Sitting snugly against the very western edge of Canada, Vancouver Island is vast, a sparsely populated wonder where the temperate rainforests of British Columbia meet the sea. This is a land of exploration and adventure, a place where a peaceful stroll through gardens in the morning leads to an adrenaline-boosting whale-watching excursion in the afternoon. The diversity of the island’s ecosystem brings new, awe-inspiring vistas around every corner: primordial rainforests, ancient rivers, craggy mountains and peaceful meadows.
The island is more than 32,000 square kilometers, with 3,400 kilometers of coastline, making it a nature lover’s paradise where “getting away from it all” is truly possible. But civilization is never out of reach. The island itself is just a short ferry or plane ride from Canada’s Vancouver, British Columbia, or the United States’ Seattle, Washington, both about 100 scenic kilometers away. To see the lovely island from two distinct angles, consider arriving by seaplane (an adventurous way to begin the trip) and departing by ferry.
English Heritage in Victoria
Vancouver Island’s main city, Victoria, is a destination in itself. Stepping off the docks in Victoria, visitors may wonder if they’ve disembarked in Victorian England. The city – the capital of British Columbia, in fact – was established in 1843 as an outpost of Hudson’s Bay Company, but it soon became the grand dame of British Columbia.
The Inner Harbour especially, where ferries and floatplanes dock, is packed with imposing Edwardian buildings and that quaint British feel at which Victoria excels. Stroll past the opulent, domed Parliament Building, the lavish Fairmont Empress Hotel and duck into the shops along Johnson Street and Market Square (and don’t miss the adorable Waddington Alley). Take some time to wander among the docks of the harbor, where you may just spot a regal tall ship, especially during the Classic Boat Festival, held annually over the Labour Day holiday weekend.
To get a taste of the wonders of nature found across the island, make sure to stop at the Royal British Columbia Museum. The extensive museum, founded in 1886, is a treasure trove of life-size nature dioramas that bring you face-to-face with grizzly bears and sea lions and a can’t-miss First Peoples Gallery (the ceremonial masks are particularly stunning).
Plan to spend at least a few days in Victoria before setting out for the rest of the island. The charming city offers the widest range of accommodations, from budget-friendly hostels (check out Ocean Island Backpackers Inn) to charming bed and breakfasts.
If balancing the beauty of the outdoors with luxury is high on the priority list, consider a stay at The Fairmont Empress, a 1908 stunner that perches at the edge of Inner Harbour in Victoria. Even if you’re not calling one of the regal guest rooms home, you can still indulge in that most Victorian of traditions – high tea.
What’s for dinner? Lots. Across the island, you’ll tuck into super fresh fish, traditional English eats and everything in between. In Victoria, pick up Eat Magazine for a run-down of where to pull up a chair or grab a pint. Some favorites include Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub for beer and locally-sourced dishes or Red Fish Blue Fish, a fish stand right on the docks.
Victoria is a very compact, walkable city. It makes a fantastic base of exploration that offers its own sites, as well as reliable public transportation for those farther-afield destinations. However, if your plans are taking you to the very edges of the island, renting a car is ideal.
But you don’t necessarily need four wheels to take in the island’s wonders. How about two wheels? The 60 kilometer Galloping Goose trail is a lovely introduction to the island that runs from Victoria (where you can rent bikes from Sports Rent or Cycle BC Rentals) to Sooke through urban and rural settings.