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A small town with a population of 22,000, Courtenay perches on the east-central coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Farming and coal mining were the area’s early economic drivers in the 1860s. Tourism is now the major industry, thanks to beautiful mountains, clear rivers, dense forests and abundant parkland. Though rainy during winter like much of the Pacific Northwest, Courtenay averages only 30 millimetres of rain in July.

For a sampling of natural beauty and a dose of history, Simms Millennium Park in the heart of the city is a good place to tour. The four-hectare park along the Courtenay River offers several scenic overlooks, nature trails and a tranquil pond. The historically significant site was used as a training area for D-Day landings during World War II. Today, bird watching is one of the most popular things to do in Courtenay. The park’s riparian habitat sustains many types of birds and mammals, and the river is a major spawning area for salmon.

Located 13 kilometres to the northeast, 650-hectare Seal Bay Nature Park is a wildlife mecca. Bears, cougars, beaver, bald eagles, seals and sea lions can be seen in the park and along its rocky coastline. Three clearly marked trails lead hikers past fern-covered ravines, through marshy areas and down to the beach. Other sights include mature fir and maple forests and seasonal waterfalls.

About 8 kilometres further north, Kitty Coleman Beach Provincial Park is one of Courtenay’s top attractions during summer. Visitors can swim, fish and camp along the 900-metre oceanfront. Porpoises and whales are often spotted just offshore. Hiking trails meander through red cedar and hemlock forests in the park’s interior. Near the park entrance, Kitty Coleman Woodland Gardens is the culmination of one man’s vision of blending the natural landscape with cultivated plants. The result is a peaceful hideaway with more than 3,000 varieties of rhododendrons, a Polynesian-style gazebo and bustling bird feeders.

Avid adventurers may want to drive 100 kilometres northwest to the island’s natural crown jewel, Strathcona Provincial Park. The sprawling, 250,000-hectare park is dotted with snow-capped mountains, glaciers, ancient forests and clear streams. With a vertical drop of 440 metres, the park’s Della Falls is Canada’s highest waterfall.

Those who prefer to stay closer to town will find plenty of things to do in Courtenay. At Courtenay and District Museum and Palaeontology Centre, another of Courtenay’s top attractions, the region’s rich ancient past is on display. Kids will be awestruck by the ferocious-looking elasmosaur, a marine animal that stretched 12 metres long. To make the most of the visit, sign up for a guided fossil tour. After a brief presentation inside the museum, participants take a 10-minute drive, followed by a short hike, to an actual excavation site.

Several of Courtenay’s best restaurants are within a few blocks of the museum. Atlas Café is a casual eatery with a wealth of vegetarian and vegan options. Carnivores will also find plenty of tasty choices, ranging from beef short ribs to pork schnitzel.