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Live and Learn in Powtown

Sunshine Coast road trip travel series: Real estate bargains draw retirees, young families and educational entrepreneurs to Powell River

Nature reclaims the right-of-way along Willingdon Beach Trail. Photo: Marco den Ouden,

What is this mysterious radiation?

At last! Our first glimpse of actual sunshine since we debarked on the Sunshine Coast.

Seizing the rare and perhaps fleeting opportunity, we pull on our gumboots for a hike along Powell River's iconic Willingdon Beach Nature Trail.

It turns out we're hardly the only ones so inclined. Half the town seems to be out promenading: joggers, dog-walkers, mountain bikers, courting couples, lunch-hour smokers (cigs and medical pot, both), cane-wielding oldsters, geocache treasure-hunters, even a uniformed track team.

The trail traffic represents a pretty fair cross section of Powtowners: fixed income pensioners, outdoor enthusiasts and young families with school-age children.

The draw-card for all these diverse demographics can be guessed from a glance at any of the freebie real estate flyers distributed all over town: all sorts of property here sell for roughly 20-40% of what a comparable space might cost in metro Vancouver.

And that's not even factoring in the ocean views, pristine air, negligible crime rate, increasingly innovative and international educational opportunities, and unremittingly earnest endeavors at public edification.  

Take, for instance, the Willingdon Beach Trail. Built in the disused roadbed of a coast-hugging railroad, it's broad and level enough to handily accommodate this fair-weather lunch-hour crowd. There's even room left over for an "outdoor museum."

An impressive collection of quaint and picturesquely overgrown industrial detritus lines the path: donkey engines, winches, steam boilers, graders, giant pulleys, log-handling mini-tugboats. All meticulously labelled, as are the variegated trees -- cedar, aspen, Doug fir, maple -- that filter the light glinting off the adjacent sea.

Curious seals bob alongside the trail, people- watching, just as we are. And more sleek, black silhouettes stand out against the offshore shimmer when we emerge from the trail to the open beachfront. Seals, again, or arcing dolphin fins?

Little exchange students (小留學生)

We put the query to a gaggle of Chinese teenagers cavorting on the beach at water’s edge. “Those black shapes out there, are they ocean piglets (海豚, dolphins) or sea panthers (海豹, seals)?”

They stare back at me in eye-rolling amazement – not so much at being addressed in their own language, it seems, as at the cluelessness of my question. “Why, they’re just water crows, fish eagles (水烏鴉, 魚鷹: cormorants), of course,” croaks one boy in the throes of voice change. And then they resume skipping stones.

Thus put in my place, I retreat to the sanctuary of the roadside Beach Hut fish-n-chips shack on Marine Avenue. This drive-in joint is much patronized by locals for its affordable prices, ease of access and stunning sea views. Also, I’d like to think, for the irresistible smile of the pigtailed tot that helps her Mom serve up the copious portions.

We share an al fresco picnic table with Feng Qifu, house parent of the teenage posse we’d met on the beach. I congratulate him on his young charges: “Those boys really know their marine life.”

“First-hand learning,” he nods, proudly. “They come here every day, as long as it’s not raining too hard. It’s an experience you can hardly get as a kid, nowadays, in Beijing.”

Nor even in some of the more gated and condominified Overseas Chinese enclaves of Greater Vancouver, I think to myself.

That’s what convinced Feng to shift his own three children (i.e. two more than China’s then-prevailing state-imposed quota) up here in 2013. The move proved so affordable that he was able to buy in (“for a steal!”) as co-owner Powell River’s rambling, ramshackle, history-laden, century-old Rodmay Hotel in the heart of Townsite.

“What an environment,” he enthuses. “Nature! Fresh air! Clean living! Other kids to play with, instead of being shut up in their rooms cramming for exams or glued to their computer screens. All this and a chance to get native English fluency, too!”

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