En Route to Vancouver Island's Wild West Coast

From Parksville, Hwy. 4 cuts due west, climbing up over the mountainous spine of Vancouver Island before dropping into Port Alberni, at the head of the Pacific's Alberni Inlet. From here, you can join the mail boats MV Lady Rose and MV Frances Barkley as they ply the inlet's narrow waters, delivering mail, supplies, and passengers to isolated communities. Bamfield, the southern terminus of the mail-boat run, is one of the two departure points for the West Coast Trail. Mail boats from Port Alberni also negotiate the waters of Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands before arriving at Ucluelet, a gentrifying fishing port.

The Drive to Port Alberni -- West of Parksville is the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, 1240 Leffler Rd., Errington (tel. 250/248-8534; www.niwra.org), which takes in injured and orphaned wildlife, with the goal of returning them to the wild. Guided tours of the center are available March through October. The tour includes the Museum of Nature, with hands-on exhibits and a nature walk through a waterfall; the Eagle Flight cage (Canada's largest), where eagles can be viewed through one-way glass; an extensive public viewing area that houses the non-releasable wildlife; and a nature trail around the center's release pond, showing B.C.'s flora. In addition, the "Wildlife Learning Centre" offers live animal presentations. It's open mid-March through October, daily from 9am to 5pm; admission is C$5 adult, C$3 children. Take a left from Hwy. 4 onto Bellevue Road; turn right onto Ruffels Road and then left onto Leffler Road.

Just 3km (1 3/4 miles) west of the junction with Hwy. 19, turn south to Englishman's Falls Provincial Park. Easy trails lead to both the upper and lower falls. Picnic tables and a basic campground are available.

Below the cliffs of 1,818m (5,965-ft.) Mount Arrowsmith, Hwy. 4 passes along the shores of Cameron Lake. The western end of the lake is preserved as MacMillan Provincial Park, with a magnificent stand of old-growth forest called Cathedral Grove.

Finally, you'll reach Port Alberni, a hardworking town of nearly 20,000. The busy port is home to a number of fishing charters and boat-tour companies, as well as the mail boats that offer day trips to Bamfield and Ucluelet. If you need a hotel, consider the Hospitality Inn, 3835 Redford St. (tel. 877/723-8111 or 250/723-8111; www.hospitalityinnportalberni.com), with doubles from C$145; or the Best Western Barclay Hotel, 4277 Stamp Ave. (tel. 800/563-6590 or 250/724-7171; www.bestwesternbarclay.com), with rooms from C$139 in high season.

MV Lady Rose & MV Frances Barkley -- Lady Rose Marine Services (tel. 800/663-7192 Apr-Sept, or 250/723-8313; www.ladyrosemarine.com) operates two packet freighters that deliver mail and supplies to communities along the Alberni Inlet and Barkley Sound. The boats take sightseers to the wild outback of Vancouver Island, for a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of remote fishing and logging communities. You'll likely spot bald eagles, bears, orcas, and porpoises. Year-round, the freighters depart from north Harbour Quay at 8am on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. They head to Bamfield via Kildonan, with an hour-long layover before returning to Port Alberni at 5pm. From the first Friday in July to the first Friday in September, there's an additional 8am Friday sailing from Port Alberni to Bamfield. The company also operates from Sechart.

June through September, freighters depart on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8am for Ucluelet via Sechart near the Broken Group Islands, arriving back in Port Alberni at 7pm. The freighters also convey kayakers bound for the Broken Group Islands. Lady Rose Marine Services drops off kayakers at Sechart, on a spur of Vancouver Island across from the islands themselves; kayakers then make the crossing on their own (Oct-May the freighters will drop kayakers at the islands with advance notice). From the first Sunday in July to the first Sunday in September, there's an extra 8am Sunday sailing to Bamfield via Sechart.

Round-trip fares are double the one-way fare. One-way fare to Bamfield is C$29. One-way fare to Ucluelet is C$36. You can go to Kildonan for C$25 each way, or to Sechart for C$33. Children 8 to 15 pay half the adult fare. Bring windproof jackets and hats, as the weather can change dramatically during the course of the trip. Reservations are required.

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.