The west coast is one thing a newcomer to the North Island is guaranteed to hear about. People rave about it. For some reason though, in my two-odd years up here, I’d never been before last week.
San Jo and the like are summer staples for many locals, and after my trip to Grant Bay I can see why. Mine was, like most good adventures, an unplanned, spur-of-the-moment affair. I’d heard from a friend during the week that he was planning a camping trip to the west coast that weekend, and that another few friends were planning a day trip to meet the campers on Sunday.
Nice, I thought, then promptly forgot about it. When I remembered on Sunday morning, I fired off a few shameless texts and more or less invited myself and my girlfriend Jenn along for the ride. It was well worth it.
Like most good things in life, however, you have to work for it. The beautiful Grant Bay lies about a two hour drive away down logging roads. It being the weekend, we didn’t come across any logging traffic, but I’m reliably informed that during the week it’s a whole other story.
I was lucky enough to be chauffeured by someone familiar with the drive, but if you’re thinking about heading out for the first time you would do well to invest in the Backroad Mapbook. These aren’t exactly cheap — around $25 or so — but are well worth it in the long run. Definitely an example of the old adage that it’s better to have and not need than to need and not have.
In theory, the route is fairly straightforward. Out of Holberg take the SE Main, then South Main toward Winter Harbour. At the fork before Winter Harbour take the right onto West Main and follow the signs to the W300 and the trailhead.
In practice, there are quite a few routes that will take you to the trail, but there are many, many more that will take you off to the middle of nowhere, and some of the turns were pretty easy to miss. A map is definitely your friend. As is a pickup. It probably goes without saying that you don’t really want to take the family sedan down a bunch of logging roads. With a little patience you could do it, but neither the passengers nor the suspension will thank you.
Pulling up to the trailhead there is a sign proclaiming “5 km to the beach” but don’t panic; it’s just missing the decimal point that makes it a much more sedate 500-metre stroll through the woods. Then, wow.
It’s almost like Parks Canada installed a handy portal to Jamaica. Beautiful white sands stretch left and right, framing clear blue water. I realize now why people are so stoked on the west coast.
The morning mist still lingered when we arrived and found friends around a fire. We pulled up a log and sat looking out on the bay and chatting. Hard auld life as my Dad would put it.
Someone had brought a volleyball so we headed over to the fairly substantially built net that stands on the beach. Constructed from what looks like two hefty pieces of driftwood, strands from fishing nets or crab traps and several buckets of sweat, the volleyball net is clearly a permanent fixture here.
After a quick game the mist started burning off and the sun really started to blaze. Being Irish, a race not exactly world-renowned for their tanning prowess, I grabbed a sweater and removed any doubt about the garment’s etymology. It gets hot there, in other words.
We spent the rest of the afternoon playing volleyball and bocce, exploring the length of the bay, paddling in the ocean and watching the sea lion that was putting on a show for the kayakers out on the water. It’s a pretty stunning part of the island.
There were a few other groups sharing the beach with us but there was plenty of room for everyone. I’d say we had about a 200-metre stretch of gorgeous white sand to ourselves. Where else can you get that? Not only that, but it’s just two hours from home. The North Island is pretty lucky.
As the afternoon headed toward evening we packed up our rubbish and headed back to the truck and then on to home. We decided to break up the return leg with a stop at the Scarlet Ibis for a bite to eat, and before we knew it we were back in Hardy.
One more place ticked off my must-see list, but one I’ll definitely return to. It seems beautiful stops such as Georgie Lake are just the amuse-bouche for the west coast itself. With so much still out there to see, it was enough to make me want to take one more step towards true North-Islandism: trading the car for a pickup.