Vancouver Island, off the southwest coast of British Columbia, Canada, may share the name with the city of Vancouver, BC, but they are two different places each worth a visit. Actually, beautiful Vancouver Island is one of the most popular weekend getaways for travelers to Vancouver. Enjoy all the luxuries of a major metropolis in Vancouver, and while on the island you can explore rustic beaches and nature. However, Vancouver also has rustic wilderness and nature, and Vancouver Island has luxury travel, too.
If you are traveling from another country (including the United States) to Canada, you must have the correct travel documents, including a valid passport and visa (if required). There are three ways to travel between Vancouver Island and the city of Vancouver, BC: by ferry, small aircraft, or commercial airlines. Ferry transport between the two takes about 1.5 hours and air travel is even faster.
Explore History and Culture in Victoria, BC
The most famous destination and largest city on Vancouver Island is Victoria, BC, the capital of the province of British Columbia. One of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria was first settled by the British in 1843; it was home to Coast Salish First Nations people for hundreds of years before that.
Victoria is a wonderful mix of old-world charm and history, fabulous food, gorgeous geography, and outdoor adventure. An ideal "jumping off" point for exploring the island, it's easy to reach (by ferry or plane), and you can drive from Victoria to any other destination either with a rental car from Victoria or by bringing your own on a car-carrying ferry. Victoria is also an access point for outdoor adventures such as whale watching tours.
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 Fairmont Empress Hotel—and Fort Street shopping and antiquing.
Vancouver Island is one of the top whale-watching destinations in all of North America. During migrations, you can see orcas (killer whales) and gray whales, and humpback and minke whales, though less frequently.
The whale-watching season for orcas typically runs from May through November, coinciding with salmon migration, which attracts the orcas. For gray whales migrating north to the Bering Sea, the prime viewing season starts in March, heralded by the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in Tofino.
Most whale watching tours take about three hours, departing from multiple Vancouver Island destinations, including:
- Victoria, BC: Tours include Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours and Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures.
- Tofino, BC: Tours include Jamie's Whaling Station and West Coast Aquatic Safaris.
- Campbell River: Tours include Campbell River Whale Watching and Adventure Tours and Eagle Eye Adventures.
- Telegraph Cove: Tours include Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures and North Island Kayak.
Tofino, BC has been a beloved vacation destination on the island for Vancouverites and locals for generations but has begun to attract visitors from around the world.
People visit for the rustic beaches and untouched forests of this traditional Pacific Northwest nature destination, and for whale watching, checking out storms, bird watching, and surfing. It's a popular destination for camping, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing.
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 at the Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.
You'll find huge trees at Cathedral Grove, an ancient forest where the largest trees are over 800 years old, 250 feet tall and 29 feet in circumference. Located in MacMillan Provincial Park in the center of Vancouver Island, Cathedral Grove offers the unique opportunity to 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. Explore carefully: Due to root system disease, some trees and branches fall suddenly, and it is advised not to visit the trails on windy days. To best preserve the historic trees, it is important to also stay on trails designated for visitors.
Nanaimo has plenty of natural attractions, including scuba diving, snorkeling with seals, and the beautiful Englishman River Falls Provincial Park. Nanaimo is another good base from which to explore the entire island. BC Ferries run directly to/from Nanaimo, and it has its own airport.
But it's an alluring destination for foodies with a sweet tooth. If you have never heard of Nanaimo bars—a three-layer treat made of a crumble-wafer bottom, a custard-flavor butter icing middle, and a chocolate top—the popular Canadian dessert gets its name from Nanaimo, BC, a city on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Have fun on the Nanaimo Bar Trail, a nearly 40-stop tour that lets you taste the delicacy all over town in a diversity of forms, including cocktails, ice cream, and organic and gluten-free variations.
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 best known for its beaches in Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park; these soft, sandy spots are among the top beaches near Vancouver.
While there are several family-friendly resorts along Rathtrevor Beach, staying in a recreational vehicle (RV) and camping are super popular here, with picturesque accommodations all around the coast. Consider Cedar Grove RV Park and Campground, a short walk from Qualicum Beach.
Just north of Victoria and spanning the region between the capital and Nanaimo, you'll find Cowichan Valley, a warm, lush farm country, replete with rolling fields protected by a 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 homemade artisanal products—and the abundant wineries that dapple the valley. Cowichan Valley is the second-largest wine-producing region in British Columbia after the Okanagan.
There are about 20 wineries in Cowichan, and many have shops, tours, and tasting rooms, offering everything from traditional varietals like Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Gewürztraminer, and Ortega to local sparkling wines and fruit wines. Bring a car and do your own wine tour, or sign up for a formal wine tour (complete with a designated driver).
Vancouver Island's most famous alpine/snow sports resort is atop Mount Washington, 30 minutes north of the Comox Valley, and 1.5 hours northwest of Nanaimo. The nearest airport to Mount Washington is in Comox.
For winter fans, snow sports season typically runs from late-November through late-February. Mount Washington Alpine Resort offers 60 trails and eight lifts, alpine and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and snow tubing. It's also an all-year destination with ziplining, a bungee trampoline, a bike park, eateries, and shopping.