is often used for craft fairs and other such functions. In the warmer months they open a petting zoo and outdoor café. The gardens grow everything from herbs to flowers (providing tasty treats for the ever present deer). This is also the site of the Filberg Festival held each summer to showcase fine BC arts, crafts, music, and food.
1718 Balmoral Avenue
This chunk of land which eats up some of the downtown space was given to the town by the Filbergs on the condition that it would always remain a green space. Not so great for traffic flow but good for charm. It has long been a golf course. There are always deer on the course and, as my golfing dad can attest, you’ll see at least one set of twin or triplet fawns growing up there each year. Everyone is welcome at the simple club-house café which offers ample deer watching opportunities.
215 Port Augusta Street
This small mall wouldn’t really be noteworthy if it weren’t for the large paintings by local artist (and fellow ECUAD grad) Ja Whitcombe. Ja found historical B&W photos of the area and reinterpreted them in a pseudo-impressionistic way, in full colour, and with a 3D twist.
132 Port Augusta Street
This pub has amazing views of the Comox harbour and marina, the (shrinking) glacier, and surrounding mountains. Sit outside on the deck in summer or inside by the big fireplace in winter. The place manages to be cozy even with high ceilings and beams. It is clad in warm wood paneling and the large floral arrangements are usually spectacular. Make sure you look up to see the real boat hanging from the ceiling (the history of which is told on the menu).
1700 Comox Avenue
I’ve had other gelato (even in Italy) but this is my favorite. I like the Limoncello – the flavor is so saturated I’m always satisfied with the smallest scoop. The bright wall colour packs a punch and often showcases a few small paintings by local artists. If you’re a local start collecting their trading cards to get free scoops. This tiny shop sits across from an unusual building which appears to have two boats growing out of it.
7-1787 Comox Avenue
This shop includes high quality jewelry, pottery, and wood items, all made by local artists. Check out the high resolution mandalas Preston Denny creates out of photographs of leaves. My friend April of Yapes Paints (yapespaints.com) also sells some of her prints here.
This is a show which happens each summer and winter in Comox. The summer show is held outside beside the marina. Don’t be intimidated by the name – artists are careful to present pieces at a wide variety of sizes and prices. The show attracts a lot of painters but you will also find potters, photographers, and a variety of sculptors.
With about 20,000 people, Courtenay is the largest community in the area. It is stretched along the coast and river, and up “the hill” towards the air force base and more beaches. There is always something happening in Courtenay – many of the restaurants and pubs host musicians, the theatres always have productions in the works, and community groups are always hosting a wide variety of events.
2790 Cliffe Avenue
This thrift shop seems to be a bit pickier than the norm with a retro flair. The last time I visited I saw three replica art deco posters, a great chandelier, a set of cream coloured dishes which looked brand-new, and a handful of furniture I’d love to redesign.
The buildings on this crescent all have commercial space on the ground floors, living space on the upper floors, and are clad in corrugated “tin.” The area is in constant flux but at the moment is home to (among other things) a variety of artists’ studios and galleries, a wig shop, yoga studio, dance studio, and the fantastic Freakin’ Coffee Shop which seems to be the hub of it all.
The Freakin’ Coffee Shop in TinTown uses all retro vintage table and chairs with other vintage treasures like radios, lamps, and dishes (for sale and show) tucked around the shop. One of the walls is a garage door which they roll up on warm days. Take a moment to look up when you order so you can see the old neon sign from the Palace Theatre, one of our last historical buildings which burned down a few years ago. They feature live entertainment some evenings.
4330 Island Hwy. S
A waterfront hotel, spa, and restaurant just a few kilometers south of town, the Kingfisher attracts guests from all over the world. It is set among the trees with paths crisscrossing the property. The original buildings sit on top of a cliff with the newer buildings built in front of the cliff (accessible by an outdoor elevator). Sure, going to the spa is nice (the hydropath is famous) but my favorite part is lying in the warm “recovery” room looking out at the ocean and sky.
1730 Riverside Lane
This restaurant is in an actual old house (as old as they get around here). In addition to it being somewhat enveloped by the quarter-share Old House Resort and Spa buildings (oldhousevillage.com), the restaurant has been through quite a few changes in recent years but it still retains a lot of its original charm – it still looks like an old house being reclaimed by nature. It used to look across the river at a saw mill but that’s been dismantled and we are all waiting to see what will take its place.
Held each summer this festival has been very successful, drawing many big name acts and the largest crowds we see in the area. The venue is stretched along the river so you might watch the main stage in a field with 15,000 other people, and then watch a tiny stage among the trees with just 15 other people. There are always lots of great vendors too. I highly recommend volunteering if you can (I have twice) – you might get back-stage access and meet the performers.
2300 Ryan Road
The art department here has such a good reputation in 2005 they were able to partner with Vancouver’s Emily Carr University of Fine Art + Design. This allowed students (like me) to remain in the valley, get taught by instructors flown in from Vancouver, and complete their BFAs. Once per semester the students organize an Art Event to show off their creations and do some fund-raising. You never know what to expect for art or entertainment. The prices are usually very good if you find a piece you love.
Like the seaside area of Comox, the downtown area can be explored easily on foot. It’s easy to navigate because the street closest to the river starts with the letter A (Anderton) and the rest of the streets follow the alphabet as they get farther from the river. Fifth Street has the most to offer but 4th and 6th are definitely worth touring too. When you’re shopping in this area it is worth taking a moment on the bridge (and maybe a walk around the nearby park) to look for wild-life. It’s easy to see seals here as they have learned how to use the shadow of the bridge to their advantage while fishing. You might eagles and herons too.
440 Anderton Ave Courtenay
One of two public galleries in the valley, the Muir is run primarily by volunteers via the very busy local arts council (comoxvalleyarts.org). This gallery shows local artists only. The council organizes many festivals, fairs, and projects throughout the year.
285 – 5th Street
In a building that dates back to 1910 (with the original Douglas Fir floors on show) this shop offers a variety of high quality furniture imported from Indonesia (they will also arrange custom builds) and a variety of interesting home décor items and jewelry. Be sure to zip upstairs to take a look at their discounted goodies.
113-255 6th Street
This shop is small but in this case size definitely does not matter. Most of their stock is clothing though they also sell some jewelery and accessories. All of their high quality products were made in Canada, designed by Canadians, and the shop aims to keep about 90% of their product from Victoria, Vancouver, and closer. Artist April Lacheur of Yapes Paints (yapespaints.com) gets another nod here for turning one of her tree paintings into their logo.
250 6th Street
The owners of the Atlas own another, slightly more upscale restaurant, called avenue, in Comox, but this location is just so much more convenient to visit when you are on the go. The prices are fair, the food is always delicious, and the varied menu includes foods inspired by Japanese, Mexican, and Italian cuisine among others. You might like to sit on the private back deck in warm weather. I love the giant antique maps, the old worn wood floors, the art of Lucy Schappy (lucyschappy.com), the lit plexi-glass shelf which holds all the liquor, and the ever-changing but always interesting floral arrangement on the bar.
Unit C 364 8th Street
This restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside but is a treat on the inside. All the food is sourced locally, inspired by the “One Hundred Mile Diet” idea while keeping quality and service in mind. Be sure to have a close look at the art – each frame contains either a photograph of local produce or a collage about the local suppliers. I have a special place in my heart for our Natural Pastures Cheese which is featured here (you can visit their shop nearby).
One of two Mexican restaurants in town, this is my favorite because I’ve been going to it since it opened, I love the décor and ambiance, I love their unusual margaritas (quince was the latest flavor I savored), and I adore the fact that some of the ingredients come from the gardens surrounding the restaurant. The food is always seasonal and fresh. The prices are reasonable. The chocolate ganache with a hint of chili is fantastic.
580 Duncan Avenue
A former fire hall, with the old coal-shoot covers still in the floor, the building is now is home to a handful of community groups and the valley’s main art gallery. As a public gallery they do show local artists but they also present more established artists from outside the area. The gift shop is packed with high quality local crafts (two of the items made it to Oprah’s Favorite Things list). At Christmas time a large part of the gallery is dedicated to a juried craft show and sale. The gallery is always hosting events, talks, and workshops alongside their exhibits.
This small community is steeped in coal-mining history. It has managed to hold off more of the sterilizing commercialization than the rest of the valley. You can see a variety of architecture which includes neglected and treasured character homes as well as genuine and replica old western style store fronts. Most of what the town has to offer can be seen with a short walk up and down the main street (Dunsmuir). Be sure to visit the bakery early in the day to try their famous donuts fresh. If you’re a music fan you might want to think about attending their music festival (thebigtimeout.com) and you should check out what “the Wave” (waverlyhotel.ca) has to offer.