A few months past, I visited Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island - and loved it. But almost immediately, people started asking me - "how could you not visit nearby Alert Bay on Cormorant Island"? So, I figured I'd best check it out. And - wow - what a place.
U'mista Cultural Centre, opened in 1974, Canada's longest running First Nations museum
There are regular ferries to Alert Bay from both Port McNeill (45 minutes) and nearby Sointula (Malcolm Island). There is also a small airport. If you're driving, you can leave your car in Port McNeill ($5/day parking!) if you wish.
Alert Bay is a walker's paradise, with a long, bustling seaside boardwalk. Cormorant Island itself is quite small, only 4 sq. kms., but with an extensive network of nature hiking trails. As you no doubt gather, this also makes it a brilliant destination to explore on a bicycle.
Cormorant Island has a population of ~1,500, comprised of the village of Alert Bay and two First Nations reserves. It's the oldest community on north Vancouver Island, and was a vibrant fishing community from the latter 1800s. Much of the heritage flavour has been preserved to this day. You'll find restaurants, coffee shops, inns and artisan shops. There are many outdoors oriented businesses and opportunities - sea kayaking, whale watching, fishing, along with local walking tours through the rich historical, cultural and natural wonders.
Looking along the seaside village from the Government docks
But the real spirit and lasting impression from Alert Bay comes from its proud, internationally recognized First Nations culture, and the vibrant blending of the First Nation and pioneer cultures living side by side (thanks to Vancouver Island North website, from which I've borrowed a little here). From your first arrival, you'll note the welcome from the ‘Namgis First Nation' of the Kwakwaka’wakw people (see pic below). Alert Bay confidently calls itself the "Home of the Killer Whale', a powerful natural force to invoke.
The Alert Bay library / museum has 6,500 photos dating back to the mid-1800s. You can visit the magnificent traditional 'Big House', with the world's tallest totem pole nearby. Or view the 'Namgis Burial Ground' (see pics following): this collection of ceremonial poles marking the gravesites of generations of Chiefs and family leaders, alongside traditional Christian graves, struck me as one of the most extraordinary places I have ever seen, anywhere. I was impacted by the fact that some choose to let older poles fall and decompose as part of a longer natural cycle of life and death.
For cycle tourists and backpackers, there's a campground just above the village. Nice grassy sites, power, water and hot showers! It was still early in the season, so I was the only one there, but I was told it can fill up in season.
Port McNeill is about 350kms north of Nanaimo and the BC ferry terminal from Vancouver. It is ~150kms north of Campbell River up the North Island Highway. If you're up this way, consider checking out other fabulous North Island destinations, like Malcolm Island (see my earlier blog post), nearby Telegraph Cove and the wilderness of Cape Scott. Or consider a more ambitious touring loop by taking the ferry north from Port Hardy up the breathtaking Inside Passage.
If you want to visit a unique place with stunning natural attractions, all the comforts, along with a keen sense of living history and strong First nations culture, make the trip up to Alert Bay.