48 Hours in Cumberland, B.C.
Old is new in Vancouver Island’s happening town.
Few B.C. towns are trading on an endemically colourful history and heritage character the way Cumberland currently is—almost to the point where the name “Cumberland” has become a brand. Swap the bike rack-fitted trucks and cars for horse-drawn carriages and the concrete sidewalks for boardwalks, and Dunsmuir Avenue could be a turnkey set for a spaghetti western with its century-old brick and wood buildings. Or, if you happen to be in Cumberland for the annual Empire Days celebration and crowning of the May Queen, a tradition since 1919, it might feel more like wacky David Lynch dystopia.
Cumberland was founded on the coal mines, but today it’s homegrown businesses like Cumberland Crate Company, Cumberland Brewing Company, Village Muse Handmade, Dodge City Cycles and Seeds Food Market that symbolize the village’s evolution from neglected stepchild of the Comox Valley to one of West Coast B.C.’s hippest little communities, overflowing with lifestyle pilgrims attracted by a bounty of outdoor opportunities and a thriving arts scene.
Scores of indie bands have graced the stage at the historic Waverley Hotel, and though the sightlines are awkward and the dance floor constricted by a century-old interior design that didn’t have rock and roll in mind, this room routinely generates a crowd energy that puts it on the bucket list of many performers. Before the room heats up, nosh on a Further Burger—a ground turkey patty with bacon jam and garlic aioli on a pretzel bun. Local bassist and promoter Vig Schulman, through his company Cumberland Village Works, is largely responsible for putting Cumberland on the live music map, and he’s also the energy behind annual festivals like Atmosphere Gathering, an electronic and DJ-focused family-friendly event held at Village Park in mid-August.
The simple cure for a foggy Waverley Hotel head is a pedal or hike in the forest. Cumberland is fast becoming a mountain biking destination to reckon with, attracting aficionados from the Lower Mainland and beyond, thanks to an ever-expanding network of trails that starts and finishes a few pedal strokes away from the cafés and pubs on Dunsmuir Avenue. And as for hiking, if you know where to look, a walk through the forest is like a stroll through history, with old narrow-gauge rail grades, mine shafts and scraps of machinery left over from the coal-mining days.
Cumberland’s accommodation options are much more limited than the mountain bike trail selection, so plan ahead if you want to stay in the village. The best bet is Stansbury’s Guest House, tucked off the main drag on 2nd Street, offering two spacious suites with fully equipped kitchens and a cozy one-bedroom suite for those who prefer to dine in. In keeping with Cumberland’s two-wheeled spirit, Stansbury’s also provides a bike-washing facility.
These days in Cumberland, all trails lead to a frosty ale. The village was once honoured by Labatt’s for being the “Luckiest Town in Canada”—that is, for consuming more Lucky Lager per capita than any other community. In the context of today’s diverse ecosystem of craft breweries, it seems like a dubious distinction, but it nonetheless reflects Cumberland’s working-class roots. The village’s soft spot for suds recently found a new dimension with the opening of the Cumberland Brewing Company on Dunsmuir Avenue, with a sunny outdoor deck where you can sample a slowly rotating selection of six different brews, among them an extra-special bitter, oatmeal stout and Cascadian dark ale.
Cumberland locals head to Comox Lake to boat, swim and rock climb on the spectacular basalt cliffs known as Devil’s Ladder that soar from the water. On the way to the lake, stop for a peaceful walk through Coal Creek Historic Park. Today, birds, bears and other wildlife are at home here, but until the 1930s it was home to a bustling Chinatown, at one time the largest rural population of Chinese people in North America. Interpretive signs will help fill in these now obscure pages of history, indicating the former locations of the Sun On Wo General Store, Wah Sang Bakery and other architectural ghosts from the past.