Courtenay is the Comox Valley's only city, but its low-rise buildings, flower-filled streets and easy-going ways make it feel more like a village.
It is the sum of layered histories involving prehistoric "monsters," First Nations peoples, European settlers and hard-working farmers and builders. Industrious and playful, Courtenay commands a quality of life that constantly beguiles outsiders.
Fossils & Fossil Hunting
Some 80 million years ago, the Courtenay and Puntledge River areas were rich in prehistoric marine life. Hollywood would love the elasmosaur, a fearsome marine reptile 12m/39ft long, with a head that was all teeth, a crazily long neck and a turtle-like body.
At the Courtenay & District Museum & Palaeontology Centre, skeletons of fearsome marine reptiles and fossils speak of an astonishing past. Not only that, the museum offers guided fossil-hunting tours. Where else can a tourist come home with an 80-million-year-old souvenir?
Courtenay's First Nations
Human history began with the K'omox First Nation. They occupied the valley for thousands of years. Up river lived the Pentlatch, who fostered a working fishery. The First Nations peoples came in contact with Europeans in the guise of traders who explored their shores in search of sea otter pelts.
European Explorers & Settlers
Buccaneering Sir Francis Drake likely dropped by on his secret expedition in 1579. The equally intrepid explorer Captain James Cook circumnavigated Vancouver Island in 1778.
The first European settlers arrived in 1862. They were no doubt excited to find an excellent natural harbour, abundant fish, extraordinarily fertile land, fresh water and endless forest. In 1914, the E & N railway arrived in town, linking the community to Nanaimo, Victoria and the rest of the world. A year later, Courtenay incorporated as the only city in the Comox Valley.
Historic & Heritage Walks
Visitors can easily delve into this history. The Comox Valley Visitor Centre invites exploration on foot with mapped Courtenay Riverway Heritage Walk and Downtown Courtenay Heritage Walk brochures, both free of charge.
Today's Courtenay is a small, laidback city with uncommonly rich agricultural bounty, thriving cultural life and access to the great outdoors from the Georgia Strait to Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest and largest park of its kind on the island. The showplace for the city's clean and green outdoors is the Courtenay Riverwalk, a lively promenade for walkers, joggers and people-watchers.
Artists & Art Galleries
Walk the walk and visit the galleries. The Comox Valley Art Gallery features Canadian and international artists while fostering local talent through exhibitions, lectures and special projects. Spirits of the West Coast Native Art Gallery presents Pacific Northwest Aboriginal and specifically Haida and Kwakiutl First Nations masks, carvings and sculpture. Fine art and West Coast photography is the point at the Silverwork Studio and Gallery.
Theatre in Courtenay
Entertainment lovers should check listings for the Sid Williams Theatre, Courtenay's cultural pride and joy for two decades. The theatre offers an outstanding range of programs from individual turns by Aboriginal performers to drama, musical theatre, children's theatre, contemporary ballet and concerts.
Courtenay plays host to the Vancouver Island Music Fest every July. It's the largest festival on Vancouver Island, a weekend event assembling some of the finest talents from Canada and the US. Some 1,100 volunteers contribute to the impact of 200 musical performers on six stages.
Drop into the Comox Valley Visitor Centre in Courtenay for more information.