POPULATION: 18,000 (2011)
MUST DO: See the salmon running the Stamp River Falls in autumn; Visit the Harbour Quay
At the head of Alberni Inlet, a narrow, 40-kilometer fiord that cuts more than halfway across Vancouver Island from west to east, Port Alberni is the headquarters for travelers heading to the Pacific Rim region of the island.
It was in 1860 that nine workers were landed at the head of the inlet, the advance party for the establishment of a sawmill on what was land occupied by the local First Nations.
There were two communities – Alberni, where the people lived, and Port Alberni, site of the docks and wharves for shipping lumber. The name Alberni came from a member of a Spanish ship that charted the area in 1791. The small community was wholly dependent on the surrounding forest, with boatload after boatload of lumber being shipped to Victoria. By 1866, the ‘trees were all cut’ and the mill machinery removed. A paper mill was established; however, it only operated for a few years. Two mines also operated for a few years, but soon were abandoned and most settlers left the valley.
It was the arrival of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) Railway in 1911 that spurred Port Alberni’s revival.
Despite being ‘all cut down’, the area was heavily forested and soon lumber companies were logging the region’s valleys. The lumber mills were soon joined by a plywood plant and a gigantic pulp and paper mill, the backbone of today’s economy.
But tourism is also becoming a huge part of the Port Alberni economy, as the city is the gateway to the spectacular Pacific Rim region of Vancouver Island. Basing your vacation out of Port Alberni, you can quickly be in Pacific Rim National Park, home to the world-famous Long Beach, Clayoquot Sound and Barkley Sound.
Port Alberni, which vies with Campbell River as the Salmon Fishing Capital of the World, boasts incredible fishing, capped with the Labour Day (first weekend of September) Salmon Festival.
Port Alberni Inlet is famous for its late-June early-July sockeye run, with 10 pounders not uncommon. By mid-August, large chinook are in the Inlet, with good fishing around Ten Mile Point, Coleman Creek, Franklin River and Pocohontus Point.
Freshwater anglers will want to try nearby Sproat Lake. The base of the world’s largest water-bomber planes, used to fight forest fires, the lake is good for rainbow, cutthroat and kokanee trout. The lake, also a provincial park, has campsites, good boat launching facilities, private resorts and petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings telling of the area’s Native heritage.
River fishermen should check out Cous Creek for its summer and winter steelhead runs and year-round cutthroat and rainbow trout. The famed Stamp River is also within easy driving distance. The Stamp has a large winter steelhead run from November through February and a smaller summer run. From Late August to September, there’s a large chinook run, while September sees the beginning of a large coho run. The river is also good year-round for trout. The Stamp is also home to the Robertson Creek Hatchery where millions of fish are raised and released annually. Salmon returning to spawn can be viewed from fish ladders in September and October.
If you’re into trees, you will be awed by the old-growth giants in Cathedral Grove. Hwy. 4, the route from the east side of Vancouver Island to Port Alberni, passes right through this incredible stand of Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar, some towering over 200 feet. An series of short, easy trails meanders through these giants, some over 800 years old.
Southeast of Port Alberni, on the road toward Bamfield, is the China Creek Trail, a rocky five-kilometer hike through heavy forests. A longer excursion is to Della Falls. At 444 meters (1,443 feet), the falls, in south Strathcona Provincial Park, are North American’s highest. The trail starts at the end of Great Central Lake. You need to boat there, and three to five days are recommended to properly enjoy the trip.
Back in Port Alberni, board the M.V. Lady Rose or the Frances Barkley and cruise down the Inlet to Bamfield or Ucluelet. The ships are working vessels and the trip includes stops along the way to deliver mail and to let off or pick up kayakers. Windsurfers will want to check out conditions at China Creek Marina and the local harbor.
A pleasant stroll is the three-kilometer Kitsukis Walkway that takes you by a children’s playground and water park. For shoppers, Alberni Harbour Quay and Market Place, right on the waterfront, offer art galleries and gift shops. Don’t forget to the climb the clock tower for a view of the Harbour.
Dig into the past at the Alberni Valley Museum with its incredible collection of Native artifacts.
There’s a wide range of accommodations in Port Alberni including wilderness campgrounds, bed and breakfasts, resorts and lodges. Many offer package arrangements that include eco-tourism, fishing and recreational pursuits.
IF YOU GO
BY ROAD: If you’re coming from the south, take the Inland Island Highway north out of Nanaimo. Turn left at the Port Alberni access (Hwy. 4), near Parksville. The 84-kilometer trip is about two hours – but expect to take much longer as you’ll definitely stop in Cathedral Grove for a while. From Port Hardy, take the Island Highway south to where it connects with the Inland Island Highway at Mud Bay. Stay on the Inland Island Highway to the Port Alberni turnoff, just south of Parksville. The 390-kilometer trip should take seven to eight hours.
BY AIR: Scheduled airline connections are out of Vancouver to Nanaimo. Floatplane service is also available.