While Qualicum Beach and Parksville share similar beaches and are all but connected by country-club developments and marinas, there are differences. Parksville has several large resorts and beachfront hotels, and is more of a developed strip without much of a town center. In contrast, Qualicum Beach has more of a town center with shopping and cafes -- but this part of town is a few miles inland, away from the beach.

In Qualicum Beach, you can access the beach from many points along Hwy. 19A, the old Island Highway. Likewise, in Parksville, the beach is accessible downtown from the old Island Highway, near the junction of Hwy. 4A, and at the adjacent Parksville Community Beach and Playground. However, the best beaches are preserved in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, just east of Parksville's town center. The 348-hectare (860-acre) park offers trails, bird-watching sites, and a campground.

Note: If you're looking for miles of broad, white-sand strands lapped by azure water, you might be surprised. The sea is quite shallow here, with a very gentle slope. When the tide goes out, it exposes hundreds of acres of gray-sand flats. When the tide is in, the beach disappears beneath the shallow waters. There are benefits to this: The summer sun bakes the sand while the tide is out, so when the tide comes back in, the shallow water is warmed by the sand, thus making the water agreeable for swimming.

When you're not on the beach, one particularly good place to stop in Qualicum Beach is the Old School House, 122 Fern Rd. W. (tel. 250/752-6133; www.theoldschoolhouse.org), which now houses galleries, studios, and a gift shop.

There's no better place for a garden stroll than the Milner Gardens and Woodland, 2179 W. Highland Hwy. (tel. 250/752-6153; www.mala.ca/milnergardens), a heritage garden recently opened to the public. Comprising 24 hectares (59 acres) of old-growth, Douglas-fir forest and 4 hectares (10 acres) of planted gardens, the Milner Gardens are part of a 1930s estate, which also includes a historic home where Queen Elizabeth II once stayed. Given to the local university in 1996, the estate was gradually turned into a destination garden by a small army of horticulture students and local volunteers. Plantings include an artist's garden and many unusual rhododendrons, at their most colorful in late spring. Paths thread through the forests, and garden tours are available. Afternoon tea is served in the Milner house. Open 10am to 5pm daily from May through Labour Day, and Thursday through Sunday in April and Labour Day through mid-October (Canadian Thanksgiving); C$10 adults, C$6 students 12 and older.

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.