A friend of mine in Seattle recently asked me, "What's there to do on Vancouver Island?" I wrote this as my answer to her and anyone else thinking of traveling to Vancouver Island or Vancouver, BC.
Vancouver Island is an island off the southwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Even though it shares the name "Vancouver" with the city of Vancouver, BC, (they were both named after English naval explorer Captain George Vancouver), they are two different places.
Vancouver and Vancouver Island are close enough (ferry transport between the two takes about 1.5 hours, air travel between the two is even faster) to easily combine a visit to one with a visit to the other. In fact, Vancouver Island is one of the most popular and best "side trip" / weekend getaway destinations for travelers to Vancouver. Adding a trip to Vancouver Island to your Vancouver itinerary is an excellent way to enhance your trip: in Vancouver, you can enjoy all the luxuries of a major metropolis, while on Vancouver Island you can explore rustic beaches and nature. (Of course, Vancouver also has plenty of rustic wilderness and nature, and--as you will see below--Vancouver Island has its own luxury travel, too.)
Top Destinations & Attractions on Vancouver Island
01 of 09
Explore History & Culture in Victoria, BC
Let's start with the most famous Vancouver Island destination: Victoria, BC. Victoria is the largest city on Vancouver Island and the capital of the province of British Columbia. It's also one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, having been first settled by the British in 1843. Of course, it was home to Coast Salish First Nations people for hundreds of years before that.
Today's Victoria is a wonderful mix of old-world charm and history, fabulous food, gorgeous geography, and outdoor adventure. It's an ideal "jumping off" point for exploring the island as a whole, as it's easy to reach (by ferry or plane), and you can drive from Victoria to any other Vancouver Island destination. (You can rent a car in Victoria, or bring your own on a car-carrying ferry.)
Travelers can easily spend two or three days exploring Victoria. Major attractions include the world-famous Butchart Gardens, the Inner Harbour--where you can visit Fisherman's Wharf, tour the Parliament Buildings for free, and have Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel--and Fort Street shopping and antiquing.
Victoria is also an access point for whale watching tours (see below) and other outdoor adventures.
02 of 09
Relax & Luxuriate in Tofino, BC
Tofino, BC is, arguably, Vancouver Island's most "up and coming" destination. By which I mean: Tofino has been a beloved vacation destination for Vancouverites and locals for generations, but, in the last decade or so, has begun to attract visitors from around the world.
There are two (metaphorical) sides to Tofino. On one, Tofino is a traditional Pacific Northwest nature destination: people visit for the rustic beaches and untouched forests, for whale watching (see below), storm watching, bird watching, and surfing. It's a popular destination for camping, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing.
On the other side, Tofino has a growing reputation for luxury accommodations. The Wickaninnish Inn--one of the top romantic getaways from Vancouver--epitomizes this, artfully combining breathtaking geography with high-end spa packages. You can even stay in ultra-swanky luxury tents (yes, tents!) at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.
Style tip: For the most stylish trip to Vancouver and Vancouver Island, stay at the Opus Hotel in Vancouver, shop and dine in Gastown, then take a plane to Tofino and relax in splendor at the Wickannish Inn!
Learn more: Tourism Tofino
03 of 09
Go Whale Watching
Vancouver Island is one of the top destinations for whale-watching in all of North America. During whale migrations, you can see orcas (killer whales) and grey whales, and (less frequently) humpback and minke whales.
For orcas, whale-watching season typically runs from May - November, coinciding with salmon migration, which attracts the orcas. For grey whales, who are migrating north to the Bering Sea, prime whale-viewing season starts in March, heralded by the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in Tofino.
Most whale watching tours take about three hours. You can take a tour from multiple Vancouver Island destinations, including:
04 of 09
Hug a GIANT Tree in Cathedral Grove
Big, big, BIG trees. That's what you'll find at Cathedral Grove, an ancient forest where the biggest trees are 800 years old, 75 m (250 ft) tall and 9 m (29 ft) in circumference. Located in MacMillan Provincial Park in the center of Vancouver Island (so you will need a car to reach it), Cathedral Grove offers the unique opportunity to see and get close to the grandest Douglas Fir trees in all of British Columbia.
Cathedral Grove is about 2.5 hours by car from Victoria and about 2 hours by car from Tofino.Continue to 5 of 9 below.
05 of 09
Taste Nanaimo Bars in Nanaimo, BC
Ever heard of Nanaimo Bars? The popular Canadian dessert--a three layer bar made of a crumble-wafer bottom, custard-flavor butter icing middle, and chocolate top--gets its name from Nanaimo, BC, a city on the east coast of Vancouver Island.
Nanaimo has plenty of natural attractions, including scuba diving and snorkeling with seals, and the gorgeous Englishman River Falls Provincial Park. But I'm including it here for foodies with a sweet tooth: In Nanaimo, you can do the Nanaimo Bar Trail, a multi-stop Nanaimo bar tour that lets you taste the delicacy all over town!
Learn more: Tourism Nanaimo
06 of 09
Camp With the Kids at Parkesville / Qualicum Beach
Located about 30 minutes (by car) north of Nanaimo, BC, Parksville / Qualicum Beach is a cozy, safe, family-friendly beach town with loads of charm, swimmable lakes and rivers, multiple golf courses, and plenty of hiking trails.
The area is, of course, best known for its beaches in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park; these soft, sandy beaches are among the Best Beaches near Vancouver (a list which also includes three Tofino beaches).
While there are several family-friendly resorts along Rathtrevor Beach, RVing and camping are super popular here, with picturesque campgrounds and RV parks all around the coast. One example is Cedar Grove, an RV park, and campground that's just a short walk from Qualicum Beach.
07 of 09
Sample Local Wines in Cowichan Valley
Most of the Vancouver Island destinations on this list are coastal, but this one is in the heart of the island. Situated just north of Victoria and spanning the region between the capital and Nanaimo, Cowichan Vallery is warm, lush farm country, replete with rolling fields protected by their dramatic mountain backdrop. (When you dine at Victoria's farm-to-table restaurants, it's likely the farms are here.)
The two main attractions in Cowichan are the farmers' markets--famed for both their local produce and home-made artisanal products--and the abundant wineries that dapple the valley. In fact, Cowichan Valley is the second-largest wine producing region in British Columbia (first is the Okanagan)!
There are 15 wineries in Cowichan with tasting rooms, offering everything from traditional varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Ortega to local sparkling wines and fruit wines.
You can bring a car and do your own wine tour, or sign up for a formal wine tour (complete with designated driver). Cowichan Valley wine tours include:
08 of 09
Ski at Mount Washington Alpine Resort
Vancouver Island's most famous alpine/snow sports resort is atop Mount Washington in the Comox Valley, about 3 hours (by car) north of Victoria and 1.5 hours northwest of Nanaimo. (The nearest airport to Mount Washington is in Comox, BC.)
Snow sports season typically runs from late-November through late-February. Mount Washington Alpine Resort offers alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing.
Learn more: Mount Washington Alpine ResortContinue to 9 of 9 below.
09 of 09
How to Get to Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is in Canada. Which means, if you are traveling to Vancouver Island from another country (including the United States), you must have the correct travel documents, including a valid passport and (if required) visa.
Traveling to/from Vancouver Island & Vancouver, BC
There are three ways to travel between Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver, BC:
- Take a BC Ferry to/from Vancouver, BC to Victoria or Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. These ferries do carry cars, so you can bring a car over, or you can use public transit to reach the ferry, then walk on. Remember: You can rent a car on the island.
- Take a float plane or small aircraft (including helijet) from Vancouver (or Seattle) to Victoria, Nanaimo, or Comox.
- Fly commercial airlines into/out of Victoria International Airport (YYJ) and Vancouver International Airport (YVR).
Traveling to/from Seattle, WA to Vancouver Island
In my Traveler's Guide to Victoria, I outline more options for getting to and from Victoria, including taking the Victoria Clipper ferry (which does not carry cars) from Seattle, WA, and the Coho Ferry from Port Angeles, WA (which does carry cars).
Special thanks to Lauren and Sean, inveterate Vancouver Island travelers and dear friends, for all their suggestions for this piece.