8 Top Things to Do in Vancouver Island, BC

Pacific Rim National Park, Vancouver Island

Manuel Sulzer / Getty Images

Vancouver Island, off the southwest coast of British Columbia, Canada, may share a name with the city of Vancouver, but these are two different places each worth a visit. Vancouver Island is even one of the most popular weekend getaways for Vancouver visitors.

After enjoying all the luxuries of a major metropolis in Vancouver, you can escape to the rustic beaches and nature of the rainforest-clad island. Don't be mistaken, though: Vancouver Island accommodates the luxury traveler, too.

If you are visiting from another country (including the U.S.), be sure to 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: by ferry, small aircraft, or commercial airlines. Ferry transport between the two takes about an hour and a half and air travel is even faster.

01 of 08

Spend a Sunny Day on Victoria's Harbour

Crowds and boats on Inner Harbor at sunset
Stuart Dee / Getty Images
Wharf St, Victoria, BC, Canada
Phone +1 250-383-8300

Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and the most common place to start a trip on Vancouver Island. Many visitors spend the early days of their vacations exploring the harbour, the waterfront pulse of Victoria.

The harbour is shaped like a horseshoe and dotted with such landmarks as the Parliament Buildings and Fairmont Empress Victoria, a chateau-style luxury hotel. Both are located on the liveliest stretch, the Inner Harbour. On sunny days, the Inner Harbour serves as a walking path and gathering place.

Grab an ice cream and watch the cruise ships bob in the distance, or duck into Fairmont Empress for an upscale high tea.

02 of 08

Stop to Smell the Roses at Butchart Gardens

Overhead of Butchart flower gardens at dusk
David C Tomlinson / Getty Images
800 Benvenuto Ave, Brentwood Bay, BC V8M 1J8, Canada
Phone +1 250-652-4422

Butchart Gardens is a century-old botanical garden in Victoria. Its well-groomed paths wind through blooming bulbs in the spring, roses in the summer, autumnal foliage in the fall, and extraordinary light displays in the winter. The park spans 55 acres, contains 26 greenhouses, and features almost 1,000 bedding plant varieties.

The Sunken Garden, a colorful 5-acre bog garden, is one of the highlights of Butchart. After a walk through this living wonderland, you can stop for a spot of tea or lunch at the coffee shop near Waterwheel Square. There are also two on-site restaurants, The Dining Room and the Blue Poppy Restaurant.

03 of 08

Go Whale Watching

Humpback whales swimming in sea off Vancouver island

Ulrike Hammerich / EyeEm / Getty Images

1 Dallas Rd, Victoria, BC V8V 0B2, Canada
Phone +1 250-384-8008

Vancouver Island is one of the top whale-watching destinations in North America. During migrations, you can see orcas (killer whales), gray whales, humpbacks, and minke whales.

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: Tours include Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours and Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures.
  • Tofino: 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.
04 of 08

Hug a Giant Tree in Cathedral Grove

Embracing a Douglas Fir on Vancouver Island

Momatiuk - Eastcott / Getty Images

BC-4, Nanaimo, BC V0R 1G0, Canada

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 British Columbia.

Cathedral Grove is about two and a half hours by car from Victoria and about two 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.

Continue to 5 of 8 below.
05 of 08

Taste Nanaimo Bars

Close up Nanaimo bars

Lauri Patterson / Getty Images

2245 Errington Rd, Errington, BC V0R 1V0, Canada
Phone +1 250-474-1336

Nanaimo bars—a three-layer dessert made of a crumble-wafer bottom, a custard-flavor butter icing middle, and a chocolate top—are a popular Canadian treat named after Nanaimo, 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.

06 of 08

Camp With the Kids at Parksville Qualicum Beach

Reflection of trees and cloud in Qualicum Beach

Alex Skelly / Getty Images

1240 Rath Rd, Parksville, BC V9P 2E2, Canada
Phone +1 250-474-1336

Located about 30 minutes (by car) north of Nanaimo, 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.

07 of 08

Sample Local Wines in Cowichan Valley

Cowichan Valley vineyard

JoeRos / Getty Images

Cowichan Valley, BC, Canada

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).

08 of 08

Ski at Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Women mountain biking with Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Mount Washington Alpine Resort

Mt. Washington, 1 Strathcona Pkwy, Comox-Strathcona C, BC V9J 1L0, Canada
Phone +1 250-338-1386

The most famous alpine/snow sports resort on Vancouver Island is atop Mount Washington, 30 minutes north of the Comox Valley and an hour and a half northwest of Nanaimo. The nearest airport to Mount Washington is in Comox.

The 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.

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8 Top Things to Do in Vancouver Island, BC