Located on Cormorant Island, Alert Bay is accessible by car ferry from Port McNeill and is well worth a visit for anyone staying on the North of Vancouver Island. Alert Bay inhabitants are probably the friendliest people I have met and I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to travel there for work many times over the past year.
The first time I visited Alert Bay was in early January 2014. We set off with intentions of visiting the U’mista Cultural Centre but everything on the island was shut. After taking some photos of the now demolished, derelict St Michael’s Residential Building we took a very blustery walk along the seafront and sought refuge in what appeared to be the only pub that was open. Despite there being very little to do on that very first trip we had a great time playing pool for free inside the local pub and I immediately had a great feeling about the village. At one point, we thought we may have to find a place to spend the night as a storm rolled in, fortunately the ferry still ran. If you do decide to make a night of it, or the weather takes a turn for the worst there are lodgings on Cormorant Island.
On a typical day, especially if it’s sunny there is plenty to see and do to fill your time on the island. Alert Bay is known as Yalis to the ‘Namgis people who live there and there is a lot to learn about the history of this place. A visit to the U’mista Cultural Centre should be your starting point where there is extremely interesting Potlatch exhibition displaying beautifully carved masks that have been returned to the First Nations people in the years since the Potlatch Prohibition was lifted. They also have an interactive room with video footage, drums, traditional regalia blankets and weaved hats that visitors can try on and afterwards be sure to visit the gift shop where you can find distinctive west coast aboriginal artwork on all kinds of gifts as well as striking masks for sale ranging from the low $ hundreds into the $ thousands!
If you love the contemporary art of the Kwakwaka’wakw there are also other galleries scattered around the island that are well worth a look.
From there you could wander up to the Big House and check out the world’s tallest totem (pole) outside. The Big House is the heart of the community where many cultural celebrations and potlaches take place. The children of the local school host a cultural celebration there in June with permission to dance the traditional dances of local families and anyone may attend that celebration.
There are limited places to eat in Alert Bay but you will not go hungry. Cook Shack offers fast food options, Duchess’ Bannock and Desserts is a recent addition and there are a couple of Pubs/Inns for a quick bite for a lunch.
Alert Bay is the oldest community on the north of Vancouver Island and has many heritage buildings and elements left over from the pioneer past. In years gone by the community thrived on the fishing industry but these days tourism, art and BC Ferries are more common employment sources. The village does have an artsy feel to it with a random London Taxi cab, old carts, sea-swept docks and until recently several brightly coloured double-decker busses (sadly moved due to a recent mudslide).
On your way back to the ferry stop by the First Nations’ burial ground where there are many old and new totem and memorial poles to honour those who have passed. While you wait for the ferry, step into Culture Shock for a coffee before you head back. I hope I have inspired you to take a trip to Alert Bay next time you plan on visiting Northern Vancouver Island.