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Duncan: The City of Totem Poles

Duncan is a welcoming city of 5,300, with a mix of First Nations peoples and descendants of European settlers. Congested Hwy. 1 runs to the east of the old town center, and you'll miss Duncan's old-fashioned charm if you don't get off the main drag (follow signs for Old Town Duncan).

Downtown Duncan still bustles with stationers, dress shops, bakeries, haberdasheries, cafes, candy shops -- it's the quintessential small and friendly Canadian town. The main reason to make a detour downtown is to see the city's impressive collection of modern totem poles. The First Nations peoples of this region are famed for their carving skills. However, most historic totem poles are now in museums or are rotting in front of abandoned villages, and for a long time few First Nations artists had any reason to keep the old skills and traditions alive. In the 1980s, the mayor of Duncan began an ambitious project of commissioning local First Nations artists to carve new totem poles, which were then erected around the city. Today, with more than 80 totem poles rising above the downtown area, Duncan's public art is one of the world's largest collections of modern totem carving, a wonderful assemblage that represents the continuation of an ancient art form unique to the Northwest coast.

The totem poles are scattered around the city, mostly in the pedestrian-friendly downtown area: Simply follow the yellow shoe-prints on the pavement. You can also take a free guided tour, which starts from in front of the Cowichan Valley Museum, at the E&N Railway station, Station Street and Canada Avenue. The tours are given from May to mid-September, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10am to 4pm. Reserve for groups of five or more by calling the Duncan Business Improvement Area Society (tel. 250/715-1700).

Cowichan Bay

This small but busy port town edges along the mouth of the Cowichan River. Many visitors come to walk the boardwalks and admire the boats amid the sounds, smells, and sights of a working harborside village, just 7km (4 1/3 miles) southeast of Duncan. The Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre, 1761 Cowichan Bay Rd. (tel. 250/746-4955; www.classicboats.org), tells the story of the clash of Native and European cultures in the Cowichan Valley. It also serves as a workshop for the building of wooden boats. Hours are daily from 9am to dusk between April and October, with admission by donation. Be sure to stop at Hilary's Cheese Company and True Grain Bread, sharing space at 1725 Cowichan Bay Rd. (tel. 250/746-7664). This outlet for local farm cheeses and artisanal and organic bread makes a perfect stop for outfitting a picnic.

Maple Bay & Genoa Bay

Maple Bay is a lovely harbor town 7km (4 1/3 miles) northeast of Duncan. Take Tzouhalem Road east to Maple Bay Road; then head northeast. Although not a major destination, it's worth the short drive just to take in the view -- a placid bay of water beneath steep-sloped mountains. Ponder the vista at the Brigantine Inn ★, on Beaumont Avenue (tel. 250/746-5422), a friendly pub with local brews and a bayside deck. If you're into diving, Maple Bay is worth exploring -- it's said to have been one of Jacques Cousteau's favorite dive spots.

Genoa Bay is directly south of Maple Bay. This tiny harbor is actually on Cowichan Bay, though the mountainous terrain mandates that overland transport make a circuitous route around Mount Tzouhalem. Again, the point of the journey is the charm of the location. Enjoy a drink or a meal at the Genoa Bay Cafe, a floating restaurant in the midst of extraordinary visual wonder.

Cowichan Valley Vineyards

The warm summers and mild winters of the Cowichan Valley make this one of the few areas in western British Columbia where wine grapes flourish. Pinot noir, pinot gris, Marechal Foch, and Gewürztraminer are popular varietals. The following wineries welcome guests, and most will arrange tours with sufficient notice. For more information, see www.wineislands.ca.

Blue Grouse Vineyards and Winery, 4365 Blue Grouse Rd., south of Duncan, off Lakeside Road near Koksilah Road (tel. 250/743-3834; www.bluegrousevineyards.com), is open for tastings from 11am to 5pm Wednesday through Sunday from April to September, Wednesday through Saturday October through December, and Saturdays only January through March.

Cherry Point Vineyards, 840 Cherry Point Rd., near Telegraph Road southeast of Cowichan Bay in eastern Cobble Hill (tel. 250/743-1272; www.cherrypointvineyards.com), is one of the most prominent Cowichan Valley wineries, with national awards to prove it. The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm; with a bistro open for lunch May through September.

Zanatta Winery and Vineyards, 5039 Marshall Rd., south of Duncan near Glenora (tel. 250/748-2338; www.zanatta.ca), is open April through early October, Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 4:30pm. It's open the same hours the rest of October through December, but on weekends only. Its restaurant, Vinoteca, is open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 3pm, from April through early October, weekends only November to December.

Another twist on the local scene is Merridale Cider, 1230 Merridale Rd., Cobble Hill, west of Hwy. 1 (tel. 800/998-9908 or 250/743-4293; www.merridalecider.com), which produces both apple and pear cider. Tastings are available daily 10:30am to 5:30pm. In addition, meals are available at La Pommeraie Bistro Monday through Sunday from 11:30am to 4pm.

Cowichan Lake, Cowichan River & the Backcountry

Cowichan Lake, 28km (17 miles) west of Duncan on Hwy. 18, is a long, narrow lake nestled between mountain slopes. With an area population of about 3,000, the lake is one of the primary summer playgrounds for valley residents. A number of provincial parks provide access to swimming beaches, boat landings, and campsites; Gordon Provincial Park, on the lake's south shore, is the most convenient for Duncan-based travelers.

Backcountry explorers can follow the roads along both sides of 30km-long (19-mile) Cowichan Lake to access remote areas of Vancouver Island's wilderness west coast. Well-maintained forestry roads from Cayuse and Honeymoon Bay, on the south side of the lake, lead to Port Renfrew, one of the starting points of Pacific Rim National Park's famed West Coast Trail. From here, paved roads connect to Sooke and Victoria. From the west end of Cowichan Lake, gravel roads lead to Nitinat Lake, renowned for its windsurfing, and Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park, a vast preserve of misty old-growth forests.

The Cowichan River flows east out of Cowichan Lake. The Cowichan River Trail, which passes through fern glades and forests, provides excellent access to the beautiful jade-green waters. The 20km (12-mile) hiking trail begins just east of Cowichan Lake (follow signs from Hwy. 18 for Skutz Falls Trailhead) and follows the river to Glenora, southeast of Duncan. The river is popular for steelhead and trout fishing, as well as kayaking. Some canyon rapids are considered too dangerous for passage; ask locally before setting out.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.