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.
Victoria is known as the “City of Gardens,” and the most popular of the lovely green spaces is Butchart Gardens, a sprawling, magnificent botanical escape. The garden grew out of industry. Robert Butchart built a cement factory on the island’s Tod Inlet in 1904, using limestone from a nearby quarry. It was his wife, Jennie, who turned that quarry into a simple, sunken garden. She soon added a Japanese garden, Italian garden and rose garden, and the famed attraction was born.
Today, Butchart is home to an immense display of blooms, fountains, wooded trails and wide lawns. A total of 700 varieties of plants are used to guarantee blooms from March through October. That first garden, the sunken garden, is still a sight not to be missed. With the tall, limestone walls protecting it on three sides, the garden is a colorful mix of flower beds, water features and statues.
Through a traditional torii, the Japanese garden features meandering paths and bridges over streams. This garden also features a beautiful surprise – visitors can peek at the very pretty Butchart Cove through the screen of trees at the edge of the gardens. The rose and Italian gardens have all the formal grandeur you’d expect, and they are close to the year-round show greenhouse. Butchart is 55 acres, so plan at least a half-day to really explore. It is about an hour outside Victoria, and regional transportation to and from the gardens is easy and affordable.
While Butchart is great for visitors, in Victoria residents head to Beacon Hill near the Royal British Columbia Museum. The 200-acre park is a quiet green space edged by the ocean. Head there to meander along the walking paths and maybe catch a glimpse of the peacocks that roam free in the park.
The gardens are great, but Vancouver Island is all about the sea. You know you’re in for a whale of an adventure when you spy the boat – more of a raft, really. Conveniently based in Victoria, Orca Spirit Adventures and Prince of Whales are two whale-watching outfits that whisk passengers out among the waves for an up-close encounter with majestic killer whales. The waters around Victoria are home to three resident pods of orcas (named J, K and L pods) so chances of spotting the animals are relatively high.
Kitted out in bright, water-proof flotation suits, passengers board the 12-seat zodiac boats, which are lightweight, inflatable crafts with a high-powered engine at the back. The result is a fast, bouncy, exciting ride out to the whales. Being this close to the waves, expect to get wet.
The whale-watching season runs generally from May to October, when you can expect to catch glimpses of not only the orca whales but also elephant seals, sea lions, porpoises and other whales, such as humpback and minke. A fin, a slapping tail, even an entire orca bursting from beneath the cold ocean is a sight you’ll not soon forget. Bring a camera, but don’t spend the entire trip looking through the viewfinder – this is an experience you’ll want to see with your eyes.
If you’d prefer to have a drink while watching those whales, consider booking a sightseeing cruise on one of the tours’ larger and enclosed vessels.
Branching out away from Victoria, the island offers a diverse range of possibilities, from multi-day foodie treks to hikes in solitude. Near Victoria, the accessible Cowichan Valley is a large tract of rolling, pastoral countryside surrounded by the mountains and the sea. The foodie valley is home to artisanal cheesemakers, wineries and organic farms. It’s perfect from the seat of a bike, plus there are food and wine incentives to keep you peddling. The Cowichan Valley Trail utilizes an old rail bed and winds through the verdant region from Shawnigan Lake to the Town of Lake Cowichan.
Each September, the Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival combines the edible, quaffable splendors of the valley into a weekend spent on a true gourmet trail to visit farms and boutique wineries. To work off all that food and wine, WildPlay Element Parks in nearby Nanaimo and Victoria offer adrenaline-boosting bungee jumps, zip lines and Tarzan swings.
Ecotourism in Tofino
[Also see our travel article “Hiking Vancouver Island’s North Coast Trail“]
Eco-destination Tofino is a popular spot for both land and sea lovers and it is about five hours drive from Victoria. This hilly and heavily forested area is situated at the tip of a long, narrow peninsula that curves around the islands and fjords of western Vancouver Island. Activities in Tofino include hiking, kayaking, whale-watching and even surfing.
Gliding through the protected waters around Tofino’s Clayoquot Sound, kayakers can slide quietly past a patchwork of beaches and ancient forests that give way to soaring headlands amidst a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The area is perfect for beginner and expert kayakers and Tofino Sea Kayaking offers kayak rentals (single, double or even triple-hatch kayaks) as well as a number of guided day tours.
If the kayaking doesn’t quite whet your appetite for the wet stuff, Tofino is also one of the island’s most popular surfing destinations. Lots of surf shops and surf schools can get you ready to hit the waves at spots like Long Beach, Chesterman Beach or Cox Bay. Check out this online visitor’s guide for more travel information on Tofino and the surrounding areas.
Out of the water, Meares Island is a popular hiking destination. The large island is densely forested and features the unforgettable Big Tree Trail, a 3 kilometer hike through an old-growth forest of ancient cedars. The boardwalk trail leads through incredibly lush, dense rainforest and ends at the eye-popping Hanging Garden tree, an ancient red cedar that is more than 18 meters around and estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. Meares Island is reached by water taxi from Tofino or kayak.
Just south of Tofino, the Long Beach Unit of the mist-shrouded, brooding Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is accessible by car via the Pacific Rim Highway. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles on the interpretive Rainforest Trail, a moderate, 1 kilometer route.
If you’d like to try your hand at camping, the Green Point Campground within the reserve is easily accessible from the Pacific Rim Highway. Tofino has long been a center of eco-tourism, and that is also reflected in its many fantastic lodging options. One favorite, the Wickaninnish Inn (called “The Wick”) is a mix of nature and nurture – look for natural stone and recycled furniture next to fireplaces and balconies.
Groups, families or just travelers seeking more privacy, can choose to stay in one of the many vacation rentals in and around Tofino. Natural Elements offers a selection of pristine vacation rental homes, cottages, condos and suites in Tofino and Ucluelet.
North Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is incredibly vast and it would be nearly impossible to see the whole island in just one trip. If you’ve set your sights far away from Victoria and the southern towns, remote-but-charming Telegraph Cove is almost as far north as you can get. It’s also a nice base for whale-watching (try Stubbs Island Whale Watching, and make sure to stop by the Killer Whale Café to fuel up) and is a welcome resting spot before the drive north to stunning, lonely Cape Scott Provincial Park.
The scenery of Vancouver Island is larger than life and it doesn’t get any bigger than Strathcona Provincial Park, a 250,000-hectare behemoth in the middle of the island. This remote park (about five hours drive from Victoria) is a place of records: Vancouver Island’s highest peak (Golden Hinde, at 2,200 meters); British Columbia’s oldest provincial park (it was established in 1911); Canada’s highest waterfall (Della Falls, at 440 meters). It is a hiker’s paradise, complete with alpine meadows and a glacier trail. Camping is available at Buttle Lake Campground.
Near Strathcona Provincial Park, the Strathcona Park Lodge puts the focus on the outdoors, featuring timber-frame cottages without televisions. The lodge offers daily activities (like yoga, swimming or rock climbing) and expeditions to explore the park.
Whether you stay for just a few days to sample the outdoors around Victoria or spend a week kayaking and hiking your way across this immense island, one thing is for sure: you’ll want to return. Once, twice or a dozen more times, Vancouver Island has enough adventures for a lifetime.